Fandom(s): Doctor Who
Characters: Tenth Doctor, Donna Noble, Nerys
Summary: The Doctor investigates one of the most serious time anomalies he's ever encountered, right here on Earth.
Word Count (chapter): 6396
The Doctor liked a little pub, almost as much as he liked a little shop. People couldn’t shop at a pub, mind you, but if one was a mite parched and fancied a warm welcome, no questions asked, well, there was nowhere else for it but a little pub. The Griffon was a bit larger than little, expanded on the original seventeenth-century stonework so elbows weren’t so rubbed and to provide outside seating in the summer, but the low, thick rafters above preserved the cozy atmosphere. Various old-fashioned implements of cast iron, beaten copper, and worn wood adorned the walls, giving it a homey feeling. The crowd was thinning in the lull between dinner and late-evening merrymaking, but the clinking of glasses and the murmur of friendly voices had burst forth as the Doctor opened the front door, coaxing him to join in the weekend festivities.
As he stepped in and nodded to the bartender, he wondered how this evening, the night where Donna and her future husband first met, would go. The situation was getting desperate: the original timeline, in which the bride who’d appeared uninvited in his TARDIS had been ginger and not blond, barely whispered in his mind. He glanced down at the faint, unintelligible lines of ink on his palm and suspected that the next shift would erase them entirely. His last chance, then, this evening.
A quick survey of the room assured the Doctor that neither Donna nor Sam were present, but he spotted Murray lounging at a corner table from which he could observe the entire room, an amber drink sitting in front of him. He wore a formal jacket and waistcoat, at odds with his youthful countenance but very much in line for a haughty, supercilious Time Lord. At the Doctor’s notice, he raised his drink in invitation to join him. The Doctor didn’t hesitate; Murray obviously felt his position and plans were secure, and the Doctor intended to take full advantage of it to do what he needed to do. He slipped his coat off as he crossed the establishment and laid it over the back of one of the chairs, then plopped down in another.
“Ah, Doctor,” the man drawled as the Doctor settled back. “Fancy meeting you here. A night out on the town?”
“Well,” the Doctor drawled, “when you live alone, sometimes you crave a spot of company.”
“Really?” The man affected an air of disbelief. “Even from primitives like these? I’ve been listening to them all evening and they haven’t an ounce of intelligence among them.”
“That’s always been the problem with you lot,” the Doctor spat at him. “Always sitting on the outside, observing and listening, never once actually getting in there and getting to know these people. You’d find there’s a lot more to a person, to any creature, than the dinner conversation you can overhear.”
The man’s lips curved in a brief, condescending smirk. He picked up the glass in front of him and took a short sip, then examined the clear liquid. “I suppose you may be right. At the very least, they have made some advances in the distillation of spirits. This in particular is called ‘Scotch whisky’. I’ve taken the opportunity to sample several others and found them quite fine.” He placed the glass back down.
The Doctor settled back in his chair. He needed to keep up his end of the banter, appearing to be on the defensive to encourage the man to continue gloating and talking. “You seem rather relaxed, considering I’m here to end your little scheme.”
Murray continued to gaze at the golden drink. “There’s really nothing you can do about it. To be honest, this is the final trap. All the roads led here, and there’s nothing beyond this for you.”
“If I had a quid for every time someone’s said that to me...”
He looked up, frowning. “If I may ask, what is a ‘quid’?”
Ignoring the question, the Doctor scanned the empty table, the chairs next to the man, and the man himself, but could detect no hint of any object that could be the chaos gun, though he supposed the man’s pockets might be dimensionally transcendental. They’re bigger on the inside! His words to Donna as he brandished a robot remote control flashed through his mind from a distant timeline, and he held onto them like a lifeline. Nerys hadn’t asked the question in her similar situation.
“I see you’re keeping the device well-hidden,” he remarked.
“Oh, come now, Doctor. Give me some credit. I know better than to keep my secrets within arm’s reach of you. Rest assured that the device is both safe and ready to be used when appropriate.” The man smiled. “I’ve noticed that you’re also missing something, for at least three meetings now. Your little friend has abandoned you, has she? After finding out what you did?”
The Doctor shook his head as he snorted with amusement. “Sorry, you don’t get credit for that. Nerys was hardly a friend. Just someone who could help me figure out what was going on, and she left the moment we found you. Her opinion of me was rock bottom long before you came along, and she would’ve rather been anywhere else.”
