"We're all stories, in the end."
-- The Doctor
Stepping out onto the top of the Carrock is like nothing else he's ever experienced. The wind is biting, dressed as he is for much warmer weather, but the sky is clear and nothing obscures his vision. Ahead lies the Lonely Mountain, standing tall and proud and very, very real, and it takes his breath away, makes his mind reel with questions, possibilities, history.
But this isn't how it begins. In a different world and a different time, a blue box lands somewhere in New Zealand, where a group of people are beginning their journey of pretending to be dwarves that (supposedly) never existed. A tall, dark-haired man looks up from his script when the door opens. A young-looking man jumps out with a smile.
And that is how they meet.
The hotel room looks unoccupied, which would be normal, except Richard has just invited him in so clearly this is where he spends what little free time they have.
"And Mark calls my room absurdly clean," he remarks. "Has he seen yours?"
Richard smiles, but the more Graham sees, the stronger that little nagging feeling becomes. Then he notices Richard's suitcase next to the wardrobe, clearly still full despite the convenient piece of furniture it's placed beside.
"Planning a trip?"
Richard turns an interesting shade of petrified. "I just haven't had the chance to unpack."
Which Graham finds hard to believe, because even Aidan, the biggest procrastinator he has ever had the misfortune of meeting, unpacked his bags during the first weekend they spent here.
But all he says is, "It's probably because you insist on running lines all the time," and Richard takes it for the teasing Graham only half meant it to be, and quickly changes the subject to said lines.
He doesn't mention it again, but he can't help dwelling on it. When he returns to his room he stares at the neat row of shirts and trousers hanging in his own wardrobe, the messy bathroom counter, the shoes that are scattered all over the floor because he can't be arsed to tidy them up. The room looks as if someone is planning on staying.
He falls asleep thinking of Richard's, and how the unpacked suitcases feel almost like an omen.
When Richard steps through the blue door, he can't help his gasp. The interior is bright but inviting, filled with more levers and gadgets than he can count. The mechanical devices whir and hum, a cacophony of background noise that sets him at ease despite the strangeness of it all. The Doctor is standing in the middle, observing him with a smile.
"It's amazing," he breathes as his eyes drink their fill.
The Doctor looks pleased. "She's a beauty, isn't she?" His hand slides lovingly over the console he's standing by, and for a moment the humming intensifies. "Right then! Where'd you like to go?"
Richard thinks of all the dreams he had as a child and discards them. "Anywhere."
The Doctor pulls a lever, presses a few buttons, dances to the other side of the console and turns a knob. The blue box -- the TARDIS, he'd called it -- begins to shake, and Richard reaches for the metal bar running along the sides. "How about a taste of the past, ey?"
There's a strange sound, and the TARDIS stops moving. The Doctor goes to stand before the door. "Richard! Such an English name, full of history." He beckons, and Richard obligingly steps forward. "Now, behind this door is one of the most famous people to bear that name. The year is 1191, and I think we're just in time for his wedding."
Heart pounding, Richard opens the door and steps outside.
"This doesn't look like a wedding," the Doctor remarks, but Richard knows exactly where they are. He watches, awed, as the crown is placed upon the head of the man who is his namesake. Richard III, King of England, stands and turns to greet his subjects, and Richard is smiling so wide he thinks his face must surely crack.
"Well, it's not Richard I, sorry," the Doctor says.
Richard turns to him, still grinning. "This is better."
Travelling with the Doctor pours petrol over his imagination. Whenever he thinks, this is it, nothing can be more wondrous than this, the TARDIS opens to a new planet, a different era, in the midst of an event that is happening and has happened and will happen all at the same time. The exhilaration makes him dizzy, which isn't helped any by the frankly astonishing amount of running they have to do. But that turns out to be quite useful in its own right -- when he takes a break from his travels to resume the dwarven bootcamp, right where he left off, none of his fellow actors can match his stamina.
They've just managed to successfully escape from the space pirates chasing them when Richard finally makes up his mind. "You asked me where I wanted to go, before," he says, and the Doctor turns to him with eyes alight, ready for another adventure.
