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Shadows of the Past

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29 August 5192 (Earth Standard Date)

Doctor Moon, in orbit around the Library

(Four Standard Days Previously)

 

The TARDIS came to a landing with its usual grinding and groaning, and with a shudder it stopped at its destination.

To be honest, the Doctor didn’t want to be there.

However, the note that had been on the psychic paper had been urgent, and he knew from experience that Phillip Coulson-Jones wasn’t given to flights of over-imagination.  So, he’d gone along with it, and there he was…

No, he didn’t want to think about what had occurred there, so long ago and yet not all that far in the past.

He’d done what Phillip had asked, and left his companion, Clara, behind with her parents.  The Doctor didn’t really like travelling alone, but he’d agreed with the request simply because he didn’t feel like answering all the questions Clara would have.  As a matter of fact, he actually hadn’t introduced Clara to hardly any of the extended family he’d seemed to gained over the course of this regeneration.  Merlin had met her, of course, but for some reason neither of them had admitted their relationship.  He really had no idea why that was. 

The Doctor grabbed his coat from where he’d thrown it over the railing near the door, and then made his way out of the TARDIS.  As he stepped over the threshold he felt a sudden sense of support, and he stroked his fingers against the wood-like surface of his machine as he closed the door behind him.

The room he’d materialised in was plain, almost like a small cupboard only lined with metal.  There was a door, standing open to reveal a corridor beyond. 

Phillip Coulson-Jones was waiting for him.

The man hadn’t changed at all since the last time the Doctor had seen him, but that didn’t really surprise him all that much.  The current Director of the Torchwood Institute wasn’t wearing the usual black uniform tunic; instead, Phillip was dressed almost casually for the man, in a pair of black trousers, blue pullover, and sensible shoes; the brown leather of what looked like a Vortex Manipulator peeked out from under one of his sleeves.  If the Doctor didn’t know better he would have sworn that Phillip was just a normal man, and not the immortal Director of an organisation that had mapped the destiny of the current Human Empire since its beginnings.

If the Doctor was honest with himself – and he always tried to be, until he wasn’t – Phillip’s immortality fascinated and horrified him in equal measure.  The Time Lord was well aware of just what had gone into Phillip’s particular brand of immortality…a combination of magic and technology that should never have occurred, and that had caused such misery to the person it had been done to. 

He really couldn’t tell by looking at him that the man standing there was immortal; not like he could Jack, and to smaller extent Ianto and their children.  The Doctor wasn’t so sure that was a good thing.

“Doctor,” Phillip greeted him.  He seemed friendly enough, so this couldn’t be over something that the Time Lord had inadvertently done.

“Director Coulson!” the Doctor said in return, walking right up to the man and shaking his hand enthusiastically.  A small part of him would always be wary of the man, simply because of how dangerous he was, but he did genuinely like Phillip.  He was a good man in a difficult job, and could always be counted on doing the best he possibly could.

Phillip took his hand back in such a way that the Doctor didn’t even feel insulted.  “Thank you for coming.”

“You made it sound serious.”

“It is.”  Phillip ushered him out of the room and into the corridor.  It was short, leading toward what resembled a control room. There were various pieces of equipment around, and he thought they might be for communications and monitoring.  “I’m just sorry it had to be here…I know what this place means to you.”

The Doctor could tell he was being genuine, and he waved off the apology.  “No, if you needed me here, then here I am.”

“I wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t necessary.”  He motioned to one of the two chairs.

The Doctor took it, sprawling as if he felt perfectly relaxed…which he wasn’t, of course.  Not be a long shot.  “So…what’s going on?” 

Phillip sank into one of the other chairs, and the Doctor could tell just how tired he was.  “Yesterday,” he began, “I received an alarm from this facility – “

“Just what do you do here?” the Doctor enquired.  “It looks like some sort of automated listening post if I know my equipment…and I do, of course.”

