This is the only thing I've written -- or at least, finished -- in over a year that wasn't for a ficathon or from a prompt or something. I wrote it pretty much the day after I watched Battlefield on DVD. I had succumbed to fandom's general opinion that it was the weak link in S26 for far too long beforehand, when really there's vast amounts of awesome in there. Anyway.
Ten of the Sword
The titles for the two sections are quotes that are used within Battlefield and more or less explicitly labelled as such in the process. The scabbard being worth ten of the sword is straight out of the Morte d'Arthur, and I'm sort of kinda trying to use it here to imply that the companion is more important than the Doctor in some ways.
"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.
Battlefield makes a proper effort to be five-minutes-into-the-future, but it makes it horrendously difficult to reconcile with modern canon.
"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."
This is supposed to be about the picture of future Ace in Silver Nemesis; this is yet another story about Ace I've written that is completely unforgiving of people who aren't as familiar with her canon as me.
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.
This does seem like the only reasonable explanation of that scene (which does descend into acting-class-exercise in some moments, tbh) to me; they don't know each other well enough to be able to aim those barbs that well.
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."
The hoppy frog thing he gets out when they're trying to pay at the pub, obviously.
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.
While this is mostly me handwaving furiously to get them into bed with each other, there are lots of ships in Battlefield and the Doctor is conspicuous by his absence from most of them (it's tempting to pair him off with Morgaine, but she's clearly much more interested in her memories of Arthur).
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.
This whole section (and the way it then ties into the Doctor's story) plays off the domesticity of the end of the story, which I really like, especially the sense the Brig's one of the few people who could drag the Doctor into it, if only for a short while. I bet Three never did any washing up, though.
* * *
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.
Cheesy! But inevitable.
Sufficiently Advanced Technology
It barely needs saying, but this is Clarke's Third Law about the indistinguishability of magic from 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.
As we see in the whole of the rest of the season, the Doctor does get Ace to a fair extent, so this seems fair.
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.
This story is more asexualist than I am, weirdly.
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.
This is the meat of the Doctor's side of this story -- that the treatment of parallel universes in Who is, as with most other things, massively inconsistent. Just recently on the anon meme people were complaining that RTD was wrong to say he'd kept faith 100% with old school because they felt Rise of the Cybermen didn't fit with Inferno, but none of it fits together right.
It is, of course, a fool's errand to try and reconcile the vast unwieldy mass of Who canon into anything like coherency, but doing so for parallel universes in particular is a perennial obsession of mine; back in the EDA days, I remember spending a long time trying to work out how the parallel universes Sabbath arc was supposed to fit together with the rest of Who (there's a load of stuff in ... I think Time Zero, but I might be wrong ... about the multiverse allowing for free will, which runs counter to most people's perceptions of such things (that if everything happens then you just happen to be the you who made choice X and there's another you out there who did the exact opposite); I remain convinced that it was a deliberate echo of that weird bit in Inferno where pretty much Three's first statement on reaching Inferno-Earth is "then free will isn't an illusion").
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.
Not that this story really succeeds in reconciling anything, come to think of it; it just waves the problems around shouting "Argh, it's really complicated!" This is as close as it comes, with the idea that the Doctor's personal timeline is twisting through changes in reality. In some ways, this makes the most sense, as all the information we have is about the Doctor's adventures, but many of the people who play the fitting-everything-together game find that an unsatisfactory answer.
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.
This is where we start to veer off into the meta side of things, with the idea that Merlin is Muldwych from the NAs, and he might not ever happen on screen now (though the "am I ginger?" line from tCI is a clear callout, so it's not like RTD forgot about it; whether Moffat cares or not is another question). Matching up in-story parallel universes with out-of-story supposed different branches of canon is becoming a bit of a fixation of mine -- it's most of the point of the big weirdy climax to my tardisbigbang story and it also came into my lgbtfest and femslash09 fics. And a bit my henriettastreet ficathon fics as well. Oh dear, I am becoming a one trick pony. Must write something different.
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?
I'd just like to disclaim that I don't understand knot theory in the slightest. I can barely even tie knots.
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.
That last sentence is freighted with far more meta than it could possibly bear, to be honest. The "obvious irregularities" are the Fenric-related stuff that'll be sorted soon, but the "less obvious" ones are the divergences between NA Ace, PDA Ace and BF Ace, with particular reference to the stupid Perry/Tucker replace-Ace-with-another-Ace-from-a-para
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 (this is the Eighth Man Bound bit from Christmas on a Rational Planet, because no story of mine is complete without an inclusion of Miles-canon), 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.
The NAs, Doctor! Follow the sign to the NAs!