hughes: (look at the lawman)
Erin (La Cidiana) ([personal profile] hughes) wrote2015-09-18 04:16 am

Fanfiction: Starman | I: Iron Man | iv

iv.

nobody wants him
he just stares at the world
planning his vengeance
that he will soon unfold

---

The next thing Sam heard was a loud whirr.

The next thing he saw, as he turned around, was the full extent of how utterly cracked he was.

"Bloody Jesus," he said.

"Right, yes, it's bigger on the inside." The Doctor grinned from where he gripped a lever that was connected to a console, that was connected to a machine, that was connected to a massive glowing pillar in a massive glowing room that towered over Sam's head like a fucking cathedral.

Sam stumbled backward. His back hit the door.

And then the room around him rumbled, and quaked suddenly, with so much force that Sam tripped away from the wall. He groped for something to hold to, but as soon as he grabbed onto one of the room's strange, curved supports, the ground shook violently again and threw him off his feet and onto his back.

"Ow," he said from the floor.

Sam heard the Doctor flick another switch and then rush over the platform with metallic clangs. "Oh, no, no, don't do that!"

"Do what?" Sam sucked in a breath. The ceiling looked even higher from here.

"Not you." A pair of hands grabbed him under his arms and sat him up. The Doctor's voice echoed round the room, as if he was purposely directing it outward. "In fact, you, Sam Tyler, are an honored guest and it's our duty to make you feel welcome."

Oh, good, Sam thought, my delusion's madder than I am.

The Doctor patted him on the shoulder and crouched next to him. "Sorry 'bout that -- she can be a bit, ah... moody."

Sam stretched his back and winced. "She?"

"The TARDIS," the Doctor said, as if that explained anything. A moment passed, and it felt strangely awkward, strangely silent, before the Doctor looked away and added, "My ship."

"Oh." Sam gave the room a second-over, because the once-over hadn't been nearly enough. "Your... as in a..."

"TARDIS -- that's 'Time and Relative Dimension in Space,' so, ah, we're not in 1973 anymore, if that's what you're asking." The Doctor beamed, and for a moment, Sam thought that perhaps he really was trapped in a horrible Back to the Future knock-off, cast as the oblivious teenager beside a wild, harebrained, complete nutter -- well, doctor.

Sam shook his head and tried hard not to push away said nutter as he helped Sam to his feet. The ship -- TARDIS -- emitted another little rumble akin to an indignant protest before it went still again. Sam blinked and tried for the hundredth time not to reject the fantastical reality in front of him as he turned toward Doctor in mixed parts hope and dread.

"So, then... where are we?"

The Doctor's smile, if possible, grew wider. "Would you like to see?"

Sam nodded, because yes, he wanted to see. Yes, he needed to know. Yes, he had to be certain he hadn't left behind everything in that stupid, terrible year for nothing.

"All right." The Doctor strode past Sam to the ship's door, white and almost absurdly mundane against the curved, golden wall. "But let me warn you--"

"Show me."

The Doctor bounced on his heels before he reached forward and swung the door open.

Tension drained from Sam's body. He might have run out of air. His brow unfolded as his arms fell to his sides. He felt cold and warm all at once, both far away from home and the closest he'd ever been.

"Beautiful, isn't it." The Doctor's voice drifted into Sam's awareness, soft and wondrous. "The Lassevarian Nebula, on the fifth hand of the Constellation Sharanicus -- a birthplace for stars, planets..."

Sam stepped toward the door's threshold, toward the brilliant clouds that stretched like a web of colors over the blackness of space. Dazzling stars freckled the celestial swirl, lit up in white and gold, blazing in the dark. Sam could almost feel their heat on his face.

"We used to look up at these," the Doctor said, quiet. "Back home."

Sam's hand found the doorframe. Something caught in his throat.

"I never said goodbye."

Sam heard the Doctor turn toward him. He kept his own gaze fixed on the points of light as they blurred into a wet, hazy glow.

"Annie, in the canteen. I never said goodbye."

Sam watched for a moment longer and then groped for the edge of the door. He shut it with a slow, shuddering click and leaned forward, pressed his forehead against it. He closed his eyes and tried not to feel the horrible heat down his cheeks.

---

The Doctor told Sam to get some sleep, so he did. Exhausted, bone-deep, dreamless sleep, interrupted only by sudden jolts of disorientation when his body noticed he was in a decent bed rather than the usual terrible one. A more-than-decent bed, in fact, in a more-than-decent bedroom adjoined to a bathroom and wardrobe, because apparently domestic considerations were also included in the 'bigger-on-the-inside' blueprints of the TARDIS.

