Just being awake is so exhausting it's easy to miss the slide in and out of consciousness. The room is familiar enough to stop it being frightening, but the old man hasn't been frightened for a long time. It's late afternoon and the old man, skin craggy and dark and tanned, is slipping into a doze.
"Hope you don't mind," a voice says, all delicate and rushed at the same time, "passed Doris on the way out, thought I might pop by, just for a bit, see how you were, do the whole social thing like mates do..."
The old man opens his eyes.
"Probably best," the other says, waggling a long finger, "you don't mention this to anyone. In fact, specifically tell them I wasn't here. Leave things nice and tidy so when I hear I wasn't here, I'll make it my number one priority to come back here and see you, tell you I wasn't here and actually I'll stop here because it all gets wibbly-wobbly complicated and questions the existence of free will..."
A tired smile. "One of those?"
"One of those." A big, happy grin. "Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and I bet you've already guessed who I am. No one else can do that, you know, believe me, I've looked. Unless I hand out polaroids in advance, they never twig."
"There's some sherry over there. I made sure the nurses leave some out for you, but I wasn't sure if you still like it. Sometimes you'd drink a lake of the stuff and others wouldn't touch a drop."
"Nonsense!" the other reproves. "If you like it, it's got to be good."
He takes a shot glass, swigs it, convulses and silently empties the mouthful back into the glass, retching.
"Thought that counts," he rasps.
A faint frown. "You're wearing a bowtie."
The toothy grin, recognizable no matter what the face. "Yes I am. Isn't it cool?"
"Not particularly, no. It reminds me. How you were when we first met."
"Yes! Subways and platforms and fungus! Fungus from Yeti. Yeti fungus! Tastes horrible, kill you in three seconds flat, smells like damn popcorn! You and me, running through the tunnels, we bumped straight into each other - thwack! And your little tartan hat you wore back then, it went flying! You made me pick it up... at gunpoint, I remember."
"You'd hit your head. You kept calling me Brett Vyon. Never did find out why."
"Brett Vyon. Haven't thought about him in ages. Well, a couple of weeks anyway. He was a bit like you. Same jaw. Same hair colour. Plus he held me at gunpoint when we first met. But that was way way away. Three streets on past two millennia."
"And what happened to him?"
"Nothing. Hasn't been born yet."
An arched eyebrow. "I'm not in the mood, Doctor. Answer the question."
"What question?" Worry. Then, without changing his voice. "Oh that question, the question you just asked, a very good question. Bretty Vyony question. Him? He... well. It was Daleks."
"Ah." Understanding. "Exterminated, poor chap?"
"Not quite." Uncomfortable. "More a sort of... family issue. Never mind! Look at you, eh? The Brigadier! Or is it General now? They keep promoting you but you never call yourself anything but Brigadier."
Weak chuckle. "I wonder where I got that from."
"I heard about Peru."
"I should hope so. You bored me rigid on several lunchtimes going on about how you met the aliens that influenced the architecutre."
"Which was why UNIT asked you to go there and deal with the rift." A statement. Not a question. Regret.
"I am still technically their chief scientific advisor." A wink. "And I negotiated a far better fee than you ever did."
"Not fair. I wasn't sure what year I was in. Still not, if I'm honest. Besides, what's the point in worrying about decimalization when Black Monday could be around the corner?" The tangent fades. "You closed the rift."
Relaxed, philosophical. "I closed the rift."
Quiet. "That was quite possibly the most stupid and dangerous thing anyone on this entire planet has done or ever will do."
A smile. "As I said: I closed the rift."
"It didn't have to be you!" Hurt. Anger. "I could have done it."
"You were busy." Frown. "Don't look like that. I've only known this face five minutes and I don't like that look. I know all about the Sontarans and the Daleks, planets in the sky and satnav going bonkers. And that Christmas with the Master. I've never been one to begrudge prioritizing emergencies."
Upset. Beginning to pace. Mad gesticulations. "How did you even KNOW what to do?" Frustration now. "Closing a five-dimensional space-time rift caused by Exxilion power relays... that's not something they cover in the UNIT training video! I know, I directed it and I don't care what anyone says, by the way, that camera work will really catch on now the iPod's been invented..." Drifting on topic, cheering up again. Then sad. "How did you know?"
A sigh. Eyes closed. "Well, I assumed it would work the same way as that other rift. The Medusa Cascade, wasn't it? You managed to close it single-handed..."
"And it cost me. It cost me a lot. It's STILL costing me. And... how do YOU know about the Medusa Cascade?"
"Oh, spare me some respect, Doctor. You think I didn't recognize you in Peru? You may have had a face full of clavicles and ears like doors on a mini, but it was definitely you. I didn't know at the time, you see, why you were so upset. Why you wanted to pretend you were just some passing navvy. But you couldn't help yourself, could you? Giving us hints, grinning that smile of yours you could bluff the Grim Reaper with a pair of fours... could have used a thesaurus, though. There are other superlatives apart from 'fantastic'."
