Three weeks ago, he and Bill had argued. They were at it the whole day, only letting Bill’s shift and his lecture interrupt them. This wasn’t entirely unusual. Their arguments were comfortable exercises between two best friends, who knew each other well enough to be able to butt heads and enjoy doing it. But this time, the subject matter was a lot more personal.
“We had a pact, me and him,” the Doctor leaned back and gestured at the stars in the night sky above them. They were sitting on the roof of St Luke’s, where he had spent the last 70 years of his life. “Every star in the universe, we were going to see them all. But he was too busy burning them. I don’t think she ever saw anything.”
“And you think that if she did, she'd change?” Bill whispered.
“I know she would. I know it.” What kind of Doctor would he be if he couldn’t help his oldest friend. Especially after she had helped him, however misguidedly, find himself after his last regeneration.
“You're a bloody idiot. You know that, yeah?” Bill was saying.
“She scares me. Like, she really scares me. Okay. So promise me one thing, yeah? Just promise you won't get me killed.”
Even after two thousand years of life, humanity could still astound him. Here she was, this human child whom he had shown both the wonders of the universe, and how dangerous it could be, and she trusted him to keep her safe. Willingly. She chose to go into that blue box with him and believe that he would get her home safe.
Because he promised her.
The wind sweeps her new hair into her face, and the three suns beat down upon them.
“Right, quick update,” The Doctor says. Her new best friends are watching her, so lost and afraid and confused. “I made a terrible mistake. We shouldn’t be here. I’m gonna fix it and get you guys home. I promise.”
They have no other choice but to believe her promises, but the Doctor suspects that they would trust her empty promises anyway.
Three weeks ago, Nardole made his last pot of tea at the university. He didn’t want to come along either, but still he went. To uphold his promise to River, to uphold the promise the Doctor made to the executioners. Or maybe there was another reason. The Doctor had never been sure why Nardole had stuck around for so long.
Three weeks ago, he trusted his oldest friend enough to keep his two newer ones safe. And Bill got shot through the chest.
“Be careful.” She warns her friends. “I still don't know what's going on. It could be dangerous. Well, probably is dangerous.”
“Can I ask,” Graham spoke up. “If we are on an alien planet, with aliens, how can we understand 'em? Ain't they talking Alien?”
Ah, good. A simple question. She could answer the simple questions “Let's have a look. Yeah. Medi-pods have put implants into each of you. Standard procedure. Checks for a universal translator, implants one if you don't have one.”
“Eh? Well, can people and things stop putting stuff inside me without my permission?!”
“If I had my TARDIS, you wouldn't need them.”
Three weeks ago, he had left the TARDIS behind. Bill had been taken to the bottom level, with month passing by for each moment he spent here. He had to find her before it was too late. The TARDIS wouldn’t have been able to stand the time dilation, so he left her behind. Leaving them all stranded on Floor 0507 with no hope of escape.
“Look at us,” she begs Ilim. “Four people who barely know each other, stranded on a planet called Desolation. No route trackers, no way off. And judging by what you've just told us, very little hope of survival. I need all the information I can get, including, but not limited to, what this Ghost Monument actually looks like when it appears.”
He shows them, and she nearly cries. It’s her TARDIS, she’s waiting for her like she always does. “If we get to it when it phases in, I should be able to stabilise it. Then I can get you back home.”
“Definitely? If we get there, you can get us off this planet alive?”
“Yaz, I promise. I will keep you alive and I will get you back home. I'm really good in a tight spot. At least, I have been, historically. I'm sure I still am. If we stick together, if you trust me, we can get out of this.”
He trusted Missy. She had saved their lives on Mars, and they were beginning to remember how things were when they were young. But she had been so lost in her past, and that past came back. The Master disguised himself for ten years, pretending to be Bill’s friend just so that the betrayal would sting even more. Just so the Doctor would be mere hours too late.
“No-one cares,” Epzo scoffs at her curiosity about the barren planet.
“Don't take him personally,” Angstrom says. “He treats everyone like this.”
“I don't need other people,” he retorts
“We all need other people, mate.” Graham says.
“We're all alone. That's how we start and end, and it’s the natural state of all points in between.”
“Were you born that miserable or did you have to work at it?”
“When I was four, my mum told me to climb a tree.” Epzo explains. “She made me climb until I was too scared to climb any higher. Then she told me to jump into her arms. ‘Don't worry,’ she said. ‘I'm your mum. I'm here for you. I'll catch you.’ So I jumped. And she moved out of the way.”
