They say their goodbyes, and really, this is getting a bit déjà vu—he always loves seeing them again, but now he’s just longing for a clean break. He’s not what they need in their lives now. They have to pick up the pieces, and he keeps breaking things worse. He knows.
“Goodbye, Ponds. Call me sometime.”
It would be better if they didn’t.
Finally, the Doctor turns to look at his remaining passenger, the one he’s had trouble looking at head on, but never been able to let out of his peripheral vision. He forces a smile, for her sake.
“So,” Oswin says, her voice harsh and mechanical, a Dalek’s voice, but with a sort of lilt to it he’s never heard on a Dalek before—“where should you drop me off?”
The Doctor hesitates. “Do you want me to drop you off somewhere?”
“Yes.” She’s petulant, and he would think angry, but he thinks all Daleks are angry. “If you’re going to keep on looking at me like that.”
He opens his mouth to protest, but isn’t sure what exactly to say—deny it, maybe, but he’d be lying, and she deserves better than lies. Tell her this isn’t easy for him, because she didn’t survive the Time War, she doesn’t know what the sight of a Dalek in his TARDIS is to him, but saying this is hard for him seems like a cruel joke.
“I thought you wanted to see the stars with me?” he says finally. Lightly, a little too lightly, a little more falsely than he’d intended. She’s watching him from behind her eyestalk, and the mask he presents feels too thin, and she knows, he knows she knows.
“You can’t let me go. Not a Dalek from an insane asylum,” she says. “You can’t…be responsible for that.”
“Is there somewhere in particular you want to go?” the Doctor asks. Misdirection, change of subject. She’s not stupid. But maybe she’ll bite anyway.
She shakes her…well, head, he supposes, her eye drooping. She’s shuffling back and forth slightly and he thinks that he’s never seen a Dalek do that before, either, as if trying to tally all the ways Oswin Oswald is not a Dalek, to reassure himself. “You shouldn’t have rescued me,” she says.
He doesn’t let himself agree. Instead, he steps closer to her, trying to still that nervous jitter in his legs, or pass it off as his usual sort of ridiculousness, and puts a hand on her casing. He knows she can feel it—Dalek casings have sensors for pressure and electrical currents. Not pain or pleasure, though, he muses. They’d never seen the point in either. Her eyestalk jumps a bit at his touch, orienting towards him but not quite looking at him. “You won’t say that after we’ve been on a few adventures,” he says. “These sorts of feelings you’re having…there’s no better cure for them than running. And if you run with me, they’ll never catch you. Haven’t caught me for a thousand years.” This is much more honesty than he’s given anyone, in all the time he’s been running, but there wasn’t anyone before who needed his honesty to live.
“What are you so sad about, anyway?” she asks. He reads it as accusing at first, then wonders if it was meant to be sympathetic.
“I’m not going to give it all up on the first date,” the Doctor says, pulling back with a wry grin. “What kind of girl do you think I am? There’s got to be something for you to look forward to.” He starts walking. “Come on, Soufflé Girl, let me show you your room. You’ll feel better after a safe night in the TARDIS.” He doesn’t mention that he doesn’t think he’ll be sleeping tonight. He knows he’ll have to relax eventually—even he can’t stay awake forever—but not the first night.
He just needs time. But she doesn’t need to know that.
She trundles down the passageway after him, and he notices how the TARDIS changes for Oswin: the halls and doorways are wider; stairs and ladders have become ramps. Does that mean the TARDIS approves? He trusts her judgment a lot more than he trusts his own, these days.
The room he brings her to is already prepared. Not the usual sort of rooms the TARDIS makes, at least not for the last few hundred years—no beds, very little clutter. No books either, but a computer interface console. He’ll have to check the security on that. No, no, he’ll just have to disable it. She can hack anything. But it’ll take her time, he thinks, reconsidering. How long—a week, maybe? That’s being generous. Took him years, and the TARDIS had wanted him to figure it out. In a week he’ll know if he can trust her. And she’ll enjoy the puzzle, she won’t give up before she’s solved it. It’ll distract her.
He gives her the tour. The biggest change, he notes, is in the washroom. No toilet, no bath. No mirrors. There’s a duct in the wall, which will hook into a hose from her casing, when it needs to be emptied. He glosses over this bit quickly, and she doesn’t comment on it.
“So,” he says, bringing her back to the main room. “Do you like it? Do you…need anything?”
Oswin is silent a moment. “A kitchen,” she says.
“You’re going to make soufflés?”
“Yes,” she says. “I am.”
“You can’t eat them, you know.”
“I don’t think anyone’s ever been able to eat my soufflés,” she says, and that’s a bit funny, she’s definitely making some kind of joke.
Maybe it will be all right.
