"Could we hurry this up?"
Not for the first time, the Doctor wondered why they were known as patients, when for the most part, they were anything but.
Once the analgesic took effect and the pain was gone, they expected to be able to leave.
"It will take as long as it takes, Lieutenant," the Doctor said pointedly, running the dermal regenerator over the back of the man's hand.
The sounds of the medical centre hummed around him, reminding him there were other procedures, other patients; the endless soothing cycle of restoration to health and well-being to which he'd devoted his life. He attempted to dwell on them for a moment, granting himself a buffer to what he suspected was coming.
The man sighed loudly and shifted. "The last time I was here it didn't take this long."
Taking a deep breath, which obviously provided no physiological benefits for a person with no organic body, helped to keep him focused nonetheless. The day was over, which was fortunate as the Doctor was close to his limit. Keeping frustration in check had never been his strong suit.
Why was it the bigger they were, the more they whined?
"Hold still. Presumably, the last time you were here you didn't have a third-degree burn."
His patient grunted. "And I wasn't treated by–" He cut himself off, but the damage was already done.
The Doctor brought himself up to his full height and glared at the figure on the biobed in front of him. "You were saying?"
"Nah, nothing." When he refused to break his glare, the lieutenant acquiesced. "Well, you know, it's just...you're not really the latest model, are you?"
It was getting harder and harder not to become demoralised by conversations such as this. "I may not be the 'latest model' as you so crudely put it, but I assure you, I'm fully qualified to administer any treatment you can think of, and many you can't."
There was no point in elaborating any further. He'd tried every response to this scenario he could think of - anger, laughter, rationalising, justifications, explanation; nothing worked. There was a significant portion of the population, even within Starfleet, that remained ignorant of the abilities of a holographic doctor.
Worse still, they showed little interest in being educated out of their prejudice. The Doctor wasn't sure how long he could continue in this vein.
"Fortunately for you, I'm not ready for retirement just yet."
Clicking the regenerator off, he nodded. "Make a fist, please." He stroked his fingers over the man's skin, watching it return to the pleasing, healthy shade it should have been all along. "That's fine. Flex your fingers. Good. Now wiggle them."
Standing back, he gestured for his patient to stand. "You're cleared to return to duty, Lieutenant. Your hand may be stiff for a day or two."
"Thanks, Doc. Um...I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything. But, you know," he chuckled awkwardly, "it's not like you have feelings or anything."
The Doctor paused, and turned back from where he'd placed the regenerator onto a tray and handed the whole thing to a passing nurse.
"No. I don't suppose I do. At least, not any you'd be able to relate to."
Walking back from Starfleet Medical to the R&D building, the Doctor tried hard to keep his mood up.
While in reality he could have worked all day every day for an indefinite period of time, he liked to keep the regular hours that his colleagues kept. It allowed him to participate in other activities and made him accessible for socialising.
At least that had been his initial plan.
The days were longer, more tedious, and less rewarding than they'd been when Voyager had first returned from the Delta Quadrant six months ago.
He'd known there'd be a period of adjustment. It was only natural. What he hadn't expected was that he himself would be subjected to it.
But the day was over, and he was returning to his quarters. His quarters, ah. That was a thought that never failed to cheer him. Acquiring them had been more of a fight that he'd ever imagined. Naively, when he'd originally had the idea, he hadn't considered anyone would oppose it.
That had been his first inkling that the rights he'd enjoyed on Voyager weren't automatically going to extend to life in the Alpha Quadrant.
The humid summer air pressed heavily against him as he walked. Feeling a little off, he made a mental note to run a diagnostic on himself. The damp air played havoc with the stability of his holomatrix. If Starfleet were run by holograms instead of organics, the headquarters would never have been located in a coastal city.
He quickened his pace, eager to return to the pleasing climate-controlled conditions of his quarters; although, he admitted privately to himself, 'quarters' might be too grand a description for the space he'd been granted the right to make his own. But still. While the Doctor had little need of a bedroom, personal hygiene and toilet facilities, or a dining area, he'd insisted on them nonetheless. It wasn't inconceivable that he might entertain guests occasionally, and he wanted them to be comfortable.
