All this was a long time ago, I remember
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down --
Soft words and slow, they pulled him out of the dark and back into bed, into the double bed with the duvet half-off and the pillows that always fell behind the wall during the night. For the better part of a minute, he stared at a watery patch of blue which he knew for a fact was the photograph Doris took in Malta, only reaching for his glasses when he fully recollected himself.
"-- was Journey of the Magi, by T.S. Eliot; read by Deborah Findlay for "Best of the Verse". It's just coming up to half-past eight on BBC Radio 3 -- "
He switched the clock radio off with a grunt, turned to look at Doris, remembered, grunted, found his slippers, did his business (thinking black thoughts in regard to his last physical and indeed all physicals) and shuffled downstairs for the paper.
Halfway down the stairs, he remembered the previous night and grunted (again) to himself. The news last night had been nothing short of panicked, but frankly he'd not been impressed. Opening the door, he reflected that once the first wave of panic subsided, nostalgia tended to sink in, and after the problem resolved itself in the first ten minutes he'd assumed that the --
"Wouldn't have pegged you as a Guardian man, myself. You mellowing in your old age or what?"
To be fair, it was the incongruous blue thing off by the azaleas that Alastair noticed first, and rather than addressing whoever (ha) had spoken, he concentrated on that. Much the same. Slightly larger, maybe. Possibly a different shade of blue.
Not so much by the azaleas as on top of the azaleas, come to that.
"I should have guessed," he drawled, slowly turning his attention to the figure on the doorstep, bracing himself for the worst. Given that his paper was currently open and obscuring most of said figure from view, he was going to be bracing himself for some time. "UNIT kept calling all last night; you'd think they'd never seen an alien invasion before. Begs the question as to why we bothered writing anything down during the Seventies if their first response these days is to run around willy-nilly arresting foreign nationals the instant shop mannequins come to life."
"Expect just running around gives 'em a sense of purpose. Any excuse to wear those smashing blue caps while yelling." Sounded different; oh no, not again . The pages rattled. "D'you know which page If . . . is on?"
"Would it be wrong of me to assume that you had something to do with last night's activities?"
A snort. "Oh, be fair. Not like every alien encounter involves me."
That voice. "No, just the ones with extensive property damage."
The paper lowered at this. Skinhead was Alastair's first thought, and then something else occurred to him as he processed the black jacket and slacks and the cool grey eyes and the desperate, toothy grin just this side of sane.
Summoning speed he knew he'd be paying for later, he wrenched Doris's gaudy plaid umbrella from the stand and bludgeoned the man squarely between his ridiculous ears. He fell backwards off the front step, landing in the gravel as the Sport and Financial sections caught a passing breeze and snagged on the irises.
" -- wha?"
"Now look, you," Alastair intoned direly (one hoped), brandishing the brolly and generally attempting not to fall over, "I've just about had enough of your antics as is, and if you've come here with some mad idea of revenge, you're in for -- "
The man on the ground pressed a hand against his temple, expression rapidly shuttling between disbelief, scorn and hurt. "What the hell is this about? We've been here, Brigadier! Thought we knew this dance by now." His ears were going red. " Remember? Regeneration? Gone through this how many times before? You've met me all by now, honestly -- "
"You are not the Doctor."
The man in black snorted, sagging back on the gravel. "Oh, here we go -- Look. Ask me anything. Go on. Ask me anything. About UNIT. About my stint as your scientific advisor. Yeti. Ask me about Yeti."
"I'm not saying a word, other than 'leave'. There's no way you'll convince me you're one of the Doctors."
The man on the ground started to get up, noticed the umbrella still in Alastair's hand, and instead sank vexedly back onto the gravel with a sigh. "The whole 'double pulse' routine's worn a bit thin, Brigadier."
"As though I needed further proof that the Master is on my doorstep."
The look of utterly spare disbelief was almost beyond description. "The -- what!?"
Alastair waved the umbrella around in a fashion he suspected was more vague than menacing and wondered where Doris had hidden his field baton. "Well, you aren't even trying, are you? All dressed in black, predilection towards theft -- ", Here a sort of sweeping gesture meant to encompass both the TARDIS and his newspaper, " -- and even by the Doctor's standards, you'd look absolutely ludicrous."
"And that accent. And the cursing? Appalling. I'd have thought if anyone could imitate the Doctor, it would be you."
"Wha -- ? Lethbridge-Stewart, you bloody-minded decrepit old goat, it's me!"