A nod. "I didn't want you to know... well. About the war."
"Well, I do now." Opens eyes. "Do you want me to tell you for the upteenth time you did the right thing?"
A weak laugh. "It's always nice. Things got put in perspective a while back, a... close friend... convinced me. I did what I had to."
"And so did I."
"You could have called for help!" Sudden, snarling anger. "I would have come if you asked! I always do! Every time!"
"You disconnected that telegram. You even left an insulting answer machine message."
"So I did." Emotionless. "Bit of a bad night. But YOU could still call me. You had the number. And I would have come."
"Of course you would." Kind. "Doctor, what do you suppose it was like down there? The sky splitting in two? Me surrounded by the dead, cursing your name and charging into the fray, blood on my lips?" A laugh or maybe a cough. "No. It wasn't a picnic, Doctor, but I went in with my eyes open. I could have called for help, and if it hadn't worked, I would have. I've sent a lot of men to their deaths, Doctor."
"I know the feeling."
"I'm a soldier, Doctor, and so were they. I had to sacrifice troops, but I never did it lightly. And if I could have saved the day, from Autons to Zygons, by putting myself at ground zero, I would have. And in Peru, that situation arose." Softer. "Look at me, Doctor. I was never going to live forever. You and I both know it's something to be avoided. And isn't it better to go out this way, by your own choice, with some dignity and knowing you did good?"
A silent nod. "Yes. But it's not fair."
A mild look of surprise. "You mean things are supposed to be fair? Fine time to tell me now, I must say." Another painful cough.
"I don't..." Clears throat. "You... I wish... you could stay."
A nod. "You managed to cope for 450 years before we met, Doctor. I dare say you'll manage once I'm gone."
"Manage? Who wants to manage? Manage isn't good! Manage is dull it's bad it's making do because everything's awful when it should be better! Manage is third place, the one no one ever chooses because it's, it's rubbish! Third-place rubbish!"
"Articulate as ever." Smiling affectionately. "But what's the matter?"
Eyes widen. Voice a whisper. "The matter, Alistair, is you're DYING. And I can't fix it, I can't stop it, I can't do anything! The rift energies are dispersing and they're taking you with it! Not even the TARDIS..."
"That's why you're angry and that's why you're upset. But not why you're afraid."
"What makes you think I'm afraid?"
"Because it's so unusual it's easy to spot. To the trained eye."
A long pause.
"I'm going to die."
"I found out about my future. I know how I die. On a beach in America somewhere, very soon. I don't save the universe. I just... die. Shot dead by an assassin who doesn't even want me gone."
A real frown. Genuine concern. "You said the future is never set in stone."
"Not always. But this time... it is. I can't change it. It's going to happen, it's always happened. It's happening right now. All the things we've done, they depend on me dying beside that lake. There are witnesses and stuff. Whole lives unfold from that day. And, I... I tried to be all mature and grown up and reasonable about it. I really did. I promised, I wouldn't be a hypocrite, I'd know my time is up and wouldn't complain or feel cheated... I wanted to do it with dignity, like... like..."
"Like I am?"
"I'm flattered. I really am."
"But I keep putting it off. I've got a time machine, I can do that."
"And you can't change it?"
A wary glance left and right, checking each way. "In strictest confidence..."
A chuckle. "I thought as much. Well. Go on."
"You know some way out of this. Take it."
"What? That I'd demand you suffer the same fate as the rest of us? Come, Doctor. You saved me in those tunnels all those years ago. I'd be just another body in the cobwebs if it weren't for you. All these years I've had, are thanks to you. And I'm grateful, Doctor. You've done wonderful things, you have made this world a better place. And this is just one planet - I dread to think what the rest of the universe would by like without you helping."
"Not everyone thinks that."
"Since when did you care what other people think? I mean, the bowtie..."
"Bowties are cool."
"Name me one place where they are."
"No point. You never heard of it. And it's got a really complicated post code."
"Doctor. I've seen you old and young, tall and short, taciturn to the point you might as well have been mute and as chatty as you are now. I've seen you face down Cabinet ministers, alien warlords and even Miss Grant when she was pouting. So why on Earth are you so... so... shaken? Just who's put the wind up you?"
A long pause.
"Are you afraid of me?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Seriously. Me. You. Afraid of. You ever look at me and feel scared? Did I ever make you feel like... I dunno. That I could hurt you?"
"It seems a rather odd time to ask me that, Doctor."
"It's important. It might be the most important thing in the world."
"No, Doctor. I never felt that way. Even after that two week sulk when you refused to come out of the TARDIS."
"Yes. You really were childish then."
"You shouldn't have done what you did."
"Perhaps not. But I wasn't the only one who made mistakes that day."
"Good point. Well made."
"Why are you worried you scared me?"
"Because I'm very scary, apprently. Even when I'm not trying to be. I roll into town, save the day, fight the monsters and... people get scared. They see what they can do. There's a world out there where they think the word 'doctor' means 'great warrior'. They've seen me fight, Brigadier. They think of me as a goblin and a trickster that can tear down a world."
