It starts very simply: a late-night nervous tick. Sam is looking over the reports Chris gave him, and he uncaps his pen. Click. Recaps it. Click. Click-click. Click-click. He frowns and reshuffles the papers and tries very hard to not think critically of Phyllis' handwriting. Click-click-click-click.
Sometimes Sam Tyler goes for days at a time without hearing anything from his other life. Sometimes it makes him wary; what if they've given up? What if he's given up? Sometimes it gives him an overwhelming, slightly guilty sense of relief; maybe he really is just mad, and getting better. And then something will happen: he'll see a shop or a face he hasn't seen for thirty years, and everything will jolt horribly sideways again. He'll hear the beep of a heart monitor, someone on the radio will give their opinion of Sam Tyler's physical state, and he'll think Coma, coma, I'll wake up soon, I have to.
"Sam," the little girl from the television test card says.
He's gotten good at not placing things in the wrong era, saying This last happened about now or This will be my flat. Annie doesn't give him quite so many worried looks; he's alive, he's living, he's human, he's here. Sam never tells her about the test card girl. The girl is the one small terrible thing that doesn't fit this paradigm; not from the past, not from the future, just from the never-ending now in Sam's head. He's never tried to touch her, to catch her, to make her stop, because he knows if he sees his hand go through her, something in his head will really snap.
He tells himself he's sleeping.
"The time is now," the little girl says. "The time is always now. Are you still scared?"
"Yes," Sam says.
"It won't work until you learn to stop running," the little girl says.
Sam wakes up and the telly's playing some band, grainy and unreal. He rolls over, squeezing his eyes shut, face in his pillow, and listens to the thumping bass beat. It sounds familiar and Sam just knows that this is going to be one of those days where Gene will shove him into a wall and he'll damn well shove right back.
On a morning like any other he's walking to the station and passes a man on the street and stops dead. Sam has become very good at this too: finding things out of place, not as a DI but as a man completely out of his depth. He stops and turns and there the man is, still standing there, watching him steady and calm and unreadable, and it only takes Sam a moment to pinpoint the subtle wrongness. It's not the man's close-tailored brown pinstripe suit, and definitely not the trenchcoat; it's the trainers. They're Converse.
"Your shoes," Sam says.
The man looks down at them and grins back up at Sam. "Do you like them?"
"Converse aren't made in 1973," Sam says. "Not designed like that."
"Aren't they?" The man frowns. "No, I suppose they're not. Oh dear. Well, they're just a cheap knockoff anyway. Had them in my wardrobe for ages."
"Would that be the same one that leads to Narnia?" Sam asks.
"No, no, that's a different wardrobe," the man says. "Good eye, though."
He turns and walks away. Sam yells, "Wait!" but he has to get to work, and he can't arrest the man just for wearing anachronistic shoes, and more importantly he's more than a little afraid he's calling after something that isn't even there.
Sam dreams he's Prime Minister.
"That's a good change then, isn't it?" Annie says when he tells her over lunch. She points a chip at him in emphasis. "Those are normal dreams, Sam."
"I promise you I will never go into politics," Sam assures her.
"But it went so well last time," the test card girl tells him that night, and Sam falls out of bed from shock. She's gone when he looks back up, but he can't stop shaking.
In the morning the radio tells him his brain activity has increased by eight percent, and that it's a very good sign. Gene assigns him a case that takes him first all over the city and then into the archives along with Chris. Shuffling through old reports, Sam comes across one that reads I have every confidence that my aims can be achieved, because I believe that this is a great nation made up of great people. This is a belief that I have found lacking among my peers: I was perhaps born out of step with these cynical times.
"Chris," Sam says, passing the sheet to him, "what the hell is this?"
Chris stares at it for a moment. "Dunno how blank paper got in the files, Boss," he says, crumpling it, and tosses it carelessly behind him.
He dreams that Maya is inside a metal sphere, a Death Star the size of a football. "You've left me," she says. "You've left me alone in the dark and the cold. How could you, Harry?"
When Sam wakes up for a moment he can't remember his name.
"Sam," Annie says that day. "Sam?" She hands him the obituaries in the paper and says, "I think you should read this."
