One day the Doctor woke up. Of course, he had done this approximately four hundred thousand times before, but this time it felt somehow more definitive. He felt awake: his senses working on overdrive to bring him 1) the smell of antiseptics 2) the feeling of i) over-starched sheets ii) a prickle of hair against his lips iii) plastic cuffs around his wrists iv) a long needle stuck into the top of his left hand. The Doctor considered escaping the way Houdini had taught him, but decided against it. He couldn’t remember how he’d arrived in this hospital (for that was what it indisputably was. Probably late 20th or early 21st century Earth, judging by the feel of the sheets) and somewhere out there would be people with answers. He could always escape later if they were bad answers.
“Hello?” he shouted. “I’m awake now. Is anyone there? Hello? Hel- Ah, yes, hello.” A woman who was probably a nurse had rounded the corner and hurried over to his bed. “I was wondering if you could tell me what’s going on.”
“Oh my God, you’re awake,” she said, pressing the red help button just behind his head. Her voice was American, which made it more likely that he was on Earth. The TARDIS tended to translate alien languages into a pleasant, generic Gallifreyan accent (which to the untrained ear sounded a lot like the Queen’s English), except, for some reason, on Earth.
“I am,” the Doctor agreed. “And that’s a surprise, is it? You weren’t expecting me to be awake.”
“A good surprise,” the woman assured him, “but I'd say it was definitely a surprise." She checked his vitals on a series of machines, and apparently found them satisfactory, even though the Doctor could see only one heart beat registering. "You’ve been out some time, you know.”
“No,” the Doctor said, “I’m afraid I don’t know. How long would you say is some time?”
“Oh,” the nurse said. She pushed her dark hair behind her ear uneasily. “A while.”
“Yes, that’s not much more specific-”
“I just think someone else should tell you.”
“A long time then,” the Doctor mused. “More or less than a week? Go on, you can tell me.”
The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “A month? Five months? Twenty years? Come on-”
“You’ve been asleep for just over a year,” another American woman’s voice said.
The nurse turned in relief, as the Doctor tried to crane his neck to see around her. “Doctor Holloway. Thank goodness.”
“Grace?” the Doctor asked hopefully, but as the doctor moved past the nurse towards his bedside he saw quite clearly that although she was familiar she certainly wasn’t Grace. “Sorry. I thought you were someone else for a minute there,” he told the Indian woman checking the machines he was plugged into, and then added helpfully, “You know, the nurse already did that.”
“I like to do my job,” the doctor who wasn’t Grace said, “and it’s quite natural to be confused after a period of coma. You don’t need to apologise. I’m just going to shine this light into your eyes to test your reactions-”
“Fine,” the Doctor told her, “I think you’ll find they’re as good as ever. But,” he said, as she began to speak, “you like to do your job, I know.”
“I don’t suppose you don’t know what’s happened to my companions?” the Doctor asked, as the light blinded him. “Charley, that’s a girl Charley, not a boy Charley, and a rather strange looking man called C’Rizz.”
“I don’t recognise those names, but your husband’s been told you’re awake. He should be here within the hour.” Doctor Holloway snapped the torch off. “Your reactions are very good, you’re right.”
The Doctor blinked trying to dispel the light spots in front of his vision. “What husband?”
“It’s natural to be confused,” Doctor Holloway said calmly.
“Not this confused,” the Doctor told her. “I know who I am, I know I don’t have a husband and your name tag, which I’ve just seen, says your name is ‘Grace Holloway’.”
“That’s right,” she told him, “but then you said you thought I was someone else. You seem all right for the moment. Do you mind if I go and check on some of my other patients? I’ll leave Nurse Summerfield with you until your husband arrives.”
“That’s fine,” the Doctor said, ignoring the reference to a spouse he didn’t have. “What are the chances of either of you loosening my manacles before then?”
“Maybe later,” Doctor Holloway told him. “Call me when Mr Smith arrives,” she said to the nurse, and walked off past where the Doctor could see her.
He turned back to the other woman. “Miss Summerfield - your first name isn’t Benny, is it, by any chance? I’m just guessing here.”
“Good guess,” she said surprised. “How did you do that?”
“Just a theory,” the Doctor said. He let his eyes flicker shut. “Don’t worry,” he told her, “I’m not slipping back into a coma. I’m just resting for a moment…”
He awoke in his own bed aboard the TARDIS, manacle free. He dressed and hurried down to the breakfast room, where Charley yawned over tea and toast. “Morning Doctor.” She frowned. “Gracious, you look terrible.”
“Charlotte’s right,” C’Rizz said, coming in behind the Doctor. Today his skin was a deep royal blue that matched the furnishings and the Doctor’s second best coat. “You do look terrible.”
“Yes, thank you both,” the Doctor said dryly. “It’s nothing. I’m sure I’ll be back to my usual debonair self soon enough. I don’t think I slept very well. Strange dreams. Very strange dreams.”
“I didn’t know you had dreams,” Charley said. “You’ve never talked about any of them.”
“I don’t usually,” the Doctor said, taking her half-finished cup of tea away from her and stirring more sugar into it.
“Was I in it?” Charley asked. “Your dream, Doctor,” she prompted when he didn’t answer.
“No,” the Doctor told her, beginning to sip Charley’s tea. “Neither of you were there. But I think- I think two of my other companions, from before your time, were — Anji and Izzy. It’s hard to tell because they were both much older than when I knew them, and American, and their names were mixed up… but I think it was them.”
Charley made a noise that indicated she was still interested but substantially less now she knew she hadn’t been present. “Do you dream, C’Rizz?”
“Of course,” C’Rizz said, sounding offended. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know,” Charley said. “Hey, Doctor, that’s my tea-!”
The Doctor grinned at her, finished the tea, and wandered off to the console room. They had quite a good day by TARDIS standards. C’Rizz did an excellent impersonation of a Cyberman, and the invasion they’d stumbled into by accident was over by the time Charley’s stomach was beginning to protest that it was dinner time. The Doctor went to bed that night after an excellent Mimosian banquet, and-
There was a man sitting by his bed, reading a copy of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. He was unshaven, but in such a way that it was clear this was unusual. His hair flopped loosely in front of his face.
“I met him once, you know,” the Doctor remarked, trying to nod towards the book. “Well, I say met. He’d probably think of it more as inspired.”
“You are back with us, after all, then,” the man said, closing the book and putting it down on the floor carefully.
“Apparently,” the Doctor said. “And for the second night in a row.”
“I arrived and you were sleeping, and I thought maybe- But here you are.”
“Here I am,” the Doctor agreed. “And still handcuffed to the bed, I see.”
The man made a face. “Yeah, sorry, I know. I tried to get them to let you go, but apparently you used to keep wandering off, which I’m told is pretty unique. No one wants to take the risk.”
The Doctor tried a winning expression. “What if I promised to be good?”
“I don’t think they’d believe you.”
“Well, my record speaks against me, but I think a year in a coma is enough to change anyone’s habits…” The Doctor tailed off, because he saw the other man was crying, and even he had some idea of the social etiquette in this sort of situation. “Are you all right?”
This prompted a pained chuckled. “What do you think? You wake up, then you’re back to sleep before I can get here, now you calmly discuss your fucking coma like it was a stint in rehab. How do you think I am, John? Actually, no,” he said wearily, when the Doctor opened his mouth, “don’t answer that. I know you don’t have a clue who I am.”
The Doctor frowned. “Who said that? Doctor It’s-Natural-To-Be-Confused? I know who you are, of course I know who you are.”
The other man leant back and spread his hands. “OK. Who am I?”
“I can’t believe you doubt me,” the Doctor said, trying to look hurt, while he wondered what the hell his subconscious was trying to tell him with this dream. “As if could I have forgotten my husband.”
“What’s my name, John?”
“…Fitz?” the Doctor guessed.
“No,” the other man told him almost kindly. “It’s Sam.”
“I was close then.”
“No, I’d say I was close,” the Doctor countered. “Perhaps by your alphabetical or euphonic systems of measurement, I missed the mark quite spectacularly, but trust me, I was fairly close using my system. So. Sam. Sam, Sam, Sam,” he considered, “that’s very interesting. You took my name, didn’t you, when we got married. But before that you were Sam Jones.”
“You bastard.” The man calling himself after this regeneration’s first companion began to grin. “You utter shit. I can’t believe I bought it. You remember,” he said pointing accusingly. “You remember everything.”
“Well,” the Doctor said, “I wouldn’t say that, although Sigmund Freud did once tell me I had nearly perfect recall, but recently I’ve been suffering bouts of-”
“Shut up,” Sam said gruffly, as he clambered onto the Doctor’s bed. He laughed slightly. “I can’t believe I just told you to shut up. I’ve been waiting a year for you to say anything at all, and all it takes is five minutes of you yammering on-”
“Similar opinions,” the Doctor began, “have been-”
“Shut up, John,” Sam repeated and kissed him to make sure it stuck. The Doctor was fairly sure there was something not entirely right about snogging what amounted to another man’s husband under false pretences, but since he was still strapped to the bed and Sam’s tongue was in his mouth there was nothing he could reasonably do about it. Except kiss back — there was too little kissing in his life, he realised now, far too little. This regeneration had started well, but since then it had been pretty much downhill until now. Fortunately Sam seemed intent on making up for lost time. Having thoroughly explored the Doctor’s mouth, he began to kiss his neck, stopping only briefly to say, “This doesn’t mean you can talk again.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” the Doctor pointed out.
“It’s not,” Sam said, licking him, “but those are the rules of the hospital. I don’t make them.”
“Do they apply to all the patients, or just-” the licking caught him at a particularly nice spot along his collar bone, and the Doctor stopped protesting to murmur, “oh, that’s good. That’s very-”
“OK, perhaps they’ll let you talk after all,” Sam said breathily into his neck.
“-good,” the Doctor said, “oh, god, Master, that’s-” at which point Sam pulled away, and the Doctor made a face. “I’ve never called you that before, have I?”
“Nope,” Sam told him. “Not out loud anyway. Although,” he kissed the Doctor’s neck again, “I guess,” then his chin, “if you wanted to,” then his mouth, “that’d be fine.” He reached a hand down to the edge of the Doctor’s hospital gown-
“I don’t think we should do that,” the Doctor told him quietly but firmly, because the not-right-ness had just got a lot worse. Hopefully Sam was the sort of man who respected his husband’s wishes because frankly, as with the kissing, there was nothing the Doctor could do to stop him if he wasn’t. “Now,” he added, to pacify him in case of emergencies.
“No, God, I’m sorry,” Sam said moving his hand away immediately. “Are you all right? I haven’t hurt you, have I?”
“I’m just tired,” the Doctor explained. “And on an open ward.”
“Right.” Sam got up off the bed. “I’ll go get you some coffee or something.” He paused. “I don’t know. Can you drink coffee in your condition? I haven’t had time to look into it yet.”
“It would have to be through a straw,” the Doctor said wryly, wiggling his hands around uselessly in their restraints.
“Yeah. OK, I’ll ask them again about the cuffs, too. You are going to be here when I get back?”
“Unless I dislocate my wrists and slip out to catch a breath of fresh air.”
“Don’t do that,” Sam said. “I’ll be back soon.”
The Doctor watched him go, and then rolled his head back round towards the rest of the ward. It was still full of coma patients, none of whom had noticed his moral slip-up. He sighed, which turned into a yawn, and soon he was waking up in the TARDIS.
It had only been a couple of hours (fairly typical of the Doctor’s sleep schedule) and neither of his companions were abroad. The Doctor pulled on a silk brocade dressing gown he was very fond of and wandered down to the TARDIS library.
