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Time's End

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Time’s End

 

The act of love is time’s end. –June Scott, poet laureate of the Second Great and Bountiful British Imperium

 

            It was probably because of the tiger that she had decided to stay.  It was rather faded now, and due to a somewhat untalented painter, its expression of ferocious anger was dimmed to something closer to peevishness, but she found it oddly comforting.  It gave her the strange feeling that, even though Ted was gone, even though thousands and millions were gone with him, there were still people in the world.

            The bombs had stopped dropping only weeks ago, dust settling across the floor of the old dance studio for the last time.  That had been one of the bad days, a day when Kimberly lay on the floor staring up at the shaking ceiling and the plaster drifting downwards like snow and wishing that this place would take a direct hit.  She was probably crying and cursing as well.  She had quite a mouth on her, she remembered her mum saying, years and years ago when she was just a teenaged girl growing up on the outskirts of London A.

            But after that last bombardment, there was absolute silence, and, this time, the silence continued.  Kimberly went about her daily routine, stretching in the morning, practicing her gymnastics, and in the afternoon, painting.  Her tiger needed friends.  At first her attempts had been amateurish, but she just painted over them, and eventually practice began to tell.  There was quite a recognizable elephant in the right-hand corner of the room with a jovial expression on his face.

            When the blue box arrived, it was afternoon, and she was painting again, working on the tail of a multicolored parrot as she had succeeded in mixing up a bright crimson-red.  The thrumming echoed through the large room, and at first she thought the bombs were coming again; her feelings were a strange mix of relief and despair.  But the event heralded by the noise was nothing so ordinary as a bombing.

            The blue telephone box slowly materialized before the tiger, fading into reality like invisible ink appearing under a lamp.  Kimberly was mildly started, and suspicious enough to reach for her tasegun.  Though from the scraps she’d heard on the streets, there was an armistice, she wouldn’t put it past the bastards from London B to try out some new weapon on their unsuspecting foes.

            For several minutes, the box just sat there, unmoving.  Kimberly stretched, getting out of her first cramped position, lit a cigarette, and took a drag on it, keeping her tasegun within easy reach.

            When the box finally opened, it was with a faintly anticlimactic squeak.  The doors opened, and a man covered from head to foot in red dust stepped forth.  The long coat on his narrow, skinny frame made him appear shorter than his actual height, which was about six feet.  He wore a striped suit and a pair of flat, lace-up shoes.  He staggered out and leaned against the side of the box, gulping in great, heavy gasps of air.

            His body was lithe and youthful, but something in the broken, weary posture of his shoulders reminded Kimberly forcefully of an old beggar man she’d seen once, blind, living under London Bridge.  He had been a veteran of the Andromeda War which ended five years before Kimberly’s birth.

            “All right, love, you’d better sit down,” she said, when the man’s gasping had subsided slightly.  “I don’t have many chairs in here, but you can have the armchair by the tiger.”  She liked to say it that way because Ted’s favorite chair had been his armchair by the fire, and the familiar cadence made her smile.

            The man looked up and blinked in confusion.  He took a pair of square glasses out of his coat pocket, polished them, and placed them on his nose.  “Terribly sorry,” he said in rather a posh accent.  “I’m afraid I’ve not the least idea where I am.  I just gave the old girl her head.”  The courtesy seemed almost automatic, detached, and Kimberly moved gently to his side.  Whoever he was, he didn’t seem to be a threat to her.  “Sit,” she said, taking his arm and guiding him over to the chair.  “You’re worn to a thread, you are.”

            He gave her a faint smile.  “Aftermath of divinity, wearing off,” he murmured.  “Weeeeelll, when I say divinity…belief in divinity.  Delusion of divinity.  More accurate.  Delusions of grandeur.”  He waved an arm and laughed, a loose, brittle laugh.

            “How about a cup of tea, then?  Or a smoke?” Kimberly offered.  “Can’t offer you the world, and a man who’s just realized he isn’t a god needs something a bit down-to-earth, my old mum used to say.”

