There's only one Police Box worth climbing into, the big blue doors and the shining windows that can't possibly show the wonders they close inside. There are other Police Boxes (one ratty example sitting right outside the Earls Court station, big security camera on top—Sherlock expects it's Mycroft keeping an eye out for anyone who'd have reason to climb into a Police Box). There's no mistaking those boxes for the fantastical box that swings through stars and lights up the universe, no chance of opening a door to a room that's the proportion it's supposed to be and a phone line to the police.
There is, however, a chance of climbing into the wrong TARDIS.
Sherlock notices a difference at once, even before John blindly blunders in through the door halfway through a sentence. And Sherlock is quick in behind him, even after John has stopped dead right inside the door, and the detective snaps the door shut decisively behind the both of them. Eyes gleaming and cat smile bending the corners of his mouth in excitement.
"This is... wrong," John says, voice unsure and looking up at the huge bending columns that look like the branches of alien trees, the console, the dark colors, all wrong. "Sherlock."
But the man has already moved on up the catwalk of the entrance at a quick leap, taking every little change in.
"You don't suppose he changed it while we were out?" John asks, following tentatively, lowering his brows in concern. "Can he do that?"
"Don't be an idiot," Sherlock muses, turning in a complete circle once he stands beside the console (the array all wrong, where's the wibbly lever? where's the toggles and the flashing red buttons and all the really interesting stuff? Even the roundels aren't like they should be, everything looks so dark and where's the whimsy?). "The outside of the box isn't as it should be, either. Almost as if she's a completely different box." He smiles again, claps his hands together excitedly.
"Different box?" John asks, joining Sherlock and looking about as if he expects some sort of attack from the unfamiliar surroundings. "But it... feels the same."
"Yes," Sherlock says, and he removes his gloves to gently place one hand on the console. The entire room seems to hum pleasantly. John's shoulders ease at once. "She's the same TARDIS, there's no mistaking that. But she's changed."
They listen to her breathe quietly for what feels like a long time. John takes a deep breath—the air has the same feel to it, heavy with years seen and unspent, and it's fortifying. Good to know that they're someplace familiar, even if it doesn't look to be. "So," he begins quietly, as if someone were listening in, "same TARDIS, different time?" he asks.
Sherlock nods. "I can't place it off-hand, whether it's before or after the time we've spent here. Or if it even belongs to the same Doctor."
"There's only one Doctor," John says immediately, almost defensively. Only one man as daft as theirs in the entire universe, one man so wonderful and infuriating.
Sherlock shrugs it off. "Not the face we would be used to, anyway," he amends. He's seen River's book (she could hide it as well as she liked, nothing was too difficult for Sherlock's pickpocketing), seen all the faces that the Doctor had worn over the centuries (swore that he's seen the one with the blond curls while they were rushing through the Battle of Trafalgar under zinging bullets and the pound of cannon fire). "Which could this be?" he wonders quietly, beginning to circle the console.
"Sherlock," John hisses, and he grabs the man's arm at the first sound of noise from somewhere in the TARDIS.
The detective smirks brightly. "Once a stowaway," he says before he tugs John away to hide. Down the metal steps and into the crawlspace under the console platform (so tight and stuffy, this TARDIS, the need to wear oneself close to the cuff, give away nothing).
The man they see walk into the console room is tall (maybe even taller than Sherlock), hair a flyaway mess, brown pinstripe suit and a tie. Trainers. A bit of the daft old man they know hidden in a different man with a different face—but the eyes are the same. Eyes full of the universe and sometimes so, so sad.
He pulls something on the console, and the TARDIS makes a happy noise. Stares at the screen that reads something out in old Gallifreyan to him. And, without turning from the instruments, he says: "All right, that's enough hiding."
They know when they've been caught, so John and Sherlock rise to their feet and join the man on the console platform. He doesn't look stern, doesn't look surprised, doesn't look much of anything, at first. Appraising without being searching. Then, the mask of stoicism breaks, and he flashes them an honest, toothy smile. "Trying to hitch a ride in my box?"
John can't help himself when the Doctor smiles. Because that's the man he knows, that's the Doctor. John smiles right back.
"Just stumbled in," Sherlock says, and it's the truth (truth insomuch as they did stumble in, not so much that they know exactly what a TARDIS is and who owns her and what sort of adventures they've stumbled across in the big wide universe with her).
"Who are you?" the Doctor asks, leaning casually back against the console. "Human enough, or look like, at least."
John opens his mouth to answer, but Sherlock interrupts: "I'm afraid we can't tell you, Doctor."
The Doctor doesn't say anything at first. Stares them through with the sort of eyes John knows too well—he's married to a pair of them. Detective's eyes, ones that can stare right through you, know exactly what you're thinking. A clever little smirk pops onto his mouth, because he knows he's clever. He's a bit like Sherlock, this Doctor. Very clever. And he knows it.
