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Liminality

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Liminal space. A strange concept – the idea of places meant just for waiting, only meant for passing through. They’re nothing more than the absence of time, where the seconds seem to cease their incessant ticking into oblivion. Slowing incrementally, until they’re so spaced out it feels like they barely exist. Heartbeats at once-per-minute. The shifting of a glacier. Movement through the fabric of reality, stretched out until it is completely meaningless.

And the word liminal – well, when considering it in English (which she is, at the moment), it originates from the word limen, which comes from the old Earth language Latin. It means threshold – the point or place of entering, beginning. She supposes, then, that the waiting is supposed to be in anticipation. That sense of knowing that whilst time may feel like it’s come to a standstill, it is still moving. The glacier, over decades and centuries, is flowing, ever onwards. The valley is being carved. The mountains are growing, stretching up to the sky. The tectonic plates are colliding.

And so then, of course, there will be an earthquake. It’s inevitable, just like the passage of time. And she should know, because she feels it – even now, when it seems as though the seconds and minutes are in cardiac arrest, her fingers are still on the pulse. And rarely, oh so rarely, there is a sharp blip on the monitor. A spike in the seismograph.

The stool next to her screeches as someone pulls it out and sits on it.

She doesn’t look up, keeping her eyes on the drink she’s barely touched.

She doesn’t like alcohol all that much this time around – well, actually, she’s never really liked it, has she? Especially not the face with the chin, but not really ever. Maybe Sandshoes had had a bit of a taste for it – or maybe it was just that one time in 18th Century Paris. But no. Alcohol didn’t hold much appeal to her, not like it did for humans. Although she supposed maybe part of the appeal came with being drunk, even if the after effects left a lot to be desired.

She can’t judge, she supposes. There is, after all, an empty bag that had once held ginger humbugs in her pocket.

She’d gotten through them while she’d been in –

She pushes the thought out of her mind before she can complete it.

“Doctor?” says the person next to each other, American accent warm with faux offence. “You’re not even going to say hello?” A pointed silence. “Or, thank you?”

Foolishly, she risks a glance to the side, and her eyes immediately fall across the familiar face of Captain Jack Harkness. Just the sight of him grates against her time sense, and she looks away immediately. She hears him let out an amused breath.

“Of course not,” he says. His amicable tone is a bit more strained now. She supposes if she’d felt a bit more like herself, she’d feel guilty about that.

But right now, everything is far too loud, far too bright, far too everything.

Even here, where the seconds trudge by at a sluggard pace, she feels like she’s lurching from moment to moment, dizzy and nauseous. But it’s only here, in this intergalactic spaceport in orbit around the New Hong Kong Colony, 3am station-time, where her time sense doesn’t feel like it’s going to overwhelm her completely.

And that’s another meaning of liminal, isn’t it? In human anthropology, it’s been used to describe the period of disorientation and ambiguity during a rite of passage – that threshold between the old and the new. That time when you are changing – are already changed, but you just don’t know how, exactly. Not quite yet.

She’s been changed.

Is changing.

But she’s not sure what’s changed her more.

The cell, or what came before?

Doc,” says Jack. His hand is suddenly on her shoulder, and she flinches so violently that the drink in her hands sloshes out of its glass, splattering on the bar. Jack immediately takes his hand away, holding them up disarmingly. “Whoa, sorry. Guess you’re still twitchy from solitary, huh?”

She should say something.

Her throat is dry and barren, her tongue like lead.

She’s not completely sure she remembers how to use them.

She swallows, thinking maybe that’ll help. She remembers something like that, once. Back when she talked to much and said too little all at the same time.

She opens her mouth to speak, but the words stumble, falling before they can reach her lips and tumble out.

She closes her mouth and looks away. Something that feels irritatingly like embarrassment – like shame – bubbles up in her lungs.

Beside her, she can feel Jack’s frown.

“How long did they keep you in there for?” he asks like he doesn’t want to know the answer.

She looks across the bar, at another group of patrons who are talking animatedly. Their conversation is vibrant with gestures and grins. Ah, yes. She remembers. Non-verbal communication.

She doesn’t think she’d been all that good at it before. But maybe it’s worth a shot.

She makes an attempt at something between a shrug and shaking her head.

He doesn’t want to know the answer, and she doesn’t want to tell him.

She hears him sigh. “Too long, then.”

It’s kinder, she thinks. To have him believe that she doesn’t know how long it was.

To have him believe that she didn’t feel ever hour, every minute, every second passing in such excruciating detail that she can barely stand the feel of her own timestream now as it brushes past her, scraping over her bones like sandpaper.

Yes.

Too long.

She remembers to nod.

She looks down at the small pool of split alcohol on the bar. The low lighting above them reflects in it, painfully bright to her light-starved eyes. She forces herself to look away. To look back at him, even if it hurts.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his eyes more piercing than she’s ever seen them. Or maybe it’s just because it’s been so long since she felt another person’s emotions, felt that downpour of empathy even without a tactile connection.

This body is so much more psychically sensitive. She’d noticed that very early on, and it’s only worse now.

“I should have got you out sooner. I wanted to, but – well, you probably know better than me the sort of security measures they had in that place. It took a lot of effort to get a quantum disruptor that was strong enough to punch a hole in their shield big enough to send a vortex manipulator through. And then I had to know which cell you were in – think you’d like how I did that. Found someone who’d hacked into the database of the Judoon High Command, and got my hands on a list of non-Judoon personnel who were assigned to work in your prison. Went back in time and made sure one of them owed me big time, just so I could cash in on the favour in the present. But then I had to figure out a way to fluctuate the shields just long enough for you to get out.” He flashes her a grin at that, but his eyes are still wary and concerned. “Wasn’t sure at first how long you’d need – but then I figured, it’s you. You’d barely need a second. And I was right.”

