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A Certain Distance

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"Nice, isn't it?"

The Doctor nods absently, eyes fixed on the blazing heart of Farand's Folly - not that the eponymous Farand-whoever had had anything to do with that particular cosmic disaster, to the Doctor's knowledge. Also called the Cartwheel Galaxy, Knockout, or something like Brightness Reef by some of the inhabitants. At this particular point in time the collision that ravaged what used to be separate galaxies is well past, the damage unmistakable but the healing likewise visible; spiral arms emerging from the chaos, a stable structure reasserting itself.

Good can come of horrifying destruction. This, he has to believe.

The Doctor sighs, kicks the other door lightly with boot-clad foot, leans his head against the doorframe. Self-indulgent, to watch at this scale. Nothing looks broken from far enough away. Almost nothing; nowhere could ever be far enough to hide the lack of Gallifrey.

The imagined voice comes again, which the Doctor hadn’t expected, and a head leans down over the top of the TARDIS, which he really hadn’t expected. “Quiet sort, are you? Fair enough.”

“Aaahh!” the Doctor doesn’t shriek, and he definitely doesn’t duck away, and he really doesn’t catch himself on the railing with both hands, staring upward at the apparition.

An arm joins the head, black clad, waves vaguely at the view outside. “That lot’s one of mine. Good, isn’t it?” When the Doctor just stares, the stranger adds, “I made it, I mean.” He seems to be wearing sunglasses.

Gathering his feet and his arrogance and making a wild grab for his wits, the Doctor straightens his back and crosses his arms. “Hand slipped, did it?”

“It’s an impressionistic rendering,” his inexplicable and possibly hallucinatory passenger says, as haughtily as one can whilst hanging upside down in a doorway. "Dynamic. Got rave reviews. What've you accomplished recently?"

It just slips out. "I killed them all."

The odd fellow drops half a metre, corrects with a hand on the door, then apparently gives it up as a lost cause and falls in a strangely fluid cascade of angular limbs and ginger hair to end up staring at the Doctor right side up in the doorway. "You what?"

"I killed them all!"

"Who?"

"Everyone," the Doctor grinds out, wondering why it feels like a bad idea to try punching this idiot.

Utterly unphased, the idiot leans backward, looks pointedly around out the door. "Nope," he announces, popping the p obnoxiously. "Don't believe you. Crowley, by the way."

Fingers shoved in skintight pockets, he practically lounges there, despite the perfectly standard gravity inside the TARDIS; lounges insouciantly, downright offensively, lips twitched up in what might be a vacuous smile or might be a smirk, the Doctor can't tell. Wearing sunglasses, backlit by the stars he claims to have made, unconcerned by the open door - unconcerned by the TARDIS - unconcerned, the Doctor finally drags his mind around to confronting, by the depths of space. People arrive in impossible ways all the time, of course - but people generally means him. Finding himself on the other end of the transaction is disconcerting. The Doctor is beginning to hope he is a hallucination.

“Bernard, is it?” the man says finally. “Nice to meet you, Bernard, lovely day, what’s -” Without bothering to stop lounging, he moves toward the console. The Doctor shakes off his momentary paralysis and steps into his path.

“First of all, no. Also, no, and what are you on about? And also, no.”

Crowley rocks back on his heels, chin coming up. “No need to be rude about it.”

He sounds so very, very English that the Doctor has to turn away and bury his face in his hands for a moment, because the path from former home-in-exile to home to the gaping, grasping wound where his soul used to be is so short the recoil nearly shakes him to the floor. Again. “I’ve cracked up,” the Doctor concludes. “Arguing with hallucinations who call me Bernard.”

Unfortunately, when he turns back to the door, the hallucination is still there, watching him with keen interest. “Got to call you something,” he points out. “Something you’d prefer?”

“I’m -” Mouth open, the Doctor’s gaze slips past Crowley’s never-quite-still shape and out the door. There’s a breathless sense of reaching into time, an ingathering of potential - and then the Doctor lets it go, exhales, subsides back into the familiar pain. “Bernard will do,” he says, looking away again.

“Hm. Well you’re an odd duck and no mistake.” He pauses. “Shouldn’t wonder about ears if you were a duck. It’d be obvious.”

Resigning himself to continuing hallucinations, the Doctor wanders away and slumps into the jumpseat at the other side of the console. “Shut the door on your way out,” he orders without much hope, then tilts his head back and closes his eyes. Beneath the immovable grief that coats every thought he manages to draw up through it, at the back of his mind, the TARDIS sings like a dying star. She, at least, seems unconcerned by the Doctor’s new problem, which probably means it’s safe to ignore.

The Doctor is therefore surprised to feel the vibration of footfalls through the decking. Opening his eyes he finds his unusually convincing hallucination mincing around the console, peering at it from all angles, poking occasionally with deft and delicate fingertips. The better light doesn’t make any more sense of him; he looks like a bat who’s got caught in a taffy puller and moves like a snake who got issued unexpected limbs. “Well cared for,” he says appreciatively.

“What do you know,” the Doctor says scornfully. “Best ship in the universe, my TARDIS. You’ve never seen anything like her.”

“Speakers anywhere?” Crowley checks beneath the console again, ginger hair falling nearly to the deck. “Can’t see any. I find the right soundtrack really makes the mood. Can’t have a good sulk without music.”

“I’m not sulking.”

