Thirteen - Sheffield - 2020
The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Sheffield and rolls out her shoulders. Her friends file out of the TARDIS and offer their invitations for her to tag along with them, but she makes her own excuses and informs them she's already got plans, thank you very much.
Which is true, in a way.
Waving them off with strict instructions on when to be back, she’s left in the comforting quietness of the TARDIS’ console room. The Doctor breathes in the empty space of it all for a moment and then sets about rifling through the glove compartment under the console to find her old pager.
A few taps later and she sonics off a message into the ether.
To her surprise, it bleeps back just a few minutes later: Lucky I'm around. Station. 3 hours.
The Doctor locks up the TARDIS and wanders through the city to pass the time. It's an enjoyable walk that takes her through the town centre and market, and then up past the cathedral. She stops by a sandwich shop, loops back through the botanical gardens to take a look at the blooming cacti, and then heads over to the train station just in time to see the boards turn over in the main hall and direct her onto the right platform.
While her boots clomp quickly down the staircase, there’s a mass of people disembarking flooding back past in their rush for the exit. So, the Doctor hangs back to the side, letting them all pass, and slowly the platform clears. It leaves only one other woman standing there in a battered leather jacket with her backpack at her feet.
The sight of her is jarring.
Not because of the modern clothing, but because there's a squeezing of the timeline that crams itself onto the platform between them. It feels like when she had first caught sight of Andromache, at the foot of Krakatoa; a pinch in the fabric of spacetime that twists differently to everything else around it, left instead of right, up instead of down, while still being perfectly impossible, all in the right place.
Doing her best to breathe past it, the Doctor waves to greet her old friend. "Andromache of Scythia."
"I go by Andy these days." Andromache takes off her sunglasses as the Doctor walks over, then tips her head sideways and takes in the Time Lord's new appearance. "New face, again."
The Time Lord gives a spin, letting her blue coat flare out around her knees. "What do you think?"
"I like the hair." Andy gives an approving nod as she shoulders her backpack. "I've got a few hours before my train back, but what brings you to Sheffield?"
"Oh, it's a weekend stopover for my lot. They're all from around here, so it makes drop-offs easy. Where did you train it up from?"
The curiosity in her face makes Andy grin. "Suburb outside of London. Surrey. Things are changing, for us, for the world. Everything seems to move quicker nowadays, don’t you think?"
It's less of a gripe than she means it to be, even if her lips twist when she says it, and the Doctor knocks her elbow against hers. "And some things remain the same. Like you."
But when Andy turns to look at her, she can see the human bite her tongue. “Not exactly. And I’ve not come here looking for answers from you. It doesn’t work like that, does it? But something has changed...and I'm not healing anymore. However it works, it’s stopped for me. At some point, I'm going to die."
“Oh.” The Doctor drags the sound out.
It clicks into place now, the difference of the weight in the timeline around her had shifted. The hold had loosened, in a way, so far as she could figure it out. Which was still an effort and a half with the sheer timey-wimeyness that still threatened to bring about a monster of a headache if she looked at Andy for too long.
And if Andy's hesitation in telling her was a ripple on the ocean of her overall acceptance and understanding of her almost-immortal situation, it only hints to the deep currents underneath.
"That old chestnut. It's different, isn't it?" The Doctor clicks her tongue sympathetically. "Hard to get your head around?"
"You can say that again. But what do you know of if, Time Lord? You only change your face."
The Doctor tugs at Andy's hand and pulls her down to sit on the bench by the stairs before she starts speaking. "Not quite. I've done a few miles in those mortal shoes. I even pulled off a nifty trick once, turned myself human and got so, so close to dying."
Shaking her head, the Time Lord looking down at her hands. "For so many people, counting time is an exercise. You wake up, you have your hours, you do things, and then the day is over. You sleep. You wake up again, and it starts all over."
There’s not much equivalence between the two of them, Andy’s lived on the slow path for eons, the Doctor’s flown here and there and everywhere in between. But Andy stares at her, watches as she leans forward and tucks her hands close together over her own. She gives a little squeeze as she listens closely.
