The old man always woke up when the nurses came in. He generally went straight back to sleep again once his soldier reflexes had identified them as nonthreatening. This time, however, he woke from the awareness of someone simply standing in the room. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and said, "Can I help you, miss?"
He was, as always, a bit bothered by the way his voice sounded. He'd always counted on having a proper, no-nonsense, commanding sort of voice. My god, I sound like an old man, he thought. Common sense replied, you are an old man.
The woman wasn't dressed as a nurse. She was wearing high heels and her hair fluffed out in an unrestrained cloud around her face. "I realize we're disturbing you, sir," she said. "But we would be risking a paradox if we let the nurses know we were here, and frankly, I wouldn't have missed this for anything."
The old man realized that there was someone else in the room, a bit behind him, over by the window. He turned to see who it was.
Ah. Of course.
"I've read all about you," the woman went on. "Took a class on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Smith biography was one of our core texts. And I just wanted to say–" She stepped forward and put out her hand. "It's an honor to meet you. Sir Alastair."
He shook it. "Just Alastair, please, Miss–"
"River. River Song, but I'd be delighted if you'd call me River."
Silly newfangled name, which made perfect sense, considering. "Any friend of the Doctor's is a friend of mine, River. Tell me, which century are you from?"
"The fifty-first," the Doctor said. He turned around and gave Alastair one of his peculiar ancient smiles. "By her time, the English language has altered so much that only historians and linguists can read Shakespeare in the original. The moon is never completely dark anymore; it looks like a glowing spiderweb when it's new, all those trains and domes connecting the great Lunar cities like Armstrong and Collinsville and Sylviengrad. There are ships taking off hourly from Manchester Interstellar, bound for planets with names like Pearl and Eridain and Nov'elisium. There are cities that drift in the stratosphere. There are people with eight eyes and green skin whose families have lived in London for generations. And all of it, all of it, exists for one reason."
"Because," River said, "someone kept the Earth safe so it could happen. I'll leave you two alone, now, but I wanted you to know: it's amazing to meet you. Earth's Champion. The Brigadier."
She was, visibly and palpably, as sincere as she could possibly be. "The pleasure is mine," Alastair said, more or less automatically.
River mouthed thank you at the Doctor, blew him a kiss, and retreated. It got a mildly silly smile from him. Alastair wondered if he knew she was flirting with him. He'd known the Doctor to miss the occasional human subtlety. Like the fact that Viking helmets and furs stood out just a tad.
"And that," the Doctor said, "is the closest I've ever seen her to starry-eyed hero-worship. She's usually self-confident to the point of smugness. Bit of a scramble sometimes to impress her, actually." He didn't look as if he minded the prospect.
And if the Doctor described someone as overly confident–actually, it was probably because he honestly didn't see the irony. Some things didn't change, no matter how the face did. "You're Earth's champion," Alastair said.
"I've been known to borrow the title when grandstanding," the Doctor admitted. "It's not as if it's exclusive. Sarah Jane, Ace, Martha Jones–a fellow named Jack will carry the title, intermittently, for quite a long time indeed–but when we don't need it, we all know who to return it to." He pulled one of the chairs close to the bed and sat down, that slightly mismatched face a study in contradictory emotions. "In thirty centuries, three times my life and thirty times yours, children will still learn about you. Generations have grown up safe and free because of things that you did." Alastair realized, with a stab of sympathetic embarrassment, that the Doctor was crying. "I thought you ought to know."
"Before I died," Alastair said. "No, you don't have to deny it. It's no secret." He looked away to give his old friend a little privacy. Not that the Doctor seemed to care that he was crying; he was just doing it. "I can't help but think that you're exaggerating a bit, Doctor. I was hardly the only soldier in UNIT."
"No. But you were the best."
"Poppycock." A quick glance showed that the Doctor still had tears in his eyes. "Old friend, I don't have to be the best to die contented. And I don't have to be famous, although I can't say I object too strongly. I just have to know that I was good enough to matter. Knowing that the world is safe–knowing that I helped–" He really was having uncommon trouble with the voice tonight. "That's the best present you could possibly have given me. And I thank you."
"You are," the Doctor whispered, "very welcome."
Alastair tried to school his voice back to normal, and then decided just to ignore the fact that it wasn't working. "So, Doctor. What have you been doing lately? New assistant, I see."
"Actually," the Doctor said, "she's my wife."
"My wife. Bit peculiar to say. Still haven't got it completely sorted in my head." He seemed almost as bemused by the notion as Alastair was. And then he looked alarmed and started talking rather faster as a thought occurred to him. "The marriage actually occurred in an alternate timeline while on the run from memory-destroying aliens on top of the Great Pyramid, or else I would have invited you. And everyone else. I hope you're not insulted, it was just a bit of an emergency–"
Only the Doctor. "Actually," Alastair said, "I admit to being somewhat relieved. The best man arranges the stag, I understand, and the thought of what might gate-crash yours–I might actually be too old for that sort of thing."
A grin. "You? Not possible." His eyes were still sorrowful, but he leaned back in his chair a bit, relaxing into the camaraderie that had always marked the best bits of Alastair's long, strange association with the man. "Let's see. I spent some time traveling with a lovely couple–her parents, actually, although they're considerably younger than her–long story, complicated. Amy and Rory Pond, they were called. You would have liked Rory. One of the single sanest people I've ever met, and he didn't let me get away with anything. I had to test him once–determine whether he was still human–so I implied that I wasn't going to bother to save Amy's life. And I swear to you, if the universe hadn't got rebooted, I think my jaw would still ache . . ."
Alastair smiled and closed his eyes, listening to the Doctor rattle on about Romans and meeting his TARDIS and dancing at weddings. The man was getting positively domestic in his young-looking old age. For a unique Doctor value of domestic.
He drifted off to sleep, into odd dreams of steam trains on the moon and Sarah Jane Smith teaching a primary class how to spell brigadier. But his last conscious thought on Earth was that he wouldn't have missed any of it, not for the world.