“He’ll be off in that TARDIS of his, soon as we’re out the door,” Jackie said, with as much authority as any of the day-late Christmas sermons Mickey had flipped past on the TV that morning. “You wait and see.”
“That or we’ll have the Fire Brigade out. You know what they said after last time.”
“’Cos you’d just hate that,” Mickey said, quietly enough to not get the back of his seat kicked. Jackie Tyler was not a woman you wanted to wind up when she was behind you in a Mini. “All those uniforms. Big blokes with hoses.”
“He’ll be fine,” Rose said, and if her mum was a sermon then she was the voice of God. “He won’t go off on his own, he won’t set the place on fire, he’ll lie on the sofa and eat the rest of the selection boxes Howard brought round and watch The Sound of Music. All right?”
Mickey glanced at the car mirror, tried to shoot Jackie a look of ‘don’t you dare upset her’. “Yeah, course he will. I’ll head back to the flat anyway, check he’s okay.”
So stupid that he’d known her six years, gone through hell for months while she swanned off with someone else, and she could still just smile at him like that and nothing else mattered. “Thanks,” she said, and leaned across to kiss him on the cheek. “It’s just… he was so ill, and I know he pretends like, oh, I’ve saved the world, everything’s back the way it was…”
“Pretends he’s too fragile to help with the washing up,” Jackie muttered from the back seat. “Come on, you know what your granddad’s like about being kept waiting.”
“I’ll come and get you in an hour,” Mickey shouted after them. The little plastic Santa in the nursing home window was grinning at him, arm jerking mechanically back and forwards. Creepy thing. He eyed it carefully for a minute before he pulled the car away from the kerb.
Four different radio stations were playing I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day, and all four DJs made the same crap joke about ‘so long as it’s not this Christmas’ and roared with laughter at their own brilliance. Mickey thought about that as he pulled up at the traffic lights. Sycorax and everything, was this Christmas worse than last year? Alien voodoo versus Jackie sobbing on his doorstep about how he’d murdered her daughter and getting a slap off Shareen Costello’s mum that he’d still felt on New Year’s Eve? Christmas Day spent fighting aliens with Rose versus Christmas Day spent getting off his face all by himself? No contest. The lights went green, the song changed to We Are the Champions, and Mickey turned the sound as high as it would go and for once didn’t feel stupid about singing along.
The flat hadn’t burnt down and the Doctor hadn’t disappeared; the microwave was in a hundred bits across the living room floor, but since it had fallen off the back of a Dixon’s lorry in the first place he didn’t think Jackie could complain too much. In the background, some singing nuns were bitching about the problem with Maria.
“I said we should have left you with some squeaky toys or something,” Mickey said. “D’you want tea?”
“Two sugars, thanks. And pass me the magnetron - no, not that one, that thing by the remote control. Have we got any biscuits? I think Jackie’s hidden them. Very unfestive.”
“So you killed the microwave. That’ll teach her.”
“I’m fixing it.” He held the sonic screwdriver against the magnetron and frowned at it. “Increasing its efficiency. Jackie might not notice now, but wait till the electricity bill comes in. You could save, ooh, pounds. I’m doing the TV next.”
“She’ll kill you,” Mickey told him. “You break the TV and she’ll actually murder you, and it’ll be muggins here gets blamed for letting her.” Of course, he thought as he picked his way across the pieces into the kitchen, he’d probably only come back again, with nicer hair. Some people were just too lucky.
There was a packet of Jammie Dodgers hidden behind the toaster. He considered leaving them there, then decided to be generous. It was Christmas, and Rose was safe and home - for however long - and nothing short of The Sycorax Strike Back was going to wreck his mood.
“Two sugars,” he said, carrying the mug out to the Doctor. “And biscuits. Don’t say I never do nothing for you.”
The Doctor drained half the tea in one go. “You’re being extra-specially nice to me,” he said. “Long may it continue. By the way, why does Jackie have a World’s Greatest Social Worker mug?”
“What, I can’t make you tea now? I’ve got to have some tea agenda?”
