“The Doctor said that was the whole point of this activity,” Nyssa said reasonably.
“We've been lost for three hours.”
Nyssa gave a thoughtful hum before pulling out their compass and what looked like some sort of piece of scrap from the TARDIS. Holding both of them very still and flat on her palms, she turned slowly until she was facing due North and frowned at the scrap metal.
“Two hours and forty-five Earth minutes,” she finally announced, looking very pleased with herself. “Assuming my calculations were correct.”
“...Is that a portable sundial—? Why not just bring a watch?”
Nyssa's eyes sparked mischievously as she looked up at Tegan through her eyelashes. “What would be the fun in that?” Tucking the little piece of stone into a pocket, she shook out their information leaflet. “Now. The nice man at the entrance said the average time for completing this maze was four hours. Realistically it could take us a much shorter or a much longer amount of time, but we're in no hurry.”
“Stop being sensible at me,” Tegan complained.
Making an admirable effort to contain her laughter, Nyssa looped her arm through her companion's. “I don't know about you, but I'm enjoying myself,” she said with a warm smile. “I've always been rather fascinated by your species' pastimes. We didn't have... corn , on Traken. So I can't say we've ever had anything like a corn maze. Turning the harvest season into a community festival is fairly universal, of course,” she added as an afterthought. “But turning the harvest itself into recreation is a wonderful idea! Humans are such inventive creatures. I can see why the Doctor likes them.”
“Thanks,” said Tegan. “I think.”
Nyssa squeezed her hand. “I like humans for other reasons,” she said warmly, briefly standing on tiptoe to kiss the side of Tegan's neck, making her blush. The Trakenite tugged lightly at her sleeve and Tegan rolled her eyes good-naturedly, slipping her arm around Nyssa's waist as they started picking their way around the corn field again. A family complete with two children and a little Golden Retriever puppy on a leash passed them going the opposite direction, and Tegan tensed; but it turned out the Doctor had been right when he said that at this period in Earth's history (future?) nobody would care or even think twice about the two of them, even without having to pretend she and Nyssa were just 'friends'.
They spent several minutes talking with the cheerful little family, in which the children chased each other and laughed while their parents and Tegan compared descriptions of the portion of endless corn maze they'd just come from with nearly identical descriptions of the portion of endless corn maze she and Nyssa had just come from. Nyssa offered much more useful insights, when she wasn't cooing over Buddy the Golden Retriever. Apparently they didn't have puppies on Traken either.
“Well, it was nice meeting you both,” the father said eventually. They all wished each other good luck in finding the exit, and continued on their respective aimless wanderings.
“They seemed nice,” Nyssa remarked. “Now, which way should we go?”
Well, Tegan thought to herself. Straight ahead, there was corn. Or they could turn slightly to the left, where there was more corn. The path to their right led exactly where they wanted to go, except—
“Rabbits. Dead end.”
“The exit is... southwest, I believe?” Nyssa peered as far down the straight-ahead path as she could see. “This one turns east.”
“They all turn,” griped Tegan. “It's a maze.” Nyssa gave her a reproachful look that said clearly Behave. She sighed. “I vote left, then.”
Nyssa's smile was dazzling. “Left it is.”
Tegan was forced to admit, if never out loud, that this really wasn't as bad as she was making it out to be. The sun was out but it was a nice, cool day—not cold but not hot, either, with just enough of a breeze to be refreshing and not a cloud in the sky. And the shifting green of the rustling corn stalks was actually kind of pretty. Calming, even. She couldn't help grinning watching Nyssa hopping to try to see over the tops, attempting to navigate using a compass they'd bought in a souvenir shop on Midnight. The company, at least, couldn't be better. They'd even managed to lose—
Nyssa looked up with a pleased smile. “Hello again, Adric.”
Tegan managed not to grumble. “See you haven't found your way out either.”
“Not yet,” he explained with exaggerated patience. “But I will. I did research.”
“Still haven't moved off that left wall?” Tegan couldn't help a little amusement. Adric was physically running his hand over every single stalk, and had apparently been winding his way through the entire maze on the logic that even if it took several days, sticking to the left wall would, eventually, lead him to freedom. They'd run into him twice already, stubbornly refusing to change his methods in the slightest.
“It's the most reliable technique,” Adric informed her. “Otherwise you just wander about lost.”
Tegan was absolutely positive Nyssa smirked at that, and chose to ignore her.
“Well, good luck with that. If you find the Doctor anywhere tell him we'll all meet at the exit, won't you?”
Adric looked scandalized. “You lost the Doctor again?”
“We turned around and he was gone! It's not my fault, you little—”
Yes, dear, Tegan thought acidly. Nyssa wasn't actually a powerful enough telepath to project an answer from ten feet away, but the mockingly-dignified toss of her curls said she'd heard.
Adric dared to take his hand off the wall of corn stalks long enough to turn around. “Nyssa,” he said, “Are you sure you don't want to come with me? It is more reliable.”
“Thank you, Adric.” Nyssa really was good at suppressing laughter. “We're perfectly fine. You're welcome to join us, however.” To neither of their surprise, Adric turned them down and continued on his way after only a brief moment of panic in which he tried to remember which wall his hand had been on.
“It'll take him days to get out at this rate,” Tegan commented.
Nyssa sighed. “Well, at least he won't starve.”
“Get awfully tired of corn, though,” said Tegan with a grin. “Come to think of it, I'm getting tired of corn. Have you got any idea where we are?”
“Closer to the exit than we were when we started,” Nyssa replied promptly. “And the right-hand path is our best bet.”
Nyssa didn't bother trying not to laugh this time. “Look on the bright side, Tegan,” she said kindly, linking their arms again and rubbing Tegan's shoulder reassuringly. “The weather is lovely, the people are friendly, and there's no alien invasion to spoil the afternoon.”
A woman screamed from somewhere in the corn.
“You had to say it, didn't you.”
“We're terribly sorry—”
“Thought you were in trouble—”
Nyssa's ears were bright red as they beat a hasty retreat from the dead-end tryst they had so rudely interrupted; Tegan thought they might actually be burning more than hers were, which was quite an accomplishment.
“That was...” Nyssa gave an embarrassed laugh. “Is that common in this sort of setting?”
“I wouldn't know, I've never been in one before. Probably. Most humans haven't got what you'd call a sense of propriety. Hope none of the kids walk in on those two.” She thought about it for a minute. “Can't be that comfortable, though, with all those dead corn husks. That has to hurt. Unless they're into that sort of thing.”
Nyssa turned pink again, burying her face in Tegan's arm and laughing helplessly. The boredom and frustration of the maze having definitely been broken, Tegan was quite utterly happy when she dropped a kiss down onto Nyssa's head, running her fingers through the girl's hair and laughing with her.
“Let's keep moving, shall we?” Nyssa's eyes were sparkling, but a little bit of happiness never stopped her from focusing on the task at hand. “We just need to keep moving in that general—Doctor!”
Looking up at the surprised exclamation, Tegan found that it was indeed the Doctor, celery and all, walking toward them with his hands in his pockets and as cliché a picnic basket as she could ever have imagined slung over his arm, whistling happily. He was eating a caramel apple on a stick.
“Ah! Nyssa! And Tegan, lovely.” He peered around them in mild confusion. “Where's Adric?”
“The left wall,” Nyssa said helpfully.
“Oh dear.” The Doctor sighed. “Still? Well, I'm sure he'll find his way out eventually. Caramel apple?”
Nyssa's face lit up as the Doctor opened up his picnic basket—complete with red-and-white-checked blanket—to reveal several roasted cobs of corn and a plastic container with three caramel apples.
“Yes, please,” she said gratefully.
“Where'd you get that?” Tegan demanded.
“Oh, there's a buffet at the exit,” the Doctor said with a cheerful smile. “I just took a doggy bag, so to speak.”
“You got out?”
Sensing a disaster in the works, Nyssa interjected quickly. “Doctor, do you remember the way to the exit?”
“Oh.” His face fell. “Yes, it's... somewhere in that direction,” he said, gesturing vaguely behind him.
“Doctor!” cried Tegan with something approaching despair.
“Here you are,” he said quickly, shoving the picnic basket into her arms before he was throttled by an angry Australian. “Best of luck to you both, I should go and find Adric—” and then he'd backpedaled and was gone much faster than a tall blonde man in cricket gear should reasonably be able to disappear among emerald-green corn stalks.
“Rabbits,” Tegan said emphatically.
Nyssa patted her shoulder, jabbed one of the caramel apples with a stick, and took a bite.
“All right then,” she muttered around a mouthful of sticky apple. “Left, or right?”
Tegan glared for a few seconds at the maddeningly unhelpful, infuriatingly identical walls of corn. Finally, though, even she had to surrender. She picked up a caramel apple.
“I vote left,” she sighed.
Nyssa smiled and kissed her.
“Left it is.”
“Romana, we're walking in circles! Face it, we're lost.”
“We are not,” Leela corrected him impatiently. “These paths may be strange, Narvin, but they are not that strange. I do not get lost on such simple trails. I simply do not know which way I am meant to be going.”
Romana pinched the bridge of her nose. “Narvin, you were the one who refused to simply push our way out.”
“Because it would be impractical!”
“Ah, yes.” Romana had to contain an undignified groan at the dripping sarcasm in Brax's voice. “As opposed to aimless wandering, which is the height of practicality. Once again the legendary efficiency of the CIA comes to our rescue.”
“You are afraid of the jungle,” Leela said mockingly, flicking a ball of corn silk in Narvin's general direction. “Is this 'corn maze' too wild and uncivilized for you, Time Lord?”
“Now, Leela, really—” Romana pleaded.
“K-9!” Romana shouted, rather more loudly than she would have liked. At least it got Leela and Narvin's attention enough that their fingers stopped inching toward their respective weapons. She took a deep, steadying breath. “K-9,” she said again, politely. “Please tell me you've finished those scans.”
K-9's ears whirred. “Analyzing, mistress. Final calculations completing. Analysis: complete!”
There were sighs of relief from everyone but Brax, who was of course far superior to such things. “Thank you, K-9.” Romana crouched down and placed a hand on his back. “And the results?”
The metal dog's ears whirred again. “Results indicate: Corn, mistress.”
There was a pause.
“What,” said Narvin flatly.
“Corn,” chirped K-9. “A tall plant of Earth origin, possessing a jointed, solid stem—”
“We know what it means, K-9!” Romana was aware of how desperate she sounded. “We already knew it was corn! Tell us the way out!”
“Yes, mistress.” It was entirely unfair how sad K-9 could sound when he'd made a mistake. He was a robot dog, he had no business making her want to wrap him in a blanket and apologize for snapping.
There was a long period of complicated-sounding buzzes and pings as K-9 made a new scan, and then silence.
“Well?” Narvin asked. K-9's ears twitched, and all four of them—even, Romana noted smugly, Braxiatel—leaned toward him eagerly.
“Insufficient data,” the dog informed them with a bright wag of his tail, and Romana and Narvin groaned in unison.
Ace swatted irritably at a corn stalk leaning across her path. “Professor!” she shouted again. How'd he even managed to get away? Sure, he was a tiny little bloke, but he'd been right in front of her.
“If you're gonna jump out at me, I'll punch you, don't think I won't!”
There was a suspicious lack of an answer, so she pulled out her baseball bat and jabbed it warily into the corn wall. Nothing happened, and she turned reluctantly to go.
A blur struck her in the stomach from around the corner; it knocked her to the dirt path flat on her back with a thump that knocked the wind out of her, tangled up with a dark-haired person who fell on top of her with a small shriek.
“Oh!” they yelped. While Ace was still seeing stars a bit—she'd managed to bump herself on the head with the handle of the Baseball Bat of Omega—she recognized the blur's voice as female, and young; maybe a few years younger than her, even. So that was something. “I'm so sorry, I didn't see you!”
“You could watch where you're going,” Ace muttered, placing a hand gingerly over what promised to be a rather large bruise in a few minutes. There wasn't really any heat in it; it was obvious the girl hadn't meant any harm, and she looked mildly traumatized by Ace's injury, already trying to fuss over it.
“I'm so sorry!” she cried. “Here, let me see it, we may have something that can help—”
Ace caught her hand. “Hey, look, it's fine, all right? I get worse than this every week, it's my fault really. Wasn't watching where I put my hands.” She gave the girl a friendly smile as she pushed herself up on one elbow, nudging her new friend gently off of her. “It's not your fault. Honest.”
She frowned; the girl had jumped the moment Ace's fingers closed around her wrist, and now she was pulling away like it hurt her. Ace was barely holding onto her at all. “Easy,” she said, quieter now, trying to sound safe. “It's fine, okay? I'm not mad, I'm not gonna hurt you.” The girl stilled, then ducked her head suddenly and blushed. She was smiling when she looked up again, so Ace felt safe letting go of her wrists.
“You all right?” she asked her. The girl seemed much calmer now, but the brief glimpse of her face that Ace had gotten before she'd crashed into her had been one of blind panic. “You looked terrified. Someone after you?” Ace had met more than her fair share of toerags who thought it was funny to scare timid girls like this one. Most of them wouldn't stop at scaring if someone didn't make them. “'Cause if they're trying to hurt you, me an' the Professor can put a stop to that, no problem.”
