It was a Tuesday.
Just an ordinary Tuesday of my new life that, a decade and a half into it, was no longer so new. But it was a day on which the strangeness of this new life had struck me unexpectedly, as seemed to happen at random every now and again. I'd stood in the market picking over fruit, and suddenly found myself marvelling that this fuzzy green one no longer existed when I'd lived my previous life, and found myself aching for one particularly delicious fruit not yet known here, on this still lovely world, in this impossibly distant past.
And I found, as I lugged my groceries home, juggling my camera and sketchpad -- for it was Tuesday mornings when I joined an art class in the park to struggle with my poor drawings and only slightly better photos -- that I was aching again for the man who'd delivered, however inadvertantly, this strange life to me. And I wondered -- again -- at what a transformed person I'd become at his side, and how the old before-him me would have called these changes he'd wrought in me changes for the worse, but which the new me, the fifteen-years-new me, now recognized as merely the price that needed to be paid to bring me to this present contentment.
So I ached for him, but it was a dull, comfortable ache, one that I'd learned to carry without hope of it ever being assuaged.
Yet there he was.
He sat on the top of the stoop of my house -- well, not my house, but the one generously allowed to me -- one boot-clad toe tapping absently, heavily as he glanced up and down the street till he saw me, and a grin split his face in two.
It was not the same face I'd fallen in love with, nor the same face that had come, briefly, to see me almost ten years earlier. This dangerous physical inconstancy I'd come to accept long before, though I'd feared the threat of it for a long time. Now, it seemed like mere detail.
I stopped at the foot of the short flight of stairs and stared at him for a moment. His eyes went wide, and he said nothing, but he said it like it was everything, like he was wound up in hopeful expectancy.
I climbed the stairs, put my bundles of everyday life down against the door, and sat next to him. Still he said nothing, only stared at me, and I studied his new face, handsome in a more severe way than the one I'd met so long ago... yet the same keen light shone out of the same blue eyes. His hair, much darker now, was shorn close to his head, and there were newer, harsher angles to his face that spoke of rough years since I'd seen him last. His smile was not the cheery beam I'd known, but a lonelier curl of a sadder mouth.
Still, I would have known him whatever he looked like: my mind recognized the emotional aura he glowed with. I could not embrace that -- not yet, maybe not ever -- but I touched his cheek with one gentle hand, and his eyes went wide, and he caught his breath as I leaned in and kissed his mouth softly.
"Doctor," I breathed.
He let out that held breath in a relieved huff. "Ayren..."
I chuckled. "Did you think I wouldn't know you?"
"I-- I didn't know..." He grinned, and it was like the warmth of a long-forgotten sun. "I should have."
I let my hand rest on his shoulder as I rose. He didn't move.
"You coming in?" I asked.
He said nothing, but that grin -- which I decided instantly that I liked -- blossomed again.
"Well, make yourself useful," I told him, pointing at my shopping and art tools as I fumbled with the keys in the door.
I was shy again inside, busying myself putting the groceries away in the kitchen, keeping my back to him -- I could feel him standing at the counter behind me, watching me, waiting for me to either truly welcome him or kick him out.
My heart was pounding as I slotted cans and boxes into their assigned cabinets, made room for veggies and cheese in the refrigerator. The Doctor. The impossible man of my life... Crouching in front of the fridge, I let my head rest in my trembling hands for a moment.
He tensed behind me -- I felt that in my mind like a mental gasp, felt it in my gut like the twist of a knife. For all the many nights I'd lain awake in bed remembering the feel of his hands on me, there were ten I'd spent longing for the profound intimacy of simply knowing, all the time, how the man I loved most and dearest was feeling.
He's been silent since outside -- now he said, "Where's Tristan?"
Still crouched with the open door of the fridge bumping into my back, I squeezed my eyes shut. Tristan. My son. Our son.
"He's at school," I said, not looking at him. "He stays there during the week, usually." I stood and turned and faced him -- his face was blank, and the turmoil roiling through him was a muddy mystery. He could have been anxious, or proud, or both, or something else entirely -- he was so alien that even sharing what he felt didn't always mean I understood it. "He'll be home on Friday. Can you-- will you stay for a few days?"
