The evening air is rich and warm, and settles over the Doctor’s shoulders like a well-loved old blanket. The gardens are just as he remembers them, a vision of vibrant green. Somewhere a turkey gobbles.
It’s good place to rest, to gather his energies before one last journey. His bones are so brittle, his limbs so weak and unsteady that a part of him longs for it to be over; most of him is grateful that he has found a reason to run one more time. Not that Ben and Polly aren’t excellent young people of course, but whether they run into the grotesque or wondrous, they never fail to be so very excitable at what the universe has to offer them, and he needs a moment, just a moment, to be still.
When he finds Cameca, she is older, perhaps even more beautiful. The silver in her hair shines as it catches the last rays of the sun and she smiles at him. Though he would never admit it, he feels a rush of relief.
“You lied to me,” Cameca says, though there’s no malice in her voice.
He bows his head, repentant. “I made a mistake.” He remembers their parting and his ardent conviction that he would never see her again. He thinks of the granddaughter he promised to go back to and of a world he promised never to return to.
“One of many, no doubt,” she says and allows him to take her arm in his. They walk, a gentle stroll, and it is as though the intervening years are dust. Her skin is soft and warm under his rough, callused hands. He can feel the beat of her pulse beneath his fingers, still strong and steady.
She is alive, gloriously so, and he is dying.
“The field is sown, the crop grows and is tended to before it is harvested and another takes its place. That is the way of things,” Cameca says, so calm and steady that the Doctor realises he’s been trying to make her angry and immediately feels foolish.
He hasn’t told her why he’s here, not exactly. Instead he’s hinted at the future of her own people, the one she’s already sensed coming. He doesn’t want to speak of death; he can think of nothing else to say.
He stabs at the ground with his cane. “That doesn’t mean the new crop is any better than the old one.”
“I did not make a moral judgement, my love. I only say what I have seen, and I have lived for many years. We rule now, but it was not always so and it will end; no mortal kingdom is eternal.”
“I’ve lived a long time too, Cameca, and where I come from nothing changes. Grandchildren live as their grandparents did, as their grandparents did before them, back into time immemorial.”
She is silent a long moment, and then she asks, “Are your people cursed?”
He thinks of a story two millennia and ten thousand miles away, of Sisyphus doomed to roll a boulder up the same hill every day only to have it roll back down again, and each day he must begin his task anew. His punishment for displeasing his gods; his punishment for trying to cheat death.
Gallifrey had gods once.
The next morning Cameca returns from her prayers to find him pacing the gardens. She sits on a nearby stone bench and waits for him to join her. By the time he sits down, his eyes have given away the source of his consternation.
“You are uncomfortable with faith.”
He frowns. His eyes stray to the bench’s ornamentation, the head of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Snake, but he quickly looks away again. “You object to Quetzalcoatl?” she says, raising an eyebrow. “You, who so value knowledge and learning, object to the one who has brought us books?”
“I prefer rational explanations.”
“And when there are none?”
“There is always a rational explanation. Even when one cannot find it, it exists. It must.”
“You are an arrogant man.”
He looks at down at his hands, tries not to notice the liver spots. “Yes,” he agrees.
“You tire of these gardens. You should not stay on my account.”
“If I left, I’d want you to come with me.”
She shakes her head. “No. I think there would be no place for an old woman who trusts in her gods in your world.”
Anger flashes in his eyes. “I’d make one then.”
She laughs. “If I wanted one, surely it is for me to make?”
She holds up a hand. “Let us travel in my world instead. I would like to see Tenochititlan and offer my prayers in its great temples. Will you come?”
The days are long and peaceful; time seems to slow. They travel north, on the finest roads the world has seen since Rome fell, and the Doctor is delighted to find there are places to stop and rest every few hours of their journey. “Most thoughtful,” he says to Cameca. “Really very thoughtful.”
He does not like to sleep. Inevitably his thoughts turn to his future. He has not died before; he doesn’t want to. There are still so many new things, so much unseen and undiscovered and if only this were not so soon, so very soon...he wants to feel satisfied with life before he must face his first death. He is young, only his body is old but he has asked so much of it through the centuries that now he will demand only a little more, only this time and place.
One morning, they find snake slithering across the road, and its half shed skin shocks the Doctor to stillness. Inwardly, he scolds himself for being a foolish old man, jumping at his own shadow.
Cameca grasps his hand. “It is not poisonous,” she says. He hmphs and smiles and does his best to put it out of his mind.
In the great capital of the Aztec Empire, the Doctor shares hot chocolate with Cameca again, and this time he knows exactly what it means. While Cameca makes her offerings in the temples, he wanders through the great marketplaces and finds he has a talent for patolli. By the time Cameca returns he’s won half a dozen turkeys, a fantastic assortment of gem stones and an avocado farm.
“Xochipilli smiles on you,” she says. He shrugs easily. The incense and prayers offered before each game means nothing to him, just a silly part of the rules, nothing more. A harmless religious practice. He tries not to think of where Cameca has been. He knows it is Toxcatl, the festival of drought and renewal, and that only birds are sacrificed to the gods for now, but even that sends a shudder through him.
They follow the coastal road home.
One evening, he looks out over the Caribbean Sea and senses CortÚs on the waves. Cameca stands next to him and as the winds pick up her hand slips into his. The pressure of her fingers is slight, but enough for him to know her fear. “The breath of Atlacamani,” she says. “She brings the storms from the oceans.”
Cameca shivers and he takes off his jacket, puts it over her shoulders.
“My time grows short,” she says. “I will not have a warrior’s death, my love — my spirit will travel to Mictlan. It is a great long journey, but I am not afraid. If you are not taken in battle, look for me there.”
It frightens him, how quickly she fades away: one moment so vivacious, so strong, the next so quiet and still. He hasn’t seen a human die this way before, slipping quietly into the night. He doesn’t like it: there’s nothing here for him to fight, nothing for his anger to lash out at.
He sits, feigning serenity, and discovers how hard it is to do nothing at all.
Her hand holds his, or his hers. It doesn’t matter, not until he feels her fingers go slack. His breath catches in his throat. He holds it, but hears nothing. Her eyes are closed and she is still and silent and dead.
He watches her for a long time knowing that soon, in his own way, he’ll join her.
He stays for the funeral rites. He has not yet learnt to be afraid of goodbyes.
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