Not that Sam found much comfort in this. He woke up feeling more numb than rested, and he spent the first forty minutes of his morning staring up at the ceiling and replaying scenes in his head. Annie smiling at him in the canteen. Gene glaring him down on the street. Sam wondered if Annie knew what had happened to him yet and if Gene had been the one to tell her, but then he thought about trees falling when someone wasn't there to hear them and he pondered if that was possible -- to care so much about sodding existential trees that you couldn't bear the thought of losing them.

He finally got up, slogged to the bathroom, pissed, and stepped into the shower. The TARDIS -- quite spitefully, he thought -- couldn't seem to give him a proper balance of hot and cold, even as he finessed the knobs like a NASA engineer.

"Bloody hell did I ever do to you," he muttered.

The water immediately shifted to boiling.

Which was how Sam found himself half-soapy and all cross, shivering a bit as he shaved and rinsed out the rest of his hair in the sink. He stormed out to the bedroom with a towel round his waist, consumed by pessimism over what kind of space-themed clothing awaited him in the wardrobe and whether or not it'd be worse than bell-bottoms and flared collars, but as he thrust the thing open, he was accosted by something so entirely normal that for a moment his mind blanked completely.

Modern attire -- suits, shoes, button-up shirts, trim t-shirts -- same sizes and styles as the ones Sam himself had worn back in 2006. Back home.

Sam found the edge of a suit jacket in his hand, soft and sleek, suspended on a hanger. He held it a moment, then let his eyes wander to the hodgepodge pile of discarded clothes that lay at the foot of the bed. Corduroy red, Cuban tan. Yellow stripes and black, faded leather.

Sam's hand tightened on the jacket.

Trousers. Belt. A starched shirt that caught his eye. He pulled them on, buttoned and buckled, hands shaking from a routine he hadn't properly felt in months. He reached for a tie, stupidly, and by the time he pulled on a suit jacket and turned toward the wardrobe mirror, he saw a reflection he hadn't known since the day he'd hit the tarmac off the A57.

Behind him, the door opened. Sam winced and straightened his tie.

"Morning, Doctor. Come to check on your patient?" He turned around, ready to launch into a tirade about the broken shower and his broken life and a thousand other things -- and then he stopped.

The Doctor stood in the doorway, fingers tight against the doorframe, gaze locked on Sam like he'd come face-to-face with a ghost.

Sam's frustration dwindled to a weak retort. "If it's soap in my hair you're staring at, you've your moody ship to blame."

The Doctor blinked, bewildered, before smiling with unsettling ease. "Oh -- sorry, was I...? You look nice, is all. In a suit."

Sam wondered, surreally, if now that he'd escaped the seventies, he could stop judging people's actions by seventies societal norms. Because while several words could describe how the Doctor was looking at him right now, the first one that came to mind required a rather progressive outlook.

Sam rubbed the scratchy shirt label at the back of his neck. He coughed.

The Doctor cleared his throat in return. "Right -- ah. Coffee?" He ran a hand through his upright hair and Sam noticed that his bandages from yesterday had vanished, along with most of the bruises. "I've got some remarkable coffee, right from the jungles of New Brazil--"

"That sounds fine," Sam mumbled. Really, it wasn't hard right now to see that nothing was fine, but unlike Sam, the Doctor didn't seem to understand the psychological ramifications of leaving behind any semblance of civilization or sanity.

As if to prove Sam's point, the Doctor grinned, twirled on his foot, and headed out the door. "Right! Novo Brasil Dark Roast, right up!"

Sam frowned. He marched after the Doctor and stopped at the bedroom's threshold, hand braced against the doorframe. "Wait, Doctor, about taking me home--"

"Coffee first!" The Doctor waved as he strode down the curved hall.

The Doctor's pinstripes disappeared down the corridor and Sam's stomach lurched. He shifted awkwardly in the clothes that should have comforted him and yet felt alien against his skin, drummed his fingers on the doorframe that separated the ordinary bedroom and the mad ship beyond it.

Sam remembered, with renewed clarity, his own confused anger over the blank-paper badge, his own untempered fear in the cellblock. He wondered if this so-called "Doctor" was having him on, if instead of nearing the surface of his coma fantasy, he was instead drowning in it. Sam wondered if it might have been better to listen to Gene back on Percy Lane -- Gene Hunt, who'd never led Sam down a winding trail of bread crumbs and promised a light around the corner. Who'd barreled through Sam's world and blown it to pieces, but never twisted it, never lied about it. Never made it out to be more than it was.

He'd been a good friend, Gene.

Sam closed his eyes. He leaned his head against the wall.

