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Dodo rang her up, the Friday after Ben shipped out again. Polly had spent the last three days enduring commiserating phone calls from her girlfriends, but she was prepared—happy, even—to withstand another, if it meant that Dodo was having a good enough week to remember dates.

"Polly, did you see? In the evening papers today—well, the Standard at least; I haven't checked all the others—"

Polly's heart sank. A bad week, then, and a very bad day, if Dodo had made it through the morning papers and started on the evening ones. She set the receiver down, fetched the rolled-up paper from her coat pocket and shook it out. It hadn't been rained on too much. "I'm sorry, love, what page did you say?"

It was all the way in back—no, not a good week at all—just a single paragraph, the sort of thing they stuck in to make the columns come out even: VANISHING POLICE BOX BAFFLES NEIGHBOURS.

 

 

Dodo was ready when Polly pulled up outside her flat the next morning, and came running out before Polly could even get out of the car; and that was either a good sign, or an indication that she hadn't been to bed yet. She shut the passenger door behind her, and then looked up in surprise. "Isn't Ben coming with us?" She peered over her shoulder, as though there were room to hide a man in Polly's Mini.

Polly twisted her ring on her finger, and then caught herself and shook her hands out irritably. "No, he shipped out for Greenland on Tuesday, remember?"

Dodo looked down at the much-creased newspaper in her hands. "Oh. That's right." She smoothed out the corner with the date and stared at it. Mortified, as much as anything. And that was the worst of it—that the one thing Dodo never forgot was that she hadn't always been like this. 

"It's all right. Listen, maybe we'll find the Doctor at—what was the address?—and he'll know how to fix your memory." If he didn't, he would find a way, he had to. He had caused it. Even the thought felt slanderous, but—well. She'd been through everything Dodo had, with one exception. One couldn't help drawing conclusions.

Dodo read off the address, somewhere up in Chiswick, but she was no help in reading the signs or the A-Z, and after they passed the same school three times, Polly left the car idling and ducked into a newsagent's for directions.

The shopkeeper was quite pleasant, until she recited the address, but then his frank blue eyes narrowed. "Here, you're the second person come looking for the Chestertons. Ever since that article in the paper last night."

The name rang a faint bell, but Polly couldn't place it. "Oh. Do you know them?"

"Oh, yes. Nice couple. They teach at my daughter's school—that's Sylvia; she's fifteen." He glanced at a photograph propped above the till, a frowning girl in an ugly uniform. "Mrs. Chesterton, that's her history teacher, she told Sylvia she ought to think about doing it at A-level--"

"And who did you say was looking for them?" He hadn't said, but at least his answer spared Polly any more details of Sylvia's school career. A man with dark hair, the newsagent said. Face like a film star, which ruled out either of Polly's Doctors; and American, which ruled out Jamie as well.

"No one I know, then," sighed Polly. "Please, can you tell me how to get there? Oh—and the Times." Either the sigh or the purchase did the job; the man's directions, however grudgingly given, brought them swiftly to the address, a well-kept little house with boxes of geraniums in the windows, and a surprisingly rugged jeep parked in the street outside.

Polly wedged the Mini in behind it. "Should we just go up and knock? It's still awfully early, for a Saturday."

"They've brought the milk in," Dodo observed.

And that was the old Dodo back, the bright and cheerful girl Polly had known for just a few days, three years ago. Every now and then the fog over her mind would clear, and leave Polly wondering again just how much damage WOTAN had done to Dodo—or to her. She suppressed a shiver. "Well, then."

The bell sounded, tinny and muffled, and Polly swore she heard a laugh, or a whoop; but then there was silence for long enough that she was debating whether to ring again, or turn and go away. But then a woman opened the door—dark, more handsome than pretty, neatly dressed but with her hair still sleep-tousled, and curling damply around her face. "Yes?"

"Mrs. Chesterton?" Polly said, abruptly and deeply grateful to the chatty newsagent. "My name's Polly Wright, I—there was a news item about a police box…"

"Oh, lord," came a man's voice. "Another one?" Laughter followed—masculine still, but not, Polly thought, the same voice.

The woman smiled, and Polly changed her mind about how pretty she was. "I think you had better come in."

Mrs. Chesterton hovered in the front room, and then brought them straight back into the kitchen, where two men were drinking coffee. The one in his dressing gown poured two more cups and set them out. "Well, now. Which Doctor did you travel with?"

And just hearing it, like that, from a stranger, as calmly as if they were discussing a holiday in Ibiza— "Oh, you do know; you know him!" Polly clutched the back of a bentwood chair.

"Easy now." The other man, the one in shirtsleeves and braces, steadied her with a hand on her back. He pulled out a chair and helped her into it. "No, you're not alone; yes, we've all travelled in the TARDIS, in time and space. No, you're not crazy." This was the American, the one who'd asked directions the night before. And stayed, by all indications.

"I didn't know there were others," Dodo said calmly. She sat down beside her and spooned sugar into her coffee. "Not until Polly and Ben looked me up when they got back, and told me they'd watched him change."

And then it all came out, all their stories, overlapping and interrupting all morning long. The Chestertons—or rather Ian and Barbara, because one only ever used first names in the TARDIS—had travelled with Polly's first Doctor, the white-haired old man, and they'd even met Dodo's Steven, and were so pleased to learn that he'd been rescued and come along in the TARDIS. And then, not two months ago, they'd met a younger man, younger than Polly's other Doctor, who had knocked on their door with a girl called Martha, and stayed in their spare room while he tracked down his TARDIS and got it back. The neighbors had all seen it materialize, and watched the Doctor take off again.

"Just my luck," said Jack, who wasn't actually American, unless everyone was American in the future. "I've been waiting a hundred years come Wednesday to find a Doctor who doesn't cross my timeline, tracking the TARDIS all over Earth—well, mostly all over Britain. I just barely manage to avoid meeting the wrong one a dozen times over, and when one who's finally after my time shows up, he comes without the TARDIS." He tapped the face of a wrist-mounted sensor. "I picked up his departure, though. Missed him by hours."