The girl shook her head, looking embarrassed. “Oh, no,” she said. “Nothing like that, really! I'm here with my teachers. My grandfather would be here, but he's making repairs to our ship.”
“They didn't hurt you?” Ace demanded.
The thought made the girl laugh. “No! No, it's not like that at all. We've been separated, that's all. I was just frightened.”
That was an understatement. “Don't like getting lost?” Ace could understand that. Especially someone like this, who was obviously nervous and probably didn't have a great home life. If she lived with her grandfather on a boat and was here with her 'teachers' instead of her family, it didn't sound like she had much of a home life at all. Poor thing probably had nightmares about being abandoned. “I don't like being alone either,” she confided, punching the girl lightly on the shoulder. She got a grateful smile in return as she stood up.
“My name's Ace,” she said, grinning as she pulled the girl onto her feet. “Ace McShane. Well, it's Dorothy really,” though she wasn't sure why she was telling that to some girl she'd just met. “But I don't like it. My friends call me Ace.”
“Ace,” the girl said, breaking into a smile that lit up her whole face. “Susan Foreman.”
“Susan! There you are.”
Ace hadn't been completely sold on these two, despite Susan's energetic descriptions of them as very kind people; she was still looking for some sort of creeps, just in case. 'Teachers' sounded a little cultish, for a girl who lived on a ship with an old man. She was protective of girls like Susan. But the genuine relief in—Chesterford?—in the man's voice did a lot to make her like him. It was obvious he knew about Susan's... well, Ace would have called them 'issues' until a few months ago, but she'd been reading quite a bit from the TARDIS library and thought 'anxiety' was probably a better word.
So it really had been an accident that she ended up all alone, then. Ace could forgive them for that, mostly for the way Susan ran happily into the woman's arms, and the way both of them hugged her. If Susan hadn't already said they weren't related, Ace wouldn't have taken any odds that they weren't the girl's parents.
“Who's your friend, Susan?” Ace had heard that one half a billion times over her life from women like Ms. Wright. It was a surprise, then, that there was no guardedness or disapproval in her voice or her eyes.
“This is Ace,” Susan said with cheerful enthusiasm. “She helped me find you!”
“Barbara Wright,” the woman said with a warm smile, offering her hand. Ace shook it awkwardly. She wasn't used to any sort of... maternal acceptance, not like this. The Professor was different; these were strangers, respectable human strangers who should have thanked her politely and shooed her on her way and away from their charge as soon as they could.
“Ian Chesterton,” said the man—right, right, Chesterton—and Ace started to smile, a little shakily but still a smile, and shook his hand with much more confidence than she had Barbara's. He frowned in mild concern. "Are you all right? That's quite a bump there."
Ace flushed. "Hit myself," she muttered. "It's fine."
She expected him to push the subject; respectable schoolteacher and all, he was probably itching to send her to the nurse or something. He took her word for it, though. Didn't embarrass her or talk down to her or anything, which was a nice surprise. He just inclined his head with real gratitude and said, “Thank you for looking after Susan. We didn't mean to lose her.”
“She's not a kid,” Ace said reflexively. “She can take care of herself. I just helped.”
“Of course she can.” Barbara put an arm around Susan and hugged her with a smile. “But there's nothing wrong with getting help when you're afraid.”
Ace realized that it wasn't just the Professor who could turn any situation into an impromptu lesson. She'd thought it was part of his strangeness, part of that untouchable alien nature. She'd wondered what he was training her for, honestly, though she hadn't minded much because she was free and happy and he'd given her a magic baseball bat to hit pepperpots with. Maybe it was just that Barbara was a teacher and couldn't turn it off.
“Well, Ace,” said... damn, what was it? Chesterfield? Didn't really matter. Here it comes. The next words out of his mouth, if experience served, would be a variation of either 'what's your real name' or 'it was nice meeting you, do you need bus fare home?'
He straightened his sleeves. “Let's find our way out of this thing, shall we?”
“Please,” Barbara laughed. “I'd like to find that buffet Susan was going on about earlier before all four of us starve to death.”
“You will come with us, won't you?” Susan asked, all big almost-black eyes and hopeful expression. “Just to eat!”
“Well,” Ace said reluctantly—expecting her to say no to a face like that was just cruel—“I said I'd meet the Professor in the center of the maze if we got separated, I don't want him to think I ran off.”
“Well, we're in no hurry,” said... sod it anyway. Said Ian. He spread his hands in a welcoming gesture. “Our repairs could take hours yet. I wouldn't mind meeting your professor, if you'll have us along. We can find our way to the buffet together.”
It occurred to Ace that the Doctor would probably like them, too. He always got along well with nice people. And she definitely wanted to get to know Susan. Better than wandering around for hours by herself, like that weird little boy with the star pin she'd passed earlier. He hadn't looked like he was having any fun at all.
“I don't mind,” she said with a noncommittal shrug. “It's just corn either way. We can go together if you want.”
Susan flung herself happily around Ace's neck, and Ace fumbled her bat at the unexpected armful of pretty, excited girl. Barbara caught it neatly before it could tip over, tucking it into its strap on Ace's knapsack when she turned around to set Susan on her feet again. Ian and Barbara exchanged a glance and a smile that Ace was certain she wasn't supposed to have seen. It would have irritated her, usually, but... well, just this once, she decided she didn't really mind.
“...we'll all meet at the exit,” Sarah Jane said briskly, distributing information leaflets throughout the group. “If you get out and no one's there yet, get something to eat and wait for us, the buffet's part of the entrance fee.”
“First one out gets dibs on flying the TARDIS home,” Clyde declared, rubbing his hands together. “Any takers?”
“First ones,” Sarah Jane corrected him with a pointed look. “Stay in pairs, I don't want anyone getting lost.”
“We've got phones, mum,” Luke reminded her, wiggling his next to his head.
“It's just a corn maze,” said Clyde. “No... sentient vegetable monsters, or anything. Nice and normal, remember?”
Rani raised an eyebrow. “The Doctor said it was nice and normal when he brought us here.”
“Pairs,” said Sarah Jane.
“Aw, please?” begged Clyde. “We want to race!”
Jo tsked, making a very weak effort to hide her smile. “They act like they can't race in pairs!” The sound she made could only be called a giggle. “Heaven forbid you run through a maze with another person.”
Sarah Jane laughed. “You'd think the Doctor would have taught them better.”
“I'm so disappointed. Oh, Santiago, here, could you—thank you, dear—”
“Patches for hay fever,” he said smoothly, handing them out. “Gran's been looking into them. All-natural ingredients and such.”
“Yes, pass those out,” Jo fussed. “And—water bottles for everyone, it may not be that hot today but there's still sun, better to be prepared...”
“Thanks, Gran,” said Santiago, leaning down to kiss the top of her head before handing the first bottle over his shoulder.
“It's not an Amazon trek, Mrs. Jones,” Rani said with a smile, but accepted her bottle of water with good grace as Santiago gently showed Luke how to smooth down his hay-fever patch. Rani wasn't sure any of them even had allergies, but it was certainly a good excuse for Santiago to run his hands over Luke's arms. And Luke certainly didn't seem to be complaining.
Sara Jane reached over and ruffled Luke's hair affectionately. “Well, if you're going to race, let's do it properly,” she sighed. “Jo?”
“Oh! Wait!” After a few seconds of patting down her pockets, Jo brightened, reached into her purse and pulled out two containers of spray-on sunscreen. “SPF 45,” she added as an aside to Sarah Jane. “Anything higher than that's useless, you're just throwing your money away. Santiago! Santiago, don't forget the back of your neck!”
“Luke, that goes for you too!”
“We've got it, mum!” Luke called over his shoulder, pushing Santiago's curls out of the way to spray his neck.
“Done!” Santiago caught Jo's eye and held the bottle of sunscreen up to telegraph his intent. She squeaked happily and held her hands out, looking very pleased with herself when she caught his underhand toss.
Sarah Jane smiled indulgently and fished out a whistle. “All right, then. Pace yourselves, all four of you, call us if you feel sick or there's... any sort of alien activity. We can't be too careful.”
“Yeah, mum. We know.” Luke gave her a quick one-armed hug. “See you at the buffet in four hours.”
“I'll wait for you,” Clyde grinned, dropping down into a sprinter's stance. Rani rolled her eyes good-naturedly and leaned on a fence post next to him.
Sarah Jane raised her whistle. “All right then. Three, two...”
Santiago grabbed Luke's hand and pulled him into the maze, laughing carelessly as they stumbled over fallen stalks of corn. Clyde attempted to launch himself forward, tripped over his own arms somehow, and toppled over. Rani laughed at him, but reached down and pulled him onto his feet and they were off as well, only a few seconds behind the others.
As the shouting and shrieks of laughter faded into the corn, Jo looked back with an expectant twinkle in her eye.
“Well?” she said eagerly.
Sarah Jane hummed noncommittally and adjusted her sleeves. “We could go around,” she commented. “Meet the children at the buffet—”
“Sarah Jane Smith!” Jo chided, with dramatically feigned shock. “You wouldn't.”
Sarah Jane, unable to hold back a grin any longer, grabbed her hand.
“Let's beat them there. Come on!”
“Don't, Braxiatel, I mean it.”
“Romana,” Leela complained. “We have been here before already!”
“Yes, we have. Thank you, Leela.”
Narvin cleared his throat, hands folded behind his back in the most insolent form of politeness Romana had ever seen. “Madame President,” he began, almost a drawl. “If I may suggest...”
“No,” she said petulantly.
“My lady.” Brax's tone was much more delicate, which only served to irritate her further. “If the Coordinator has an idea...”
“We are not splitting up,” she said shortly. “The last thing we need is to be lost and separated, Brax! We're going to find the exit, quietly, at the same time, and then Coordinator Narvin is going to explain to me precisely what is wrong with my TARDIS' navigation systems while we are safely on our way back to Gallifrey.”
“Suggestion, mistress,” piped K-9, who had been rather quiet for some time.
Romana, who was beginning to develop a splitting headache, sighed again and crouched down next to him. “Yes, K-9, what is it?”
“Suggestion: Take alternate route, mistress.”
There was a chorus of audible groans with a much louder undertone of mental swearing that made Romana tighten her shields primly and hope Narvin was paying enough attention to feel it.
“That tin dog would be more useful if we melted it down into a scythe,” he muttered, bumping K-9 with his foot.
“Hurt him and I will cut out your—”
“That won't be necessary, I don't think, Leela,” Brax interjected smoothly. Leela cast a dirty look over her shoulder.
“What is not necessary is this constant traveling in circles!” she snapped. “If you would wait here, I could find the exit and come back to bring you to it, it would be faster than this!”
“Yes, well,” Narvin said contemptuously, “President Romana has always been fond of sticking to plans with no real chance of progress.”
“Ahem.” How Brax could always manage to command immediate attention, Romana had no idea. Certainly he'd never taught her that trick. It might make High Council meetings almost bearable. As it was, all three of them rounded on him to be met with a discreet nod over their shoulders. Romana glanced behind herself, frowning. There was rather obviously nothing there, and Narvin seemed about to point this out when Leela shushed them all.
“Someone is coming,” she said quietly. Sure enough, after a moment Romana could hear crunching coming from the corn walls. Crunching and a running commentary of a female voice that sounded thoroughly fed-up.
“See the universe, he said,” mocked the cruncher. “It'll be fun, he said! Adventures at every turn. Well this is not the sort of adventure I had in mind, Doctor, I'll have you know, five and a half hours shoving through corn to find your Temporal... Cognitive Stabilizing whatever-it-was... Oh! Hello there. Sorry to barge in.”
“By all means,” said Brax silkily. Romana hoped his charm would be enough to make the young woman not question their appearances. “We seem to be having similar difficulties with the maze.”
The girl threw her hands in the air. “A maze! Of course it would be, wouldn't it. Not enough problems already.”
“You did not know?” Leela peered at her in confusion.
“I did not,” the girl griped. “The Doctor—that's my friend—he brought us here by accident and he's not much good for anything right now. Sorry, I'm being rude. Charley Pollard.” Her smile was strained, but she offered Romana a handshake regardless, which the President thought it rude to refuse. “Charlotte, really. Sorry to ruin your maze, I'm looking for something a friend dropped in this field. From the air,” she clarified, pointing up. “In a... ship.”
“You don't say.” Narvin's voice was casual, and he pulled out his pocket scanner and flicked a switch nonchalantly, like he was checking the time. Romana leaned over to check and he turned the device so she could see the reading. Human, after all. Oh dear.
Charley was still talking. “It's... oh, about this big?” She mimed a rough circle about the size of a sand dollar. “It'd be made of metal, with some weird circles carved on it. Lights, too. My friend called it... oh, I forget. Something like a...”
“Would it be an Intra-Temporal Cognitive Stability Recovery Unit, by any chance?” Romana sighed.
