The TARDIS stopped next to someone's home. Not in the middle of a busy street, nor the peak of a mountain... not even in the basement of an abandoned government building in the middle of no-one's-around-to-care-where. Just sitting in the grass outside of someone's home. For less than half a second the Doctor was terrified he had gone to visit Amy and Rory again. To upset their home and pull them into some adventure that was likely to get Rory killed again. That would be awkward. Not just for Rory, but awkward from the moment they opened the door because... but, no, that wouldn't be possible anymore. This wasn't their home, anyway.
Standing in the doorway of the TARDIS and looking out over the yard with open grassy space lined by bushes and a vegetable garden, it was difficult to miss the small blue dragon running back and forth. This was definitely a home on Earth. Possibly America. Dragons of any size and color tended to be more fiction than fact on Earth. There was a small playhouse for a child at the opposite end of the yard from the house. The small blue dragon was running from a clump of rose bushes to the playhouse and back again. The Doctor simply stood silently outside the TARDIS and observed.
After three or four cycles of this it was on a return trip to the playhouse that the dragon seemed to notice the tall grey-haired man with the blue box and immediately flopped over, still and lifeless, on the ground. The Doctor took a couple of steps forward and scanned the creature with the sonic screwdriver. "I am assuming," he spoke to the dragon, "that you're hoping I'll just tell myself my eyes were playing tricks on me and go about my business. I've no doubt that works with the pudding brains. I, however, have just made it my business to understand how a stuffed toy is running here and there like a living creature."
The dragon offered no response. No words, no movement, nothing. The Doctor reached down to pick the toy-creature up. It was large enough to more than fill his hand, but small enough that it could use the palm of one of his hands as a perch if it weren't a dragon-shaped bag of cotton, or whatever soft toys for children were stuffed with. He was about to set it back on the ground when a young girl, maybe of six or seven years (Ten? Twenty-three? Guessing human ages was difficult.), with a pink stethoscope around her neck and wearing a small white lab coat, came out of the playhouse. As she approached him she said, "That's Stuffy."
"Yes, so I've noticed. Completely stuffed. How was he running about?"
"I mean his name is Stuffy," the child said. "May I have him back?"
The Doctor placed the toy-creature in the polite child's arms. "Stuffy. The stuffed dragon. Of course he is. I suppose you also know a lamb called Lambie and a snowman called Snowflake."
"Chilly, actually! Have you met Lambie already? By the way, I'm Doc!" The girl held out her hand as if to shake his, but the Doctor continued to look around the yard. "Who are you?"
"That, child, is an excellent question. Names, titles, societal roles... labels we wear in order to take an individual's entire existance and be able to answer, in just a few syllables, such an enormous question as, 'Who are you?'" He looked down at the young girl, bent slightly at the waist, and offered his hand. "I am the Doctor."
"Oh, then you must be a friend of my mom! No shortage of doctors around here!"
Something about this place was odd. Multiple somethings were odd. "Yes...erm... Please excuse me for a moment, Miss...Doctor..."
"Doc. My mom is Doctor McStuffins. I'm just Doc!"
"Of course. I'll be... in here. Please just... wait."
After a few moments inside the TARDIS, and with no more helpful information than he had before, the Doctor was about to step back outside when he heard a soft feminine voice say, "He doesn't look like a doctor. He looks like a magician! Do you think he would like a cuddle?"
The young child laughed. "Who doesn't like cuddles, Lambie? You should ask him if he wants one when he..." She looked around quickly, seeming to sense that the door of the TARDIS was about to open. "Go stuffed!"
The Doctor stepped outside to see the child sitting in the grass with the dragon, a lamb in a ballerina tutu, and a very small hard plastic medival knight. The toy-creatures were all still and lifeless. The girl stood up. "I saw the inside when you opened the door to go in and I couldn't help but notice..."
Here it comes. "It's bigger on the inside." Yes, it is, pudding brain. Thank you for pointing out the big, obvious things we can all see.
"... it's kind of like my clinic."
"Yes, that's because the TARDIS is... your clinic?"
"I don't know what a TARDIS is, but it can't be my clinic. My clinic is over there!" She pointed to the playhouse at the far end of the yard. "I'm Doc McStuffins, doctor to stuffed animals and other toys. Of course, a doctor needs a clinic to see patients. What kind of doctor are you?"
