The sky was blue and clear.
It was all about the sky, she had decided.
We all turn to it when things are at their worst: wanting to fly off into it, up and away, or expecting someone to fall out of it, and save us.
And the stars, of course. The stars you couldn’t see behind that vast infinite blue and blinding sun.
Yet they were still there, watching, even when we can’t see them.
Or so she hoped. She turned away from the window with a sigh and sat down heavily at her dining room table.
And sighed again, savoring the heavy release... there seemed to be little else to do lately. Sighing, while not productive, did take up a bit of time and space.
She was sighing so much because, well. Because she could, really.
Professor Bernice Summerfield had retired.
She’d left work a year earlier than she’d informed her employers, but after all these years of saving the universe, she’d felt she was due. Not that she’d put that exact phrase that in her resignation letter. Not that she’d written a letter. In fact, there had been a stormy bit of door-slamming action when she’d left. The fact that she was still receiving two hundred emails a day from fresher archaeological students expecting her to grade their exams was a telling sign that her former employers were not accepting her resignation sitting down. The additional fact that she’d retired in northern England in the early middle bit of the 20th century and was still receiving these emails on her palmtop was also telling. Braxiatel, obviously, was not thrilled about her spontaneous retirement.
That was the problem with working for Time Lords… they had a nasty habit of tracking you down, no matter when you were.
And not that getting here hadn’t been a challenge; old Brax certainly hadn’t been of any help.
Not many people, however, or Also people for that matter, could claim to have God on speed dial. Bernice had stuck a deal with the shiny, yellow smiley face of the super computer of the Worldsphere in order to set up a retirement nest in this quaint time and place: not too early in history to be without a long, bubble-filled bath for a relaxing soak, and not too late to worry about all those nasty wars and fiddly nuclear accidents.
The little two-story cottage nestled at the edge of Durham proper was, as she’d hoped, the perfect place to write her latest autobiography. Plenty of quiet, plenty of long winter nights and oodles of lazy, summer days. Just the place to compose her thoughts and just enough space that she didn’t have to clean too much: a kitchen just small enough that it _looked_ as if you could prepare food there, if you wanted to (not that Bernice had the slightest clue how), and a tiny sitting room with just enough furniture for Wolsey to shred with his claws.
Wolsey, her beloved tabby, was, it must be said, the crux of the problem.
And, if Benny were being achingly, gut-wrenchingly honest, her cat was the actual reason for her retirement.
Benny had gotten Wolsey from a friend of a friend who may, or may not, have been a particularly irritating, lovable, smug and occasionally a bit of a git of a Lord of Time- depending on which version of her autobiography she eventually submitted to her editors. But that had been ages ago, when she was in her mid-, well, when she was in her late-… suffice to say, that the cat in question had been given to her quite some time ago, and was certainly older than any normal cat could expect to reasonably be.
Benice cupped a steaming glass of hot chocolate, comfortably laced with some rum and lashings of cream, as she stared at her plump, furry friend who was sleeping peacefully on the little quilt she’d scrunched up into a cat-bed in the wooden chair by the window. They’d both travelled through time and space together for many years, and she wondered what little TARDIS nanites might be coursing through Wolsey’s veins, or her own for that matter; nanites that kept him fit, alive and purring, every morning reliably craving tins of tuna that she’d smuggled into this time zone for him.
She’d come here to live the rest of her life in peace, and to tie up all those loose ends before… well, best not to dwell, really.
Sunlight streamed in from the cracked window, sparking the afternoon light into shifting strips and fractures that clung to the motes of dust that drifted lazily through the air. The illusion of warmth was misleading, however, as outside their snug abode a thick blanket of snow chilled the frozen December ground. It was coming on Christmas, the eve in fact, and Bernice, in her attempt to be both festive and remain inconspicuous with the locals, had strung up some garland and a thick bushy wreath that hung on the front door. Her attempts at festivity had drained away quickly though, as day after day, her little kitty moved ever slower has he padded across the wooden floor boards. He couldn’t manage the short leap up to the quilt-nest anymore and sat at the foot of the chair, meowing pityingly until Bernice could come and lift him up into it.
Picking him up, Bernice often felt groans and aches flashing through her own body, which was also disturbing, but not, she knew, a trouble for now. There would be time for that later. Lots of time, she hoped.
It was Wolsey she was really worried about. She knew somehow, that her little friend had very little time left.
