The ride through the chronorandomization barrier was rough, almost as bad as last time even though they were better equipped for it, and the Doctor landed the TARDIS as soon as he was through. Give the old girl a break, let her have as long as possible to recover before the journey back. Most places and times he would've had to find somewhere inconspicuous to stash his vessel, but it didn't matter here; he set the TARDIS down on the nearest street corner.
In Japan's normal timeline the blue police phone box would've garnered plenty of attention, what with its English signage, not to mention the telephone wasn't due to be patented for another couple of decades. But this was far from the normal timeline, and the only reaction he got when he stepped outside was a middle-aged lady in a kimono yelling at him for blocking her storefront. "You get that thing out of here! It says no vehicle parking right there, plain as day—I'll call the police on you—"
"Terribly sorry for the trouble, ma'am," the Doctor said, pulling out his wallet with one hand as he checked the readings on his sonic screwdriver in the other, "but as you see here, I've got special dispensation from the Shogun himself..."
The woman peered at the psychic paper, then sniffed, "Damn alien tourists," and returned to sweeping her shop's stoop.
The Doctor ignored her, intent on the signal readings. They were no clearer here than they had been in the TARDIS. That was an even bigger change than the chronorandomization barrier's increased density. Last time he hadn't needed any device; his target, originating in the actual universe, had stood out unmistakably against the shards of this splintered timeline, as bright as a halogen lamp among a sea of sputtering candles.
Now it was like trying to find that same lamp on the surface of the sun, with everything around him shining in vibrant shades of unique reality. No wonder the barrier had been so impermeable; this splinter was well on its way to becoming its own universe.
Some of that was due to the energy influx from the shining space terminal towering over the city—the people here had tapped into the spatiotemporal rift itself to power their ships and the metropolis. Some of it, too, would be due to those very people—this city's population was more than twice that of its contemporary Tokyo counterpart, inhabitants filling the downtown skyscrapers that shouldn't have been built until the next century. Extraterrestrials accounted for some of those numbers; more were all the people who should've died but hadn't, thanks to temporally displaced technology and altered history. Antibiotics for consumption, clean water plumbing and advanced sewage systems...
It wasn't a bad little timeline, really; shame that it wasn't real.
The Doctor's scanning proved mostly ineffective; he was only able to narrow down the location to a general neighborhood. For lack of better options, he resorted to quizzing random people on the street. "Excuse me, I was wondering if you might know a man, about so tall, curly silver hair, fought in that war you had a bit ago?"
The first passersby were no help, being tourists to the planet themselves (Poltangzarcs, the Doctor recognized from their accents and eyestalks, which species wasn't even supposed to be in the Milky Way for another three million years, but oh well, that was the way the chronoverse splintered) but to his surprise the next man he asked immediately replied, "Silver hair? You mean that odd-jobs guy? Yeah, he lives down that way—over a snack bar; he's got a sign."
The sign, when the Doctor found it, said 'Yorozuya Gin-chan' in big, sloppily painted characters. 'Gin' only made sense, and his helpful guide had said something about odd jobs, so the Doctor climbed the stairs and knocked on the sliding door behind the sign.
"Oi, is that you, Kagura? Did you forget the shovel?" called a voice from inside.
The right voice, it sounded like, so the Doctor knocked again. "Hello?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming." The door slid open and the man behind it squinted at the Doctor, blinking against the sun like he'd just gotten up, for all it was almost noon by the Doctor's admittedly less-than-accurate watch. His hair was a tangled silver mess and his face was as the Doctor remembered it, aged a few years but still a young man, in spite of the hair.
"Ah," he said, after taking a moment to process the Doctor. "Sorry, mister, no English," he added, in a passable attempt at that language, and started to shut the door.
"Not a problem, Japanese is fine," the Doctor said, in his best Tokyo accent and informal enough to prove his fluency.
"Hmm." The man opened the door again. "You got a job?"
"Something like that," the Doctor said.
"You got money?"
"Something like that..."
"All right, then—come in!" and the Doctor was ushered inside to a pair of couches and a table littered with candy bar wrappers and a thick weekly comics anthology. The trash was hastily swept into a can in the corner; the comics magazine was dropped on the floor and kicked out of sight under the table in a practiced motion. The man gestured for the Doctor to take a seat on a couch, while he sat himself down behind the desk before the table, rocking back in the chair. "So, what can I do for you?"
"Ah, yes, well..." the Doctor said, temporizing as he looked around the room in fascination. The sliding fusuma doors were appropriately traditional, but the windows were double-glazed; there was a television in the corner (even more decades ahead of its time than the telephone on the desk) and a calendar on the wall, marked up in multiple colors and three different hands.
As intriguing as the anachronisms were, that calendar was even moreso. Not for the date—the year would be meaningless anyway—but for the appointments listed on it, places to go, people to see. As noteworthy as the comics so casually kicked under the table. Not what he was expecting; a great as change as everything else here.
"You're not doing half bad," the Doctor murmured, surprised again, and happy to be.
"Eh?" his host said. "What was that?"
