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The Man That Could Have Been

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     On the edge of the largest galaxy in existence, there lies an enormous constellation. Depending on who you ask, this constellation, called Kasterborous, looks like either a star whale of old, a majestic ryu of the kind that live on Tenzin 12, or a giant blob of tapioca pudding. In the very heart of this mass of stars, there is a small tear in the fabric of reality, which causes a beautiful phenomenon-- a stunning, many-fingered cataract of lights and gases, dust and plasma, swirling into infinity-- aptly named the Medusa Cascade. And, within the Cascade, on the verge of the rip itself, is a planet: Gallifrey, Shining Jewel of the Seven Systems, Home of the Lords of Time and Birthplace of Time Travel.

     On Gallifrey, there lives a particularly special Time Lord, a man called the Doctor. This man is incredibly, astonishingly old. He has lived for  sixteen thousand, five hundred and twelve years, regenerating of old age every fifteen centuries or so. He is the repository of all the knowledge of the Time Lords; he knows every secret of the ancients of Gallifrey, he has memorized the inner workings of time and space, and all the details of all the civilizations that ever were are contained within his ancient cranium. As an upstart genius and heir apparent of the Prydonian Chapter, he was groomed from birth for one thing: to become High President of the Time Lords-- and that's exactly what he has been, for the past eight thousand years. He has led his people into a golden age of prosperity, and under his rule the Time Lords have become the most powerful race in the universe. They are an empire: the Enforcers of Order, the Bureaucracy of Dimension Travel, and the self-proclaimed Protectorate of Time Itself.

     But alas, despite all that power-- or, rather, because of it-- no Time Lord, not even the Doctor, can see clearly enough to predict Gallifrey's approaching apocalypse. Though they step through time as if through doorways, peer into every possible future, and bend reality itself to suit their whims, they cannot fathom the monsters they've become, or the downfall that awaits them.

       And it all starts with a fez.

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      Can you hear the drums of war, beating madly on their way? Gallifrey will stand no more-- for the end begins today.

Chapter Text

Time, time. What is time, but a construct of the mind? What is the mind, but a vessel which time uses to experience itself? The mind cannot help but fade, but time rolls on unending, reborn in new minds—inexorable, unfathomable, eternal.

Except it’s not.

***********

      The Doctor sits quietly on his throne. He has matters to attend to. He has treaties to approve and policies to revise and that long list of past and future wars he really ought to stop and a thousand million other petty little things to do and—

      Still, he sits.

      He feels old today, he thinks. So very old, yes, and tired. He’s been doing this for millennia on end, this ruling the universe business, and it’s finally catching up with him—taking its toll on body and soul. Does he even have a soul anymore? To have a soul, he supposes, you have to be able to feel, to care, and he can’t. He hasn’t, not for aeons. Joy and laughter and heartache and pain: the warm russet comfort of a blanket and a good book in front of a crackling fire, the ice-bright spikes of shock that pierce the spine at the coming of terrible news, the rainbow elation of running pell-mell into the unknown with the whole of creation in front of you… He gave it all up long, long ago, sealed that part of himself away to be able to rule with some semblance of impassive impartiality.

     (Sometimes, he wishes he hadn’t. Now the only thing he can feel is grey.)

     If he’s going to just sit, he might as well indulge himself further and let his mind wander, the Doctor reflects.  So he leans back, fixes his gaze on the high ceiling of the throne room, and does exactly that. His age-old consciousness roams along path and pathway, strolling through the avenues of time and all its contents; eventually, it ends up down a trail long-untrodden, pondering what life would have been like if he had never become Lord President. Though he hasn’t considered the possibility in—oh, centuries, at least—the train of thought is actually quite a familiar one; on the very weariest of days, his mental barriers begin to erode, and the blasted overactive imagination that plagued him as a Time Tot returns, accompanied by—goodness—the tiniest orange spark of… curiosity.

     Mildly surprised, yet pleased at the prospect of something other than grey, the Doctor grabs onto the spark and attempts to fan it into a flame. He has forbidden travel to, from, and between any dimensions wherein he is not the President of Gallifrey— it makes everything so much simpler—but he has his own little way around that, passed down from his ancestors, the First Great Time Prophets. He has the Time Sense.