Right now, what she needed was a vet. Or…
An envelope sat in front of her on the top of the kitchen table. She’d been staring at it for more than an hour, wondering if her plan was too simple to work. Roz, in an attempt to be rescued from the 19th century, had shot a young Abraham Lincoln in order to get attention; the one snag she’d hit was that it was the wrong Abraham Lincoln. Bernice hoped that this approach was more a little subtle; but it was all terribly reliant on the Royal Mail.
She had the sinking feeling that it would wind up in a large pile smothered by the weight of letters addressed to God, Father Christmas, or, presumably even Satan… there had to be some of those out there. Bernice tried not to be deicist.
On the envelope was a single word: The Doctor.
Well, two words, technically, but ‘the’ never counted in any of her essays growing up, so it didn’t count now. No need to lessen the drama by including definite articles if she didn’t have to, she reasoned.
On the inside she’d written: Come quickly. Benny S. S. 1924, Durham, Thistletwitchberry Cottage, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha: We Need you.
She didn’t really expect this to work.
Nonetheless, once her tea grew cold, Bernice pulled on her boots, snuggled into her coat and stepped briskly out the door and into the cold, gusting winds and pressed on to the village post office.
It was only upon her return, as she opened her front door and spied a strange, thin, man sitting in her lounge chair that she realized she should have been a bit more specific in her note about _which_ Doctor she wanted.
Still, taking in his long hair, bright eyes, crazy smile and dastardly handsome good looks, she couldn’t help that she’d traded up this time… She paused though, taking a moment: she’d been fooled by a ‘Doctor from another time/regeneration’ before who’d tried to kill her, but she saw the hefty blue mass of the TARDIS humming quietly in the corner next to her grandfather clock and knew that this was the real thing. After so many years…
She wasn’t expecting the hug though, or being spun merrily round in the air, or the joyful whoops of “BERNICE!!!!! BENNY!!!! PROFESSOR SUMMERFIELD! HOW ARE YOU?”
She’d never before encountered an incarnation with such a love of capital letters. Or hugging for that matter. In all those years of wanting her Doctor, all removed in his crumbled, rumpled cream suit and rounded Scottish vowels, to be tactile she felt a bit overwhelmed at the sudden deluge of physical affection. She carefully pried herself out of his embrace and took a step backwards, fumbling with removing her coat as an excuse.
When she wrote about this moment later in her journal, she’d make sure to include some witty greeting, but she was too taken aback in the actual moment to be able to find anything to say. Postit notes were primarily responsible for elevating most of her books into the top ten best seller lists in the Five Galaxies.
“I’m fine,” she began hurriedly, “I’m fine, and it is lovely to see you… um…” she broke off as she unwound her scarf. She shook the snowflakes off her wet fringe and took in the sight of him. It struck her how relieved she really was to see him, that there was this spark this hope that leapt alight, and that maybe everything really was going to work out after all. It was a glow that he seemed to carry about him, in any body. There was lump in her throat that made it difficult to remember how to swallow. “Ah… um…Regeneration?” she asked, hoping it wasn’t some sort of Gallifreyan faux paux to ask.
“Ninth!” He exclaimed before launching back into her chair once more. “Well, pretty sure anyway. Too much dimension hopping and the like, can’t always be 100% on that. I started a diary once to keep track, only to find there were seventeen different versions lying around my bedside. It says ‘ninth’ on my TARDIS Pilot’s license, so that’s what I’m sticking with. So, tell me, how goes all things archaeological?”
I’m too old for that now, she didn’t say. It seemed silly to complain to someone who was over nine hundred years old about turning sixty-seven. She didn’t mention all the requests she’d turn down, all the digs, all the research expeditions she’d backed out of, all the papers she’d left half-finished in her desk. She didn’t mention that she was simply too tired for it all anymore. She said, ‘Same old mess, same old drama,” and hoped he wouldn’t press the topic any further. Instead, she tried to turn the conversation back to the reason she’d asked for his help. “Doctor. It’s…” She didn’t quite know how to say it. Wolsey had been his cat. Had been Joan Redfern’s cat. Had been a gift from her of their… after… after they’d said goodbye… and he died.
“What is it, what’s going on? Invasion? Meteorite? Time Benders? Slitheen?”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Bernice sighed, “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore. And I certainly don’t do Slitheen, Doctor, I do have some standards. I’d just tip off the Intergalactic Revenue Service and let them deal with it. No, Doctor, it’s nothing like that. It’s about Wolsey.”
