"There are dark shadows upon the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast."
-Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
The universe is a grand, vast and complex place. Because of this, it runs on a set of predictable and constant formulae; these formulae are, however, too advanced and complicated for even the wisest inhabitants of the universe to really understand. So complex is the universe that two opposing truths can, and frequently do, coexist—among them, 'opposites attract' and 'like attracts like', seemingly paradoxal (and cliché) statements which can, and frequently are, both true at the same time and in the same place. All this attracting means that most people, most of the time—whether they know it or not—are almost sure to get exactly the thing that they need.
The man (who wasn't) who called himself the Doctor (which he also wasn't) did not always believe this, despite having seen it many times. It was, of course, easier to believe sometimes than other times, especially as even though he was very clever and knew a great deal about the universe, he still didn't really understand all of how it worked. He was freed from the restraints of the part of it normally called Time, and that presented him with a considerable advantage in many situations. He had enough knowledge to be often helpful, and sometimes dangerous.
Not long ago, he had been setting a course for the far, far reaches of the universe. He felt he needed some time away from humans, that he'd been dealing entirely too much with them lately, and that more to the point, whenever he got attached, he would lose them. He understood this was part of one of those formulae, that it was an unchangeable fact he could not alter. (The paradox: one person had also become unchangeable, a fixed point. That fact, which would have meant that person would not have had to leave, was also what meant he had to. There were things about the universe that the Doctor knew, but didn't understand.) He had thought for a while that he would leave them behind, that he would travel alone. He had started off for somewhere very far away, somewhere he could hear the stars singing, and small quiet voices joining with them in a low, electronic hum.
Dairine dreamt of floating through space. Its thick, dark blanket wrapped around her without touching, and the stars she could see remained small, distant pinpricks like tiny holes in a curtain, no matter how close to them she thought she was. She knew all their names, but when she spoke to them, there was no answer.
She spread her arms and the movement was slow, like moving through water. Softly, as if it were very far away, she thought she could hear singing. It grew louder, and she realised it wasn't really singing at all, but the buzz and whirr of silicon breath.
We need you, cousin.
The stars sped past her, ever faster. What do you need me to do?
She tumbled through space, the sound of the stars' song sliding over her skin, and they told her.
He had woken up on Mars. It was a dry, cold, dusty planet, and it was the last place in the universe just then that he had wanted to be. He had recently seen more of its dark side than he ever wanted to. It was not far away enough, and not where he had been going.
It was normally also unpopulated. Not so, now. There was a girl sitting on the dry, rocky ground some feet away. She was probably fifteen or sixteen, had long red hair pulled back in a messy tail at the nape of her neck, and instead of spacesuit she was wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt proclaiming 'Vulcan girls do it with logic'. When he stepped out of the TARDIS, she looked up from the computer she was balancing on her knees and said, "Dai stiho, hrasht. I am on errantry, and I greet you."
Technically, that was what wizards said to each other, but he answered "Dai," anyway, approaching her curiously. There was a strange shimmer to the air, and he assumed that was what kept the air breatheable.
"You want a diet Coke?" she asked, gesturing to a plastic cooler a few feet away. "Bologna sandwich?"
"No, thank you." He wasn't sure what to make of an invitation like that, and he was normally quite good at just rolling with things. He eyed her, thinking hard. "Don't I know you?"
She shook her head, ponytail flying. "Don't think so. Sorry about the detour, by the way."
He sat down gingerly, brushing dust off his trousers. "Was that you?"
Negative, again. "Not me. I'm just supposed to wait and meet you here."
Here. Here was not a place he wanted to be. Now it looked hot and dry and innocent, but not long ago it had been violence, chaos, the endless ferocity and determined patience of water. It had been rage, desperation, fury. He did not trust it now, did not want to be reminded.
"So what happened?" she asked—awkward, like she didn't really know how to start, or what she was supposed to be asking. "You want to talk about it?"
He didn't, really. "You're here," he pointed out instead. "You must know."
The girl's hand rested on top of the computer, stroking lightly as if it were a cat. One long eyestalk unfolded from its case to peer at the Doctor quizzically, but it stayed otherwise curled up. "I read the precis," she explained. "That's not the same as knowing."
He was still staring at the computer. "I do know you."