Turning the corner, he started up a short hill, passing the small patch of purple roses that someone had thoughtfully planted at the base.
The space he'd been allotted to live in served his purpose and brought him great satisfaction. His initial decorating had been done mainly with plants, many of which had been gifts from former Voyager colleagues who'd insisted that a housewarming gift was traditional and necessary.
It was touching, if a little odd, but he appreciated their support.
The Doctor had given a great deal of thought to the rest of the decor. He wanted his surroundings to reflect his personality, so that anyone he entertained might have the same opportunity to glean things about him as they'd have in the home of an organic.
It was a fine line between sharing his interests and too much self-disclosure, but in the end he thought he'd done a commendable job of walking it. A few well-chosen pieces of art, not too ostentatious, but reflective of his stature and position, plus some personal trinkets he'd collected over the years – a dried flower from the hydroponics bay, proudly presented to him by Kes; the score of the aria dedicated to the Sky Ship, composed by Mariza, his companion during his three-year away mission; the most recent holoimage of his goddaughter, Miral. It was home.
And more and more he was finding the need to come home to a place that reminded him of who he knew he was.
It was gone. Again.
Which was impossible. He'd only turned his back for three minutes, four at the most, retrieving a plate of Tarvorkian cakes from the replicator before returning to the desk to attach it. He hadn't even noticed her come into the room.
She was getting faster, and more devious, which was cause for concern.
"Mina." The Doctor was ingratiating, trying to keep the frustration from his voice. "Mina, come here now." It was a useless endeavour but there was always the chance that she still had it with her, and if he could coax her over to him...
There was no response from the other room. Sighing in frustration, he took a moment to resign himself to the need for a search. It was embarrassingly undignified, even though he was the only one there, and something to which he never quite got accustomed.
Nothing in any of the usual places: under the sofa, behind the desk, in the small nook at the back of the replicator, which was where he'd found the last batch of things that had gone missing. It was warm there which was presumably the appeal, although he'd never been able to attach much rhyme or reason to the location of her stash.
Straightening up, the Doctor paused in a moment of realisation.
Horror of horrors. She had a new hiding place.
"Mina, this is appallingly inappropriate."
If she heard him, she gave no response.
She liked the bottom of the storage closet but wasn't known to go back to a former hiding place once she'd moved on to somewhere better, so that wasn't likely. Strolling casually across the room, he glanced down along the base of the furniture for anything suspicious or out of place.
Crossing over to the table that he used for working or occasionally to serve food to guests, he stepped carefully around the various balls that littered the floor.
"If only you found as much amusement in hiding your belongings as you do mine."
Something caught his eye at the base of the miniature ratana tree. There was a small pile of dirt on the floor surrounding the pot, not yet dealt with by the cleaning system, which meant it had just been disturbed.
Things were looking up.
Kneeling down, he felt carefully underneath the leaves on the lowest branches and pulled out his favourite pitch pipe, looking somewhat grubby and thoroughly the worse for wear. He hadn't even known it was missing. A further search revealed a couple of hyposprays with the contents discharged, the bases sparkling like diamonds. He would have sworn an oath that he never neglected to dispose of them properly, but apparently he'd left at least two in the pocket of his lab coat and Mina had found them before he had.
One final swipe against the foliage brought him into contact with his mobile emitter. Victory! It was small comfort – it was taking him longer and longer to discover her hiding places. The idea that someday she'd outwit him entirely was not a comfortable one.
Hesitating a moment, he replaced one of the empty hyposprays. The last time he'd cleared out her hiding place she'd moped around for days. While it went against his better judgement to diagnose an animal with a mood disorder, the Doctor knew depression when he saw it.
He sensed her presence before he looked around to see her narrow, whiskered face watching him with interest. Reaching over, he scooped her up, letting her snuggle in against him.
"If you were a holographic ferret, I'd seriously consider deleting your program," he said with a severity he didn't really feel. Mina seemed greatly unconcerned, wriggling her head under the palm of his hand insistently.
