Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidsth thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green.
“The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith
Stockbridge was gone. Not before its time, but hard had been its passing. Too often lately, the Doctor had been able to save no other lives but Nyssa's and his own.
He had found an autumn world to suit his melancholy. Bowing to Nyssa’s suggestion, they walked bare-shod along a strange shore where autumn leaves drifted out from a deciduous forest that fringed the shores of a vast lake, one last lonely outpost of this world's glaciation. The trees that still clung to their leaves were blazing, bronze and brown and many more purples than had been the norm on Earth. A sunset hung suspended over the lapping waters as it had for over an hour. This planet rotated slowly. There would be another two more hours before the sun finished sinking below the horizon.
The distant skyline was fringed with a berm of faceted fire, reds and greens and violets flaring. A last glacial toe was hanging on, damming the lake against the tides of time. Someday soon, the ice would fail, leaving a deep stinking bowl where the water had rushed out. But for now it was a dappled mirror reflecting the sunburnt sky, fiery like a plain of liquid metal, although far too cold for a swim.
They had not spoken since the TARDIS doors shut behind them. It was one of many things he valued about his latest companion: not that Nyssa could not be sharp-tongued, speaking hard truths he shied away from, but she also treasured seeing and being in the moment, taking each new sight and each strange world as a gift.
He was very tired, he realised. He halted.
“Trouble?” she said, almost conversationally, falling a step behind him and turning to scan the forest’s edge.
He smiled sadly. She was no longer innocent, and the blame for that, too, fell on his shoulders. “Not this time.”
“You’re troubled.” She had a knack for making the most blunt observation sound gentle.
Thrusting his hands into his pockets, he turned and picked his way back into the trees, finding a cleared space where the wreck of a fallen tree had beaten back all its neighbors years ago. Its skinless trunk made a suitable bench. He took a seat. She dusted off the light coating of loam and moss and hopped up next to him.
“So many things gone,” he said, reaching for words. “It was past time, and yet...”
“Stockbridge was an old friend,” Nyssa said.
“More than that, it was a home, almost. A haven, at any rate.”
“The TARDIS is home, Doctor. She’s always there for you, no matter how the currents of time eddy around you.”
“Yes.” He relaxed a little. “Also, you’re still here. Do you know, I believe you've traveled with me longer than anyone?”
She was watching him with concern, although she hid it with a teasing smile. “Perhaps you should consider non-human companions more often.”
“Perhaps.” He raised his eyes again to the sunset, expression opaque.
“Or perhaps not.” She placed a hand over his, touch light. “You’re always afraid of growing too attached, Doctor. I understand.”
“Now, Nyssa, that’s not what I was trying to say. In fact, I rather think...” He frowned again, realizing just in time that he was about to say something disastrous. Their recent skirmish with the Rutans, during which he had feared she was slain, must have perturbed him more deeply than he had realised. Hastily he shifted to a different tack. “It occurs to me that I never gave you a key to replace the one that Brewster stole.”
Her eyes softened. “Oh, you are tired.” Before he understood her intent, one of her small hands had settled at the nape of his neck, and she had lifted herself to kiss his cheek.
The Doctor froze, afraid to look down. Nyssa’s quiet reserve had made it so much easier to dismiss small signs, but it was difficult to take that for a friend’s innocent concern. He cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon,” he said, temporising. “You’re very patient, but I think I’ve been wallowing in bathos for quite long enough. We ought to be getting back to the TARDIS while the light holds, don’t you think?”
“‘All his serious thoughts had rest in Heaven.’” She settled back on her heels and looked out at the exotic landscape, grey eyes distant as if recalling another vista. To his astonishment, she began to recite more lines from the Goldsmith poem he had quoted as they fled the ruin of Stockbridge:
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.
Far different these from every former scene,
The cooling brook, the grassy vested green,
The breezy covert of the warbling grove,
That only shelter'd thefts of harmless love.
Good Heaven! what sorrows gloom'd that parting day,
That called them from their native walks away;
When the poor exiles, every pleasure past,
Hung round their bowers, and fondly looked their last,
And took a long farewell...