“The one person able to see past your charming facade, eh?” He cocked his head. “Or perhaps is it that you’re just trying to keep me from targeting her as well by pretending indifference?”
The Doctor leant back and crossed his arms. “Doesn’t matter who you target. I’d be upset no matter who you tampered with. You’ve already chosen sharper daggers to stab and twist. Nerys would be a step backwards.”
The man picked up his whisky and toasted his opponent with a smile. At that moment, the front door of the pub opened and a bevy of women, loud with raucous laughter, entered, among them a familiar figure with long copper hair. The man gestured in her direction. “And there she is now. Look well, Doctor. It may well be the last time you see her.”
The Doctor stared, scrubbing his hand down his jaw as he fixed Donna’s face in his mind. He had to keep focus, but it was the sight of her blond friend behind her that wrenched him back to the man at the table. Her life was no less important than Donna’s. “Thing is,” the Doctor continued, forcing a relaxed, conversational demeanour, “you know all about those daggers, and the question is, how? How do you know so much about me?”
Murray snorted as he placed his drink down on the table. “It isn’t difficult. You’ve meddled in so many lives, all over the known universe, and especially right here on this tawdry little planet. The information isn’t difficult to find, if one knows where to look.”
“And yet you’re missing vital pieces. If you really had done your homework, you’d know that Lucie, Charley, and the others aren’t the best targets. You’d be targeting Rose.” The Doctor smiled as the lines of the man’s neck tensed for a brief moment. “Ah, yes, you didn’t know about her.”
“Irrelevant,” Murray drawled, his condescending smile back on his face. “I know quite enough. A few years and a handful of friends makes no difference.”
“Yes,” the Doctor agreed. “You know about Donna, and you know about all of my friends from before the Time War. Which means you must be someone from the war or just before it, and you must have came directly to this point in my timeline, skipping over the last few years.”
“Must I now?”
“Or perhaps you just had access to the information. Inquisitor? Celestial Intervention Agency? Of course, you could be both a friend and a spy.” The Doctor scrubbed at his chin, sifting through memories he’d tried so hard to forget. “A comrade in the war? That’s really the only explanation, but who? Everyone I know died. Again and again. Usually right in front of me.”
The man’s mask of lazy indifference fell away, and he sneered, “Everyone died, Doctor? Everyone? You never once had a man go missing?”
The Doctor’s eyes narrowed, matching the man’s menace. “In a war over the whole of the universe, across thousands of years? Of course people went missing, all the time. But that doesn’t explain how you’re here now. The Time Lords are gone, no matter where they were when I fired the Moment.”
“Not all of them, obviously.”
“No, not all of them,” the Doctor agreed, but he wasn’t thinking about himself or Murray. The Master had survived the end of the war as well, by using a chameleon arch to transform himself into a human. If that simple sleight-of-hand had hidden him from the baleful gaze of the most powerful weapon in the universe, there must have been a dozen other ways to escape the genocide.
“You weren’t there,” the Doctor blurted on a hunch. “That’s how you escaped the Moment, when it erased every Time Lord in the universe. You weren’t actually in the universe at the time.”
“Oh, very good!” simpered Murray. “Gold star for inductive reasoning!”
“Pocket dimension? Voidship? Another universe entirely? Too many possibilities to guess, so why don’t you just tell me?”
“Pocket dimension, not much more than a bubble of spacetime,” Murray replied as he casually dusted the sleeve of his jacket. “Not by choice, mind you. It’s very difficult to avoid getting sucked through the gashes in the walls of the universe left by the claws of cosmic horrors rampaging through the time vortex.”
Far too many abominations, summoned by both sides of the war, that fit that description came to mind and the Doctor grimaced against the memories that flooded him. He’d had no hand in calling them up nor in giving them license to tear apart reality, but the screams of those who’d been so unlucky as to have survived encountering them echoed through his mind.
“Ah,” crooned Murray, a triumphant note ringing through, “I think I have finally hit a nerve. You remember them, don’t you? I do.” His lips curled into an accusatory snarl. “And you, with your unbelievable hubris, you thought you could lock them away again. You dragged your whole platoon right into the storm.”
“The Maelstrom of Souls,” the Doctor breathed.
