The Philosophy of Old Soldiers
The Doctor wakes as the TARDIS comes to a halt and his eyes open. He stares blankly at the ceiling, the scent of sand and heat and smoke still clinging to the fibres of the coat surrounding him. His mouth is desert dry. Across his skin, the pin pricks of artron energy pinch uncomfortably as his body reforms around him, but he can’t muster the energy to move. His eyes flicker shut and the image of a bright red button jutting menacingly from a brass box flashes across his mind and he opens his eyes with a gasp. He rolls onto his side, heaving weakly. She - someone? - told him he’d survive but he has no desire to. He’ll just lie here awhile, let the pain of regeneration wash through him, wait for it to pass. However that may be.
There’s a sudden hammering at the TARDIS door and the Doctor sits upright abruptly, goggling at it. He had been travelling alone hadn’t he?
Yes, must have been. He wouldn’t have taken anyone else with him for the last task he remembers carrying out.
Still though, someone is definitely hammering at the door.
Probably someone curious about why a blue box has landed somewhere there has never previously been a blue box before. They’ll give up. Life forms are remarkably resilient to change.
“Doctor!” the call comes from outside and the pounding intensifies.
Regeneration hallucination. It has to be.
“Doctor!” the call comes again.
The TARDIS hums loudly and there’s no ignoring that, it thrums through his bones and his mind, insistent and determined.
The Doctor rolls up to his feet and carefully tests each foal-weak limb. He feels tired, wrung out and the constant background noise of the universe is one huge, screaming blank. For an instant he probes that space, like a child with a gap in his gum where a tooth had once stood, and the pain and grief passes through him like a bolt of lightning. The TARDIS hums another warning and it is her strength that gathers his tattered mental controls and knits them into something approaching a wall.
On autopilot, barely remembering why, or even what, he is doing, the Doctor staggers towards the door of the TARDIS and pulls it open. He keeps staggering right out of the door and all but collapses into the man who had been thumping on his door some seconds earlier.
Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart steadies him with a firm grasp. “Doctor?” He looks him over, concern stealing across his features. “Are you quite alright?”
“I…” The Doctor looks around himself in bewilderment. He appears to be in a moderately small flat. Outside he can hear the bustle of a busy city. “How did I get here?”
Alistair’s lip twitches in a way that, if not for his obvious worry, might have been a smile. “You really must learn to steer that contraption of yours, Doctor. You just materialised in my front room.” He narrowly eyes the Doctor for another long moment, taking in his the unfocused gaze and lurching movements, the obvious weakness and uncharacteristic confusion, the thin tendrils of orange energy still curling over his wrists and throat. “New regeneration?”
The Doctor seizes on this explanation. “Yes. Yes, must be.”
Alistair takes another look at the strange, battered looking man standing in front of his coffee table, at the open doors of the blue box settled in the corner, “Well, sit down Doctor,” he waves a hand at the sofa. “I’ll make us a cup of tea.”
When he comes back with a pair of dark blue mugs, the Doctor is seated, not on the comfortable cushions, but on the edge of the table. Every few seconds, his hand shoots out to tap the wooden side of the TARDIS, a few irregular beats, as though checking it is still there. Alistair pushes one of the cups into his hands and the Doctor’s skin has always been cold, inhumanly so, enough to put years on him on the few times (more than a few times) they’ve found him unconscious on the floor of his lab, or the Master’s cell, or the lair of whatever alien had designs on earth that week, but this is something else: cold like ice and a fine tremor running through him.
“What’s happened, Doctor?” he asks, intensity and a just a tiny hint of fear that he can’t quite hide colouring his tone.
It does the job though and the Doctor’s head comes up to look at him. “Brigadier,” he says, as though only now recognising him.
“Yes,” Alistair says patiently, not bothering to point out that he has long since retired. “You’ve regenerated, Doctor. You’re not well.”
The Doctor nods, a blankness in his eyes that frightens Alistair more than he cares to admit. He takes an absent drink of the tea and his empty hand darts again tap, tap, tap and then drops back into his lap. “Tea,” he states.
Alistair waits. The Doctor used to enjoy telling him the exact blend from the exact province of India or China. He doesn’t add anything. Wrongfooted, after too long a silence, it is Alistair who picks up the conversational thread. “Just Tetley’s. And I don’t claim that it’s as good as Miss Grant’s, Mrs Jones’ now, but you need warming up.”