He brooded over his empty cup. Barbara and Ian both drew breath to speak, simultaneously—they were very married—and then laughed at the jinx, Barbara looking down and Ian, unaccountably, blushing. Jack looked up and beamed. "And it turns out, you meet some lovely people that way." His glance lit on Polly's ring. "But you must know that. So. Tell me about this Ben of yours."

And this was the other side of meeting fellow travellers. Polly might have told a true stranger, some chance aquaintance on a train or in a nightclub,  about how hard it had been, to go from a year living in each others' pockets, never quite daring to upset the balance with romance but always, constantly, there for each other, and come back to their separate lives on Earth, a few days together between months apart. And in between, no one else Polly could talk to about that year but a vague and half-mad girl who devoured newspapers to remind herself what day it was; and no one at all, for Ben. It was no wonder they couldn't keep their hands off each other, when they met. They were the only people in each other's lives who were truly real.

Once, Polly would have thought that romantic. Now, it made her almost glad when he went away, and she could notice her friends and her job and the whole rest of her life again.

But she couldn't say any of that in front of the Chestertons, so happily ensconced in their house and their lives. Though there was something, if not amiss, then unsettled between them—which was all the more reason for discretion. Polly smiled, and talked about Cybermen and Daleks and how brave Ben was.

By the time Jack got her aside, well into the afternoon, to talk to her alone, Polly thought she had an idea why Ian and Barbara were so odd about meeting his eyes. And each other's. She wished very strongly that Ben were there, and then felt rather ashamed that this was what it took to make her miss him properly.

But Jack wanted to talk about Dodo. "Something happened to her. When she travelled with the Doctor."

Polly shook her head. Across the room, Barbara and Dodo were looking at Barbara's art collection. The Chestertons hadn't  brought any mementoes back from the TARDIS, any more than Polly and Ben had, but on her return Barbara had begun collecting pictures—historical drawings when she could afford them, or reproductions— of the places she'd visited: Paris and Peking, Rome and Jaffa and Teotihuacan. Dodo's attention was wandering again, and she kept glancing over at Polly, searching for something familiar to anchor her mind. "No. Here on Earth," she said. "Remember WOTAN?"

"The supercomputer? Voice Operated… Thinking… Apparatus?"

"Will Operating Thought ANalog," Polly corrected, automatically. "I was Professor Brett's secretary," she explained.

Jack looked more impressed at that than people usually were. "And Dodo was one of the ones possessed."

"I was, too, but I came out of it when WOTAN was destroyed. But Dodo was one of the first ones to be taken over. The Doctor did something to break the machine's control. I don't know what, or how. But Ben and I looked her up when we got back—it was only a couple of days after she'd left him—and, well. She wasn't right. She hasn't been, ever since." Across the room, Dodo's eyes darted from a woodcut of Paris to Barbara's face and back again, rapidly, knowing they went together and trying desperately to remember the connection.

"I've got something that might help her in Cardiff," said Jack. "We—the people I work for—have developed some memory drugs. And antidotes."

"Oh, do you think they could help her?"

"There's a chance."

Ian was suddenly at her shoulder; she hadn't even heard him come up. "Bring them along, then," he said, "next time."

If Polly hadn't been watching Jack's face, she would never have heard the pause before he answered. "Next time, huh?"

"Well. I think we should do this again." Ian's gaze was fixed on Barbara. "Don't you?" His shirt collar revealed a mark that the dressing gown had concealed.

"Absolutely." Jack beamed at the world, at Ian, and then at Polly, who didn't know whether to feel more awkward at being a third—fourth?—wheel, or at the notion that she might not have to be.

"Let me tell Dodo," she said, and fled. But she stopped in the kitchen door and smiled back. "And yes," she said. "I definitely think we should do this again."

Chapter Text

Mike could hardly continue drawing his pension every month, and then turn around and complain he hadn't been taken off the list for the UNIT Christmas party. It didn't take eight months of mindfulness training to recognize the contradictions in that. But honorable retirement or no, he could hardly be expected to attend.

And he certainly didn't expect to be missed. But two days after New Year's, Tommy found him in the solarium and told him he had a visitor in the abbot's study.

"Did he say who he was?" Mike dusted potting soil off his knees and followed.

"She," Tommy corrected. "And Cho Je didn't tell me her name, just sent me to find you. I think they're discussing physics."

"You think?" The Metebelian crystal had given Tommy the intellect to match his hunger for learning; in six months, he had finished every book in the lamasery and most of the village library. Talk had to be rarefied if Tommy couldn't even peg the subject with any certainty.

Which didn't make Mike any the less surprised to find Liz Shaw in rapid and intense conversation with Cho Je; only made him reproach himself for not guessing. "There are no aliens in Somerset this week," she assured him, on the way down to the village, "and you're not being called out of retirement. But you were missed at the Christmas party."

"And you were delegated to check up on me?" It didn't come out as light as he had meant it to sound.

"Certainly not. I'm here on my own initiative." She let him hold the door of the pub for her, and help her shrug out of her coat. "Though I like your abbot; I may come back just to see him. Is it true he's one of the Doctor's people?"

"His old tutor, I think."

Liz snorted, unladylike and charming. "Of course he is. Would you believe the Doctor tried to pass off that business about the mass of the neutrino as his own work?"

"I'm shocked." They settled down with drinks, and Liz filled him in on the gossip from the party. There wasn't much, not with Jo still in Brazil with her husband, and Sarah Jane and Dr. Sullivan still away with the Doctor. "And all the excitement in my life lately has been in the lab. I would tell you, but I think it would lose something out of context," she said. "So. What have you been up to?" 

