The skull shop had been nearer eight ‘o clock than the Doctor realised, close enough to be wobbling between reality and a dream. That was even more true here, in the street that she’d fallen to now. In this place, the universe was frayed as an ancient rug. Things that were unreal or too real might break through.
They clustered here, the people who’d never been born. She could feel them as they pressed against the world. Arms of light swiped out of the cobbles as she ran, each determined to drag her back to nonexistence.
There were shafts of light in the distance that could scare away the hands, far too bright for them to ever withstand. Handprints were thundering down the kerbside just behind her, painting it with colour against the grey of the night. Like a rain of paint, the Doctor thought, if it was angry and also hated her. She’d probably fought that, at some point or another.
She came up to a beam of light and threw herself in, not even registering the pain as she hit the ground. She exhaled sharply once she had landed, allowing herself to notice how exhausted she actually was.
“Oh,” said a voice to one side of her. “You’ve come back again.”
The Doctor opened her eyes, wincing as she was finally hit by the pain. There was an old woman looking at her disinterestedly, like she was a slightly unusual bit of rubbish.
“Have I?” said the Doctor, getting to her feet. “That’s annoying. This place is exhausting enough, without running through parts of it twice.”
The old woman looked at her more closely, studying her through the glass of enormous spectacles. It felt extremely uncomfortable, like being judged.
“No,” said the woman eventually. “Not you. I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were somebody else.”
“I was,” said the Doctor. “And now I’m me, instead.”
“Everyone was someone else once,” said the old woman in a matter of fact way.
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “You’re the same for so long, you forget it. Until one day when everything’s different, and there’s no going back anymore.”
It was totally quiet in the shaft of light, which shone from nowhere between the flat brick walls. The handprints pressed at the light up at one of the ends, straining to get through to their prey. They couldn’t succeed, of course. At least there was certainly in that.
“This isn’t a part of reality,” said the Doctor. “Not quite.”
“It’s not?” said the woman. “That explains where everyone’s gone.”
“Not really,” said the Doctor.
The silence continued.
“You’re not too bothered, then,” she added. “This whole unreality thing.”
The old woman stared down the glasses at the end of her nose.
“Doesn’t make so much difference to me,” she said. “I used to be left well alone. Didn’t want to bother anyone. And now there’s no one to bother. It suits me fine.”
A rat made of shadow was creeping over her as she spoke, more claw-like than the hands that pushed outside. The Doctor pulled out her scalpel, hoping its light would miss the woman when it struck–
–and before she could fire the woman was stuffing the rat into her mouth, swallowing it with a loud gulp.
“Now the food here I don’t like,” said the old woman. “It never tastes of anything.”
“It isn’t anything,” said the Doctor. “It’s only a shadow.”
“Then that’ll be why,” the woman said.
The silence came back once again.
It was very peaceful here, in its way, and the Doctor was an old woman herself. She could see how it might be nice here, if you’d finally had enough of it all.
“I’m sure you’re a bright young woman,” said the old woman.
“I’m older than you!” laughed the Doctor.
“You are? Then I must get to cleaning my glasses. But you’re a smart cookie, no matter if you’re old or young. And if this is all just shadows it seems to me– that there’s an awful lot of light around, isn’t there?”
“There’s a lot of light in darkness sometimes. It gets trapped here, just like you. You should see how bright it gets inside a black hole. You need the kind of sunglasses they have to wear on the sun.”
“Then you must be trapped here, too, if there’s no way out,” said the old woman. “You’ll have to talk less once you settle in. I’m too old for the hassle of speaking to people.”
“Don’t worry,” said the Doctor. “I’ll be out of your hair soon enough. Some people say nothing can get out of a place light can’t escape, but they’re not any of the ones who’ve met me.”
“Well,” said the old woman, “that’s a wrinkle. I’d assumed that you must be trapped here. It’d explain how you were there in that wall.”
The Doctor turned to look where she was pointing–
–to someone talking soundlessly within the wall, lit up inside of it like an image on a projector. She wouldn’t know they were looking at her; she couldn’t. You could see her into her world, but she would never see you.
She looked odd, the woman in the wall. She wore a long, white coat that somehow never seemed to get dirty. She had enormous bright suspenders that were as happy as her face. And that face, of course, was exactly the same as hers. The face that would look at you in the mirror, if it turned out you’d been the reflection all along.
“It’s not my eyesight playing tricks,” said the old woman. “That is you, exactly as I said.”
The woman beside her looked trapped as a frog in a jar. “No,” she said with a very heavy sigh. “That’s not me, not at all. That’s her, the real one.”
She looked at the face in the wall, and nodded very slightly.
“That’s the Doctor,” she said.