If you can't be civil, you'd better finish the story for yourself.
--The Dormouse, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.
Wilf is waiting for him, one old soldier performing one last duty. The Doctor is so tired of old things, and of duty.
He wants one new suit, a nice new suit to die in. Humans do that for their dead, give their used-up old bodies nice new suits to be put to rest. Why not the Doctor? And there's something so terribly maudlin about regenerating in the rags and tatters of a suit that would never be worn again, never be cleaned up or repaired: he should know, he's only done it half a dozen times. It's not the worst thing-- not as bad as the dying itself-- but it still isn't what anyone would call nice. It's sentimental, and yes, maybe even this, too, is maudlin, but the Doctor wants the first thing his next self feels to be clean and new, even if whoever he becomes shucks it off right after.
The Doctor shoulders aside the door to the wardrobe room and finds, not ranks of clothes, but only an empty shell of a room, with the big free-standing mirror standing all alone in the middle of the space.
"What's this?" he asks the TARDIS.
The TARDIS hums unhelpfully.
The Doctor peers into the tall mirror. It is, of course, bigger on the inside: in the reflection is a bright patch of red turf and a few cheerful silver trees clustered around a long white table filled with tea things, pots and cups and kettles and pitchers and jars and spoons and saucers and vases of roses. One end of the table is on fire, all leaping gold flames with blue hearts and black smoke. At the other end of the table are two figures, bickering quietly amongst themselves.
"Come in, come in," the figure in a gray waistcoat and a bottle-green velvet jacket calls. "Plenty of room."
"You're lettin' in the draft," the figure in a black jumper under a black leather jacket grumbles.
The Doctor sighs, deeply and tiredly, and clambers through the frame of the mirror. The TARDIS sighs with him.
"Which of you is the Mad Hatter, then?" the Doctor asks, dusting invisible dust off his battered brown suit jacket.
"Not me," the man in black shrugs, spooning sugar into his tea. "Don't do hats."
"You don't do hair, either," the man in green and gray remarks.
"Shut it," the black man says, licking the spoon, then regards the Doctor once more. "You see? No one here but us dormice."
"Behave," the green and gray man reproves, and takes the spoon away.
"What is this place?" the Doctor asks them.
"Don't you know?" the man in black asks.
"Of course he doesn't," the man in green and gray tells him, and reaches for a tea pot. "You didn't even, for a while. Why should he?" The teapot is bright copper, with little beads all over like a sea-urchin. He pours a cup, neatly, sets it on a saucer, and places them down at the empty seat between himself and the man in black.
"Come and sit down," the man in green and gray tells him.
The Doctor walks over the springy red grass, between the spindly silver trees and sits down.
"You're me, aren't you?" he asks him. "You're my eighth self."
"You could say we are you," his other self says glibly. "But it would be more accurate to say, you were us. Biscuit?"
"I remember that, now," the Doctor says, taking one, "but I don't remember this."
"Story time," his other other self grumbles, elbows the man in green and gray. "You do it."
The eighth Doctor smooths his cravat, clears his throat, arches a deliberate eyebrow at the ninth Doctor. "Once upon a time there were three little sisters," he says with great deliberation, "and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well--"
"Oh, sod off," his ninth self groans. "We made it," he tells the tenth Doctor, "back during the Time War. Illegal, yeah, but so was everythin' else." He takes a biscuit for himself. "Didn't think you'd ever find your way in, you know. Hoped you wouldn't."
The Doctor is not sure whether to feel affronted or embarrassed.
"He means," his eighth self says, "that this place should be accessible only to incarnations of ourselves who have intersected the Time War. I anchored overlapping personal metachronal pocket dimensions to the Eye of Harmony, so this space would have encapsulated after the War was time-locked. But you, our-- our tenth self, yes?-- you are here nonetheless. Ergo, either I did a rather poor job of encapsulating, or our dear Nine did a rather poor job of locking."
"Well," the tenth Doctor says, "I am here-- it was the time war, by the way, Nine, great job on that one-- and so why do I still not remember any of this? I am your senior, aren't I? It feels all weird."
"Oh, that," the eighth Doctor says. "We programmed a conservation of temporal relativity in; all memories, actions, and consequences generated remain generator specific. The Nines got terrible headaches, otherwise."
The eighth Doctor looks surprised, then rueful. "I suppose you wouldn't recall that, either. During the war our timeline lost cohesion as a natural result of the nature of our, ah, endeavors."
"The fact that Eight here," the man in black gestures rudely, "sold his ninth life to the Never-Been King didn't help any. There were quite a lot of me for a while."
"I told you, it seemed like a good idea at the time, Nine," Eight says, smiling faintly.
"Everything does to you," Nine scolds him, but he's smiling too. It seems an old argument, between the two of them.
"Thus," Eight continues, turning back to, well, Ten, "as past no longer lead to future, or at least the same future, my host of potential successors and I could pool our knowledge and all end up the wiser for it. And yes, there were rather a lot of him. Some had the most dreadful faces."
