There was something admittedly interesting about trying to outwit someone who knew exactly what you were going to do. ‘Interesting’ not meaning truly interesting, really, but terrifying. Impossible, maybe. Well, impossible, almost definitely. More accurately: impossible, completely and utterly, with no way out of its inevitableness. It was a cold and undeniable fact that survival was just genuinely not an option.
He had yet to tell Zoe and Jamie, and he was going through the motions of a normal adventure, the ‘but what if we did this’s and the ‘you know what we haven’t tried?’s, and it just felt like he was stalling. Stalling, though, was something for his brain to work on, rather than having to actually face it.
He tried to be present and he tried to be grounded. Five things he could see, four things he could feel, and so on. He couldn’t afford not to be there with them, because who knew how many minutes they had left.
“Which is just why I’m wondering about that computer,” Zoe was saying, in the middle of a rushed rant about statistical probability. “Events happen in so many different fashions, in so many different orders and with so many different patterns of cause and effect it seems impossible that it would predict everything with complete accuracy. It can’t possibly have gotten enough data. You couldn’t ever get enough data, could you? There are infinite possibilities of how every event plays out, and to factor those for every single event, it’s just…” She shook her head. “There’s no way. Is there, Doctor?”
“Oh, well, the marvels of technology…” He didn’t have anything else to say. “I don’t know, Zoe. I’m not sure.”
“Well, I am,” she said. “It’s logically impossible.”
He wanted to say that no matter how illogical it was, it wasn’t impossible, because it was happening. He didn’t say anything.
“Here’s a thought-” Jamie said, half raising a hand like he was asking a question in a class before letting it fall back to his hip. “What happens if we… you know.”
“Actually, I really don’t,” Zoe replied, pulling a bit of a face at him.
The Doctor did know, though. Jamie was suggesting they kill Iolas. “I can’t see us getting close,” he replied. “He knows exactly what we’re going to do, remember? If we tried, he’d know, and he’d stop us before we had a chance.”
“Then I’m a bit confused about what we’re supposed to do,” Jamie half yelled. “Are we meant to just sit here and-”
“No, Jamie, don’t you understand?” In any other situation he’d feel bad for snapping, but he couldn’t find it in him now. “There is nothing we can do that he doesn’t already know! There are no options anymore! What Zoe was saying, about different patterns, do you-”
Zoe looked nervous. “Doctor-”
“There’s just one now,” the Doctor continued. “There’s one pattern, and what we think is a brilliant escape plan or a new idea is actually just part of that pattern.”
Zoe frowned. “But that’s not…”
“Right, no, I get that,” Jamie said. “So how’re we going to get out?”
Oh, this was brutal. Before the Doctor could say anything, Zoe shook her head.
“No, by that reasoning we’re not going to get out,” she said slowly.
Jamie nodded. “My question is- what’s the plan?”
“Find out how much time we have left and use it up, I suppose,” the Doctor answered, and felt awful, because Jamie’d expected a clever trick and a way out. Once he’d said it the words just hung there between them.
Zoe looked, if anything, angry.
“There’s got to be another way, though,” Jamie said. “There must be something we can-"
“Jamie, Jamie, don’t,” the Doctor said quietly.
Zoe turned and started walking away, further back into the TARDIS. “You’re wrong,” she said, pausing at the doorframe that led out of the console room and to the innards of the ship. “I’m going to the lab, and I’m going to prove you’re wrong. That computer, that Predicticon, it can't guess everything.”
“Zoe, please,” the Doctor said, and he was trying not to let on how upset he was, but he always let on everything. “Don’t waste time, the computer-“
“The computer didn’t count on me,” Zoe said firmly, and left the two of them in the console room to race to the lab.
After a while’s silence in which he stood there and stared at nothing, Jamie said, “She’s wrong, isn’t she.”
The Doctor looked down, and he nodded.
“How much time have we got left?”
“Iolas said four hours, but we wasted most of it trying to get away, I believe,” the Doctor answered. “Maybe half an hour?”
“Right.” Jamie was looking at him.
The Doctor didn’t understand that; he felt like if he actually looked at Jamie he’d fall apart. “Jamie, I’m-“
“When did you figure it out?”Jamie asked. He walked over to the wall and sat down, leaning back against it.
