Fandom: Doctor Who
Pairing/characters: Seventh Doctor, Ace/everyone ever
Disclaimer: All owned by the BBC.
Prompt: 258. Ace McShane is young and coming to terms with the fact that she's bisexual. Unfortunately, the only person she has to talk to about it is the Doctor ...
Summary: Sometimes, your best friend is the hardest person of all to talk to.
Author's Notes: Huge thanks to peeeeeeet, astrogirl2 and drho for fantastically helpful beta-ing. Any errors that remain are of course mine.
"Hmm?" The Doctor didn't even glance up from whatever it was on the TARDIS console that was fascinating him so much.
Standing there in her dressing gown, Ace felt suddenly foolish. How did you ask a man who never seemed to sleep if he ever had strange dreams? Dreams that startled you into aroused wakefulness, dreams that wouldn't fade the way dreams were meant to, but tormented and confused you for hours as you tried to get back to sleep, questioning who you thought you were.
"Nothing," she said. She headed back into the darkened corridors of the TARDIS's night.
* * *
The Dreaming River of the Sapphire Band, Humanian Era Year 11,372,161
Ace lay back on the deck of the yacht and stared at the opposite side of the world. It seemed impossibly distant, but from what the Doctor said the fact that she could see it at all meant that the Sapphire Band was quite small, as terastructures went.
She listened to the gentle sounds of the wildlife and the water lapping at the hull; she even imagined she could hear the sweet nothings the yacht's slimdrive whispered to reality, as it glided ever further downstream.
The river flowed all the way around the inner surface of the Band, a ceaseless cycle perpetuated by the same sort of indistinguishable-from-magic technology that kept the whole thing stable in its orbit around the local star.
What was really interesting, though, was the psionic water.
"Are you ready to listen to the river now?"
Bathela had managed to come up from below decks completely silently. Now she sat cross legged behind Ace's head. Ace craned her back to look at her friend. "Question is, is the river ready to listen to me?"
With exquisite gentleness, Bathela put two fingers to each of Ace's temples. Ace felt her whole body become instantly more relaxed. "The river is always ready."
"So now I just try and go to sleep?"
"You don't even need to try." Bathela was stroking Ace's hair, away, away, always away ...
... further away, everything receding, until there was nothing but bottomless darkness. Sensation ebbed, as though even her body was infinitely distant.
"Bathela?" Ace tried to say, but she had no throat, no vocal cords.
I'm here, I'm always here, came a reassuring voice that wasn't a voice. Relax, let yourself--
Lightning split the darkness, and suddenly it was revealed as a desolate landscape of cliffs and caves, scree and boulders. Ace was there again, a tiny figure against geological immensity.
You have turbulent dreams, Bathela didn't say.
Ace tried to respond in the same way. You're telling me.
Lightning again, and a figure in the distance. It had only just appeared. It had always been there. It was never there. There was no there.
Everything is true.
What do I do?
Whatever you choose.
Ace started running towards the figure. Maybe it was someone in trouble. Maybe it was someone who could explain things to her. Maybe it was herself.
There was moonlight now, a full moon that cast a softer light, transmuting the landscape from harsh angles to gentler curves, rounding the blunt edges. Cliffs weren't obstacles, but opportunities. Caves turned from sources of unknown terror to places of comforting security.
"Night time is our time." The figure turned as it spoke and Ace saw that it was Mags, the werewolf. Somehow, she was unaffected by the moon.
No. She was of the moon, and did not need to hide her beauty from it. She was raw, primal and alive ...
... she was Karra. "Run with me, sister," she growled.
They joined hands and sprinted into the wind, outran the wind, became the wind. Their passion scoured the land, whipped up waves when they reached the water's edge, high crests breaking to foam.
But two waves didn't break, didn't fall back, continued rising and writhing as they took on form and colour and life.
"Come into the water." Jean beckoned with a finger.
"Everyone wants to come into the water," Phyllis breathed.
