John Watson was seven years and three months old when he first met His Raggedy Detective. He wasn’t expecting the bright red telephone box to crash land in his back garden in the middle of the night, but then, who ever expected such a silly thing to happen in the first place?
The crack in his wall was keeping him awake again. He’d been staring at it for what felt like hours, the feeling that there was A Something inside it, watching him, impossible to shake off. He was huddled inside his blankets, lips pressed tightly together as he stared the thing out, his heart hammering against his ribcage. There was definitely A Something in there, no matter what Harry said about him being an idiot or insane or deluded, her new favourite word.
The telephone box crashing into the back garden, therefore, was a welcome distraction from the crack in the wall. Jumping at the noise, John looked around his room to make sure that the crash had come from outside and not from The Something before getting out of bed and running to the window, standing on the pile of books underneath the windowsill so that he could see out.
His eyes widened at what he saw. A brilliant red telephone box, the type that he’d seen when he went to London at Easter, was lying on its side next to their pond, smoke billowing from inside it. He gasped and wriggled into his dressing gown, shoving his feet into his tartan slippers and grabbed his plastic torch before running downstairs, expertly navigating the steps that creaked. Breathing heavily with excitement - he was not scared - John peered upstairs to check that no-one else had heard the noise before he unlocked the back door and pulled it open. He stepped outside and pulled the door to, biting down on his bottom lip as he walked slowly over to the crashed telephone box.
‘Hello?’ he called, turning his torch on and shining it at the smoking red box. ‘H-hello, are you alright?’ There had to be someone in there. Telephone boxes didn’t just fall out of the sky with no-one inside to drive them. That was obvious.
The door of the telephone box burst open with a force that nearly broke its hinges. John stumbled backwards, his eyes widening again as a hand - no, two hands - two thin, pale, long-fingered hands gripped what was the floor of the box, tightened and pulled until a thin and pale man to match the hands appeared, hanging over the side of the box, panting for breath, sweating.
‘Are you alright, Mister?’ John asked again, frowning in concern.
The man’s head snapped up and John was fixed with the sharpest gaze he’d ever known. The man’s slanted, pale eyes looked John up and down until their eyes met again and the man smiled, the expression not quite right on his face.
‘I don’t suppose I could trouble you for a sandwich, John?’
John gasped. ‘You know my name,’ he said.
‘Oh good, I am glad I got it right. That funny little brain of yours is rather a jumble at the moment, isn’t it?’ the man said, smiling again, throwing himself out of the box and onto the ground, landing amongst the rotten apples that had fallen from the tree next to the pond. John staggered backwards again. How did that man know his name? Was he a mind-reader? He’d mentioned John’s brain, he must be a mind reader.
The man stood up and John tilted his head back to look at him. He was tall and thin with a strong (John’s Nana would have called it strong) face, big lips and a long neck. He had dark, curly hair and big hands that were resting on his hips. His pale blue shirt was ripped at the waist and the shoulder and his brown trousers were frayed at the bottom and ripped like his shirt. His shoes were battered and casual and didn’t... didn’t match what he looked like. A brown tie hung loosely around his neck. He looked... well. He looked raggedy, especially with his hair all over the place.
‘What’s your name? Who are you?’ John demanded.
The man dropped to his knees so suddenly that John jumped.
‘Who do you think I am?’ The man said quietly.
John chewed his lip as he thought. The man could read minds, John was certain of that. He had crash landed in John’s garden so he wasn’t a very good driver of his box, which meant he wasn’t a driver for his job. He had crashed when John had been worrying about the crack in his wall, so maybe the universe had sent the man to look at it, to find out about The Something that was in there. And he’d known John’s name without even speaking to John. Only the best detectives on the telly knew things like that. John looked at the man, whose eyes were darting around, looking at John’s face, his lips curved upwards in another strange smile. John nodded.
‘You’re a mind-reading detective,’ he said, folding his arms across his chest, surer than he had ever been about anything.
The man laughed loudly, the sound carrying a note of surprise. His eyes were wide and his big hands came up to grip John’s little shoulders tightly.
‘Oh, you brilliant boy, John Watson,’ he said, shaking John slightly. John grinned right back at the man. No-one had ever called him brilliant before.
‘Are you?’ John said.
The man let John go and stood up again, bending slightly to offer John his hand. ‘My name is The Detective,’ he said.
John shook The Detective’s hand. ‘John Hamish Watson,’ he said. ‘Have you come about the crack in my wall?’
The Detective raised his eyebrows. ‘A crack in your wall, hm? May I see it?’
