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FIC: Combien de Temps Chapters 1-4

Title: Combien de Temps
Chapter(s): 1-4 - Outside
Fandom: Doctor Who
Characters/Pairings: Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane.
Date Written: 2007
Summary: Good faith, bad faith, dead worlds, fake gods, and what happens when you stop believing in yourself.
Rating/Warnings: PG for some disturbing imagery.
Notes: Title translates loosely to ‘how much time’. This is my attempt at a multi-part story, with a plot, that does not tie into any existing episodes/plot holes/missing scenes. Some new series continuity later on. ALSO: This will eventually be finished. I promise.



One - Darkness and Deaf Gods

It was cold.

He was used to it by now; Cold was one of the constants, like silence and the dim half-darkness of twilight and boredom. There was no measure to time without ticking clocks or a passing sun, and there had been no clocks for a very long time, no difference in the light to indicate day passing on into night. Hundreds of years? Or thirty seconds?

An oily blackness crawled up behind his eyelids, whispering in a voice like rotted straw, instructions, unwilling truths, assurances that drank like poison. He gave in to it, falling into someplace deep and dark, a place where he could pretend to exist, pretend that he had breath to stir the dust motes or a beating heart to break the silence.

This was all very normal, very regular, the clockwork of his existence, now. This was, he supposed, what it meant to be dead.

.o.

An explosion from the center console ripped the Doctor’s veneer of false confidence to shreds as the room pitched and bucked, the lights failing and sparks running along the controls everywhere he touched them, chasing him around the console as he struggled to find the right button or switch, to route around the problem or initiate an emergency landing or just bloody something, anything to get them out of immediate danger, deal with the consequences later…

“I suppose,” he said loudly, over the din of combusting circuitry and alarms and the faraway tolling of cloister bells, “I should have said that I had the situation mostly under control.”

Sarah clung to one edge of the console, white-knuckled in the flickering lights, and there was not a trace of even the driest, blackest humor on her face. “We’re going to crash. Probably die. And your jokes are getting worse.”

“Crash and die, nonsense. Come now, do have a little faith in me,” the Doctor chided, ducking around and reaching across in front of her to pull another switch, then three buttons in quick sequence. He moved on away from her to reach to a bank of levers just under one edge of the console - moving fast, faster than she’d ever seen him. He wasn’t laughing at the joke either.

There was no response – just a breath-holding moment, Sarah tightening her grip on the console and pressing her eyes shut, the Doctor still in a furious blur of motion around the console, hitting controls at complete random now, frantic and lost for options –

And the TARDIS settled out of the vortex and onto dry land with an anticlimactic, if wrenching, thud. A moment of tentative, hopeful silence – then the controls under the Doctor’s stilled hands exploded.

.o.

There was a noise suddenly, from Outside, and it drew him back to the surface of consciousness like a rusty hook on a rusty cable, grinding its way through the muck with explosive insistence and leaving him blinking and confused in the shimmering half-light of his waking world.

The voice that came was the kinder one, the one that sounded like warm honey seeping between the cracks and crevasses of his brain. Wake up, it said. There are people coming. If they find you, you’ll have to start over. You’ll have to start the pattern again, from the beginning. Do you think you could do that?

That made no sense. People couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see them – they came and went all day, walked through him and around him with a chill of presence but no physical signs of passing. People couldn’t find him unless… unless they were dead, too. Maybe that was it. Maybe they were others like himself, come to steal away his mind and his progress, to get a head start on the peace that he knew wasn’t far away now, not long now, and they couldn’t take it from him, not this close to the end. It wasn’t fair.

No, the voice said. It isn’t fair. You might have to strike first, to protect what’s yours.

He shivered in the cold, and waited.

.o.

He kept a fire extinguisher on board. Sarah ran that thought over and over in her mind, but it somehow refused to take root. She’d never seen the console on fire like that, didn’t realize metal could burn, was completely unprepared for the smell of something very much not-metal burning just under the shining surfaces to hit her in the face only seconds after they’d managed to land. Something alive, and screaming, as it burned.

