|Tenth Doctor, Eleventh Doctor|
Boxing Day by Lyricwritesprose [Reviews - 44] |
This story is set somewhere between Series Five and Series Six. It's sort of a fix-fic for some aspects of the Tenth Doctor's era that always bothered me (namely, some of the regeneration angst and what he did to the Family of Blood). However, I wrote it mostly because I adore Wilf and enjoy writing Eleven and thought I'd like to combine those things.
Something to note: I am an American, so if any of the language rings false, please let me know.
Wilfred Mott knew that Boxing Day was going to be bad. He was the sort of man who thought in anniversaries whether he wanted to or not. He'd once spent half a day fighting a sense of doom, wondering if he was going crazy or actually having a premonition, before he realized that it was October twenty-fourth and his wife Alice's death-date. Wilf could actually feel this particular anniversary coming for days in advance, like a huge black thundercloud.
There was no grave, of course, and no-one to talk to. The thing to do was to have a few drinks and do his best not to think about it.
Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as all that. Donna and Shaun had decided to pay their way onto a cruise; Donna's ideal Christmas, she had declared, involved palm trees and daquiris and as little jingle-bells-and-reindeer rubbish as she could get away with. So on Boxing Day, when he should have been able to mutter something vague about seeing his old mates and slip off to the pub, Wilf was stuck on one of the Florida Keys with Sylvia keeping a close eye on him, convinced he would wander off if she blinked. He finally had to tell her he was going back to the boat for a lie down. She insisted on walking him all the way back to the ramp.
From what Wilf had seen, you couldn't throw a half-brick on this island without hitting two bars and a street artist. Unfortunately, most of the bars seemed to be either expensive places with some sort of theme or bright, noisy tourist spots. Wilf wanted a place that Donna-in-search-of-daquiris would look right past, and that was a taller order than just somewhere to drink. It took him a lot of walking to find a decently dark hole in the wall.
So here he was, the day after Christmas, mourning an alien and discovering that American beer really did deserve some of the things people said about it.
He didn't intend to get very drunk. Just a little. Just a cushion. But what with the amount of frustration he had getting here, and his sore feet, and the feeling that he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb–and Sylvia was going to give him holy hell over this when she found out. She'd never been all that fond of the Doctor. After the lottery ticket, she'd admitted to Wilf that she'd probably misjudged him, but still–
Wilf got another beer.
It was well after sunset, and the Michelob stuff was starting to taste almost drinkable, when someone sat down beside him. Wilf didn't even look up until he heard a distinctly English voice say, "Could I have something with a little parasol? Only I love a little parasol."
Wilf glanced sideways. He intended to say something like, you're not a local either, are you, but what actually popped out was, "You need a haircut."
The boy–he had to be over twenty-one, Wilf supposed, but surely not by much–turned his whole body to look at Wilf, blinked, and said, "Blimey. You look awful."
Wilf felt moderately awful, but he also felt that a person ought to take offense at something like that. "Oh, yeah? Well, you . . ." Inspiration failed. "Don' have any eyebrows."
The boy looked mournful. "Yes, I know. It's considered a tremendous speech impediment on–in some places. I say I speak anything, and I do, but I've discovered that on Delphon, I now have the equivalent of an adorable babyish lisp. If I want to be taken seriously, I have to do this." He arched his index fingers over his eyes and waggled them about in a way that Wilf, possibly aided by the alcohol, found extremely funny. He laughed, and then wheezed.
"What about you, then?" the boy said, when Wilf got his breath back. "Bit far from home, aren't you?"
The boy's smile faded a little. "No," he said. "Well, yes. Except no. I don't need a home; I have a universe. But you, you're not like that." He stabbed a finger at Wilf. "You belong somewhere."
There was an alarm bell ringing faintly in the back of Wilf's mind, but it was easily obscured by his beery haze. "Iz my granadder. Grand. Daughter," Wilf enunciated. "She's a millionaire. Multi–Multionaire." This seemed to be doing Donna a vague disservice. "An' she's brilliant. Don' ever say she isn't."
"Never," the boy said. He managed to give it the weight of a solemn oath.
Wilf nodded, satisfied.
