Fandom: Doctor Who
Pairing/characters: Ace, Romana, Tenth Doctor, K9
Disclaimer: This story is about characters originated by people who were being paid by the BBC at the time.
Prompt: "Romana and Ace, after the Time War"
Summary: Ace keeps her promises.
Author's Notes: This uses a whole mishmash of canon, but will probably make little sense if you're not at least somewhat aware of the Gallifrey audios. Thanks to wishfulaces and ellitpic_eye for very helpful betaing.
Ace McShane was good at killing Daleks. She'd killed them on her first ever trip in the TARDIS; she'd killed them with Spacefleet for three years; and then the War had come, and she'd killed them for the Time Lords themselves. People around her -- her fellow soldiers, even some of the less rigorously logical among the junior ranks of the Academicians for War Strategy -- developed superstitions about her. The versions she liked went with the idea she was a lucky talisman, others that she had sold her soul to some nefarious higher power in exchange for magical abilities.
But really, it was just that she always remembered what the Doctor had told her that very first time: aim for the eyepiece.
And now, there were no more Daleks left. She'd contributed her fair share to the total, but in the end it turned out that the eyepiece to aim for was the Eye of Harmony itself, and there'd only ever been one man who could pull that trigger.
That man was sitting opposite her now, in a little cafe in Camden. He wasn't the Doctor she'd first met, the magician who hid so much with sleight-of-hand and wearied patter, nor the dashing adventurer who'd found himself a general against his dearest wishes. This Doctor was thin, wiry, a whirlwind of energy that paused whenever you got too close to its centre. And from the gaps in what he was saying, the pauses and elisions and handwaves, Ace inferred a whole other incarnation again.
He wasn't meeting her eyes, so she didn't meet his, instead looking out of the window at the bustle of the Saturday afternoon market. Two thousand and ten was supposed to be a science fiction year, all nuclear brinksmanship and interplanetary space missions -- she'd been to see that film at the cinema, not so long before the time storm -- but the reality was so close to that of the time she'd left in so many ways that somehow it felt more alien than the year two million.
"You lost your memory?" the Doctor said.
"For five years," Ace said, trying not to sound bitter. "I'm not even sure which bits are real any more." She was still trying to reconcile her older memories, of awakening and confusion, with the certainty she had felt even in the earliest days of her appearance on Jaka'an about her feelings for Naristi. Ace had been so clearly an outsider, appearing seemingly from nowhere, with a strange piece of machinery that didn't seem to do anything but which she was insistent she couldn't be parted from. Naristi had taken her in, cared for her, vouched for her in the social contract ... And it had all seemed so natural. It was hard to believe there was an Ace in the past for whom it wouldn't have been.
"I'm sorry," the Doctor said. "The timelines were ... in flux. Amnesia, inconsistencies, parallelisms are, well, the norm, really."
"Yeah, that's very reassuring, thanks." She stirred her milkshake with the straw, little figures of eight back and forth.
"What happened to make you remember?"
"Oh, nothing special," Ace said. "Nothing earth-shattering. I was on the beach with Naristi and ... I don't know, something about the way the sunlight was shining off the waves reminded me of the reflections from a battle casing. And then it started to come back, bits and pieces for the first few days, then a flood. I knew who I was, what I'd done and why I'd done it." She poked down into the gloopy thickness at the bottom of the glass. "And how to work the time bike."
"You didn't stay? With your friend?"
"How could I? I wasn't who she thought I was. Things wouldn't have ... No, I didn't."
"Look, I ought to get back to the TARDIS, lots of repairs--"
"OK, I'll come with you," Ace said. The expression on his face didn't seem as pleased as she might have liked, but he didn't actively rebut the suggestion. "I'd like to see the old girl again. For old time's sake."
"Well, then, for old time's sake."
The TARDIS was parked just around the corner, nestled in a small alleyway leading off a side street. The outside was the same familiar broken disguise she knew, but inside it was darker, seemed ... damaged, somehow.
Still hurting, she thought, without being entirely sure where the thought had come from. Alone.
"Whadda ya think?" the Doctor said as she came in the door.
"Makes an impression," she said. "Definitely."
"I'm going to go and ... well, do you want a cup of tea?"
"OK," Ace said absently, looking around the vaulted ceiling. The Doctor disappeared into the depths of the TARDIS.
Ace stroked the console, felt the subtle purring underneath, and the feeling of loneliness at the back of her mind dissipated slightly. She looked at the controls -- some that were still familiar, others that she had never understood. She took off the backpack she'd bought in the market earlier and put it down on the floor, started playing with the controls. Nothing dangerous, she told herself. She knew what she was doing. At least as much as the Doctor did, anyway.
When he came back a little later he was holding two mugs. He sat down -- the leather sofa was a more welcome change -- and invited her wordlessly to sit alongside him.
They talked a while longer as they drained their tea, everything and nothing, feint and parry as each tried to avoid revealing too much. But it was obvious to Ace he was travelling alone, had been for too long. Some things about the Doctor didn't change, and one of them was the way he got without people around him, to ground him, to make him see the important details as well as the big picture.