He owned several books on dream interpretation from various different civilisations and schools of thought, none of which he’d ever read. It had never seemed a particularly compelling subject - not even when he’d been at UNIT, and had dreamt warnings about the Master’s future plans. He made a note of this coincidence, ‘Master connected to both’ in the side margin of one of the dream guides, and underneath it, ‘But what could this plan be??’ and then underneath that, ‘And isn’t he dead anyway? Perhaps investigate further.’
The Doctor flipped through each of the books, but as he’d suspected, they were fairly useless. His dream about the Master before the Chronos fiasco had been clearly symbolic, but his two most recent dreams had been closer to out of body experiences. Without any satisfactory answers, the Doctor re-shelved the dream guides, and went off to brood until Charley and C’Rizz woke up and they could all go and save something distracting.
“This is ridiculous,” the Doctor huffed, having woken again in the hospital after a tiring day of chasing Movellans. “I don’t understand why I’m still here.” He was, at least, no longer chained to the bed, which had also been moved to a private room away from rows of accusing sleepers. Additionally, while he’d been gone (approximately the same time as in real life, according to the clock on his bedside table) someone had dressed him in some rather fetching grey pyjamas.
Sam was wearing thick-framed glasses today, and had been marking what looked like a stack of essays until the Doctor’s return to/from consciousness. He took off the glasses off in a way that seemed to express infinite patience. “Well, baby, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that you haven’t managed to sustain consciousness for more than ten minutes so far.”
“I don’t mean the hospital,” the Doctor snapped, mentally reeling from the endearment. Surely not. Surely, even American and massively fictionalised by his imagination, the Master would still choose ‘my dear’. “I meant this place. What is going on?”
“They wanted you out of the coma ward,” Sam explained, as the Doctor pushed himself into a sitting position and began pulling the sticky ends of the monitoring equipment away from his chest. “Ironically, because you’d been awake so long, but if you want to go back-”
“No. Thank you.”
Without anything to monitor the machines started to wail, Sam grimaced as the Doctor switched them off. “OK, so what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” the Doctor said morosely. Leaving the drip in case it was keeping him alive, he swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Let’s go, before I get bored with the view.”
He stood — and staggered, grabbing for the drip-stand. Sam was on his feet moments later, an arm wrapped around the Doctor’s waist to steady him. “Hey, take it easy.”
“You know, I feel as weak as someone who’s just spent a year in bed,” the Doctor told him.
Sam grimaced fondly. “There’s that famous sense of humour.”
“No, it’s just - I hadn’t realised I had such a vivid imagination,” the Doctor explained.
“And now you’re talking crazy again,” Sam said, which the Doctor ignored. He sighed. “So where are we going?” he asked as the Doctor began to walk slowly towards the door, trying to lean more heavily on the drip than on Sam. “Remembering that we can’t leave the hospital.”
“Until I can prove I can stay awake, I know.” They were at the door now and into the corridor. The Doctor considered both directions, wondering if there were coins in his pyjama pockets.
“Left or right?” Sam prompted.
The Doctor looked up at him. “You tell me. What’s worth seeing? Where do the more animate patients hang out?”
“There’s a café?” Sam offered. “Or, I don’t know, a sort of tiny store-”
“A little shop,” the Doctor said, brightening. “Excellent. I’ve always said a hospital is nothing without a little shop-”
Sam steered him round to the left. “Well, that’s this way-”
“I suppose you must have spent quite a lot of time here recently,” the Doctor said absently, as they walked in the direction of the shop.
“Quite a bit.”
“You’re not sleeping here, are you?”
“No, I have a hotel room nearby. It’s nice. Not great, but OK.”
“What about work?” the Doctor asked. In order to make this sound less like he had no idea what he was talking about he added, “If you’re here all the time, or in that not-great hotel-”
“All the time for you being about twenty minutes-”
“And at least an hour or so more than that, if that pile of marked papers was anything to go by.”
“I’m on sabbatical,” Sam explained.
“But still working.”
“What can I say? I’m dedicated. And the guy they have covering me is a total tool.”
“I see,” the Doctor said. Mentally he filed this information away in a column titled ‘Master-like characteristics’, which had thus far been largely empty.
The little shop they were headed for was just off the waiting room. The Doctor recognised it, with its pale green walls and depressing lighting, almost immediately as the place he had been slumped on Millennium Eve, just before he’d accosted Grace and followed her back to her house.
“Oh. So we’re in San Francisco.”
“Yes dear,” Sam agreed, which earned him another Master-point. “I wasn’t going to move you, no matter how many times your mother called insisting the English doctors would have cured you by now.”
“It looks almost the same,” the Doctor mused. “When is this? What’s the date?”
Sam checked the watch on his wrist. “January 16th, 2001.”
“And I’ve been out just over a year,” the Doctor said thoughtfully. “Interesting. Very interesting.” He didn’t ask when or where he’d supposedly collapsed, both because he was fairly sure he was supposed to know and because he was fairly sure he knew. “All right,” he told Sam, “we can go back to the ward now.”
“You don’t want to see the shop then.”
“It was more of a passing whim than-” the Doctor said, but in turning around he caught sight of the two of them in the shiny surface of the lift door: Sam, tall and floppy-haired, standing next to someone who was short, all in grey, and sporting what was quite definitely a rubbish looking beard. “Ah.” The Doctor grimaced. “On second thoughts, does the little shop sell razors?”
“Tired of looking like a hobo?” Sam asked, rubbing the Doctor’s bristly face affectionately. “Wait here a moment. I’ll go check.”
Without his support, the Doctor sank into a nearby chair in between a thin Asian woman and a small boy, who got up to sit on the other side of his mother a moment later. He watched vaguely as Sam bought the razor, and tried not to notice that the girl he was buying it from was Samantha Angeline Jones, his Sam. Then, much like the last time he’d sat on these chairs, he drifted gently off to sleep.
The next morning the Doctor took his companions to see San Francisco.
“… The Golden Gate Bridge, the War Memorial Opera House, they have a fantastic China town, and a Japan town for that matter, museums, cable cars-”
“Bathrooms,” C’Rizz said, as they stepped out of the TARDIS into one.
“Yes. Bathrooms,” the Doctor agreed. “Exactly.” He examined his beard-free face in the mirror above the shiny white sink and found it satisfactory, if slightly worn.
“Doctor, why have we landed in-” Charley began, but then the bathroom door was flung open by (the real) Grace Holloway, wielding a baseball bat.
The Doctor whirled and beamed in the same fluid movement. “Grace! How marvellous to see you.”
“Doctor?” She gaped at him, and then began to laugh, dropping the baseball bat to the floor. Then changed her mind again, and tried to frown. “What are you doing in my bathroom?”
“We were just asking the same thing,” C’Rizz put in.
“I was aiming for just outside the front porch,” the Doctor explained. “Sometimes piloting a small blue box through the entirety of space and time is a bit difficult and I get things slightly wrong. How are you?” He enveloped her in a hug.
“Fine. I’m fine,” Grace said, having decided to grin. “I’m-”
“That’s fantastic news,” the Doctor told her. “Are you still working at that hospital?”
“No. I quit, remember? Just after I met you, well, the other you. Just before I-”
“Well, let’s go there anyway,” the Doctor suggested, steering her out of the bathroom. “I have some fond memories of that place-”
“I thought were going to see a famous bridge,” Charley pouted.
“No, no, no,” the Doctor explained. “You and C’Rizz are going to see a famous bridge. You and C’Rizz are going to ride in cable cars, and generally have a wonderful time before being back here at two. Doctor Holloway and I have to go and break into her old hospital.”
“Doctor, it’s lovely to see you, but I do have another job now-”
“Why?” Charley asked, following them down the stairs and into the living room. “You haven’t told us anything about this.”
“-which I have to be at in like half an hour,” Grace finished.
“I’ll explain later,” the Doctor assured Charley. “I’ll explain later, but slightly less later than that,” he told Grace. “And I’ll… actually, you had better take this,” he said to C’Rizz, pulling a large wad of dollar bills out of his coat pocket and stuffing them into C’Rizz’s hand. “More useful than explanations.”
“Can’t we come with you?” Charley asked.
“Another time, Charley,” the Doctor told her. “And Grace,” he said as they left the house, “I like the sofa.”
Although he’d missed his ideal landing position by about twenty metres across, ten up in space, he’d done relatively well in time. It was almost exactly a year after his last visit: January the 5th, 2001. If he were asleep in the hospital somewhere, if that reality were in any way a reality, he would be able to find himself.
Strangely enough, although the coma ward looked exactly as he’d dreamt it, there was nobody called John Smith asleep in it. Despite Grace’s mutterings about being arrested, the Doctor hacked into the confidential systems and extracted the relevant biographical about all five John Smiths in the hospital. Then he and Grace spilt up and went to visit each of the men just in case, but all of them were awake and none of them were him. With an hour still to go before Charley and C’Rizz were due back at Grace’s house, they reconvened at a coffee house near the hospital.
“Well, that was a complete waste of time,” Grace said.
The Doctor stirred more sugar into his cappuccino in a desultory sort of way. “What were you really going to do with your day?”
“I don’t know — maybe save lives?”
“I can drop you back at this morning,” the Doctor told her. “You can do it again, if you want. What’re a few broken laws of time between friends?” He sipped the coffee. “And I wouldn’t say it was a complete waste of time, actually. I found out that it’s significantly more likely that I’m going crazy, or that I’m already crazy and am imagining all of this, than it is that I’m possessing someone else by night. I not sure whether I should be relieved or not. I suppose I should be. After all, I would have looked like a dreadful hypocrite…”
Grace laid a hand over the one the Doctor was using to stir his coffee. “This is real. And you’re not crazy.”
The Doctor grinned faintly. “Sorry, how many times did you try to call an ambulance on me last time we met?”
“That was completely different. But if you’re worried about it- why don’t you speak to a professional?”
“Because,” the Doctor told her, “one, I don’t believe in psychoanalysis, or mind altering drugs or herbal remedies. Two, in all likelihood the only people who might be able to help me live on a planet I’m avoiding, and most importantly, three, I don’t want my companions to know there’s anything wrong with me.” He took a meditative sip of his coffee. “That is, I don’t want Charley to know. I could tell C’Rizz, but he might tell Charley, so I think we’re better off as we are.”
“Isn’t she your friend?”
“She is,” the Doctor agreed. “My best friend. And last time I thought I was someone else I tried to kill her. At least this time I’m only married to the insane megalomaniac.”
Grace’s eyebrows rose. “You didn’t mention that part.”
“Should we be worried? I can call the hospital and let them know if there might be a maniac-” Grace began to get up, but the Doctor gestured her back into her seat.
“He’s not a maniac in the hospital universe. He’s actually quite sweet. It’s just — the person he’s based on. Or that he looks like, anyway. I’m not sure if he’s based on anyone. I have a list — two lists…”
“He isn’t-,” Grace repeated
“Grace, you live in San Francisco,” the Doctor pointed out. “Don’t tell me you’re shocked. Gay marriage should be- actually, is it legal yet?” He groaned. “Don’t tell me I got fake married in some sort of hippie commune…”
“I meant — he isn’t based on anyone, any insane megalomaniac I know or met once, is he, Doctor?”
“Oh, I see. No. Absolutely not. I’ve met a lot megalomaniacs in my time, Grace, haven’t you?”
“More than enough, thanks,” Grace said with a frown. “I don’t know, Doctor. Perhaps you should talk to him. This isn’t really my area, but I think it could be useful. Find out what he wants.”
“You think I should talk to the product of my imagination. Again. I’ve already talked to him. He has a nice-ish hotel room nearby and wants me to remember who he is.”
