Characters: The Eleventh Doctor, Vincent Van Gogh, Theo Van Gogh
Edited by: the spectacularly irreplaceable dr_whuh
Summary: There are worlds, and endings, all depending on how the story writes itself. Somewhere, there are canvases of stranger stars than ever he saw on earth. As for him? Who knows where he is, poor man.
Author's Notes: After watching and rewatching the glorious "Vincent and the Doctor," I read more about Van Gogh and his remarkably devoted brother. This is the result. I think only this Doctor could make this decision, if indeed a decision happened. And whether it was, or will be, or never was, the right decision, who am I to say? (This story clings to the frayed hem of historical accuracy, but not much more than that. Some author's notes appear at the end of the story.)
Disclaimer: As much as I wish it were otherwise, no Whoniverse characters are mine. They are the sole properties of the BBC and their respective creators. I intend no copyright infringement, and take no coin. I do, however, love them all, and thank the BBC for letting me play (and create the occasional original character) in their sandbox.
There are worlds and worlds, endings and endings, depending upon how the story writes itself. Isn't that what we learned?
In the last horrid hours, the man was almost immobile with grief, obviously caught between the desire to flee that room and the fear that he would miss his brother's final moment. Until almost the end, the nurse thought he would ultimately give in to the first impulse.
She wouldn't blame him, she thought, as she carried out yet another basin of bloody bandages. It stank in the dark bedroom — of morphine and alcohol, and oncoming death. She and Dr. Mazery had looked at each other the previous day and given the slightest of nods; this one was done for. No need to cause him any more agony by trying to dig the bullet out of his chest — just give him enough morphine to ease the pain without tempting God and the law by deliberately easing him into the next world. He'd go on his own.
She was preparing to make her way down the tiny stairs when she heard a low cry from the bedroom. God in heaven, he was awake again. She stopped to listen, although she didn't expect to understand the Dutch which the two had been murmuring to each other before le pauvre last fell unconscious.
To her surprise, he was speaking French.
"I saw impossibilities, Theo, I saw something larger on the inside than the out, I saw—"
"Hush ... calm yourself ..."
"No! Listen to me, you must hear this — it was blue like cornflowers on the outside and rosy gold inside, and it took me to the future, showed me my own paintings in Paris, in a place of honor, but how can it have been true, Theo? How? They all laugh at me, you know that, so what lie did the Doctor tell me? What spell did he cast?"
"Who lied to you, Vincent? Who do you speak of?"
"The Doctor. The Doctor. And how he must have hated me, to lie in such a fashion ..."
His voice trailed off into a moist and painful cough. The nurse strained to hear anything else. And finally, she heard it.
"The sadness, Theo, the sadness will last forever."
She moved away from the door, ashamed at having listened, and headed downstairs. When next she saw him, it was to clean him for his shroud.
The housekeeper's critique was short and to the point.
"Garbage," she said flatly, throwing it into a closet. "Insanity."
It was nothing at all like true art. It wasn't beautiful. It didn't show anything understandable. It was a violent and brutal clash of colors, an ugly explosion. And why one would think fire and destruction the stuff of beauty ... no, not art at all.
But she couldn't stop thinking about it. She would have died rather than admit it to anyone else, but it was always there in her mind's eye. The flames and the debris seemed to erupt out of the painting, like a silent scream. When she first saw it, clutched in his arms, she had actually flinched, as if feeling the heat and the force at the heart of the thing. Now she found herself afflicted with the desire to fetch it from the closet to see if it still affected her that way, or perhaps to see if there was nothing left of the canvas but ash.
That night there was little more anyone could do. She went to the kitchen to bring up yet another tray of tea for those awaiting the inevitable. As she ascended the stairs with it, she heard the two doctors murmuring with the nurse a few paces down the narrow hall. She also heard her employer trying unsuccessfully to soothe his brother.