“...Yeah, actually,” she said slowly. “How'd you know that? I thought we were on Earth. 22Nd century, only.”
“We are,” Narvin said pointedly.
“Romana,” said Leela with an eager smile. “This Doctor—”
“Is, I imagine, an Edwardian gentleman with dark hair and a blue police box?” Yes, Romana thought. This outing needed to be more disastrous.
“You know him!” Charley exclaimed.
“Rather better than you might think.” Romana shook her head. “Has he lost his memory again? Really?”
Charley perked up. “Should be easy to fix this time!” she said. “I left him at the buffet. Hopefully the candy apples'll keep him occupied 'till then.”
“Don't count on it,” Romana muttered to herself. Then, before Charley could ask what she'd said, “Do you need help, by any chance?”
“Mistress!” K-9 chirped. “Scanners indicate Intra-Temporal Cognitive Stability Recovery Unit is indeed located in this field.”
“Can you find it, then?” Charley exclaimed. She seemed unstartled by the presence of a talking metal dog, which was a distinct benefit of the Doctor's companions.
Romana looked down. “Can you, K-9?”
“Affirmative, mistress. This unit can locate the device. However, locomotion through corn: impossible.”
“I could carry you!” Charley offered, somewhat desperately.
“I shall come with you,” Leela decided. “It is better than walking in circles.”
“Leela, I said I didn't want to...” Romana trailed off as Charley's enthusiastic thanks faded into crunching corn stalks. “Split... up.”
For one brief, shining moment, Tegan thought they'd found the exit.
Nyssa patted her shoulder in solidarity as she looked around the large circle of corn, seeming greatly interested. There were only four exits; they'd come through one, and two of the others led East. The southwestern exit was their best logical hope, but mazes were designed to be tricks.
“Where do you suppose we are?” she asked, glancing up at the sky. It was probably best not to point out that at least another hour had passed.
Tegan huffed. “Big empty space like this, when we haven't seen any others? The center, I'd assume. Or near enough.”
“Well,” Nyssa bumped the taller woman lightly with her shoulder. “That's something, at least.”
Tegan groaned, and Nyssa lowered her eyes unhappily, grip tightening on Tegan's arm.
After a moment Tegan looked down, and flashed her a smile that was small but genuine. “I'm sorry I'm being such a grump,” she said, unusually quiet for... well, Tegan. “I like spending the time with you, really, I do. I'm just tired.”
It took a moment, but the dull feeling that had been settling over both of them lifted considerably with Tegan's smile, and Nyssa leaned into her properly. She sighed with contentment, closing her eyes and resting her head on Tegan's chest. Tegan slipped her elbow free of the Trakenite's and slid her arms around Nyssa's waist, holding her close for a few moments of much-needed rest.
Her stomach growled.
The moment broken, Nyssa laughed. She didn't move away, just looked up with girlish mischief in her eyes and dug her fingers into Tegan's belly. “Tired and hungry!” she exclaimed as Tegan broke into helpless laughter in spite of herself.
“Tickling's not fair!” she protested, making Nyssa grin and lunge for her stomach again. “Hey!”
Nyssa's smile was entirely too superior, Tegan thought. “You're turning into Adric!”
Now, that just couldn't be allowed to slide. “Oh I am, am I?” she smirked, and without waiting for an answer grabbed the little Trakenite and tickled her sides mercilessly.
Nyssa shrieked with laughter, swatting ineffectually at Tegan's hands until the human decided they would be put to better use locking around her waist.
Nyssa tilted her head back in an attempt to see her. “Are you quite done?” she asked in a tone that would have been superior if it wasn't so happily breathless.
Tegan couldn't stop the dopey, lopsided smile from spreading across her face. “Nah,” she said softly. “But I can stop tickling you if you like.”
“Please.” But Nyssa was smiling, that really wonderful soul-deep smile that made her whole being light up like the sun, and pressing into Tegan like there was nowhere she'd rather be.
“I thought we were going to wait for her.”
Romana spared an irritated glance over her shoulder. “Leela is more than capable of finding us again, Coordinator. In the meantime we might as well make some progress.”
“Oh, is that what this is! I hadn't noticed.”
“Narvin, it comes as a surprise to no one that you're not accustomed to recognizing progress.”
“Children,” Braxiatel said smoothly.
“Shut up, Cardinal,” Romana muttered under her breath.
“Excuse me,” said a boy passing her in the opposite direction, his brow furrowed in concentration and refusing to take his hand away from the corn. She moved out of his way instinctively.
“Sorry, Adric.” She stopped, blinked, and turned around. “Adric—?”
“A problem, my lady?”
She shook her head sharply. “No, no of course not, Brax. Narvin...?”
Narvin made an idle humming sound, adjusting his scanner for the seventeenth time and looking almost as frustrated by it as by the phrase 'educational reform'.
“Narvin, you're not picking up Alzarian life-forms on that thing, are you?”
Narvin scoffed. “Easier to ask me what I'm not picking up, Madame President. The scanner's gone mad. It's showing Gallifreyans everywhere, but almost all of them are just shadow readings of the same life-form pinging all over the field. Probably a distortion by whatever temporal anomaly keeps interfering with the readings. It took three tries just to scan Miss Pollard as human. And...” He frowned and smacked the side of the device. “One moment—the readout keeps saying Trakenite.”
“Well that can't be right. There aren't any left. Not even a sister species, the Traken Union never developed interstellar travel.”
“Yes, Lady President, I am aware.”
Romana sighed. “Oh, just turn it off, Coordinator, it's obviously malfunctioning. We'll find out what's going on after we find our way out of here.” She was turning around to continue when she ran face-first into a stiff, frozen Brax.
“Naturally,” he muttered.
“Oh, what is it now?” She rubbed her nose and peeked around him, trying to determine what about the short man poking the corn with his umbrella was causing her Cardinal such distress.
“Ace?” the man called. “Ace!” He stopped, frowned, and looked about himself as if he'd dropped something. Sighing dramatically, he rested his hands on the handle of his umbrella and pouted slightly. “Ace,” he announced to no one in particular. “If you jump at me, I shall be very put out.” Suddenly he spun, stabbing the corn like a fencer. “Ha! ...No, apparently not,” he muttered.
“Can we help you?” Romana asked delicately, ignoring the spike of alarm from Brax.
The man looked over with a pleasant smile. “No, no!” he said cheerfully. “I just seem to have lost a friend of mine—Oh!” He practically hopped. “Romana! What on Earth are you doing here? We are on Earth, aren't we? I can never be entirely sure...”
“Doctor?” His mind felt a bit different in this incarnation, but now that she was looking... Ah. That explained it then. Poor Brax.
“Ah,” Narvin sighed to himself. “That explains the chaos.”
“Oh you do recognize me, I'm so glad. Coordinator.” He plucked his hat off and gave a cheerfully informal bow in Narvin's direction. “And Brax! Good old Brax... what have you done to your face?”
Please help me, said Brax's eyes. “Doctor,” said Brax, stiffly enough that Romana could almost have taken him for Narvin.
After several long seconds, the Doctor stopped staring in fascination at his brother's mustache. “Where's...?” He looked around them expectantly.
“Leela's gone to help a... well, a future friend of yours at any rate. Doctor, what are you doing here? Two of you?”
“Another me?” the Doctor exclaimed. “Oh, dear. Perhaps you'd better not tell me anything, then.”
Romana sighed. “Yes, that's probably best. Try to find your friend and leave quietly, before any disasters happen.” That would be the day. “You did say you had a companion, Doctor?”
“Yes, yes I do,” the Doctor said in mild distress. “Or I did. She seems to have wandered off, I'd best go after her.” Brightening at the plan, he pulled a slightly wilted flower out of either midair or dimensionally-transcendental sleeves and tucked it behind Brax's ear. “President Romana,” he said with another bow and a smile, then bounced back up again to kiss her forehead and spun sharply on his heel, whistling off in the opposite direction.. “Good luck. The exit is somewhere Southwest, I believe.”
“We're going North, Madame President.” Narvin's voice sounded like it would have been acidic, if Brax wasn't wearing a pink tulip in his hair.
Romana, mildly shell-shocked in the manner of having recently interacted with the Doctor, took several moments to gather her wits before responding.
“Very well,” she announced, straightening up. “Left, then.” She glanced over at Brax. “Are you quite all right, Cardinal?”
Brax visibly shook himself. The flower stayed put. “Of course, my lady.”
She had to hold back a smile. “We got lucky, really,” she pointed out. “He was almost charming. Some of his incarnations can be hideously overbearing.”
“Come along, Peri!”
“I am coming!” Balancing precariously on one foot, Peri tried to tap some of the dirt and bits of corn stalk out of her shoe. “This isn't as easy as it looks, you know!”
The Doctor's eyebrows raised in an insufferably superior manner. “Well, you should have chosen more sensible footwear.”
“Well, someone forgot to tell me where we were going 'till we were already in the middle of a corn maze!”
“I assumed it would be eminently clear when you saw the corn.”
Peri gave him a Look and handed him her shoe. “Hold this.”
He didn't quite tap his foot impatiently, but the look on his face came close. Still, he held her shoe and offered her a steadying arm while she tried to work a pebble out of the other one.
“Would you like to borrow my shoes?” he offered graciously. She wasn't actually sure whether or not he was being sarcastic, though it would almost be worth taking him up on it to see him trying to run around in her heels.
“...No, I don't think—this isn't working.” She let go of his elbow and sat down, partially in the corn, to clear out her left right shoe properly. With nothing to keep him occupied, his attention predictably wandered to the nearest moving object. “Doctor, leave the poor man's corn alone!”
“Perfect time to harvest them,” he announced as if he had a reason to be personally proud of this, feeling the ends of the cob. “I'm surprised they haven't already. They certainly will in a day or two.” Abandoning his manhandling of the corn, he pulled down one side of the husk. “Ah! You see? Perfect. Uncommonly good corn, this.”
“Well you've ruined it for him now,” Peri pointed out. “Bird or bugs or something'll get it before he can. You're not going to eat it.”
“Aren't I?” With great dignity, the Doctor picked off the remaining threads of corn silk and bit into the raw kernels. Peri folded her arms and waited the full two seconds it took for him to spit the mouthful back out again. “Hmm. Apparently I am not. You have a propensity for prognostication, Peri.” He tapped her nose with the corn, then twirled it like a baton.
“Say that five times fast.”
“Propensity for prognostication, propensity for prognostication—”
“Oh, stop it!” Laughing, she grabbed the corn out of his hand and hit his arm with it.
He seemed mortally wounded by the thoroughly unprovoked attack. “Well I never.” Snatching back his corn, he bopped her smartly over the head and gave a firm nod, as if to say so there. “ Now, where were we?” He turned around to survey the crossroads.
Naturally, she grabbed a handful of dry corn husks and shoved them down the back of his coat.
“You were asking for it!”
“ Perpugilliam Brown —give that back!”
She danced backward, right shoe dangling from one hand and holding his corn teasingly in the other. “Come and get it!” she called, then lunged forward to jab him in the chest. He reacted faster than she would have expected, twirling her other shoe around his index finger and using it to block her thrust.
He disengaged with a flourish, as usual, and paused to straighten his coat importantly.
Tegan might quite happily have stayed there all night, quiet and warm with Nyssa relaxed in her arms, except that then there was a shriek and a pair of woman staggered diagonally across a corner and clipped her heavily on the shoulder as they went by.
“We'll never catch up to them at this rate—Look out!”
The two of them were laughing helplessly, hanging on each other's shoulders as they tried to catch their breath.
“Oh—dear—Oh, excuse us—”
“Didn't see you there,” said the brunette with a wide smile, overlapping slightly with the blonde's “I'm so sorry, dear.”
“Getting a bit blind!” That was the first one, the blonde who'd bumped into them. Sure enough, she was fumbling for the pair of glasses on her head. Squinting to take them in properly for the first time, she made an unapologetically guilty face and gripped her companion's arm. “Oo! I hope we weren't interrupting anything.”
Nyssa blushed deeply, stepping to the side and creating more of a polite space between herself and Tegan. “Not as much as it looks like.”
The blonde laughed and waved a hand, dismissively friendly. “No need to be embarrassed, dear,” she assured them breathlessly. “We were young once too!”
The other woman panted slightly. “I still am young!”
“Yes, dear, of course you are.”
The two broke down again at that, giggling like schoolgirls and leaning against each other. “I'm so sorry,” the brunette said, brushing herself down as she started to get her wind back. “Sarah Jane Smith.”
“Jo Jones,” the blonde added with another huff of laughter, waving at them.
Tegan grinned and took the proffered hand. “Tegan Jovanka,” she said warmly. She really couldn't help liking these two on principle.
She certainly didn't expect the stunned look on the woman's face. “You are not!”
Nyssa frowned and leaned forward. “I'm sorry?”
Sarah Jane Smith shook her head. “No, no—it's only, I've met a Tegan Jovanka. But I was much younger then. You don't know a Turlough by any chance, do you?”