"You're tired," he noted, stroking her obediently, and wondered what other mischief she'd been up to. She never allowed a cuddle until she was completely worn out.
Owning a pet was not something he'd planned. But being in the Alpha Quadrant was much lonelier than the Doctor had anticipated. Like most of the crew, he'd been delighted to return and had looked forward to taking his place as one of the foremost medical minds in Starfleet. The reality was significantly different.
True, he was far from alone in that. But the other members of Voyager, for the most part, had family and friends to aid them in their adjustment. He had Seven, it was true, but she was as busy trying to make a place for herself as he, and her schedule allowed for only occasional contact.
In the end it was Harry Kim who'd suggested a pet. At first he'd dismissed the idea outright. While his bedside manner had improved considerably over the last seven years, he was by no stretch of the imagination a nurturing person. But with nothing to lose he'd begun to see the appeal. It was something to interact with during his off-duty hours, and the result had been surprisingly enjoyable.
Even if she was an atrociously thieving little thing.
Catching sight of the chronometer interrupted his reverie. Moving back to the replicator, he ordered ferret nutritional supplement number five and gave Mina a quick rub of the scruff before installing her in her bed.
He noted with amusement that it was several centimetres from where he'd placed it. She liked to adjust it, leaving room between the bed and the wall to bide her time, hiding, until he passed by and she could ambush him into a game of chase.
Not that he considered it appropriate for a man of his stature to indulge in such foolishness normally. But play was an important part of her socialisation and health maintenance, and if she was surprisingly adorable in her attempts to engage him, well, he justified it as another of the duties of a responsible pet owner.
"Don't look at me like that. I told you I had to go out tonight, but I promise I won't be too late." Attaching the mobile emitter quickly, he shuddered to think what would happen to his quarters if she were allowed too much free time unsupervised.
Just before leaving, he crossed back to the replicator and returned to present her with some small pieces of chicken. "So you don't suffer a protein deficiency."
It was perhaps worrisome that this was his closest relationship, but there was no doubt that his evenings were decidedly less lonely.
Each week, a different department in the research and development branch of Starfleet hosted an informal get-together, and while participation was not mandatory, the Doctor had found it beneficial to attend.
Unlike on Voyager, where the chain of command was obvious, intradepartmental power was often obtained through more subtle means. That personal connections were a factor had initially appalled him.
However, the more time he spent on Earth, the more the Doctor had come to understand that relationships were the driving force in almost every circumstance.
This had left him at a distinct disadvantage. He was the only hologram on his team, the only hologram in cognitive/sensory/perceptual in fact, and generally the only hologram who had exceeded the limits of his programming that any of his colleagues had ever met.
That he was not welcomed with open arms was the understatement of the century.
Still, the socialising had done a lot to grease the wheels of cooperation and communication, so every Friday night he gritted his teeth and made an attempt at camaraderie.
He was later than usual, but better late than never, as they said. Spying Reginald Barclay milling around the refreshments was an unexpected bonus. Reg had been an unfailing supporter and champion of the Voyager crew since their return, and although he was technically not a member of R&D, he attended 'Fridays', as they were referred to, whenever he could.
Reg turned around as he placed his Tarvorkian cakes at the dessert end of the table. Although he didn't eat, he brought food when his department was hosting as a gesture of good faith.
"Doctor. Just the man I was looking for." Reg's obvious delight helped him relax a little.
Quirking an eyebrow, he smiled politely and waited for an explanation.
"I have someone who wants to meet you."
Reg nodded to someone a short distance away, and the Doctor glanced over to where he seemed to be looking.
A shy, pretty smile, and he started with pleasure. He knew this woman.
Now that was an interesting turn of events.
The first time he'd seen her was at the conference on pulmonary and respiratory health. They'd attended several of the same lectures and when he'd presented his paper on the Vidiian techniques that had enabled him to transplant one of Kes's lungs into Neelix, she sat in the first row and took what appeared to be considerable notes.
The second time he saw her was at a reception for a touring Vulcan opera company. She'd worn a simple dress that was quite complementary to her eyes and general colouring. Not that he had really noticed, or paid much attention.
