The Doctor had gone. Five companions, thrown together in a ramshackle pocket of the Death Zone, perched or sprawled or lay on the jumbled wreckage of the arena where they had made their last stand. For a while, they talked quietly, sharing reminiscences of their TARDIS travels. But as minutes dragged to hours, and Ian began to nod, laughter and nostalgia faded to silence.
“So what’s between you two, anyway?” Steven said, turning to the youngest of the party. “You and the Doc.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Nyssa said. She had spoken little and laughed less, sitting a little apart from the others with her arms tucked around her knees, brushing now and again at the stains on her lab-coat.
“Oh, come on, Nyssa,” Polly said, eyes twinkling. “I saw the Doctor change once, but he was still a funny old man afterwards. Certainly not a cutie like that. Lucky you.”
Nyssa shrugged. “He looked after us,” she said, voice firming. “He’s a Time Lord. We’re all children to him, regardless of the face he wears.”
“Aww. Tough luck, eh?” Polly said, with some sympathy.
Steven let out a low whistle.
Ian peeled open an eye. “Aren’t you two a little old for gossiping?” he said. “Leave the woman be.”
“Sorry. You’re right, of course.” Polly cleared her throat. “So how long before the Doctor’s people send us home? I don’t know about you, but I’m human, not a Time Lord, and I don’t fancy being stuck here for a decade or two.”
“I’m not human, actually. But I agree with you.” Nyssa frowned and began searching the debris around them.
“Gosh,” said Polly, eyes widening. “You mean you’re a Time Lord— or Time Lady, I should say?”
“Really?” Ian said, growing excited. “How extraordinary! That explains why you can keep up with him. So what’s your story, Nyssa? He never explained why he and Susan were exiles; he liked his little mysteries.”
“I’m not—” Nyssa began, distracted. She stooped and fished a circular gadget out of the rubble. It was the transmitter the Doctor had jury-rigged earlier to send a signal to Gallifrey. “Ah, here we are.”
Sara Kingdom, who had been circling the room and keeping a wary vigil while the others chatted, now pivoted to face Nyssa. The security agent fixed her with a baleful stare. “If she's a Time Lord, then that means we have a bargaining chip. Or perhaps an enemy. Is she the one who stranded us here?”
“Now, just hang on, Sara,” Steven said, frowning as she raised the Sontaran sidearm she had liberated from a corpse.
“But she was the Daleks’ prisoner,” Polly put in, alarmed.
“Exactly,” said Sara. “Why didn’t they exterminate her? Perhaps they were holding her as a hostage to negotiate with our captors.”
“Excuse me,” Nyssa said, glancing up at the weapon and back down at the device she was examining. “I never said I was from Gallifrey. I come from Traken.”
“Never heard of it,” Sara said coolly.
The swift retort held a trace of bitterness. “You wouldn’t, since a renegade Time Lord destroyed it.” Turning her back on Sara, Nyssa popped open the casing and peered inside.
“What are you doing?” Sara said sharply. “That’s the transmitter the Doctor used to send a distress signal.”
“Yes.” Fishing a tool from her labcoat, she began to adjust the switches inside.
“You don’t trust them, do you?” Steven said. “The other Time Lords, I mean.”
“Seeing that they tried to execute the Doctor the last time I was on Gallifrey, no.” Nyssa sighed. “Please, I need to concentrate.”
Sara scowled. “If you disrupt that signal, there will be no way for anyone to find us. But perhaps that’s what you want?”
Ian harrumphed, giving Sara a dour look. “The Doctor’s walking into a trap, isn’t he?”
“Oh, no!” Polly looked stricken. “He said he was on the run from them. You don’t think he’s in trouble?”
“I expect so. But that’s nothing new.” Nyssa closed her eyes, cupping the transmitter in her hands and breathing out. “Ouch!” There was a snapping noise and a bright spark. She nearly dropped the device and set it down quickly.
