His world was reduced to the pounding of his heart in his ears and the pounding of his feet on the ground beneath him. Behind him he could hear the pursuers, but he had no way of knowing how close they were, or if they would catch him.
If they did catch him, everything he had lived for up until this moment would be for nothing.
With that thought spurring him on, he ran... And ran... And ran... Until a meaty hand reached out and seized him, pulling him into a narrow alleyway. A second hand over his mouth effectively silenced the startled scream and a rich bass whisper rumbled in his ear, "Silence, boy. You're safe now."
He twisted around as best he could, and his wide hazel eyes met light blue ones in a face that somehow managed to be both grizzled and very warm. "Now you just relax," he said gently, releasing him. "Sit down and rest while I go detour your tails."
He never even thought to disobey the man. He merely sat where he was, staring up at the giant of a man with mute disbelief.
That disbelief only deepened when one of the man's huge palms gently petted him on top of the head as though he were a favoured pet. "Good, just stay there." And he lumbered out, yelling. "Hey! Hey! I found him! He ducked down there!"
His eyes widened further as he saw the giant of a man was pointing on down the street toward the aqueduct! The man stepped aside and the patrol thundered past.
When they were gone, the giant made a "Humph" of satisfaction and returned to his side. "Okay, boy, now you and I are gonna go get something to eat and get cleaned up." He sighed. "I don't know about you, but I sure stink."
Again, it never even occurred to him to disobey this being. He just got up and followed him. They'd gotten four blocks and were nearly to what was unmistakably the ruins of an old church when he found his voice. "Why are you helping me?"
The giant spared him an appraising look, then shrugged nonchalantly. "Why not?"
He found himself smiling as they went inside.
Vin walked into the control room, running his hand along his jeans as he did so. He'd found a whole wardrobe and was currently in faded jeans and a red plaid shirt. The buckskin coat was too hot for the TARDIS's interior, so he'd left it in his room and wore a thin denim jacket as a replacement.
He frowned, not seeing anybody but a pair of jeans-clad legs sticking out from under the console. Curious, he walked right over and rapped his knuckles on the edge of the console.
The legs jerked and a wordless cry erupted on the heels of a thud. A pair of be-ringed hands reached out and grabbed the end of the console, and the rest of the body slid out on a wheeled backboard. Ezra squinted up at him, one of his hands rubbing his forehead. "Oh, it's you," he sighed, laying back down and trying to blink away the pain. "What can I do for you?"
Vin grinned at the rather incongruitous sight of the normally meticulous man in an open-necked green flannel shirt and jeans so faded they looked almost white. "Just seein' what you were up to."
"What I am 'up to', as you so eloquently put it, is I am trying to modulate the TARDIS's internal combustion in such a way as she won't keep missing when we're trying to land her. As it is, her wheezing drives us all virtually insentient!"
Vin blinked. "You're still only speakin' plain half the time. Think you ought'a let Nate look at that translator of yours?"
Ezra glared at him. "My dear sir, the translator was never implanted by my free will. That damn Council injected me with it and I'm tryin' to get it out. I've been only half successful, which accounts for my speech discrepancies and idiosyncrasies."
"What, they tried to make you more --- uhm, what's the word --- eloquent?"
The look Ezra gave him could have frozen a sun. "The other way."
Vin tried. He really did. But he could not help but laugh.
"Nice to know I amuse you," Ezra growled as he slid back under the console.
"I like bein' able t'understand ya. Maybe I'll get Nate to rig it to work right."
"You do and I'll be sorry," Ezra sighed. "Wait...that didn't sound quite right...."
Vin snorted. "Anything I can do?"
"Well, I could use an extra pair of eyes -- to look in the library computer and find the nearest planet in this time-eddy that has Chroazinite."
Vin stared at the six-sided console and frowned. "How do I do that?"
"Easy, just go to the part marked 'Library' and type in 'Chroazinite'." After a moment of strained silence, Ezra pushed himself out from under the console again. "Vin?"
He hadn't moved. His cheeks were reddening.
Ezra studied him, then slowly nodded. "You can't read, can you?" he asked softly.
Vin shrugged. He wouldn't meet Ezra's eyes.
Ezra sighed and picked up something that looked like a very dull knife. He looked at Vin, then sighed, unbuttoning the first two closed buttons of his shirt. "The things I am inclined to do for the sake of friendship," he sighed, undoing what looked like a flesh-coloured bandage near his jugular vein.
"Ez, what're you doing?"