The Doctor didn’t say a word as she doubled over on the decking, body heaving with revulsion for all that she’d had no breakfast this morning for it to bring up – just made sure the fire was out, set aside the spent extinguisher, and folded himself to perch on the balls of his feet next to her, one hand settling on her back.

He kept a fire extinguisher on board, and handy. This had happened before. She almost wanted to laugh, breath hitching around her stomach’s betrayal in something like a strangled sob. What was that smell? Could it really be what she thought it was?

“We’re all right, Sarah,” he finally said, hand rubbing small circles on her back, supportive and soothing. “Just breathe.”

“Don’t want to,” she managed to choke out. “It’s like… something dying.”

The Doctor tilted his head up to regard the darkened room, sparks jumping sporadically from one control to another, faint lights blinking out diagnostic patterns as the ship began piecing itself back together. The light from the time rotor reflected eerily in strained and empty eyes, when she dared to glance up at him. He looked like he was listening to some faraway voice that she couldn’t hope to hear.

“No, she’s not dying,” he finally replied, eyes still fixed on the room around them. “Not in good shape, by a long shot. But not dying, I made sure of that.” A forced smile, all teeth and uncertainty, as he looked back down to Sarah. “I do occasionally live up to my name, you know.”

“What happened?”

The Doctor frowned, thoughtful. “Well obviously we’ve…” Another glance around the room, then he pushed one hand into his hair, as if shocked and disconcerted by some realization. And he was. “…you know, I don’t honestly know.”

Sarah did laugh that time, a harsh, short bark of absurdism and weariness as her bearings came back to her. “Let me guess. Only one way to find out?”

He nodded, hesitantly, curly hair bobbing round his head. Sarah could swear it was singed in places. “Something reached into the vortex and tripped us into falling through time. Personal motivations aside…” And they were hard to put aside, as he glanced around the room again, at the chaos and the damage and his poor beautiful ship hanging onto life only because he’d been just fast enough with that extinguisher. “…Anyone with that sort of technology and a tendency to be that terribly impolite about it really does need to be stopped.” Eyes narrowed in second though. “Or at least talked to.”

“Sure,” she said, rocking back onto her heels and pulling herself to stand; he followed her with considerably less effort. Her voice was rife with sarcasm, but it was playful, and that was a good sign. “Let’s just sit them down for tea. Ask them politely why they tried to kill us. That ought to work wonders.”

.o.

No, the ragged straw-voice insisted, the sound echoing in empty spaces. This is right. You don’t deserve peace any more than the others did. They’re coming to take away something you never earned. You should let them. It might redeem you.

Hasn’t he earned it? asked the honey-voice, petulant suddenly, seeping out one of his ears to drip heavily into the gravel, make it shimmer with gold. If he had ears anymore. He didn’t, he thought. They had to be somewhere in orbit by now. Haven’t we held him here long enough?

No. No, we haven’t.

.o.

“All right then, where are we? Or do we not know?”

The Doctor shook his head, standing over the scorched and silent console. “We don’t know,” he conceded grumpily, pressing a few buttons with no useful result. “The radiation and atmospheric sensors are passive, thankfully. So we do know that stepping out the door won’t kill us.”

Sarah turned to eye the doors in question, unused to seeing the white and metal-bright room in such darkness. Flick of the switch and they came open on their own. “Wait,” she said, hesitating. “Shouldn’t we fix the TARDIS first?”

The Doctor was already halfway to the door, pulling his hat from the miraculously still-upright coat stand. “She’ll fix herself, given enough time. The damage is too far into the organics; nothing for it but to let her heal. Come on,” he said, grinning widely under the brim of his hat. “New world to explore.”

“Mad scientist and/or petty tyrant and/or old enemy to topple,” she added cheerily as she joined him, composure much improved now that the console room had ceased smelling like a charnel house.

Too bad that that was exactly what the landscape looked like, when they stepped out into it.