“If you’ve lost our only means of escape—” Sara began, glowering.
“For goodness’ sake, Sara, put the gun down,” Steven said. “Nyssa’s the Doctor’s friend, remember?”
“People change.” Sara seized her by the shoulder, planting the gun against her ear. “Tell the truth. What have you done? Who were you signaling? Were you telling your masters to send in more enemies for us to fight?”
“Just... placing a call...” Nyssa sounded dazed. “The Doctor...”
“That’s enough!” Ian barked, heaving to his feet. “Leave her alone.”
Over the sound of raised voices, a familiar wheezing groan began to saw the air, echoing strangely around the vaulted chamber. Sara lowered her weapon as the battered blue box solidified nearly on top of them. The doors popped open. The Doctor bounded out, doffing his hat and poised for action.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting,” he said, taking in the tableau with a disarming smile. “Is everyone all right?”
“Perfectly,” Sara said, releasing Nyssa’s arm.
“Speak for yourself,” Steven said. “I’m getting too old to be sleeping on prison cell floors.”
“What did I tell you?” Ian said. “You’ve got a clever one there, Doctor.”
“Or rash.” He fussed with his hat for a moment before stuffing it in his pocket and striding over towards Nyssa. There was a curious huskiness in his voice as he offered her a hand up. “That was terribly risky. You’re not a full telepath. The link could have burned out your mind.”
“I don’t think you ought to be lecturing anyone on taking risks,” she said, grasping his hand gratefully. “Besides, the Time Lords seemed to have forgotten us. I knew you wouldn’t.”
Again he spoke with a strained lightness, looking past her as he set her on her feet. “Then I suppose I’d better live up to your expectations.”
“It seems I owe you an apology, Nyssa,” Sara growled.
Nyssa gave the woman a wan smile. “No need. It’s been a long day, and we’re all a bit on edge.”
“Quite right,” the Doctor said. “Come along, everyone, into the TARDIS.”
“Oh, goodness,” Polly said. “You know, I quite enjoy hearing that again. I’m almost sorry that Ben missed out.”
“Well, I’m not sorry Barbara’s safe at home,” Ian said. “The trouble is, the Doctor’s liable to return us months or years after we left. Our families are going to be desperately worried. Is there any way to get a message to them, Doctor?”
“As long as none of you live near Heathrow, he should be able to take you straight home,” Nyssa said.
“Surprisingly unkind, Nyssa,” the Doctor said. “Just for that, I may drop you off at Heathrow. Sara? Time and location, please, and perhaps you can explain to me and Steven how exactly you survived...”
One by one, he delivered them to their proper places and times, politely refusing Polly’s invitation to stay for dinner. At last, only his oldest and youngest companions were left. Nyssa was examining the remodeled console one panel at a time, explaining the controls she recognized to Ian. He was watching her with a tolerant smile, tickled by her earnestness. The Doctor hated to interrupt, waiting until the rotor had stilled and Nyssa had looked up at him expectantly.
“Well?” she said.
He gestured to the new navigation screen. “Well?” he rejoined.
“Earth,” Ian read out. “Pemberton Terrace, Cambridge. December 23rd, 2011. Close enough, I suppose.”
The Doctor looked hurt. “Door-to-door service. Time was, you would’ve been happy to land in the right decade.”
“Come on,” Nyssa said, reaching for the door controls. “The sooner we get Ian home, the sooner his wife can stop worrying.”
They emerged into a brisk, cold, foggy night. Moisture dripped from the rose hips and winter-nipped remains of a backyard garden. Ahead stood an aged brick rowhouse trimmed with Christmas lights. Before they could properly take in their surroundings, a porch light snapped on, blinding them. The back door flew open with a bang. Silhouetted against the dim light of a hallway, a stooped figure came hobbling towards them.
“I-Ian?” Barbara’s voice wavered, rallied. “Ian, is that really you? If this is some kind of cruel hoax—!”