            “Never tried a smoke,” said the strange man.  “Not me, not this body, anyway.  Not sure about the others.  All fuzzy.”  He paused and eyed her with a vaguely suspicious air.  “Your old mum used to say what?”

            Kimberly gave him an insouciant smile and handed him a new cigarette.  She was running low, but Ted would’ve given her such a talking-to for the number she’d smoked in the past weeks anyways.  Such a health freak, he was.  The thought of Ted was a stab of pain mixed with a rush of pleasure, and it brought with it an echo of the lethargy that had captured her after she’d heard the news; she choked slightly, tears rising to her eyes.

            “Oh, gods and demons, angels and loneliness,” she smiled at him.  “My old mum was a poet.  I’m paraphrasing her, of course.  Adapting her to fit the circumstances.”

            “You’re a rather strange person,” said the strange man, taking the cigarette.  Kimberly slid onto the arm of the chair beside him and proffered him a match.

            “I am,” she agreed comfortably.  “Although that’s a bit of the pot kettling black from the man who just appeared in an emergency police call box.”

            “Touche,” he murmured, bringing the cigarette to his lips.  He was almost immediately assaulted by a violent fit of coughing.  “Gracious, why do people breathe this stuff?"

            "Keep on at it," she said with a slightly pained smile.  Ted had said much the same thing when he first tried one.  "Gets easier with time.  Like life and not being a god.”

            He was clearly not fully awake, for he was slouched in the chair, the arm holding the cigarette propped up on the arm of the chair, his eyes half-lidded and drooping.  “Not a god,” he mumbled.  “Survivor.  Good at surviving.  Always running, running.  Outrageous amount of running. Bit pointless, really.”

            “Quiet, there, love,” Kimberly said, and she reached out and stroked his forehead.  “You’ll be wanting some sleep, then.”  She reclined the chair (it was as comfortable as the pallet she slept on and she sometimes slept in it herself), removed the cigarette from his fingers again, and wandered over to the window.  London A was sprawled comfortably beneath her.  She sucked at the cigarette, watched the smoke curl up into the breeze.  “I wonder who he is,” she said softly.  She hadn’t even tried to break her habit of talking to Ted.  It gave her a tight, painful knot in her stomach to do it, but that particular pain seemed to combat the horrible lethargy.  “He’s a soldier, I think, like you, but he’s not from about here, that’s for certain.”  The breeze caressed her face, warm and fragrant, smelling of moist earth.

            She remembered running through the mud as a little girl, clambering down the aqueduct.  She’d always been best at it.  Letting her gaze fall down the crumbled brick ruin of the building across from her, she saw that several children were already getting back to the business of playing outside.  “Aye, love, I know, life goes on,” she murmured, mouthing one of Ted’s favorite expressions.

            She finished the cigarette and then went in to make sure her unexpected guest didn’t need anything.  If he didn’t, she had some painting to do.

            Her guest slept through the afternoon and night, though she was woken by his moaning cries sometime in the wee hours of the morning.  She went to him and stroked his head and shoulder, and the human touch seemed to comfort him, for he was soon quiet.

            She slept late and woke to the smell of burning.  She tumbled groggily out of her bed, her back complaining and stiff.

            “Oh, no, no, don’t get up,” said the strange man’s voice.  “I’m afraid I’ve had a bit of a setback.”

            He was standing guiltily in front of the battered old stove she had managed to ransack from the abandoned husk of a restaurant.  He’d thrown off the coat and stood only in the suit, still striped with swathes of red dust, and he had a frying pan over the stove which was giving off a ghastly amount of smoke.  Kimberly cracked a smile as she shooed him out of the way, still trailing smoke and apologies.

            With a little judicious water, she was able to stop the bacon from charring beyond recognition.  “Not much of a cook, are you?” she asked him.

            He gave her a tired smile.  “Sorry,” he said again.  “Very sorry.  I’ve done some cooking before.”