The Doctor shrugged. The silver-haired man leaned forward, more out of impatience than interest. "So what's your business? Come on, speak up, I can't work for you if you don't give me a job. What is it? Women troubles, is it? Don't worry, you can't be embarrassed here—we don't judge; we just do what you need. Is it a girl? Some pretty girl's caught your eye, and you want to know more but are too shy to ask her—"
"No, no girl."
"A boy? I told you, no judging, it's fine. This is Kabuki District, we get all types here."
"No, no boy, either," the Doctor said. "It's not like that. As a matter of fact, I'm here for you."
"Ah." His host leaned back in his chair again. "Sorry, this body's off the menu, but I know a few nice—"
"Still not like that. I came here to find you, Argent."
The chair's front legs thumped on the wooden floor as the man rocked forward. "You."
"Yes, me," the Doctor agreed.
Under the curly silver bangs the man's eyes were suddenly sharp, inspecting him. How did he pass for human, the Doctor wondered, between the hair and the eyes—lowered, they might pass for brown in some lights; but when focused they were obviously red. Though maybe he could just say he was an alien; it wasn't as if that would surprise anyone here.
"I thought you said you wouldn't be coming back," Argent said at last.
"I said I wasn't sure I'd be able to," the Doctor corrected. "But that I'd try my best."
"After a few years I figured you weren't going to make it."
"Lucky for you, my best is rather remarkable. So here I am." The Doctor looked around. "How many years has it been, anyway?" He hadn't been able to get a clear fix in the TARDIS—not that there was exactly a fix to get, in this case. But it was helpful to get a local temporal perspective.
Argent shrugged. "About a decade, give or take."
Not that Argent was giving or taking any... "Yes, that explains it," the Doctor said. "Long enough for this splinter to have stabilized. Though that does present its own problems..."
"The more advanced the divergence between branching temporal streams, the greater the energy and the more precise the calibration required to cross between," Argent said. "The chronorandomization barrier must've been a bitch to breach."
The Doctor's eyes widened. "Ah, so I take it your memories have returned?"
Argent shrugged. "Bits and pieces, here and there. Since I met you, things started coming back to me. Mostly just useless trivia, stuff like that."
"The academy did tend to drill in concepts with a vengeance," the Doctor said. "Anything more personal...?"
The silver-haired man shrugged again. "A few faces, maybe. Voices, things I might've been told. Nothing I'm really sure about."
"You were very young when you ended up here," the Doctor told him. "Really it's amazing that you remember anything."
Argent's gaze was still sharp on him. "I don't remember you."
"I wouldn't expect you to. The last time I saw you—the time before last, rather; the last time before you ended up here—you were only a baby. Couldn't even talk yet. Cute as a button, though, great big maroon eyes, all that hair—I'm not usually one for infants, but you were a good one. Your mother was so proud..." The other Time Lords, not so much, but the boy didn't need to know that, not if he didn't remember himself. Eventually they'd let him on Gallifrey and into the academy anyway—by then, with the war in its final stages, they'd needed all the students they could get, half-breeds or not. Not that it had helped, in the end...
The Doctor shook his head. Such memories were more than a lifetime ago, now, and he preferred to keep them that way. "She really loved you, your mother."
"Yeah, you told me so last time." Argent sighed, a strangely old sound for a young man. If he'd stayed in the academy—if the academy had stayed in existence—he wouldn't even be a junior Time Lord yet. But then, he'd been living as more-or-less human for most of his life, and humans grew up so quickly... "But she's dead now, isn't she, my mother. Killed in that war of yours."
"Yes," the Doctor said. "I'm sorry. You remember that...?"
"I remember what you told me before."
Before—ten years ago, by his time, and the Doctor hadn't been sure how much Argent would remember. Hadn't been sure if anything the Doctor had told him then had even been believed, or if the boy had just taken him for a raving lunatic.
It would not have been an unfair assessment at the time, the Doctor had to admit. The trans-universe divergence hadn't been so steep then, but neither he nor the TARDIS had been in any condition to make the trip; crossing the chronorandomization barrier had half-killed them both.
He shouldn't even have risked it, but the Doctor had been desperate, frantically chasing down the single tiny spark of hope that her child had survived. Making it here, finding the splinter stable enough to support life, against all odds—though when he'd followed that spark to its source, he'd found, not the little boy he'd expected, but a young man, lost and damaged, scarred by war in spite of his mother's efforts. But a man with her child's silver hair, with his red eyes; a man who shared with him the blood of a people that no longer existed, and it had been all the Doctor could do not to throw himself weeping on that painfully familiar stranger.
He'd stopped himself; the boy had a sword, sharpened steel within the cracked scabbard, and the look in his eyes said that he'd use it. That he knew he could use it, knew all too well what he was capable of. The Doctor knew that look, from the mirror as much as anywhere else, and perhaps that was why Argent had talked to him at all, had listened to any of his babbling, in recognition of a fellow veteran of a lost war.
What the Doctor saw in the face of the man before him now was different; but then, what the Doctor saw in the mirror nowadays was different as well.