It makes sense. From her end, she’d just been sitting in her normal corner, staring at nothing – until it hadn’t been nothing. Until it was a vortex manipulator, appearing right at her feet.

She’d barely even thought – barely even considered that it most likely wasn’t even real. She’d just grabbed it and gone.

There’d been a pre-set destination already loaded – a beach, just outside a city on the Boeshane Peninsula, 51st Century, a few decades before the invasions began. She isn’t sure why Jack chose to send her to his home, just before his birth – maybe he thought it was the best place. Quiet, safe. A place no-one would really think to look for her – not with this face, anyway. But she’d been overwhelmed immediately by the light and the sound and the heat and the time, so much time, ticking and ticking and ticking, and so she’d dropped to her knees and scrabbled at the vortex manipulator with earthquaking hands, her thoughts wild with panic and lost to her. There’d been a shout – Jack, running towards her, she thinks. She’s not sure. She hadn’t looked up – she’d just pressed the manipulator again and jumped.

She’d cycled through about ten random locations, each as painful as the last – or more so, when she accidentally landed near a fixed point in time – before she’d ended up on the station.

Here, finally, she’d felt like she could breathe.

She’d immediately headed to the darkest place in the station she could find – the bar she’s currently sitting in. She hadn’t expected Jack to follow.

As if he’s heard her line of thinking, he fiddles with something under his sleeve, before putting his own vortex manipulator down on the bar. She looks at it.

“It’s paired to yours,” he says. She can hear the rueful smile in his tone. “I also figured you’d try and run off in about thirty seconds. I’m almost impressed. You only took ten.”

His voice is steeped with bitterness, more than she’s ever heard from him. She risks another glance at his face, and sees something that has always scared her more than Daleks, more than Cybermen, more than the High Council of Gallifrey.

Jack is visibly older.

How long has he lived? His aging is so much slower, she knows that – but by how much? How many years have passed since she last saw him?

Guilt swims in her gut, a dam threatening to burst. She looks away.

She can’t think about that now.

She can’t think about anything.

She’s spent so long doing nothing but thinking.

He sighs. “I’m guessing you were trying to find your TARDIS. If you’d just stuck around long enough to ask me, I’d have told you were it is. We could have gone straight there.”

The TARDIS.

A breath gets caught in her throat, almost choking.

Oh, how she wants to go back. How she wants to be back with her ship – to dance beneath that warm orange glow, to trace her hand along the console with a tenderness she reserves for no one else. To close her eyes and feel the hum of telepathic circuits deep within her chest.

But right now –

She can’t.

She can’t.

The very thought of it makes her –

She shakes her head vehemently.

Jack makes a frustrated sound. “I wouldn’t have even asked to come with you. Although getting a lift somewhere wouldn’t have been –”

He’s not getting it. She’s still shaking her head.

He falters.

“Hold on.” He pauses. “You weren’t looking for the TARDIS?”

She stops shaking her head. She just pushes a hand against her eyes, miserable.

“…why not?” He sounds astounded. “Doctor…”

He sounds like he’s beginning to realise that there is something not right. Thin ice cracking under cautious steps forward.

She needs to say something.

Part of her knows she’s owes him that much at least.

She owes it to him to try.

She opens her mouth, and then closes it again. He waits. She can think of what he needs to know, the words she needs to say – that after so, so long in isolation, her senses have been deprived, and now she’s free everything is far too much. She is the man who has been chained to the wall of a cave for so long, watching the shapes of the shadows, that now the chains are broken and she has stumbled out into the light, everything feels wrong. Colours are kaleidoscopes that keep on twisting, fluxing. Sounds are shrieks and screams and static in her ears – even the taste of the alcohol is too much after a million of the same bland meal. And her time sense. The TARDIS, a ship – a being – that lives and breathes time, a living mind that is intrinsically connected to her own…

She can’t go there. Not after so long in her cave.

There is a part of her that aches to go back to that cell.

Back to the dark.

Back to the nothing.

Back to the womb.

It’s a miracle, she thinks, that she can even understand what Jack is saying. That she can process the words as more than just sounds, syllables, after so long with only her own voice – and that had become mute over the years.

She wonders if maybe it’s only her telepathy that means she can grasp his meaning.

“Doctor.” He moves his hand towards her arm, but then falters halfway, aborting the gesture. She screws up her face, trying to drag her mind back to where it needs to be.

“It’s, ah –” she starts, forcing the words out, and then wondering how she’s supposed to finish sentences. “Loud.”

He shifts forward in his seat, closer, like the stilted words that have tripped out of her mouth are the most beautiful things in the world. “It’s too loud? I can find somewhere –”

No,” she says, firmly. Desperate. “The TARDIS.” She sighs, trying to scrape the sentences together. What had he just said? “’s too loud.”

“In the TARDIS?” he repeats, sounding confused. “Well, it’s gotta be quieter there than it is here.”

She shakes her head – he’s not getting it. How does she get him to understand that time is too loud?

Oh.

“Time,” she says. “Time is too loud.”

He doesn’t say anything for a moment, like he’s trying to wrap his head around what she’s saying. She looks away and tries to remember what she’s supposed to do with the glass in front of her.

You’re supposed to drink it, love, the Master sneers in her ear. Did he follow her out of the cell? But Jack doesn’t react – doesn’t even seem like he’s heard him, so maybe he isn’t there. Maybe he’s never been there, but she could have sworn he’d been there sometimes, with her in the dark. Yaz, Graham, Ryan too, sometimes. And others. Countless others.

She still isn’t sure how many of them had been real.

By Rassilon, the Master growls. You can’t even do one simple thing.

