There was a girl outside her window.
No, Harriet corrected herself, not a girl. A young woman, in her mid-twenties, perhaps, crouching in the garden. She was holding some sort of device in her hands. Harriet felt a sudden pang of alarm. She'd let the security go, of course, when she left office. Hardly any need for all that these days, but maybe it had been a mistake. She ought to call the police, she decided, but instead she found herself walking toward the window.
She put her hands on the sill. The woman looked up, caught her eyes and smiled. She'd seen her before, Harriet realised--passed her on the street a few days ago. And then--how hadn't she noticed?--sat across the aisle from her on the bus yesterday afternoon. Her face heated with indignation and she opened the window before she quite realised what she was doing.
"Why are you following me?" Harriet demanded. The more sensible fear caught up to her anger a few seconds late--what if she's armed? What if she's mad, delusional, wants to kill you--and she stood up a bit straighter.
The woman smiled and stuck out her hand. "Hello, Ms Jones. Lovely to meet you finally."
And again despite her good sense Harriet found herself reaching out to shake hands. A peculiar tremor ran up her arm and down her spine when their hands touched. Some sensation not quite physical, and familiar in the back of her mind. "I'm afraid I can't say the same just yet, Miss...?"
She laughed. "Just Ace, if you don't mind."
"Well, Ace." Harriet took her hand back and folded her arms. "If *you* don't mind, I'd still like an explanation for your presence in my garden. Not to mention how you've apparently been following me for several days now?"
The device in Ace's hands gave a sudden squawk, and they both jumped.
"And I wouldn't mind knowing what *that* is, either," Harriet added.
Ace swore and gave it a thump. "Oi, no need to go beeping at me, you daft wreck. I can see her right here."
A closer look at the thing made Harriet wonder if it got thumped on a regular basis. It was a metal oval, with indents on the sides to hold it by, and a screen on top, with wires and switches tangling over, under, and in generous loops around it. Despite the thumping, Ace held it with what seemed almost like tenderness. Perhaps she'd made it herself.
"Look," Ace said, standing up, "I don't mean you any harm, I promise. It's just been a complicated few days, and I could really use a cup of tea. I can take the readings just as well inside, anyway."
"And what readings are those?" Harriet said. "Only you seem remarkably reluctant to tell me, which makes me less than inclined to invite you into my home."
"Time," Ace said. "You're doing something funny to time, or it's doing something funny to you. That's what this thing picks up." She waved the device, which beeped obligingly. For a moment there was something so familiar about her that Harriet felt almost dizzy.
"Time," she repeated, "is doing something to me. Besides the obvious, I take it."
Ace snorted. "I don't exactly get yanked through time and space for a grey hair, yeah. Come on, I'll explain inside." She grabbed the windowsill and hauled herself through before Harriet could figure out how to react, hitting the floor with both feet and a thump. She headed for the kitchen, tossing an expectant look over her shoulder, and out of curiosity or bemusement or that eerie familiar feeling, or perhaps just because Ace was the first person she'd talked to in the last few months who didn't look at her as though they'd be shaking their heads sadly and tutting the moment she turned her back, Harriet shut the window and followed her.
"Thing is," Ace said as she put the water on--gadget abandoned on the counter for the time being--"time's more complicated than most people think. You've heard that nonsense about stepping on a butterfly?"
"It was quite a good story, actually," Harriet said. "Bradbury, yes?"
Ace eyed her uncertainly. Not much for science fiction, perhaps. "The point is, time travel doesn't work like that, not ordinarily. Most butterflies, well--" She paused. "Where do you keep your cups?"
"Cabinet just up there. No, to the left--yes, that one. Tea in the jar by the stove." Only bags at the moment--she'd been meaning to go to the store for days now, but somehow couldn't get around to it. Still, Harriet couldn't bring herself to apologise to a woman who'd essentially broken into her home, no matter how peculiarly--drawn she felt. "Most butterflies don't matter, is that it?"
"No!" Ace looked at her, surprised and perhaps a little indignant. Her face was so remarkably open. "They all matter. Everyone *matters.* Just, most of the time when someone dies, or something changes, the timeline can absorb it. It's fantastically difficult to change history for more than a decade or two. Even that's rare, people are just too adaptable to really knock things off course."
There was something almost soothing about sitting here, listening to a strange young woman lecture her about the mechanics of time travel. Harriet found she almost didn't care, just yet, if any of it were true or not. A few years ago she'd have dismissed the whole idea as lunatic nonsense, of course, but she'd lost that privilege long before Christmas. There was so little she could allow herself to dismiss anymore, but right now she didn't want to believe or disbelieve. Ace kept talking about the flow of time, and the web of time, and the ripples in the pond of time, and all of it was absurd, and it all felt so much more important and grand than anything she'd done in months.