He looked at the playhouse more carefully this time, noticing the sign on the door. It was a crayon drawing of the playhouse with the young child waving from the door. He was willing to bet the other side had the same drawing with a red X over it, or maybe just a drawing of the empty playhouse... something to indicate the child not being there. A sign for when the doctor is in... or out, as the case may be.
The girl... Doc... was very polite and spoke with comfort and confidence, even to a strange old man in a blue police call box who suddenly turned up in her back yard. She was intelligent and kind, with a quick friendly laugh and the sort of personality that probably put most people at ease around her. She reminded him of Susan. In a few more years, maybe she would accept an invitation to see all of time and space. In a few more minutes, he might just run away before it was too late to stop himself from caring. In a few more seconds, he would realize it had been too late as soon as he saw the dragon. Curiosity was just one's ability to care manifesting through the mind.
"I am whatever type of doctor I need to be."
"A general practitioner?"
"One could say so, and I believe you just did. What was it you were saying about your clinic?"
"It's like your blue box. It's looks smaller from the outside than it really is. " Doc seemed to be thinking something over. "Oh! I get it! Your clinic is called a TARDIS! But why does your clinic have a police sign on it?"
"It's a disguise. The TARDIS is able to scan the surrounding environment, then change appearance to blend in. It just hasn't been able to do one of those thing for some years. Could I see your clinic?"
"Sure! Oh, but... could you just give me a second first?"
"I could give you at least one."
Doc disappeared into the playhouse, then waved from the child-size doorway. The amazing thing to the Doctor, as he approached and entered, was not that he fit so easily through the doorway, but that he was finding this sort of technology in the humble hands of an Earth child. Outside, he had seen a playhouse built for perhaps one or two children at a time to enter, and certainly not even one person of his height. Inside, there was a medical clinic with a waiting room and reception area, a large fish tank, and at least one more room. There was more than enough room for him to stand, as well as for Doc's toy-creatures to move about.
"They're all moving."
Doc nodded. "Yep! Most adults shouldn't see it, but... well, you're not like most adults, are you?"
"Not most of the one's you've met, I'd think not. How did you...?"
"Comin' through! Comin' through! Hippo on a mission here, folks!" A purple hippopotamus in a nursing uniform walked through holding a stack of books over her head. "Doc, I have found every notebook in the Big Book of Boo-Boos archive, and let me tell you, there's been a LOT of toys come through here! I'm as tired as a centipede's legs at the end of a race!"
"This is Hallie," Doc said. "She's the best hippo nurse anywhere!"
"How do you do?" Hallie nodded to the Doctor. "What kind of toy are bringing for Doc to look at?"
"I didn't actually bring a toy. The toy brought me." The Doctor gestured to Stuffy, who appeared to be attempting to help a plastic crab balance on the head of a stuffed snowman. "I'll trust that snowman doesn't bite."
The snowman, overhearing what the Doctor said, ran out from under the crab - despite a distinct lack of legs - and started to shout in a panicked voice. "Biting snowman?! Who's biting a snowman?! I'm DOOMED!"
Doc picked the snowman up. "Calm down, Chilly! No one's going to bite you. It would be really weird to bite a stuffed snowman." She set him down after calming him with a hug.
"That's right! Thanks for reminding me, Doc. Nobody's biting through all this stuffing! I'm as tough as Stuffy!"
"But not nearly as brave!" the dragon announced, jumping up to do a flip in the air and landing in front of The Doctor. "I am the bravest dragon in all of...uhh... all of.... all of the places where there are dragons and some of the places where there are none!"
The Doctor quirked an eyebrow, but before he could respond to the dragon there was a tug at the leg of his trousers. Doc's clinic could quickly become overwhelming if it was always so busy. He looked down to see the lamb in the pink tutu standing next to his leg. "Yes?"
"Would you like a cuddle?"
The lamb looked confused. Doc nudged her in the direction of the snowman and crab. "It's okay, Lambie. Maybe he'd like a cuddle later."
"Not likely," the Doctor said.
Doc looked concerned. "You don't have to get a cuddle if you really don't want one. Lambie is the best cuddler I've ever met, though. Come into my examining room and we can talk about what's wrong."
The Doctor followed Doc into a room with a scale, examining table, and what he first thought was a print of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man hanging on the wall. It couldn't have been, though, as he was certain the original was a study of human anatomy, not teddy bear anatomy.