“Good grief. Where on Earth did you learn that?” he broke in, finally shaking off the spell of her clear voice chanting English like an oracle channelling some foreign spirit. Where was the sober, science-minded girl he thought he knew?
“Not on Earth. The TARDIS helped me find the source. You seemed to think it important. You quoted it almost every time we landed there.” She closed her eyes, sifting through stanzas, and reached for another snatch of verse as if struggling to convey two different sentiments via homonym.
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excell,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!
“I had no idea Stockbridge had left such a vivid impression on you,” he said after a stricken silence. “You seemed to find cricket rather dull.”
“But I like to see you play.” She dipped her eyes, a trace of impatience or frustration compressing her lips. “I’m sorry, Doctor, this is perhaps not the best time for poetry.” She pushed off the trunk and dropped to the ground. “We’d best be getting back, as you say.”
The return stroll was somewhat less relaxing. The last dregs of daylight had assumed a bloody tint, reddening their hands and faces unnaturally. Meanwhile, the Doctor had something else besides the destruction of Stockbridge to mull over. What had gotten into her?
He had trusted Nyssa to face Daleks alone, to battle Cybermen, to disappear a thousand years into Earth’s past in pursuit of knowledge with only an experimental communicator to summon him at need. So why was he suddenly afraid for her? Or of her, if he was honest with himself.
Perhaps because love’s thefts could be anything but harmless.
But surely he was misreading her intention, projecting his own not-quite-virtuous impulses onto her. She had mentioned farewell, after all. Twice.
“Are you ready to leave, Nyssa? Is that what this is about?”
“No!” She opened her eyes wide and stared at him, again with fond exasperation. “Not yet. My place is still at your side, Doctor. Maybe not forever—” he heard the suppressed shudder in her voice, a visceral rejection of that appalling alternate future as Lord and Lady which they had glimpsed— “but for some time yet, I hope.”
The soft lapping waves and the dry-husk crinkle of leaves beneath their feet made his mind itch. His thoughts couldn’t settle. He found himself falling into the same oblique manner to answer, voice husky and strange:
And piety with wishes placed above,
And steady loyalty, and faithful love.
And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade—
Her chin lifted with aristocratic pride as she whispered, “I wouldn’t fly.”
He missed his next step. The sand might as well have been quicksand, for the way his feet suddenly dragged. His first assumption had been correct, after all, and he should switch to damage control at once. It had not happened often— why, he sometimes wondered, had his regeneration chosen a youthful appearance this time? — but he knew the proper course to take: a deft gentle deflection, a polite apology, an appeal to differences of race and lifespan. Nyssa was a logical person. Surely she would be able to impose reason over rutting.
He scolded himself at once for thinking in those terms. She was a reasonable person. They had simply been through too much together, and he presented a pleasant face along with friendship’s surety.
Nyssa arched an eyebrow at him and glided ahead. He cleared his throat and hurried after her to unlock the TARDIS.
She put a hand over the lock before passing through. Turning to look behind them, she ventured, “Temperature’s dropping fast. It’s going to be a clear night. Do you think the nebula will show in visible wavelengths? And there’s driftwood for a fire. Let’s eat out.”
“Splendid idea,” he said, relieved that she had taken refuge in mundane matters. They were back on solid ground.
The night, as Nyssa had predicted, was clear and biting. The wind off the water chilled their cheeks even as the fire at their back staved off the distant glacier’s breath. Salts and minerals in the cast-up wood tinted the flames with licks of green, blue and purple, as if everything on this world conspired to ignite the entire range of visible light. So, too, the sky. The Lagoon Nebula unfurled a canopy of reds and pinks and violet streamers covering half their field of view. The Doctor had brought out full-spectrum binoculars for them to observe it in other wavelengths, bringing out subtle details invisible to the naked eye.
Nyssa was sweeping the glasses slowly across the heavens, rapt and focused on discovery. He was still tutoring her in the fundamentals of astronomy, one of the few fields neglected by Traken, thanks to its isolationism. So for once, her delight was that of the tourist rather than the specialist. Her face was in shadow with the fire behind them, but he knew the unguarded wonder that would be there.
A streak of greenish-white darted downwards in his peripheral vision. He turned, but it was gone before he could point.
