There are other, more practical concerns. The coat is too long now, for one, and he feels ready to trip himself to another premature death in it. Everything is too big, too bulky, and he swims in it, like a child in his father’s clothes. He remembers the feeling well, insignificance and the insecurity of pretending, unable to fill out the potential - but he hasn’t been a child in seven-hundred-odd years and it’s not a welcome nostalgia. They run through the grass, holding him up, and his boots feel like they’re going to slip right off. They’re all taller than they used to be.
More than anything though, the blasted scarf itches. It isn’t right. It has to go. And he picks it to pieces as he stumbles through the ship, keeping his hands busy, his mind as swimming and lost in the vacuum of what has passed as his body is in these clothes that no longer fit.
A lot of things don’t fit, not anymore.
The TARDIS was claustrophobically familiar when they finally got to it, and it smelled of time and past and death and maybe it was just in his head, but it’s all he can do to bury himself in the corridors, drilling down and down, searching for somewhere that doesn’t make him feel like a stranger.
The physical changes don’t mean much, he realizes when he’s more rational. He could apply symbolism or whatnot but in the end it’s just luck of the draw; it happens in any forced regeneration and if he’s honest with himself, it could have been far worse. He looks… pleasant. Unassuming. From an objective standpoint, it should be considered an upgrade. He’s not sure why he can’t help but mourn himself, like some narcissistic funeral-goer seeing their own mortality in the sweep of every tree branch, in the stumbling flight of startled crows.
He runs his hands through his hair, bunching it up. It looks wrong that way, with this face. This face wants it straight and flat, like dry straw left too long in the field, rattling against autumn. Reinvention doesn’t brook half-measures; this business is all or nothing. He nudges the black-winged bird hunched in the back of his mind, urging it to take off, carry away what was, leave him with what is.
It won’t go, not just yet.
The first time he sees it, it’s on Adric’s face. Nyssa and Tegan barely know the difference but Adric has seen him fight bog monsters and vampires and the entropy of evil, has seen him put everything on the line and keep his fingers on all the buttons without seeming to know where any of them were, has watched him pull impossible victories out of thin air. Now, he’s just a bumbling, amnesiac fool who would carry on unaware of his friend hidden away in the dark, captive and hurting and endlessly loyal to someone who’d forgotten he existed.
It was just regeneration sickness; he knows that, and Adric will figure it out. But there is a name for the look on his face, for the hurt and passed-over grief. It feels like someone’s died but there’s no body to mourn and the boy can’t reconcile that, so he’s left with that catch-all emotion that never seems to cut it: disappointment.
There are ghosts in these halls, but each only exists as long as there is someone who holds onto it. All right, old man, he challenges, head bent over the console, resting on top of clenched hands. If you’re going to hang about, the least you could do is lend a hand.
He floats in space, and the TARDIS is still a ways off, and it’s so, so silent. He has time to reflect, a situation he’s been doing his best to avoid.
It’s not that he’s angry with Adric for questioning, for thinking on his own. Never. That’s exactly the sort of thing he tries to teach them, and even if on an honest day he’ll admit to being a hypocrite at times, he’s never been that bad about it.
No – it’s the lack of trust. Adric had always trusted the ghost, so much older and stranger and less predictable, so much less steady, with a grasp on reality and logic always on the verge of brittle fracture. So much less deserving of blind faith, he thinks from his revised viewpoint, but still got it everywhere he’d gone. So where had that trust gone? Evaporated away, like so much early morning condensation on a sun-cooked window pane.
Every night, he considers taking them all home, or at least someplace safe. Starting over. Every day, he watches them grow a little more, become a little stronger, a little better. And every evening, he decides to keep them around a little longer.
It’s late at night, in the wardrobe room, and he’s regretting having disposed of his old things so… destructively. Every self that passes is due regard and he’s kept every scrap of his past up to this point, stored away where he can’t stumble on them by accident but still safe, still treated respectfully.
I could give all to Time except—except what I myself have held…The voice rambles in his head, and it sounds like a quote but he can’t quite remember. He doesn’t get the random impulse to quote things anymore, he’s noticed. Pity. From the racks come a few older things – the grey coat, the brown hat. The ratty old scarf that Romana insisted he replace before appearing in public with her again, and oh how he fought her on that one before finally acquiescing. These will have to do. Not a snapshot of the end, maybe, but near enough.
He isn’t sure if he’s holding on or letting go when he tucks them into their shelf in the back closet, this hidey-hole of keeping and forgetting. But why declare the things forbidden that while the Customs slept I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There, and what I would not part with I have kept.