"One of me was a girl," Nine says innocently. "I had the most enormous pair of--"
"--sonic earrings." Nine grins like a shark. "What was that, Eight? Did I have any other assets worth mentioning?"
Is it the tenth Doctor's imagination, or does Eight go slightly pink? Ooh, but he really doesn't want to go there.
"Anyway," Eight says severely.
"Anyway, it was all pretty quantum," Nine continues, "until I locked up the Time War and collapsed the multiform wave back down to a line again and pop! Just me again. I was the only one that could have survived, therefore I was the only that did. No idea about those other me's till I wound up back here. But fair's fair, it was a good run, this me."
"He was my favorite, anyway," Eight tells Ten.
"I was not," Nine protests, "you liked that leggy old professor bloke. With the awful coat." Nine steals a biscuit off Ten's plate.
"He was stylish."
"He looked like Inspector Gadget's dad," Nine tells Ten, and pops the biscuit in his mouth. "Lord Byron here was positively enamored."
Eight gives Ten another biscuit. "Yes, well, as least he had manners."
Nine smirks. "And a wind-up Master."
"What?" the tenth Doctor yelps.
"He had three different settings, see--"
"That's enough of that," Eight says severely. Nine just keeps on smirking.
Ten sips at his tea and contemplates the fire at the other end of the table. The stems of the flowers are like bones, in the flames, the fine china ash-blackened and ruinous. The char-line is advancing upon them as slowly as an afternoon shadow, but advancing nonetheless.
"What happens when the table burns up?" he asks his fellows.
"When it what?" one of them asks.
"When it burns up. It's on fire. Right over there. Didn't you notice?"
The two other Doctors turn and regard the burning end of the table.
"Goodness," the eighth Doctor says.
"Huh," the ninth Doctor says, frowns, scratches his head. "Are you sure it's not just you?"
"I-- well, no." The tenth Doctor sets his tea down before he drops it. "Good lord, I don't know. Is it?"
Eight looks at Nine. Nine looks at Eight. They both look at the fire, then back at Ten.
"You're not alright, are you?" Nine asks. "You're dying, aren't you? I thought you must be, your suit's a disaster. And it's all ripped up."
"Well, you know, how it is," Ten says evasively. "What kind of biscuits are these? They're delicious."
"--And, and the icing is very nice! Don't get biscuits like this often, been pretty busy, well, not that busy, but too busy for fancy biscuits with little icing roses and such--"
"I'm sorry," Nine says.
"No, really, I am." Nine pats his hand. "I was hoping you'd... be alright, you know?"
Ten looks at their hands.
"I know. Has--" he breaks off, fusses with his fancy biscuit. "Have you seen...?"
"The new guy?" Nine asks.
"Your next incarnation?" Eight asks. He lays his hand gently on Ten's wrist. "No," he says, "he hasn't come here."
"Would you know?"
"I would know," Eight says.
"Good," the Doctor says, and his voice cracks. "That's... very good."
Eight and Nine look at him, and their eyes are sad and gentle and understanding, and their eyes are his own eyes, like kind mirrors.
In this strange little space, he can afford to be kind to himself.
"You are dying again, aren't you?" Eight asks.
"I am, yes."
"It's always hard when you don't want to," Eight says, and flicks a mild look over at Nine.
Nine glowers, defensively, and takes a biscuit. "You don't, do you?" he asks Ten threateningly, and crams the whole thing into his mouth.
Ten closes his eyes so he doesn't have to see them seeing him, presses his face into his hands to stop them shaking. Neither works. The air smells of smoke, of burning roses.
"No," he agrees, and his voice is so small. "I don't want to die."
Strong hands grip his shoulders, a warm iron-and-leather smell comes up against him.
"Was it good?" Nine asks, something strange and urgent in his tone, in his face, "Your life? Was it good? Did you do it right? Were you happy? Was it worth it?"
"No," Ten says, and Nine crumples in place, knocks over his teacup on to the biscuits with his elbows. His hands on Ten's shoulders are limp as dead things, and his face hangs slack and empty.
"No," Nine repeats. "No?"
"He's lying," Eight says calmly, and rights the teacup. "You know how we get."
"It was bad," Ten says, a trifle petulantly, and Nine looks back and forth between them.
"You had Rose," he says, leaning forwards again-- half challenge, half supplication.
"I lost her."
"You were handsome!"
"It didn't help things any."
"There weren't any Daleks!"
"They came back. They always come back."
"Enough," Eight says firmly. "Don't be such children." For a moment he is grand and gray and terrible, his flesh ravaged by toxic radiation and his bones gnarled from endless combat and his eyes full of terrible blue fire.
The ninth and tenth Doctors slowly let go of each other's shirt collars and sit back down.
The eighth Doctor, a perfect gentleman, pours another cup of tea for both of them.
"That's better," he says. "Sugar?"
"Yes, thank you," Ten says hastily.
"No." Nine hesitates. "...Thank you."
"I'm beginning to recall why you weren't so fond of Jackie Tyler," Ten murmurs to his previous self, who chokes on his tea.