She let the glasses fall on their straps. “What?”
“A meteor, perhaps.”
“Oh! A meteor shower here would be something to see.”
“Wouldn’t it, though?” He smiled. “Want to search for one? It should be easy enough to locate a comet that crosses this planet’s orbit.”
She shook her head. “No, thank you. With our luck, we’d arrive during an actual impact. Besides, the fire’s warm.”
Another double entendre? He should head off her thoughts in that direction before they amounted to more than idle fancy. But he was still recovering from the shock of Stockbridge’s dissolution, he told himself, and it was too fine a night to spoil stargazing with awkward conversation.
His own voice drifted back to him, a callous indifference from a previous life when he scarcely seemed to notice appearances. “Well, you are a beautiful woman, probably.”
You have a beautiful daughter, Tremas. He permitted himself that small, rebellious thought. Then he directed his eyes back to the exquisite nebula hanging overhead, an enveloping cocoon of dust and gasses that concealed greater treasures within: infant stars and worlds-to-be.
Side by side, they watched the burning sky.
Solitary confinement had a way of dredging up repressed guilt. The Doctor was idling in gaol once again, a setting nearly as familiar to him as corridors. Alone with the the moans of prisoners vibrating through thick stone walls, the Doctor found his nightmares increasing night by night. Sometimes it was his own hoarse shout that woke him.
He had been dreaming of Veln again. On that occasion, he had not landed in a prison, but Nyssa had, ensnared by her own compassion and his carelessness in letting them get separated. The security forces had beaten her when they took her into custody. She had been unconscious for nearly three days in a high security hospital, out of his reach. The wait had been one of the worst of his life, knowing that getting captured himself would doom her, chafing to reach her before she suffered any more atrocities. In the end, he had been forced to depend on the aid of uncertain allies to rescue her.
It could have been worse, the Doctor reminded himself.
It might so easily have been worse. Guilt painted the possibilities in lurid detail. In nightmares, he hurled himself again and again against the door of the adjacent cell, forced to watch, unable to intervene. Sometimes her assailant had his face.
He wanted to claw out his own brain when he awoke. It was a violation even to imagine such things happening to her.
Sighing, the Doctor willed himself to recollect a true memory from that disastrous adventure, although he hated to dwell on it. He recalled Nyssa’s face, still puffy and bruised. He remembered her quiet answer to his unspoken worry: “Sexual coercion... was not yet authorised. I was given to understand that it would be applied if I did not cooperate with my interrogator.”
Nyssa had fallen asleep in his arms soon after, seeking the only safe anchorage in that nightmare world, her trust in him unshaken even when he had failed her quite badly. Her faith had shamed him. Almost he had vowed never to let her outside the TARDIS again, save to planets that he knew with absolute certitude were safe.
It would have been trading one prison for another. All he could do was try harder to shield her, to ensure that he alone landed where he was now: behind bars.
“Oi!” He startled at the shout, bashing his head against the wall. That voice did not belong to his inner fears.
“Dask?” he said. “Oh, is it that time already?”
“Sorry, Doctor, no. Nyssa stopped by.” The prison guard lowered his voice. “Wanted me to give you something. Said it might help you pass the time.” A small red object popped through the food slot and pattered away somewhere under the bunk.
A pill? Surely not. “Thank you, Dask,” the Doctor whispered back. “Go before you’re caught.”
The man was already gone. The Doctor spent half an hour on hands and knees locating the hard red seed, approximately the size of a kidney bean, amidst the filth he had rather not known was under his bunk. Close inspection of the seed showed that the hole where the stem had once been was corked with a tiny stopper of bone. Someone with fine tools and finer coordination had shaped it. Instinct warned him to take a scrap of toilet paper and set it on the edge of his bunk before popping the seed’s cap.
A whole galaxy of small, flat white shapes spilled across the brown paper. They were almost paper-thin, cut into tiny bird silhouettes with outstretched wings. Leaning close and looking at them sideways, he saw that no two were quite the same shape. He guessed that their wings must lock together to form a mosaic. Faint letters were laser-etched on them, shallow clumsy work that appeared to have been done by someone less skilled than the original artist.
A jigsaw puzzle. Well, it was something to keep a caged mind occupied.