She sat up, blinked at him. "Huh?"
"I know you." He was staring intently at the little computer, with its legs and antennae and remembering back; it had been ages ago. Five bodies ago for him, at least a few years for her. "You were at the Crossings. You were being chased."
Her eyes had narrowed but with a hint of confusion, her chin jutting out stubbornly. "That was me," she conceded, "but I don't remember you."
"I would have looked different then," he explained. "About so tall, white crickety sort of jumper, blond hair." The Doctor, caught up in memory, managed a grin. "Dairine, isn't it? I followed the story a little afterward. Oh, you were brilliant then."
"You told me to hide in the non-human bathroom," she said in slow recognition. Then her nose wrinkled. "What do you mean I was brilliant?"
He realised he wasn't actually sure what to say to that, so settled for, "Sorry."
She shrugged. "It's okay. I wonder if that's why I'm the one to come talk to you now? I mean, from what I read, we're all on the same side but we don't actually work together much. You and wizards, I mean."
"No," he agreed, and finished, "You aren't the ones who need me."
It was Dairine's turn to not know what to say. So she prompted again instead, almost gently--"So why are we on Mars?"
He felt a petulant, childish kind of protest at that. "I didn't want to come to Mars." He picked up one of the little reddish pebbles from near his feet and tossed it; it went skittering across the surface of the planet.
"I like it here," Dairine said after a minute. "It's close to home."
When the Doctor looked at her again, his eyes were wide, buggish, bright with challenge. "Too close," he said. "You want to know what happened here? What's going to happen? Really?"
"Of course I do," Dairine answered. Wizards, after all, can only tell the truth. "How are we supposed to fix it if I don't know what's going on?"
She leaned in, and the computer did too. He didn't want to talk about it, what had happened on Mars, how the water had broken them, how he tried to save them. But he told them anyway.
* * *
"So," Dairine said, "you had kind of a meltdown." She wasn't quite sure what she'd expected out of this assignment, and still wasn't really sure that she was the right one for a 'give a pep talk to a Time Lord' kind of a job. But it was her children who'd asked, and they had such faith in her, it wasn't like she could have refused.
The Doctor rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "That's one way of putting it." She wasn't sure what she'd expected out of him, either. He was frenetic and twitchy and had loneliness radiating off him in waves, but was still basically, well, normal. "At the time I would have said breakthrough."
"Yeah, not so much." Dairine fished in the cooler to dig out sandwiches and tossed him one without bothering to offer it to him first. She was hungry. He stared at it for a second, peeled off the plastic wrap and started to eat. "You can't just say stuff like that, you know? Time Lord or not. You know what happened last time."
He stared at her, incredulous and hurt. "I wouldn't have been like that."
"Well, not at first." Dairine thought even the Lone Power didn't know it was going to be the Lone Power when It started out, though she wasn't quite sure. "Look," she said, "you've done this before. Somebody always ends up sacrificed. I know you hate it, because I hate it, too. And I know how much it sucks when you keep watching it happen and it's never you. Like you're failing them somehow, because you should be able to save them, you should be able to sacrifice yourself for them or be the one to pay the price, and you can't and you aren't."
The Doctor bowed his head, gazing down at his half-eaten sandwich. "It's been happening for centuries."
"It's going to keep happening." She didn't like saying it, and she didn't like the look he gave her, like she'd just kicked him when he was down. Well, I guess that's exactly what I did. But she was a wizard and she couldn't tell little white lies, even to make him feel better. "I've thought about this a lot," she went on. "After the first few times—I mean, I lost my mom, and you have to really do a lot of trusting or rationalising to make any sense out of that. But I think that if you're still needed for something, it won't be you. You know how Shakespeare said 'all the world's a stage'?"
He was watching her intently, like he wasn't sure what to think. "I'm familiar with it."
"Well, keep on with that metaphor. Some people are going to have more lines than others. Maybe you're Mercutio, and you get pointlessly killed by Tybalt early in the story, or maybe you're Hamlet and you have to solve the whole puzzle before you die at the end. Or maybe you're the one who comes in at the end and picks up all the pieces. Heck, maybe you're Rosencrantz or Guildenstern and don't even have an impact. You don't get to control what parts other people play. Even if you really want to rewrite the ending so you get the big finish and everybody goes home happily ever after." Dairine didn't think she was really cut out for pep talks, and this was absolute proof.