“About an hour in,” he replied, truthfully. He hadn’t done the maths out in his head or anything, and it hadn’t been a big realization in that sense. He and the rest of his people had an ability to see timelines. Usually there were almost infinite amounts of them branching off of each event. You could respond to a question in any number of ways and each response created a different timeline. He had them going all the time, in the corner of his eye, and since landing here, possible timelines had been flickering out, one by one, like lights being shut off. Now, for the first time in his life, he was living his only possible timeline. He could just see one solitary thread, and it wasn’t very long.
“Do you want to sit?” Jamie offered. He didn’t seem upset. It probably hadn’t really landed with him yet.
“Oh, alright.” The Doctor sat down next to him and looked out at the console in front of them. Useless, now, but it had been a good ship. It still was a good ship, at least for another twenty minutes or however long it was.
“We’ll go and fetch Zoe in a minute, then,” Jamie said, and it seemed more like thinking out loud than anything else.
The Doctor wasn’t quite sure if he was meant to respond or not, so he said, “Jamie, I’m so sorry.”
Jamie looked over at him. “What for?”
“I brought you here. I’ve killed you, I’ve killed you and Zoe both.” The ‘it’s my fault’ caught in his throat, and he couldn’t bring himself to keep talking.
“I don’t mind,” Jamie said, after a minute. “I think I was going to die anyway, I really… I wasn’t going to survive that war.” He shrugged. “You gave me a few extra years, I reckon. So this is alright.”
“But…” But it wasn’t alright. There was this sort of tension in the Doctor’s chest, a tightness in his throat, his whole body reminding him that not only would everything be gone, but Zoe and Jamie would be gone too, and it was his fault, and there’d been so many things he’d wanted to show them and so many places to go and even so many things he should have said that he simply didn’t have time for now. He’d put things off - he’d live for a thousand years, he could afford to do it tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that - and now, how much time was left? Twenty minutes? Twenty minutes was nothing. Twenty minutes was nothing .
And they couldn’t even leave. He’d never get to bring Zoe to that planet that was one big science museum, that had kept getting pushed to the bottom of his list for whatever reason. Jamie loved watching the ocean- he’d never get to take him to see one of those planets with true, wild open oceans. They wouldn’t even get to go somewhere beautiful to say goodbye.
They were just stuck, and it was so unfair, and it was so- agonizing. He had half a mind to cry.
“Hey, Doctor, before we- I do want to say thank you,” Jamie said. “For taking me with you.” He moved a little closer, just so their shoulders were touching; contact was a very routine, go-to comfort for them. “And- it’s okay.”
“It really isn’t, Jamie,” he murmured, folding his hands in his lap. “I’ve never not had a way out before.”
“Better knowing than not knowing, though, isn’t it?”
“How?” To him, knowing made it worse. It put a countdown on it, and he knew how much time they were wasting and how much they had left and there was nothing worse than that.
The Doctor didn’t know, which was out of the ordinary. Usually, when Jamie said that, he knew instantly. He brushed his fingers along the back of Jamie’s hand, and got Jamie’s meaning psychically at the same time as Jamie said it out loud: we get to say goodbye.
“We get to say goodbye,” Jamie said with a little shrug.
Hearing it through two channels at once was a bit too much, and he closed his eyes and tried to settle himself. The thing was, he didn’t want to say goodbye. Saying goodbye was unfathomable, for him. What was there to say? That he was sorry? Was there even a way to say goodbye that wasn’t saying sorry? If there was, he couldn’t think of it, and certainly not in twenty minutes.
“Should we go and get Zoe?”
“Yes, we should.” The Doctor took the hand Jamie offered and let Jamie pull him to his feet.
They walked through the ship in silence, Jamie keeping a hand on the Doctor’s shoulder. When they reached the lab room, they both stopped, watching Zoe but not knowing exactly what to do or how to do it.
She had her back to them, and she was scrawling equations frantically on one of the large chalkboards against the wall.
The lab was huge, because when he’d first stolen the ship this sort of research was important to him. Long tables covered in equipment ran the length of it, and the parts of the walls that weren’t taken up with chalkboards were hidden behind large cabinets, holding vials of every chemical one could possibly want. He hadn’t been in here nearly at all in this body. In his first one, it was where he’d spent most of his time, but now research didn’t mean much to him. People did; that was the tradeoff.