“Barbara!” He hurried forward, gathering her in his arms. “Barbara, I’m back. There, there, dear, it’s all right now, it’s all right...”
“Ian!” She fell against him, half laughing, half crying. “Oh, Ian. There’s a police box sitting on the begonias, and you’ve been missing for three days, and John was almost arrested yesterday demanding to see someone at UNIT, and I could’ve sworn I heard the TARDIS... but I must be dreaming. I don’t want to wake up, Ian, I’ve been so worried about you...”
The Doctor seemed inclined to melt back into the TARDIS unobtrusively, but Nyssa caught his hand. “Come on, Doctor, spare a moment for old friends.” She stepped forward. “Mrs. Chesterton, I assure you, you’re not dreaming. We’ve had an unfortunate adventure, but the Doctor’s brought your husband back, safe and sound. May we come in? It’s rather chilly.”
“The Doctor?” Barbara said with a shaky laugh. “Now I know I’m imagining things.”
“She’s right," Ian said. "Inside, Barbara, before we catch cold. Nyssa, I don’t suppose you know how to brew tea on a primitive 21st-century gas range?”
“I’m sure I can figure it out, Mr. Chesterton.”
With a sigh, the Doctor shut the TARDIS doors and followed them, helping Ian to settle Barbara comfortably into a rocking chair in the living room. While Ian stooped to light the gas fireplace, the Doctor let his eyes wander over their artificial Christmas tree decorated with an incongruous mix of vintage ornaments and lights that appeared to have been fashioned from old vacuum tubes and lab equipment. The rest of the room was furnished with impeccable taste, if somewhat dated. Barbara’s touch was evident in the minimalist rosewood tables, dovetailed Scandinavian furniture and elegant chenille throws.
“Ian, who are these young people? Your students?” A little color had returned to Barbara’s lined face, and she was staring at the Doctor with a very curious expression.
“Nyssa is a scientist from the 36th century,” he said with a little laugh, “And this, although I don’t expect you to believe it—”
“I’m the Doctor,” he said, bowing and extending his hand. “It’s lovely to see you again, Barbara.”
She stared. “You... no. No, that’s quite impossible. This man’s practically a boy. How could he know us now, if he didn’t recognize us later as an old man?”
“Something called regeneration,” Ian said. “I don’t rightly understand it myself. He’s our Doctor, Barbara, but he’s changed his face since we travelled together. Apparently his kind renew their bodies when the old model wears out. Pity he can’t teach us how.”
Barbara’s eyes were red and puffy, make-up streaked with tears, but her gaze was steady as she stared up at him, searching. “It is you, isn’t it?” she said finally, clasping the Doctor’s hand. “One more miracle.”
“Not a miracle,” he said, smiling. “Simple biology, with a touch of serendipity. Apologies for dropping in on you like this. Now, if you’re all right, Nyssa and I should leave you two to—”
“Nonsense!” Barbara said, rising half out of her chair. “I’ve onion soup simmering in case Ian or John came home, and I was baking a goose and gravy for Christmas dinner. We’ll have it a night early. I’m sure our son won’t begrudge us. Come along, Doctor, help me in the kitchen; you’re the spry one now.”
An hour later, the Doctor was unsure why he had been so eager to flee. Earth cooking, candlelight, and the company of old friends made for an agreeable evening. Nyssa was more than grateful for her first meal in a day, not to mention a quick shower and one of Barbara’s old sweaters. The humans took turns regaling her with some of the Doctor’s adventures, earning fond-exasperated looks from her as they teased him for his early, highly erratic behavior. She was also delighted to learn about Susan, although she deflected the conversation away from her once she saw that the topic pained him.