*

Two - Into the Aftermath

The Doctor figured, when he had time enough to think about it on the odd day that wasn’t spent foiling alien invasions or running from bobble-headed monsters, that he’d seen an awful lot of things. That being the point of traveling, it wasn’t exactly surprising – but his journal had filled up shockingly fast and generally speaking, if it existed, he’d seen it. That still left room for surprise with the things that didn’t actually exist and, in a 26-dimensional universe in a state of constant temporal flux, those were more common than a person might think.

Some of his carefully catalogued memories and scribbles were wonderful, brilliant, life-affirming and stupendous. Marvelous. Fantastic - and it really did say a lot about a people that their language contained hundreds of words just to express various minutely different connotations of ‘good’. Such a positive people on the whole, humans.

But there were hundreds of words for ‘bad’ too, and some of the things he’d seen had been simply dreadful. Dying stars, planets at war, cultist murders, power plays with entire populations as bargaining chips. Nestene. Cybermen. One genocidal Dalek invasion after another. He’d seen a lot.

Nothing like this, though.

He felt rather than saw Sarah pull herself closer in to him, grab a loose hold on his jacket; he put his arm over her shoulder, holding on reassuringly. “Terribly impolite indeed,” he breathed quietly into the carnage, both of them rooted to the spot.

It would have been a beautiful planet, all other things being equal. Violet-blue sky without a trace of pollution, the sun young and hot and impudent as it chased the horizon. No clouds. The air hung still and stagnant, unshifting over the cracked red sand. No plants, no insects, no animals – a brilliant sort of desolation.

But all other things were not equal.

Around them, amongst the wreckage of buildings and vehicles and the pitted, torn up concrete of some sort of road system, metal girders and signposts twisted beyond recognition, everything blackened and scorched, were bodies. A lot of bodies. Humanoid, vaguely reptilian, ash white and frozen in positions of terror and pain, twisted and contorted where they’d fallen. Piled to the horizon. Intact.

“This just happened,” Sarah muttered to herself, morbid fascination preventing her from looking away. Something that sounded like common sense started whispering in the back of her mind – Danger, it said.

The Doctor just shook his head, in sadness or argument, then broke away from her, kneeling to examine one of the bodies.

Sarah did look away then, out of some strange mishmash of nerves and respect and aversion to the ghoulishness of getting close to corpses. “We got here too late,” she muttered, pushing her hands into the pockets of her short jacket. They were words usually associated with shock and panic but she had neither; she was just stating a fact. If they’d gotten here a little sooner, they could have stopped this. They always got there in time to prevent these sorts of things – what’s the point otherwise? Picking up the pieces? Who would it matter to, on a planet full of dead?

“No,” the doctor replied, quiet, glancing up to Sarah and catching something of that guilt creeping out the corners of her averted eyes. “No, this was a long time ago.”

She took and held a breath, then looked down to the body nearest them. Almost looked like it was sleeping, if not for the rivulets of violet-red blood dried in their paths, from nose and ears and the corners of the wide, horrified eyes. Danger, you’re in danger. Run. Sarah shook her head, dislodging the errant thought. “But they haven’t… broken down.”

He turned his head back to the body, curls bobbing strangely in the thin and still air. Surprisingly gentle hands turned the head from side to side, looking for other injuries. Signs of trauma; an explanation. There’s nothing there. A frustrated scowl. “No, they haven’t.”

He didn’t understand and he didn’t like that, and he was looking for input – some brilliantly simple thing she’d say that would make it all make sense - but Sarah wasn’t really listening, eyes losing focus subtly. Listening to another voice, one that seemed suddenly, terribly important. You’ll die. He’ll die. You have to leave.

“Which, well, that is admittedly odd.”

You’re going to die.

“But I think something other than time – or lack thereof – is at work here. Sarah, are you all right?”

Everyone here dies.

Sarah. Are you listening?”

