I think, once we're gone, you won't be coming back here for a while and you might be alone, which you should never be.
The Doctor had come, it seemed, without news or urgency or Pontefract cakes. There was no emergency, no danger to her fellow Londoners. He did not explain his presence in her time, nor show incessant affection, not even resort to the nonsensical pointing that was his favourite when words failed him. Rather, he slumped his shoulders, breathed as if he’d just got out of the factories, and did not quite look her in the eye. Tiredness clung to his face like a death mask.
With care, Vastra took the place by his side and tried to prop him up, however slightly. It was, it appeared, her turn to lead him to safety.
In her rented hansom, when he hung his head and stared at the crushed vegetable matter coating his boots instead of rattling off a succession of overblown truths and obvious lies, she realised something was rather more wrong than she’d thought, and she hadn’t been overly positive in her initial assessment.
He hadn’t noticed she had followed him, but accepted her presence. He was silent, but he was there. Lost in his own mind, but there. Such a very old friend and she had never seen him like this. Had, in fact, hoped to never have to see him like this. He was poised to move, thighs and calves tense to the point of shaking; as if he was going to throw himself into the street, as if the only thing on his mind was to get away. No. Then he would not have come. She put a firm hand on his arm, as comfort, as warning: if you go, I’ll go.
The silence was light, yet oppressive, but spoken words would shatter it. She concentrated on her third eye; on the psychic part she rarely could put to use... only to be unable to form a link with the Doctor. He’d erected a mental block; a sloppy, fraying, tired block, but one nonetheless. She pursed her lips and shared her concerns and how she came to find him all the same: he might unravel his defences and listen —
In the conservatory, she takes a sip of fortified blood and plies one of her special flowers with a piece of Jenny’s mustard ham; its soft slurping, the flapping of petals; so restful. The plants, the stained glass windows, the birdcages, the warmth.
Oddities of import that needed tending — Talking horse of Hyacinth Street. Gander with a ruby in its crop. The Torchwood Institute plotting her murder and gleefully ruining her web of contacts one bullet at a time. Yet another Dickens manuscript with blue boxes drawn in the margi — “Ma’am.” Very warm hand on her shoulder, Jenny’s breath on her cheek. Had not heard her enter. Distress. “Ma’am, I know it’s feeding time and everything, but the detector is acting up. I was dusting and it started making all that noise...
There’s not anything in the drawing room, not even the curtains shifting.
I don’t think he’s coming here.
It was a TARDIS detector first, of course. Stemmed from the time of the very first whispers, a number of technologies hidden inside the casing of a pocketwatch. Patchwork collaboration between herself, Strax, Dorium, the metal dog that sometimes visited her dreams and, she suspected, the TARDIS.
The Doctor didn’t bat an eyelash, didn’t take one word into mind or consideration, didn’t even tell her to leave him be. His jacket was buttoned, thinning from overuse, and in need of a brushing. The collar was, perhaps, even tighter than usual, and there was a tie; long and flat and with an inelegant knot.
Tightening her shawl, Vastra blinked the attempted connection shut and pretended to not watch him. The Doctor couldn’t be alone, and night was falling in London-town.
She brought him to her home, of course, and installed him in the drawing room.
Perhaps it was the warmth from the fire or the smell of Jenny’s Yorkshire puddings... but something caused a reaction. “Out with it!” he said. Shouted. Sat and stood and sat and stood. Anger was a normal reaction; a good sign, even if he seemed to be turning to — shouting at — the anachronistic sculpture next to him, the oil-on-canvas behind, and, in particular, one of her hungry potted plants. “I know you’re curious. I know you must be dying to hear it. So where is it? Where are all of the-the stupid questions? The ‘what have you gone and done now’? Surely you want to know. So let’s be having it then.”
The detector, half-concealed in Vastra’s sleeve, revealed his upper respiratory system was out of rhythm, his hearts out of sync. Was he going to fight or flee? He sat — fell — again, on the couch that was her favourite since it had aided her in an unexpected swordfight. “Where is it?” he asked the carpet, or perhaps the half-frozen leaves clinging to the hem of Jenny’s skirt.
Vastra had been there, so grief-stricken and angry she could barely function, and who had saved her?