"Not much, I'm afraid. It's been very quiet over the holidays—just me and the monks and Tommy."

"And? Don't tell me there isn't an 'and.'"

Mike shook his head. "It's—complicated."

She got the whole story out of him, the miraculous and alien healing of the gentle village idiot, and the abbot putting Mike in charge of his education. Which, as far as Mike could tell, meant driving him to the library every week, and listening to him talk about what he read; Tommy was educating himself, and at quite an advanced level. "He's not a genius, I don't think, but he seems to do more with what he has than almost anyone. He's determined to learn—everything." There was still an unworldly innocence about him, but he was impatient with it, frustrated, eager to shake it off. The combination was… challenging, the sort of challenge many men would retreat to a lamasery to escape.

Liz, damn her eyes, grasped the whole situation, even the parts Mike hadn't explained. She hid a smile in her bitter. "You need company, Mike Yates."

There was a reflexive answer to that, and a flirtatious curl to the lip that went with it; Mike ducked his head and stared into his glass before they could come out. Flirting was a performance, and Mike had always been an excellent performer. It had made him a good operative—had, to be fair, made him a good officer:  act like a leader and men will follow. Act like an upright red-blooded young man, an officer and a gentleman and a devil with the ladies—and there's nothing left when the act falls away. He'd learned, more or less, how not to put the façade up, but Mike was still damned if he knew what was underneath.

Just him, it seemed, blushing into his beer. "Don't I know it."

Liz chuckled, damn her again, but not unkindly. "Not that kind. It'd be robbing the cradle. Well. Sort of."

"Am I that transparent?" He should have been mortified. Instead he felt only a strange pride—perhaps he had learnt something from all the meditation.

"A little. But I really didn't mean that kind of company." She drew a circle in the condensation on the table, more circles, intersecting until the water beaded and broke. "There's a group. Old friends of the Doctor, people who've traveled with him. They get together sometimes. The Brigadier told me about them when I resigned."

"You've never been?"

She shrugged. "There was the UNIT party every year.  But once you've been away from that for a while— Well. One doesn't want to still be holding forth about one's glory days, years after the fact."

"No," Mike agreed. A thought struck him. "I'm surprised the Brig never invited them all along to the Christmas party, these friends of the Doctor's."

"Mm. His contact talked him out of it."

"His what? Are they all in intelligence?"

"No, just the one bloke—it's that Torchwood liaison. But if he hadn't talked Alastair round, I would have— we'd never have got the Doctor into a room with them all." Mike must have looked quizzical; she nodded as though he'd spoken. "He took it very hard, you know. He was tried, banished. Quite possibly surveilled by that abbot of yours. Made powerless in a way you and I can't even imagine. For someone who'd known him out there—who'd seen everything he'd once been capable of—to see him in his exile… I think it would have made him feel quite small." 

"And you asked me why I stayed away," Mike said. "He didn't even try to destroy the world."

"Oh, Mike." Liz reached across the table and patted his hand, idly affectionate; the ease of the gesture loosened something in Mike's chest. "So that's why you're still holed up here—you've found the one guru in the world who can actually understand what you need absolution for."

"He's not a guru, he's a—"

"Whatever. I'm just saying, we understand too—all of us who've hung around with the Doctor and aliens, we get it." She took a deep breath, and all in a rush, said, "Listen, I called the woman whose number Alastair gave me— a schoolteacher, Barbara something; she and her husband were practically kidnapped by the Doctor a decade ago. They host a regular do the first Saturday of every month, and I'll go if you will."

"You?" Mike had always thought Liz had walked away from UNIT unscathed, almost untouched.

"I told you, work in the lab's been rather exciting lately. Honestly, Mike, do you think you're the only person who's ever had to decide not to destroy the world today?"

There were sentences that should really never be reassuring.  And yet. "Abbot Cho Je," said Mike, "says we all choose to create the universe every day."

"He ought to know." Liz clinked her glass against Mike's and drained it. "Here's to the universe."

Chapter Text

It was easy to live in fast forward. Checking in with UNIT when the TARDIS fetched up on Earth, getting a little freelance work (and prevailing on the Doctor's good will to make her deadlines), collecting the post, seeing her stockbroker (and whatever the Doctor said, she was not going to destabilize the entire world economy just by buying Microsoft early), paying the rent, and taking off again. The last two or three or possibly four years of Sarah Jane's life had been smeared over about six years of realtime, with outliers in both directions, and she'd got used to watching fashion and politics and technology all speed along, whistle-smooth.

After all that, falling back onto the slow path was damned hard.

She checked in with UNIT the first week back, like she always did. She didn't have much to tell them. They didn't have anything to tell her.

After a month she did some digging and found Alastair's phone number. "Hello, Brigadier! It's Sarah Jane."

There was a wary silence. "I'm sorry, who did you say?"

"Sarah! Sarah Jane Smith. Come on, Brigadier, it hasn't been so long since the old UNIT days, has it?"

There was a silence, and his voice came back hollow, as if he were actually cupping his hand over the receiver. "If you are aware of UNIT, then you certainly know better than to mention it over an unsecured phone line. Good day, Miss Smith." And he left her listening to the dial tone in blank incomprehension.

Sarah threw herself into work, called up every editor she'd ever worked with, got a few assignments, wrote some human interest stories on spec. For two weeks, she managed to keep herself too busy to come home, except to sleep, too exhausted to lie awake listening for the sound of the TARDIS.

And to wake up, alone in her empty flat with the empty cupboards, all the post tidied away, nothing that could collect dust, or rot or move or die

After three mornings where she had to stop herself from breaking dishes came one where she didn't quite succeed. She went out that day without locking her door, half hoping someone would come in and leave her with a blank slate.

In the evening, she called Harry. She hadn't spoken to him since he'd met her train from Aberdeen. "I bought milk."

"I—I'm sorry, old girl?"

