Chapter 1: and his granddaughter
“Grandfather,” the girl says. “Grandfather,” she says again. The old man doesn’t look up from his plate. She can see his hand trembling. This is later.
“You know he’s never approved of me,” her father says. Her mother laughs, a bright sound that makes her up from where she’s playing under the table to watch her parents. She likes seeing them together, fingers intertwined.
“Father doesn’t approve of anybody,” mother says, “but he likes people who stand up to him. Besides, it’s our choice.”
“He could make things hard for us.” Her father is smiling, but she knows there’s worry underneath, she can always tell.
“He knows I could make things hard for him. Besides, he might not like you, but he hates politics more.”
“Thank you for that,” he says with a dry humor that she’ll try to hold onto.
She goes back to her game. Her parents talk about a lot of things, if it’s important they’ll talk about them with her. She’s a tranquil child. This is earlier.
“You say there was an accident.” The man isn’t speaking to her. She decides that means she doesn’t have to listen to him.
She might have to sit on the uncomfortable chair and wear the heavy robes, but she doesn’t have to let the words have any meaning. It’s like when her father would bring home a new piece of music and they’d turn off the translation circuit to just listen to the rhythm and sound. She doesn’t like this song.
“She can’t stay here,” Mr. Qeesh says. She has to listen to him because he works with her mother. She likes Mr. Qeesh, who really has a much longer name and is a ‘lord’, but winks and tells her that it’s a secret even though her parents know. They have secrets too.
Had secrets. Worked. Used to bring home. She knows how the words change tense. Her mother had praised her assignment on the differences between time traveling and non-time traveling species tense usage. Her mother had said that she was destined to grow up a scientist with that sort of attention to detail, but she had known that was just teasing for her father. She could’ve grown up to do anything.
She thinks Mr. Qeesh sounds sad. If she could speak, she would know for sure what sadness sounds like, because it fills her like one of the balloons they’d seen at the carnival and she doesn’t know what will happen when it pops.
“I am aware.” The man who isn’t speaking to her doesn’t sound sad. He doesn’t sound like anything at all, but she sees something in his eyes. “It was all most irregular, to begin with.”
“You’re going back home.” Mr. Qeesh says to her, playing as if that means anything. This is her home.
“Yes. The grandfather.” Now the other man’s voice matches his eyes.
School is terrible. Ana, who isn’t older than her but acts like she’s older than the teachers, says that school’s supposed to be horrible. Ana says it in the lofty voice she uses when she’s announcing the answer in maths, but she knows Ana is wrong this time, even if she always gets her answers right.
She doesn’t know what school is supposed to be like, but nothing’s supposed to be horrible. There are things that look that way, but most of the time that’s just because you don’t understand why people are doing them. She would try to explain this, but she already knows that would make the other children whisper again.
She supposes she has learned a lot of new things at the Academy. Before she hadn’t known many other children. She hadn’t known that they say things like ‘anthropologist’ in mocking ways or look down on a woman who could have lived a sensible life as a scientist but instead hared off to an alien planet or consider not returning from an accident something embarrassing. She hadn’t known that tutors would think much the same.
The old man who is her grandfather huffs about how the man who never spoke to her just left her at the gate to his house. He pats her awkwardly on the head and mutters something about things not being right.
He’s familiar, her grandfather. She realizes that she had known him before, before, and maybe Mr. Qeesh hadn’t just been playing about her going home. She knows what the red grass feels like when she rolls on it and the sound the silver leaves make. She knows the shape of the house, and that it feels different.
She thinks maybe it’s the sadness, at first, a balloon that keeps expanding even as it sometimes feels like her lungs are contracting in response. Lots of things feel different through the sadness. But she knows a quantifiable difference between states of being. There are things that seem smaller because she’s bigger. There are a few old toys that she remembers but are for tots. There’s a new picture on the wall where there used to be a painting, she can call up old models of the house to prove her memories right.
She’s right that grandfather feels different, too. He says things about making complaints, but she doesn’t think he makes any. He had spent a lot of time in his workroom Before, too, but now he barely ever storms off for one of the talks that her mother had shaken her head at. He doesn’t talk about some project he’s passionate about, and he’d done that back when she was too young to really understand. Her mother had shaken her head about those too, sometimes they’d fought about plans that were never going anywhere or obsessing on the past. Mother hadn’t been happy when Grandfather had shown her how to write Old Gallifreyan with a ‘pen’. Grandfather had snapped back even more when father had defended it. Dinners are much quieter now; she doesn’t think it’s just because he doesn’t want to think of the emptiness where her mother’s voice should be.