All in your head. All in your head.

His fingers drummed harder against the doorframe. For a moment, he didn't hear the mobile ring.

Sam's eyes snapped open. They wandered to his leather jacket, lying at the foot of the bed.

He shot bolt upright, rushed to the jacket, and shoved a shaking hand in its pocket. He yanked out the Doctor's mobile and stared at the caller ID on the lit-up screen.

"Doctor?" he called out, soft and flighty. "Doctor, your mobile..."

No answer. The phone rang again.

Sam swallowed. He faltered. He ran his thumb over the phone's bright green "SEND" button for several seconds.

Then he pressed down and raised it to his ear.

"Hello?"

Silence. Sam had forgotten how little crackle there was on modern phones. He cleared his throat. "Hello, is--"

"Why do you have this phone."

The voice was young, female, and cold. So cold that Sam stood in silence, focused solely on the inexplicable, suffocating dread that seeped from his lungs to his gut.

The woman spoke again. "What have you done with him?"

Sam swallowed. "I don't--"

"The Doctor. Where the hell is the Doctor?"

Sam raised his eyes to see the Doctor standing in the bedroom doorway, stone-still, coffee mugs clutched in either hand.

They crashed to the floor as the Doctor sprinted at Sam, as he snatched the mobile from his fingers. Sam tried, stupidly, to tell him, "the ID said 'Martha'..." but the Doctor was already turning away, already pacing across the room, already babbling into the receiver.

"I can explain -- no, I didn't -- listen, just listen! I know what you're thinking, but it's not -- it's just..."

The Doctor's jaw tightened on a precipice between fury and despair. He shot a horrible glare at Sam, something between disdain and indignation and how could you do this to me. Sam was for a moment staring into that nebula again, feeling so small next to it, so unworldly, so very out of his depth.

Sam heard a tinny yell from the phone. The Doctor turned away. "Martha, it's under control. I'm fine -- he's..." The Doctor paused, and Sam glanced at the spilled coffee as it seeped into the carpet. He couldn't help but think of the blood stains on the Mangler's crime scenes.

"I'm fine," the Doctor repeated. "Just some unexpected difficulties, but -- well, if you'd like, I could meet you and Jack together, let you know what..." He trailed off, then slapped a hand to his face. "Yes! Oh, yes -- with both of you, we can get to the bottom of this right away -- yes, right away, I promise."

The Doctor hung up and swung around to grab Sam's arm and yank him toward the door. "Come on, then!"

Sam wrestled out of the Doctor's grip, shifting from shock to anger as he followed him out to the hall. "Who was that?"

"Old companion of mine," the Doctor replied.

Just a few more yards and the Doctor threw open a door that dumped them into the ship's massive control room. Sam stumbled from the disorienting inconsistency of it all as the Doctor skipped to the console and flipped a switch, turned a dial, threw levers this way and that.

Sam grabbed the nearby railing and squeezed. "Are your 'companions' all so friendly?"

"Yes, mostly." The Doctor grinned, either because Sam's sheer scathing tone had blown right over his head or he was trying very hard to pretend it had. The TARDIS shook and rocked, but quite less than it had earlier, only jostling Sam about and aggravating his bloody scratchy collar a bit more.

The room went still again. The Doctor hit a few keys and a screen blinked with the words "LEVEL 5 LOCKDOWN" as he spun on his heel to face Sam. "Right, then. I won't be long."

Sam narrowed his eyes. "Won't be long where?"

The Doctor grabbed his coat off one side of the console and threw it over his shoulders as he headed toward the door. "Out!"

"You said you'd take me home."

The Doctor stopped midway through straightening his coat. His shoulders deflated as he turned around.

"It's complicated," he said. He almost looked ashamed.

Sam gripped the railing tighter. "You're visiting 'Martha' easily enough."

"Sam, it's..." The Doctor bit his lip and looked away. "Where I'm going, right now... it's not somewhere you want to be."

"I want to be out of here."

"Sam." The Doctor looked back at him, and this time Sam found his own expression wavering under his intensity, his certainty. "Trust me."

Trust him. Trust a liar and a lunatic, a sham police officer with all questions and no answers, a madman who flitted around in a box made of impossibility. Trust the man who'd upturned everything Sam hadn't realized he believed in, who'd made everything seem terrible and small, who'd touched Sam's tough, gritty world and made it wooden and broken.

"Everything was fine," Sam breathed, "before you."

The Doctor's certainty fell away to nothing. He turned toward the door.

"I know." He paused and gripped the handle, fingers bony and pale, figure overshadowed by the TARDIS wall. After a long moment, he breathed out and pulled the door open.