“You said he was sweet,” Grace pointed out. “How bad could it be?” The Doctor considered this. “And you should tell Charley,” she continued. “No. Don’t look at me like that. Come on,” Grace said, patting his hands, and getting up. Her coffee cup was still mostly full. “We should get back to your friends.”
Charley and C’Rizz had had a relatively successful day (C’Rizz’s alienness had largely gone unnoticed, although Charley’s 1920s-ness had almost got them into trouble in a park). The Doctor let them tell him about it for about an hour before he got up to leave, taking one of the console room’s many clocks with him.
Charley’s worried voice followed him out of the room. “Doctor - are you all right?”
“Absolutely,” the Doctor told her, favouring his companions with his brightest smile. “I’m just going to get something. Back in a moment.”
Not good, he thought as he returned to his bedroom. Unsustainable lies: always a bad sign. Of course, he could always claim he’d got lost or distracted, but perhaps Grace was right, and he would have to tell her soon.
The Doctor had never used an alarm clock before (for its original purpose anyway. Bits of them were always coming in useful around the TARDIS). As a Time Lord, he was so intrinsically tied up in the web of time that it was easy to wake up after such and such an hour, or bring himself out of a trance after a pre-arranged interval. But if his mind was elsewhere, things might easily go awry. Even the clock might well be insufficient, but he had faith that his companions would come looking for him if he didn’t reappear. Between the two of them and his ship, they would find a way to wake him — it would just be better if they didn’t have to.
He set the clock to wake him in twelve hours time, and let himself fall into a trance.
The hospital room was dimly lit, with bright patches only at the ends of the corridors and on the machines everyone was plugged into. The Doctor leaned over the side of his bed, switched on the reading light, and tried to focus on the small plastic clock on the bedside cabinet. Ten minutes past four.
Next to the clock that had shared its disappointing news with him was the razor Sam had bought for him yesterday, a half eaten packet of biscuits, and an off-white telephone with a post-it stuck to it. It read ‘Call me if I’m not here’, and gave a phone number. Sweet, the Doctor thought as he got out of bed.
He had decided to poke around the hospital and find out if there was anything interesting/dangerous going on in it that shouldn’t be going on, but as soon as he stood up he remembered that in order to move at all he was either going to have to cling to the walls or the drip stand, like a drunkard or, worse, an invalid. Neither of those options was going to be particularly stealthy and, he thought, as he sat back down on the bed, the hospital hadn’t seemed very interesting any of the other times he’d explored it.
Instead he picked up the phone receiver, pulled the post-it away from it and dialled Sam’s hotel. How bad could it be?
“Hello?” Sam’s voice said after the phone had rung only twice. He sounded crisp and anxious despite the hour. “What’s wrong? Do I need to come over there?”
“It’s all right,” the Doctor said. “It’s me.”
“John? Oh, baby, what are you doing awake?”
“I thought that was the idea,” the Doctor told him. “And there was a note. Should I not have called? It’s late, isn’t it? Or early, depending on how you look at it. I shouldn’t have called-”
“No, it’s fine. It’s just you almost gave me a heart attack there.” Singular, the Doctor noted. He glanced up at the machine monitoring his own singular heart beat, and put a hand to his chest where the other one should have been, but wasn’t. “John?” Sam’s voice said. “Still there?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said, “but I was about to hang up.”
“Whoa. Wait a minute-”
“Go back to sleep. I’ll still be awake when visiting hours start. We can talk then.”
“You think so, huh?”
“I do think so, yes.”
“Well, you’ll forgive me if I still don’t want to take my chances. You know I had to carry you back to that bed you’re in now?” The Doctor made a face, and Sam’s voice said, “That was a joke.”
“I can hear you grimacing down the phone. That never happened. You don’t have to commit ritual suicide. A very nice nurse got you a wheelchair, and I hovered around uselessly while she pushed you back.”
“That’s still quite embarrassing, though,” the Doctor confided. He leant back on the bed, the phone tucked under his ear.
“Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do if you keep swooning like a Gothic heroine-”
“I passed out once,” the Doctor protested. “And I was already in a chair-”
“Well, you’re a practical Gothic heroine.”
“Jane Eyre then, I see.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, “I guess you could argue that.” He yawned. “I didn’t know you’d read that book.”
“You’re tired,” the Doctor pointed out. “Go back to sleep.”
“It’s just the sound of your voice,” Sam told him. “It’s kind of soothing. Almost soporific. It’s not my fault. Whenever you start talking I just feel like falling asleep…”
“That’s what passes for hilarity amongst your people, is it?”
From down the phone came the sound of a fake snore, a chuckle, and then another real yawn. “Sorry,” Sam explained. “It’s just I didn’t get to sleep until,” he yawned again, “about three hours ago.”
“I’m going to hang up now,” the Doctor told him.
“No, no. I’m awake. Keep talking. I actually do find it soothing. Did I ever tell you that? I had to get out those tapes you made of your lectures and play them to myself to get to sleep while you were away.”
“Sorry,” the Doctor said feeling suddenly miserable.
“No, baby, don’t be. It’s not your fault you teach a really boring subject.”
“Again - hilarious,” the Doctor said, filing this information away as well.
“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “And the coma wasn’t your fault either, so don’t be sorry about that. The guys whose fault it was are already,” he yawned again, “sorry enough for all of us...”
Warning signs began to flash above the Master's column as Sam’s voice tailed off.
“What do you mean by that?” the Doctor asked.
“Sorry. You know, repentant...”
“Alive and repentant?”
“Jesus, John, how should I know?” Sam said sleepily. “We don’t exactly hang out in the same neighbourhoods. I guess so. They were all pretty young.”
“Good,” the Doctor said. “That’s excellent news. You know I was a little worried there-” Rather than a reply, there was the sound of breathing. “Sam?” the Doctor asked, and got a muffled ‘hmm?’ in response. “All right, I’m going to put the phone down now.”
“No,” Sam said, “I’m still here.”
“I promise you I will be awake when you arrive tomorrow,” the Doctor told him. “You don’t have to stay on the line.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I bet you I will be awake when you arrive tomorrow,” the Doctor corrected himself. The Master had never, to his knowledge, refused a ridiculous wager if he could help it. “Name your terms. If I’m not awake when you get here,” the Doctor prompted, “you get-”
“I don’t know, John,” Sam said sleepily, “what do you have? OK, no, I know. I want the rest of those cookies I bought earlier.”
“I see,” the Doctor said. “Now, I know, it’s late or early, but I really think you can do better. What do you want, Sam? The planet? The universe? Fabulous lost treasures? Exotic sexual favours?”
Sam chuckled against the phone. “I’m impressed. How do you think you’re going to deliver though?”
“Well. I’m going to win,” the Doctor pointed out, “so I won’t have to.”
“Good logic. What do you get, then, when you win?”
“I get to leave. Pull strings, bribe people, or hypnotise them if you have to-”
“Baby, you can’t walk-”
“And I’m sure the hospital would consequently be happy to lend me a wheelchair.”
“Plus you keep falling asleep. That’s not OK.”
“I’m awake now,” the Doctor pointed out, “and will be at least another-”
“No,” Sam said. He sounded almost entirely awake again. “Sorry. You know I’d love you to be back home, John, but you need to stay in the hospital. I’m not busting you out for at least a week of consistent awake time. Choose something else: exotic treasures, Tantric sex, that sort of shit is fine, but not this, OK?... Are you sulking?” he asked after a brief period of silence down the line.
“Just considering my options,” the Doctor told him. “I wouldn’t want to rush my choice and end up stuck with half a packet of biscuits... All right. If I win, you have to go back to the house and bring back as many of my possessions as you can fit into a reasonable sized bag, including any and all personal electronic devices.”
“I’m going to go to sleep now.”
“Good for you. I’m not.”
Sam laughed. “OK. See you tomorrow morning,” he said, and hung up.
He arrived promptly at ten o’clock, carrying a large black sports bag over one shoulder. He dumped it on the Doctor’s bed as he sat down.
“Hey, I see you managed to shave.”
“Not very well,” the Doctor admitted. He’d never really had to as a Time Lord, and although he was sure he could have managed it under normal conditions, his hands had been shaky and the light in the bathroom had not be good.
“It’s still an improvement,” Sam told him, kissing him high on his newly revealed cheekbone. The Doctor smiled, and Sam patted the bag. “I brought your stuff.”
“That isn’t how it’s supposed to go. You should have waited-”
Sam shrugged. “Something told me you were going to win.”
“Ah yes. That was me, wasn’t it?” the Doctor said, unzipping the bag and feeling around underneath what felt like high-thread-count suits and cashmere jumpers.
“Now you mention it, it was. I see you ate my cookies too.”
The Doctor grinned. “I told me I was going to win too. Ah ha!” He pulled a large, bulky laptop out from the bag triumphantly. “And we have a result.” He opened it, switched it on, and in a moment the screen lit up with the blocky graphics of Windows 98. The Doctor tapped his fingers impatiently against the keyboard. “Come on-”
“I knew I should have left that thing at home,” Sam commented from beside him, “bet or no bet. I’ll be lucky if you ever look at me again, huh?”
“Hmm?” The Doctor glanced up, but the tinkling Windows tune pulled his attention back to the computer, which was now displaying a picture of the horse head nebula covered in icons. “Hmm...”
“Right. I think I’m going to get some coffee,” Sam told him. “For some reason I didn’t get much sleep last night. Do you want anything?”
“Er,” the Doctor said, scanning the names of all the folders on his desktop, and clicking open three at random. “Interesting.”
“Yeah, I’ll just give you two some alone time,” Sam said, and wandered off.
Meanwhile the Doctor had managed to locate John Smith’s stash of digital photos. He whizzed through them quickly: lots of people he didn’t recognise and Sam having a good time inside somewhere he didn’t recognise, lots of people and Sam and what looked like (the real) Benny Summerfield having a good time somewhere else he didn’t recognise, Sam standing around in Memorial Glade, in the centre of the UC Berkley campus (in case that had been in any doubt at this point), him and Sam somewhere that was probably some sort of church draped in floral garlands and presumably exchanging some sort of vows, the two of them in the same clothes but drunker and at a party full of people he didn’t recognise, Sam on a beach somewhere, some pictures of London, England, and more of Sam - sitting around in various states of undress in what must be their house with what must be their cats. There were so many in this last category, in fact, that the Doctor felt sure he could use them later to construct a three-dimensional plan of the house, and therefore not look surprised or lost once he finally got there.
All the photos were (by virtue of their medium) relatively new, none dating back before 1998, and unfortunately none were in folders helpfully labelled ‘At home with family, including mother, two sisters and Uncle Nigel, aged 72,’ but they were at least something he could work with.
Having finished with the pictures the Doctor began to look for personal files. And having assessed that there were none (or that they were well hidden), he opened a few of the non-password-protected work documents. They were all academic papers, dealing with various strands of applied physics. The Doctor scanned down a few, noted that John Smith’s style had been relatively good (even if he hadn’t ever read ‘Jane Eyre’) and that they seemed to be about as factually correct as he could have hoped for given this time period. The password-protected files were almost certainly more of the same, but the Doctor set to work cracking them open just in case they were drafts of blog entries or poetry about his early life. Having typed in a few half-hearted guesses (Sam, Berkley, Cat, Cats, Horsehead, Nebula, Jane Eyre), he began creating a programme that would work out the answer for him.
He was still working on this when Sam arrived back. “I brought you some tea. Here,” he said, taking the Doctor’s hand away from the keyboard and putting the cup into it. “Drink it.”
Dutifully, the Doctor drank — at which point he realised that what he’d been given was tea that had been made in a hospital in America. “Ugh. It’s hot water and teabags,” he explained to Sam. “Hot water and teabags. I actually don’t understand how it can go wrong.”