"You boys know exactly where you are, then! Well, you know me, anyhow. Well, one of me. There's a couple of those running around." He animatedly joins their side from the console, snapping a pair of glasses onto his face and inspecting them closely. "Don't have to introduce myself, then, saves me the trouble. But I don't have any names for you, what good is that? I can't just go around calling you both Jeff, where's the fun in that?" He waves his arms exaggeratedly around his head. "Jeff, have you seen Jeff? No! See, that just doesn't work."
John smiles, meets Sherlock's sideways glance, then says: "Well, I'm John."
"Good name, John," the Doctor says, shoving his hands into his pockets and rolling on the balls of his feet. "Met a good couple Johns. Except Prince John, he was a bit rubbish. Not exactly the heart of a lion," he adds with a far-off look and a shrug.
"Call me David," Sherlock offers, hardly containing his mirth.
"You don't look like a David," the Doctor pursues, squinting through his frames.
"Call me David," Sherlock insists.
"All right, all right," the Doctor backs off. "Now, since it's a bit obvious, John and David, that you're not exactly when you belong, I think it's best you go on and get back to whichever me you're used to bothering. I'm sure I'm—" A strange quirk of his eyebrow and a tick of his mouth, "—he's missing you."
"Yes, don't want to wear out our welcome," Sherlock says and, with a sweep of his coat, he turns away for the door.
John doesn't move. His eyes linger, follow the curve of the console room, the green light and the welcoming hum. When they fall on the Doctor, the man's animated face has fallen again. Not into sadness, but into the staid stillness that hides it.
"You're all alone," John says, and his eyes say it all. The Doctor's mouth puckers into a frown, and his throat bobs once.
"I wasn't always," he says, tries for a smile.
And John doesn't know this Doctor, not really, not this version of the man he's traveled with and come to love and respect and protect. But that doesn't stop him from throwing his arms around the skinny man and pulling him close to his chest. He separates quickly, and there's determination in his eyes when he does.
He marches to Sherlock's side, and the whispered conversation is low and succinct. The Doctor, brows suddenly knit in concern, stands on his toes to lean in, as if to hear better. But in seconds, both John and Sherlock are mounting the console platform again. The Doctor, thoroughly confused and concerned, opens his mouth to speak—especially when Sherlock steps up to the controls, gives them a studied glance, and knows exactly where everything is.
"Sorry, Doctor," Sherlock says as he presses his thumb to a series of buttons and flips a lever.
"Hey, hey!" the Doctor snaps, and attempts to leap in and stop the detective from his work, but John stops him with a grin.
"You're being hijacked," John says brightly.
"I'm afraid you have little choice in the matter," Sherlock adds, and suddenly, the engines start, and the central column whirs to life. The Doctor stands flabbergasted, whips off his glasses and stares first at the console, then to the man—the man he doesn't even know—flying his TARDIS.
"What?" he bleats, shocked beyond all reason. "What?"
The Doctor can hardly believe. This man can fly the TARDIS (almost as good as he can; he gets lost on the controls only once, and he claims difficulties in the layout—suggests that the Doctor move this lever to the other side of the console when he gets a mind to change things up), this man knows how to get to Castor (well, one of the moons orbiting the second planet out from Castor, but let's not split hairs). No one knows how to fly the TARDIS, leastways not properly.
Sherlock flies, and the Doctor and John lean out the door and watch the stars fly by. The colors of the universe shining for them, the clouds of nebulae winking with distant diamonds cascading through the black velvet of infinite space. Planets looming and suns flaring with myriad colors as they sail effortlessly by. The Doctor watches, his smile brimming and the stars reflected in his eyes.
As they drift by they beating heart of the Indivia Galaxy, violets and pale blues pulsating as the hearts of stars explode every moment in the swirling middle of the glittering arms, the Doctor turns to John. His eyes never leave the stars below. "I don't watch, anymore," he says quietly. John turns his head and he listens. "I fly her, difficult enough. I never set her in neutral and just watch anymore. I suppose," he says with a sigh that takes his entire chest to unfold, shaking his head, "I forgot about it."
"How?" John asks.
"Oh, you know how it is," the Doctor waffles, shrugging. "So many people in and out, all the running—you know about the running—"
"Oh yes," John laughs.
"—there's always the adventure, and there's so much of it, I've just stopped... stopping, I suppose." He's quiet for a long time, and they just watch, take in the sight as the TARDIS hums. Sherlock sets her in flight, and he joins them at the door, all three sets of legs dangling out into nothing. Fits his arm quietly around John, who tucks his head under Sherlock's chin, and all three silently watch the progression of the universe.
"When you stop," Sherlock begins at last, "you think. And you've come to some sort of point that the last thing you want to do is reflect."
"Stop that," the Doctor says, sitting up and pointing accusingly at the detective. "You're trying to get in my head, and trust me, really trust me, it's not a place you want to be."
"Please," Sherlock chides, staring the Doctor down (as he's done so many times, ego-to-ego). "I've had worse."