“Is that what they named it?” he pondered with a mock scholarly air. “Graveyards always receive the most poetic names. Though I suppose a singularity with a hundred trapped Time Lord consciousnesses orbiting forever at the event horizon really couldn’t be considered a graveyard, could it? More of an eternal prison, I’d say.”
“Those horrors were swallowing planets. Trillions had died by the time we went in, and millions more each second we waited,” countered the Doctor.
“You are always so eager to throw away your own race to preserve…” The words failed him, and he scowled in disgust as he waved an imperious hand at the pub around them. “To preserve this.”
The Doctor drew breath to argue, then forced himself to calm down. The Time Lord was distracting him from his goal. He didn’t have the leisure to discuss philosophy and morality right now. “If you were at the Maelstrom, then I know who you are. Only seven Time Lords went missing during that battle, and of those seven, only one had fought with me for a half-century, long enough to know me this well. Isn’t that right, Droga?” At the man’s smirk, the Doctor flashed a proud smile. “You see, I do remember all of you, even the ones who went missing.”
“Impressive,” the man complimented. “I didn’t think you’d remember even one of us.”
I can’t but remember, the Doctor murmured to himself and tucked that thought away. He’d gotten the mystery Time Lord’s identity, but there was still more to wheedle out of him. He stroked his jaw as he mused, “So that’s where you went. Fell through a crack in the universe, hidden away from the rest of the war.”
“Oh, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, Doctor.” Droga’s tone had reverted back to sickeningly conversational. “As I said, the dimension was barely a bubble, and the arrival of my TARDIS burst it. The dimensional stabilisers gave out immediately and she began jettisoning herself to slow the collapse, but it didn’t work. Not a pleasant way to die, being crushed to death.”
“But you weren’t.”
“Obviously not.” Droga enunciated his words with exaggerated care, as if his audience were a simple child. “I had a few seconds between each regeneration, and round about the sixth one, I managed to instruct her to throw the gravitic anomaliser out the way we came in. The burst of gravitons as it imploded was enough to widen the tear and suck her back out. But ten minutes there and we’d missed centuries here. The war was long over.”
“And now you’re here to finish what you started back in the war, all that time ago,” the Doctor stated, the sparkle in his eye betraying his absolute certainty in the conclusion.
Droga jerked in his seat. “What?” he snarled.
“Because all of this, taken together, doesn’t make sense. I mean, I’m sure you’re not above petty schemes of revenge against me for the end of the war. After all, petty scheming is what Time Lords are all about. But is it really worth all of this time and bother you’re putting in? I don’t think so.”
“Are you accusing me of lying?” Droga demanded.
The Doctor paused, frowning. “I thought that was pretty obvious.” He shrugged. “You were definitely lying about how I’d never find you again. I even told Nerys that. You’d said you wanted me to watch Donna’s life wither away, and I can’t do that if I can’t find you. But see, what this all really boils down to is that device of yours, the chaos gun. Because that’s the real puzzle here. It changes a random point in its target’s timeline, but you said you could choose what you wanted to change in Donna’s life. That’s a big difference.”
Droga’s nose wrinkled, a silent confirmation of the Doctor’s conjecture.
“But more to the point,” the Doctor continued, “you must have had it on you when you went into that pocket dimension, because no one has the knowledge or technology to build it now. So why did a Time Lord soldier carry one of the most powerful weapons in the universe into the Last Great Time War but never actually use it?”
Droga dismissed the question with a roll of his eyes. “You call it a weapon, but it’s hardly useful in a battle. Did you expect me to eliminate a battalion of a million Daleks one soldier at a time? But I suppose that’s typical Doctor, sending his comrades off on fool’s errands.”
The Doctor shook his head. “I know you’re using the war to distract me. It won’t work, so you might as well save the effort.”
“Oh, no, not at all. This is most amusing, actually.” He flicked two fingers at the Doctor in a lazy wave. “Go on, what else have you deduced?”
“We-ell,” the Doctor drawled, “there was the missing piece, who you were. I needed to know if the chaos gun came with its nifty upgrades or if you added them after the war. Sorry, Droga, but there’s no way you modified that thing.”
Droga lifted his nose in the air and spat haughtily, “I certainly could have done!”
“No, you couldn’t. You’re not a temporal engineer. That’s obvious. You ran intelligence and comms for us, and you were a dead shot with a sniper staser, but rubbish at ops and engineering. Though that probably points at a Celestial Intervention Agency background, doesn't it?” Droga made no attempt to refute the accusation, and the Doctor shook his head. “So, I’d say, you had that thing with you all this time because you were to use it on me, but only at the right time, and the opportunity never presented itself until now.”