Phillip didn’t even react to that.  “Yes, it is.  Torchwood set this and the satellite system up to make sure any idiots didn’t get it into their heads to visit the Library looking to loot the place.  It was the best we could do once the planetary shields had been taken down, during the last expedition here.”

The Time Lord flinched at the allusion to the events that had led to the second abandonment of the Library. The Lux family had hacked the shields in order to get back into the Library, and there hadn’t been a way to get them back up.

What Torchwood had done made sense.  The Doctor was well aware that there were people out there who wouldn’t have been able to resist the lure of the Library, even though it was as close to a death sentence as one could get to set foot on the planet’s surface.  “And do you get a lot of them?  Idiots, I mean.”

“In the beginning, yes.  But as rumours got around that no one returned from the Library, they petered out.  We hadn’t had an attempted incursion in nearly fifty years.”

The Doctor wasn’t at all sure what he was needed there for.  It seemed as if Torchwood had things well in hand, and he said so.

“I wouldn’t have called you if this had been just a normal case of privateers thinking they could get around the Vashta Nerada,” Phillip answered.  “In fact, I ignored the original alarm that came through my comm, knowing that anyone setting foot within the Library wouldn’t last long, and if they did, I’d be able to send an Imperial Patrol ship after them to make certain they weren’t bringing anything out they shouldn’t.  It was…well, the other readings I received about an hour later from the equipment here that triggered the Director Level alert that brought me out here.”

The utter seriousness in his expression had the Doctor sitting up and leaning forward.  “What happened?”

Phillip ran his hand through his thinning hair, and if that wasn’t a tell that something was seriously wrong then nothing was.  Phillip Coulson-Jones was about as unflappable as they came, and for him to be showing such a case of nerves was unheard of in the Doctor’s experience with the immortal.

“There was a sudden burst of energy from the planet’s surface.”  Phillip sighed. “It was as if a bomb had gone off down below.  But the readings…it wasn’t any sort of technological device that had put out that burst of energy…”

The Doctor stiffened.  “It was magic.”  Really, if anyone would have recognised a magical burst, it would have been the man sitting opposite him, with him being a mage and all.

The Director nodded.  “The burst was so powerful it wiped out at least two-thirds of the Vashta Nerada on the planet.”

The Time Lord whistled.  “There can’t be that many wizards in the Universe with that sort of power…” he stopped talking, his mind catching up with what he’d just said.

His hearts beat once, out of sync, and he suddenly couldn’t breathe.

Phillip must have read his mind, because he nodded once more.  “I wanted to ask his advice on what had happened,” he said, “and because I didn’t want to believe it, but…”  he didn’t want to say it, it was obvious from the tiredness in his eyes, but he swallowed and went on.  “I checked.  He was supposed to have been on New Avalon, but he’d gone missing a couple of days ago and no one even knew he’d left.”

“No no no no no…”  The Doctor was up and out of his chair, denying what Phillip was saying.  “That’s not possible…”

Now he knew why Phillip had sent for him, and why he’d made it sound so important.  If what he was beginning to suspect was true…

“You know him,” Phillip pressed on. “You know he’s always wanted to find some way to save her…”

“But he can’t!”  The Doctor was pacing, so full of energy now that he couldn’t be restrained.  There was no way to do what his son had often wished for…

To bring his mother back to life.

The Doctor had been there, in his former regeneration.  His Tenth self had met River Song for the first – and last – time down in the Library, and that was where he’d lost her for good, preventing him from sacrificing himself to rescue the souls that had been ‘saved’ within the computer that still ran the Library and its systems, and its immense Data Core, where Cal existed…and where he’d sent the mind of the woman he’d loved in order to save at least a part of her, long before he’d even known how he’d felt about her. 

Yes, River’s mind was somewhere within the Library, but her body was long dead.  There was no way to reunite them.  And Merlin hadn’t even been able to go and visit her there, what with the Vashta Nerada having taken over.