"Kitchen and bathroom should be open to you, along with your room. Just... relax, Sam. Stay inside."

The Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS and into the light, but as he shut the door behind him, Sam didn't -- couldn't -- yell after him. Instead, he found himself frozen, fingertips cold as his mind shuddered back to the crime scene two days ago.

"Don't stay inside," the voice on the phone had said. "He'll tell you to stay inside."

---

The door was locked. Naturally.

Sam grit his teeth and rattled the thing, deceptively loose on its hinges. He wondered how the damn ship had prevented him from getting sucked into the vacuum of space last night. A force field of some sort? That same... what was it? Trans-dimensional technology? Christ if it even mattered right now, while he was stuck here, alone, in a humming control room with only his mind's grandest visuals and barest hints to guide him.

"Don't stay inside." Bleeding hell. Like Sam should have ever listened to that wanker of a lunatic, that two-faced bastard. He should have known better, should have been...

"I told you to be careful with him."

Sam closed his eyes. He'd listen to Annie next time, and that single thought gave him so much vertigo that he nearly sank to his knees.

He leaned on the door, caught his breath, then stepped away from it. He clenched his fists and turned to face the giant hexagonal console at the center of the room.

He marched toward it.

"Right," he muttered, "let's see what you can do."

Sam stopped on the metal grating a few paces away from the contraption's single black screen and intermittently flexed his fingers. As far as time machines went, this one didn't appear especially elegant -- multiple jerry-rigged systems hooked to one another, wires and circuits wound across controls that varied from laughably obsolete to unrecognizably futuristic. Sam imagined he'd have to be Scotty or Han Solo to make any sense of it, but if this truly was a creation of his mind, then perhaps pop culture and basic technological know-how were all he needed to crack it.

"On switch. Tell me you have a sodding on switch." He stepped forward and pulled the nearest lever, but got nothing but a dull thud as it hit a locking mechanism. He scowled further and jabbed at a button, but it stayed stubbornly in place as well.

He shifted his weight, feeling vaguely -- okay, extremely -- ridiculous.

"Activate," he tried.

Nothing. Sam's mouth twisted.

"Turn on?"

The TARDIS console regarded him with its usual drone. Sam tapped his foot, then moved to another section of the console -- and rubbed the damn collar against his neck in the process.

Sam hissed with sudden ire. As if things weren't sufficiently terrible yet, as if the entire bloody universe wasn't having enough of a laugh at his expense. His hand shot up and groped for the ill-placed tag, but as he tugged it down--

He paused.

Sam pressed a nail against what felt like a loose thread next to the irritant label corner, along with some other material protruding behind it. He tore at the fabric again and pulled the collar to the side of his neck. One more rip and he got the label off.

Something fell against his shoulder.

Sam groped for the small weight and held it out where he could see it. The thing looked like paper, one inch across, folded up around something solid and held together by a thread tied round it.

He turned it over in his hands and saw writing, bold and urgent.

APPLY TO TARDIS WIRING.

And then he stopped.

His eyes found the full-stop and stayed there. It took a moment for him to process why he couldn't move, why his heart had stopped along with his breath.

Because normally that wasn't a strange thing, to read your own handwriting.

Sam ripped open the paper to find a small, see-through circuit board with shallow spikes on one side, glimmering under the TARDIS' warm light. Underneath that, in Sam's rushed print:

GET OUT. NOW.

Sam slammed a hand to his mouth. He shut his eyes. Bile clenched in his throat.

Don't stay inside. Don't stay inside.

His eyes snapped open. He stuffed the paper in his pocket and grasped the circuit board between his fingers as he leaned one hand on the console's edge. With the other, he laid the circuit board against a bundle of wires and then, swallowing hard, pressed it against them.

White fire shot up the TARDIS' main column. Sam staggered backward as he watched the tiny circuit board glow to blinding, then zap streaks of lightning down the console's cables and into the machine's inner workings. For a moment, nothing happened.

Sam let out a breath.

Then, the black screen lit up. The words "LEVEL 5 LOCKDOWN" fritzed in and out as circular patterns twirled across the interface with frantic speed, distorted by static, flickering intermittently with strange letters and code.

The TARDIS jolted and whirled around Sam, and he let out a yell as he slammed against the nearby railing. He wrapped an arm around the metal bar as the ship groaned against the overload and rocked back and forth like a barge at sea. The console, recently lifeless, crackled with sparks. Levers and dials turned and shook. Sam shut his eyes against the chaos, clenched his jaw and nearly bit through his own lip from the force of it--

And then, the TARDIS shuddered to a stop so suddenly that it threw him off the railing and to the floor.

