29 August 5192 (Earth Standard Date)
(Four Standard Days Previously)
The Doctor had the TARDIS materialise in the same place she had, all those years ago.
He really didn’t want to do this. There was a reason he didn’t revisit places unless he had to, but only this one was because he’d lost a wife to it. He’d been married many times before, and had lost family, but then he couldn’t go back to Gallifrey any longer, either, even if he chose to.
This planet, though…the Doctor knew it was different this time because of the circumstances. At the time, he hadn’t known what River would come to mean to him. That she would grow so close to him that, one day, he would marry her and she would have his only living son.
Well, the married part he’d guessed. River had known his true name, and there was only one reason he would give that to anyone.
When he met her again, in this regeneration, the Doctor hadn’t been exactly pleasant to her when he’d figured out that they weren’t that close yet. Then, there’d been the part where she’d been in prison for supposedly killing someone important…and it had been him that she’d been found guilty of murdering, and even though she’d known the truth she’d let them bundle her off to the Stormcage without a single argument.
She could break out whenever she wished, but that was beside the point.
River had finally been set free – because no one could remember the Doctor and why she’d been jailed in the first place, which was an entirely different adventure, thank you very much! – but it had eventually led her to the Library, where she’d given her life to save the people in the Data Core, including his then-companion, Donna Noble.
There were times when the Doctor really missed Donna. She would have kicked him in the backside and told him to quit moping.
The clear chime of the landing sounded through the console room. He took a deep breath, readying himself for what was about to happen. “We’ve arrived.”
Phillip nodded. He was standing on the opposite side of the console, and the Doctor could just make him out through the time rotor. “Let’s hope we’re not too late.”
The Doctor hoped that as well. “Did you have any luck tracking any sort of life signs beyond the Vashta Nerada?”
“No. It was simple to keep track of the Vashta Nerada because there were just so many of them. But I do have a detector, so hopefully that will show something up before we have to search the entire planet.”
“I landed us in an area that’s now Vashta Nerada free,” the Doctor said. “But it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye out. They’ll be out for blood because of what happened.”
“And the last thing I want to do is test my immortality against a swarm of carnivorous dust mites.” It was said in a tone so dry the Doctor wondered why he wasn’t suddenly parched.
“Not a good idea, no.”
Torchwood’s Director had the rucksack perched up on the side of the console, and was rooting around inside. He pulled out a short-barrelled torch, handing it over. The Doctor accepted it, recognising state of the art arc reactor technology. This torch wouldn’t go out unless it was broken beyond repair. It was really decent kit.
Phillip then produced a gun.
Something of the Doctor’s distaste must have shown on his face, because the immortal said, “It’s a stun gun. I want to take whoever’s responsible for this alive if possible. They need to be turned over to the Adjudicator’s Guild for trial.”
Okay, he could go along with that.
The stun gun got tucked into Phillip’s belt at the small of his back. Next came out a compact, hand-held device, which the Doctor immediately identified as a portable scanner. That would certainly help keep them away from any sort of rampaging Vashta Nerada as well as the ones who’d set off the magical bomb that had whipped said Vashta Nerada into a frenzy.
Then he had an idea.
“Phillip, your cold powers might also be a deterrent against the Vashta Nerada…” He hated to ask, being well aware of the fact that the immortal hadn’t been all at comfortable with his magic for a very long time, and that it had been fairly recently that he’d come to grips with it.
Phillip considered, but didn’t seem repulsed by the idea. “I can create a form of cold fire that will not only lower the temperature in our general vicinity, but will also be a strong enough light to use to navigate around with. The cold won’t bother you, then?”
“No, I can take quite a lot of cold before I start to get uncomfortable.” He didn’t mention that time in Antarctica, or the Ood Homeworld. Now, that had been cold.
He made to hand the torch back, but Philip shook his head. “You might need that if something happens to my magic. I’m going to take one along with us as well, just in case. I’ll have it in my bag.” He zipped up the rucksack and slung it back over his shoulder.
