Sixteenth in the dystopian!verse series.
They play this game of life-death-purgatory, and no one ever asked them what they wanted.
When: Post-Ground Zero
Mickey looks the same, the boy-she-grew-up-with and her-youthful-first-love-but-not. It is so hard not to run into his arms and ensconce him in a choking hug. He is the same, but is completely different.
She wants to ask him if he remembers the little chippy they used to frequent, on the corner of Sloane Street, or the playground where she fell and cut herself, or the fancy place they had visited when The Government had recruited her. She knows he does not have these memories, so she will not ask, because even if she knows, the words will make the lies-she-has-lived real.
And what does it mean to be real? She isn’t the one who can answer that question.
“Rose,” Mickey says, and his voice is breathless, like he cannot believe his eyes, like she is a shimmering mirage of mental delusions. The Doctor’s presence is solid and comforting and confusing behind her, and she is confronted by the spectres of two pasts, none of which she has really lived.
“God, I –” Mickey pauses, taking several steadying breaths. “He found you,” he continues, and the words are laden with meanings-behind-curtains and statements-she-cannot-qualify. “I couldn’t believe it when they said you were gone. The – the Watchtower cried. The Valiant Child is lost, the Network said. The Valiant Child is dead, dead, dead again.”
He walks forward to grip her forearms, and the pressure of his hands almost hurts. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the Doctor’s eyes flash with something she cannot (dare not) put a name to. “What happened?” Mickey asks. “Tell me.”
She opens her mouth to speak, but no words come out. The Doctor loops an arm around her waist, pulling her out of Mickey’s grasp and closer to himself. She buries her face in his chest, and inhales his comforting scent, the smell of collapsing worlds and breaking fishbowls-of-reality.
When she finally speaks, the words are so soft it is almost inaudible.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Help me. Please.” Her hands fist on the lapels of the Doctor’s coat, knuckles white.
“I died,” she tells Mickey, and his breath hitches and spurts, eyes widening in horror-fear. “And I need to know why.”
Mickey directs her to a chair in his lab, and her eyes skitter and jump as they trace his movements, watching him pull up various monitors and needles and wires. She cannot explain why it makes her feels so uneasy, and the number ten keeps flashing through her mind, like strobe lights that hurt her eyes. Ten, ten, ten. It is a song on loop, and not one that she cares to listen to.
“Look,” he explains, holding up a needle attached to a wire. “We’ll need to put you under for this, in order to circumvent your block with the Network. I can’t begin to help you with your memories if we don’t even know why the Network’s cutting you off, so we’ll have to solve that first.” The Doctor’s hand is warm and soothing as it rubs circles on her back, and she nods.
“Right,” he continues. “I’ll be giving you a dose of general anesthesia, which should knock you out for a good couple of hours.” He slips a mask attached to a tube over her face. “Count to ten for me.”
The blackness engulfs her before she makes it to six.
His eyes never leave the faintly glowing chip that rests just under the surface of the skin on Rose’s wrist, like a trapped firefly, or an ember from hell. Mickey is focused on the monitors spread out before them, chewing his lip and making vague, indecipherable noises of curiosity or interest as he pulls up new readings.
They are so close, so near the precipice that hangs over the edge of everything they have ever been and known, and he wonders if he wants to fall. The drop is far, and he doesn’t know what will happen once they tumble over the cliff. He wonders if they will even survive it.
Mickey has been staring at a particular screen for the past four minutes and twenty-three seconds. His face is pale in the light of the monitors, fists clenched on the console. The Doctor watches him, and trepidation is so thick that he can taste it, bitter-vile at the back of his throat. Mickey stumbles over to a chair, and buries his face in his hands when he sits. Fear is a choking ball in his throat.
“What is it?” He asks Mickey. “What did you find?”
Mickey stutters a little, tripping and falling over the words as it tumbles out. “I – I can’t – She – They wiped her, and I – I didn’t realize, god, I mean – I knew they wiped her, but how could they –” His eyes are scared and frightened and horrified when they meet his. Mickey swallows, and tries again. “When you told me that she was wiped, I didn’t realize that it was so complete. I thought it was partial – it’s not unheard of for a Watcher to be fractionally wiped, sometimes for their safety – but they took everything. They gave her a new life, a new history, a new memory.”
He sighs, and it is shaky. “A few years ago, there was news, all along the Watchtower. Bad news. The Watchers were screaming. There were ten of us, dead. We call them the Ten Dead. No one ever knew why. The Network didn’t know. Doesn’t know, still. And it scared us all, because if we didn’t know, then who did? And if they could do it without us knowing, then who watches the Watchers? Who can watch the Watchers?” He glances over at Rose, eyes jittery.
“Post-mortem autopsies showed that the Watchers were murdered through their link to the Network. Someone had attempted to take them offline for a bit, tried to wipe them. They weren’t successful – the Network doesn’t allow such complete disconnections, not for the Watchers. So when the Watchers were taken offline, the Network shorted on them, and they – they died. Their implants and brains were fried.” He takes shuddery breaths, jerky and short. “It was horrific. I don’t –”
Mickey looks up at the Doctor, his eyes sad and lost. “I don’t know how Rose survived.” Mickey turns away, to stare unseeingly at the plethora of screens. “Maybe – maybe it would have been better if she had died. I can’t even begin to imagine what she must have gone through. I don’t know who could live through that. Who should live through that.”