His smile was grim, tight. Heartbroken, really. She recognised it for what it was—she'd worn it, her dad and Nita had worn it; it was the look people had when they just wanted to stop the ride and get off but knew they couldn't. "I should have been able to rewrite this one."
"Well, you can't. You don't get that choice." Except that everyone had a Choice, at some point. She frowned. "Actually, you do. You almost did. Somebody was out there looking for you, ready to offer you fame and fortune and prizes for playing along with It. And that's why you're here with me and not out there, because frankly, Doctor, we still need you on our side."
And, Spot said in her mind, because together, if we had to, we could put a stop to it.
She'd been a wizard for years now, but the idea still made her feel kind of sick. Yeah, and then we would get to be the valiant sacrifice. I don't think it'll come to that.
The Doctor was staring at her, the bologna sandwich totally forgotten. She thought at first that the blank look meant he didn't understand, but she could see then that he did, he was clever after all, just processing. Like it hadn't ever occurred to him before now that there was another side to be on, that the threats in the universe weren't just Daleks and Cybermen and rogue Time Lords and hostile aliens, but real, underneath-it-all, insidious evil. Like he'd got rid of the Death Star and a squadron of tie fighters and was just realising that it was the Emperor running the whole show.
She kind of liked him more for that. And really, she didn't think it was actually new to him. Just that maybe it had been a long time since he'd thought about it that way.
Finally he said quietly, subdued – "I didn't know."
"It sneaks up on you when you're down," she reminded him. "Waits until you're vulnerable. That's how It works. And you did kind of attract Its attention." He looked so utterly miserable at this revelation that she reached over to squeeze his arm. "For what it's worth, we're here with you."
He smiled grimly. "You were sent to stop me?"
She didn't deny it, but didn't quite confirm it, either. "Only if it came down to it. You were about to bump into some friends of ours, and they were worried about you."
Spot shifted on his spidery little legs, rising a little off the ground, a trio of slim eyestalks swiveling to peer at the Doctor. He didn't usually talk to strangers, he left that to Dairine. But he did now. "Some things," he said, "regular people can understand. But sometimes you really need to be around wizards."
"We're harder to get rid of," Dairine agreed. "And we get it."
The Doctor looked resigned and lost and determined all at once. "So now that the wizard intervention's been staged, what do we do now?"
Dairine looked at Spot, perched above the dry red ground. "If you want Mars fixed, it's gonna be a big job," she answered, matter-of-fact. "I don't know if it's anything we can change—if it's even anything we should change. But we can look into it. In the meantime, you could come back to my house. My dad's used to having weird company and does a heck of a barbecue."
"You know," the Doctor said thoughtfully, "usually I'm the one inviting people places. Well, to travel through time and space, but still."
Dairine stood up, brushing rust-coloured Martian dust off her jeans. "I can already travel through time and space," she said, "and it sounds like it's time for a bit of a change anyway." She reached out toward him, offered him a hand up. He paused a moment before he took it.
"Look," she said abruptly. "I can handle whatever gets thrown at us, and I'll be around as long as you need me." She said it in the Speech, because it was a promise, because it was true. And then, in English, "Now let's go back to Earth. You want to drive, or should I?"
The startled, faintly amused glint in his eyes became almost mischievous. "Oh, I will," he said, and gestured grandly toward the TARDIS. "Allons-y!"
She rolled her eyes. "We're going to New York, not France," she said, but felt lighter, and not just because of her spell's effect on gravity. She bent down to pick up Spot and the cooler, and followed him in.
"Wait—look," he said, paused just inside the door. The air shimmered as the wizardry began to unravel, slowly, leaving the planet's atmosphere as it had been. Over the horizon, the Earth hovered, a great vibrant blue planet in the vast darkness of space, wisps of white cloud shifting and swirling over its skin. The sun shone on one face of it, casting part into shadow, the outline of its sphere still visible, faintly, in the sky.
"Yeah," Dairine said softly. "It's something else, isn't it?"
"We'll go in a minute," the Doctor said, and they stood there, watching in silence, until the shadows had swallowed up the sky.