"Operating under the assumption that your vocabulary is not as enhanced as mine, and under the assumption that we shall be working in very close quarters for some time." He took the knife-tool and put it into a small metallic sleeve in his neck.
"Ezra?" Vin's eyes went huge.
"It is my intention of educating you in the appreciation of the literary arts...." Ezra jerked the knife and then his body jerked as he let out a cry. He removed the knife-tool and replaced the bandage with a weary sigh. "I'm gonna teach you to read, Vin."
"What did you just---"
Ezra lay the knife-tool down with another sigh. "I figured you needed to understand me perfectly to learn what I have to teach." Now it was Ezra who couldn't meet Vin's eyes. "So I... reset the translator. As it stands now, I couldn't use those 'five-dollar words' if my life depended on it."
"Aw, Ez..." Vin's eyes softened. "Ya didn't have to--"
"Yeah, Vin, I did." He smiled as he re-buttoned his shirt. "Now I can teach you and expand your vocabulary at the same time -- and I can slowly turn it back up." He squeezed Vin's arm. "That's what friends do, Vin -- help each other out."
Vin smiled slightly. "So what's this coral stuff?"
"Chroazinite is an element -- an ore, if you will. It's a part of a lot of the TARDIS's operational systems. And we're running low." He typed a series of commands in. "Can you recognise numbers?" At Vin's nod, he tapped a display to his left. "Tell me those when they pop up, then."
Vin did, and Ezra keyed them in. He didn't see fit to tell Vin that he was also reading the display out of the corner of his eye. "Thank you," he smiled. "Now all we have to do is wake the others and we'll land."
Vin grinned. "I'll get Chris."
"I'll wake Nate -- whatever form Nate happens to be in -- and Buck." He tapped a control and the wheezing started, making him wince to hear it. As he left the control room, the last words Vin heard was his muttered, "Just hope that chameleon circuit holds on a bit longer -- last thing I need is to have her looking like a house of ill repute for the rest of the journey...."
The chameleon circuit, fortunately, did manage one final shift before it shorted out on Ezra. Unfortunately, it locked the TARDIS into the shape of the Corinthian column it had been in when the mismatched pair had stolen it in the first place.
"Could be worse," Buck said with a grin.
"You're right," Ezra agreed. "We could have been traveling the time-eddies in 'Cathy's Cathouse' for all time!"
When the laughter died down, Chris asked, "All right, where did we end up?"
"An Earth-colony, apparently," Ezra said, looking at the readout. "Terra Septimus, common year 3643."
Vin whistled. "Awful long way away from Arizona Territory 1879...."
Chris was frowning. "Terra Septimus... Earth Seven...." He looked at Buck. "Sound familiar?"
"Earth Seven...." Buck's eyes widened. "Hey, isn't that the one that was founded by refugees after the civil war on Quintius?"
Chris nodded. "The royal families of Quintius and some of the clergy left the planet in disgrace," he told the two humans that were listening intently. "They founded Earth Seven as a response to that, intending it to be ruled as a pure monarchal democracy."
Nate's eyes widened. "Hold on," she said, holding up a hand. "That doesn't sound like it'll work."
Ezra smiled at her. "It can if it's done correctly -- and if all the royal houses send representatives and if all the subjects are in agreement on who those people are. In practice, however, it's rarely been successful." He looked over at Chris. "And where it's worked, it's usually been because the High Council oversaw it all."
Chris and Vin's faces darkened and Buck had to look away. The three Gallifreyans had pulled no punches when they'd filled Vin and Nate in on the High Council and the atrocities they'd realised had been done by it -- not the least of which had been the cold-blooded murder of Chris's wife and son.
"So what's the case here?" Nate said, trying to dissolve the curtain of pain that had descended upon the TARDIS's control room. "Did it work or didn't it?"
"Don't know," Ezra said, gazing intently as a screen as his graceful fingers danced over the small keyboard. He frowned at what he saw. "The records stop abruptly in the year 3578. We've arrived in 3643."
"Stop?" Chris frowned, moving to look over his shoulder. "I thought you said this model TARDIS had the most comprehensive library available without direct access to the High Council record banks!"
"It does," Ezra said irritably. "The records stop because of a war on the planet."
Nate nodded. "See?" she said, jerking her head toward the pair. "They don't work."
Ezra looked over his shoulder at Chris, who was studying the readout with an expression of simmering anger. "You think the High Council had something to do with the war?"
Chris met his eyes. "I think the High Council is capable of anything. How badly do you need that chroazinite?"
"Badly," Ezra said softly.