“What? Sorry, did you say your mum did this to you?” Yaz asks.
“Smashed into the ground, broke this arm, shattered that ankle. She stood over me and she said, ‘Now you've learned. You can never trust anyone in this life.’ Best thing she ever did for me. I love my mum.”
Five days ago, the Doctor was dying on a battlefield. He had been dying for two weeks, having caught the Cyberman’s blast on Floor 1056, but he had put off the regeneration. He wasn’t ready to lose himself again, and this was the only thing he had control over. Bill was doomed to succumb to the Cyberman programming in her mind, the people on the farm were doomed to die at the hands of the Cybermen army coming to meet them. There was no hope.
And then he was alone on a battlefield. The last one left, again. The Master and Missy had abandoned him. He had sent Nardole away to lead the survivors and children to a new home. Bill was probably lying in pieces on this same battle field. Another friend he had turned into a soldier.
So he lay in the ashes of the farm, waiting for release of death.
“No stars,” he whispered despondently. “I’d hoped there’d be stars.”
It was the end, and he was alone.
“Your mum was wrong,” The Doctor tells Epzo. “We're stronger together.”
His past self had been indignant. “I am the Doctor. Who you are, I cannot begin to imagine.”
“Then let us show you, Doctor,” Testimony said, releasing bubbles with visions of his own past to float around them. “See who you will become. The Doctor has walked in blood through all of time and space. The Doctor has many names. The Destroyer of Worlds. The Imp of the Pandorica. The Shadow of the Valeyard. The Beast of Trenzalore. The Butcher of Skull Moon. The Last Tree of Garsennon. The Destroyer of Skaro. He is the Doctor of War.”
Ryan reaches forward and steadily grabs the blaster from the broken Sniperbot.
“What are you doing?” The Doctor asks him.
“No. Guns; never use ‘em.”
“They’re shooting at us!”
“They're gonna kill us with their guns!”
“He's got a point, Doc,” Graham intercedes.
“Put the gun down, Ryan,” she cautioned.
“What's your better idea?”
“You can't outthink bullets.” Graham says pragmatically.
“Been doing it all my life.”
“Uh-uh. Sorry. Call Of Duty, man. I've trained for this.” Ryan runs out triumphantly.
He returns a few moments later, screaming.
“Made it worse?” She asks.
“Just a little bit, yeah.”
“Now do you see why I don't like guns?”
“Don't go on about it.”
“I will go on about it, a lot!” A few moments later, and a bit of genius from her, the robots are all stunned. They are safe, if for only five minutes. “See? Brains beat bullets.”
Four days ago, he was standing on another battlefield. Only the second in one day - or had it been two days? How long had he been out before waking in the TARDIS? How long had it been since he failed to save his friends?
He and his former self watched as Archibald took his place in the crater, ready to die. It was his time, after all. He accepted it. But the Doctor needed to do something, even if it was only to save one life. It only needed a few hours’ difference. And then, a Christmas miracle.
He knew who he was. Saving even just one life, that is what it meant to be the Doctor. Sometimes the world would burn, and he would fail. But he had shown his younger self what it meant to be a Doctor among all that, to do your best to just save someone even when you must fail to save everyone else.
They can get this right, being the Doctor. Because every life is important. They might not be able to go back and save the colony ship, but they can do this: save one man.
Standing on top of the crane, she asked Tzim Sha. “What do you do with them, your human trophies?”
“They're held in stasis in our trophy chambers on the cusp between life and death.”
“Left to rot? How completely obscene.”
“They're not important.”
“Hey!” Karl objected. “I'm important.”
And she saved him. She saved him, and sent Tzim Sha home to spread the word that Earth is not a hunting ground. But Grace, the first face this face saw, died anyway. Died protecting Ryan and Yaz from the Gathering Coil.
“You can't save them,” the Remnants taunt her. “We smell your fear, too. The strongest of all.”
“You want fears?” She dares. “I've got a dozen lifetimes' worth.”
“A dozen lives? We'll take you first. You lead, but you're scared to. For yourself and for others.”
“Yeah, well who isn't?”
“Afraid of your own newness. We see deeper, though. Further back. The timeless child.”
“What did you just say?” She freezes.
“She doesn't know.”
“What are you talking about? What can you see?”
“We see what's hidden, even from yourself. The outcast, abandoned and unknown.”
“Get out of my head!”
Four days ago, Testimony had gone inside his head, and unlocked his memories to give him Clara back. He got her back just to remember how he lost her all over again. Clara, his impossible girl, who died because she wanted to save Rigsy. It was rash and stupid, but it was done for the right reasons.