“Do you want to swap? The coffee’s not so bad.”
“No, it’s fine-”
“Take it,” Sam insisted, and the Doctor reluctantly took his coffee away from him. It was better, hot and very sweet. It was also wrong, if anything was wrong. The Doctor turned to Sam, who had managed to find enough room at the head of the bed to sit down on, and was now attempting to mark and drink the tea at the same time.
“This isn’t how you take your coffee.”
“I figured you’d complain,” Sam said, not looking up from what he was doing. “Don’t worry about it. I have another coffee on the floor that I’ll get to once this is gone.” The Doctor watched him mark and (grimacing) drink the tea for a while until Sam looked up. “What?”
“You’re a very nice man.”
“Only to you,” Sam said, transferring the tea to his other hand so he could wrap his left arm around the Doctor’s shoulders. “Which I think means we have to call it ‘stupidly devoted’. But you are sick. I don’t think anyone will notice for a while.”
The Doctor turned back to the computer, and then changed his mind, and kissed Sam quickly on the lips. Or at least — he had intended for it to be a quick kiss. It devolved quite rapidly into the sort of kiss where Sam’s tongue was in his mouth, which wasn’t really excusable now he wasn’t strapped to the bed any more. However, he was sure he would have pulled away eventually, but before that could happen somebody else had knocked briskly on the door.
“Sorry,” the nurse who had Benny’s name and looked like Izzy said, “but I’ve been asked to check Doctor Smith’s- whoa, OK. Sorry.”
“There’s actually a point to knocking,” Sam said with acid pleasantness. “I don’t know if you’ve come across it the way you’re doing it, but it does exist.”
“Sam,” the Doctor said, “don’t.”
“What? I’m just trying to help. I’m a teacher.”
“Thanks,” Izzy/Benny said, “Got it. Doctor Smith, blood pressure. It shouldn’t take a moment.”
Trying not to look mortified, the Doctor held out his arm. “You don’t like comic books, do you, Miss Summerfield?” he asked, as she wrapped it in the blue plastic belt.
She gave him a strange look that clearly said he was a bit mad. “Do you always ask this many weird questions?”
“You have no idea,” Sam said without looking up from the work he had since returned to.
“Because I do, actually,” Izzy/Benny said. “Like comic books, that is. Why? I don’t look like someone who likes comic books, do I?”
“Yes, but not in the way you’d think. You know, that’s very interesting,” the Doctor told her. “What do you like? I’m quite fond of Courtmaster Cruel myself-”
They chatted as she took his blood pressure (average for humans, about right for a Time Lord in a healing trance), which was long enough for the Doctor to establish that despite that accent, the age, the name and the job she was effectively his Izzy.
He felt a bit mournful as she left to do something else, but by then the decryption programme had finished running. Unfortunately what it said was “Sorry, this isn’t the answer.”
The Doctor chuckled and shook his head.
“What’s up?” Sam asked.
“I’m very funny,” the Doctor told him.
“I’ve always thought so.”
“And clever,” the Doctor continued, opening up the Word document he’d been trying to hack into earlier. “Funny and clever, but not,” he said, as it prompted him for a password, “clever enough.” He typed, “Sorry, this isn’t the answer” into the dialogue box, and the document unlocked. “Ha.” It looked like notes on creating a new sort of highly dangerous high-energy particle accelerator. The Doctor was slightly impressed, and at the same time extremely uninterested. It was the sort of thing he’d done during the school holidays — create a black hole in Braxiatel’s bathroom, and see how long it takes him to find it.
“Still working on the black hole thing?” Sam asked over his shoulder.
“Apparently,” the Doctor said, shutting the laptop now it had revealed all its secrets. “I’ll look at it later. Are you hungry? I’m hungry.”
Over breakfast in the hospital canteen Sam began telling him what had happened over the course of the last year. Given that it had been a whole year, this was surprisingly little. He’d gone onto sabbatical in early February and had spent the time after that mostly writing. There had been a few trips to Denmark for his new book, and some people the Doctor hadn’t heard about had been married in New York, which had been nice, and some other friend he didn’t know had had a baby, and the people next door had got a new dog that kept barking in the middle of the night and scaring the cats, and that was kind of it. Sam explained this apologetically, and so the Doctor knew it was all code for ‘I was absolutely devastated’ and didn’t press the matter. They talked instead about Denmark, which the Doctor hadn’t visited since the first millennium. Fortunately Sam seemed to expect his enthusiastic descriptions of natural beauty, research into 15th century myths and the lives of 19th century writers to be continually interrupted with unrelated comments about Vikings, and they got on well.
Without anywhere else to go they went back to the Doctor’s room, where Sam did more work pressed up against him, and the Doctor pretended not to notice while he worked out how to cheat the computer’s Solitaire programme. He’d gone through the rest of the bag now, and had found amongst the clothes, two mobile phones and a pager, a CD walkman and a collection of Italian opera recordings on CD, several thick textbooks, three notebooks covered in what looked like his handwriting and a digital camera, which was full of pictures of Hans Christian Anderson’s childhood home. These were now all packed away in the drawers of the bedside cabinet except the phone, which lay on the bed covers like a bomb with a faulty fuse, ready to go off and explode him into social awkwardness at any moment.
At about three o’clock they went to lunch, and ate almost exactly the same food as they had for breakfast. Then they walked back towards the Doctor’s ward — or rather Sam walked, and the Doctor shuffled, awkward and embarrassed and aware of the way Sam kept trying to help him.
“Look,” he said at last, “I’m afraid you’re really going to have to stop touching me.”
Sam pulled his hand away immediately from where it had come to rest around the Doctor’s waist. “Sorry. I was just trying to-”
“Help, I know, but if you want us to go anywhere at all, you have to stop.”
“OK baby. Fine. Whatever you want. Can I ask why, though?”
“Because,” the Doctor said quietly so nobody else in the corridor would hear, “it’s making me want to have sex with you, and I can’t.”
“Ah, I see.” Sam’s eyes flicked downwards. “You know,” he said reaching out to stroke the Doctor’s cheek, “I would have thought that was a perfect reason to touch you.”
“No. I can’t.”
“Sure you can. Come on, in here,” Sam said, tugging open a nearby door, and pulling the Doctor and his drip through after him. “Just like old times.”
“Sam,” the Doctor said firmly.
“I’m really glad this was a closet. I thought for a moment it might be a laboratory or something.”
“I’m not going to-”
Then Sam pushed him back against the door, and it seemed increasingly likely that he was going to. It was the human hormones, the Doctor thought dizzily as Sam’s hands insinuated themselves down the back of his pyjama trousers. How was he supposed to resist them? As a post-biological species, the Time Lords had always been able to actively suppress sexual desire if it was inconvenient.
“No, really, I should tell you,” he began, because it was only right to tell Sam that he was a post-biological alien from a different universe even if it did convince him his husband was a lunatic.
“Baby, the no-talking rule,” Sam said, pressing a large hand over the Doctor’s mouth.
Both of his hands were now out of the Doctor’s trousers, but since the right one was hurriedly unbuttoning his own flies the Doctor did not consider it a great improvement. The hand on his face was Sam’s left, and around that wrist he wore a large, shiny Rolex watch, which currently read six minutes past four.
He tapped the watch urgently, and Sam removed his hand.
“It’s four o’clock.”
“So what?” Sam asked. “You’re about to turn into a pumpkin?”
“More or less. You should probably get another wheelchair, because… yes, here it is, I think I’m about to pass out.”
“Oh my god.” Sam began buttoning his trousers again. “Shit, baby. Why didn’t you bite me, or something? I can’t believe I told you to shut up. Shit, shit-”
“That wasn’t what I was trying to say,” the Doctor murmured as he sank gratefully to the floor, but Sam was already out in the corridor calling for a nurse.
Back in the TARDIS, the alarm clock was ringing very loudly and had obviously been doing so for some time.
“Doctor? Is something on fire?” Charley called from somewhere outside the room.
“No, it’s all right,” he told her. “Go back to sleep.”
But Charley had never really been one to take orders and so, about half an hour later, she came to sit with him in the console room.
“I’ve brought you some tea of your own,” she told him, proffering one of the two cups she was carrying.
“Thank you.” The tea was already relatively cool, and as he drank the Doctor felt himself relax. “Ah. That’s wonderful. Teabags and hot water-”
“And lots and lots of sugar,” Charley reminded him. “And milk.”
“Yes. It’s simple, isn’t it? Wonderfully simple. I don’t see how it can go wrong.”
“You’ve been having more bad dreams,” Charley said. “I can tell you didn’t sleep well,” she explained at his questioning look, “from the bags under your eyes, and because you’re never normally just sitting around quietly in the morning. It’s always up up up, and what will we do today, Charley, and eating all the toast before anyone else can get to it.”
“They’re not,” the Doctor explained, “exactly bad dreams.”
“If they’re not exactly,” Charley mimicked, “bad dreams, why do you look so glum?”
The Doctor gave her a long look, which Charley returned. “They’re keeping me from sleeping,” he said eventually. “My brain’s so busy, it needs time to not think about anything at all for at least a few hours a night.”
“Well, then,” Charley declared, “you should have a really tiring day. Mama always said that was the best way to stop yourself dreaming. Really tire yourself out. Find someone in need of rescuing, and rescue them so thoroughly that they end up king of a planet and married to their childhood sweetheart.”
“That’s what you advise, is it?”
“Yes. It is.”
“All right. What should we do today then, Charley?”
“This is what you’ve been worrying about?” Charley asked. The Doctor agreed, because it was — partially, and Charley nodded sagely. “Well, then, Doctor, I think we should go and rescue someone from some terrifying Sontarans before breakfast, and then try and liberate somewhere from an oppressive regime after lunch, before going… erm- Oh! Before-”
“What, there’s more?”
“Of course. This is the best bit. After lunch, we should go somewhere completely marvellous even you haven’t been to before, and buy C’Rizz a new hat.”
“Does C’Rizz need a new hat?” the Doctor asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wearing one.”
Charley waved this consideration away. “I’m sure he’d get one, if it was in aid of your general well-being. Besides, I think he’d look quite splendid in a really big one with a feather. Like a statue of a Cavalier.”
“All right,” the Doctor laughed. “You go and tell C’Rizz about his new hat. I’ll search the local airwaves for Sontaran activity.” She tapped his hands much as Grace had done, and got up.
“Charley?” the Doctor called after her as she ran off. “You don’t ever think your life is a bit improbable?”
Charley swung round without stopping, and grinned. “All the time. It’s wonderful.”
The day was as tiring as she had planned - particularly because it transpired that C’Rizz’s new hat made him look almost exactly like the demon the people of Krgryska had banished fifty years ago.
They returned to the TARDIS late in the evening, bruised and bloody, laughing and worn-out. Charley staggered off to bed while C’Rizz went to mourn his hat somewhere, and the Doctor set his alarm clock for another twelve hours and forced another trance, because if Charley’s scheme didn’t work (and he was fairly sure that despite her best intentions it wouldn’t) he didn’t want to let himself in for another month of hospitalisation.
He’d timed this awakening somewhat better. It was just before ten in the morning, and he only had to wonder what to do with himself for about five minutes before Sam showed up. After the events of the previous day, Sam sat in his own chair and only occasionally stroked the Doctor’s leg when he lost concentration. They talked about the books Sam was reading at the moment, had an argument about whether the amount of press Harry Potter was getting was completely unreasonable or completely justified in light of its continual popularity across the universe for thousands of years, and discussed how best to deal with someone who was giving Sam trouble in city council meetings. The Doctor’s suggestion of ‘murder’ was treated as a feeble joke, which he added to column one, somewhat offsetting the points Sam had earned in column two for attempting to gain control of a city and Potter-hatred.
