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"The Play's the Thing"

Title: "The Play's the Thing"
Fandom(s): Doctor Who
Characters: David Tennant, Eleventh Doctor
Pairing(s): None
Rating: G
Genre: Science Fiction
Word Count: 4781

Summary: David is settling into life in the TARDIS, but knows he needs to start planning for the future.

Author's Note: This story is canon to The Actor and occurs sometime between the adventure in Cambridge and the adventure on the slave ship. Please note that it is somewhat spoilerific and that you really should read The Actor first.


Sprawled under a wide tree on a patchwork quilt, David propped himself up on his elbows as he pored over his book, a half-eaten apple forgotten in front of him. Engrossed in what was fast becoming one of his favourite plays, he barely noticed the orchard around him, the tiny animals that occasionally played in the tall green grass, or the passage of time itself. When he’d first discovered this expansive room, hidden away deep in the TARDIS, he’d wondered how it generated the soft sunlight that kept him comfortably warm and the occasional light breeze that ruffled his hair and the leaves above him. Since then, he’d decided not to question how or why, but just to enjoy.

At their last stop, the TARDIS crew had wandered through a 43rd-century intergalactic shopping mall, searching for a shop that sold space travel equipment. The Doctor had wanted to take Amy to one of the airless moons of Timgulka, which he claimed was the largest single chunk of emerald in the universe, but as David well knew, it had been hundreds of years since the Doctor had had a third passenger on board and he didn’t have a fourth spacesuit for David - not to mention, if he had, it probably wouldn’t have fit him, as all four of the current TARDIS crew were much taller than Nyssa, Tegan, or Adric had been. They’d failed at their main goal, but the Doctor had acquired some new bow ties and had insisted on buying Amy and Rory an antique-styled desktop sundial; when questioned about why, he replied, “That’s what you two do, isn’t it?” They’d returned to the TARDIS with their packages and everyone had immediately wandered off to their normal activities.

Well, as normal as could be possible whilst travelling through time in a dimensionally transcendental police box with a nine-hundred-year-old alien renegade who really shouldn’t actually exist and who I played on the telly, David chided himself, tossing the book down and rolling onto his back to gaze up at the leafy branches overhead. There was nothing normal about his life now, and so much of it terrified him. He really didn’t know how Amy did it, dancing blithely through these harrowing experiences without blinking an eye. She’d regaled him and Rory with stories about watching a civilisation torture a giant space whale and having her memories about it wiped, being psychically controlled by Weeping Angels, and nearly getting turned into a vampire, without an ounce of fear or trauma. She barely seemed to even notice the horrific experiences; to her, the adventures were exciting and fun.

However, David had slowly come to a startling realisation in the past few days. Though he was forever separated from his family, his friends, his career - everything that made him him - he was starting to settle comfortably into this mad life with the Doctor. It was teaching him things he never knew about himself and he was surprised to think that maybe he really was worth something, was more than just an actor. Maybe that’s what Amy’s seeing, her own value reflected in the trials she’s had to endure, and she’s ready to test herself further. I think… I think I can do that, too. Perhaps it was this dichotomy that was throwing him off-balance: was this life terrifying, or was it intoxicating and seductive?

His hesitation to embrace this life was certainly driving him to find familiar ground. Thus, as soon as the Doctor had disappeared to do whatever it was he did and Rory and Amy had sauntered off to enjoy their sundial, David had grabbed the play he’d borrowed from the TARDIS library and retreated to the orchard he’d discovered one day during his explorations of the transcendental craft. He could always forget his troubles and lose himself in transports to fictional worlds, imagining himself playing the characters that inhabited them and telling their stories.

Grabbing up the book again, David flipped it back open and returned to the current fictional world in front of him, chewing on his thumb as he read. The play - which coincidentally was about a stowaway on a spaceship who discovers that he’s trapped on a one-way journey to a new colony and will never return to his home again - was an elegant, tight story, with brilliantly painted characters and intricately crafted language that sparkled and danced whilst it rolled off the tongue with delightful ease. David was particularly entranced by the character of the spaceship’s co-pilot, Timor, a bit of a rascal with a sardonic eye and no known reason for wanting to be on the journey at all; when things started going wrong, he was the first to be under suspicion for sabotage. If I were ever given the chance, I’d jump at playing this part.

