He was early. What was worse, there was a small human female in front of him in Sarah’s attic, giving him a fearsome glare. There seemed to be a lot of those about lately. The Doctor shut the TARDIS door behind him nevertheless, and glanced around at the cluttered room and then down at the coffee he was carrying. Correction, he noted: he was early and late at the same time. It was a bit of a record even for him.
“Don’t worry,” he told the small pudding brain currently standing in front of him, watching him with eyebrows closed in suspicion. (Cloud or Sky or Star; it was one of those, he was pretty sure. “I’m not an intruder. Well, no, I am an intruder, but I’m friendly, I promise. Ask Mr Smith.”
Sky screwed up her face, and then licked the remains of a chocolate digestive off her palm. “You made everything in the attic go all funny for a minute when you did that thing with your box. Mr Smith?”
“Despite appearances, analysis suggests that this is the Doctor. Doctor, you should not be here. Your previous incarnation is currently downstairs with Sarah Jane. If the two of you met, the timeline could be compromised, with disastrous effects for the entire planet.”
“Shh, shh,” said the Doctor. He couldn’t have a Xylok telling him what he could and couldn’t do. And he knew that anyway. That was the problem. He was too early for tea with Sarah and too late for coffee with Clara. But, he found, probably about the right time for sharing a few last biscuit crumbs with Comet. Or Sky. Whatever she was called. “Well, I won’t meet him, will I? Me, I mean. I’ll just stay up here with – with Thingummy. Dirt. She won’t mind.” He gave a smile, but judging from Sky’s step backwards, it wasn’t as reassuring as it had been on his previous face. He blamed the attack eyebrows.
“But the Doctor’s downstairs with Mum, eating chocolate biscuits. And he’s not old – he’s young.”
The Doctor sighed. “Yes, well, you know how it is. Age and time are relative, and I meant to arrive next week. So I’ll pop back in the TARDIS and give it another try. Old girl’s being obstreperous, that’s all it is. Maybe someone pressed the fast return switch again. Maybe it was me.”
Sky frowned again and got the last bit of chocolate off her fingers before wiping them on a tissue from her pocket. “Why can’t you go downstairs?”
“Well, it’s trouble, running into yourself. Besides, I’m annoying. You’ve met me. At least two mes now. I shouldn’t need to tell you that. There’s nothing I hate more than arguing with myself.”
Sky sat down on the wooden step and looked up at him. Eventually, the Doctor felt something was expected of him, and sat down next to her, waiting for her to speak.
“Mum says you’re not much good at steering your space ship. You might come back last week instead, or land in America. And, anyway, there might be aliens invading next week. We might be busy. I expect Mum would prefer it if you just waited till the other you went away and then you could go downstairs. You can help me with my homework if you like.”
“Thank you,” said the Doctor. “I suppose that could work. It might be a bit of a – what’s the word? – shock, though, that’s the thing. Tacky maybe.”
Hello, Sarah, I think I’m going to finally shuffle off this mortal coil, so farewell, so long; couldn’t leave without saying goodbye and thanks for all the fish. And then two seconds later he was back in a different body, with a wave and a “Hi – surprise! Guess what? Not dead!” Even he knew better than that. Humans found regeneration even more difficult than Time Lords. He was pretty sure Sarah would thump him and possibly cry, or hug him. Three things he wasn’t keen on, let alone all at once.
“Tell you what,” he said to Sky, not liking the waiting. He never did like the waiting. “How about you come into my blue box and take a look around, eh? We could have a quick trip somewhere.”
Sky looked at him for a long time. He shifted back across the step. Why were small humans often so much scarier than the large ones?
“Mum says if you ever turn up and ask me that, I have to ask her first. And she says the answer will be no because you might leave me in Aberdeen. What’s wrong with Aberdeen? I asked Mr Smith about it, and it looked okay.”
“Ah,” said the Doctor clearing his throat. “She still talks about that, does she? Thought she might have forgotten it by now. Well, no, then. Best not, your mum’s right. She usually is. What’s your homework about? Is it the French Revolution? I’m good with that.”
“What’s the French Revolution?”
“How did you get old so quickly?” said Sky. “I thought it was only me that did that. You get used to it, though,” she added. She sounded as though she meant to be reassuring. The Doctor wasn’t entirely sure it was.
He shrugged. “I got old the same way most people do – a day at a time, even if not always in the right order. How I look, how I appear – that’s a different matter. It’s very deceptive. It’s called regeneration. You never know how it’s going to work out.”
“Oh,” said Sky. She seemed to be thinking about it. Her frown deepened. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s Time Lord biology. It’s baffled arch-geniuses and menaces across time and space and the entire known universe. I wouldn’t expect a small pudding brain like you to understand.”
“What are you, a walking question mark?”
“Mum says so. Except I’m not. I checked in the mirror. It’s one of those things where people say things but they don’t really mean them.”
“Yeah,” said the Doctor. “Humans do that a lot. They’re pretty baffling too.”
“Why don’t you want to see Mum now?”
“I thought something bad was going to happen to me last time. I mean, down there, now. But it didn’t. Or it did. But not as bad as I thought. Or worse, I suppose, depending on how you look at it.” The Doctor fell silent, and it seemed suddenly, even through the extra floor, as if he could hear the conversation going on below; the timbre of the voices at least. Him trying not to say what he came to say; Sarah cutting through to the heart of the matter and making him do it anyway.