"What?" he asks.
She points to the column.
Sam Tyler, it reads; died in hospital last night, four years old. "I don't understand," Sam says. "I didn't. I just had mumps. Then I was fine."
"There's more than one Sam Tyler in the world," Annie says gently, taking the paper from him.
"But me mum," Sam says. "She'll be devastated, Annie."
"She's not your mum, Sam," Annie says, even more gently. Her face is open and honest and worried, and for a fleeting terrible moment Sam hates her.
He walks home that night angrily hitting out a quick four-beat rhythm, open palm against his thigh. He remembers his dad leaving, the whirl of red that was Annie's dress. He remembers the treacle tart his mum would give him whenever he felt down. He remembers his father whistling, his mother's kisses goodnight. It's real. He remembers going to school; he remembers lessons, knees scraped, equations solved. He remembers wanting to be a policeman. He remembers his best mate, a boy named John-- wanted to be a scientist, always kept a notebook on him, messed about with old cars and rubbish. He remembers joining the force at nineteen. He remembers his first DCI. He remembers the eighties and the nineties and all the comfortable electronic amenities of modern policing.
He crashes into a man walking the other way, stumbles back, and sees that it's the suit-and-Converse bloke.
"I'm real!" Sam tells him, fierce and angry.
"So you are," the man says mildly.
It occurs to Sam belatedly that his shoulder's throbbing faintly from running into the man. "You're real too!"
"That's a relief," the man says. He's wearing rectangular glasses tonight.
"Sorry," Sam says. "Sorry. I'm not mad, either. Sorry to bother you."
He goes on as swiftly as possible.
"You need to stop running, Sam," the test card girl tells him.
"Harry," Sam says to her. "Who's Harry?"
She tucks her clown matter-of-factly under her arm and laces her chubby little hands in front of her as though to give a recitation. "Two almighty civilizations," she says, clear and precise, "burning."
Sam wakes up shaking so hard his teeth hurt.
He can't bring himself to stop by his own house and pay his condolences, because that would make it real. He writes his mother a card and drops it in the post. Annie treads very carefully around him; Sam wants to stop her in the hall and say Prove to me I'm real. Gene acts exactly the same as he always does, and Sam doesn't need to ask anything; Gene just grabs his collar and shoves him into the wall and Sam's winded and his ribs ache and he shoves back at Gene and knows he's real. He'll never tell Gene he's grateful because he doesn't need to.
"What's wrong?" Nelson asks him when he stops by the Railway Arms. Nelson can always tell when the world is too much with Sam, and even if he doesn't understand what's bothering Sam, he can usually give decent, or at least decent-sounding, advice.
"I don't know what's real anymore, Nelson," Sam says, accepting the glass Nelson hands him. "Even less than usual. A little boy with my name has died."
"Ah, the innocent," Nelson says. "That's always the worst tragedy."
Sam leaves it at that.
He doesn't have anyone to talk to. He turns on his police radio in the middle of the night just to hear it crackle, and says into it, "I'm still here," but no one answers, which is just as well; Phyllis would only demand to know why he was bothering her at all hours of the night.
Annie walks him home one evening to be friendly. She helps him cook dinner, smiling at him sideways, eyes wide, face as sweet as ever. Help me, Sam thinks. "Annie," he says, and she looks up at him. I'm hearing drums, Sam thinks. "Pass me the basil, please," he says. They eat together and go over the case in which Sam's currently embroiled, and Annie looks so pleased to see Sam acting normally. Sam taps an absent four-beat rhythm against his glass of water and doesn't try to disillusion her.
The longer he stays, the easier it is to watch Gene interrogate a suspect without flinching. Months ago Sam would have thought of procedure and discipline and upholding the law and never, ever treating a suspect the way the Guv does. Now that he's used to Gene, used to 1973, he doesn't have an excuse for the horrible yawning in the pit of his stomach when he watches Gene punch someone in the gut. His heart pounds hard enough to do the work of two and he's becoming so damn sick of being the one to hold back, the one on the moral high ground.
He holds back anyway, because he knows what happens when -- if he doesn't.