"And the abuse frankly isn't up to the Doctor's standards. Next thing I know, you'll probably be telling me there was nothing going on between you and Miss Grant."
The man on the ground goggled, red-faced, ears mottled crimson. A hand flailed in unsupported indignation while words failed to happen. "I . . . what? You . . . you don't seriously . . . I . . . Jo? What?"
Alastair lowered the brolly. "Oh lord, it is you."
* * * *
"Sorry about your head."
"I've had worse. S'pose I should be grateful you don't still carry a sidearm, or do you save that for when the paperboy's late?"
"Your sense of humour has not improved, I see." He led the man -- the Doctor -- into the kitchen, filling the kettle and attempting to reconcile this man in black with the light streaming in and the birds singing and the memory of walking plastic. It was too early, so he concentrated on what was falling off the Doctor's jacket instead. "Ugh. Wipe that off."
"Wipe what off -- oh. Fantastic."
"There's this stray that's been skulking around here," he clarified, watching unmistakably brown material flake off the coat and onto the previously-clean linoleum. "Keeps doing its business in the garden and the driveway. Doris leaves kibble out, but I don't want to encourage -- "
"Ah, good old Doris. She around?"
The gentleman in Alastair opted not to make an issue of his wife being addressed in the same manner as a sheepdog. "No, she's on holiday. Ireland. She's got a sister living in County Cork, and they've been planning a walking tour of the area -- "
" -- taken up photography, of all things. Well, keeps her out of trouble, I suppose -- "
" -- and I'm not really up to that sort of thing, these days -- "
"Of course you are!" The Doctor fixed him with a grave and pointed stare, offset slightly by his right hand clutching a tea towel full of cat matter. "Nothing like a bit of adventure for what ails you."
"I'm eighty-one. Adventure is what ails me."
"Who are you and what did you do with the Brigadier?"
"No idea, but tell him he can have his hip back." He turned away from the Doctor and resignedly began laying two places for breakfast. "It's one thing when the monsters show up and need a good old-fashioned turning out, but your habit of looking for trouble is just baffling. Speaking of which, how did you slip up this time?"
Alastair waved a butter knife at him irritably. "For god's sake, put that . . . litter somewhere else, Doctor. -- Regeneration. You've regenerated."
The Doctor blinked, looked around the kitchen, located the bin and unceremoniously dumped the towel and its contents within it. "Pretty much, yeah."
Relying on years of carefully cultivated restraint, Alastair decided to look for grapefruit spoons. "Can't say this one does much for me. I assume there is a rationale behind the jumper?"
"What's wrong with my jumper?"
"Well, it's not as though your sartorial taste has ever skewed towards respectability before -- " Actually, for all that it was imposing, there was a decidedly utilitarian attitude to this getup. This worried him for some reason. "I mean, what about your frills and scarves and waistcoats and question-mark pullovers and cricketing gear and -- well, everything else?"
"Eh." Odd. Usually this was the part where indignation set in. "Less is more. Black is the new everything else."
"Yeah." He grinned, dementedly. "Can do it all in the same load, too."
"You're also a bit . . ."
"Sort of -- well."
"Sort of what?"
"Well . . . "
"Never mind." For some reason, he didn't want to press the subject. "Bacon or sausages? I think there are eggs left -- "
The Doctor, expression now unreadable, crossed the room in three quiet and predatory steps, unheedingly grinding cat excreta into the tile. "Let me get it for you -- "
"No, I can manage -- "
"Here -- "
Somehow he found himself seated at the table while the man (the Doctor) prattled on about blowing up department stores and antiplastic and killer bins and a shopgirl who helped him save the world. "She's the latest one, then?"
"Rose? No. Traveling solo, these days."
Again, that lurking sense of wrongness. "That's a change. Was this before or after you -- " Just then, the kettle started whistling and something about the rising shrill tone and the way the Doctor turned to meet it stopped Alastair from pursuing that line of thought any further.
Other than that, it was a peaceful breakfast. If there is one grace afforded to the aged, it is the ability to dine in the company of familiar strangers.
* * * *
"And you're all right?"
"Oh yes, sir. Could've been worse, what with that boutique across the street, but luckily they didn't get far into the lot before they all seized up again, and I keep the service revolver just in case, you know -- "
"Oh. Your people made it out all right? Any property damage?"
"Well, I'm afraid they did do a number on some of the new Civics, but you remember that hulking great minivan I couldn't give away? Shot to bits." Benton sounded decidedly chipper. "Not so bad as hard cover, I'll give it that."
