Pete keeps telling him he's overworked, and Pete is probably right. You can't remember things that didn't happen. But then: gardenias. Blonde threads curling in the sink, twisted around his fingers. Spinning themselves into gold.
"A madness shared by two."
-Dana Scully, Folie a Deux
He can almost smell it, still: gardenia and soap, the slippery warm scent of her, pressed against the sink counter, breath fogging the glass. He lies half-awake and hears the sound of water running. Phantom echoes, trembling in the pipes.
It's not real.
He sits up and pushes the covers away. It's a big bed with a dent in one side, where he's slept curled into himself for the last five years or so. He's not a sprawler. Sometimes he imagines an arm around his waist, a weight at his back. Sometimes, without thinking, he runs a hand over the cool side of the sheets, tucks it under the second pillow. They're stupid fantasies. Cloud formations in the brain. Probably to be expected. He's been clocked on the head half a dozen times, nearly drowned, definitely shot with phase weapons, put into a coma by some pollen he shouldn't have been inhaling anyway. These are leftovers from the hallucinations that plagued him for weeks, screaming terrors about voids and girls and a fire in space. Pete keeps telling him he's overworked, and Pete is probably right. You can't remember things that didn't happen. But then: gardenias. Blonde threads curling in the sink, twisted around his fingers. Spinning themselves into gold.
He brushes his teeth and stares at his reflection. There are two slots in the toothbrush holder, and one of them holds nothing. It's perfectly white and clean; on his side there's a stain in the porcelain, a ring where his brush drips water every morning and night. He glances down. There's a long thin crack under the bathroom mirror. It's a cut like a drunken half-smile. The wallpaper's peeling apart at the edges, curling into itself. He brushes his wet fingertips across the seam and watches the paper darken slightly with moisture. It's cold against his skin, that crack in the wall. Got to do something about that. Sometime soon.
He's late to work again.
"What was it this time, Doc?" Jake asks, after he comes out of the elevator, still tugging fruitlessly on his tie. "Pre-War astrologists' convention? Weevils? Traffic?"
"A girl," he says, without thinking. Jake's brows touch the ceiling as his jaw sweeps the floor. Backtracking. He's so bad at backtracking. "Not like that."
"Ah," says Jake. "Shame."
His office is on the twentieth floor. He's up there with the rest of the cloud-watchers, the ones who write field reports ending in words like 'undetermined' and 'inconclusive.' The twentieth floor is where you go with a specialized degree in speculative astronomy or extrahuman anthropology. He's got a handful of those. Concurrently. He's also got a small flock of research assistants: bright young things with good careers ahead of them. Good runners. They roll their eyes a lot when he starts to babble about constellations or alien genomes, but they're more open-minded than most. More curious. He likes that about them, about people. The stars have been out for seventy years, but on the twentieth floor they're still finding questions to ask, new patterns in old charts, paths to take and things to hope for. Things to believe.
"Doctor?" Tosh is knocking on the door, clutching a stack of reports under one arm and a tray of coffees in her hand. "We skipping the weekly again?"
"Um," he says. And glances at the clock. "No. No, we have to- Pete's going to expect something on the Telford thing. And we need to show them the photos. Go on ahead, I'll just- I'll be there in half a minute." Tosh nods and disappears back into the hall; there's some friendly shouting and the bright sound of Jake and Gina's laughter, and several office doors being shut in succession. And then quiet. He stares at the screen, at the email he was supposed to be typing to Pete. Something about budget figures, why exactly he's gone through two Jeeps and half a dozen phase generators since the fifth of the month. But there's only one sentence, a tiny line of text. He doesn't remember writing anything. He definitely doesn't remember pressing 'send.'
She keeps walking away
He shuts the laptop too quickly and sits there for a long minute, pretending like he didn't see it, before he gets up and walks away. It's nerves. It's a tendency towards the poetic. It's not happening. He'll tell Pete it was a typo, a copy-paste gone wrong. Besides, there's nothing like a good, long, uncomfortable staff meeting to clear out flights of fancy.
"Two Jeeps?" asks Pete, as he slides into a chair towards the head of the table. The Doctor taps the end of his pen against a clipboard and gives him a reasonably penitent expression. Not too penitent- Jeeps can suffer for science. "Two? One of them, we found at the bottom of Randlay Pool. There were bite marks in the seats. Human teeth, they tell me. Sharpened human teeth."
"It's all in the report," he says. Pete raises an eyebrow. "Well. Most of it. I left out the bit with the-" he makes a chomping motion and gestures vaguely in the air. "I'm still waiting on test results. Found a tissue sample stuck up between the gear shifters, not actually human- well, mostly human. Proto-human. There's potential hybridization-"
"Fine," Pete sighs. "Fine. Just tell me we're getting somewhere with that dig."