"With every day you know time's passing. You’ve seen it happen. Each breath, every tick of the clock, sunrise, sunset, all that time is going somewhere. It pushes people forward, onwards. It wears away mountains, boils up seas, makes people late for work. And I know you know that."
The Doctor’s lip curls up into a crooked smile, quite similar to her previous face, but there’s no hint of the heavy Scottish accent. Instead, she sounds more settled, accent matching her surroundings in a way that hadn’t previously. There’s an optimistic contentedness in her slouch that Andy unconsciously finds herself mirroring too.
"You inch forward a bit. A day, a week, a month, it all adds up. I'm a Time Lord. I, of all people, know something about what's gone on. I can taste it, it makes my scalp itch." The Doctor steadfastly ignores the dubious look she’s thrown, and continues on, "Andy, the very nature of time itself, that vast unstoppable, unimpedable force, is something that you've been a part of, for such a long time. It's hard letting go of it, the idea that it belonged to you, and you to it."
After a moment, Andy nods half in agreement, and half for the sake of it, like she already knows but her heart's taking a little longer to catch up to the realisation of things she won't be around to see or experience.
“People, is what it comes down to. We keep each other going, Andy. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.”
It baffles the Doctor when Andy shuts her eyes tight and huffs out a laugh, pulled back out of her thoughts.
“I’ve heard something along those lines recently.”
“Oh, what the hell,” Andy mutters under her breath. “It’s not like I can have these chats with anyone else.”
After collecting her thoughts and running her hands through her hair, Andy leans back against the cold metal of the bench and explains a recent late night run in with a Parisian woman working in a pharmacy who helped patch her back up in more than one way, without pressing for answers or forcing her to explain the shattered truth she could clearly see in her eyes.
Beside her, the Doctor listens.
A smile slowly creeps up on the Time Lord’s face, looking on at how this woman had spent her years walking across the world, and somehow made all four corners of it her home.
It was dead easy for the Doctor to touchdown in the middle of disaster and claim the title defender of Earth, but she was suddenly acutely aware she was sitting across someone who had put in the long slog of it and all the consequences it brought, how it could break a heart to love something for an inordinate amount of time and suddenly realise you have to let go.
“Wise words.” She nods after Andy finishes, sitting a little more comfortably on the bench now that she had shared her story, and unburdened herself. “I guess, in the end we just have to trust it’ll work out in time, hold onto that little hope.”
“I have more news for you, Doc. There’s a new immortal with us, her name is Nile. Brand new, and she’s already been through a lot. We’re helping her find her feet...I think you’d like her.”
The Doctor kicks her legs out in excitement, and she cracks another grin that Andy can’t help but return. “Come on, I’ve found a decent sandwich place. I wouldn’t mind going back for seconds if you’re up for it? We can have a proper good catch up.”
The Doctor turns a thought over in her head while they walk back down to the train station.
It’s one that’s floated its way over to her before.
One that she’s had to throw out entirely in the past. But now that things are the way they are, it’s made a comeback. Even as Andy lists off her top ten concerts over the past century, she’s only half listening, and almost trips over the curb to land flat on the tram lines. Luckily, Andy’s strong grip around her arm keeps the Doctor from landing ungraciously on her face and they make their way down the rest of the hill without another incident.
“Sorry! Listen, I’ve got an idea...and I think you might like it.”
Cars zip past as they stand at the traffic crossing and wait for the lights to turn. Andy looks over the road at the train station's automatic doors sliding open as people filter through and waves a hand. “I can’t be late for my train. I know it doesn’t make much difference for you, space hopping about, but we’re flying out in the morning for a job.”
“But I’ll keep it short. Promise.” The Doctor drags her finger in the shape of a cross over both coat lapels and pulls her away from the green man flashing on crossing. “One-time trip offer, Andy. In the TARDIS. Come on, you can’t say it isn’t tempting.”
She gets a look of pure disbelief from the woman in return.
“You’ve never mentioned this before?”
“Well, you’re not earth-bound in the same way now. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a fixed event spliced straight across human history, and so deeply embedded into the timelines in ways I can’t begin to figure out.”
