The TARDIS console room looked exactly the way it always had, and the Doctor had changed back into his usual tweed.
The distracting thing was, before yesterday—before my wedding reception—I hadn't remembered any of it. And it wasn't that I had blank spots. I remembered, perfectly clearly, the utter lack of Alien Death Eyeballs two years ago. I remembered a stag party featuring a stripper named Lucy and absolutely no aliens in cakes. I remembered a Doctorless life.
I was glad to have him back, but it was a bit disorienting all the same.
"So last night," Amy said, "you said something about Egyptian gods and the Orient Express." She was prowling around the console after the Doctor, who was intently fiddling with bits and stuff. I was standing by the railing, keeping out of both of their ways.
The Doctor straightened up, fingers poised. "Yes," he said, "well, it isn't the actual Orient Express. This is the one in space." He did one of his goofier grins. (As far as the Doctor is concerned, in space adds about five bowties of coolness to anything. Do not ever try to argue with him about whether bowties are an appropriate measure of coolness. He will pout.)
"And the Egyptian god?" Amy asked.
"Didn't actually come from Egypt, but was worshipped as a goddess. There and other places. Hold that." That was a switch.
"Are we landing, then?"
"We get there," the Doctor said, "when we get there. Which shouldn't be long, but first, something important. Exceedingly important. Exceedingly, exceptionally, importantly important."
"What's that?" Amy said lightly, and then, catching a change in tone, "Doctor, what is it?"
The Doctor pivoted slowly to look at me.
The Doctor is a decent person. The Doctor is self-sacrificing, and kind, and brave. The Doctor is also the universe's single most powerful self-propelled trouble magnet, and it's impossible not to get a little twitchy when a living chaos attractor looks at you like that. "Me?" I said.
And then he lunged across the space between us, very quickly, to seize me by the collar. "Never," he said, face four inches from mine, "ever! Try! To take a bullet for me."
His voice was very nearly a whisper.
I remembered it, of course. I remembered it vividly. The split second when I realized she was aiming at him, and then the next split second, when I realized that my body was already shoving him out of the way. An explosion of pain, a floaty feeling—shock, coming on fast and hard—
Unlike the first time the Doctor had grabbed me—the first time we met—I had brought my hands up between his arms, ready to knock them aside and fight if I had to. Which, for a few heartbeats, actually seemed possible. Most people do not come at you like that without violence on their minds—
The Doctor let go of me and smoothed down the front of my shirt.
I took a deep breath. "You realize that I didn't actually think—"
"I don't care what you thought. Neither of you take a bullet for me. It's not negotiable."
"I didn't mean to, I was just trying to shove you out of the way!"
"If someone points a gun at you, you expect me to stand there and let them shoot you?"
The Doctor cocked his head, considered this briefly, and then said, "Yes." And flashed me a very un-smile-like smile.
"What," Amy said, "are you going to try to tell us you're expendable, now?"
I think he was just going to say yes, again, but then he turned and saw the look on her face. She had let go of the switch, presumably in the certainty that he'd just told her to hold it so that she wouldn't interfere, and stalked toward him. "I just," Amy told the Doctor, very precisely and deliberately, "got you both back." Her face had the closed look that it gets when she's seriously upset. "I'm not losing either of you. Nobody is expendable."
"Amy," the Doctor said, much more gently.
"No. Not. Expendable." She poked him on the last two words. "Got it?"
He studied her for a moment, then turned away.
"Doctor." She said it like a warning.
"I don't—" He flapped his hands. "I don't talk about it much." He sat down on the jump seat, something that would probably only last fifteen seconds. "I don't usually talk about it at all," he went on, sounding a bit plaintive. "I always assume there'll be time. But then there isn't, and it gets all glowy and explode-y and hopefully, some day, ginger." He grimaced. "And after that, I have a very upset and possibly panicky human on my hands, and I tell myself that really, I ought to have mentioned it at some point, but it's all—sort of a bit too close to death."
"Er," I said, "absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Just for the record."
"And that's the other reason I don't mention it. Because you're human. Because you don't work that way. Because . . ." He looked at me. "I used to run them off, you know. People like you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Amy said. "People like him?" Her tone said, it had better not be anything bad, because only I get to insult my beloved Stupid. Which is a term of endearment when it comes from Amy—most of the time.
"People who start out nervous of aliens. Sometimes, people who I think will be nervous of aliens. Better to say, no, not her, she'll slow us down, than face the fallout when they work out that it's not just a funny pulse—that I'm different. I didn't want to watch them realize." He gave us both a slightly sad smile. "I suppose I just don't like seeing fear in peoples' eyes."
"What," Amy said, "are you on about?"
He held up a finger, got up from the jump seat, and went back to the console.
Whatever he did, it took quite a few button presses and didn't involve the usual controls. I was about to ask what he was doing when he punched one last button, with a flourish, and spun around just as a life-sized, translucent hologram appeared near the door.
He was an old man, with pure white hair combed straight back from a narrow face, and he was wearing a slight smile.
"Ooh!" Amy pointed at the hologram. "I've seen him before. I've seen him . . ." She frowned.