And he would have destroyed the universe to undo it all.
There’s another holographic tent sitting on the rocks.
“There,” the Doctor says. “Your finish line.” And then she tries to hide her panic.
“But where's your ship?” Yaz has noticed it too. “Where's the Ghost Monument?”
“It's not here,” her voice breaks. “I don't understand. It should be here. We did all this for nothing?!”
She had forgotten she wasn’t supposed to fly the TARDIS after regenerating. It always ended in crashing. But she was so excited to begin her new life, her new start. Too excided about discovering who she was now, about finally putting the pain and loss behind her and moving forward.
The console exploded, and the gravity failed, and she was falling. Falling to the planet below as the TARDIS dematerialized and she landed in a train.
She had nothing. No tools, no equipment, nothing. The lab on Desolation had been destroyed long ago, and she hadn’t seen any of the parts she would need to build another teleport. And even if she could, it would never be done before nightfall when the Remnants returned. This planet had intrigued her, piqued her curiosity because she believed the TARDIS was waiting for her. But she wasn’t here.
One day ago, she had stayed for the funeral. She hadn’t done that often in her past lives. But these were her new friends, and they were in pain. So she stayed for them, because they were mourning and sometimes it helps just to mourn together, know you are not alone.
Ilim snaps his fingers and leaves her and her new best friends to die. No way off this planet, and no way to protect themselves from a planet that was made cruel.
“They’re gone?” Ryan asks.
The Doctor sighs, her last bit of hope lost.
“We’re stuck here, are we?” Graham asks.
“I’m sorry,” She takes the words that had been pressing on her chest for so long and finally gives them voice. “I've failed you. I promised you, and I let you down.”
As she says them, she looks each of them in the eyes. Ryan and Yaz and Graham, but she also says them for Bill, and Nardole, and Clara, and Missy, and everyone else that she has let down in all her lives. So many people have trusted her, and she has let them all down at one time or another.
“We can wait. Can't we?” Ryan pipes up.
“Yeah,” Yaz seconds. “We've got each other.”
“No, we'll be dead within one rotation.” They might as well accept it.
“Who says so? We've come this far, ain't we? Who says we're giving up? Any of us? Really? Even you, Doc? No. Come on. We ain't having that, are we?” Graham says brightly.
“No.” Yaz and Ryan agree with Graham. They’re all so young, so hopeful, so sure that the Doctor –
“You know the sound the TARDIS makes?” The Moment asked him, in that barn, his hand hovering above the big red button that would save the universe but destroy his soul. “That wheezing, groaning? That sound brings hope wherever it goes.”
Her hearts stopped.
“Can you hear that noise?” Yaz asks.
“To anyone who hears it, Doctor. Anyone. However lost. Even you.”
“Come on!” She begs. “Please. Give us this.”
She pulls her sonic out from her pocket, and points it towards the faint outline of the TARDIS, coming in and out of focus. “It’s alright, it’s me! Stabilise! Come to Daddy - I mean Mummy - I mean - I really need you right now.”
And with a glorious thud, her TARDIS lands.
“Oh!” The Doctor might as well be crying. “My beautiful Ghost Monument.”
She runs to meet her, her oldest companion. This was her TARDIS, and she was her Thief.
“Hello, you. I've missed you.” She stroked her TARDIS tenderly, noticing the new lettering on the sign. “Oh! You've done yourself up. Very nice. I've lost my key. Sorry.”
She grins when the door opens anyway. ‘Come on in, I’ve missed you too!’ The TARDIS seems to say.
“But it's an old police box!” Graham interrupts their reunion.
“Sort of. Not really.”
“You expect us all to fit inside there?” Ryan asks
“Yep.” She grinned. This was her favourite bit.
“At the same time?” Yaz looks so doubtful.
“Wanna try?” ‘Do you trust me?’ is what she’s really asking.
“OK,” Ryan answers for all of them.
And with that, the Doctor was home. The longing ache in her chest was filled by the comforting feeling of being home, and the excitement of seeing the new decorations. Sexy had really pulled out all the stops for this.
“I thought maybe you didn't believe me that I'd get you home,” she says to her new friends once they have had a moment to take it all in.
“I thought you didn't believe yourself for a second back there,” Yaz shoots back.
The Doctor grins. She knew she found the right people. “Who, me? No. Never doubted. Don't know what you mean. Home, then?”
“You can get us there? Really?” Yaz asks, amazed.