She brings the glass to her lips, taking a hurried gulp. She immediately chokes on the taste.

“Whoa, slow down there,” Jack says, concerned. For a moment, she wonders if maybe he’s not real either. He’d been in the cell with her sometimes as well, after all. But he takes the glass out of her hands, and she’s pretty certain that had been real, so he must be too.

That makes sense, I reckon, Yaz agrees in her ear. I’d say he’s here. If my opinion means anything.

“Why are you even drinking this stuff?” Jack asks, giving it a sniff. “You used to hate this.”

I’m with Yaz, Ryan says.

Yeah, and me, Graham says.

Of course they agree with you, the Master snaps. They don’t know any better. They’d believe every word that comes out of your mouth.

“Not true,” she says, her words barely more than a whisper.

“Um, I’m pretty sure it is,” Jack says. “It might have been a while ago but I remember that.

The Master just laughs, deranged and erratic. Oh, you and I both know it is. The Doctor lies, after all. Isn’t that supposed to be rule one? They don’t even know. They don’t know how many your lies have killed before them.

A shuddery breath escapes her throat. Time lurches, a blip on the monitor. Alive.

She instinctively fumbles for the vortex manipulator on her wrist. Immediately, Jack lunges forward, grabbing her arm before she can activate it. She flinches violently, her chest tightening, but his grip is unyielding, even as she desperately tries to yank her arm away.

I need to GO,” she gasps, words splintered, and it takes her a moment to register that she’s spoken in Gallifreyan, not English. And after being separated from the TARDIS for so long, her mind cut off completely, there’s no way the words would have made any sense to Jack. She shakes her head, her vision greying out with panic, and tries again. “I need to go.

“I know,” he says. “But I’m coming with you, Doctor. I’m not leaving you alone when you’re…”

He doesn’t finish. She doesn’t need him to.

She just nods furiously. Let go let go let go –

He lets go. Grabs his own vortex manipulator off the bar.

“Ok,” he says as he straps the device to his wrist. Her hand is stuttering over her own manipulator. “Where are we going?”

She doesn’t know, she doesn’t –

She just needs to get away it’s getting louder here –

“I don’t – um. Time. Needs to –” she starts, then falters. She bites back a groan. “Quiet. Liminal.”

“Liminal spaces…?” Jack says, and like a switch has been flipped, she thinks he’s starting to get it. “Places where it feels like time isn’t moving…”

He quickly adjusts his manipulator, inputting a string of destinations, before reaching forward and transferring the data over onto hers. But it’s taking too long, there’s something coming – the waiting is over, she can feel it, the foreshocks are shaking reality beneath her feet –

“Hold on, Doctor,” he says. “Just a moment –”

But there are too many moments, blurring together – a landslide, an exponential curve, the inevitable logarithmic increase of the Richter scale –

He presses something on his device, and reality shatters –

 into a broken mirror of incoherence –

Distorted –

Sharp

 

the fabric of the universe is twisted in on itself –                   

 

her insides are on her outsides

 

her blood vessels are broken glass,
ripping,
tearing,
screaming

 

 

 

– they’re spat out onto the other side, gasping.  

Cheap and nasty, she’d said once. She still stands by the sentiment.

Jack takes a step back, his arms outstretched. “How’s this for liminal?”

They are surrounded by an empty car park. Mist encroaches at the edges, so dense it feels like this is all that’s left of the universe – just a pocket of nothing, forgotten. Waiting.

She can breathe again.

A vague sense of clarity begins to return to her.

“Jack.” The word blunders past her lips like it’s an accident. She screws her eyes shut, pulling her hood up as low as she can over her face. It’s too bright here, but it is quiet – in the aural and the temporal sense.

“Doc,” he replies coyly. She hears him take a step closer, cautious. Like he doesn’t want to spook her. Like she’ll disappear again if he does. He’s probably right. “You with me again now?”

She manages to make a vague noise.

There’s a pause. “I’d ask if you were alright, but – well.”

She makes a vague, nebulous gesture that ends up pretty accurately depicting how she feels right now.

Jack makes an understanding noise. “Solitary’s pretty rough. It happened to me too. A long time ago now. Locked in a small, dark cell for twenty-three days.” He clicks his tongue. “It doesn’t sound so bad until you’re in it. When you’re not sure there isn’t something else in there with you.” He pauses. “I still don’t know if I was actually alone in there.”

She doesn’t know either. All she knows is that after the first few weeks without contact, unable to even feel the telepathic presence of guards or the other prisoners – because there had to have been guards and other prisoners, right? – things had started to get…strange. She’d heard the first whispers in her ears – felt something brushing past her in the dark. The walls, illuminated by the beams of starlight through the bars, had bulged, warped, shifted as she’d watched, pressed into her corner and so scared that she couldn’t speak –

On Earth, in the mid 22nd century, they’d declared solitary confinement a form of torture under international law.

If she didn’t know why before, she does now.

She would tell Jack all of this, but the only thing that she can manage is a distressed, sympathetic hum.

Around them, the seconds teeter on the edge, threatening to tick – but they don’t.

Not yet.

They’re still waiting for something.

She can still breathe.

She needs to try harder to pull herself together.

“Where –?” she says, before making a vague circular gesture with her hand, indicating to the surroundings beyond her closed eyelids.

“Not sure,” Jack responds. “I think that’s the point of place like this, right?”

She supposes it is.

She hears him take another step closer.

“Doctor,” he says, almost tender. “I don’t know how to help you. What do you need?”

She doesn’t know. How is she supposed to know? Her mind is tangled, senses bristling even in the liminality, and all she can think of is how she craves that nothingness that she had longed so much to escape from less than an hour before.

She shakes her head vehemently. She hears him sigh.