Ana is probably her friend. She would say that Ana is her best friend, but that just means her only one, and the other girl would sniff at the word to start with. Ana doesn’t have any other friends either, because she tends to be first. Even when she isn’t, some whisper that it’s on purpose, which is somehow worse. She pretends not to know Ana is upset.
She pretends a lot of things. She pretends to care about schoolwork but not to care too much. She pretends she doesn’t miss seeing the real outside. She pretends not to think of her parents. She pretends that she agrees about what’s important and what’s not.
School seems to be all about pretending. She’s afraid that she’ll learn to believe it.
Grandfather used to have friends. She remembers them, too, in the way she used to remember he grandfather before he became a solid presence again. Sometimes there would be arguments when they came over, her mother said once that her Grandfather could have a falling out with himself if there was no one else around, but they were usually arguments that ended with a smile and a brief touch in farewell, still close enough to make contact.
The most frequent visitor had been dark haired and quick to smile. She thinks, remembering through different eyes, that it might not have always been a nice smile. When he was there conversation at dinner had been bright and quick and sharp and as much as it made Grandfather come alive, sometimes it was sharp enough to cut. He hadn’t approved of her father’s work any more than Grandfather had, and he’d shared her mother’s thoughts on her Grandfather’s ‘pet projects’. There had been times when they’d smiled at each other like the expressions were one of the knives her father had brought to her other home to show her.
But he had worked with Grandfather as often as they differed. His smiles for her had been kind. He’d put his hand on her head once and spoken of potential, almost sounding proud.
After she comes back, she only sees him once. He has new robes and tried to speak like he barely knew Grandfather until Grandfather baited him into a fight that ended with him storming away and Grandfather locking himself in the library for over a day. Soon after that she goes to school where she learns about Chapters and Titles and that some people are spoken of with respect and others are considered failures. She learns that people you think you can trust sometimes walk away to spend time with more important people, no matter what those people said about someone who used to be their friend.
She loves breaks from school. Even if there’s a sadness to the house, it’s a thousand times better than even the best moments at the Academy. At the house she doesn’t have to pretend. She can look through the collection of things from Outside that Grandfather let her keep after she promised she could keep a secret. She can run around and play and not worry about anyone watching.
She knows something exciting is going to happen as soon as she arrives to find Grandfather waiting at the door to usher her in, full of the secret mischief she had almost forgotten he used to be so full of. He won’t tell her what he’s planning, or where he disappears to, so she lies back on her bed and dreams of the adventures she reads about in the books the other children usually scoff at.
Finally, almost right before she goes back, Grandfather leans across the table, as if sharing a secret even though they’re the only ones there.
“Well, my child, what would you think of going on a little trip, hm?”
“Right before school starts?”
He hesitates, worry warring with the excitement he’s so full of he’s almost bursting. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t have a chance to return to school. Perhaps –”
But whatever he was going to say is lost in the fierceness of her embrace.
He laughs, “Let me breathe, child, let me breathe.”
She has to let go eventually, but she that night she sits up dreaming of being anywhere else.
“A girl, hm? Good choice. The less chance she’ll take after that man you’ve decided to attach to the better.”
“Oh, must you, father?”
“Just a little joke, my child. A fine tot. Yes. Very fine.”
Chapter 2: an old man
“Grandfather,” the girl says. “Grandfather,” she says again. He can’t make himself look up from his plate. This is later.
Even after all the agreements were drawn up, he hadn’t thought much on what it would be to actually have a child. He hadn’t thought it would affect him much. His biology tutors had always been decidedly unimpressed, but he still finds himself watching the geneticists weaving the foundation of what will be partly his child.
When she had been completed and released into parental custody, he sometimes sits with her on his lap as they go through tables of evidence or star charts of the galaxy. She draws equations on force and motion with chubby fingers and he feels a pride he can’t express; he doesn’t know what it comes from, this feeling that makes him want to beam at the simplest accomplishments.
It goes as it always was going to. She goes away to the Academy and thrives there, more embarrassed by him every time she returns. She has a talent for engineering and lacks ‘foolish distractions’ or interest in politics. She could have a good life on Gallifrey, and he wonders if things would’ve been different if he’d said that less as an insult. Unlikely, she hadn’t had much interest in his opinions by then. This is earlier.
It’s that boy’s fault. He’s more of a fool than he ever was. He doesn’t study engineering or temporal mechanics or anything of note. He doesn’t even study the dusty histories in the proper way. He wants to go out into the universe, to listen to aliens and learn their primitive customs. He wants the woman he loves to come with him.
Loves. And his daughter complains that he mocks the boy at their table. She disparages his work but smiles at the boy when he talks of love or living out among aliens or begs for help in his petition to live off world. If she knew her father had once dreamt of travel, she’d probably banish him from her life, but for the boy she talks eagerly about the station she’ll study at on the planet while he nods along. This world they’re planning to take their child to.