The new scans need half an hour to complete, so they both wait in silence, lost in the haze of their own thoughts, fighting-dying with their ghosts. The quiet is loud, and the air is still. The room reminds him of morgues, or isolation cells, or mausoleums. This room is like many others he has been in, empty and soulless and lacking, but it is better and worse because she is here, and they are so close. He can feel lost memories and fragments-of-the-past brushing his fingertips and ghosting over his skin.
“Tell me about the Ten Dead,” he asks Mickey. “Tell me what happened.” He needs to know, because it cuts so close to home, because she would want to know.
“I told you, earlier – all ten were fried.” Mickey is skittish, nervous jerky movements betraying his unease.
The Doctor shakes his head, unconvinced. “No. No, there has to be more. They had a breakthrough. They succeeded, and that’s –” He swallows hard, and can almost taste blood. “That’s why we’re here.”
Mickey’s fingers drum a jumpy rhythm on the desk surface, a tap-taptap-taptap-tap that reminds him vaguely of machine guns and spent bullet shells hitting the ground. “The tenth, he was…” Mickey jumps to his feet, and his pacing is agitated. “When the tenth Watcher died, the whole Network heard his screams. It was different. Worse. Far, far worse. Somehow, he hadn’t been completely cut from the Network, and it was – it was sick. They think he lived for a bit, after they did that to him, but you can be damned sure he wished he had died.”
The Doctor is cleaning his Glock, checking and rechecking the magazine, reloading and polishing and assembling. He looks up when Mickey stops, and the glint in his eyes is unfathomable, like the rivers of the Styx or the waters of the Black Sea. His eyes are stone cold, hard like granite and cutting like diamonds.
Mickey looks at him, at this avenging angel or this wayward soldier, and wonders at the cruelty of the world. “What happened?” He asks the Doctor, because this man has been broken and shattered and fractured and put back together haphazardly and not at all ever since he last saw him, and no one should ever have to be so damaged. “What happened to you after she left?”
When the Doctor smiles, it is sardonic and cynical and everything else in-between. “Life,” he says, and goes back to cleaning his gun.
Mickey nods, and silently agrees that it was the best answer.
The monitor beeps, a chirping-pealing rhythm that bursts like gunfire and flash into the noiseless room. Mickey heads for the consoles immediately, calling up the new scans and sifting through the information with frantic-frenetic eyes, cast white-green-red from the glow of the screens, like a Christmas tree that celebrates nothing. When he turns back to the Doctor, his face is bloodless, drained and pale and shaking. He gulps down fear like a crackwhore given a fix.
The Doctor is up like a shot, striding over to him and giving him a hard shake. “Don’t you dare go into a panic attack. What is it?”
The eyes he looks into are not that of a man; they are lost-broken-terrified, like that of a refugee or tortured soul. “Did you –” Mickey pauses, tries to calm his breathing, tries to focus on the in, out, in, out of normal breath. “Did you put the Mark on her?”
Knuckles whiten on the tabletop, and he takes it for a yes. “How do you even –”
He cuts the Doctor off. “I’ve left the Agency, and I’ve no ties to the Government. I may be a Watcher, but I know all about the System. I can’t see or access it, but I know it’s there. Just tell me one thing: Did you know?”
The Doctor frowns, the tilt of his head quizzical. “Know what?”
“That you would kill her three times.”
The silence that follows is deafening.
Death had knocked three times on her door, like an errant child that refused to accept no. It went and came back and left and returned, like a zealous lover that couldn’t take refusal. He had been the one to send it there. The guilt and pain and horror at what he has done overwhelms him, like asphyxiating waves, over and over again, real and clawing and oh-so-hurting.
Mickey merely hands him several paper towels when he throws up.
The scans are still running; the last in the series that they will do today. This one will give them more information on the nature of her wipe, which will hopefully allow them to reverse it. He finds bile rising to the back of his throat again, and a small part of him wishes that she will not remember, that she cannot remember, because then she will know what he has done, and she will forgive him, and he cannot have that. He does not deserve forgiveness, much less from her, and he knows she will give it.
Mickey places a comforting hand on his shoulder, and it is heavy and weighty, like the combined weight of all his sins. “Did you love her?” He asks, and the question grinds his mind to a heart-stopping halt.
The question hangs in the air between them, invisible and tangible and very-much-there, and it screams at him, like demons-that-drove-her-away and cowardice-he-never-shows. It scares him so much. The words once said are out there forever, and they are parts of him, parts he cannot take back, parts he is afraid he will not want to take back. The strength of what he feels for her has always terrified him, keeps him running in the opposite direction, but perennially darting back for more because he can’t stay away for long, not from her.
Three years is a long time to come to terms with your fears and ghosts-that-plague. It is not nearly enough.
“I – I did. I do. Love her, I mean.” They tumble out, one after the other, and somewhere, another wall crumbles to dust. It is so much easier to give voice to these words when she is not around to hear them, and he is furious at himself for his cowardice. But he has always been a bit of a coward, he knows, and running is in his blood.
‘Good – that’s good.” Mickey inhales sharply, a dagger-edged breath that slices and cuts them both. The new readings have come in. When he speaks next, his words are paper-thin and rock-hard, like mortar shells and live ammunition.
“Because you saved her life. Thrice. Even if it means that you also killed her.”
The Doctor stills, like a predator about to strike, or a storm about to break. His words are whispered, carried softly-loudly throughout the expanse of the room.
“I don’t know which is worse.”
Mickey says nothing, because there is nothing to be said. His silence says everything.
(Hell is a real place, full of people he knows. Hell, he thinks, is where they are.)
Part Fifteen - The Sharpest Lives; Part Seventeen/Outtake - The Ghosts of Christmas