A yawn. "Yes."
Frightened. "You agree?"
"Agree? That was the reason I hired you, Doctor! The reason I put up with you using a canary yellow roadster in public, picking fights with everyone that could possibly help UNIT in the government, and spending the gross domestic product on gizmos to repair that wretched TARDIS of yours. The first day I met you, Doctor, I met a creature from beyond the stars. Something without a body. Something that Lovecraft character would have wet himself if they'd met. The Great Intelligence - and he was frightened of you, Doctor. And back then you looked even more ridiculous and less impressive than you do now!"
"You thought I was a weapon?"
A sideways look. "Nothing wrong with a weapon, Doctor. Civilization wouldn't get far without the concept of sharp blades. The question is whether it's used to stab someone in an alleyway for their wallet - or perform surgery to save a life. That day, Doctor, I saw a man who terrified a monster from space. And that man was willing to die for me, for that girl Victoria, for London. The whole world. That's like me being willing to die for a ladybird. You can do terrible things, Doctor. I don't doubt it. But I doubt you will. Because I've seen you, time and time again, given the choice. And you never take it."
"Not everyone sees it like that."
"What? Like the Daleks?"
"And the Cybermen. And the Silence."
"Don't remember them."
"They're very forgettable."
"You scare them rigid, do you, Doctor? All those monsters and warriors and the like?"
"I terrify them. I drive them to huge lengths. They think I'm fighting a war against them. They think... I'm a monster."
The old man laughs. "Pathetic!"
"They are! Good grief, man, they're just using you as a scapegoat! The Daleks are scared of you, so they blame you for everything? Did they ever try talking to you, Doctor? Did they ever try NOT gliding around exterminating people? If they did, would you really turn up on their doorsteps and murder them in their beds? These Silence chappies, I suppose, are sweet and loveable whenever you're not stopping them from conquering the universe and if you just went away and left them to it we'd all be in a utopia?"
"I don't think so. They kidnapped a child, the child of friends of mine."
"Then I can safely say they don't have the moral high ground." Firm, with a strength belying the age and frailty. "They're making you doubt yourself because you're your own worst critic. You know Benton nearly put you on suicide watch after Miss Grant left? Week after week you blaming yourself for every single thing, as though you couldn't remember how HAPPY you made her! The fun you had!"
A long coughing fit, enough to make the other consider calling a nurse.
"These new enemies of yours..." Croaking, rough. "They're smarter than the usual standard. They're making you doubt yourself. It's more effective than a bullet. Believe me. You don't kidnap children to win a war. That means you are the better man. And if you don't believe me, and you don't believe that ragtag army of friends of yours, then who DO you believe in?"
"I believe in you."
"Good. Nice to know you've finally got some respect for your employer."
"You never did give me a reference."
"Fiction writing was never my strong point." A sigh. "You're not a monster, Doctor. I've fought monsters, I know monsters and you... as the saying goes... are no monster. But you've obviously been doing something wrong if you're feeling this guilty about things. And no, don't tell me. I'll just pretend it was something nice and simple like trampling a butterfly or something like that. But whatever it is, Doctor, put a stop to it. Do that, and you will be able to see how much of their... their smear campaign is just... blather. Waffle."
A faint smile. "Guess so."
"If you're not going to trust yourself, Doctor, then don't trust the opinions of people trying to conquer the world. They might just, in the remotest possibility, be lying for their own ends."
"Especially if they're wearing eyepatches."
A groan. "Not the eyepatch story again."
A sad smile. "No. Not this time. I've got things to do, places to go, people to see."
"I suppose it's not possible for me to come with you?"
"You wouldn't like it. Utah. Summer. Hot and dry and not a bit like drizzly old England." Blows out cheeks. "I really wish you could."
"Then I'll stay here. And when you've sorted it out, you can come back and tell me in detail how brilliant you are."
Nod. "I'll try. But, if we don't see each other..."
"...then that wretched TARDIS of yours has missed again and dumped you on Metabelis Three." A smile. "That's what usually happens, isn't it?"
He lifts a hand that seems to weigh so much and so little simulteanously.
The other shakes it.
"I tell lots of people they're my best friend. But I think, at the end of the day, it might just be you, Brigadier."
"'Pompous self-opinionated military idiot'."
"I know. You should hear what I call people I REALLY don't like."
"How many faces of yours have I seen so far?"
"Eleven. Dare I ask if it was in the right order?"
"Mostly." A cautious blink. "Did you ever have a favorite?"
A twinkle in the eye. "How could I? You were a splendid chap. All of you."
The hands are shaken.
The other heads to the door and snaps off a smart salute of a British officer.
The old man waggles his fingers in a bizarrely informal manner.
The other leaves. Moments later a strange grinding of ancient engines is heard and, still smiling, the old man slides into a deep, dreamless sleep.