He wasn’t sure where it was, exactly, that he’d stopped. He’d gone tearing away through the corridors without looking where he was going, and even if he had been there was only so much chance they’d have stayed the same. The TARDIS was tricky on a good day, and this … wasn’t one.
It was dark, wherever it was, and smelt of dust. Fiber and animal hide and dust. That sharp smell of … what was it. Camphor. To keep out the insects that probably had never made it in in the first place. One of the wardrobes? Particularly large closet? He’d found something brown and thick and wooly to hide under. It reminded him of a bit of hiding with the Oroog.
He could hear footsteps in the corridor outside, the Doctor’s musical voice muttering to himself--
C’rizz nestled a bit further into the whatever nervously, trying to be as brown and wooly himself as he could. He didn’t want to talk to the Doctor, didn’t know what he’d say. How could he begin to explain?
Red; bright sweet red, that was the colour it had been, red against pink lips. Pink: her cheeks, going pale and shifting subtly toward blue as the red poured out. Blue: her eyes, wide and shocked.
Red. Pooling in her hands, darkening her grey frock.
“Not in the kitchen, not in the cardroom, not in the pool,” the Doctor murmured, faint and metallic through the door between them. “You’re sure it was this way, old girl? ...it was, wasn’t it. Mothballs and dust. Of course. Silly of me to have doubted you.”
The door creaked open, spilling light into the room-- for a second C’rizz could see all the dust he’d stirred, still swirling sluggishly in the thin beam. Then the Doctor touched the light, and everything was white. He shut his eyes against it, but he didn’t need to see to know that the Doctor was coming directly towards him. His footsteps neared, then stopped, and there was the shuffle of cloth as he crouched.
“You know, Charley’s right?”
C’rizz cracked an eye; still bright.
The Doctor was squatting in front of his hiding place, half-smiling. His soft skin crinkled around his eyes-- so fragile, so thin, several shades more golden than Charley’s and with more fine lines.
“You’re doing a wonderful job blending in. But that jumper really is doing you no favours,” the Doctor concluded
C’rizz’s gaze flicked down, and in the light he could see the astonishing shade of green-- a pure, leafy green with the intensity turned all the way up-- showing clearly through the folds of brown fur. The spangles of the stylized tree pattern, a clashing shade of green, glinted accusingly in the light.
He opened his other eye.
“That’s how she found you in the library. Bright green and sequins, she said. Can’t miss it. And there you are.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he said, miserably.
“I know you didn’t. She’s fine. She’s fine, C’rizz, I think it scared you more than her.”
“There was so much blood,” C’rizz whispered. “So much. We were only playing. She’d come after me with tinsel again, and she had my arms pinned at my side--”
”Don’t you dare break that tinsel,” she had ordered, pulling the loop of garland snug around him. This was the second cycle she’d decided to cover him with decorations for some obscure religious reason of her own, and he protested loudly but didn’t actually mind it, so he’d scoffed at her and only butted his head at her playfully, he’d thought he was being careful, but there was this crunch, this horrible yielding, and then red, so much red-
“I don’t suppose Eutermesans get nosebleeds easily,” the Doctor soothed. “Human-types keep blood vessels close to the surface there, that’s all, and the cartilage is much softer than your exoskeleton. It must be alarming.”
“I thought-- I know she doesn’t have armor there, I didn’t think I hit her so hard-”
“No, no, no. I know you didn’t.” The Doctor reached into the folds of fur, tapping the crest of C'rizz's browbone before tracing a skull ridge up with his thumb. C’rizz could feel the disturbance, the brief flattening of his surface scales as the Doctor stroked up them, but the touch was too soft to really convey any pressure. “If you had tried, you really could have hurt her. But you didn’t. She’s already stopped bleeding; the only thing the worse for wear is her dress, and a bit of peroxide will put that to rights.”
He went down to one knee with a grunt, turning and flopping against the pile of clothing next to C’rizz. He shifted to get comfortable, pulled a blue velvet coat from under him and tossed it next to a red jacket, pillowing his head against what looked like a folded up cape. “She’s worried about you, you know. She feels terrible that she gave you a scare.”
“I can’t-” he started, not sure how to go on. Perhaps Charley and the Doctor had already forgiven and forgotten his many… many, many trespasses, but he hadn’t. He couldn’t. He’d promised himself that the first time he hurt her would be the last, horrified by the blue-black fingerprints he’d left on her neck under the influence of Major Koth-- and how long had that lasted? He’d come back to his senses in the Multihaven and it was already too late, he’d turned on his friend again.