The boy's drink arrived. It was pink; the paper umbrella was canary yellow. The boy plucked the umbrella out, made a fluttering, searching sort of motion with his hands, and then, for lack of a better place to put it, stuck it behind his ear. "So what are you doing here, then? Shouldn't you be dining at the captain's table? Champagne, caviar, waiters in black ties?"
"I don' like caviar. Iz supposed to be all special, but s'really jus'–stuff. Black stuff. Like th' other stuff, the stuff that–y'know–jiggly–never did like th' other stuff either–" Wilf thought about it, decided thinking was too hard, and gave up. "Only salty," he finished. "Landlord! 'Nother Michelin."
The boy took a careful sip of his pink concoction. Then he contorted his face, spat the mouthful back into the glass, and grabbed a paper napkin to wipe off his tongue.
Wilf stared at this curiously. "Does that help?"
The boy lowered the napkin. "Not as such, no."
The bartender delivered Wilf's next beer, giving the boy an unfriendly look as he did so. When Wilf picked up the drink, the boy stopped just short of putting his hand on Wilf's arm. "Are you sure you want to do that?"
Wilf took a long swallow. "Why wouldn' I?"
"Because you're already very, very drunk."
"'M not drunk enough." The brief good mood Wilf had gotten from the eyebrow thing was draining away, to be replaced by worse melancholy. "I don't–see–I don't wanna be drunk. I wanna be blind, stinking–" Wilf groped for a synonym and couldn't find one. "Drunk. I wanna be too drunk to remember."
"I could stop you." The words were very quiet; Wilf thought the boy was half-talking to himself. He refocused on Wilf as if he'd been millions of miles away and gave him a slightly fake-looking half-smile, apparently intended as reassurance. "Could, but I'm not going to. It's your grief, it's your right–still. Here." He produced a piece of paper from one of his jacket pockets. "If you're going to do this to yourself, at least wear one of these."
Wilf studied it. It looked like a nicotene patch. "I don' smoke," he said. "Quit years ago. I don' need a no-smoking patch."
"It isn't a no-smoking patch." The boy leaned closer, as if imparting a secret. "It's a no-hangover patch. Mitigates some of the nastier side effects of alcohol. And you need it. The last thing you want is to wind up in some American hospital with no wallet and no record of what medications you take, and without the patch that's exactly where you're headed." He locked eyes with Wilf. "Trust me. Put it on."
Wilf shrugged, peeled the sticker off the backing, and put it on the side of his neck. "I still got my wallet," he said, and patted it to make sure it was true.
"You do now." Wilf wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean, and the boy didn't elaborate. Instead, he turned to the bartender and ordered a Coke–or, as he put it, a rum-and-Coke only without the rum. Wilf applied himself to his beer.
"Nobody," Wilf told the boy a little while later, "remembers. Nobody. Sometimes I think I've gone mad." The boy shook his head a little. "Old an' senile," Wilf went on, "Jus' like Sylvia thinks. 'M sick of grapefruit." The progression made perfect sense in his head. "What's th' use of living longer if you have t' do it on grapefruit–" But thinking of long lives led him in a direction he didn't want to go.
The boy put his hand lightly on Wilf's shoulder as he hunched, trying to duck the thought. "You're not mad. Don't ever think that."
"How can they forget th' planets, though? Planets!"
"It isn't their fault."
"Sylvia remembers, some. When I tell her. Remembers meeting him," Wilf said. "But there's–there's–stuff. Not stuff. Missing stuff." The context of the encounters had drained away somehow. Sylvia remembered the night he brought Donna home, but Wilf had to remind her about the planets in the sky, and even after he did, she'd shaken her head and muttered something about not being sure. The past few years that Wilf remembered weren't the past few years for everyone else. Something subtle and strange had happened to the entire world. "An' what'm I supposed to do? 'M just an old, stupid–old. Stupid. I can't go out and save–fight aliens–do for whatever's doing it. Can't even tell them it's aliens. Not anymore. They'd think I'm mental."
"You don't have to," the boy told him. "You already saved the world. You don't have to do it again."
More faint alarm bells. Wilf ignored them. "You," Wilf poked the boy, "don't understand anything."
"Then tell me."
