“For I am a stranger with thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O, spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen.”
The voices inside the sanctuary echo into the corridor outside, and the Doctor pauses there to listen.
The air inside the church is cool and musty, as though it belongs to a different world than the fresh spring evening outside. He props his umbrella, and then himself, against the damp stone wall, and closes his eyes. A second later he takes off his hat, and holds it over his hearts.
He has broken a number of laws—civil, social, and temporal—to get to this place at this time. He has learned things he will have to try very hard to remember; other things he will have to try even harder to forget.
The Doctor is thoughtful, but not, as a rule, introspective. He does not think often about judgment (save apparently when he is standing inside a church). Time Lords know precisely what awaits them after death, which is to say, more death, and some life, and then nothing. Still, a seasoned traveler has to give some thought to the notion of cosmic balance, a reckoning of sorts. He wonders how, if some entirely hypothetical god were to weigh his soul now, whether he or she or it would consider the equally hypothetical unity of which his many personalities have been mere fractures, or if each chapter of his life is a story in itself, justified (or not) by its own conclusions.
He would like to remind any such deity that regeneration is not the same as reincarnation. The Doctor dies for his mistakes one after the other, and he’s always making new ones. You might call it unfair, if you had the benefit of perspective. But perspective is a rare trait in human beings, and, he suspects, equally rare in the gods who are made in their image.
His eyes open. Inside the sanctuary, the voices have stilled and the silence is leaking into the corridor. The door is halfway open, propped into position by a brick. He crosses silently to the other wall and hides himself in shadow, watching and listening through the gap.
He sees a priest in surplice and stole, closing his book, then walking from the lectern to the young woman who sits in the second pew. She is the only other person in the room. The priest bends over to take her hands and says something to her in a low voice. A moment later he straightens.
“Take all the time you need,” he says, and gathers his books, leaving the room by another door.
The sanctuary is dark, save for the candles burning at the altar. The Doctor slips inside and moves to the darkest corner of the room. He can hear the hiss of the candlewicks as they are slowly eaten by the flame, the thick gurgling of the wax as it melts.
“This is stupid.”
Her voice is strong, but there are cracks there, like fissures in granite. The intonation of each word is flat, almost careless. “I know it’s stupid. I know you’re not really dead.
“I mean, you explained it all to me, right? You regenerate. That means there’s somebody out there right now in the TARDIS calling himself the Doctor, saving planets and stuff. For all I know, I’ll go outside in a minute and some strange bloke will walk up to me and say, ‘Hello, Ace, how do you like the new togs?’ I mean, it would be just like you to turn up at your own funeral.”
A smile comes to the Doctor involuntarily, like a cramp.
“I’m sure the new Doctor is probably a really great person. He’d have to be, wouldn’t he? He’s you. Of course, he’s probably a right bastard too. Unless that was the part of you—of him—that changed. Or maybe it was the good parts that changed. Who knows, right? You didn’t have any control over it, did you? Maybe this Doctor is everything about you that I hated.”
She lets out a shaky breath, and the Doctor inhales, as though to capture it.
“Maybe this Doctor is a smug prat who uses people and doesn’t care who gets hurt as long as he gets to save the world. Doesn’t think twice about dragging people through the mud or forcing them to re-live their worst nightmares. Orders people around and never tells them anything, never answers their questions till it’s too late. He’s probably cold and cruel and doesn’t love anybody.” Her voice hardens. “Or maybe he does. And that’s even worse.
“But none of that matters. He’s still can’t be you, unless he’s all of you. Because I loved all of you. That’s sad, isn’t it? After everything you put me through. He could be nice and funny and smart, and that still wouldn’t be enough. I still feel like I’ve lost you, for good this time. I don’t think I ever really believed that was possible before.
“Benny told me how you died. You were alone. I don’t understand that. You were never any good at being alone. I thought sure you’d keep her with you, or that you’d meet someone else. I never would have left you if I’d thought—”
She falls abruptly silent. The Doctor finds that he has taken a step in her direction. He grips the edge of the pew in front of him with one hand, knuckles taut.
“My mum, died, you know.” She speaks quickly. “Couple of months ago. I didn’t go to her funeral. When I went to see her in hospital it turned out we didn’t have anything to say to each other, and after that I didn’t think there was any point. I was never much for funerals. They’re supposed to be for saying goodbye, but what’s the good of saying goodbye to someone who can’t hear you? Oh, I told you this was stupid.” Her voice breaks at last, tears leaking through the cracks.“I shouldn’t be here. I don’t know what good I thought it would do. But when I think of you dying all alone like that I want to scream. I should have been with you. I would have been, if you hadn’t driven me away!”
Time, the Doctor has often noted, is a peculiar thing. One moment it ticks along reliably, a linear progression of mathematically and astronomically regulated intervals. Then it shifts without warning, gains dimension and volume; you can sink in it like water. Hours shrink and contract to heartbeats, seconds crawl by like centuries. The thick sounds of a young woman’s sobs reach you slowly, as though the waves that carry them to your ears are traveling outwards from a sea of mud.
“I tried so hard to hate you,” she whispers, so low that he wonders if she’s trying not to hear herself. “But I couldn’t. I loved you more than anyone in my whole life. I always will.”
The Doctor puts his hat on, and walks out of the sanctuary, then through the chapel doors. The TARDIS is waiting in a copse behind the church car park. He can hear Ace, sobbing, until the doors shut behind him.
He walks to the console and sets the course of the TARDIS back to a planet called Heaven. Ace is there now, falling in love with a brave young man who will be dead in a matter of days. The Doctor will kill him with an unspoken word, and a planet, a population of millions, will live.
He sees now that his doubts were foolish. Of course Ace forgives him. She always has, she always will. And he will continue to do what is necessary.
The Doctor leans against the wall of the TARDIS control chamber and waits for time to enfold him.