Characters/Pairing: Ace/Shou Yuing, Seven
Word count: 1800
Summary: Ace and the Doctor's POVs, post-Battlefield.
Ten of the Sword
"What do you think of this one?" asked Shou Yuing, stroking the soft fabric of a short V-necked dress.
"It's nice," Ace said. "You should try it on."
They'd found a fancy fashion boutique tucked improbably away down a side street of this chocolate-box village that Doris had brought them to. Ace had been enjoying the driving, but the others had insisted they couldn't keep going forever, which just showed how little they knew. They'd gone first to a little tea shop; as far as Ace knew, Doris and Winifred were still there, sipping their tea and swapping hair-raising stories Doris probably didn't have the security clearance for.
Ace and Shou Yuing, on the other hand, had wolfed down their cream teas and headed out to explore the area. Ace had been surprised to find a hole in the wall machine in such an out of the way place, and more surprised still at how much money the Doctor's card had been able to extract from it, but then she supposed this was the future. The notes burning a hole in her pocket now seemed slightly eerie, familiar in overall design but different in so many details -- the King's head instead of the Queen's was only the most obvious change.
"Ooh, I think you'd look good in this one," Shou Yuing said, holding up something vaguely Belle-Epoque-ish.
A sudden coldness shot up Ace's spine as she imagined wearing it. "Not my style," she said quickly. She picked up something at random. "I like this, though. Come on, let's go and see what they look like on."
The woman at the till barely looked up from her magazine as they went into the small changing room together.
They stripped down to their underwear without self-consciousness, but then they looked at each other.
Shou Yuing was the first to avert her eyes. "Ace," she began, but then stopped again. Ace waited. "I'm sorry," Shou Yuing said eventually. "About what I said in the circle."
Back to back, clutching sword and scabbard, turned outwards to defy the hostile world.
Face to face, yelling at one another, the hostility insidiously inside them.
Cheek to cheek, clutching onto one another, giving each other strength that the discarded weapon could not hope to match.
"It's OK," Ace said, touching Shou Yuing's arm. "I know it wasn't you."
But there was a deeper truth they were evading. Whatever it was that had crept through the protection of the chalk had made them speak not their own hidden feelings, but the other's deepest fears. Both of them presented a brave face to the world, but had been forced to share the intimacy of vulnerability. Even the Doctor didn't know as much as Shou Yuing did now; or perhaps he knew everything, but was keeping that knowledge secret even from her.
After a long instant, Shou Yuing moved her arm gently away, picked up the dress she'd chosen and wriggled it over her head. Ace went through the motions with the outfit she'd hurriedly grabbed, but she'd already decided it wouldn't suit her.
"You look amazing," Ace said.
"It's expensive," Shou Yuing countered.
"What else is the Doctor's money good for?"
"Well, some of it looked like it might make a nice children's toy."
They both laughed. Then they bought the dress.
* * *
Dinner was delicious. Ace was mildly surprised to learn of the Doctor's cooking skills, but Alistair said that because the Doctor didn't eat very often, he made sure when he did it was an occasion. Ace wondered what sort of dinner parties they'd had, back in the mysterious past they shared.
More delicious than the food, though, was the atmosphere at the table. The air seemed charged by the unabashed joyous lust shared by Winifred and Ancelyn and the abiding affection between Alistair and Doris. Ace found Shou Yuing's hand resting on her thigh between courses, and belatedly realised that they were a part of it too.
Afterwards, she helped the Doctor wash up, distracted throughout by the implicit promise of the tight hug Shou Yuing had given her before going upstairs.
She asked the Doctor about his history with UNIT, about what Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had been like in his prime. He answered with anecdotes that revealed less than they concealed. She asked him about how it felt to be Merlin, and he talked about ageing backwards. She asked him if he was all right, and he insisted that he was.
"Go ahead and enjoy yourself, Ace," he said as he passed her the last of the mugs to be dried. "I'll be fine."
"You sure, Professor?" she asked, touching his shoulder lightly.
He smiled and nodded, and she smiled back as she put the mug away.
* * *
Ace knocked tentatively on the door of Shou Yuing's bedroom, and it sprang open instantly. "Come in!" she said, smiling enthusiastically.
Shou Yuing sat on the bed, and Ace was about to join her when she heard the front door closing downstairs. She slipped over to the window and twitched the curtain aside.
Down on the driveway, the Doctor was walking over to Bessie.
"Ace ..." Shou Yuing said softly.
