The old man still looked up at the sky. Every night, when he had the chance, he would wrap up warm and take a flask of hot tea out to the seat beside his telescope. It was an act of tribute now. He had long since let go of the idle fancy that he would ever see that man, that most wonderful man again. Sometimes it was a truly bitter memory, another friend lost to war, and how he hoped that the poor creature, that ancient blazing angel had been wrong. Perhaps he was out there somewhere, fully recovered, too embarrassed to return. Too afraid?
Wilfred knew it was still dangerous. His granddaughter visited often, particularly when his bungalow was situated just around the corner from her comfortable family home. It was a miracle to see her so content since those miserable Christmases past, but she had found happiness. Her husband treated her well and the world was just bursting with opportunities for her now she had the freedom and time to consider. The distant expressions she showed had become less frequent, that sadness she could not explain. Now that it was closer to the festive time of year, however, he had noticed a few blips. She would pause in mid-sentence, fail to complete it and laugh it off. A tear might come to her eye when she straightened one of Shaun's ties. One afternoon she joined him at his new allotment, stared absently across the vegetables and said "The bees have come back." She hadn't a clue why she had said it. His darling Donna who could never know what was missing from her life. All the good she had done with that fantastic traveller, all those spectacular memories that would have been deadly to remember. If that man really were still alive, he would have no business coming here. It was for the best.
But still the old man peered at the stars, expecting little more than their twinkling. So far this Christmas it looked to be a quiet one. He had been almost shocked last year. No monsters, no ghosts, no spaceships. No Doctor. It was then that Wilfred had let his hope settle. Maybe the big 'out there' had lost interest in Earth. What was this silly old blue planet to them now?
Finishing his last drop of tea, Wilfred sighed and packed up his equipment. It was early yet, darkness came so much sooner, but it was a cold evening and his daughter and granddaughter both would shriek if he allowed himself to catch a chill. Thankfully he was alone tonight. Nearby, his family would be busy wrapping presents and squawking over who would do the cooking on the big day, leaving their old relative to savour solitude while he could. Chuckling idly to no one but himself, he pottered about his home, making chitchat with every item that came into his hands, commenting to the TV he usually kept on as a background comfort. When he could think of nothing else to occupy his time, Wilfred took up a seat on the sofa, rubbed his hands by his electric hearth and reached for the remote. He was tired of the news. With all the things he'd seen, human matters felt like repeats.
Rap. Rap. Rap. Rap.
Wilfred jumped a little at the sound of his door knocker.
"Blow that old thing," he winced. "Keep meaning to get a bell." He straightened up as fast as his aching bones would allow.
Rap. Rap. Rap. Rap.
"Yes, yes, I'm coming!" he called. "Just a moment, dear oh dear." He shuffled to his front door and squinted at the unfamiliar shadow through the frosted glass. "Who is it?"
Frowning, Wilfred opened the door, leaving it on the catch. He peered through the gap. A young man loitered on the porch. He had the look of a scholar about him, a floppy haircut seen most frequently amongst undergraduates, clad in an olive overcoat. His nose was a wedge in a curiously oblong face.
"Can I 'elp you, lad?"
"Oh, hello," the young man said. His voice was soft, but there was something unnerving about the brightness of his eyes and how strongly they bore into Wilfred's. "I'm sorry to bother you at this hour, Mr Mott. It is Mr Mott, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, yes it is -."
"Excellent. Well, not that excellent, not yet. You see, there's been a spot of trouble with the electrics in this area and I've been sent out to fix the problem." The scholarly stranger brandished his identification. "Electricity board."
"Oh, I see." Wilfred blinked at the words shown to him. They were credible enough, but he was surprised he had not heard of Her Majesty's Special Division For Technical Difficulties. "It's very good of you to come all this way, but I'm afraid I've not noticed anything wrong in my 'ouse. Telly's working fine, everything."