"I bought. Milk." She tucked her feet up onto the sofa and hugged her knees. "It's in the fridge. I haven't kept milk in the fridge since 1973." She hiccuped; even her body couldn't tell whether she should laugh or cry. "About that monthly get-together of yours. I think I'd like to go."

 

 

Harry pulled up in front of a neat little house with obsessively tidy window boxes. Sarah thought about her milk, and wondered how long it would be before she could bring herself to keep anything alive, even just a geranium. Pets were right out, of course.

"I am a journalist," she said, as Harry came round to open her door. "I have never yet been afraid to knock on a strange door." And she made sure she was the first up the steps, so she would have no excuse to let Harry ring the bell.

But it wasn't a stranger who answered. "Sarah! You finally came—we've been waiting for you to come along." Jo Jones beamed up at her, looking just like she always had.  "You can leave your coats in the bedroom." She led them upstairs and they spread their coats on the bed, and then she held Sarah back at the head of the stairs. "All right, so, FYI: Ben and Polly were married once and apparently they were miserable, though you wouldn't think it to look at them today. Dodo has some short-term memory problems, though I'm told she used to be much worse. I know you know about Mike—um. You do know all about Mike, right? And Jack hasn't shown up in a while—he drifts in and out—but he's probably slept with everyone here," she said.

"I say!" objected Harry.

Jo dimpled. "Well, at least no one will take it the wrong way if you assume." 

Sarah Jane committed these intelligences to memory. "Thanks."

"No problem."

They started downstairs. "Oh! And there's this business with the Brigadier, of course."

"What business—" But the question was lost in a flurry of introductions, first. Their hostess, a serene and lovely woman called Barbara, took charge of them, and Sarah shook hands and heard stories and learned names and drank tea, and it wasn't until an hour later that Sarah found herself on the settee with Liz Shaw, and asked "Can you tell me what's going on with the Brigadier?"

"Oh, no—you haven't tried calling him, have you?" said Liz, at the same time the woman from the past, Victoria, turned her head and said "Has something happened to the Brigadier? Please tell me—I am very fond of him."

"We all are," said Sarah; "and, yes, I'm afraid I did." She told Liz about their conversation, such as it was, and Liz nodded gravely. "All I know for certain," she said, "is that he had some kind of episode, about a year after he retired."

"Episode? You mean a breakdown of some kind?"

"Harry was lucky to find out that much. All I know is that he seems to have good days and bad days. I had an experience very much like yours, and he was very… vague to Jo at last year's Christmas party." 

"If by 'vague' you mean 'couldn't look me in the eye,' everyone was vague to me at that party. I didn't even go to this year's." Victoria reached out and squeezed Jo's hand, in reassurance, and Sarah noticed for the first time that Jo wore no ring.

"But some of the time, he seems fine. I know Benton checks in with him fairly regularly, and except for a few weeks right after whatever-it-was, he's always found him just like his old self."

"I still say," said Harry, elbowing into the conversation and handing round a plate of biscuits, "that he's up to something hush-hush at that school. I might well pretend not to know you lot if you called me at work blathering about UNIT and aliens."

If it had been years, not weeks, since the TARDIS, and Liz or Jo had rung her up, worried and harried, and greeted her as an old friend, Sarah thought she might well have pretended not to know them.

She shook off the thought ashamedly. "I would never have met all of you," Victoria was saying,  "if the Brigadier hadn't thought to introduce me."

"How did you meet him?" Sarah asked. "You haven't worked for UNIT, too, have you?"

"No. I'm a Sanskritist," she said proudly. "We met him when he was just Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, clearing up the Yeti in the Underground." There was no need to ask who we meant. "After the Cybermen invaded, when I was living here—"

"—that's the International Electromatics debacle of '69—" Harry interjected.

"—I looked him up so I could tell him what I had learned about them on Telos. And so when he met Jack, and heard about this group, he arranged an introduction. Well, sort of. By the time he called me, Jack had already found the shop where I worked and taken me out to dinner. I was so afraid when he said the Brigadier had sent him; I thought it might be the Cybermen again."

There was no talking to anyone alone, in a house so small; and there was no getting Jo alone at all—Barbara was solicitous to a fault, and made sure she was always at the center of a crowd, where she was happiest. But eventually she found Jo with Liz in the kitchen, a small clot precipitated from the crowd, and decided that was close enough to a private conversation.

"You're holding up well," she said. "Is the divorce final, then?"

"Yes, thankfully." She peered around the kitchen door and sighed; Ben and Polly were comfortably sharing the sofa, laughing like the old friends they were. "It's hard not to be jealous," she said, "except it must have been so much harder for them in the beginning. It's been hard enough for me watching all our other friends choose sides, but if I'd had to worry about losing this lot…"

"Oh, but we would never have let that happen!" Victoria slid past her into the kitchen, hands full of teacups.

"That's a lovely outfit. I used to borrow your dresses from the TARDIS wardrobe, you know." 

"Oh, did you? I used to find the most scandalous things there. Or at least they seemed that way then." She leaned against the counter, stretching out her legs in their jade green trousers. "And I say we, but really, it was Barbara. I confess I was terribly scandalized at first."

"That would have been, what, the early seventies?" said Liz. "A lot of people would have been scandalized who didn't have your excuse."

"And they were, especially with the baby still so young. But Barbara was adamant about standing by them both—I think as much for my sake, as for theirs."

Jo cocked her head, assessing. "Is that why you've been so nice to me, through all this?"

Victoria ducked her head, hiding a blush. "I'm sorry, am I missing something? Sarah asked.

"When I started coming here," Victoria said, "I used to dress like Barbara, and do my hair like hers—I was just like a little duckling, following her about, trying to learn how to be a twentieth-century woman. In hindsight, I must have been quite comical, but she never laughed—she found me tutors, and helped me to sit my A-levels and get into university."

"All good teachers get that, now and then," Liz said.