Nodding, John took hold of The Detective’s shirtsleeve and tugged him towards the house. ‘You have to be quiet,’ he said. ‘Harry is sleeping and Dad is, too, though it would take a stampede of elephants to wake him up,’ he said, parroting his grandmother. ‘If you sort this crack in my wall, I’ll make you a sandwich, deal?’
The Detective nodded and opened his mouth as if he were about to speak, but made a pained sound as a shimmery gold substance left his body. ‘Ah,’ he gasped, gritting his teeth and screwing his face up.
John frowned. He couldn’t very well have his Detective coughing up stardust while he was sorting out The Something. He should probably eat first. He had just crash landed, after all. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked for the third time that night.
The Detective nodded. ‘I’m still cooking,’ he explained, dropping to his knees again and watching his hands as more of the stardust fell from his fingertips and blew away on the night breeze.
‘Let’s get you something to eat,’ John said, tugging The Detective’s shirtsleeve again. ‘Then we can look at the crack in my wall and you can deal with The Something and then I’ll help you fix your magic box.’
Laughing softly, The Detective rose to his feet and followed John inside.
‘Shh,’ John reminded him, pressing his index finger to his lips and fixing The Detective with a solemn stare. The Detective pressed his own finger to his full lips in silent agreement and pushed the door of the kitchen shut once they were inside.
John pulled out a chair for The Detective and stood on a stool that was next to one of the counters to turn the electric kettle on, pulling two mugs out of the cupboard. ‘I think you need some tea,’ he said quietly, partly to himself, as The Detective sat down.
‘An excellent idea, John,’ The Detective said, looking at the backs of his own hands, slowly turning them over. ‘Paler than last time,’ he muttered, and John frowned, thinking.
‘Do you have sugar in your tea?’ he asked, his head cocked to the side.
‘I don’t know,’ The Detective replied, waving his hand. ‘I’ll have it however you do.’
‘A Detective who doesn’t know something like how many sugars he has in his tea?’ John exclaimed, pulling a face at the ghostly man seated at his kitchen table.
‘None of us can know everything, John Watson, not even me, and I know more than most,’ The Detective said, fixing John with a stern look.
‘You should still know how many sugars you like in your tea,’ John returned, meeting The Detective’s eyes, which wrinkled in the corners as the raggedy-looking man laughed again. Why he was laughing, John didn’t know. It was no laughing matter to crash your magic box and then come to and not remember how many sugars you liked in your tea. John put one sugar in The Detective’s cup and two in his own, putting a teabag in each cup as well.
‘Why did your magic box crash?’ John asked as the kettle reached boiling point and he poured the hot water into each of the mugs, grabbing a teaspoon off the draining board and stirring the tea to strengthen it like Nana had taught him.
‘Why did my magic box crash?’ The Detective repeated, and John nodded. ‘Well, it broke, John, and I was too busy regenerating to fix it.’
‘Changing. I didn’t look like this until very recently.’
‘Oh, I see,’ John said, getting down from his stool and walking over to the fridge, pulling it open and sighing as he looked up. ‘Could you get the milk down for me, Detective?’ he asked, folding his arms. ‘I haven’t grown enough.’
The Detective stood up and walked over to stand next to John, observing him again. ‘You haven’t quite grown enough, have you, Master Watson?’ He narrowed his eyes, though not in a way that made him look nasty, like when Harry narrowed her eyes. The Detective looked as though he was thinking, and John supposed that was good, because detectives were meant to think. ‘I doubt you’ll grow to be very tall at all,’ he said quietly, passing John the carton of milk out of the fridge.
John frowned, though he took the milk with a muttered ‘thank you.’
‘You’re very tall,’ he said as he was pouring milk into both of their mugs.
‘You’re very little,’ The Detective returned, gasping again as more stardust escaped from his fingertips.
‘Drink this,’ John said, carrying The Detective’s tea over to him carefully, going back for his own and wriggling into position on the chair opposite the raggedy man. He ran his fingers through the golden dust that was floating in the air between them. ‘Are you magic?’ he asked, cocking his head to the side.
‘After a fashion,’ The Detective said with a soft laugh. He leant in towards John, his long-fingered hands wrapped around his mug. ‘I’m a Time Lord.’
‘A Time Lord?’ John said, thinking about the implications of the title for a moment. ‘Do you... control time?’
‘Sort of,’ The Detective said. ‘I spend more time travelling it. All of time and space, John Watson. All of those things to see.’
John’s eyes widened and his breath came a little faster. ‘You’re a time traveller?’
The Detective nodded, a smile playing around his lips.
‘And the telephone box is your time machine?’
The Detective nodded again.
‘And you can fix the crack in my wall?’