And the Doctor hardly settles, fixes Sherlock with a hard, warning expression, but he doesn't move. Keeps those trainers hanging out the door, swinging like a child's. Sherlock narrows his eyes only slightly; the Doctor he knows speaks so freely about his past sometimes that he wonders why this version of the man seems so uptight (locked box that no one should ever, on any account open). But he'd never spoken about the Daleks until they'd met up with a saucerful of them. He wonders if he's ever heard any stories about this time in the Timelord's life, if he's kept that box sealed even now. What could be so horrible that the Doctor refused to remember it?
"You lost someone," Sherlock says, and it's very quiet. Because he's seen the Doctor's eyes when death came oh so close to swallowing one or all of them. It happened almost every other day, the running and the danger, but he'll never forget how the Doctor had looked finding John dead at all the wrong angles in the Dalek ship.
The Doctor doesn't react as planned. And Sherlock can see everything in that over-expressive face (the one that looks like it should be smiling).
"More than that," Sherlock deduces one further. "You see yourself as dangerous because of it. Distancing yourself from the people you need to keep you grounded."
"That's enough," John says suddenly.
And the Doctor will always remember him for that.
"So, I've got you to look forward to," the Doctor says after what feels like a long time.
"My lips 're sealed," John says.
"You won't get anything from us," Sherlock adds, meeting the Doctor's eye with a smirk. "You're clever enough to know without our telling you."
"Right enough," the Timelord acknowledges with a nod, shifting to hide the prideful look in his eyes. He looks as though he wants to know, and Sherlock can read it all in his face (a face he learned to read, not when it belongs to this incarnation, but there's no changing that face completely). The Doctor wants to know if it will get better, if it will always be this cold and empty when he's left alone, if it will end badly and if he'll ever find respite.
And Sherlock can't leave him like this, with no answers, hopeless. Because he'll never admit it to the man's face, but he loves him and everything he's done for them. "Doctor," he says, and he suddenly has the man's full attention. Plain-faced, staring one another down. "Whatever it is you do from here, don't lose sight of yourself."
The Doctor doesn't say anything at first, and then he shifts again and he laughs. "I don't like meeting you lot out of order. You know too much for your own good. Well, my own good." But he smiles.
"Get used to it," John laughs.
"Oh," the Doctor says when John and Sherlock arrive back on the right TARDIS to the right Doctor. He glances between the two of them awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot like a child. "It's happened, then, has it?"
Sherlock nods. But John approaches and stabs the Doctor in the chest with a hard, accusatory finger.
"Talk," he demands, jaw fixed with cement. The lead drop of John's voice, something he used very little but always managed to produce results.
At first, the Doctor claims he doesn't know what the two of them are talking about and horribly mangles an attempt to change the subject to the upside-down mountains on the outskirts of the crystal city on Tamburra. And it takes Amy holding him down with John's help (and Rory is more confused about it than anything, but now he's interested and he sticks around) before he'll admit defeat.
They all gather around him, and the TARDIS lights are dim, and the Doctor's face is full of that dark sadness John and Sherlock remember from a different TARDIS and a different face (the lights of exploding stars reflecting in those glassy eyes).
He tells them about a brilliant woman who never believed in herself until the end, amazingly funny with a heart even she didn't know was so large. Solid enough to keep even the Doctor grounded, not afraid to put him in his place. And how she can never remember all the work she'd put into the universe, or him. How he'll never forget her.
He tells them about the man who had been his fast and only friend when he was child. How he'd watched him die time and time again, and how at the end, he'd done the right thing at last. He's never told anyone how much he'll miss the only man he would ever call his arch enemy.
He tells them about the girl who saved him, turned him from a sad remnant of a destroyer covered in the ashes of his own people. How she'd made him smile again, after he thought he'd never have the reason to. Full of light and spirit, reminded him that, even when the world is ending, it's all right to have fun. And how he can never see her again.
Stories of brave Adric, beautiful and amazing Sarah Jane, the incredible man he only called the Brigadier. All of them gone. He never forgets a face, once it walks through those TARDIS doors. He remembers all of them, loves all of them, and all of them change him for the better.
Amy pulls him into her arms, smooths his hair. Rory hands him the cup of tea in his hand, watches him closely, sadly. The Doctor smiles, even if it is sad, at Sherlock and John.
And they all wonder, once they've gone and passed out of the Doctor's life, what stories he'll tell about them.
AN: Welp, I'm back. You can't keep me out of here forever. I just love writing in this little universe I've created far too much to give it up just because I kill my characters off. I was struck by the inspiration to do a "wrong TARDIS" meeting, and I was even going to have Donna appear, but then I just had to have emo!Doc be cheered up, even just a little bit. I've never really written for Ten before (seriously, anyway) and I hope he turned out all right and distinguishable from Eleven. I just hope you have as much fun reading as I did writing. Thanks again for letting me spin you a yarn, leave us some love, and don't forget to STAY AWESOME!