David clapped the book shut again and pondered that possibility, his knees hugged to his chest. I can’t stay with the Doctor forever. I’ve got to create a life for myself, sooner or later. Acting’s all I know, and it’s all I ever wanted to do. Sighing, he scrubbed a hand down his jaw as he thought about all the roles he’d dreamt of playing that he now would never have a chance at. Can I build a life around this again? The question gave him pause. Build a life. Aye, there’s the rub. It’s hard, finding work, establishing a portfolio. This time I won’t even have drama school credentials to recommend me. This is going to be far more difficult than the first time.

Curious, he opened the book to its copyright page. 2783. I could try to establish myself in the far future. I wonder how I’d do, trying to live in the twenty-eighth century like I was born then? Another thought occurred to him, and he searched the page for where the book was published. Sobra Tmencia, Orrifol. No clue where that is. He turned the book over to look at its cover. This might even be an alien play. Laughing heartily at himself, he leaned back to stare up at the leaves and branches above him. “Here I am hoping for the opportunity to perform this play and I haven’t the foggiest if the character’s even human!”

He opened the book once more and turned to the dramatis personae, scanning down the list of characters and their short descriptions, shaking his head as he read. Nope. Not a clue if they’re human. No idea what they look like. He started flipping through the acts, pausing to inspect dialogue here and there for clues about the characters’ race and appearance. Though he found bits and pieces to describe some of them, there was little that was definitive, for any character. The one thing he was able to deduce through inspecting the language was that there were two genders, and he confirmed that his favourite, Timor, was definitely male. “Good,” he breathed, then snorted. “Though, I suppose, that hasn’t stopped me in the past.”

He thumped the open book with determination. “Doesn’t matter, really. If I’m going to make a go at acting again, I’d better keep in practice.” Riffling through the pages again, he scanned through it until he found a particularly challenging scene, a rapid discussion between five very different characters, and began reciting the dialogue, assigning them each different voices and styles based on their backgrounds and personalities, aware that the various British cultural concepts he was using were very probably completely inappropriate.

On the third readthrough, as he got to the part where one of the women got angry and obviously stalked off in a huff to be silent and broody for a number of minutes, David hopped to his feet to stomp away from his “stage”, growling out her lines. No, that’s not right. She’s proud and haughty. He trotted back to the starting point and, straightening himself and holding his head high, he whirled and paraded away, his inflections oily and disdainful. Upon returning to the imaginary group, he added each of the characters’ physical mannerisms to their lines. This one has a strong physical presence. Broader shoulders, hands always itching to do something. But this one here, he always tries to blend into the background. Clever, but always tentative. Yes, that’s the word.

By the fifth time he started the scene, he no longer needed the script, so he dropped it on the blanket he’d been lying on earlier. Moving with complete freedom, he whirled through the small clearing, transforming instantly from one character to the next as he argued, pleaded, and laughed with himself. Stopping at even the tiniest error in his portrayal, he practised each word, each gesture until he was satisfied with its precision and truth. He focused his entire self into being these five people. This was him at his core - an actor, telling stories, becoming other people - and it filled him with energy and confidence.

It might have been hours later when David spoke the last line for the last time; he’d no idea how long he’d rehearsed the scene. Closing his eyes, he breathed deep to force himself to relax, letting the tight control he kept on his movements, expressions, and voice flow out of him. The corner of his mouth twitched. Adequate, he thought. Certainly could use a lot more work, but I think I can make a go at another career of this. I’ve no idea what else I could possibly do. At the sound of hearty applause, his eyes popped open and he whirled to see the Doctor leaning against a tree, grinning broadly as he clapped.

“Bravo, David! Excellent performance!” the Doctor called.

David smiled uncomfortably. He’d been performing on stage and in front of cameras for over twenty years and knew that in many cases, millions of people were watching him, and yet here, he was inexplicably embarrassed by an audience of one. “Er, thank you,” he murmured.

Pushing off the tree, the Doctor strode over to clap David on the shoulder. “I knew you were talented - after all, you did play me - but that was brilliant! Switching back and forth between all of them like that.” He reached up and rapped David’s head a few times. “You have them all hidden away in there, don’t you?”