‘More than likely,’ The Detective replied. ‘I usually try not to intervene, The Doctor and his bleeding heart do more than enough fiddling with the fabric of time and space for everyone, but for you, John Watson, just this once, I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Thank you,’ John sighed with a relieved grin. ‘And... and there are more? Time travellers? Like you?’
‘Time lords,’ The Detective said, raising an eyebrow at John. ‘Yes, there are. A handful.’
‘Lords, right, sorry,’ John murmured. ‘Can I come with you?’ he asked, his tongue darting out to wet his lower lip as he looked at The Detective, almost breathless with hope. If he went with The Detective, he’d be away from the crack in his wall, and Harry when she was being horrible to him, and away from Dad when he was in one of his moods and you just couldn’t tell what he would do.
‘Come with me where?’ The Detective asked, sipping his tea and closing his eyes. ‘Mm, John, how old are you? This tea is remarkable.’
‘I’m seven and good at tea. Can I come with you?’
‘All of time and space,’ John replied, copying what The Detective had said, teeth worrying his bottom lip. ‘Please.’
The Detective gave him that look again. ‘I need to fix my TARDIS first--’
‘My TARDIS - Time And Relative Dimensions In Space - my magic box. We can’t go anywhere without that.’
‘I’ll help you fix it,’ John promised eagerly.
The Detective smiled. ‘I’m sure you will, John. Let’s drink our tea, then we’ll sort out the crack in your wall and I’ll go and fix my TARDIS and come back for you, how does that sound?’ His eyes flicked over John’s face and John couldn’t help but have the feeling that his mind was being read. Though, that might just be him being -- what was it? Paranoid. Maybe that was the word.
‘You’ll come back for me?’ he said, his fingers tightening around the handle of his mug.
‘Of course I’ll come back for you.’
‘I promise,’ The Detective said, offering John his hand.
John gave The Detective a solemn look and shook it. ‘You’re very cold,’ he said.
‘Time Lords are.’
Smiling slightly, John let The Detective’s hand go with a squeeze. ‘You’ll come back for me? Take me to see all of time and space, really, you really will?’
‘I’ve already said I will, John,’ The Detective said, his eyes wrinkling again as his lips quirked upwards.
‘But you promise? You absolutely promise?’ John said, frowning, his heart beating too fast, chewing desperately at his lip, fidgeting in his seat. He wasn’t used to people keeping their promises.
‘John,’ The Detective said, leaning forwards, staring right into John’s eyes, resting his big cold hand on top of John’s little, slightly pudgy, warm one and squeezing so that more stardust fell out (and it really was stardust from space, from all of time and space), ‘John. I promise I will come back for you.’
Twenty-seven years later.
John woke up in his childhood bed with a strangled yell. He took several deep breaths, his hands fisted tightly in his sheets. He was covered in sweat, the moisture on his back making his t-shirt cling uncomfortably to his skin. If he ever slept the night through again, he’d consider himself a lucky man.
He couldn’t think of a place that he less wanted to be. His room had been largely untouched since he’d moved out at eighteen, and only desperation had driven him back here now. All of his A-Level folders and books were on the shelf above his desk still, along with some medical textbooks from when he’d come back home for the summer from university. He was thirty-four years old and still sleeping in the bed he’d had since he was twelve, with his shoulder shot to ribbons and his stupid fucking leg constantly aching, surrounded by relics from his childhood. The drawers of his bedside table were still full of drawings and stories of John going on adventures across all of time and space with a tall, thin, pale man who knew everything, with eyes that seemed older than the world itself. His Raggedy Detective who had promised to come back, and hadn’t.
The dreams were getting worse. They were worse than they’d ever been when he was a child, before The Detective (or his own subconscious) had closed the crack in his wall, containing The Something that lurked behind it. He was waking up two, three times a night, sweat-soaked sheets clinging to him as he gasped for breath, eyes wide and terrified in the dark. He was too old for nightmares. He was too old to be sleeping in this bed, too old to be living with his aging, alchie, waste-of-space father. He was certainly too old to wish that the imaginary friend from his childhood was real and would come and spirit him away across the universe. Far, far too old.
Sighing, John swung his legs out of bed and pulled his dressing gown on, grabbing his loathed walking stick and leaning heavily on it as he made his way downstairs, unable to skip the stairs that creaked as he’d always done before.
He walked into the kitchen and nearly had a heart attack at what - who? - he saw sitting at the kitchen table.
The man looked up at the choked noise John made. It was him alright. John had never forgotten that face, that stare, those hands, the shock of dark hair. That was his Detective. Only he wasn’t all that raggedy any more.