The boy's eyes darkened. "Would what?"
"Save it. Again. Every week if he had to–every day. Only now–" If he went on, Wilf thought, he was going to start crying. His mouth kept moving without his permission. "He coulda had centuries of saving, and running, and seeing things that I'll never–only he saved me. For–maybe three, six years–of grapefruit. What's the point in that?"
The boy leaned forward and put his hands on both sides of Wilf's face, making him meet his eyes. "The most. Important. Point. In the universe."
"You get your hands off me!" Wilf pushed the boy away. He was angry at everyone–mostly at himself, but the boy was on his list too, for making Wilf talk about it. "You, you're just a–I don' want you sitting there listening at me. Tryin' to make me stop, giving me that patch–you're not my mother–"
"No. But I'd be proud if I were."
It only took an instant for the penny to drop.
Wilf went for the boy, or the person who looked like a boy, clawing at his face. "Give him back!" It didn't sound like his voice; wild, cracked, insane. The boy didn't try to fight him. "Give him back! You–you body-stealing zombie thing–you have no right, you–you ghoul–" Someone grabbed him from behind. Someone else shouted at him.
He was crying. Everything was blurry.
"Wilf," the boy said, "it's all right. It's going to be all right."
"No it isn't!" Wilf thrashed against whoever was holding him. "Let go of me! A new man goes walking away–that's what he said–in his skin, and that's the–that's him! He's not human! He's a thing, he's a body-snatching thing!"
The fingers around Wilf's right arm slackened. "Don' pay him no mind," a voice said hastily, from that side, "he just loco." The man was deep-voiced and sounded large, but he also sounded spooked. "Just a crazy tourist. Seriously, man–"
"I'm not going to hurt him." Even through the blurring, Wilf saw the ghoul reach for him. "He's a friend. And I didn't want to have to do this."
Wilf opened his mouth to say, I'm not your friend. He never got around to it. He didn't even feel himself collapse.
Wilf woke up feeling divinely comfortable and rested despite the strong feeling he'd done something abysmally stupid.
He realized when he opened his eyes that he had no idea where he was. That woke him up enough to scrabble through his memory. Boxing Day, Florida, the bar–oh. Oh.
He sat up and the lights came on.
The room wasn't what he'd half-expected. If he'd thought about it, he would have anticipated something space-y, all brushed metal, perhaps some sort of otherworldly laboratory with screens and sinister instruments. Instead, there was a roll-top desk, made of some wood that might or might not be mahogany, and a wardrobe. There was a globe, the old-fashioned kind where the seas were beige instead of blue, with unfamiliar continents and countries labeled in graceful English italics. There was a stained glass lamp and two large bookcases.
Of course, the chair in front of the roll-top desk looked like a mad Victorian inventor's attempt to replicate a modern office chair without having any real idea what one looked like. It involved brass and gears. And the room didn't have any windows, unless there was one hiding under the random medieval tapestry on the far wall. Wilf wasn't sure where the light was coming from, except it was white and soft and it couldn't all be from that lamp.
In other words, it wasn't an Earth room. Not quite. It was a room furnished by someone who liked Earth stuff.
He, Wilfred Mott, had been kidnapped by aliens. One alien in particular. The Doctor's–successor.
Who he had insulted. And assaulted. Wilf didn't remember exactly what he had said, but he was fairly certain some of it had been fighting words.
The Doctor had been a decent man. Friendly, instantly likeable, the sort of man who notices that the waitress is having a horrible day and charms the story out of her in the hope of making it better, or, if it was really serious, tipping her in antique Spanish doubloons so she'd have the money to run. According to Donna–and to tell the truth, Wilf had known the Doctor better through Donna's letters than his own encounters–he was also absolutely implacable when faced with any sort of injustice. A hero.
The other Time Lords, though–the Master had been mad. Very mad. Mad as a box of rats, biting and gnawing and maiming eachother and themselves in their desperation to get out and make it stop, whatever "it" was. He couldn't possibly have always been like that, not just because of the way the Doctor talked to him, but because Wilf couldn't imagine any being existing in that state for long without flying apart. You could feel the wrongness from all the way across the room.