 "Up until they push you out of the nest," Sarah added. Oh, that came out sounding all wrong; Jo looked at up at her with wide, concerned eyes.

"I think the mark of a truly good teacher is to know what a pupil is ready for, before she does," Victoria said. "I'm still trying to learn that. But Barbara always knew what I needed to know before I even knew what questions to ask." 

"Like what?" Only Jo, thought Sarah, could put that question so innocently.

"Can you truly love more than one person in your life? And does it make you a bad person, if you try to love someone and you can't? And can you love someone and not want to marry them?" She smiled fondly. "I don't think Polly knows to this day how much of my education she and Ben are responsible for."

"Seizing the teachable moment," Liz said, with authority. "Good for Barbara. I had to learn those the hard way."

"Tell me about it," groaned Jo.

"Would it have made a difference, for you?" Sarah nodded to where Jo's ring wasn't.  "If you'd had the teachable moment?"

Jo considered it. "Not really. Not when the whole thing was so mixed up with adventure and idealism and saving the world. Maybe if we'd taken longer to get to know each other—but, really, you can't ever know what a person's like like, day in day out, until you've lived it."

And that was certainly true.

"No, I think the lesson I needed to learn," Jo continued, "was how to know when to just pick up and leave."

But you did, Sarah thought, unstoppably, and left me to just pick up the pieces, before she remembered they were talking about Jo's husband.

"I spent years of my life trying to convince myself that we could make it work, trying as hard as I could when any sensible person would have cut her losses and walked away. But believe me, I've learned that lesson now: when a thing is over, it is over."

Sarah stared out the kitchen window, getting her face under control. When she turned back the other women were watching her, kindly and frankly. "That's the truest thing you've ever said," said Sarah. And, "I really like Barbara's geraniums. I wonder if they're difficult to grow?"

Chapter Text

"Thanks for coming along," Martha said, when they were out of earshot of Barbara's door. "They're wonderful people, but I always feel like someone's grandchild in there. Would you believe I'm the first new member since the mid-eighties? First one to stick around, at least." She stopped to untangle her rings from the trailing fringe of her scarf. "All right, out with it."

"It's like the Torchwood employee directory in there! My Torchwood, I mean." Mickey had expected to meet one or two people he knew, from the other world; they turned up everywhere. His new boss had been a resistance leader there, his downstairs neighbor had tended bar at his local, his postman here had been his postman there.

He never looked anyone up on purpose. If he was going to do that, he'd have to start with Jake, and he didn't think he wanted to know.

For a moment Martha forgot to stand up quite so straight. "Oh my god, you too? After That Year--" Mickey could hear the capital letters-- "I looked Barbara up and I hugged her when she answered the door. She was the backbone of the underground. I had met every woman in that room, before any of them had met me, but the things I knew, the stories-- they're amazing, the heroism and the sacrifice, but they're not the sort of thing you can really share."

"Most of mine aren't that heroic." In Torchwood and in the resistance, the heroes had usually died in the field long before Mickey got there. "Just as hard to share, though. 'Nice to meet you, Ms. Jovanka. I once walked in on you and Professor Shaw having it off in the armory.'" He shrugged. "Can't really follow that with 'Pass the biscuits.'"

"You do not get to say that and leave it at that." Martha jammed her hands in her pockets where the ring couldn't catch. Not used to wearing it, Mickey supposed; well, she wouldn't, in the field.

"We're debriefing from a tea party?"

"Yes we are, and I want details."

So he gave her details. He told her a lot, in the end, over a plate of chips that got colder and colder while they swapped stories. He hadn't been at Torchwood, the other Torchwood, long enough to learn any real dirt: just the legends that got handed down, about Director Emerita Polly Wright who had worked her way up from secretary and lived to retire; and about Director Jovanka, who had worked her own way up from the motor pool and looked likely to last even longer. He told her about people who were dead long before his time and had portraits in the atrium, and about people who hadn't turned up in this world yet, but were bound to eventually.

He didn't say anything about the young medic who was obviously gunning for Director herself. He couldn't; it would have been easier to tell Professor Shaw about seeing her naked. Much easier: all his other stories were about how alike people were, world to world; but he couldn't tell this Martha about the other one without talking about their differences. The other Martha ran her infirmary like someone who'd never, ever been wrong, about anything. That Martha had lasted all of a week with Tom, though according to scuttlebutt it had been a really good week.

From the way Martha kept cutting herself off whenever Tom came up, Mickey didn't think they'd had a good week in a long time. And he'd be the first thing she'd ask about. Better to just not go there.

~*~

Course, the longer he went without saying anything-- the more chances he passed up to bring it up, offhand, at the Chestertons' or when they lingered over chips or pints after, or over email, or on the phone that one time that Tom's flight was canceled and she needed to vent, or when she took him out for drinks after his clearances went through and he was officially contracting for UNIT-- the harder it got to bring it up at all.

~*~

"I'm afraid Tegan has misled you somewhat." Mickey elbowed through the door; the Brigadier and Martha were wedged into the entryway, having as private a conversation as you could have at Saturday tea. "There were two of me, but it was all to do with time somehow," the Brig went on.

"Crossing your timestream," said Martha, and reached around Mickey to unstick the door; there was a trick to it that he hadn't learnt yet. "Two of you from different moments, existing at the same time?"

"Oh, I expect it was something of the sort. But my amnesia was nothing at all like Miss Noble's trouble."

"Probably," said Martha. "We're grasping at straws now, though. Mickey," she said, and held out her hand for his coat. "Tom's in the kitchen; he got back early, and I didn't want to inflict everyone on him for the first time at Christmas. Can you go be a familiar face? I still need to ask the Brigadier some questions."

"I only met him the once," Mickey protested. "Afternoon, Brigadier."

"Thank you, you're a lifesaver," Martha said, pitilessly, and thrust him out of the entryway.

