Christmas is the time of light beating out the darkness. A time of truth, whose beauty we cannot hide. A time for good men, and the good that comes from honouring them. A time of winter, that tells us that winter ends. And in the darkest moment of the season, the Doctor keeps his watch on Trenzalore.
But the Doctor wasn't keeping watch that night when the parcel thunked into his bedroom. Instead, he was deep asleep, dreaming of the many things that troubled him. He only awoke when the parcel had rolled halfway across his room, slowly making its way towards his wooden bed. Springing to life, the Doctor thrust his sonic screwdriver at the package, thoughts racing through his strangely-proportioned head. In the hundred-odd years since he’d holed up on Trenzalore, nothing had broken into this room, every threat unable to break through the complex series of traps the Doctor had disguised as children’s toys. His enemies must be getting smarter– perhaps the parcel contained a Chronos Bomb, or a sentient war machine? It was with shaking hands that the Doctor drew his screwdriver, blasting the parcel until its paper burst to flame. He steeled himself as the wrapping burned away–
–to reveal a battered old Cyberman’s head, now even more the worse for wear.
“Handles!” said the Doctor. “Gave me a bit of a fright, old chum. Thought you were one of the monsters out to get me, instead of the ones who—” he hesitated “—do whatever it is you do.” He picked up his broken friend carefully, the heat of the fire still warming the metal skin.
“I am not. Out to get you,” said Handles. “I am. A present. From myself. To mark the time. Of Christmas.” His eyes began to flash red and green in horrible shades, and a sound an emotionless race might have mistaken for music blared out of his slitted mouth.
“Well, I’d appreciate the sentiment, Handles, but ‘sentiment’ isn't exactly something your lot are known for. Expect I’ll regret asking this, but why would a Cyberman give anyone a gift?”
“I have studied altruism in. The creatures made. Of flesh. The vampire bats. Of Earth. Give blood gifts to. The hungry. So that they. May get blood. When they starve. By proving my. Utility to you. I make myself. Indispensable. A gift is. A survival strategy. The Cybermen. Will survive.”
“Yes, well, it's the thought that counts. How did you do it, anyway? You're all wrapped up! You can't even move of your own accord, let alone cover yourself in this very lovely paper. Pardon the pun, but how could you have presented yourself like this?
“I am. Part of a race. Who spread throughout. The universe. We did not. Do so. Through. Inferior intelligence.” The emotionless head looked almost put out. “Additional. I have had. Over a hundred years. To plan.”
“Well, it's good to know you’ve been putting the decades to good use, while I’ve been repeatedly saving the planet,” sighed the Doctor. “I thought, ‘That Handles, he won't be wasting his time thinking up a way to beat the thousands of hostile races up in the sky. No, he’ll be finding out how to give himself to me as a gift! It's certainly the best way to make sure we all survive.”
“Agreed,” said Handles, noting the matter was settled. “Additional. I have. An urgent. Message.”
“What's that? Wishing you an emotion-free season? All I want for Christmas is a relatively painless Cyberconversion?”
“Negative. Message proceeds: A multiversal breach. Has occurred.”
The Doctor suddenly felt a good deal less festive.
Handles continued: “Something from. Another universe. Has ripped through. To our own. It is coming. To Trenzalore. It is coming. For you.”
“Your lot, Handles?” said the Doctor. “The robots of Cybus Industries, back for another fight?”
“Negative”, said Handles, sounding the closest a Cyberman could get to sad. “The Cybermen. Of that universe. Have been. Eradicated.”
“Eradicated?” said the Doctor. “But that's not possible; you can't wipe out the Cybermen! Get rid of them once and more’ll just pop up, like mould or rude comments on Twitter. Something that could change that,” he went on, “would have to be very powerful indeed.”
“All threats. To that universe. Have been. Eradicated. The Daleks. The Wirrin. The Sect of. The Dome. They have all. Been destroyed. By the thing. That is coming.”
This version of the Doctor still looked young. But really he was very old, and had triumphed over monsters so many times that rarely anything scared him. But he looked frightened now as he listened to his friend, white as the snow that choked the world.
“Update,” said Handles. “I have received. The assignation. Of the thing. That is coming.”
“What is it, Handles?” said the Doctor, who already knew. “What’s its name?”
“Assignation: The Doctor. The Doctor. Is coming. Assignation: The Doctor. The Doctor. is coming.”