“Maybe it’s from Howard. I suppose it could have been meant euphemistically, but that seems a bit self-pitying.”
“It’s Christmas.” He stared down at his own Welcome to Guernsey mug, wondering if Jackie even knew where that was. “Even in World War I, they stopped fighting at Christmas. Went and played football with the Germans or whatever.”
The Doctor tapped the screwdriver thoughtfully against his chin. “Is it because I’ve suddenly become really good-looking?”
Mickey burst out laughing. “Oh, yeah, that must be it.” Then, telling himself it was only because there was nothing on TV except musical nuns and a Bond film he’d seen twenty times on DVD, he said, “D’you need a hand putting it back together?”
“Are you any good at fixing things?”
“No, useless, I spend all day at work sitting behind the steering wheel making ‘vroom, vroom’ noises.”
“As I secretly suspected.” The Doctor threw him a lunatic grin and the screwdriver and said, “Go on, then. Impress me.”
In a weird way — in the way that everything involving the Doctor was weird, all killer bins and blowing up Downing Street and alien voodoo — it was fun. Like building Airfix planes with his dad when he was a kid, only his dad hadn’t gone on about all the amazing alien planets he’d been to. Not even when he’d had a few.
Half an hour later most of the box was back together, with the odd worryingly important-looking bit still lying on the carpet.
“This would be easier,” the Doctor said, “if we had a ____.” The last word definitely had a ‘phasic’ somewhere in the middle, and might have started with ‘spasmoid’; Mickey made him repeat it twice and still wasn’t sure.
“Where’re we meant to get one of those, then?”
“Well, they won’t be invented till the thirty-third century,” he said. “Big microwave revolution after World War VI. There’s a fad for them for a bit: micro-mini-microwaves, microwave hats, pet microwaves…”
He could see where this was going. “No way.”
“Honestly! They were on little wheels, people used to take them for walks in Hyde Park. Spears Park as it was by then, of course.”
Mickey glared at him. “I meant, no, we’re not going to the thirty-third century or whenever.”
“Come on, you’ll love the future! It’s exactly like the present, except the shops are open.” He actually bounced on the spot, a bored little kid stuck indoors when there was a game on outside. “We could go to the summer, if you like. Last summer, you could see England win the World Cup again. You’d like that. Or anywhere. Somewhere. Come on, Rose would never know we’d gone.”
He wavered, just for a mad second when going off in the TARDIS sounded like a brilliant idea, best thing in the world, and then caught himself. Rose never knowing they’d gone, that’d be all right till they came back and it was a year or two or ten later.
“I got warned in primary school about men like you,” he said, keeping it funny, pretending the offer had only been a joke. “There was a song and everything.”
“Always Go Off With Men in Timeships Because It’s Really Interesting and Exciting. Could be the new Christmas number one.”
Mickey concentrated on fitting together the casing. “’Interesting and exciting’, yeah. Rose told me about everywhere you and her have been to. Never the Planet of Jelly and Ice Cream, is it? It’s the Earth blowing up and German air-raids and killer robot armies destroying the whole world, and Rose talks about it like it’s this big adventure.”
He expected the Doctor to argue that it was a big adventure: if you were up for it, if you were brave like him and Rose, if you didn’t mind that you might never come back and your mum and everybody else would spend every day of the rest of their lives listening for the TARDIS’s engines. But the Doctor just sat back on his heels and looked at him, looked hard, and Mickey found himself blurting out, “You know what they said, about the shop dummies, all the people that died? They said it was terrorists in masks, that they’d released this gas that made people hallucinate. They said it over and over and everybody wanted to believe it, so they did. When the police questioned me ‘cos they thought I’d killed Rose they kept talking about the gas, saying maybe I’d gone mental and murdered her and if I confessed I’d probably get off with manslaughter. And it got so I started to think, what if none of it was real? What if everybody was right and I’d killed her and just made you up so I didn’t have to remember?”
“I’m sorry,” the Doctor said quietly, but Mickey couldn’t stop.