He'd wanted to speak to her but had been corralled by yet another curious gawker. While the man had droned on about how fascinating it was to meet an expanded holo, a term the Doctor found appallingly rude, he'd watched the woman make her way to the exit.
He'd been surprised at how deeply he'd regretted her early departure.
Now she was standing in front of him, and he found himself more flustered than he'd been in a very long time.
"Doctor, this is Anya. She's a PhD candidate at Oxford and a medical doctor like yourself." Reg beamed, clearly pleased at having managed the social niceties.
Anya smiled. "It's an honour."
"The pleasure's mine. I recognise you." He studied her face, happy for the chance to do so finally without seeming rude.
"Yes." She nodded. "I've been trying to find an opportunity to meet you but circumstances kept conspiring against me. It's no accident that I'm here tonight." Again a very sweet smile. "I arranged to have Reg introduce us."
Reg, who was never the most perceptive, nodded and seemed to hang on her every word. The pause became subtly heavier as it lengthened.
The Doctor cleared his throat. "Perhaps you'd like to get a drink and sit somewhere comfortable?"
Startled, Reg began backing away. "I think I'll just leave you to get acquainted."
Anya ignored his departure, her eyes still on the Doctor, and shook her head. "I don't drink. But I'd like to sit and talk."
How had he missed it? "You're a hologram. I'm sorry, I didn't realise."
She blushed prettily. The effect was charming.
"No need to apologise."
Holding out her hand, she smiled sweetly. "Come and sit with me, and I'll explain."
He led her to a quieter part of the room, where they settled on the blue sofa.
Music drifted over them lightly, and he willed himself to relax, although his heart was pounding.
If what Reg had said was correct, she had clearly gone well beyond the boundaries of her programming.
Anya ran her fingers through her hair, which seemed to be an intriguing combination of browns and reds.
Fighting down his fascination, he nonetheless sat a little closer to her than he might normally have done. "You're a PhD candidate? Surely you weren't programmed for that?"
Taking in a shaky breath, Anya smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry. I'm a little nervous. I hope this isn't an intrusion. We...have something in common and I thought it might be nice if we got to know one another. I started life as an EMH as well."
Her voice carried a delicate lilt and the effect was soothing, pleasurable. It wouldn't matter if she were recounting the intricacies of waste disposal. The idea of waste disposal drew his thoughts briefly to his fellow Mark 1s, making him shudder, as always.
The Doctor pulled his attention firmly back to the woman in front of him. He touched her hand lightly to reassure her and was surprised by its softness. "Please, tell me."
She cleared her throat. "I was integrated into the Amani during the war." The green eyes darkened. "You can't imagine what the war was like."
In fact, he could imagine it, having downloaded all available information into his program as part of the general upgrades he'd undergone upon their return, but he knew she was speaking figuratively and nodded politely.
"It was chaos. Not like any other war in the history of the Federation." Anya studied his face as if making sure he understood what she was talking about. The secluded sofa offered a measure of privacy, but her confiding in him wrapped a cocoon of intimacy around them. The Doctor drew a bit closer.
"I've spoken with some of the survivors."
She smiled a little. "So then you have some idea. We were damaged in one of the initial attacks, before anyone understood how the Dominion operated. The captain managed to hide the ship in a nebula while we made repairs, but communications were cut off and we were stuck there for a long time.
"In the same attack, several crew members were killed, including our CMO. I was brought on line and assumed the role."
The Doctor quirked an eyebrow. "That sounds like a familiar story."
Anya nodded. "I thought it might. Once I was activated, it became clear that I was going to have to assume some non-medical duties as well. I was quickly trained to help the engineers; the idea being that medicine and engineering aren't so far apart."
He grinned in acknowledgement, having been called upon to participate himself in activities that would normally be considered the purview of other ship's departments.
"It was interesting work and I enjoyed it. I stayed with the Amani for the duration, although our captain was killed in the second year." Her glanced lowered. "He was a good man. It was a devastating loss for everyone."