The sharpness of the tone broke through, and Sarah started, turning to look at the Doctor through the still and silent air. “Sorry, I was… just distracted. This place would be creepy even if not for…” she glanced around and trailed off, not needing to specify. “This is horrible. There’s dozens of them…”

He nodded, agreeing without a word to it. “Hundreds, I’d say. Thousands even. But as I was saying, I think there’s another reason they haven’t decomposed. It isn’t simply time delay. Look at the edges of these walls, here,” he explained, standing up and walking alongside the stone structure, running one hand softly over the uneven edge, obviously broken off in whatever catastrophe caused the rest of this. Explanation and distraction, all in one convenient package. “It’s smooth. Wind erosion.”

“But that would take thousands of years.”

“Exactly,” the Doctor said with a half-smile – the most anyone could muster, surrounded by a city of dead. “That’s why I like you, Sarah Jane. You don’t miss a thing. Come on, let’s find somewhere less disturbing to think.”

There was nothing she wanted so much in the world, and they walked, trying to escape the massacre in evidence all around them – but everywhere they turned were more dead, more stone-white corpses crying silent, violet tears. Sarah shuddered away from the sight of them, settling for watching her feet instead, as they walked. Once, she glanced up at the Doctor, his expression set somewhere between curiosity and revulsion. That whispering voice, that warning and panicked impulse snaked its way back into her head then, faint and growing fainter, promising retreat - for now - but with a parting thought.

Everyone here dies. Do you want to see him dead?

.o.

The dead the dead the walking dead the stealing and cheating and –

One. Seven. Sixty-two.

- They’re coming to take this from you and then you will be lost, set adrift among the stars and the fire and the thorns and crying in the dark and you will never be able to come back -

Twenty-five. Three. Blue red blue blue yellow.

- You think you’ve known pain but you will know blood and screams like you never have before -

The panicked voice rose in volume, threatening to drown out the pattern. He increased his speed, chanting as if in a spell, numbers and colors and angles and positions and so many dimensions and it was like math but it was so much more beautiful. In his head he saw the pieces slotting into place, glowing threads of connection between them, wonderful beautiful symmetry and it was the picture of Everything, but the One who Panicked wouldn’t let him enjoy it.

He was not allowed to question.

But he was free to resent.

*

Three - Thistle in the Garden

He could see himself and hear himself where no one else could, and everything else was a logical leap from there.

He didn’t open his eyes often (you don’t have eyes) but when he did (‘when’ is pointless if time doesn’t pass) he could see the pattern outside as he saw it inside, an immense and beautiful fractal of everything-that-is in shimmering white and color and darkness. They could still speak to him, when his eyes were open (You don’t have eyes, they whispered) but there was a sense of distance, as if he were hearing them down a long and ancient tunnel, a weathered and battered string with tin cans on either end. Letting in the world outside his mind quieted the chaos, but they raged and writhed and burned when he did it. It wasn’t a common indulgence.

But it let him enjoy the pattern, without their honey and venom and panic distracting him. And that was worth the occasional bit of divine correction, wasn’t it?

In the next instant, there was a noise from outside, a shuffling of feet. A murmur of voices, muffled by the layers of air physically between them, reaching his mind as if through wet cotton. The voices inside him, crystal clear by comparison, screamed for attention.

His eyes snapped shut.

.o.

“That’s odd,” Sarah said, pointing about fifty feet ahead of them, picking carefully between the rocks and bits of metal and chunks of torn-up concrete. She’d long since given up staring at her feet as she walked, though she still tried to let her eyes slip off of the piled bodies they still hadn’t managed to get away from, let her vision roll away and on to the more practical things without taking the carnage in.

She was getting better at it. “One house, still standing in all of this rubble? What are the odds of that?”

“Not good,” the Doctor agreed, expression casually thoughtful as he regarded the structure, then glanced at what was left of the building next to it, a blackened pile of stone and metal. “The burn patterns everywhere else would seem to indicate a massive firestorm, or a charged wave. One house couldn’t…” he trailed off, narrowing his eyes, then reached up to settle his hat more securely on his head. Glanced to Sarah with an obviously forced smile. “Two unexplainable things instead of one. It’s just a wild guess, but I’d say they were related. Come on.”