“Does that mean you don’t know?” he asks, frustration colouring the edges of his tone. “Or that you won’t tell me?”

She hates that it’s a fair question. After all she’s done to him –

Why is he here? Why did he drag her out of that place?

What does he want from her?

Don’t you remember, love? The Master’s voice comes from her left. Somehow, she can feel it, hear it in his tone – the Cyberium that rages in his veins. Don’t you remember what he asked you to do? Don’t you remember how you failed him?

“Sorry,” she gasps. “‘m sorry.”

“Doctor…” he says, and the frustration is all gone – just pity. So much pity.

But before she can hate him for it, there’s a sound.

A car engine.

The temporal seismograph rumbles, threatening.

She forces her eyes open, barely a squint, just in time to see a red car roll out of the mist and into the car park. Time’s pulse quickens abruptly, tachycardic, and she flinches back, her mind spiralling with panic. The waiting is over, the seconds are moving and she can’t –

“Dammit,” Jack mutters, and reality shatters all over again.

This time, the vortex manipulator spits them out into a dark, metallic stairway. She lurches forward, gripping onto the railing, gasping for breath.

“Atlowan freighter,” Jack says, glancing around him. “Deep space transport. Should be quiet here. From what I’ve met of them, I don’t think Atlowans are the type to regularly patrol a stairwell.

The rumble of substandard engines beneath her feet should be a comfort – it had been for a long time, before. That sense of movement – of direction. She’d craved it once, hating the thought of being still. Now, it feels like the vibrations are rattling deep into her bones, threatening to shake her apart.

She grips the rail tighter.

But it’s still liminal – in duplicate, actually. The middle of an incredibly long journey combined with the empty stairway. There is movement, but it’s stagnant. Endless.

And it’s dark.

She can manage this.

Jack comes to stand by the railing too, just enough space between them that he’s not brushing her shoulder.

“Let me help you,” he says. “Come on, Doc, don’t make me beg.”

 She just sighs, giving him a helpless shrug.

“Doctor –”

She cuts him off with one look, and whatever he sees in her eyes makes his shoulders sink.

“Ok…” he says. “So, I’m getting that you really don’t know what you need?”

She gives him a tired nod.

Wow – so you’re not just being stubborn? That’s a first.”

His joke falls flat before the glare that she levels at him. He holds his hands up.

“Ok,” he says. “Not one for joking this time around. Or maybe just now. You’ve not exactly had a good…however long it’s been. Not gonna judge you for that.”

She just sighs and looks away.

“Alright. If you don’t know what you need, then I need to know what they did to you,” he continues, sounding sorry. “Is this just some weird timelord kind of sensory deprivation, or did they actually –?”

He cuts off as she nods, even though she doesn’t know if she counts as a timelord anymore.

She’ll get to that part later.

She can’t imagine he’s going to take it all that well. Not after what she did to him.

“Ok, so the first one,” he says. “That’s good. Better than them doing something to you. So you just need controlled exposure back to normal time, right?”

Yes. Yes, he’s right. She nods, even as a sense of trepidation bristles in her gut. She knows exactly how she could do that. Or, rather, where.

The very idea sends trepidation bristling in her chest.

“How the hell are we gonna do that?” Jack says. “I mean, if it was just your eyes, you’d go to a dark room and gradually turn the lights up. How do you turn up time?” He looks at her. “Can you even turn it down? There’s gotta be a timelord trick for that, right?”

She’s barely listening to him, anxiety twisting like vines around her lungs. The Zero Room. That place in the TARDIS where she’s always supposed to go to regenerate – but never does, of course. A space where the physical laws are exempt, a room that exists outside of normal time. With her innate connection to the TARDIS, her ship would be able to gradually, incrementally, dial back the block until it didn’t feel like every timeline racing through her mind was going to overwhelm her completely. Only, she doesn’t think she can even get near the TARDIS right now, let alone inside. And once she makes it to the Zero Room, she’ll be stuck for who knows how long. Trading one cell for another.

Last time she’d been in there, after taking a blast from a temporal bullet in the height of the Time War, she’d lost months, floating outside time, comatose, trapped with only her own nightmares for company.

She can’t do it again.

She can’t.

“Doc,” Jack says, torqueing her attention back. His brow is furrowed, like he’s seen the panic in her eyes. “What is it?” He pauses. “Is there a timelord trick for it?”

She can’t help but curse the openness of her current face. All her emotions, out on show for everyone to see.

Doctor, help me out here.

She just shakes her head. She’s not going to the Zero Room. She won’t.

Jack steps away from the railing, radiating enough frustration that it scrapes against her even more than just his general presence. She can’t help but wince.

“You can’t just stay in liminal spaces forever,” he argues. “Come on, you and I both know that you’re not going to be able to stand this for long.”

In fact, she can and she will, and she would say as much if her tongue wasn’t feeling so awkward.

Jack seems to get the sentiment from her stoic silence anyway. “You can’t. After a day of it you’re going to get so bored that you’ll just go out into normal time anyway no matter how much it hurts. And I know this is rich coming from me but that doesn’t sound like a good idea.

She hates that he’s right.

After so long in the dark, to go out into bright lights without slowly adjusting to it would damage her eyes.

What would it do to her time sense?

He comes and stands beside her again, careful. Trying to catch her eye.

“I’m not just gonna stand by and watch you hurt yourself,” he says, sternly gentle.

She looks away.

She can’t do what he wants.

She can’t give him what he’s asking for.

You couldn’t give it to me, either, Bill says behind her. Not in the end. And all I wanted was to live. But I guess that was too much to ask.

She can’t

Doc –”

A blip on the monitor.