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure. Just you wait there. I'll look again if you like." Shaking his head, Wilfred shut the door and wandered back into the living room. He stood and observed his home comforts for a few moments. Satisfied, he turned back toward the hallway but was distracted by a sudden buzzing, a bit like a cricket's chirp or the winding of a fishing line. It ceased as soon as it had started, but what startled Wilfred the most was the sight of the television and the heater each giving out a cough of steam before blowing their fuses. Stunned, he made his way back to the door. He took off the catch and opened it fully in order to address the man on the porch. "I must say that is the most peculiar thing I've seen all week. I s'pose you'd better come in."
The young man smiled gently, picked up a small toolbox that had been resting beside him, and stepped inside. Passing Wilfred, he looked around with a certain air of wonder at the interior of the bungalow. "Nice little nook, this," he remarked. Then he moved into the living room and put down his tools.
"Would you like some'ing to drink? Cup of tea or some'ing?" Wilfred offered.
When Wilfred returned with a tray, he found his guest poking a bauble on his Christmas tree. Deciding to withhold comment, he placed the tea and biscuits on a coffee table and announced, "Here we are then."
At once the young man spun around, making a remarkable performance of hiding sheepishness. "Ah, lovely! Sorry. My equipment needs to warm up a bit. I'm rather fond of this time of year, though. Every house I visit is a window into someone's creative mind. Where they choose to put the decorations, which sort they'll pick, tinsel; bells; stars; things that flash or make noises; toys that sing off-key until you secretly hope someone will tread on them and act absolutely devastated." He grinned. "So many places are tidier, more presentable, getting ready for family to pop round."
"Not 'alf," said Wilfred. "Same for you, is it? Mind you, must be difficult to find time with a job like yours, people calling you up all hours of the day and night."
"Time's a funny thing," the young man replied. "I'll be all right. Friends have all gone away and my partner's…staying with family, abroad. I couldn't get the time off, so it's Christmas alone this year."
Wilfred smiled with condolence. He gestured to the sofa. "Won't you sit down?"
His guest did so and, to the old man's astonishment, set about removing the top layer of the biscuit box. Having found the custard cream he was looking for, the young man put the layer back in place and took a bite. Halfway through chewing, he nodded to the picture frames on Wilfred's mantelpiece. "Wha' about yourself? Family? Friends?"
Settling into a lone chair that made up part of the room's suite, Wilfred clasped his hands and let his eyes roam affectionately over the images: Donna and Shaun on their wedding day; an old photograph of a young Sylvia, his daughter, with her husband Geoff; a white-haired lady in a red coat holding a bouquet and giving Wilfred a peck on the cheek. "Oh, yes, I'll be up the road 'aving Christmas with the family. That's Donna there, my lovely granddaughter and 'er 'usband. Been married two years now, Gor' bless 'em. My daughter, too, back when she smiled a lot more. She's getting back into the habit now though, silly girl. Never 'urts to smile no matter what life throws at you, eh? Yeah, I'll be 'aving me fair share of the turkey, pulling crackers and seeing what 'er Majesty 'as to say. That is if them up there don't 'ave any other plans for us." Wilfred pointed to the ceiling and chortled.
The young man took up his cup and saucer. "Up where? This house only has one floor."
"Oh bless you, son, no, I mean 'them'. Aliens. You see them spaceships? Replica of the Titanic? They like London, I'll tell you that. Few of my friends though, they say they can't remember a thing about it. Say I'm talking nonsense, and they was there. Honestly I think they'd just rather forget and who can blame 'em. Not me, though. I'll be ready 'til the day I die if they want another crack at Planet Earth." Seeing that the man from the electricity board wasn't appearing perturbed, even if it were merely out of politeness, Wilfred continued, "They're not all bad, though. Some o' them watch out for us. Protect the world from all manner of things and we hardly ever say thanks, because we'll never know. Oh they explain it all away on the telly – 'government tests, elaborate hoaxes', putting the credit on someone else's head, but I know what really saved us all those times. I reckon that's why it's been so quiet this past year or so. I'll bet they all got scared off."
"Scared off? By what?" The young man arched his brow.