"If you want me to." He blinked. "I'd like to."
"Good." I sighed. "He'd like to-- I think it would be good for him to meet you."
"Brilliant." He grinned again. "What day is it today?"
I made tea.
Tea had been our buffer and our icebreaker when we'd been stumbling our way toward falling in love so many years earlier. A tray of tea and biscuits in the TARDIS library, and an opportunity to sit close on the couch and talk about anything but how we were spiralling inexorably into each other. And now we sat on the couch in my living room in -- goodness! -- New York City on a Tuesday in the spring of the year 2005 and stared at each other and stumbled to get past the weight of everything between us.
"How are you?" he asked, finally. But it wasn't the blandly polite inquiry the question usually is -- he wanted the honest truth.
"Better than I was," I said, the last time you saw me, I didn't need to add. When Tristan was a very small boy and I was so absurdly fragile from the trauma of life with the Doctor and how suddenly and horribly and tragically it ended that my sanity was in danger. "Much better. Good even." Most days.
He turned away to sip tea, then looked back to me. "I'm glad."
He was, momentarily, and then that gladness flitted away. I couldn't understand at all the chaotic whirl of his mind: his had always been a murky presence, but a calm one, and one that danced, more often than not, with an untroubled joy. Now there was havoc, and no hint of any pleasure that wasn't fleeting. "You're different," I said.
"I've regenerated. Twice." He grinned that grin again, and suddenly I understood that it was a way to distance himself from crueler, more intense emotions that he was deliberately tamping down.
"No. It's something else."
His grin fell away. "A lot has happened."
"Will you tell me?"
His brows knit in worry-- no, it was something else, something I couldn't identify. "Not yet. Maybe. I-- I know I've barged in. I know we agreed I wouldn't--"
"I'm glad you did."
He barrelled on as if he hadn't heard me. "I wanted to see you. Make sure you're okay. And Tristan." And then it registered. "What?"
"I've been thinking for a while now that I wished you would come around."
"It's been so long..."
"No, it's not that. It's... what made you come now?"
"I don't know."
But he did know. That much I could tell.
The phone rang, and the caller ID told me I should take it, and so we were saved for the moment from having to deal with his lie.
"Hey, it's Peter," said the voice on the other end. "You busy? I think we've got something for you."
"Um, sure," I said. "Where are you?"
"Washington Square Park."
"Okay, where? By the library, by the arch...?"
He snorted down the line. "The whole damn park. Just follow the circus."
The Doctor was looking politely off into the distance, as if he hadn't overheard my end of the conversation, but he glanced back when I snapped the phone shut.
"So," I asked him, "you wanna see how I've been earning my keep with UNIT?"
He grinned again.
George was coming out as we were leaving, skipping down the stairs from his upstairs apartment, but with a forced air of casualness, as if he had been waiting to hear my door and accidentally deliberately happened to decide to step out at the same time. Probably he'd noticed the Doctor sitting on the stoop for, well, however long he'd been waiting for me -- I'd been gone since early morning and it was well past lunchtime, so it could have been hours. I took my time with the key in my door just to give him a chance to reach the landing.
"Hey," he said -- he made it sound like a question.
"Hi, George," I said, sounding far calmer than I was: for just then, I felt, literally felt like a physical touch, the Doctor behind me cock a quizzical eyebrow, and the dizzying realization hit me finally that everything that we had had so long ago was still there, just waiting to be picked up and played with again. And that it would be even more dangerous to do so now.
But George had far more call to be concerned for me these days than the Doctor did, and I felt more compelled to reassure my neighbor and trusted friend than I did my old lover.
"How's Michael?" I asked, touching George's arm gently, smiling a cheerful smile.
He got the message. "Michael's good," angling a skeptical glare in the Doctor's direction anyway. "He was wondering if we were still on for Saturday..." That was for the Doctor's benefit, and I sensed the Time Lord stiffen, ready to be annoyed. Let him.