“What a lovely Christmas surprise,” said the Doctor through clenched teeth.
Snow howled round the Doctor as he made his way to the low valley that stretched beyond the village. Normally, the Doctor would have sensed the arrival of another Time Lord by the feeling of space and time distorting, that sense all his people had when a TARDIS slotted into the world. But Handles had said the Doctor who was coming to Trenzalore was beyond needing any form of transport. There would be no indication that he had arrived– he’d just insert himself into the world, like a new word pasted into a document.
But the Doctor could find his other self easily enough: he just needed to follow the flames.
There are creatures who feast on guilt, the Festerflame. Whenever you ache over cruel things you have done, they hunch beside you eating at your pain. But the greatest guilt a human can feel is not enough for us see them– our lives and they shadows they cast are both some way too short. And the Doctor had been free of them for most of his lives: he'd moved around so much they had no way of catching him up. But the Doctor had been in the village for a long time now, and his past had begun to catch up with him.
The flames spun round the place where they always did; round the graveyard not far past the town, where one day the Doctor would himself lie dead. But there were more of them, now, raging and crackling, throwing off light that lit the night sky orange. The Doctor’s other self stood at the heart of his own guilt, as if he could never have been anywhere else.
He was standing in the centre of that graveyard, smiling. It was a long time now since the Doctor seen this version of himself — stick thin and suited, effortlessly cool — but it was still clear that this Doctor had lasted longer than he should. His skin was now marked with gentle wrinkles; the first flecks of grey were appearing in his hair. This form of the Doctor had been reluctant to die, and it seemed there was at least one universe where he had not.
The two Doctors walked towards each other and nodded, like cowboys before a duel. Above them both, the Festerflame blistered and seethed.
“So this is your universe,” the other Doctor said. “Can't say I’m fond of the place; bit of a rubbish effort on your part. A C Plus! See me after class.”
“I’ve kept it safe,” said the Doctor softly. “Not that it's been easy. Been here a long time, fighting. I’ll be here a long time still.”
“Well,” said the other Doctor. “Not sure safe is the word I’d use. Monsters orbiting the planet; Daleks massing in the sky. Not about to sit down with a cuppa, let's put it that way.”
“There are always threats,” said the Doctor. “Always monsters. We keep them back ‘cause it's all we can do, keep the light on burning. But no light keeps darkness away forever.”
“Nice lesson,” said the other Doctor. “One problem with it, though. It isn't true. It's a bit different to this, my universe. I’ve… redeveloped it. Time was, I’d be all ‘Do I have the right?’ when thinking about wiping out monsters– but I’m the last god left in my universe; of course I have the right. The responsibility, come to that.”
“That isn't true,” said the Doctor.
“Says you! But look at where thinking that's got you. Trapped in an endless winter, fighting a battle you know you’ll lose.”
The Doctor from another universe looked the Doctor of Trenzalore right in the face, with eyes as old as human eyes are not.
“Why are you even doing this, at that? I can feel this planet’s future, even now. The timeline’s burning with it. This place will die; you’ll go along with it. But you could run, leave Christmas to its fate. There's always another world to save.”
“Bit stuck, I'm afraid. No TARDIS,” said the Doctor, telling a bit of the truth. “And also I don't want to,” he said, telling the other bit. “I’ve said I’ll keep this village safe.”
“But you don't,” said the other Doctor. “Not in the end. Might not be today, might not be these people. But one day, you will lose here.”
“Time can be rewritten,” said the Doctor, looking at his feet.
“Too right it can! It can be rewritten in blood. I saw that crack as I was coming here. Heard our old friends the Time Lords muttering away to themselves. They break through to find thousands of warships, it's not just Christmas that burns. And you're the key to it, Doctor, aren't you? You're risking a universe for a single town. And I bet you think that's the act of a hero, and not of a total idiot.”
The flames above them seemed to react to that. They flared bright orange in the sky, most intense above the ground where the Doctor stood. Sparks flew down around him, singing his crisp bow tie.
“Ooh, that's had an effect, hasn't it?” said the other Doctor. “That's a thought you’ve had, zinging round in that head of yours. ‘Cause I wondered when I turned up, why are the Festerflame here? Not above your house or under your bed, but circling a graveyard out of town…”
He looked his other self right in the eyes.
“The graves are here because of you,” he said.