He hadn’t even had the excuse of proper mind control when he turned a tissue disruptor on the only people left in the universe who cared about him. Just gullibility, just pettiness and greed and fear.
“I can’t,” he repeated, and tugged the fur around him defensively, obscuring the bright green of his jumper.
“It’s all right. We can just sit here a while. I haven’t been in particular wardrobe room in… oh, feels like a lifetime. You’re much better company than the Rani.” The Doctor’s expression dimmed for a second-- some not completely pleasant memory shadowing his mind like a stray cloud, gone again just as fast. “You really are very good at that? You’d think the trousers would show but you’ve got the knack of breaking up your silhouette. All I can see now you’ve hid your Christmas jumper is a pair of eyes.”
C’rizz closed them. Maybe he could retreat into sleep and the Doctor would stop trying to make him feel better. The impulse was cowardly, but then so was he, and he felt guilty that the Doctor was spending his time trying to cheer him up when he deserved to feel this miserable and worse.
Oblivious to his wish to be alone-- or, possibly, completely aware and doing this entirely deliberately-- the Doctor shifted closer. Apparently he had settled in for as long as need be.
“D’you know I’d nearly forgotten it was Christmas?” he mused, because as far as C’rizz knew he was incapable of maintaining a long silence when the sound of his own voice could fill the void. “Charley’s getting good at keeping track of relative time. Of course she had a head start on you, being born in a universe where time isn’t a closely-guarded secret and all of causality isn't shaken down for parts and recycled every billion or so years.”
He paused to see if C’rizz had anything to contribute. C’rizz didn’t; speaking would waste energy that could be better spent huddling and hating himself.
“Christmas is one of my favourite Earth rituals. Did I ever tell you I know Father Christmas? The omnipresent one, not the saint. Although I should pop by and meet Nikólaos one of these days, everyone I know who’s met him says he’s lovely.”
C’rizz cracked an eye. He couldn’t help it; a little surge of exasperation had briefly surfaced above the general misery. “Doctor, if I didn’t know better, I might-- just occasionally-- think you were making things up to sound impressive.”
The Doctor looked at him intently for a moment, and then smiled.
“That’s right, Charley told you about Santa, didn’t she? I’m not just dropping names, you know. We’re old acquaintances. I could take the pair of you to meet him! Preferably when Iris isn’t underfoot and causing chaos.”
“It would be lost on me. Along with the trees and the awful jumpers,” C’rizz insisted. He was trying to stay in the pits of self-recrimination, but there was something buoying him up despite his best efforts.
“Oh, the jumpers aren’t mandatory outside of a specific patch of twentieth and twenty-first century Western hemisphere. You wouldn’t have them in Australia, for example, during any century. Too hot. They don’t even always use the same tree? They’ve got a bush they go for, very festive. I should show the pair of you that, too. Australia in general, I think you’d like it, warm and primal. Mind, that’s if Tegan’s willing to put up with me on the same continent again. And it’s before the separation of Uluru and none of the local spirits recognize me. Hmm. Maybe not Australia.”
More names he didn’t recognize. C’rizz sagged back into the fur with something like relief, letting the Doctor’s voice roll over him without sinking in. The Doctor paused and seemed to see that he’d lost C’rizz, because he started again more brightly.
“Now the trees! There’s a thing. They’re evergreens like the one on your sweater, mostly. In Eastern Europe they go in for oaks, but Charley will have grown up with pines and firs and the like. They’d only just come into vogue in Britain before she was born, part of Victoria’s mixed legacy. Funny old tradition. Half borrowed from the Romans, more than half not. Pretty, though!”
A beat of silence. C’rizz caught himself listening with interest.
“The sort of traditional decorated tree really got going in the fourteenth or fifteenth century-- in three towns at once. Two are still arguing about which came up with it first-- I could go back and see, but I don’t think I want to. It doesn’t matter, because what mattered was that it was time for the idea; a combination of symbols nestled into human race memory. Evergreens, for eternal life. Candles for light in winter. Nothing exclusive to Christianity or any religion at all; some symbols are simply there. They come up again and again, in cycles, pop up when the conditions are right like mushrooms.” the Doctor said conversationally.
“I didn’t realize humans did that too,” C’rizz said, before he realized he was going to say anything.
“Mmm?” The Doctor blinked, eyes too blue, demeanor too innocent. It tugged at C’rizz, pulled at the confession under his tongue.
“The Church was like that. It started everywhere at once. The texts had been there since the dawn of writing but suddenly the faithful came to a new understanding, almost all at once. When I had faith, I thought that it was divine providence.”