Still, for Wilf's money, he hadn't been as scary as the other one. The one who reversed everything the Master had done, not because he cared about humans, but to put the Master in his place. To him, humans were insects. Less than insects. He would have unmade Wilf and everyone Wilf knew as easily as brushing away a mosquito, and with less thought.
Picking a fight with a Time Lord of unknown temperament was probably not the smartest thing Wilfred Mott had ever done.
He found his shoes pushed half under the bed, pretty much where he would have put them if he'd been conscious. He was still in the clothes he'd been wearing last night, including socks, so he stuck his feet in them.
On the other hand, the–successor, reincarnation, whatever you wanted to call him–hadn't seemed like a bad sort. Wilf hadn't been tied up or experimented on. In fact, there was every possibility that this wasn't a kidnapping, just a rather kidnapping-shaped attempt to be helpful. Wilf couldn't remember exactly, but he thought the man had said something about not wanting Wilf to end up in hospital and–yes, there was a little plastic patch on the side of his neck. Wilf pulled it off. It was six-sided, for whatever reason, and said Celibra • Celibra • Celibra and so on until it cut off halfway through the word, as if it had been stamped out of a larger sheet of plastic.
It seemed like the sort of thing they'd call an anti-hangover drug, whenever in the future they came up with one. Would come up with one? Were to come up with one? At any rate, it hadn't done him any harm, and he had to admit, he felt better than he had any right to. The amount of drinking he'd done, he should have been praying for someone to come bash in his head with a brick. He hadn't done anything like that in years. Decades.
Getting that drunk in a strange place, a wild party-ing sort of island, at the age of eighty-mumble and taking one or two medications with long warnings on them, after making certain that absolutely nobody knew where he was–that probably wasn't the smartest thing Wilf had ever done either, when it came right down to it. And the–just think of him as the Time Lord, for now–the Time Lord wouldn't show up for no reason, would he? More likely that something had happened, or been going to happen until he interfered.
Something like dying of a bad drug interaction in some Florida hospital, maybe. Was that sort of change even allowed? Some of the things Donna had said implied that it wasn't, but when you really thought about it, all time travel was changing history. One more person walking down the street on a random day wasn't a big change, it didn't matter, but it was still different than it would have been–
Wilf couldn't wrap his head around it.
The room had two doors, one wooden, one made of the same white stuff as the walls. Wilf tried the wooden one first and found a bathroom. On the bathroom counter was a trio of pills that looked exactly like the ones he usually took, a full water glass, and a post-it note saying Take These in red pen. Wilf slipped the pills into his pocket instead.
And if he was right about the Time Lord saving his life–why? Because he had some knowlege of Wilf through his–inherited, not stolen, have to be fair about this–memories? That seemed thin, somehow. Because he owed Wilf, more likely. Because without Wilf, the Doctor would still be alive, and the new Time Lord–
No. No. Better not to jump to conclusions. If he thought that, he would get angry, and he didn't want to go into this angry. He would walk out the white door, find the Time Lord, apologize nicely for his behavior last night, and ask to go home–well, back to Florida. And the Time Lord, who might be a perfectly nice boy who couldn't help how he came into the world, would give him a lift in the Doctor's TARDIS, and Wilf wouldn't point out that he had no bleeding right, flying around the universe interfering with the Doctor's people just as if he hadn't murdered him by being born, just as surely as Wilf had murdered him by–
"It'll be all right," Wilf muttered to himself. "You'll see." He didn't sound the slightest bit convincing, even to himself, but he gathered up all the optimism he could muster and went out the white door.
The halls outside the room were white with big circles on the walls. The Time Lord had evidently realized that Wilf would have no idea where to go, because he'd made great big arrows out of blue post-its. Wilf followed them.
After a few turns, he could hear someone singing. A little ways beyond that, he recognized the song: that little ditty about Istanbul being Constantinople, something he hadn't heard since he was a young man. And a little ways after that, the post-it arrows directed him through another white door. He came out in a kitchen.
