The nameless man and his blue box have been on Serenity for three hours before they finally ask.
It's the same question everybody always asks when they meet him: "What is your name?" (Unless they've seen his shuttle first; then it's "How do you fit so much stuff in there? Is it bigger on the inside?") It's not a question people usually need to ask Companions, but then, most Companions have not been trained at Gallifrey House. The questions people ask Companions from Gallifrey House are vast and varied, and range from "But why dip the fish in custard?" to "Are you even human?" (The man always feels happiest when he gets the chance to answer that last question in the negative. He can do aliens. Aliens are one of his specialties.)
He never knows how to answer the question of his name.
It's the dancing girl who asks the question on Serenity, the River-girl whose eyes go dark and deep when they look at you in a way that isn't entirely normal. That's all okay; in fact, it's nice. He usually gets along better with people who aren't entirely normal.
She comes with her brother Simon. They catch him in the cargo hold where he's parked his tiny blue TARDIS-type shuttle, busy checking her over for dents and dings. He's Eleven at the time, which means he greets them with a cheerful "Can I help you?", instead of Nine's grunting misanthropy or Seven's more eccentric ramblings.
"We were just- wandering," Simon says, moving up to put an embarrassed hand on his sister's arm. Not wandering; wondering, thinks the nameless man. Wondering who I am, wondering if I'm going to hurt her. Wondering if she wants me, although that isn't really anything he needs or ought to worry about. He is used to this sort of wondering, and doesn't jump away when River tugs herself impatiently free of Simon's brotherly arm and drifts forward into his personal space.
"The captain told us you don't have a name," Simon offers, cautiously, watching him watch her watch him with those all-seeing eyes. This River-girl stares like she is trying to unpeel the layers of him, unwrap the many years and faces like layers in a mystery until she reaches the center.
She won't succeed, but Eleven can respect the attempt anyway. He likes mysteries too.
"That's right," he says, and smiles.
Gallifrey Companions are not like other Companions. Gallifrey Companions are unique. Time Lords, people used to call them in whispers in the back rooms of the wealthiest palaces and boardrooms all across the 'verse: lovers so skilled they could make you live years' worth of bliss in a single hour, make weeks of pleasure seem to flash by in only a day.
(There were lots of other names for Gallifrey Companions, too, but none of those were very complimentary.)
Gallifrey Companions were famous for doing what other, ordinary Companions could and would not. They were one of the only Houses that employed a near-equal ratio of women and men, the only House to permit the use of sim-flesh and cosmetic surgery, and the only House whose operatives were regularly hired to service children. Gallifrey Companioning was not always sexual - in fact, as the man had discovered over the course of his long and varied career, it was usually not sexual at all.
Gallifrey Companions were special because Gallifrey Companions were trained to transform themselves into who- or whatever you wanted them to be - no role too eccentric, no desire too strange.
Every Time Lord traveled with whole warehouses' worth of costumes folded as if by magic into their mysteriously tiny trademark shuttles, room upon impossible room's worth of whips and chains and chickens, chess sets, library shelves and squash nets and portable pools. Most of the nameless man's expensive or valuable items had been stolen, burned, or hocked since the Daleks, but he made a point of holding on to his sonic screwdriver - it had, he had discovered over the years, a near-limitless range of applications, from elaborate sex-free spy games involving pig-shaped government-impersonating aliens to long, slow, sultry sessions of unlock-my-dungeon.
(Kidnap scenarios were another one of his specialties.)
Gallifrey Time Lords were wizards with makeup and costume and surgical sim-flesh, capable of transforming themselves into a range of unique appearances, ages, and heights. Every different identity was carefully and uniquely crafted over years and years of study; no Gallifrey Companion was allowed more than thirteen Numbers, for fear that they would spread themselves too thin and create a Number of inferior craftsmanship.
The man has made eleven Numbers so far: eight before the Daleks, and three new ones after, when he suddenly found all his old faces too painful to wear anymore. (He has always wanted to make one of the Numbers ginger, but has never been able to get the face quite right.) He lives almost exclusively as Nine through Eleven, now, but that's all right: three Numbers are more than enough to keep his clients happy, especially given the unexpected popularity of Ten's willowy good looks. He loves his clients because they tell him what to be, give him goals and needs and desires that are so many thousand times more fascinating than anything he could ever imagine on his own, but having a client call on him to change Numbers is always one of the most painful parts of his job.