The Doctor flings her hand out to make the point clear. And then she shrugs with a little gleam returning to her eyes. “But, things have changed. I wouldn’t offer if it weren’t possible.”
“One trip. You’ll be back in time to catch the train in-”
Andy drags the toe of her boot across the pavement, thinking it over. Then she answers, “Twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes.” The Doctor says earnestly, “All the time in the world!”
“Twenty minutes, huh?” Andy taps at her watch and then tilts it so the Doctor can see the face and the hands which have moved a lot further than that.
“Come on, as if you could rush this?”
It’s a fair point, and her eyes follow the flick of the Doctor’s hand, gesturing out to the Earth suspended in the inky blackness of space beneath them. The TARDIS had been set in a loose anticlockwise orbit so that they’d get to see the rotation.
Andy takes a sip of her vodka then hands the bottle back. “Probably not.” She acquiesces after a long moment, still feeling breathless at the sight.
“Is it anything like you’ve imagined?” The Doctor nudges her, crossing her feet at the foot of the ramp.
There had been a few moments of hanging onto the railing by the door until Andy had felt secure in the Time Lord’s assurances that the TARDIS wouldn’t suddenly spin or fling them out into the vacuum of space. She had spent a minute just staring out at the sight before finally sinking down to the floor and let her feet dangle out of the open doorway.
“It’s...more. Way more.”
The Doctor takes a swig out of the bottle and winces at the taste. “This is too old.”
“Speak for yourself. I’ve got bottles older in a basement near Volgograd from when it was a fortress.”
“Yeah… don’t think you should try drinking any of them!”
“Probably not.” Andy manages to tear her eyes away from the Earth to flash a toothy grin, but it doesn’t take her long to turn back. “Sometimes I feel so goddam old, but this is humbling. Not because I never thought I’d see anything like it, but because it’s beautiful.”
“Another twenty minutes?” The Doctor asks, passing the bottle back to her.
Andy nods, “Yeah, another twenty minutes.”
Time flies as it does.
Eventually, Andy rolls back up to her feet with some show of reluctance and the Doctor follows, shutting the doors. They walk back up the ramp and then the Time Lord begins jogging around the console getting the machine prepared to take off. The haphazard movements give Andy good cause to step out of her way, and she concentrates on tucking both the backpack straps over her shoulders so as not to have to reach for it when the TARDIS was inevitably flown sideways or backwards.
Even though the Doctor moves around the machine with a well-honed precision, she still asks, “Is the trip back going to be as bumpy as it was to get here?”
“Are you knocking my driving skills?”
“I think you’re going to knock an asteroid...or something.”
The Doctor sticks her tongue out in response while cranking a winch around and around. The lights flicker for a second and then the time rotor lights up. But instead of starting up the time rotor fully, her hands hover over the console.
“Listen, Andy. I’ve had another thought. A brilliant thought. You’re going to love this-”
Andy shakes her head. “As amazing as this has been, I really do need to go. My family are waiting for me.”
“I know, yes. You’re right. I did say, twenty minutes and you’d be back in time to catch your train.” The Doctor nods gravely, stuffing the errant idea back into a tiny box in her mind and forces her hands to resume their work across the console.
And then she crumbles again like a well-dunked biscuit.
“But what’s the harm, eh? It’s more like a minor hop than a detour. You’ll still be back in time for your train. I did promise.” Her movements become more stilted, and she comes to a halt on the opposite side of the console, leans out and says, “I mean...time travel, with a Time Lord. If not now, when?”
A brief flurry of reluctance crosses Andy’s face. It crunches up her brows and her wariness is clear. Silently, the Doctor waits for her reply, knowing that if Andy agrees, they’ll go.
And if Andy doesn’t, then she’d be flying them back to Sheffield, and that’d be that.
But Andy thinks it over.
She blinks slowly, then nods.
The promise of time travel is too much to walk away from. In a lifetime spanning six millennia, she couldn't have had more than a handful of regrets, all the time in the world to do anything she wanted, but turning down a real jaunt in the TARDIS would have almost certainly be on top of her list if she had decided on going back now.