"What brings you to the clinic today, Doctor?"
He was going to ask how she got the clinic. He was going to ask her to explain the walking, talking toys. He was going to ask why a child her age had not run into the house to tell a responsible adult there was a strange man in the yard. Even by his standards, though, this was a surreal experience and something inside of him surrendered to it in a way he had not expected. "I've broken something very important to me, and I can't fix it. I can't even find it."
"And you said your TARDIS hasn't been able to disguise itself correctly for years. Do you break things often?"
"Yes. I do. I've been trying to figure out why. Given enough time, I'm afraid I may break everything and everyone I have ever loved... and I have nothing but time."
"Let's start by giving your TARDIS a check-up," Doc suggested.
"The malfunctioning chameleon circuit? It's been fiddled with before. Results have been interesting. Always turns back into the box, though."
"Maybe it has a case of Stuck-as-a-Box-a-tosis!"
A voice from the waiting room called, "Do you need the Big Book of Boo-Boos in there, Doc?"
"We're fine without it. Thank you, Hallie!" Doc called back. "Her hippo sense always lets her know when I've got a diagnosis.
"It's good to have such a wise and helpful friend. I've had more of them than I think I truly deserved. Life's not always fair, and sometimes that works in one's favor." The Doctor's face, which seemed to be stuck in a permanent frown thanks to the angry eyebrows, took on the expression of someone lost in a distant bittersweet memory. "I had a friend who knew how to fix the chameleon circuit."
"Have you asked them to help you do it?"
"She doesn't remember anymore."
"Sometimes going over the steps you do remember can jog your memory and..."
"She must never remember!" the Doctor roared. Doc looked surprised. The waiting room fell silent. "I apologize. It is simply out-of-the-question. My friend.... I... I broke her, too."
Doc was thinking things over, her face also wearing a frown but with intelligent and concerned eyebrows. Not angry ones. She stood and started to walk toward the door. He followed her and they kept talking as they walked through the yard. "Hmm... yours is a difficult case, Doctor. You can't find something you broke, even though it's very important to you. You say you also break your friends. You think something about your TARDIS is permanently broken. Here's a question - do you cause harm?"
"Do I cause harm?"
"Yeah. You see, my mom told me once that doctors aren't supposed to cause harm, but sometimes she does have to cause pain. Like when she has to draw blood from a patient, or sometimes there's some pain in setting a broken bone. I don't have that problem with stuffed patients and broken toys, but even I have to do things that make them just a little uncomfortable for a few minutes. Because sometimes, if you didn't do certain things that hurt the patient, then you would be causing harm."
"I know I cause pain. Pain is harm. Choosing between two types of harm is not a real choice. It is an illusion. Something to help one get to sleep even with the weight of their mistakes smothering them."
"If I had to choose between a few minutes of discomfort that would get me back out there to play, or never being able to play again, I know which one I'd choose. Maybe your decisions aren't any more or less simple. Maybe someone else's problems look very small from the outside, but when it's your own problem it feels a lot bigger on the inside."
They stopped next to the TARDIS. It felt like this strange stop along the Doctor's way was coming to a close. "You are a wise child, Doc. Moreso than many adults I have met. You are also very compassionate. Don't lose that. You would miss it greatly if it were ever gone."
Doc looked the TARDIS over. "You travel in it, right?"
"Yes. And live in it. The TARDIS and I have been together a very long time."
"I don't think that chameleon circuit's broken, Doctor."
"Nobody wants their home to change like that. Home should be recognizable when you're coming down the street. It should be the same as it is in your dreams. Your TARDIS is exactly what you need it to be. So how can it be broken?"
The Doctor smiled. "I shall tell her you said as much, and I am certain she will agree. Goodbye, Doc McStuffins."
"Goodbye, Doctor! Come back if you ever have a toy that needs a doctor!"
As the TARDIS faded out of sight for the young girl, the Doctor kept watching the yard for a few moments. The lamb and dragon walked out to join the child and the lamb asked, "Were you able to fix him, Doc?"
"No, Lambie. You can't help a patient who doesn't want to be helped."
"I think you need a cuddle, Doc."
The Doctor watched the child and her strange animated toy friend embrace before turning off the viewer and leaving for another room of the TARDIS. They were all right. I shouldn't travel alone.