David smacked his fist away. “Of course not.”

“Absolutely brilliant.” The Doctor spun away, pacing. “Flight Path, Act III, Scene 2, isn’t it?”

“That’s the one.”

Spying the book on the blanket, the Doctor hopped over to pick it up and inspect the cover. “Regarded as one of the finest plays ever written. Spellbinding. And terribly sad.”

“Sad?” Frowning, David walked over to stare at the book in the Doctor’s hands. “You sure you’re not thinking of something else? I mean, sure, Ailon dies, but the ending is happy. Ganiam saves the ship and gets the girl.”

“Oh!” The Doctor waved a hand dismissively in his direction. “I must be thinking of the sequel.”

“There’s a sequel?” David glanced at the book again, an eager glint in his eyes.

“Oh yes. All about Ganiam and Dellai.” Pacing away, the Doctor reached up to pull down a thin, leafy branch to inspect it. “He sacrifices himself to save the captain in the end, though.”

“Oi!” protested David. “Spoilers!”

“And without his protection, Dellai is forced to return to slavery,” rambled the Doctor as he wandered off, oblivious to David’s astonishment.

“Let me read it for myself, won’t you?”

“Can’t. Don’t have a copy of it.” At that admission, David’s face fell. The Doctor stopped to peer at the half-eaten apple sitting on the blanket, toeing it with his boot. “I suppose we could get one, but wouldn’t it be better to stop at the happy ending?”

“Absolutely not,” David replied without hesitation. “The enjoyment is in the story, the whole thing, as the author intended. Tragedies are as interesting and entertaining as comedies. Many of the greatest stories ever told end in death and sorrow.”

The Doctor peered at David out of the corner of his eye. “That they do,” he murmured. With sudden energy, he spun and dropped the book back on the blanket. “I’m happy you’ve found the orchard. I lost it a few centuries back… Well, to be truthful, it was a bit on purpose. I had a run-in with a giant space tree and it left me feeling a bit anti-vegetation. But you don’t want to hear about that, now do you?” David tried to interrupt him with an “Actually, I’d love to”, but the Doctor continued talking over him. “But that does remind me that I have a trip to make. I’m forgetful. Memory like a sieve.” He cocked his head at David with a thoughtful frown. “That’s not very apt, is it? Implies that you catch the big things. I’ve forgotten big things, too. My memory’s more like a dog digging a hole in a garden. Never know what clods of lumpy, sticky clay are going to get thrown out.”

The men’s eyes met, and they stated at the same time, “That doesn’t work.”

The Doctor shook a finger at David. “No, too long, doesn’t evoke the right image, but I’ll get it. I’ll find the perfect analogy. It might just take a while. In the meantime, remind me, won’t you?”

“You haven’t told me what to remind you of.”

“Oh, never mind. I’ll remember to do it sooner or later.” He paced off, looking up at the canopy of leaves. “So many things on my mind, something always gets lost for a century or two. I’m sure you know the feeling.”

Rolling his eyes, David smirked. “I’ve a very faint idea.”

“Well, no matter. Are you enjoying the library’s selection of plays?” The Doctor leaned in, eager to hear of David’s approval.

The human didn’t bother to try to give a long answer to the question. He knew that he’d never be given the chance to finish what he was saying. “Yes, I am.”

“Good! I try to collect books when I can, though I admit I have a weakness for cookbooks. Don’t know why. Don’t cook. Not often, anyway. Need more plays.” He stepped away, gazing up at the impossible indoor sky. “Something magical about plays, going off and being someone else for a while.” He spun back on his heel and clapped. “But! I have something to show you.”

He strode off without checking to see if he was being followed. David shook his head in amused wonder at the Doctor’s mercurial ramblings, then hopped over to fold up the quilt. “Just a tick whilst I get this.”

“Leave it,” the Doctor called over his shoulder. “You’ll be back soon enough.” David shrugged and trotted after him.

