Characters: Jack Harkness/Rose Tyler/The Ninth Doctor/the TARDIS
Edited by: the incomparable dr_whuh
Summary: Dry and dying gardens, pain and precision; She was screaming, but would they hear?
Author's Notes: My criminally delayed entry for the OT3 Hurt Comfort Bingo ficathon at betterwiththree . The prompt was "TARDIS" - how could I resist a story telling a story of hurt and comfort with my favorite dimensionally transcendent girl crush, and my favorite TARDIS team? For those who are interested, this grew out of my drabble "Kiss to Build a Dream On" and follows that AU timeline.
Chapter One: The light dies
The grass in Her gardens began to brown at the tips, so gradually that no one noticed at first. Flowers wilted, then disappeared before anyone could see the fallen petals.
Doors that used to open on rooms began opening on blank walls; it went uncommented upon because She sometimes decided to change a room's address in the normal run of affairs.
Hallways that should have been dry started showing spots of damp on their walls and, in chambers no one had thought to visit for months or years, fountains where water once bubbled and trilled coughed and spat out dark rust, then went dry.
Her song began to falter. All of them felt its intermittent lack in the deeps of their sleeping minds, but only the Doctor remembered when he awakened from his infrequent dreams, and only for a moment, and he put it off to his own odd sleep patterns.
He couldn't be faulted, not really. For the first time since the War, he was happy, and happiness is a remarkably effective distraction from pain. So She cried out for help, and no one heard.
The planet they visited was a marvel of machine-organic cooperation. Somewhere in the past, the descendants of Earth had created machines far greater than themselves. In the way of those things, there had been a war, and the humans had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Then — as is only sometimes the way of those things — beings on both sides asked themselves why they should fight. When they realized there was no reason, they made peace and came together. Ultimately, as years turned to centuries and millennia, they'd come together in the most intimate and physical manner.
The results were spectacularly beautiful, which had surprised Rose. "You know, this should be creepy," she said, watching the citizens around her, elegant metal and warm flesh, lights and sound flowing across faces and screened surfaces in pulsing communication that was not like any communication Rose had previously encountered. "Like the Borg, and 'You will be assimilated,' and ... you know, humans and machines just shouldn't mix, yeah?"
She thought of Daleks. So did Jack. Neither said anything. They waited until the Doctor replied, "Oh ye of little faith. You lot don't always get it wrong. This is a place where the cleverest apes in the universe figured out a new type of evolution. 'Course, this is just a side trip; the human race goes on elsewhere in its old skin and bones guise, but you didn't do too badly here." He smiled at them, his craggy face wide and open; they smiled back, relieved by unsummoned ghosts.
"There were a few worlds in my time with organo-mecha societies," Jack said. "Not like this, though. I saw some of them, and they were always ugly ... forcible grafts, caste-driven, war-based, a lot of religious or political distortions. Usually post-apocalyptic survival efforts and always insane. The Agency stayed away from them. Not that pretty at all."
"Like I said; Borg," Rose replied, holding out a hand to each man. "But I like it here. It's sort of ... I dunno, a chrome-plated fairy tale."
"Adamant and lace, huh?" Jack laughed softly, and caught at her fingers, kissing them. "Well, if the good Doctor will play tour guide we can go off and investigate the city."
In answer, the Doctor moved past the Captain, one long-fingered hand brushing proprietorially across the younger man's shoulders as he came around him to reach for Rose with the other. "Not sure about fairy tales, nor Borg, but I'm pretty sure we'll find something to keep us interested."
They walked toward the gleaming heart of the metropolis, listening to its pulse and thrum, eyes on each other. Behind them, a group of city residents walked and rolled toward the TARDIS, clustering around it like bees to an open flower. They put out hands and other appendages, brushing Her walls gently, reverently, and looked from Her to Her three charges as the trio disappeared into the lights and shadows of the city. Then they turned back to Her.
And who could blame them? She was like them and yet unlike, an amalgam of organic and non-organic life, a tantalizingly familiar alien intelligence newly arrived on their doorstep. She was all the more alluring to them because, unlike their cousins on other human worlds, these people could grasp the tiniest portion of Her communications, at least the ones built of radio and x-rays, of sub-space vibrations and light waves in the infrared and ultraviolet.