Sam left at five, and the Doctor spent the subsequent hours bored out of his mind and watching repeats of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on UPN with Izzy/Benny, who’d taken pity on him.
“You know the episode where Buffy wakes up in a mental hospital,” he said in one of the many commercial breaks, “and she finds out her parents are alive, and everything in Sunnydale is lie, yadda yadda - how plausible do you think that is? As a medical professional. It’s not very plausible, is it? The patients on the coma ward, for example, they’re not all dreaming they’re superheroes, are they.”
Izzy frowned. “What series was that? I must have missed it.”
“I’m not sure. I lose track so easily. Six, maybe. Yes.”
“Guess again. They’re still showing series five.”
“Ah. It’s not out yet. Never mind. Joss must have mentioned it to me at some point.”
“What, Joss Whedon just mentioned a future episode to you?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I don’t know,” the Doctor said absently, “one of the many times he rang in the last month. You can’t get him off the phone. It’s quite annoying actually. Joss, I tell him, I need to go and foil an alien invasion now, think up your own monsters for a change.”
“OK,” she said. “If I were you, Mr Smith, I wouldn’t keep talking crazy or they’ll keep you in here for observation.”
“Duly noted,” the Doctor told her.
As a plan it worked rather well. He didn’t mention any more weird dreams to Charley, or talk about things that hadn’t happened yet in the hospital. He didn’t go exploring in the night (because he’d worked out his “sleep” schedule, and besides he’d done that on the first night after stealing a wheelchair from one of the other wards, and it had been boring). Nor did he make any inappropriate comments when he found the statue of C’Rizz in the garden, or when he found Fitz folding sheets (ineptly) in an empty room. At the Doctor’s suggestion Sam went out and bought a clutch of board games, and then took them away again after the Doctor threw one of the chessmen at him for losing on purpose. He ignored the phone when it rang.
There were times in both realities when he was so tired he thought he was going to faint like Jane Eyre wouldn’t have done, but somehow he survived, and eventually both Sam and Doctor Holloway/Anji agreed he could leave the hospital.
The Doctor had been avoiding the clothes Sam had brought, because they reminded him so strongly of those he had worn at the end of his seventh life. But now, he pulled on grey trousers and a soft blue jumper (at least the colours were his) and over that a grey jacket, and hobbled out to where Sam was waiting in the car park in a dark blue BMW.
It took about forty minutes to get back to the house. Sam had apparently received a sad letter from the opera house this morning, asking to know what they’d done wrong (was it the programme? The new choreographer?) because neither of the Smiths had set foot on the premises for over a year. The Doctor listened absently as he weighed up the relative merits of telling them the truth (that John had been in a terrible coma, and needed plenty of free opera to help him recover) or pretending to have been horribly offended by the too German programme in an attempt to steer them back towards the Italians.
“Why not do both?” the Doctor suggested. “I was unconscious and you were disgusted.”
“Nice plan, but I had that whole conversation with Jerome last time we were there about how great Wagner is, remember? It’d have to be you.”
The Doctor’s lips twitched. “Of course.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that I’m not surprised you like Wagner. Overblown and overplayed? A little bit evil, and ridiculously theatrical-”
“Hang on. No. I’m not talking that from the man whose favourite piece of music of all time is Butterfly’s subtle and not-at-all-famous aria. I guess I must have been hallucinating all the times I heard it-”
Outside the window unfamiliar scenery scrolled past. The street they eventually pulled in to wasn’t nearly so unfamiliar, however — in fact, the Doctor had been there earlier in the week. A woman who looked like Grace Holloway was outside in the drive in front of her house, pulling bags of shopping from her boot.
“Hello! Welcome back” she called as the Doctor got out of the car. “How are you? I heard you were back on your feet.”
“Back on my feet, and much better, thank you. How’s the new dog?”
‘Grace’ sighed. “A nightmare. I’m afraid he keeps the whole street awake.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sam said, shifting the Doctor’s bag onto his shoulder. He grinned. “But if you ever need help putting him down, you know where I live.”
“Right,” Grace said. She smiled awkwardly at the Doctor, and lugged her shopping into the house.
Sam pulled out his keys, and scowled at the Doctor’s incredulous look. “Sorry, but that dog has been driving me fucking nuts. You can’t even imagine-” He opened the door and was immediately caught up in the sinuous embrace of two tabby cats. “Hey,” he told them, “hey, it’s all right, we’re home now. Hasn’t Uncle Charles been looking after you?”
The dog next door started barking, and the cats immediately scattered back into the house. Sam turned to give the Doctor a ‘see what I mean?’ look and help him up the porch step.
Like Grace’s house, it was built on multiple levels and you could see all the way up to the bedroom from the entrance hall. There was a lot more furniture in this house, though. The walls that weren’t really windows were lined with bookcases or framed photographs. Every room seemed to have at least four chairs and three tables, and on each of the tables was a large vase of white flowers. The Doctor tried not to be impressed and touched, but it was difficult, particularly when a hidden CD player began to play ‘Un bel dì’ quietly to itself, Sam handed him a glass of wine and kissed him on the forehead.
It would have been very easy to blame the wine, but the truth was he’d barely drunk any of it before Sam asked what they should do, and the Doctor told him anything except watching television because he’d done enough of that in the last week to last him 13 lifetimes, and Sam laughed and began to say something about holding him to that until he was forced to stop because the Doctor had kissed him.
There was still plenty of time to back out even then. Sam had obviously planned what amounted to a seduction with the flowers and the wine and the lubricant hidden down the side of the sofa, but at the same time he was worried and careful. Each movement was prefaced with a variation on “Is this OK?” “Am I going to fast?” “Is this what you want?” “Yes, no, yes, why don’t we have a no-talking rule here?” the Doctor told him, and eventually it was too late, and Sam was fucking him on the soft velveteen sofa.
If there had been too little kissing this regeneration, there had been even less sex. That had admittedly been a personal choice, but perhaps, the Doctor thought as Sam pressed kisses into the back of his neck, it had been the wrong one. He came first, and was left whimpering into the sofa cushions as Sam finished off inside him. It was all very undignified and probably very wrong, but the Doctor had decided that until he found out either way whether this was real, he might as well take what it had to offer.
“Are you still OK?” Sam asked again after it was over, the Doctor had turned around into an embrace, and the CD had moved through several less appropriate tracks.
“I’m lying in a wet patch,” the Doctor told him, “comprised of my own semen. It is one of the most disgusting things that has ever happened to me.”
“I meant, are you about to pass out on me, not is your sheltered backside completely comfortable, you big sissy.”
“Sheltered backside,” the Doctor repeated.
“It is a very nice backside. I can see why you’d want to look after it-”
“No, no, no,” the Doctor said, wriggling away from the hands that were trying to slide underneath him. “I’ll have you know I led a life of mystery, danger and slimy oozing things long before I even knew you existed, Samuel Smith.”
“Don’t even try. I’ve seen your baby pictures,” Sam told him. “Your booties were cashmere.”
The Doctor stared blankly at him. “What baby pictures?”
“I said don’t try.”
“No, I mean it. What baby pictures?”
“All I’m saying is, if you didn’t want me to see them you shouldn’t have left them in a locked drawer and then gone into a coma for a year.”
“Oh, those baby pictures,” the Doctor said. “The baby pictures in my super secret locked drawer. I can’t believe you went through my super secret locked drawer, and you know this really is horrible, I’m going to have to get up.”
Sam moved rapidly from smug to concerned. “All right, baby?”
“It’s fine,” the Doctor said, pulling on his shirt. “I just want a shower- No, sit down. I can manage.”
“OK. Well, as long as you’re sure.” Sam sank back down onto the sofa. As the Doctor negotiated the shallow steps up to the bedroom and en suite bathroom level, he was saying, “Actually this is gross. We’ll have to get it dry-cleaned or something before anyone comes over...”
Upstairs, the Doctor switched on the shower. Under the cover of the falling water, he returned to the bedroom, which boosted two large chest-of-drawers, one on either side. The one closest to the bathroom was full of Sam’s clothing, none of which was locked away for obvious reasons. The other chest had three lockable drawers, all of which were locked, but not very well. Quietly the Doctor jimmied them open with a metal nail file, and revealed a drawer of floppy discs and CDs, a drawer of sex toys in individual plastic bags (the discovery of which was somehow more invasive than anything else), and a drawer of photographs. He pulled this out and carried the entire thing into the bathroom.
John Smith had clearly been a keen photographer, even before the arrival of digital. The Doctor sat on the floor surrounded by hundreds of pictures of his abnormally youthful face.
He’d never been young — not in this body, not properly (although there had been odd moments of time dilation throughout all his lives, which had thrust the state on him), yet here he was as a child and a teenager, dressed in garish, historically accurate clothing.
“Yeah, I thought I’d find you like this.”
The Doctor looked up at Sam, leaning in the bathroom doorway in his boxers, and then back at the box of photographs. “Well, you do know me, Sam. Better than I know myself apparently...”
“Well, I’ve done a lot of research,” Sam agreed, sitting on the floor too and wrapping his arms around the Doctor. “Sorry, but I don’t want a rival in the field, even you.”
The Doctor murmured acknowledgement, and leaned back into him. “These aren’t forgeries, are they?” he pressed. “I mean - they’re real pictures, as far as you know.”
“Why would you hide fake pictures?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps it’s supposed to be symbolic. What do you think?”
“Baby, sometimes even I don’t understand you.”
“No, why did you think I came up here?”
“I just figured you wanted to destroy them properly.” Sam began sorting through the piles of photos one handed. “There’s one of you somewhere in a Mickey Mouse hat that is so cute it makes me sick-”
The Doctor laughed and, escaping Sam’s grasp, left for the next room. It happened to be a bedroom, which happened to have a large bed in it. The Doctor sat on the end of it and tugged off his shirt. At this point, Sam also left the bathroom, having correctly interpreted this as a request to leave the photographs alone for the moment.
Some hours later the Doctor fell asleep in clean sheets with the cats (Samson and Gemma) curled up at his feet. After a horrible day in which C’Rizz was kidnapped by a group of rogue Draconians, it was a relief to wake up and find a cup of tea sitting on a hot plate wired into the bedside lamp and Sam, dressed and sitting on top of the bedcovers reading House of Leaves. As the Doctor began telling him about the time he and Ace had found themselves in a haunted house, Sam slid down the bed to curl around him.
“I don’t think you’re really giving the story the attention it deserves,” the Doctor pointed out when he felt Sam’s tongue flick against his ear in the middle of the reveal about the soup.
“I don’t think I am either,” Sam agreed, sliding a leg over the Doctor’s. “It sounds great, though. Tell me about it later...”
After the sex, and the shower that followed the sex, the Doctor wandered the house under the pretext of checking nothing had been ruined during his absence. It was difficult to look for clues, though, because his still-weak human body had to keep sitting down and because Sam was absently-mindedly following him around. In the kitchen they had a brief fight over who was going to make brunch (the Doctor’s main points being that it was his idea, that he made the best omelettes in the known universe and that he didn’t need anyone to do things for him, all of which Sam countered by pointing out that if he pushed the Doctor’s shoulder slightly it was likely he would fall over, taking the hot frying pan with him and potentially dousing himself in hot oil/singeing the wood floor), after which Sam made omelettes and the Doctor made sarcastic comments and pretended to read the paper. The omelettes, when they arrived, however, were good enough that the Doctor was forced to admit that if there were such a thing as an intergalactic omelette-making competition and if Sam found a way of getting there, he would only just miss out on the title.
“I think that’s what I said,” the Doctor agreed with a smile. Behind Sam’s head he could see a photograph of a small boy in a large hat stuck to the fridge with a shiny red magnet.