.o.

They’re coming, said the One who Panics, voice skidding around in his mind as if trying desperately to escape. They’ll ruin everything and oh… oh how you will cry then, how you will bleed…

The other two voices had names, Virya seeping into his thoughts on honey-gold tendrils of twisted comfort, Sardi raking claws of wind-rustled grass across the back of his eyes, (you don’t have eyes) but the One who Panics had never stilled long enough in his mind for introductions to be made, its presence like a wisp of burning smoke, always drifting away.

(…and those names felt familiar, so familiar sometimes but it was always on the tip of his brain, ready to slip off into infinity if he reached to hard to grab hold of it…)

They’re coming.

.o.

She meant to follow him, curiosity flaring, almost drowning out her revulsion at the scene around them – almost. But she’d only gotten three steps when the voice from earlier returned, quietly but building, Danger... Danger, danger, DANGER, rolling along faster and louder and it was like a freight train bearing down on her, the noise coming from everywhere at once as she stumbled after him, hands pressed sharply to her head.

Death, everywhere death and destruction and danger and danger and danger...

Sarah drilled the tips of her fingers into her temples, willing the voice to stop, to go away, to leave her be.

He will die and you will die.

Ahead of her, the Doctor struggled up the broken stone path to the house, mindful of degraded rock’s tendency to slip and give. Every noise he made, every pebble he sent skittering down the path, seemed unnaturally loud to her pounding head.

It will HURT.

Sarah followed him up the path, careless and heedless of the treacherous footing, moving faster than she should in the circumstances – trying to run away from the roar of panic and fear eating up her perception. Distantly, she saw him put a hand to the knob of the door and the second that contact was made, like a circuit completed, the warning voice redoubled in intensity, fairly screaming at her now, DANGER DANGER DANGER DO YOU WANT TO DIE YOU WILL YOU WILL YOU WILL...

She stumbled into the Doctor where he’d halted at the door, overwhelmed beyond any sense of location; he turned to her, concerned. The voices cut out, let her eyes focus again. And he was concerned, and his expression was uneasy and disturbed and determined and just that little bit mad, but there was nothing there to indicate that he was in any way aware of the orange-red blood running in haphazard trails from the corners of his wide blue eyes.

Sarah bit back a scream.

.o.

Sardi was laughing inside his mind, the sound like wind and desolation and fallow, diseased fields. It seems that you win, he said, though he wasn’t directly addressing the mind they held residence in. Virya, most likely. The infighting had gotten worse, these last few decades. Our pet is very talented.

.o.

Sarah stumbled backwards, hands flying to her own face, half terrified for herself, half unwilling to see what she knew (I told you so) was going to happen (He will bleed and he will drop and he will move no more), and the path really was more uneven and dangerous than it looked. She started to fall.

And the Doctor was there suddenly, hands on her shoulders, steadying her in place. She blinked and looked up at him looking down at her, concern now elevated to active worry, the brim of his hat slipped back too far from the sudden movement of catching her fall. Of the blood, there was no trace, as if it’d never been. “Sarah. Something’s wrong.” Not even bothering with the question this time. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. Nothing was wrong. She wasn’t losing her mind or anything. Couldn’t have that.

He studied her for a moment. He wasn’t buying it. Softly: “You just barreled into me, in a panic, then nearly screamed when I turned around. Call it vain but I don’t think I’m quite that monstrous looking. What’s going on?”

…She’d seen him pick up cuts and scratches before but never like that, never so much blood…

“Nothing’s going on,” she said, with no resolve whatsoever. Trying to convince herself, and completely transparent. Prideful, though.

The Doctor nodded, slightly exaggerated. “Ah.” A few feet back up the path, the door still beckoned, unopened from the last attempt. “Well then, if it’s all right with you, I think we should go inside and see if we can’t find out what happened here.” The suggestion came slowly, giving her ample opportunity to protest - just about asking her to.

