“Good morning, Tegan. You’re up early.” The Doctor tapped the brim of his hat upwards to glance at the sun reflecting off her sunglasses.
“Ish,” she said, checking her wristwatch. “I have to catch the 8.05 if I want to get into Brisbane by noon. Thought I’d stop by Queen Street, see if I can catch a few friends at the coffee shop.”
“Splendid idea,” he said, returning to his book. “Never miss a chance to renew old acquaintances.”
“Like you’d know.” She drifted towards the pool lounge chair, peering to see what he was reading. “Except…”
He frowned. “Yes?”
“Nyssa’s still sacked out. It’s not like her.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “Let her rest, Tegan. Sleep’s a powerful restorative for her species, even more than ours. Keeps them young. I expect she’ll be her old self in a day or two. In the meantime, enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about us.”
“I’m not worried about you,” Tegan retorted, “unless you’re planning on doing another bunk while my back is turned.”
“Perish the thought. We’ve only just found you again.”
“That’s what I meant. And you’re worried about her, too, or you wouldn’t be loitering around here all day.” She raised her head suddenly, catching a distant chugging sound. “Rabbits!” Dashing around the TARDIS and through the beaded curtain covering the archway on the far side of the courtyard, her shout echoed back to him. “Tease Sleeping Beauty for me when she wakes up!”
“I’ll bear it in mind,” the Doctor said calmly, setting his book down on a glass table next to the lounger and trailing after her. The archway led into a short tunnel capped by a gated door still bouncing on its hinges. He listened until he heard the squeal of brakes, the engine idling, and a bellowed exchange of greetings with the driver. Then he shut the gate securely and ambled back. One couldn’t be too careful. Tegan had already made friends with a few of the local surfers using their alleyway as a shortcut down to the beach.
And he had other reasons for battening the hatches. It was a habit he could never quite shake, taking belated precautions after the fact.
The room Nyssa and Tegan shared was dark and cool. Even so, Nyssa had kicked off her covers. The Doctor was seized by a split second’s alarm before he spotted the small figure huddled in the farthest corner of the shelf-bed, wrapped around her pillow with elbows and knees tucked together. Frowning, he lowered himself to one knee, resting an arm on the mattress. Nyssa’s psychic sensitivity was sometimes a liability, but it also steadied her when those she trusted were nearby.
His presence registered, but not in the way he had hoped. He could just make out faint words, indistinct through gritted teeth. “Exterminate. Exterminate. Ex… Doctor?… exter… no, no, exterminate… must… not you…” She curled even more tightly, hands fisting against her eyes.
“Nyssa,” he said, loathe to startle her.
Her shoulders gave an odd jerk, as if she were trying to throw herself at him, yet holding herself back with her knuckles jammed against her face.
“Nyssa.” He leaned in, touching her shoulder lightly. “Come back. You’re dreaming.”
She woke with a gasp, sleep deserting her as sharply as if he’d used ice water. “Go,” she breathed, body still locked in fetal position. The harsh, angry dismissal sounded like a stranger’s.
“Easy. You’re free of their control. It was only a nightmare.” When she gave no response, he leaned across, slipped his hands under her fingers and gently pried them away from her eyes. The soft skin beneath showed faint bruises, knuckles’ imprints. She stared up at him, expression unreadable. He let his amiable smile bridge the silence. Gradually, her quick, shallow breaths began to subside. She darted a glance towards Tegan’s bed.
“Tegan’s gone out,” he said. “Sleep in if you like. I just wanted to let you know, in case you awoke to find yourself alone.”
There was another long pause before she answered, voice steady but too quiet. “I do wonder if I ought to sleep in a separate room.”
“If that’s what you want, but I really don’t think that’s necessary.” He released her and retreated. Certain barriers had been crossed during the years they had traveled together, but they were still Trakenite and Time Lord, with proprieties so ingrained that even Tegan would be hard-pressed to spot any difference.
“Doctor, I’ve had nightmares before. This is different. The feelings aren’t mine at all. It’s like I’ve become another person.”
“Really? Touch my face.”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Go on,” he said. “Trust me.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before she rolled onto her side, reached out and splayed her fingertips across his cheek and jaw. Her look of studious concentration did not entirely match her actions, but the tentative, tender caress wouldn’t do him any lasting harm.
“There. See? No sudden impulse to throttle me, I hope?”
She mustered a threadbare smile. “No more than usual, Doctor.”
A snort. “It’s Tegan who’s the bad influence on you, Nyssa, not the Elite.” Sobering, he added, “If you like, we could brush up those Tibetan meditation exercises I taught you. But I wouldn’t worry. Nightmares are a disagreeable but natural way of assimilating fears and trauma.”