It didn’t take long for David to figure out the path they were taking: the Doctor was leading him back to the library. In the short time he’d been living in the TARDIS, David had already made a dozen trips there, to research his new universe (because he couldn’t imagine his knowledge of it from the television programme would be enough to live off of) and to find new plays like the one he’d been reading. He’d learned various paths to the library, coming from the console room, his bedroom, and the orchard, among others, and so far, the layout of the time travel capsule hadn’t changed on him. One day it would, and that only meant another opportunity to explore and very likely find new wondrous places.

Their path once they entered the library was no less familiar to David, as the Doctor led him toward the tall shelves that housed the vast collection of fiction titles. He’d never quite figured out how they were organised, as neither the titles nor the authors were alphabetical and the publication dates were not chronological. Paperbacks contemporary to David’s natural time zone were stuffed between ancient tomes and futuristic books with plastic pages printed with ink that was only visible when illuminated with enough light, and every now and then, a scroll case was tucked among all of it, and yet David never had any difficulty in finding what he wanted. He limited himself to the drama section out of necessity, to keep himself from being overwhelmed with what seemed like all of the stories in the universe.

The Doctor led David down a row of shelves and stepped into the aisle at the end. Abruptly, he halted and whirled around, and David grabbed the shelves on either side to stop himself from bowling him over. Heedless of the human’s consternation, the Doctor leant back against the blank white wall behind him and absently tapped his own nose with a finger as he thought. “I think… I think you’re going to like this. Well, I know you will. I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s the only thing to do, really.”

David didn’t know what to make of that. “Is there a problem? You don’t have to do whatever this is. I don’t want to cause a problem.”

“No, you don’t. But it is what it is. Ever heard that phrase? Usually a completely useless thing to say, doesn’t impart any information or wisdom. But this time, it’s entirely accurate.” David had no idea how to respond to that at all and simply stared at the man in the tweed jacket. “Well, come on,” the Doctor shrugged. Spinning on his heel, he opened the door and held it open for his companion.

“Wait.” Frowning, David flicked his tongue over his lips as he stared at the door. “There wasn’t a door there. I’m sure of it. That was just flat wall.” He pointed at the metal handle the Doctor used to open it. “That definitely wasn’t there.”

“Oh, it was there,” the Doctor assured him. “You just couldn’t see it. You can only see it if you’re allowed to.” Winking at David’s astonished gape, he beckoned with both hands and turned to walk into the room.

Compared to the vast collection of books just outside the door, this room was not particularly impressive. Beyond two overstuffed armchairs with ottomans and standing reading lamps nearby stood a single tall bookcase filled with books. Opposite that, a cabinet with a glass door housed what looked like CDs, and a small stereo sat on top. With an expectant half-smile on his face, the Doctor stood aside and watched David as he wandered in and looked around.

“Comfortable little reading room,” David mumbled as he looked over the furniture, then stepped to the bookcase. Many of the volumes were thick, suggesting that they were novels, but a few were thin folios that were more likely to be plays. As he reached out to pull a play out, the titles of the thicker books caught his eye. The Light-House. The Castle. Sanditon. The First Man. The Dark Tower. He frowned as he mulled them over, then his jaw dropped as he realised why he recognised their names. “Those are…” He noticed the Doctor watching him with his cryptic smile. “May I?”

“Of course.”

Reaching out carefully, as if a snake hidden amongst the shelves might strike at him at any moment, he slid a book out and flipped to the back, to the very last page. Moistening his thumb, he paged backwards, scanning each page as he went, then stared at the Doctor. “This is Sanditon. A printing of the completed Sanditon.”

“Yes.” The Doctor clapped his hands together in front of his bowtie. “A very entertaining novel. Not her best, granted - I’m partial to Emma myself - but certainly worthy.”

Clapping the book closed, David held it up, shaking it for emphasis. “This can’t exist. Jane Austen died before she completed this novel.”

“Well, it can’t exist for some definitions of the word ‘exist’. Maybe it doesn’t exist in this reality,” and the Doctor’s voice dropped to a whisper, “but what about other realities?”

“This is from another universe, then?” Turning the book over in his hands multiple times, he peered at it as if he expected to see the name of the universe printed somewhere on the cover. “Pete’s World, then? E-space? Can’t be from the Divergent universe.”

The Doctor shook a finger at him. “You know entirely too much about my life. No, this isn’t from any of those. If she existed in any of those, she died before completing that book in all of them.”

