Summary: Carl Sagan said: "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." The Doctor's feeling like a very small creature indeed.
Fandom: Doctor Who
Spoilers and/or Warnings: None
Title, Author and URL of original story: Small Creatures, by paranoidangel42, here.
He doesn't know how long it's been. That's a lie, actually - Lord of Time and Space, him, so he's always going to know, but he's also tricky, and very good at ignoring things. Even himself, apparently. (Five Earth months, six days, four hours, and nine seconds... ten... eleven... )
The Doctor knows exactly how long it had taken him - the TARDIS - them (only them, only ever them, now) - to get away, to get to a rare pocket of safety and stability where they could wait till the worst of the aftermath of the War had passed. He knows exactly how long he'd spent in the Zero Room, afterwards. He knows exactly how long it had taken him to repair the TARDIS once he'd come out.
He also knows exactly how long after than he'd hesitated to launch them both back out into the universe (sixteen seconds) because whoever he is now, he doesn't like to stand still. That's what he tells himself, at any rate, and if there's another answer, he doesn't care to listen. (Cowardly cowardly custard, running from his own thoughts.)
What he doesn't know, he thinks, opening the door to the TARDIS and stumbling into a rosebush, is what repair he bungled that his first start out of the gate lands him in a neat, pastoral, English country garden. (Romana would know, would've been the first to point it out, but that's one thing he won't miss - he's lying.) It's... smoking, he realizes, which is not normal for English country gardens, so the only thing for it is to have a look. That's how he comes to twist his ankle on the bloody rose bush.
When the Brigadier yanks him out, he decides that he's sticking with this jacket, because there's nary a scratch on him. "Having a bit of trouble with your garden, Brigadier?" he asks, grinning, because apparently he's a bit smart-mouthed this time around. (Eccentric, cheeky, blunt, he's been them all in turns, but he's never been alone - that's all new.)
That, of course, is when the gnome runs past with the fishing rod, and he grins, because here, at least, is something to do. (He's always been a rolling stone - he's never been very fond of moss, though he'd liked the silver trees, and they're all gone, gone, gone.) Five minutes later, mind, he's a bit less chuffed about the whole thing. "Try and herd it this way, Doctor," Alastair shouts, and it surprises him enough that he follows directions, and eventually the tricky little bastard's shut up in Doris's laundry.
"Now what, Doctor?" the Brigadier asks, and it's just like old times. (When he was a renegade, an exile, with somewhere to be exiled from.) It's great - fantastic - and he'd love to know just what the hell is going on, because he's quite certain Alastair's got no idea.
He rubs his hands in anticipation. "Now we talk to it," he answers, and yes, same old Alastair, muttering balefully. He's never told the Brigadier he can hear him - wouldn't want to spoil his fun. (Wouldn't want to change a thing, not a thing, never a thing.)
"You want to go back in there?" the Brigadier demands.
"Don't you want to know what it's been doing in your garden? And why your house is fine after a major earthquake even though the rest of the area isn't?" Fortunately - just like always - Alastair's curiosity is grudging, but genuine. And the man's unreasonably protective about his lawn. So they convince the thing to talk - and then the little bugger bites him. Again. Bloody hell. (Bloody hands.)
But then they get their answer - the Lambton Worm, or a piece of it, all grown up and raising hell among the rosebushes. He'd thought he'd had that sorted, long ago - good job he'd landed where and when he did, because that's a nasty problem, that is. It's easy enough to fix, though, between him and the Brigadier and the gnome and a solid supply of matches. (Ace would've had a field day, but Ace isn't around, won't ever be around, just Alastair, and beggars can't be choosers - not that the Brigadier isn't the steadiest of them all.) It's easy enough, and gnomes may be bastards, but they're thorough, and he's quite pleased, really, to be able to help set this to rights. Even if it will take a few more hours for the earthquakes to stop. Good job well done, he thinks, satisfied. He accepts Alastair's offer of tea as his just reward. Not to mention that he's had Doris's tea, and though the TARDIS is a marvel, it can't hold a candle to hers. Lucky man, the Brigadier.
Sharp man, too - like a tack, because it's not till he's cozied up to a cuppa that the Brigadier breaks out the biscuits and says, "So, you've regenerated again. Getting to be a bit of a habit." Which is true, and precisely what the Doctor has no desire to talk about. (Or think about, really, because who has time to think with so much to do?) "What happened this time?" the old soldier asks, and the Doctor thinks about leaving, about heading back to the TARDIS and setting off again, off on his own.
But it's Alastair, an old friend and a good one, so the Doctor says, "A war. Against the Daleks." He fidgets with a biscuit and it breaks in two. "We won. Technically." (Pyrrhically.)
"Hmph," says Alastair, and the understanding is a comfort. "And now you have to go back to a normal life again." The Doctor fidgets with another biscuit and doesn't think about it. This much, at least - tea and biscuits and the Brigadier - that's an acceptable normal. (Normal's been reset, and suddenly he's swimming in a much larger pond.) "Like today," Alastair continues. "Thank you. If it weren't for you I don't know what might have happened."
"Oh," he answers, "the gnome would've solved it in the end." Too right, he thinks, pointing out the Garden Gnome Hose Brigade forming on the lawn and enjoying the other man's double-take. Stout English oak, down to the core, steady and reliable as a rock. (Time has only sand.) He's getting maudlin, the Doctor thinks, and it's time he was off.
Alastair argues, as he always does. "You should stay for awhile. I still have Bessie in the garage."
That's tempting, but Bessie reminds him of Jo, and Jo's just one more thing to miss. (So many things, so many lists, too many now to catalog.) "I can't," the Doctor says. "I just... I can't."
"The war is over, isn't it?" Alastair steps closer.
The Doctor knows the look on the Brigadier's face, has worn it for other comrades-in-arms in his own time. (Too many comrades, too many times - and now too many fewer to wear it for.) "Oh, yes." His grin doesn't feel like it belongs on his face. "I just need to get back to, you know. World saving." On his own, alone, in a too-quiet TARDIS, and that's when he asks the question he's never asked with this face, because it's too-quiet and too-new and there's no one else to ask it of in the here and now. "Come with me."
But Alastair won't - can't - there isn't really a difference - and is stubborn enough to hold his ground. For the better, the Doctor thinks, in the end. One less friend to lose along the way. "You were fantastic," he tells the Brigadier.
He leaves through the rosebushes - gently - and when the time rotor starts, he listens to the silence (in the ship, in his head, in the rhythm of time) and charts his course. Alone.