“But I took over the website, and I had all these pictures and stuff of you, and that was real, I couldn’t have imagined it. I spent a year chasing you, looking for Rose in history books, old newspapers, like if I could find her then I could show somebody else, they’d know it was all true.
“Then this woman emailed. Journalist, said she wanted to see me. I thought she was from some tabloid, but I went to her house…” He shook his head, wanting to laugh thinking about it, even with everything he’d seen since. “She had a robot dog. She was reading me the riot act, trying to warn me off, this big thing about how if I hurt you she’d, I dunno, drop me off a bridge. And all I could look at was this cheap-looking little metal dog rolling around her living room.”
“There’s your proof, then.”
“Nah. Show people a robot dog and they’ll go, oh, it must be Japanese. People’ll believe anything. But I knew. It’s nice, knowing you’re not secretly mental.” Two of the pieces wouldn’t fit together, however he turned the sonic screwdriver. He put them down on the carpet. “She traveled with you, didn’t she? She didn’t say, but the way she talked about you…”
The Doctor was quiet for a long moment, and then he said, “Sarah Jane,” as if that explained everything. “Was she… all right?”
He shrugged. “Nice flat. Nice dog, for a robot.” Another sort of proof: you could travel in the TARDIS and come back to the real world, paying the gas bill and getting up for work and living your life in a straight line. “She said to say hello.” And while he was passing on messages, he decided to go for broke. “Oh, if you know somebody called Jo in Cardiff, she sends her love or whatever. And this girl sent me an email saying her gran used to tell her stories about you when she was really little, so if you know a Barbara Chesterton, she probably says hello as well.”
The Doctor stared at him, open-mouthed.
“Lots of people saw the website,” Mickey said.
“Barbara… Chesterton?” the Doctor said, and his voice went strange on the last word.
“Nothing. No reason at all. Look at that, finished.” Mickey could have sworn there were still a dozen bits to piece together but there the microwave was, good as new — or good as it had been — and while he was puzzling that out the Doctor got up, grabbed his coat from the back of the sofa and walked out.
Mickey definitely didn’t run after him. He walked, or at least he slowed down to a walk after he turned onto the street where the TARDIS was standing. The Doctor was outside the doors, one hand raised against the wood frame — but he wasn’t holding the key, Mickey realized. He was just standing there, touching the ship.
“Look, three things Rose said I’m not allowed to do, all right? Let you drive; let you and Jackie alone in the same room for more than five minutes; and let you go near the TARDIS without her. You think I’d ever ever hear the end of it if you went off to the Planet of the Squid Monsters and never came back?”
“I’d come back! I always come back!” He scratched the back of his head, frowning a bit, like he was surprised to find hair there. “Well, I say always. I might not be in exactly the same body, depending on how unfriendly the squid monsters were…”
“What’s up, anyway?” Mickey asked.
And then the Doctor was grinning and grinning, and before Mickey could get out of the way he was lifted off his feet and spun around. “Leave it out,” he gasped when he was finally released.
“She married Ian. And I knew, I knew, just like I knew Sarah and all the rest would be fine, but I never wanted to go and look because it’s all a bit quantum, isn’t it, once you look then that’s the answer forever and ever and what if it’s one you don’t like?” He blinked up at the sky, that grin still stretching across his face, the world’s biggest kid given the world’s best present. Mickey edged backwards, in no rush to be hugged again. “That’s the first thing they tell you, y’know. That you can’t interfere. Look but don’t touch. Even when I was a kid I thought: how stupid’s that? Just looking? Looking changes the whole world.”
He almost said but you don’t know they stayed married, you don’t know they were happy, you never went back to look so anything could have happened to them. He almost said have you told Rose about all the people who went back to Earth in the end? What about the ones that didn’t? A year ago, he would have said it.
The Doctor had his arms wrapped around himself, nearly vibrating with glee, and Mickey scuffed a cloud of ash from the kerb and remembered it was Christmas, and for once he’d got the one thing he’d asked for. “Come on,” he said instead. “Rose and Jackie’ll be waiting for that lift. I’ll even let you drive.”