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Life, After

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She's not sure how she survived, or why. Time Lord, but not Time Lord enough, maybe, for the holocaust to catch her in its shockwave, as the Time War was folded away in an inaccessible pocket of spacetime. As far as she can tell, there are no other Time Lords left; no true ones, anyway.

Before, on Gallifrey, Ace was all too aware of the ways in which she was not, would never be, a real Time Lord. They never shirked from reminding her of what a hobble her human origins were, no-matter how much she'd been genetically augmented. For the first decade or two, there had been an annual review of her visa, a snide formality; they never had any intention of kicking her off-planet, but they meant her to remember. Even after her first regeneration (and it had hurt, Christ it had hurt, they hadn't warned her about that, the Professor had never warned her about that), she wasn't really a Time Lord. Until the War got desperate, and then suddenly her alien thought processes, her human impulsiveness became an asset. Then they called her Time Lord, who had sneered before that she was little better than the President's savage bodyguard.

So now, she thinks, she deserves that title. She’s one of the last; there’s no-one around anymore to tell her she doesn’t deserve it. Ace claims it, Time Lord, and wears it like a badge she half-hates.

The loneliness isn’t the worst part, of living After (it gets the capital in her head, like BC and AD back on Earth; life should be delineated into Before and After the Time War). Ace and loneliness are old chums. She’d known it when she was young, lonely at home, lonely at school, lonely and angry, and in all her travels since leaving Earth; she was only sixteen when she’d found herself alone on Iceworld, and she’d managed then. She’s drifted for so much of her life-- her lives-- doing so again now is nothing new.

No, the worst part is the feeling that she should have died too. It’s not misplaced loyalty to the Time Lords, there’s no-one particular she thinks she could have saved if she’d died, but there’s a stone about her neck, a weight of all the nightmares and all the tears, a hollow space where a human girl used to be pressing down just under her lungs, making it hurt to draw breath. She’s not always sure that she deserves to have survived.

But she did, so it’s too late to do anything about it.

She’s regenerated a few times since the War. Her first body After had been male, built like a club bouncer, and she’d taken fierce, painful satisfaction in getting into fights, in finding people to fuck who liked it rough, whom she could toss up against walls, whose fingers would leave bruises on her biceps. People took her seriously; you don’t question a bloke who looks like he could mash you into the pavement as quick as look at you. She’d hired herself out for a while, doing gigs as a bodyguard, or other, more esoteric jobs; she was good as she ever was at blowing shit up, and some people would pay a lot for an arsonist. That body hadn’t lasted long, though. When you’re constantly fighting, it’s just odds that eventually you’ll find a fight you can’t win.

It’s female again this time around, her body, and Ace sometimes wonders what it means that she looks a little like she remembers Manisha looking, if Manisha had been a character in Street Fighter. Dark-skinned, with fine features and thick eyebrows, too muscular and too wide-hipped to really be called skinny. It’s a good body, she likes it. She’s got a satchel that’s bigger on the inside, and a time-hopper she’s Macgyvered into her motorcycle, and so she travels. She’s not romantic enough to think of herself as taking up the Doctor’s mantle, but his is an easy pattern to fall into, so she ends up seeking out dictatorships that need toppling, legends that want unravelling. It’s not even conscious, really; it just seems to happen.

Occasionally she even ends up with travelling companions, people she whose paths she crosses on one planet or another, whose eyes light when she grabs their hands and yells at them to run, but they never stick around long. She never lets them. Invariably she remembers what the Doctor did to her, the manipulation and the priming that had ruined a good thing, such a good thing. She refuses to do that to anyone else. She might be a Time Lord, the last of the Time Lords maybe, but like hell is she carrying on that part of their legacy. They’re all so young and so bright, and it makes Ace ache, the stone around her neck heavier than ever.

But she’s better off on her own, really. Who needs people, eh? And if there are nights (it’s always bloody nights) when she has to curl herself up tight around her satchel until the rattling, wrenching sobs retreat back into her lungs, as if it were another person who could give her some comfort, well. The satchel offers no consolation, but Ace thinks she’d die rather than let anyone see her in that state.

More often than not, she avoids Earth. It’s practical, in this body; she might not be South Asian, but she looks it, and there are too many places on Earth where it never really becomes safe to be a brown woman. There are things she could get away with in other bodies that she never could in this one, and she’s ended up in trouble too many times when she’s exploded at the injustice of her treatment. More than that, though, Earth just… hurts, with the bitter, disconnected misery of something that used to be meaningful, and can’t be anymore. She’s not human enough. Ace hasn’t belonged on Earth in centuries.

Despite her best efforts, though, sometimes she ends up there anyway. Her bike’s pretty accurate, but there are time storms and all sorts of shit to navigate in the Vortex, and nothing’s as stable as it used to be, without the Eye of Harmony; sometimes she gets blown off-course. Which is how she ends up in Paris in the 33rd century. Which is where she runs into him.