Argent noticed, naturally; it would be hard to miss. "You don't look like you did before," he remarked, looking the Doctor up and down. "Not just the outfit—you're taller than I remember. And younger...?"
"Right, yes, I've regenerated a couple of times since we last met."
"Regenerated," Argent said. "Died, you mean, and came back."
"I lead an interesting life," the Doctor said modestly.
"Would that happen to me?" Argent tapped his chest. " Would I regenerate, if I died?"
"To be honest I'm not sure," the Doctor said. "You're only half-Time Lord, you see. And your father's, er, kind—they don't really pass on, to speak of..."
"Can I die?" Argent asked, with a particular dispassionate flatness that was more penetrating than any obvious emotion would've been.
"Hmm—probably, I'd assume? You can age—you were born and you grew up, in more or less the normal sense, which is more than could be said of your father. And Time Lords can die—regeneration gives us some extra chances, but we're not truly immortal."
"I'd wondered," Argent said. "After I met you, after I started to remember—I wondered if that was why I'd survived. Why I keep surviving, even when I don't think I would—if maybe I've come back from the dead and it's just that no one's noticed the change."
"In my experience people will notice," the Doctor remarked. "And how often do you risk not surviving, anyhow?"
"Never, if I can help it! But...life gets interesting, sometimes."
"I can imagine," the Doctor said. "This is quite a jumble, even for a chronoversic splinter. The sheer number of eras which transect here, completely against the normal flow of history—it's amazing that the whole thing hasn't imploded."
The legs of Argent's chair screeched across the floor as he rocketed to his feet. "Imploded!?"
"Don't worry, don't worry." The Doctor took out his sonic screwdriver, waved it reassuringly. "This timestream's remarkably credible now, and continuing to stabilize. Even if it'll never attain the same dynamically secure quanto-structure as the true universe, it's getting exponentially closer with every passing second—give it a few more decades and even the TARDIS would have trouble distinguishing it from the real one." He pocketed the screwdriver, nodding in satisfaction. "As it is, it's almost definitely stable enough now to sustain your egress."
"That's why I'm here," the Doctor said. "Like I promised you before, I've been looking for a way to get you out of here. To bring you back to the real universe, back where you belong. I've tweaked my TARDIS; she'll be able to take both of us this time."
"Where I belong..." Argent said blankly; then he shook his head, visibly snapping back to himself. "Last time, Doctor, I asked you then, if I had any place in this world—this splinter, this universe—if I was what you said I was. And you told me I was as much a part of it as anything else in it."
"If not more," the Doctor said. "As far as this chronoversic splinter goes—when it broke off from the universe, you broke off with it. So, yes, you've always been a part of it; you've been here as long as anybody else. But, Argent, you're still from the true universe. Your mother, your father, they were both of that universe; that's where you were born, same as myself and all of us. That's where you're from. You got a little, er, misplaced, but I found you, and now I can bring you back."
"What about everyone else here?" Argent asked, making a sweeping motion with one arm to indicate the city outside the window—the universe outside. "They were splintered off, too, weren't they—shouldn't they be brought back to where they belong, too?"
"It's a different case for humans and the other races," the Doctor explained patiently. Of course Argent's education in advanced temporal divergence wouldn't have gotten that far. "Everyone else here is a transtemporal variant—an alternate version, you could say, of people in the real universe. With this splinter stabilizing the way it has, most of them won't be exact copies anymore; they'd have deviated just as the timelines did. But they all still have counterparts in the true universe, on the proper timeline. There's no way to bring them back, because they already exist; there's no place for any of them there."
"Except for me," Argent said.
"Exactly, except for you," the Doctor said. "Time Lords don't temporally bifurcate. And your father's folks might under certain circumstances, but oh, would they make a fuss about it. Rather an uptight group, that lot—Gallifreyans manipulated time, and yes, it could be a bit tricksy, but we never treated it like a criminal mastermind—anyway! When this timeline splintered off from the true universe, you went with it like everybody else, but unlike them you didn't leave any parallel counterpart behind."
"So there's no me in the Edo in your universe."
"Well, it's rather a different Edo—for one, it's called Tokyo now. And then, you were never actually part of its history anyway, seeing as you're not from Earth. Really there shouldn't have been any extraterrestrials in Japan for a good century—none to speak of, anyway, the odd tourist, but..."
"So why was I there?" Argent asked, then frowned, rubbing his forehead with one hand. "I was there, wasn't I? When the universe splintered—when the Amanto came—I kind of remember..."
"Yes, you were there," the Doctor said, standing to reach toward him. "Er—would you like to sit down? You're looking a tad pale..." Greenish, really, and a bit ragged, more like the too-young veteran the Doctor remembered from before. "It's getting to be tea-time, perhaps a hot cup of—"
"Maybe I could use a drink." Ignoring the Doctor's hand, Argent went to the kitchenette and returned with a largish green bottle of the wrong shape for iced tea, and one glass.
"Ah," the Doctor said as Argent parked himself on the couch opposite him. "I wouldn't suppose you happen to have any tea...?"