"A formidable woman, as I've heard," Eight remarks.
"What happened to her?" Nine asks, "to her and, and Rose? Are they...?"
"They're good. They're, they're-- well. There was this alternate universe, right, with zeppelins and Rose's dad..." the tenth Doctor says, and breaks off. Swallows a lump in his throat. How many times must he tell this story before it stops hurting? He sets his cup down.
"Good." Nine steals the sugar pot when Eight isn't looking, spoons some into his cup.
Ten raises an eyebrow.
"All of our stories should be long," his ninth self says, raises his teacup, "the longer the better. But I'm telling you now, mate, Rose and Jackie had better be alright."
Ten smiles a little, clicks their cups together. "They're alright. They're better than alright-- they're fantastic."
"Well then." Nine looks mollified, drains his tea. "It was alright in the end then, wasn't it?"
"Nothing ends," Eight says philosophically. "Nothing ever ends."
"Shut it," Nine and Ten say at the same time, then exchange startled glances and busy themselves with refilling their teacups.
There is is a long, peaceful while where they all just sit there and enjoy the tea and biscuits. There is no sunslight, not even in this space, not even with the red grass and the silver trees. But there is a gentle sourceless TARDISlight that surrounds them, and a merry golden light from the fire. It is pleasantly autumnal, especially with the quiet hiss and crackle of the fire, and the clink of Nine fussing with the sugar pot, and the contented silence lasts until Eight's waistcoat chimes.
"Oh!" he says, and pulls out a silver fobwatch. "Oh, my. Haven't seen this around for awhile."
"Oh, really?" Nine asks. "Thought you got rid of it."
"I found it again," Ten says. "He didn't."
"But he said he got rid of it!" Nine exclaims. "I said, it's ruddy dangerous to have bits of yourself just hangin' out for anyone to nick, and he said 'oh gracious me I hadn't thought of it that way you're quite right', ponce that he is, and re-integrated it. Said he re-integrated it."
"Sorry," Ten says. "It was under the bed the whole time."
"Wanker." Nine grunts, and fiercely spoons more sugar into his tea.
"You too," Nine growls, brandishing the spoon.
Eight is busy examining his fobwatch: shakes it a bit, examines it again. It continues chiming in a high, steady tone, like tiny cloister bells.
"Heavens, is that really the time?" he remarks, shakes it once more, dunks it into the nearest teapot-- a deep cobalt blue one, with white squares painted on-- and sighs deeply. "I think you should be going, Doctor."
"I-- me?" the tenth Doctor asks, startled. "Really? It's time? Are you sure?"
Eight nods. His watch is still in the teapot. "Time, yes. Wouldn't want to upset him, you know. Even in here. Especially in here."
"You and your Carroll," Nine grumps, and fishes the watch out of the tea. "Next thing you know you'll be goin' on about crumbs in the works, you daft bastard. But yes, I s'pose he's right, Ten. Time flies, no time like the present, waste not want not, etcetera, etcetera. It'd at least shut the damn watch up."
The Doctor looks around the blank room. "Well, but...Is there... how do I get out of here?"
"Oh, you can check out any time you like," Eight says.
"But you can never leave," Nine says, and they both grin.
Ten frowns chillingly at them. "That was tasteless," he says. "Utterly tasteless."
"Oh, you think you're so mature," Nine says. He waves the dripping watch at a door in a wall that hadn't been there before. "There, that's how you go. Piss off."
"Can't I stay here?"
"We're ghosts, Doctor, no, less than that: we're echoes. Already dead, me 'n him, but you have your dying still to do," Nine says, then scowls. "And you'd better not come back, either."
"It's been a pleasure," Eight says, "but yes, all things must pass."
"And the fire?"
They watch it come closer, down the long white table.
"Perhaps it will go out," the eighth Doctor says, "or perhaps it won't."
"Either way, we'll sort it," the ninth Doctor says. "Or perhaps we won't. None of your business, innit?"
"Yes." The tenth Doctor drains his last cup of tea, sets it down with a resolute clack on the saucer. "Well. Well... I'm off, then."
Eight hands him a final biscuit. "Forget-me-not," he says, glancing down at the icing flower, and smiles. "Maudlin, but appropriate."
"Right," Ten says, and pockets it.
"Good luck." Nine says gruffly.
"Right," Ten says again, and rises. Goes over to the door.
"Oh, and Doctor..." Eight calls, and Ten pauses with his hand on the latch.
"Give our regards to the new guy," Nine tells him, low and soft and sad.
Ten doesn't look behind him. "And all my love for yesterday," he murmurs.
He twists the latch and slips through the door quickly, before he can look back.
He can feel the weight of one fancy biscuit-- iced with delicate flowers-- still in his pocket, even after he shuts the door, even as he walks away. His suit is clean and new against his tired old flesh, the seams neat and even, the creases crisp and sharp.
He smells of sweet tea, red grass, golden fire.
It's not so bad.
Wilf is waiting for him, out in the real world, as is his death, as is his future.
It's a long story, but a good one.