The Doctor slipped the torch into his pocket, accepting that Phillip was correct. He didn’t want to think that something would happen to either of them, but they were heading into a situation where someone – or a group of someones – had already committed near-genocide against an alien race that wasn’t doing them any harm. No matter what they’d thought was there at the Library, murdering all of those Vashta Nerada hadn’t been worth it.
It also felt like a desecration.
When they’d all been forced out of the Library by the time limit imposed upon them by the Vashta Nerada, no one had thought to collect the bodies of the dead, as the living took precedence. Down in the core, River was still in that chair where she’d died, and the Doctor very much doubted that the Vashta Nerada had left her alone. He didn’t want to go down there to check, either.
He preferred to remember River as she had been: a vivacious, flirty sociopath who, despite her thieving proclivities, had still been one of the best people he’d ever known. He didn’t want her resting place disturbed.
The Doctor wasn’t superstitious at all, but he couldn’t help the shiver down his spine when he and Phillip stepped out of the TARDIS and into the Library proper.
The sun was up, but the large reading room they’d materialised within was gloomy, shadows peering around the corners and stretching across the wooden flooring. The air was too still, feeling uncirculated, as if the atmospheric pumps had gone down in the years since the last time he’d been there. Dust motes danced in the streams of light from the high windows, and for a second the Doctor was worried that they would be facing the Vashta Nerada immediately, despite knowing that they’d all been killed in this area of the Library.
A blue-white light blossomed into existence, and the Doctor looked up; above his head, a ball of fire floated, letting off a chill that soaked through his jacket and made his skin feel slightly clammy. It wasn’t bothersome, really, and he did think that it would fend off any random Vashta Nerada they were bound to run into. There was a reason the Vashta Nerada liked floating amid sunbeams while resting, even if they were far more active and deadly in the shadows.
Phillip stood beside him, his scanner out. He panned it around the room, announcing, “I’m not reading anything here.”
“Of course not,” the Doctor said smugly. “I can pilot just fine, thanks.”
The immortal looked up from his scanner, raising a single, accusatory eyebrow in his direction. He didn’t have to say a single word; the Doctor could interpret that gesture just fine.
“Oi!” he exclaimed. “I do know how to fly the TARDIS, thank you very much!”
“I’m sure,” was the deadpan comment.
Alright, the Doctor knew there were few times – well, maybe a lot of times – that he didn’t end up where he’d planned to. But he knew the TARDIS always got him where he needed to be, and that was the important thing, wasn’t it?
He reached back and gave the TARDIS a light pat. Her laughter fluttered against his mind, and not for the first time he wished that she could talk to him like she’d once been able to. Still, feeling her there, knowing she loved him, was enough.
Jack and Ianto might have been mates for eternity, but the TARDIS was the Doctor’s eternal companion. He’d nearly lost her so many times, but they always made it through…together.
There was a faint beeping, and he glanced over at Phillip, who was reading the tiny screen on his detector. “I’m getting a couple of faint life signs, at the edge of this thing’s range.” He pointed toward the left. “That way.”
“Then let’s see who’s behind all this and get my son back, shall we?”
Phillip nodded, looking grim. The Doctor could relate, because if these people had hurt Merlin he wasn’t going to guarantee them getting to trial in pristine condition.
Trial, yes. Phillip had that right.
As they made their way deeper into the silent Library, the Doctor couldn’t help but feel just how wrong their surroundings were. There should be people here: students, and academics; anyone seeking out the knowledge that was in the shelves around them. Certainly, anyone could discover what was in the books that were now gathering dust on any number of worlds, but not all in one place, like this.
Still, the Library had been doomed even before it had been completed. By unintentionally using the trees that the Vashta Nerada had called their homes to make the books here, the Lux family had begun the events that had led to so much death and the loss of so much concentrated knowledge.
He couldn’t fault them for the idea, though. The Doctor still wasn’t sure about putting the mind of a dying child into the central Data Core, but the Library itself had been a triumph for the time that it had been opened to anyone in the Empire. The Nodes were a bit creepy, though…he wondered if the one that resembled Donna was still active.
He hoped not.
Yes, this place was wrong now. So very wrong.