The Doctor knew just how much Merlin missed his mother.  It was actually one of the reasons he stayed away from his only son, because he just couldn’t handle being around him and seeing her in his features, and his loneliness for his parents even though he had an entire family surrounding him.  The Doctor loved his son more than anything, but he knew in his hearts he just couldn’t be what Merlin needed.

Maybe that had been a mistake.

Maybe if he’d been around more often, Merlin wouldn’t have wished to find his mother quite so badly.

“There are certain rules regarding magic,” Phillip continued.  “One of those basic rules is a life for a life.  And if it was him and he was down there, and responsible for killing all those Vashta Nerada in order to get Professor Song back…”

“No,” the Doctor denied adamantly.  “Merlin’s no killer, and that’s dark magic.  He wouldn’t do something like that.  You know him, Phillip…you know how he is.  He can’t even swat a fly!”

He was suddenly very angry at the notion that this human had dared to think that Merlin would have been responsible for what had been a near-act of genocide against the Vashta Nerada in the Library.  Yes, the creatures were dangerous if they were in a large enough swarm – and face it, that was what the entire Library was, a trillion trillion strong swarm – but they were doing no harm down on the planet below.  These Vashta Nerada were particularly vicious, but if the Doctor really thought about it they had a right to be.   That was their forest down there, and they were merely protecting it from interlopers.  Merlin would understand that. 

They were also sentient in gestalt, and killing so many would have whipped the others into a frenzy.  Nothing living down there would survive for long, so whoever had set off that magical bomb would most likely be dead when the rest of the creatures moved into the area in order to defend their lost kin. 

Phillip slumped in his seat.  “I know,” he admitted.  “I think I just needed to hear you say it.”

The Doctor was somewhat mollified by the director’s words. 

“But Merlin is still missing,” Phillip went on.  “There was a sudden burst of magic down in the Library that really only one person could have conjured.  We need to find out what caused it, and find the ones responsible.  The Vashta Nerada might be voracious, but they still are a registered life form, and it’s within Torchwood’s purview to investigate such an act…”

“Of course I’m going to help,” the Doctor waved off the unspoken question.  “I do agree with your supposition that Merlin is somehow involved, but I just don’t think he’s responsible.”  And there was a difference. 

Phillip seemed to know that as well, because he nodded.  “I’m with you on that, although I have to say that desperate people do tend to do desperate things…”

The Doctor couldn’t argue with that.  He’d seen enough of that in his time…he’d been one of those desperate people as well, and was well aware just what a person was capable of when they thought they either didn’t have anything to lose, or believed there wasn’t anything else they could do. 

“So,” he said, clapping his hands together, “do we use your wrist strap to get down there, or take the TARDIS?  And is it just us, or are you going to be calling in the troops?”  He would have rather handled it himself; soldiers tended to make things messier.

“I want to keep this just between the two of us for now, because as far as I’m concerned it’s family business until we know otherwise.  And this isn’t a teleport.”  Phillip pushed his sleeve up, revealing the leather about his wrist…or really, his forearm.  “It’s my shield generator, left over from my days on the Shieldsmen.”  He shrugged, one shouldered.  “Old habits are hard to break.  I got here using the transmat we set up on this post when we first built it.”

That shouldn’t have surprised the Doctor more than it did.  He supposed he was so used to seeing a Vortex Manipulator on various wrists that it became second nature to assume that was what it was.  He really should have known better; his son and his mate had been the ones to shut down the Time Agency and to retrieve all of the Manipulators out there, as best they could.

But then, Phillip Coulson had been the one to suggest the Time Agency in the first place.

Talk about a causal loop…he was looking at the man at the heart of a doozy.  It was one of the major reasons the Doctor never went back and tore into Nicholas Fury for doing what he’d done.  Phillip Coulson-Jones had become a fixed point within the timelines, only in a different way from a certain other immortal of his acquaintance.

“And I don’t trust the Library’s original transporter,” Phillip went on, tugging his sleeve back down.  “I don’t want Cal to think she’s ‘saving’ us and we end up in the Data Core.”