People brought SOs, sometimes. Doris often came with the Brig, and Mickey had met Liz's and Mike's husbands, Harry's wife, Tegan's girlfriend, lots of people's kids. Usually they looked right at home; though most of them had met their partners through alien business, or been mixed up in it at least.

Not that that guaranteed anything.

In the kitchen, Tom was looking wary, though Mickey supposed it might just be that he was listening to Tegan. "Of course it was hard," she was saying. Mickey nodded to them both and busied himself with cups and plates, hovering just out of the way. "But then coming back was hard, too," she went on. "At least out there it was strangers bleeding and dying. Mostly. But I came back to Earth, and people were hurting just as much here. The friends I thought I'd left safe behind had still been losing their jobs, having their hearts broken, getting hurt, getting sick, and this time I couldn't just run away." She shrugged. "I had a few bad years, but between my twenties and the Eighties, they'd have been just as bad for me on Earth. Worse, if I'd stayed in Brisbane."

"I'm sure this group must have been a great help to you," Tom ventured. "I know you were all an invaluable support to Martha."

"Oh, absolutely," Tegan agreed. "It's good to be able to talk to people who don't think you're crazy."

"People who've been there," Mickey added. "Probably like that for you, I bet. Tom works with Doctors Without Borders," he explained to Tegan.

In the other room, someone laughed, and then everyone did. Martha stood in a knot of whooping, cackling women-- Victoria was telling some story about Cybermen, recounting a three-way argument between her Doctor and their Scottish friend and the Cyberleader, complete with impressions of all three. Her Cyber-voice was a perfect send-up and it set Mickey's teeth on edge-- Cybermen weren't a joke, weren't funny at all-- but al the same, it would be something to live long enough to tell his stories that way.

So why not start now? He could walk right in, say a few words about boys who think they're too pretty to be converted and what they put their long-suffering friends through--

--or he could not start now. Victoria had dissolved into giggles, and Martha, clutching her belly from laughing, had the floor: "Oh, god, that's worse than what he put me through with the Daleks! There was this one time--" and she was off, still laughing almost to tears.

Tom stared like he'd never seen her before. "My work?" he said. "No. It's really nothing like that."

~*~

"A lot of it's my fault." Tom was in Mali for Christmas. Martha slumped down beside Mickey on Barbara's sofa and handed him a cup of eggnog. "I told him all about That Year. I don't talk as much about the good parts. About the Doctor. They've never met, and. Well. I don't want to be that girl, you know."

"The one who always goes on about her ex? Ex... something."

"Yeah. Don't know why I bother; it's not like he ever shut up about Rose. Um." She looked into her cup, embarrassed; Mickey waved his hand, brushing it off. "But, I think he thinks it was worse for me than it was."

Mickey knew what it was like to be with someone who loved a story he'd made up about you.

Actually, Mickey knew that one from both sides. "That year," he said. He looked down into his own cup. "Did you ever meet a Jake Simmonds?"

"English?" Martha asked. He could feel her looking at him, trying to work out where this was going.

"Yeah. Bleach-blond, so tall. Bit of a..."

He didn't even know what his gesture was supposed to mean, but she got it anyway. "Twink?"

"Yeah. And brave. Really brave."

She shook her head. "I'd have remembered him, I think."

Mickey knew, logically, it didn't mean anything, anymore than the ten pages of inconclusive hits he'd finally broken down and Googled. But it clinched it: whether he was dead, or never born, or just not in the universe-saving line in this world, they weren't ever going to meet. "Just as well," Mickey said. He met Martha's questioning look, smiled a little. "Rebound from Rose," he explained. "Wasn't like that was going to end well."

She gave a bitter little laugh, all there really was to say. "Didn't know you swung that way."

"Neither did I." He shrugged. "There's always something you don't know about yourself, till it happens."

"Yeah," she sighed. She settled back against the cushions, her eyes lighting here and there, at Jo helping Dodo adjust the piano stool, Ben hanging mistletoe under Ian's exacting eye. "What's she like?" she said. "My counterpart?"

Mickey swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. Startlingly, scarily smart, was what.

"That is, you did know her?" Martha went on; and, uncertain for the first time, "Didn't you?"

"Yeah." People were singing, and Mickey couldn't imagine how Tom could have looked so unhappy here. "Not half as well as I wanted to."

He hadn't thought that was the hard part, the thing he'd been keeping in, but as soon as it was out he wished he could take it back; not because it wasn't true, but because it was.

Martha looked away for a moment, but when she looked back she was smiling. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. She was amazing."

Chapter Text

"I'll get that," Wilf called, and upstairs Donna's footsteps turned around and retreated. "That'll be Mrs. Chesterton, wanting to borrow my telescope for that Brownie troop." Wilf had called her Barbara to her face for years, but at home it was always Mrs. C., just like when she'd been Sylvia's teacher, and Donna's.

But it wasn't Mrs. C. "Hello, you must be Donna's grandfather. Is she in? I'm Martha Jones— she may have mentioned me? Er—" Wilf made a frantic shushing noise, and she dropped to a whisper. "Sorry, is this a bad time?"

"We're just stepping out for a moment, sweetheart," Wilf called into the house; he let the door slam and hurried Martha Jones down the street and around the corner, looking over his shoulder every ten feet until they were out of sight of the house. "What do you think you're doing, coming around here! Donna might have seen you!"

"Yeah, that was the idea." she said, folding her arms, ready to be angry at him but not, quite. "Do you mind telling me what's going on?"

She didn't know. She didn't have any idea. Wilf had been trying not to hold out hope, but this— if the Doctor'd had a plan, a way of fixing her, he'd surely have enlisted his friends, Donna's friends. "He didn't tell you."

"The Doctor." She didn't make a question of it, any more than Wilf had. "Oh, god, what happened?"

"Here, let's keep walking," he said. "Make sure we're out of sight."