The chalk screeched as Zoe drew a sharp line through one of her equations and started again, and a closer look at the board showed that almost all her work was crossed out. Her shoulders were shaking slightly, and although her sobbing was mostly inaudible, the occasional little whimper or gasp escaped her clenched teeth.
She crossed out another equation, and then dropped the stick of chalk, seemingly accidentally. It shattered on the ground. She wrang her hands together, trying to scrub the shaking out of them, but when she picked up another stick of chalk and returned to the board, it was so bad she could barely write.
After a moment, Jamie went over to her, almost running, carefully avoiding knocking over any lab equipment. He turned her away from the chalkboard and pulled her into a hug.
“Get off me-” She pushed him off and went back to the board. “You’re wasting time, I need to do this and I’ve only got sixteen minutes.”
Jamie winced. “But, Zoe, it’s-”
“Why isn’t this working?” She turned back to Jamie, voice pushing up higher, tears carrying traces of her eye makeup down her cheeks. “How is this the only outcome? I don’t- understand-” She looked furious, and she ran her hands under her eyes. “How am I supposed to solve it?”
“Zoe, Zoe, it’s okay.” Jamie hugged her again, resting his chin on top of her head. “It’s alright.”
“But it’s not,” she said, talking into his chest. “You’re my family, I can’t-” She grabbed his shirt, trying to get closer. “I can’t just let this happen.”
Jamie looked over at the Doctor, who realized he had to be there with them, and he went through the little maze of lab tables and equipment to rest a hand on Zoe’s back so she’d know he was there.
“Iolas is opening up a gap in spacetime,” Zoe explained, voice muffled. “That’s how he’s going to do it. The instruments- all it took was a few readings to figure it out. We won’t just- die, we’ll be gone forever.”
“Zoe…” the Doctor said, and didn’t know what else there was.
“No,” Zoe said, and she stepped away from Jamie, holding a hand to her mouth. Her voice was so high, and so taut, and so near breaking. “No, I don’t want this to happen. I’m scared, I- don’t want to die here. We have-” She stopped, cut off by a sob. After a second, she tried again. “We have fourteen minutes.”
“Oh, Zoe. I never should have taken you with me.” The Doctor brushed some of the hair clinging to her cheeks back and off her face.
“Don’t say that,” Zoe pleaded. “I’ve had the best time of my life, don’t say you’d rather I hadn’t come-”
“If you hadn’t come you’d be safe,” the Doctor pointed out.
Zoe looked down, tried to take a solid, even breath. “But I wouldn’t trade this for the world.” She fell apart into sobs, hiding her face on Jamie’s shoulder.
“Aye, neither would I,” said Jamie, putting an arm around her.
And then the Doctor had a bought of panicked desperate thoughts along the lines of this can’t be it there has to be a way out there must be something i’ve missed this can’t be it . He hadn’t missed anything, of course. He could never have guessed how much this would hurt. He kissed the top of Zoe’s head, and then for good measure he kissed Jamie’s cheek as well. “I’m so sorry-”
“Oh, don’t-” Jamie said, at the same time as Zoe said, “Don’t you dare-” They stopped, and Zoe lifted her head to look at him. Jamie laughed a little, quietly. Zoe smiled.
“I love you both so dearly,” the Doctor said, before he had time to think about it.
Jamie was about to say something, but Zoe spoke first.
“Twelve minutes,” she said.
Jamie shook his head, and said, “Doctor, you know.”
The Doctor did.
“And Zoe, I could’ve been a good deal kinder to you, and I’m sorry,” Jamie continued. “I wish-”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zoe said. “I already know, it’s fine, don’t waste time on it.”
Jamie looked down, and nodded. “I think- I could’ve done more to keep the both of you safe.”
“No, it’s- I shouldn’t have brought you here,” the Doctor murmured.
“You’re both so stupid,” Zoe said, wiping her eyes. “Don’t waste time saying things like that, just- don’t.”
“Well, how am I supposed to say goodbye?” Jamie said it too loud for the hushed little conversation they’d been having. “How do I do it, Zoe? What do I say?”
The Doctor sighed. “Jamie-”
“Sorry.” Jamie looked away from them, and scrubbed a hand over his eyes.
“I said it before,” Zoe said after a moment, watching Jamie carefully, “but you two are my family.” She sniffed. “I didn’t get to know my parents, and-” Her voice broke, and she gave a little shrug, shaking her head.
