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After Ever Happily

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i. theta and the wolf

The Doctor was not that sort of child. Despite a passing resemblance to the cherubim of Terran legend, he never did what he was told, never listened to the wisdom of his elders, often fell out of trees with twigs stuck in his curls, threw buckets of water over his teachers and never stayed in one place long enough for anyone to catch him. A story needed a beginning, middle, ending, punchline and moral delivered in twenty seconds before he would sit still to listen to it, and when he slept, it was always all at once in the middle of everything, mid-conversation, in class or in his dinner, or out in the garden under the stars.

There are no monsters on Gallifrey. Nothing chases children through their dreams, no ghosts, no bogeymen, no bears on the pavement cracks. They sleep easy, and they wake up and there are stiff, stylised tales of tradition and the endless passage of time, but no monsters.

No heroes, either, but no-one ever talks about that.

That must be it, the Doctor muses, padding barefoot around the console room of the TARDIS. Round and round, fretfully round and round, avoiding the cracks as the ship drifts lazily through the darkness of interstellar night. He's seen the real universe now, and that must be why he can't ever sleep any more.

*

ii. sleeping beauty

Susan does her homework on the floor, lying on her front with knees bent back and chewing on her pencil. The Doctor frowns as he works on the console; he disapproves of her immersion into this alien culture, but even he tries to understand the customs she brings home. He can help her with science, showing her how to limit her thinking into three dimensions and the linear flow of time, and with her mathematics once he has remembered to shift down to base ten, but when she announces she has to retell a classic fairy tale, for her English teacher, for tomorrow, he turns to the TARDIS databanks, knowing as he does it that this is all wrong.

"Once upon a time," he starts awkwardly, and they begin.

A spindle? Susan asks. Like a centromere?

The Doctor says no, a spinning wheel.

A hundred years from a pinprick?

The Doctor nods. Linearly speaking.

But surely, Susan points out, if a hundred years really had passed, one man on a horse couldn't cut through the forest.

He was a prince, says the Doctor, faltering, and sees her wonder why it makes a difference.

When he reaches the end, the Doctor expects her to question it; she has seen the continuous lines of time, and how can they be happy, happily ever after, all the way from the fires of creation to subtle, thermodynamic heat death?

But Susan has fallen asleep on her book, and he wonders how she can understand so much about this world that he never will.

*

iii. goldilocks and the three bears

"You don't understand the implications," the Doctor tells Sarah Jane. He's not human and he never will be, and she never will understand the implications. They are children to him, mere flashes of a mayfly's life across his accumulated, dusty memories of centuries. He cares for them, has faith in them, trusts them with his life; but it's only his life, handled carelessly as an old glove, because you don't give dangerous toys to children.

But he never asks, nor stops to think, why it's always their stories he goes back to in the end. He reads The Time Machine for the twenty-second time – the first time, although he won't admit it, he stole it from Susan's schoolbag full of library books – and finishes it quickly, moves on to The Prisoner of Zenda, The Color Purple and the poetry of DH Lawrence.

By the time he reaches the end of Grimm's Fairy Tales, the book has slipped from his grasp and is rising and falling in accordance with his slowed-down breathing. Romana comes into the room, footsteps perfectly measured and quiet, and lifts the book. She smoothes the cover, pushing back the Doctor's dog-eared corners, and hunts round for the bookmark the TARDIS must have provided, finding it on the shelf closest to her eye level.

That done, she pulls one of his curls, now he can't stop her, watches it spring back; and then she leaves. The book is safely on the floor by the Doctor's feet; it will be there waiting for him when he wakes, and in the meantime she can re-align the console, activate the analogue dampener and generally overhaul the TARDIS. She fancies she hears it purr under her steps, but whether it's because she's taking care of the ship or of the Doctor, she's not sure.

His eyelids are flickering, fingers twitching for the screwdriver. Romana smiles as she goes.

*

iv. the snow queen

"And then," Jack says, his voice just audible over the crackling of the dying fire. "And then, and then."