"Where're we off to, then?"
Richard's heart begins to pound, and he takes a deep breath. "I'd like to meet Professor Tolkien."
He runs into Richard by the lifts, literally. "I was just looking for you," he says as he reaches out to steady his fellow actor. Richard's face is flushed, lips stretched in a wide grin, and Graham feels his own twitching in response. "Did I miss something amusing?"
"No, nothing like that." He sounds just a little bit out of breath, and it piques Graham's interest. Richard has been disappearing often of late. Never when there's work to be done -- the man is punctual and dedicated to a fault -- but on the few occasions he's gone out with the rest of the lads, Richard was nowhere to be found.
"We're going out tomorrow night," he says. "You've missed the past few dwarf outings, and I've been instructed to tell you that attendance for this one is obligatory."
Richard huffs a laugh. "Yeah, sorry. I've been a bit busy. But I'll be there this time, promise."
"Have you been spending all your time at the gym?" Because Graham has noticed that Richard's stamina suddenly increased tenfold, and that his forearms underwent some rather attractive sculpting when he wasn't looking.
Richard worried at his bottom lip with his teeth. "I've been doing a different kind of training. Bit of a mix of the physical and mental stuff."
"Knowing you, that probably means you were reading the bloody book while lifting weights."
"I'm not that bad," Richard protests with a laugh. Graham just raises his eyebrows. "All right, maybe I am. But it's--"
"An important role, yes, I remember you saying that a couple of times before." Richard ducks his head, but not before Graham glimpses the light flush staining his cheeks. He grins and claps Richard on the shoulder. "Consider drinking as part of your training to be a dwarf, then. Think how embarrassing it would be if Thorin couldn't hold his liquor."
Another laugh, and the sound sends a pleasant tingle along Graham's spine. "We're meeting in the pub at eight," he says as he fights off a sudden shiver. "If you're not there, I'm sending Martin to get you."
And that, as they both know, is no idle threat.
There are, apparently, quite a few conditions.
"I can't cross my own timeline," the Doctor warns. "It'll create a paradox, and those never end well."
"But you're not always there," Richard points out. "Gandalf was gone quite often in the book."
"I had a different crisis to take care of." The Doctor dismisses said crisis with a wave of his hand. "But that's not important. Now, I think the best place for you to meet them would be in Lake Town. You won't stick out too much there."
His heart skips a beat. "Can I talk to them?"
"Yes, yes, but you'll need-- wait, let me think-- ah yes, this should fit you." The outfit thrust into his hands doesn't look anything like the sketches he's seen of the citizens of Lake Town. For one, it's far more colourful. "Now, there's one more thing."
"What?" Richard asks, dubiously holding up the strange trousers.
"You can talk to them, but you can't try to influence anything. Don't tell them about their future, and don't try to dissuade them from it."
"But why not? You change the future all the time." The wound left on Professor Tolkien's soul by his adventure on the planet he dubbed Middle Earth was still fresh and gaping when Richard met him. Watching his new friends die on yet another battle field after months spent in their company robbed him of his passion for travel, and it was soon after that he said goodbye to the Doctor. "If I could change one thing about that time, it'd be that," he said. "Needless deaths, all of them."
"Because some events are fixed, locked in time and space. Even I can't meddle with them."
"But didn't you meddle the first time, when you and Professor Tolkien travelled with the company?"
"No, because that was already part of it. We did what we were supposed to do."
Richard subsides with a sigh. "All right, even though I don't understand it."
The Doctor gives him a cheerful smile. "I'm so glad to finally have a companion who listens. Go get changed while I set the coordinates."
Richard studiously keeps his head lowered and scrubs the wooden table with more force than strictly necessary. The group of thirteen dwarves and one literature professor turned burglar is dining somewhere to his left. There's raucous laughter, clouds of billowing smoke and the occasional chunk of bread, cheese or a tomato flying through the air. He struggles not to draw attention to himself -- just another lad working at the inn -- and keeps his amusement to slight twitches of his lips. Even Thorin is making merry, he is glad to see.
