An urgent bleeping sound disturbed John from his daydream. He fished in a pocket and pulled out his mobile phone. A text from Rory, saying he'd been held up at the hospital and could they reschedule for later in the week. John wasn't at all upset; in fact he was glad. The girl he'd been staring at for half an hour had finally noticed him and was making occasional glances in his direction.
He smiled at her, and after a moment she smiled back. He picked up his pint and walked over to her table. “Are you with someone?” he asked.
She shook her head (ginger, he'd had a taste for gingers lately), and said “I'm just here on my own.”
“Do you mind if I join you? My friend just texted to say he isn't going to show up.”
She shrugged. “I don't mind.”
He sat down opposite her and gave her his most winning smile. “I'm John. John Smith.”
“Like the beer?” She shook her head. “Sorry, you must get that all the time.”
“Hardly ever,” he lied.
“I'm Amy Pond.” She offered her hand and he turned it over to look at her palm. “Are you going to read my fortune?” she asked with a giggle.
“I don't know how,” said John, “but I'm getting a strong sense that you're about to meet someone you like.”
“What do you do, Amy Pond?” he asked, releasing her hand.
“I'm a kissagram. Yes, really. No, it's not a euphemism. What about you?”
“Oh, I don't have a job, I'm a writer.”
Amy leaned forwards a bit, John discreetly glanced down her top without her noticing. “What do you write?” she asked.
“Stories, mostly. For children. The odd article here and there.”
He liked to think he was good at small talk, and he knew he was good at seduction. Soon enough he was sitting next to her on a sofa in a corner, arm around her shoulders. Amy responded to his flirting as perfectly as though they were reading a script. She was one of them, one of those people he was drawn to like he already knew them and couldn't be complete until he'd spent time with them. They made him feel that bit more alive.
He smiled at her and wondered if she'd sleep with him.
He'd promised himself that he'd always be honest about it, and he'd already left it a bit late. Amy was straddling him on the edge of her bed, pressing her body against his as she kissed him. A familiar traitorous voice said “Sod it, you'll probably never see her again anyway,” and as ever he was tempted just to go along with that. But he liked to think he was a good person, deep down.
He pushed himself up on his elbows and jerked his head back slightly to get away from her lips. “Amy,” he said, rather breathlessly, “there's something you should know.”
“Is it important?” she asked, flushed.
“A bit. I'm... sort of married.”
Amy sat up, resting against his thighs. “What? How can you be sort of married?”
“The 'sort of' was to make it sound better.”
Amy slumped slightly and John moved his hands to her hips to steady her. “I bet she doesn't understand you,” Amy said.
“No,” he said, “she does. She understands me too well. I just... I don't always need that. Sometimes I want to be with someone who doesn't know everything about me.”
Amy bit her lip, chewed on it for a few moments and then said, “Okay.”
He drove home whistling along to the radio. At the traffic lights he reached into his pocket for his wedding ring and his fingers found the piece of paper with Amy's phone number on it. That was stupid, making plans to see her again. He told himself it was just for the sex, and slid his ring back on as the lights changed to amber.
He was just too easily swayed by pretty girls, pretty boys. He'd tried to give it up when he got married, but the old habits died hard. He liked collecting people, that was just how he went through life. Friends, lovers, whatever, as long as there was someone to be impressed by him.
He liked Amy. She was cute, funny, good in bed. Fantastic in bed, he thought with a brief smile. She'd probably be up for some really kinky stuff once he got her used to the idea. Why shouldn't he have a bit on the side? Why shouldn't he have some regular moments of weakness? He was only human, after all.
He got home just after midnight, unlocked the door and slipped in as quietly as he could. He put a light on in the living room and lay down on the settee. No point starting an argument at this time of night.
John woke to the smell of burnt toast.
Burnt toast wasn't good. Burnt toast meant she was annoyed, it meant she knew. He got up off the sofa and walked to the kitchen, where River was angrily spreading butter onto blackened bread.
