It’s something unpredictable but in the end it’s right
I hope you had the time of your life…
Alan closed up the bookstore and strolled down the street, heading in the general direction of his flat. London seemed deserted; the air was cold, grey, and still, the lighted windows of the homes like happy memories lost and inaccessible to Alan.
He was quiet, lost in his own thoughts, his long-fingered hands stuck deep in his trouser pockets, not noticing the cold in his grey blazer. An air of melancholy surrounded the man. It was Christmas Eve, and he was alone.
The hol wasn’t particularly important to the Englishman; he wasn’t particularly religious in any way. But he missed old friends. And family. He missed hot cocoa and Christmas tree lights and warmth.
He walked up the steps to the large building, opened the door, walked up the stairs to his flat. He opened the door and shut it gently behind him.
“Hullo Alan,” said a voice.
Alan whirled around, tensing. When he saw the other person, his face relaxed into an almost-boyish grin, transforming his whole, tired face. “Doctor!”
The Doctor grinned back, still standing in the doorway between kitchen and living room. “How are you old chap?”
“Well,” replied Alan in surprise. “And you?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” the Doctor assured him, looking around the living room. A large, low sofa managed somehow to exist in the small cramped space alongside a couple easy chairs, an entertainment system pushed into the corner, and a couple floor lamps. Prints of paintings by Monet and van Gogh hung on the walls, many of them crooked. Alan never had bothered much with decoration. The place was homey, well lived-in, with that same air of gentle patience Alan himself sometimes had when dealing with extraordinarily tiresome customers or silly aliens trying to take over the universe.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Alan asked.
The Doctor’s grin widened. “Of course.”
Alan slipped past the Time Lord into the other room. The Doctor sat down quietly at the kitchen table, watching his old friend potter around his home.
The Briton had left the Doctor’s company a handful of years ago. He’d changed little in the intervening time; he was still wearing an expensive, well-tailored three-piece suit; his hair was still just a little too long to suit him. His face was more lined now, his eyes…older, his body leaner. Alan had always been understated, quiet.
Alan sat down across from the Doctor, placing a blue chipped mug in front of the Time Lord, taking a sip from his own mismatched mug. The Doctor caught his eye and smiled.
“So what have you been up to Doctor?” Alan asked.
“Oh, this and that,” the Doctor answered vaguely. “The usual.” He looked exactly the same as when Alan had seen him last, still in his dark velvet frockcoat, his paisley vest and watch chain, his cravat and wing-collared shirt. His hair still reached down to that collar, curly and brown, and his eyes were just as blue, his smile just as engaging and open.
“And you?” the Time Lord asked, sipping his own tea.
Alan smiled slightly and set down his mug. “When I got back, I was rather at a loose end. Didn’t know what to do with myself. I tried all sorts of things—went back to accounting, was a journalist again, worked at a university doing research…finally I bought a bookstore. I’m happy with it.”
“I’d heard about that,” the Doctor said. “I’m glad you’re happy.”
The Doctor paused. “It’s Christmas Eve,” he smoothly changed the subject. “Aren’t you doing something?”
Alan shook his head regretfully. “Unfortunately, I’ve spent my holidays alone for many years now.”
“What about your mum?”
It was Alan’s turn to pause. “We…don’t bother.”
The Doctor nodded.
“Doctor, why are you here?” Alan asked carefully. “I can’t believe you’ve come back just to check up on me…”
The Doctor shook his head, a stray curl falling into his pale eyes. He brushed it away negligently, a practiced movement. “No no no, of course not. No, I was wondering…if you’d like to spend Christmas with me.”
Alan froze. He set his mug down. He looked across the table at the Time Lord. A tiny, wry smile crossed his thin face. “Yes, all right,” he said.
The Doctor’s face relaxed into a relieved grin. “Oh good.”
* * *
The TARDIS was stuffed into a corner of Alan’s storage/library/guest/weights/whatever-else-it-might-come-in-useful-for room. Alan grinned at the sight of it, nostalgically remembering his old flat, where the old girl had landed in the middle of the kitchen to take him off on some wild adventures.
They walked in. The place hadn’t changed. “This seems rather an odd place to celebrate Christmas,” Alan remarked, silently adding Especially since it isn’t really your holiday.
“Oh I don’t know,” answered the Doctor. “Time here is fairly subjective. If you want it to be Christmas, it is. And to celebrate this holiday you don’t have to be Christian—or pagan—let alone human, you know, Alan. It’s the sentiment that counts; haven’t you heard that one before? This way.”