But he can see the weight of the mountain upon the dwarf king's shoulders during the quiet moments, and he isn't the only one. Professor Tolkien's eyes often stray to Thorin, and he lingers long after most of the other dwarves have taken to their beds. They talk quietly together, Thorin nodding seriously at some of the things the professor tells him. Richard can't hear the words, but he does see how the lines around Thorin's face soften the longer they spend with their heads bent together.
He wishes once more for a better end to their story.
Graham is one of the last to arrive at the pub, but there are still two chairs left empty after he sits down.
"Martin went to drag Richard away from his script," Aidan says, tracking his gaze. He grins. "Wasn't pleased about it either. Drink?"
Martin and Richard enter the pub then, and Graham hides his grin behind his glass. Martin looks incredibly put-upon, and Richard is following him much like a scolded child. Martin sits down next to Adam, leaving the chair next to Graham for Richard. He smiles warmly, and Richard's cheeks colour. "I forgot what day it was," he murmurs, and Martin scowls.
"Any more of this and you'll be needing an intervention."
"I'm not a workaholic," Richard protests wearily, clearly something he's said before. Everyone grows quiet and stares at him in disbelief. "I'm not!"
"What've you been doing with your free time the past few days then?" James asks.
Richard opens his mouth then snaps it shut again. His brow furrows. "I've been at the gym a lot," he finally says, and the group erupts into laughter. Graham gives him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
"Give it up," he advises, and Richard settles down with a sigh.
"Someone promised me drinks," he says, and Jed gamely gets up to buy the next round.
Richard relaxes in stages. Graham watches with a mix of fascination and amusement as, with every round of drinks, the tension seems to seep out of the serious actor until he begins to slump a little in his chair. After that, it's a short journey to lilting sideways. Graham surreptitiously scoots his chair closer, and Richard leans against him with a sweet smile. His cheeks are flushed from the scotch Dean and Aidan have been plying him with, and his smile causes the crow feet at his eyes to crinkle. Graham helplessly smiles back.
He remains eloquent even when drunk, though his logic does suffer some deterioration. Something he said has Adam and Ian in stitches. He grins behind his beard, clearly pleased, and Graham's mind stutters. He's a grown man, for God's sake, and so is Richard, and he shouldn't find this nearly as charming as he does.
And since when has he liked beards, anyway? He glances at Richard again, trying to remember when he grew it out, but having trouble thinking of anything beyond how it would feel scratching against his skin. All those hours at the gym, his mind whispers, and it'll all be hidden beneath a muscle suit. Such a shame.
He gulps down the rest of his drink and turns to Mark to give his brain something else to focus on.
In the middle of Mark's hilarious tale about his first audition, he feels a sudden, heavy weight against his side. He glances at Richard's dark head. Surprisingly long eyelashes sweep over his cheekbones, and his chest rises and falls evenly. He looks up to meet Martin's gaze, and shares a grin before curling an arm around Richard and turning back to Mark.
The water tugs at him, strong currents pushing his (safe, it's safe) barrel farther away from the shore. His wig and costume weigh on him, but that is nothing compared to the terror sitting heavily on his chest. Water makes his grip slick, and the rope, his last lifeline, slips out of his hands.
He can't even shout, because the rapid current covers his head for a moment. Gasping, he struggles to climb out of the deathtrap he finds himself in. But there is nothing to hold on to, no salvation this time, and this isn't at all how he would like to die.
Strong hands suddenly grip his arms. "Easy," someone says. There's more, lost to the sound of the water and his laboured breathing. At least he isn't moving anymore.
They carefully pull him up onto the shore. He crashes to his knees between them, heaving, and a kind hand rubs between his shoulder blades. "Breathe, Richard, you're fine now," a soothing voice says, and he clings to it until the white noise in his head dissipates. The Doctor's hand enters his vision and he looks up at his kind smile. "Can you stand?"