The Time Lord stopped singing and turned around, spatula in hand. Wilf was in better shape to notice details now, but his first impressions hadn't changed much. The Time Lord still looked quite young. Wilf wondered how long it had been since he'd been–born, or created, or whatever; did they come out as kids, or teenagers, or what? He had longish floppy hair and a long, narrow face (extra chin, hold the eyebrows). He was wearing, rather incongruously, a dark red bowtie, a light red shirt, and a red-checkered apron. "Right," he said. "Yes. Hello!" He smiled at Wilf.
The Doctor had had a way of smiling at people that felt like standing in a sudden ray of sunlight; it was virtually impossible not to smile back. I really don't fancy him, Donna had told Wilf once, he's too skinny and he talks so much you just want to wrap his head up in gaff tape. But he does have the best grin. He does it with his whole face, even his voice goes all–I don't know, you'll see what I mean when you hear him do it. Which Wilf had.
Despite having an entirely different face, this Time Lord had the same daft, overjoyed smile. It hit Wilf like a punch to the memory.
"I didn't know what you take for breakfast," the Time Lord went on, "so I made everything. " From the look of the kitchen counter, he had, too. There were multiple broken eggshells and bowls with batter dripping down the sides and one place where it looked like the jam had unexpectedly exploded. "Fancy something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Orange juice? Blue juice?"
"Coffee," Wilf's mouth said, before his brain could catch up with it. Coffee had been on Sylvia's forbidden list for some time. It wasn't the first thing he'd intended to say to this Time Lord. "Look," he said, as the Time Lord spun toward a tremendously overcomplicated coffee pot, "I'm sorry. I was drunk out of my skull last night and I wasn't thinking straight."
The Time Lord stopped sharply halfway through his turn, finger and spatula both poised as if to press something. "Sorry for what?"
Wilf stared at him. "Sorry for–" He made a vague, helpless motion that was supposed to indicate fists and violence. "And–I don't remember exactly what I said, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't nice–"
"It wasn't." There was a hint of arctic cold there, an emotion Wilf couldn't imagine from the real Doctor, but it was gone in an instant. "Not your fault. Mine. Don't worry about it. Milk?"
"Yes, please. Um, what do you mean, your–what's that for?" The Time Lord had just handed him a glass of water.
"The pills gathering lint in your pocket."
"Wha–were you spying on me?"
The Time Lord gave him a stiff, indignant look that reminded Wilf of an unexpectedly wet cat. "Of course not! Why would I want to do that? Might have broken into your stateroom on the Calypso just a bit, but it was for perfectly valid and helpful reasons and also, I'd like to emphasize that I didn't actually break anything."
Wilf processed this. "So, these pills . . ." He wondered if he should ask how the Time Lord knew he hadn't taken them.
"Are your pills, yes. I thought you might need them. D'you want eggs? And if so, how would you like them?"
The last thing Wilf wanted was to eat breakfast with the Time Lord. He wasn't actually sure how he ended up sitting opposite him at a small table in a corner of the kitchen, looking over a perfectly lovely breakfast that had no grapefruit whatsoever. It was an uncomfortably familiar sort of thing to have happen. It's one of the things he does, Donna had said of the Doctor, he talks absolute bollocks at about a hundred miles a minute, and by the time you've gone, "No, actually, I don't believe you're from the Biscuit Registration Bureau because there is no such thing," he's already gotten you to agree to fourteen just-as-ridiculous notions and taken apart your microwave. The Oncoming Babble. It's a superpower, honestly it is. More disconcertingly, Wilf had seen Donna–Donna without the Doctor, nor any memory of him–launch a similar offensive on a rather horrid traffic warden. There were things, little things, that kept making him think that Donna's memories might be lost, but she still retained–something. The knowledge that she had wings and a feeling of how to spread them, maybe. A touch of the stars.
Which was hardly the point right now. "What did you mean, earlier," Wilf managed to ask, finally, "your fault?"
The Time Lord had been happily making himself a kippers-and-marmalade sandwich. "Ah. Yes." He lost some of his air of slightly daffy good cheer. "That. In the past–" When you looked at his eyes, he didn't look as young as all that, really. "I've always been able to soften it, just a bit. For my companions. To tell them that it's all right, the moment has been prepared for, it's just a change in perception, and never mind whose perception. With you, I talked too much."
Wilf scooted his chair back. "You're not him."
"I'm the Doctor," the Time Lord who wasn't the Doctor said.