“Oh, bravo, Doctor!” He rubbed his hands together, fingers tapping his lips. “You’ve always been so clever. You got most of it spot on. Just a few details you could not have known.”
The man turned serious. Gone was his slow formal drawl, replaced by stiff efficiency. “This has never been about punishing you for what you did, however much you deserve it. This was entirely a technical issue. You were right that my Spear of Rassilon can target specific points in a person’s timeline and change them. That was just one of the improvements it received since you left Gallifrey. It does, however, require target’s temporal data. I was assigned to your platoon so that it could attune to your timeline, but passive calibration is slow and your timeline is so very complex. It did not complete even a tenth of the reading in the five decades we served together.” He shrugged. “I don’t have the luxury of following you around any more, so -”
“So you found a way to calibrate it faster,” the Doctor finished for him, “by firing it, and you targeted Donna because you knew I’d come running each time.”
“Exactly.” He glanced around the pub, a disgusted sneer narrowing his eyes. “Humans are so simple. I recorded Ms. Noble’s entire timeline the first time I fired it, at one of the people at that… that ‘concert’, I suppose you’d call it. To call it a ‘concert’, you would have to consider that noise to be music.” He grimaced at the memory. “It only took me a moment to find an event in her life that I could change that would produce a large enough effect to get your attention. Those two shots read more of your timeline than I’d managed to get during the entire time I spent with you in the war, but there was still so much missing. I assure you, though, I’ve got it all now. All that was left was to lure you back one last time so I could finally complete my mission.”
The Doctor held up a finger to beg for a moment’s pause, then pulled out his sonic screwdriver, listened to it for a moment, and nodded with satisfaction. “Yes. Perfect,” he commented, then flashed a smile at Droga. “I knew if I could get you talking about the chaos gun, you’d give away where you hid it.”
“What?” the man exclaimed. “I did no such thing.”
“You did,” the Doctor insisted, nodding emphatically. “You glanced at it no less than four times while you were talking.”
He blinked and drew back, bewildered. “I did not!”
Grinning brightly, the Doctor raised the crystal of his screwdriver to his lips. “No, you’re right, you didn’t. Thought you might if I bluffed about it, though, and you did! Just a bit of a look, not so’s you’d notice, unless you were watching closely and then it was enough. Thank you.” Whilst he was talking, a woman in a black sheath with long auburn hair who’d been sitting at the bar and chatting into her mobile the whole time had jumped up as she clapped her phone closed. She strode across the room to fetch down an old-fashioned tea kettle from the wall hook where Droga had glanced.
“You… you… how?” the man sputtered as the disguised Nerys brought the kettle to the table and handed it to the Doctor.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Oh, yes!” the Doctor exclaimed. “Now let’s just switch off that chameleon circuit, shall we?” He fiddled with the handle of the teapot and suddenly it was a gray metal box with buttons and a small video screen on the top and a tube similar to a camera lens or a wide-diameter gun barrel sticking out of one side.
“Give me that!” Droga growled and lunged across the table to snatch at it, but the Doctor pulled it away, keeping the barrel pointed directly at the man’s hearts.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he warned. “In fact, I’d just sit back in my seat nice and relaxed, or this thing’ll likely to go off, and who knows what’d happen to you if it did.” When the Time Lord complied, his fists clenching in his lap as he seethed, the Doctor turned to the woman. “One chaos gun. Thank you, Nerys.”
With a satisfied nod, Nerys reached up to pull off her wig, then glanced across the room at her past self. “Hm, maybe not,” she murmured and stroked the long brown tresses as she sat down in the chair the Doctor had draped his coat on. “But I am never wearing a wig ever again.”
Droga glared at the woman. “How are you here? I saw you! You left him!”
“And you see,” began the Doctor, “that’s the problem, right there. I keep telling you all, but you won’t listen. You’re so confident that you’re superior to everyone else that you actually think people are what they seem. I do the same thing, mind you. You had me going there, you know, with all that talk of punishing me by undoing my companions. It’s exactly what I thought you were doing, so I accepted your threats without question.”
He leant forward, over the device, to make his point clear. “But you see, Nerys here, she’s better than that. She’s got a superpower that lets her see through lies. She saw through me, and she saw right through you. It’s called cynicism, and she’s got that power honed. She’s a master artisan.”
