The Gauntlet
By Rebecca Dowgiert

Samantha Jones elbowed her way through the press of bystanders, forcing her way through the throng of excited villagers to see what had interested them so.

Though she had a sinking suspicion she knew.

Breaking through to the rim of the Rolla pit, she stared. A familiar figure was balanced on the poles driven into the floor of the pit, arms outstretched as he tottered from one to the next.

Spikes stretched up hungrily from the pit floor below as the audience hooted and urged him on -- Rentaxllians were an enthusiastic lot when it came to their entertainment.

Appalled, Sam cupped her hands around her mouth. "Doctor! What're you *doing*?!!"

Her friend paused, swaying precariously, and she winced. The poles were just about wide enough in diameter to be walkable on, but set just far enough apart for this to be a true test of balance. He turned his head to look, and she winced again, regretting her distracting outburst.

The Doctor twisted a bit and cupped his own hands around his mouth in order to be heard over the crowd's excited babble. "I'm just running the Gauntlet! Shouldn't be long!"

"But why?" Sam demanded.

The Doctor flung out his arms and looked alarmed as a roar went up from the villagers and Sam gawped, then regained his balance, shouting back with a grin, "Oh, the usual! Fame, fortune, half the kingdom; that sort of thing!"

Sam grimaced, exasperated and pale. Crazy Time Lord -- let him out of her sight for a minute, and--

The Doctor paused with a frown, then suddenly divested himself of his bottle-green coat, revealing the embroidered waistcoat and white shirt beneath. He draped the coat over one arm, lifted his chin and hooked a finger under his gray cravat, yanking it free, wadding it up and jamming it into one of the coat pockets before twisting around to toss the bundle at Sam.

She caught it and gave him a Look.

He pretended not to see and stretched happily. "Ah -- that's better!" Stepping forward, he continued slowly on across the pit.

"If something happens to you, how'll I get home?!"

He paused again, turned just his head to look over his shoulder. This time, the words seemed to carry well enough to her even though he didn't shout. "You've operated the controls before -- the TARDIS will take you home, if you ask her nicely." He paused. "Eventually."

Sam slumped, leaned her elbows on the pit's ledge and ran her hands over her short blond hair in vexation. Why oh why oh why...

"I was bored."

She looked up quickly. The Doctor was now half-way across, not even looking in her direction. Perhaps she'd imagined it.

A trumpet sounded, and the crowd went into a frenzy. Sam frowned, not liking the sound of that at all. She stared hard at the Doctor as he picked his way across the barely- adequate 'stepping stones', then blinked as they disappeared.

Disappeared -- they'd disappeared!

She could only gape, horrified. He was standing on nothing, surounded by nothing but spikes.

"What the hell have you done?!" she shouted at the grinning tan-skinned humanoid with the shock of black hair who was crammed next to her on the right.

"They've turned the steps invisible, of course. It's all part of the test."

"Did you bother to tell him that?!" Sam flung an arm out to point at the Doctor.

The Rentaxllian shrugged. "He didn't ask."

Sam stared, flummoxed. Unless the Doctor could recall exactly the distance between the steps that he could no longer see--

"That's crazy!" she snarled. "This 'Gauntlet's' impossible!"

The native looked at her askance. "Would you have us demean your friend by providing a test unworthy of him?"

Sam's shoulders slumped. "I--" The Doctor had gone into this of his own free will. His choice. But why hadn't he asked her if she minded, dammit?!

Yeah, she minded, if he were about to be killed over something as stupid as this! Especially after all they'd been through already--

The Doctor swayed, as if indeed caught by surprise by the change, but not as badly as he had while showing off for the crowd in the beginning. Sam leaned forward, her attention painfully focused upon the figure of her friend. He stood up straight and closed his eyes for a few moments, as if composing himself amidst the hooting of the crowd. Then he stepped forward into nothingness.

Sam shut her eyes as a roar went up. She couldn't watch.

Then she opened them again, a crack. She had to watch. Even if-- Even if--

The Doctor's right foot came down and stopped on something unseen but solid, to the crowd's delight. He smoothly shifted his weight from the old post to the new step, paused only for a moment, and stepped out again.

Sam forced her eyes open. How incredibly difficult, to be unable to do anything but watch. What if he fell; what if she had to see him fall, when he needn't have been out there to begin with--

But it was the least she could do.

She watched as he stepped along the invisible pathway, feeling like she was aging a year for every step. She stood frozen, feeling like ice had lodged in her middle as he almost mis-stepped, catching himself at the last instant and throwing up his arms wildly for balance as his foot found a firm placement.

Ten, twenty years for that one.

She watched as he made his way painstakenly, his concentration absolute, the rest of the way to the end of the pit -- and safety.

Sam blinked and put a hand to her face as a tremendous roar went up all around her. He'd made it. He'd made it-- Of course he'd made it; how could she have thought otherwise?

A wild fan-fare sounded as the Doctor turned at the far platform to Bow and wave at the on-lookers, before jumping down from the pit. Sam was jostled by the natives as they hurried to greet the victorious traveller who'd survived the Deadly Gauntlet of Retaxllis. She craned her neck to see. A crowd of excited villagers had surrounded the Doctor; she could see him nodding and smiling at the well-wishers as he slowly made his way along.

Playing valet, she pushed through the crowd and held up his coat, shaking it at him invitingly. A space in the throng cleared, and he raised his eyebrows in appreciation, turning round and shrugging into it as she held it for him.

He grinned at her. "So, what do you think, Sam?" he asked, over the hub-bub around them.

She forced a smile. "I think you're nuts!" She was trying to be light, but something must've shown through; he suddenly peered closely at her.

"You were frightened," he said, sounding surprised. "I'm sorry..."

Sam suppressed a grimace. She didn't want empty platitudes from an alien Time Lord who'd just scared what felt like several decades off her.

"I just don't get why you did it. You didn't need to; why bother?"

He frowned slightly as if bemused by her question. "I did it... Because I wanted to see if I could. That's all."

"Yeah, but you didn't need to..." Sam paused. They stared at each other.

"How is this different from the other dangers we've faced so far?" the Doctor asked then, politely.

"Well, you didn't need to do it; the planet didn't need saving; no one was making you go--"

The Doctor nodded, with a pleasant smile. "Rather like the reasons why you chose to come with me."

Sam stared back at him narrowly, sensing a trap. "Well, I didn't have to come with you, but it's not the same--"

The Doctor raised an eyebrow.

Sam tried to wax indignant, but was already beginning to fizzle.

"Sam, I'm sorry if I startled you, but in the end, it wasn't substantially different from what you and I do everyday. Even if I wasn't 'forced' into it."

Sam opened her mouth, then hesitated. Dammit; why hadn't she taken Debating when she'd had the chance last year?

"You're a thrill junkie," she ad hominimed instead.

The Doctor tried to look in turn hurt, then indignant, but ended up looking rather smug.

"Just don't do that again anytime soon, okay? Save it for the next invasion or something..."

Their attention was suddenly caught by the sound of shouting, as someone frantically pushed their way through the villagers and scrambled up onto the Rolla pit platform, using it for an impromtu stage.

"We're being attacked! Listen to me!" the disheveled man bellowed, waving his arms. "Strangers, strange creatures, shiny guns, coming here!!"

The crowd murmured and shifted uneasily, beginning to gell with impotent fear.

Sam looked at the Doctor, and he looked back at her.

Sam shut her eyes. "Me and my biiig mouth," she grumbled.

The Doctor gave her a companionable pat on the back. "Come on, Sam!" he grinned. "That's our cue!"


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