He nods, and the Doctor steadies him when he begins to shake. "You're not a stunty," he says, suddenly noticing the Doctor's weird getup.
The Doctor flashes a grin. "I wanted to see you at work! But I didn't want to stand out."
Richard nods, and is just about to give his heartfelt thanks when Graham comes rushing towards them. The Doctor studiously turns his face away from them, but waits for Graham to grasp his shoulder before slipping away.
"Are you all right?" Graham asks, eyes burning with something Richard can't quite put his finger on.
He tries on a smile, watery and shaky. "Just a bit terrified," he admits. He looks at his hand, huffs a laugh that doesn't sound like one. "I can't stop shaking."
Graham's hands are oddly gentle when he strips off the dwarven arms. He curls his warm palms around Richard's hands, not rubbing them but holding on, giving him an anchor, and Richard finds that he very much needs that at the moment. Someone places a blanket around his shoulders, which is when he notices how cold he is. The sound of the rushing river keeps trying to draw his attention, and he has to consciously stop himself from looking at it. He can still feel the water around him, merciless and uncaring. He shudders violently. Graham's worried gaze suddenly shows understanding, and just like that Richard finds himself tugged into a warm embrace.
He sighs and closes his eyes, lets himself lean against Graham. There's no water here, he tells himself, just warmth and safety. Graham smells of-- well, sweat, but there's a hint of citrus beneath that. Detergent, maybe, and he focuses on that, burrows into the comfort, and lets the rest of the vast universe fade away.
He opens the door to his trailer to find Richard on the other side. "Busy?"
Graham snorts and moves back so that Richard can enter. "Just checking my email before we head off." He frowns, suddenly suspicious. "You didn't come here to tell me you can't make it to dinner, did you?"
Richard laughs softly. "I wouldn't miss your birthday celebration. But I can't give you your present in front of the others."
Immediately, Graham's mind runs through a series of increasingly lascivious options, fuelled by the fact that Richard came empty-handed.
"It's outside." Richard proffers his hand and, feeling much younger than he is, Graham takes it and follows.
He is led some distance away from the trailers, towards a garishly blue phone booth he can't remember seeing before. It looks like an old prop, and Graham wonders if Richard hid his present inside.
Richard places his palm against the door with a smile, and pushes it open.
It's magic of the best kind. The view they have of Middle Earth, standing on top of the Carrock, takes Graham's breath away. It doesn't look like New Zealand or much like Peter Jackson's vision, but no less beautiful for all that, and far more real. Richard draws his attention towards a mountain standing in the distance, and Graham laughs incredulously.
"How long have you known?"
"I don't know, actually. Time gets a bit fuzzy when you travel with the Doctor." The Doctor, who looks vaguely familiar to Graham, is still inside the blue box, apparently chattering to himself as he fiddles with the buttons.
"Is all of it true?"
"With minor alterations."
"Bloody hell," Graham breathes, and Richard grins. The grin slowly fades to something soft, and he lifts his hand and slides it gently over Graham's shoulder. "Stray leaf," he murmurs, letting it slip from between his fingers and join its brethren in the air. Graham catches his eyes, heart pounding, and wonders if he dares.
But he doesn't have to, because a hand is curling around his neck, gently reeling him in, and he meets Richard's pliant mouth with his own.
Their lips move languidly against each other. Graham savours Richard's taste, the feel of him, warm and solid in his arms. For such a simple thing, the kiss feels monumental. "I've wanted to do this for a while," he confesses, and it makes Richard's eyes go dark blue, his body pressing closer, his mouth attacking Graham's with renewed fervour.
"Oi! Go make out on your own planet!"
Richard breaks away with an abashed grin and mumbles an apology. Graham's fingers are gently rubbing over Richard's scalp, and Richard turns his head to nuzzle into the touch. His beard scrapes against Graham's palm and he shivers. It feels just as good as he imagined it would, although it would no doubt feel even better somewhere else.
"Ready for your dinner?"
Graham takes one last look around the beautiful landscape, then back to the man who gave it to him. "It'll wait," he says, and delves in for another taste.