On the mantel there is a photo of a brown-haired man in a bow-tie and a tweed jacket. In her room there is a homemade model of a blue police box. And in her mind there are stories of a man her parents once knew, a man called the Doctor.
Harmony has never met him, but her parents have, and after they tuck her in at night they regale her with stories about the Doctor. She grows up hearing about lizard-people and pirates and the Pandorica. Every day, when she walks to and from school, she has to pass the cemetery; she keeps her eyes on the stone sculptures of angels as she walks, because her mother has told her about how not all stone statues stay statues. On one memorable occasion in history class, her teacher assigns the students an essay; they are to predict the future of England, given what they have learned about Britain's past mistakes and successes. Harmony writes about all the nations going to war and then abandoning Earth, and how England uses a not-quite-enslaved star-whale to support their starship. She gets the paper back with the comment "creative but impossible" scrawled across the top, but her mother tacks the paper onto the fridge door anyway.
Every couple years, Aunt Melody pops in for a visit. Aunt Melody may or may not be related to Harmony by blood; Melody's exact relation to Harmony's parents is never exactly made clear. Nevertheless, Harmony likes her, since Melody is loud and fun and always brings exotic gifts from her travels. One year she gives Harmony a polished silver mask, supposedly traditionally worn by Silurian warriors, and Harmony wears it with her Hallowe'en costume. Since Aunt Melody also speaks about things related to the mysterious Doctor, Harmony doesn't question the man's existence until she is thirteen years old.
It's two weeks past her thirteenth birthday. Harmony rolls her eyes when her mother comes to tuck her in. "I'm too old to be tucked in, Mum."
"I know, I know. I suppose you're too old for stories now, too?" Her mother teases her and tucks a strand of reddish-blonde hair behind her daughter's ear. Harmony gently bats away her mother's hand and sticks out her tongue. When her mother turns off the lights and makes to close the door, Harmony speaks. "Mum?"
"If the Doctor is real, why doesn't he ever come visit us?"
She can't be sure, since it's dark, but she thinks her mother looks distressed by the question. She really shouldn't be surprised, Harmony thinks, because Harmony is clearly too old to believe in fairy tales like the Doctor anymore. Mum is silent, and Harmony presses further.
"Who is the man in the picture? Who is he really, Mum?"
Mum sighs. "He is the Doctor, Harmony. I know you don't believe me anymore, but it's the truth." She closes the door before Harmony can speak again, leaving the girl lying in her bed in the dark, wondering why her mother didn't answer the first question and trying to imagine who the man in the picture might be.
When she is fifteen, Harmony comes to the conclusion that her parents are certifiably insane. She learns about delusions in her psychology class, and realizes that her parents and Aunt Melody suffer from persistent delusions that the Doctor is a real person. It does not help when, about a week after said class, Harmony and her Mum get into a fight.
"No! You can't go, Harmony, it's too dangerous!"
"But Benny's mum said-"
"I don't care what Benny's mum said! I care about you! And you are not going to that party."
Harmony bristles. "So I can't go to one party, but it was okay that you ran off with a strange man who said he owned a time machine?"
Her mother scoffs. "That was different, Harmony. Now-"
"No! It wasn't different. It wasn't even real. For God's sake, Mum, he doesn't even exist but you still care more about him than you do about me!"
Harmony's dad, who has been lingering in another room trying to avoid getting involved, suddenly pokes his head in. "Don't speak to your Mum that way!"
Harmony stares at them in disbelief. "You're crazy," she says. "You're both crazy and you're stupid." She turns and flees up the stairs, slamming the bedroom door behind her. For good measure she opens and slams it shut a couple more times before she flops on her bed and cries. Life would be so much easier if her parents were sane.
For the next few days the house is filled with a thick tension. Harmony actively avoids speaking to her parents, and they in turn say no more about the party or the Doctor. Harmony thinks they must be planning something, because they aren't nagging or even punishing her for yelling at them. She wonders what they have up their sleeves.
It turns out to be Aunt Melody. They know that she adores Melody, and Harmony has to admit that Melody is definitely the most effective weapon that her parents could have chosen. The day Melody arrives everyone acts polite and normal, but over dinner Harmony notices the way her parents and Melody are communicating with their eyes. It's kind of creepy, and after dinner Harmony slips away to her room and closes the door.