The Doctor's throat tightened a bit, watching her and remembering Voyager's many deaths. "I'm sure."
She raised her eyes to smile at him. "Once the war was over, I found it impossible to go back to the parameters I'd initially been designed for. You know?"
He did indeed.
"The genie was out of the bottle. I wanted to learn as much as I could about everything. I could have simply downloaded the information, of course, and I did that in many areas." She looked at him shyly. "But I wanted the experiences as well. I wanted to start out knowing nothing, and gradually absorb the information the way organics do. So I decided to go back to school."
She giggled a little, self-deprecating, and the sound flowed all through him. "Well, not so much ‘back’ as I'd never been in the first place. But that's what people say."
"Doctor," Anya paused a moment. "I'm sorry. Do you have a name?"
For the first time in a very long time, he was desperately sorry he didn't. He would have loved to hear her speak it.
"Can I ask why?"
"Well there you are." The timid voice of Reg Barclay interrupted them. He could see the regret mirrored in Anya's eyes, but she smiled gamely.
"Reg, how's your evening going?"
"Ah, fine, thanks." He stammered a little, and the Doctor realised with amusement that he wasn't the only one enjoying the presence of their guest.
"A few of us are going up to Riley's; I wondered if you wanted to join us." Reg glanced over at the Doctor to include him in the invitation.
He hadn't realised so much time had passed, but as he glanced around it was clear the crowd was thinning.
"Oh, I don't think..." There was a pleading look in her eye when she turned to him.
"Thank you, Reg, but I was just about to walk Anya home."
The squeeze of her hand on his arm made him feel two metres tall.
"So I was asking you about your name." Anya walked with her arm tucked into his. The oppressive heat of the day had cooled to a more mellow warmth, and the scent of night-blooming jasmine followed along behind them in the dark.
"Yes, um, well." He cleared this throat. "The truth is, I don't have one."
She tilted her head and her hair tumbled over her shoulder. He fought down the urge to stroke it back into place.
The Doctor shrugged and hugged her arm a little tighter against his body instead. "I've made several attempts over the years to choose one. Any time that I did, it seemed something happened to taint its meaning for me. Finally I just gave up. I know it might sound silly but I'm used to being referred to as ‘the Doctor’. It seems to work for me."
She nodded understandingly. "It doesn't seem silly. But doesn't it make it confusing for everyone else, working in a medical facility?"
Steering them down toward the docks, he smiled at her confusion. "I only treat patients one day a week. The rest of the time I work on special projects, some related to holographic technology, some related to medicine. Sometimes I get lucky and the two combine, but that's mainly on my own time."
"Do you," Anya paused a moment. "That is, I mean, are you involved with anyone?"
The Doctor's stomach was suddenly in his throat, a not altogether unpleasant sensation. If she was asking that, it was likely she was attracted to him. It had been his experience that women didn't ask that sort of question out of idle curiosity.
"I'm not," he responded slowly. "I haven't dated anyone since I returned to the Alpha Quadrant."
"I see." She let out a long breath she seemed to have been holding.
The bay was an inky black in the darkness, vast and chilling, but the existential coldness that occasionally assaulted him on nights like this failed to penetrate the warmth that surrounded them.
"You're involved in holographic rights as well. I've read some of your writing on the subject. It's very persuasive." She chuckled, and once more the sound delighted him. "But then again I suppose I might be a little biased."
"I do what I can." Pride rose up in him. "It's quite shocking to me how much prejudice exists against photonic life forms. I...didn't expect it." An unbidden wave of sadness washed over him. "It's very different here from what I was used to on Voyager. I'm sure you understand."
Anya squeezed his arm warmly. "I do understand. In fact, that's one reason I wanted to meet you and get to know you. I thought you might be going through some difficult times."
His face must have reflected the fall of his heart, because she rushed to continue.
"Not the only reason, you understand. I just thought..."
Stopping, she turned to face him, excitement dancing in her eyes. "There are more of us."
"What do you mean?"
"More holographic life forms who are living beyond the boundaries that were programmed for us." Her hand slid down his arm to grasp his fingers, and he entwined them with hers automatically.