"Ah." Something black and noiseless swept in from Alastair's right and he started, instinctively reaching for a weapon he hadn't carried in years before registering that the Doctor had just come in from the garden. His smile was the truly psychotic variety that indicated forced cheerfulness. "Insured, are you?"
"On the rest, sir. Not the van. Finally got an excuse to cart it away, now." The unmistakable sound of a teaspoon rattling in a cup on Benton's end was eerily complimented by the Doctor rifling through the silverware drawer with something less than grace. "And you, sir? You're all right?"
He considered telling him who'd turned up, but opted out. "No complaints. Just glad it's over with, to tell you the truth. Geneva's been calling and I keep telling them to defer to Bambera, and then she keeps calling and I tell her to defer to Geneva. I don't know why they bother; not as though Autons comprise anything new or exciting -- "
"Th' midd th'eye infoo gianffththransfmitterf."
"Someone with you, sir?"
"Just the radio. Doris is on holiday in Ireland, you know -- "
"Oh yes? How's she doing?"
"Th' made th' Eye into a gianftth thransfmitterf."
"Well, she called the other night; apparently her sister had a bit of a scare but -- "
"No, not -- sorry. Look, Benton, good of you to call, glad you're all right. I think Doris is trying to get through. Call you back soon -- " He dropped the receiver into the cradle and turned around as quickly as he could still manage to glare at the Doctor. He was fishing onions out of a jar with a corkscrew.
"Do you mind? I was trying to have a conversation -- "
The Doctor -- cheeks bulging like a chipmunk's -- swallowed, his prominent Adam's apple bulging disconcertingly. "They made the Eye into a giant transmitter."
"And that pertinent bit of information couldn't wait until after I had finished talking to Sergeant Benton?"
"'Sergeant'? Thought he was retired."
The Brigadier stared pointedly at the Doctor. After it quickly became evident that this was having no discernible effect whatsoever, he turned his attention to the briny solution that the Time Lord was dribbling on the countertop.
"How is the good Sergeant these days?"
"Why -- and I say this with all due regard -- are you here, Doctor?"
The corkscrew clattered in the jar. "Visiting. Told you."
"You never visit."
"What are you talking about? I visit all the time -- "
Alastair hooked his fingers in his vest. "Again, you seem to be operating outside the normal and understood definition of the word, as I am reasonably certain that 'held hostage on alien worlds' or 'kidnapped by renegade Time Lords' or 'embroiled in ancient feuds between laser-wielding knights' or 'dumped without explanation into convoluted death games where Yeti are chasing us' does not mean the same thing as 'popping around to Lethbridge-Stewart's for a cup of tea and light conversation'."
"I fixed your lawn mower."
"It wasn't broken."
"It was, for a bit. Fixed now."
He never really changed personalities, Alastair reflected darkly. Always the same one, just with the levels adjusted and the contrast tweaked from last time. 'General Destructiveness' always holding steady at ten. "And just how long will I have the pleasure of your company this time, Doctor?"
His guest lazily waved the corkscrew in the air, inadvertently gouging a tear in the wallpaper behind him. "Oh, won't trouble you long. Just thought I'd hang about for a bit, do some light maintenance until Doris gets back -- "
"Doris won't be back for a week."
"Good! Time enough to work on the compost heap."
"There isn't one -- "
"There wasn't one."
Alastair reached for his nitroglycerine pills.
* * * *
and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern s--
He'd thought his eyes were already open, so perhaps he could be forgiven for staring uncomprehendingly at the sunlight that streamed through the window as Dover Beach washed over him.
After the requisite minute had passed (after the announcer gave the time, after the accusing reptile faces receded back into the stuff of dreams), Alastair registered the dull, incessant machine hum coming from outside; a lawnmower? Mere seconds after remembering the Doctor's intentions, he realized that something was vibrating on the duvet as well.
The grey cat glanced over at him, squeezing its eyes shut blissfully.
"Off, you! Off!"
The phrase 'trying to herd cats' he was already familiar with, but trying to get one downstairs and out the door brought him a whole new appreciation for the saying. It managed to get under the bed in the guest room (unused, he noted without surprise) and kept to the tops of bookcases when he'd flushed it out with vacuum cleaner extensions (joints creaking, nearly losing his balance). When he finally got it downstairs, it made a mad dash for the parlor.
Following, Alastair slipped, only just catching himself on an armchair; stupid old man. Green swam all around him.
