While the others slept, Nyssa and the Doctor explored the labyrinthine annexes of the TARDIS that had regrown since its last pruning. Despite his grumbles that he preferred more exciting voyages of discovery, he rather enjoyed showing off his ship to someone who could properly appreciate transdimensional engineering. Whereas other companions groused at endless corridors, Nyssa was genuinely curious about the systems behind the roundels. Besides, the TARDIS still held its secrets. Even for the Doctor, there was always something new to find.
It was a peaceful respite after a trying day. Side by side they wandered, straying into disused passageways where lights flickered and doors stuck fast. Whenever the floors began to slant and roundels ran out, the Doctor would take the lead for safety's sake. He had nearly lost two companions earlier today to temporal fluctuations, and he was taking no chances. So far, thankfully, they had encountered nothing more disquieting than dead vines peeling from the walls of one corridor nowhere near the cloisters, and a gallery where a gravity glitch had dashed all the furniture against the ceiling.
Freed of the need for intelligibility in front of Tegan, they had fallen to small talk. When Nyssa was younger, they used to review all the alien tech they observed during each stopover. Now they argued amiably about the relative merits of open beam vs. capsule-based transmat technology, methods for self-sustaining food production, and the radius of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. Somehow the Doctor kept steering the discussion towards neutral topics. Eventually they ran through the day's reminiscences, or at least all the safe ones. The bland silence held for three corridors and a small 4D art gallery before Nyssa prodded.
"And the machine you used to cure us? You said it was a medical device, an aid for Time Lords suffering a regeneration crisis."
"Yes." When the Doctor clammed up, he wasn't subtle about it.
"But that wasn't its real purpose, was it? It was a means of compensatory punishment."
"You know I can't share the secrets of Time Lord technology with you." Never mind that he had taught her enough about the TARDIS systems to merit a CIA mind wipe.
Nyssa was not fooled. On their last visit to Gallifrey, the High Council of Time Lords had made a show of hand-wringing over the death penalty, but what was capital punishment to a race with lives to spare? The machine's function was too precise for simple energy transference. Why calibrate it so that it could only siphon away life-force by exactly one regeneration at a time? Not that she had the slightest interest in Gallifreyan hypocrisy. Her sole concern was for its latest victim. If not for an incredible stroke of luck, the Doctor would have burned through his remaining regenerations for six strangers bent on suicide and two brief-lived friends. She did not know how quickly cellular decay began to accelerate after a Time Lord's twelfth regeneration, but he might have needed her now for hospice care.
The Doctor read her unspoken thought. "It wasn't your fault, Nyssa. There was no other choice. Mawdryn made sure of that."
"Of course there was a choice." The anger in her voice was directed inwards. If just one of them had refused his aid, he would have kept one life in reserve. How could she have been such a coward? "Tegan and I weren't in imminent danger. You could have left us there while you searched for an alternate cure."
He said nothing, only thrust his hands in his pockets and walked a little faster.
She hurried to catch up. "Doctor, I know you'd willingly sacrifice yourself for us. I appreciate that more than words can say. But I should never, ever take it for granted. Tegan and I were frightened, but that's no excuse."
"Nyssa, that's enough." He rounded on her with a scowl. "Apology accepted."
"But I didn't—"
"Shush." Something crumbled behind his eyes, and he seized her shoulders, meeting her gaze directly for the first time since this morning. He still wore that haunted look, even though he had come through the ordeal without ceasing to be a Time Lord. "You weren't the only one frightened, you know. When you and Tegan began to age so rapidly—" He tried for a self-deprecating smile. "I suppose I wasn't thinking entirely clearly, either."
Nyssa's throat constricted. "Doctor—"
As she leaned towards him, he pulled back and was off again, practically running. "Despite your sarcasm about TARDIS maintenance, you will note that even this far from the console room, repair systems keep entropy in check."
"Those dead plants were a design choice?" she called after.
"Of course," he said. "Empty walls start looking sterile... aha!" He skidded to a halt, giving her a chance to catch up. "Here's one of Romana's designs. You can tell by the three roundels on the door." Opening it a crack, he peeked in, paused, and looked back at her, expression turning opaque.
"What's wrong?" Nyssa said, struggling to keep up with his mercurial mood shifts.
"My mistake," he said, letting his hand fall. "All these corridors look alike. Let's move on, shall we?"
Nyssa hung back, intrigued by his flimsy deflections. Pushing inside, she found herself in darkness, standing on a polished floor illuminated only by light spilling in from the corridor.
"Or... not," he said ruefully.
