Outside the TARDIS doors, it begins to rain.
The Doctor shuts the rain out and walks up to the console, fingers trailing over a million navigation points like touchstones. He watches the Doctor with a feeling of detachment, still thrumming with adrenaline -- such a human thing.
"What about me?" he asks, to fill the silence. That's a human thing too.
The Doctor looks up at him, and that tilt to the Doctor's chin, the soft undisguised grief on his face, are as honest as they would be if he were entirely alone. "I don't know," the Doctor says.
He knows -- they both know -- he's responsible for Donna, back there in Chiswick instead of here, responsible from his first breath. He takes another (he needs so many, this constant in-and-out, the constant frantic beat of a single heart) and wants to offer to leave. He swallows and on the other side of the console the Doctor says, "You can't." He doesn't know if the Doctor is only guessing his thoughts or sees them.
He nods a little and leaves the Doctor alone there.
Two names fit comfortably inside his head: Donna, Doctor. Both are useless; here he sits, a shadow-copy (the most anomalous bloke I've ever met) hiding in the depths of the TARDIS from his other self. He watches his hand, strangely disconnected, scrawling Gallifreyan words on post-its he found in a stationary cupboard: one word, another, names that haven't fit comfortably in his head for a millennium. How ridiculous. He's hours old.
John Smith, he writes in Donna's English.
John Smith, he remembers, is small and frightened, feels everything with an intensity he cannot reign in. John Smith also smiles his way into and out of every dangerous situation on whole systems of planets, and that name --
They're floating aimlessly in the Vortex, which he knows from experience, not any innate sense in his human blood. Memory without feeling guides him back up the helix staircase to the console room. The Doctor is sitting cross-legged on the grating, playing simple human Solitaire.
He sits down across from the Doctor, limbs folded exactly like, and waits until the Doctor finishes his game and looks up. "John Smith," he says.
The Doctor blinks, a little flicker bound up in a complex of emotions and it hurts. "Right," the Doctor says.
Easy as that: delineating the real Doctor and the lie. That makes it no easier. John Smith struggles for a moment to breathe before remembering how. He thinks of all the things he might say and knows they're flashing through the Doctor's mind too. He watches the Doctor's hands shuffling the deck of playing cards.
"Deal me in," John Smith says.
John Smith sleeps on three separate occasions and completely loses all sense of time before the TARDIS touches down. The world is populated by large felines and a rotation of tourists. Nothing happens. John Smith drinks a meat-shake while the Doctor pretends to examine carpets, and the entire time he can feel the Doctor watching him, just making sure.
They skip stones across a wide purple river. The Doctor is better at it; no weakness in the wrist.
"I --" John Smith says, and "You could find someone."
The Doctor glances at him, washed-out and luminous under the neon light of the sky. (No, not really neon, they're under a Class A star and really he means ionized magnesium --) "I don't need to," the Doctor says. The words sound like every lie he can ever remember making but this time the Doctor means it: he's not alone.
This is worse than being alone.
John Smith skips a stone with more viciousness than is strictly necessary. "You only need wait a few decades," he says. "Or we could go somewhere dangerous."
"Don't," the Doctor says very quietly. And: "John Smith. Look at me."
He does, with the greatest reluctance.
"You're my responsibility," the Doctor says.
John Smith snorts softly, scrambling to his feet. It's not so hard to do that now without compensating for planetary velocity and a thousand thousand other things he's beginning to forget to remember. He breathes and he clenches his fists and he heads back towards the TARDIS.
On the colony world of Edovin the ruling class has enlisted the help of extremely questionable robots with fan-blade appendages in keeping down protest from nearly everyone else; John Smith and the Doctor learn this over a very nice supper of rainbow-coloured broth. They both lean forward to listen to their host's complaints in exactly the same way and, discovering this, freeze in exactly the same way too.
Some hours later in a warehouse the Doctor is yelling at the robots to just listen to him, and John Smith races down a floor and cobbles together a capacitor. Two minutes from fiery death he sends out the EMP, counts to thirty, and braces himself as the Doctor comes crashing in, hair standing on end, shouting, "Why did you do that?"
"Are they safe?" John Smith demands. "The colonists?"
"I was getting through to them!" the Doctor snaps.
"Are the colonists safe?"
"Yes," the Doctor says, trembling.