If Aunt Melody's stories are true, then Melody has never been stopped by something as trivial as a closed door. She walks into the room with no apparent regard for Harmony's privacy, sits on the bed next to Harmony, and casually says "I heard you got into a fight with your parents."
Harmony shrugs noncommittally. She makes the mistake of glancing up toward Aunt Melody, and is taken aback to see that the curly-haired woman is staring at her really intensely, as if she were reading Harmony's thoughts through her skull. Melody suddenly lifts her right wrist and Harmony notices that she is wearing a cumbersome black cuff that looks like a watch on steroids. "Do you know what this is?"
Harmony, puzzled by the sudden change in subject, says "No."
"This," says Melody, twisting her arm to look at the watch-thing, "is a Vortex Manipulator."
Harmony is skeptical but intrigued. "A what?"
"Vortex manipulator. It makes it possible for humans to travel through time and space."
Harmony remembers the part where her aunt is as crazy as her parents. "Uh huh. Time travel." Why does everyone in her family insist that things like time travel and aliens are real? This is seriously starting to weird her out.
"Come with me." Melody stands up and extends her hand to Harmony.
"Come. With. Me."
There's no way this could possibly go wrong, thinks Harmony sarcastically, but she follows her aunt anyway. Who knows, maybe her aunt will actually attempt to time travel. Could be pretty funny. Her aunt leads Harmony to the backyard (her parents are suspiciously absent), where the grass is wet from the sprinklers and the night air is chilly. Melody is a silhouette against the starry sky, and Harmony notices for the first time how quietly and gracefully her aunt moves. Like a predator hunting prey, she thinks, and shudders.
"Hold onto my left elbow," Melody orders, and Harmony grabs onto the elbow while Melody presses some buttons on her Vortex Manipulator. And then they are not in the backyard anymore. Suddenly the sky is warmly sunny, people are cheering nearby, loud music is blaring from somewhere, and how the hell did they get here?
They are clearly not in Leadworth anymore. They are somewhere else entirely. Harmony finds she can't speak and instead moves her mouth silently. Then she is on her knees and her head is spinning. Melody says "Welcome to Rio in 2008" in an absurdly cheerful voice.
"Wha—What-" She can't form words properly, and continues staring in amazement while Melody pulls her up.
"Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, South America. Year 2008, during Carnival. Your parents and the Doctor are here somewhere, so you have to do exactly as I say and you cannot let them see you."
"My parents and the Doctor," mutters Harmony, still swaying back and forth. There is no way this is real. Maybe she hit her head really hard and this is all a hallucination. An extremely vivid, noisy hallucination.
"I know it's a lot to take in. You'll get used to it." They slip out from behind a store and find themselves in a massive crowd of people. Everyone is packed against everyone else, decked out in eye-searingly bright colours, while confetti showers on them and large, elaborate floats lumber past. Lively Latin music washes over the sweating crowd; Harmony stares and her first coherent thought is that she is dressed entirely wrong for this occasion- she is wearing her worn blue jeans and an old World Cup t-shirt. Aunt Melody pulls her along through the crowd, while Harmony looks wildly around trying to take everything in. There are performers painted gold, admirably intricate headdresses, and good God, a lot of those women are wearing sparkly outfits that Harmony is sure don't even count as clothing.
"There they are!" Melody tugs on Harmony's hand and points across the street.
And there they are. Her parents (her parents!) and the man whose picture rests on the mantel. Her mother, who looks to be in her early twenties, is wearing a shockingly short skirt, hose, Converse sneakers, and a red shirt. Her bright crimson hair is longer than Harmony has ever seen it, and she is holding her husband's hand as they navigate the maze of people. Her father looks surprisingly similar to the way Harmony is used to seeing him. He's quite a bit thinner (it makes his nose seem bigger, she thinks) and his hair is a tad different, but it's definitely her father. He stumbles along behind his wife, rigidly avoiding looking at the mostly-naked performers dancing on the floats.
And the Doctor. The Doctor. The man who she thought was simply a character in stories her parents made up, is here. Across the freaking street. Same bow-tie, same tweed jacket, same fluffy brown hair as in the photo. He looks entirely out of place but he also looks childishly, radiantly happy. He is strangely mesmerizing to watch; she has always seen him frozen in place, a slightly crooked smile locked on his boyish face, but now he is moving fluidly, his mouth moving a mile a minute as he jabbers to her parents, expressions flying over his face. Excitement, joy, curiosity. He practically radiates charm, and Harmony thinks that it's no wonder her parents were so drawn to him and that they still talk about him even though they haven't seen him in at least fifteen years.