Ace dived in, leaving Karra behind, taking Karra with her, making Karra part of her. She swam down. Further and further, deep enough to know that there was no bottom, that the water was everything and she was the water, flowing and filling the world.
After a timeless interval, she surfaced again. As soon as she did, she was dry, the water not gone but locked away inside her. The sky was light now and the landscape had changed again. Rolling meadows of lush greens, thorny hedgerows filled with life, and in the distance something that might have been a church or a castle or a folly.
There was another figure, standing in the shadow of the stone. This time, it ran towards her. She waited. As it neared, she saw it was dressed in a formal dinner suit, pleated shirt, bow tie and all.
"Gwendoline!" Ace said happily.
"Tell me, Ace, have you ever been to Java?"
A handkerchief had appeared in her hand. Ace began to back away, matching each step of Gwendoline's onward march with a backwards one, afraid to look away even for a second.
Until she stumbled into another figure behind her. Whirling, she saw Sorin. "It's OK, Ace, you're safe now," he told her.
"Is it?" she said.
"Have faith," he said, but his eyes were glowing.
Ace turned on the spot to see another figure approaching. Suzie Q levelled her gun. "Happiness will prevail," she intoned.
She turned past Gwendoline again to a fourth figure. Mike. "You have to choose the right side, Ace," he said.
Ace screamed mentally: Bathela!
An anguished reply: Something's wrong! I can't lift you from the dream. I'm sorry, Ace, this has never happened before. Something's wrong with the river ...
Bathela fell silent, and for a single moment Ace was trapped between the four of them.
And then a familiar voice, impossibly welcome but louder than she'd ever heard it before, boomed out of the heavens. "Ace!" She looked up into the sky to see the Doctor's face filling it. "This isn't your dream any more, Ace! There's been an invasion. The Smin want to corrupt the river, use it as a weapon. I can stop it, but I need you to keep them distracted. Just a little while longer, Ace. Just hold on!"
He vanished. Ace realised that the circle around her had grown, adding new members. She saw Alison, Glitz, Shou Yuing ...
She yanked a can of nitro from a rucksack that hadn't been on her back a moment ago. Finger hooked into the fuse, she held it up like a talisman, turning round and round to face them all in turn. "I'll do it," she yelled. "Don't think I won't!" Slowly, but remorselessly, they began to advance on her. Her finger trembled as they came closer. At the last moment, she looked straight into Mike's eyes and said, "This is my choice."
For a split second of dizzying forever, there was nothing but blinding white.
Ace started awake, felt Bathela's hands still on her forehead. Saw the Sapphire Band above her, just as before, except ...
"There is a wound in the world," Bathela said. And there was: a jagged crack all the way from one side of the band to the other, about a third of the way round from where they were. The edges of the chasm glowed red hot. "It was a riverwheel," Bathela went on.
"Sometimes the doctor needs to operate," Ace said.
"Hush, now," Bathela said. Her fingers started working their magic again. "Sleep. Sleep without dreaming."
* * *
The Doctor looked up and favoured her with one of his most dazzling smiles. "Yes, Ace?"
She paused, taking in the question mark tank top and paisley scarf as though for the first time. How did you ask someone like this, who made such virtue of eccentricity, who scorned convention and categorisation, if he'd ever felt the need to hide his feelings to fit in? How did you ask if he'd ever wished he was just like everybody else, when there was nobody else like him in all of time and space?
"Never mind," Ace said, and smiled back. "Where to next?"
* * *
London, 1892 AD
Ace saw a suitably shadowy doorway and dragged George into it. They couldn't run indefinitely and this was as good a place to rest as any. They flopped back against the heavy glass of the darkened shopfront and started breathing heavily.
"Have we lost him?" George asked.
"I think so," Ace said, her breath coming in gasps. After she'd recovered a little, she said, "I'm sorry to drag you into this."
"Don't be daft," George replied. "I've been running from idiots like that who thought that all I really needed was their tiny cock between my legs since long before they started having their 'cerebral fluids' drained by that posh friend of yours."
"She's not my posh friend, she's the Doctor's posh friend." Ace decided that hadn't come out right. "Sort of."