"Calm yourself, you'll do yourself harm if you carry on this way—"
"I'm dying, Theo, what more could I possibly do to myself? And I, I know — I know — that my dream must have lied—" He broke off, coughing. She was no doctor, but the housekeeper could tell from the bubbling sound that his lips were red with blood.
After the paroxysm subsided, she expected nothing but silence. She was mistaken.
"I was wrong, Theo. My painting is wrong. The TARDIS is forever. It will last ...."
He did not speak again. His brother sobbed and the black-coated doctors sighed in relief; she turned on her heel, tray still in hand, to send her boy for the undertaker.
The nurse and doctors had been gone from the inn for a week, when a very young man and woman — blond, English, thin-lipped — came to the door shortly before Monsieur Van Gogh was to arrive to retrieve the last of his brother's things. They spoke with the housekeeper and came in without being invited. Presently they departed, taking with them a rolled up canvas. The housekeeper watched their retreating backs from behind a parlour curtain and shivered. She later told M'sieur she had no idea where that particular painting had got to.
Theo couldn't bear to have anyone else here, not at the end of it all. Surely his brother deserved some final dignity? If he could not, at the last, shake off the demons, then he should, of a certainty, be free of all judgment save that of God.
"Leave us," he told the others, not taking his eyes from the bed. No more groans now, no more coughing and mercifully no more pleas to "find the box, Theo, please find the box."
"Monsieur, he must be watched— "
"No, he must not. You can do nothing more for him." When they hesitated, he snapped "Did I not make myself clear? He has no further need of doctors!" He was rewarded with the sound of a swiftly shut bedroom door, and leaned forward to hold his brother's pale hand.
"No more doctors, dear one," he whispered. "Never again."
At first he thought the unearthly howl came from outside the window; so, too, the wind that guttered the lamp and plucked at the bedclothes. But the window faded out and a tall wooden box, blue as cornflowers, faded in. Theo flung himself over the bed.
"Oh, I wouldn't say never again," the impossible man said. "He needs to see at least one more."
The patient's eyes opened as he whispered the question; Theo's went, if possible, even wider.
"Sorry I took so long, Vincent. Meant to come before all this got so ... messy, but I had to have a bit of a debate with myself first. I won, and here I am and let's have a look at that chest wound, shall we, if you wouldn't mind telling your brother that he actually needs to get off your chest, before he kills you himself?"
He was young, or seemed so until one looked in his eyes, and dressed as badly as any poverty-stricken painter. The odd metal wand he pulled from a jacket pocket glowed like a tiny green lamp and buzzed like a drowsy fly.
Theo finally found his voice, if not his equanimity. "Are you Death?" Under the circumstances, he thought, it was a reasonable question.
The man pursed his lips briefly before smiling. "No, I'm the Doctor." He glanced at the bed, his smile broadening. "Vincent knows me. It's all right."
Vincent nodded, just barely, and the man gestured toward the chair from which Theo had leaped. "You should sit down." Theo did.
What followed was ... Theo was not sure what it was.
First the man, the Doctor, briefly wielded his baton above Vincent's chest. Next, he listened to and looked at the thing intently, his expression somber. And finally — "I'm going to ask you not to object, although I'm sure I'd object if a strange man took my dying brother inside a TARDIS, which is what She is, by the way, which is not the point. The point is that I can help him if I take him inside, and by help, I mean I think I can save his life. Can't take you in, not yet, but I'll be back out and bring you in to visit him when he's better. Do I have your solemn promise not to panic or make a fuss? Or call the gendarmes?" — he carefully, lovingly, lifted his patient from the bed and and disappeared with him into the box.
I am sleeping, Theo decided. I am slumped against the bed, my head next to Vincent's arm, dreaming of the creatures in his dreams. Soon someone will come to wake me, and tell me that my brother is dead.
He wasn't. He was alive in the depths of the world inside the blue walls; happy, and at peace with himself as he had not been since he was the solemn elder brother that an awestruck toddler had loved so much. In fact, he laughed as the Doctor brought Theo in, and jumped from the bed on which he had been lying, embraced Theo and told him to share his joy: "I think I'm going to see things I've never seen before, and I can't wait!"