"Um, I don't know. Probably. I'll call you."
On the street outside, I stalked ahead of the Doctor toward Seventh Avenue, leaving him to catch up to me... which he did, on legs even longer than he'd had when I knew him. How does that happen? "Let's walk," I said. "It's such a nice day."
He shrugged. "Friend of yours?"
"Who, George? Sure." Not at first. No: When UNIT moved me and Tristan to West 22nd Street, to a house owned by the UN, they'd assigned us Michael, a former British Special Forces operative, as our bodyguard... at least, that's what the UNIT commander at the time had told me. Michael and I had long since straightened out that mess -- he'd been lied to even worse than I had -- and we'd seen that UNIT toady transferred to the Australian Outback in the process. Now we were all great friends, Tristan and I and Michael and George, a UNIT exobiochemist and Michael's husband.
It was pointless trying to make the Doctor jealous -- is that what I was doing? -- because I knew that he could tell as plain as day that there was nothing between George and me but warm friendship. But maybe when he met Peter...
"So what have you been up to?" I asked the Doctor as we turned down Seventh. "Still saving the universe on a daily basis?"
"Oh, you know, parts of it, sometimes." He was forcing the air of merriness that had used to be his natural demeanor, and then it fogged over again. "Other times..."
Well, if he was going to hang around till Friday, there was time to figure out what was going on with him -- no point in pressing him now. So I stuck to the casual catching up. "Traveling alone?" He'd mentioned someone -- a Mel, I think -- last time I saw him, but surely she couldn't still be with him, nearly a decade later. Did anyone last more than a couple of years with him?
"No, but they're off sightseeing in the twenty-seventh century at the moment. There's Rose. You'd like her. And Jack. He'd like you."
"He'd like me?" I laughed.
"Jack likes beautiful people." We were crossing Seventh, and the Doctor halted in the middle of the street to give me a frankly appreciative look that sent a jolt of raw electricity through me. "And you look fantastic, Ayren."
"You're looking pretty good yourself, Doctor." He was: tall and lean in black jeans and black boots and a dark green sweater under a black leather jacket, he could have been an artist or a schoolteacher or a dot-com billionaire. In fact, he couldn't possibly have been less out of place in early 21st-century New York if he tried. He hadn't used to like dressing to fit in, but he'd done so sometimes in order to please me. Maybe I'd had some long-lasting impact on him after all...
Car horns blared -- we were still in the middle of the street, and the lights had changed, unleashing angry traffic on us. We laughed and the Doctor grabbed my hand and we dashed toward 18th Street, and he didn't let go as we slowed to a walk again. With a grin and a wink, he threaded his fingers through mine and gave my hand a squeeze, and we shared a tremble of sudden unpent longing.
Okay, so that's still there, too.
I was in big trouble.
The circus, as Peter had called it, began at Fifth and 13th, where news vans were parked willy-nilly everywhere and mobs of gawkers had gathered at the police sawhorses blocking access down the avenue and into the park. I flashed my ID at a fresh-faced uniform who barely looked older than Tristan, and he lifted the horse aside and let me past. I turned to tell the young cop that the Doctor was with me in time to see the Time Lord hold up an empty wallet and the cop wave him through.
I grabbed the wallet from the Doctor as we strolled past parked ESU trucks with their lights flashing pointlessly on the blocked-off street. "Blank paper?"
"Psychic paper," he said. "To that cop, it looked like yours. Which looks like...?"
I showed him the ID: my photo and some nonsense about me being a member of a special UN taskforce on crime, all across a background of that friendly UN sky-blue.
"Ah," he said. "You're a cop?" He sounded like he'd discovered that I was an elephant wrangler.
"No, I'm just a consultant. My, er, unusual background gives me something of an edge when it comes to certain police investigations. There were 570 murders in New York City last year, and you'll never guess how many of them involved aliens..."
"I'm guessing you don't mean the illegal-immigrant kind."
"Do you enjoy this? It's not at all what I would have expected you to be doing."