She’s leaving her rented room in Villemomble when she feels it first, like a tug in her mind. She doesn’t have the natural skill with telepathy a proper Gallifreyan Time Lord would, but the sense is still there, like the eyesight of someone who’s lost their glasses. She can distinguish shapes, colours, distances, but the details are fuzzy. So the tug, it’s blurred and unclear, but she knows the feeling. Time Lord. It hits her like a blow to the solar plexus and leaves her reeling, and she halts on the spot, staring around through narrowed eyes. There are any number of people walking placidly along the road; two old men strolling arm in arm, a lady more fashionably dressed than anyone this early in the morning has a right to be, a gaggle of teenagers, a young mother with a buggy, a plain-looking bloke in a leather jacket. It could be any of them. But Ace isn’t about to rush around questioning them, and she forcibly quashes the sudden, desperate instinct to do so that had forced itself up into her throat. Head down, she shoves her hands into her pockets and continues on her way.

It’s night, dark, when next she feels it. Ace is cutting through a back alley (she mightn’t have dared, in other lives, but she’s uncaring now) when recognition swamps her mind, but before she has the chance to react physically, there’s a hand on her arm and a voice in her ear, low and intense with something that could be anger or fear or hope.

‘Who are you?’

The space of a breath passes, and then Ace growls and jams backwards with heel and elbow. They make contact, heel to the knee and elbow to the gut, and the man chokes and stumbles back. Ace spins around.

‘Touch me and I’ll rip your throat out,’ she promises furiously, manhandling him back into the wall. He’s taller than her, but not that much broader; she can take him if she has to. ‘The fuck are you?’ she spits. ‘Time Lord. Eh?’

But he’s not fighting back; he’s gone hard and still, and his exhalation wobbles uncertainly in the air. ‘No,’ he whispers, ‘No, it can’t be.’

‘Can’t be what?’ The words are only half out when the lights of a passing hovercar stripe through the alley, over ancient brickwork, and for the briefest of moments, illuminate his face.

It’s a rough face, large of nose and ear; unfamiliar, no reason it should mean anything to her. But the eyes, his eyes are broken, blue as pack ice. She doesn’t know their shape, or their colour, but somehow still she recognises them immediately, intimately, and the shock of it startles the word out of her.

‘Professor?’

She clamps her teeth down on it as soon as it’s said; she hadn’t called the Doctor that for ages before he left her, had refused to, and she’s not sure if it’s churlish to continue that refusal now. She doesn’t even know if it’s fury or relief she’s feeling, in the face of the Doctor’s blue, broken eyes.

His face contorts. ‘Ace?’ It’s a breath, a desperate whisper, like he’s looking at a ghost, and Ace… has no idea how to even begin to react. She’s paralysed, her skin turned to stone while everything inside it’s melted to mush, and for a few interminable moments they just stand there, staring at each other, Ace’s fingers gone limp where they’re curled into his leather jacket.

‘It is you.’

It’s she who speaks first. Her voice comes out flat, somewhere between unemotional and simply bewildered, and testily she wills herself to have a reaction, a better reaction, any reaction. Slowly the Doctor starts to smile, and then, oh, there’s her reaction, all her not-so-old anger surging up, sudden, shocking fury at the years spent fighting through the cold and the loneliness so sharp it crippled, when she didn’t have to ride it out by herself, when there was another--

She wrenches herself away and punches him hard in the face. His head knocks against the brick, and there’s a warm flare of pain where her knuckles have split against his teeth, and he yelps, ‘Ace!’ and she growls and crowds back into his space, so close her elbows are pressed into his chest when she grabs his jacket again, their thighs pressed together, each hectic breath lessening the space between them.

‘No, you shut up, you don’t get to--’

‘Ace, I didn’t--’

‘--don’t get to talk, leaving me alone--’

‘--I’m sorry, I’m so--’

‘--it’s been years, d’you realise how long--’

‘--thought I was the last--’

‘--and you survived. Of course you fucking survived, of course you did, you probably planned the whole bloody thing--’

Don’t you say that.’

The Doctor doesn’t raise his voice all that much, but his tone’s like frost, like the worst kind of winter wind that cuts through every layer you have on, no-matter how many you add, and it stops any more words she might have before she can even think them. Just for a moment she feels sixteen again, alone in a huge and uncaring universe. And then she yanks him close and kisses him.

He freezes briefly, half a heartbeat of space and time, and then kisses back hungrily, a tiny, broken noise getting crushed between their lips. She’d never thought about the Doctor this way; not her first Doctor, at least. She’d met the next one, looking like the love child of Lord Byron and a Greek statue, and no-one could have failed to notice how pretty he was, but she’d never wanted to do anything about it. Even now, this isn’t about sex, not really, even though this Doctor’s handsome enough, sure. This is about Ace desperately needing to cling, wanting just for a moment to get inside the Doctor’s skin to get rid of the hollowness in her chest, so she holds onto his jacket with such force that it splinters the skin of her knuckles white, licks into his mouth, as the Doctor’s hands go to her hair and dig in, blunt nails against her scalp and lips and tongue and teeth against her mouth. He’s Time Lord-cool, but his touch still feels hot, and she bites down on his lower lip just to feel him react.