“Then…” David pondered on the puzzle for a brief moment. “Is this from an alternate timeline?”

The Doctor clicked the fingers of both hands and pointed at the human. “Got it in just two tries. You’re brilliant. Have I ever told you that?” Before David could respond to that, he pulled another volume from the shelf and checked the cover. “This one’s The Journal of Julius Rodman. A bit of a ‘What If?’ room, this is. What if Edgar hadn’t gotten fired from that magazine? Oh, and this one here is the completed Melisande Unbound. Lucy Pennine’s finest, in my opinion. Wait.” The Doctor stopped, staring at the nearby chair as he thought. “That’s a bit after your time. Her first play was published in 2042. Widely considered America’s answer to Shakespeare.”

“Alternate timelines,” David murmured to himself, barely listening to the Doctor’s monologue. “That’s not possible. You can’t have things from a timeline that never happened. Not permanently, anyway. It would disappear after the temporal flux settled.”

Pursing his lips, the Doctor nodded slowly. “You get it. You really get it. Impressive for a human. Don’t know if any other could.”

David shook his head at that absurd claim. “That’s only because this entire universe is a story to me. I see this universe as built by authors and it has rules, though you break them all the time.” The Doctor grinned, pleased by that idea. “I don’t have to understand the physics or the metaphysics. I just have to understand the rules.”

“Irrelevant. Understanding is the key. Doesn’t matter why you do. You just do.” He brandished the book in front of David’s face, making the actor rear back out of its way. “But you don’t know everything. You can stabilise a extratemporal object. You just need to know how.”

A slow, impressed grin spread across David’s face. “This room.”

“Exactly! Chronostabilisers and a base matter transducer, just to make sure that nothing untoward happens when real matter and unreal matter meet.” He patted the book with a hand to demonstrate what he meant, then returned it to the shelf. “Terribly difficult, but I’ve made just the one room for this stuff. If you take one of these past the door, poof! It’ll be gone. Can’t last a femtosecond out there. Though, you should know, I’ve extended the stabilisation field to the orchard, since you like to read there.”

David turned Sanditon over in his hands again, inspecting its cover. “I can’t very well take the book through the halls to get there, though.”

“Don’t need to. Made a door directly there.” The Doctor opened another door that David was sure hadn’t been there before. Beyond it lay the orchard, his quilt in a heap under a tree. “What do you think?”

“That’s just lovely.” Turning back, David eyed the shelf with an eager smile, the tip of his tongue tracing his lip. All of these wonderful stories that had never been finished by the author’s own hand, and he was going to get to read them. However, he raised a finger and frowned at the Doctor. “Speaking of rules, though, doesn’t all of this break some rule? Maybe not the Laws of Time themselves, but I’m sure there’s something against plundering other timelines for their treasures.”

“Oh, there is,” and the Doctor shrugged his opinion of that particular rule. “There’s a whole host of rules, and no one to look after them anymore.” Then, grinning, he called David’s attention with a wave of his hand. “I would recommend you start with The Canterbury Tales, but to be honest, in final form, that could take you months. Better to start short, I think. Maybe The Light-House? Ah, here, I’m sure you’d like to read Woyzeck the way Buchner intended, not the way everyone else wrote it. Oh, and stay away from this.” He pulled A Memory of Light halfway out. “Unless you’re ready to commit to reading all eight volumes.”

David frowned, his gaze twitching between the book and the Doctor. “That was supposed to be the last book in the series.”

“You really expected him to finish in one installment?”

“Point taken.” David grinned, his tongue peeking out between his teeth.

“Just enjoy.” The Doctor pushed the book back among its brothers, then clapped David on the shoulder. “You’ll always be able to find this room. Go on. Get back to your apples.” Spinning on his heel, he started toward the door that led back into the library.

“Doctor?” called David, on impulse, before the Time Lord could leave. He needed to ask a final question before he thought better of it.

The Doctor paused with his hand on the door handle, his shoulders bowed. “Yes?” he murmured without looking back.

“Why did you show this to me?”

He turned slowly in place. “Because I know you of all people will appreciate it.” David didn’t notice that his encouraging smile was a trifle forced.

“I think Amy would love to see this,” David countered.