"No, you're not. The Doctor's dead. You walked away in his skin." The Time Lord shook his head. "With his memories; that's what he said. Regeneration, just the same as death, he said."
"No. Well, yes. Yes, except no. Regeneration isn't death, any more than it's–exactly–not death." The Time Lord leaned forward. Without meaning to, Wilf found himself listening hard, leaning forward a bit himself, as if the Time Lord was about to give him the secrets of the universe. "D'you remember being twenty?" Wilf opened his mouth to say of course I do, but the Time Lord went on, "I mean really remember it. You would have been in the army then, wouldn't you? And so many things were so very, very clear. Right, wrong, courage, cowardice. You knew right down to your soul that your best friends were friends for life, that you'd die for them and they'd die for you and you'd never find yourself on opposite sides of anything." Wilf nodded despite himself. "And think about you, right now. Wilfred Mott, grandfather. People look different now, don't they? Sylvia's your baby girl and your wonderful young lady and the endlessly irritating person who won't stop with the grapefruit, and she can be all that. There's no paradox. Good and evil are mostly buried under humans being human, all chips and shopping and marrying and going on holiday. And you've seen so many more things than that twenty-year-old boy . . ." The Time Lord trailed off for a moment. "Now," he said, "try to imagine going from the boy to the grandfather. In an instant. Just a blaze of light and you're there."
Wilf thought about it. He did not, he decided, have a good enough imagination. Not by a long shot. He felt a bit overwhelmed by the very idea.
"You ask yourself who you are, and the answer comes back the same. You're Wilfred Mott. But with so, so many things different, if anyone challenged you to prove it–" He spread his hands.
"That's what regeneration is like?" Wilf said.
The Time Lord paused with his kipper-and-marmalade sandwich halfway to his mouth. "No," he said. "It's not like that at all. But, if it helps–" He shrugged, took a bite, and chewed with evident enjoyment while Wilf tried to decide whether he should be irritated or not. "Regeneration–" That came out while his mouth was still somewhat full, so he paused for a moment to swallow. "Regeneration doesn't have a human analogue. I'm still me, I'm still the Doctor, but everything about me has been reshuffled, or recolored, or re–" He wiggled his fingers searchingly.
"Placed?" Wilf suggested, perhaps a bit bitterly.
The Time Lord gave him a sharp look, but just said, "Some things. Perhaps a few things. Yes. It's a catastrophic change, and it would scare me just a bit even without complications–your eggs are getting cold, did you realize?"
Wilf applied himself slowly to his breakfast. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to believe what the Time Lord was saying or not. The way the Doctor had described regeneration when he brought Donna home for the last time–phrases like restructuring our bodies, right down to the cells and a last-ditch way to avoid death–that didn't sound much like the conversation in the café, the one where the Doctor had described regeneration as just the same as dying. He had looked so very haunted, then. Broken. It had been painful just to sit across the table and not be able to help–
This Time Lord didn't have that jagged-glass, palpably traumatized quality, but Wilf didn't know how long it had been. And there were a lot of Doctorish things about him. The smile. The way he drew you in. Eerily ancient eyes.
"Complications?" Wilf said.
The Time Lord gave him an odd sort of smile, less sunlit and more enigmatic. "Wilfred Mott. The man I talk too much to. I should run so far away from you." He busied himself with his sandwich for a long moment, long enough that Wilf wondered if he was going to go on at all. "Complications. Forewarnings. I could count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have very, very bad dreams . . ." He took another bite of his sandwich.
"I have," Wilf said, "no idea what you're talking about."
This time, Time Lord very deliberately finished chewing before he answered. "I'm not–" he said finally, and hesitated before going on, a bit helplessly, "I'm not–nice."
"Maybe you aren't, but the Doctor–"
Wilf couldn't remember the last time he'd been silenced with just a look.
"The Doctor," the Time Lord said very quietly, "myself-that-was, your Doctor, once locked four people in inescapable prisons, and by inescapable, I mean not even by dying. I don't think I'll tell you how long I left them there. Or what I found when I finally–all you need to know is that if it hadn't been for the woman I was travelling with, I would have kept them there forever. Alive. Oh, I'm usually on the side of humanity, and arguably on the side of the angels, but nice? Really?" He paused, then added, "Why did you think I wanted Donna along?"