Nyssa met Tegan's confused look with a shake of the head and a bewildered one of her own. “Never heard the name in my life.”
Jo came up next to Sarah Jane, looking between them with excitement. “Is this—? The one you were telling me about? From—”
“Yes, from the Dark Tower!” exclaimed Sarah Jane. “Only I don't think it's happened for you yet.” She suddenly looked alarmed. “You're traveling with the Doctor, aren't you?”
Nyssa straightened like she'd been electrocuted. “How did you know that?”
Sarah Jane clasped her hands together and looked as if she were about to hug them both. “I knew it,” she told them. “We've met before. Well, Tegan and I have at least, when I was younger. It must be sometime in your future.”
Tegan frowned, putting her arm back around Nyssa's waist. “You didn't recognize Nyssa, though.”
“...Well we weren't all there,” Sarah Jane assured her quickly, after just a slight pause. “Jo wasn't either, or any of the others I've met.”
Nyssa relaxed considerably. “I can imagine. You're from our future, then.”
“You're from our future, dear,” Jo said kindly, hands flapping like she wanted to pinch Nyssa's cheeks. “And Sarah Jane's past, apparently!”
Tegan was considerably more relaxed now too. “Did we like each other?” she asked, half-grinning. “When you were a kid.”
“Oh, fast friends,” Sarah Jane assured her with a wink. “Have you met the Brigadier yet? He says he's still in contact with you, in our time.”
“No,” they replied in unison.
“Oh dear.” Jo shook Sarah Jane's arm lightly. “They must be very early on.”
“Still in contact?” Nyssa was paying rapt attention. “Does that mean Tegan does get home, eventually?”
“Well—” Sarah Jane suddenly cut herself off apologetically. “Maybe I'd better not tell you.”
Tegan sighed. “Probably for the best,” she agreed.
Jo reached out and squeezed her hand. “Oh, but you must have had some adventures already,” she said happily. “What's your Doctor up to, then?”
Nyssa and Tegan glanced at each other.
Disclaimer: I barely have any experience with Peri. When I've caught up on my Classic Who watching, I might come back and edit this chapter to get her voice down a bit better.
“So I was trapped in this sewer, right, and this lady's crazy rat-dog thing was right behind me—so I didn't have much of a choice, did I? Almost brought the whole thing down on my head. Boom!” Susan giggled with delight as Ace used her arms in a strange form of interpretive dance to represent the detonation of high explosives in a contained area. “It worked, though!”
“Well, it sounds like you have had some adventures.” Ian Chestersomething didn't sound as disapproving as she'd expected, all things considered. It was taking some creativity to tell these stories without mentioning that they'd happened on other worlds, for one; she couldn't really have blamed the poor bloke if he thought she was some sort of activist urban terrorist. She'd seen him and Barbara exchanging some alarmed looks at first, but neither of them had slipped away to call the police yet.
“My grandfather says you should always respect what works,” Susan said brightly.
Barbara made a sound that Ace would have called a snort if it was slightly less polite. “Your grandfather only says that so we'll stop telling him he should fix the console instead of hitting it.”
Ace looked back at her and grinned. “The Professor does that too!” she exclaimed. “And then I point out it doesn't work, 'cause we never end up where we were trying to get to, and he acts like he can't hear me! Where d'you suppose this one goes, then?”
Ian laughed. “Your Professor sounds like our Doctor,” he told her, linking his arm back through Barbara's and peering along the promising-looking offshoot Ace an Susan had run down. “Brilliant man, but scatterbrained. Not to mention stubborn and disagreeable!” he added after them.
“Mr. Chesterton likes my grandfather,” Susan whispered. Her dark eyes glittered happily. “Grandfather likes him too, I know! They just won't admit it. Mr. Chesterton!” she called, spinning around to face him. “We're going to see if this is a dead end. Are you coming?”
“You go ahead, Susan!” Barbara answered with a smile. “We'll catch up.”
“Don't turn too many corners!” Ian called as they ran off.
Not much chance of that, thought Ace. There weren't any corners to turn in this bit. “Your grandfather's a doctor, then?” she asked.
“He's a scientist,” Susan answered, with that almost-fanatical glow she got whenever she started talking about him. “He could have been successful on Gallifrey—that's where we're from, him and I—but he chose to leave, instead. We travel, now. But he says we'll—”
“Hold on!” Ace felt a little bad for grabbing Susan's arm so roughly; she'd scared her again, she could tell. “You're telling me you travel with a bloke from Gallifrey, called the Doctor?”
“Yes,” Susan said worriedly, eyes flicking between Ace's like she was looking for a clue to what she'd done wrong. “You won't have heard of Gallifrey, I expect... but it does exist, I'm not lying!”
“Easy,” Ace said, gentle. “I know that. It's just that's where my Doctor's from, too. My Professor, I mean, his real name's the Doctor, he's a Time Lord. Little bloke, Scottish, question mark on his umbrella...? I didn't want to say anything because I'm not supposed to tell people. Normal people, I mean. Look, this ship you've got; it's not a blue police box, is it?”
Susan blinked several times, looking frightened even as a sort of wonder started to build behind her eyes. “The TARDIS,” she said finally, faint as a whisper. “Time and Relative Dimension In Space. I named it that.”
“Yeah,” Ace said, starting to grin. “You're kidding!”
Finally, the wonder began to overwhelm the fear, and Susan lit up as a genuine smile started to spread over her face. “Really?” she exclaimed. “You can't be! ”
Ace ruffled her hair, barely managing to brace herself in time for Susan's second joyous power-hug of the day. “Oof. You mean all this time I've been traveling with your granddad?” That was kind of embarrassing, actually. She'd sort of been hoping he could give her a few tips on, you know, maybe some dating-type stuff. She'd been to enough other planets now to be a lot more comfortable with thoughts and feelings like that; apparently they were totally normal in other cultures, just not Earth in the 80s. At least she knew what they meant now. Probably better not to ask this time, though. That was sort of a drag; Susan was really nice. But Ace was not ready for that conversation. No way. Dalek attack squadrons were easy, thanks.
“He must have regenerated,” Susan said breathlessly. “Oh, I'm so glad someone else is with him too! Then all those stories—”
“What, you think I could away with having that much fun on Earth?” The question made Susan giggle. “So when you said he got married to an Aztec lady, you seriously meant...?” Susan nodded. “And cave people...?” Susan nodded again.
Ace considered this for a moment.
“K-9,” Leela said accusingly. “You do not know where you are going!”
“Correction, Mistress Leela.” Charley wasn't sure how a robot dog managed to sound offended. “This unit's sensors functioning normally. Adjustments in heading are due to direction of travel, Mistress, not faults in tracking capabilities.”
“What's that supposed to mean, then?” Charley muttered, crossing a brief patch of open path. A young boy in a yellow shirt with a star on the pocket gave her a dirty look; she ignored him, pushing back into the corn.
“He is saying we are wandering off course,” Leela growled. Charley gathered this was some sort of deathly insult in her culture. “K-9, we have only gone where you have told us!”
K-9's tail twitched, and his tinny voice sounded abashed as he muttered “Compensating for temporal interference.”
“I thought he said his sensors were functioning normally?” Charley demanded.
“Sensors are functioning normally,” K-9 confirmed primly. “Sensor data analysis impaired by temporal anomaly designated: Charlotte Pollard. Compensating.”
“Charley, why are you a... temporal anomaly?”
“I died,” Charley said. She hoped her voice wasn't too short. She didn't really like talking about this bit. “Except then the Doctor saved me, so I didn't. I was supposed to, though.”
“The Doctor has saved many people.” Leela didn't sound convinced. “They do not make K-9s sensors stop working.”
“Sensor function is normal, Mistress,” K-9 protested. “Compensation for temporal anomaly complete. Alter course fifteen degrees west-north-west.”
“Which way's that?”
Leela reached out and turned her carefully. “This way,” she said, picking her way through the vegetation with nowhere near half of Charley's noise and difficulty and a great deal more speed. Now, that was a trick.
“Intra-Temporal Cognitive Stability Recovery Unit located, Mistress!” K-9 chirped, ears wiggling happily; Charley perked up but Leela had already plucked the little metal disk out from where it was nearly buried in the dirt behind a corn stalk. She brushed it off and held it out to Charley, who shifted K-9 carefully so she could slip the device into her pocket.
“Thank you,” she said, and meant it. “I could never have found that thing out here by myself!”
Leela ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it back from her face with an unguarded smile. “It was good to track something again!” she said sincerely. “Even if it was only a... a memory device,” she said hastily, glancing at K-9 and apparently afraid he would try to explain it to her. “And this will help the Doctor?”
“That's what he said, anyway,” said Charley. “Give him all his memories back. Actually, I'd better go find him. And your, uh... your friends in the robes, they'll probably be missing you.”
“Narvin will not,” Leela grumbled. “But I should not leave Romana alone with them or they will manage to get themselves even more lost. Will you be able to find the Doctor alone?”
“Oh, sure.” Charley tried to point vaguely in the direction that should be south, but her arms were full of robot dog. “Just walk 'till I run out of corn, then follow the trail of blood.”
“He is injured?” Leela's eyes went wide in alarm. “Why did you not tell me? He may need help!”
“No, no he's fine!” Charley said quickly. “Was when I left him, anyway. Gallows humor. Sorry. Ah... you do want your dog back, I assume.”
“Affirmative,” K-9 said, somehow managing to pout.
“Thank you too, K-9,” said Charley, kissing the top of his head. Leela's lips twitched as K-9 protested that physical gestures of affection were unnecessary. “You should probably get back before all your friends kill each other.”
Leela made some vaguely-threatening rumbling noises under her breath, but her eyes smiled as she nodded formally to Charley before carting K-9 back off through the corn.
“Right,” said Charley to no one in particular. “Which way was south again?”
“There we are.” Narvin straightened, looking immensely satisfied. “The anomaly's lifted. Miss Pollard must have gone.”
“And does that mean you can find a way out?” Braxiatel's voice was carefully polite, which possibly was related to the recent, colorful threats of exile and evisceration by his ever-charming President.
Narvin's eye twitched. “No. And the Trakenite reading hasn't faded, any more than those shadow Gallifreyans. Romana, we may want to investigate—”
“That's your job, Narvin, not mine. I have a planet to run, and I should like to get back to it as soon as possible?”
Brax cleared his throat. “Perhaps, Madame President,” he began carefully, “we should give the Lady Leela an opportunity find our way out, when she returns. This is rather her area of expertise.”
“If Leela's area of expertise is navigating corn mazes, we're all doomed,” Romana muttered, before conceding “You may be right, Cardinal.”
“Problem, Coordinator?” she asked coolly.
His eyes narrowed as he gave the most mocking bow Romana had ever had the fortune to witness. “None at all, Madame President.” He drew himself up with great dignity and glanced back at his lifeform scanner, then frowned. “Except that one of the rogue Gallifreyan signals is heading this way. Two, actually.”
“Founders preserve us.” Brax's voice was a unique mixture of wry and despairing. “How many of him can there—Oh.”
“Oh!” the dark-haired girl squeaked, while the taller of the two was half-grinning at the sight of their robes.
“Not a dead end!” she crowed. “Hey! Chesterford! It leads somewhere! Hey, do you lot know what's down that way?”
“Ace,” the smaller girl whispered, staring at Narvin. “We should go.”
“Not much of anything, I'm afraid,” Romana sighed. “Plenty of corn.”
“You shouldn't be here,” Narvin frowned.
“No kidding, mate.” The girl called Ace flashed him a smile and put her arm around the younger one, giving her a reassuring squeeze and angling herself so that she was closer to Narvin. “We just want to find the food!”
But for once, Romana realized, Narvin was completely right. The dark-haired girl was trying as hard as she could to keep her shields locked tighter than could possibly be healthy for anyone, but fear and anxiety were beginning to cause cracks, and anyway she was inexperienced at best. Barely over Academy age, really—and distinctly Gallifreyan. Romana was certain she'd never seen the child in her life, but her mind felt decidedly familiar...
“So.” A cheerful female voice interrupted her surprise as a pair of humans emerged from the neighboring corridor. “Which way do we go now, Susan?”
Susan looked barely able to speak, and Romana couldn't hide a stab of compassion for the poor child.. “Away,” she finally managed weakly. “Please, we have to leave, we must get away from here—!”
“Whoa there!” Luckily, Ace's arm was still around her friend as Susan tried to bolt.
“Susan, what's the matter?” the man asked. “What's got you so frightened?”
Ace was glaring at Narvin. “What's your problem, then?” she demanded. “Why's she so scared of you? You want to mess with her, toerag, you'd better be ready to come through all of us!”
“I can assure you—” Narvin started, but Susan was panicking properly now, fighting free of Ace with barely enough warning for the man Romana could only assume was the same Ian Chesterton she'd found in the TARDIS records so long ago to grab her.
“No, no, let me go, please let me go, they're the Celestial Intervention Agency, they've tracked Grandfather, we must leave, please—”
Barbara's priorities were elsewhere. “Now look here,” she said, stepping toward Narvin. “What do you want with Susan? She's done nothing to harm anyone!”