In the evening, after a long lazy day, they went to the opera, where the director was in quick succession delighted (to see them) and horrified (as the Doctor related a more sensational version of the gun battle he’d accidentally walked into a year before). The Doctor fell asleep sometime during Act 3, woke up in the TARDIS and was forced to put himself back into a trance and hope that Charley and C’Rizz had other things to do with their morning.
“What have I missed?” he asked, as he woke against Sam’s shoulder, which was today a pleasant combination of muscle in silk.
“Yeah. It was really devastating, too. Shame you had too many white wine spritzers and missed it.”
“One white wine spritzer.”
“I think that’s what I said,” Sam told him. “Do you want to go home? I’m guessing it’s almost over, anyway, but we can if you like. Beat the rush.”
“No, no, I have another two hours,” the Doctor said, leaning over the side of the box. Exactly two hours later he fell asleep again in bed in the middle of an anecdote Sam was telling him about a bet he’d lost in college and the hilarious consequences that had apparently ensued.
The Doctor enjoyed several more days of this sort of thing, interspersed with periods of incredible exhaustion in his other universe, and then Sam’s sabbatical ended. He had completely failed to mention this would happen (or he had, but while the Doctor was asleep or otherwise not listening) and so the first notice the Doctor had of this was a post-it on the fridge that read, ‘Gone to work. Back at 6. Call me if you need me.’ There was no phone number, so the Doctor was forced to hunt down John’s mobiles. The one he found had several missed calls from an English number and Sam on speed dial 2 after a manicurist, who was surprised but pleased to hear from him again.
It took Sam a while to answer. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” the Doctor repeated. “What’s wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. I’m stuck in the house alone. I can’t walk anywhere, and you’ve taken the car. What do you expect me to do with the day?”
“Can I ring you back after class?”
“No. I want to talk to someone and there isn’t anyone around for miles except for these cats-”
“John, unless you have a real problem, I’m going to have to hang up.”
“I have a real problem.”
“I mean a real problem that isn’t your lack of non-feline conversational partners.”
“Yes, apart from that. The sofa’s on fire.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“Well, it could be,” the Doctor offered.
“I’ll check back with you to make sure it’s OK in a bit,” Sam said with a laugh and hung up on him.
He did ring back quite quickly, but the Doctor ignored it, and the three other calls to different phones that followed. Consequently, several hours before 6 o’clock Sam’s car pulled into the driveway. He ran in, stopped when saw the Doctor reading a large stack of paper on the sofa, and walked through the kitchen. There he filled a glass with water, and returned to empty it over the sofa and its occupant.
“This is your manuscript,” the Doctor pointed out after he’d recovered from a momentary bout of speechlessness.
“I have copies,” Sam told him. He kissed the Doctor high on a wet cheek. “Glad you and the sofa are OK. Now I should get back to work. Behave yourself.”
“Can’t I come with you?”
“Sure you can - if you can keep up,” Sam said, and sprinted for the door, which banged shut behind him. The Doctor sank back down on sofa, remembered how wet it was, and began to move to another chair.
The front door opened again. “How is it, by the way?” Sam asked.
“Dreadful,” the Doctor told him without looking up.
“Yeah, I figured,” Sam said, and left with another clatter of the door and the roar of a powerful car.
The Doctor brushed water from his hair, and turned another page. Sam’s book wasn’t dreadful at all, of course, though it was uneven. What had begun as a Arthurian romp mutated after the first fifty pages into the story of Holger the Dane, trapped below the mountainside for hundreds of years, and a bereaved woodcarver in the 19th century, who one day summoned Holger from the mountain with the skill of his chisel and the commonality of his loss. It was achingly personal and almost unbearably sad. For all that, it was more restrained in its prose than the Doctor would have believed a book by the Master could be. It was also a better book than he thought his subconscious had in him, although it’s rather heavy-handling of the themes of his current existence made it a plausible part of a dream.
After he’d read the unfinished novel, the Doctor went looking among the shelves for Sam’s other books, which were stacked together just above the television. Not including his academic works on Anderson, Caroll and Tolkien, there were four published novels. The last two were dedicated to John, but the Doctor was more interested in who Sam might have been without him and opted for the earliest one, which was for someone called Alice.
He spent the next few days reading the rest of Sam’s books, which seemed like a good use of his day, and then he began a campaign to get Sam to take him in to Berkeley, where at least there would be big shiny pieces of scientific equipment to play with. He’d already considered rigging his “sleep” schedule so that he could be back in the TARDIS for the vast majority of the day, but it was getting more difficult to stay awake for long periods of time there and anyway the thought of Sam coming home unexpectedly (which happened often) and finding him unconscious had become increasingly upsetting. Fortunately, the campaign in question, which operated on three fronts 1) proving he was able to stay upright for long periods of time 2) proving he was likely to use this new found power to wander around the dangerous alleyways of San Francisco if unsupervised and 3) proving that if Sam didn’t take him to Berkeley he'd soon find his life there becoming much more difficult, was successful within its first week. The Doctor rose at seven, donned a respectable shirt, tie, and three-piece suit ensemble and tried not to look too smug as Sam dropped him outside the physics department with a wry command to be careful.
There were indeed lots of big shiny pieces of equipment. Unfortunately they all seemed to belong to other people, none of whom seemed very pleased to see him. Without any particular assignment or inclination of his own, the Doctor fell back on the black hole project he’d found on the laptop. It was easy work, and he was almost done when it escaped its containment field and swallowed three filing cabinets and two high profile experiments.
Sam came over at lunchtime. “Oh my God,” he said laughing. “Already. What happened?”
“Nothing,” the Doctor told him. “A small black hole got briefly out of hand, but now it’s gone-”
“Taking my radio telescope with it,” interjected one of his more irate colleagues, a Professor Wagg who had, to be fair, lost his entire desk along with the telescope that had been sitting on it. He pointed accusingly at the Doctor. “This man is a menace. And what’s more he isn’t even currently on the teaching staff-”
“Actually he is.” Sam smiled pleasantly. “I went to see the Chancellor this morning, and he agreed we couldn’t afford to lose John for longer than we already have.”
“What?” Wagg demanded.
“That’s what I was going to say,” the Doctor agreed. “That’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t know if I can actually teach-”
“Well enough to blow things up, but not well enough to do any work, I know,” Sam said, steering him out of the department. “Too bad. Now, how about lunch as an official member of the teaching staff?”
“I suppose I might as well enjoy it until Wagg tells on me,” the Doctor agreed.
“I’m sure it’ll be all right,” Sam said, holding the external door open for him, “if it was only a small black hole. They didn’t throw you out when the library burned down, did they?”
And so the Doctor taught. It was a lot like the time he’d been stranded in Victorian London, except that he didn’t have to grow a beard to be taken seriously. John Smith had apparently done good work establishing himself as an eccentric who should be allowed to say whatever he wanted, and the students were mostly bright and entertaining. Quite a few of the faculty turned out to be people he knew already, and a good proportion of the ones he didn’t (outside the physics department where the percentage was significantly lower) were happy to talk over lunch if Sam had something else to do. The Doctor didn’t spend many lunchtimes without him, though. Or free periods, or even lectures - Sam seemed quite content to sit at the back of whatever class the Doctor was supposed to be teaching, marking coursework and making the occasional disparaging remark. Then they would have sex in cupboards, toilet cubicles or on the floor of Sam’s office, where there was a soft rug he seemed to have bought for the purpose. It really wasn’t at all a bad life, the Doctor acknowledged; for all that it wasn’t one he would have actively chosen.
Meanwhile out in the other reality, things were approaching a crisis point. The Doctor hadn’t slept properly for almost two months. For a while he’d treated the problem with caffeine and more trips to long operas than were strictly necessary (he was developing a fondness for them, and additionally the second and third acts were typically a safe place to pass out in), but bouts of unconsciousness in between major action points were becoming more and more common. Usually he woke in the darkness, the cats at his feet and Sam snoring to his left. A few tense moments would pass and then he’d be back, ready to escape the prison or finish the Silurian negotiations or read through the libretto quickly before the start of Act four.
The time with the Daleks was different. The Doctor had actually confronted them and was in the middle of an extremely eloquent speech about how dreadfully stupid they were when he passed out. It was also different because when he woke in bed with a curse of frustration he found he was alone. Both the cats and Sam were downstairs watching what the Doctor recognised as a video of his wedding.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh?” Sam asked. He switched off the video and pushed Gemma onto the floor so the Doctor could join him on the sofa.
“Not exactly,” the Doctor told him as Sam pulled him back into an embrace. “In fact, not at all. Quite the opposite.”
“What’s this then, a dream?”
“Yes, well, that is the question,” the Doctor said. “That is the question. And assuming I haven’t been exterminated by the Daleks, I will think seriously about answering it when I get back.”
“OK,” Sam said.
The Doctor twisted his head to look up at him. “You don’t want to ask about any part of that last sentence?”
Sam shrugged. “Should I?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“OK,” Sam shifted his weight so the Doctor was more comfortably arranged. “OK. What’s a Dalek, then?”
“It’s an alien,” the Doctor told him, “genetically engineered so that it’s incapable of feeling anything but hate. It lives inside an armour-plated metal shell, and if you ever run into one you should never, ever confront it, make fun of its life choices and then fall asleep.”
“And that’s what you’ve done?”
“Yes. Very bad plan. The only upside is that I don’t think they’ve killed me yet. I’m sure I would have noticed...”
“Well, then, you can think of something better when you wake up, can’t you?”
“I certainly hope so,” the Doctor said. “By the way, Sam, I’ve been meaning to ask, was I this weird before the coma?”
“Yes,” Sam said after a pause. “Pretty much.”
“You don’t think I’m any different from the man on that video?” the Doctor pressed, gesturing towards the dark television screen. “You’re not, for example, watching it to try and remember who I used to be?”
“What? No. I was only watching it because I woke up and you were asleep, and I didn’t want to listen to those stupid tapes again,” Sam said. “It’s not because I’m sitting around fantasising about a younger John with a better hair line and a stronger grip on reality. Next time I’ll just wake you up and you can tell me all about your mad dreams, I promise.”
“I think you’ve missed the point-”
“Well, I think you’ve missed the point.”
“Possibly,” the Doctor agreed. “Very possibly. I’m feeling quite tired suddenly... Time to confront the Daleks again, I suppose...”
Sam sighed and stroked the Doctor’s hair away from his face. “Good luck.”
The Doctor woke up handcuffed to an uncomfortable metal bed, next to a large bank of machinery. This time he had no second thoughts about dislocating his wrists and slipping (painfully) free of his restraints while the Daleks’ eyestalks were pointed elsewhere. Nor did he hesitate when one of the machines suddenly exploded. He was up and on his feet, throwing his coat over the top of the closest Dalek, which had been advancing on Charley, C’Rizz and what looked like half the planet, and swinging it round so it was firing on its own machines rather than his friends.
“Let’s get out of here!” Charley called, grabbing his hand and trying to drag him out of the conflict.
“In a minute,” the Doctor told her. He pulled free of her grip, and began waving the sonic over the nearest bank of equipment. “They were monitoring me for a reason. Don’t you want to know what they found out? Something to wile away the lonely hours with-” A large explosion shook the entire tunnel, and the Doctor grinned at his companion.
Charley huffed in exasperation. “I don’t know why don’t you just go and ask them-”
“Not a bad idea, Charley, but I think all the Daleks are busy with your friends at the moment. Well done on marshalling the planet, by the way. It doesn’t look like they’ll need our help for much longer-”
There were more explosions, and Charley made more objections, but eventually the Doctor extracted a data disc from the Daleks’ machine, they pulled C’Rizz out of the fighting and returned to the TARDIS.