            “Very likely,” she responded.  “The stove’s temperamental, to say the least.  My hus-husband would have done the same as you, I expect.”

            “So you’re married?  That’s lovely!  I always like a fine example of domestic bliss!”

            She could see that he was rambling, so she managed to swallow the pain of it as she excavated the remains of bacon onto a couple of plates.  “He’s dead,” she said softly.  “Didn’t come back from a reconnaissance mission a few months ago.  I quit the service after.  Didn’t seem worth it to defend this place anymore, and in any case I was never much of a soldier.”

            “Oh,” said the strange man.  “I’m sorry.”

            “I’ll get used to it.  Life goes on, Ted would always say.  He wasn’t a poet like my old mum.”  She handed him a plate of bacon with a fork.  “Now, you must be telling me your name,” she said.  “I can’t keep calling you oy you.  I’m Kimberly Scott.”

            “The Doctor,” he replied, accepting the bacon with a sigh. 

            “Just ‘the doctor’?  Is that a code name?”

            “You could say that, I s’pose.”

            “So do you often land in people’s living rooms unexpectedly?” she said as they sat down, him in the armchair, her perched on the arm again.  He had tried to offer her the chair, but she declined.  “I’m not so decrepit yet that I have to always be sitting in a chair,” she said.  “I’m only forty-five, you know.  And you’re clearly tired.”

            He mumbled something about only being as old as you feel, with an oddly wondering air, but gave in.

            “Not always people’s living rooms.  My ship has a tendency to pop up in unusual places, though.”

            “Your ship?” she asked, faintly surprised.  She’d heard occasionally of spacefarers, but never of someone with technology so advanced he could land precisely in the middle of a room without causing a fair amount of death and property damage.  “So you’re a spaceman, are you?”

            To her surprise, he grew cold and distant at her words.  “Yes,” he said, softly, his face so still it might have been a mask.  “A spaceman.”

            Kimberly could recognize grief when she saw it, and she sat in silence, letting him deal with it in his own way until the cold distance slipped away a little.

            For the duration of the meal, they conversed in trivialities, the intricacies of trade which had originally led to the recent war—‘interstellar scuffle,’ Kimberly had once heard a politician refer to it as—their respective knowledge of art and the influences Kimberly had on her own paintings.  The Doctor was of the opinion that she took after Mannit, a well-known painter from several centuries ago, but Kimberly didn’t feel she could aspire to anything like his characteristic organic, vibrant style.

            As they finished up, and Kimberly automatically took the plates over to the bucket that served her as a sink, the Doctor said, in a strangely far-off voice.  “May I ask—when did he die?”

            The pain ran up inside her and clenched and unclenched, but she answered with only a slight hesitation.  “I don’t know exactly.  He never came back.  He left on the third of Eve, four months ago.”

            As she washed up, her guest sank into silence again.

            Over the course of the afternoon, he professed interest in her painting, and she instructed him in what little she knew about it.  They ate dinner together as well, and, as evening’s touch blunted the sharp lines of the sky, he said to her, “I should be off.  Thanks for a lovely time!”

            The words rang strangely brittle in her ears, and she placed a hand on his arm.  “Feel free to come back anytime,” she said, and when she saw his face settling into a polite mask, she added, “Gods and angels are good at lonely.  Humans need someone.”

            She didn’t know what thoughts passed through his head, because his face didn’t change, but he said, “I’ll come back.”

            Three weeks slipped away, three weeks of painting and cleaning and quiet contemplation.  Peacetime slipped up on the city, mostly a good thing.  Gangs began to sprout up in the most unlikely places, but Kimberly had little to be stolen, and, in any case, sporadic gunfire was better than the steady thunderous bombardment of bombs.  Soldiers started to return from the front line; Kimberly opened her doors to anyone who needed a place to stay the night.

            Three weeks to the day, the Doctor was back, the strange hum prefacing the return of his blue box.  He staggered out, tired, his coat drenched in mud, but his striped suit still streaked with red dust.  “Hello,” he said.

            “Good evening,” Kimberly responded.  “You look tired.”