"Ah, we're getting everywhere," he says, with delight. Tosh tosses him a remote. He brings the room lights down and advances the first slide, and a general sigh goes around the table. He ignores it. He stands up and fidgets around the edges of the screen. "Take a look. Discovered just yesterday morning, within the foundations. Tell me what you think we're looking at."
"Twenty minutes, at least," Jake murmurs. Pete shoots him a look. "Sorry. Er, it's a bunch of stones. Grave markers?"
"A ritual arrangement?" Gina suggests. "Some kind of alignment, symbolizing..." she trails off. "I'm not sure, exactly."
"Stars," he says. The Doctor waits for a reaction. "Stars. Do you see it?" He points and paces. "These are constellations. Actual constellations, recorded for all time, laid into the ground by hand- these people wanted to preserve them, needed to preserve them. Look- that's Orion. I believe it's Orion, it's missing a few- never mind. But there's dozens of these. And I'd guess there's more- maybe a kilometer square. We may be looking at one of the most complete celestial maps ever discovered."
"We've done some projections," Tosh adds. The Doctor changes the slide to display a computer-generated diagram and a cut-away section. "Of what we think the total area might resemble. With better dating, we may be able to determine the order in which they were completed. Which may shed light on when they began disappearing." There's a brief murmuring in the back. "Questions?"
"Yeah. Sorry." David sits forward. "This is terrific work, really terrific. It's just that we've been looking over the budget figures-" he nods at the two staffers beside him, "and this operation's demanding a lot of resources at the moment."
"And?" the Doctor returns.
"And," says Dave, with a slight, unfriendly smile, "I"m just not sure this is top-priority stuff. We've got pressing demands in other departments. Bio research, border safety-"
"Border safety? We've got the history of the universe at our fingertips. Waiting to be unlocked."
"Does it matter?" Dave asks. There's complete silence in the room, except for the soft hum of the projector fan. "I mean really, does it matter? Does it matter when the Big Dipper disappeared? The last time the Romans saw the North Star? Does it change anything?" He sits back. "In case you haven't noticed, Torchwood's got its hands full. We've got people manufacturing plasma weapons. Arms trafficking. Unknown chemical agents getting deployed in civilian areas. Real-world problems with real-world answers." His smile evaporates. "Your department brings us fairy tales about extraterrestrial acculturation, off-planet tech. Stars. Stars don't matter. They haven't mattered in a hundred years."
"David-" Pete begins, but the Doctor interrupts.
"Seventy years, three months, thirteen days," the Doctor snaps. "The last distant stars vanished from the sky less than a generation ago. Your parents, their parents, they watched them go out. For a reason. There is one star left, and we're turning around it. Everything here, it's happened for a reason- something's caused it, something we can't understand." He grabs his files up off the table. "Something you won't understand."
He stalks away, out of the room, pulse pounding and fingers knotted around the folders. His face feels flushed and his ears are hot with embarrassment. Childish. Totally childish. In the elevator, on the way back to his office, he recites the periodic table in his head, backwards and forwards and then by even and odd atomic number. It's an old habit. Personal tic. It calms him down, a little. He spends the rest of the afternoon in the lab, taking apart a portable generator and turning it into a serviceable Betamax player. Not that he has anything to watch. Pete ducks his head in and asks if he's coming for dinner. Thankfully, there is no mention of the bizarre email. "Um," he says, face smudged and goggles askew. "Is Jackie- cooking?"
"We're ordering in," says Pete. "Italian."
"Molto bene," he says, and puts down the drill.
The Tylers always wanted children.
Pete told him the whole story once, slurring his speech a little and staring down into a bowl of peanuts. It'd been a tough case- kids were involved- and they'd finished the night in a pub down the street from the office, Pete's driver waiting outside with the patience of a true professional. Pete had ordered another round, something amber-colored and oaky, and talked to him about his younger days, back when he was starting out and getting married and living in flats the size of shoeboxes. Jackie'd wanted a daughter, a pretty little girl with hair to brush and nails to paint, someone to push on the swings and hold hands with at crosswalks on the way to school. This was more than a decade ago, before the millions, before Torchwood. It hadn't happened. And then Pete's career was taking off- life got busy and busier, while the treatments still didn't take. In the end Jackie bought a West Highland Terrier and a Pekingese and named them Rosie and Mickey and moved on. Mostly.
"You know," Pete had said, just before he'd crawled into the car, "you're like a son to her." He'd clapped the Doctor on the shoulder and smiled slightly, blurrily. "Just a little too smart and too tall to be ours."
It'd been a long night.