“You don’t anymore?”
“No. Nothing in my universe was miraculous.” He shrugged a shoulder. It was barely visible but it felt as if it had taken a huge effort. “I assume it was Rassilon’s doing.”
“No reason to. Oh, he had his fingers in your church, but even he couldn’t have orchestrated everything-- no, I’d say your people developed their rites and rituals and understandings as independently as any other race. He gave you details, a seed to start from-- but everything starts from a seed. You wouldn’t be the first race to find meaning in cycles, even in a linear universe.”
The idea gaped like a pit inside his chestplates. If. If he didn’t have the poisonous certainty that his faith was a tool for Rassilon and nothing more… what then? He still couldn’t go back. Wouldn’t despair be better than nothing at all? Wasn’t being used better than being nothing?
Something shifted the fur around him, stroked down the scales over his cheek ridge. He startled; he hadn’t even heard the Doctor moving, let alone noticed he was reaching out to comfort him.
“It bothers you, doesn’t it?” the Doctor asked, gentle and kind as if he’d been torn into his component parts again and only the bouncy affectionate one had chosen to stay with C’rizz. He cupped C’rizz’s cheek for a moment before withdrawing his hand. “That Rassilon used your people. That he used you.”
“If it did, what then?” C’rizz said sharply. “I can’t change it. I can’t change what I am-- chameleonic mentally as well as physically. If I don’t like the truth it doesn’t make it not the truth, so why try to deny it?”
“He didn’t know you. He had no idea what you were or weren’t,” the Doctor objected.
“He knew I could be talked into betraying my closest friends for nothing more than a hopeful lie.”
“Do you think you’re the first person to be tricked by him? That your people were the first people he used? C’rizz, he started with mine, he’s tricked me. He’s a master of manipulation, he knew you were grieving. He knew you were lost and lonely and afraid that your friends were going to leave you. He’d have tricked a human or a Time Lord or a Pakhar or a Killoran the same.”
“He didn’t trick Charlotte.”
“She’d met him before. He wouldn’t be able to manipulate you again, either.”
“Wouldn’t he?” C’rizz interjected. “You don’t know how much I can change, Doctor. How much I have changed. I’ve been someone you wouldn’t -- wouldn’t like, and it felt as natural then as I feel now. I keep promising myself I’ll stay this person I like being, this person you and Charlotte make me, and then a Miraculite or a Rassilon or a Dalek agent comes along and suddenly I’m someone else. You’ve no idea the things I’ve done. Someday I’m going to turn on you again, someday I’m going to hurt you again, and Charlotte, and I don’t know when and I don’t know how to stop it, and you’re so -- fragile, you’re both so fragile-”
“Need I remind you that of the three of us, you’re the one who’s nearly died?” the Doctor said, not unkindly, but C’rizz shook his head.
“And how long would you have lasted on the operating table in the Cube? How long would she have?”
“All right, point taken, but--”
“Doctor, I’m not safe. I-- can’t. I can’t, I’m not strong enough to be who you need me to be. I change.”
“So do I.”
“Not like me.” The rest of the confession spilled out like cold blood, words coming out in clots and dribbles. “I didn’t know how sensitive her face was. I don’t know human limits. But I know Eutermesan ones, Doctor. I know how much force it takes to shatter a chest plate and pierce a heart. To crack a skull. To cut the scales over a throat. I know where to press to crush the windpipe, where to bend to break the plates over every joint. I’ve seen what it looks like when the old faithful scourge their back so often that the scutes don’t grow back and the bone thins and muscle begins to show through cracks when they bow in prayer-”
“And the idea of knowing any of those things about humans, about Charlotte, makes me want to curl up somewhere dark and never come out. But a Dalek wouldn’t feel that way, would it? And I could be a Dalek, Doctor. I felt the pull, I’ve had their voices in my brain, I felt myself beginning to understand them. I could be anything,” he moaned, and pulled the fur over his head. He didn’t want to meet the Doctor’s eyes if he’d finally understood-- and he didn’t have the strength to go on if the Doctor was still misguidedly determined to think the best of him.
And he wasn’t expecting the fur to be ripped off of him, the light to blaze down; his eyes snapped wide. The Doctor knelt in front of him, eyes blazing and somehow too dark, the wrong saturation and even the wrong hue; he gripped C’rizz’s shoulders so hard that he could feel the pressure of each finger through the thin sweater and his own thick plates.