"Oh, not a lot, a handful really. For the most part it's as you know; holograms are confined to the parameters of the service they were designed for, discouraged from or even punished for exploring other options. But oh, sometimes someone breaks free, does what we were able to do and discovers a wonderful life for him or herself."
Joy swept over her beautiful face. "It's like delivering an organic baby, that moment when you meet another person who's come into themselves, who's connected with the one thing that makes them unique. Or if you're able to help them do it...oh, it's wonderful."
Beaming up at him, she moved aside and resumed their walking pace.
The Doctor's head was spinning. "There are more of us? And...you help them?" His voice came out louder than he'd meant.
Her voice, in contrast, was quieter this time. "We do help them. There's a sort of secret network. Sometimes holographic life forms run away, or...simply want to explore their options. We do whatever we can to enable that to happen."
She continued gently. "I'm sure you understand that this is extremely delicate. There are two parts to our work. One is this. The other is a more public advocacy group. We engage in activities that promote awareness of holographic rights. Much like you've been doing, but more organised."
"I've never heard of you," he said curiously.
"We've been waiting to approach you. There's a great deal of excitement amongst the members of our ranks: a feeling that you'd be very helpful to our work."
"So this evening has been a prelude to gaining my abilities," the Doctor said flatly. "You want to use me."
"Oh no. No, no, no. I'm so sorry. I'm not explaining myself well at all." The distress that clouded her face reassured him.
"It's true, I was elected to approach you, but..." She broke off and they walked in silence for a moment.
"You have to understand. This is very sensitive work. There are a great many people who don't want to see holographic life forms liberated. There's a certain amount of danger and not a lot of people willing to help us. We've never been in a position to approach someone to join the group, and we weren't sure how to best go about it."
They turned a corner and started up another hill.
"I've been watching you for a while, attending events where you were present, trying to discern whether you'd be open to working with others on a cause that's so clearly very personal for you."
Anya stopped and turned to look at him. Her eyes were pleading and the depth of them drew him in. "It hasn't been a chore. I think you're...well, fascinating." She blushed. "We knew you were brilliant, but I hadn't expected to find you so charming as well. I'd have wanted to meet you even if I hadn't been assigned to you."
His heart softened. She was clearly telling him the truth. "I find you charming as well."
Smiling, she motioned to the building. "This is where I live. I'd invite you in but I like to deactivate for a few hours a night, like everyone else does."
"I hope you do," she said seriously. "Not just about that. If you don't want anything to do with our work, we'll accept that. But I hope it won't mean we can't be friends. Oh, and I'll have to ask you to keep what I've told you confidential, obviously, either way."
"There's a public meeting in two days. You could come and hear one of our members speak. That way you haven't committed yourself to anything."
It seemed reasonable. "I'd like that."
Anya smiled delightedly. "I'll send you the time and location."
The room was smaller than he'd anticipated, and bordered on the shabby. He wondered if this was indicative of their lack of power, their lack of public acceptance, or both.
Instead of discouraging him, the Doctor found to his surprise that it made him more inclined to listen to what they had to say.
There were a few rows of chairs set up in a semicircle formation around a podium. Encouragingly, most of the chairs were full. Anya waved to him from two seats on the end of the third row.
Sitting down beside her brought the full force of her dazzling smile into his line of vision, and he grinned back foolishly.
"You came. I wasn't sure..."
"I told you I'd be here," he reminded her. In truth, although he hadn't made up his mind about whether to join them, a pack of targs couldn't have stopped him from finding out more about their group.
"There are fewer people than I expected."
Anya nodded. "It seems important to build a base, a foundation for further work. We don't want to draw a lot of attention to ourselves until we're comfortable that our message is gaining wider acceptance. The safest way to do that seems to be a few people at a time."
When the lights dimmed, and the single spotlight illuminated the speaker – Dema, as he'd introduced himself – she reached over quietly and took his hand. Entwining his fingers warmly with hers, the Doctor squeezed lightly. He'd thought about very little except Anya since the last time he'd seen her.
Then he settled in beside her to listen.