“Well, that was fun,” C’Rizz said sarcastically as they dematerialised. “Where are you going to take us next time, Doctor? A field full of cows? Right into the heart of a volcano?”
Charley laughed, already amused after so narrow an escape. “The cows really wouldn’t have hurt you, C’Rizz.”
“Perhaps those wouldn’t have, but I’m sure the Doctor could find some that would.”
“If that's what you want, C’Rizz, I’m sure it can be arranged” the Doctor told him, as he darted round the console, setting the TARDIS in flight. “But I thought, before that, we could drop in on Gallifrey.”
“What, the Gallifrey?” Charley demanded aghast.
“Yes, the Gallifrey. The home of the Time Lords, the shining world of the seven systems, the old stomping ground. C’Rizz wants to go, don’t you, C’Rizz? It’s nice and quiet on Gallifrey: the chances of you being eaten by cows are almost non-existent.”
C’Rizz made a face. “Wasn’t that where they made Charlotte into a multi-dimensional gate?”
“Yes, it was,” Charley said crossly. “Why are we going there? Doctor, I thought you said you’d rather teach an Ogron to tango than go back to Gallifrey.”
“I know, I know,” the Doctor told her. “And I’ve still got that party ticket you turned down last time. We could probably sneak C’Rizz in-”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Charley retorted.
The Doctor grinned. “-but I thought you’d insist on coming along. Here we go then.” He pushed the hand-break, and the TARDIS materialised over the sound of C’Rizz asking,
“What party ticket?”
They stepped outside into a squadron of armed guards.
“An official escort?” the Doctor asked, pushing aside a stazer barrel and walking past the man wielding it. “Really. You shouldn’t have.”
“We don’t want to fire on you, Doctor-”
“How convenient,” the Doctor said, “I don’t want be fired on. Is Romana at home? This is her office, isn’t it? I’ll just have a look.” He opened the door, slipped through and closed it before anyone else could follow him.
Romana’s eyes darted upwards briefly as he took one of the visitors' chairs from the other side of her desk and wedged it under the handle and then returned to her data screens.
“Romana,” the Doctor said, settling himself in the other visitor’s chair, “hello. I see you are in after all.” From outside came the sound of members of the Chancellery Guard trying unsuccessfully to break into their president’s office. “Busy times on Gallifrey? You look a bit-” he indicated the black circles under her eyes.
“Quite busy, yes,” Romana said dryly. She got up from her seat, walked to the door, pulled away the chair and opened it. “Would you please stop making that dreadful noise,” she told the guards outside.
“But Madam President-”
“I’m sure that not even the Doctor would have come back if he was still infected with the anti-time virus. His exile is therefore revoked. Please find something else to do. Charley, you can wait in the next room along, if you like.” She closed the door and returned to her desk. “I assume you are clear of the virus, Doctor?”
“Yes. Sorry, I’d completely forgotten. It’s so hard to keep track of whether you’re an exile or the president on this planet, isn’t it?”
“At the moment, you’re neither. I hope that helps,” Romana told him. “Now, how long have you been back?”
“A year. Approximately.”
“Approximately a year, yes.”
“And you didn’t think it might be a good idea to let anybody know?”
“Actually I’m rather surprised you didn’t find out. No CIA spies dogging my every footstep?”
“As you would have known, had you bothered to check in, the CIA have had more important things to do than follow you around, what with swathes of mindless zombies, the complete destruction of the Matrix-”
“-the reconstruction of the Matrix, and of the entire species,” Romana continued, “then last week an attempted Dalek invasion-”
“Sorry, a Dalek what?”
“Invasion, attempted. All in all, Doctor, I am very busy, so if you could just tell me what it is you’re after, without a lot of tiring misdirection, I’d be very grateful.”
“Well, if all it takes to erode civility is a few zombies-’
“I’d like to ask the Matrix a few questions, if that’s all right with you, Madam President.”
Romana indicated a door set into the back wall of her office. “Go on. It’s through there.”
“You don’t want to know why I want to use the Matrix? I had an exciting, plausible and almost entirely fictional reason I was going to share with you.” Romana smiled apparently involuntarily, and shook her head. “Some other time then,” the Doctor said, and pulled open the Matrix door.
Behind the panelled wood there appeared to be a stretch of parkland. The Doctor closed the door behind him, sat down underneath an oak tree, and waited. Computer-generated birds twittered. Eventually the man he’d come to talk to sat down next to him.
“How’s things?” the Master asked.
The Doctor turned his head to look at him. He took in Sam’s thick-rimmed glasses and his favourite pale brown jumper, slacks and shiny loafers. “Not all that good.”
“Hey, count yourself lucky,” the Master said. “You could be dead, and constructed entirely from memories. I don’t mind telling you, it’s a real drag.”
“You haven’t been like this all the time, have you?”
“Not until you stepped through the door. The Matrix hadn’t updated your records in a year, since everyone thought you were dead, but now you’re back in the system, and I look like this. So thanks for that.”
“Better than being stranded in those hideous robes for eternity.”
“Well, now that’s a matter of opinion. At least I fit in at all the dead Time Lord parties. Now I have to go find a PTA meeting to chair or something.”
“Sam doesn’t run the PTA,” the Doctor told him. “What?” he said as the Master gave him an incredulous look. “He doesn’t.”
“At the moment,” the Master explained, “my personal image is almost entirely generated by your memory of me. What are the chances that I didn’t know that and wanted to be told more about your fake boyfriend’s life? Matrix protocol decrees I don’t try and freak you out by being all-knowing, otherwise I would already have told you to fuck off because of course I’m not controlling your dreams. I’m dead. And anyway, what would be the point?”
“No, I didn’t think you were.”
“I know. I also know you only decided to ask because you didn’t know what else to do.”
“I’m afraid this is really ruining my mystique,” the Doctor said. “Would you mind reverting to protocol and pretending you don’t know exactly what I’m thinking or have ever thought?”
“No problem,” the Master said.
“How’s the sex?”
“None of your business.”
“Really?” the Master asked. “OK.” He turned away and then said, “See, now I’m torn, because I know you think it is my business, and kind of want to ask me just how like me your fake boyfriend really is, but we’re pretending I don’t know what you’re thinking so perhaps I should just ask more embarrassing questions until you give in. I don’t know, Doctor. What do you think?”
“I think you’re not very good at omniscience,” the Doctor said. “It’s very lucky none of your many, many schemes panned out or you could have been in real trouble.”
The Master grinned at him. “OK. If that’s how you want it, try this one. How does it feel knowing your own subconscious thinks you should have given up your life of reckless adventuring and settled down with me?”
“No, I won’t answer that,” the Doctor protested. “We haven’t even established that my subconscious is behind this.”
“Good point,” the Master said. “And I don’t think it is actually. Not directly. I just said that to get a rise out of you.”
“Really?” the Doctor asked. “That’s very interesting. Why not?”
The Master shrugged. “Can’t tell you, sorry. It would be a breech of trust, and that really is against Matrix policy.”
“I see. Well, thank you for all your help,” the Doctor said, getting to his feet and brushing computer-generated leaves from his coat.
“Try being dead for a week, and see how you do at it,” the Master said. “What I will tell you, because you could get this from any terminal so I think it’s OK, is that you’re not the only person to consult the Matrix this week. Not by a long shot.”
“Ah. Now that is interesting,” the Doctor mused. “I don’t suppose you can tell me who that was.”
“A bunch of Time Lords, who do you think?”
“All right, I’ll look into it,” the Doctor said. “Any other advice before I go, oh wise Matrix?”
“Actually yes,” the Master said, “so there’s no need to look smugger than usual, Doctor. If this guy is basically me and, let’s face it, he is, I doubt very much that he just sat by your bedside and held your hand after you got shot.”
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. “You think Sam’s like you?”
“Yes,” the Master said. “So much so it’s embarrassing. I even kind of like this sweater.”
“You realise what you’re saying is-”
“Yes,” the Master said.
“Despite all the times you tried to kill me.”
“Yes,” the Master said. He leaned back lazily against the tree. “Your humans would say I was pulling your pigtails. Don’t say you didn’t know or care.” He tapped his head. “I know now. Too bad I’m dead.” He smiled and closed his eyes. “Good luck solving the case, Doctor.” And then he was gone.
Frowning, the Doctor returned to the Matrix door and stepped back into the presidential office.
“I think I’m going to stay on Gallifrey for a bit, if that’s all right with you, Romana.”
“Doctor, I’m in the middle of negotiations-.”
“Excellent, I’ll take that as a yes,” the Doctor said, waving at the High Monan projected behind Romana’s desk as he let himself out.
At first it seemed unlikely that the keeper would ever release the names of those who had consulted the Matrix in the last two weeks. The Doctor was about to go back to Romana and entreat her to give to him some sort of official position when he spotted his own name scrolling past at the bottom of a very long list on one of the many computer screens in the keeper’s office.
“This isn’t it, by any chance?” he asked the keeper, who hurriedly covered it up with a spare robe. Since this seemed to answer his question, the Doctor left before the keeper could have him arrested and went to knock on doors. None of the people on the list were willing to answer any questions, of course, but they didn’t have to. Not everyone on the planet had Romana’s workload, but everyone, now he looked more carefully, had the same worn expression and dark rings under their eyes.
Charley and C’Rizz caught up with him as he was being thrown out of a cardinal’s residence.
“Tetchy,” the Doctor said, “but then she is stuck on Gallifrey. I’d be tetchy if I was stuck on Gallifrey for any extended length of time, particularly if I wasn’t getting any sleep...”
“Was she able to help with the Daleks’ disc?” C’Rizz asked.
The Doctor gave him a blank look. “What disc?”
“You know, the one you took from the Daleks today,” Charley explained. “Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“No,” the Doctor said, pulling it out of his coat, “I’d completely forgotten about it. Stupid, stupid Doctor. The answers are there in your coat pocket and you don’t even remember you have them- Thank you both. I just have a few more things to look into...”
He returned to the TARDIS and ran the disc through her drives. Then he reversed the scan, and examined the disc. Then he rang the new governors of the formerly Dalek-governed planet they’d visited earlier in the day (he was so tired he didn’t feel piloting the TARDIS was a good idea, even if he could remember where the fast return switch was) and confirmed a few theories. Then he set one of his alarm clocks and passed out.
Sam had brought a comforter downstairs some time during the night. The Doctor woke, warm and only slightly uncomfortable against the arm of the sofa (presumably waking up on the TARDIS floor was going to be even worse). There was a cat asleep on his head and just beyond it a note from Sam saying that he’d gone running. The Doctor had only been in this reality for two months, but that had been long enough to know that Sam went running at six on Tuesdays and Thursdays and at eight on Sundays, and that he always left a note, despite adhering rigidly to this schedule.
Moving necessitated waking the cat (Samson), and it gave him a very sour look and wandered off as he booted up the laptop. While it loaded, he made himself tea and changed out of his pyjamas, and while it connectedly slowly to the Internet he fretted and made phonecalls.
Sam ran the same route every day, and always returned home almost exactly on the hour. He knew better than to try and get anywhere near the Doctor while dripping with sweat and passed him with a grin, loping up the stairs and into the shower.
Everything was quiet for a moment longer, then Sam returned to the living room, pulling a jumper over his wet hair, which obliging displaced itself all over his head.
“Hey,” he said, leaning over the sofa to press a kiss to the Doctor’s cheek. “How’s things?”
“Not all that good,” the Doctor told him. “In fact, I’m fairly sure the end of the universe is upon us.”
“Baby, it’s Sunday,” Sam pointed out, sitting down by the Doctor’s feet. “All your projects are powered down for the weekend, aren’t they?”