After his heart decided it was going to behave itself for the moment, he discerned that the cat had jumped out through a window that someone must have opened last night. That same someone was visible at the edge of the lawn, leaning against the mower with a determination better suited to toppling empires than garden maintenance. A steady breeze was blowing in through the window, carrying grass clippings in and flocking the furniture and tables and walls and --
Alastair's heart changed its mind about behaving and he had to sit down on one of the newly-green chairs for a bit.
* * * *
He stared. The void stared back. It was brown and seemed to have currants in it.
"What. Is. This."
The Doctor glanced up with his best expression of wounded innocence. "Something wrong with your breakfast?"
"This is not my breakfast," growled Alastair. "This is roughage."
"Good for your heart. Lowers cholesterol." The Doctor snagged a banana from the centerpiece. "Keeps you regular, probably."
"My cholesterol count is fine."
A snort. "Says you, but who's the Doctor here? -- Go on, eat up."
"I'm not an invalid, Doctor; I'm not having an invalid's porridge."
"That's muesli, not porridge."
"Only on Lapidos. You ever been to -- no, of course not." The Doctor leaned back in the chair, propping a spectacularly muddy shoe against the edge of the table. "Fantastic little green planet. Lapidons look sort of like these huge -- well, all right, not exactly like Muppets, but sort of Muppety-rabbit-type things. They only ever eat this stuff -- " He gestured to the bowl's dubious contents " -- and it adds an easy fifty years onto their lifespan. Fittest crew you'd ever want to meet."
Alastair bristled. "Are you patronizing me?"
The Doctor took a huge bite out of his banana, averting his eyes. "Me? Never." He grinned, yellowly.
"I'm making myself eggs and bacon, thank you -- "
The hurt expression would've gone down a lot more easily if there wasn't a lurking shadow of guilt at the edges of that angular face (the ears, good god the ears). "So I get up early to mow the lawn before fixing you a good hearty breakfast and this is the thanks I get?" The banana peel echoed dully as it tumbled into the sink.
"We don't actually have a disposal there, Doctor."
"Oh. Remind me to fish that out later, then. " The Time Lord unconcernedly reached for some toast.
"Are you Merlin yet?"
The Doctor froze. Again, that spare look -- eyebrows raised, ears seeming to swivel up although of course that was impossible but they were so big, honestly -- "Eh?"
"Merlin. Did you ever get around to that?"
"No. Been busy." The Doctor fumbled with his toast, marmalade falling onto linen like recriminations from heaven. "Things to see, people to do; you know how it is."
"Well, hadn't you better get that out of the way?"
"It's on the To-Do list."
"Ancelyn said something about ice caves. Sooner you get that done and finished, the better."
"I've gone off ice caves, to be honest. Ice is well and good, no problems there; caves . . . well, there's a history with caves, right, but I can just about handle that. But ice caves?" He waved the knife around for emphasis, spattering more marmalade onto the tile. "Overkill."
"Well, it still needs doing."
"Well, I'll get to it."
"Why not now?"
"Because I'm visiting you, Brigadier. Keep up, keep up." He took a triumphant bite out of his soggy toast. "Eat."
Alastair regarded his muesli with mounting despair. Disgusting. No upside in Doris being gone, after all.
* * * *
"That's going to cost him."
"Need giant prawns for that, but those? Mid-sized. Not how you go about it."
"I suppose not."
"He'll start yelling, any second n -- " The Doctor paused, sneezing violently. "S'cuse me! Ugh. Why's it smell of grass in here?"
Alastair found it necessary to fix his attention directly onscreen, where Gordon Ramsay was reducing a line cook to tears. "Can't think why."
"Should open a window."
The Doctor glanced over at him in surprise, then snorted. "So this is how Lethbridge-Stewart gets his kicks these days? Sitting indoors and watching telly? No setting up perimeters? No protective custody of wild-eyed scientists? No 'five rounds rapid, chap with' --"
"I don't do that sort of thing anymore, Doctor."
"What was that line about old soldiers?"
The thing about the Doctor, Alastair reflected in that particular state of reflection that only ever resurfaced when the Doctor was actually present and subsequently impossible to sentimentalize, was that it would be possible to cope with him if only he was just one thing. But no, he had to be a genius and an alien and nigh-immortal and a renegade and just this side of eldritch power garbed in ancient mystery and a petulant four-year-old up long past his bedtime.
"There's this term you seem to have some difficulty grasping, Doctor. 'Retired'."
