He locks the door behind him.
"It's me," he calls out along the hallway, soundwaves bouncing off floral-print wallpaper until they reach the sitting-room. He makes use of the hatstand, places the umbrella by the door carefully, in case water gets into the carpet.
"Who else would it be unannounced? You know, some people phone before they visit." She's sitting in the one comfortable chair, white terrier lazing at her feet and monopolizing the fireplace. The house is all electric these days, because he worries about her. He also worries about the cigarette smoke and the ashtrays, but she's as stubborn as he is when she wants to be. He can sort these things out anyway, if he has to. Isn't that what he does?
"Takes away the surprise." He makes a conscious effort to look like he knows that he's wrong and she is, as ever, right. He stands, looking as awkward as he feels he can get away with.
"Oh, will just you sit down? You're hovering. You know hate it when you hover," but she smiles and a light dances in her eyes.
He sits on the couch, which is older than it looks, shooing one of the cats out of the way as he does so. It glares at him as only cats can, fur rising along its back. But it's tame enough and smart enough not to start something, and it leaps over the back of the settee to skulk around in the kitchen looking shifty.
He sighs, because he wants the house to like him and he can feel the cat's anxiety lingering on the settee. He worries about osmosis.
"She's just not used to you yet. She'll be fine next time."
"I don't think I'm used to me yet."
She gives him the concerned look, eyebrows closing in on each other. He wonders if she's going to say something about star signs.
She doesn't. She draws in a deep breath, leans heavily on the arms of the chair and levers herself to her feet. He reaches out and helps her without thinking about it.
"You're not as young as I used to be," he jokes for her dignity.
"That's a terrible joke, son," but she smiles anyway. "Tea?"
He nods, staying in the room that doesn't contain the cat. She isn't as slow as he remembers, which is good. He stands, unsure of himself without her in the room.
He can hear the tap running to fill the kettle.
The room is as large as it needs to be, which is small. Every space has a flat surface filling it - tables, cabinets, bookcases - and shelves of various styles and sizes cover the walls. She hoards things.
The specific sound of a plug going into a socket. The click of the switch.
The surfaces are covered with souvenirs from mundane places like Blackpool and Fort William. Coloured sand in a slender glass bottle, "A Gift From Torbay". She arranges them geographically, so that the most exotic items are placed furthest from her post at the fireside. This, she says, keeps them special, makes her feel like she's going on a visit.
Boiling water raging as the plastic around it stays defiantly cool to the touch. (The kettle is cheating, he knows, but he worries, and it's a small thing.)
In the furthest corner of the room is a rock from a meteor crater in New Zealand. He works out the scale in his head and knows that he could bring her gifts she'd have to place on the moon. He smiles though the idea makes him sad. Anyway, that would be cheating.
The kettle switches itself off twenty years before it should be able to.
She likes clocks. They sit among the tourism, ticking their way to an uncertain end. The nearest one is shaped like a cat. He bought it for her in Stirling, when they went to see the castle for the fifteenth time. He hated the place, because he could remember the sieges, but she didn't and he never mentioned it so they ate the sandwiches and drank the tea from the thermos and everything was fine.
Water pouring into cups, a spoon clinking against ceramic.
The rain runs down the windows, turning Glasgow grey. The tower blocks haven't taken over yet, and he can see the University turning an overcast sky and rain-soaked tenements into a gothic landscape painting. Architecture hasn't reached the glass-and-steel confidence that will later take the city as its own, but it looks good enough. It always looks good from here.
He turns from the window, takes the teacup and sits down again carefully. She gets upset when things are spilt, takes everything as an omen.
They say that she has second sight. She reads tea leaves and palms for her neighbours, predicts the sex of unborn children. She is never, say the hushed tones, wrong.
He knows that this is idle talk, that there is nothing mysterious or mythical about her. She is ordinary. She is unremarkable. He could, were things different, pass her in the street without a second glance. She is, in short, the sort of person he takes all his risks for. He thinks about that for a moment, wondering if it means something.
"So, what have you been up to, then?"