            He leaned against the side of the blue box and nodded.  “It’s strange,” he said.  “I’ve had nightmares for years, but I never had so much trouble sleeping.”

            “Lack-of-godhood pains?” she smiled, and he smiled back.

            “Something like that, I suppose.”

            She had been making herself a cup of tea, but she pressed it into his hands and practically forced him into her armchair. 

            “Oh, that’s brilliant,” he said appreciatively.  “Thanks.  I don’t really know what I’m doing these days.”

            “We’re all of us lost,” she said, sliding onto the arm of the chair.

            He managed to finish the tea before falling asleep.  Kimberly smiled, bending over him.  She ought to have felt maternal.  He ought to have looked younger while sleeping; everyone looked younger while sleeping.  But somehow, the lines on his face tightened rather than relaxing, drawing his skin taut across his fine-boned face, and she was looking at the fragile countenance of an old, old man.  She loosened his collar, found a blanket and tucked it around him and felt a strange tugging desire to kiss him, though she wasn’t quite sure why.

            It wasn’t love, but neither was it pity.  It wasn’t quite the usual simple physical desire which led to casual couplings, either.  Almost, it was a desire to ease pain, but, again, that would imply pity.

            “Sleep well,” she whispered to him, before getting back to brewing herself her own tea.

            As the weeks stretched slowly onward, the Doctor began to visit more and more frequently.  They still talked of inconsequentials, though they occasionally veered into more serious topics.  Several times, he asked her to let him help her paint.  His first attempt at a crocodile made them both collapse into giggles, but eventually he produced a recognizable turtle.

            He was tired whenever he arrived, and he always arrived unexpectedly, though often towards night time.  The chair began to be used primarily as his bed.

            One day, it was later than he usually arrived, and Kimberly wasn’t expecting him; when the box arrived, she was kneeling in front of her bed, in her old flannel night-gown, her face buried in Ted’s old pajamas.  She rarely took them out now, afraid his smell would fade quickly if she did, but she’d felt so alone this evening.

            When the thrumming vibration announced the Doctor’s arrival, she was too lethargic to move quickly, and he entered the room while she was still blotting the tears from her eyes.  He was drooping with exhaustion, the lines of his lanky body melting soft against the side of the box.

            Their eyes met across the room, a look Kimberly’s old mum would have said something poetic about.  It wasn’t love, but it was something more than friendship.  The Doctor straightened and moved across the room, pulling her into his arms and holding her tightly against his chest.  He didn’t say anything; he just held her and stroked her hair and rested his chin on her head.

            “I don’t like the past or the future,” Kimberly whispered finally.  “My old mum used to say the past and future fighting over us makes the present, but right now,” she laughed shakily, “I’d rather they didn’t.”

            He kissed her roughly, and she was obscurely flattered.  As strangely old as he might be, he looked young and handsome, and she was a leather-skinned woman whose fluffy white-blond hair made her seem much older than forty-five.  It wasn’t a chaste kiss, nor a slow one.  His tongue begged her mouth for entrance, and her lips parted with a soft, involuntary gasp.  Her hands were in his hair, and his hands were tight and strong on her back.

            He faltered and began to pull back, and she just knew he was going to try to apologize and be awkward and silly and stupid about something that they both needed, so she traced a series of kisses down his sharp jaw to his ear and whispered just above those funny sideburns, “The act of love is time’s end, my old mum used to say.”

            She felt it the moment he understood, because his throat rumbled with a noise by her cheek that was almost a laugh, and he bent his head to nibble at her neck, almost teasingly.  She responded with a soft sigh, and tipped her head backward to give him easier access, her hands tangling and tugging in his hair. 

            The bites he gave her were not gentle, but they were thrilling, and she squirmed against him like a teenager for a moment, before she let her hands drop and pushed his coat from his shoulders.  He swept her up into his arms, and she laughed low in her throat and caught his lips for another kiss.  “Bed?” he gasped as they came up for air.