The Doctor nods, still blank, obedient as a child, and takes another drink.
“What has happened, man?” Alistair says again, an instinctive note of command creeping into his voice now, pushing the fear aside as his old friend’s anxiety begins to infect him. They have stood together through far too many crises for him to ignore the Doctor’s unsettling state. The Doctor might be significantly more melodramatic than anyone else he’d ever met, but he is always composed and never never has Alistair seen him so obviously despairing.
“Report, soldier,” the Doctor mutters and Alistair watches, dread curling around his heart as once again he reaches out for the comfort of his TARDIS. Tap, tap. For a moment, he thinks this is the old disdain for military protocol once again rising to the fore, but then the Doctor answers his own command, in short clipped sentences, with no wry sarcasm or even genuine anger.
“The War...it was too much. Too many dead. They were going to...they were going to keep destroying stars, solar systems, timelines. So I had to do it. I ended it. It’s all over.”
Alistair is starting to recognise some of the Doctor’s symptoms now, not just regeneration sickness but battle fatigue. He regrets not putting a slug of whiskey in the Doctor’s tea.
Old habits rise to the surface. He’s sat with more than one battle shocked soldier and the Doctor is no more equipped for war than the greenest raw recruit. “Are you injured?” always the first question. He doesn’t get an answer. “Doctor. Are you hurt?”
“No. Not anymore.”
Which, of course, means the battle was, quite literally, deadly. In his experience, that usually means messy too, and he suppresses the expression he wants to make, forcing himself to stay calmly impassive. “Is there,” there is no delicate way to ask. “Is there anyone we should go back for?”
The Doctor flinches, tea slops over the side of the mug and onto his hand, reddening the skin. “No. There’s no one. They’re all dead. Everyone.”
“You did everything you could,” Alistair reassures instantly. He has known the Doctor for most of his adult life and there is not a single doubt in his mind.
“I-” for a moment he looks as though he’s going to be sick and Alistair watches as he pulls himself upright with that determined strength that he once used to depend on and rail against in equal measure. “I killed them.”
It is Alistair’s turn to blanch.
The Doctor gives a hard biting smile, one intended to wound himself as much as Alistair. “That shocks you, Brigadier?”
“Well,” it changes nothing of course, he knows, knows with a gut deep certainty that most men reserve for religion, that the Doctor must have had his reasons. Though he can’t imagine what they must be to push the man who had so abhorred violence to kill. He also knows that the Doctor is in no state to hear such platitudes, partly because he will hear it as a condemnation that he couldn’t find another answer and was forced to resort to crude violence and partly because he has dealt with too many battle shocked boys not to know when they need something other than saccharin sympathy. “Well,” he says again for something to fill the silence with. “It is a trifle out of character.”
The Doctor gapes at him for a long moment and then he starts to laugh. It’s a terrible chilling sound, fractured by almost-madness and overwhelming grief. He laughs and laughs until tears are rolling down his cheeks, until his gasps for air are wheezing half sobs, until the arms he has braced over his midsection are not about stabilising himself and are instead about holding himself together.
At last he tires himself out and, with a few sputtered chortles, he gasps himself into silence. There are still tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Better, old chap?” Alistair asks gently.
The Doctor wipes the tears away with the blade of his hand. “I don’t know. I don’t think I can be.”
Alistair stands and walks over to the window, looking down on the world below. There had been days (weeks, years) when all he had wanted was for the Doctor to understand that sometimes war was a necessity. A terrible necessity, yes, but one that must be available to protect the innocents of his country, his world. But he had been inspired too by the steadfast certainty that there was always another way, that one day violence and bloodshed and horror would be a thing of the past, that humanity could be better. He hadn’t had that faith, he had seen too much, but he admired it and tried to instill it in Kate.
Now, knowing it is a paltry comfort, he falls back on his own beliefs and hopes that his certainty can comfort the man who once reassured him with his own. “War is terrible, Doctor, but sometimes...regardless of the cost to us, it is the only way to prevent even more death.”
“That’s...that’s what I thought. But so much. So many. And they’re gone.”
“Who are?” He doesn’t turn. No one wants to be stared at during their confession.
He hears the Doctor stand with force and doesn’t flinch as he hears the table topple, books and an ashtray clattering to the floor.