“I couldn’t go home,” the Doctor blurted out, not sure how exactly he’d get around to saying what he wanted to say with this, or whether it was worth the time it would take. “I couldn’t go back to my home, to my- my planet, you know. I didn’t want to go back, but it was also… it’s so beautiful, there. And I didn’t have a home, and I was just drifting, so to speak. But I- you two- you’re my home, now. Both of you.”
Jamie grabbed him and Zoe and pulled them both into a crushing hug. “I thought that I’d be able to do this,” he said quietly. “I don’t think I can. I- can’t. I love you both, I love you so much.”
Zoe nodded. “You too,” she whispered.
They stood there together, holding onto each other, in silence for a little while. There was definitely comfort in it, but it was more that there was no better way to be present with each other than this. And, really there was nothing else they could do.
After a bit, Jamie asked, “How much time do we have?”
“Five minutes,” Zoe mumbled. Her voice sounded clearer, like maybe she’d stopped crying. “I really do want to say I’ve had the best time. It’s been wonderful.”
“Aye, me too,” Jamie added, quietly.
The Doctor wondered if there was a way to say how unimaginably, miraculously lucky he’d been to, out of all and time and all of space and all the trillions upon trillions of people out there, land in their times, in their places, and meet them. There weren’t words to say it right, not really. “I wish I could’ve shown you more. Will you- would you let me apologize? Because I’m sorry I ever brought you here.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out how to get away,” Zoe replied. “I’m sorry I can’t find an answer.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t do better for you both,” Jamie added.
The Doctor could feel Jamie grabbing at the fabric of his jacket, trying to get a better hold on him. “I didn’t think it would- I…” He was having trouble saying anything, it seemed. “I thought it would end differently than this.”
“Better this way, though, isn’t it?” Jamie was keeping his voice even, which was impressive. “I wouldn’t want to keep doing this without one of you, or both of you, so… we’re together.”
“I don’t want to die,” Zoe whispered. “I had so much more to do.”
They fell into another hushed silence, and stood there for a while until Jamie said, “It’s been an honor knowing the both of you. You’re the cleverest, most-” He stopped, and hung his head.
“It has been an honor,” the Doctor repeated. “How- how lucky we’ve been.”
Zoe leaned her head on the Doctor’s shoulder. After a beat, she murmured, “We’ve got two minutes.”
It hit the Doctor then that he had never truly ran out of time before. He’d always had all the time in the world, all of it, it was his, and now he had nothing. He had a hundred seconds. And then it would be done. He’d been processing the countdown and death and that the entire time, but now he had to face the immediacy of it. There was no way they could possibly say everything they needed to. There were just seconds left. And he couldn’t help but feel angry. It was infuriating, really- this was something that was being taken from him. Not just Zoe and Jamie, and that was unfair on a different level, but him. He shouldn’t die now. He had a billion galaxies to explore in a thousand different times. He had planets - civilizations - to save. He had trillions of people to meet and at least ten new faces to wear and he just wasn’t finished yet. That couldn’t be taken from him. But it was. He’d had so much more to do, and now he’d never do it.
He could feel his psychic buffers start to come apart, and he reckoned it didn’t even matter. Jamie and Zoe might sense what he was feeling, and it was of utterly no consequence, because he was sure they were feeling the same things. They wouldn’t have time to address it anyway.
Jame took a deep breath, and asked, “Are we actually supposed to say goodbye?”
“I don’t know,” Zoe replied. She’d started crying again. “Goodbye, Jamie. Doctor.”
“Goodbye, Zoe.” The Doctor tried to give her a smile. “Jamie-”
“I know,” Jamie said. “Goodbye.” He closed his eyes, and mumbled what must’ve been a prayer, a remainder of the life he’d left behind years ago. Strange, how things held on.
The Doctor looked over at Zoe, and she shook her head and said, “Seconds, maybe.”
They all looked at each other, standing there in this sort of spaced out three way embrace. The Doctor thought there would have been some conclusion reached, but there was nothing. Even with having said goodbye, they hadn’t found an ending, and it was unfair, and it ached. After a beat, he realized something had shifted, and after another beat he realized what that something was. Jamie was no longer trying to hide that he was scared.
“Doctor,” Jamie said carefully, jaw squared, no longer looking at either of them but instead at some point between them, “will it hurt?”
Before he could answer, what happened next was this: a brilliant white light appeared, encroaching in on them from the outskirts of their periphery, and then