"The handheld zeroed right in on you," Ace said. She set a cup down in front of Harriet, another for herself; hands free, she picked the oval device back up, making it chirp. "It started going absolutely mad about a week ago, picking up readings from all over time--real unbelievable numbers. I thought I'd broken it at first. But then we ended up here."
"In my garden?"
Ace grinned. "Did you hear anything funny Tuesday last, about three in the morning?"
She'd thought it was the dog from next door got loose again. "I see," Harriet said. Abruptly, something shook loose in her mind, and she set down her cup. "Are you with the Doctor?" she asked. The moment of surprised silence that followed was answer enough.
Harriet stood up, feeling old again and--thank you, Doctor--tired. "Just tell me what he wants," she said. She walked back to the window and looked out at the garden. Ace had left knee prints in her zinnias.
"Hang on," Ace said, following her, "you know the Doctor? Wait, of course you do. Bloody timelines--and you letting me babble on about time travel like you didn't know a thing--"
"Has he changed again?" Harriet asked. There was another, longer silence.
"Don't know," Ace said. Harriet turned to look at her. "I don't," she said, "I left him ages ago. Well, a few years. Feels like forever." There was an odd note in her voice, for a moment, that made her sound older than she could possibly be.
Ace took her hands, held them in her own, smooth and warm. "I'm not here with him. And I'm not here for him, Harriet. I'm here--" A burst of chirping and beeping from the kitchen interrupted her, and she laughed a little. "Well, you heard it."
In the last several minutes Harriet had gone from frightened to angry to hopeful to disappointed, and she could hardly tell how she felt anymore. Ace was an impossibly solid presence, holding on to her, and looking at her--directly at her--the way nobody had since the Doctor had cast her down. "Because I've dented time?"
Ace squeezed her hands tightly. "Because you're going to be important."
"You said everyone is important."
"There's things I can't tell you," Ace said. "I'm not--I don't tell the future, it's not like that. You have to trust me."
"I do," Harriet said, not a little surprised to realise that it was true. "I don't know--who you are, or half of what you've said, but I do."
"There's something wrong with time, I don't know what, and it's not--something I'm allowed to change," Ace said. "But we're going to need you soon, all of us."
Something wrong with time, Harriet thought. As if the crowd of conquering space aliens wasn't terrifying enough. She had trusted the Doctor, that was the real pain of it. Even after he'd betrayed her, she hadn't been afraid. She hadn't been alone, even when it would have been a kindness.
"Can you show me?" Harriet asked. "On that device?"
Ace's smile was as bright and clear as lightning.
"You'll have to go to sleep," Ace said. "Consciousness scrambles the signal, makes it hard to pick out what's not supposed to be there." She grinned, a little ruefully. "Actually I only meant to wait across the street until you went to bed, but the numbers kept spiking and helixing and I got caught up..."
Harriet sat back slowly, all her body prickling in complaint as she grew aware of it again. She'd been hunched over the device for almost two hours--"like a vortex manipulator, but more sentient," Ace had said, "and loads more sensory modules. No directional control, but it's not supposed to be for going on holiday, is it?"
"I don't think sleep will be a problem," Harriet said. She dug her thumb almost viciously into the white knot of pain below her skull, taking pained satisfaction in the slow yield of muscle. Ace was watching her, holding her manipulator in her lap. For the first time that night, her face was difficult to read. "I take it you'll be gone in the morning," Harriet said, and Ace nodded.
"Unless something goes wrong."
"All right, then." Harriet took her hand, and only had time to wonder what on earth kind of goodbye would be appropriate before Ace said,
"Let me take you to bed," and almost instantly after that, "no, I don't mean--" Colour rose to her cheeks. "I want to see you're safe."
She was warm, and sweet, and she did mean, and Harriet could. She wasn't a wild young girl at university anymore, flush with hormones and politics and substances, but Ace was here and time travel was real and she was the butterfly that couldn't be stepped on, or time and space would crumble.
They went to her bedroom and Ace glanced away, turning pink again, while Harriet changed for bed. Ace waited until she was under the blankets, then knelt next to her.
"Thank you," Harriet said. Ace clutched her hand, something almost fierce about her in the dimmer light of the table lamp.
"It will be all right, you know," Ace said. Her voice was low and strong. "You'll come through. I can tell that about you, you're the sort of person who always comes through."
She turned out the lamp when she left, and the words echoed in the darkness like prayer.