For a moment, Sam couldn't feel anything but each sharp breath he sucked in. His whole side throbbed, cheek pressed raw against the cold grating. His ears pounded. The scent of melted plastic and metal seared through his nostrils.

Something clicked. Creaked.

Sam's eyes fluttered open. For a moment, he couldn't make out anything but the glow of the column overhead, but slowly, he managed to focus on the white door across the room.

It was ajar.

Sam coughed. He pressed his palms against the floor and pushed himself up. He blinked again and then used the railing to drag himself to his feet.

He stood straight and stumbled forward. And then walked. And then ran.

He burst out the door with a thud and felt air on his face, crisp and bitter. Nearby, a few lamp posts cast scant light from the opposite side of a chainlink fence. Some of their glow filtered into the area around him, revealing upturned rubble and dirt, concrete mixers and disused pipes. A construction site.

Something in Sam dropped at the memory of where he'd first woken up after his accident, and he stepped away from the TARDIS' threshold to turn around, shakily, and take in the rest of his surroundings. The first thing to catch his eye was the TARDIS itself, door hanging wide open, bright and cheerful and offering a glimpse into its impossibly large interior.

It occurred to Sam that someone's mind might grind to a halt at seeing such a thing. It occurred to him that Gene's probably had.

Sam swallowed and leaned forward to shut the damn thing, then diverted his attention outward again. A wooden barrier around the chainlink kept him from seeing whatever was outside the construction site, but he could hear a car rush past every now and then, along with the far-off sound of someone conversing in English.

Manc English.

Sam looked up and saw that the dark sky above him offered no brilliant dust clouds or would-be supernovas, just the twinkling glimmer of the few stars that made it through his city's haze, plain and simple and familiar.

Back to square one, then.

Sam closed his eyes and leaned back against the TARDIS' side. He stood there and inhaled. Exhaled.

He wondered how he was supposed to explain all of this once he trudged back into the station. He wondered how many punches to the gut he'd have to take from Gene, how many days of tense silence from Annie. His chest tightened. God, Annie. He might have only been gone a night, but she'd be gutted by now from whatever horrible delivery had gone along with the Guv's briefing, and she'd yell at Sam, probably -- cry at him, maybe -- but at least he'd see her again. He'd have time to tell her things he wouldn't have dared before today, and maybe he actually would, when she wasn't so cross.

If Sam wasn't suspended and jailed by then.

He opened his eyes as he connected the dots. That little note must have been a mental failsafe. Get-out-of-jail-free card, right from his sodding subconscious. "Stick to your Night University and your terrible little girls and be thankful for it." No more time-travelers. No more blue boxes. Just Sam, and the voices, and his mum pleading from the telly that he could wake up from his personal hell if he just tried hard enough.

Sam pushed away from the TARDIS. Another car zoomed past on the opposite side of the fence -- far quicker than any seventies car ought to safely go, Sam thought with a resigned sigh. Some hooligan and his girlfriend, probably -- blaring Britney or Beyoncé or some other rubbish pop out the window. Something about kissing a girl.

Sam's head snapped up.

He ran at the fence. Tripped. Kept going. Hit the gate, shoved, but -- it was locked. Locked. He couldn't open it. He needed to open it, needed to--

His eyes shot across the area. There. Gap in the chainlink.

Sam rushed at it, shoved away the wooden boards. They slid aside and he slammed through.

His shoes hit pavement. He winced as he got the full view of the streetlamp, and--

A covered bus stop. Metal, plastic. A flashy movie advert on one side with a Batman logo, all blue and black, with drop-shadow text. Printed flyers covered the other side -- lost cats, guitar lessons, all titled in Helvetica.

Helvetica.

Sam stumbled. His shoulder hit the lamppost.

He laughed.

---

Several minutes passed before Sam could walk straight, drunk on elation, giddy on triumph.

Home.

The street was quiet save for the odd passing car, small and rounded and modern. Citroëns and Hondas instead of hard-edged Leylands. New Minis instead of old ones. Sam trailed his hand against the wooden barrier round the construction site, reveling in the ridged texture, the solid rattle it made against the chainlink.

It must have been late, judging from how none of the sleek storefronts on the opposite side of the street were lit up. Only one lone figure stood on the pavement, loitering at the corner, hair dyed, face riddled with piercings. Some misfit kid, but Sam could hardly give a damn, because the punk was standing round and texting on his mobile like it was the most normal thing in the world.

Sam approached and read the street sign. Percy Lane. He'd moved in time, but not in location, it seemed, and bloody hell had the neighborhood moved up in the world. Still, despite the bus stop, there didn't appear to be transport at this hour and it'd be a long walk to Sam's flat. God, his flat...