"Yes," the Doctor said, "you have." He sounded slightly smug, and straightened his bowtie. "He was in the Atraxi records. Or perhaps I should say, I was in the Atraxi records. That's me."
Amy looked from him to the hologram, and back.
"My first self," the Doctor added. The hologram changed to another man, middle-aged, with the single least stylish haircut in all time and space. The Doctor pointed at him. "Also me."
"He's short," Amy protested.
"Yes, I was. Height is variable. Also hair color, patience, food preferences—almost everything, really."
I waved my hand for attention. "Um . . . I'm lost."
"I'm a Time Lord. When I'm fatally injured—not dead, but obviously and immediately about to be—my body . . ." The short dark-haired man changed into a tall, distinguished-looking older gentleman with a prominent nose. He seemed to be wearing some sort of opera cape. "Does that," the Doctor finished. "Changes. Remakes itself."
I thought about that. I'm different—bit of an understatement, really. "You're immortal?"
He was right; it does spook me occasionally. Trying to imagine how different his mind must be. How alien he is on the inside.
"No," the Doctor said, "just durable. Difficult to kill." The hologram changed. "Oh, I liked being him. That was a fun one. Lasted a fair bit, too, which you can't say about all my incarnations. I might arguably have a bit of a peril-rich lifestyle." The man in question—the Doctor in question—was a tall man with protuberant eyes and curly electrocuted hair. I thought, peril rich lifestyle, nothing. How did he not kill himself tripping on that scarf?
The hologram changed again.
"That," the Doctor said, looking at the blond man a touch wistfully, "was one of the most patient people I've ever been. It's such a gift when one keeps falling in love with humanity, over and over again." The picture changed. "And that was one of my least patient selves. Also, a few people claimed that I'd come out the dead spit of a distant cousin whom I absolutely despised. Never saw the resemblance myself. But if there was anything to it, I really should have exploited the confusion to nick his hat." He sighed. "Oh, it was a glorious hat, Pond. I wouldn't even have to wear it. Just—have it. And stroke it. And call it Ermintrude." His voice went gooey and daft on the last word.
Amy was uninterested in hats. "What," she said, " are you wearing in that picture? And, for the love of retinas, why?"
The Doctor gave her the offended-dignity look that always makes me wonder if Time Lords evolved from cats.
"If your personality changes," I said slowly, "how do you know it's still you?"
The Doctor was silent for a moment. "That's a fascinating philosophical question."
"And?" The hologram Doctor had changed to a short man in an unbelievably naff jumper.
"Self," the Doctor said, "is—tricky. Slippery. I could tell you I have the same consciousness, that I can feel that I'm the same person who called myself 'me' before. Hell of a thing to try to prove, though, and you get into the knotty philosophical question of whether it actually means anything to people on the outside. A better answer is . . . not everything changes. There are things that are fundamentally, essentially me. A core. Patience, impulsiveness, how much I insist on planning ahead—" The holographic Doctor changed to a long-haired man. I noticed Amy straightening a little and regarding him with great interest. "That," the Doctor went on, "is personality, yes, or part of it, but somewhere underneath personality is the person. Not a distinction that you lot generally have to make, but it was very real to us. Personality is the atmosphere; person is the planet." He paused again, then added more quietly, "That's the theory."
The hologram Doctor switched to an extremely short-haired man. Amy had stopped looking, though. She was watching the Doctor, with concern. "So, what? It isn't true?"
The Doctor had one of those looks that make you remember that he's lived centuries. "There is one problem with the whole thing."
The hologram Doctor became a man with spiky dark hair and a narrow face, fairly youthful, but not as young as he looked at present. "Nobody," the Doctor said quietly, "gets to know what their core looks like. Not directly. You have to deduce your own existence from the shadows you cast, the things you do." He considered this. "Same as everyone else in the universe, I suppose, only perhaps just a tiny bit moreso."
The progression of images had stopped. The Doctor flicked a switch, and the hologram disappeared.
"It's called regeneration," he said. "It's desperate, painful—bit shattering, actually—and someday, it'll run out on me. But it isn't death. So, yes. If someone is pointing a gun at me, you don't get in the way. If I get shot, the odds are quite good that I'll explode a bit, get a new face, possibly have interesting cravings and a general taste bud insurgency and fish custard, and then go on to be brilliant as usual. Whereas you two stand a good chance of dying, and that's unacceptable. I won't have it. Not on my TARDIS." Very, very softly, "Please."
The please got to me, just a little. It was a small word, as if he hadn't even intended to say it. "Doctor," I said, "it's all right. We're not going anywhere." He looked at me, and it was the sort of look you want to try to make all right, even though you have no idea what to say or do. "I solemnly swear not to die on you, Doctor. Cross my heart."
His mouth twitched. "I will hold you to that, you know."
As it happened, I spent about half my time on the Space Orient Express presumed dead because of how the cars got uncoupled. When we were all together again, Amy punched me in the shoulder, snogged me breathless, informed me that if I ever did that to her again she'd knock my stupid block off, and snogged me again.
The Doctor didn't actually say anything. But when he saw that I was still alive, his face looked like a sunrise.