"Well, still." -- God help him, but those ears. The teeth could have belonged to the one with the scarf, but really -- "Not telling me that the Brigadier stays in these days just to watch people burning a paella."
"I don't. I'm not sure why we're watching this." Other than it had been an attempt at getting the Doctor to go and do something else, but obviously his tolerance for bad programming was higher than it used to be. "Go and fix the TARDIS."
"I said, go fix your infernal machine. The blue one? looks like a police box? out there by the azaleas?" He shifted against the armchair as a terrible something was directed via the Doctor's glare. "I don't want to think what must be leaking out of it; no doubt fouling the water table -- "
"The TARDIS isn't broken!"
"It's always broken."
The Doctor looked hurt, or possibly just indignant, or indignantly hurt. "You honestly think that the only reason I'm sitting here right now is because the TARDIS doesn't work? Which it does, thanks very much?"
"That's always been the case before, so I don't see why you're getting so defensive." Alastair shifted in his (slightly grassy) armchair as a fresh torrent of obscenities sounded on the television. "And, generally speaking, you aren't overly domestic on your best days."
"I made you a roast that one time!"
And that was why we had to remodel the kitchen, he did not say, substituting instead, "Yes, but only because your young McShane had run off and you couldn't very well leave her behind." He adjusted himself in the chair and wondered at the sudden lack of movement off to his side. "Remember? Ace? You travelled with -- "
"Incidentally, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but shouldn't you get some closure on the whole Morgaine issue and just go over to wherever you're supposed to meet her and get all that idiocy out of the way?" Alastair waited for the Doctor to respond, waited some more, and then irritably glanced back over at the other man.
"It's . . . sort of been seen to, really," the Doctor said at length, eyes distant.
"So you did get the whole -- "
"No, I mean -- it's impossible. The Universes, they . . . well. You can't move between them, not anymore." He started brushing grass blades off his slacks, concentrating more than was probably necessary. "So I can't really complete the loop."
"Oh." He wasn't sure what exactly you were supposed to say to that sort of thing. "Well. Doesn't that leave a . . . what-do-you-call-it, time paradox or something open?"
The Doctor crossed his legs and arms, directing his attention to the screen. "Maybe."
"'Maybe'? That seems like an awfully cavalier attitude -- "
"Look," the Doctor snapped, and then instantly subdued his tone of voice, "Look, Time frankly isn't what it used to be. A lot of set events sort of got . . . well, jostled into new configurations and some of the old temporal Universe is sticking and other bits have just fallen away, right, and most of remembered History sort of adheres in a way that you can't go back as a post-Reconfiguration entity to the intermulticausal schism and fix it before it -- " He broke off, scowling out the window. "English doesn't have the right verbs for this."
"That's all right. I don't have a clue what any of it means, anyway."
"No, not good. I still want to know what's been going on -- "
"Look," the Doctor said, not turning around, "as far as you know, nothing has changed. Be grateful."
Alastair cast about him angrily for the remote control, desperate to stifle the sounds of violent cookery. "No. No, that's not enough. Are you seriously saying that the history of the Universe changed and I didn't notice? That's -- that's preposterous. Someone -- I don't care how dense you think the human race is, but I at least would have noticed if people started -- "
Alastair blinked. "What?"
The Doctor still hadn't turned to face him. "Mean anything to you?"
Something fluttered briefly in his line of sight and was gone. Not so soon, surely . . . "No. Japanese, is it?"
"Is it important?"
"No, Brigadier." The Doctor glanced in his direction, unreadable. "Not anymore."
* * * *
The garden -- already budding and green in its usual precocious fashion -- seemed like more and more of a hassle with each successive spring, and yet for all the dizzy spells and lightheadedness and palpitations it was the only thing that could incite him to leave the house with any real enthusiasm.
Waiting until the Doctor was properly occupied with fixing the sink (having forgotten that there was no disposal after having dumped Alastair's illicitly-cooked sausages down with terrible enthusiasm), he gathered his own equipment and walked stiffly to the rose bushes, pausing whenever he felt short of breath. An aged man, Alastair reflected dryly, was a paltry thing; a tattered coat upon a rake.
From the house, the sound of whistling; pipes clanking ominously. Best to move on.
He shooed the grey cat away from the hedges, not that the damned thing seemed to take the hint; how that animal had survived this long without an innate fear of rakes . . . There was something different about the hollyhocks. He'd been reasonably sure that there had been, well, more of them. And that there had been a willow tree somewhere between.