Changing hurts not because it hurts to incubate and add and remove all that pesky sim-flesh (although of course it does, it feels like exactly what it is: self-surgery), but because it involves leaving behind part of his own soul. Every time, the change comes on him like death and rebirth, like regeneration, like getting lost in time, hovering faceless and frighteningly thoughtless until he can settle into his new Number and rediscover when he is and who he is and what he likes once more. The sheer relief of a new face always makes him giddy and manic and half-mad for a few hours, desperate to reassure himself that he hasn't been lost in the space between changes, desperate to experience all the opinions and sensations and desires and personality he'd been missing.
It was a point of pride with Gallifrey House, that each of her Companions had gone through so many changes none of them could remember their original names or faces. Without a Number, the man no longer has a self to be.
(The other most painful part of his job is leaving his clients behind. His TARDIS is original and miraculous and beautiful and blue and as dear to him as his own hands or soul, but she is in the end only a shuttle, and unable to travel beyond a single solar system. He lives for the day when the engineers find a way to remake her into a long-distance engine, or when he can afford to buy her a spaceship of her own. In the meantime, he relies on the exorbitant rates and unpredictable schedule of passing spaceship captains to take him where the work is, and uses all of his arts as a Time Lord to make his time with each client as long as he can, because he knows when he leaves them he more often than not will not return. Sarah Jane waited twenty years for him to come back to her, and Rose, he knows, is still waiting - will be waiting - for many years more.)
Of all the captains with whom he has bartered passage over the years, Mal is the first and only one to see immediately what the man is looking for when his eyes roam nervously across Serenity's packed hold, although Mal waits until after naming Serenity's (very high) passenger price to say anything about it.
"We'll be able to make room for that blue shuttle of yours," he says, eyes crinkling with understanding. "I'd never ask a man to leave his home behind."
Not my home, the man thinks, reflexively, my home is lost.
He had just finished developing into Eight the year the trouble started. The Daleks had been causing Gallifrey House trouble for years - a small-minded, ugly fringe group of moral conservatives, fanatically determined to exterminate everything and everyone not like them. Gallifrey got a lot of grief from groups like that: the Cybermen, the Angels, the Draconians, and more, dozens upon dozens of pseudo-political or religious organizations who resented the House's radical beliefs and power and influence, who couldn't tolerate Gallifrey's free-thinking, individualistic, gorgeous, imaginitve vision of what sex and Companioning should be. But things had never gotten nearly as bad before the Daleks came.
Where other groups had fought battles, the Daleks launched an all-out war on Gallifrey, using every weapon from lawsuits and propoganda to legal sanctions to physical intimidation and outright violence in their attempts to destroy Gallifrey's beliefs, its business, and eventually, the Companions themselves. They began targeting clients, committing a series of slander campaigns, trade bans and even (it was suspected) murders throughout the nearby systems, until people were afraid to speak Gallifrey's name aloud for fear of the association. Many of the Time Lords had left, handed in their licenses and retired, transferred to other Houses and sold their costumes and burned up their shuttles; nearly all their clients left or began hiring anonymously, and the House was forced to declare bankruptcy twice, slashing prices again and again in a desperate effort to stay afloat. They stopped being able to afford repairs to the shuttles, then the tools and toys, then the heating. (Gallifrey never stopped paying for sim-flesh, though, or costumes or makeup. They would and did starve first.)
Suddenly the kidnap games the nameless man played with his clients weren't games any more, no longer funny, but he'd stayed and kept playing - he'd had to keep playing, because games and Gallifrey were all he'd ever known.
And then - then a group of Dalek extremists managed to force their way one night into the inner reaches of the House itself, and the so-called battle became horribly, literally, violently real. Defeat, the man told himself time after time after time in the months after, had probably always been inevitable. Time Lords were not trained for physical fighting, despite the myriad of surprisingly powerful weapons lurking in the backs of their tiny shuttles, and the Daleks were merciless and single-minded in their mission of extermination. The Time Lords could never have won that fight.
But in his darker moments, when he was Nine, or during the dark midnight hours alone in the TARDIS and stuck between world, he knew that it was his fault they'd lost.
It had been his decision, faced with a Houseful of dead and dying and Daleks; his choice, rather than watching the Daleks slaughter his fellow Companions, to set his own House on fire and bring the enemy down with them.