"No," Argent said, pouring himself a sizable portion of sake—rather stronger than regular rice wine, by the aroma—and downing half of it in one go. Then he added, grudgingly, "Shinpachi should be going shopping today; tea's on the list."
"I see," said the Doctor. "In that case do you have another glass?"
Argent looked at him over the rim of the tumbler. "Not a clean one. Shinpachi hasn't done the dishes yet, either."
"Shinpachi's your, er, maid?"
Argent snorted into his drink. "If he looked better in a frilly apron, sure. But generally he's a member of Yorozuya Gin-chan."
The Doctor glanced at the calendar on the wall, the notes scribbled in three hands. "So he does odd jobs with you? As well as the dishes?"
"Technically it's Kagura's turn with the dishes, but she knows if she waits long enough Shinpachi will go ahead and do them, so."
Kagura's would be the third hand on the calendar, then. "Business must be doing well, if you have two employees."
Argent snorted again. "Not that I can actually afford to pay them." He finished off his glass, poured himself another generous helping of clear liquor and said, "Their counterparts in your universe might be better off. If they even exist—they're kids, both of them, born after this line splintered off."
"They may have been born anyway," the Doctor said. "It all depends..." He watched Argent take another swallow, inquired curiously, "Does it have any effect on you? Time Lords aren't especially susceptible to alcohol, and I wouldn't take your father's people for the partying type..."
"It does if I let it." Argent set the glass down on the table and looked the Doctor in the eye, piercing red focus. "Now stop stalling and tell me why the hell I'm here—why I was here, when aliens weren't supposed to be in Japan."
"Er, right," the Doctor said. "So. As I told you before, there was a war on, the Time Lords against the...well, it doesn't matter; you don't have them here. They wouldn't get along with your Amanto, and besides they're gone—wiped out, across all and any time.
"But the war... You see, you were only a little boy, and your mother—usually when we entered the academy, we stopped having mothers and fathers to speak of; but after all the trouble she'd gone through to have you, your mother couldn't just forget about you. More than anything she wanted to make sure you were safe, make sure you survived. But you were still Time Lord enough to be hunted, so she had to find some way to hide you.
"Then she heard about this place—Earth, and the space-time rifts here. There's one beneath Japan, cutting straight through Edo. Its energy wouldn't usually be enough to hide a Time Lord, but within a nexus point, at the center of a historical confluence—and you were such a little tiny thing—it would mask you. You'd be lost in the tangle of all the lives that intersected there.
"So that was the plan—and it was a good one, too, if I say so myself—and it should've worked, but somehow it...went a bit off."
"Off the, er, universe." The Doctor coughed. "And by then your mother was... There was nothing she could do." He looked down, rather wishing Argent had granted him a glass after all; even without a drink, it would've been nice to have something to do with his hands. "After the war, when it was all over... The last thing your mother said to me was that I had to find you. Make sure you were safe. So..." How many of those promises had he accepted? And broken, nearly every one; rescuing Argent was one of the best chances he'd had, and still...
But that was before; as the Doctor was now, he wasn't inclined to accept failure as the only option. "So, here I am," he said, clapping his hands together smartly. "Come to bring you home."
"Your universe, that's not home," Argent said. "It doesn't make a place a home, just being born there. Even if I am an Amanto—"
"—You're not," the Doctor interrupted. "The Time Lords were never in this splinter, so we were never part of that intergalactic coalition. And I doubt your father's folks would have anything to do with them, either; not really team players, those—"
"—Whatever! Even if I am—whatever the hell I am—this is where I live. This universe, this planet, this city, this street. I might've been born a halfbreed bastard Time Lord, but I was raised a samurai, and that's what I am—even if I die and come back, that's what I'm always going to be. And I'm going to go on being one right here."
The Doctor sighed. "I'm sorry, Argent, but you can't."
"What do you mean, I can't?" Argent growled, tensing. The Doctor was abruptly glad that he wasn't still carrying a sword. There was a wooden stick in the corner that looked like a practice weapon, but nothing with a blade.
Still, he had two fists, and he was a samurai, as he said. The Doctor put up his hands, as non-threatening as possible, and hastily explained, "I won't force you to leave—I'm not going to march you to the TARDIS at gunpoint or anything, I don't even have a gun, nasty noisy things. But this place, this universe...if you actually care for it, then you can't stay here. Not if you want it to continue as it has been."
Argent swallowed. "What are you...what do you mean?" he said again, but the anger was gone.
"Like I told you, this splinter is stabilizing, as all the people in it live their lives, continue to weave their own unique timelines. They're making a network, a tapestry of alternate history underpinning the very quantostructure of this universe. And who you are—what you are—you're a knot in that tapestry."
Argent didn't say anything, just picked up his glass and swallowed the rest of the sake. "At first that was a good thing," the Doctor said quietly. "When I came here before, it was perilously unstable—I don't even know how many different points in history intersect here; I counted over a dozen, and there would've been more that had already been entirely incorporated by the time I arrived. That amount of crossover should've ripped the fabric of spacetime apart—but you were here, knotting everything together. Not even by anything you did, necessarily, just that you existed—you were a constant, the only thing from the true universe that hadn't been wrenched so out of shape that it couldn't support anything. This splinter, this universe, was, in essence, built around you.