“But if I do manage to pull it off, just once, you could always eat it,” she says.
Well. A Dalek in his TARDIS. Baking him soufflés. And he’ll eat them, too. “I’d like that,” he says, with a bit of a grin. “We’ll have to get you a little apron thing or something.” He grins wider at the mental image. He couldn’t possibly feel scared of a Dalek in an apron, holding a soufflé. If she could tell herself that that’s a whisk sticking out her front, then so can he.
Involuntarily, his eyes drop to her gun stick, and he just plain doesn’t like it. Oswin he can handle, but having something that close to him that can kill him instantly, without the chance of regeneration….
“Doctor,” Oswin says, and he makes himself look her in the eye instead. “Do you think you could…fix my voice?”
He thinks on it, very quickly. The Dalek mouth is vestigial, useless, so her voice is synthesized. They never tried to make it sound pretty, but he doesn’t see any reason why he can’t. “Shouldn’t be too hard,” he says, and pulls out his sonic screwdriver to take a few readings. Of course, it’s never that simple. Dalek casings aren’t just made for war, they’re made for war against him. They know his tricks by now.
The Doctor brings the sonic closer, scanning it up and down her body. Well, nothing else for it, then. “I have to get inside,” he says.
“Oh,” Oswin says. “N-Never mind, then.”
He runs his hand down her dome. “Oswin,” he says. “It’s all right. Nothing I haven’t seen before.” He feels a tremor in her casing, and for a moment, worries—he only scanned her, it shouldn’t have interfered with anything in her life support—but no, no, it was just a shudder. Daleks don’t shudder, but he keeps having to remind himself, Oswin isn’t really a Dalek.
“Take your shirt off,” Oswin says, finally.
“Fairness,” Oswin says. “If you get to see me naked.”
“This is medical,” the Doctor sputters. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
“I didn’t think you were really a medical doctor.”
“I’m every sort of doctor.”
“Usually real doctors have a name that comes after the title. Come on, don’t be shy. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before,” she says.
“It might be. I’m not human, you know.”
“Oh, really?” Oswin says. “Did you used to be?” She doesn’t assume what’s under his skin, doesn’t take anything for granted. He likes that.
“No, no,” the Doctor says. “Well, once. But it was just a phase.”
“What, then, have you got green nipples or something, alien boy?”
The Doctor snorts inelegantly. “Oh, fine, you—I don’t do this for my companions, usually, so don’t get used to it.” With that, he unties his bowtie, shrugs his bracers off, and unbuttons his shirt. He really doesn’t do this sort of thing, not usually, not with humans. They get too many…ideas. Somehow, he’s really not all that worried about that with Oswin. He can play her game. He lets the shirt slip to the floor.
Oswin’s eyestalk travels up and down his body appreciatively. “The most alien thing about you is the chin,” she says. “Well, that, and…do all of your species have no eyebrows? What species are you, anyway?”
“I do so have eyebrows,” the Doctor insists. He deliberately doesn’t address the other part. He’s still not sure how much of her mind is Dalek, but she did come fairly close to exterminating him, and he’s not sure what the words Time Lord will do to her. Best not to tempt fate.
“I think you’re living in a dream world,” Oswin says. “Of eyebrows you imagined for yourself.”
It was cute, at first, her attempts at banter, or flirting, or whatever this is to her, but if the edge to her voice gets much sharper, she’s going to draw blood. “Oswin,” he says, his tone serious. “Let me have a look.”
“I changed my mind.” Her words are abrupt, closed off.
“I took my shirt off for you. I don’t do that for many people.”
A bitter, choking sound. Laughter…tears? “But you’re perfect.”
“Am not,” he says. It’s not much of a retort. Normally, he’d be able to go on about how beautiful she is, because his aesthetic is flexible enough that he can genuinely find beauty in just about anything living. Just about. There’s no love in him for Daleks—they burned that all out of him. That’s sort of what they do.
He doesn’t think she wants to hear that anyway. She knows what she is now, and nothing he says is going to make it better. He starts to pull his shirt back on. “Think on it,” he says. “No rush.”
Oswin turns away. “Maybe I’ll just…stop talking.”
The Doctor sighs. “Oswin….” He reaches towards her, but catches himself. There really isn’t anything he can do—not without opening her up. It’s frustrating, he wants to fix everything now, but some things really do take time.
And some things even time can’t help.
“Good night, Oswin. I’ll see you in the morning. Bright and early, so do get some sleep.”
She doesn’t say anything as he picks up his bowtie and heads out, but he hears her move just as he gets to the door, and pauses.
“You really think…you could fix it? I tried to remodulate it, but even I couldn’t….”