They rebuilt it, afterwards, of course, and in the wake of the tragedy the Alliance authorities were finally forced to recognize the true nature of the Dalek threat and finally took action to arrest the leaders and shut down the movement. But the House was never the same again. Destroying the Dalek movement had also destroyed all that was best about Gallifrey; years of persecution had wrecked its individuality and broken its spirit. Horrifying multitudes of Time Lords were dead, fled or slain, and those who remained were in no condition to carry on working.
Gallifrey refused to issue any more Companion licenses. They burnt the blueprints for their tiny shuttles and sold all their sim-flesh to hospitals, and when they eventually reopened the House, it was built in the traditional style used on Madrassa and Illysiem: wealthy, elegant, and boring. The age of the Time Lords was over, and Gallifrey faded back into ingominy and mundane obliteration.
Of all the Time Lords that had stayed to fight for their individuality, the nameless man was the only one left.
Mal had been kind to worry about his shuttle, but Mal for all his endless insight had also been wrong wrong: the nameless man does not love his TARDIS because she is his home. He loves her because she helps him keep running away from it.
He crash-landed on Angleterre 21 on board a passing plastics trade ship barely a month after Gallifrey burned, in a new angry leather-clad incarnation called Nine, with a Companion's license from a House that no longer existed and a shuttle that no one still living knew how to fix, soul-sick and aching and knowing he had destroyed the only place he ever loved.
The Angleterre system had been a much-needed refuge for him, after the Gallifrey that he knew and loved had been lost in the wreck of time. He would always owe the quaint little system, for all that it would never be home to him, would always love its tea and rain and funny accents and curiously ancient technology. All his favorite clients came from Angleterre 20 and 21; never one for living in-house (he had a beautiful shuttle and he wanted to fly her), he had spent most of his time even before the Daleks traveling around the Angleterre system, and afterwards he had fled back to its embrace as if to the arms of a long-forgotten lover. It was a fairly backwards little system; he had to make frequent (too frequent, too costly) trips back into the Core to pick up fuel and supplies and medication for his hearts, but for all the grief that leaving cost him he still loved nothing better than to wander its skies with the TARDIS looking for someone to sweep up for a ride, to make their eyes widen with his fancy Core technology and their heads spin with that first startling view of the stars seen through an open shuttle doorway. It was Angleterre 21 that had picked him up and sheltered him in his darkest hour, given him safety and rest when he was too tired to go on, and reminded him that there were still some things left in the 'verse after Gallifrey to make life worth living.
Anleterre has blessed him over the years with the chance to be the Companion of some truly exceptional people: Donna, the lovely CEO of TEMP Inc. who never seems to want anything more than conversation, and that wonderfully flexible couple Rory and Amy (he'd been sore for weeks after they discovered his Pandorica), and sweet sciency Martha who always asks him to stay with her and never resents him for turning her down. He works with adults more often these days, because they pay a lot better than children, and since Gallifrey fell shuttle parts and sim-flesh and spaceship journeys all seem to have gotten a lot more expensive. Not that he's ever suffered for work; as the 'verse's foremost and only professional alien impersonator, he gets requests for Space Battle sessions on a practically hourly basis, so regularly that it would almost be easier to find an imaginary species he hasn't fought into extinction, and he does a fairly popular trade in historical reenactments of Earth-that-Was. His most frequent calls, these days, are from Amy and Rory or their mysterious anthropologist friend River (no relation to Serenity's River - at least, he doesn't think so).
(He also gets the occasional request from the Master, a former Gallifreyan exiled for malpractice long before the Daleks, but he does his level best to avoid any meetings with the man and usually succeeds. The Master might be canny and clever and in command of Gallifreyan disguises and almost creepily obsessed with tracking him down, but there is no Companion in all the galaxy who knows how to run faster than he does.)
He loved Rose possibly best of all his clients, so much so that if he could he would have split himself in half to stay with her, left Companioning and left his TARDIS and grown another self. It's another thing he cannot seem to stop blaming himself for, no matter how many clients or planets or Numbers he runs through: her shop on Angleterre 21 had been bought out and liquidated by a group of Cybermen who only found her by following him, forcing her into bankrupt exile at her old family estate on Mirror V. He still sometimes wishes he could have gone with her, despite the fact that he hates Mirror V and loves Angleterre and loves his job; despite the fact that Mirror V is too poor and too run-down and too far from the Core for him to buy the medicine his hearts need, much less for him to keep up any kind of Companionship practice. It is too far for him to even afford to visit, and he has no illusions that an ex-shop owner will be able to earn enough on that planet to ever return. Even back in Angleterre she'd never been rich enough to offer him exclusivity, though she'd nearly broken the bank and the business and her mother's heart with trying.