Harmony and her aunt follow the trio as they weave through the crowd. Melody snags a couple of hats directly off some strangers' heads and plunks one on Harmony's head and one on her own. Harmony's hat is some kind of glittery sailor cap that is far too large, and Melody's is a feathery contraption that makes it look as if some exotic bird decided to roost in her curly blonde hair. "I can't let them recognize me," Melody yells over the din as they continue following their quarry. As they reached the edge of the crowd, the Doctor and his companions stop to buy food from a street vendor; Melody decides this is a good idea buys bolinos for her and Harmony, and Harmony is still munching on hers when the trio they are following stop on a completely nondescript street corner.
"What are they doing?"
"Keep your voice down," murmurs Melody. "Look just behind them. Do you see how the air looks kind of wavy? Like heat is rising from the pavement?"
Harmony squints at the wall directly behind the Doctor. "Yes."
"The TARDIS is there, under a cloaking device. Focus on trying to see it."
Harmony narrows her eyes even further and stares at the wall until her eyes start to water. There. A blue police box wavers into existence. It looks exactly like the toy police box she played with when she was younger, with the obvious distinction of being much bigger than the toy. Harmony realizes that her mouth is hanging open but she makes no effort to close it. This is unreal. Her parents and the Doctor go inside and after a moment a scratchy throbbing sound emanates from the box while the light on top flashes. Harmony remembers that her dad tried imitating that sound once when she was playing with her toy TARDIS, and she had told him that he sounded like a dying whale when he did that. The memory makes her laugh.
Afterwards, they sit on the curb and finish eating. Harmony can't stop playing it over in her head; the images of the Doctor and her parents before they were her parents, running around Rio like it was a perfectly normal thing for a couple from tiny Leadworth and a Time Lord to do. Maybe it was.
She says, "I wish I got to talk to them. Especially the Doctor. I've been hearing stories about him for so long…" She trails off wistfully then adds "Will I ever meet him?"
Melody looks away, and for a moment she doesn't seem like she's mentally there. When she turns back to Harmony her blue eyes are full of grief. "No. You won't. He died in 2011. Three years from when we are now."
They are both quiet, and Harmony feels inexplicably saddened that the strange, almost magical man who she has never met and will never meet will die. For all of her life she has known him only through stories her parents told and a picture over the fireplace, but now that she has seen him with her own eyes she desperately wants to talk with him, to go places on his TARDIS. She wants him to be a tangible part of her life.
Melody touches her arm. "Let's go home." In a blink they are back in sleepy little Leadworth, in the dewy backyard at nighttime. They steal inside the house and Melody hugs her goodnight before sending her off to her room to sleep. Harmony pads up the stairs, but before she gets to the landing she pauses and peers back down at where Melody is standing in the front room. Her aunt sighs then walks over to the fireplace. She lifts her hand and brushes it across the picture, her fingers tracing along the curve of his cheek. She whispers to the picture, but since the night is still and silent Harmony can hear the words nonetheless.
Her voice is full of love and longing, and Harmony realizes she is observing a very personal moment. She leaves quietly and goes to her room, but not to her bed. On a shelf in her closet is a boxful of old toys: a miniature blue police box, a small torch with green cellophane taped over the end so that it shines emerald like a sonic screwdriver, handmade paper dolls depicting various alien species, a red-haired Barbie representing her mother Amy Pond, a Ken doll that looks very little like her father, and a hand-sewn male doll with floppy brown yarn hair, a tiny bow-tie, and a tweed jacket. She turns the newly significant toys around in her hands, looking at them one by one, before arranging them on her dresser. The Doctor is leaning against the TARDIS with the Amy and Rory Pond dolls on either side of him, while the aliens gather in front of her mirror. The sonic screwdriver stands to the left of the police box. She smiles softly and adjusts the Doctor's bowtie before she goes to sleep.
On the mantel there is a photo of a brown-haired man in a bow-tie and a tweed jacket, a childish smile lighting up his face. In her room there is a homemade model of a blue police box, paper aliens, and a doll of the same man whose picture hangs above the hearth. And in her mind there are stories of a man her parents once knew, a man she has never met but whose stories she will pass on to her own children when the time comes. A man called the Doctor.