“I know that. But it feels so real—” She broke off with a sigh. “You’re right, of course. What time is it?”
“Ten past eight. But there’s nothing to stop your having a good lie-in. Do you a world of good. Anyway, I’ve been instructed to tease you with reference to an Earth folktale called Sleeping Beauty, and it would be easier to do so if you’d embrace the role.”
“In that case,” she said, sitting up, “I shall join you shortly.”
“I’ll be in the garden, then.” He clapped his hands on his trouser legs and stood, crossed the room in three strides, and paused with his hand on the doorframe. “Nyssa? Keep reminding yourself that you weren’t responsible for your actions.”
She looked up with a mix of gratitude, chagrin, and a hint of shame that he wished he could banish. “I… yes, I know. I’m all too aware, in fact. I’m sor–”
“If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. I failed you, Nyssa.”
That drew an irritated huff. “Don’t… oh, never mind. Doctor, I’m fine, really. And you didn’t fail. Just try to come a bit quicker next time, all right?”
“I’ll do my best.” Stifling a grimace, he ducked outside.
He had barely resumed reading when a flutter in his peripheral vision drew his eye. The white gauzy gown Nyssa had picked up at a Mykonos tourist shop was more suitable for the Glastonbury Festival than Brisbane, but it would do for a simple staging of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and so it suited her. She dipped a bare toe in the pool before gliding over to him, the circles under her eyes prompting a less pleasing Shakespearean allusion: Ophelia.
“Sun, as requested,” he said, beckoning her towards the other lounger. “Shall I activate the UV shield?”
She pursed her lips. “I thought I had. Is it broken?”
He looked up, squinting. A faint white haze in the ultraviolet range shimmered overhead. “Ah, so you have.”
Coming over, she drew the second lounger up beside his and stretched out on it, ankles crossed, gazing up at the filagree leaves of the tree fern rising from one corner of the atrium. He left her to drink in the tranquil setting. Small sounds became obvious, in Tegan’s absence: the trickle of a small faux waterfall into the pool, the light breeze, twittering birds, the creak of palm fronds. There was little resembling the botany of Traken, but he knew from past experience that any kind of garden set her mind at ease. Which was precisely what she needed right now.
“It’s very beautiful here,” she said at length. “Perhaps we should let Tegan choose the destination more often.”
“You haven’t seen the ocean yet,” he pointed out. “It’s a short walk down. Care for a stroll after breakfast?”
“Perhaps tomorrow.” A furtive smile touched her lips. “Oh! I didn’t think to ask, while Tegan was regaling us. Are there whales along this coast?”
“I expect so,” he said. “I do hope you’re not thinking of repeating that experiment.”
“You never know.” She reached over and patted his ribcage with the back of her hand. A memory floated back: standing in the breakers on a deserted shore, drumming his heartbeats on an old tire to signal the TARDIS after Nyssa had accidentally transformed it into the shape of a cetacean. At the time he had been more concerned about his wayward ship than the contrite girl with her ear pressed against his hearts, tapping out the rhythm for him to mimic. In retrospect, he found the memory pleasantly embarrassing.
Nyssa rose to her feet again, restless. Like a fastidious moth trying to find just the right flower, she began circling the garden, inspecting the plantings more closely. It was a dance he had seen before. It usually ended with the Cloisters trimmed and immaculate.
Wrenching his attention away, he resumed reading. He had become fully engrossed again when a splash and a spray of drops on his cheek made him spring from the lounger. Ripples were spreading from the point where Nyssa had tumbled into the pool. Tossing aside his book and hat, he dove after her. She started to thrash when he caught her under the arms in a lifeguard scoop, but she was unresisting and spluttering with laughter by the time her head broke the surface. Belatedly, he realised that she had shed her gown and was wearing a bathing costume.
“Doctor, what are you doing?”
“You feared I’d fallen in.” Abruptly her amusement turned brittle. “Well, I suppose I did request a more prompt rescue next time. But let’s save it for more dire emergencies, shall we?”
“Of course,” he said. “My mistake.” He was suddenly acutely aware of his waterlogged trousers.
Oblivious to his discomfort, she bobbed idly beside him, treading water. “Well, seeing as you’re already here,” she said, “care to join me for a swim?”
He looked down with distaste. At least he had not been wearing a jumper. “I’m not exactly dressed for it.”
“That can be remedied,” she said, reaching for his shirt collar. “And no, I forbid you to bring out that striped monstrosity you wore on Traken, whatever you may say about Earth fashions. It’s not what they’re wearing in this century.”
UV screen or not, his skin showed pink through his shirt fabric. “Tegan has a knack for turning up at the most inopportune moments, remember?”