“Oi!” cried Nerys, but the Doctor continued on.
“She couldn’t believe you were going through all this trouble to unravel history just to make me feel bad. She thought there had to be another reason, not that she had any idea what it might be. And she figured that you’d be watching every move we made and that you couldn’t imagine that she could actually be a threat, so she put on a show, pretended to walk out on me. Talented actress, she is. Got me good as well. I thought I’d lost another one. And,” he grinned as he thumbed over his shoulder, “she nattered for fifteen minutes into a dead mobile and you were none the wiser.”
Droga sputtered, unable to accept that the human could possibly have deceived him. “But I saw you. You dropped her at her home. She went back to her pathetic little life of eating and sleeping and blubbering around. You never went back for her.”
The Doctor shook his head at the Time Lord’s thickness. “You didn’t watch long enough to see ‘never’. I picked her back up two and a half months later. Even you wouldn’t watch for that long.”
“And it was a ‘pathetic little life’,” Nerys snapped, glaring at the Doctor. “Knowing everything you did meant nothing, that at the end of it all, none of it would exist.” She turned to Droga. “But I did it. I made it look like everything was back to normal, cos I knew you’d be watching.” She glowered at the Doctor. “The things I do for you.”
“The things you do for Donna,” he corrected gently, then turned back to Droga. “Now, you see, with her safely out of the picture as far as you were concerned, it was just a matter of convincing you to let this thing out of your grasp just once.”
“You really like that word, don’t you?” the Doctor observed. He sat back again, one hand resting protectively on the device. “I knew I couldn’t wrest it from you, but I could convince you to change it up little by little, until you finally decided it was safer off your person. Then it was just a matter of coming here to listen to you gloat and waiting until you gave away where you hid it.” He thumbed his chin, trying not to gloat himself. “That was the easiest part, actually. It’s the most important thing in the universe to you. You’d check to make sure it was safe at some point.”
Droga sat still and stiff, swallowing down his anger and humiliation. “So what are you going to do to me now? Fire that thing and send my timeline into chaos?”
“I’d thought I’d do that, but now that I know how it works, I don’t see why I’d need to. After all, you might have been firing it to get readings on me, but there’s one other Time Lord it knows best of all. I think if I just…” Studying the box in front of him, the Doctor tapped a few buttons and the screen glowed a pale blue. “Yes, there we go. The timeline of one Androgarildveshnicoram.” He peeked up at Droga. “Didn’t think I’d remembered your full name, did you? Well, I do. And I think I’ve found just the event to change.”
Nerys reached over and grasped the Doctor’s wrist, touching skin-to-skin.
“Good. And now, Droga.” The Doctor paused to look the man in the eye and hold his attention for one last moment. “I hope you’ll do something good with this. I don’t know what that could be, given the circumstances, but I’m sure you’ll find an opportunity.”
“No!” Droga lunged for the box, but the Doctor tapped a button and the man vanished. Nerys gasped, her hand clenching the Doctor’s arm.
“He’s gone,” she whispered. “Is that it, Doctor? Is it all done?”
The Doctor checked the palm of his hand and breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing had changed in Donna’s timeline. The ink was still as faint as it had been the last time he’d looked. “It’s done, Nerys. It’s all over. Droga’s gone and Donna’s timeline is safe.” He patted her hand. “And the temporal field protected us both from the paradox. Exactly as I predicted.”
Nerys drew her chair forward and peered at the box in front of the Doctor, cocking her head to see the screen. She reached over to turn it toward her then snatched her hand back before touching the metal and stuffed it under the table. The futuristic alien machine hadn’t been so scary when it was a copper kettle. “So,” she began, trying to swallow her apprehension, “he really was trying to use that thing on you. Donna was just a means to an end.”
“Your instincts were spot on,” the Doctor affirmed with a smile meant to ease her fears, though it didn’t really help. “It didn’t even occur to me that he might be lying about unravelling my companion’s lives, because it’s such a Time Lord thing to do. They’ve done it before. One of them, she’s got at least four versions of herself running around because of their meddling.”
Nerys looked up at him. “But why did you stop him before he told you what he was going to change? Didn’t you want to know what he was planning to do?”
The Doctor swallowed visibly before he answered her. “Frankly, no. I really don’t need to know. But I can take a pretty good guess.”