When the plates had been cleared away, they adjourned to the living room for a late-night pot of tea. Ian finally yielded to Barbara’s pestering with an enthusiastic account of their adventures in the Death Zone. Somehow he wound up crediting Steven or Nyssa with most of his daredevil exploits. The Doctor, after an elbow jab from Nyssa, left Ian’s historical revisionism unchallenged. By the time the tale and the tea were finished, she had fallen asleep, curled against the Doctor’s side on the couch.
Barbara lowered her voice. “This young lady,” she said. “Your current traveling companion?”
“No longer,” he said heavily. “Nyssa chose to move on, as you did. She’s doing good work now as a medical researcher. I’ll be dropping her off after we leave here.”
“But you’ll stay the night,” Barbara insisted. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at you, Doctor; you’re still terribly inconsiderate of your companions. From what Ian said, she’s survived torture by Daleks, run all over a space station dodging dinosaurs and trolls, and saved you from falling into a black hole. Let the poor child have a decent night’s sleep, at least, before you send her on her way.”
“Best not to argue, Doctor,” Ian said amiably, cutting him off. “Surely our company isn’t that abhorrent.”
“Of course not,” he said. “I simply don’t wish to impose.”
“You don’t fool me, Doctor,” said Barbara, “but you’re not leaving. Let me just change the sheets in the guest room. There’s a trundle bed underneath, although I’m afraid it may be a trifle short for you.” So saying, she bustled out.
Ian grinned. “Barbara’s absolutely delighted to see you, you know,” he confided. “And so is she, for an entirely different reason.” He nodded to Nyssa, cheekbone resting on her fingers, which were cupped possessively around the Doctor’s shoulder. “That girl’s crazy about you, you know.”
“Hardly,” he said automatically. “We’re just good friends.”
“If you think that, you’re fooling yourself.” Ian stood with a grunt to clear away the tea things. “Yes, yes, I know. Nyssa told me all about her work on Terminus. Important enough to keep her from traveling with you. But I saw the look in her eyes when she spoke of you. If you ever want a port in a storm, Doctor, I trust you know where to find it.”
Nonplussed, the Doctor sat staring into the fire, listening to the sounds of Ian puttering in the kitchen and Barbara moving about upstairs. He would have insisted on helping, were he not reluctant to wake Nyssa, pale and relaxed and exactly where she belonged at his side. No longer, he had to remind himself a second time. Tegan and Turlough were waiting back on Frontios, and he knew better than to tempt Nyssa away from the life she had found.
But he was tempted. Not only because of certain things that had happened towards the end of her first sojourn with him, shortly before Tegan rejoined them in Amsterdam. He shied away from other, painful memories, cursing Nyssa’s crossed timelines and his own irrevocable mistakes.
“Doctor?” Nyssa’s fingers tightened, gripping his shoulder. He turned to find her wide awake and looking up at him.
“Are you all right?” he said, his arm behind her back tightening infinitesimally. “I didn’t realize the Daleks had—”
“Doctor, I’m fine. They wanted my skills. With no one else to endanger, I didn’t see any point in resisting.”
“Ah. Good, good.”
Silence fell once more. The fire hissed and crackled quietly, the old house creaked, and he realized he had been sitting quite comfortably with her tucked against him for over an hour, with nothing like a cold jail cell or inclement weather to justify the slight breach in protocol. He ought to move away. He stirred, intending to disentangle his arm.
It didn’t work. There was a clumsy lurch, and suddenly both arms were around her. Perhaps he just wanted to hold back time, but her upturned face, painted gold by the flickering firelight, was as damnably radiant as ever.
He was kissing time itself; he tasted it as their mouths met. How many years had passed for her since she stayed behind on Terminus? Every breath was mortal, and he should stop this. She was already gone. In another instant, he would be back among the stars, leaving another dear friend in his wake.
Nyssa drew his head down and kissed him again, alive, alive, alive, she’s alive— how often had that mantra beat in his mind after one of those ill-advised forays when he had nearly lost her?
