Alex smiled as he stepped into the TARDIS, as always feeling the welcome buzz of its ancient power seep into him. He was going home, and everything was good.
Uncle - busy with reversing the journey he’d just made - shot him a wide, and somewhat concerned, smile. “So, why the early departure? Did you eat too much Christmas Pudding?”
Alex turned to look at Mum, and saw that she hesitated. It was only a very small hesitation, but Uncle noticed.
“Lucy?” he asked, hands stilling, and - as she didn’t answer - slowly flipped the lever that took them into the vortex, and then parked. “What happened?”
His mother carefully made her way to the fraying seat, sat down daintily, and then relayed the whole story. Alex took a deep breath and prepared himself for the thorough telling off that would surely follow.
But his Uncle didn’t yell or shout - nor did he drag his hands through his hair or any of the other things he usually did when he got angry or exasperated.
Instead, he went completely still - more still than Alex could ever remember. Then slowly, he turned to look at Alex, and his eyes were as dark and old as a dying star.
“He says he’s not sorry,” his mother added, looking from one to the other, her face suddenly worried, and Alex could tell that his Uncle was waiting for him to contradict this. But he remembered the insult, and held onto his anger and his silence. He’d never be sorry.
“Go to your room,” Uncle finally said, voice flat and emotionless.
Alex opened his mouth, but a swift barely-seen flicker of something in his Uncle’s eyes made him swallow his protest and walk away silently.
Walking down the first stairway, he heard a familiar squeal, and Leia appeared from wherever she’d been exploring, excitedly landing on his shoulder like a small leathery bomb and nudging him with her beak.
Her presence didn’t cheer him, though... If only he didn’t have to live in this stupid, backwards century, he could show off his pteradon properly, not keep her hidden here - he was tired of keeping secrets all the time, tired of always having to pretend to be less than he was.
Stupid Geoffrey, it was all his fault! If only Alex could lock him up with Dad for five minutes... Although even five seconds would be more than enough, he thought grimly.
Three corridors and two stairways later, he flopped down on this bed miserably - there was hardly anything to do here, the room being nothing more than a place to crash when Uncle took him out on adventures. Leia, realising that he didn’t have any treats, flew off to her nest, and he was all alone again.
It wasn’t long, however, before there were footsteps outside his door, and then Uncle came in - still far too quiet.
For a long moment, he just studied Alex, and Alex wondered how he could look so immovable. Dad had once told him that the Daleks had called Uncle ‘the Oncoming Storm’. Alex didn’t think this was very fitting - Uncle was more like a giant obstacle that you couldn’t get over, and you couldn’t get under, and you couldn’t go round, and you couldn’t go through...
“What do you know about Sontarans?”
Alex blinked, but he was used to his Uncle’s odd, sideways way of thinking, and only took a moment to answer. “They... they did the ATMOS thing five years ago. And they’re fighting the Rutans.”
His Uncle nodded. “Very good. By now - relatively speaking - how long have they been fighting for?”
Alex thought carefully. “Fifty thousand years?”
“Excellent. In total, the war will run just shy of 80,000 years.” Walking forward, he switched on the built-in screen and pulled out the chair in front of the keyboard. “You are going to learn the whole of the history of that war. I want you to be able to name every major battle, both chronologically and alphabetically - in English, Gallifreyan, Sontaran and Rutan reckoning.”
He tapped a few keys, and the screen sprang to life, information swirling and expanding, as Alex stared in horror. It was Christmas. Holidays. That meant no studying. The unfairness was too staggering for him to grasp. “Let me know when you’re done.”
His Uncle turned to walk out, but as his hand was on the door handle, Alex called out. “Uncle!”
He turned, silently waiting. Alexander didn’t know how to deal with this at all - he wanted to scream that Uncle was stupid and mean, but he had a feeling that it’d make no difference whatsoever. Biting his lip, he searched for something to say. “Can I... can I still go to Josh’s tomorrow?”
A small, soft smile curled the corner of his Uncle’s mouth. “Of course.” And then he left.
Alex sat looking at the door for a long time. ‘Tomorrow’ really had no meaning here. ‘Tomorrow’ would come only when his Uncle allowed it to - Boxing Day could be endless, literally.