She flinches as multiple timelines rush past her, bristling and sharp. The quantum foam splits around her as something collides with the hull of the freighter – space debris, an asteroid maybe – and probabilistic curves determine whether or not the broken pieces will collide with something important on the ship’s outer shell.

Less than a second later, an alarm is wailing and emergency lights bathe the stairway in red.

A pained noise catches in her throat, guttural, and she instinctively reaches for the vortex manipulator, faster than Jack this time. She presses the button and tears them out of this place and into the next location on the list.

They stagger into existence in a hospital corridor, and are immediately assaulted by fluorescent lights and the smell of anaesthetic.

She presses the button again without hesitation.  

Reality rushes back together in a brutal crunch, somehow even worse than before, and she finds herself in an empty shopping aisle, fighting and intense wave of nausea. She immediately shuts her eyes, ducking her head against the harsh lighting. Beside her, she hears Jack make a noise of discomfort.

“Two jumps in less than ten seconds,” he gasps. “You know, it says on the disclaimer that you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Those – agh,” she tries, leaning forward with her hand on her knees. “– don’t come with –” She waves a hand.

“These things don’t come with a disclaimer?” he completes for her, and it’s embarrassing how easy he makes it sound. How easy she knows it is, and yet each word is getting stuck in her throat. “Not exactly, but my point still stands.”

She waves her hand again.

There’s a rustle of fabric as he moves to stand in front of her, blocking out the light a little. It’s not enough, but it’s something.

“Got any sunglasses in those pockets of yours?” he asks, quiet.

She does, because once the Judoon had teleported her into her cell and, presumably, thrown away the key, they hadn’t bothered to come and search her, or even take anything out of her pockets. She’d even had her sonic on her still – not that it had been any use, not in the end. Everything was deadlock sealed, of course.

The fact that Jack had to remind her that she had the sunglasses is another slight at her pride.

She really does hate this, she thinks bitterly as she pulls them out of her pocket and pushes them onto her face. Tentatively, she opens her eyes, and finds the light is just a little more manageable. She forces herself to look at Jack, and bristles against his expression of concern.

Stop,” she manages, not sure how well her glare translates through the shades.

“What did I do?” he protests, indignant. She shakes her head, standing up fully and moving away from him. “Stop worrying about you?

She doesn’t deign him with an answer, heading towards one of the shelves. She makes the mistake of brushing her hand against a row of cans of soup, before jerking back as if it’s been burnt. Other people have touched the tins, and the traces of their timelines remain like fingerprints on the labels. The liminality of the empty supermarket negates it, but only if she doesn’t touch.

“I can’t do that, Doctor,” he snaps from behind her. “If I don’t, you’ll just –”

Try,” she snaps back. She doesn’t want his help. Not now. If he realises where she needs to go, he’ll drag her there, and he’ll be right to but she can’t bear it, can’t stand the thought of it –

“I won’t,” Jack retorts, then makes a sound of disbelief. “What, would you rather I didn’t care? Would you rather I’d left you to rot in that cell?”

She ignores him, starting to walk down the aisle. If this place it empty, it must be late. It’ll be dark outside. The car park will be empty and the seconds will be glacial, and she’ll be able to think. Alone.

“Doctor!” Jack shouts after her, before she hears the clip of his boots against the laminate floor. “Come on. I’m trying to help you here, and –” she can feel his frustration boiling into anger “– I don’t even know what happened. And I’m not just talking about how you ended up in prison, I’m talking about the Cyberium. I told you –”

Stop,” she hisses between gritted teeth. She doesn’t want to think about it – not about impossible choices and dead poets, nor about blazing orange skies and blazing, blackened cities. Not about everything she thought she knew about herself being ripped apart in front of her, not about the look in the Master’s eyes when he begged her to end it all.

She thinks maybe if she just keeps walking, she can get away from him. She’s always outrun her problems before, until her problems were being locked alone in a small, dark cell. And that’s the issue now – she’s been so used to being in that cell, looking at walls that are less than a few metres away from her. Her eyes haven’t needed to focus further than that distance in far too long, and now she’s finding that the main aisle down the supermarket is actually quite a bit further than she’d realised.

And she’s –

She’s actually a bit tired.

It’s not like she’d been able to run around much in that cell.

She’d tried – oh, she’d definitely tried. In those first few weeks she’d been desperate, aching to run and run and run. But with a space only a few metres squared to move around in, she’d not been able to build up enough speed, constrained by the walls surrounding her. She’d settled for pacing quite a lot, wondering if maybe she could wear a hole in the floor if she kept at it for long enough.

But after weeks, months…well, it all became meaningless. There was no routine, no way to know whether it was day or night other than her own internal sense of time. They teleported food directly into the cell – no risk of contact with another sentient being, that way – at different times, no apparent consistency. It was just another way of disorientating her, she thinks. Unmooring her from reality. Taking every ounce of control away from her.

That’s what she wants now. Control.

So no. She isn’t tired, and she’s not about to do whatever Jack wants.

She’s fine.

She just needs to get out into the dark.

The aisle is still so long. Like it’s going on forever, a never-ending whitespace, a perpetual absence of time.

She just needs to –

She needs –

She stumbles, reaching out to grab a shelf to stop herself from falling. Her hand knocks against whatever is stacked there – cereal boxes? – and the timelines burn against her knuckles before the boxes crash to the floor.

Jack is at her side immediately, a hand wrapping around her shoulder. She tries to shrug him off, but she doesn’t have the strength. His grip lessens anyway, sensing her discomfort – but he still hovers, like he thinks she’s about to collapse any second.

“‘m fine,” she manages to snap.

Are you, cockle? She can hear the way the skin crinkles with concern around Graham’s eyes. Because it’s alright not to be, y’know? We’re here to look out for you. Just like you’d look out for us.