Hearing someone else speak about the issues that had so profoundly affected his own life was deeply moving. He hadn't recognised how lonely he'd felt, dealing with prejudice and isolation on a daily basis. Listening to someone else describe his own experiences was like coming home to a very safe place.
He was enraptured.
The issue of sentience was the sticking point for most people. But why should the experiences, thoughts, feelings, desires, hopes and dreams of only organic beings be judged meaningful or valuable?
Why, after hundreds of years of development, did superficial differences still matter to so many people?
If he experienced himself as a sentient being, a person, why wasn't that enough?
The illogical oppressiveness of it was exhausting.
"At what point are we person enough to no longer be considered possessions, or machines?"
Dema's final words broke into the Doctor's reverie, and he became aware that there were tears trickling down his cheeks.
"At what point are we person enough to belong only to ourselves?" Dema paused. "I submit to you that an individual can and should be permitted to make that determination for him or herself. Anything less amounts to slavery."
The crowd applauded enthusiastically and the Doctor was on his feet, leading the ovation. Dema nodded modestly and stepped down from the podium and into the forming crowd of well wishers.
Turning to Anya, the Doctor clasped her shoulders tightly. "I had no idea! That was incredible."
She slid her arms around his neck and hugged him, pressing her cheek against his. The comforting rightness of it moved through him in a wave.
Pulling back, she looked at him in surprise. "You're crying. How...?"
He brushed roughly at his cheeks. "An engineer friend of mine enhanced my emotional subroutines when I was first interested in opera so that I could fully appreciate the experience."
Anya stilled his hand, then moved her own to gently brush away the remaining wetness. She wasn't judging him. In fact, she might be the only person he'd ever met who truly understood how he felt.
The tiny milling crowd and the mindless chatter faded away. Their eyes locked and for a brief moment, there was only silence.
He had to bend a little to kiss her, brushing his mouth softly across hers for a first gentle taste. Then he slid his arms around her waist to move his lips more fully against hers, firmly but sweetly, like he'd wanted to from almost the first.
When they broke apart, she looked at him for a moment. He met her gaze and saw in it something he hadn't seen in a long time, something he realised he'd never expected to see again.
She rested her forehead against his chest for a few seconds, and he slid his hand up to stroke the back of her neck lightly. An older woman watching them caught his eye and smiled.
The Doctor smiled back.
Mina twined swiftly around his feet, determined to get his attention.
The Doctor wiggled his toes and she pounced, clearly surprised to have elicited her desired response.
He grinned indulgently in spite of himself. He should shoo her away. The PADD in front of him contained crucial information, and he wanted to finish what he was working on before Anya arrived.
Too late, he realised as she walked through the door. Rising to meet her, he managed to flip Mina with the flat top of his foot, eliciting a low ferrety chuckle of delight.
"You're here." The Doctor leaned down to accept Anya's kiss, wrapping his arms around her waist. Being in love tended to involve much more stating of the obvious than he'd anticipated, but neither of them appeared to mind.
She looked past him to the PADD on the table. "You're working." Her tone was dismayed. "I'm sorry; I'm interrupting."
"Not at all. In fact, I'd like your input on this."
"What is it, a speech?" Anya slid her arm around his neck, standing beside him as he sat at the table.
"No." He pulled her into his lap, smiling at her giggle. Passing her the PADD, he waited for her response.
"The Great Barrier Reef." Her eyes widened. "A vacation? I've never been on a vacation before."
She wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly, then pulled back uncertainly. "Can we do this? We have work, I have school, the group..."
The Doctor shook his head. "The whole point of our work is to make sure holographic beings are able to live life to the fullest. We need to do the same."
Anya nodded slowly, and a smile of delight spread across her face. She touched his cheek. "Thank you."
Tugging her closer, he buried his face in the side of her neck. "Don't thank me. I want us to have some time alone together. There are things about the future I want to discuss."
She ran her hand along his shoulders. "As long as I'm with you, the future will take care of itself."
He kissed her, slow and deep, then pulled back to stroke her hair. "That's what I'm counting on."