It was a bad idea, but once it had entered his head, he couldn't quite put it aside. It nagged at him in the quiet moments when he had run out of distractions, until there was no longer any point in pretending he wasn't considering it.
The hospice was set in large grounds, carefully maintained for the pleasure of those patients healthy enough to appreciate such things. He didn't bother to look for familiar faces. He knew where he was going.
In reception, he stopped to ask directions, and since this place did have one of those nice little shops, he bought a bunch of flowers. Then he went back and bought a silly little plush bear that wore a raincoat and scarf.
After that, there seemed no more point in avoiding the inevitable, and he'd been the one who decided to come in the first place. So there.
He took the lift to the fourth floor, where even soothing cream walls and potted plants couldn't disguise the mingled scents of medicine and death.
He walked down the hall.
He reached the door, and spent twenty-two seconds staring at the name printed neatly on the card.
Then he went in.
He had seen humans die, but rarely slowly. She was smaller, somehow shriveled into herself, wispy threads of thin white hair lying flat against her skull. For a moment, he thought she was asleep, but then she stirred, looked at him and smiled. Her eyes were still bright.
"I'd hoped you would come," she said.
He felt he should say something, but for once he was unable to find words, so he brandished the flowers and bear and smiled.
"Sit down," she said. Her voice was little more than a whisper. "It's so good to see you again."
"I brought a bear."
"It's lovely." And her smile was sincere, and he suddenly loved her more than ever. He reached out and took her hand, and marveled at the changes that time and illness could inflict upon human skin.
"My Sarah Jane," he said.
"I thought you had come yesterday. Or the day before. But it was just a dream." She grimaced. "The morphine makes me hallucinate."
"Don't be. It's nice."
And that was the worst thing she could have said, because what kind of life was it when hallucinations were preferable to reality? What kind of reward was it for a life filled with bravery that most people didn't even know about, and honour, and humour, and this was his friend, and there was nothing he could do.
"Yesterday," she said, "you were – the way you were before." She tried to gesture, but her hands fell back onto the blankets. "When we were younger and sillier."
"Sometimes," he said, "I think I'm getting stupider with old age."
"They call that senility, Doctor." She almost sounded like her own self, her real self. "But at least you're prettier."
She laughed, and there was a hint of colour in her cheek.
"I missed you, sometimes," she said.
"Only sometimes?" He didn't try to tell her that he'd thought of her every day, because she'd know it was a lie.
"Occasionally." She squeezed his hand, and he wanted to say, Run for your life, but there was no point anymore. He was too late.
"K9 is in good hands," she said.
"You know that's not why I'm here."
"No, but I thought you'd want to know."
He abandoned the flowers and bear and sat down beside her on the bed.
"Is it horrible," he asked, "dying slowly like this?"
"It's the only method I've tried." She laughed again. "It's good. To be able to say goodbye to the people you love." She was still holding his hand. "To let them say goodbye to you."
He smiled, but his throat was too tight to speak. He looked at the cards and flowers arranged on the shelves beside the bed.
"I don't like saying goodbye," he admitted.
"You don't have to. You can always go back again."
"I may as well warn you now. The punch at my sixtieth birthday party was rather strong. Try not to embarrass yourself too badly."
She laughed, and this time he could see the energy it cost her; she was grey when she finally fell quiet.
"Not long now," she said. "I'm so glad you came."
"Yes," he said, and now he was on the verge of tears, and maybe there was something in this senility theory after all, because he hadn't used to go around crying everywhere. "So am I."
She had little strength for speech after that, and he sat by her side until she was asleep. Then he squeezed her hand and got up to arrange his own floral offerings with the rest. He glanced through the cards. No grandchildren of her own, just as she'd said, but there were other people's grandchildren. Some familiar names and signatures. Not many. Not many left by this time.
He wanted to ask if she ever thought of the Skasis Paradigm and regretted her lost chance at eternal youth, life and happiness. But he didn't really want to know the answer, and the question was unfair.
"I'm sorry," he said, although he didn't know what for. She didn't stir. He kissed her on the forehead and left quietly.