“Do you want me to lie about where I was?” he asked from the doorway.
River looked up at him. “Don't you dare.” She sighed. “Another one? Really?”
He spread his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I know, I promised.”
“I won't put up with this forever, you know.”
“I really am sorry.” He walked towards her and picked up a slice of toast. He bit into it and made a face. “This bread was innocent.”
“I don't care,” she said, and he wondered which she was talking about.
He swallowed and dropped the rest of the slice back onto the plate. “I'm not seeing her again. It's not a relationship.”
River nodded. “Good.” She walked to the table and picked up her bag. “I told Jenny you were at the pub with Rory. She's got PE today, make sure she doesn't forget her kit. And you've got to get some writing done, you've been procrastinating for days.”
“Yes, dear,” he said automatically. He caught her wrist as she turned to go. “You know I won't ever leave you.”
“I know,” she said without a smile.
He kissed her then, but she didn't kiss him back.
“Have you got your PE kit?” he asked, catching his daughter's eye in the rear-view mirror.
Jenny shook her head. “No.”
John swore under his breath. “Couldn't you have reminded me before we left?”
“I hate PE. Can I get a note that says you don't believe in it? Anji's got a note to get out of religious assemblies, I could have one that gets me out of PE.”
“It doesn't work like that,” he said, pulling up outside the school. “Say the washing-machine broke.”
Jenny nodded. “You're really good at lying, Dad.”
He glanced at her, but her expression seemed innocent. “And don't spend your lunch money on sweets. Get a sandwich or something. An apple.”
“The Doctor said apples are horrible.”
“He's fictional, sweetheart. Do we have to have that talk again?”
Jenny shook her head.
“Can I go now?” she asked.
“Yes, I don't want you to be late again.” He watched until she was well into the playground, then drove off in the direction of Amy's house.
“You have fans!” said Amy as she opened the door.
John blinked at her.
“I googled you,” she added. “I thought you said only children read your stories?”
John kissed her cheek and slid past her into the house. “I said they're for children, I didn't say adults didn't read them as well.”
“People love you. Maybe not as much as they love that Doctor of yours, but they love you.”
He shrugged. “The Doctor's just a very loveable person.”
Amy smiled. “You didn't come here for a literary discussion, did you?”
He had to admit that, no, he hadn't.
“Can I read some of your stories?” she asked afterwards.
“If you like,” he said against her skin as he kissed his way down her spine.
“Would I like them? What's the Doctor like?”
“Brave, brilliant, better than me.”
“Hmm,” she said, “I like you just fine.” She turned over onto her back. “I don't really like science-fiction.”
“Some people say they're more magic realism.”
“It's...” he waved a hand, “It's a bit like science-fiction.”
Amy giggled, caught him between her legs. “I really do like you, I wasn't just saying that to make you feel better about yourself.”
“I like you too,” he said, and he really did mean it. Was it better or worse that he cared about his lovers? He leaned down to kiss her. “Do you want to go again?”
He made sure he got him early, with enough time to do the housework before he picked Jenny up from school. She was doing her homework in front of the television when River got home.
“How can she concentrate with that on?” River asked as she entered the kitchen.
“It's educational,” he said, stirring the curry he was making.
“I really doubt that.”
“Multi-tasking,” said John, “is a valuable skill to cultivate.” He held up the pot. “I'm making your favourite.”
“Hoping to be forgiven?” she asked quietly.
“Aren't you happy?”
“Of course I'm happy. Who wouldn't be?”
The Doctor wouldn't be happy with this, he thought as he settled down after dinner to write. The Doctor hated being tied down. Probably he'd fantasise about it occasionally, but he'd hate having to actually live John's life, day after day after day. He just wasn't cut out for that sort of thing, not any more.
John had quite a bit of backstory for the Doctor that never made it into the stories. He didn't want to reveal too much, after all.