John Smith sucks in one of those stupid necessary breaths. "Talk," he says.
"That's what I was trying to do!"
"They wouldn't have listened," John Smith says. "You know that." The Doctor opens his mouth, and "'I have to try'," he says, right along with the Doctor. "I know that too. I have it figured out."
The Doctor swallows. "What," he says, not really a question.
"You try to save them," John Smith says, and smoothes his hands over the legs of his trousers, a Donna gesture, so he won't grip his hair in frustration, which would be worse. "You try to save them and I press the buttons and oh, this is exactly what you've wanted, isn't it."
"I don't want you," the Doctor returns, an awful bald fact edged with anger.
John Smith laughs and does drag his hands through his hair; why not. "Can you imagine how awful it is -- not feeling? I can't hear the TARDIS and I still know the universe is empty but it's like I've got wool in my brain -- and you don't want me. Neither do I." He laughs. "You know how that is."
The Doctor goes very still and tense. He imagines he must look exactly like the Doctor does, jaw tight, eyes burning, and John Smith is suddenly a little afraid.
"You want me to talk?" the Doctor asks, very quiet and controlled. "You killed the Daleks. Again. Just imagine seeing that from the outside. Donna's gone, and half the time I -- You're not even a Time Lord. You're an echo, you --"
"Stop," John Smith whispers, heart hammering in his throat.
The Doctor does, mid-syllable, which means: he does not hate John Smith. The Doctor takes a deep (unnecessary) breath and nods a little and says, very softly, "Back to the TARDIS, then."
John Smith nearly says I'll stay and then he imagines leaving the ghost of the TARDIS that is all that is left to him, and he just nods a little too.
The Doctor lets him fly the TARDIS to their next destination. John Smith takes them to the Eye of Orion, and even his slow human mind can hear his ship a very little.
They stand beneath the nameless monument to the Time War together amid green serenity, and both of them, by impulsive habit, reach for the other's hand. It makes them both flinch -- how strange to hold a hand exactly one's own -- but neither of them let go. Thunder rumbles in the distance. The Doctor's grip is so tight it hurts and John Smith is grateful.
Heading back to the TARDIS, the storm catches them, torrenting down so that they arrive in the console room soaked the skin, John Smith shivering and both of them laughing a little, still clutching hands. The Doctor slams the door behind them and John Smith breathes in great gulping gasps, because oh he's cold, the thunderstorm has charged him right up, he can feel the Doctor's pulses; suddenly time is not a trackless hourglass slowly slipping away, but a series of glittering suspended moments, and he remembers vividly the way time still is for this other man grinning at him under dripping hair.
He can feel the turn of the planet and the whirl of the stars, every charged molecule in the atmosphere, and it is only a memory, nothing beyond human senses, but for a moment it's his again. He leans into the Doctor and it's not enough, this one solitary moment. His fingers track their way up the soaking cloth of the Doctor's jacket, thumb brushing over the water at the hollow of his throat, and the Doctor swallows, breathes a name; not John or Donna, Theta nor Doctor, but the hollow truth, and the human man with the Doctor's mind trembles under it.
"Stop now," the Doctor says gently, a hand circling his wrist.
"No." His voice sticks. He tries again. "Please."
The look on the Doctor's face is horribly like pity, but he takes John Smith's face in his hands and kisses him; prises his mind open, a simple unfolding that cascades into fractals, and for the first time the man called John Smith feels like the Doctor meeting himself. He can't reciprocate, not really -- he grabs the Doctor's hair and kisses him harder but inside their heads he can only give the faintest echo of infinity. Even an echo must be something, though, because the Doctor gathers him closer, that small please echoed back at him from inside the Doctor's head; and then it's all barriers down, the Doctor through his head like a thunderstorm, and he weathers it. Doesn't break, drown, fade away, but gives it back, because his human brain can take this.
When the kiss ends they don't sever the contact. The Doctor -- the other Doctor, the original -- looks at this new one and for a moment in his face there is a breakdown of tears, but they both see it, and it's made unnecessary in an instant.
The new Doctor thinks of saying I forgive you. They both see that too.
"Thank you," the other Doctor says. Curls his fingers around the back of the new Doctor's neck and presses their foreheads together, wet hair sticking.
"I don't know how to be human," the new Doctor whispers.
His other self laughs a little, sheer lack of surprise. "Fancy finding out?"