            She half-nodded, half-shook her head.  “Your bed,” she said, gesturing across the room to the armchair.  He nodded approvingly and carried her across the room, where he set her gently in the chair and began, slowly, methodically, to undo the buttons down the front of her nightdress.  She responded by unbuttoning and removing his coat, and then yanking his tie undone in one swift motion.  His hands slid upward across her outer thighs and her waist, skimming upward and carrying the nightgown with them, until they paused to cup her breasts.  Kimberly’s breathing hitched, and she laced her heels behind the Doctor’s back, drawing him forward so that she could kiss him again.

            She leaned back, shimmying out of the nightdress.  “Off with the rest of your clothes,” she told him.  “No one-sided ogling allowed.”

            The corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile.  “As you like.”

            Sitting back on his heels, he divested himself of jacket and shirt; then, with a slight hesitation, shucked off the trousers and trainers as well.  He wore no socks.  Kimberly’s eyes were drawn first to the boney ankles, then to the streaks of red dust that had somehow stained him even beneath his clothing and had yet to be removed even in the weeks that she’d known him.  Unless he was deliberately putting them back.

            He saw where she was looking and said, “Bit of a reminder, I suppose.”  The laugh was forced and brittle again.

            “Blood stains on a fallen angel?” she asked him, and he almost winced.  Then he was on top of her, kissing ferociously and possessively down her throat.  His erection was hot and hard against her side, but the line of kisses did not end at her throat or even her breasts, though he paused there, sending agonizingly pleasureful points of heat searing through them.  Her own breathing sounded loud and hollow in her ears. 

            He kissed her arms, and the palms of her hands, took each finger into his mouth and gently explored it with his tongue, and she held the back of his head and dandled her fingers in his hair, stroked the back of his neck. 

            It seemed to take forever, partly because the sounds she was hearing didn’t seem quite in sync with the events.  Her own sobbing breaths rose and hummed to a rhythm that didn’t match the pulsing heat washing through her body, and his voice was murmuring and crying out from somewhere, even though his mouth was occupied.

            He kissed her stomach, licked across it in a spiral pattern, paused for a long, maddening second with his lips on the inside of her upper thigh; then he was moving down her legs, and his laughter and her laughter and her indignant exclamations blended with the soft music of their crescendoing breath.

            After he had licked each one of her toes, just as he had licked her fingers, he sat back on his heels.  “Humans,” he said.  “Brilliant.”

            Before she could make an objection, he was leaning forward again, his mouth finally ending between her legs.  She didn’t make a sound, but her toes curled and she tightened her legs around his shoulders, her hands in his hair.

            Her body was shaking, suddenly drenched in sweat; her heart thundered ba-bump in her ears, but still, both of them were silent; yet she could could still hear their heavy breathing, sighs, cries even.  Her eyes caught the tiger’s, and he was grinning at her, a jovial, encouraging grin even in its predatoriness.  She had the vague notion that something strange was happening, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.

            Euphoria swept through her in a short, sharp rush, and she tensed with a half-choked cry.  The Doctor’s tongue trailed up her stomach, around her breasts, and finally captured her lips, his own swollen and moist.  His tongue prodding her mouth was almost as sensual as what he had been doing with it moments before.

            He was holding himself back, perhaps frightened of hurting her, perhaps frightened of hurting himself; she could feel it.  Her tongue joined his, and her teeth caught at his lower lip; she clawed her fingers down his back, and his reaction was unfettered for the first time, bending back with a strangled cry, body arched into the shape of a bow.  She grabbed his shoulders and slid out of the chair, turning him around, lying him back into it, and he looked up at her with a mute surprise. 

            She slid down into his lap and grinned at him.  “My turn,” she said breathlessly, and she forced herself downward, drawing a gasping cry from both of them.  He held her waist as she moved, matching her movements.  Her mouth caught his again, his tongue playing across her lips, the hands on her waist moving up and down, now catching her thighs, her shoulder-blades, even her elbows, as if he was searching for some kind of handhold.

