Martha Jones’ house is, on the whole, immaculate. Airy but cosy all the same, the walls are white and bare but for the colourful prints and abstract paintings tactically placed to draw the eye. Ferns drape themselves across tables, a peace-lily on a windowsill beside a bright orange clock that chimes gently on the hour.
It matches her, Bill thinks – Martha, whose long braids tickle her waist, and who smiles seemingly with her whole body when Bill describes herself as a ‘friend of the Doctor.’
A smile that falters when she asks, expectantly, looking around the figure stood beside Bill, “Where is he then? The Doctor?”
The figure comes to life, slowly, like one of those living statues she sometimes saw in Camden Market as a child. His smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, “Hello, Martha Jones.”
Displeased. Definitely displeased. The Doctor isn’t all that good at reading faces this time, but he’d recognise this expression anywhere - it’s the one Martha wore around him more often than she should have had to, once upon a time.
The Doctor casts a sheepish glance over at Bill. His smile is humourless. “Surprise.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m really not,” he says. It’s all he can do but wither beneath Martha’s stare. He might as well be peering at his shoes, scuffing the toe like some troublesome schoolboy. “It occurs that I never really explained the whole regeneration thing to you.”
“Regeneration?” Martha is scandalised. Three cups of tea lie forgotten on the worksurface beside her. “Oh, pull the other one.”
“I’m not lying to you,” says the Doctor. “Total cellular regeneration. Same person, new face.”
“You never mentioned it before.”
“Yeah, well,” The Doctor regards her properly. “There were a lot of things I never mentioned before.”
Martha stops. Something is hanging in the air. He can feel it, oddly shaped, heavy, spiky – perhaps unpleasant, perhaps needed. Martha glances over the Doctor’s shoulder with a smile that looks etched on with a chisel. “Bill, would you mind just giving us a minute?”
“Yeah, no problem,” Bill says, scrambling for the door handle. She lingers in the doorway for half a second, her hand brushing the sleeve of his jacket. “Let me know when you’re ready, yeah?”
He doesn’t move. The door shuts. The Doctor is wary.
Martha tips her chin, and it occurs to him she sent Bill away for his benefit, not her own – affording him the dignity of this conversation without Bill’s prying eyes and judgement. It’s generous - more generous than she probably should have been with him. Martha had always been far too agreeable with his prior self – far too willing to tolerate his disrespect. If she were to take pity on him now, to sense his unease and clean his conscious for him, would he walk away, all too happy to tuck her forgiveness under his wing and disappear off in his TARDIS?
But Martha’s next words come out with more than a bite beneath them, “How long’s it been for you?”
“A long time,” says the Doctor. “Hard to keep track of.”
“Is that why it’s been ten years for me, then?”
The Doctor looks down at his hands. He tries another uncertain smile. “Look, it’s just difficult, sometimes. To keep coming back.”
Martha draws a breath through her nose - sharp, direct, final – like turning over the last page of a book, like sealing an envelope.
“Doctor, why are you here?”
For the briefest of moments, he considers telling her - telling her about walking into the TARDIS console room to find her hologram displayed, and Bill’s arms folded across her chest. Defying Bill when she had questions and knew he had answers was like defying nature itself. She had a way of drawing it out of him, prodding on all his sore points and prying beneath his skin, until he was unravelling it all for her inspection.
“You’ve got to do something,” she had demanded across their shared table. They’d ended up sat inside his library, and even in the dim lamplight he’d seen fury in her eyes.
“Why?” he’d asked– although he’d known the answer. He’d known it even back then, though he pretended not to. Flicked his coat, brandished his sonic, relishing the opportunity to show off once again for some beautiful stranger, and ignored the way his careless words had made her shrink.
Bill’s voice had come out brittle. “She deserves it.”
Bill was right - of course, she was. And so, the Doctor shrugs his shoulders at Martha as if it were the simplest thing in the world, and says, “I’m here to say that I’m sorry.”
And Martha leans back against the countertop as if all the air had been punched out of her.
For fourteen long seconds, there’s no sound but the slow drip-drip-drip of the leaky tap in her kitchen sink. Then Martha turns suddenly, busying herself with their over brewed cups of tea, squeezing out the bags and rustling around the fridge for milk.
“Why now?” she asks after a moment. “Why are you telling me this, now?”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course, it matters,” her stare is accusing. “For as long as I knew you, Doctor, you acted as if you were above it all – feelings, apologies – all of that humility was for ordinary people –“
“I was wrong,” says the Doctor, tracking her movement across the width of the kitchen. “Humility is one of the most important things in the world.”
“And it’s taken you over nine-hundred years to realise that?”