The interesting thing about having the Doctor in your life was that nothing was ever so wonderfully simple as mere senility. A compost heap now sulked just behind the shed, for reasons probably unrelated to universal shifts. Parts of it were decidedly willowy.
There was, of course, the blue box (still) in the azaleas.
He looked up, trying not to remember the opening sequence of that one interminably dull film he'd been assured was a classic. Apes clustering around a looming black shape; one great rectangle dominating the landscape. If enlightenment was to be had by simply reaching out and touching the wooden door . . .
Wouldn't be the first time he'd been in front of it, wondering what the fuss was. Hard to remember if the windows had been lighted, then.
Somewhere from the house, the sound of metal clinking and jets of water and wounded bellowing; possibly a good idea to stay out here for a while longer. He sat down (heavily) on the bench, regarding the box, trying to shake off the vague sensation that it might be regarding him as well; a distant, matronly but fierce mind wrapped in long white corridors and blue wood, so conspicuous by its absence when you stood in the doorway of an empty laboratory and sighed, mourning that pointless and contradictory and maddening twining of purpose and necessity that would endure the long years and never once, ever purport to make sense.
Not unlike the Doctor himself. At what point did UNIT's pet alien become one of the trusted staff; at which point had the chafing irritation and impotent rage subsided enough that he would come back of his own volition, like a stray cat assured of sardines and a radiator?
And why was he here now?
He started. "We don't have a disposal."
"You do now." The man in black plopped himself down on the bench next to Alastair, rivulets of water cascading down the leather in the process. "The old girl been keeping you company?"
"After a fashion -- " He looked up, suddenly perplexed. "When did it get dark?"
"You've been sitting here for nearly two hours, Brigadier."
"Where does the time go, eh." He glanced at the bank of clouds settling over what was left of the setting sun and staunchly refused to let himself go soppy. "Less you have, the faster it leaves."
"Oh, don't say that; after all . . . " The Doctor's voice trailed off and he stood up, wandering a few steps away, hands in coat. The grey cat ambled over to the azaleas, rubbing up against the TARDIS. A bird sang a few warbling and uncertain notes before lapsing back into silence.
"At least tell me that the water pressure's the same. I can't bear it when -- "
Alastair lurched back to his feet, staggering over to the hedge. "Not about this, no. Not yet." He found it necessary to fix his all his attention on a protruding branch. "Still in the early stages, and she'd been planning this trip for a while. She'd never have left if I'd told her."
"Can't blame her." The Doctor shifted his weight from one foot to the other, awkward and earnest. "So . . . when?"
"Oh, soon, but not too soon." He tucked one of the vines back into the mass of hedges. "And before you start, I'm not wasting what's left of my pension and our nest egg on miracle cures or long interminable hospital stays just so I can linger in some assisted living complex, thank you. There's enough for Doris to start her life over again, and I'm keeping it that way. She's got years left."
"So do you."
"No." Alastair turned around, steeling himself to look into the Doctor's eyes. "As you well know."
Somewhere in the dusk, the cat started up with its plaintive wailing; somewhere overhead passed a jet. Behind a black-jacketed shoulder, Jupiter was just clearing the tree line.
"I might have been wrong," the Doctor said at last.
"You weren't. You know that."
"Time's not what it was," he exploded with sudden, inexplicable force. "Don't you see that? Set events aren't; not anymore. We could -- you could cheat it, hell, it wouldn't even be cheating -- "
"Doctor." Alastair responded wearily.
"Come on," the other man said, closing the gap between them in alarming speed, eyes alight, "come on, Brigadier. You can't tell me it isn't calling to you, one last charge for blood and glory -- "
He almost had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. "Since when do you believe in blood or glory?"
"Oh, you know what I mean; one last adventure? One last big trip into the unknown, excitement and adventure and righting wrongs and fantastic sparkling nebulas? Cities made from smoke and song? What about a trip to the end of the world?"
"What about it? I'm a little too fond of this planet to see it end, thank you -- "
"Well, what about history? Haven't you ever wanted to meet Napoleon? See the Great Wall being built? The signing of the Pax Draconia?" The Doctor's voice was either desperate or giddy, or possibly some horrible combination of both. "Dance on the decks of the Lusitania? Watch a hadrosaur migration?"