He eats dinner at the Tylers' at least once a week; he can't quite remember when that started. It blurs together in his mind. They sit and eat takeout at the dining-room table, while Jackie's huge designer kitchen sits untouched and gleaming in the background. Pete talks about football scores and the research initiatives happening at Torchwood Two and Jackie interrogates him about not having a girlfriend.
"More dessert?" Jackie pushes the tiramisu across the table at him. She frowns at the half-slice still lingering on his plate. "Where's your appetite?"
"In orbit," he says.
After dinner he takes a walk with the dogs; he leaves Jackie and Pete curled up on the sofa, giggling over Z-Factor and finishing off the wine. Rosie and Mickey play around his ankles, nipping at each other and dashing under the hedges. He follows the stone steps through the back garden, where Jackie's tea roses are just starting to bud. Genus Rose, he thinks. Family Rosaceae. He recounts their Latin names to himself as he walks. Somehow, it's calming. He stops at the end of the hedges, where the garden flattens out into a broad lawn flanked by oak trees. The dogs race out onto the grass and wrestle with each other, rolling onto their backs and kicking their stumpy legs in the air.
It's totally dark out here, away from the house and the lights strung around the back patio. The air's beginning to cool. He inhales: he can feel it instantly, the sharp sensation of cold breath in warm lungs, the slight sting in the back of the throat. He stares up at the blackness of the sky, a smooth canvas totally unbroken by light. Nobody ever looks up. There's nothing to see there, nothing but the inky, all-absorbing cloak that's been laid over this world. But, he thinks, it's blue. It's blue and black and purple like an oil slick- not the absence of color but thousands of them, mingling on the surface of the universe like the skin of a puddle. There is something up there. There has always been something up there. He exhales a faint cloud of steam that vanishes almost as soon as it appears. When he closes his eyes, just for a second, he sees a huge wave rising over his head- black and shining and translucent like glass, a frozen wave that reaches up to touch the heavens. It's only his imagination, but for a second it's so clear. He can almost see it- stepping out onto it, onto dark ice that shimmers and trembles with the reflected light of a hundred million stars.
Mickey steps on his foot. "Yeah," he says, "okay." He crouches down and scratches behind the dog's ears, and listens to the little tags around his neck jingling. "Time to go back."
He herds them up the hill.
On Monday Pete calls him into the upstairs office, asks him if he wants to explain the marginal notes he decided to scribble into Jake's report. He doesn't remember doing anything of the sort, but he takes the file that Pete hands him and stares down at his own spidery sideways handwriting, the smears and stains of ink at the edges.
To be honest, it looks a bit insane.
"Take a vacation," Pete says. He takes the file back and slips it into the top drawer. There's something especially kind in his voice. He would have been a good father, really. If that'd ever worked out. "Get some rest. You could take the house in Selje for a week. It's empty. Jackie's leaving for Paris and she won't be back until the twenty-third."
"Pete," he begins. He really means to say no. "Alright," he says instead, surprising himself. "Sure."
"Promise me," says Pete, slowly, "that when you come back, this thing, whatever it is, is over."
"Can do," he answers.
It's not the first lie he's told Pete, but it is the biggest.
In Selje, it's just him and the sea. Well, him and the sea and a lot of smoked salmon and incredibly heavy jumpers. The days and nights are colder; he packed a coat and a parka but he still stops in the town center and buys three fat wool pullovers in varying shades of gray. He doesn't know what Pete is telling his team. Mental breakdown, maybe. Maybe he was merciful and told them he was investigating radiation readings or an arms-trafficking ring. Maybe he told them the truth: their team leader is tired and distracted and keeps writing marginal notes about fictional women. And wolves. Bad wolves.
He can't stop thinking about those words. He writes them in the steam of the shower and on the fogged mirror and in the condensation on his water glass. He eats breakfast in front of the picture window that overlooks the water. It's impossibly blue and achingly bright. He goes for a walk every day before noon. He reads old field reports and writes on tiny, curling scraps of notebook paper that pile up on the coffee table. He feels like he's missing something. Something enormous.
He's felt that way for as long as he can remember.
He dreams about her every night. She stands on the beach, the same beach he can see outside his window, and cries unashamedly into her sleeves. There's something incredibly brave in the way she does it. She's so lovely. She is always saying goodbye.
He may be losing his mind.
After five days there's a celestial event. That's what he calls it in his head as he dials Pete and Jake and Gina and Tosh and everyone he knows on floors nine through twenty. He demands that they upload satellite footage and thermal imprints while he packs and books a taxi and a train and a flight home. Three seconds of green light- three seconds of irregular activity on the surface of the sun, a shift in the nuclear readout, an inexplicable burst. He had to learn about it from Norwegian television. He missed it; he was taking a nap on the sofa in the study, dreaming about not being able to touch her. He can't believe he wasn't watching. Potentially the most important event in the solar system that's happened in his lifetime.