It took almost a week for him to solve. The words proved to be a poem of one of Earth’s sages:
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you’d be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.
It occurred to him, when the Doctor surveyed the completed puzzle with red-eyed satisfaction, that the joyful face he’d been wanting to see was not his own.
Visiting the lands where Rumi once flourished, they had survived yet another brush with disaster. Why was it that whenever they journeyed to Earth, some offworld interloper had arrived first, causing mischief and disrupting what might otherwise have been a pleasant outing?
“So,” the Doctor said, absently caressing the controls of the TARDIS console. He had been away from her for three long years, after all. “I take it that you were my Scheherezade.”
“Doctor, I’m sor—”
“You’ve already apologised, Nyssa, and I’m sure I’ve told you that accidents are bound to happen along the way.” He smiled. “As I was saying, I gather that you’ve become quite the storyteller.”
“Yes, well.” She sighed. “The Logopolitans could reshape the universe with numbers; I’m beginning to see that words are nearly as perilous.”
“As is science.”
“True enough.” She was watching his hands moving across the controls with a fixity of attention that she normally reserved for electrical work.
The Doctor looked up to find her averting her eyes. “You’re still thinking about the false Sultan,” he said, frowning. It was not a hard and fast rule, but he encouraged companions to keep their eyes forward and not to let the ghosts of the past weigh them down.
“I was wondering how I could ever mistaken that impostor for you, Doctor, whatever hold he had on our minds. But then, he said he’d regenerated. That fooled me. I remembered how different you were before.”
“Different?” He snorted at the understatement. “More arrogant, you mean?”
“That,” she agreed, smiling at his transparent change of subject. “Intimidating. More magisterial in manner. I don’t think I’d have felt comfortable aboard his— your— TARDIS for any length of time, if you hadn’t changed.” She came around to his side of the console to see what coordinates he was setting. “Please be careful, Doctor. For purely selfish reasons, I don’t want to nurse you through another regeneration.”
“I’ve grown rather attached to this face,” he said. “I don’t intend to use it up too soon, if I can help it.”
“Good.” She added, almost apologetically, “So have I.”
The Doctor looked over the seals of Nyssa’s suit, nodded, and tapped a patch on his shoulder, reflecting as he did so that her excessive prudence was starting to rub off on him. “Comm check.”
“Loud and clear, Doctor. Shall we?” She hitched the tool bag slung over her shoulder, glanced towards the doors to orient herself, and flipped her sun-shield down.
“Lower your opacity. We’re a long way out from the sun. Are you sure you don’t want me to carry that?”
Her smile was audible. “The weight will be negligible outside. In fact, I’m more worried about floating off.” She paused to adjust her visor controls.
“No chance of that, I can assure you, even with a good running start. 10199 Chariklo is a respectable 250 kilometres across, rock and iron, plenty of mass. I couldn’t bowl a cricket ball into orbit.”
“But you might be able to bat it over the horizon?”
“Now, there’s a thought,” he said, glancing towards his coat hanging from the hatstand and debating whether to bring a ball along after all. That was the trouble with spacesuits: never enough pockets. “You know, I may have to try it before we leave.” He reached for the TARDIS door controls. “After you. First footsteps on the surface of a pristene— Nyssa!”
Stepping out into a low gravity field was always a tricky manoeuvre. Nyssa had not been the first companion to learn that lesson the hard way, with an ignominious face-plant during a previous excursion. This time, she kept a hand on the door and reached out with one cautious toe to probe the footing. Suddenly, her fingers slipped free as she overbalanced, tripped up by the weight of the satchel she was carrying. With a surprised cry, she fell forward and then... up. The Doctor lunged as she made a flailing grab for the top of the TARDIS. Before he could reach her, her feet had drifted out of his field of view.
“Careful!” she called down, determinedly calm, although he could hear her breathing quicken. “Escape velocity is under five metres per second.”
He almost smiled, despite her grave predicament. Trust Nyssa to fall back on science to keep from panicking. “Steady on, I’m coming to get you!”
“Latch onto something first!”