‘Don’t tell me I’ve got the wrong house,’ The Detective said with a groan.
John could only gape, his hand gripping his walking stick so tightly it felt as though his bones would snap through his taught, stretched skin.
‘Look, I’m not here to steal from you, you needn’t look so horrified,’ The Detective said, standing up, shoving an identity card in John’s face. John pulled back to read it, squinting. S. Jones, it read, Consulting Detective, along with a date and place of birth and some other information that John had absolutely no interest in. ‘I’m looking for a little boy named John, about three and a quarter feet tall, light brown hair, blue eyes, serious disposition?’ The Detective said, snapping the wallet holding his ID shut.
John closed his mouth, but it fell open again.
‘No idea?’ The Detective said, frowning, clearly impatient. He began pacing and muttering to himself: ‘Got the co-ordinates wrong, I must have done, for the love of--’
‘You came back,’ John breathed, having finally found his voice.
‘What?’ The Detective said, training his gaze on John again, stepping closer, really looking at him this time, as he’d done all those years ago in the back garden.
‘You came back,’ John whispered, unsure whether this was a dream or a particularly vivid hallucination or whether impossibly, magically, this was real, his Detective was real.
The Detective’s eyes narrowed and he took hold of John’s upper arm, triggering the memory of being seven and miserable and having The Detective clutching his arms and telling him he was brilliant and that they were going to go on adventures together, adventures across all of time and space, everything that has been or ever will be, every star that ever was. He remembered that strong, sure grip, he remembered being on the receiving end of that penetrating stare, he remembered the stardust that had fallen from The Detective’s fingertips and out of his mouth.
‘John?’ The Detective said, tilting his head just slightly, his mouth dropping open as well. ‘No. No, I haven’t been gone--’
‘Twenty-seven years,’ John supplied, glaring without really meaning to.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t possibly have--’
‘Twenty -seven years of convincing myself that you and your magic box--’
‘--weren’t real, twenty-seven years of telling myself that time travellers--’
‘--don’t just drop out of the sky into your back garden and ask you to go and explore all of time and space with you, twenty-seven years trying to get away from this fucking miserable house only to end up back here and you finally show your face--’
‘I got the co-ordinates wrong, John, I was still regenerating, I was under the impression I’d been gone half an hour--’
John glared and set his jaw, shaking his head as he turned away. ‘No,’ he said. ‘This is mad. I’ve gone mad, this is the painkillers, that’s what this is.’ He nodded and grabbed the kettle off its stand, filling it from the tap. ‘This isn’t real. This isn’t real,’ he muttered to himself, screwing his eyes shut, gripping his walking stick tightly. ‘This isn’t real.’
‘I can assure you, John Hamish Watson, that I am real,’ The Detective said, so close that John could feel his breath across his ear.
Licking his lips briefly, a nervous habit he’d had for as long as he could remember, John turned round, his back resting against the kitchen counter. The Detective’s concept of personal space hadn’t improved in twenty-seven years, though John wasn’t entirely certain this wasn’t an hallucination yet and so wasn’t about to say anything about it. He sighed. ‘Where are your clothes?’ he asked after a few moments of The Detective staring at him. ‘The trousers and the shirt, the ones you were wearing when...’
‘Oh, those belonged to my predecessor,’ The Detective said, waving his hand. ‘I couldn’t carry on with that hideous tie and those shoes, I don’t know what I was thinking... is this an improvement?’ He took a step back and turned in a quick circle, smirking.
John’s mouth went slightly dry. There was so much about this that wasn’t normal, he couldn’t fancy his imaginary friend, he couldn’t have an imaginary friend in the first place! He was thirty-four, and he was damned if he was going to end up like that bloke in the film with that rabbit. No chance. He pinched himself.
‘Oh, am I too good to be true?’ The Detective said with another smirk, shoving his hands in the pockets of his voluminous coat.
‘This is... this is impossible,’ John murmured.
‘You’re not... you’re not real. I’ve made you real again because I’m...’ unhappy? his brain supplied. Lonely? Scared? ‘Time travel is impossible, magic boxes--’
‘--that fly are impossible, journeying across all of time and space is impossible, you are just one great big... impossibility!’
‘Oh, I do so hate it when children grow up,’ The Detective said, frowning slightly, his tone dripping with condescension.
John bristled. ‘Maybe I’d have been a bit more palatable to you had you actually come back when you said you would,’ he snapped, and oh God, that was it, he was shouting at a figment of his imagination at four in the morning in the kitchen of his father’s house. He’d actually gone mad.