The punk glanced up from his texting. He twisted his mouth. "Oi. Do I know you?"

Sam ignored him as his mind raced through possibilities. What about Maya's flat, or the station? Maybe his mother. Mum lived west of here, didn't she? Just a mile or so?

"I'm sure I've seen you," the punk muttered. "On the telly."

In cell detention, more like it, but Sam kept it to himself as he turned to the punk and said, "Can I borrow your mobile?"

"Piss off," the punk hissed.

"I'm a police officer," Sam bit back.

"Right," the punk scoffed. "And I'm Winston bloody Church-- hey..." The punk took a wide-eyed step back and raised a finger. "That's it -- you're the bloody--!"

"I'm Winston Churchill?" Sam deadpanned.

"Get 'way from me -- don't want any trouble!" The Punk stumbled backward, then turned and ran.

"Oi!" Sam cried. "Oi, stop!" He reached under his coat but staggered to a stop when he couldn't find the hard outline of his badge.

The punk ran around the corner and out of sight as Sam realized he'd run out of the TARDIS ill-equipped -- no ID, no cash, no coins for a public phone. He'd left his wallet in his pants, his radio in his jacket, his St. Christopher on the TARDIS sink counter.

He tried to ignore the sinking feeling he got from that.

Sam turned in the direction of his mum's flat with dogged resignation and started walking. Best like this, anyway, to soak in a breath of dirty modern air as he passed by the bus stop and drank in the hallmarks of modern consumerism, that same glossy Hollywood poster--

He stopped in his tracks. Re-read the release date under the big Batman logo. He let the over-stylized font sink in a bit longer, because that couldn't...

"2008?" Sam whispered.

---

Sam was no longer giddy by the time he arrived at his mum's flat.

Two years he'd been gone, if he could believe that movie poster, and he had a sinking suspicion he shouldn't. He'd lost perspective in his elation at entering a modern world, his logic and sense. He needed to rethink this.

He'd been lying in a hospital bed in 2006. Was still lying in one, most likely, unless hospitals had made a habit of dumping coma patients in abandoned construction sites. This must have been his mind's next torture -- his almost-reality transplanted to the modern world, just to really, truly dig the knife in.

And it was working. Sam felt trapped at an impossible impasse shaped by hope and fear, because he wanted this to be real. He did. Except it'd be a devil's bargain, and would require Sam to accept things like time travel and space travel and a man who knew more about his life than anyone rightfully should. It would require contemplation of how that hidden note in his collar could exist and why it had taken him here. It would require the possibility that Sam had left more behind in 1973 than a handful of sepia phantoms.

So he was still asleep. Still the dreamer, falling, twisting, clutching at nothing, because that, at least, he could live with.

Sam swallowed a dry lump in his throat as he stepped off the flat block's landing and walked down the hall to a familiar number. He stopped and pressed his hand against the door in front of him.

He wondered if he could let himself be fooled this once. Just for a minute. Just long enough to keep him whole. Maybe his mind had given this to him because it was something he'd die without.

He peered down and saw light spilling onto the hall carpet from beneath the door.

Sam inhaled and raised his hand. He knocked.

Movement inside. Soft rustles, footsteps. Sam's heart pounded, though this time there was something more to it -- deep, steady, faraway. Like drums.

He heard someone on the other side of the peephole. A pause.

Sam stepped back as the door slammed open. For a moment he couldn't breathe.

"Mum?"

She was elderly, wrinkled, and would have been beautiful if not for the dark circles under her eyes, the stress lines crossing her face. Not so much worse than Sam remembered her, and he would have smiled if not for the look she gave him -- numb, weary. Resigned, almost.

"I told you not to come here," she said.

Sam reeled. This wasn't right. This was strange, ugly, alien. His chest ached. "Mum, it's..."

"I'm not your mum. Get it through your head." She nodded in the curt way she did when she was ready to shut the door on someone. This was something Sam Tyler knew about his mother, so he knew to jam his foot between the wall and the door, to grit his teeth as she tried to slam it.

"Mum, what are you--"

"If you've come to offer condolences, off you go," she got out, sharp and bitter. "'Fixed point in time' means nothing to me, not when my Sam--"

"It's me," Sam pleaded. "I'm right here."

"No," his mother said, voice so frigid that Sam's lungs shriveled up under his ribs. "Never. You'll never be my Sam, you monster, don't care what that Doctor did to you--"

Sam's heart stopped.

"Doctor?"

"Have you forgotten him too, now? How convenient that must be," she whispered, scathing, "to forget and remember whatever you wish while the rest of us live with what you've done."