She didn’t. So a second and a half; a turn and three steps. His hand, only a few inches from the doorknob.

…The way the blood had just run, clinging to his face and twisting his concern into something blank and gruesome…

“No, don’t,” she interrupted sharply, nearly in a panic again. She took the steps needed to catch up at a run, hand flying to still his arm. “It’s not all right. I think we’re in danger here.”

The Doctor looked sideways at her, mouth curling into a smile. “Of course we are. It’s no fun otherwise.”

A shake of her head, distracted. Not like that, not the usual day-to-day business of being chased around by purple blobs with laser guns. More than that. Sarah looked up at him, willing him to understand. She didn’t want to have to say this out loud – he’d think she was cracking under the pressure, that after how much time they’d spent traveling, she’d finally lost what it took to do this.

He wasn’t helping, just looking back at her curiously. She could still see the blood, if she let her eyes unfocus.

“No,” she finally said, exasperated. Priorities. So he’d think her mad, fine. If it saved both their lives, that was a fair price. “Ever since we got here, I’ve been hearing a voice. Telling me how much danger we're in. How we're both going to die. When you turned around up there, you looked like…”

His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing, waiting for her to finish.

“… like them. Like the bodies. All… bloody.”

The Doctor blinked in surprise, ran one hand over his face. It came away clean. No real danger then, at least, but if it’d been a hallucination… “Not anymore?”

“No, just for a moment.”

He looked at her sharply then, partly sympathetic, partly just taken aback, but there was some irritation mixed in there too. “Why didn’t you say so earlier, about the voices?”

Hands ran through dark, disheveled hair, and Sarah made a short and frustrated noise, grinning painfully in self-conscious embarrassment. “Because I thought I was going mad! And I thought you’d…”

The Doctor sighed loudly, reaching one arm out to gather around her shoulders, anticipating and effectively cutting her off. “Think you were mad, too? Never, Sarah. What I’d be likely to think, in all honestly,” and a smile lit up here, toothy and sly. “…is that there’s some sort of psychic warding signal in the vicinity.”

.o.

Or not, came the triumphant snicker. Virya did not respond; too busy throwing a minor tantrum, kicking round the corners of his mind. The One who Panics fell into a litany of blood and fear and it pounded in on him, straining the logical confines of the pattern itself. He shielded it as best he could, but he didn’t know what else to do; he could not defy them outright and if any of them – even the irrational and unthinking babbler of street corner doomsday stories – felt it was right that the pattern be destroyed and he start over, that was what was to be.

When they come in here, Virya finally said, having pulled herself together enough to sound warm and golden again, trustworthy, so very trustworthy. They will have Searchers’ eyes. If they find you, you will need to destroy them. Can you do that?

In the darkness, somewhere behind his eyes (You don’t have eyes), he nodded.

*

Four - Disappear

The Doctor sat on the edge of a broken piece of rock, fingers rubbing lightly at his temples as if to take the edge off a tension headache, expression locked in concentration. “Drop them just enough,” he muttered, “Enough to see, and...”

Here in the dark, hiding in the warp and weft, alone for so long among the dead and dreaming –

This is not your place, it is ours, we keep the web and the web brings only pain –

A hundred hours, a hundred years and the wind is ours and it shapes this world –

Stay away! Only death waits for you here, death for those you care for, death for you and it will hurt –

He winced, expression creasing into something approaching fear. Anxiety. A few separate overlapping voices, he observed objectively, trying to keep his own out of the mix, trying to maintain distance. He felt himself stumble, rushed to bring his mental shields back up – came free from the signal’s grip with a start.

Sarah sat on a stone across from him, massaging her own forehead. Now that she knew what the voice was, she seemed better able to block out its effects on her emotional state – ignore it, like you would the jibing of a bully whose tricks had grown old. “So,” she said, watching him blink back to awareness. “What’s the verdict? Am I going mad?”