“I know.” Berating himself for never having installed a convenient ring on the console, he drew out a retractible cable from his suit's midsection and snapped the carabiner onto the hat stand. Turning the stand sideways, stepping out and pulling the doors to behind him, he looked up and felt a sickening wave of vertigo. Nothing outside the TARDIS made sense.
Uneven ground sparkled in the light streaming out of the crack between the doors. Chalky powder and ice crystals yielded like caked sand underfoot. The irregular but marked curve of the horizon and the bright surface material showed him at once that this was not Chariklo, the rare ringed asteroid they had come to see.
Overhead, the sky was black and strangely solid: a vast opaque canopy scalloped like obsidian or a lump of coal, pockmarked with sparse grey impact craters. Nyssa was almost invisible against that dark backdrop, a glimmering ghost barely illuminated by light reflected from the ground. With no recognizable markers to serve as reference points, it was difficult to tell that she was moving away from him. Instead, she appeared to be revolving slowly in place, suspended a score of metres overhead. As he sought to determine her course and speed, she began to drift across the other oddity in this minimalist environment: a wide ash-coloured band, fuzzy along its edges, that stretched overhead like an impossibly straight cirrus cloud extending as far as the eye could see.
Registering this bizarre view with one small corner of his mind, the Doctor quickly calculated the velocity he would need to overtake her— just. Too much speed, and his momentum might cause a deflection when they collided, sending her beyond his reach. Yet every second was precious. He reached up to brace against the TARDIS overhang, bent his knees and pushed off. Like a second leaf falling into the current of a sluggish stream, he began to follow in her wake, keeping his eyes fixed on her boots as she twirled above him.
“Either you landed us on the wrong asteroid,” Nyssa said, sounding strained, “or Chariklo’s suffered a catastrophic impact. Whichever it is, next time, you can have the honour of planting the first footprint on an uncharted world.”
“We can discuss inaccuracies in the navigation library later,” he said. With a sinking feeling — ironic, under the circumstances— he began to suspect that he had missed the right vector by a fraction of a degree. His trajectory was not tracking hers precisely. As they rose metre by metre, he saw that he was likely to pass her just out of arm’s reach. “Don’t panic,” he said, trying to turn sideways so that she would be able to grab his legs. It was no use, of course. There was no air resistance, nothing to push against to change his orientation.
“I’m not panicking,” she said. Perhaps he had been addressing himself. “But Doctor, I don’t think—”
“I know,” he said with forced cheer. “Poorly bowled. I’ll have to climb down and try again. Wait here. Won’t be a moment.”
“How long is the safety line?” she said, her clipped tones betraying the fact that she already knew the answer.
Another of his incarnations might have sworn. Rising at a little under a metre per second, he had already payed out at least seventy metres. The remaining thirty were rapidly running out. There wasn’t enough time for him to reach the ground and make another attempt before she was out of range. There was only one chance left. For his next try, he would have to untether, catch up to her and throw her back towards the TARDIS. He might have just enough strength to reverse her course. There would be no margin for error.
“Doctor, you mustn’t!” she said, and now she sounded afraid.
“I knew I should have brought a cricket ball,” he muttered, reaching for the switch to retract the safety line.
As he glanced down, he heard her gasp. That small sound was a knife’s cold slide between his hearts. “Nyssa!” For a brief horrible moment, he thought she had released her helmet seals to head off his own suicidal plan. Then he realised her course had altered, ever so slightly. She was spinning towards him. The tool bag was floating away behind her shoulder.
Straining against the stiff fabric of his suit until the joints creaked, the Doctor reached out and flung his arms around her right knee as she drifted past. “Got you!”
There was a moment’s cautious scramble as he reeled her in and hugged her against his chest. Helmets banged together with a painful crack. Before they were quite stable, he felt the tug and jerk as the safety line checked his upward motion. He had caught her with only three meters to spare.
“Nyssa, hook onto me.”
“Right.” Despite breathless agreement, she clung to him with arms and legs like a panicked feline fetched out of a tree. He forced himself to wait, listening to the pounding of his hearts, until she could will herself to let go, trusting his grip while she drew out her own emergency line and clipped it to his belt. They both let out an explosive breath in relief as the carabiner locked into place. Twin puffs of air blasted their microphones with a rude burst of static, and they found themselves shaking with laughter.