Sam shook his head, eyes warm and wet.

"I don't know." He felt a tremble in his throat, in his voice. "I don't know what's happening. I'm sorry. I don't know."

Sam's mum looked back at him like he was something worse than a stranger. Like he wasn't someone she'd carried to bed, walked to school, taught to bicycle, watched soar in Academy, held in her arms and said, "I'm so proud of you, Sam. I've always been so proud."

"Do you really not remember?" she murmured.

Sam choked on his words. "I don't... I just..." He gestured in futility over his shoulder. "I came back. From there."

"There?"

"Back there. The Doctor. His box. He took me..." This was too much. Sam's head pounded. All in your head, all in your head, things we can do, don't stay inside--

"You're from before."

Her voice muffled the din like a blanket, heavy and soft. When Sam raised bleary eyes to meet hers, she looked back at him, face shocked, mouth slack. "This is what he was trying to..."

"Who?" Sam asked, but instead of answering, his mum looked away and fidgeted with her hands. Like when she mulled over something. When she steeled her resolve.

Finally, she looked back to him.

"DI Tyler?" she asked.

Sam nodded, because what else could he do. What else could he ever do but watch, and nod, and stand like a paper cut-out while his world tore him to shreds.

His mum bit her lip. At length, she stepped out of the doorframe and motioned for him to come in.

Sam followed her lead, automatic and numb. His mum's flat looked the same -- placement, colors, framed photographs. It only heightened the sense of unreality, the horrible sick humor.

She closed the door behind him. Her voice shook. "Would you like some tea?"

Sam didn't answer. He couldn't bear to -- his mum, asking him about tea like they were proper fucking British acquaintances. His mum, who apparently knew about the Doctor in this nightmare world. His mum, conspiring with Sam's own personal boogeyman.

His mother stood for a moment and then walked to the kitchen. "I'll make us some tea," she said, as flighty and frightened as Sam felt.

Sam's gaze wandered to the sofa -- an old sofa, the one he'd urged his mum to replace. But she liked it, she'd said. She liked the smell of it, so there it was, just like Sam had known it would be.

"What's going on?" Sam sounded like a ghost, thin and transparent, something apart from the world.

The clatters in the kitchen stopped. Sam imagined her standing there, clutching a mug in that nervous way of hers. "I'll put the kettle on."

Like the Doctor and his coffee, Sam thought. It seemed a number of people didn't want to tell him things.

Sam heard the kitchen clatters start again and let his feet wander further into the living room. He once again took in the sheer familiar surroundings, the vase of orchids on the side table, the rack of shoes by the door. The blue-and-white curtains shifting by the window, the faded photo frame on the mantle.

Sam found himself drawn to the frame despite the strange circumstances and his stinging eyes, the dread pooling down the walls of his stomach. He remembered the photo clearly, his mother's pride on display for any visiting neighbor to see -- a snapshot from when Sam had graduated Academy, with him in full police regalia and his mother beside him, smiling.

Except it wasn't.

"Who's that?" Sam whispered. He heard his mother walk up behind him, slow and steady. He let out a shuddering breath. "Who the hell is that?"

The man in the photo was blond, blue-eyed, and wore a suit and tie. He had a pointed chin and dimpled cheeks. Sam's mum was hugging him and smiling.

"That's my son," she said, almost gently. "That's my Sam."

"No." Sam shook his head, choked out a laugh. "No, no, that can't -- I should be in uniform..."

"He told me about that. My Sam, a policeman."

Sam turned. His mum stood still, staring at the ground, hands clutched behind her back. This wasn't a gesture that Sam recognized, and neither were her words, distant and dream-like. "He told me my Sam would have been a policeman, if not for you. If you hadn't stopped Vic, that day at the wedding. If you hadn't saved that girl."

The wedding. Dad's escape. Annie's red dress. Sam's four year-old self, asking a question, then walking back inside.

"But that didn't stop the accident," she continued with a slow breath. "That didn't stop him from ending up in coma. Didn't stop your Doctor from showing up at his bedside and taking what shouldn't be touched."

"What... what are you saying?" Sam bit inside his cheek. He turned back to the mantle and saw more gut-wrenching imitations -- his fifth birthday party, grammar school commencement, casual football with college friends. Personal things. Important things. In every one, replaced by a stranger. "That's... this is who I am."

"No, DI Tyler," his mum murmured behind him. "You're what the Doctor did with my Sam's memories, when he strung them up and mixed them about. You're something made up. You aren't real."

All in your head, all in your head. Clanging, rattling through his skull. It didn't go away. It never went away.