The Time Lord led the Englishman through the old corridors, past doors and other hallways, to another door. He opened it and gestured Alan in.
Alan walked in hesitantly, then smiled. It was perfect.
The room was dark, lit only by a fire burning in the fireplace, casting shadows on the deep mahogany walls. An evergreen tree stood in a corner on the opposite side of the fireplace, covered in ornaments, popcorn, that silver sparkly stuff that gets everywhere and never stays on the tree. The air was warm and scented. Two easychairs and a small table sat in front of the fire. A piano was in the corner opposite the Christmas tree. The music room had always been one of Alan’s favorites; he’d spent many hours here, playing the piano.
The two old friends sat down in front of the fire. Neither spoke for a long time, enjoying the silence behind the crackling fire. Alan relaxed into his chair, the lines seeming to disappear from his thin face, the long-unnoticed tension draining from his body.
After a while the Doctor disappeared from the room and came back with two mugs of hot chocolate. Alan grinned in delight; the Doctor always had seemed able to read his mind. The Time Lord also brought a plate of sugar cookies.
They drank, and ate, and talked, reminiscing about their adventures, remembering Lace and other friends they’d met along the way. Alan suddenly missed Lace with a stab to his aching heart, the young, vibrant American girl who could dance and sing up a storm or storm off in a temper tantrum at any given moment. The Doctor seemed to miss her too; but perhaps, he was just lonely. He’d told Alan he had no companions at the moment. Alan supposed that was why he’d come back to visit.
The two old friends talked for a long time, with even longer periods of silence in between. Long, long into the night, the Doctor brought out some Napoleon brandy and two glasses, and they each took a small quantity. Alan fell asleep in his chair, still holding his brandy glass. The Doctor gently slipped it out of his hand and put it safely on the table.
A few hours later Alan woke. The Doctor was sitting at the piano, staring at the keys, not playing. The fire seemed self-sustaining, still glowing, still burning in the grate. Alan stretched; the Doctor looked up and smiled gently.
“I have a present for you,” the Doctor announced.
“Oh really, you don’t have to,” Alan protested. “I don’t have anything for you.”
“That’s quite all right, and I insist.” The Doctor slipped a small, wrapped package from his coat pocket and handed it to Alan. “Don’t open it till I’ve gone, please.”
Alan nodded. The package was flat, rectangular. He slipped it into his own coat pocket and stood up. He knew it was time to go.
The two old friends wandered out of the TARDIS together. The squashed, messy room in Alan’s flat was a jarring contrast from the vast, messy old girl’s interior. The Doctor followed Alan to the kitchen, glanced over to his side, and walked up to the sliding door.
Alan opened the door and the two stood on his porch, breathing in the cold, crisp, winter air. The wind blew their wavy brown hair about. They ignored it. There was a park below Alan’s flat, a small area of dead brown grass and dead brown trees, the occasional leaf still clinging to the branch.
Finally the Doctor turned to Alan. “I should go now.”
Alan smiled and held out his hand. “Thank you for a lovely Christmas,” he said warmly and meant it. There was so much more he could say, but he didn’t know how, and he felt the Doctor knew what he meant anyway.
The Doctor shook Alan’s hand with both of his. “The same for you, Alan.”
“Happy Christmas,” the Doctor echoed. He paused, looking around once more, then slipped away from the porch. Alan stayed where he was, looking out into the distance and seeing nothing. He heard the strange, familiar wheezing, groaning sounds fade away in his flat. An old ache settled again in his heart.
After a while, he took the package out of his coat pocket and opened it slowly, deliberately. As he’d suspected, it was a CD. He went to the player in his living room, leaving the porch door open, and popped the CD in.
It had only two songs on it. He pushed play and went back to the porch. He could clearly hear the music playing through the silence, drifting toward him on the cold wind.
Alan stood on the porch, hands stuck deep in his trouser pockets, hair blowing in the wind, breath smoking in the cold winter air, and listened to the two songs.
He smiled gently.
Old friends old friends
sat on their park bench like bookends
a newspaper blown through the grass
falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends.
Old friends winter companions
the old men lost in their overcoats
waiting for the sunset
the sounds of the city sifting through trees
settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.
Can you imagine us years from today
sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy…
Old friends memory brushing the same years
silently sharing the same fears…