“Absolutely nothing, Ms. Wright!” Romana felt rather sorry for him, actually. The poor man looked quite distressed. “We're here by accident, we mean Susan no harm, and she's more than free to go!”
“Susan,” Romana interrupted. “Susan, please stop, we're not here to hurt you. Or your grandfather,” she added. “He and I are... something of old friends, actually. We will be, at any rate, but that's hundreds of years in your future so please don't tell him I said anything. I'll never hear the end of it.” Susan gulped, but nodded and stopped trying to twist out of her teacher's grip.
“Susan,” said Brax. His voice was as warm and honeyed as Romana had ever heard it. “It's good to see you safe again. You were still Arkytior when I saw you last. The new name suits you.”
Susan nodded slowly. “Thank you.”
“Run along,” Narvin said quietly. “We're not here to arrest you.”
“There.” For a rough-looking young woman, Ace's voice was surprisingly gentle as she took Susan's hand and guided her carefully into half a hug. “It's all right, see? We won't let anyone hurt you.”
Susan clutched briefly at the girl's arm, but relaxed as Barbara rubbed her back. “Susan,” she said encouragingly. “I don't know if you're hungry, but I certainly am. Let's find that buffet you were so excited for.”
Whether she was that enthusiastic about lunch or it was just a running joke, Susan finally smiled again and glanced back at the humans, before looking to her left and down the path Romana had just come up. “I think it's this way.”
Romana couldn't help the beginnings of a smile as Susan and her friends made their way off down the path; the adults glanced back at them once and Ace's hand never left the handle of her bat, but other than that they seemed a rather happy bunch. She certainly wished them all the best; the Doctor's friends rarely had uninteresting lives, but that could occasionally be a blessing as well as a curse.
Theoretically, at least.
“You know, Narvin,” she began casually. “I always knew you were a slimy little thing, but I never anticipated you would actually cause young children to panic at the sight of you.”
Narvin spluttered. “I—That is preposter—it was an accident!”
The corn crunched behind them as Leela stepped out of it, with corn silk clinging to her in random clumps but looking far happier than she had in quite some time. Romana sighed inwardly. At least one of them was enjoying herself.
“Mistress!” K-9 squeaked happily as he was set down at Romana's feet.
Leela's gaze was flicking suspiciously between the three of them. “What has Narvin done by accident?” she demanded.
“I didn't do anything!”
“For once, he really hasn't,” Romana conceded with no small degree of amusement. “Not on purpose, anyway.”
Brax sighed. “Oh, no,” he said lightly. “Coordinator Narvin has been traumatizing my brother's granddaughter with his mere existence.”
“It wasn't my fault!” Narvin insisted. “She was scared of the CIA and recognized my robes, the blame for that can hardly be laid with me.”
Leela still looked scandalized. “You have been frightening children.”
Narvin very nearly threw his hands in the air, and Romana bit her tongue to contain her laughter.
“Susan Foreman,” Brax said smoothly, “was raised by the Doctor, Leela, while he was on the run from Gallifreyan authorities. He may have mentioned her. I do not believe she ever has enough contact with Gallifrey in her life to grow out of distrusting the Celestial Intervention Agency.”
“Then she is wise,” Leela decided.
“Oh, now really—”
Romana cleared her throat warningly. “Coordinator...”
For a moment Narvin actually looked betrayed, but seemed to realize that his only defense at the moment was 'she started it' and that ultimately he was not willing to stoop that low.
“Madame President,” he said caustically. “If we could please find our way out of here...”
“What do you think we have been trying to do for the better part of four hours, Coordinator?!”
Leela looked up. “I have not found the exit,” she said idly, examining her fingernails before reaching up to pluck corn silk from her hair. “But I have found our way back to the place where we came in. I saw the path on my way to find the Doctor's memory device.” She blinked as the Time Lords turned to stare at her. “What?”
Brax cleared his throat. “Leela,” he said carefully. “Could you find the entrance again?”
“Yes,” Leela said, instantly defensive. “I have not spent so long in your Citadel that I cannot navigate a corn maze, Braxiatel!”
“No one's saying that,” Romana assured her. “Leela, finding the entrance again would be perfect, can you take us there?”
Leela glared briefly at Brax. “I can,” she said firmly. Then a small spark of mischief crossed her face. “But you will have to hide Narvin if we pass any children, or they will have night terrors. Come!” She smiled suddenly and grabbed Romana's hand, all eagerness and adventure. “It is this way.”
The Doctor sighed, hands in his pockets as he turned on the spot to look down all four branches of the crossroads. Tegan would die of old age before he got out of the maze at this rate. “Well, you could be anywhere by now. Adric!”
A cheerful voice was approaching around the turn of one of the paths. “...which results in the orbit being oblong rather than perfectly round. You see, Jamie? Elliptical.”
“Aye,” responded a shockingly, painfully familiar voice, with an equally familiar overtone of exaggerated patience. “That's very interesting, Doctor, but we're traveling in circles.”
“You never know!” It had been a very long time since the Doctor was that small and dark, but he remembered it all the same. “We could be traveling in ellipses.”
The pair rounded the corner arm in arm, and Jamie sighed. “Either way, we're lost.”
The Doctor without a Scotsman hanging on his arm stepped back, out of their path with something approaching wonder. He intended for them to walk past and be gone—back to a story that had long since concluded for him, and an end that however much he wished to he could never change. James McCrimmon was having none of it.
“'Scuse me,” he said, letting go of his Doctor's arm to tap the blonde one on the shoulder. “D'you know how to get out of this? We've been through this section half a dozen times already.”
It took the Doctor long enough to shake himself out of his disbelief that Jamie started to look worried. “Yes!” he said finally. “Yes, actually. Down that path, fourth right, second left, middle fork, first right, first left, take the sharp turn directly on your right, second left, straight ahead and the exit will be on your right. Eventually.” He gave what he hoped was a winning smile.
“Can ye say that again a bit slower?”
“Jamie!” The Doctor almost remembered that note of mock disappointment. “Where's your sense of adventure? We have to find the exit ourselves!” His younger self paused and added, “After we find Zoe.”
So they had met Zoe already, then. He wondered how much longer they had. “You've lost someone?”
“Aye.” Jamie held his hand just below shoulder-height and turned to the Doctor. The beige one, not his. Terminology always got so horribly confusing when there was more than one of yourself. “Haven't seen a wee lassie about, have you? About yea high?”
“Unfortunately not, though I have every confidence she can find the exit herself.” Before he found it again himself, likely as not. Zoe'd probably been waiting for them for an hour by now.
“Oh, well.” Jamie's doctor shrugged with a lighthearted grin. “We'll have to find it ourselves after all, won't we?”
“Aye.” Jamie sounded distinctly less pleased with the prospect, but broke into a reluctant smile when his Doctor gave his arm a cajoling squeeze. “Oh all right, if it means so much!”
The Doctor couldn't help a fond smile as his younger self leaped happily to kiss the beleaguered highlander on the cheek. “Off we go then!” he exclaimed, stopping to tip his hat to... well, himself. “And thank you very much.... oh. My word.”
Oh dear. The Doctor most definitely did not remember meeting himself at this point in time; he absolutely could not afford to start causing temporal paradoxes like this. Was there a way to erase his younger self's memory? How could he have been foolish enough to stay and chat like this when he knew the risk of recognizing himself? Not even seeing Jamie again should have been worth that! Stupid, stupid Time Lord...
“Are you... pardon me for asking, is that celery?”
“Ah.” Well, he'd only been in his second regeneration at the time, after all. No accounting for the taste of such an inexperienced young chap. He would learn. “Yes, I am rather. And I've lost a friend of my own, I should really be going.”
He waved happily to himself, linking arms with Jamie again as they set off determinedly in the wrong direction. The older him sighed.
It wasn't as if he'd never run into old friends and companions before, after all. But sometimes it hurt to think of them as they were, even more than it hurt to think of them as they would be. Even poor Nyssa, who was weathering her trials with a truly astounding amount of courage, should have had a quiet, gentle life on a sheltered planet, surrounded by people who loved her. He had to wonder, sometimes. As a younger Time Lord his friends had been a necessary part of his life; Rassilon only knew the kind of monster he might have become, the kind of hellishly lonely life Susan would have led, if a pair of pushy schoolteachers hadn't... well, been kidnapped. He made a face. Not among his finer moments, admittedly, but then Ian and Barbara had turned out just fine.
Not all of them had, though. Maybe it was time, after all, to start settling a bit. No more whirlwind adventures that placed innocents in danger and stopped them from leading normal lives. He might have to try being solitary and responsible again, once Adric and Nyssa and Tegan didn't need him anymore. Oh, he wasn't ready for that yet, not quite, but maybe his next regeneration would be steadier.
He jumped as a really extremely bright coat burst out of the corn next to him, wearing a curly-haired man clutching a high-heeled shoe and with corn husks sticking out of his hair. A barefoot woman scrambled out of the wall after him. She paused, holding up a badly-beaten corncob before flinging it across the crossroads like a throwing star.
The man spun around and caught it out of the air, to her verbal dismay. “Ha!” he cried triumphantly, tucking it under his arm before surging forward and stabbing her side with the shoe.
“First blood to me!” the man gloated.
The woman glowered at him. “I'm not bleeding, Doctor!”
“Good,” he said happily.
“Oh! You will be!”
“You'll have to catch me first, Peri!”
“Get back here!”
Peri snatched her fallen shoe from the ground and launched herself after the man in the coat, crashing away through the cornfield.
The Doctor stood there blinking for several seconds.
Then again, he thought to himself, he rather liked this regeneration. And Nyssa. Calm, quiet, reliable Nyssa, who would only chase him murderously with a corncob under extremely rare circumstances and only if Tegan started it.
“Carton rouge! That was a dirty trick! Ouch! Peri!”
“Give me my shoe back!”
Come to think of it, he liked Tegan quite a lot too.
“Anywhere in time and space except bloody Heathrow Airport!”
Jo and Sarah Jane were half in stitches as Nyssa made a sympathetic noise in her throat and patted her human's shoulder.
“Poor Tegan,” she teased. “Stuck with me.”
“You I don't mind,” Tegan said drily. “It's the Doctor and Adric I could've done with less of!”
Nyssa raised an eyebrow. “Oh, thank you, Tegan.”
“You know what I meant.” The young Trakenite was smiling, but tossed her head with regal disdain and turned away. “Nyssa!”
Jo tittered and Nyssa tipped her a small wink. “Oh, you've put your foot in that one, dear.”
“Damning with faint praise,” observed Sarah Jane; and then, “Luke! There you are!”
“Hey, mum.” Luke was a cheerful-looking, handsome kid, Tegan decided. No unpleasantness in his face or his eyes. He sounded a few years younger than Nyssa, maybe a year older than Adric. “The others were wondering—there's a hay ride at the exit, and we were wondering if we could have a go. It doesn't go far.”
Sarah Jane considered it. “All the others are there already?”
“Yeah,” Luke nodded. “Me and Santiago won, though! Clyde and Rani got out about... twenty minutes before I came to find you? Maybe half an hour now.”
“And what happened to 'we have phones'?” Sarah Jane asked pointedly.
Luke looked embarrassed. “No reception.”
Jo still looked distinctly disappointed that he was there at all. “Now,” she pouted. “How did you find us so quickly?”
“Probability!” Luke brightened. “It was a simple question of the most likely routes to be taken from the entrance and the most common areas different routes would feed into, so I eliminated the least likely paths and found you here.”
“He's worse than Adric,” Tegan muttered.
Nyssa finally turned back to her, hitting her elbow lightly. “Oh, hush. I think it's wonderful.”
The movement caught Sarah Jane's attention, and she placed a hand on Luke's shoulder and indicated the two of them. “Luke, this is Nyssa and Tegan Jovanka. They're traveling with... oh, one of the Doctors. The fifth, we think. And this is my son Luke.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said genuinely, accepting Tegan's offered handshake and nodding politely to Nyssa when she didn't follow suit. “Which one's yours... the one with the scarf was fourth, yeah?”
“He likes an Earth game called Cricket...” Nyssa hedged.
“Celery,” Tegan said simply. “Did you say you found the exit?”
“Oh, yeah!” Luke said enthusiastically. “It was a great maze, though. We're all eating now. Mum? Can we do the hay ride?”
Sarah Jane smiled. “I don't see why not—as long as you all stay together.”
Luke blushed and gave an awkward half-grin. “Yeah, mum. Clyde and Rani'll chaperone us.”
Jo laughed again. “Sarah Jane,” she faux-scolded. “Leave the poor boy alone.”
Sarah Jane shook her head fondly. “Do you need any money?”
“Nah, we've got some.
“Luke,” Tegan pressed, “You know the way out?”
“Oh, sure thing.” Luke looked between them and gestured down the path. “Want me to show you?”
“Oh, Tegan.” Nyssa sounded faintly despairing.
Tegan felt briefly guilty. “Nyssa,” she protested. “Don't tell me you're not hungry too!”