The Detective had the good grace to at least look slightly humbled. ‘John,’ he said, resting his hand on John’s shoulder. ‘I’m as real as you are. You are not going mad, the medication you’re on for that nasty shoulder wound and your shell-shock is not making you hallucinate.’
‘Medication -- how did you--’
At that, The Detective smiled, and moved in even closer to John than before. ‘I’m magic, remember, John Watson?’
‘After a fashion,’ John replied, recalling what The Detective had said at the kitchen table twenty-seven years ago. Christ knows he’d thought about it enough. All his breath left him in one loud exhale.
‘You came back.’
The Detective nodded and rubbed his thumb across John’s cheek, the touch as light as air and incredibly brief. He smiled, and it reached his eyes.
‘I’m only sorry it took me so long.’
John smiled back. ‘You’re forgiven,’ he said. He couldn’t possibly be angry about this, not now, not now that it was real. Was it real? He reached out and gingerly rested his hand on The Detective’s arm, squeezing to test how solid he was.
‘You’ve been through a lot since I left, John,’ The Detective said, no question in his tone. John nodded anyway, closing his eyes. ‘I must say, I’m almost glad I went so woefully wrong, you’re far more useful to me like this, even with that leg.’ The Detective squinted and bent down, poking at John’s knee with his forefinger. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your leg,’ he said abruptly, standing again. ‘You just think there is.’
‘X-ray vision as well, now?’ John said, rolling his eyes. God, this was mad.
‘No,’ The Detective replied with a smug smile. ‘Mind-reader. Remember? And yes, this is mad. It doesn’t make it impossible, though,’ he murmured, leaning in close to John again. ‘Like Alice, I try to believe three impossible things before breakfast.’
John stumbled backwards, using his walking stick to steady himself. ‘Uh, why am I more useful to you like this, may I ask?’
‘Well, you’re no longer a child, John,’ The Detective replied. ‘See about some tea for us both, won’t you?.’
John almost wanted to tell him to see to his own bloody tea, but he turned round and flipped the kettle on anyway, pulling two mugs out of the cupboard. ‘One sugar, very little milk?’ he asked.
‘Twenty-seven years and you remember how I like my tea,’ The Detective murmured, sounding intrigued.
‘I made you ten cups while I was waiting for you to come back that first night,’ John replied, his tone even, though he tensed slightly at the admission.
The Detective coughed. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll be needing me to fetch you the milk down, will you?’ he said after an awkward pause.
‘No. You could get it for me regardless, though, if you like,’ John said, smiling at The Detective.
They were silent until John had finished making the tea and they were seated opposite one another at the kitchen table. The Detective’s eyes were fixed on John, who had the feeling The Detective was opening him up and reading him like a book.
‘I’m a doctor, too, you know,’ he blurted out, dunking a digestive biscuit into his tea.
The Detective’s eyebrows raised slightly.
‘If that... if that makes me any more useful,’ John added.
‘Infinitely so,’ The Detective agreed, nodding. ‘Army doctor, is it?’
‘Yep,’ John said, sipping his tea.
‘How absolutely wonderful,’ The Detective murmured, his lips quirking into a smile. He drank a little more of his tea then slammed the mug down on the table, the amber liquid sloshing over the sides, running into the wood. ‘Come on, then. Get dressed. No time to lose,’
‘I thought you were a time lord,’ John replied calmly, eating another biscuit. To his surprise, The Detective threw his head back and laughed, the sound loud and rich.
‘I think you and I are going to have some very fine adventures together, John Watson,’ The Detective said, his old, pale eyes dancing.
An hour later, John was standing outside the bright red telephone box that was waiting patiently in his garden, walking stick in one hand, duffle bag full of his personal effects - jumpers, mainly, a couple of mugs, his medication, his gun he wasn’t strictly meant to have, a few things from his childhood - in the other. He let a breath out in a long sigh and smiled, still not entirely sure this was real.
The Detective pushed the door open from the inside and leant against its frame, arms folded over his chest. Beyond his slender figure, John could see the inside of the telephone box and caught a glimpse of a complicated-looking set of levers and buttons, what looked to be a compact laboratory with several experiments in progress, and shelves upon shelves of books.
John shook his head in disbelief, absolutely awed.
‘We really ought to find a more permanent solution to that crack in your bedroom wall, you know,’ The Detective said. ‘What I did twenty-seven years ago won’t last forever, and I’ve upgraded my sonic lighter since then.’
‘That can wait,’ John said, impatient to go, to leave everything behind him.
‘Alright. Where to, then?’ The Detective asked with a smile, moving back to let John in.
All of time and space, everything that has ever been or will ever be, every star that ever was.
‘Anywhere,’ he said, and stepped aboard.