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Friday, July 28, 2017

SHORT STORY: Into Next Week

Portrait by Paul Hanley, used with permission.



"Lady at the door for you, sir."

The Doctor looked up over the brims of his sunglasses. "Yes?"

"Yes."

"Well?" The Doctor flourished a hand impatiently. "Just any lady, or does she have a name?"

Nardole looked over his shoulder. "It's. Er. The regular one."

"If she's the regular one, then let her in." The Doctor kicked his chair away from his desk, hopping to his feet. A quiet grumble from Nardole was followed by the light tapping of heeled shoes, heralding the arrival of a petite figure at the door.

"Still as cheery as ever, I see."

The Doctor's scowl lifted. "For you, Victoria, always."

The woman smiled. The years were obvious, but not unkind. Her smile still made her entire face glow; her eyes still shone like you and she shared a secret. Still, it always took the Doctor a moment to adjust to her obviously modern clothes. To him, she'd always be the "Victorian miss" -- even if she'd spent the majority of her life as a woman of the 20th and 21st centuries.

"Thank you," the Doctor said, skimming his hand over his desk. "Ah, for still coming this week. I know time was short."

"I made it work. And I don't mind at all." Victoria fixed him with a curious look. "Besides, you sounded so distressed when I mentioned wanting to skip a week, I couldn't. Was there something important happening today?"

The Doctor looked away. "No. No, not at all. I'm a creature of habit is all."

"That's the last thing you are, and you know it."

No answer.

"How is the work going, then?" Victoria took her usual seat opposite the Doctor's desk, lowering her handbag carefully to the floor.

"Ah, the usual. A lecture a day and all that." The Doctor sat down opposite her, propping his boots on top of a pile of term papers. "Found a potentially promising student, though. Well, not a student. Cafeteria worker. Could be a student."

"That's not the work I mean."

"Ahhh. Hum." The Doctor clasped his hands behind his head. "It goes."

Victoria leaned forward in her chair. "And you're still not going to tell me what it is, are you?"

"I've told you what it is. It's a promise."

"That's all very well. Sounds very noble. But nothing ties you to the Earth for long, Doctor. I'm very curious as to what can."

The Doctor stared at her thoughtfully from the corner of his eye. Her expression hadn't hardened or changed at all. A passerby might think she'd just asked him whether he'd like a cup of coffee.

Coffee.

"That's an excellent idea." The Doctor jumped to his feet, clapping his hands. "Come along."

"What's an excellent idea?"

"Coffee."

"I never said-"

He popped the TARDIS door open. "Come along, Victoria. Won't be a moment."

"No, indeed, you won't." Nardole's voice was unexpectedly close. "It's very pretty to talk about promises, but not if you don't keep them."

The Doctor groaned. "But Mum..."

Nardole pointed, his face set. "You wait here. I can bring you both coffee."

"Oh, that would be lovely." Victoria broke the tension with a smile. "Thank you very much indeed."

"Not a bother, miss." Nardole threw Victoria a shy grin, but it melted back into anger when he turned toward the Doctor again. "I'll be five minutes. If I find you've been away, I shall kick you into next week!"

The door slammed as Nardole made his exit.

"Victoria, what are you doing?"

Victoria paused mid-step. "Sitting down. Waiting for my coffee."

"Why?" The Doctor dashed over to her, taking away her chair and propping it under the handle of the office door. "He said he'd be five minutes. That's more than enough time. Come on."

"Where?"

The Doctor chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. Then grinned. "Next week. Save him the trouble."

- - - - -

"She's being rather calm, isn't she?" Victoria sipped at her cappuccino. It had whipped cream and chocolate chips on top -- more like a hot chocolate to the observer than anything else.

The Doctor looked back at the TARDIS, parked behind a hedgerow, standing sentry like a patient chaperone. "I'd noticed. Usually about now she'd be trying to drag me around for a tussle with some Cybermen. She's restless."