The TARDIS' admirers were young, and as sweetly, arrogantly, dangerously uninformed as the young are anywhere across the universe. They thought that what they caught in Her vibrations was the totality of Her speech — of Herself.
They were shocked at what they thought they grasped; that Her partners had left Her silent and unmoving, alone and helpless. They assumed the worst, as the young nearly always do when it comes to everything but themselves. They became determined to rescue Her, and conferred among themselves in some way particular to their civilization. Eventually, pleased with what they had decided to do, they again put out their hands, and their other appendages, and touched the TARDIS. They connected to her in ways She could not interpret as malevolent, because they weren't. Amused by their adoration, She let them past her defenses. She had no premonition of danger because She, too, was happier than She had been since the War, and less apt than She once had been to see danger approaching.
When Her coterie of new admirers dispersed perhaps two hours later, satisfied with their good deed, She was humming and vibrating in a way She had not done before. And She was terrified.
"What are you doing right?" Rose asked. It was perhaps a month later, in subjective TARDIS time.
"What do you mean, what am I doing right?" The object of her query looked suitably disgruntled. "I do everything right."
"Well, you're doing it extra 'specially right, then," she said. "We've landed exactly where you said we would, when you said we would, five times in a row now."
"Oho! She's keeping score," Jack said from across the console room. He grinned, and was about to go back to his sketch pad, then stopped and cocked his head. "She's also right. Tesla Prime, 1304 Common Galactic Era, spot-on. Then back to Earth in the 26th century, again on the dot — although I still think we could have gotten a better deal on your cybernetic gewgaw in one of the Proxima colonies."
"And when you promised us blue sand and silver sun, you delivered us right to Sellei Anchora's best beach hotel," Rose continued, ticking off the next stop on their most recent itinerary. "Don't know what year."
"Present time, at least in relation to your Earth chronology," Jack offered, increasingly intrigued.
"Well there you go. And there we went. No murders, no mysteries, just relaxation." She looked faintly disappointed. "And yesterday, 1860, Naples, Italy. Finally."
"Liked Cardiff better," the Doctor muttered mutinously. "What's your point?"
"Just that one proper landing's a surprise, and two in a row is a cause for celebration," Rose said. She walked over and put her arm around the Doctor, tilting her head up to look at him. She smiled, but she also looked as if something was bothering her. "Three is, what, a national holiday? And when we get to four or five in a row ... I dunno, I guess I'm wondering what you did to make the TARDIS so un-tardy."
"Thought that one up on your own, did you?" He smiled and tapped her nose.
"Clever girl," he said. "But you're looking a gift horse in the mouth, aren't you?"
She shook her head. "No, just wondering, is all."
The light around them flickered slightly, so faintly that they didn't notice, although Jack complained of a headache the next day.
Rose joked to Jack a day later that she'd misplaced the kitchen the day before. A faint, painful hum sounded briefly in the bedroom as she said it.
"You know She occasionally rearranges things," he said as he brushed her hair.
"Yeah, but the kitchen? I don't mind running into the occasional brick wall — which I did just day before yesterday, funniest thing to open a door on — but not when I'm hungry. Oh, never mind. I had the worst headache all day yesterday, and I probably just wasn't paying attention to where I was going. Ended up in one of the garden rooms."
The door opened just as Jack thought about mentioning his own headache, and the Doctor arrived back with a tray of tea and toast. Jack smiled lazily, switched subjects and said, "Well as long as one of us can find our way to the kitchen in the morning, I'm satisfied."
"I'm not gonna say 'Look what the cat dragged in —'" Rose began.
"— but look what the cat dragged in," Jack finished. They grinned at each other to hide the tiny worry that gnawed at both of them.
"That's right, laugh at the yob in the leather coat," the Doctor grumbled, rubbing the bridge of his nose with one hand and scrubbing at his scalp with the other. Jack didn't think he'd seen him looking quite so unhappily rumpled recently. "Fell asleep on the library sofa. I hate falling asleep when I don't plan to."
"From the looks of those satchels under your eyes, it didn't do you much good," Rose said, and her unease was closer to the surface now.
"I don't understand the readings She's giving me," Jack said, pulling himself up from under the console. "They're incredibly precise, but—"
"What's wrong with that?"