This earned him an attempted kick in the ribs. “No. It’s not my fault. I’m just,” Sam had begun to rub the foot the Doctor had tried to kick him with, and it was rather throwing him off his stride, “caught up in it.”
“Uh huh. That’s what you said about the library at first.”
“Sam, I’m being serious.”
“So am I. Do you know how much my father had to donate to cover that one up?”
“No,” the Doctor said, pulling his foot away with effort, “and I’m sorry if it was a lot, but there are more important things going on at the moment.”
“Oh God,” Sam said, feigning horror, “is it a major landmark? Please don’t tell me you’ve destroyed the Golden Gate.”
“This is really not how I imagined this conversation going,” the Doctor told him. “Sam, please listen. You see, it’s difficult to explain, but the Daleks have built a machine-”
“I thought they were machines,” Sam said from where he was reaching over the floor for the abandoned laptop. “Machines built another machine? It’s OK, I’m still listening,” he explained as he pulled it into his lap. “I’m just also checking the bridge is still standing.”
“The Daleks, who are living beings, Sam, living inside metal casings, hate me in particular,” the Doctor persisted, “but they also hate my entire species-”
“Shit,” Sam hissed next to him. The good humour had drained from his face. “Baby, I promise I can explain this-”
“Explain what? Not the Daleks-” The Doctor peered over Sam’s shoulder at the laptop, which was displaying an article he’d been reading earlier (and which had obviously not closed) on the increase of gang violence in the San Francisco area. It had been written in early 2000, and reported that a group of five Asian youths had beaten and left for dead only days after the attack on noted physicist Dr. John Smith. “Ah, yes,” the Doctor murmured. “That.”
“I mean, this guy doesn’t even point out that all those kids are still alive,” Sam said. “I looked into it after you asked, and they recovered a hell of a lot quicker than you.”
“You have to understand, John, I was distraught. One hundred percent not in my right mind-”
“Sam, it’s all right, I understand,” the Doctor assured him, though privately he thought a scene of cold, planned rage was more Sam’s style, just as it was the Master’s. “It’s fine. I forgive you-”
“I forgive you, it’s not really important-”
Sam stared at him. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but seriously — what have you done with my husband?”
“That,” the Doctor said wearily, “is what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“OK,” Sam said. He shut the laptop and put it on the floor. “I’m listening. What’s going on?”
“That’s another good question I should have answered sooner, but I think I know now. For some time, and I’m aware this is going to sound completely insane to you-”
“Baby, I’ve lived with you for two years-”
“Yes,” the Doctor said. “I’ve been very fortunate that your husband is as noted for his eccentricity as he is for his work, but even so I think you’re probably a bit too understanding. That probably should have tipped me off. I started talking about Daleks last night, genetically engineered killer aliens, and you barely batted an eyelid.”
“What’s your point? That I should be more incredulous?”
“No, not at all. In fact, it’s been... nice. Very nice. I haven’t once had to explain myself to you, which is what makes it so difficult now when I have to. You see, Sam, for some time now I’ve been having a set of reoccurring dreams-”
“Right, about these Daleks.”
“...No,” the Doctor said. “No. I dream I’m a noted English physicist, recovering from a lengthy coma I fell into after being shot in a San Francisco alleyway. I’m still not entirely sure what I was doing there in this reality, presumably I was on my way to see a performance of Madam Butterfly, the traffic was slow and I decided to walk...
“The strange thing is that I was actually shot in a San Francisco alleyway on Millennium Eve. I did almost die, before I... recovered, and met people like Grace Holloway... Sam Jones, Fitz Kreiner, Anji Kapoor, Izzy Sinclair, Mary Shelley, Charley Pollard — all people who exist in this reality... largely in the hospital, for some reason — and I showed them the stars. I’m a time traveller, you see. A Time Lord. I travel in time and space in my time machine, the TARDIS, and generally counter evil wherever I find it. The Daleks are my greatest enemies. I’ve spent all my lives trying to stop them in their tracks, and I’m afraid it’s probably this that has brought their attention to my people. They’re trying to wipe us out, so they can become the supreme beings in the universe. Yesterday I discovered that one of their more inspired weapons is a machine that interferes with the psychic resonance of a Time Lord’s REM cycle. That explains why nobody on my planet has slept properly for two months. My whole universe is at risk unless I do something to stop it, and that,” he explained, “is why I’m telling you this now.”
Throughout this speech Sam had sat silently, only altering his expression when the more improbable parts necessitated it. Now the Doctor had apparently finished, he frowned as though gathering his thoughts, and shifted his weight into a more upright position against the sofa. Eventually he said, “Yeah, I guess that would explain why you forgave me so easily.”
“You think this is a dream?”
“I don’t think it is,” the Doctor told him. “I’m so sorry, Sam. Believe me, if there was something I could do-”
“No, no, it’s OK,” Sam said, scooting closer. He stroked the Doctor’s face as if calming one of the cats. “I don’t think you’re mental, but did you consider that perhaps the other universe might be the dream, and this one the real one? Did you give it a chance?” He pressed another kiss into the Doctor’s forehead, as if this might convince him of the solid veracity of his universe.
“It’s been two months,” the Doctor told him, ignoring the way Sam held him harder. “I gave it a chance, when I shouldn’t have done, because as much as my life is improbable, even my own companions, the people travelling with me find it unlikely, it is my life. It makes sense-”
“What?” Sam protested.
“To me. It makes sense to me.”
“Sorry, I’m just not getting this. What about this world doesn’t make sense?”
“It’s not so much this world, although there are little details that don’t quite work. Things are too convenient, but primarily it’s plausible. I could have imagined a world featuring the people around me in the hospital while I was unconscious. They even wrote an episode of Buffy about it-”
“- which hasn’t aired yet, and which I watched for the first time eight hundred years ago. That’s what’s not possible. I can remember all my lives, all the knowledge I gained. You didn’t know I’d read ‘Jane Eyre’ — Sam, I could recite the entire novel from memory. I helped Charlotte re-write large parts of it. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning, but since dinner - Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined earlier-”
“John, you can stop this. I only said I thought you’d never read it.”
“But it’s you,” the Doctor told him. “When Sam Jones, the greatest living authority on Doctor John Smith says a thing is so then it is so. And, of course, I know, I could have read it while you were out, or just memorised those lines, but why would I?”
“I don’t know, John. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Then there’s the sleep schedule,” the Doctor said, determined to see this through despite the wretched look Sam was giving him. “You’re only human, so it would have been almost impossible even for you to spot that after those first few days I’ve been awake for exactly twelve hours every day. That’s because in my universe there’s an alarm clock that goes off after twelve hours, waking me up there. If I wanted to go to sleep now, I couldn’t-”
“Neither could I. It’s like ten in the morning,” Sam protested. “John, you’re a scientist, you know none of this is proof. What do you expect me to do with it? Turn it into a book? Because that’s about all I can think of-”
“No. You don’t,” the Doctor told him, “have to do anything with it. I just wanted you to know what had happened when I didn’t come back-”
“When you what?”
“If you’re still here at all. I don’t know how this works. I would expect not-”
“John, listen, I don’t want to stifle your crazy creativity or anything, but you have to understand-”
“I said, listen, John. For fuck’s sake, this is real. This sofa is real. This stupid remote thing you made,” Sam picked it up from the sofa cushions and dropped it again, “is real. This laptop,” he scooped it off the floor and shook it, “is real. I bought it for you a year ago. I still have the receipt somewhere. I don’t know how else to put this. This is real. Look at the fucking scar I still have from where you threw that glass at me-”
“All right,” the Doctor said gently, pulling Sam’s hands away from his chin where there was indeed a short white scar. “Let’s assume, for the moment that, as you say, this is real. If it is, you have nothing to worry about. I’ll go to sleep tonight, and wake up tomorrow, and I promise you, if that happens, I will accept that I am entirely in the wrong and should probably go in for psychiatric treatment.”
“Really. You’ll accept you’re wrong? You will? You won’t, I don’t know, insist the Daleks gave you the slip-”
“No,” the Doctor told him, “I won’t. I’m sorry Sam, but I’m very good at defeating the Daleks.” He reached out, but for almost the first time since he’d woken up here Sam pulled away from him.
“So what now?” he asked flatly.
“I’ve called some of your friends,” the Doctor told him, “and an ambulance. They should be here any moment now.”
“Fuck.” Sam shoved away the angry tears forming at the bottom of his eyelids, and got up. “Fuck, fuck. I can’t believe I have to see people like this.” He strode away and there was the sound of running water from the kitchen. Gemma jumped up into the Doctor’s lap, with all the warmth and weight of a real cat, her fur soft beneath the Doctor’s palm as he stroked her. She bolted as Sam threw one of John’s mobiles on the sofa. “Right, who did you ring?” He had another phone in his hand; the collar of his jumper was wet. “If we get them now, we can probably stop them. Mary, right?” He raised his eyebrow, the phone up to his ear. “How do you even stop an ambulance- Mary, hi. No, everything’s fine. You don’t need to- yeah, no, later’s good. Perfect. Plenty of alcohol, yes. See you then.” He hung up. “Who else?”
“I didn’t want you to be alone,” the Doctor told him.
“What does it matter if I’m not even real?” Sam demanded. “And if I am real, I really don’t want to see anyone. Who else? Apart from the ambulance. We can just tell them you got confused, they must get that all the time-” He rubbed his face. “OK, so the ambulance, Mary - Charles? Did you ring Charlie? John? Baby-” he snapped his fingers in front of the Doctor’s face, “you have to wake up.”
“Yes, I think I am...”
“No, no, no,” Sam said, abandoning the phone and crouching next to the sofa. “Even if your mad thing is true, you said twelve hours-”
“I set the alarm clock early,” the Doctor explained. “Two hours, instead of twelve. There is a universe to save, and I’m sorry, but I didn’t think I could bear too much of this-”
As he fell asleep, he heard the distant sound of a siren and Sam shouting something indistinct, which gradually became the hum of the console room and the shrill ringing of an alarm clock. The Doctor groaned and picked himself up off the floor of his TARDIS, which was indeed uncomfortable. He switched off the alarm clock, and fought the urge not to crumple in on himself. He breathed in, and then out, and when he thought he could do that safely, he left the TARDIS.
Ten hours later he slumped into a chair in Romana’s office. A small cloud of soot left his clothes briefly and then fell back down into them again.
“So, it’s over, is it?” Romana asked.
“It’s over,” the Doctor said grimly. He rubbed his eyes. “For now anyway. I destroyed the entire ship, but I think we should bear in mind that this machine, whatever it was, could very easily be a prototype. While I was there I heard the Daleks talking about a new weapon, the Nightmare Child-”
“That sounds pleasant,” Romana said dryly.
“Doesn’t it just?” the Doctor agreed.
“Well,” Romana said, “whatever it is, we can be ready for it. I’ll set Narvin to look into it, unless you want to.” The Doctor shook his head. “No,” Romana said. “In that case, I’m sure the CIA will be delighted to have yet another thing to do.”
The Doctor rose from his seat, taking his dust with him. “With your permission, Madam President, I think I’m going to have a long shower and an even longer nap.”
“Of course,” Romana said. “I’ll be doing the same once I’ve briefed the Council on the day’s events. I feel like I haven’t slept in weeks-”
“Well, you haven’t.”
“No, apparently not.”
“I assume you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Not in the slightest,” Romana said. “Do you?”
“Good. Then I’ll see you tomorrow, assuming you’re still on Gallifrey-”
The Doctor nodded. “Sleep well, Romana.”
“Thank you,” Romana said, “you too.” They exchanged wry looks, and he let himself out.