“Well, you heard him.” He took a deep breath. He never enjoyed talking about this bit. “That war we talked about, the Last Great Time War. It was a big one, the biggest in the universe. The Time Lords…” The Doctor paused, then clarified to include himself in the explanation. “We went to war with a race called the Daleks. You remember them, don’t you? Tin can robots flying over London, a bit before I met you, ‘round about the time of the Cyberman ghosts.”
“Yeah.” Nerys shuddered at the memory. “First those big stomping robots in everyone’s houses, and then the flying ones screaming at everything. Not something you forget.”
“Yes.” The Doctor swallowed against his own painful recollections. “The Daleks, they were created by a race called the Kaleds, and I happened to be there at the seminal moment. I had the chance to destroy the newly-created Daleks, and I chose not to. I don’t much like the idea of genocide, even for screamy slime creatures encased in shiny metal pepper pots.” He fell silent for a few breaths, and scratched at the back of his neck. “The Time Lords, they were never exactly happy about that, and I expect that Droga was tasked to change that event so that the Daleks never existed and thus the war would have never happened.”
She recoiled from the device like it had sprouted claws and was tensing to lunge at her. “That thing could do that? It could’ve changed your mind, way back then?”
“No, that it can’t do. But it could change the situation.” Licking his lips, he gazed pensively down at the symbols flickering on the device’s screen. “He could have put the decision in the hands of one my companions at the time, and I’ve no doubt what they would have chosen to do.”
Nerys frowned, still staring at the innocent-looking alien contraption. “That’d be good, wouldn’t it? No horrible war across the galaxy. But,” she continued before the Doctor could interrupt, “that would change millions of peoples’ lives, wouldn’t it? I mean, it was centuries, you were talking about with him. Millions of people, with one little button press.”
“Trillions of people, more like,” he corrected with a grim nod. “Trillions and more. But yes.”
“This is what you were talking about, isn’t it? What you were trying to tell me. You might think it’s clear which is better, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen, how it’s all going to turn out.” Nerys tore her eyes from the device and shifted in her seat so she didn’t have to look at either it or the Doctor. “Well. I can’t say I understand any of this time business, and I’m sorry about your war and all that, but doing anything like that, changing that much of the universe and history, it doesn’t sound particularly safe to me.”
The Doctor nodded. “It’s the act of a desperate people, afraid of dying and looking for any way out, even if it sacrificed the rest of reality.”
“Yeah.” Nerys eyed him sidelong. “Now what?”
The Doctor reached up and tapped the side of the chaos gun. “Now I restore the original timeline, where Donna never married Sam, where none of this ever happened. Unless…” He fell silent.
“Unless what, Doctor?”
Reaching forward, he took her hand and squeezed it gently. “I promised that I’d consult with you, to discuss what you want, how you want this to go. I can restore any of the timelines that I’ve already seen, or I could leave everything the way it is now. Or, given this thing’s capabilities, I could change another event in Donna’s life and we can see if that’s better. But the one thing I can’t do is guarantee how anything is going to turn out.” He held her gaze until she indicated her comprehension with a slight nod. “So, what do you think?”
Nerys turned to watch herself and her friends, drinking and laughing the evening away. She remembered this night well, for it was one of the few where her best friend had met a bloke at the pub and the girls hadn’t walked - or staggered, rather - home together. Donna had gone out dancing with Sam and, at three in the morning, had woken Nerys with a phone call to gush about the night and the bloke that had swept her off her feet. One tiny moment, one that would happen about a half hour hence, had changed Donna’s life forever, had transformed her from an office worker doggedly following reality programmes and celebrity news and given her a husband, a family, a career. From what the Doctor had told her of the nearly-forgotten timeline, without this encounter, Donna had continued on, temping and alone, living the life that Nerys had now. The only difference was that she’d chosen to go with the Doctor when he’d asked.
Could she really choose? Nerys wasn’t even sure which choice Donna would make for herself. Sure, the life she had now - would have, in this future - seemed suited to her, but what about the timeline where she’d had two children? Shouldn’t she choose that? And in the timeline that the Doctor had come from, she must have also enjoyed travelling with him; Donna wasn’t the sort to keep mum if she didn’t like something. And to further complicate matters, Nerys knew nothing of her own life in that alternate time and wondered if giving Donna a good life would ruin her own.