“Two thousand,” he corrects. At her horrified look, he allows himself the slightest crack of a sardonic smile. “A bit slow on the uptake.”
She huffs out laugh. The first fracture in the ice that’s formed between them. It’s not broken, not yet – but he’ll wedge it open if he has to. Martha hands over a cup of strong tea and takes a seat behind the breakfast bar; it takes him half a moment to follow suit.
“There are thousands of explanations I could give you,” he starts, inspecting the grain of the wooden table with a finger, “And a lot them would be true, but none of them are relevant, because it all boils down the fact that you didn’t deserve it. Any of it.”
Her brown eyes threaten to see right through him. He meets them not with defiance but with respect, with offering. “You deserved my best and got my worst, and that was my fault.”
She glances out of the window and her braids catch on the chair armrests. “You were in pain,” she says tentatively, as if arranging her words for careful scrutiny. “I understand that. But -"
“ – But I had a duty of care,” the Doctor’s voice is firm. “That’s all there is.”
“I was never hurt,” she insists, searching his face now. The Doctor’s not sure who it is she’s trying to convince. “I managed to walk away; I could’ve been like – like some of the others.”
“Duty of care doesn’t just mean physical safety,” he says, quietly, “You of all people, Martha, should know that.”
Martha reels at that – rendered momentarily speechless - and he curses himself for ever allowing her to think any different. The Doctor had spent a lot of time trying to be right, trying to be good, but not always kind - it shamed him every time he allowed himself the rare chance to think about it.
But maybe it was time to think about it. Maybe it was time to lift the curtain and let in the past. He would feel the ache without ripping open the wound and letting it bleed all over him. Because to be kind, you have to learn, don’t you? You have to change; you have to accept. You have to stop running.
This is him. Still. Stock-still inside Martha Jones’ kitchen, clutching her mug of tea and facing her judgement.
“I was angry for a long time,” she admits. “With you. I mean, that version of you.”
“You should still be,” says the Doctor. “Martha, we’re the same person.”
“No,” she presses her palms into her eyes. “There were so many things I wanted to say – I told myself, if I ever got the chance, if you ever turned up again. But here you are – and you’re so different,” she says. And the expression she wears reminds him of the first time she’d stepped in the TARDIS, the first time they’d landed on an alien world – wonderment, curiosity, calculation all rolled into one. An ache twinges inside his hearts; he had wasted his time with Martha Jones. “I mean beyond the superficial. I recognise some bits, but others are so different.”
He smiles at that. “So, I’ve heard. Regeneration changes a lot.”
“So does getting older,” she glances at him sideways. “Two-thousand years?”
“And yet, I don’t look a day over a twelve-hundred.”
She laughs again. It makes a pleasant change.
“How many people have you been since?” she asks. “I mean, if it’s not a sore spot.”
“Well, the one you met was my tenth face,” he says. “There was just one more between me and him. Bloke with a bow-tie and a penchant for fezzes.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Sounds suitably eccentric.”
“You would’ve hated him.”
“Maybe,” she considers it. “But I think I like this one the most.”
He doesn’t quite preen, but it’s a near thing, and the warmth of her begins to thaw the vast, frozen cavern between them.
When she sits back against her seat, her smile is beginning to fade but the playful remnant of it remains ever so slightly there. “You still haven’t answered my question, Doctor.”
He rubs a hand over his face, deliberating for a moment or two. Bill’s words had given him the shove he needed, but after Clara, after everything – the Doctor was old, and tired and sick, sick, sick of letting people down.
“Do you remember that time you called Time Lords pompous?”
Martha frowns. “Vaguely.”
“Well, you were right. We are pompous. And pomposity begets arrogance, and arrogance can stop you from saying the things you mean to say,” he blinks at her slowly. “Martha, I’m telling you now because you should have heard it a very long time ago.”
The expression she wears now is completely foreign to him – it’s as she’s seeing him for the very first time. Her eyes trace over his – and though he might struggle with faces, he suspects that other people, other people who had once known him, don’t have nearly as much trouble reading him.
“I know you and him are the same person,” she says, “Intellectually, I mean – I get that. Same DNA, same memories and all that, but I also know that he never would’ve – he never could’ve brought himself to say that to me.”
“Martha - ”
“You’re right, Doctor. You should’ve told me before. Back when I was killing myself trying to impress you,” she says, not unkindly. “But you’re saying it now. Now is better than never.”
He stares at her.
“Thanks for coming back.”
He bows his head. To say it was no trouble at all would be a lie, and he’s sure Martha would know it.