He signs his name, vouching that they should go. His name isn’t completely without value (not yet) and maybe it’s for the best. She’ll get sick of it soon enough, and it’s better than listening to endless complaints.
There’s something about the planet that blocks regeneration. Something about energy or the atmosphere or rumors that the primitives that live there had once been far more advanced and such technology still lives beneath the surface.
It’s not impossible, but not something easily achieved alone, after a traumatic incident, with no experience.
His daughter had embraced him before they’d left. Probably one of the boy’s foolish notions, though he had enough sense to stand a sensible distance away. His granddaughter had followed suit, she’d beamed up at him from where she’d wrapped herself around his leg.
He tries to find the familiar anger at the stupidity of such an accident, he just feels tired. Tired and very old.
They just leave the child at the gate, like a milk can at the bottom of the garden. Of course, he’s alerted immediately but that isn’t the point. It’s the pettiness of the whole thing. Another small slight meant to remind him of what he’d given up, to tell him that he should be embarrassed by his choices.
At least that gives him something to grumble about as he leads the girl inside. She’s taller than she was before, but still full of a wide-eyed innocence that makes something that he’d thought long numb start hurting in his chest.
She re-explores the house and calls him Grandfather and gives him her first smile since her return when he assures her that she won’t have destroy the little alien gifts her father had given her, whatever that fool Agent had told her.
He can’t make her happy, but that smile makes him wish there was something more.
“We aren’t children anymore,” Kos says, smugly condescending enough that he deserves to have a pipe thrown at his head.
He could say that finding secret treasures had been Kos’ dream, and long after they’d been children. It hadn’t been given up for adulthood, it had been exchanged for the power of a higher collar and promises of higher position. It seemed his old friend was willing to exchange a lot for that.
There’s enough of the man he’d known to make him flush at that accusation, slipping from the model of a future high councilor to hiss about how one of them at least was still trying to find a way to change things, to leave the planet, instead of shutting themselves away with dreams of a long gone past.
“You were never imaginative enough to have very man dreams,” he says, viciously pleased to make the person he’d once been closest with practically hiss in rage as he stamped away, all claims that he’d come to talk ‘for his own good’ stripped away.
He feels a little guilty when he sees the girl had been sitting on the stairs, out of sight. She had heard enough arguments in this house. He tries to explain about politics and power and what some people are willing to sacrifice for their own advancement, but she just looks confused. Still an innocent to the nature of her world.
The school notice feels heavy in his pocket, but maybe it’s for the best that she learns now. He can’t keep her hidden away, just to stop her from thinking as little of him as everyone else does.
He finds the Hand, as he’d known he would. He’d known no matter what anyone else said. The Hand of Omega, triangulated through the texts that were scorned by the same people who would do anything to get their hands on it.
He lets himself think on that for a while, the expressions on their faces as he walks in with the box at his heels, victorious in the face of their scorn. They would all want it. Every faction of the council would practically kill for the prestige of such a thing. He could be the one to elevate one side over all the others.
He sits down on the box, resting legs that feel a little wearier than he’d like after his wanderings through the depths of the Citadel. A true coup for any side. None of which deserve it. He thinks of the endless wrangling and petty, pointless arguments and the stagnation that have long prevented anything of any use from happening. He thinks of the power of the stellar manipulator, power of the old times.
They would practically kill for it. It’s not the old times, whatever he sometimes saw in his fellows’ eyes.
He shakes his head; the better truth is that none of them deserve it. He doesn’t need their fawning claims of approval. He had been the one to chose to leave, whatever they might think. But he can’t leave it here.
The girl is the only spot of worry in the plan.
Day by day, he grows more excited at finally taking back up the ideas that had faded into fancy as he’d gone into the ‘real’ world. He would leave this stultifying world and its dead soul far behind, flee into the universe and never look back.
But he’s not alone. There’s the girl. The girl that only has him. She has the Academy. She has what could be a life here. Her progress reports might not be untapped brilliance, but they’re nothing like his had been. She can learn how to fit in, grow into something more than the tired old man he had become before life had come back into him. His disappearance might make them question her, but she’s still a child, and knows nothing of his plans.
She hasn’t lost her quick smile, but it seems to die faster every time she goes back to school. She must know more of the world, but she never looks at him with disappointment. She’s family. They wouldn’t be alone among aliens if they had each other.
He had fought with his daughter for years, but she had been the one who had managed to escape. She had been brave. She had wanted so much more, so much she had never told him. It might be selfish to ask, but that thought disappears with his granddaughter’s pure joy.
This will be better, for both of them.
“Yes, I shall come back.”