“Wolsey?” The Doctor blinked and fluttered his fingers in absent confusion, as if trying to remember where he’d placed his hat. If he wore hats these days.
Benny tilted her head towards the corner with its sunbeams, quilts and bundle of fur.
“Oh! Wolsey. Oh. The cat.” The Doctor seemed to deflate somehow, as if the idea was too small, too inconsequential. As if it were something he wanted to avoid.
This wasn’t the reaction Benny had expected.
She moved over and began to stroke the cat awake. The fact that he’d managed to sleep through both the arrival of the TARDIS and the Doctor’s antics was not an encouraging sign. Wolsey stirred at her touch, stretching out and starting to yawn, but midway through he seemed to grow tired from the effort of it all and slumped slack against the quilted folds, breathing in long, audible sighs. The Doctor stepped closer, but remained at a distance, his body language obvious, although odd. She hadn’t expected a new Doctor to not be a cat person. She shook her head; the Universe could be such a strange place, the Doctor even more so. “I think he’s dying, Doctor. Is there anything you can do for him?”
“I’m not really… I’m not really that kind of doctor… speaking of multiple diaries…” He did step closer though, kneeling to Wolsey’s eye height to scratch his chin. “Hello Wolsey, hullo old fella. How you doin’?”
The slumbering cat opened his eyes for a moment, their dull orbs widening at the strange sight of the man beside him, his little pink nostrils twitching and sniffing. But only for a moment. Soon, Wolsey drifted off once more.
“Is he in any pain?” The Doctor asked straightening up.
“I… I don’t really know. He sleeps a lot, can’t move much, I hope, I hope not…” Bernice was at a loss. She assumed he’d have the answers.
“He’s just old.” We both are.
“There’s nothing I can do. Benny, I’m sorry, but we can’t all regenerate.”
Bernice didn’t know what she’d wanted him to say, what she’d wanted him to do, but it wasn’t this.
This wasn’t the Doctor she wanted. It was the wrong one.
She watched him stroke the cat’s exposed belly, tracing a peculiar, lazy circle, trailing his fingers slowly through the soft fur. The movement was odd, unnatural, like watching someone trying to match another person’s signature.
It was then that she noticed that Wolsey’s little breaths had stopped and his chest was still.
The Doctor put a hand on her arm. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing more we can do.”
And Benny knew that Wolsey was gone.
And suddenly the house seemed terribly cold and desperately empty.
The Doctor held her, wrapped his arms around her and let her cry.
She’d lost so much, had so many people taken from her: Jan, Guy, Jason, Roz, Cwej… she’d felt so much pain, and each time she thought she’d grown colder, more detached, and yet was constantly surprised how much it hurt, every time, as if it were the first time. Each loss, each loss sliced brutally into her heart. Just as deep.
She wasn’t sure how long he held her. There was tea, lots of tea, and biscuits. And whiskey. She kept her eyes averted from Wolsey’s slight form that the Doctor’d covered with the quilt. There was a lot of hugging, and even though she wasn’t really the hugging sort of person, she didn’t really care, because she was still crying, and Wolsey had just been a cat, just a silly pet, but she felt so alone again, and now that’d he’d left her, her companion through so much, she felt so much closer to- so much nearer to the end.
The Doctor helped though. They talked. And Benny, all sorts of a wreck and vulnerable, talked about everything, let it all pour out, spilling on to the table and against his shoulder. About all sorts of things. About meeting him, the other him, the younger him, about Ace, about her first love, how much she’d hated him when he’d murdered Jan, about her first time out on her own as an archaeologist when she’d faked her credentials, landed at her first dig, stepped out of the landing pod and slipped straight off a cliff, breaking both knees, and spending the next two weeks crawling in agony, living off maggots, trying to find help. She’d lost all her gear that time, even her very first trowel. She couldn’t remember if she’d ever told him any of this in their time together all those years ago, or all of it twice, or three times.
It just seemed to fill the vast empty space that dwelt in the darkness between sunset and morning. Between grieving and the horrible calmness of acceptance.
She fell asleep before she knew it: too much whiskey, too much weeping and too much sighing. He left in the night, like she knew he would. He didn’t say good bye, but he was never any good at those. In the half-dreary thickness of sleep she heard the TARDIS dematerialize. Which was a good thing, because she didn’t want anyone to see her like this.