            The pace she set was fast at first, gradually slowing.  Their mingled breathing grew louder and louder in her ears, and the Doctor’s hands tightened, finally ending on the back of her head and crushing their lips together even as they moved.  A long moan vibrated through his throat, and each movement was exquisite, each little sound and sob and breath from either of them was strangely magnified, crystal-clear to her senses.  Finally, quivering, they were still against each other, stopped in time; she was teetering on the edge of a cliff, about to fall, and every muscle in his body was tensed against her.  His heart beat wildly and crazily ba-ba-ba-bump: a pounding tattoo she could somehow feel on both sides of her body—and then she moved again, and he climaxed inside her, silent but for the heavy pounding of his heart and the extra intake of his breath.

            She had the strangest sensation as his body crashed up against hers and his hands tightened on her head, as their hot lips pressed desperately against one another as if they were trying to merge their bodies—the oddest image of a dew-covered rose, which burst into flames; the ash floated off into the breeze.

            She moved off him, then repositioned herself against his side, and he drew her to him and placed a kiss in the center of her forehead, strangely chaste given the circumstance.  “Kimberly Scott, your old mum was brilliant, and so are you.”

~

            They slept that night naked, curled against each other.  The Doctor slept soundly, but Kimberly kept wakening to hear his voice whispering a name, though she couldn’t catch what it was.  Every time, she held him close, kissed his cheek, and rocked him back and forth, watching the ancient lines of his face constrict and relax.

            In the morning, though, she was rested, and the Doctor stretched and yawned and curled around her with a sleepy little mumble, which made him seem suddenly much younger.  When he woke up, she saw the momentary confusion flash through his eyes before he remembered where he was.  He rose, stretched, carefully kissed her forehead again.

            “Shall I make you breakfast,” Kimberly asked, with an ironic smile, “oh memetic sex god?”  She stuck out her tongue at him and wriggled it.

            “Are you quoting your old mum at me again?” he asked.  He didn’t seem particularly inclined to get dressed, and Kimberly was in no hurry for him to do so.  “Possibly,” she shrugged with a smile.  She pulled on her shirt to do the frying.

            The Doctor stayed (and remained unclothed) for breakfast before heading off.  Kimberly sighed and stretched and smiled.  The friendly liaison had helped, made her feel less alone, less wrapped up in her misery.  Life might, after all, go on.  She thought, possibly, the Doctor’s sentiments might have been similar.  She hoped so.

            It was three days later when the Doctor returned.  Kimberly had found herself not quite able to shake the image of the fiery rose from her mind, and she was trying to paint it.  Her first two attempts had been a dismal failure, and she was waiting for them to dry so she could paint over them and vaguely outlining the picture lightly with her brush, when she thought she heard the creaking whoosh that usually heralded the arrival of the Doctor, but when the blue box didn’t appear, she shrugged.  She was probably mistaken.

            About five minutes later, four sharp knocks summoned her to the door, and she found him standing outside, beaming.  “Sorry, I was a bit excited, must have set the coordinates wrong,” he grinned.  He swept into the room, picked her up around the waist and whirled her around once, as she gasped with surprise.

            “How would you like a present?” he asked.

            His enthusiasm was infectious, and she smiled back.  “I love presents,” she admitted.  “My old mum used to say if you wrapped up a bit of twine, I’d be happier when I got it than if it was a properly expensive toy no one bothered to gift wrap.”

            “Surprises are good, I like surprises,” the Doctor smiled back at her.  “I’m afraid I can’t exactly wrap this, but I can make it a surprise.  How would you like to go on a trip with me?”

            “I could do that,” Kimberly answered.  “Just let me get this paint off.”

            “Sure,” he said easily and wandered slowly about the room, pausing in front of her latest attempt at the burning flower.  He paused suddenly.

            “Kimberly,” he said.

            “Yes?” she answered, turning away from the sink and sadly giving up on trying to wash the red paint out of her blue jeans.

            “How many times did I knock?” he asked slowly.