Waiting for her eyes to adjust, Nyssa began to make out a broad room like a stage set full of flats set at odd angles, each pierced by a wide circular opening. Ceiling, walls and floor were not quite black, but tinted with muted hues of purple and russet and midnight blue. Candles set in recessed wall sconces added an organic element to a space that would otherwise remind her too much of the Master's TARDIS. Surfaces were polished and glossy like obsidian, flickering as the Doctor stepped in and blocked the light from the entrance.
"The Zero Room!" Nyssa said, recognising the angled walls with their cutouts like oversized roundels. "The TARDIS has rebuilt it! But why so dark?"
"It's not the Zero Room," he said. His voice sounded oddly muffled.
Nyssa crossed to the far side of the room, examining the walls. She couldn't tell whether they were plasteel, stone, or perhaps even shell. After a considered pause, the Doctor stirred, fumbled in his pockets for a book of matches, and moved to one of the sconces to light a candle. Taking it down, he used it to kindle another which he handed to her. "Let's cast some light on the subject." Curious, Nyssa circled the room, standing on tiptoe to light those she could reach. Small twinkling flames dispelled any sense of the sinister, bringing out the room's subtle, rich hues. As she and the Doctor crisscrossed the floor, their reflections wove a kaleidoscope of nodding candle-flames on the mirrored surfaces around them.
Nyssa blinked. One of the reflections showed her and the Doctor standing silhouetted in the doorway. But they were nowhere near each other or the door. In fact, he had pulled it shut behind them. After glancing back to check, she found the anomalous reflection had vanished, but another one showed the Doctor holding two candles, pressing one into her hand exactly as he had done a few minutes ago.
"Delayed projection?" she said, bewildered.
"Time mirrors." Coming forward, he took the candle from her again, and replaced it in its high socket. Mirror-images danced around them, some out of synch. "It was a game we played at the Academy, constructing transtemporal spaces." There was a huskiness in his voice that she could not interpret. What deeper meaning could he possibly associate with lab pranks?
"I take it there's more to these than tricks of the light."
He cleared his throat. "Do you remember my touching your hand a moment ago?"
"Yes, of course. Why?" Even as she spoke, she sensed the brush of his fingertips against the inside of her palm, just as when he had reclaimed the candle from her. Her brows knitted. Comprehension dawned as he continued to natter away.
"Good for practicing eye-hand coordination skills and honing one's powers of concentration. Useful for learning to navigate sensory mazes. Also rather handy for scratching an itch. And of course..."
She was less innocent than the girl whom the Watcher had invited aboard almost five years ago, but it took her a little while to identify the cause of his self-consciousness. "Oh."
He bounced on the balls of his feet, once again avoiding her gaze. "I really ought to have that door sealed before one of my companions blunders in here. I'm not sure what it would do to non-Gallifreyans."
Their reflections were still spiraling around the room in a shadowy dance, candle-flames constantly springing to life yet never multiplying.
Despite his words, the Doctor had made no move towards the door. Perhaps their idle meanderings had been less than random, although he couldn't admit steering her here even to himself. Nyssa set her hands on her hips. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to test the system under controlled conditions?"
"It... has crossed my mind on occasion," he confessed after another pause. "But I couldn't... Nyssa, you're not time-sensitive. You can't shut down individual processes if... sensory input starts to become overwhelming." Not all of the reddish tint to his face was due to the candlelight.
She shivered, feeling the ghost of his fingers tickling her palm again. "Can you make them stop? For all... participants?"
"Yes." He sounded apologetic. "Assuming I can stop myself."
"I think I shall take that as a compliment." She smiled and took a step towards him. "We both have reason to celebrate being alive tonight, Doctor."
He stood motionless for so long that she began to fear she had misread his intent. Surely those candles had been a tacit invitation? "So we do," he said at last, relaxing into that deceptively boyish grin she loved so much. "But you must tell me if we need to abort the... experiment. I have your word?"
She beamed up at him, heart beginning to pound. "Of course."
He seldom made the first move. Tonight, however, he gathered her wrist gently and raised it to kiss the back of her hand. The sweet gesture would have been enough to warm her anyway, but she gasped when the contact seemed to pass through her flesh, tickling the inside of her palm again. Another time-echo. She brushed his cheek lightly with her knuckles before he straightened.