“Well done,” he said, when he could speak calmly again.
“Sorry I lost your favorite rock hammer,” she whispered, slipping her arms around his chest as far as she could reach.
“Yes, well, I'm sure Iain would be delighted to know of its final resting place,” he said, a little muffled. His suit’s air recycling system had revved up to clear condensation inside his helmet.
“Wherever we are,” she scolded.
“About four hundred kilometres from where we intended to be,” the Doctor said, finally allowing himself to contemplate their surroundings. “Not a bad miss, considering the limited data and eccentric orbit. We’re at Chariklo. Or rather, under her.” He tapped Nyssa’s elbow lightly and pointed up, through the grey dusty lane hanging above them, to the pitted black surface some four hundred kilometres above. As they revolved, he caught a glimpse of stars beyond the limb of the humble rock below them.
“I don’t understand.”
“We landed on a moon,” the Doctor said, excitement beginning to return. “That’s what’s maintaining the integrity of Chariklo’s ring system: a shepherd moon, less than ten kilometres across, invisible to earth-bound instruments. Possibly more than one.”
“Ah.” Presently, her rigid embrace loosened. “I‘m... I’m all right, now. Thank you, Doctor.”
With her tether as insurance, they eased away from each other until they were clasping hands. They spun together in a stately waltz, drinking in the lonely vista. The lumpy, misshapen little moon dangled a hundred metres below, lightly frosted from the icy dust blown off by the rings. They were floating midway between the rings themselves, smoky Chuí arching beneath the unnamed moon, Oiapoque hanging overhead like a narrow beach without sea or land. Far above, the dark, craggy mass of the parent asteroid formed the ceiling of this monochrome expanse.
Abruptly, the ground below them blazed into brilliance as they cleared Chariko’s shadow. Refraction added a hint of iridescence to the frost and the rings as the angle of sunlight shifted.
“Well now,” the Doctor said, “that was worth seeing, hm?”
“Oh, yes,” she breathed.
Eventually, the spellbinding moment was broken by Nyssa’s soft giggle — residual nervousness, he suspected. “The TARDIS is following you like a puppy. She’s floated free of the surface.”
“Well, she’s very attached to me.”
“Yes, Doctor.” Nyssa gave his hands a tight squeeze.
“You’re a lucky man, you know,” John said. He nodded towards the sliding glass doors at the back of the enclosed garden where they were lounging, taking a well-earned breather after the pandemonium of yesterday’s concert. “Princess posh. A cut above the groupies we usually get.”
The Doctor fixed him with a jaundiced expression. “Nyssa is not a groupie.”
“You sure o’ that, mate?” Paul grinned. “Maybe you need to look past the footlights and see who’s lookin’ back at you from the front row.”
“No, man, you’ve got it all wrong, as usual,” said Ringo. “‘He’s her groupie.”
The Doctor cleared his throat. “They seem to be taking rather a long time with the drinks,” he said, rising to his feet.
“Now don’t you fret, Doctor,” Paul said. “George is still comin’ off his honeymoon. Your lady friend in there has nothin’ to worry about from him.”
“Not that it ever stopped you two,” muttered Ringo.
“Will you shut up?” John said. “You’ll give the Doctor heartburn.”
“Well, he can take his own medicine, then.”
“Thank you, gentlemen,” the Doctor said stiffly, pushing the door open on the second try. A soft, sweet arpeggio of notes brought him up short. “Lutes,” he muttered. “This just isn’t my day.”
Nyssa was tucked neatly into a bean bag chair in the living room whose brown shag carpet and pong of cigarette smoke were almost obligatory for the period. George was playing an elaborately-fretted lute — a sitar, the Doctor corrected himself — plucking out the final droning chords of Within You Without You. The Doctor gritted his teeth, but Nyssa seemed to be enjoying it.
“So that’s that one,” George said.
“It’s lovely,” Nyssa said. “Oh, hello, Doctor.”
“The tea?” he said quickly, interrupting before George could start another song.
“Oh. I’m sorry, Doctor, there’s only coffee. And...” she made a face, “something called Tang.”
“Oh, dear,” he said.