Wilfred put a hand to his lips. "There I go again. Forgive me, lad. You mustn't pay heed to an old man's rambling. You get me going and I'll keep you here all night talking rubbish at you. I'll let you get on, shall I?"
Smiling again, the young man gulped his tea and moved to crouch beside his toolbox. He crept up to the electric fire, opened the casing and began delicately removing the fake coals in order to get at the workings beneath. "You're still like giants," he said, barely within Wilfred's hearing.
"It's an ill-fitted appliance. Just needs a bit of rewiring." He rummaged in his box, frowning. After a moment he looked up at Wilfred. "I'm sorry. You don't happen to have any string, do you? I could've sworn I'd packed it."
"Oh, yes. Hold on a mo', there's some out in the shed. I'll be right back." Wilfred got up and walked into the hall. Donning a padded coat and gloves, along with his red Parachute Regiment hat, he ambled to the back door. He stepped out into the garden, fumbling with a set of keys. He got three steps along the path to the shed before he looked up and gawped. "Oh my word. Oh my good lord -."
Planted in the middle of his home allotment, squashing a few unfortunate sprouts, was a blue police telephone box. It would have surprised any pensioner upon its discovery, but Wilfred did not wonder what it was doing there in quite the same way.
"Why didn't I hear it?" he mumbled. "How long have you been here?" he spoke to the box with wonder and confusion, stepping closer. "Oh, Doctor, have you come back? Is this just another dream and this silly old fool's nodded off again?" Wilfred arrived at the box and let a trembling hand stroke the painted wood. It seemed bigger than he remembered. There was a St John's Ambulance sticker on the right-hand door. Was that just his old mind forgetting? He wasn't ready to start dismissing gaps in his knowledge. Wilfred balled up a fist. He hesitated, chewed his lip, and knocked on the door of the police box. "Doctor! Are you in there? It's me!" He could not help but knock again. "Doctor?"
Wilfred stepped back, scratching his white beard nervously. There was no answer. The door did not open. Disappointed but still hopeful, he looked around the garden from where he stood and caught sight of the young electrician standing in the doorframe of his house.
"You must think I'm mad," Wilfred commented. "Barmy old man shouting at a phone box. It's my friend's. I thought 'e might be here. I mean 'e must be, must be around 'ere somewhere. Always running off, that man." He reached up and pulled one of the box's handles, then he pushed, but the doors were locked. "He said that was the last time I'd see him, back at Donna's wedding. Unless -." Wilfred turned again to the silhouette at his back door. "My friend, he said 'e could change. That if 'e did, he'd look like a new person, be a different man…"
The young man made no move. "He'd still be proud."
Wilfred's eyes widened.
"He still is," the young man added.
Tears threatening to spill onto his cheeks, Wilfred was rooted to the spot. "My goodness. Is that really you?"
"Merry Christmas, Wilfred."
The old man stifled a sob and shuffled down from the allotment. By the time he had reached the house, his guest had retreated inside. Not bothering to lock the door, he merely shut it and timidly entered the living room. The man who had masqueraded as an electrician finished refitting the fireplace, pulled a device from his coat pocket and pointed it at the fire. It buzzed with the same chirruping noise Wilfred had heard earlier. In response, flames sprang up within the hearth. The young man put the gadget away and looked to Wilfred with the saddest, oldest eyes he had ever seen.
"I was wrong," said The Doctor. "I was wrong to you, Wilfred. I said that you weren't important."
"But I wasn't important. Not compared to that man. I don't think 'e meant it, either. He was angry, and why not? Stupid ol' Wilf who'd gone and got 'imself trapped. 'E didn't have to get hurt on my account but 'e still saved me. 'E could've turned the air blue at me afterward, shunned me, and I wouldn't've thought any less of 'im."
"That's not the point. I should never have said it and I knew it even then, and I never said sorry. I said sorry so many times with that face but most of the time it was far too late and sometimes, to those that really deserved it, I never said it at all." The Doctor took a tentative step closer, his eyes glassy. "I'm sorry, Wilfred. Can you forgive me?"