The Doctor laughed. “Can you picture Amy reading Jane Austen? ‘Doctor, when are any of these people going to do anything?’” he whinged in a fair imitation of Amy’s Highland brogue. “No,” he shook his head, waving a hand at the shelves of books and music, “this is yours.”

David wasn’t convinced. “There’s got to be some other reason. This is something that shouldn’t be here, that’s so secret you shouldn’t show it to anyone. Why would you show this to me?” He tapped his own chest. “I’m no one, just another person you saved from death, who doesn’t have anywhere else to go. I’m not your companion. The only interesting thing about me is that I look like you used to and I used to pretend I was you. There’s no reason for you to show this to me, let alone trust me with knowledge of its existence.”

“Never. Ever. Say that again.” The Doctor strode up and prodded David in the chest, exactly where he’d poked himself a moment before. “You are not ‘no one’. You are very much someone. You are very much brilliant and worthy.”

Pursing his lips, the Doctor gazed at David with sad eyes. “I’m showing this to you because,” he began, then set his jaw and wagged a finger at the human. “Because life’s too short. All these people,” and he waved his hand over the bookcase, “never completed these brilliant works for one reason or another. Who knows what else they might have accomplished? And I know you’re thinking the same thing: what greater things would you have gone on to do, if I hadn’t pulled you out of that pile-up? You probably would have survived the crash, lost a bit of time in recovery but returned to the stage and screen eventually. You were going to play Hamlet. What else would you have done?”

David had no answer.

“I can’t give you a second chance, but I thought you’d enjoy seeing the works of people who got theirs, at least in some reality.” He pointed at Sanditon. “That book in your hand, a Jane Austen got to finish it, and some people somewhen got to enjoy it. Now you can, too.”

David ran his hand reverently over the cover of the book, tracing his finger along the title. “Thank you, Doctor. This is an honour. Though, I think I’ll start with Woyzeck.” Biting back his eager smile, he stepped to the shelf and returned Sanditon to its place, then slid his chosen play out. “Apples and Buchner will make a fine afternoon.” Thanking the Doctor once more with a nod, he spun and strode out into the orchard.

Leaning against the door jamb, the Doctor watched through the doorway as the man reached a long arm up to snag a plump, ripe apple then spread the quilt out and plopped down on it to eat and read. He attempted a small smile for him, but it came out gloomy and resigned. “Because, David,” he murmured, “because your life is too short. I’m so sorry.” Bowing his head, he twirled into the hallway and let the door shut behind him.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
a_phoenixdragon
Jul. 1st, 2016 02:37 am (UTC)
Ahhhh...for him being far from a favorite, you sure write the Eleventh quite well. Clever and with that hint of something underneath. Always seeing ahead and looking behind at the same time.

And I love how he and David speak to one another. I love how he sees David for more than just 'an actor' and 'the guy who played me' (though he does love to brag about that, it is more a brag on David than himself in an odd way). I love how he gave this secret to David, because they both needed it, you know?

Brilliant, as always. And ohhh, poor David...

*HUGS*
shivver13
Jul. 1st, 2016 10:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I actually really enjoy writing Eleven, because of his complexity. What he says is always layered, always has multiple meanings, even when he seems to be spouting nonsense. The most difficult part of his speech is his rapidly shifting gears and the way he connects two completely disparate things out of the blue, and when I can produce something like that, I'm just so proud.

I'm glad you like how the two of them interact. In my mind, Eleven kept aloof from David through most of his time in the TARDIS, leaving it to Rory and Amy to welcome and befriend the newcomer, and in that way, the two main interactions they had - this story and the chapter in The Actor where Eleven appears to help David after what happened with Donna - have all the more impact because David does not expect any support from the Doctor at all. And yet in some ways, David, because he understands the Doctor through the show, has an easier time relating to him than even Amy does. I like that careful balance.
shyfoxling
Jul. 4th, 2016 09:09 pm (UTC)
I agree with a_phoenixdragon - I think you've got Eleven down quite well.

Edited at 2016-07-04 09:09 pm (UTC)
shivver13
Jul. 5th, 2016 01:36 am (UTC)
Well, thank you very much! I really do try extra hard with him (and Nine, who is also difficult).
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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