Blinking in the morning light though, she thought she heard the sound of the TARDIS’ engines again, but lying nestled under a blanket in her sitting room there was nothing but silence and empty space.
She lay there for a very long time.
It was like having a hangover, but magnified a thousand times.
The light was especially painful.
She winced. And groaned. And stumbled over to the window to draw the curtains. And walked face first into a Christmas tree.
Benny landed on her backside with an undignified thump.
A Christmas tree that had not been there the night before. Fully decorated with baubles and tinsel and a shining star on top.
Oh. Benny blinked. Yeah. Christmas day.
She’d forgotten, of course.
Trust the Doctor to bring a bloody tree inside her house. He’d never stay around long enough to have to sweep up all the fallen needles off the floor.
Benny reached up from the floor to draw the curtains.
It was only then that she noticed the light wasn’t coming from the window.
She was face to face with Wolsey’s covered form… which was glowing.
Excerpt from the Journal of Professor Bernice Summerfield
I have seen many, many, strange things in my life, most of which I’m sure I should be attending daily therapy sessions for. Still, despite having faced down demons, gods and invading fungus, I’ll admit, dear reader, that my hand still shook that morning as I drew back the edge of the quilt, perhaps not with fear, but with disbelief.
Underneath the warm fabric, Wolsey’s fur was shining, shifting, golden, iridescent… changing.
The golden light shifted and shimmered, before fading to leave only… folded ears, and mottled orange and brown fur.
The rest of the day, my jaw ached from how far it dropped when I first stared in amazement at my cat. My new cat.
Oh, no it isn’t. It can’t be.
‘Oh, yes I am.’ The cat’s eyes seemed to say, despite their different color, the different fur, I knew that look anywhere. But it couldn’t be…
The face was odd, with the tucked ears and wide circular eyes, more like an owl than a cat.
Wolsey, the new Wolsey, sat up and stretched, long and luxuriously, pausing to sniff my startled nose before leaping spryly down, trotting across the floor and looking expectantly at his supper dish.
It was at this moment that I expected a film crew to pop out from behind the tree and the studio audience would be revealed.
Nothing happened however. Wolsey meowed, his tone beginning to sound, just a bit, bitchy.
Later, I looked up Wolsey’s new breed in the village library I found a sketch and description that matched this new feline form. The entry read:
Which, somehow, didn’t really surprise me in the least.
Now though, still sitting on the floor, staring at the sauntering, nay perky, rear end of my old friend as he stomped impatiently around the house, I finally noticed that there was a whopping great present under the tree. It was a small box, wrapped in shiny metallic red paper and a massive, blue ribbon full of gentle loops that quivered in my still shaking hands. Slipping the trappings away, and under a mass of delicately wrapped tissue paper, I found a shiny new trowel.
It was only when I turned it over that I noticed its engraving of ‘B.S.S.’: the shaky, hesitant engraving I’d made on the trowel at the age of 19.
I’ll admit I swore rather loudly, which I’m betting Miss Manners would frown upon when sitting underneath a Christmas tree.
After all these years, he’d still managed to surprise me.
And Surprise was my middle name. Literally.
I think I’d have been more annoyed about it really, if I hadn’t been so gob smacked.
There was a note attached, scrawled on paisley stationary. It was enough, somehow, to hear his voice, his old voice, in my head, when I read the note written within:
Sorry I haven’t been in touch of late; what do you think of the new one? Bit too much OTT for my tastes. Still, he did track me down and told me about Wolsey. I’d stay longer to say hello, but right now you’re asleep in your room- we’ve only just left Guernsey. Did some research in the databanks of Wolsey’s old prowling routes. Discovered he spent most of his quality napping hours inside the TARDIS’s chameleon circuits… anything for a warm bed I suppose. There’s probably enough artron energy in one of his hairballs alone to keep him purring through at least another eight more regenerations; just needed to give him a little push to get the process started. Take care of him for me, and try not to let him gain so much weight next time. Little less tuna this time round, I think.
Found the enclosed artifact in a forest on Capella Four. Try to be more careful with your equipment next time, you’re going to be needing it!
P.S. Not everyone can regenerate, but you’ve still got lots left to do. Trust me, I’ve read your autobiography- you don’t even finish writing it for another twenty years.
P.P.S. Get off the floor. The Universe is waiting.
P.P.P.S. Merry Christmas. ”