Theo returned the embrace but he was not certain if he was seeing a glimpse of heaven, or being tricked by something far darker.
"I know what you're thinking," the Doctor said, looking at him over Vincent's shoulder. He was smiling again, but there was something bitter, or sad, at the corners of the smile and Theo felt his heart constrict. "It's not a dream. He's better — or he's getting better, which is a bit of a life long process ... still, I'd say things are looking up. But there is a cost."
Vincent's arms dropped away, and he turned wordlessly to face his savior.
"I said I'd had a debate with myself, and that I'd won," the Doctor said, speaking more to the completely mystified Theo than to Vincent. He fished about in his pockets and brought out the wand, passing it from hand to hand as he spoke, like a distracted wizard. "I did it for a friend who I may or may not tell, and I'm glad, or rather glad, that I did, because I'm also doing it for myself. I'm selfish that way. But I did have to make a deal with myself.
"Timelines, you see, are a lot more flexible than I used to pretend, and a lot less flexible than I used to pretend. I used to pretend both ways, depending on who was telling me what, and who was listening, but a lot of the people who used to listen aren't here anymore, which leaves me with nothing but me, and the truth."
He turned away from the brothers, almost a pirouette, until he had the little bed between them. "And the truth is that I can twist the lines a bit. I can rescue people, even people that shake the timelines more than most. They're all important; they all shake the timelines a little bit, but Vincent, here ... Vincent shakes them more than many. So if he just got better, well the timeline would vibrate badly enough to break, and that's more than I can allow. He has to stay dead, dead by his own hand, you see, as far as the world is concerned."
He smiled again, and seemed perhaps a little less bitter, a little hopeful. "Or as far as this world is concerned."
Then the smile disappeared, as he spoke very quietly to Vincent. "You won't get to see him again. This is your chance to say goodbye."
Later, Theo would be grateful when he remembered Vincent's anguished cry. He had no immediate chance to consider it, however, because the Doctor danced out from behind the bed, past Vincent and over to him. "I still break the rules," he said, grabbing the back of Theo's neck and bending their heads together conspiratorially so that Vincent couldn't hear. "I can tell you that either way, this is the last time you see him. And I have to ask you this — how do you feel?"
Of course, he would know, this devilish man, this strange creature, Theo thought, feeling sick to his stomach. Of course. So, no matter what happened ....
"Go with him, dear one," he managed.
Vincent came over and looked from one to the other. His eyes filled with tears. "Truly?"
"I'll be in the console room," the Doctor said. "You've a little time yet."
It faded from sight, and Theo was left alone. He called the others in.
"He will last forever," was all he would say.
After one look at his face, the doctors fell silent and fled, their payments in hand. The nurse became pale and gathered her things without asking for payment. The housekeeper looked into the bedroom and made a noise in the back of her throat, before sending for the coffin-maker; no need for the undertaker, obviously. Then she went to mass. She almost went to confession, before she realized that there was nothing she could tell the priest.
There are worlds, and endings, and stories. Somewhere, there are canvases of stranger stars than ever he saw on earth. They line the halls of an impossible place. As for him? Who knows where he is, poor, lucky man.
The Doctor won't tell.
* Dr. Mazery was one of the doctors attending Vincent in the two days after he shot himself in the chest.
** Vincent Van Gogh's final words, according to his brother, were "La tristesse durera toujours," or "The sadness will last forever." With a little imagination, and some blithe disregard for actual French grammar (let's be charitable and say I stretched the rules) it was possible to decide that a weary, heartbroken Theo had heard tristesse when Vincent used another word entirely.
*** Theo Van Gogh died in January of 1891, six months after his brother. The cause of death was very probably syphilis, (although heartbreak must have played a part) and there is evidence that both brothers knew of his infection.