Jack shook his head, frustrated. "You're the one who knows Her best. Has She ever been precise? I mean, to the point of absolutely no room for error? I've been checking the spatial gyros for the past hour, and they've only gotten more and more finicky. No tolerances. A different kind of finicky."
The Doctor grinned, just a little. "You sound like Rose, but don't tell her I said that." He stopped and thought a moment. "A different kind of finicky, you say. Well, She hasn't bothered being particular for a long time, and I've always thought precision was an overrated charm ... still, not going to ignore it when the mechanic's got a bad feeling. What's botherin' you about this new found precision, Captain?"
"I don't know. I'm a tyro at this, and I know it — I wouldn't trust myself to touch the temporal gyros, even if you did — but the basics, the spatial mechanics, I'm getting a feel for, between you and Her telling me every time I make a mistake. And this is off-balance. It's not Her usual 'The readouts aren't going to move because I don't feel like it.' finicky. I'm used to that — sorry, sweetheart, but it's true," he broke off, speaking to the air around him. "This is different. It absolutely won't give a proper reading unless it's set in the precise spot the manual says it's supposed to go."
"Manual?" The Doctor looked up from where he was reading, his brows knit just the slightest. "Since when do we have a manual?"
"Since I went looking for it yesterday. It was on the jump seat. Didn't you leave it there for me?"
"Nope. Don't believe in 'em."
"Huh." Jack picked up the booklet next to him and flipped through its pages. After a moment, he put it down, almost gingerly. When he said nothing more, the Doctor put down his own book and walked over to the console, then squatted down to be closer to the younger man. "Let me look at that." He picked the manual up and performed the same page-ruffling Jack had, but at a faster pace. His brow knit further. "This is in 51st century Anglic. There are no TARDIS manuals in 51st century Anglic."
"Maybe she translated it to be nice to me," Jack said, sounding doubtful.
"She likes you, Captain, but no. She doesn't translate Gallifreyan."
Jack heard something in the Time Lord's voice that kept him from asking why. Instead he said, "So what is it?"
"Oh, it's a manual all right, but it looks as if it was written by some swot with control issues."
"Oh, hell." Jack looked stricken. "Have I done something—"
The Doctor shook his head. "No. Leastwise, I don't think so. I think I would have felt it."
Before Jack, ever the soldier, was able to ask if they should search for a TARDIS intruder and before the Doctor could answer with worried silence, Rose walked into the room, an armful of dead lilies clutched to her breast.
"Something's wrong with Her."
They walked through the halls behind Rose, who still carried the lilies.
No one said anything as they made their way to the garden room from which Rose had run. It took far longer than it should have; they opened doors three times on what Rose was sure would be their destination. Twice they found concrete and plastic walls. The third time the door opened on darkness, and none of them entered to see what the darkness held.
When they finally reached the right room, Rose hesitated momentarily before entering. Once she did, she carefully put down her liimp burden, then turned and spoke.
"It's one of my favorite rooms if I've been sick," she explained. "I haven't been able to shake this rubbish headache, not for days, so I thought I'd come here and relax. I've done it before. I usually just walk around, sit on the grass, smell the flowers, just soak it in. It does wonders. But today, I walked in and everything was ... well, look at it. It's all dead, Doctor. It's dead." She paid no attention to her own tears.
"Hell's half acre." Jack understood why she cried. The gardens that should have bloomed on both sides of the tiny stone walk leading from the door were lifeless. The room, a gymnasium-sized hall that he didn't doubt was gorgeous when things were as they should be, and which should have smelled of lilacs and peonies, reeked instead of dead plant matter. He looked closer and was shocked to realize that, while the bed to his left was as sere as if it had burned in a desert sun, the rows of dead blooms to his right were falling in on themselves like flood-damaged crops, soaked and rotted from the inside out.
"This is bad," the Doctor said. He knelt and tugged on a handful of old flower stalks on the dry side. They resisted slightly, then gave with the pull, coming up in a slight burst of dust and disintegration. "I had no idea ...."
That frightened Jack more than anything else.