"Now that it is built, however, it's stable enough to survive on its own. The tapestry will continue to weave itself without you tying it together. But as long as you remain here, it'll keep looping back to you—all the threads near you, they'll get tangled up, twisted and snarled.
"It's happening already; you might be aware of it. Time—this universe's time—is warped around you. Now that you've reached maturity, you've stopped growing, stopped aging on a human scale—and the people around you, too, won't be aging as they should. Days pass, but the years don't. Humans are notoriously bad at keeping track of time, but if you stay here, eventually even they'll start to notice, will realize what's happening to them..."
"Is that all?" Argent said. "Because if it's just that, we already know all about it."
Argent shook his head, slumping back on the couch as he scrubbed his hands through his silver hair. "Argh, you were freaking me out—I thought I was going to grow up into a black hole and suck up the whole universe or something."
"...No, no black holes on either side of your family, that I know of..."
"If it's just the aging thing, we've all known we're living in Sazae-time for a while. It's hard to miss when you go sakura-viewing three springs in a row but no one ever has a birthday. And I suspect Kyuubei's was a one-off special, considering what you were saying."
"Wait, what?" the Doctor said weakly.
"It's not like anyone really minds—don't get a lot of women turning down eternal youth, right? And maybe eventually the ages will be jacked up, to do a romance storyline or something—though that's about as likely as an extended Joui war flashback would be. ...Less, actually, since romance would be all kinds of divisive in the fanbase, while as if they need to turn a quick buck it'll be Shiroyasha for sure..." Argent shuddered, then exhaled, shrugging it off.
"So you're saying," the Doctor said, slowly, and precise—it wasn't often that he was the one being confused and trying to catch up, rather than the one doing the confusing; he didn't especially care for the experience—"you're already, er, aware of your influence on the local chronology? What exactly is 'Sazae-time'?"
"Mm, yeah," Argent said, "of course you're not up on Japanese pop-culture. But I'm not up on British, so... What about Simpsons-time, that make more sense? It's a standard model, but if it's not one you're used to it can get pretty confusing. Flashbacks especially; it's weird to have a past behind you when the future's not coming ahead. Mostly we try not to think about it too hard."
"I suppose it would be a bit odd," the Doctor said, re-establishing his intellectual equilibrium. "Atemporal chronologic progression can be difficult to mentally parse, if you're not used to thinking fourth- or fifth-dimensionally. So the people around you, they've made sense of the situation by comparing it to fiction." No less than he would have expected; humans were so wonderfully adaptable.
"Comparing it to...?" Argent began. He stopped and leaned forward to look the Doctor in the eye, a long searching look; then he slouched back on the couch again, crossing his arms. "Huh. You really don't know, do you. I thought you were just being a dick, talking about your 'real' universe like this one was so much rubbish—figured if it wasn't Western imperialism it was media snobbery, TV's bigger budget than comics, you've got more tie-ins, bigger foreign demographics, whatever. But you honestly don't know."
"Don't know what?" the Doctor said, irritated—the boy had been through a lot, true, but he was hardly so experienced as to be talking assuredly about cosmological factors the Doctor himself had never heard of.
"Ah, nothing, nothing." Argent waved a hand dismissively. "Forget I said anything. What you don't know won't hurt you. ...Unless you get cancelled. Again. But the franchise is probably big enough that you don't have to worry about that anyway. When you get down to it, the basics are true: your universe has been around a lot longer and is way more stable than this one."
"Yes," the Doctor said. "Pretty much..."
"And I appreciate the invitation," Argent said. "Really I do. It's a nice thought—totally impossible, of course—"
"It's not impossible," the Doctor said. "I've done the calculations, I ran simulations—given the present state of this splinter, and the TARDIS's present condition, there's a 99% chance that you could return with me without ripping apart the surrounding spatiotemporal framework, or yourself along with it."
"Yeah," Argent said, "only considering that I'm speaking perfect English right now and we've never been dubbed in that, there's a 100% chance that the state we're presently in is a non-canonical production. Which means the universe we made it back to wouldn't be your real one, no matter how convincing it seemed. And however unstable this universe is, you don't even want to imagine the place we'd end up. We could very well be damned to WiP hell, and that's if we're lucky..."
"...We're speaking Japanese now," the Doctor said carefully.
"Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that. The point is, this universe is my universe, and okay, it's crazy as hell, but it's the one I belong in."
The Doctor sighed as quietly as he could, trying to control his expression. He should have realized that even a Time Lord—a half-Time Lord, and an untrained one at that—wouldn't be immune to the stresses of existing in this splinter. The convergence of so many irreconcilable eras was disruptive, chaotic—crazy as hell, as Argent had said. Small wonder his faculties had fractured under that strain; really it was impressive that he had held it together as well as he had. "I won't take you anywhere you don't want to go," the Doctor said gently. "If you want to stay here, you can stay here. But, Argent—"
"That's not my name," Argent said. "If you're going to stick around any longer, you can stop calling me that. My name's what my master gave me."