Another moment of silence, then Chris nodded. "Then we'll get it for you. Got keys?"
"Yes," Ezra smiled. "Five keys and five communicators."
"Five?" Chris looked over at Vin.
"Five," Vin said with a grin. He'd been amused when Ezra had broken his ability to absorb and speak any language -- spoken or telepathic -- to him. "Just in case."
"Can't argue with that," Buck grinned as he lifted a choker from the pile and fastened it around his neck, then slid a longer necklace with a strange charm and tucked it under his shirt.
"Okay, now what's what again?" Nate asked, lifting a choker with a more elastic 'give' than the others -- perfectly suited when she shifted to male-form and her neck thickened.
"The chokers are the communicators," Ezra said, fastening his as he spoke. "To use it, touch the jewel as you talk."
"And try not to be startled when ya hear a voice in your head," Vin chuckled.
Nate scowled at him, then lifted the charm and looked at it. "And this is the TARDIS key?"
Chris nodded, then said, "Okay, we'll split into two teams. Vin and Ezra, you're with me. Buck, you and Nate go east, we'll go west. We'll find the ore and come right back here."
"Uhm, Chris?" Nate asked even as she shifted from Natalie into Nathan. "What are we looking for, anyway?"
"Chroazinite," Buck replied, then he shook his head and smiled. "That's the Gallifreyan name -- what do they call it on Earth?" he asked.
"Silver," Chris said as he keyed the sequence to open the door. "How much do you need, Ezra?"
"About 1000 grams," came the quick answer.
"Gr-ams?" Vin frowned at Chris, who smiled.
"About two pounds," he translated.
Vin nodded and grinned as Ezra walked up to them. "Thought you said I could understand you with that translator turned all the way on."
Ezra's reply was a dimpled grin as the five left the TARDIS.
They found themselves on a street, looking up at the bombed-out ruins of what once must have been a magnificent city. The ruins were covered with moss and animal sounds were heard on the slight breeze, signs this devastation took place some time ago.
"Strange," Ezra whispered, frowning as he looked around. "There should have been some survivors...."
"There are," Vin replied in a tight whisper.
"How can you be so sure?" Ezra whispered back.
"Cause we're bein' followed."
Chris stopped and turned to Vin. "You sure about that?" he asked softly.
"I'm a tracker and I was a bounty hunter," Vin hissed.
"Translation: he's sure," Ezra sighed and touched the ruby at his throat. "Buck, Nate, we've picked up some tails. Can you circle around and lobster them?"
"Be our pleasure, Ez," Buck replied, and Ezra smiled.
"'Lobster' them?" Vin frowned.
Chris raised a hand and mimed a lobster's claw closing around something. "Pincer movement," he smiled slightly.
Vin began to smile.
The sounds of a struggle erupted a few moments later. The three ran towards it, and found Buck and Nate being overwhelmed by a group of black-clad soldiers. They waded into the fray, and soon found themselves overwhelmed, until a giant of a man waded into the fray, bodily picking soldiers up and heaving them like broken toys. Behind him was a young man, firing a laser pistol in one hand and a projectile weapon in the other, showing remarkable accuracy with both.
The soldiers broke and ran, and the boy sighted along his pistol. But just as he fired, Chris forced the barrel down and it discharged into the ground. At the boy's incredulous look, Chris snarled, "You don't shoot somebody in the back!"
He glared at Chris. "They would kill me the minute I turned my back!"
"Who are they?" Ezra asked.
The giant sighed. "Minions of a pretender king who set himself up as ruler." He smiled. "I'm Josiah, protectorate of the prince here." He ruffled the boy's hair. "He's JD."
"Protectorate?" JD huffed. "I've never seen you before this morning! How can you call yourself my protectorate?"
"Because I've been protecting you since we met," Josiah smiled. "He's been literally struggling his whole life to get him or his sister restored to the throne."
JD sighed. "Come on, let's get to the palace."
"The palace?" Nate asked. "I thought you're not --"
"I'm not. Yet. But there I can show you what we're up against."
JD got a pleasant surprise as they approached the palace: his sister Casey and a small band of loyalists were ringing it! "What are you doing here?" he asked Casey. When her eyes moved to the five newcomers, he smiled. "They're friends."
She looked steadily at him, then nodded. "Word came down, he's dying."
"Dying?" JD gasped. "He's been dying before..."
"This time it's for real. If we can get you into the room --"
"How can we help?" Chris asked her.
"Protect him," she said solemnly. "I have guards a'plenty."