“And beer,” George chimed in. “It’s America, Doc, what’re you going to do?”
“I know one we might do,” John said, coming up behind the Doctor’s elbow. “Stop bungin’ up the door, man, and let’s give your lady friend a singalong. Some of our best music won’t work in a stadium, you know.”
“Yeah. Especially a baseball stadium. Poor Yanks don’t have cricket; no wonder they’re so keen to fill up that bathtub with other rubbish,” George said. “Even us.”
“Looked more like a giant toilet bowl to me,” said Ringo.
“Will you lads shut up and play?” Paul said, picking up a bass propped against the fireplace.
Vaguely wondering why a house in Beverly Hills had been designed with a fireplace, the Doctor sank into an overstuffed armchair and shot George a pained look. Nyssa caught his eye and favored him with a sympathetic smile. She must have been corralling the sitar inside to spare the Doctor from his least favorite instrument.
John settled across from on the sofa with an acoustic guitar, eyes twinkling behind his glasses as he and Paul eased into the vocals.
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...
“It escapes me, Doctor,” said Hannah, “why you haven’t bedded the girl.”
“What?” A question mark was not the correct response to such an offensive remark, but he had been caught off-guard.
“You’re both inclined towards one another; that’s plain enough. Any folk you meet will assume such a liaison, howsoever you protest. So why not ignore public opinion, and take delight in the actual fact?”
“That is a highly inappropriate suggestion.”
Hannah gave a hearty laugh. “Since when has Hannah Bartholomew cared a whit for what’s appropriate? I’d bed her meself, if she showed any interest. What’s keepin’ you, man? I can only conclude you lack the necessary apparatus.”
The Doctor glared and rose to his feet. “Enough.” He stormed out, red-faced, just as Nyssa appeared in the doorway.
“Doctor?” she said, looking up at him in concern.
“Later,” he said, and quit the console room.
Nyssa turned questioning eyes on Hannah. “What was all that about?”
The human woman chortled. “Mayhap he’s goin’ in search of the proper apparatus.”
“Apparatus?” Nyssa said. “For what? Do you think he might like assistance?”
“Undoubtably, my lass.” Hannah’s hoots of laughter made her nearly unintelligible. “Not that he’ll ever admit it.”
Hannah’s sojourn with them had been all too brief. The Doctor was truly not certain whether her joyless survival or Adric’s apparent death had been worse.
“Doctor.” Nyssa cut through his gloomy thoughts.
He started, coming back to himself. He realised that he had been staring blankly at the rise and fall of the time rotor for several minutes. “I beg your pardon, I was... thinking.”
“Yes.” She circled around the console and came to stand at his elbow, silent. Platitudes were not worth their waste of air.
“You know, I don’t recall failing this often in my previous regenerations,” he said finally.
“From what little I’ve seen, they were less inclined to admit error, even to themselves. Maybe you simply didn’t notice until now.”
“Possibly.” He grimaced. “I don’t suppose you could moderate that frankness of yours, just a little?”
“No, Doctor.” She gestured towards the console. “So, where next?” Her eyes were sorrowful but tearless; like him, she had learned too well how to mourn with restraint.
“Hmm.” He was silent for so long that she feared he had fallen back into brooding. At last, he stirred and ambled around to the computer station. “Fresh air and tea, I think, would be just the thing. Would you mind fetching a tarpaulin and some thermal blankets? This won’t take a moment.” Furtively, he began to hunt through the navigation library.
If it wouldn’t take a moment, then why did he not collect the bulky items himself? Nyssa realised he must have a surprise in mind. Otherwise, he would simply have keyed in new coordinates. Curiosity piqued, she headed back into the TARDIS to hunt for one of the wandering supply closets. By the time she had returned with tarp and blankets, they had landed. Ruddy light streamed in through the open doors.
“Oh,” she breathed, stepping out onto dry sand.
The Doctor was already outside, clearing sand and dried flotsam away from an old stone fire-ring containing the remains of carbonised wood. They revisited most places so seldom that it took her a moment to recognise the remote world with its uninhabited forests and vividly chromatic sunsets. Raising her eyes to look for the nebula, Nyssa spotted a greenish-white streak cutting a furrow across several degrees of sky.