They kiss for what feels like a long time, sinking gradually to the ground until Ace is straddling the Doctor’s thighs, raised up over him, and his chin is tipped up like a supplicant to continue the kiss. Their arms are both strong; hers are on his shoulders and his are braced against her back, and eventually they’re no longer kissing, just holding onto each other, breathing shuddery breaths into each other’s necks, neither of them quite crying. There’s gonna be a mark on his neck where she bit him. She could continue if she wanted; she can feel the flush of heat tightening her skin, the outline through his jeans of the beginnings of an erection, but she doesn’t.

‘You look,’ the Doctor speaks eventually, when both their breaths have calmed, ‘different,’ and it’s so inane, such a stupidly obvious observation that it startles a laugh out of Ace.

‘’S your fault, that. Should’ve seen me a couple of bodies back; I was a bloke.’

‘Blimey,’ laughs the Doctor, but makes no further observation, and they sit in silence until Ace gives voice to the thing that’s making the air between them heavy, face still tucked next to his.

‘I thought you were dead. I thought-- I dunno why I’m not, but I thought-- I was so angry at you, Professor. Doctor. If you hadn’t made me into this-- oh, and I know it wasn’t you who did the genetic modifying and all the rest of it, but you set me on the road, brought me to Gallifrey-- if I was still just plain old human, I’d be dead too, wouldn’t I? And maybe that’d have been better.’

‘Oh, Ace,’ says the Doctor’s voice, a rumble against her ear, and Ace notices for the first time that he’s got a Lancashire accent this time around. Or at least that’s the effect the TARDIS translation is producing. It works, with the body. Any further rumination is cut off by the Doctor gently pushing her back, hands on her shoulders, until there’s enough space between them for him to look her in the eye. His own are a little too bright, glittering tellingly in the shadows. Softly, he takes her face between large, calloused palms, and presses a kiss to her lips. It’s nothing like the first, firm and close-mouthed, like a benediction, or an apology.

‘I am so sorry,’ he murmurs, just breaking away enough to speak, their lips brushing at every word. ‘I was-- remarkably selfish, that regeneration. Stupid, I was. Too busy plotting and planning to bother with who got hurt. And now, well.’ He exhales another laugh, bitter and self-mocking. ‘Now I’m alone too.’

‘Yeah? Not found anyone else to join you in the TARDIS?’

As soon as she’s said it, it occurs to Ace that the Doctor’s reasons for not taking on any new companions might not be too different from her own, and she shakes her head. ‘Never mind, stupid question.’ And then, after a pause, and because it is late, ‘D’you wanna come back to my place for the night? Just. Y’know. Maybe we could both do with some company.’

The Doctor’s brow creases, and for the first time, there’s a hint of humour there. ‘Your place? And what’s that? Travelling around in your own ship now, are you?’

Ace snorts. ‘Like the Time Lords’d’ve given me a TARDIS. I’ve got my bike. Rigged it up to a time hopper, it works well enough. But I have to find actual places to stay where I stop; can’t just sleep in me ship.’

‘What, you pay money to stay in hotels and that?’ He looks baffled, and Ace snorts again.

‘Time Lord. That is how the rest of us have to do it.’

‘Come back to the TARDIS, then.’ He offers it like it’s the obvious alternative, but Ace bites her lip. Maybe it is the obvious alternative, and she’d be lying if she said some part of her wasn’t tempted, but it feels… too soon, somehow. Or something. Too much like giving the Doctor power over her life again, and she doesn’t know that she’ll ever be ready for that.

So she shakes her head, leaning back and pushing herself up until she’s standing over the Doctor, legs wide apart and feet in their arse-kicking boots firmly planted, and stretches her hand down to him, palm up, fingers half curled in invitation. ‘Maybe tomorrow. Come on, you come with me for once.’

There’s a pause in which Ace half thinks he’s going to refuse, but then he reaches up to take her hand, and the muscles in her arm flex as she hauls him up. She finds herself, quite unexpectedly, smiling. The Doctor’s presence doesn’t fix things, it doesn’t make the horrors she’s seen and the wounds of the War any less, but just for now, she thinks, just for now, he fills some of that hole in her chest. Just for now, she’s not the only one.

So she brings him back to her room in Villemomble, and he expresses shock at how small it is, and she mocks him for being unused to roughing it. She strips down to her underwear to sleep, and demands that he at least take off his shoes if he’s going to share the bed with her. He goes so far as his t-shirt (black, like the rest of his clothes), and they both clamber onto the bed, too small, really, for two, and curl into each other, and breathe, and doze in the dark. It’s the first time in years she’s had a person to hold onto.

Maybe tomorrow they’ll have sex. Maybe tomorrow they’ll go on an adventure. Maybe she’ll find out if there’s a garage in the TARDIS where she can park her bike. She’ll see. But Ace doesn’t like to think too much on tomorrows.