Eighty thousand years of military history... If there was a worse punishment possible, he couldn’t immediately think of it. Military history was the single most boring subject in the world, and finding two species whose entire history consisted of nothing else was quite extraordinary. On the plus side he’d be learning two new languages (languages were always fun), but even so it was with deep dread that he took a seat in front of the screen. Boxing Day was swiftly plummeting to new depths.
As dates and battles and death tolls passed into his mind - one dull, dreary millennium after another - the only consolation was that the TARDIS sneakily created a new door, allowing his Mum to secretly bring him some mince pies and a drink of hot chocolate.
Finally - after studying for longer than the endless dinner earlier on - he could ask the TARDIS to fetch Uncle, and then spent a good five minutes fielding questions; Uncle leaning, arms crossed, against the wall - as immobile and stony-faced as before.
When he had been satisfied that Alex had done his work properly, he made his way over to the bed, and patted it, asking Alex to come sit down. Alex obeyed, curling up by the headboard, knees pulled up under his chin. “Now - why do you think I made you learn all that?”
Alex studied his feet. “As a punishment because I was rude?”
To his surprise, his Uncle sighed at this, and shook his head. “Rudeness is just another word for unwelcome honesty, and honesty is not a bad thing in itself. If you’d called Geoffrey an ugly, smelly moron we’d not be having this conversation right now. No - I wanted to show you what happens when you wish someone dead.”
The dark, discomforting look he shot him made Alex look down again. Stupid Geoffrey.
“Tell me, why did the Sontarans and the Rutans start fighting?”
Alex frowned and searched his mind, but came up blank. His uncle nodded.
“The reason’s been lost. Once upon a time Sontarans were a highly artistic race - you can see traces of it in their designs, because quite frankly their ships are gorgeous - but they put their artistry on hold when they started fighting. Do you think they could go back to that now?”
Alex shook his head mutely. The Sontaran culture was all about warfare, a self-perpetuating motion that just carried on and on, mindlessly. They lived to fight and nothing else.
“That is what war does, Alex. It destroys the possibility of anything else. And wars start because people argue - often over something very trivial. Why did you start fighting with Geoffrey?”
“I didn’t want to be Jar-Jar Binks,” he muttered after a moment.
“Because he’s ridiculous.” Sometimes Uncle was just dense. But Uncle didn’t seem to notice the sneer in his voice - he just continued speaking, voice earnest and serious.
“There are worse things than being ridiculous, Alex. Jar-Jar Binks might not be smart, he might not be a good fighter, he might not be the hero - but his heart is in the right place, and he tries his best, and those are very, very important qualities, understood?”
Alex nodded. But he still remembered the disdain on Geoffrey’s face.
“Now I know that children fight. And I know that they’ll say things they don’t mean. But what you must remember Alex, is that you’re different. One day little Geoffrey will grow up and be a proper Lord, that is true. But he is only human, and will soon discover that he can’t just do anything he wants. You, on the other hand, are a Timelord, and you will grow up to wield powers humans can’t dream of. And in time you will meet people far far more stupid and nasty and more intent on making you angry than a ten year old boy... and it’ll be your job to look after them. Despite who they are, sometimes. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” he answered slowly, turning the words over in his head. “But-”
Uncle smiled, his eyes friendly again. “Yes, Alex?”
“It’s just... they’re so mean. It’s not fair that I can’t-” He stopped, unable to put his frustration into words.
His uncle didn’t reply immediately. Instead he got up and started pacing the floor, and Alex watched him, beginning to worry. Uncle didn’t look angry - more frustrated and agitated, all nervous energy, and Alex couldn’t work out why. Then finally he seemed to make up his mind and sat down on the bed again, facing Alex. “OK, I’m going to tell you something. Something very upsetting, but- Look, if it’s too much for you... just say, and I’ll take it away again. Deal?”
Alex nodded and steeled himself for whatever was coming, as Uncle took a deep breath. “When your father ruled the world, he killed your mother’s family.”
Alex stared in shock, and Uncle nodded quietly. “All of them, yes.”
And suddenly Alex understood a lot of things - understood why his mother put up with the antipathy; understood why his Uncle insisted that he go see them; understood why he’d been so upset at Alex’s words...