“You’re not,” Jack insists, worry overflowing like paint into his tone. “Dammit Doc, I can’t even be angry at you right now. I’ve gotta –” He makes a frustrated sound. “You’re sure you can’t go in the TARDIS?”

She needs to go. The Zero Room –

She can’t.

She just needs to be somewhere that isn’t like screaming static to her senses.

Doc,” Jack presses, urgent, sounding more than a little desperate now. “Is there something in the TARDIS that’ll help you?

Yes, yes but it will hurt and she is a coward.

She doesn’t even wait for time to encroach at the edges, doesn’t wait for the first tell-tale waves on the seismometer – she just presses the button.

This way, at least, she doesn’t have to answer him.

But the jump is even rougher this time around, like her whole body is being sucked through a hole in reality the size of a pinhead. And as the world finishes breaking and reforming around her, she finds her knees are buckling before they’ve even fully materialised. Jack’s grip on her arm tightens, just about controlling their fall to the floor of a –

Hotel corridor?

At this point, she doesn’t care.

She closes her eyes behind the sunglasses, and much to her horror, she ends up slumping against him. Immediately, his arm wraps around her, his touch gentle. Not too tight.

“Jumped too much too fast,” Jack chides, his own voice slightly breathless. “Even if you’ve not been stuck in a prison cell for who knows how long it’s not a great idea.”

She’d tell him to shut up, but all that makes it out her mouth is a tired moan.

“Tell me what to do, Doctor,” he asks, pleading. “You’ve gotta know something. This is out of my league and there’s not exactly any other timelords around that I can ask.

He doesn’t even know you saved them, the Master hisses. He doesn’t even know you lost them all over again.

She flinches.

Doc,” Jack says again, a hand tilting her chin so she looks up at him. “Is there something in the TARDIS that will help?”

His touch tender, careful, but it still sends scintillating shocks rippling across her skin, Lichtenburg patterns shuddering over every cell. But it’s just the touch – not the time. Jack is a fixed point. A constant. Before it’s always made her shudder, made her coil back, but now, when she’s so exhausted and half out of her head, the certainty of him in her time sense is, somehow, comforting. Like a cool, damp cloth across a fevered brow.

She can’t fight this anymore, she realises. He’d been right. Even in the liminality, everything is too much, and she isn’t strong enough.

She gives up.

She nods.

She feels him sigh as he lets go of her face, and her head lolls against his shoulder, her sunglasses clacking against the button on his familiar coat.

“Right,” he says. “Ok. This’ll be fun. Maybe the TARDIS will actually let me in this time, rather than flying to the end of the universe just to shake me off.”

She’ll let you in, murmurs an achingly familiar voice. She opens her eyes a crack, and sees that blonde hair, those blue eyes leaking with gold. Rose Tyler smiles at her sadly. I know she will.

The Doctor’s lips part, a million words that she’s never been able to say on the precipice of her tongue. But before she can fail once again, Jack activates the vortex manipulators and her Bad Wolf shatters along with the rest of reality.

The place where she left the TARDIS – where she was taken from the TARDIS – is in the throes of a warm sunset when they’re spat out into the dust. Immediately, the Doctor curls in on herself, shaking with shuddery gasps – even if she wasn’t so close to her ship, this place would hurt. There’s no liminality here to protect her. Just timelines upon timelines, battles carved into the fabric of the planet. The end of the Cyberwar had been waged here, and the last humans had survived here. Trees have grown and bird-like-creatures have found their mates and raised their young and learnt to fly in the skies above her – life has happened here. Time has been moving, on and on and on for centuries, and she can feel it. Feel the planet, spinning on through the void beneath her feet.  

And, of course, things are not helped by the fact there’s a timeship here too.

Two timeships. The other TARDIS is still disguised as a tree, on the edge of a wood nearby.

She can’t help the moan that slips from her mouth. Her breaths are already ragged, and her pulses are quickening.

She wants to go back.

She wants to go back.

She can’t go into the TARDIS.

Jack moves away from her, and she has to put her arm out suddenly to stop herself from completely collapsing into the dirt. She watches as he reaches for the arm she’s holding around her chest, carefully pulling it towards him and pushing back her sleeve. The vortex manipulator is strapped tightly around her wrist, and he’s gentle as he undoes the clasp and pulls it off.

“No…” she manages, hating how pitiful it sounds. But she needs it – it’s her only way out if things get too bad, if she decides she can’t do this, because she knows she can’t do this, she needs it –

“Sorry,” he says, and it’s already gone, spirited away into one of his pockets. The loss of it is suddenly staggering. He tucks a loose hair behind her ear. “Can’t risk you disappearing again. I’ll be back for you in a minute.”

She blinks, and he’s already stood up and running towards the blue shape of her TARDIS. It hurts to look at, her vision blurring. She’s so dizzy. The ground is shifting, rolling beneath her. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t remember the gravity being different on this planet before – maybe something’s changed here while she’s been locked away, maybe something happened to the gravity but the trees are still the same and the rocks aren’t falling off into the sky like she feels she’s about to, and wouldn’t the trees be different if something so drastic happened to change the gravity like this? The trees would have changed. They would have started growing down from the sky, surely?

She blinks, and she’s lying on the ground.

You not alright, are you, cockle? Graham says. So sad, so sad.

It’s ok, Yaz says. We’re here. You’re not alone.

But she is, she tells them. There’s no one like her in the universe.

And that had always been the case, but it’s different now because she knew who she was before, but who is she now?

Who is she now?

She doesn’t even know what she is, or where she came from, or – or what her name is? Did she have a name? Did she forget it when she was found, or only when her memories were taken from her?