One grey morning it's pouring buckets and Sam is drenched to the skin the moment he leaves his flat; his boots splash in puddles with every step, the rain slicks off his leather jacket, water drips off the ends of his sopping hair into his eyes. Sam stops on a street corner and squints up at the leaden sky. "If this is my fantasy," he tells the sky, "it doesn't need to be quite so symbolic, thanks. I'd like a bit of sun, please."
"But it's not," someone says.
Sam whirls, the cold chain of his St. Christopher digging into his collarbone. There, leaning against a doorway, completely dry, out of his trenchcoat today, is the Converse man. "Not what?" Sam asks.
"Your fantasy," the man says.
"Oh, good, do you often talk to nutters on the street?" Sam demands. One hand taps out an irritable soggy rhythm against his thigh.
The man's gaze follows Sam's hand for a moment. "Yeah, quite often," he agrees, and he looks back up at Sam's face. "But you're not a nutter, Sam Tyler."
The rain beats down upon his head. A car swishes by on the road behind him. Sam feels the hollow thumping of his single heart and feels water sliding down his palms and off his fingertips. For a moment his voice sticks. "How do you know my name?"
A second's hesitation and then man's pushing himself away from the doorway and out into the street. Sam has a fleeting wild supposition that the man will stay perfectly dry, but no, in an instant he's as soaking wet as Sam, although he doesn't look bothered with it. "I'll walk you to the station," he says.
Feeling it best not to argue, Sam turns and continues walking. The man walks beside him in silence. Inexplicably, Sam feels just as he does around Gene: every nerve tense, ready for a punch-up, ready with some caustic words to defend himself against an unstoppable force. "This is," Sam says. "This is mad."
"No," the man says, almost unintelligibly quieter than the rain. "This is saner than you've been in a while."
"That's good, then," Sam says. "I keep hearing hospital noises, the telly talks directly to me, half the time I can't remember my own name, and I can't stop the drumming. You're either a -- a figment, or you've been following me and now you're winding me up." He stops and turns to glare at the man. "Is that it? Is that what this is about?"
The man looks back at him. They're close enough that Sam can see, under the water droplets, a smattering of freckles across the man's cheeks. That's funny. He didn't used to have freckles.
"You refused," the man says, as though he hasn't heard Sam's question. "You said you'd rather be human again than come with me."
"What?" Sam says.
The man ignores this too. "I still had my chameleon arch, anyway, but I didn't have the fob watch anymore, so we had to make do with that little medallion thing you're wearing."
Sam glances down at his St. Christopher in bewilderment. "What?"
"Maybe you thought if you became human I'd let you live out your little human life in peace," the man says, "and somewhere along the way, someone would call your attention to it, and you'd be yourself again, but without me around. But I'm not giving up on you this easily."
This is the part, Sam knows, where he's supposed to realise the man is quite mad and politely excuse himself and bolt. Instead he just stands there, shivering a little in the rain. "But," he says hoarsely.
"You went for 2006," the man says. "Maybe you were hoping you'd run into yourself. Well, I couldn't have that, and the TARDIS chose 1973. Some damage had already been done, though; your mind was all set for twenty-first century law enforcement. We had to take the memories of a little boy who died in 1973 to give you a backstory you wouldn't just rip right through like tissues. And it still gave you trouble, didn't it?"
In the cold and damp, Sam's mouth is still somehow terribly dry. "Sam Tyler died," he whispers. "Last week. It was in the papers."
"Yes," the man says, and stares up at the sky. "You're not Sam Tyler."
Sam looks around and sits down on a rain-drenched nameless doorstep. "Then tell me," he says, "who am I?"
The man hesitates, then sits down next to him, legs stretched out ridiculously long. His incongruous trainers are red today.
"What do you remember?" he asks gently.
"Me mum," Sam says. "And me dad. School. Football matches. My best mate. Joining the force. Maya."
"Your best mate?" the man asks.
"John," Sam says. "John Smith." He stares out at the small rivers of water pouring over cobbles into the gutters. "Loved science. Carried a notebook around. We were in the same chapter --"
"Both Prydonian," the man says softly. "And you both finished your work so quickly. You were top of the class and he --"
"Copied off me," Sam says, starting to grin.