Ace watched the Doctor run one hand along the length of the car. She smiled, even as she was aware of Shou Yuing getting up to stand behind her.
The Doctor's lips began to move, muttering to the car as he caressed it in just the same way as he did the TARDIS console.
Shou Yuing wrapped her arms around Ace's waist, nuzzled against her neck, then kissed it gently. A boundary that had never really been there had been crossed, and Ace turned away from the window, caught Shou Yuing's face in her hands and kissed her fiercely.
As they fell onto the bed together, Ace barely heard the screech of Bessie's tyres, so consumed was she with passion as they tore at one another's clothes, the beautiful dress from earlier now merely an impediment. Ace lost herself in the excitement of mutual discovery as roaming hands and soft lips explored eager flesh, and there was no circle around them now, but a stronger circle they made of themselves, unbreakable and unending.
And then, finally, the explosions.
Sufficiently Advanced Technology
"Go ahead and enjoy yourself, Ace, I'll be fine."
The hand on his shoulder. "You sure, Professor?"
He nodded, and added a ghost of a smile, to make it convincing, or at least to give her enough to quiet her conscience with.
The Doctor knew he wasn't good company right now, for Ace or any of the rest of them. There was something primal in the house that night, something that he wasn't a part of, or that wasn't part of him. Morgaine would have called it magic, and perhaps there was a magic in it: the unthinking urgings of selfish genes singing out to each other from one isolated body to another, transmuted into genuine connections between individual minds, however fleeting or enduring they might turn out to be.
The Doctor pulled out the plug and watched the water swirl away, thinking vaguely of the myth that its direction was determined by the Coriolis effect. Perhaps there was some fast-spinning world out there, a few twists sideways in time further on from Morgaine's, where it was true.
Sideways in time. Only a few short centuries ago, he'd been the first Time Lord to travel from one dimension to another, turning abstract philosophical notion into lived experience. Now it was routine, and the High Council wouldn't even dream of intervening in something so minor as Morgaine's incursion. More worrying still, things had been that way since time immemorial, and time that wasn't remembered by the Time Lords might not ever have really existed.
So why were his memories different? Surely it was solipsistic in the extreme to declare that his own history was the true one, if it no longer coincided with that of the entire multiverse he inhabited. Occam's Razor would insist that he was simply going mad.
He stalked through the darkened passageways of the house and out into the driveway where Bessie was waiting. The reality of her, the knowledge that she had been there at the Inferno project, was reassuring.
He stroked her bonnet, his earlier self's affection for the machine, both its raw simplicity and the complexity he had added, flooding back into his mind. He wondered sometimes if that previous incarnation's fondness for vehicles was merely a quirk of the regenerative reshuffle, or a displacement of his frustration at being stuck on Earth. And then he wondered if it mattered.
"Ace didn't treat you too badly, did she?" he said, patting the driving wheel. "No, of course she didn't." For a moment, he saw his companion reflected in the windscreen as she looked down at him from a window, then disappeared behind the curtain.
It didn't help to think of other selves, though. This Gordian knot of changes in the very nature of the timeline grew only more complex when he considered their recent misadventure, this collision of his future with his present. Somehow, knowing that he was destined to become Merlin made his future seem more uncertain, not less. Or perhaps it was the dark suspicion that perhaps even he had alternate selves now, that only some subset of an infinite number of possible Doctors would end up as Arthur's wizard.
Even supposedly impossible knots could always be untied, if you looked at them in a sufficient number of dimensions. But what if the knot was itself made of higher dimensions?
Something was wrong with time. He knew it, and he knew he'd been avoiding the situation. Some drastic change was coming, or perhaps had already come. He could sense that he'd be facing more interdimensional issues before too long. Perhaps they would even turn out to have some bearing on the less obvious irregularities in Ace's timeline.
The Doctor hauled himself into the driver's seat. Ace might have found a temporary still point, an inflection on her trajectory, but he needed to be in motion, away from the raw humanity at play in the house behind him. He set the controls, and sped off into the future, not quite so unknowable as it had once been.
But then, he reflected as he drove along the moonlit lanes, he had long known something of his future. His arcane knowledge of the faces of his coming bodies had been a strange comfort to him throughout his travels, but now the fact that he'd only reached as far as his next life -- accomplishment though forcing the ritual so far had been, in those heady Academy days of rebellion and taboo-breaking -- filled him with an inchoate dread. How many different ninth selves might he have?
The Doctor came to a fork in the road.