"I should get going," the Doctor said. "People to see, planets to save ..."
"I could come with you," Ace offered.
She was relieved when he turned her down. He had nothing to offer her now but empty apologies.
Nothing, that was, except for what she'd already stolen.
* * *
Both sides had used intermediaries in the War, agents they could use when discretion or deceit were more important than the raw power each wielded in their different ways. The Daleks had enslaved, roboticised and replicated peoples across the cosmos, at one point even constructing an entire mechanical culture, which they then proceeded to pretend to fight as part of an overcomplicated double bluff that had collapsed under its own internal contradictions. The Time Lords had persuaded the higher species of the universe (not quite as high as the Time Lords, it was made clear, but high enough to have a vested interest in the outcome of the hostilities) to join the War effort and, where they couldn't be persuaded, simply tweaked their history as necessary to make them more amenable. And so the Chancellery Guard had found themselves fighting alongside Kalichuran battle demons and Phaidon warp-zombies.
And then there were the auxiliaries, members of the lesser species who had been inducted in one way or another into the true knowledge of how the universe worked, the agents like Ace. Some had stumbled across the truth in ill-fated time travel experiments and chosen recruitment over time looping or retro-annulment, some had blundered their way from timelines or universes no longer accessible, and some ... some had met a strange and wonderful man one day who, without even trying, had made it so that their lives could never be the same again.
There'd been Fey, already a secret agent in her "civilian" life, bonded to a Matrix construct, taking each new secret identity in her stride. Fitz, loyal and dependable, who'd still travelled with the Doctor up until the end; Ace didn't know what had happened, but he wasn't with him any more. And Leela, the President's advisor, bodyguard, confidante ...
Ace knew she was one of the lucky ones: not all the others had made it through to the other side. They'd made promises to each other, as they sat around campfires on missions in the distant past where all anachronistic technology was strictly banned, or strapped to the sides of history-proofed drop pods while awaiting insertion into Asynchronous Zones. Promises to tie off loose ends, ensure the safety of loved ones in whatever new universe waited on the other side of the conflict, or simply to remember.
* * *
Romana stared at the frozen image on the display, the Doctor's hand held up to the screen in a gesture of affection and farewell, the mischievous light in his eyes still, somehow, not completely extinguished by the enormity of the events that had engulfed them.
The image had been the same for twenty days, and would be the same for a million more. Her personal timeline was collapsed in on itself like a four-dimensional fractal, a subjective near-eternity compressed into that final attosecond. Her Presidential TARDIS, from which she had coordinated the last ditch defence of Gallifrey, from which she had given the Doctor the final order that he was, from her point of view, still carrying out, was now nothing more than a lifeboat.
She wasn't even really in charge of the lifeboat, it seemed. She'd spent the past three weeks having the same argument with K9, and while the details might change the substance hadn't in the slightest. That hadn't stopped her yet, though.
"I am following orders," K9 insisted in response to her latest tirade, "relayed from Mistress Leela by K9 Mark I prior to--"
"I know exactly what it was prior to, thank you, K9," Romana said quietly. She sighed. "You're used to this sort of thing I suppose, trapped in a pocket universe. But we got out of E-Space. And we'll get out of this, too, but it'll be much quicker if you help me. K9, I am your Mistress, and I ... I order you to unfollow those orders!"
"Orders cannot be countermanded," K9 said. "They reinforce core programming objectives." Which was as close as he would ever come to admitting that he wanted to protect her, just as much as Leela had.
"Well, then, I'll just have to do it myself. You're not going to stop me using the controls of my own TARDIS, are you?"
Romana began to circle the console, noting readings here, flicking switches experimentally there. But she knew even as she began to work on the problem that it was no more tractable than it had been. She couldn't bring the TARDIS out of its Zeno's Paradox traversal of the final moment of the War without destroying it. That final moment was the final moment of the Eye of Harmony's existence, and without it to anchor history the TARDIS would scatter on the time winds like dust. Only a TARDIS like the Doctor's, that had its own power sources on board, could hope to survive the cataclysm. And without her TARDIS, she couldn't hope to survive in the new universe waiting beyond the eternal present she now inhabited; however its laws and rules worked, it would be intrinsically inimical to her Time Lord biology.
Still, she worried at the console as though inspiration might strike at any moment. It wasn't as though she was about to run out of time.
She tried adjusting the Helmic Regulator, doubtful that it would do anything ...
... and heard a screeching sound in the corridor outside the console room. Something had happened.
"There? You see, K9--"
"Recent materialisation was not the result of your efforts, Mistress," K9 said, with just a hint of his old smugness.
"Then we have intruders on the TARDIS," Romana said. Her darkest fears began to manifest -- that the final, desperate gamble had failed, that all their sacrifice had been for nothing and the Daleks had survived. And now they were hunting the survivors, their crude time machines clawing open spacetime to get to her and eliminate any possibility of further opposition. "Engage defensive mode, K9."
"Blaster to maximum power, co-ordinating TARDIS defences."