“Everyone. My whole planet.”
Alistair rocks on his heels and fights not to make a horrified sound. He knows of weapons on his world that could destroy a planet, no doubt the Time Lords had more, but he wouldn’t wish such a loss on anyone, least of all the Doctor. He reasserts his composure and shifts fractionally to the side so he can make use of the blurred reflection in the window to watch his friend. Thinking himself unobserved, the Doctor’s head is down and he is weeping again, a silent stream of grief that Alistair doesn’t know how to fix. He looks away from the reflection, allowing the Doctor all the privacy he can offer. “Who were you fighting?” he asks, striving to remain dispassionate.
It is a mark of the Doctor’s distress that he simply answers the practical question without calling the Brigadier out on his lack of tact. “The Daleks.”
This time, Alistair can’t help the grimace. “Those evil-” he trails off. There aren’t words. “But the war is done?” he presses.
The Doctor nods, silent and Alistair knows that something deep inside him is broken. His hearts maybe, as he mourns a planet, or his soul as he comes to terms with actions he has always spoken out against. Alistair has never questioned his own morals, has always believed that he did right by his own people, but it doesn’t stop the nightmares; the faces and screams that sometimes visit him in the very quietest part of the night.
He tries to think of something comforting and practical and bracing to say and comes up short. “I don’t have any commitments here,” he hears himself offer awkwardly, “I’m...I can come with you. We’ll help any...any survivors.” His stomach turns over, he can’t imagine what survivors of a planet annihilating weapon look like.
The Doctor looks at him as though he’s speaking a foreign language and for an instant the eloquence of his expression as he considers Alistair’s idiocy is so familiar that Alistair is catapulted back for 40 years, for a moment he half expects them to be interrupted by Jo or Benton. Then the Doctor looks away and the moment breaks.
“There are no survivors.” He says dully. No insult, no hand gestures, no inflection. “I’m the last; last of the Time Lords.”
Alistair can’t keep the horror from his features this time. A planet destroyed he can - just about - comprehend. He knows how powerful weapons of war can be, he knows too what the Daleks are capable of, he can believe they could burn a planet, but to do it so quickly, with so little warning that no one escapes…
He tries to imagine being the last vestige of humanity and the thought is a chasm so awful that he pulls back from it. “But. What? No one?” He asks, the shock still audible in his voice.
The Doctor shakes his head. His face is blank again, no tears any longer, but nothing else either.
“But-” Alistair cuts himself off. What can he possibly say. But didn’t you have a family? A loss he dares not even think about, lest something hear the thought and inflict it on him. But what about the Master? The only other Time Lord he knows by name and oh, he had wanted to shoot the bastard, but the Doctor would never have allowed it, would have protected the madman with his own life if it had come to it. But didn’t you save anyone? Because he can’t imagine a world where the Doctor fails so completely.
The Doctor shakes his head as though hearing all the questions anyway and answering each one. “I killed them,” he repeats.
“The Daleks? Doctor...you were well within your rights. I can’t imagine-” He reaches out to clasp a shoulder.
The Doctor stands still, allowing the contact for a long moment. His head bows further and after a second he admits in a low voice. “The Time Lords too. I killed them all.”
Alistair can’t help it. He draws back. He catches another glimpse of that sharp wounding smile slashing open the Doctor’s face before he turns away, putting his back to Alistair. “I’m sorry, Brigadier. I shouldn’t have come.”
He takes an unsteady step towards the TARDIS and Alistair can’t just let him leave like this. “Why?” He commands. “You have to tell me why.”
The Doctor turns to face him once more and the look on his face is terrible, like that of an angry god. There is so much rage boiling in his eyes that Alistair almost pulls back again, but showing horror is one thing, showing fear is quite another and he straightens his spine instead.
“Why? Because it was the only way. The War. The Time War was raging across the stars, rewriting planets, destroying millions. I could destroy the Daleks...but only at the cost of the Time Lords and, to be honest, the War had been raging so long that they were no better.” His mouth twists. “I had to make it stop. Had to end the suffering and the death. I couldn’t- couldn’t watch any longer.”
“So you killed them all?” Alistair demands.
The Doctor’s jaw sets and the blankness returns to his eyes. “What, exactly, would you have done differently, Brigadier?” he sneers right back, soft northern accent becoming more pronounced.