Victoria smiled slightly over the brim of her mug. "Not that you've strayed from your office, of course."

"Of course." The Doctor glowered back.

"You made a promise, after all."

"I did."

"A promise that you've broken for me six weeks running."

The Doctor dumped another spoonful of sugar into his Americano. "But we never go far, do we?" He gestured behind him to the college a block away.

Victoria chuckled. "Into next week for a coffee. Onto the college roof for sandwiches. I don't think it's the TARDIS that's restless."

She took another sip of her sugary cappuccino. The Doctor smiled at her -- one of the thoughtful, helpless smiles that always felt a bit painful to him.

"Do you keep up with the others like this?"

The Doctor shook himself out of his smile, puffing out a breath. "Oh. I try. You know, where I can. Jo's always calling me up for environmental rallies or chaining myself to something." He wrinkled his nose. "The two aren't always at the same time, I've noticed."

"Just her?"

"Of course not. Some are just... harder to find." He looked aside for a quiet moment, then brightened. "Martha! Ah, Martha Jones. You never heard about her. I feel like I'm tripping over her half the time. Busy lady, always up to something. Ian and Barbara... they come to me. I think they're checking up on me more than anything."

Victoria licked a spot of whipped cream daintily from her finger. "That's quite a short list."

"Well. Ah. When you're on as short a leash as I am at the moment, there are some people you can't get to."

A silence, cut only by the shouts of students greeting each other.

Victoria raised her eyes from her cup. "Do you remember the day I died?"

The Doctor glared at Victoria sharply. "What? No. How could I?"

A smile. "You may be older and wiser now, Doctor, but you wear your hearts on your sleeve more than ever. You were afraid when I said I couldn't make it. Like you were about to lose something."

"I told you. Creature of habit."

"Mm."

The Doctor looked away, clearing his throat and taking a gulp of sugary tea. "No. I don't remember. I don't know anything about it."

"Was it quiet?"

"I told you, I don't know-"

"Doctor."

"Let me have this!"

Despite the Doctor's tone, Victoria didn't pull away. She watched placidly.

The Doctor wiped a hand across his face. "I... just want... coffee with my friend. With my Victoria. That's all." He looked across the table at her; his face had contorted ever so slightly into a desperate smile, his eyes shining. "No adventures. No monsters. No danger. Just my friend."

Victoria wrapped her petite hand around his long fingers. "Of course. So do I." She squeezed his hand gently.

"Mind you," the Doctor said in a hushed tone after a few minutes' silence, "if something did come crashing out of the sky-"

"Hush."

- - - - -

Victoria stepped out of the TARDIS and into the Doctor's office. The front door was rattling, the chair under the handle threatening to give way.

"Ah... forgot about that." The Doctor swept the chair away. Nardole stumbled in, nearly dropping the tray and two travel cups he was carrying.

"You're late," the Doctor said imperiously.

Nardole huffed, adjusting his glasses. "You weren't off anywhere, were you?"

Victoria put a hand to her chest. "I was with the Doctor the whole time."

"Yuuuh..." Nardole squinted at her skeptically. "What about him?"

"He was with me."

"And here we are, five minutes later." The Doctor took one of the mugs from the tray, sipped from it, and winced. "Not enough sugar."

Victoria plucked the other coffee from the tray. "I had better get going, anyway," she said, tossing Nardole a smile. "Thank you again." Then, a look at the Doctor.

"Same time next week?"

The Doctor forced a smile. "Yeah. Same time next week."

- - - - -

When I first interviewed Deborah Watling at (Re)Generation Who 1, she said she'd love to have played Victoria opposite the 12th Doctor. I hoped that someday I'd be able to write that moment for her to perform, via Big Finish or some other outlet. Sadly, with her passing, I've lost that chance.

This is the closest I can get to a proper eulogy -- whom I didn't know as well as many, but who was very much a part of our con family and an important part of where we are and what we've become. Thank you for all you did, Debs. I wish I could give more.