"Oh, not dinosaurs again -- "
"Brigadier, if you'd just -- "
"What? Get in your magic cabinet for just one adventure, and of course that turns into two adventures, and then there's a miracle cure along the way, some alien doodad with unexpected benefits, and the thing in the Brigadier's skull isn't, and we can pop him back home several apocalypses down the road?"
The cat rubbed up against the TARDIS, then suddenly hissed and bolted off into the dark. The Doctor half-turned away, his features contorted in the dimming light.
Alastair sagged against the rake, trying to keep his balance. It was insultingly difficult. "I've made my peace with all this, Doctor, so stop trying to railroad me into one of your little adventures. Everything has its time and everything dies."
"What do you know about it?"
Soft. Low. Almost dangerous. Another jet passed in the evening sky; the lark sang for its own, inappropriate reasons. Somewhere in the hedges, the cat howled and then was still. The Doctor was not.
"You live this . . . tiny little life, all sequestered away from what really matters, what's really out there, when all around you -- everywhere that your thick little ape mind doesn't think to look -- " The words were coming fast, vicious, unmindful of their destructive capability, like boulders colliding in an avalanche. "You just stand there as though you knew it all, hah, chimpanzees but for a few chromosomes, and you mire yourselves in paperwork and cooking shows and gardening, and entire civilizations, entire star systems wane and burn and die -- "
Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart drew himself up slowly.
"And you have the audacity, the sheer bloody-minded ignorant audacity to talk about things dying as though you knew the first thing, as though -- "
Something wet and strangling happened in the Doctor's throat and the words stopped. The Brigadier found his own.
"I never claimed to have any ultimate universal perspective, Doctor. I am, as you said, only human. And as such -- true -- I only see things through human eyes, and through this century's eyes, and God help me but through eyes that can't see nearly as much as they used to, but that's that."
Jupiter glittered, the cat yowled, the Doctor's shoulders hunched murderously.
"And given how badly some others I could mention turned out when they decided they wanted more than their given share of life, I don't think -- "
The Doctor whirled on his heel, gravel crunching and spraying as he stalked to the TARDIS.
Alastair was halfway back up the path when he heard it dematerializing.
* * * *
the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is
But he did, that was his whole point, he found himself mumbling at the ceiling and the rectangular patch of sunlight as 8:30 arrived with words and weather reports. Lurching out of bed, he noticed there was no blue box in the azaleas. The house and his garden, silent.
He made himself a Full English, or at least as full as could be managed with what was left in the refrigerator. Muesli wasn't that far removed from black pudding, probably. He ate in silence, avoiding glancing over at the sludge-drenched ruins of the sink, telling himself that he wasn't listening for anything. The cat wasn't out this morning.
In the bath, he cursed at having forgotten the paper (of all things) and donned his robe to go back downstairs, wondering where his memory was going and how --
"So I went to the Bahamas."
Alastair blinked, looking down. "Oh? Package tour, was it?"
"Guanahani, the locals called it." Again, the hunched shoulders; again, those incongruous ears. "Little stretch of white beach. Green trees. Bright blue water where you'd see dolphins." His voice had a strange, flat inexorability to it, like a gargoyle trying to tell a bedtime story. "Stuck the TARDIS down in seclusion and just sat in the sand, watching the natives cast their nets. Must've spent weeks like that."
He did seem to be sporting a bit of a tan. "Oh yes?"
"They'd sing to each other from the canoes."
"That's interesting." Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something move past the stone urn and onto the lawn.
"Then one morning there's something on the horizon that wasn't ever there before. Three ships flying Spanish colors."
"Ah." The cat ambled past, looking up at him with its round, olive eyes. "And you warned the natives?"
Alastair regarded his garden for a long weary moment before reaching down for the paper. "I expect you need a cup of tea."
* * * *
"I thought that was working," the Doctor observed tonelessly, glancing at the sink and its patina of filth.
"It was, but then -- oh, never mind." He put the kettle on and then gingerly lowered himself into the opposite chair, wincing slightly as his knee cracked. The Doctor stared out of the window.
Alastair had always maintained that people who rely on the weather for conversational prompts had no inner life worth speaking of, and so he steadfastly managed not to comment on how the plants could do with a spot of rain, soon. "So?"
The Doctor said nothing.
"You were positively on your ear last ni -- three weeks ago or whenever you last visited."
"I never visit," the other man said, focusing on something outside that Alastair didn't see.
His entire career had been spent facing down menaces from outer space and prehistory, and increasingly Alastair was beginning to think he'd chosen that path because it afforded fewer terrors than emotional honesty. "Something's wrong, isn't it."