He snarled and threw himself away from the console, panic warring with rage in his face. Rose, who hadn't left his side for hours, flinched. Jack, coming back from the kitchen with yet another tray of tea and sandwiches, schooled his face to pleasant neutrality. He'd heard the Doctor's curse, heard some tool hit the floor grill, and knew there was nothing he could do to except soothe the situation with food and try to convince the Time Lord to take a break of some sort. He knew he would probably be unsuccessful, but he couldn't let that stop him from trying.
He walked in, shot a look at Rose that plainly said 'Hang in there,' then knelt to put the tray down on the floor beside the jump seat. "I think right about now's a good time to bring us up to speed on what you know," he said mildly.
"I don't know anything!" The Doctor had begun pacing the confines of the room, a circuit that reminded his partners of nothing so much as a cage crazy leopard.
"Then tell us what you don't know, or what you've decided can't be the problem," Jack said. "You're chewing nails and spitting tacks right now; if you don't calm down, you'll be a walking staple gun."
The Doctor snorted humorlessly. "Manglin' your metaphors there, Captain."
"Probably. I've already put sugar in your tea, but you'll have to put the milk in. The sandwiches are egg mayo, because I can't stand one more tuna sandwich, and I wanted to use the eggs before they went off. Rose, do you want one or two?"
Jack's deliberately inane chatter did what he hoped it would; the Doctor rolled his eyes, but the tension in his shoulders eased slightly. He slowed, halted, and finally walked over to the jump seat, dropping bonelessly into it. He was clearly exhausted and accepted a sandwich with wordless thanks. Rose smiled gratefully at Jack as she wolfed her own down. For the next five minutes all three concentrated on refueling.
They desperately needed it.
Rose had calmed considerably over the past few hours, even as the Doctor's composure had slipped. It was partly because she had given herself something to do, telling the Doctor she would check all the areas of the TARDIS she knew for problems. He had nodded, and suggested Jack do the same; just keep in touch with each other, and with him, by mobile and communicator, he'd said, since he couldn't guarantee the TARDIS would reliably route them back to the console room. They had done just that, hearing in each other's voices a lifeline they needed more with every step they took further into the TARDIS' interior.
By the time Jack and Rose found each other, making their separate ways back from obscure halls and deep levels, Rose had been clutching her notebook with the same intensity she'd carried the lilies. It was full of observations, taken during her tour; nearly every observation was of something disturbing. When Jack hove into sight, he was fingering his recording pad and scrolling through his own lengthy list of anomalies.
They compared notes, and their mouths grew dry at what they had found; empty rooms and broken windows opening on nothing, walls bare of paintings, rotten fruit on abandoned plates, torn lace curtains and rusted iron pipes breaking through warped walls, darkened libraries with shelf after shelf of missing books, the smell of must and decay, of rancid meat and unnameable things, shadows in the corners, a low siren wailing in the lower levels, a player-piano rattling off-key in a hallway, the echoes of something crying ... it reminded them both of dreams gone bad. Neither mentioned the impression. Together they had called the Doctor, and he had guided them back.
Now they could see each other, but they still felt lost. And so Jack brought them food in lieu of comfort, and they all partook.
When they had all finished, they looked at each other. Rose sighed. "All right, Doctor. Start talking," she said.
"Don't know if anything I've got's worth saying," the Time Lord responded, clutching at his cold mug of tea with both hands. He looked at her, then at Jack, and sighed. "But you're right. We're in this together, and you should know as much as I can give you, little as it is.
"First off, my connection to Her is blocked. At first I thought She was angry about something, angry at me. We've had our differences — fights, even — and I thought perhaps She'd got the wind up for some reason. She'll block Herself from me when She's in that sort of mood. But it's worse than that. It's — no, let me start at the beginning.
"While you two were checkin' out as much of Her as you could walk, I started doin' some diagnostics. Started conservative, went with the easy system checks. I found what you did, Captain; a very efficient TARDIS, one that'll take us anywhere we want to go, when we want to go, and never get it wrong. Never." He spat it out like a curse.
"No tolerances," Jack said.
"None at all. And I'm guessin' the rooms disappearin, the gardens, Her sensory confusion — the music and voices you heard, all the odds and sods showing up or not showing up — are ... well, if She was a human I'd say it was an histaminic response, a fever."
