A/N: If you've seen classic Doctor Who you'll recognize the names of a lot of the Doctor's old companions. If you've only seen new Who then all you need to know is that the names you don't recognize are the names of some of the Doctor's former companions. Also, it helps if you've read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, but it's not really needed in order to understand the story.
Furthermore, this is my second story in a row involving characters who see things that aren't really there. So I feel the need to reassure you that I do not suffer from visual hallucinations. Or if I do, then I'm entirely unaware of it and everything around me is doing a damn good job of seeming real.
Summary: The Doctor has always been unstuck in time. [He's not sure if he likes time this way, with the moments from his past all jumbled up in a colourful cacophony rather than laid out like rungs on a ladder.]
Autumn on Tralfamadore
"All moments, past, present, and future always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments...It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."
- from Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
If you believe in this world then no one has died in vain.
But don't you dare get to the top and not know what to do.
- "Eleventh Dimension" (Julian Casablancas)
The Doctor has always been unstuck in time.
He flickers from here to there; a quick peek at the fiftieth century, a split-second jaunt to the Aztec empire, a short interlude in the Medusa Cascade. He had tried to explain to Sally Sparrow that time was just a jumble of stuff, but now, with Donna leaning against the console, Mickey peering fascinated out the front windows, and Rose milling about near the stairs, he realizes that he was wrong. Even when he knew time was simply a ball of tangled string he had still experienced it much the same way humans do, with one moment preceding others in a (somewhat) orderly, forward sequence.
Adric ghosts across the main room, and Rose has been replaced by Ace, who is fiddling with her hair, smoothing her black leather jacket.
He blinks and shakes his head, clenches his eyes shut, and when he opens them River is across the console, her hair a wild halo as she stares at him with concerned eyes. It is only the two of them- no former companions cluttering up the place, and something about it seems wrong. He smiles nevertheless and continues twiddling with knobs and levers, and when Susan's voice drifts by he outwardly ignores even though his heartbeats flutter and memories of his first few hundred years as a renegade crop up. There is something comforting about the voice, a voice he has not heard in so long and he realises he has it missed terribly.
Somewhere down the corridor, Turlough laughs.
He has never experienced time this way before. He's not sure if he likes it, with the moments from his past all jumbled up in a colourful cacophony rather than laid out like rungs on a ladder. He wonders what triggered it. Possibly the stress of all that not-dying he's been doing recently. A head injury or something. Such is life.
River is beside him, her hand seeking his shoulder. "Sweetie?" She looks a bit scared and confused, not unlike the first time she met him, when she was a little girl he knew everything about even though to her he was also a complete stranger. He thinks of little Amelia, devoured by Prisoner Zero, leaving crazy Amy behind; of young Reinette, hunted by the tick-tock men; and of River, haunted all her life by him. Maybe he is a ghost, drifting through time, glimpsed for only short moments by the impressionable young humans he always seems to attract as companions. He definitely has unfinished business.
When they land the TARDIS they step out into Leadworth. Martha is kneeling on the drab pavement beside the prone form of Jack. "Your friend...he's dead."
"Happens a lot," he says. Then Martha is gone and Rose is there, kissing him, but it's not Rose it's River and when did that happen? He bids her farewell, she reluctantly trudges to her parents' house, and he slips back into his magic blue box and sets the coordinates to random. He goes down the stairs and sets to work on some cables, studiously ignoring Jamie who is walking around, trailing his hand across the wall as he walks, and the Master, who is gallivanting near the console.
He wanders to the library, except now it is the Library and Donna Noble has left the Library, Donna Noble has been saved. He shuts his eyes again, breathes deep, and when he opens them he is back in his TARDIS in the time vortex. He wonders how long ago he dropped River off at Amy's and Rory's.
When is he?
"I think I have a problem," he says to Romana, who is sitting in a cushy chair just to his right. She's in her first regeneration, and she tosses her brown hair and looks at him with haughty green eyes, a look that says Well, what do you want me to do about it? He sighs and rubs his temples. "Yes, I suppose you wouldn't be much help." Then she's gone and he's alone again, why does he always end up alone? Rose is gone and Amy is gone and Sarah Jane is gone and Ian Barbara Rory Tegan Brigadier Leela Peri Grace Victoria River are gone. But River is supposed to come back, isn't she?
He sets the coordinates to Leadworth and sets the time to what he hopes is not too far from when he last saw her, hoping he isn't late like he was all those times when he was on the Gallifreyan High Council and never made it to the meetings when he was supposed to, and Borusa would always chastise him afterwards but the older Time Lord would be wearing a small smile so maybe he had never been mad about it after all...
He's confused. He doesn't know anymore what's before after past present future. He explores different planets and overthrows a few tyrants and frees some slaves but he thinks he's done this before and will do this again. He takes River to the Singing Towers of Darillium and he cries without knowing why and he gives her a sonic screwdriver because he thinks that's what he's supposed to do. He visits Paris Tokyo Moscow London and they all blur together in one pulsing metropolis filled with buildings that stretch ambitiously to the sky and with people who jostle and crowd and look at him with blank faces.
When has he been?
Rory is beside him, all spiky blonde hair and doe eyes and hawkish nose. Rory is talking but he doesn't listen, because he knows this is not Rory. Real Rory is in Leadworth...he thinks. He continues to ignore Not-Rory, but Not-Rory seems to be stubbornly insisting on staying put. He shakes his head again, trying to throw off the vision of the nurse, but it doesn't work. Curiously, he goes over and pokes Not-Rory in the cheek. Oh. Maybe it is Real Rory. Well then.
He doesn't know when he picked up Rory, or how long Rory has been here. But if Rory's real then it's possible that the Amy he saw in the kitchen was real too and he should go and apologize for ignoring her earlier. He starts for the kitchen (Rory stops talking mid-sentence) then realizes that she's probably not in the kitchen anymore so maybe she's in her room, he should check there first. He winds murkily through the narrow corridors, lit gentle blue like underwater, and when he is passing the ballroom he hears it. Humming. He cracks open the door and pokes his head in, and there is Romana- her second regeneration- humming the music of an ancient Gallifreyan waltz, her arms held aloft while her feet lightly perform the steps, her pale hair whirling softly when she turns. She doesn't pause when she sees him. "Come on!" He feels his mouth curling into a grin; he slips into the room and his arms encircle her while his voice picks up the tune. They hum and twirl, and what do you know, his feet remember these steps perfectly. Right-back-slide, right-back-slide. He's not tripping all over himself like he usually does in this body.
"Doctor?" He stops humming and dancing, looks up to see Amy standing in the doorway, her skin pale in the watery light. He opens his mouth to explain, but then he glances to his arms and Romana isn't there. He has been embracing nothing but air.
At some point he drops Amy and Rory off at their home; they protest vehemently, he tells them that he's fine, but when the doors slaps shut behind them he waffles uncertainly around the main room for a short time, wondering what to do next and fighting a burgeoning bloom of self-pity. He is alone again.
Except he isn't. Ian and Barbara are chatting on the sofa; Jack and Martha are near the console, trading jokes; Donna and Rose are sitting on the stairs. So what if they're not real, he thinks. Perhaps, because of them, he will never truly be alone again. He decides he's okay with that. He shrugs and sets the time coordinates to the usual (these days) setting of random.
When will he be?