So they walked, and he told her everything he knew., and some things he hadn't known he knew— she knew all the right questions to ask. But she didn't have answers, no more than he did.

"I'll get the word out," she said, as he showed her to the bus stop, by back streets, out of sight. "Everyone who might jog her memory will know to stay away." She smiled weakly, and patted his hand. "I'll let you know if I hear anything, all right?"

 

She kept her word; no one bothered Donna. At least, not where Wilf could see. Though Donna's life seemed charmed, these days. Computers loved her— she could find anything she wanted on eBay for nothing, and those lonely hearts sites were finding all the nice blokes who'd finally treat her how she deserved. And however her agency handed out temp assignments, they were giving her all the plum jobs.

He said as much to Barbara Chesterton, when she brought the telescope back from the Brownie outing. "Working at a research lab this week. Clean energy— turns out they meant nuclear fusion! My Donna, in there. 'Course, she's just scanning in some old files, but they seem to like her; she says the lady professor asked for her personally."

"And how does she like it?" Barbara wanted to know.

Wilf shrugged; he hardly knew himself. "Well enough. Her agency have been sending her all sorts of places lately. There was that save-the-rainforests group— and Stonewall! That gave her mother a turn. Mind you," he allowed, "we ran into her boss from there the other week, and she was quite nice. Australian lady. Told Donna they'd love to have her back if she ever wanted to apply."

"I'm glad she's getting such interesting work."

"She was due for some luck," Wilf agreed. "It's like someone's looking out for her."

Wilf had had his suspicions on that score, actually. Not the Doctor— Martha had been clear on that. But maybe someone else.

Barbara blushed— very prettily, still; she had always been a looker, had Mrs. C. "I may have put in a good word for her on the job front. Ms. Jovanka's an old friend of mine," she expained, "and I think that must be Liz Shaw who asked for her at the research center."

"Oh, well." He should have known it; Barbara had taught for more than forty years, and her husband too, and Sylvia and Donna weren't the only old students they remembered. Of course she'd put in a word here and there when she could. "That's good of you," he managed. "Here, you and Mr. C should come up to the allotment for the Leonids. It'll be a good show."

It was hard, talking to Donna about— well, about anything these days; there was so much to stay away from, so many things he couldn't say for fear that she'd remember. But he tried again on the weekend, when she came round to pick up another box of things for the flat. "Sweetheart, we need to talk."

"If this is about Shaun," Donna began—

"It's your mum that doesn't like him!" Which was not at all the right thing to say, and he hurried on before she could tell him so. "No, I just— how are you liking this job, at the laboratory? Working with all those scientists?"

"Contract's almost over," she said. "Those records will be a mess again in six months. They told me I should stay on to look after them." She snorted "Someone needs to."

"But do you want to?" Donna shrugged.

"You're getting a lot of that, lately. There was that nice Ms. Jovanka, at that other job you had, she liked you quite a lot. I talked to Mrs. Chesterton today. She's an old friend of hers— that boss of yours was, I mean. She asked after you."

"Ms. Jovanka did?"

"No, Mrs. Chesterton. Donna, sweetheart, have you thought about what you want to do with your life? You seemed to like it at Stonewall; have you thought about doing something like that?"

"Development, you mean? I suppose I could do a course in grant-writing." She made a face, like contemplating boiled cauliflower.

"I mean, changing the world! Making it the world you want to grow old in. You—" and here was where he couldn't say You used to, or Why can't you see, or You were brilliant when you tried.

Silence dragged on, until Donna said "I what?"

"I hoped—" Wilf tried. "I thought, maybe, just working with that sort of person— you seemed to fit in there; that Australian boss of yours—"

"That. Sort. Of. Person?" Donna repeated. Oh dear. "Are you asking if I'm gay?"

"The— people who do things! Activists, dreamers— or, or at the rainforest place, too!"

"Because I'm not—"

"I just want you to make a difference, Donna. If, if you want to," he tried, but she had the bit between her teeth now.

"—and if Mum thinks Shaun is some sort of... heterosexuality merit badge—"

"Well, sweetie, you can't deny—" but, there, Lance was one of the other things you couldn't really talk about.

"Can't. Deny. What?"

Wilf swallowed. "That.. that we just want to see you happy, sweetheart."

He thought he was still in for a lot of shouting and furthermores— he'd earned them, this time— but that took the wind right out of Donna's sails. "Happy changing the world," she said, and gave a little bitter laugh, like her mother's. "Answering phones and populating spreadsheets for a better tomorrow. Not really world-changing, is it?"

And there was a whisper of interest there, he knew it, but she shied away from it. And she'd always done that— Sylvia taught her that— and it was always painful to see it, but now, after what she'd been, it hurt so much more.

There was only one thing for it. He'd have to find the Doctor.

~*~

It didn't take him long to rent a bus and get everyone together. Or almost everyone— he didn't track down the Chestertons until right before Christmas, when they almost bowled him over in the post office door.

Wilf was on his way out, but he held the door for them and their tottering stacks of parcels. "Posting your Christmas presents, then? Here, let me help you with those." He rescued a sheaf of envelopes from Ian's arms before they could fall.

"Thank you," said Ian, queuing up beside him. "Yes, I'm afraid we've waited until the last minute."

They exchanged pleasantries— they'd heard about Donna's engagement already, but it was still nice to confirm it— and Wilf ventured, "There's a project I've got going over the hols, if you were interested in pitching in."

"I'm afraid we're just leaving," said Barbara. "The cab to the airport is waiting outside."

"Copenhagen," Ian said. "No particular reason, but we've never been."

"Just got a good deal on a flight, did you?"

"That, and— well, Christmas in London..." They all shrugged at each other.

"I hear you," said Wilf.

At the front of the queue they formed a bucket brigade, handing parcels up to Barbara at the counter. "So what's this project we won't be around for?" Ian said.