Rose is the only client to ever see and love more than one of his Numbers, the only client with whom he's ever been Nine.
(Jack doesn't count. Jack is a former whore and fellow Companion and master of his own House now over on Torchwood III. He still visits Jack sometimes, to lend a hand whenever a particularly difficult customer comes calling at Torchwood.)
More than he wishes he could be with Rose or see her or touch her again, though - more even, almost, than he wishes he could see Gallifrey - he wishes he could ask her what she saw in him, that one long night after hours and hours of playing at Bad Wolf, as she sat cross-legged and glowing gold in the heart of the TARDIS and watched him change. He wishes he'd had the courage to ask her who he was without a Number, to ask how she could love a man without a face.
Sometimes, when people ask him who he is, it seems like they know the answer better than he does. He is so many different things, after all, and all of them relate to other people. That is what being a true Companion means: remaking yourself into whatever and whoever the people around you desire, a thousand faces, a thousand different selves and names and ways to run, and it is why the man knows already that Inara, for all her beauty, will never be as good a Companion as him. He saw as soon as he met her in the loading bay that Inara had started to question her transient ways, started to stumble and pause and reach out tentative roots into the lives of the people around her. For all that Serenity is a spaceship she is also a home, as stationary as death and endings, and she will be the ending of Inara's career, whether she knows it now or not. The crew of Serenity might have lived their lives running once, but the man can see that sometime in the recent past they have stopped, and nearly cut themselves to pieces in the process: glued flesh to torn flesh to feelings and remade themselves in each others' image. And Inara stopped running with them.
As far back as the man can remember, he has never once stopped running, not even with Rose, not even in the secret lonely glow of his own dear TARDIS. He doesn't know if he'd be able to, because without his Numbers, he doesn't have an identity to ground him. That's okay, though. It only means he can run faster and farther than any other Companion in all the Alliance. It makes him secret, makes him stronger, makes him better, makes him able to be whatever these strange little humans need.
That's what the man loves best about being a Companion, after all, more even than startravel or bow ties or his TARDIS or the luxury of rich ginger beer: that feeling of taking someone so far outside themselves that they forget their own sorrow, of orchestrating a moment so perfect that it reminds people all over again of just how amazing the Universe can be. Creating a labyrinth of unseen danger from the corridors of an empty house, or a world of shadows in an old library; letting them rediscover their own creativity, defeat their demons, discover a new and braver part of their own souls. Making them into stronger, better versions of themselves, Roman soldiers and french consorts and future presidents, and standing by their sides as they fight down the alien monsters of their own imaginations. Meeting such incredible people and being able to transform them: it is what he loves best and why he doesn't mind, so much, if he doesn't have a name of his own to come home to.
"Eleven," he tells River (not like his River, no, this one runs swift and dark and deep beneath her young skin, and has absolutely no interest in chasing stone angels or ripping spacesuits off his naked body). "I call myself Eleven."
"No," River whispers, head down, leaning forward without looking to press her hands, unerringly, against the double-heartbeat in his chest and side. "Wrong name. Not yours, not a real one. Inside-out and empty around in your brain."
The man feels himself go very still.
No one has ever found his hearts before.
He never asked why he was abandoned at Gallifrey as a child, too young to really wonder or care, but he has long since formed his suspicions. His hearts are buried inside him under deep layers of sim-flesh and real skin, the one quirk of his biology that cannot be surgically altered or fixed or covered up. In the real world, those hearts would have labeled him freakish, abnormal. On Gallifrey, they made him unique.
"Not just a number-man," River insists, pressing down on the hearts a little harder.
He is shaking, icy shock lacing through him and down to the very ends of his toes. He is the last man in the 'verse that has the right to think the word impossible. But - she knew. And if she knows that, then maybe- maybe-
"Do you know who I am?" he whispers - gaps, more like, and feels her answering smile curve like quicksilver against his cheek, before she steps back and away to grin up at her brother.
"Friend. Companion. Helper. Healer. Finds the best bright lights in people, makes them shine." She squeezes her brother's hand. "Doctor. Like Simon."
"Doctor," the man repeats aloud, and feels himself smiling - a new smile, a smile that belongs on a new face. Maybe this time he'll finally be ginger - but that's a thought for another day. For now, he bows wide, and feels his own skin settle around him as he answers:
"Very well. I am the Doctor. Pleased to meet you, River Tam."