Despite the horror, it’s almost reassuring that he is still willing to fight, that he isn’t totally broken.
“I wouldn’t have murdered my own people.” Intensity makes up for volume. “I’ve seen people die, sent them to their deaths, but never used them as unavoidable collateral damage.”
“War can be defined as unavoidable collateral damage,” the Doctor retorts.
“But you avoid it!” That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? “You always avoid it.”
The anger seems to bleed out of the Doctor, leaving nothing but granite hard pain behind. “Well, I couldn’t. I had to destroy them or watch them keep annihilating everything else in their path. Whole civilisations, gone as though they’d never been, warped and mutated into a different history.”
“But- A whole planet, Doctor. Your own planet.”
“Because it was mine or everyone else’s. Maybe I should have let yours burn so mine could keep destroying things a little longer?”
Alistair swallows, feeling palpably sick. He couldn’t have made that choice and he knows it. Self destruction in the face of overwhelming odds...that, he can countenance. Death before dishonour. But he cannot imagine condemning his own planet to death.
He had always known the Doctor had the capacity to be a great soldier, a matchless General and strategist. He’d always been able to see a hundred moves ahead and he’d had that unique blend of charisma and command that would have led to his soldiers being willing to follow him to the gates of hell. He’d envied it, more than once, knowing his own men would follow his orders out of duty- but that, if he’d ever wanted it, the Doctor could have had them forswear those oaths with a snap of his fingers. He’d suspected that on some level the Master had envied it too.
And yet...hadn’t he been one of them, willing to follow the Doctor into death and danger and obvious traps, always trusting that he knew exactly what he was doing. Long before Kate had known the full extent of what he did, he had used to tell her stories. Stories he would never have shared with the Doctor, he would never have heard the end of his smugness, but stories of a hero who was infuriating and ridiculous but also always, always right and brave and good.
The Doctor - Doctors - he had known would never have been capable of what this man is confessing to and his instinct is to deny it, to tell him he is mistaken, to refuse to believe that his Doctor has done such a thing. But Alistair has never shied away from truths, however unpleasant and the Doctor is rocking on his feet, as though barely standing, white faced and, now Alistair looks closely, nothing but shattered bits of himself held together by habit and a dirty, dust stained coat.
He puts a hand back on the Doctor’s shoulder and pushes him into the chair he had just vacated. “Sit down before you fall down.”
The Doctor looks at him, shock washing over his features. “But I thought-”
“You did everything you could,” he repeats steadily.
The Doctor sits. It occurs to Alistair that this might be one of the few instructions he has ever seen the Doctor actually follow. “How do you know?” he asks.
Alistair is struck abruptly by how young this regeneration looks. Younger than he himself, and younger than either of the versions he had known well. “Because I know you, Doctor.” He meets his eyes cleanly and tries to let the Doctor see the near bottomless faith he has always had in the wretched man. “You are not a killer, you never have been. To do this- You must have had no other choice.”
He believes that. He does.
And Alistair knows. He has lived through battles with incalculable deaths, he has counseled others through them. He has read the reports, alone in his office, of civilians caught in the crossfire, of boy soldiers who should still be in school left dead on the field. He knows what that does to the sense of self, to your understanding of your place in the world.
He settles on his haunches in front of the Doctor, stifling the groan because he is far too old to easily do this any longer, but it puts them back at eye level. The Doctor stares at him, wide eyed, ready to grasp at any straw that can help him. “Thank you, Doctor,” Alistair says, calm and even. He can nurse his own shock and grief with a large brandy later, “Thank you for saving my planet. My home.” He pauses. The Doctor is raw, it’s only fair that he is the same. “My daughter and grandsons,” he says heavily after a beat.
The Doctor swallows and blinks and when his eyes reopen they are a little clearer. He still carries the burden, the weight; Alistair can’t take that from him and, truthfully, isn’t sure he would have the strength to offer even if it were possible, but there is something else there now too. The promise of absolution, of forgiveness, the offer of meaning given to his sacrifice.
He nods. “Thank you, Brigadier,” he says softly.
“You should sleep. You look like death warmed over.”
The Doctor’s mouth twitches in something that could, if one were charitable, be called a smile. “Yeah,” says, voice rough with crying and exhaustion.
“I’ll fetch you a blanket.”
It doesn’t really surprise Alistair that he hears the TARDIS dematerialising before he returns.