The Doctor grins back in relief. “You won't regret it. Here we go, hold on tight!"
The TARDIS lands with a thump that jars Andy's knees and travels straight up her spine in an uncomfortable way. She clicks her jaw shut and waits for the vibrations along her bones to still before asking, "Are you even qualified to drive this thing?"
"Do you mean technically? Or legally? Or officially? Or temporally?"
Still arm-deep in the tangle of wires and motherboards strewn across the console, the Doctor continues working. She leans up against something with a stethoscope jammed into her ears as she twiddles a dial slowly. Her tongue pokes out from the side of her mouth while she listens in concentration.
"Never mind." Andy shucks off her backpack and heads to the doors, hand on the handle to pull it open and step out. "So, where are we?"
The Doctor sprints past, coat flying out behind her in a blur of garbled warnings. "Hang on! Hang on!" She slams her hands on the doors to keep them firmly shut before turning around, putting herself between the wood and Andy, who's taken aback by the rashness.
"What is it?" She stares back at the wholly serious expression on the Time Lord's face that she’s not seen since she caught a passing glimpse on Krakatoa.
"So, before these can open, I need to tell you something that's a massively important condition of coming here. Which is, we need to stay inside the TARDIS."
The disbelief on Andy's face is stark and her blue eyes turn flinty. "You brought me wherever here is... to stand in the doorway of your box?"
"I need you to promise. It's important."
Andy levels a stare at her, rolls her eyes, and then simply sighs. "Fine. I promise."
"I mean it. You can’t wander off here in case, well, you could literally run into yourself.”
The stillness in the air dissolves and the Doctor loosens up her hands plastered across the doors. When she steps sideways, Andy tips her head closer to the doors as a new sound arises from beyond the seemingly normal wooden barrier that had separated them from the vacuum of space, and now from their new surroundings. It’s a familiar sound but she can't name it. Instead she presses her ear right up against the door and makes it out to be a rumbling noise that seems to be getting louder.
“With a timeline as long as yours, we probably wouldn’t even get Reapers. The planet might just, I dunno, explode.” The Doctor chuckles nervously at her as she walks back up the ramp and taps at the screen. “No! Ignore me, it’ll be fine. Just... stand here and watch. Any moment now.”
Still pressed up against the door, Andy shuts her eyes, and tries to pin down the approaching noise, a thumping, thrumming that suddenly makes her jerk back in surprise as she finally does recognise it.
At the same time, an alarm bleeps out from the console, and the Doctor sprints back down to her and yanks the doors open.
Daylight streams into the TARDIS, and even though a logical part of Andy’s mind is expecting to see something else than the sight of the Earth suspended in the blackness of space, she's still not prepared for what has replaced it. Looking out on the vast expanse of the plains stretching out before her, her knees feel weak as she finally sees what's making the rumbling noise as a small pack of horses race across grass with their thundering hooves carrying them at breakneck speed.
Her lips part and her eyes widen in surprise, and she leans out of the doorway to watch them as they ride past.
"My mother is in the middle, my sisters, there and there. I-" She raises a trembling hand to point at the faces that had faded out of her memories over time, no matter how hard she had tried to hold on to them.
Those same scattered memories rush back in a flood and all the lost fragments swirling around her head. It’s not everything, but it’s more than she’s had in living memory, even as she tried to capture the sight before her in her mind’s eye.
"Didn't know you'd ever see them again?" The Doctor rests her hand on her shoulder as tears begin to fall.
Andy tips her head sideways and lets out a watery chuckle.
She’s silent for a long time, merely watching as they ride off across the plains. It's a fleeting moment in a lifetime of fleeting moments, but even then, it takes her breath away. Eventually she gathers her composure again, wiping at her face while she looks on at the empty landscape.
"You brought me back home."
The Doctor leans back against the railing and knocks her boot against the door. It swings shut with a creak, and then she moves closer to sling her arm over Andy's shoulder as they walk back up to the console.
"One of them.” The Doctor pulls a level and the sound of metal clanking and gears grinding starts up from under their feet. "Come on, Andromache of Scythia, you've got a train to catch, and your family are waiting for you."