Romana stepped gingerly forward to open the door.
And saw behind it a black two-wheeled vehicle (motorcycle, an amused voice in the back of her head said), the helmeted figure of its pilot standing beside it. The screech had been a screech of brakes, the materialisation itself must have been completely silent. Which would have worried Romana, if she hadn't known exactly who this was.
"It's nice to see you too, Lady President," the figure replied.
"But how did you get through the time lock? And into the TARDIS? You--"
"--have entirely human-originated time travel technology that doesn't play by the old rules any more?" Ace took off her helmet and shook her long ponytail down. "That's what you were going to say, wasn't it? Or did you think I'd been driven mad? Was your little dog all ready to blast me, just in case?"
"K9 unit in standard defensive posture, not offensive," K9 said petulantly.
"Come through," Romana said, leading the way to the console room.
"I like how you've decorated in here," Ace said. "Clean and simple."
"Don't change the subject. If not how you got here, then why did you come? You may not have been driven insane by the process, but it was still insanely dangerous even to risk it. And you can't be sure of getting out again--"
Ace cut her off. "I made a promise. Simple as that."
"To Leela." Romana knew the words were redundant as soon as they'd escaped her lips. "I don't need pity, you know. Or ... whatever else it was Leela might think I needed."
"How about this?" Ace reached into the pannier at the side of the motorcycle and dangled a small helmeted device with thick discs at the temples. Cords leading out of the back of it started to grope through the air towards the console, seeking to integrate with the TARDIS's systems.
"Where did you get that?" Romana demanded. "All Chameleon Arches were ordered destroyed, under the Second Act of Master Restitution ..."
Ace put the device down on the console, and it began to snake its way into place, lights on the console sparking into life in response. "It doesn't matter where I got it." It was barely reading between the lines to hear "the Doctor" in Ace's tone. "It matters what it can do. It's your ticket out of here."
She was right. Romanadvoratrelundar, the President of a disbanded High Council, the keeper of Rassilon's ruined legacy, the defender of now-repealed Laws of Time, the protector of Gallifrey who had ordered its destruction, couldn't escape safely. But someone else could, someone with superficial biomorphic similarities to her, but nothing else. A new biology, a new history, a new role in the continuum.
But it wouldn't be her. "No," Romana said simply.
"You'll die," Ace said; her cheeks were flushing, Romana noted, one of those primitive responses she'd learned to read from observing Leela so closely. "A slow, lingering death, cold and alone. That's not what you want. That's not what you're worth."
"And running is? Hiding? Pretending?" Romana paused, forced her voice back under control. "No, I won't do it. I will be me, no matter what the cost."
"There's no point trying to change your mind, is there?" Ace said. "Leela said that about you, that you were--"
"Stubborn?" Romana arched an eyebrow in spite of herself.
"'Determined', I think was the word she used."
"Mistress Leela referred to you as 'stubborn' on one hundred and forty seven occasions recorded in this unit's memory bank," K9 said. "Extrapolating from that dataset over the length of your relationship--"
"That won't be necessary, thank you, K9," Romana said.
"Romana, Leela wouldn't want--"
"Leela's not here to want!" Romana beat a fist hard against the console, shaking the Arch resting on top of it. "And don't you think, more than anyone, she'd understand? That you have to live as you are, that it's better to die as you are than--"
"She carried on despite going blind," Ace said quietly. "And before that she coped with what happened with Andred. And before that she adapted to life on Gallifrey. And even before all that, she dealt with the craziness of travelling with the Doctor. Hadn't she been brought up to think he was a mad god or something?"
"That's not the same. Each time she became more than what she'd been before, not less ... It's not ..." Romana blinked away tears she didn't want to admit were there, looked up at Ace. "I don't want to forget her. I can't ... I have nothing else left, except those memories."
Romana smiled. "Very good memories."
"Keep hold of them, then."
"And your memories?"
"Not so good," Ace said. "Not so good at all." There were shadows in her eyes, like the after-image of an explosion.
"Then maybe you should let yours go."
"Yeah," Ace said, and it seemed to Romana that she was talking to herself as much as to her. "Where we've come from isn't the only thing. Maybe it's where we go next that matters."
"If you have somewhere to go next."
"I think maybe I do." Ace shrugged. "Or maybe not. But I need to find out." She smiled wanly, patted the Chameleon Arch as she picked it up, yanking its leads from where they had embedded themselves. "You could too. But if you're--"
"Leave that," Romana said.
Ace dropped the Arch back on the console. "Then ..."
"I'll think about it, I can't say any more than that. But I've still got a good few thousand years to get out of here my way, on my terms."
"Then I'll wish you luck," Ace said. "And say goodbye." She walked out of the console room, putting her helmet back on. She straddled her primitive time machine, right hand ready at the throttle.
"I hope I see you again," Romana said, but by the time the words were out, Ace had vanished.
A brief wind blew as the motorcycle-shaped vacuum filled. Perhaps she was being fanciful, but it seemed to Romana that the rushing air whispered, "Good luck."