She doesn’t –

No one knows who she is. Not even her.

She is alone, and she hurts.

You’re not alone, though, Ryan tells her. We’re with you. Doesn’t matter who you were, or where you came from – we know who you are now.

Unless it matters to you, Yaz adds, because we want to know. When things are hurting you. We want to help.

That’s right, Graham says, you don’t have to hide it from us, Doc. You can hurt just like us.

There’s too much time, she tries to tell them. Too much, and she can feel it all, scraping against her bones. But they don’t hear her. They can’t. They’re not –

They’re not even here, hisses the Master. You’re delirious. This is all just some fantasy. You’re pathetic, look at you. You’ve got the power of a god and you’re lying in the dirt.

Dimly, she registers the TARDIS reaching out to her. An orange sky fills her mind, scattered with achingly familiar constellations. 

Thief, it cries. My thief. Gone so long.

But it hurts. She chokes back a sob, wrapping her hands around her head like she can block it out. But she can’t – time is everywhere, woven into the dust beneath her and she can hardly think. She can hardly remember why she’s here.

The TARDIS draws back abruptly, but she can still feel it’s worry fluttering at the edges of her mind. She aches for the contact – it’s her ship. Her TARDIS. They shouldn’t be apart. But it won’t let her draw it back in closer.

She blinks, and Jack is beside her again.

“Said I’d be back, didn’t I?” he quips. She looks behind him, squinting at the open TARDIS doors. The console room lies beyond, time oozing out of it. Her pulses lurch in trepidation.

“I found it,” Jack is telling her. “Or, I think I did. The TARDIS showed me this white room. And I remembered – I think you mentioned it, ages back. Before Rose –” He stops. Pauses. Presses a hand against her temple.

“You with me, Doc?” he asks, quiet.

“Mmhm,” she responds. She thinks she should tell him that the trees are wrong.

Jack sighs. “Well, sorry, ‘cause you’re really going to hate this.”

That’s all the warning she gets before he’s scooping her off the ground and carrying her towards the open doors, holding her close to his chest. With each step, the pain gets worse, sense flooding her mind with blaring warning alarms. The monitor is wailing a frantic rhythm; the seismograph is going haywire. She tenses, her breaths coming in pained gasps. “No…no…

“Hang in there,” he says to her, his grip on her tightening slightly. They must be right at the doors now – she can feel it. “Just hang in there for me.”

She doesn’t answer him, her throat choked with fear. But her hand finds the edge of his coat, and she clutches it desperately. An anchor.

He doesn’t pause, doesn’t hesitate.

He just steps straight through the threshold and into the console room.

It hits her instantly – time, abundant and screaming, every surface drenched in seconds, so much that even the air is choked with it. She can’t breathe. She can’t breathe. It’s like frozen oceans full of shattered icebergs are pouring into her lungs and her entire nervous system has turned to brambles, to barbed wire, and something is pulling it out of her through her throat. She hears a sound – someone crying out, someone screaming – who is it? Jack should take her back outside, leave her in the dust and help them instead because it’s not worth it it’s not she can’t withstand this she can’t she can’t she can’t breathe she doesn’t know what’s happening to her, she doesn’t know where she is other than it hurts and hurts and there is something brushing at the edge of her, something so old and so sad, something that wishes it had hands to comfort her, but it only has memories and so it offers her this –

 

– she is lying on the sofa
in Graham’s sitting room
thumbing the burnt cuffs of her
previous self’s jacket.
The burning sunset is
leaking through the curtains,
painting the room in bands of blazing gold,
and in the kitchen is the clink of cups
the rumble of a kettle,
and someone singing
softly
to themself
like they don’t think
anyone can hear them –

 

She chokes.

Her eyes are streaming with tears beneath her shades, but she barely notices.

She can’t –

She can’t think

It’s –

It’s all –

Too much, someone whispers, a face she can’t quite remember. She thinks they’re crying. It’s just too much.

“Almost there,” says Jack. She’s not sure if he’s real. Almost where? She doesn’t know where she is, only that her entire being is screaming. “Just hang on in there.”

Hang on.

She has to.

She has to.

It’s –

It’s what you do, sweetie, says another voice. Hanging on, even when it hurts so much. It’s all you’ve ever done.

“It’s just here, it’s almost over.”

Her eyes are closed, but there’s a light – so bright that it shines through the darkened lenses of her glasses and tinges her eyelids with blazing pink. She shrinks away from it instinctively – she doesn’t think she can take anymore, no more no more no more – but she keeps moving forward it keeps getting brighter until –

The screaming stops.

Every ounce of tension leaves her body, unconsciousness swarming at the edges of her mind.

A sense of calm washes over her.

There’s silence. Complete, beautiful silence, without even the hum of background radiation in her bones.

She feels no pain.

“Doc…?”

The words come to her distantly, from the end of a long tunnel – no, a mineshaft, no, a portal in the sky that blazes with purple flares, and she is crumpled below it, looking up with tears in her eyes and an ache in her chest that she can’t understand. She doesn’t know who’s speaking. She doesn’t know where she is, or who she is.

She only knows that she has fallen.

Has always been falling, all her life.

Cascading down.

Past the violent sparks of burning violet.

Bleeding streams of gold that twist and knot like timelines before her eyes.

Be brave, a voice whispers. It sounds like her own. Just be brave.  

 

She doesn’t feel it when Jack lays her down on the bed.

 

She is already gone.  

 



 

 

 

 

The first things she notices when she wakes is that light is no longer blazing through her eyelids.

She frowns, hand coming up to rub her eyes, only to knock against the shades that are still pressed against her face. She makes a confused noise.

There’s a rustle.

“Hey,” says Jack. “You back with me?”

She scrunches up her face, before opening her eyes. Blinking.