He’d had an education on just what the word had meant, and by his own son, when he’d once asked him why he didn’t feel just how wrong Jack was. Merlin had been surprised by the question, before saying that Jack wasn’t wrong, despite being a fixed point. He’d explained about how he saw Jack: like a stone in the middle of a great river, the river – being Time itself – flowing around him as he simply stood in the centre of it. Merlin had pointed out that, just because the rock was partially blocking the flow didn’t mean the rock didn’t belong there, or that the river didn’t affect the rock at all. Indeed, Time was slowly weathering Jack as water did that rock, until one day it would wear him away until nothing was left.
It had led to the Doctor seeing Jack in a new light, and realising that Merlin was totally spot on.
One day, Jack would die. The Doctor knew that would be billions of years in the future and, on that day, his mate would die with him. He didn’t know when, or how, but it would happen, and then the flow of Time would be the steady river it had once been. Until then, though, Jack would affect things in ways no one could foresee. He’d already done it, with Torchwood and the family he’d created.
It had also led him to realise that Jack had always been meant to exist as an immortal. That he wasn’t unnatural at all, as his last regeneration had claimed. So many of the universe’s events sat squarely on his and his family’s shoulders, that the only choice it had had was to create him in order to keep from fading into heat death that much faster. Jack was needed; he truly was the stone that kept events anchored, that made certain things possible where they wouldn’t have been without an impossible immortal pushing them along.
The Doctor shook himself out of his thoughts. There was a time and a place, and walking through a deserted Library with the possibility of being eaten by voracious Vashta Nerada wasn’t it.
The only sounds were their footsteps and the soft beeping of the detector that Phillip was using to guide them along. They passed the shop that the Doctor remembered so well, the glass of the window frosted with dust and neglect. He’d joked about the place needing a shop at the time, and Donna had rolled her eyes at him in that way she had.
His memories of the Library were almost as fixed a point as Jack Harkness was.
The chill of Phillip’s cold fire was getting to him in a way that coldness just didn’t do, and it took the Doctor a moment to figure out that it wasn’t just that affecting him; it was the very atmosphere of the Library itself, and he silently told himself to suck it up and get on with things. He couldn’t allow it to distract him, not if his son was in danger somewhere.
They were on the steps leading down into the immense gallery when he saw it.
The Doctor’s steps stuttered, and he almost took a header down the rest of the way. In the brilliant cold light of his companion’s magic he could just make it out: a small, blue rectangle that seemed free of the interminable dust that layered almost everything else, and it called to him like a siren’s song.
Phillip’s cool hand was on his elbow, steadying him. “Are you alright?” he asked, his concerned words swallowed by the gallery.
Steadying himself with the help of his friend – and yes, while he might not have known Phillip as well as he could have, he did consider the immortal a friend – he took the steps down toward that single object he’d left there, centuries ago in his timeline but about ninety years linearly. He could read it now, having lived its contents, and suddenly the Time Lord wanted it more than anything, not for himself…but for the son he’d unintentionally abandoned because he’d favoured his mother so closely that the Doctor sometimes couldn’t stand to see him.
That had been a mistake in more ways than one. He should have taken comfort in his son, cherishing his lost wife in him instead of pushing him away. Well, he was going to change that, as soon as he got Merlin out of the mess it seemed he’d gotten himself into.
He didn’t even register his hand shaking when he picked up the worn leather diary from where he’d placed it.
“This was hers,” he answered quietly, not even needing to say her name because he just knew that Phillip would understand. “I left it here, because at the time I didn’t know her, and didn’t want to read anything that might change my personal timeline.”
Phillip didn’t say anything. For one of the most dangerous men in the universe, he could certainly be sympathetic.
The Doctor slipped the diary into his pocket. For Merlin, he told himself. Their son deserved to know more about his mother.
He glanced upward, toward the dome in the ceiling that was letting in the sunlight. Glittering specks danced within the streams, and the Doctor had to wonder if it was the regrouping Vashta Nerada or if it was something as simple as dust.
He couldn’t think like that.
Together, they continued on.