The Doctor hid his slight flinch at that, reacting to the reminder even though he knew Phillip didn’t mean it the way the Time Lord’s unconsciousness wanted to accept it. He’d put River’s mind into the core, and while it had seemed like a win-win situation at the time, he’d had a chance to rethink it and wonder if he hadn’t just managed to torture at least two people with the knowledge that River was out there, but unreachable.

Perhaps it would have been better to have had something to grieve over.

‘Then it’s by TARDIS then,” he said, trying to sound flippant.  Although, judging from Phillip’s expression he’d failed horribly.

The man reached out, snagging the cuff of the Doctors’ coat.  His eyes were solemn as he said, “I really am sorry that I had to call you in on this.”

The thing was, the Doctor could tell he was completely sincere.  Phillip was apologetic at having to involve him in something that was going to rake up old memories and cause him actual hearts’ ache. 

Once again, the Doctor was amazed at humankind’s ability to be so completely sympathetic.

But then, it could have just been the man who was sitting in that chair, with the hands that were, if possible, even colder than a Time Lord’s and was quite possibly one of the most dangerous people the Doctor could ever hope to meet.

He was really glad that Phillip was not an enemy.  The Doctor wasn’t certain he would have been able to defeat him very easily.

The Doctor didn’t answer; he simply nodded once, acknowledging the apology and forgiving him for it.  From the small, genuine smile he received, Phillip understood his silent communication completely.

“Let me get a few things together,” the ice mage said, standing, and releasing his grip.  “I have a scanner and some powerful torches we can use, and hopefully that will keep the Vashta Nerada at bay without having to kill any more of them.”

“I’ll wait for you at the TARDIS.”

The Doctor turned and left the room, without watching Phillip leave, lost in thought.  Back during his last regeneration, he’d been so against Torchwood he’d let that also colour his opinion of Jack and Ianto, but he’d long ago realised just how wrong it had been to tar Jack’s version and the one under Yvonne Hartman with the same brush. Yes, they did things he didn’t necessarily agree with – the Master being one of them – but then, if everyone agreed with him then the universe would be a very dull place.  Plus, he could see their reasoning for doing what they’d done, although it had taken the Doctor a long time for that.  There was a small part of him that would never completely forgive Ianto for killing the Master, and for Jack for condoning it, but he could also understand the need to act in vengeance against someone who hurt a loved one.  He’d done the same thing himself a couple of times.

Phillip not wanting to injure the Vashta Nerada unless it was necessary was just one more tick in the “Torchwood is a Force for Good in the Universe” box.

Not that he didn’t already know that, of course.  It was just nice to have it reinforced.

The TARDIS was humming in greeting when he laid a hand against her warm wooden door.  “Looks like we’re going to be heading back down to the Library, old girl,” he murmured against her bright blue paint.  “Didn’t think we’d ever be doing that again.”

The silent support he felt from her was soothing, and he closed his eyes, resting his forehead against his oldest friend.  Sometimes he wished he could still speak to her face-to-face, but that just wasn’t meant to be. 

“Are you alright?”

The Doctor turned to regard Phillip, a rucksack over his shoulder, looking concerned.  That expression warmed him almost as the TARDIS’ acceptance did, although he couldn’t explain why.

“I’m just fine,” he answered, “well, by fine I mean I’m heading down to the place where my wife died, but other than that…yep, just fine.”

That earned him an eye roll that looked fond.  It left the Doctor wondering why he’d never really got to know this man better than he had.  He got the feeling that Phillip would have made an excellent companion. 

“As long as we’re both fine,” he said dryly, “why don’t we get this show on the road?”

“That is an excellent idea.”  With a flourish, the Doctor had the TARDIS door open and was ushering Torchwood’s Director inside. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been inside the TARDIS,” he commented as he stepped over the threshold.  “I’ve heard about it, of course…”

With that, his voice faded, and the Doctor felt unbelievably smug at having knocked the usually unperturbable immortal into silence.