The Doctor’s body was still young, on the outside. But for a moment he looked as old as he really was, bent by so many lifetimes of grief..
“It was a long time ago,” said the Doctor. I’d been here 23 years. I’d got good at fighting the monsters by then; they didn't often make it to the village. And so our soldiers weren't prepared when–”
“What was it?” asked the other Doctor. “What did you take them to fight?”
“I don't even know!” laughed the Doctor. “There are places in space and time we hide from, aren’t there? Where even a Time Lord is scared to go? And the thing that killed these men was from one of them. An impossible thing, all sticks and teeth. It’s funny, you know. I fought so many monsters for those men, and before that day they’d never seen me scared.”
He looked sadly at the graves.
“The fight was… hard. Brutal. But there was a point when we’d almost won, when the thing was stuck full of weapons and weighed down in the snow. Problem was, it’d got someone, clutched in its bits that weren’t like hands. Rodenald was his name. Used to sculpt rude things in the snow. Killing the creature then… the death spasm would’ve been furious, crushed Rodenald into dust. I thought there was another way. And if it had worked… well, I’d have saved everyone.”
“But it didn’t, did it?” said the other Doctor. “It didn’t end up working at all.”
The Doctor sighed. “No. What I tried… it gave the monster time to get back on its feet, to start killing again. And I beat it, of course, I always beat them in the end. But by the time I had, they were all dead– Rodenald, of course, but the rest of them, too.” Tears filled up his eyes. “They were all just gone.”
“You risked countless lives to save a single man,” said the other Doctor. “You’re so used to that working, I suppose, you don’t think much about what happens when it doesn’t.”
“It’s not about working,” said the Doctor. “If I didn’t try to save everyone, well. Then I wouldn’t be the Doctor anymore.”
“Nonsense,” said the other Doctor. “I’m still the Doctor, and to be perfectly frank” — he glanced up at the monster-strewn sky — “I’ve saved more people than you. Those monsters you mentioned that we don’t like to think of, well… don’t think of them much myself. Don’t have to anymore, ‘cause I killed them all. All of the monsters — in the darkness, under the bed — they’re gone now, and they’re never coming back. So I can leave my universe, know it’ll be fine when I get back. ‘Cause being the Doctor’s not about keeping a code,” he grinned, “it’s about saving the world.”
“You’re very confident you know what being the Doctor’s about,” said the Doctor softly. “Tell me, because I’ve wanted to know since you’ve got here. That man, that brave, kind man. Did you look him in the eyes, when you watched him die?”
The other Doctor reeled back, shocked.
“Don’t go looking like that,” said the Doctor, “I’m you; I know why you’re still alive. I know the choice you made, ‘cause I almost made it myself.” He shuddered. “I came so close. Wilfred Mott. You could have saved him, sacrificed yourself. And you didn’t, did you? You chose your life over his.”
“Oh, get off your high horse!” shouted the other Doctor, angry now. “You think that was even a choice? We’ve saved the universe countless times. We saved all of reality. If someone else had done that, or some machine, we’d sacrifice lives for it without thinking. But when it’s us that has that power, when we’re what the universe needs, we ran away from that fact because we’re scared! But running doesn’t change the fact that you have that power,” he said with narrowed eyes, “it doesn’t absolve you. You could have bought the Daleks down, burned the Cybermen to ash. I know, because I. Did. It. And yes, I looked him in the eyes. I saw his shock, his anger. And I did it because he was right to be angry; I betrayed him, and the least I could do was look him in his eyes. But that's more than you did for the men in these graves, isn't it? There was more justice for Wilf than them.”
The Festerflame seemed to react to that Doctor, as they too grew furious with rage. The spinning flames were now a great halo of light above the two men, and embers cracked down like lightning as their argument wore on.
“Wilf’s death made me realise,” said the other Doctor, “that I’d been so caught up on what I might become, I’d not thought about what I was. About the children I never even saw, dying at the hand of a madman I’d spared. About the planets I’d never heard of burned by a species I’d let live. Did you look them in the eyes, Doctor? The people who’ve died in this universe because of those monsters up there, the ones you could have stopped and never did? Because of a story you’ve told yourself, because of the Doctor? That’s the real arrogance, that’s ego. To refuse to save billions, if it means you can’t look in the mirror.”