‘If my father was here, he would kill you like that - and good riddance!’
It had happened already. In a paradox, but the paradox had been real - he was real, after all - and in that other world, where he had been crown prince and heir to the universe, Geoffrey was dead, just like he’d wanted. (As was Aunt Emily, Uncle George, Great Aunt Margaret, Grand Uncle Arthur, Anastasia...)
He turned to his uncle, who was already holding out his fingertips to remove the words from his mind. But Alex shook his head and took hold of his hands. “Uncle - I’m sorry.”
He thought his uncle might actually cry - which was really weird, because Uncle never cried - but instead a funny wobbly sort of smile spread across his face, and next thing he knew Alex found himself scooped up in a big hug, and he clung onto his uncle, because no one gave hugs quite like him.
“How about...” his uncle started a moment later, voice muffled but happy, “you come with me and help take all the people from the Miniscope home? Would you like that?”
Alex nodded eagerly, but then stopped himself. “I’d like to write a letter to Geoffrey first,” he said, and Uncle nodded.
“Of course. A letter - that’s a brilliant idea! Do you need any help?”
Alex shook his head, then dug out some paper and a pen from the bedside table (the pen was slightly chewed, because Leia loved pens) and began writing.
I’m sorry about what I said. I don’t think the world would be a better place without you.
Underneath, he with utmost care wrote ‘I still think you’re a smelly poo-head’ in Gallifreyan, but when his uncle looked it over he only lifted his eyebrows in critical appraisal and remarked that Alex’s penmanship had definitely improved.
(Obviously, they never told Dad exactly what had happened. Making Dad happy was not a good thing.)
One Year Later.
Christmas Day 2014 was wonderful. It started with Dad and Uncle walking through the door first thing in the morning, whilst Alex was still opening his stocking. They had their arms around each other, Santa hats on their heads, and were singing loudly.
Alex never discovered what had happened (when he asked, later, Uncle went very quiet, and Daddy grinned very widely, and he didn’t ask again), but he didn’t really care because Uncle scooped him up in his arms and asked if he wanted to make it snow this year. The TARDIS was making odd sounds, and was full of smoke, but Uncle said that that didn’t matter - except then the snow-button got stuck and London ended up getting buried under two and a half feet of snow in the space of half an hour...
But the upshot was that he and Dad and Uncle had the longest and best snowball fight ever, with proper forts and everything, before filling the whole of the garden with a miniature Ice Warrior army made out of snow. Mum made food and worried about her roses, but Daddy produced bit of mistletoe out of nowhere and kissed her, and then everything was OK.
In the evening, Alex fell asleep on the sofa, and never noticed being carried to bed.
Waking up on Boxing Day came as a nasty shock.
The snow had all gone (he supposed that Uncle didn’t want people to get stuck), and his mum wouldn’t even let him have a lie-in. What was the point of having a time machine if you never used it for having lie-ins?
Mum dressed him in his ‘best’ clothes, which were as uncomfortable as ever, and almost too small - he was seven after all - and he ate his breakfast in sulky silence. He knew why he had to go, but he still didn’t like it.
Dad didn’t appear until they were by the door about to go, but he picked Alex up and swung him round so fast that he laughed despite himself. “So then, my little Ice Lord, are you ready to face the dragons?”
He shrugged and tried to smile bravely as he kissed his father goodbye, but took Mum’s hand as they left - he didn’t feel ready at all.
What he’d not counted on was the family’s ability to pretend nothing had happened. Like some freaky nightmare, the day was a perfect repeat of every other year, with only the tiniest of variations.
Anastasia - that he’d actually looked forward to seeing again - had during the past year acquired a boyfriend, and barely noticed Alex at all since apparently she couldn’t survive for more than 2 minutes without texting her beloved.
Grand Uncle Arthur had had a stroke, and wasn’t there.
Geoffrey was sullenly, but scrupulously, polite throughout the day.
And Aunt Emily, obviously pleased with what she saw as a victory, was overbearingly nice, which was actually worse than the former barely hidden dislike.
Alex said as little as possible - reminding himself that he was sorry; that he was glad that they were all alive - and hated Boxing Day more than ever.