"I thought–to see the universe, or–she was a friend–" Wilf took a deep breath to make himself stop stammering. "What did they do? Those four people."
"Does it matter?"
It was rather easier, Wilf thought, to say but, someone like Hitler, f'rinstance, of course he deserves forever, when you weren't sitting across a table from someone who could arrange it.
"They were predators. Killers down to their bones. They would have murdered anyone and anything for a single extra second of life. They hurt children." That last sentence had the weight of absolute judgment. "But they said 'I' and knew what it meant which makes them people of a sort, and they loved each other as far as I could tell, and I wasn't really talking about them anyway. You're right. I took Donna along because she's a friend, and because she asked, and because she's brilliant. I also took her because just having friends–makes a difference. A good difference. I've known for a while that there's something, a sort of potential–very bad thing–lurking at the bottom of my head. On my worst days it has its own name. When you found me, when you bought me coffee and I told you I was going to die, I–it was after I'd done some things, and made at least one very big mistake, and had a good long look at that life. The people I'd altered, the choices I'd stolen. The more I looked, the more it seemed like the Doctor was a fairy tale that a very bad man told himself so he could sleep a little easier. And comforting lies don't survive regeneration."
Wilf was silent. He wasn't sure if the words rang true because they were, or because he wanted to believe he hadn't killed the Doctor, or because this man had the same odd charisma the Doctor had always had and was deliberately using it on him. When you came right down to it, though, the fact that the man was talking to him rather than hacking his memories with whatever thing the Doctor had used on Donna–that was a hopeful sign. So was the fact that this Time Lord wasn't trying to reassure him too much, to brush away all his doubts under platitudes.
"Talking way too much," the Time Lord added, with an of-course-I'm-all-right-really half-smile, "again, but I did drop my worries on you in the first place. More coffee?"
"I shouldn't. Sylvia'll be cross." Wilf tried to collect his thoughts. "If that's all true–all that stuff–why did he save me?"
"Because you needed saving and I was there." He made it sound as if it should be ridiculously obvious. "Besides. Be a hell of a thing, looking for a new name at my age."
There wasn't much Wilf could say to that. Except, perhaps, to say his years aren't yours, and he wasn't sure that was true, anymore. "Do you believe it?" he asked instead. "What you said. About the Doctor being a lie, and all."
The Time Lord stopped moving for an instant, and Wilf thought for certain he'd finally gotten too personal. Then he gave Wilf the oddest smile yet, very old, but a tiny bit whimsical. "Regeneration."
Wilf frowned in incomprehension.
"A change in perception. A perspective shift. Of course I'm a fairy tale, Wilfred Mott. And so are you. We're all made out of words, all us sapient beings. And when the all the stars go out and the sky is nothing but black, the survivors will huddle around stories. And wait, and hope, because you never know when someone will touch off a new universe. I may be a story, but that never means I'm not real."
For a dizzying instant, it didn't seem like a metaphor.
"Or else," the Time Lord went on in a much brisker tone, "I'm getting mystical in my old age." He said the word mystical with some relish, and Wilf remembered how much the Doctor seemed to enjoy words, how he rolled them around and tasted them and occasionally threw in the odd French phrase just for fun. "Are you finished with that? Because there's something I'd like to show you."
Wilf had assumed they were in some sort of outer-space home, an estate on some planet or asteroid somewhere, and they'd have to board the TARDIS to go back to Earth. But it turned out they were already there.
The control room was bigger and less organic than the one Wilf had seen. That one had felt like being inside a tree, all curves and arches. This one–the console was straight out of Jules Verne, all except for the bits that seemed thrown in at random. Like the typewriter. Or the spigots labeled HOT and COLD. If he couldn't face calling this Time Lord the Doctor, Wilf thought, he could always think of him as Captain Nemo.