"Get on with it," Rose murmurs sleepily, shifting her weight. Her head lands on the Doctor's shoulder, but he doesn't mind.

"And then!" Jack takes on an air of wounded innocence. "Her husband came back."

"Ah," says the Doctor, eyes closed. Rose's elbows are digging into him, so he rearranges her delicately, ignoring her sleepy protests, and settles back down.

"So, what do I do? What would you do, Doctor?"

"Mmm? I'd walk out with my head held high. Or, alternatively, never get myself into such a stupid situation."

"Isn't he the charmer? Anyway, I did what anybody - anybody who isn't you, Doctor - would do, and I hid. To be specific, I ran across to the kitchen and got inside this big metal cabinet thing. She's in bed, pretending she's just woken up, I figure I'll just stay here as long as it takes. Only..."

"Only..." prompts the Doctor, when the silence hangs. His eyes are still closed, and although he doesn't need to sleep, he isn't planning on opening them any time soon. Rose's breathing has eased and deepened; she's nearly asleep, and her weight and warmth are raising the Doctor's body temperature to match hers.

"Only, it was a fucking walk-in freezer. And I was... um... inappropriately attired. If you know what I mean."

"Jack, the chipolatas know what you mean."

"Good, good. So, I sat down on some frozen peas and waited, and then..."

"Hang on," says the Doctor suddenly. "The husband. Did he throw the fridge off the balcony?"

"No!"

"Ah." The Doctor sinks back down. "Must be a joke I heard once. Is that it, then?"

"Isn't it enough? There was shrinkage. In fact, just for that, I'm not telling you how I got out. I can stay there forever as far as you're concerned."

"Wasn't much of a bedtime story," the Doctor decides.

"This isn't much of a bed," Rose complains, emerging from the depths for a moment as the Doctor smoothes her hair back.

"Oh, no," says Jack. He moves across, drapes himself over them, their warmth, and lets their limbs entangle as the fire dies. "I think it's perfect."

The Doctor keeps his eyes closed and doesn't move from the touch, because Jack's right, it is.

*

v. little red riding hood

A blonde, curly head appears from under the covers. "And then what happened?" demands the small voice.

"I'm getting to it," says Rose. "And then the Doctor said – do you remember this bit? – he said, 'And doesn't that scare you to death?'"

"Was he scary?"

"Oh, yes," says Rose fervently. "He was. I loved him very much, but he could be scary."

"Like you when you're cross."

"Something like that." Rose stifles a smile. "And I was so scared, so scared, but I knew he was coming to get me and then I wasn't scared any more."

"And this really happened?"

"Of course it did," Rose says, knowing in her heart that before long, the simple assurance will not be enough. "It all happened."

A childish frown, a comically furrowed brow. "I want to see the Doctor."

"Sweetheart, even I haven't seen him in years. Years and years."

"Millions of years?"

"Not quite. Still, a long time."

"What does he look like?"

"He changes." Rose smiles. "He could look like anyone at all by now."

"That means I could have seen him!" She sits up suddenly, rubbing at her eyes. "Only I wouldn't know it was him?"

"Yes, that's right," says Rose, a little sadly. He couldn't ever fool children, she remembers; suffer the little children that come unto him and suffer the Doctor too. "You might have seen him today, even."

"What happened in the end?" asks the little girl, now safely tucked up again, and Rose slows down, lowers her voice, and tells her what happened in the end, in the way she always does.

"In the end, we saved the world, and everything almost ended happily ever after. You see, I found the wolf and it turned out the Doctor wasn't telling the story, as I always thought he was. It turned out," Rose finishes softly, "that it was the story who was telling the Doctor."

There is a long, lingering pause.

Rose stands up. "Goodnight, sweet dreams." She moves to go, but the little girl holds her breath for the last part of the little ritual. Tonight as on all nights, Rose looks up and addresses the window. "You too, Doctor, wherever you are."

The light goes out. Out in a garden under the stars, the Doctor has fallen asleep.