"Oh, it's— well, it sounds a bit silly. We're trying to find an old-style police box." Something niggled at his memory as he said it, but that was being old for you; everything reminded you of something.

Barbara dropped a handful of coins on the counter, and scraped them back into her purse. "Scavenger hunt," said Ian, "is it?" Barbara shot him a look over her shoulder, much sterner than the remark deserved; maybe he'd jostled her arm.

"No," Wilf explained, "it belongs to a man called the Doctor; that's who I'm really looking for. Skinny chap with ridiculous hair." It wasn't anything to go on, but Ian nodded gravely, just as though it was a fine description. Barbara thanked the clerk and took his arm, and they stood there awkwardly for a moment until the man behind them in the queue cleared his throat.

Stupid place to try to have a conversation, really. "Well, you're off to the airport," Wilf said. "I won't keep you."

"Yes, of course," said Barbara, and hurried them all to the door. "Wilf—"

Ian shared a look with her— tense, though he hadn't even glanced at his watch. "I know," she said to him, and turned back to Wilf. "This man you're looking for—"

"It's--" Wilf shrugged, started to say it wasn't important, but that wasn't true, and they were both listening like they knew it. God, he must look like a foolish old man. Or maybe that was just an instinct you got from forty years of teaching, knowing when someone was holding back something like that. "Well, it's important," he said. "I can't explain why. But I need to find him."

"I believe you," said Barbara. "Wilf-- after Christmas, we should talk, the three of us." And that wasn't just a pleasantry; she meant it, bless her. "Come round and tell us about it."

Impossible, of course. Though he wanted to; and he could understand just how the girls had never been able to sneak anything by Mrs. C. Wilf smiled weakly and made some sort of reply.

"If you don't find the-- police box," Ian said, "have a good Christmas anyway."

~*~

But of course he did find it. And the Doctor. And then, well. And then a lot of things happened.

~*~

And after that, the first Saturday of the new year, that Martha Jones knocked on his door again.

"You're lucky Donna's moved out," Wilf said.

"I know she has—"

"--I knew it! You have been having her watched, haven't you?"

"I came to talk to you, actually. Shall we go?" She smiled and offered her arm, and, well, it wasn't every day he got to go for a walk with a pretty girl like that, even though he well knew it was just a ruse to get him halfway to the corner before asking after Donna.

"She doesn't remember," he said. "I can talk to her about it now-- I did, I tried to ask-- tried to tell her what I'd done-- and she just looked at me." He sighed. "But she's safe, he says, that's the main thing. And she might remember now. It might just take her a little time, that's all."

Of course, she didn't need to ask who he was. And of course after Mr. Saxon and the ship and everything, she wouldn't be surprised to learn the Doctor had been involved. But it still took him aback a little, that the first thing she said was, "And what about you?"

He told her, everything he'd seen. She filled in some of the rest of it.

"He said he'd come back," Wilf said. "He said he was going to die, and then he said he was going to change, and then he said he'd come back. But I won't even know him when he does, will I? He'll be someone else."

"He'll know you," Martha said. "He'll remember, everything."

"Then, the changing thing, the re-generation. That really happens?" He wanted to believe in it, but it was harder, somehow, than believing in the Doctor in the first place; even harder than believing, for all those years, that people like him were out there.

"I haven't seen the Doctor do it," she said, "but when I first met the Master he wasn't Harold Saxon; he was a sweet white-haired old man. And there are people who've seen the Doctor regenerate." She led him around a corner; he'd stopped paying attention to where they were walking miles ago, or it seemed that way. "I think you might want to talk to them."

"To UNIT? They need to debrief me, then?"

She shook her head. "It's all very unofficial. Just— there are some friends of the Doctor's, and they get together, and some of them would like to see you."

"What, have you been watching me, too?"

Martha smiled. "In a way." She looked up, and Wilf followed her glance. "Wait a moment, I know that house. That's— they'd have said, surely—"

Barbara Chesterton opened her door. "Hello, Wilf. I hear you've had quite an adventure."

He mounted the steps; he was glad he had Martha to lean on. "You! How long have you known?"

"A long time, I'm afraid," she said, and showed them in.

Ian appeared behind her. "Remember our disappearing police box?"

"And— and you never said a word! All those years, borrowing my telescope, and you'd been out there yourselves? You'd been there."

"We all have," said Donna's old boss. "Tegan. Good to see you again. How's Donna?"

They all wanted to know, crowding around and introducing themselves. He shook hands with Jo from the rainforests group; he shook hands with Liz from the energy lab. "You have been watching her. Looking out for her. The whole lot of you."

"Of course we have, Wilf," said Barbara, and pressed a cup of tea into his hand. "As much as we could."

"You've been looking out for a lot of people," Wilf said, glancing around the room, at all the self-possessed women and confident men. "For a long time."

"A very long time," she agreed. "Though I think we can let the young people look out for themselves for a while."

Wilf snorted; some of the young people were older than Sylvia. "You couldn't have told me, could you?"

She looked pained, though not at all apologetic. "If we'd known how much you knew— and how important it was to you—"

"No, no," Wilf said. "I mean, you could have. But until you've seen it..." He shook his head. "It's never what you expect, is it?"

"At least you had expectations!" laughed Barbara. "I'm jealous of that. Ian and I— well. We can tell you all about it, now. You play bridge, don't you?" She pointed him to the kitchen table, where Ian sat with another man their own age. "Wilf, Sir Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart; Alastair, this is our neighbor Wilfrid Mott. He was with the Doctor, when it happened."

"So, he's done it again, has he?" said Sir Alastair. "Did you get a look at the new fellow?"

"It hadn't really started yet when he went off," Wilf said. "But he said he'd be back."

"I've heard that before," Barbara murmured, fondly, and Sir Alastair huffed in agreement.

"Well, I suppose we'll meet him soon enough," he said, and dealt out the cards.