"...'Master'?" the Doctor repeated uneasily.
"Master, sensei—my teacher. The one who raised me, after me and all the rest of us ended up here."
"Right, yes, of course. So what name was that?"
"Gintoki," Argent said. "Sakata Gintoki."
Which explained the 'Gin' on the sign outside. The Doctor had assumed the character for 'silver' was simply how Argent was writing his name. This, though—the Doctor frowned. "Your teacher named you 'Silver Time'? Who was he? How did he know?"
"No idea," Argent—Gintoki—said. "I've wondered. Realistically speaking it's just a coincidence, but..."
"Be that as it may, Gintoki," the Doctor tried again, "there's one thing you must understand. If I go now, if I leave this place, without you—there's a very strong possibility that I won't be able to come back. Getting through the chronorandomization barrier was difficult, and it will only get harder, the more established this universe becomes. Right now we could do it; I can get you back to the universe you came from. But this is likely your last chance.
"I'm not going to make you come with me, but you have to understand the risks if you stay here. I don't know what effects you, and what you are, might have on this universe. Over time you might simply settle in and become part of its spatiotemporal fabric. In the real—in my universe, the Time Lords were only a tiny part of the whole, so tiny that their vanishing affected almost nothing, in the end; time kept passing, and all the other worlds went on with their lives, scarcely noticing. But that might not be the case here—the way this splinter is developing around you, your existence could have a profound impact on the entire universe; it might literally fall apart without you."
"Yeah," Gintoki said. "That's the burden of being the hero, isn't it. But you handle it okay; I think I can manage."
"You don't understand." The Doctor frowned. "Whatever happens to me—if I die, even if I were erased from the temporal continuum like all the rest of us—I know my universe will go on without me."
"Yeah," Gintoki said, "you just keep telling yourself that, too..."
The Doctor ignored him. "At the same time, you'll be tied to this universe—if it ever did destabilize entirely, it would take you with it. That's the risk of you getting completely incorporated into the new history. Before, you might've been able to escape along one of the alternate timelines; but with them all getting netted together like this, those routes are cut off. If anything happens, you'll be trapped."
Gintoki shrugged. "That doesn't change anything. If this universe goes down, then I'm going down with it; I knew that already. There's too much here that I have to protect, too many people I have to protect; I can't cut and run. When you came before, if you'd been able to take me with you before...maybe then. But not now." He tilted up his head to meet the Doctor's eyes, said quietly and calmly, "I won't be going with you, Doctor. Sorry."
There was one more thing the Doctor still could say, one more ploy that might convince him. He didn't know for sure if his theory was right, but it was the only explanation that made sense. The rift and the historical nexus couldn't account for the twisting of so much time, not on such a ridiculous scale—even a Time Lord couldn't have managed it.
But there were others who might. And yes, it would have gone against everything they stood for, counter to all their rules; but sometimes rules are broken; in certain situations, any rule can be. A parent will do just about anything to save their child—Argent's mother had done all she could; wouldn't his father have done as much, for the sake of their son?
If Gintoki heard that his father was still out there, back in the other universe...the Doctor didn't know for sure if any of them survived, but they had mostly avoided the war, and some of the spatiotemporal repairs in the aftermath showed signs of their meddling. So it was more likely than not. And if Gintoki knew that...if he knew that this splinter he called home wouldn't even exist, if not for his father's love...
Not so long (or a lifetime) ago, the Doctor wouldn't have hesitated to say it. But it didn't seem quite fair, thinking about it now. Not when he didn't know for sure, didn't even know where Argent's father might be, even if he had survived, much less whether he had any interest in meeting his son. Would it really be for Argent's—for Gintoki's—sake, if the Doctor convinced him to leave? Or was this all for himself, trying to assuage a fraction of his guilt, keep just one promise....but hadn't he gotten over that by now? By now he was surely old enough to know better.
Though if he should ever happen to meet Argent's father, out there in the cosmos, what was he going to say? Good to see you, how have you been; by the way, I abandoned your son in a logic-defying excuse for a parallel universe that happened to have driven him insane...
As the Doctor sat there, lost in thought, Gintoki picked up the bottle on the table, sloshed a good dose of sake into the glass and handed it over. "Here."
"Er, thank you." The Doctor looked down at the glass, then shook his head, shrugged and drank, grimacing at the taste. Gintoki's freelancer business wasn't doing all that well, apparently. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, the Doctor down set the tumbler and got to his feet. "Well, if you're decided, I suppose I should be going..."
"Wait," Gintoki began, standing with him.
Before he got any further, the front door slid open with a rattle and a bang, and a cheerful girl's voice announced, "We're back, Gin-chan! And Shinpachi's here, too, with groceries."
The first person to enter the room wasn't the girl or the not-maid, however, but a white dog the approximate shape of a small puppy and the approximate size of a small elephant. "Er, hello," the Doctor said, then hastily ducked out from under the massive canine's attempt to chomp down on his skull. He managed to dodge thanks to long experience with despots and demons trying to bite his head off. Many of them literally; he just had one of those faces, apparently. (Or eleven of them, but who was counting?)