"Well, thank you for rescuing me from her, anyway," George said.
"My pleasure," Ace said.
"Not that I'm saying I wouldn't have been able to get out of there in the end, myself," George added, "because I would. But I'm glad I didn't have to."
"You actually like it, don't you?" Ace asked. "All the hiding and running around, you positively enjoy it." Ace liked George -- a lot -- and she was grateful to her for showing her the hidden side of London that she inhabited, but she really didn't think she understood her.
George laughed. "Are you trying to tell me that you don't? Don't forget, I was running right next to you. And what did you say just now about rescuing me? 'My pleasure'? Seems to me that Doctor of yours is a dangerous sort of chap to hang around with."
"But that's what I do, not who I am," Ace said. "It's something I choose. You're in danger just because of who you are."
"And I wouldn't be me if I didn't do the things I do, now would I?" George said. "Stop splitting hairs."
Ace caught a movement, dimly reflected in the windows of the shops on the other side of the street. She hissed a "shh" to George, who leaned further back against the glass. Ace stared at the glass, waiting for another movement. She became excruciatingly conscious of her breathing, and George's next to her, the tiniest twitches of their ribs as they took shallow, silent breaths.
Another dark glint. George stood on tiptoes to lean in to Ace's ear and whispered, "We should run straight past him, down the other way. One either side. Disorientate him, hopefully." Ace nodded.
They both waited a moment, took a deep breath, and ran for it. Ace felt the grin spreading on her face as they streaked straight past the befuddled drone, who turned very slowly from side to side trying to watch them.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. Ace heard a loud groan behind her, and the unmistakable sound of a body slumping to the floor. And she saw and felt the Doctor, as she ran straight into him as he came around the corner. His arms went round her in something that she was pretty sure was actually a hug.
George stopped and stood next to them. "Hello, Doctor," she said.
"Hello, again, George," the Doctor replied, doing something complicated with his arms to let him doff his hat to her while still keeping one of them around Ace's back at any one moment. "How are you?"
"Oh, never better."
"What happened?" Ace asked. She turned back to nod at the body behind her.
"Oh, he's just asleep. Funny thing about the remote manipulation of neurochemistry, you can do all sorts of things with it. He'll be fine once his natural homeostatic processes are back in control."
"You've stopped her, then?" Ace said.
"For the moment," the Doctor said guardedly.
"You'll be going now, won't you?" George said. "In that police box of yours."
"You could come with us, if you like," Ace said suddenly.
For just a moment, the Doctor seemed slightly taken aback, but then he seemed to consider the idea. "Yes, yes you could."
"Thanks," George said. "Really. But I've got a life to live here. And you've got lives to live ... out there."
"Very well," the Doctor said.
Ace disentangled herself from the Doctor and went over to give George a kiss on the cheek. "Bye," she said.
"Oh, you can do better than that," George said, and grabbed Ace by the cheeks to give her a full kiss on the lips. "Now that's a proper goodbye." Ace felt the colour rising in her cheeks, her embarrassment heightened by George's uninhibited wolfish smile.
But when she got back to the Doctor, he was smiling too.
* * *
The Doctor didn't say anything, just looked at her expectantly.
And looking into the depths of those alien eyes, she just knew that she couldn't ask him if he'd ever fallen in love with another man. Sometimes it seemed that he'd never fallen in love, that he barely understood how emotions were supposed to work. And sometimes it seemed that his love was too big for any one individual, that his heart was broken and remade each second by the tragedies and triumphs of all the beings in the universe.
And sometimes, when she thought about the Cheetah Planet, and the last time she'd seen Perivale, she thought she knew the answer, and wished she didn't.
Ace looked back at the Doctor and didn't say anything either.
* * *
Villengard, 5083 CE
"You were working for them all along," Ace said, the realisation hitting her like a wave of nausea. "You're a Time Agent."