This evening he was working on a story he'd started last week, about a lighthouse and a shape-shifting alien. Everyone except the main characters was going to die in the end, and he had to focus on making that tragic and not too obvious. His mind kept wandering, though. All he could think about was Amy.
It was ridiculous, he was happily married with a wonderful daughter. He had a nice house and a good car. He was moderately successful in his chosen career and he was years from a midlife crisis. He couldn't have asked for a better life and yet there he was trying to escape from it.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he'd call Amy and end it. Get rid of her and focus on being happy with what he already had. Tomorrow.
The next day he took Amy to lunch. He picked at his food and made a mental list of bad things that could happen if he didn't stop seeing her. River would only put up with so much, after all.
“I got a book of your stories from the library,” said Amy.
“Oh?” He looked up at her, met her gaze.
“Where do you get your ideas from? Wait, does everyone ask that? Are you tired of answering that question?”
He shrugged. “I have these dreams. I've had them as far back as I can remember. After Jenny was born I quit my job at the bank to look after her and I thought, well, why not try writing them down as stories? Then people liked them, so I wrote more.”
“Dreams? Seriously? My dreams never make any sense.”
“I know it's a bit weird. They're so clear, it's like I'm awake and remembering something.”
Amy licked her lips and smiled. “So are you the Doctor? Is he who you want to be when you grow up?”
John shook his head. “No, he's just a story. I could never be him. I don't think anyone could. He's too...”
“Sad,” suggested Amy.
“Don't you think he's sad? That's what I got from the ones I read. He's so happy on the surface, but there's something dark and tragic underneath. That's what I liked about him, actually. He has layers.” She took a drink. “Are you sad?”
“Why do people keep asking me that?” John sighed. “I'm fine, I'm thrilled to be alive, really.”
“Okay, I was just wondering if it was a cry for help.”
“It's just a way to pay the bills,” he said lightly. “It doesn't mean anything.”
That night he woke up crying. River silently took him in her arms, stroked his hair like she was soothing a child. “Another one?” she asked.
He nodded against her shoulder. “One of the worst.”
“It's not normal,” she said, “having someone else's nightmares. The stories are one thing but... you should see someone,” she suggested yet again.
He pulled away, wiping at his eyes. “It's just a bad dream. I got too into the story last night, I let him get to me.”
“I thought they'd go away once you got settled down,” said River. “I thought they were just anxiety.” She took his hand. “Let's go somewhere for a few days, just the two of us. Your mother can look after Jenny, we'll get away from it all and relax.”
“I'm not stressed, I'm not anxious. I'm content. There's never been anyone more content than I am.” That was important, he'd realised. Somehow being happy was the most important thing in the world.
Time passed slowly. He saw Amy, lied to River, became increasingly worried that he was lying to himself. What if he wasn't happy? Why did it feel like something awful would happen if he wasn't?
Amy sat up in bed reading. When she turned the last page she looked up at him. “Wow,” she said, “that was pretty depressing.”
“You didn't think it had a certain hope to it?”
“The Doctor's got to love someone he already knows is going to die. And Donna can never see Lee ever again. It's horrible.”
“You didn't like it?”
“I loved it,” she said, “but it's horrible. He has to lose everyone and now he's going to be seeing her death every time he's with her.”
“But he loses everyone. If anything this is freedom for him, he can't lose what he's already lost.”
“And she's...” Amy shrugged. “Maybe I read it wrong.”
“No,” he said, “I think every interpretation's valid as long as you can back it up.” He kissed her shoulder. “I'll make a literary critic of you yet, Amy Pond.”
“Where's this going?” she asked.
“You and me. Where's it going?”
He turned onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. He'd been afraid of this. “It doesn't have to go anywhere. It's fun.”
“You're never going to leave her, are you?”
“Do you want me to?”
Amy bit her lip. John turned to face her. “Really? Is that what you want?”
“You've got Jenny to think about.”