Nerys turned back to the table and sneered when she found it empty. Since Droga had never been here, he’d not ordered his drink and had left nothing behind. A mouthful of expensive Scotch would go down well right about now.
“I think,” she began as she raised her eyes to study the Doctor’s concerned expression. He was worried, for her of all people, for how she’d fare through all of this. He’d always been. It was plain on his face, in those ancient, wise, mad eyes, and she had no idea how she’d missed that all this time.
“I think,” she continued in a softer, less acrimonious tone, “that no one’s got the savvy to make that choice. Not me, not bloody Droga, certainly not you. No one should have chosen in the first place, so it’s got to go back.” She looked around for that whisky again and, finding nothing, sighed. “There. I said it. It’s done.”
“Are you sure?” the Doctor asked.
Rolling her eyes, Nerys heaved a great sigh. “Don’t make me have to say it again. It was hard enough the first time.”
The Doctor nodded, a profoundly sad but fond smile playing at his lips. “Thank you, Nerys. For everything.”
She jumped up, nearly toppling her chair backwards, and the Doctor sprang to his feet with her. “Goodbye, Doctor.”
“Can I take you home?”
“No. It won’t matter where I’ll be when... so…” She fled before any tears could fall. She refused to let the Doctor see that.
The Doctor sat back down and absorbed himself in fiddling with the device, watching Donna and her mates out of the corner of his eye whilst trying not to dwell on the future version of one of those friends. The four-dimensional data matrix contained detailed timelines of himself, Donna, Nerys, Droga, and the myriad comrades who’d fought with them in the war, as well as unconnected snapshots of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who had been near the device at one time or another. Donna’s entry was particularly complex for a human, with its multiple branches created by Droga reconnecting with each other every time he’d used the device on her. Untangling the strands enough to find the right way to change the event took almost all his concentration, that he almost missed the arrival of Donna’s current and soon-to-be-not future husband.
Samuel Thomas sauntered into the pub with two mates, all of them in smart business suits. Whilst one of them headed to the bar to fetch drinks, he and the other chose a table coincidentally near the Doctor and far from the raucous hen night on the other end of the establishment. When their friend joined them with three dark beers, they began chatting about their work until one of them pointed out the women at the far table. They listened a bit to the loud banter then traded first impressions, and the Doctor’s eyes sparkled when he heard Sam single out “the ginger” as the one he’d like to meet.
At her table, Donna jerked her head toward the bar and gestured a question at Nerys, and they rose together to fetch another round for the table.
“Now’s your chance,” Sam’s friend hissed, shoving him to urge him to action.
The Doctor glanced down at the device in his lap. He hadn’t managed to sort it, and the crucial moment was about to pass. “Maybe the old-fashioned way is best,” he murmured.
As Sam stood up with his beer and gathered his confidence to approach Donna, the Doctor shoved the box into a dimensional jacket pocket and, springing from his seat, dashed off to collide neatly with Sam and splash his drink all over the both of them.
“Oh, sorry, sorry! Didn’t see you there,” he apologised as he steadied the man. He pulled a large linen napkin embroidered with “Milliway’s” in glittering dark blue thread from his pocket and started sopping away the beer, keeping himself carefully between Sam and his target.
Craning his head around the taller man, Sam glanced back and forth between the mess of his suit and the red-haired woman, who changed her mind and turned to head off toward the ladies’ loo. The opportunity was over, but if he could meet the ginger’s pretty but rather imposing friend, perhaps that would work as well. First, he had to get rid of the clumsy oaf. “No problem, mate. These things happen,” he said, trying to wave him off.
“Shouldn’t stain the fabric, at least,” the Doctor commented. “The waterproofing they put on things these days, it’s just brilliant. But if you need a few quid for drycleaning? Or anything else I could do?”
“Nah, I don’t, thanks. Really, I’m fine.” Leaving the man babbling to thin air, Sam caught up to the blond woman at the bar and introduced himself, and they chatted as they waited for new drinks.
The shift of the timestream in the Doctor’s head felt different this time, which only made sense. This was a natural recalculation, not the forced disjunction he’d experienced too many times recently. It staggered him, and, with just enough presence of mind to grab his coat from the nearby chair, he stumbled toward the main entrance, concentrating hard to hold the current timestream steady for a few more seconds, just long enough to get him out of the pub and onto the empty pavement beyond. Just a few more steps and…
The Doctor crumpled against the door, clutching desperately to the coat balled in his arms.