“You might need better hardware,” he answers. “I’m sure I could sort it out. The TARDIS is full of bio-machinery.” He doesn’t say it, but there are a lot of similarities between Time Lord technology and Dalek technology. They borrowed and stole from each other enough, and the Time War only blurred those lines further.
“And…you already know…what a Dalek looks like,” she says hesitantly.
“Oh yes,” the Doctor says, walking back towards her. “No surprises for me there.”
“Be gentle with me, Doctor,” she says, and her casing splits and slides open.
A single eye looks out at him from the quivering mass of flesh, the tentacles curled back in on themselves, shrinking away from him. The Doctor doesn’t stare, but gets out his sonic screwdriver again, and sets to work. He has to get in quite close to her, and she averts her eye, painful in her nakedness.
“Here, I have to…reach inside a bit,” the Doctor says awkwardly, not quite knowing what to do with his hands. “Is that all right?”
“Yeah…do what you have to.”
The Doctor spares a glance at her exposed brain, the lacework of raw nerves running from it and into the casing. It wasn’t designed for hands like his to be poking around in, so he’ll have to be careful. And further down, attached to the brain and tentacles by only a few thin cords and some nerves, in the guts of the Dalek casing, would lie her actual viscera and organs, floating in the life support tank.
With his hands this close to her, he can feel the psychic waves emanating from her. He flinches, and tries to reinforce his mental barriers, for both her privacy and his. She doesn’t know how to control that part of herself yet, as humans rarely develop their rather minimal psychic ability. But in this physical proximity, it’s hard not to have some kind of bleedover, and he feels her thoughts tingle on his skin.
He freezes there a moment. His shirt is still hanging open, and his hearts are pounding in his chest right in front of her, so loud she must hear it, she must feel the vibration in the air.
“Doctor? Something wrong?”
“Are you…feeling all right, Oswin?” He’s very aware of how close he is to her gun rod. There’d be no time to dodge, not even to think.
“I’m getting chilly.” She tries to make it sound light, but even through the harsh Dalek synthesizer, he can hear the barely-veiled pain.
Then suddenly, it’s so obvious he doesn’t know how he could have missed it before. She doesn’t hate him. She could never hate him. But the Daleks did change her, they filled her with so much hate…and it had to go somewhere.
Oh. Oh Oswin.
“You’re being very brave,” he says, and means it. He finds the synthesizer, embedded in a cluster of nerves and a small lump of proud flesh. “Well, the good news is, it shouldn’t be too hard to upgrade,” he says.
“And the bad news?”
“I’m going to have to pull part of the synthesizer out a moment, to work on it. It’s attached to your nervous system, so…it’s going to hurt. I’m sorry. You also won’t be able to speak at all until I put it back in.”
Setting his jaw, the Doctor goes to work on it. As he begins to disconnect the part he needs, Oswin screams. He hesitates, the awful sound echoing in the room.
“Do it, just do it!” she shouts.
He severs the last connection and as the piece comes away in his hand, the noise is cut short. A thin, voiceless whine replaces it, barely more than a wheeze.
The Doctor backs away, his hands shaking slightly, the little lump of Dalek technology in his fingers. Quickly, he pulls open the computer console, looking for a part he can use to modify it. “Should have done this part first,” he mutters angrily to himself, before finding it and stripping out the bits he needs. He goes as fast as he can while still being careful. If he breaks this instead of fixing it, he might need to harvest the same part from another Dalek to try again, and that’s not an adventure he’s eager to have.
It doesn’t take him long, and he starts reconnecting the device back into the inside of Oswin’s casing. For a moment, there’s an awful, garbled, mechanical grinding sort of sound, and he’s terrified he got it wrong after all, but as he finishes the connection, the sound stops, and Oswin’s voice comes through, crystal-clear and human.
“Doctor?” Then, “It worked!”
The Doctor gives her a smile, a real one this time.
“Um, Doctor,” Oswin says, “not to seem ungrateful, but I’d like to…get dressed again. And your hand’s in the way, so….”
The Doctor looks down at his hand, resting on the edge of her open casing. “I was just thinking, Oswin…maybe there’s something else you’ll let me adjust.”
Oswin is silent a moment, and her single eye blinks. “Well, this is going better than expected,” she says. “But I’m not sure how it’d work between us.” In a lowered voice, she adds, “Do I even have…girl bits?”
The Doctor jumps back slightly, then laughs. “You really are human,” he says, and not really like a compliment. “And, well, sort of, but they’re vestigial, and don’t really—I don’t know why we’re talking about this now. No, no, Oswin,” he says more soberly, and kneels in front of her. “I meant, I think I should disable your gun. To prevent…accidents.”
“Oh,” Oswin says, considerably deflated. “You don’t…trust me?”
“It isn’t that, it’s just that, the way we do things around here, we don’t carry guns. If you carry a gun, you’re going to end up using it, and that’s not the kind of adventure I like to have.”