Jack asked some more technical questions, and the conversation descended into the kind of neepery Rose didn't follow willingly. She had at least some idea of what they were talking about, having absorbed some basic understanding of tinkering vocabulary, but it was superficial at best and she rarely had helpful advice to add. Tonight she had nothing. She absently rubbed her temple; the headache was still pounding. Still, even if what she really wanted to do was flee to her room and suffer with a hot cloth and a painkiller, she knew she had to help the others solve this mystery.
"When you said She's blocking you, d'you mean you can't feel anything from Her?"
"Not a thing. Not even the slightest emotion."
Rose caught something in the way he said it. "Like a machine. You make Her sound like an ordinary machine."
The Doctor nodded, grim, and Rose frowned. "I knew it. She's felt wrong for days, maybe longer. I thought She was sick, even thought She might be giving me the headache, but I didn't know for sure 'til I saw the flowers."
He looked at her as if she'd sprouted antlers. "What?"
"Yeah. She's felt — what?"
"You feel Her?" the Doctor looked as if he was trying not to be wide-eyed. Or perhaps not to panic.
Jack wiped his mouth, put down his plate, and his eyes were very narrow. "What do you mean? Of course we feel Her."
The Time Lord went still. "For how long?"
"Since the Game Station," Jack said. Rose nodded her agreement.
The three of them held their breaths, not realizing their synchronicity, or quite why they did it.
The Doctor exhaled; once, and then again. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Jack wasn't sure who the Doctor expected to answer, but Rose spoke first, and she sounded faintly incredulous at the question. "You mean back then? There? A lot was happening, Doctor, more than I could get my head around at the time. You know that."
He acknowledged her comment with a grimace. "I know, and I'm sorry. But you're tellin' me you can feel the TARDIS."
Rose rubbed her forehead and looked a little sheepish. "Well, I guess I should've said something, asked about it later. It just felt so natural, I didn't give it a second thought."
"And it happened after you came back to the station," the Doctor prompted. "How soon after?"
"Dunno. I ... I'd come back, but really, it's all a bit of a blur beyond Mum gettin' the truck. You two were the ones who told me I got the TARDIS's attention, remember? And that was hours later."
"You're right." The Doctor looked at Jack, then back to her. Jack saw curiosity, fear and perhaps the tiniest flicker of hope, wash across the Time Lord's face.
Rose began to speak again, but stopped as the lights in the console room flickered and strobed, making her headache throb in unison. "God, I feel rotten ... why are we talking about it, Doctor? What does it have to do with the TARDIS being sick?"
"Don't know. Maybe nothing."
"Then why's it important?"
"It just is, right? So ... humor me. Tell me everything you remember."
Rose felt momentarily rebellious. "Why not ask Jack? He said he could feel Her, too."
"I know, and maybe I've got questions for him," the Doctor said impatiently. "But this starts with you."
She looked at Jack, who raised an eyebrow, but also looked expectant. He nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Alright. Uhm ... I've no real memory of getting back, so there's a gap there, and then, let's see ... you and me, Doctor, we were alone in the control room. The Daleks were gone, and I think we must have talked a while, but then I ... think I felt sick, really badly nauseated, and my head hurt. You told me it was Vortex sickness, remember?" Rose shivered slightly, looked at the Doctor and hesitated. When she resumed, the look in her eyes was unmappable.
"I remember lying on the floor. That's when you came galloping into the control room, Jack; you looked — well, anyway, you came in. I remember that — and you, Doctor, you looked like someone could have knocked you over with a feather. Uhm ... that's when I saw you walk over to Jack, kiss him, and then I was out like a light again. The next thing I know, I'm lyin' in the med bay, Jack's on the other bed and you're talking to him. The rest you know; you saw me wake up and told me about everything."
Jack licked his lips, and looked at the Doctor. "I think we could round it out a bit more for her, Doc."
"Don't — " The Time Lord stopped himself. All three of them knew that when Jack employed the disrespectful title, he was telling its recipient to Pay Attention, Damnit. "Right."
"Right, what?" The two of them looked at her, their eyes guilty, but neither spoke immediately.
Rose's temper snapped. "What? The TARDIS is falling apart around us, and you two are acting like kids caught stealing sweeties. We don't have time for this. She doesn't have time for this! So — what haven't you told me?"
(To be Continued in Chapter Two)