"Not just with . . . not just with . . . " He honestly wasn't sure if there was a way of saying this gently, or if he was capable of saying it without the world falling away. "Not just with the Universe, but with -- "
"I shouldn't have bothered you."
"I don't mind being bothered, but why are you bothering me now?"
A shrug. "No one else left." Impressively, the Doctor seemed to actually register that what he'd just said could be construed as an insult and added, "No one who can be counted on to stay and to stay the same."
"Thank you. I think." The tea boiled, and he rose (shakily) in relief. "But that still doesn't explain anything."
When he set the cup down in front of the Doctor, he was disturbed to realize that he hadn't looked away from the garden in all this time. "Doctor?"
The Time Lord turned, looked him in the eye, and suddenly all the dizziness was not from standing upright while under the influence of age but from trying to stand still while everything else moved. He sagged against the counter until his breath returned.
"I should tell you something."
Alastair rallied. Finally. "All right -- "
"Only I can't." He turned that steely gaze downwards, regarding his cup. "There's too much. I suppose I could break it down into littler bits and try to put those in order, but that wouldn't make much difference from your perspective, really." He wrapped a calloused hand around it, tracing the rim with his finger. "If I can't explain what Spanish ships mean, I don't know how I'd ever get this out."
"Invent some new verbs, presumably."
The mad smile had a gentler side, if sad. "Yeah."
Alastair guided himself back into his chair, trying to look natural. "If you need to talk, then just talk and don't keep 'fixing' my life, Doctor. I'm more than willing to -- "
The Doctor stood up with alarming speed. "Anyway, I should be off. Things to see, people to do -- "
Alastair wasn't sure if relief or alarm was appropriate at this moment, so he opted for both. "Really? But -- no, what about getting all this sorted out?"
Another shrug. "It's nothing. I've been knocked around enough; I know how to manage."
"Doctor -- "
"No." He drained his cup in one go (wincing slightly) and set it back down with surprising care. "At least, not right now. Later." He clapped his palms together, rocking back on his heels. "Distance and all that. But I should be off, either way -- "
"I'm not sure I'd want you traveling alone, right now." There was a momentary and ill-concealed flash of hope on the Doctor's face, necessitating Alastair's immediate redirection. "What about that girl?"
"The one who helped you save the world." Oh, but there was a list. "Recently. Iris? Violet?"
"Yes, her. Ask her along. Who knows -- "
"She -- " The Doctor folded his arms defensively, leather creaking. "She almost said yes, only her boyfriend -- well, and she had to get back to her mum -- "
Alastair tried to remember if he'd ever heard the Doctor use the word 'mum' in a sense that didn't reference secrecy or floral arrangements. "You told her about the TARDIS, then?"
"Yeah. Seemed like she might've been interested, but it's too late now -- "
He threw up his hands. "You're a time-traveller! Surely you can't have forgotten that in the last five minutes."
The Doctor glowered at him, opened his mouth, closed it, blinked sheepishly. " . . . fair enough."
"There you have it; problem solved." Alastair lurched unsteadily back out of his chair, determined that he would not fall and do something idiotic to his hips. "And by that same token, you've got plenty of your time to spend in the last of mine." He pulled himself up along the counter, letting go only after ascertaining just how wide his feet could be spread without toppling over. "Presumably you'll be in a better state of mind and give me some real explanations as to whatever's going on, although given your track record with that sort of thing I shan't hold my breath."
"I explain things all the time. No one ever listens, that's all."
Hell's bells; he was going to start sulking again. "Have you tried sign language? Apes are fluent in it."
The sudden snort and raucous, idiot laugh nearly propelled him back down. The ears -- very red -- really did sort the rest of that hopelessly awkward face, and something about it set Alastair off; the absurdity of it and of everything else the Doctor brought with him, the pointless but welcome strangeness of it all.
After they'd both regained their breath, the Doctor glanced meaningfully at his empty cup. "One more for the road?"
* * * *
He watched the blue box unmake itself, throwing strange breezes against the trees as it faded away.
The long journey back to the house would happen soon enough, and then a call to Doris, and putting things in order, but on the off-chance that it might come back with the same man in the same jumper, he waited deferentially for the better part of a minute, waiting on the bench, watching his garden in the pale morning light, breathing.
It didn't return; the world was probably ending somewhere. Here at least there was time enough -- whatever some people might say -- for all things past and passing, and to come.
"I expect you'd like an anchovy," he said to the cat.