Wilfred stood in the gap of hallway between the living room and the kitchen, expression stunned. "Well, I don't know…" he began. He knew it was cruel. He regretted the pretence in the moment he saw the young man's face – it seemed to have changed consistency and his nose had pinked at the tip. "Oh, you silly plonker. Of course you are. Nothing to forgive."
The Doctor held back a choke of relief. He stood awkwardly and turned his attention back to the room. Wilfred felt guilt gnawing at his innards. He should have liked to hug the young man, to express joy that he was alive and well, but his eyes betrayed him. They told him this was a different man, that he wasn't the true Doctor. His heart was as yet abstaining from the vote.
The Doctor brought out his sonic screwdriver again and zapped the television. It sprang back into working order, a black-and-white film appearing in a burst of song onto the screen. "I should probably go," he said. He picked up the useless toolbox and made for the back door. "All my love to Donna, even though, well, you know." He gave another melancholy smile and went to open the door.
"She's pregnant," Wilfred blurted.
The Doctor stopped. He turned his head.
"Donna," said Wilfred. "She's having a baby. Always wanted a family, she 'as."
The young man's eyes grew as wide as saucers. He seemed about to burst. Then to Wilfred's surprise, the toolbox dropped to the floor with a crash and The Doctor rushed to throw his arms around him. "Oh, Wilfred! That is wonderful news!" He pulled back, clasping the old human's arms dearly, expression shining.
Wilfred looked deep into the timelord's eyes and took a stumbling breath. "Oh my goodness, you really are him. Forgive me, sir. I didn't mean to doubt." He placed his hands either side of The Doctor's face with affection and then had to pull away to rub at threatening tears. "Oh, sit down for goodness sake."
The two of them reacquainted with the living room suite, television muted and a fresh pot of tea brewed. Wilfred could not stop himself staring at the new incarnation of his old friend. "You look younger," he remarked. "Is that supposed to 'appen? Wish I could, haha."
"I can look any age. Didn't expect to be this way. Haven't been this young since my first round. Some timelords can choose how they come out when they regenerate but it's risky. Can upset the process if you concentrate too hard on one aspect. Generally I just wait and see."
"So you could be a child?"
The Doctor winced. "I hope not. It's bad enough getting people to listen to me now."
"Could be the bowtie," Wilfred chuckled.
A few seconds of silence followed. Wilfred broke it carefully. "That other you, 'e said changing was like dying. Is that true? Is there anything left of 'im?"
"Yes… and no. Yes, I am entirely him, and no, we are not as alike. At the core of it, there is a set of values, a consciousness and a full set of memories and experiences that make up The Doctor. When I regenerate, my form alters, bits of my personality rearrange, my tastes, my preferences, my approach to problem-solving – everything 'tweaks', but I am still me. He died and I was born, I died and was reborn. I suppose I didn't want you to think I was invincible, that it was easy. I was afraid, Wilfred. I was lonely, selfish and dramatic and I loved that me. I loved being that me: handsome and loud and running around, human girls swooning after me thinking I was clever. I didn't feel like I was done. I was broken. I'd lost so much and I was desperate to fix it and I would have fought hell to keep what I had left. But I was wild, a danger to everyone in that state. It was time, and the universe knew it."
"How about now?" Wilfred wondered. "Who looks after you now?"
The Doctor smiled and looked over to the mantelpiece. He pointed at the picture of the lady in red. "How's Minnie? Still a menace?"
Wilfred allowed the topic to jump. Some things hadn't changed. "Oh, she's fine. She only lives round the block 'erself. After a lot of pestering she's twisted my arm and convinced me to go for tea with 'er tomorrow."
"Oooh, tea." The Doctor smirked knowingly and reached for his cup. "Good for old Minnie."
"Huh," Wilfred snorted with mock disdain. "Better 'ope she doesn't pop round. She'd be after you an' all."
The Doctor laughed. He murmured into his teacup something that sounded for all the world like 'too late'. Wilfred watched the timelord with concern. The man had changed so much but he could still feel the yawning pit of loss that swirled around him, built into the wonderful aura of legend and magic. Yet, the youthful ancient just sat there, sipping tea and examining the Christmas tree beside him. He was about to speak when The Doctor put down his cup and saucer and beamed at him.