The Doctor hurried over to take the blankets from her. “One meteor shower, as promised,” he said with a trace of pride. Calculating cometary orbits and guessing which would leave enough debris behind for a sky-show was no easy task.
She gasped as three more shooting stars sizzled down, one of them breaking and scattering near the horizon. “It’s going to be a fine night.”
They set to work collecting driftwood and setting a fire. Tea-trays brought from the TARDIS kitchen provided a cozy meal. Afterwards, wrapped in blankets against the chill breeze coming off the lake, they sat together sipping tea and watching the meteors falling thick and fast all across the nebula-painted heavens.
“Transience,” Nyssa murmured, inhaling warm steam before raising the cup to her lips.
“We both come from civilizations obsessed with stability. Out here,” she said, nodding at the sky, “nothing lasts. I did not know impermanence could ever be beautiful, until I traveled with you.”
He hunched his shoulders.
She lowered her cup. “That was an importune analogy, wasn’t it?”
“Quite.” He averted his eyes towards the stars. “Hannah wasn’t the only friend I nearly lost today.”
“That cry.” Her eyes widened. “So that was your voice. I thought I’d imagined it, just as I blacked out.”
“Yes.” His voice still sounded raw from screaming.
She set down her tea and took his cup from his hands, laying it aside. He didn’t react at all. Nor did he see, although she had turned so her face was bathed in firelight, the profound tenderness in her eyes.
She raised herself on one knee, leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on his jaw. The Doctor’s arms came around her in a convulsive gesture. He bowed his head, lips a hair’s breadth from hers before he stiffened, hands tightening into fists behind her back. Wild-eyed, he started to pull away.
“Can’t we?” she asked, looking up at him. The flicker of another meteor streaking overhead was reflected in her eyes.
He sagged, all the tension draining out of his body. His hands unclenched. Resting his chin against her temple, he sat, speechless, contemplating the rippling lake stretching off into the darkness, its surface an imperfect mirror of the sky. Objections rose into his mind— too old, too young, she’ll leave, she’ll want to stay— all of which she clearly accepted, or she would not be alluding to transient joys. “It adds... complications,” he said hoarsely.
“So did leaving Gallifrey.” She felt so right resting against him, as if nothing at all were different from five minutes ago. “The fact is, I love you. You care deeply for me. That’s a simple equation, although we may choose how best to apply it.”
He gave a feeble chuckle, even as sky and water seemed to flip-flop. But it was not as if she were revealing any great secret, only naming an unspoken truth. “Nyssa, you’re trying to reduce affection to mathematics.” Attraction, he could not bring himself to say.
“And arranging facts to fit a hypothesis. Quite naughty of me.” Her mischievous tone faded. “We've seen one another in the throes of pain, of grief, of anger, of scientific curiosity; we’ve touched each other’s minds. Is pleasure truly the one intimacy too dangerous to share?”
“You’re trying to seduce me with logic, aren’t you?”
“How else should I go about it?” She shook her head and started to withdraw. “Forgive me, Doctor. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Nothing should have been able to breach that barrier of propriety he maintained at all times, particularly since fate had seen fit to regenerate him into a youthful body whose natural impulsiveness made a mockery of his true age. Perhaps he would have felt differently on a different day, when he had not seen one companion stripped of personality and another — Nyssa, Nyssa, just out of his reach, whirling forever in the void — crushed under the cruel grinding wheels of a juggernaut.
No. He would have felt no differently. But perhaps he would not have yielded to temptation, blocking her retreat with one arm while raising a hand to cup her chin between finger and thumb. Perhaps he would not have bent his head, breath ruffling the wisps of hair framing her cheeks, and fallen into her sweet, eager kisses like a drowning man gulping air. Perhaps the rosy veils of the Lagoon Nebula and those green streaks of light would not have been mere stage dressing for something more beautiful, her head and shoulders limned by firelight, silhouetted against that wondrous sky.
Perhaps he would never have seen her exquisite features lost in ecstasy, this daughter of an Eden where tasting the fruit of knowledge was neither shame nor sin.
And perhaps, on that distant day in a space station that reeked of disease and despair, a chaste peck on the cheek would not have burned like a falling star.