By mutual accord their hands began to rove. Nyssa lifted his coat from his shoulders, tracing his arms as she tugged the sleeves free. He caught it and tossed it into a corner. His jumper and her grey suede jacket soon followed. Tentative touches rapidly grew bold. Nyssa had the best of it: her thin sleeveless top bared her arms and collarbones and upper back, and the Doctor took full advantage. Light-headed from phantom caresses, Nyssa had to pause and cling to him for a moment, burying her face in his shirt. His arms slid around her back and shoulders, lifting her effortlessly. When she raised her head to smile at him, he began to kiss his way down from her forehead, lingering on eyelids and cheeks for a while before reaching her mouth. They lost themselves in a reverberant kiss, tongue against tongue needing no words to convey unspoken truths. She basked under the shower of echo-kisses cascading down her face. They tickled as they faded away.
Finally she had to break off, gasping for air.
"Are you all right?" he said, freezing at once.
"Perfectly," she said with a weak laugh. "No respiratory bypass system, remember?"
"Oh. Yes." He set her down with a thump, waiting for her to catch her breath.
"Was it my imagination, or were we floating just now?"
"I'd like to claim credit for the sensation," he said, giving her a sidelong smile, "but yes. Like the Zero Room, this chamber can switch to internal gravity nodes. Our real-world mass doesn't change, but our simulated relative mass approximates one G."
"You mean... each of us attracts the other?" she said slyly, reaching for his shirt buttons.
"That..." he said, voice rising by half an octave as she began to nibble a trail downwards from his adam's apple, "...is essentially correct."
Momentum built gradually, although the Doctor was being more than usually careful not to rush. Brushing aside her curls at the base of her neck, he pressed a soft kiss there before spiriting her top away. She nipped at his bared chest and stomach. His mouth was at her breast, at both of them at once, tongue and teeth making her gasp. Another echo-kiss tingled on the nape of her neck as she removed his trousers. Soon their fingers were intimately everywhere, in a multitude that would have been terrifying if she did not know his deft musician's hands too well to mistake them for anyone else's. She cried out when they slid in. She was beginning to lose track of where she was kissing him, heated mouth or sweat-slick breastbone or there, with his hands buried in her hair.
She had to make him stop, just once. Repeated moments began to overlap, until the tender kisses on the back of her neck and her breasts and between her thighs and everywhere else merged into a riptide of pleasure, his capable fingers drawing sounds from her she that wouldn't have dreamed of letting him hear an hour ago. When she came back to herself, she was spinning slowly, curled against him in midair in the exact center of the room. He was simply holding her, making no move or sound until the last tactile echoes had faded away.
"Better?" he said hoarsely, his ragged breathing a testament to the effect she'd had on him, beyond the obvious physiological response.
"Deliriously so." She took a shaky breath. She started to ask him to thank Romana for her, but she came to her senses just in time. He would probably be mortified. "More?"
"Are you sure?" There was a note of strain in his voice. With a thrill, she realised he was having difficulty holding himself back. Usually her tempo was more frantic than his. For a life lived in centuries, leisurely intimacy was the norm. Not tonight, with time's multiplier.
Raising her head, she paused to look at him in the candlelight, enjoying the amber colors playing across his fair skin. "Absolutely. Now, Doctor. Please."
With a groan that might have been her name, he pulled her into him, hissing as she reached down to guide him true. Some of the time-echoes returned, licking sensuously across Nyssa's belly and thighs. Time began to jumble together crazily. Their fingers interlaced as they caressed one another's hair, mouths pressed together as kisses danced over slick skin, figures circling the room to light candles as they disrobed one another, asynchronous sensation taking over as hips bucked, fingers stroked fire, bodies rode one above the other, lips and tongues lapped intimate spaces, pleasure overmastering where bodies met—
She was drowning. He was everywhere. She possessed every part of him, his athletic body a pendulum between her legs and deep inside. Her white skin shone under his convulsive grasp, hands clutched around her waist. His hearts grew audible, every sensation reverberating to their double beat like a standing wave: sparks leaping from candle-flames, the flutter of his lips on on the nape of her neck, the intense intimacy of first joining repeated again and again, every thrust and counter-thrust, his fingertips tickling the inside of her palm with a promise, her fluting cry, his hoarse groan, flowing warmth and the kick of ecstasy and the faint patter of his shirt's buttons hitting the floor and her small hand feebly stroking his face as he cradled her, rocking her tightly against his chest, roughly whispering Nyssa, Nyssa at her ear, until her tears and trembling died away.
They slept together, exhausted, entwined.
They made love forever, just now, long ago.
The candles bloomed to life and went out.
It was tomorrow.
What a difference twenty-two hours could make.
The Doctor stood alone in the dark, fully clothed, hands perspiring. It was harder than he thought it would be to say the words, but they were absolutely necessary. "Delete all memory imprints: Nyssa."
He stooped, lifted a grey suede jacket lying crumpled in the shadows.
Dark mirrored surfaces showed only a single figure leaving the room, head bowed.