They nodded and formed a tight knot around JD.
As they made their way into the room, a man kneeling beside the man in the bed stood and pulled a gun, pointing it at JD. "You bas--" he began, but cut himself off, glancing at the man on the bed. Then he turned back to JD, raising the gun to aim at his forehead. "Coming in here to kill a dying man--"
"Stop," came a voice from the bed. "He's made no threatening moves."
Chris looked sideways at JD. The young man held himself with pride as he moved forward. "If you mean me no harm; and I don't think you do; I mean you no harm." He moved toward the bed, keeping his hands far from the guns at his sides. "All I want to know is why.'
"Because your time is past, Dunne!" the man beside the bed snarled.
The man on the bed raised a gnarled hand. "Marcus, that's enough. I'm glad he's here -- I need to talk to you both." He frowned at the entourage. "Alone."
"About what?" JD asked suspiciously.
A whispered conference was held, then everyone left but JD, Marcus, and the dying man. Twenty minutes would pass before the door opened and Marcus and JD walked out side by side. Marcus held a simple crown in his hand.
"What happened?" Chris asked softly.
"The king is dead," Marcus said, turning and setting the crown on JD's long hair, before taking a step back and going to one knee. "Long live the king!"
Josiah walked into the throne room -- which was quiet for once -- and saw JD sitting on the steps leading up to the throne. "You missed, brother," he smiled. "Throne's at the top of the stairs."
JD looked up at him and sighed. "I'm confused."
Josiah sat down beside him. "By what? And where are our friends?"
Another sigh. "They needed some silver -- about two pounds' worth. So I gave them some out of the treasury."
"So what's the matter?"
"Josiah, how long was he in power?"
Surprised by the question, Josiah answered, "About forty years. Why?"
"I'm only nineteen. Casey's only seventeen. I have literally fought my entire life to put my family back into power."
"And now you are," Josiah smiled.
"Yeah," JD nodded, pulling his knees to up his chin. "And now I am. What I've dedicated my life to has come to pass. I should feel happy, right?"
Josiah gave a slow nod. "But you're not."
"But I'm not," he confirmed. "Casey is -- she's spent her life learning to rule. Me, I've spent my life as a warrior -- and now I'm a warrior without a battle to fight."
After a long pause, Josiah asked softly. "So what are you going to do?"
"I'm not sure. What about you?"
Josiah smiled brightly. "I'm going with our five friends when they leave. They're fighting a battle that's bigger than a planet but as personal as a name."
JD whistled. "That is some fight!"
"Yup. Always did like a good scrap." His grin grew. "Always did like the underdog, too. Can't get much more underdog than six men against a universe-wide cadre."
Ezra's legs were the only thing visible, as the rest of his body was once more inside the control column of the TARDIS. Only this time he had both a helper and an audience.
"For someone who claims to have an intense dislike of manual labor," Nate teased as she leaned on the column, "you sure spend a lot of time gettin' your hands dirty in the belly of this beast."
"Ezra's an engineer as well as a thief," Chris retorted mildly. "And since the TARDIS he took had enough bugs in it to populate an anthill...."
"I assure you," came the drawl from the innards of the column, "that had I a choice in the matter, I would not be spending so much time here."
"Yeah you would, and you know it," Vin chuckled as he handed Ezra a tool. "You love what you do."
"Yeah, don't rub it in." But Ezra was laughing as he slid out. "You make a habit out of reading people?"
Vin met him smile for smile. "Kept me alive with a bounty on my head."
"Guess that hardly matters now," Josiah rumbled from the corner.
"Out of the frying pan, into the fire," Chris said with an ironic grin.
Vin grinned back as he and Ezra closed up the console. Ezra wiped his hands on a well-used rag as he moved to the controls --
Just as a rap came on the outer doors. The six looked at each other, baffled. Ezra motioned to the switch and Vin thumbed it.
JD's face came onto the viewscreen. "What's he doing here?"
"Let's find out." Ezra keyed the door open.
A minute later, JD walked in. His already wide eyes went even wider. "Wow...."
Josiah smiled. "So what can we do for you?"
JD recovered enough to smile. "Take me with you."
"But your kingdom--" Nate began.
"Casey can take care of it -- she was raised to be a queen."
"And you?" Chris asked.
JD just smiled and Josiah answered, "Decided you wanted a good scrap after all?"
"A warrior's gotta have something to fight," JD shot back with a grin.
There was a glance at each other, then Ezra smiled and touched the door control.
A few moments later, the TARDIS faded out of sight.
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