"That's Sadaharu," Gintoki supplied, and added a desultory, "Down, boy," to the dog which he made no effort to enforce.
"Sadaharu, yes, hi, good doggie," the Doctor said, patting the giant dog's head as he nimbly avoided another bite; then he turned to greet the two teenagers who had entered, laden with plastic supermarket bags—Gintoki's employees, evidently. "You must be Shinpachi-kun," he said to the boy in glasses, and to the red-headed girl, "And Kagura-chan, was it? I'm the Doctor, nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you," the boy said politely, then turned to his boss. "Is this a customer, Gin-san? Kagura-chan, get Sadaharu off our client—!"
"Nah, it's fine, he's just an old friend," Gintoki said.
"Like Katsura?" the girl inquired, peering curiously at the Doctor as she wrapped her arms around the dog's huge neck.
"From before that," Gintoki said. "Sort of. He's in town for a visit; maybe we can give him a quick tour of the neighborhood before he has to leave."
"Okay," the boy Shinpachi said, "as long as it's quick; we've got the appointment to walk that lady's celestial tortoises this afternoon."
"If it's any trouble, I can go—" the Doctor started to say, but Gintoki shook his head, cutting him off.
"That's fine," he said. "The tortoises can wait a little. It'll teach them self-discipline."
Though once they were out on the street, Gintoki didn't bother guiding his proposed tour; he let his two employees take the lead, walking alongside the Doctor and pointing out the sights. "That's the local ward office, we tiled their roof last spring. And those apartments we helped put out a fire at," Shinpachi explained, while Kagura provided, "That's the pachinko parlor where Gin-chan lost all our rent money last week, and there's the guy he lost the money with, sleeping under that bench—"
"—And Tetsuko's forge is down that street; she's another friend, Gin-san saved her," Shinpachi said, raising his voice to be heard over his coworker.
"—And over there's the okama bar where Gin-chan and Shinpachi dress like women and dance for money," Kagura continued, ignoring the boy.
Gintoki himself, meanwhile, ambled behind them, not saying much of anything until they reached a family restaurant. "That's the Battle Royal Host," Kagura said, "they make great parfaits, don't they, Gin-chan? Delicious chocolate parfaits, and delicious hamburgers, and delicious omurice, and delicious—"
"Fine, fine, let's get lunch," Gintoki said. "My friend here can treat us, right, Doctor?"
Lunch for Gintoki turned out to be three parfaits (one chocolate, one chestnut, one strawberry) and for Kagura was five adult-sized meals and six sides. Shinpachi got only a kiddie-meal, which he barely bothered to eat, being too distracted by the toy that came with it, a plastic figurine of a girl which tinnily sang a few pre-recorded and highly questionable lyrics when a button on the base was pressed. The Doctor ordered black tea for himself while he figured out how best to charge the bill to his psychic paper.
Kagura was polishing off her last plate (the Doctor openly stared at this process, fascinated by both the rate and quantity of consumption; Kagura didn't appear to mind, and the other two neither noticed his interest nor shared it) when Gintoki excused himself to the restroom. While he was gone, Shinpachi piled up the emptied dishes for their server to collect, then asked carefully from behind the stack, "So, Doctor-san, you've known Gin-san a while; did you fight in the war?"
"Not exactly," the Doctor said. "Or maybe yes, in a manner of speaking. He's never mentioned me, then?"
Shinpachi shook his head. "But Gin-san doesn't talk about the past much..."
"So he's never said anything about Time Lords or the like?"
"Time-whats?" Kagura asked around a mouthful of omu-rice.
"What about, er," the Doctor ran back over their previous conversation in his head, "'Sazae-time', I think it was—has he said anything about that?"
Shinpachi and Kagura looked at each other; then as one they released great long breaths, sinking back into their seats. Both of them were grinning. "Oh, good," Shinpachi said. "I thought this was the start of a serious arc."
"Felt like one," Kagura agreed, nodding. "Mysterious guy from the past and all."
"But if it's just a meta-plot, that's okay."
"Yeah, pretty sure it's only a one-shot," Gintoki said, returning to the table. "And non-canonical to boot."
"Oh, that explains Kagura's grammar," Shinpachi said.
"And why you've barely spazzed out at all," Kagura returned, sticking her tongue out at the boy. "Totally OOC!"
"Ah, look at the time," Gintoki interrupted. "You two better get over to the space-reptile woman; I'll catch up."
"You better not leave us all of this one, Gin-san," Shinpachi said severely. "Last time Kagura-chan tugged on the leash so hard she almost pulled the tortoise clean out of its shell."
"Yeah, but at least I don't walk slower than a tortoise, like Shinpachi does—"
"—Hey, who's slower than a—!"
"Yeah, yeah, get going," Gintoki said, and the two headed out of the restaurant, only for Kagura to circle around back to them before she reached the door.