“Not at all.” The Doctor shook his head lightly, the words still running around his head, clinging with unexpected tenacity. Without external reinforcement, they’d fade, but in the meantime, it was an irritant. His eyes lifted to meet Sarah’s, suddenly very bright and sharp and insistent. “How many voices do you hear?”

The sun was getting high, and for all the city ruins and refuse of life once lived here, this place was still essentially a desert. Sarah rubbed a hand over the back of her neck. “Just the one.”

A thoughtful frown. “Rambling on about death and danger you said. Hmm.” He drummed his fingers on a knee for a moment, then reached to pull his hat free. Getting warm, yes, even for him. “And would you say,” he asked, gesturing with the hat-hand vaguely in Sarah’s direction, “That it was speaking in complete thoughts, or more just disjointed nonsense?”

“You’re one to talk about speaking in disjointed nonsense,” A teasing grin, halfway at least, best she can manage in the circumstances. “It was, though. All over the place really. I’d say it needs to get its head on straight, except it hasn’t got one. Why, were you getting complete sentences?”

-the dark, hiding in the warp and weft-

He shook himself again. Very sticky thoughts, all covered in barbs and hooks. Latching on. “Yes, very eloquent. Almost poetic in places. And not all of it aimed at keeping us away, I’d say, since only the one voice was blatantly a warning. The rest were more like… background noise.”

-the wind is ours and it shapes this world, shapes it to our design and when the design is complete-

The Doctor blinked, then stood up in a rush. That was… unusual. Clinging, lingering thoughts after a mental contact, that was one thing. But that one continued beyond where he’d cut it off. The voices were still finding a way in - he’d sprung a leak. Not a comforting thought.

Sarah stood up too, still holding her head with one hand, but no longer so disoriented, unlikely to break into a panic. “Why am I getting it in fragments then?” she asked, taking a tentative step back up the path, towards the intact building once again.

“Resonance field. It’s a clever way to set it up, terribly efficient, but not without faults – someone with stronger inherent psychic ability will get better reception, but is also more likely to have active shielding.” He tapped the side of his head lightly, then replaced the hat. “You only heard a voice - without shields, I’d probably be a wobbling wreck of...” Blink. “...what’s something that wobbles?”

“Jelly?” Sarah supplied helpfully.

The Doctor looked at her narrowly, humor dancing just behind the reproach. “Well yes, of course jelly. I was hoping for something a little more esoteric.”

“Sorry,” she said, tone at once sharp and affectionate. “Next time I’m called on to come up with ‘something that wobbles’ to adequately describe your theoretical mental state, I’ll try to be more creative.”

The Doctor didn’t reply. Words – words in voices that weren’t his – snaked through his mind, reminding him in uncomfortable clarity that his shields weren’t what they had once been. He didn’t say a word about it, reaching for the doorknob.

.o.

A sound. A door opening? He wasn’t exactly sure; it’d been so long since he’d heard anything like it. There was an inrush of light to his senses, like the sun falling over closed eyes (eyes?) and the voices inside went dead silent. Even the panicked babbling trailed off, waiting. Expecting.

He supposed he was sitting, in some abstract, mental-projection sort of way. He didn’t move, as the voices from outside became clearer, whispered syllables dropping heavily into the dust and shadows.

They were nervous, unsure. Treading carefully. Virya was right, he realized. They were coming for him.

.o.

They were both half-expecting some new display of dramatics or cracked hallucinations when the Doctor eased the door open on old and rusted hinges, but there was nothing – just silence, as the voices seemed to retreat back into their cracks and crevasses. Hiding.

There was definitely something hiding here.

Shadows enough to conceal it, too. Dust in incredible volume. No bodies in here, which made for a nice break, all things considered. The Doctor treaded in carefully, quiet – it made no sense, after the ruckus the door had made, but there was a deep intuition at work here. Sarah followed his lead, silent.