            She thought about it.  “Four, I think.  Is it important?”

            He froze, eyes glued to the rose.  Then, with a strange smile, he turned to her.  “Probably not,” he said softly.  “Weeelll, when I say probably, I suppose I really mean maybe.  Weeellll, when I say maybe…” His voice trailed off.

            There were loud voices coming from the stairwell, and not ones that Kimberly recognized.  Then someone else knocked heavily on the door.

            “I wonder who that could be,” Kimberly said, crossing toward it, but before she could get across the room, the Doctor put his hand on her arm.

            “Careful,” he said.

            “Careful?” she echoed, but she was still.  Something thudded against the door, once, twice, and it burst open.  Two men carrying heavy laseguns barreled inside.

            “Shit, there’s someone here,” the younger man said.  Distractedly, she noticed he had a swirling tattoo across his face.

            “Well, kill them,” said the second.  He raised the gun and opened fire.

            Kimberly’s vision flashed bright; then there were arms around her, and she wasn’t dead.  The Doctor gave a grunt of pain and dropped to his knees in front of her.  She caught at his elbows for an instant, then flung herself across the room before the men could fire again.  If she could reach her tasegun—

            She almost didn’t make it.  The heat of the laser scorched across the back of her neck, and she cried out in pain, but her hands closed on the tasegun, and she spun, already firing it even as she continued to run.  Good thing she’d always been a good shot at a moving target.

            She caught the man who had fired directly in the chest, and he staggered back, twitching.  Taseguns were not intended to be deadly, but they also weren’t intended for more than a quick shot.  She kept the energy pumping until he had collapsed.  He’d probably live.  The second, younger man reached for his lasegun, bringing it up just before she had a chance to fire, but he hesitated with his finger on the trigger, and she got off a shot.  The tasegun was hot and smoking in her hands from overuse, and she dropped it as she ran over to the Doctor.

            He was still alive somehow, but barely.  He was huddled on the ground in a heap, his back a smoking, ruined mess, the hair scorched from the back of his head.  She knew, even before she knelt beside him, that there was nothing she could do.  He was dying.

            He blinked at her vaguely and managed a smile. 

            “God, I’m sorry,” she whispered.

            “Would you...” His voice trailed off, and at first she thought it was because he was too weak to speak, but then, as his eyes darted to her hands and her knees, somehow, she understood, though she didn’t understand why he couldn’t have just asked her.  Pulling him into her lap was awkward, and he gave several soft cries of pain, but she held him tightly, brushed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him. 

            “I’ve got you,” she said tightly.  “I’ve got you.”

            “Not a god,” he murmured.  “Thanks.  You were brilliant.”

            “You were too.  Thanks for saving my life.”

            He gave a little breathy cry of pain.  “Your old mum have any advice?”

            “Not her kind of poem, really.  One of my other favorite poets though––do not go gentle into that good night.  Rage against the dying of the light.

            He shook his head.  “Good chap, Thomas, paid for coffee and everything, but I’ve got to disagree.  Sometimes…” he panted.  “Rage for someone else.  Not for me.”

            His eyelids flickered, and she held on tightly, as if she were trying to keep his head above water.  He spoke again, with an effort.  “Just—didn’t want to be alone,” he murmured.  “Also, thing, thing, got to tell you the other thing.  Complicated.  Thing going to happen.  Don’t—be scared.”

            His eyes closed; his breath stopped; the world stilled.

            Tears were gathering Kimberly's eyes when the golden light began.  The Doctor's body in her lap tensed and spilled golden radiance, and she covered her face with her hands to block out the light.  Don’t—be scared.  When her vision cleared, she was looking at a stranger’s face.

                The man who was lying in her lap, quite uninjured, wearing the clothes the Doctor had worn, sat up a little unsteadily.  “Sorry about that,” he said cheerfully.  “What about that present then?”

                Kimberly stared.