He wanders long nights and early mornings through the corridors, looking for familiarity; looking for escape; looking for some truth that’s eluded him. Mostly he finds the ghost, but then, the TARDIS always has been good at turning up the lost and misplaced when you’re not looking for it.
And they run and run, the four of them, across worlds and galaxies. The running is a new thing, he thinks, but there’s something exhilarating about paring consciousness down to the act of running for your life, a single white-hot thread of thought that crowds everything else out, reminds you that you’re alive in the way nothing else can.
He realizes just how old he really is getting.
It’s a small thing, really. He’s going to take them somewhere where nothing can go wrong, for once; somewhere that won’t degenerate into jail cells and monsters and shooting and running for their lives. Somewhere safe. He’ll fight the TARDIS tooth and nail to avoid a course waylay and it’s going to be pleasant and restful and they’ll have a break for once. Regimes can be toppled tomorrow, wrongs can be righted tomorrow, and cosmic karma be damned.
For their sakes, of course. He makes a big show of it being for their sakes. It’s obvious he needs it as much as any of them, plain in the haggard set of his young and open new face – there’s a runner’s high, sure, but the come-down is a beast - but he won’t admit to it. Because he’s okay, he’s always okay.
It’s pouring rain where they’ve landed, and he turns his face up into its path, smiling in that open and guileless way he’s had lately. He’s left his hat back in the TARDIS but never mind – he slicks a whip of water off his hair and turns back to the three of them, still huddled in underneath the protective blue door frame. “Come on then, it’s only a bit of rain.”
They don’t move, looking at him dubiously, soaked through as he is; look at their shoes and their clothes and are clearly not biting this time.
And he’d roll his eyes, but it’s such an undignified gesture. “Oh, come on. I’ve taken you to planets where the sky spits acid,” …and to be fair, he isn’t actually sure that he has, but if he did they’d come along, and that’s the point really… “But now you’re afraid of a little rain?”
“We’re not afraid,” and Adric, apparently elected spokesman, has let just a touch of peevishness into his tone. “It’s just not very comfortable being wet, is it?”
“Since when is life about being comfortable?” he asks in return, and his tone is all seriousness but his eyes are laughing. “You don’t learn anything from being comfortable all the time.”
Tegan steps up. “And going out in the pouring rain, what’s that supposed to teach us exactly?”
“I haven’t… worked that out yet, but there’s bound to be something. Come on.”
And they do, because whatever feeble protests may come, they really would follow him anywhere. And maybe there’s no specific lesson as such, and maybe there’s no epiphany or grand moment of ‘aha!’, but as they sit warm and drying in the village’s inn, stone fireplace crackling, the Doctor leaned back in a chair and watching them all through a half-lidded expression of ease and contentment, it does feel like something important has slotted into place.
Once the fire’s died and everyone else has turned in and he’s the only one left in the greatroom, watching the shadows jump and stalk, the ghost whispers to him that it probably won’t matter for much longer. Maybe he is going mad, or maybe it’s just his subconscious processing things for him in a voice that’s been shifting closer and closer to his own. Or maybe something really is talking to him; he knows from things that live in the shadows. He’s been living there himself for a while now.
Two weeks later, Adric is dead. He went bravely, headlong into danger with no regard for the possibility that he might not be able to come out the other side. This Doctor didn’t teach him that. The ghost did, when he still had form - taught by example. Taught about reckless morality and impulsive plans and jumping in with both feet, worrying about the details later. And fair enough – it had always worked for him. He had more lives than a cat. Adric only had the one.
Nyssa and Tegan are looking at him, seeking comfort and explanation and something to make it all make sense. Looking at him, and seeing him: what you see and what you get. He says a lot of brave words about choices and honor and saving the world, says the things he knows Adric would want him to say. He handles it better than the ghost would, he imagines; his old self would have taken all the guilt and all the blame, thrown a self-derisive tantrum, spent the next century in a funk. That isn’t what Adric would want.
Given another chance, he would teach the boy differently. Teach him not to be so selfless; to leave the careless and irrevocable sacrifices to him. But there are no second chances. Adric is gone and the ghost has gone with him, evaporated from the halls of the ship as if it’d never been. Nyssa and Tegan are looking at him and seeing him and not expecting to see anyone else and it’s usually the most freeing moment in a new regeneration, seeing recognition on their faces. But his eyes are unfocused and downcast, hands shaking where they frame the console, and it is not a comfort.