“Oh yes, you said, you killed everyone.” Suddenly all his attention focuses on the Doctor, who finds himself sitting slightly more upright without particularly deciding to do so. "Everyone nearby? Everyone you know? Professional interest," he adds, when the Doctor just stares. Slinking forward, he leans in to examine the Doctor, and maybe… smell him? "You don't look like a Murder. Pride, I think, and Wrath."

The capital letters are audible. “Genocide,” the Doctor corrects, capitalising his as well.

“Ohhh,” Crowley says, as if enlightened. Brow furrowed in thought, he pulls his sunglasses off to better study the Doctor, revealing very non-English yellow slitted eyes. “No,” he announces then. “Met quite a few Genocides. Expert on the topic, you might say. I really don’t think so.”

The Doctor rolls his eyes. “I’ll take your opinion under advisement.”

“I’m not a hallucination.”

The Doctor considers this carefully. "Then you shouldn't be here."

Crowley shrugs in a sort of agreeable disagreement; the movement seems to start somewhere other than his shoulders. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here.”

That’s true enough,” the Doctor agrees darkly, slouching back into his seat.

Looking suddenly worried, Crowley sputters, “No, look, that’s not - I didn’t - I just meant -” He sighs in relief as a voice drifts in the door - which phenomenon makes no more sense than people drifting in the door right now, but there it is.

“Crowley!”

“Angel! Over here, in the - the box, the blue box thing.”

As another utterly inexplicable, faintly glowing, and altogether more well-comported figure appears in the door to his TARDIS, the Doctor is forced to admit that this situation may actually be too strange to blame on hallucinations.

“Goodness,” it says, looking around curiously with what appears to be a wine bottle in its hand. “If this is what police boxes look like on the inside, I don’t see why anyone needed all those horrid tower blocks.”

“Are you sure you’re not a hallucination?” the Doctor asks, for the purpose of clarification.

“Quite sure -” says Crowley. “It’s not a police box, angel.” It sounds like a title, or perhaps an endearment, rather than a name.

Affronted, the new one huffs, “Well, it says it is. Then what on Earth - well, no, we aren’t, are we.” He peers intently at the Doctor from his place beside Crowley. “Is your police box usually a space ship?”

“Yes,” the Doctor says, then thinks better of it. “No! It’s not a police box. And it’s not a space ship either.”

“This is all very confusing,” says the man who not only sounds English but looks the very soul of it, and a hysterical laugh claws its way up the Doctor’s throat. “Are you quite alright, my dear chap?”

Finally unable to take in any more, the Doctor lays his head back and grins a ghastly grin; which, if his guests’ reactions are anything to go by must look even worse than it feels. “Wonderful! Everything is bloody fantastic. I’m hallucinating a couple of gay Englishmen out for a picnic in intergalactic space to admire a galaxy one of them painted and arguing with them about whether or not I killed billions of people and destroyed my entire planet! Is it Thursday? It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.” He stops, and closes his eyes, and breathes, because whilst hysterics would be completely understandable in this situation, they are always uncomfortable.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Crowley says defensively to his companion. “I just found him here.”

“Couldn’t you have… done something?”

“Really more your department.”

“Are you sure?”

“Think I’d notice something like that. Even so, Guilt and Repentance, that’s all your side.”

“Hm.”

They fall silent. Once the Doctor feels himself back under control, he raises his head to see if they’ve gone - he hopes they’ve gone - they haven’t. Crowley is watching the blond one as if he might have all the solutions to all the universe’s problems, and the blond one… is watching the Doctor. He sighs. “Who are you, then?”

“Oh!” He startles back into motion with a flustered smile. “Terribly sorry, I’m Aziraphale, the - ah, well, that’s not really important anymore.” He raises the hand with the wine bottle, then switches the bottle to the other hand and tries again, then lets it fall when the Doctor fails to offer his hand. He doesn’t want to know whether his hallucinations are tangible. “Ah, and you are?”

“Wouldn’t say,” Crowley drawls, slouching back against the console - careful of his placement, the Doctor notices. “So I’ve called him Bernard.”

“You can’t just name him, Crowley, he isn’t a pet,” Aziraphale says, frowning.

“Got to call him something,” the oddly jointed man repeats.

He doesn’t need to feel insulted if they aren’t real, does he? “I used to -” The Doctor swallows, but it’s easier this way, no statement of intention, no commitment to the future. “I used to be called the Doctor, but Bernard will do, if you must. You could just leave,” he adds hopefully.

“Oh!” says Aziraphale, as if anything in the last fifteen minutes had made any sense whatsoever. “I quite see. A doctor in the wars… It never really leaves you,” he says with a flaying kindness the Doctor has to look away from, “but you can go on. You will.” And oddly, in his mouth it sounds more like a benediction than the life sentence the Doctor has been contemplating. “But I think, for now, it would be best if you were to take a nap…”

 

* * *

 

There is a certain distance, the Doctor considers, from which nearly anything can look beautiful. The disaster of a galaxy in front of him, for instance, is absolutely bloody gorgeous as a panoramic view while still being terrifying in the scale of its cataclysm. He has no idea how far he’ll have to run to make art of his own atrocities, but perhaps someday… he will look back, and find that it has happened. It hardly seems possible, but he can’t deny it seems a little more possible than it did yesterday, than it did before awakening from the first restful sleep he can remember. He has his life, little as that is worth, and he has his TARDIS, singing alone where there ought to be a chorus; they have each other. They can go on, alone with each other in the empty places, glancing occasionally at vague memories of an Englishman among the stars, ginger hair that looks like the streaming arms of bright nebulae, and a home-in-exile awaiting.