“I am a complex space-time event,” the Doctor intoned, a strange edge on his voice, like the echo of distant thunder. He was reciting something, obviously, something he had heard, but it resonated in him and C’rizz had never thought he was really frightening before now. “I am Lord President of Gallifrey. The traveler from beyond time. I am the Sandman, the Oncoming Storm! I am the Ka Faraq Gatri, Destroyer of Worlds! And sometimes, only sometimes, I am your worst nightmare. Do you know who said that, C’rizz?” he growled, and the r in C’rizz’s name grated like a knife over stone, drawn out long.
He shook his head, pinned by the Doctor’s gaze.
And then the storm had passed: the thunder faded away. The Doctor’s eyes were their clear evening blue again, his voice soft and musical. He softened his grip; biting pressure became just the ruffle of scales, a comforting presence, a friend’s touch.
“Me,” the Doctor said, almost sadly. “I said that. And I meant it. And it was true.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” C’rizz managed to say through his shock, and meant it literally. That... hadn’t sounded like him at all.
“Not this me. But I haven’t always been this me, either. Time Lords change. It’s what we do. Talk about not knowing your own mind, I’ve been seven other me’s before I was me. I’ve been-- cunning and calculating; clever and cavalier; sporty and well mannered; strange and well, manic; flamboyant and wounded, gruff and well-meaning, prim and proper, I’ve been all of those things.”
“Impressive. Have you been practicing that?” C’rizz was appalled at himself the moment he said it, because it was so flippant, so disrespectful, the wrong reaction to the strange power he’d felt in the Doctor-- and yet somehow the flippancy had come naturally out of the fear and had felt right and felt welcome.
Even now he could feel himself mirroring the Doctor’s new enthusiasm; it was penetrating the darkness. Why couldn’t he even hold onto a good sulk? …or maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Was that his own thought or was that the Doctor’s current optimism at work?
The Doctor didn’t seem to mind that C’rizz had reacted without being suitably cowed. In fact, he gave him a knowing look before he pattered on.
“No! I don’t have to practice! This me is good at wordplay! Oh, but if you think that’s impressive you should have met me two selves ago: I could have gone on for five minutes with just one letter to work with. And between me and me there’s another me and with him it’s a tossup whether you’d get a mangled proverb or a quiet apology for the noose he’d just helped you wrap around your own neck.”
There was that flash of cloud in the Doctor’s bearing again, just for a second. An emotion brushing at C’rizz’s mind like a flicker of colour, the colour of a thunderstorm and the words ‘complex space-time event’ etcetera. But it was touched with — resignation? Acceptance? C’rizz struggled to follow along with the Doctor’s pattering, somehow sure that this was something he shouldn’t ignore, even if he didn’t quite understand what the Doctor meant, ‘other selves’ and ‘this me’ hinting at something important.
“You still are all the things you said, doctor. Cunning and wounded and prim and gruff, and all the rest of them,” he said, groping his way towards clarity.
“Exactly,” the Doctor said enthusiastically. “I’m the sum of my parts, just like you, but the sum comes out differently every time. Like you. The proportions of me change; the priorities change. I’m always the same person only I’m not. I know how it feels to have the lines shift-- to suddenly have a new set of rules, of the lines you draw shifting, all the things you Will Not and the things that you Will If You’re Backed Into a Corner switching places. I’ve looked back at the things I’ve done and cringed in horror and shame. And in my day I’ve looked forward at myself and whispered ‘coward.’”
“Doctor.” C’rizz murmured, horrified–more horrified than the Doctor, who had said this with only a little regret. “I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.” He’d had no idea that the Doctor had felt it too, that sensation of stepping out onto thin air because you weren’t who you thought you were. It was a guilt he hadn’t wanted anyone else to have to understand.
He reached out, touching the Doctor’s forehead where the crest should be; he hoped it was right, that this was comforting. He could feel the thinner skullbone under that frail, soft layer of skin, and he stroked just the pads of his fingers over the indent of the Doctor’s temple.
The Doctor reached up to cover his hand and press it close, tipping his head into the touch. He was so oddly cold for a mammal, but soft, his hair silky like the tassels of grain.
“I’m still me, though. And you’re still you. You’re stronger than you think.” The Doctor’s eyes searched his, as he leaned into C’rizz’s hand. “Do you realize you’ve sprung back from things that could destroy other people? You bend instead of breaking. Yes, you felt the pull of the Daleks, but you escaped their gravity when so many others have been consumed. Rassilon had his fingertips all over your psyche and you wiped them off and shuffled him to the back of your personality and moved forward. That’s not weakness. Not at all.”