"But you let him," the man says, "because you knew he thought school was just --"
"A lot of bollocks brainwashing," Sam says, and runs a hand over his cold damp face.
He remembers his father whistling, his mother's kisses goodnight. He remembers his parents saying goodbye on his eighth birthday. He remembers standing in the uncomfortable dark robes of a new pupil and staring into the whirl of forever. It's real. He remembers going to school; he remembers lessons, knees scraped, equations solved. He remembers finishing his work early in the day and shoving his tablet of answers at his best mate, whose name was not John Smith, and lying back in the grass, staring up nearly into the suns, and hoping to reach forever one day.
Sam Tyler shudders. "Doctor," he says.
"Yes," the Doctor says. "Come back with me, Sam."
"That's not my name," Sam Tyler snarls.
"Sam," the Doctor says.
The Doctor isn't Gene; that's the only reason Sam stays where he is, hands clenched together white-knuckled, instead of standing and slamming the Doctor into the nearest convenient wall. "So this is real," he says. "I'm not mad. I'm not in a coma. Back in time depends on the starting point."
"Yes," the Doctor says.
And Sam remembers, in flickering fragments: the metal spheres, the coming darkness, kissing Maya, kissing Lucy, the Doctor whispering forgiveness as though he has the right. "What sort of man am I?" he asks hoarsely.
"Open that medallion," the Doctor murmurs.
Sam pulls the St. Christopher out from under his shirt and stares at it. It's small and flat as a coin, and glints a little, wet with rainwater. Drums pound in the back of his skull and he can hear the hospital monitors beeping; go on, Sammy, his mum whispers, and something outside all the mad noise is trying to claw its way from his chest towards the light. The definitive step, his own voice murmurs, a little mocking inside his head, not at all his own.
"What sort of man am I?" Sam Tyler repeats, with an edge of fury.
The Doctor says nothing.
It doesn't occur to Sam that this man might be lying. It's the truth: Gene is real, and Annie is real, Chris and Ray are real, the Guv's Cortina is real, Nelson and all the people he's met are real; it's Maya, the hospital, those are the fake things. Sam has finally found something that fits -- isn't safer, isn't nicer, isn't saner -- but fits, and Sam knows it in his gut.
That's when you have to make snap decisions, quick, like this.
"What happens if I don't?" Sam asks, staring down at the silver glint in his hand and blinking water out of his eyes.
"You stay here," the Doctor says, "and grow older, or -- or die in the line of duty. You can probably learn to block out the noises you know aren't real. Maybe one day you'll learn to block out the drums, too. And I'll stop by. You can always change your mind."
"But I won't," Sam says. "I don't know if Sam Tyler's any better than your friend, but I know what to do here, even if it's-- primitive, and mad. I can't leave Gene and Annie, not if they're all I've got."
He doesn't look at the Doctor because he knows he's being a coward. Choosing the safe, choosing the known: still scared, still running. Choosing Gene and Annie over this man. 1973 is still the illusory life.
When he looks up, the Doctor's gone.
He tucks the St. Christopher back into his shirt and goes into the station. Phyllis tells him off for dripping on her floors, Gene compares him unfavourably to a drowned rat, Chris fetches Sam some coffee and a ratty towel along with the reports, and Annie advises him to invest in an umbrella, because the jacket alone obviously doesn't do the trick. He laughs and invites Annie out to a movie, thanks Chris for the coffee, and reads the reports, tapping out an absent rhythm against the desk. If there's nothing to fight, he wonders, why does he want to keep fighting? He compliments Phyllis at lunch and apologises again for getting the floors so wet, and in the middle of his chips Gene comes banging in and demands his DI get the hell in the car right now. Roaring through Manchester's slick streets, Sam leans back and holds on and grins. It's rubbish: he's never going to stop fighting. He damn well has nine hundred years of knowledge crammed away in this mad brain of his, and this is his city, their city. He's going to do his job. No more running.
"Help me, Mister Master," the test card girl says.
"Oh, sod off," Sam Tyler says, rolling over, and goes back to sleep.