He stopped, and shivered from the cold as if noticing it for the first time. When he spoke again, it was with a softer voice.
“How long do you think it’ll last, Doctor? This universe, after you’re gone? The Earth’s invaded every Tuesday; it’s not got much of a hope. And the rest of it… it needs you. Or at least,” he looked stern, “it needs someone.”
“You’ve come here to kill me,” said the Doctor flatly. “To end my life, and take my place.”
“I’ve come here to let your guilt take its course,” said the other Doctor. “But yes, I want to do to this universe what I did to my own. Keep it safe, purge it of the monsters. Figured I’d start with the one I knew most well.”
He looked up at the crackling flames.
“Let them come, Doctor,” he said. “Let the Festerflame take your life. You’ve saved so many people; you’ve been a good man. But now’s the time for someone to take your place.”
The Doctor looked up at the fire, his expression impossible to read. Perhaps he was tempted then; perhaps there was a part of him that longed for death. Or perhaps he knew how to fool his other self, for he had fooled himself for a very long time.
“Why did you do it?” he said at last. “Why did you let Wilf die?”
The other Doctor laughed. “I’d’ve thought that was obvious,” he said. “I killed him to look the same…”
He gasped, and clasped his hand to his mouth. The fires above them erupted in blue and gold.
“Funny thing about Trenzalore,” said the Doctor, “You can’t lie here. Not even to yourself. Oh, you’ve spun yourself a story about how you’ve been doing the right thing. But that’s not why you did it, not really. It was fear that drove you, and vanity. I know, Doctor. In a place like this, I’ve learned about so many of the lies we both told ourselves…”
“Yeah,” said the other Doctor angrily, “So perhaps I killed him for bad reasons. Isn’t that better for you? ‘Cause it seems to me my world is still better, its people still safer. If I’d been noble it wouldn’t scare you as much, would it? But you can’t live with the idea of what I actually am. The thought that I could be selfish, and vain, and still have been better at being the Doctor.”
“You’ve gone against everything the Doctor is,” said the Doctor softly. “I thought that if I ever did that I’d recognise it, go by another name. But I wouldn’t, would I? Once you forget what the name of the Doctor means, you’re not fussed if you carry on using it.”
“It means nothing,” said the other Doctor. “It’s just a word, only a name. It’s a promise to do right,” he smiled. “But I’ve done that, in my own way.”
The flames were broiling now, slamming into each other. The Festerflame were no longer acting as individuals, but as a single, pulsing mass, furious and ready to feed. They wouldn’t hold off for much longer. The Doctor looked up at them with steel-like eyes.
“You’ve saved a great many people,” agreed the Doctor. “And you’re right, when it comes down to it. Doctor. It's just a word, only a name. But names can matter more than we know.”
He chuckled to himself, in his soft, low laugh that had come before empires fell.
“Take this place. Centre of my guilt; site of my future grave. What do you think it's called?”
“Don't know; don't care,” said the other Doctor. “Can't say I’ll think much about it, off dashing round saving the universe. If it was even worth giving a name to, I’d think it would be…”
His eyes widened, and there was a terrible pause. Static burst around his horrified form.
“No,” he said at last. “NO! I’m not…”
“A clutch of graves in a valley of sorrow,” said the Doctor. “Only one good name, for a place like this. They call it…”
“NO!” said the other Doctor again. “I helped people and saved worlds and did what I thought was right…”
“...they call it the Valeyard,” said the Doctor.
A surge of fire slammed into a broken man.
The graveyard was quiet now, and darker. Here and there a few strands of Festerflame fell through the sky, melting the snow to rain. But almost all of the alien fire was spent now, having scored and blackened the other Doctor’s body to a ruin. He was unconscious, now barely alive. The Doctor leaned over him with ear clasped to the chest, desperate for a sign of beating hearts.
He sighed, and held his other self’s hand in his. Slowly, the darkness was replaced by a gentle glow, the colour of the Festerflame but absent of the fury. Orange light spilled over the fallen snow…
...then sputtered, and gave out to darkness again. The Doctor could heal anyone, within limits– but the last of his power to do so was now gone. With his last regeneration energy spent, he would now truly begin to grow old.
There hadn’t been enough of the orange light to heal the other Doctor completely. His skin was still blackened; his body swollen and scarred. But there had been enough to let him live, and the Doctor watched as he choked once more to life.