     Calling it into use for the first time since the Daemon Rebellion, he mentally plucks at the woven threads of the tapestry of time, feeling for major split-points. Many strands ring with the possibility of his death without regeneration, whether in the womb or in the years before he ascended the throne. Others echo back mishaps after which he would have been remarkably dull, or otherwise ineligible for Heirship. An exponential number, of course, lead to him never being conceived at all…

     As the results are more or less what he expected, his carefully tended curiosity starts slipping away like sand from between the fingers, with a familiar bleak blankness trickling into its place. He makes a last half-hearted effort to salvage the guttering flame, strumming time’s strings in a tuneless rhythm, when suddenly—there. One clear golden chord chimes amidst the cacophony, a shining thread that coils and writhes like a live thing under his touch: he doesn’t know quite how, but is suddenly certain this is the one event that determined the entire direction of his current reality. Without a second thought, he seizes it, follows it back to its origin until

     Young.

     They call me young, and compared to them, I suppose I am—but I don’t feel it…

     In the throne room, the Doctor’s drooping ginger head snaps up in staggered recognition. This is a memory he has not recalled in nearly eight thousand years, but it is still clear as the light of the Twin Suns. His eyes are wide, staring, but he does not see the ancient tapestries and gilded floors before him; his mind is twelve storeys and sixteen millennia away.

     They call me young, but I am old enough to know who I am, and what I want. I am a Doctor—no, I am the Doctor. And I do not want the throne.

     Oh, gods, barely five hundred he’d been, already full of sorrow and yet still so innocent—a Doctor, yes, but in name only, full of wild dreams of freedom but shackled by prophecies and the ominous promise of the Crown…

     I do not want the throne, anymore than I want to see the Prophecy fulfilled. I want to run and run and run and never stop, live my life among the very stars themselves because what is there on Gallifrey but dust and aching memories and stagnation? I want to run, and now the time has come to do it. Beginning today, no more.

     No more. Even now, the phrase echoes in his dreams without context or reason, long dissociated from its first resolute usage. No more kowtowing officials, he had meant—no more pressure to lead, no more talk of prophecies or constant reminders of parent and mate and child lost to the heart of time itself.

     Yes. Today, once and for all, I escape.

      It was the Eve of Rassilon, and his last chance. He had spared not a thought for the welfare of his people, thrown nary a glance at the coronation robes looming large in the corner. His cleverly crafted sentient virus was disabling the TARDIS repair shop’s seven-dimensional security firewalls one by one, his getaway vehicle had been chosen, Susan was tying up loose ends—she’d insisted on coming with him, pointing out that she didn’t want the throne, either, but would be next in line if the Heir happened to “disappear”—everything was in place. They would slip away in the bustle before the coronation, and

     Goodbye, Gallifrey… Next stop, everywhere!

     Or not.

     When the two fugitive heirs crept into the repair shop, they had been met with a phalanx of guards and the icy gaze of a broken-hearted Lord President. He’d simply looked at them for a while, as if trying to grasp where he'd gone wrong, then ordered them to their quarters and swept away to organize last minute details of the coronation. Later that morning, he'd come to the Doctor's chambers, his ancient eyes filled with unshed tears. He'd implored his son to understand: the life of an Heir was not their own, but belonged to all of Gallifrey, and the responsibility for the next hundred generations of Time Lords rode on their shoulders.

     But Father, I…

     “Yes, my son?” 

     …You are right. I apologize.

     The Doctor had glimpsed the raw agony in his father's eyes, and, as a twisted dagger of guilt plunged itself through both his hearts, had vowed on Rassilon's grave never to abandon his throne again. Still, the coronation was cancelled; the Eve of Rassilon had passed, and would not come again for another eight thousand years. So the Doctor had waited. He’d remembered his promise, and spent eight millennia devoted to the study of life, the universe, and everything—and when the next Eve finally arrived, he had faced it without hesitation.

     Upon the Law to which we are all bound, I swear to uphold the Ancient Rites and Traditions of the Crown. Upon Rassilon’s Sceptre, I swear my loyalty to the people of Gallifrey: I will rule wisely, fairly, faithfully. Upon the regenerations that are my birth right, a gift to our ancestors from Time Itself, I swear to now stand as the foremost Protector of Time, impartial and just.

     “You are thus sworn. In the name of Rassilon, and in addition to the name you have chosen for yourself, I now give you the title of…”

     An urgent banging on the doors of the throne room snaps the Doctor rudely out of his reverie. He winces—this extended use of the Time Sense is beginning to give him an enormous headache—and gestures to the young guard standing stiffly next to the door to answer it.

     "You may now enter the presence of the Lord High President of Gallifrey!"