"I am never taking a vacation again," he tells Tosh. "Ever."
"You're ridiculous," she says.
By the time he gets back, they are already discussing the construction of a surface probe, a manned mission, the launch of a new satellite with more sensitive meters. David asks how much everything's going to cost, which results in a twenty-minute shouting match about the human spirit of discovery. It is only partially his fault. While that's happening, there's another green flash. And another. They start coming faster and faster. They start lasting longer: a five-second burst. Ten. Twenty-three.
"Do you think it might-" Gina asks, when nobody else will. "I mean, the sun is a star. We have to consider it."
"The sun's not going out."
"We don't know that. We can't know that."
"There are certain options to consider. Plasma re-ignition," David suggests. "A nuclear detonation might-"
"Bomb the sun? It's madness-"
"I'm only suggesting-"
"Stop," the Doctor shouts. They stare at him, panicky and ashamed and caught by surprise. "Everyone just- stop. Please. Please just stop and think and listen. Just for a second." He fists his hands in his hair and turns circles in the carpet. "I can't hear myself when you- the sun's not going out, it's- we just need to stay calm." He puts his hands against the wall and then leans closer to it, until his head is resting on the edge of a viewscreen. There's a thin crack in the wall, a drunken line where the paint has chipped off. It's cold to the touch. "I have to think," he exhales, and walks out. He takes the stairs to the roof two at a time, and swings the door open. There are pipes and antennas on the roof, a jumble of things covered in aluminum sheeting. He picks his way through them to stand at the edge. He stares up at the sun, shading his eyes with one hand, trying not to look directly into the broiling center. It's glowing green. It makes the sky look like it's underwater. It hurts to look too long. He feels dizzy. The sun isn't the sun, that's what he's trying to grasp. He can't explain that feeling. He turns around and blinks and then blinks again. He can't quite believe what he's seeing.
There's a woman on the roof with him. Her. He didn't hear her walk up. She's wearing jeans and a dark jacket; her hair's pulled into a ponytail at the side of her neck. She's blonde but her eyebrows are dark. He's dreamed about her, about kissing her and grabbing her hand and yelling run. She seems to be fading around the edges.
"I don't have much time," she says. "I need you to remember."
"Why do they call you the Doctor?" she asks. He stares at her. "Can you remember that?"
"I'm- I have multiple degrees in advanced-"
"That's not why." She's smiling. She leans forward and stands on the tips of her toes; she presses a kiss to his cheek. "Think about it. Think hard." He closes his eyes as she touches him. He feels the warmth of her hands through his jacket; the soft press of her lips. She smells like the garden. There are Latin names in his head. Classifications. Magnoliophyta, the ones that flower. The ones with petals and thorns and roots that go underground. Underground, tunnels, walkways. Metal grates. Air conduits and space stations, shuttles, rockets, plumes of flame and scoops that touch the surface of the sun. None of it is true. It can't be. But when she touches him he can see it. He can see himself mirrored on the surface of porthole glass, staring down at the earth as it revolves slowly. He can see the stars. He remembers their names. He remembers their colors and orbits, the blue planets that circle them, the life that circles those. He remembers their faces, their beautiful faces in a million forms. When he opens his eyes, she's already gone.
"Rose," he says, suddenly. "Rose."
And the sun explodes.
When he wakes up in the morning he's curled into her back, knees pressing the underside of her thighs. The strap of her pajama top has slipped down, and there's a soft stretch of naked skin where her neck curves into her shoulder. He presses his face into that spot and inhales. Sweat and laundry detergent and warm woman. She used to smell like stardust, sometimes, when they'd been standing too close to the edge of things. The Gap of Worlds. The Divide of Gamma Tau. Sometimes she still does.
She's awake, but lying very still against him. "What happened?" he asks her. "How did you know?"
"She found me." He doesn't need to ask who: the flaming crash at the center of the universe, the one putting all the stars to sleep. Obviously his ship. His girl, after all this time. His heart throbs for a second. That loss is- will, will always be- fresh. "She pulled me in, somehow. She wanted me to tell you." He traces the letters on her arm- B A D W O L F- with the tip of his finger. "She was afraid."
"I don't know." Rose rolls onto her back to look up at him. "Of the dark. The quiet. I kept feeling a word- silence. Just silence." They lie there for a long time, staring up at the ceiling and listening to their neighbors and the early traffic on the road, outside. Rose leans into him and he wraps an arm around her back, presses his palm into her spine. "Do you think something's coming?" she asks.
"Something's always coming."
"That's cheery," she sighs.
"Chief Dramatist," he reminds her, and she laughs so hard into his chest that his heart trembles.