Grey was the best word he could think of to describe this place – not simply dark or shadowed, but desaturated. Murky. Hard to focus through, with no contrasty edges for the eyes to lock onto. Still, he looked – first from their position by the door and then, as they took a few more steps into the room, more thoroughly. There was a tremendously expectant feeling, as if the room itself were holding its breath.

.o.

They’re going to find you, came the Panic, squeaking out like the first few drops of water from a dam’s faint faultline. The others were fast, so very fast, papering over the hole and silencing their cohort with a cooperation and efficiency he’d never seen in them – perhaps silence was one path to many outcomes, or perhaps they were merely as frustrated with that extra, irrational voice as he was.

... he wasn’t. Not allowed to be.

They didn’t notice the slip.

He felt a hum starting to build in the back of his mind, quiet but getting louder. It felt like the first time, when he’d vanished - when he’d died. He’d become invisible and so everyone else had disappeared to him and that was fine, that was how he’d come to understand it. But why was it happening again?

It felt like a great and terrible power, slipping dangerously into a runaway condition. It felt like being alive, consciousness riding just back behind the eyes again(you DO NOT have eyes) like it used to, such a long time ago. It felt like so many things it couldn’t possibly be.

He felt the Others, stepping through the room. Heard them, their voices hushed and nonsensical, gibberish. Twenty feet away.

.o.

The Doctor paused mid-step, a chilled, buzzing feeling working its way up his spine, collecting ominously at the base of his skull. “Do you feel that?” A whisper, towards Sarah, still too loud. Far too loud.

She glanced over to him. “No... what is it? The voice has stopped...”

He winced at her voice, regretting having asked the second after he did so, still under a strange compulsion to minimize the noise of their presence. A gesture with his hand for her to be silent. Thirty seconds, counted out in his head in perfect precision, and they didn’t move.

Then, slowly, he gazed around the room- and found his eyes drawn, over and over again, to the far corner. There was nothing there that he could really see, but...

He gestured Sarah closer, so that he could risk a whisper. She was holding up surprisingly well, given how disturbing this place had been so far – but then, might be he was only ready to jump out of his skin due to feeling like a lightning rod in an electrical storm. What was that humming? “Corner over there. Do you see anything?”

Quietly, “No. Just some scraps, and wood. But it feels like...”

The prompt was instantaneous: “Like what?”

“Like I should be seeing something there, but it’s just... absent.”

Otherwise completely still, the Doctor raised one hand to her shoulder. “Noticing the absence. That sounds about right - some sort of perception field. Sarah, stay here.”

.o.

Virya’s voice was quiet, when it came – but he was immediately stronger, more coherent, ready to do whatever it was she asked. So much easier than making his own choices. So much easier to sit and do their work, and feel loved – or at least needed.

So much easier to believe in something he knew existed, rather than trying to summon up belief in himself.

So much easier to not be alone.

These feelings came in a rush, simple, uncomplicated, every time they left him and then returned. They took advantage of it, and he knew that. He didn’t really care. All he cared about was the pattern. So when Virya came to him, quietly, and told him it was time to make the Others disappear, his only question was whether he’d be allowed to go back to working on it once this was over.

Yes. You will.

That was good.

.o.

One step towards the corner, another. Quiet, and cautious, the Doctor left Sarah back in the middle of the room, confident now that there were no mundane monsters waiting to spring out on her from behind ruined furniture and draperies. The threat was there, in front of him.

The buzzing was getting stronger now, becoming decidedly uncomfortable. It was familiar, but he couldn’t place it, and it was a very real hindrance, constricting his breath and fogging the back of his mind where all the important leaps of intuition were made.

He hunkered down just in front of the corner of the room, squinting into the empty space, thinking.

And realized, too late, exactly how apt the lightning rod metaphor had been.

.o.

Now, soothed the kindest of his gods. Do it now.

His eyes snapped open.

.o.

For just a second, they caught a flickering glimpse of a small, reptilian being hunched over itself, curled into the corner, eyes wide open and empty and endless.

Then the world went white.

*

---->Chapters 5-7

*

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