An exaggerated creak of floorboards in the hallway broke them apart. Or rather, the Doctor pulled back with a jerk, while Nyssa smiled up at him and subsided, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes that had no right to be there. Her drying hair was mussed, her cheeks flushed, yet she looked perfectly composed.
“Guest room’s ready. Second door on the right at the top of the stairs,” Ian said cheerfully. The Doctor did not turn, quite certain he heard a trace of smugness in the old man’s voice. Chesterton’s impudence had not been diminished by age. “Barbara’s turned in; I don’t think she’s slept in two nights. We’ll see you in the morning before you leave. Turn off the fire if you leave the room, would you?”
“Right,” the Doctor said. “Go on,” he told Nyssa, raising his voice, relieved to find he still had one. “You take the guest room. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
“Doctor,” she said, amused.
Ian’s footsteps sounded loud as he stumped off down the hall and climbed the stairs.
“This is goodbye, Nyssa,” the Doctor said quietly. “In the morning, I’m dropping you off at Terminus.”
“Of course.” She touched his cheek, just there, a silent reminder. “But we never had a chance to say goodbye. Not properly.”
“Nyssa—” His jaw tightened. She was so calm, even with those grey eyes burning a silent challenge. Barbara’s old sweater enveloping her was almost indecent, the wrong person’s clothes.
A moment later, it was on the floor.
He was kissing her brows, her cheeks, her dimples, hands too big and awkward as his callouses skimmed over warm curves. Out of the corner of his eye, the Doctor saw an ornament fashioned as a carousel, twirling backwards thanks to a glitch in alternating current. Its faint ticking was an annoying reminder of time unfurling in a relentless stream before and behind them, circling back to scoop her up and buffet her like a hapless leaf in its eddies.
It had not always been his fault. Out of all the doomed souls he had passed by, she was the one person he had circled back to Traken to save.
His jumper joined Barbara’s sweater on the carpet. Nyssa pushed at his chest, impatient— he was holding her too close for her to unbutton his shirt. He could not help it, sensing time’s hammer like a wind threatening to pull her away.
...Pulled from the TARDIS before his eyes, she had vanished before he could cry out. It had taken agonizing days before he had narrowed her destination down within a century, still longer before he knew the month. He had waited for a year in Victorian London, having to feign near-indifference so as not to scandalize the Royal Society or his own sense of propriety when Robert turned up with her. Nor had that been the only time he had been forced to wait for her return. Time and again their dangerous paths had diverged, and sometimes all he could do was wait for time to bring Nyssa back...
Her mouth had found the fresh scar at his shoulder where the Malus’ breath had scorched him. His fingers had found the small of her back, sensing when the skin at the nip of her waist tightened under his touch. He tried to focus on her kneading hands, but the past and future kept intruding...
Fifty years on, her girlish looks had finally given way to mature lines. He had inadvertently trapped her away from her own timeline, prevented her from going home, selfishly kept her until cruel mishaps had reverted her to a young woman’s body and stolen away her life’s work, her family, the partner he had never met but was due to encounter someday, on the very last day— he knew with sick certainty— he would ever lay eyes on her.
“Doctor.” A little breathless, she slipped her hands under his, which were caressing her stomach and breasts without really registering what he touched. She fretted their fingers together, squeezed. “I don’t know what century you’re in, but I’m right here, right now.” There was a silent question in her eyes, concern as well as wanton want that he was taken aback to see.
“Yes. Sorry.” He drew her knuckles to his lips and kissed them, an old-fashioned courtesy considering their debauched state of half-dress. He couldn’t shield her from her past or her future. He had never been able to protect her, least of all from his own mistakes. But if he could give her what she desired, for just a moment—
Nyssa let out a soft musical sigh as he bent her under him and began to kiss a wandering path down from her collarbones. Every bared patch of his own skin sang in answer to her whispery breaths. She curled, molded herself to his hands, traced his chest and the cords of his arms with the edges of her fingernails. Slowly, mindful of each moment, he disrobed her and settled her across his lap, kissing her deeply until the gooseflesh of her bare back and his own growing discomfort forced them to relocate to the hearth-rug. She pulled down the sofa cushions playfully, making him wince at the soft thumps that surely could not carry upstairs. He gathered them together under her, partly wrapping her in a chenille throw.