“That's not what I asked. I thought you were happy with what we have?”
“I am. I just... want a bit more. I don't want to be your mistress for the rest of my life,” she said bitterly. “And then there's you.”
“What about me?”
“You can't be happy at home or you wouldn't be here.”
He could almost hear an alarm bell ringing. He tried to ignore it. “Are you trying to get me to commit to a relationship? Is that what this is?” A thought struck him. “Shit, are you pregnant or something?”
“No! I just don't like sharing. I don't like being the other woman.”
John closed his eyes with a sudden headache. “Stop it,” he told her. “Stop making things complicated.”
“You've the one complicating things!” She turned on him. “Why can't you just be happy? What do we have to do to keep you?”
“We?” he asked, through the pounding in his head.
Amy grabbed his shoulders. “What is wrong with you?”
The Doctor woke up.
A mechanical arm reached out and wrapped a hand round his throat. “This component is defective,” said the robot it was attached to. “This component will be recycled.”
The Doctor twisted until he got hold of the sonic screwdriver, tried to ignore the crushing pressure as he felt for the right setting.
“This component is...” said the robot, slowing down and releasing him as he scrambled its AI.
The Doctor spotted Amy and Rory in alcoves like the one he'd been in. Their eyes were closed and their breathing was shallow. They were alive, though, and he was fairly sure he could wake them safely. He kept an eye out for more robots as he worked on the control panels next to the alcoves. He checked the databases while he was working, read a few historical records.
“Are you alright?” he asked when he'd woken them.
Amy nodded. “Yeah. Just a bit confused. Disorientated, you know?”
“I was in Leadworth,” said Rory. “It was so real.”
“Were you happy?” asked the Doctor.
“Yeah. Me and Amy had two kids, I was a Charge Nurse, everything was going great.” He looked at Amy. “Is that what you dreamed of?”
“More or less,” she said vaguely. “Doctor?”
“We were all happy,” he said thoughtfully. “We had no reason to want to wake up.”
“What did you dream of?” asked Amy.
He shrugged. “Oh, mine was nonsense. I think it wasn't working right. Incredibly complex brain and all that,” he said, tapping his head with the screwdriver. “So,” he said. “Have you ever seen that film with Keanu Reeves where everything's an illusion?”
Rory nodded. “Yeah. Is that what happened? Is that where we are?”
“Bit like that,” said the Doctor, “but not entirely. I don't want you thinking my adventures are just pastiches of fiction. These people,” he said, waving at the people embedded in the walls, “are all volunteers. They wanted to make a sort of gestalt mind, the greatest computer ever created.”
“I don't remember volunteering,” said Rory.
“Yes, well, the poor thing got a bit confused about what constitutes consent. I should be able to convince it not to kidnap any more explorers. Anyway,” he added, “you were happy, you can't complain that it wasn't nice to you. It plugged you into whatever would keep you content while it used your spare brainpower to compute... well, everything.”
“So we're just leaving?” asked Amy. “We're not going to free these people?”
“They wanted to be here, Amy. And they're... happy.”
“So,” asked Amy when they were on their way in the TARDIS. “How did it try to make you happy? What's contentment for a Time Lord?”
“I told you, I just got nonsense. That's why I woke up. The system couldn't cope with someone as amazingly clever and complicated.”
“And modest.” Amy folded her arms. “I don't believe you. I think you're just embarrassed because you dreamt about... being a Teletubby. I can just imagine you frolicking with Lala and Po.”
“Frolicking? Time Lords don't frolic.”
“It couldn't make you happy,” said Amy. “It didn't know how.”
She was too clever by half. The Doctor always picked the clever ones, and always regretted it at times like this. He shrugged. “Maybe I'm just not very good at being happy.”
“Of course you are,” said Amy, uncertainty in her voice.
The Doctor considered Amy. He thought about telling her everything. He never would, of course, but he thought about it.
He smiled at her. “Yeah. Course I am.”