“Ha!” he said. “You’ve let me live. After everything I said, what I told you I would do. You couldn’t just let me die.”
“I’m the Doctor,” said the Doctor with a sad smile. “That’s not the sort of thing I do.”
“Oh, that’s very noble,” spat the other Doctor. “Everyone, listen to the man who’s over here being noble! Except they can’t; they’re too busy being dead.”
He got uneasily to his feet, wincing in pain as he did.
“This place,” said the other Doctor, gesturing to the graves. “It’s everything that’s wrong with us, with the Doctor. The oath doesn’t work because it’s dishonest, and irresponsible. If you hold to it too long you’ll kill more people than you save. Seems good on the surface, right enough. Some of the worst things in the universe do, before you really look at them.”
He looked up at the night sky, to a point somewhere below where the Festerflame had been. If you had seen him you would have thought he was looking at nothing, because you are not cursed with the knowledge of the Lords of Time. But he could see a clear thread weaving its way around the graves, a thin shadow of the lives that the Doctor had lived.
“Seeing it now, here at the end,” said the other Doctor. “So much time running, or guilty, or hiding in the shadows. So much time that could be better spent, so much universe we both failed to save. We failed so many people, because of the oath of the Doctor.” He smiled. “Maybe it’s no use fighting fate, eh? Maybe it’s time for another name.”
He looked straight into the Doctor’s eyes.
“I can’t stop you here, or now. But I can stop this from happening, I think. I can swim through your timeline, take back your lives. Fight for the people the Doctor could never save. Make hard decisions; know when I can’t save everyone. Stop pretending I don’t have the power I have. I’ll spend your lives fighting for the universe, and I’ll do it in the name…”
He looked round sadly at the graves.
“...of the Valeyard.”
Suddenly he roared, buckling over in pain.
“Need a new body to do it, though!” he said. “This one's gone through the wringer. Not keen on regenerating, more of a new shell I need. Same man; bit of a new look.”
He looked at the swirling forms that made up the Doctor’s past.
“If I had enough power, I could pull my old faces right out of time,” he said. “Wear them without losing this body’s mind. But they’re too entangled, caught up in events.” He paused. “Except, of course…”
“...there was a Doctor who never was,” said the Doctor sadly. “You regenerated into yourself, but as you did a face popped up in your mind. His face. You told yourself you stopped yourself turning to him ‘cause you were afraid of what he’d become. But that was another lie. You just wanted to keep being handsome, and keep being you.”
“I thought we were rid of him,” said the man who was now the Valeyard, “rid of that face, and rid of what it meant. But that’s not how stories work out, is it? Some things always come back in the end.”
He smiled. “It’s neater, at any rate. Thirteen lives should have thirteen faces. Don’t you think it’s time we saw the final one?”
“No,” said the Doctor.
“That’s your problem,” said the Valeyard, “you’re never keen to see the things that you might be missing.”
Blue light spun down from the sky and surrounded the Valeyard’s form, covering him in a liquid way. There was a furious glow, and an indescribable sound– then the Valeyard stood there with his new body, which the Doctor had seen a very long time ago.
“New hairline,” muttered the Valeyard. “That’s depressing. Still,” he looked contemptuously at the Doctor, “looks fade with time, I suppose.”
He drew himself up to his full, impressive height.
“Anyway, best be off to your past,” he said to the Doctor. “Not to be rude, but this place… well, I really want to go.”
The Doctor watched as blue strands of light unwound themselves from the Valeyard, weaving their way up to his timeline above. Slowly, his other self’s body wound away to a knot of blue lines, which swam up to the sky, and then was gone.
The Doctor stood silent, alone against the dark and the snow.
“Well,” he said after a while. “That’s that loose end tied up.”
He stood there for a long time, after that. Perhaps he was waiting to see if the Valeyard would succeed, and wipe this version of history from the world– but as time passed and nothing changed, it became clear his other self had failed. Was the Doctor relieved at that, or was a part of him dismayed? If you had been there that night he would have told you, for you cannot lie on Trenzalore, and you cannot hold onto a truth for long. But as it was there was no one there that night, and so none of us will ever know.
Christmas is a time of darkness against a tiny light. A time of truth, from which we cannot hide. A time for good men, and the fear that we are not among them. A time of winter, when winter has long to go. And in the darkest moment of the season, the Doctor keeps his watch on Trenzalore.