He still wasn't Wilf's Doctor, not exactly. But Wilf could almost imagine him as the same man fifty years later. Less fiery. Less obviously passionate. He had sounded uncomfortable when talking about the Doctor's doubts, Wilf suspected, not just because it was a difficult subject, but because he rarely showed that much of himself. His war wounds had all healed into white lines, well-hidden from the kids who'd grown up without worrying about that sort of thing. So long as he still believed in saving things, Wilf could accept him as a Doctor. Maybe. "Was I going to die?" Wilf said.
The Doctor looked up from the TARDIS console. "What?"
"You tracked me down on purpose. Must've done. And I just thought–with what you said, about me ending up in hospital–"
"I won't change the date of your death."
Which wasn't quite an answer. Wilf decided to assume that it meant, no, you weren't going to die, and to never, ever ask how long he had.
"Quality of life, though, that's different. Besides, I didn't think you ought to be alone. Not with your memories, not on Boxing Day." He flipped a switch with a flourish and spun away from the console. "Here we go!" He nodded toward the doors. Wilf knew they were the exterior doors only because there was a hatstand next to them. "The thing I wanted to show you."
"I thought you were taking me back!"
"Any time you like." The Doctor sounded slightly bemused by Wilf's alarm. It had never occurred to him, Wilf realized. Captivity and dissection and all the things Wilf had worried about when he thought he'd been taken by a totally unfamiliar alien–the Doctor had never thought about that. "But you want to look outside first. Think of it as a belated Christmas present."
Wilf shrugged and opened the doors.
And felt his hands fall away from them, very very distantly. He was dizzy. He might be floating. He certainly couldn't look away to check.
It was beautiful. It was the single most purely beautiful thing–white and gold and pink and sweeping–he could pick out a few individual sparks of brilliance, here and there, but mostly it blended together into a fairy-dust haze, long curving paintstrokes of light–
"Is–" His voice came out as a whisper, and he had to try again to make himself heard. "Is that us?"
"The Milky Way," the Doctor said.
Wilf looked at it. He never wanted to stop looking. "It's a barred spiral galaxy."
"Yes, it is."
"They said it might be. All those radio telescopes, all those observations they do. But it's not–it's–from Earth it doesn't look nearly so–"
"Bright," Wilf repeated in a whisper.
"That's the dust clouds in your way." The Doctor was only speaking a little louder than Wilf. "Star forges. Whole solar systems being spun out of the fog."
Wilf finally managed a quick glance away. The Doctor wasn't looking out the door. He was leaning against the TARDIS wall and studying Wilf, a faint smile on his face. "Did you bring Donna to see this?"
He didn't realize it was the first time he'd acknowledged the Doctor as the same man until he saw his smile widen, very slightly. "Yes, I did."
"It's beautiful. It's more than–I don't know–it's the most beautiful–"
Wilf took the object, used it blindly, and then looked down at it. "Is there a reason your handkerchief has question marks in the corners?"
"I like them better than full stops."
"Besides, that's from four faces ago. When that me found something I liked, he tended to–go a trifle overboard, actually, looking back on it." In the corner of his eye, Wilf could see the Doctor move his fingers questingly as he tried to unravel the pronoun problems of that sentence, then visibly give it up as a bad job. "D'you want to see one, by the way?"
"A dust cloud. A solar system forming. Donna saw one of those, too." The Doctor took two steps forward and pointed past Wilf–out the door, which Wilf hadn't known was possible. "There, you see that fingerprint-shape, that's the Greater Magellanic Cloud, and in there is the Tarantula Nebula. And in there, I know a star system–in a few billion years, it'll have the biggest waterfall in five galaxies and people who look like black-and-white striped fish. Right now, it's just so much stardust." He moved away, back toward the console. "I did plan to take you right back, you understand. Still can do, any time you like, and I don't plan to get us entangled in any adventures. Wouldn't do to make Sylvia angry. But I did wonder, since I know you're a stargazer–well, after I got into your stateroom, I might have somewhat grabbed your suitcase. Sort of. Just in case you wanted to take the scenic route."
"You're–" Wilf couldn't breathe for a moment. "You're serious."
"Yep! This is me, being serious." He grinned.
Wilf didn't actually manage to say "yes" coherently, or with any sort of dignity. But he did manage to say "yes." And when the Doctor laughed in delight he sounded, for just an instant, exactly like the man Wilf had first met, the spaceman who adored the whole universe.