He looks at his mother, deciding what to leave out. "The usual."
The usual; narrowly avoiding getting himself killed for people on faraway worlds, about whom she knows nothing. Being a freelance saviour for the oppressed, healing galaxies and annoying tyrants. Trying to get Ace not to blow things up before it becomes absolutely necessary. He tries to summon the things that won't scare her.
"I worry about you." Her voice is quiet, serious.
"I worry about you too."
"You know where I am. And you know more about my health than I do myself. You know that if anything happens your sister has a key and knows how to cope in a crisis. You know that I'm not in the middle of a battlefield somewhere, trying to face down armies with bad jokes and the hope that everyone wants peace as much as I do."
"It's not like that. I know what I'm doing, Mum." Usually. Sometimes. On occasion.
She sighs and sips her tea. She puts too much sugar in it.
"I worry." End of discussion, pick a new topic.
She is, he thinks, formidable. He wonders what would happen to the universe if dictators could silence him the way his mother does, if monsters could assume the same effortless control.
But they, of course, don't think that he has a mother. She is safe, because he can be the great mystery, the wanderer of no certain origin. He can throw around Gallifrey, because it has defensive shielding and weaponry that could destory centuries. Besides, it makes him sounds impressive.
He is one of Them. The ones who don't get involved because quite frankly it wouldn't be fair. It probably feels like someone's broken the rules when he shows up (well, he has broken them, the complainants are right).
He wonders, as his mother starts to gossip about Mrs Cameron from number 15, what the monsters thought of him. Surely in all this time someone must have realised that he had to have come from somewhere? Every tsunami, every hurricane starts at some point. A beginning, a middle and and end.
What did they think? Was there someone out there, patiently putting together all the little clues, working out a vague biography of the man who liberated star systems? Had anyone thought beyond the myth and wondered exactly who and what they were dealing with? Didn't it raise any eyebrows that he had no real identity? The thing about nomads is that they live in tribes. They always know where they are and where they're going, because they travel with the tribe. Didn't anyone ever wonder about his tribe?
But here he sits, a million miles from the people with the most to gain from knowing where he is right now. He could sit here drinking tea with too much sugar in it and almost believe that spaceships landing in playgrounds was an absurd idea.
Surprising, actually, that it should be that way. Surely by now the adventures should seem prosaic and sitting in a tenement drinking tea should feel odd. You can cross the same bridge twice, if you concentrate hard enough.
So they sit and they chatter and they gossip and the clock-hands tick and all too soon it is time to go. She produces a pot of strawberry jam that she won at the bingo and refuses to eat because it isn't marmalade and he takes it and thanks her and slips it into a pocket for later rediscovery.
And temporary good-byes are said and he promises that yes, he'll bring milk next time, a pint in a glass bottle because that's how it's sold these days.
A cat appears and rubs against his leg as he unlocks the door. He reaches down and rubs it just behind the ear and it purrs and he feels like he belongs.
He finds Ace sitting cross-legged on the concrete, leaning back against the tall blue box of tricks. She holds a small grey stone in one hand, with which she has been scratching noughts and crosses into the pavement. She looks anachronistic, as always. She looks up at his footsteps, grins and bounces to her feet with the thoughtless agility of the young.
"You took your time."
"What have I told you about patience, Ace?"
"It stops you getting on with things."
"I said that?" He frowns and she nods and everything seems slightly confusing for the briefest moment. Then he shakes his head to clear it and smiles at his protegee; "That was very insightful of me." He places the key in the lock, the door trembles slightly under his touch; welcome home.
Ace is looking at him expectantly as the lock clicks and the door swings inwards and open. "Where were you?"
"Visiting who?" Persistent, impatient, never knowing when to let things be - all the best qualities, he thinks.
His eyes sparkle and he brings out the enigmatic smile. He hears his mother's accent in the words; "The origin of the species."
Ace rolls her eyes and resigns herself to another mystery. She follows him through the door and out of time.
And three floors up and two doors along, an Earth woman gets up from her chair to feed the cats.