"I owe you thanks for one thing," his mum continued, a whisper in the storm. "For protecting my son that day. But that doesn't undo what came after. That doesn't undo what you are."

"I don't understand." Sam grit his teeth, heaved in a sob, tried to blot out the sound in his head. He pressed a clenched fist to the mantle's side and turned toward her. "Mum, it's me--"

She shoved.

That's what he registered first, before his back hit the mantle. Before he got the full view of her face, white and harrowed, before he saw her hand on the knife. Before he felt the warmth down his belly.

She let go, stepped back. Sam stumbled and clutched for the shelf, the armchair. Books fell. The chair toppled. He thudded against the floor and something shattered in him, fragile, deeper than bone. The woman who wasn't his mother loomed over him.

"I have to stop you," she said, so soft. "I have to."

Shudders inside him. Aches and throbbing. He gasped for air like a fish, lost, drowning, grotesque. His shirt clung to his skin as copper drained into his mouth, sharp and red. Like on the tarmac, that day -- in pain, afraid. Alone.

The drums grew louder. His knuckles twitched against the carpet.

One, two, three, four.

One, two, three--

The door slammed open.

In Sam's fading periphery, his not-mother's head shot up.

"What are you doing here?" she whispered.

Shoes hit the floor. Sam felt a knee against his side. Torn cloth near his ear, then pressure on the wound. Sam could hardly see. Only his hand moved, a parody of rhythm.

One, two, three, four.

"He's from before." His not-mother's voice shouted over the fog. "We can stop it. Before any of it even happens, we can stop it!"

Sam coughed. Rattled. His hand spasmed. One, two, three, four.

A palm enclosed his wrist and held it to the carpet, so gentle. Sam's hand went still under its touch.

Sam's not-mother heaved in a breath.

"But you know that, don't you," she finally uttered. "You did this. You're the one who sent him back. All this time, it was you."

More pressure on the wound. Sam's teeth chattered. The hand on his wrist moved to the side of his neck, then the back of it. Sam shivered, not from pain, but from the hand's fingers. Three warm and the other two ice-cold. Metal.

His not-mother's voice was thunder, distant and terrible. "You'd let the world burn. For him."

The fingers pressed harder, where Sam's skull met his spine. Something sparked from the tips of them and Sam's mind froze, suspended in air--

And then exploded with light, color, sound. Whirling and twirling, a flurry of sensations too quick to feel, like someone was searching, sorting, spinning a synapse rolodex in his head. Pausing, sometimes, with difficulty, but surging forward, a torrent unchained, winding through dusty rooms, obliterating cobwebs, scattering knick-knacks.

The surge stopped. Sam took in a breath that wasn't a breath, felt cool water wrap around his ankles and drag him under. But Sam was ready for it, so calm, because the Other in his head was supposed to be here, had been here many times before. How else could it know where the walls were buried, so thick, untouched, unknown. Pounding, beating on the other side -- let me out there, can't keep me caged, you'll pay for this -- and the Other pausing, touching, and then--

Smash. But only one door, only a crack, and the Other dove deep, gripping Sam, strong and sure. Sam was frightened because he hadn't been here before, not in a long time. None of him wanted to go back, not even the huge parts, the bloated bits of him that choked him with their weight, that twisted and writhed and screamed like phantoms.

It's all right, the Other said, not with words but through certainty, full and whole. I've got you.

Sam stood on a hill. Silver peaks jutted out of the horizon. Red grass rippled in an arid breeze as twin suns bathed his face.

He shivered as he felt roots spread out in the soil far below, growing in the pit of him, the soul of him, curling around him like the arms of a brother, like an anchor. They burst from the ground, wound into a trunk, shaded him with branches and leaves.

And then Sam rose, flew, soared through red skies and dark oceans, through the crack just before it closed again. And the Other held on to him, weaker than before. Like not all of it could come back.

I've got you, Sam said as they broke the surface.

---

Sam's eyes fluttered. His chest throbbed.

A moving vehicle hummed around him. His vision focused, slow and hazy, on a mismatched hand grasping his arm. Two metal fingers dug into his skin, jointed with wires, grafted onto scar tissue next to their flesh-and-bone counterparts.

They felt smooth against his arm. Smoother when they brushed his cheek.

I won't leave you. Promised that, didn't I?

Sam closed his eyes. He nodded.

The hand relaxed against Sam's head. Fingers trailed through his hair like cloud wisps, light and gentle, leaving misty dreams in their wake. Sam drifted into one, cradled by a stranger's hand, by the thought that a single person in the vast stretch of space and time thought a thing like him worth saving.


---

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