"Wilfred, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
The timelord led the old man out into the garden again, allowing him time to put on his warmer clothing. The Doctor spoke quietly into a small communication device he'd hidden up his sleeve and then guided Wilfred up to the TARDIS.
"Are you ready?"
"Yes, I suppose so," Wilfred answered, bewildered.
The Doctor knocked on the TARDIS door. Wilfred stared, dumbfounded, as it swung open to reveal a beautiful middle-aged woman with golden brown curls. She smiled warmly and offered her hand.
"Hello, Mr Mott," she said.
"Wilfred, allow me to introduce Mrs River Song." The Doctor leant against the other door with a smile that seemed halfway between shy and proud. "She's my wife."
"How do you do?" she furthered.
Battling for words, Wilfred took her hand and clasped it. "How do you do, indeed! Bless you both. Doctor, oh this is marvellous. I couldn't be happier."
The Doctor patted Wilfred on the shoulder. "River, this is the man I am dubbing honorary 'father'."
"Get away," Wilfred guffawed. "I look more like your grandfather now."
"Oh, fine. You're my honorary grandfather then."
River laughed. "Would your grandfather like to come in out of the cold?"
Wilfred blinked in surprise. "What? In there?"
"Wilfred, you are cordially invited for an early Christmas dinner and I absolutely won't take no for an answer." The Doctor wagged a finger.
"What you gonna do? Knock me out and bundle me inside?"
"If I have to."
"I'd better accept then." Still holding River's hand, Wilfred stepped through into the TARDIS he had never seen.
Much later in the evening, when nearly all was said and done, Wilfred set foot on his allotment once more. He gave a grunt of discomfort from an over-full belly and turned, with rosy cheeks, to the couple standing in the TARDIS doorway. "Top notch cooking! Couldn't 'ave better. You 'ave a right catch there, Doctor." He winked at River.
"Oh that was all him. He won't let me near the oven." She nudged her husband playfully.
"What's in store for you now, then? Lots more adventures? Or staying in for Christmas?"
"It wasn't all a fib," The Doctor replied. "River has to go back to her… well, sort of family. They don't like her getting out much."
River grinned. "No, I've been a naughty girl. Grounded. I'll have to have Christmas later. Or earlier. Who knows?"
Wilfred smiled, even though he did not understand. "Well you look after 'im."
"As long as I live," she promised.
The Doctor had a look on his face then. Wilfred could not puzzle it out, but he saw that the timelord could only see River in that moment.
"You'd better 'urry up and close that door," Wilfred warned. "I think 'e means to kiss you."
She snickered. "I'm sure he can wait."
"Gor' bless the both of you and a merry Christmas!" Wilfred blew them a kiss and sniffed. "It's going to be the best one yet, I know it."
They waved goodbye and the old man stood back. The doors closed and he watched the TARDIS begin to flicker out of sight, frosty air billowing throughout the garden.
And then it was back. The door flew open and The Doctor popped his head out. His coat was off and his bowtie dangled limply from his collar. "I completely forgot!" he burst out. "That toolbox in your house. I'm really sorry. I've activated it now. It should detonate by the Christmas tree assuming it navigates through the doorway properly and takes its shimmer shielding down. Oh, you'll find out." The Doctor leapt out of the TARDIS, kissed the air either side of Wilfred's cheeks and enveloped him in a hug. "Goodbye, Wilfred, and thank you." He pulled back to look Wilfred in the face, paying no heed to the fact that his braces had slipped down from his shirt. "Something Donna once said to me. She said I need someone, that sometimes I need someone to stop me. That was you. I didn't save you, Wilfred Mott. You saved me."
The Doctor gave him a wide grin and scampered back to the police box. With one last wave, the timelord disappeared into the TARDIS, back to his home, to the time vortex, to his wife.
Wilfred looked up at the stars one last time for the evening before he hurried to rescue his Christmas tree from the explosion of presents that had occurred in his living room.