                “Ooh,” he said.  “I look normal, right?”  He felt his face with his hands.  “Nose, eyes, mouth, all that.”  His hands lit in the hair, somewhat longer than it had been.  “Oh my god, I’m a girl!”  The hands dropped to his chest.  “Oh, no, not a girl.  Look, this is very important, Kimberly Scott, I need you to think very carefully and answer me.”  He paused dramatically.  “Am I ginger?

                “No,” Kimberly responded blankly.  “Excuse me—what—just happened?”

                His long face became longer.  “I’m never ginger,” he pouted.  “I keep hoping...oh well, never mind.  Long story short, I’m a time-traveling alien who cheats death by doing this funny golden-light thing, it’s called regeneration, sort of changes who I am, but I’m still alive, if you see what I mean.  Don’t really know who I am yet, but I know you’ve waited ages for your present, so if you wouldn’t mind coming with me…”

                Kimberly tried to form a protest, but she couldn’t seem to, so she rose and gave this new Doctor a hand up.

                “So…you’re—an alien…” she said uneasily.

                “That’s right!” he said eagerly.

                “And you—just avoided dying, yes?”

                He nodded happily, beckoning her out of the room, carelessly avoiding the unconscious bodies of the men who had killed him.

                “Then…” she said softly, as he drew her onward to the blue box.  “Why do you seem different?  And what about all that dramatic death stuff?”

                He shifted uncomfortably, fumbling with a key.  “It’s all a bit complicated,” he said vaguely.  “But I’m really the same person, I mean I have all the same memories and everything…”

                She didn’t press.  She didn’t say, You’re not really him, and He wanted to die, didn’t he? because it wasn’t any of her business, and if it hurt like the death of a friend (even if it was and wasn’t at the same time?) there was nothing to be done about it, and there was, at least, something of him left.  More than she had of Ted—

                The door to the blue box opened, and she entered the chamber close behind the Doctor.  For a moment, she was struck by the ridiculous size of the interior, but, before she had a chance to be surprised, she caught sight of the person standing on the other side of the chamber.  “Oh my god,” she said, blankly.

                Ted opened his arms for her, and she ran into them, burying herself in his familiar sandalwood-and-old-clothes smell.  “Ted,” she whispered, and she was crying, and he was crying, and they pressed their faces together and then there was a kiss, gentle and slow and everything she had thought she would never feel again came crashing into the great hollow empty place in her middle.

                Eventually, she managed to look up and say, “I thought you were dead.”

                “I was captured,” he said.  “Nearly killed.  I expect I would have died in the prisoner-of-war camp, but this peculiar man in a blue box—he said he knew you—he rescued me.”

                “He—rescued me too,” Kimberly murmured.  She gestured behind her at the new Doctor.  “This is—his friend.”

                “What happened to him?  I want to thank him.”

                “He died,” she murmured.  “He didn’t do it for the thanks, I expect.”

                “I say,” the new Doctor said cheerfully from behind them.  “I’m afraid the TARDIS needs a bit of an overhaul, but in the meantime, how would you two like to see the universe?”

                Kimberly laughed.  “Again?” she asked, with a suggestive wink.

                The Doctor turned red and mumbled something.  “That’s not what I meant,” he said petulantly.  “I thought your husband was dead.”

                “What’s all this?” Ted asked suspiciously, but Kimberly smiled at him sweetly.

                “Indiscretions, dear.”

                Ted smiled back at her fondly, and she knew he was thinking of the somewhat wilder years of their youth.  They were usually sexually monogamous these days, in addition to the romantic monogamy.  “Ah.  You’ll have to tell me sometime.”

                “I will,” she smiled.  “In the meantime, though, before the Doctor takes us off to show us the universe, how about we catch up on a few indiscretions of our own?”

                She took her husband’s hand and led him across the peculiar chamber, turning to look inquiringly at the Doctor.

                “Er, er, second room on the left,” he said.  “I’ll just leave you alone.”

                As she and Ted headed down the corridor, Kimberly was assaulted by the image of a burning rose, whose flickering light illuminated the smile of the tiger who had seen everything.