An affectionate smile broke across Nyssa's face. “Yes, all right,” she conceded. “I am a little. And quite tired of corn, at that.”
“You three go on!” Jo waved at them. “We'll find our way out eventually. Oh! Luke! Remind Santiago that the hay fever patches only last for five hours, so he may want to reapply them.”
“No problem, Mrs. Jones. Anything else?” From... well, any other teenager Tegan had ever met, honestly... the question would have sounded sarcastic. Luke sounded completely sincere.
“Oh, go on then!” Sarah Jane waved them off. “Tegan, Nyssa—good luck. Don't let him do anything too ridiculous.”
“Like wear celery on his lapel?” Tegan suggested, but Nyssa had already taken her hand and was pulling her into the maze after Luke.
I do not in fact hate Adric. I like him quite a lot as a character, actually. He's just a typical teenage boy, and as such kind of a prick.
“They're still going at it?”
Clyde snorted as Rani slid back onto the bench across from him. They'd invited Zoe to sit with them when she left the maze on her own and looked a little lost; she'd seemed pretty cool. She'd gotten on with Luke, that's for sure; it was like Super-Geniuses United. Normal people didn't strike up conversations about casual astrophysics and theoretical unsolvable logic puzzles. But hey, it made them both happy. And Santiago'd just taken advantage of the distraction to pet Luke's hair and occasionally ask for a basic explanation of something, so he was all right.
Clyde and Rani had tried to keep up for a few minutes, then looked at each other and come to a mutual decision to just give up. They'd been playing Go Fish for half an hour.
And then just a few minutes ago this weird bloke Adric had stumbled out of the maze, punched the air in triumph and collapsed. They'd run over to see if he was all right, of course; Luke and Zoe had even stopped discussing polytropes and stellar dynamics, whatever those were. Turned out Adric was just happy to have escaped (“And beaten Tegan!”) and even happier to have found the buffet; he'd loaded his plate and seemed pleased to accept an invitation to sit with them. He told them between bites of hamburger that his group had been wandering around the maze since that morning and he was the first one out. Clyde was impressed. It took skill to get that lost.
And then Adric had said he hadn't been lost and explained some scheme about putting your hand on the left wall at the entrance and never taking it off, and Zoe had seemed thrilled and said it was perfectly logical but 'rather foolishly impractical, don't you think?' and then Adric had gotten huffy, and then Luke had noticed the hay rides and went to find Sarah Jane, and that had been fifteen minutes ago and they were still arguing.
“Yup,” he said. “Any fives?”
Clyde groaned and pulled a card from their pool as Adric made some comment about girls that drew a gasp of outrage from Zoe.
“Not cool, mate,” Santiago told him.
Rani looked like she'd like to jump in as well, but Zoe appeared to be doing just fine on her own. “Have you got any...” She paused. “Eights.”
Clyde passed her one, and she gave an understated “Ha!” as she flashed him a quartet of eights, celebrating by picking up her neglected corn-on-the-cob again.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever!” He grinned and stole one of Santiago's chips. “Tens?”
“Go fish,” Rani mumbled around a mouthful of corn.
“Oh, come on!” And then, much more brightly, “Luke! Finally!”
Luke waved as he crossed over to them, trailing a pair of women with their arms around each other. One of them was wearing what looked like one of those old-fashioned flight-attendant uniforms, which seemed like a pretty weird thing to wear to a corn maze, but then Clyde remembered they were a few years in the future. Maybe that sort of thing was normal here.
“Hey, guys!” Luke called. “Look who I found, this is Nyssa and—”
The flight-attendant lady froze as Adric looked up. “Oh, great.”
Adric suddenly seemed a lot happier. “Tegan!” he greeted her smugly. “You finally got out!”
Tegan's... girlfriend?... sighed. “Hello, Adric,” she said, sounding resigned and a lot less Australian. “You've found the food, I see.”
“It's very good.” Adric was exceptionally polite, and Zoe rolled her eyes. “You should get some. You must both be very hungry from being lost for so long.”
“Oh, get off it,” Rani snapped. “You've only been out twenty minutes longer than them!”
The shorter girl patted Tegan's arm as she laughed, and Luke took advantage of the distraction to interject pointedly, “They're friends of the Doctor's. One of the ones before ours.”
“You know the Doctor too, then?” That was Santiago, playing nice with Adric. They already knew Zoe was a friend of his; she'd talked about space stations like they were something normal people saw every day, and anyway she had the Look.
“Of course I do,” Adric grumbled. “I've been with him longer than either of them.”
Tegan rolled her eyes, but looked a lot less irritated now that she'd spotted the long line of stalls making hot food.
“He has, actually,” her friend said fairly. Then, looking like she was trying really hard not to smile and was really bad at it, she squeezed Tegan's hand. “Come on, Tegan. Let's find something to eat.”
“Oo!” Susan gasped excitedly. “That one almost looks like a pigbear!”
Ace propped herself up on her elbows, looking down at Susan. “You're pulling my leg! Pigbears? You're just having a go at the human, aren't you?”
Susan turned to her in surprise. They were laying on the grass mostly-perpendicular, with Susan's head resting just above Ace's hip. It felt nice, even if she was pretty damn sure there was no such thing as a pigbear. Not even the Professor's home planet could be that weird, right?
“No,” Susan said, sounding a little hurt. “They exist! Just not on Earth.”
“Fair enough.” Ace flopped back down. “So, what, it's like... half pig, half bear?”
Susan giggled. “No!”
“I give up,” sighed Ace. “Hey, that one kinda looks like a chicken.”
Susan stirred. “Which one?”
“Over... yeah, right there. Hey, pass me a chip?” Susan obliged; Ace was too lazy to reach over, so she leaned forward and took it between her teeth. She then proceeded to lay back down and almost choke to death on a sliver of fried potato, which all things considered would be depressingly anticlimactic.
Susan leaned over her in alarm. “Are you all right?!”
Eyes watering, Ace flashed her a thumbs-up. “Peachy,” she coughed, rolling over and sitting back up. “Think that means it's time to get up.” Susan patted her back gently.
“I was going to get more food,” she offered. “I could get you something to drink.”
Ace supposed she really shouldn't have been so pleasantly surprised by the offer, but she still kinda was. “Yeah.” She stumbled over her tongue. “Uh, yeah, sure, if you want.”
Susan lit up like Ace had done her a favor, and set off back to the buffet with their plates and plastic cups while Ace looked around awkwardly for something to do. She thought she might have a frisbee in her knapsack... no, that was a book, and that was a firestarter kit, five cannisters of Nitro, a thermos of water—don't want to mix those two up—and no, no frisbee after all. Oh, well.
“You all right, Ace?” called Ian. He and Barbara were sitting at the picnic tables, of course; couldn't have upright schoolteachers sprawling out on the grass with hot dogs and lemonade and messy buttery salted corn-on-the-cobs that would squirt hot corn juice at your face if you bit into 'em too fast. They had to sit at the tables with hamburgers and water and messy buttery salted corn-on-the-cobs that would squirt hot corn juice at your face if you bit into them too fast. Had a reputation to protect, and all that. That was all right, though; gave her a chance to spend some time with Susan, and they were pretty decent on the whole. Good people, she thought approvingly as she gave Ian a thumbs-up to indicate she wasn't dying.
“Here you are,” Susan said happily, carefully handing Ace her cup back; it was full almost to spilling with cold lemonade, and her other hand was occupied with balancing a second cup and her fourth hot dog of the afternoon.
“Blimey,” Ace marveled as Susan sat down again and started in on her hot dog. “When you said you wanted something to eat, you weren't kidding!”
“I'm hungry,” explained Susan.
Ace held her hands up. “Well don't let me stop you,” she said, taking a long gulp of lemonade. She was glad that whatever else Susan might have problems with, she sure didn't seem to have any issues with food. She poked the girl's belly teasingly. “I just don't know where you're putting it all. Though I guess you must burn as many calories running as we do, huh?”
Susan made a noise around her mouthful of hot dog that sounded like acute anguish. “Oh, no,” she cried after she'd managed to swallow it. “He hasn't gotten any better?”
Ace tried not to laugh. “'fraid not.” Susan sighed and drank her lemonade.
“I suppose we'll have to leave soon,” she said. “Grandfather should have the TARDIS fixed by this evening.”
“Ah, the Professor can wait a bit!” Ace waved a careless hand. “You've only had, what, eighteen hot dogs? He can't expect you to leave already.”
“Ace!” Susan protested with a laugh, blushing. “I've only had four. And what about your version of my grandfather, won't he be worried about you?”
Ace felt a twinge of guilt. She hoped the Professor wasn't still standing in the middle of the maze waiting for her. It passed pretty quickly, though, as she saw who was coming out of the maze.
“Pretty sure he's not,” she said casually; then, waving an arm over her head, “Professor!”
He jumped a bit, clutched his hat, and then broke into a joyful smile and waved enthusiastically to her. She watched as his gaze turned to Susan, and his eyes widened.
Meanwhile, Ian and Barbara had stopped sharing their little touches and looks and quiet laughs (seriously, thought Ace; Susan had said they weren't a 'thing' and she wondered when someone was going to knock their heads together, because they were gross) and had looked up at Ace's shout. Whatever the Doctor's shock at seeing his granddaughter again, he hid it quickly behind a wide smile and walked up to them, taking off his hat and shaking Ian's hand.
“Guess I'm leaving first,” Ace said reluctantly. She stood up and pulled Susan onto her feet.
Susan gave her one of those shy, bright-eyed, light-up-your-whole-face smiles and hugged her tightly. “Oh, it was wonderful to meet you, Ace,” she said when she pulled back, holding Ace's hands in each of hers. “Do take care of him? He's old now.”
“I heard that, young lady!” said the Professor, who'd finished his conversation with Ian and Barbara.
“Oh!” Susan squeaked. “I'm sorry—”
“Professor John Smith,” he said, tapping the side of his nose, and winked at her.
Susan laughed. “Yes, of course.” Seemingly unable to help herself, she flung her arms around the Professor's neck.
“Hello, grandfather,” she whispered.
He smiled and squeezed her before setting her away from him politely. “Hello, Susan.”
Ace cleared her throat. “Gee. Nice to see you too, Professor.”
He tapped her nose. “Ace!” he exclaimed as if he'd never met her before, holding out his arms for a hug. She gave him one. Reluctantly, of course. She definitely didn't feel all warm and nice inside getting hugs from her dad. Who was definitely not the Professor. 'course not. “I think it's time we were off, then, when you're ready.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Hold on. Uh. See you guys, I guess,” she offered to Ian and Barbara, who accepted her awkward handshakes. “Thanks for letting me hang around today, it would've been really boring on my own.”
“Any time,” Ian said easily. Barbara smiled and nodded.
“It was good for Susan to spend some time with someone her own age,” she said sincerely, and her handshake was a nice one, which surprised Ace; strong without being forceful. “Or close enough.”
“Good luck,” said Susan; then, blushing slightly, she jumped forward and kissed Ace's cheek. “I hope I'll see you again!”
Ace doubted that, but hey; time-traveling police box, right? Weirder things had happened.
The world, Tegan decided, was much better when she could sit down and eat.
This was a nice place; the buffet lived up to the hype, certainly made the entrance fee worth it. There were just enough people around to make the place lively, but not so many that all the tables were full or there wasn't more than enough food to go around. There were a couple of people who'd brought dogs—Buddy and his family weren't here, unfortunately—and a cute little well-dressed couple over near the edge of the scattered tables, with their daughter and someone who was either their daughter's friend or girlfriend; Tegan couldn't really tell. Didn't really matter.
“Something wrong, Nyssa?” she asked cheerfully, as Adric continued to lose ground to Luke and Rani's tag-team crash course in intersectional feminism.
Nyssa was peering at her hot dog with an expression of mild alarm. “This isn't a real dog, is it?” she asked nervously. She looked like she was remembering Buddy the Golden Retriever puppy too, and Tegan was quick to reassure her.
“Nah,” she said. “They're made of... actually, probably better not to think about it. But, you know. Pork and beef and things.”
“Things?” Nyssa said nervously.
Clyde took pity on her, holding up a hamburger he hadn't started on yet. “Here,” he offered. “Trade?”
“Please.” Nyssa accepted the burger gratefully. “Hamburgers... ham is pork, isn't it?”
Santiago leaned back around Tegan as Luke began to sternly coach Adric through apologizing to Zoe while Rani supervised. “Normally that's true,” he said, with the air of someone who was accustomed to explaining all manner of local-cuisine eccentricities. “Hamburgers are generally made of ground beef, though. Or turkey, sometimes.”
“That makes no sense at all,” Nyssa determined.
“Welcome to Earth!” said Clyde. It sounded like an actual greeting, and he didn't break stride as he launched back into the monster comparison they'd been doing. “No Slitheen, then?”
“I'm afraid not,” said Nyssa, distracted by the logistical problem of eating her hamburger.
“We had Terileptils,” Tegan offered, but Clyde shook his head.
“Haven't had any of those. Yet!” he added, knocking on the wooden table.