For a long time they simply cuddled skin to skin, as if making up for all the times he had kept aloof from physical contact, while she had carried herself as a mere walking mind innocent of her own beauty. Despite carnal urges, the Doctor might have gone no farther, content with raw kisses and the warmth of her body and the shivering acceptance of her fingertips wherever she cared to touch. It was, after all, greater intimacy than he allowed more than a few times a century. But at last his shoes and belt and trousers joined the small heap of garments under the sofa. He settled over her again, unsettled by the simple beat of her breaths against his neck.
Nyssa smiled up at him, catching his face between her palms and brushing his lower lip with her thumbs. “So solemn? I do miss that smile of yours.”
“You’re not exactly—” his voice hitched in his throat as her legs curled around his loosely, knees drawing up on either side of his thighs to tease— “Nyssa—” She chuckled, kissed his chin and urged him upwards, tipping her head back to hold his gaze as he propped himself on one arm so as not to crush her. He watched her eyes widen, then squint in silent bliss as he reached down and guided himself home.
She caught her lower lip and rocked with him as he arched over her, stooping to kiss her forehead. Past and present vanished at last as he moved with her, in her, lowering his guard almost entirely in the heat of these precious moments, giving her what pleasure he could. Maybe it was atonement. Maybe it was farewell. Maybe it was mere lust, as his breath quickened and the reality of the sweet lovely woman shuddering between his arms began to overwhelm higher brain function. He only knew that for a timeless span, as her hands glided over his back and then clutched, as her hips lifted from the floor and her climax began to overtake her, he was sated. His own convulsive release came nearly as an afterthought, a heated pulse that barely broke the spell of their tender coupling.
They rolled onto their sides, still moving together, reluctant to separate. Only when her nuzzling kisses slowed and her eyes began to drift closed did he reluctantly but firmly insist that they dress and go to bed, before the Chestertons got an eye-full in the morning.
To his own surprise, he capitulated to Nyssa’s silent plea, half-carrying her upstairs and allowing her to draw him into the guest room, although he did take care to draw the bolt.
The bed was barely large enough for two, but that was no obstacle, not with her slight weight draped across his chest and his fingers entwined in her hair.
They made love again in the morning, before the late winter sunrise forced them to face a hearty breakfast served by hosts with knowing smiles.
All too soon, it was time to go.
A light frost had turned the Chestertons’ back yard into a glistening fairyland. The Doctor halted on the back stoop, watching Nyssa pick her way towards the TARDIS ahead of him. She turned with a questioning look, smiled and ducked her head in an understanding nod, giving him a chance to say goodbye to Barbara and Ian. Their hosts, however, were not uppermost in his mind as he watched her disappear through old blue doors.
“Doctor?” Ian said.
Composing himself, he turned and shook his hand. “I’m glad we had this chance to visit, Chesterton.”
“You could stop by now and again, you know,” the old man chided. “I think Barbara might even forgive you for crushing her begonias.”
“Doctor, are you all right?” Barbara said.
“Goodbyes,” he said gruffly. “They never get any easier.”
“Well, then,” Ian said, jovial, “let’s just say, ‘until we meet again.’”
“Yes.” Once more the awkward gentleman, he bent stiffly into Barbara’s hug. “Yes, of course. Take care, both of you.”
Side by side, they watched him make his way slowly across the withered garden, head bowed, and disappear into his improbable contraption. They stood there long after its final grinding note had faded to silence.
“We won’t see him again,” Barbara said, holding Ian’s hand tightly.
“No,” he agreed, giving her cheek a peck. “But I rather suspect she will.”