“But that kind of strength-- I don’t want it if it means disappointing you.”
The Doctor patted his hand, once, pressed his cheek against firmly it against it one more time before he let go.
“I don’t think you will,” he said firmly. “Because I know you. The real you. You change, you choose who you are every day-- some days you’re pulled one way, some another, sometimes you’re pulled too far. But in the end there’s a constant in there. There’s a ‘you’ under it all who does the choosing, even when it’s hard. You don’t only react.” The Doctor’s headshake was so emphatic it sent his springy hair bouncing.
“You chose. You chose to leave your church because you were in love. What an exhilarating, terrifying risk! That’s not a man who passively mirrors his surroundings. You chose us over Rassilon, even when I seemed to be at my weakest and least reliable and he seemed to have all the power. It took you a while to get there, but you did. I have faith you always will get there in the end.”
“I want to believe that.”
“You should.” The Doctor’s eyes crinkled a bit more. “Do you realize when I scared you just now, and you came back with a snippy comment, you tossed your head a bit?”
“You’ve had Two Time Lords, one deity, one psychic bathtub mould, your rather imposing father, Davros and the Daleks all leave their imprint on you, just to name a few. That’s a lot of potential selves, a lot of big personalities. That’s a lot of choices to make. But every day you sound a little more like a spoiled public school boy from Hampshire. Sometimes you do a little chin lift as if you have hair you need to shake off of your collar, and your species can’t even grow hair.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with any of that,” C’rizz said, completely taken aback. Somehow the criticism rankled and he had an impulse–strangely familiar–to haughtily demand why one couldn’t toss one’s head if one wanted to, Doctor?
“Nothing’s wrong with it! It’s wonderful,” the Doctor said, beaming, all sunlight as if there had never been thunder.
...because he changed. He did. He was telling the truth. Oh, C’rizz had seen it before; the Doctor had been a well of pain and sorrow dressed up in manners when they had first met, only to transform into a glowing, confident stranger the moment he stepped back into his TARDIS–but it went further. Somehow he had once been someone else, someone with dark, sad eyes and an unexpected storm in his throat.
“You choose to reflect someone good, and moral, and kind, and strong,” the Doctor concluded. “That’s why I have faith in you. Because you recognize good. And you choose it.”
He leaned in and pressed a smacking kiss to C’rizz’s right brow-ridge before springing gracefully to his feet.
“Now. If that’s settled–”
As if you weren’t having your own bit of angst there, C’rizz caught himself mentally retorting, and yes, he knew exactly where that influence came from. ‘Spoiled Hampshire public school boy’ indeed.
“-Come back out and let Charley decorate you, because you aren’t dangerous, you aren’t weak, you aren’t destined to be a pawn, you aren’t destined to hurt her, you didn’t hurt her and we both know she’ll sulk a bit if she doesn’t get a proper Christmas.”
“Yes, Doctor.” It came out sounding resigned, and he had the strange sensation of really listening to his own voice-- and it sounded like Charlotte, a bit, like his thoughts had, but it wasn’t an imitation or a mockery. It was the part of her he kept with him. Did he choose it? It felt safe; it felt right. It felt like him, a him he wanted to be.
“Leave the coat, will you? Fur's not really for you, and I was shorter, then. Well. Not much shorter than me, but definitely shorter than you. It’ll never fit in the sleeves. We should find you the scarf, that’d be long enough.”
“Right. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
The Doctor chuckled and took his arm, helping him out of the pile of old clothing with that surprising strength of his.
C’rizz tailed obligingly along after him, as the unfamiliar corridors became mostly familiar ones again.
The conversation was repeating itself in his head, the Doctor’s certainty and the terrifying new ideas a chatter that drowned out the sleepy murmur of the voices of the dead. Could he really choose? He hadn’t ever… tried.
But then he’d never tried to change his skin to be anything besides what he felt or what he could see, until the Doctor and Charlotte. Why would anyone want to? The idea had been foreign. But now he was trying-- when neither of them could see him, because he wanted it to be a surprise. Blue and yellow polka dots like Charlotte had impulsively asked for, back in his own universe. It was hard to do, when there was no emotion he associated with the pattern and no conveniently polka-dot wall to instinctively mirror. But he was getting better and better at changing deliberately; he’d get it one of these days. And if he could choose blue and yellow polka dots, or whatever other pattern or colour, then perhaps…
Perhaps. He could make a more difficult choice, the next time, decide who he was both inside and out when it really mattered. He’d just have to practice that, too.