There was a relieved sigh from behind them; Tegan turned around and for once was genuinely pleased to find the Doctor. She waved a corn cob at him.
“Tegan,” he sighed happily. “I'd hoped I'd find you here. Nyssa. Everything all right?”
“Why wouldn't it be?” Tegan's cheerful question made her pause. “Doctor,” she said suspiciously. “Why wouldn't it be?”
“Ye of little faith,” he said, which wasn't an answer. “I thought you all might be quite ready to move along, that's all.”
“There's no rush.” Now that she was not longer trapped, Tegan was in no great hurry to start moving again. “Won't you eat something?”
“I'll eat on the TARDIS, thank you, Tegan.”
Nyssa looked up. She'd abandoned her hamburger as a lost cause, but had taken to corn on the cob very happily. “We met some friends of yours, Doctor,” she said. “Sarah Jane Smith and Jo Grant?”
“Oh, are you the Doctor too?” With Adric thoroughly chastised and grumping his way through yet another hamburger, Luke stood up and shook the Doctor's hand. “Luke Smith,” he explained. “You knew my mum.”
“You don't say!” For a moment the Doctor lit up, clasping Luke's hands eagerly and looking absolutely enchanted. “Fancy that, well done Sarah Jane.” Suddenly seeming to remember that he'd been saying something, he added, “But I'm afraid we really must get going...”
“Hello,” Clyde called, waving. “Clyde Langer, Rani Chandra, that's Santiago Jones.” He snapped his fingers. “Graske! Had any of those?”
Nyssa's astounding patience seemed to be wearing thin. “No, we haven't I'm afraid.”
The Doctor bounced on the soles of his feeet. “It's just that I think there may actually be several of me here at the moment, which could cause a nasty temporal paradox...”
Clyde still looked incredulous. “You haven't had any interesting aliens at all, have you?”
“Really quite nasty, destroy the universe...?”
“We have Adric,” Nyssa offered.
Clyde waved off her suggestion and Adric's “Hey!” as one. “Yeah, but you're all... flying around time and space and stuff, we're just sitting on Thirteen Bannerman Road. It's like you've never seen a weird alien creature in your lives!”
Tegan snorted and stood, brushing sesame seeds from the hamburger bun off her lap. “I'm Australian,” she reminded him. “Come on, Adric. One of the Doctor's more than I'm ready to handle.”
Sorry for the delay, guys; I'm on vacation and this is literally the earliest I could get a stable enough Internet connection to post anything. Hopefully the length will make up for it!
Romana stuck a hand out from under the console. “Anti-gravitic capacitor.”
Braxiatel handed it to her. Narvin stood on tiptoe in an attempt to see over the Cardinal's shoulder.
“Any progress?” he asked. Right on cue, there was a loud explosion and a burst of orange smoke.
Brax sat upright in alarm. “Romana?” he called. “My lady, are you all right?”
Romana's response was not, strictly speaking, an affirmative, but Narvin had never heard a gravely injured individual punctuate a long string of vaguely-heretical swearing with “tachyon-shield tubing, please” and was forced to conclude that his President was still in one piece. He had no idea how a Presidential TARDIS could have broken down, but with the temporal instabilities and contradictions saturating this area he supposed it was inevitable. Anyway, they were lucky. For all her many flaws, there was no better company than Romanadvoratrelundar if you needed a TARDIS repaired unexpectedly.
“Braxiatel,” Romana said with only a very mild note of panic. “Tachyon-shield tubing, preferably before this coupling leaks and we're all killed?”
“Here,” said Narvin. She wiggled out from under the console, snatched the coiled tube from his hand, and dove back under it.
“Oh no you don't,” she snapped to what Narvin could only assume was the faulty coupling, voice muffled as she worked. “There. Try leaking tachyons all through the Vortex now. Braxiatel?”
“Energy-flow regulation circuit, my lady?” Braxiatel offered, somehow managing to make it sound suave and alluring.
Romana growled “Wrench,” and Narvin stepped back gingerly as Brax handed her one. For some reason it always made him uneasy when Romana was wielding a large, heavy blunt instrument.
There was a loud bang from under the console.
“You're meant to work properly, you know.” BONG. “You should not have these kinds of problems, you're hardly a Renegade ship. Now if you don't stop acting like one...”
Leaving Romana to threaten her TARDIS, Narvin sighed and ducked outside for some fresh air. The TARDIS had disguised itself as a telephone pole, which made the doorway mildly disorienting to navigate.
“Leela?” She'd been carving some sort of tribal design into a twig last time he'd checked on her, but Leela tended to get bored very quickly. Luckily, she'd managed not to slaughter and roast any farm animals or whatever it was she did for entertainment. She was sitting on the ground with a small yellow thing licking her face.
“Narvin!” she said. It was almost a civil greeting. “You must meet this creature.”
“...What is that?”
Leela shifted her new acquaintance so that it was curled somewhat more comfortably in her lap. “He is called... Buddy,” she said, pronouncing the unfamiliar name carefully. She pointed at a nearby family packing their picnic supplies into a minivan. “The girl told me it means 'friend'. I told her it is a good, strong name. He is a—a Golden Retriever.”
Narvin sighed. “You found a dog.”
Leela gave him a withering look. “He is not my dog,” she said grumpily. Buddy, blissfully unaware of her shift in mood, leaped up and licked her nose. Leela couldn't even manage to glare at Narvin with a wiggly puppy in her lap, and broke into carefree laughter as she ruffled his fur. “Has Romana fixed the TARDIS yet?” she asked as Buddy tugged determinedly at her hair.
“Ah, no. Not yet. I'm sure she knows what she's doing.”
Leela snorted. “That is not something I have ever heard you say before.”
“Well. I.” Narvin stammered and tried not to bristle too much. “Romana is a perfectly capable woman, Leela, I've never denied that. I simply don't believe she's best suited occupy the most important position in our society!”
“Thank you, Coordinator,” said Romana drily.
Of course. She would be standing right behind him.
“Oh, don't bother.” She waved the insincere apology away before Narvin could conjure it up. “We all know you wouldn't mean it. Anyway, the TARDIS is ready to leave, though I wouldn't go in there yet. K-9 says the gas isn't toxic, but until Braxiatel regains consciousness I think it's best we let the extractor fans do their work.”
A delighted peal of laughter from Leela made them both turn to her; Buddy the Golden Retriever had tumbled out of her lap and was bouncing in circles around her.
Romana's lips twitched as she brushed her hair back out of her face. It was smoking slightly, which Narvin thought it would be impolite to mention. “I see Leela found a puppy.”
Narvin considered making a snide comment about alien hunting hounds. But, well, he was tired. And there was children's laughter floating over the swaying tops of the corn maze, and Romana was much more difficult to dislike when she was perched with her ankles crossed on a split-rail fence, scorch marks down her white robes and a sonic screwdriver tucked behind her ear, smiling while Leela lay in the grass playing with a little golden-furred Earth dog.
“It looks a bit like you,” he offered.
Romana gave him a quizzical look. “I'm not certain if that was an insult, Coordinator.”
Before he could respond—or, indeed, figure it out himself—there was a cheerful ding from their TARDIS and the doors opened. “Ah. Splendid. Come along, Leela!” called Romana. “Time to go home.”
One of the men checked his watch.
“Maze closed an hour ago,” he snapped. “How long'd you say those friends of yours have been in there?”
“Far longer than they should have been,” replied Zoe. She was certain that the Doctor could have found his way out by now, if he'd wanted to. He was really quite intelligent, and his memory wasn't as bad as he liked to pretend. She suspected he just wanted an excuse to spend more time with Jamie. She didn't begrudge them that, certainly, but it was very boring here now that Luke was gone.
The farmer in charge of the maze gave a long sigh and fiddled with his hat. “Might have to take a few ATVs through to find them,” he said. “Hate to ask it of the boys, but we can't have people wandering around after dark. Anyway, if they've been gone for this long they could be dehydrated. Might be in real trouble; we can't just hope they find their way out. Not to worry, Ms. Heriot,” he added with a little bow, tipping his hat. “We've got protocols for this sort of thing and it's a nice cool day. Your friends'll be thirsty and tired, but nothing serious, I shouldn't think.”
“Jamie will be thirsty and tired, at least,” she said, mostly to herself. And frustrated, of course, but he wouldn't be able to hold it against the Doctor for long. “The Doctor most likely won't be.”
“Don't reckon they're looking for you, do you?” asked the man with the watch. He didn't look any less irritable when Zoe assured him that the plan had always been to meet at the exit, and the Doctor really had managed to get himself that lost.
“Well,” he grumbled. “It ain't getting any lighter. Might as well go find 'em now. Guy in a kilt, you said?”
“Yes, that's Jamie.”
The man rolled his eyes. “First the fencing nutjob with the rainbow coat we threw out earlier, now this. I always said this stupid maze attracts nothing but fruit loops."
Zoe frowned and cocked her head. “Those are a type of low-nutrient sugary cereal,” she said, perplexed.
“Half these people's brains are low-nutrient cereal,” complained the man. “All right, all right, I'm going...” He and two of the other men who had been standing around walked off toward a nearby barn to fetch their vehicles, leaving Zoe with their boss.
“I'm terribly sorry for all the trouble,” she told him as the three motors cranked and rumbled into the maze. “Normally Jamie and the Doctor are very good at things like this.” She thought it probably unwise to mention that this was because of all their practice navigating seemingly-identical alien corridors.
The man laughed and waved a hand. “It's very little trouble, Ms. Heriot,” he told her with a cheerful smile. “It's not a simple maze and we always end up with someone stuck inside at the end of the day. I doubt your friends will be the only ones we find. Last year we all got thrown into a panic because a 90-year-old woman was somewhere in the maze and we couldn't find her.”
Zoe looked over, alarmed. “What happened to her?”
The man winked. “Turned out she'd wandered back out the entrance and was sitting in the car listening to the radio the whole time. Candy apple? We're only going to make more tomorrow.”
Zoe accepted the sticky treat politely, though it was really the sort of thing the Doctor would enjoy. Still, figuring out how to eat it occupied the fifteen minutes it took for the trio of ATVs to return, flickering their lights in greeting.
“Zoe!” the Doctor called cheerfully from the back of one, letting go of his driver's waist to wave at her. Predictably, that was the exact moment the vehicle turned, and the Doctor yelped as he was sent tumbling into a pile of discarded corn husks. Jamie waited until the vehicles had actually stopped before clambering off his own vehicle in a rather more low-key manner. He shook the driver's hand and thanked him profusely, then turned to go help the Doctor up again.
There was another man with them, just like the farmer had said; Zoe didn't know him, but he was dressed in clothing she assumed to be old-fashioned for this time period, and seemed extremely confused; he answered Jamie's friendly “And who's this, then?” with an utterly sincere “Well you see that's just the problem, I haven't the slightest idea.”
Zoe would have been very interested in the confused gentleman, but a blonde friend of his who had come hurtling out of nowhere the moment he arrived seemed to have everything under control, and before long he was leaving happily with her, eating some sort of candy out of a bag she'd produced. Zoe thought perhaps she was his nurse.
“That's your friends, right?” the farmer confirmed, drawing her out of her contemplations.
The Doctor slipped on a corn husk and fell down again, pulling Jamie into a crumpled heap on top of him.
Zoe sighed. “Yes,” she said sorrowfully. “Yes, they are.”
Quiet as Sarah Jane's voice was, Jo couldn't help jumping; the room had been so silent for almost an hour once the children fell asleep. “Oh!” she squeaked; then, as her heart rate settled, whispered back, “Oh, yes, please.”
Clyde shifted in his sleep, but didn't wake up. Sarah Jane looked over at him—sprawled across her floor, using Rani's balled-up sweater as a pillow—and smiled affectionately. Jo smothered a laugh as she scooted over to let Sarah Jane curl up next to her under the only blanket they'd managed to salvage from the teenagers.
Luke and Santiago had graciously allowed Clyde to help the Doctor in flying home, despite winning the corn race; Rani had very sensibly preferred to cling to one of the strange treelike protrusions, and as a result had not gone flying across the console room. The Doctor had stopped Clyde's nose from bleeding almost immediately, but he'd still used it as a reason to snag the first of the biscuits when they'd gotten home. Nobody else had seemed to mind.
It had already been getting dark, and Clyde and Rani's respective guardians had long ago gotten used to Sleepovers At Sarah Jane's; a quick run home for each of them to grab toothbrushes and pajamas was all they needed before drawing straws for shower order, making hot chocolate in the microwave, and passing out in front of whichever old movie had been rerunning on the sci-fi channel. They didn't even have the energy to nitpick the terrible science and lack of logical motivation for the aliens, which was normally an integral part of the tradition. Santiago and Luke had kicked the back cushions off the sofa, creating just enough room to fit both of them; provided Luke didn't mind using Santiago's shoulder as a pillow, and Santiago didn't mind having to curl slightly into Luke so that his feet didn't dangle off the edge.