He had been gone a very long time and in this place, she was his best friend; she was the battle line and the line to cross, and she’d heard things lately which were very unpleasant indeed. The first few whispers had said he was no one; he’d disappeared; he didn’t exist; he was impossible to find and she had been pleased; this was what he had set out to do, to be. She had been content... until those rumours became sadder and solemner and spoken by those who bore no ill will; he was retired, a recluse, a misfit, a miscreant, a bitter old man; and he was alone. Those rumours never changed, no matter how many faces she threatened to eat. That was when the worry set in, like a mar on her scales, like a poison; her concern was not for the saver-of-worlds, but her friend, and he never answered his phone at the best of times.
She had cast her fears into her dreams for whomever may listen and come up empty handed.
He raised his chin and stared, always the renegade, telling them he was ready for their verdict.
“Dinner,” she said, “will be ready within the hour. We would be honoured if you would join us.” Strax would have the guest room ready; they had kept it for years, though the Doctor would never know. They all understood, but they also did not; could not.
Across his features, a certain amount of confusion battled with desperation or gratitude. It was, at least, a sort of animation. “Please,” he said, stronger than a whisper, but only just. She would have been concerned he had exhausted himself, had not his hand closed like a vice on her arm, just above her lace. “I’m sorry.”
“Old friend,” said Vastra, pressing herself to move closer than the usual arm’s length, and clasping his hand in both of hers. Isolation, anger, bargaining... Next would be depression. Finally — hopefully — there would be acceptance, as much as the Doctor ever accepted anything. She could not tell how much of their words he took in, how much of his own he realised he was sharing. “Just for a little while.”
“I don’t —” he started, perhaps intent on stubbornly exhausting his welcome, denying himself shelter and food and company for — to his mind — their sake.
“We want to, you see,” Jenny announced, like only Jenny could say it.
Strax was quiet, patient, every bit as firm in this belief as Vastra herself was. Their invitation of dinner and a room was nothing more and nothing less.
If only the Doctor could see himself as they saw him.
“What happened?” asked Vastra, pressing her scales even closer to the calluses and scars on his skin. It was a superfluos question, but the one to start with, out of propriety, if nothing else. Gait, expression, complexion were those of bone-deep loss; of deeper loss still. The only question was who, and she was not hot blooded enough to ask that; not yet.
She had spoken to Professor Song only last week; it had to be one of the married ones. Both, perhaps. When the woman had been taken, the Doctor had been on hands and knees on the table in this very room, drawing up battle-plans. He had been most vicious, then; only the Centurion’s hand on his shoulder had prevented the most vindictive actions. He was most defeated now. “You know as well as I do,” she continued, “The proverb about shared burdens...”
“Applies to you, too.”
She swallowed a hiss; not directed at him, for once, but the situation. This was not what he deserved. “You told me,” she said, bending her neck in memory of her dark times, “that there always is hope.”
“I know. You don’t have to do this.”
“A question for you, then. Would you prefer the kindness of strangers?” It came perhaps out more blunt than tongue-in-cheek, but... he might be in need of blunt.
There was a very long pause, during which he bent his neck a little bit more and a little bit more. Finally, like it was a great and unwelcome epiphany, he said, “No.”
After dinner and tea and a game of cards, Vastra retreated to her place of solace, the landscape of her dreams, carrying Jenny’s affection with her as spots of lingering warmth. Still in her bustle, she sat by her favourite table and lost herself in the luminous walls and memories of songs from such a long time ago, as sung by her sisters.
Jenny had not followed into the trance, but was sleeping in their bedroom; Strax had gone to secure the perimeter one last time. The Doctor was, hopefully, in the room they had intended for him, or near enough — he had absorbed the meal and the conversation and inspected his new nightclothes with genuine pleasure. He had taken some light teasing well, and made jokes, and lied about wrestling something with frothy pincers.
“Madame Vastra, yeah?”
She straightened instantly, upsetting the candle and losing the song in her mind; the silence was abrupt. Against all instinct, she bit back her poison; it wouldn’t have helped. Someone was sitting on her table; someone who was most definitely not made out of her memories.
It was her. The one he had fought so hard to save. So hard he had been blinded by anger, made mistakes. She was half turned to Vastra, half twisted away, not looking like a girl from the twenty-first century anymore; the blouse was crisp and white, the seams on the stockings straight, the skirt still very short, and the hat almost certainly a man’s.