For a moment, there’s nothing but the weight of his apology and her acceptance lying thick between them. Martha’s back to staring out the window and sipping her tea; and the Doctor watches her. There’s still a question prickling around the edges of him. It’s the one that always comes to mind when he thinks about her.
He dares to give it voice. “Do you regret it?”
He doesn’t need to elaborate for her. She turns, regarding him for a moment or two. “Not all the time,” she says, evenly. “I wish we’d had a better go of it.”
“You could come back,” he whispers. It trips off the tongue before he has time to process it, but a part of him knew he would always make the request – he had wanted to the minute she’d walked out, all those years ago. “I’m sure Bill wouldn’t mind, and Nardole’s opinion doesn’t count. I’m -” he pauses, feeling around for a word - better? Healthier? Happier? “Not the same.”
She considers it – he sees the calculation scrawling itself out across her mind. But then she smiles again, intimate and small and sad.
She stops him with a hand reached across the table. “It’s not a ‘no’, Doctor. It’s a ‘not yet.’ It’s an ‘ask me again, another time.’”
“Martha Jones,” he says. “I can definitely do that.”
Martha finishes typing in the numbers and hands back the phone. The screen is cracked, and there are scuff marks on the case, no doubt a result of one of their adventures. A couple of years ago, she might’ve felt a twinge of jealousy – not at their closeness, but at Bill’s opportunity to be out there, among the stars.
“Here you go,” she says. “Landline and mobile. If he’s anything like the one I was around, he’s hopeless with phones.”
“If I were in any doubt you’d travelled with him,” Bill offers her a grin.
“Yeah well, at least one of you has my number. Just in case.”
“Thanks,” says Bill, pocketing her phone. She steps back, moving to leave. “Been nice meeting you.”
“Bill,” Martha says quickly. “Thank you,” she nods over at the Doctor who’s lingering awkwardly in the doorway, pretending not to watch them as he chews his thumbnail. “For whatever you said.”
Bill blinks. And then she smiles. “He always wanted to, you know. Just needed a bit of a push.”
Martha pulls her in, wrapping her arms around Bill’s denim jacket – suddenly so grateful for this thoughtful young woman, unbound to time, who had the stars at her beck and call, but had forced him to look back, anyway.
When they step apart, Bill’s eyes twinkle with something like recognition, kinship. “See you.”
And then she’s ducking out of the front door, leaving Martha and the Doctor to it.
This one – this face she’s not used to - looks back at her with a touch of discombobulation; as if he doesn’t quite know what to make of it all. With the Doctor she knew before, his tenth face, it was easy to forget he was an alien. With this one, it’s hard to forget he is. Different and the same all at once, the paradox of it would hurt her head if it were anyone else. And a desperate part of her wishes she was going with him, learning all about this new version of an old friend – and this time, she thinks, the term ‘friend’ is perfectly apt.
But she was right before. It’s not time. Not yet.
“And you,” she says, and he smiles at her, lets it unfurl across his face as if it were a rare, secretive treat. “Take care of yourself. And Bill, please.”
“I will,” he says. And then he hesitates for a moment, peering down at her. “You were one of the best, you know.”
“Excuse you, I still am one of the best.”
His laugh is short but genuine, and as he ducks beneath the doorframe, she stops him, “See you soon, Doctor.”
And when he looks at her again, she sees a sincerity that was always, always missing with her other Doctor. She finds it overwhelming – like looking into an eclipse. “See you soon, Martha.”
Bill leans against the railing, watching the Doctor as he pulls down another lever on the console. He hadn’t given anything away, but Bill had caught bits and pieces, snippets of conversation through the door. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but there was only so much to do in a house that didn’t belong to her, and after listening to the Doctor’s story the other night, she’d become invested.
“So that was her then?” says Bill, and puts on a regal voice, “the woman who walked the Earth.”
“The very same,” says the Doctor as the sound of the TARDIS engines begins to flood the room.
“You never said she was hot in person.”
The Doctor casts her a sidelong glance. “Don’t you start. I’ve already travelled with a couple making kissy-faces at each other. And besides she’s married – or will be married. Hard to keep track of the tenses.”
Bill rolls her eyes. “She’s impressive. Bit on the short side, though. From the way you described her, I never thought she’d be short.”
The Doctor lip threatens to curl into a grin. “Short, smart and fiercely loyal. Exactly who you’d want in a fight.”
“Hang on,” Bill looks at him. “You said ‘travelled with’ – Doctor, is she coming with us?”
“No,” says the Doctor. He hides his glimmer of disappointment, but not quick enough. “Not yet.”
He had hoped. Bill sees it in his eyes.
“One day, though,” he says.