Given the odds of either of them ever minding that situation, it was a very neat arrangement. Rani had long ago laid her claim on the comfortable armchair and Clyde could always fall asleep in the middle of the mound of discarded sofa cushions, which left Jo and Sarah Jane on the loveseat, sipping tea and sharing a warm blanket while the light of the muted television set flickered across the faces of their kids.
“You're sure you won't stay,” Sarah Jane said softly. It was, perhaps, a bit wistful, but it wasn't a question.
Jo patted her hand. “Not past Tuesday, I'm afraid.” She squeezed the other woman's fingers. “Our plane leaves at seven in the morning.”
Sarah Jane sighed, settling in and drinking her tea. “Where are you going this time?”
“Orlando,” Jo said cheerfully. “We're meeting Santiago's parents to protest Seaworld. It's despicable, what they're doing. Zoos are one thing, but orcas! They're too intelligent and too big for those conditions. And separating them from their families the way they do! When they stay with them their whole lives! Why—if we'd found an alien race doing that when I was with the Doctor—!”
Sarah Jane shushed her frantically, gesturing to the sleeping teenagers. Clyde groaned and rolled over, but his breathing settled back into a deep, even pattern immediately.
Jo blushed. “Sorry, dear,” she whispered.
Sarah Jane smiled and shook her head. “Well, if you ever need an investigative journalist...”
“We'll call you up, darling,” Jo promised, eyes sparkling. “Be careful, I'll take you up on it! I remember one time, I met this man in Beijing...”
“Yes, yes, dear, sorry...” Jo didn't look particularly repentant, but she drank her tea quietly in a manner that suggested she was going to be a good girl and behave herself. Sarah Jane wondered how many security guards had seen that expression shortly before being pepper-sprayed.
“Where will you go from Orlando?” she asked.
Jo set aside her tea, looking eager. “Well,” she said excitedly. “Santiago and his parents are going to the Everglades for two months, to help recapture escaped pythons—people just release them down there, they kill all kinds of local wildlife, it's a terrible problem—oh, yes, thank you,” she added in a whisper as Sarah Jane rescued her teacup before she could gesture it off the table. “But I'm afraid they think I'm getting a little too old for that now.”
“You?” asked Sarah Jane. “Never.”
“Well that's what I said but they won't listen to me. So I'm going to go to Tallahassee while they're all busy, and help their sister organize a letter-writing campaign to force protective legislation for—” She paused for breath for the first time since mentioning pythons. “Migrant workers in Florida, the exploitation is shameful.” Eyes shining, she squeezed Sarah Jane's hands. “We should be back in three months. I'll keep in touch, dear.”
“And you'll stay until Tuesday?”
Jo leaned into her. “Of course.”
Tegan groaned and collapsed into bed as soon as the door closed behind her.
“I know what you mean,” Nyssa sighed from across the room, where she was taking the time to bother removing her shoes before reaching out and poking Tegan back onto her own side of the bed so she could sit down. “Much as I appreciate the lack of alien invasions...”
“Or possession,” Tegan muttered into her pillow.
“Or mind control, or arrest, or torture,” Nyssa agreed. “Still. I had no idea how exhausting a corn maze would be.”
“Almost makes you miss the chaos,” mumbled Tegan.
Nyssa laughed and let herself fall into bed. “I'm not sure I'd go that far.” Tegan snickered and rolled over to smile at her. Nyssa kissed her nose and giggled when she wrinkled it, then gave a regretful sigh. “I should really go help the Doctor with those repairs.”
Tegan made a deeply discontented noise.
A smile tugging at her lips, Nyssa reached out and ran her fingers through Tegan's hair. “Do you really want me to let Adric do it?”
Tegan cracked an eye open. “Well, he can't break it more.” Nyssa laughed and made to stand, and Tegan's expression shifted from largely-feigned annoyance to real unhappiness. “Stay. Please?”
Nyssa considered her with mild surprise. “Yes,” she said finally, sitting back down. “Yes, all right. But take your shoes off.”
Tegan kicked her shoes off the edge of the bed in a rare moment of compliance, moving over to give Nyssa more room as the Trakenite wiggled under the covers and reached out to turn off the light. “Goodnight, Tegan,” she said kindly, expecting the usual sleepy murmur in reply. It was something of a pleasant shock when Tegan, after a moment of hesitation, shifted so her head was nestled against Nyssa's shoulder, one arm resting warmly across her stomach.
“'Night, Nyssa,” she whispered, nuzzling closer with a contented sigh.
There were no bad dreams that night.
“Oh, it looks wonderful, grandfather!”
The Doctor gave a patient smile as Susan hugged him. He wrapped an arm around her and used his free hand to twist one of the knobs on the console experimentally, nodding to himself when nothing burst into flames. “Yes, it rather does, doesn't it. I trust you had a pleasant day?”
“Susan made a friend,” Barbara commented, smiling as she hung up her coat. “Didn't you, Susan?”
“Oh? And what friend would that be, my dear?”
Susan's eyes sparkled. “Her name's Ace,” she said breathlessly. “Oh, I wish you could have met her! She's louder than you like and she doesn't like to admit that sometimes she needs help, but she's very brave and she doesn't like bullies.” Ian saw Barbara flinch a bit at that; they could neither of them help feeling responsible for Susan's hellish isolation at school. “She took care of me when I got lost,” Susan admitted, somewhat shamefacedly.
The Doctor gave her a disapproving look. “And what have I told you about wandering off, hmm?” he exclaimed, and Susan dropped her eyes. After a moment he sighed and patted her back. “Very well, then, Susan, very well. You really must be more careful, child! Luckily this girl was friendly! She could have been anyone!”
“She wouldn't have hurt me, grandfather! Not Ace! She...” Susan always looked so very serious for a child, and now she took on that queer expression that meant she was searching for a concept not easily put into words that others could understand. “She felt... safe,” she decided, and said the word almost reverently. It made Ian want to put an arm around her, or something; while Barbara might approve mostly of Ace's gently reassuring side, Ian couldn't help secretly applauding the fierce protectiveness he'd seen in the girl's eyes. There was just something about Susan Foreman that needed to be protected.
“And she knew about Gallifrey!” Susan exclaimed, animated once more. The Doctor looked up sharply, and his granddaughter's smile dropped instantly as she realized her mistake. “No,” she stammered, backing away. “I only meant—she's a friend of yours, from the future!” she cried. “She travels with you, grandfather, really she does, she's not a Council spy! She wasn't lying, I saw it was true!”
“She's right, Doctor,” Ian said firmly, sensing a furious tirade in the making and unwilling to subject Susan to her grandfather's wrath again. It hurt her—scared her, really—more than he seemed to realize, when she was shouted at. There was no need to berate the girl that way, especially when she'd genuinely done nothing wrong. “This is the first I've heard of Ace knowing about Gallifrey, but whatever else she may have been that girl was no liar.”
The Doctor fiddled indignantly with his lapels. “And what would you know about it, hmm?”
“We're teachers, Doctor,” Barbara reminded him, resting a comforting hand on Susan's shoulder.
“If I couldn't tell when a teenager was lying to me, half my class' grandmothers would have died the night before a project was due five times each,” Ian added, which made Barbara laugh and Susan give a tentative smile. “Personally, I liked the girl. And she was certainly good to Susan; almost didn't let us take her, until she was certain we weren't going to hurt her. So there's no need to go getting angry with her, Doctor, all you're doing is making her cry.”
“Again,” Barbara added icily, and Ian was pleasantly reminded exactly what the woman was capable of. The Doctor seemed to be remembering the same thing; he subsided into vaguely irritable muttering of which Ian was fairly certain he could make out several 'Chesterbottom's, but didn't argue the point any further. It almost sounded as if he were apologizing, but that was probably pushing credulity too far.
“Well,” he finally grumbled. “If she's from my future you'd best not tell me anything more then, should you Susan? Can't have me wandering about with that kind of information, hmm?”
Susan looked up with a shy smile. “Yes, grandfather.”
He fussed restlessly with his jacket a bit more, but seemed to be relaxing. “Yes, well,” he waffled. “Quite. I have repairs to finish, Susan.”
Susan smiled properly now, actually giggling as she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek; Ian's lips twitched as he watched the Doctor fight to maintain his stiff demeanor. “Yes, grandfather,” she laughed, half-dancing back across the console room and accepting Barbara's outstretched hand. “You'll remember to eat, won't you?"
“What? Yes, of course, my dear. Go on now. Can't have you rattling about while I work, can I? Or you, Chesterford.”
Ian rolled his eyes and followed Barbara out of the console room.
“So why were we really here, Professor?”
The Professor looked up from where he'd been dancing idly with the stove, blinking. “What on earth do you mean, Ace?”
She raised an eyebrow and leaned against the doorway, crossing her arms. “I mean, what was all that about? We never just take a day off and visit a corn maze! What were you up to, anyway? And how come I couldn't come along?”
“Don't be silly, Ace!” he said breezily, pulling an egg out of his own ear and cracking it into a bowl while the bacon—normal Earth bacon, not, like... space-bacon or something—sizzled. “I thought we deserved a break after all that business with the Cybermen.”
Oh, right. Speaking of Cybermen...
“You know, I've been meaning to ask you,” she hedged. “That secret of yours—”
“Are you ever gonna tell me, Professor? I can keep a secret! What, did you kill someone or something? Start a war?”
“Ace!” He looked scandalized. “Nothing like that. Well. Not on purpose.”
Producing two more eggs seemingly out of thin air, he cracked them in unison and began mixing them energetically with a fork. “Someday, Ace,” he said, narrowing his eyes in false suspicion, “You will learn to trust me.” He reached out unexpectedly and bopped her nose with his fork.
“Ugh! Professor!” Whatever dark secrets his past held were forgotten as Ace tried to wipe the egg off her face. “Gross!”
The Professor hummed happily to himself as he scraped the slightly-burned bacon out of the pan and replaced it with the recently-scrambled eggs. “I noticed you met my granddaughter,” he said lightly as he pushed them around the pan. “Now...” He frowned, as if trying to remember something. “That was a very long time ago, but I seem to recall her being quite taken with a young woman named Ace.”
“She talked about me? I mean,” Ace tried not to show how eager she was to hear what Susan had said about her. She even let the Doctor get away with changing the subject. For now, at least. “Yeah, she was cool, I liked her. How come you never told me about her, Professor?”
He was quiet for several minutes while their eggs finished. Finally, he sighed, carefully scraping up the eggs and dividing them between two plates. “I'm afraid Susan and I could have parted under better circumstances,” he said.
“Oh.” Hesitantly, she asked, “What... what happens to her? Or—happened?”
He looked up and smiled. “She got married,” he said gently. “To a freedom fighter named David Campbell, on 22nd-century Earth.”
Ace sighed with relief. “Professor! You made it sound like something horrible happened to her! Unless this David's... mean to her, or something?”
“Ace,” he said disapprovingly. “Would I allow that?”
She was forced to acknowledge that he wouldn't. “Good,” she said finally. “I liked her a lot, Professor. She seemed awfully scared, though. Hope her... husband keeps her safe. I think she needs to feel safe, you know?”
She didn't really have a word for the way he looked at her—maybe it could've pride, but she didn't know what he had to be so proud of—and he reached across the table and clasped her hand. “I think David makes her feel very safe,” he said. “I'm sorry you won't be able to get to know her better, Ace.” His eyes crinkled kindly. “She could have done much worse than you, if we'd ever run into you again. But perhaps we should avoid that particular paradox.”
Ace didn't blush. Really, she didn't. Her face might've turned red and she might've ducked down and stared at her bacon because she was embarrassed, but she did not blush. “'m fine, Professor,” she muttered awkwardly, shoveling a large forkful of egg into her mouth and not quite making eye contact. “I only just met her today. 'm not heartbroken or anything. How'd you know, anyway?”
The Professor pursed his lips like he was trying desperately not to laugh. “I may be old,” he teased her, “But I'm not blind yet, Ace McShane.”
She buried her face in her hands. “Not gonna throw me into a black hole, Professor?” she mumbled, only mostly joking. Who knew how Time Lords might react to someone making eyes at their granddaughters?
“Nonsense!” he said happily, bouncing up to wash his plate. “Topple the universe's oppressive regimes without my Ace in the hole? Heresy. Finish your eggs,” he scolded as she stood up to help him with the dishes. “And get some sleep. I really must finish the TARDIS repairs, so we won't be going anywhere until long after you wake up anyway.”
“You'll never finish the TARDIS repairs, Professor,” Ace told him. “It breaks all the time!”
“Pessimist,” he said with a smile, and tapped her nose; this time, without an egg-covered fork. He picked up her knapsack on the way out the door; Ace normally hated other people touching it, but, well, it was the Professor. He wouldn't nick her stuff—without a good reason, anyway—and he definitely wouldn't make fun of her for any of it, or refuse to give it back just 'cause it made her upset. For all the dangerous stuff he pulled her into, for all the secrets...
He, himself, felt... safe, she decided. He made her feel safe. And hey, maybe next time she met a cute alien girl who needed to feel safe too, he might even have some advice for her. That was what dads did, right?
She nodded to herself and dug into her eggs.