“So where’s the Doctor?” said Amelia Pond, dangling her long legs.
“You’re not dead.”
“I should hope not.” She snorted, tossing her messy braid over a shoulder. “I fell, and that’s it — turn of the century heels: one, Amy Pond: nil. How am I here?”
“I don’t know. You’re unconscious, you’re... dreaming.”
“Oh, great. Gonna be late and concussed for my own book launch. I will be waking up where I went down, or I swear...” She raised a finger, but the threat remained unspoken.
“Of course! This dream doesn’t affect physical position.”
“That’s a first. So where is he?”
“He’s not here, I’m sorry.”
“If he’s alone, you need to find him and give him a good pinch from–”
“Amy!” A crackle of energy worked its way into the swaying green of the walls, along with the echo of a voice Vastra had heard worried about this woman before. He was still alive, too. “Amy!”
“The husband wants me back. So needy.” Amy touched her lips, smudging her perfect lipstick. “And quick with the mouth-to-mouth. Tell the Doctor to actually get my book — Summer Falls, cos I’ll make lots of them — and actually read it, not just put it off. I’ve written something for him. Yes, coming, Rory!”
With that, she faded; the uneven tip of her vibrantly red braid and the last syllable of her husband’s name the very last of her to disappear.
Neither were fully gone when there was a pop! and the Doctor all but fell into the chair next to Vastra’s, hugging one of Strax’s leaking punching bags. “Oh! Oh, it’s a dreamscape! Sorry to appear uninvited, didn’t expect it, you understand.”
“Drawn from my memories,” Vastra got out, suddenly unsure where to put her tongue when speaking English. There would not be anymore solace for her tonight... though perhaps she'd had her share.
“Desktop is... the Hanging Gardens! Good choice!” His nightclothes still carried the creases from the seamstress’s iron, and he’d put on the only nightcap whose stitches Jenny had been pleased with. “Didn’t think I’d sleep, but the whist was very relaxing. Strax lent me this sack, thought I’d like to assault it... it’s very cosy, pillow-y.” He pressed a cheek to it; it spilled a clump of sand onto the floor.
Vastra tilted her head: do not lie in my memories. Was he really here by mistake, or did he see this as easier than a traditional psychic link?
“Oh, fine. I’ve shut off, entered a healing trance, so on and so forth. We can all stop worrying I’ll disappear in the night.”
“Then we shall not disturb you in the morning.” He must have caught sight of that hair, heard that voice, that name. He seemed the same — this new the same — only, perhaps, slightly more bright-eyed, slightly more calm.
“You won't. I’ll be up and waiting for breakfast before either of you,” he said, but he did not look too certain. “I knew I’d dream of them.”
Oh. He did not know this place; he thought Amy Pond was made up by his memories, made solid by his longing. He thought she hadn’t really been here. Perhaps she hadn’t. “You have not slept?” she asked, the only question which seemed safe.
“Did you, in the beginning? Are you now?”
“I should stop, I think,” he said, digging his fingers into the punching bag. “Just this once. Let the universe manage itself.”
“Doctor, please...” She carefully removed his stiff hand from the bag and placed it on her arm. Recluse, retired, lonely old man...
“We’re halfway out of the dark,” he said, though it was barely legible. Him talking to himself was better than his silence. “Yes, definitely. Vastra, now that we’re here... why don’t you show me your favourite memories?”
“And then...” He shrugged, gaze wavering. “Then...”
“It would be an honour if you were our guest,” she said, firmly, hoping it would settle inside him. “For a little while. I know a tearoom you would find to your liking... the scones are excellent.”
Some of the tiniest muscles in his hand relaxed; promising.
“Yes... Ask me tomorrow.”
The Doctor was a remarkable creature, as well he should know — his friends were of the past and the present and yet to come. The American stumbling all around Wales praising him was only one of those past, but certainly the most vocal. She’d seen ones yet to come, too; mainly the sometimes presence in her conference calls, as insubstantial as a ghost, sleeping a scattered sleep, but determinably there. That future might never be if the Doctor chose the path he seemed to have set his mind to.
Whatever happened, it left herself and Jenny and Strax, the current present, to assist him.