Jack is crouched in front of her, and behind him is the Zero Room – with the bright white lighting turned down to more of a blueish grey.

She takes in a breath, and then lets it out.

And another.

Her mind is clear. For the first time since she got out of her cell – and, arguably, since she got put in it – she feels like she can think. She sits up suddenly, pushing the sunglasses up and off her face. Everything brightens a little – but then the room dims to accommodate. She sends a wave of gratitude in the direction of the walls. The TARDIS doesn’t reply – not other than to hover at the edges of her consciousness, worried, but relieved. Missing her.

She puts a hand on the wall, and sends her own telepathic imprint of the yearning in her chest.

Soon, she thinks. Soon.

“Uh. Doctor?”

Oh.

She glances back at Jack, having momentarily forgotten his presence. She winces.

“Sorry,” she says. “I – ah.” She purses her lips. Words are still not coming easily to her, it seems.

That’s to be expected, she supposes.

The Zero Room can’t fix every ailment, after all. It doesn’t even fix anything, in and of itself. It’s merely – somewhere safe. A hiding place. A sanctuary.  

Jack stands, moving to sit on the bed next to her. She pulls up her knees to give him space.

“Feeling better?” he asks.

She nods. “I – hm.” She wrestles with the disconnect between her tongue and her mind. “…thank you.”

His eyebrows raise. “Did I hear that right? Did you actually just –?”

His voice is teasing, a coy smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. She gives him a look that says I’m not saying it again. He chuckles, raising his hands.

“Alright, alright,” he says. “Just sayin’. It’s nice to hear it. Especially after – well. Everything.”

A flicker of guilt blooms in her chest, and she sighs, tucking her knees closer towards her chest. Jack frowns.

“Hey, don’t be like that,” he says, clearly feeling a little guilty himself. She doesn’t think that’s really fair. “It’s ok. I mean, you and I have a lot to talk about – we both know that. But…” he sighs, looking away. “Not right now. Not when you can barely talk.”

She closes her eyes, pushing down her wounded pride, as well as her relief.

It’s not a conversation she wants to have. Not now, not ever.

But she knows he’s right. He’s right in more ways than he knows. It’s not just the Cyberium she needs to explain. It’s the fact she doesn’t even know what species she is now – that she’s more like him than she realised, in the worst kind of way. It’s the fact that she saved Gallifrey just to watch it burn all over again. It’s the fact she tried to help the Master – that she thought they were friends again, and foolishly allowed herself to hope, only for them to throw it back in her face. And she lost everything in the process – Bill, Nardole…

Her own life.

It’s all the things she couldn’t bear to tell Graham, Yaz and Ryan. She couldn’t bear to let them see the truth behind that perfect mask she’d forged for herself. To see her vulnerable.

But Jack has already seen behind it.

He’s already seen the worst of her.

“There’s, ah –” she tries, and then falters. “A lot. To tell you.”

He smiles at that. “I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t.” He looks back at her. “But it’s fine. Rest up.” He frowns then, waving a hand at the room. “How’s this even work then? There’s no time in here?”

She makes a vague gesture with her hands, which sends another smile quirking at his lips.

“That’s another one for later.” He shrugs. “If it works, then that’s all that I really care about.”

His face grows sombre suddenly, and she frowns.

“Bringing you in here…it wasn’t even that far. The TARDIS put this place right in the first corridor. But it felt like forever, and you were just…” He trails off, shaking his head. She catches his eyes, and they look almost haunted. “Is it going to be like that if you go back out there again?”

She bites her lip, pushing aside her own jagged memories of the journey into the Zero Room. She will be fine, after a while. She’ll hate it in here, that’s for certain, even if Jack brings her something to tinker with. But it will be temporary, she reminds herself. There will be a limit to the waiting. Unlike her cell, where there was nothing but endless emptiness, this would be…

A passing place.

Something with an end. A horizon she can see – that she can reach, if she just walks far enough.

She can manage that, she thinks.

“No,” she replies. “In time…” She waves a hand beside her head. “’ll be fine.”

He gives her a skeptical expression.

Really,” she assures.

He chuckles to himself. “If you say so.”

He sits for a long moment, looking her over with an expression that is unbearably fond, even if it’s now edged with…well, she’s not quite sure what it is. Knowledge, perhaps. He knows what she’s like. And she’s hurt him so much, over the eons.

But he still cares for her, and her for him.

Of course they do.

“You should rest,” he says, pushing himself up suddenly. She rolls her eyes, and he points at her. “Hey, don’t give me that. You know it’s true. And what else are you going to do in here? Build your own vortex manipulator from the things in your pocket?”

A flicker of interest flashes through her – and across her face apparently, judging by the way Jack’s expression morphs into one of sudden trepidation.

“Pretend I did not give you that idea,” he says, attempting to be stern and failing drastically. She just smirks at him, already digging in her pocket for her sonic, which she flips in her hand. Somehow, with the action, she feels more like herself than she has in a very long time.

Jack sighs, long-suffering. “You’re going to be a pain in the ass in here, aren’t you?” He turns towards the door. “I’m going to go find you something to pull apart before you get any ideas.”

A genuine smile threads its way across her face. Jack returns it with one of his own.

“Good to have you back, Doc,” he says, and then turns, pressing the controls on the door. It opens carefully, the TARDIS not allowing even an ounce of unwanted time to slip in. The Doctor leans slightly against the wall beside her, and the ship hums gently in response.

 “Oh – and by the way,” Jack says as he closes the door, and she glances up to see him flash her a grin. “I’m loving the new look.”

The door closes behind him, and he misses the way her smile widens. Tenderly, she runs her hand along the wall beside her.

Yes.

It’s good to be back.