“I’m not carrying it, though, it’s more just part of me,” Oswin says. She wiggles the gun stick slightly, and the Doctor gives it a nervous look.
“It’s not part of you, Oswin, you’re a human, humans can put down their guns.”
“Am I really?” she asks. “Human?”
“You wouldn’t be here if I thought you weren’t.”
“Look at me, though.”
She shrinks under his gaze. “Then don’t lie to me, Doctor.”
“A Dalek would have exterminated me already. A Dalek wouldn’t be having this conversation. A Dalek doesn’t tell people to take their shirts off, isn’t shy, doesn’t want a human voice. What do you see, Oswin, when you look at me? That is what makes you who you are, not what they’ve done to you.” He raises the sonic screwdriver, and accesses the gun’s power matrix. “You don’t need this, Oswin.”
But from within the Dalek system, Oswin is resisting him, locking him out. “Don’t do this, Doctor,” she says, and it’s a weak cry, she’s begging, she sounds so human, but what is she begging for? “I…I’m scared. I need it.”
“I don’t want to be defenseless. Not…not again.”
“So what do you want? If something threatens you, what will you do? Exterminate it?”
“Then what? That’s what it’s for! That’s the only thing it’s for!” And he bites back the words, it’s the only thing you’re for if you let them win.
“It can stun, too.”
“You used your sonic screwdriver to kill half a dozen Daleks. I saw you,” she continues, desperate.
“All I did was put it in reverse.”
“So they’re not dead?”
He writhes a moment under her accusation, the stare of her single eye. “It was going to kill me. I just got it out of the way. Let its own hate take care of itself.”
“That wasn’t a smile on your face, then, when they died. Did I imagine that, too, or was the security system malfunctioning?”
“Now you sound like a Dalek,” the Doctor says, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “They’re constantly telling me I’m as bad as them.”
“Look at you, using every weapon in your arsenal,” she says. “Even that one. You’ll hurt me as much as you have to, as long as you win. You’re right. You’re nothing like the Daleks. Daleks lose.”
The Doctor feels a swell of hatred that he can’t quite contain. “You have no idea,” he says, his voice starting to tremble, “how much I have lost, so don’t you dare.”
She stares back at him, unblinking. “More than what I’ve lost? You really do always have to win.”
And here it is, the Time War in microcosm, a Dalek and a Time Lord and that stubbornness and hate that’s made galaxies burn and timelines twist and choke off and die more times than he cares to remember. He doesn’t forget that it was the Time Lords that were willing to extinguish everything, that even the Daleks weren’t that mad. It wasn’t hatred that nearly ended all of time. It was that Time Lord unwillingness to lose.
Except it isn’t that, because she’s not a Dalek, and she doesn’t know about the Time War, she’s just a lost human girl who’s gotten in way over her head, and what is he doing. He pulls himself back from the edge, checks his pride. “I’m sorry,” he says.
(A Time Lord has never said that to a Dalek. Maybe they should have.)
“I’m tired, Doctor,” she says, pulling back and closing her casing. “Can I just….”
“Yeah,” the Doctor says. He pockets his sonic screwdriver and checks for his bowtie, and finding it, takes another step towards the door. “Yeah, I’ll just—full day of adventuring tomorrow, and all that.”
“Can’t wait. And thank you, for fixing my voice. It really means a lot.” He almost wishes he hadn’t, because he can hear perfectly now how close she is to crying, and the guilt is settling in.
“It’s what I do,” he says lightly. “I fix things. You’ll see. Tomorrow. Get some sleep.”
And he ducks out the door and runs through the halls, because when a Time Lord can’t fix it and can’t win, they run.
He goes back to his room, up a long ladder and through small, disguised holes in the wall that you’d pretty much have to be him to know they’re there, into his messy nest, and throws himself in the hammock, thinking that the room the TARDIS made for him probably says a lot about him, too. He points his sonic screwdriver at the viewscreen, flipping through the security system until he finds her.
Oswin isn’t at the computer console, or doing anything remotely threatening. She’s just sitting there, her appendages lax, and he thinks maybe she did go to sleep after all until he hears her softly crying.
The Doctor just continues to watch her—to punish himself, maybe, or to remind himself. Or perhaps he’s just making sure all she does is cry. He realizes, too late, that he was quite wrong to think her gun stick was what he needed to disable. He saw into her heart for a moment, he knows what she hates. If he was going to disable anything, it should have been the self-destruct.
Too late now.
He watches Oswin Oswald cry herself to sleep, and continues to stare at the unchanging screen, tireless. In a few hours he will come back to her room, looking hardly worse for wear, and try to find something wonderful left in this universe for her to see. And then, he’ll have to see about that kitchen.