Sky had to do some hard thinking again, evidently, as the scary frown was back. “So, why don’t you want to see Mum? I don’t think you should wait a long time if she has to feel sad about it.”
“Good point,” said the Doctor. “I can see why she likes you. You’re probably right. This is boring, though; isn’t this boring?”
Sky nodded. “Yes. Shall I show you my homework?” Then she froze and said, “Shh.”
They both listened hard, and the Doctor heard through the open attic door, the sound of soft voices a long way below in the hallway, words too quiet to distinguish, but he didn’t need to. They were still written within him. Moments afterwards, he heard the click and slight creak of the front door being opened.
The Doctor closed his eyes, knowing what followed: a hug he could almost feel again now, and terrible, burning words in his ear: I believe in you. No, no, he said under his breath, too indistinct even for Sky to hear. Why did they do that, his friends? Sarah at the door, Clara at the end, giving him hope, giving him life, unasked for and undeserved. Was he a good man? Who was he? Questions, questions.
Downstairs, the door shut with a small, sharp sound. It echoed sadly round the house. Sky and the Doctor looked at each other. “I should go,” said the Doctor. “I shouldn’t be here. I really shouldn’t be here.”
“Why?” said Sky.
“Yes, why?” said a new figure at the door. “Although, more to the point, who are you and what are you doing in here? Sky?”
The Doctor got to his feet, running a hand through his hair. “Ah,” he said. “Yes. Well, er – hi, Sarah Jane?” He gave a small wave.
“No, wait,” she said, and then swallowed back some emotion, possibly even unshed tears and shook her head at him. “It’s you, isn’t it? Of course it is.”
The Doctor cleared his throat again. “Yes, well, it’s the big blue box in the corner, isn’t it? Dead giveaway. All things considered, it’s just as well I didn’t manage Earl’s Court again, though.”
“You made it,” said Sarah. “I knew it. I knew you would.”
“Belief can be a powerful thing. Too much of it going around lately, I think. You. Clara. Other people.”
“You know. My friend. Short. Egomaniac. Brilliant. Travels with me sometimes.”
Sarah glanced around the attic and then over at the TARDIS. “Then where is she?”
He should have known she would ask that. He shifted about and said instead, “I’ve been getting to know young Cloud here. Or Thingy. Whatever. Sky. She’s a bit scary, but I can see why you like her.”
“Thank you,” said Sarah. “And it’s Sky. But –”
“He didn’t answer the question,” Sky said, also standing, now that she’d been mentioned.
“Look,” Sarah said, “I know what you’re like when you’ve regenerated. You haven’t left her somewhere, have you? Doctor!”
“Oh, you know,” said the Doctor, hoping that vagueness and muttering would work, even if it never had yet. Not with Sarah. Or with many, if any, of his friends, actually. Funny that. It was almost as if they knew him too well.
Sarah raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe… it might have been Glasgow? Um. Possibly three weeks ago. I was getting coffee.” He held up the drinks. “But, then, time and distance are relative.”
Sarah folded her arms. “And apparently some things never change.”
“Talking of change,” said the Doctor, swerving the conversation to avoid more crossness and glares, “that reminds me. I’m sorry about your car. I’m not sure I was in the right state of mind to be improving things last time I was here. A bit clumsy.” He waved one hand about, still hanging onto the coffee with the other; suddenly unsure that was the best choice of topic for a distraction. “It was only one little alteration to the wiring, though. I’m sure one of your Earth garage people will be able to fix it.”
Sarah shut her eyes. “Doctor.”
“Yes, sorry. About everything.” He stood there, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and then coughed. It seemed, he still had something he needed to ask. “I’m not – I mean – would you say I was a good man? A good person?”
Sarah leant back against the wall. “After you’ve confessed to wrecking my car? I don’t know, Doctor. There are only two things I do know here.”
She moved forward and hugged him, while he protested about the coffee and not being sure about hugs anyway. “One: I’m very glad to see you, anyway. And two: when it comes to being good, that’s something you decide for yourself, but I suggest you make a start by not leaving anybody else in Scotland.”
“Okay. Fair point. I suppose I could do that.”
She released him and drew back, letting out a shaky breath. “Honestly, Doctor. And I mean it, whatever you say: I do. I believe in you.”
“Me, too,” said the Doctor and patted her arm. “In you, I mean. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Sarah said, and gave him a small push. “Now, get on and take that coffee back to Inverness or Edinburgh or wherever it and you are supposed to be.”
“Yes,” said Sky. “You can’t leave it here. Mum won’t let me have coffee. I tried it once. Mum says never again until I’m at least forty.”
The Doctor raised both eyebrows. “Sounds terrifying,” he said. “In that case, I’m off.”
He winked at Sky, and smiled one last time at Sarah, before disappearing into the TARDIS. As he went, he thought he heard her asking Mr Smith about the best way to fix a car that had suffered unwanted alien conversion.
He put his hand in his pocket and found crumbs. It was the remains of a chocolate digestive that had had the chocolate licked off. “Well, now,” he said, giving the old girl a suspicious glance. “That really is impossible.”
But then, so many things were.