She stopped in front of the Doctor, arms folded as she looked all the way up at him. "By the way, even if this is just a one-shot, you better not do anything to hurt Gin-chan. He's sensitive, you know."
"I'm what?" Gintoki said, with about as much outraged emotion as the Doctor had ever heard from him. "Get out of here, brat!"
He swatted Kagura's head; she ducked without breaking her gaze from the Doctor's. "If you do, we'll both kick your ass," she warned him, and ran back out the door, its bell chiming as it shut behind her.
"So those are your, er, employees," the Doctor said.
"If you can call them that," Gintoki said, as the Doctor finished convincing the waitress that the psychic paper really was good for the bill and they headed out themselves. "Not like they ever do what they're told. ...Or get paid, for that matter..."
"Associates, then," the Doctor said. "Or friends. Companions."
Gintoki shrugged. "They're mine," he said simply.
"They're who you have to protect."
"Two of them," Gintoki said. "And Shinpachi's got an older sister, and Kagura's got a father—a brother, too, though that's a whole other story. And there's always Zura. And Sakamoto's still in the universe, even if not on this planet. And the old hag, my landlady, she's the only reason I have any of it. And Hasegawa, the guy under the bench. And the stalkers, and the idiot Shinsengumi..."
"This really is your home," the Doctor said.
"Yeah," Gintoki said. "And they're real, all of them—as real as anyone you know in your universe. Maybe a different kind of real—but then, from another point of view everyone you know is just as imaginary. Hell, at least almost everyone around here had a basis in some non-fantastic historical timeline."
"Non-fantastic...no," the Doctor corrected, "even if it's not quite as crazy as here, things can get pretty fantastic in my universe."
Gintoki gave him a sidelong look, eyes piercing red in the noon sun. "Exactly."
The trouble with lunatics, the Doctor thought, is that their convictions, however insane, can be so...convincing. "I'll grant you that in my universe, Time Lords are no longer part of history. So from certain points of view, we might as well be fictional. But the people I meet, human beings and others, from so many worlds—most of them are non-fantastic, you might say. But that doesn't make them any less marvelous or amazing or important."
"Never said it did," Gintoki said. "Fantastic, imaginary, fictional, historical—the people I protect are the people I protect; the people I care about are the people I care about. And who the hell cares if they're real, or I'm real, or any of this is. And the same goes for you, right?"
"If you put it like that..." The Doctor checked his watch, suddenly feeling a twinge of anxiety. "I really should be getting back; I've got some people myself who need a spot of protecting, now and then...of course that's usually because they're with me, but they're getting better all the time at finding it themselves. You'd like them—spunky red-headed girl, straight-man boy..."
Gintoki arched a silver eyebrow. "By 'spunky' do you mean 'eats her body-weight in food every day and juggles boulders when the mood takes her'?"
"Hmm, no, she's strong, but not like that. She is a married woman, though...well, so's he—a married man, I mean. To each other. Think your two might tie the knot someday?"
Gintoki tripped over an invisible pothole in the road and fell flat on his face. "...No," he mumbled into the pavement. "I don't."
"It's really rather sweet, if a bit nauseating..." The Doctor was glad to see the TARDIS right where he'd left her on the sidewalk, unchanged except for the advertising banner the storeowner had seen fit to drape over the box. This he tore off before putting his key in the lock.
He stopped before he turned it, looked back with his hand on the TARDIS's door. "Gintoki—Argent. Last chance."
Gintoki had picked himself up off the sidewalk and was slouching lazily, arm idly tucked in the loose fold of his yukata. "Yeah," he said. "Thanks, but no thanks. But I'll see you around."
"I told you," the Doctor said, "I won't be coming back. Before long there'll be no trace of you in my universe to track...I'll remember you, but that's all that will be left of you over there. A single memory."
"Only fair," Gintoki said, "since that's all that will be left of you here. Well, three memories. Plus anyone reading this crossover...and one could always happen again. If it hasn't already; it's a great big crack-filled multiverse, and copyright only bars so much, especially since we're parody—and how; you should see some of the stuff we've run into. The horror movies I could've done without—and the Stands, eheh—though as long as I'm not the one going to imitation-Namek for a smoke break—"
The Doctor laughed suddenly.
"Nothing," the Doctor said. "Just that I was thinking, if ever I happened to meet your father again..."
Gintoki was still, not even breathing, not quite looking at him. "My father?"
"I don't know that I ever will; I haven't seen any of them since the war," the Doctor said. And he'd not gotten along with that crowd much better than any other Gallifreyan had. Though Silver better than the others, Silver with his sense of humor and his bright smile—the Doctor had never questioned how she had fallen for him. Silver who so liked making things, who took such pride in his clever toys—how this splinter he had helped create, this mad little universe his and his lover's love had wrought, would delight him.
As for the silver soul shining at its center..."If he is out there, and if I do run across him—I've been wondering, if he asked me about you, what I'd tell him."
Gintoki unfroze, cocked his head. "Yeah?"
"You're happy," the Doctor said, opening the TARDIS's door. "I'll tell him you're happy."