They were standing on opposite sides of the main control table for the autofactory. Jane had picked up a sonic blaster -- one of the very weapons they'd supposedly been coming here to stop being produced -- and was pointing it directly at Ace's head. "And you're an unlicensed time traveller. Oh, don't think I didn't know. You're simply dripping with chronal energy. Not that the anachronistic social attitudes weren't a dead giveaway," Jane said. "All that nineteenth century stuff." She started mimicking Ace cruelly. "'Doesn't it bother you that I'm a girl?' 'I like how no one minds.' Grow up and be yourself, girl."
"Twentieth century, actually," Ace said. "Well, twentieth century via the year two million or so. So don't think whatever fancy security widgets you've got down there are going to be able to stop all that nitro nine I've packed round the reactor core. The fifty first century's ancient history so far as my fuses are concerned."
"You're bluffing." The gun started shaking slightly in her hand.
Ace gave a thin, deadly smile. "That stuff's blown up Daleks."
Jane's eyes went wide. But she said, "I should shoot you where you stand."
"That's your lot's answer to everything, isn't it? Lie, steal, kill. You should put one of those signs up in here. You know, 'You don't have to be psychopathic to work here, but it helps.'"
There was a moment of complete stillness. Neither blinked, neither's muscles twitched.
"I'm going to run for it now," Ace said, "before the building turns into its component atoms. You can come with me or you can shoot me. Up to you." And without looking to see what she would do, she sprinted for the exit.
A moment later, she felt Jane running next to her. They ran down the central corridor, through the exit and had almost reached the edge of the huge concrete apron the factory complex was built on when the titanic explosion behind them thrust them forward onto their hands and knees in the muddy grass just beyond the perimeter.
Ace opened her eyes to find herself looking at the tip of an umbrella she knew very well. Next to her, Jane was awkwardly frozen in mid-crouch, as though she'd been getting back on her feet when she'd seen something that made her stop dead.
"You're him," Jane breathed.
"You have no idea who I am," the Doctor snarled. "And you should leave. Now." Jane scrambled to her feet and ran, her blaster clattering to the ground as she did. The Doctor picked it up, turning it over in his hands as though it might bite him. "Nasty stuff, sonic technology, if it's applied unwisely," he said to no one in particular. "Just ask the Martians." He twisted a dial and pressed a button, then dropped the blaster back on the ground. It fizzed into uselessness.
The Doctor seemed to notice Ace again and his expression did a swift about turn from sour to sweet. "Impressive initiative," he said. "Very commendable. As it happens, I met a man on Mirror-Sat Two who discovered, through a frankly unbelievable chain of coincidences, that he has an inheritance dating all the way back to the 42nd Century that says all of this is his. When I last spoke to him, he was planning to turf out the Time Agency and plant bananas. He seemed very keen on bananas for some reason." He smiled at her. "Still, looks like you've saved him some demolition work."
"Not the only demolition work I've been doing," Ace said after a moment.
"Oh?" The Doctor offered her his arm and she put a hand through it. They began walking over the grass, casting long shadows behind them as the sun lowered in the sky.
"I've been knocking down some walls. Internal walls."
The Doctor turned to her. "They weren't supporting walls, I hope?"
"At first I thought they might be, but things seem even stronger without them."
"Where did they come from?" the Doctor asked.
"I used to think I'd put them up, but now I reckon I must have been letting other people do it for me. Everything's so much brighter and airier without them."
"Glad to hear it. You should never let anyone else make those choices for you." He chuckled slightly. "Not even me."
"Oh, especially not you," Ace said vehemently.
The Doctor reached out and smudged her nose with a hooked finger. "Back to the TARDIS?"
"Back to the TARDIS," she affirmed.
They walked together into the sunset.
* * *
She looked across at him, at the crumpled suit, those crinkly eyes that could light up with laughter or darken with worry in an instant, that tangle of hair, and saw only the Doctor. Her best friend, who stuck by her, and helped her, and always accepted her.
Sometimes, there were things you couldn't say. And other times, there were things you didn't need to.
"Nothing. 'Night, Doctor."
"Sweet dreams, Ace."