“Yes, but she left her keys on her dressing table. She’ll need one of us to let her in.” Nyssa stopped, frowning up at him. “You wish I hadn’t invited her back, don’t you?”
“Now, whatever gave you that idea?”
It was difficult to have this discussion under any circumstances, but particularly when she was fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. He found himself sculling backwards towards the edge of the pool. “It’s… a change,” he said finally. “You don’t present the same challenges.”
Nyssa’s eyes crinkled at the precise wording, but she let it pass. “It’s good for you to hear different perspectives.”
“Different? She always has exactly the same perspective: dissatisfied.”
“Not always, Doctor.”
“Look.” He’d reached the wall. Conceding defeat, he tugged out his shirt-tails and flung the sodden garment onto the deck behind him with a slap. “Exasperating though Tegan is, I missed her too. She’s a very brave person, and quite entertaining to be around when she’s not shouting at me. But you may not tell her I said so.”
“All right.” Nyssa smiled faintly. “I’m relieved to hear it.”
“But she does make certain things more… ” Surprising even himself, he advanced upon Nyssa, scooped one arm under her knees and the other behind her shoulders, and half-hoisted her out of the water. The muffled giggle as he bowed his head was oddly gratifying.
Days of pent-up worry and frustration made the impulsive kiss a lingering one. It wasn’t as if they’d become publicly affectionate in Tegan’s absence; far from it. But now that initial impulse was quashed, every time when Nyssa’s joys or hurts stirred his sympathies. He resented the fact that restraint had become constraint.
He realised he had been missing this.
Missing those rare quixotic moments when their native reserve fell away.
Missing her as more than just a lively intellect and appreciative audience and kindred spirit.
Missing her weight and touch and taste. She was an airy nothing in the water, difficult to hold onto, but the near-human heat of her limbs and lips was an anchor against eternity. Every kiss and slippery embrace was a declaration of now, this, here, absurd in the grand scheme of time.
Or a declaration of something else that shone in her misted gray eyes as he straightened, awkward and courtly, to allow her to breathe. But she had the good sense not to say it.
“Are you telling me,” Nyssa murmured, a little winded and pinker than a moment ago, “We can’t find the time?”
“I rather think,” he said, pressing another light kiss over her brows, “that’s what we’re doing.”
And they did.
He made a mental note to retrieve her bathing costume from the filter later as it spiraled away. The water lapping over her subtle curves seemed to encase her in flowing diamond, but it also added challenge to the proceedings. He had to take care not to drown her as he turned her gently to explore her body with fingers and mouth.
Her flesh was warm but wan beneath his hands. Even in the filtered sunlight, her skin had an unhealthy pallour, and the water dripping from her ringlets could not disguise the shadows under her eyes. He wished he could banish them, or at least make her forget. So set himself the agreeable task of making her blush. Meanwhile, she was doing maddening things with her toes, taking advantage of near-weightlessness. The arch of her foot skimming over his groin nearly caused him to drop her.
“You aren’t— ah— dressed for this either,” she told the sky, hands opening and closing in the water as he roamed across her stomach.
Stripping off his trousers and socks required undignified flailing— he did not look like a Rutan trying to crawl out of a parachute— but at last they fetched up with the concrete rim of the pool rasping against the back of his shoulders. She laced her arms around his neck. The half-lidded expectancy in her eyes drew an involuntary shiver from him. It was easy, then, hands cupping her buttocks and her legs circling his hips, to lift her and push in. His jaw clenched at the burning heat of her body and the fervent Doctor whispered against his chest.
He held her steady as they rocked together, exchanging sliding kisses on the upstroke. The lazy sea-breeze seemed to encourage them not to hurry. Nyssa had always lived faster, fingers clutching and hips shuddering around his tidal thrust and withdrawal, but she was tired and supple in his arms today, hanging on with soft gasps or contenting herself with nibbling his neck and shoulders. He barely noticed his muscles growing taut until he collapsed into her with a groan. Holding her close, trying to prolong the moment with slow delicate movements, he felt the answering kick of her body a short time later. His hearts were still hammering too loudly for him to hear the water sloshing over the sides of the pool.
One last, long, nuzzling kiss. Birdsong and the taste of saltwater reasserted themselves as other senses began to return.
“Welcome back, Nyssa,” he said, looking down at her, drinking in a sight more beautiful than anything around them. Just as she always was, although he usually took her appearance for granted, like the ever-changing tableaus outside the TARDIS doors.
She gave him a weak squeeze. “It’s wonderful to be back, Doctor.”
He wouldn’t fail her like that again. As they drifted out into the the middle of the pool, slowly spinning, the Doctor vowed to the slight body wrapped loosely in his arms: I will always find you in time.