Of course it isn't. I had been a sheltered, delicate creature from a veritable utopia before I met the Doctor and he introduced me to the tooth and claw of the universe. I was a lot harder now... even if I had to lose my mind and find it again to get here.
But I didn't say that. I said, "There's not much else I'm good for here--"
"I find that hard to believe."
"I've been out there." I raised my gaze, nodded to the sky. "That's rare for here and now. Plus it lets me keep a foot in the door at the UN, keep an eye on what they're doing to Tristan."
"What are they doing to Tristan?" The tremor that shot through him was easy to identify: he was mad, and worried. Let him stew. If he'd waited this long to find out what was happening with his son, he could wait a few minutes longer.
"Peter!" I called: he was holding court under the arch with a gaggle of uniforms hanging on words we were still too far away to overhear, and he looked up and waved us over and dismissed his troops to disperse in all directions. This would be his crime scene, despite the brass types in expensive suits hovering anxiously nearby, and I suddenly recognized the effortless air of authority with which he surveyed the park while waiting for us: it was like the Doctor's.
I found myself perversely pleased that Peter was looking particularly sharp today -- he probably knew he'd end up on TV before the day was out -- and on an unexpected impulse I leaned in past his greeting handshake to kiss the corner of his mouth. It startled Peter: even when we were more on-again than off-again, I never would have done that while we were working if the Doctor hadn't been there to take jealous note of it. Which he did, sizzling with something unpleasant, even if it did dissipate rather more quickly than I would have liked. But I supposed there would have been no hiding from even someone who wasn't empathic that it was no grand undying passion between me and Peter: just kindred spirits and a shared comfortable solitude that required company only occasionally.
"Doctor," I said, standing closer to Peter than professionalism liked, "this is Lieutenant Peter Varela. Peter, the Doctor."
Peter scowled until I added: "He's okay. He's... he taught me everything I know," and the Doctor flashed a grin and that empty wallet again.
A long considering moment and a glance to me that reassured him, and Peter shrugged. "Whatever. Welcome to the Weird Shit Squad, Doctor."
And then there was that, too, I was reminded like a stinging slap in the face as Peter led us to the northeast corner of the park: even this brilliant man was fooled by the Doctor's tricksy psychic paper. He was blind in a way that he didn't even realize, ignorant in a way that had nothing to do with intelligence. Cornell and Yale and Oxford: he had to be one of the best educated members of the NYPD, and as lead investigator of the force's euphemistically named Special Situation Squad, he knew... well, that there were plenty of people running around New York City who were not human. But that wasn't enough. It wasn't his fault he was born too early for genetic tinkering and an influx of alien base codes into human DNA to give some of us homo sapiens capabilities the species hadn't been born with. So I could have physical sex with Peter, and I did, but without the profoundly intimate telempathic component the Doctor had introduced me to, I couldn't make love with him, not in any way that was meaningful to me anymore.
That was something else the Doctor had ruined me for.
"Ayren--" Peter was saying, his hand lightly on my arm. "You okay?"
Blank: just blank. Peter was worried, which I gathered from the knit of his brow, and from the dim reflection of my own empathic light that couldn't help but reach out to him; he shone not at all on his own. But the Doctor behind me, out of sight? He burned me like a sun.
"I'm fine," I said, and smiled.
"Right. So: this is Victim Number One."
Yellow tape and officers in moonsuits combing through the grass behind the park benches and one in a windbreaker snapping photographs and an empty baby stroller sadly askew on the path and a lumpy white tarp on the ground with a pink sneaker-clad foot jutting out from under it. Peter lifted yellow tape and the three of us ducked under, and he nodded to a moonsuit, who pulled the tarp up and away.
"Oh, gods," I breathed, and crouched down next to her. She was Hispanic, maybe 20 years old -- I still was a poor guesser of people's ages here, but I was getting better -- and her pretty face was contorted in an expression of utter surprise that likely had something to do with the four-inch-diameter hole that had been neatly punched through her midsection. It was more than merely surgically precise: it was smooth and perfectly cauterized. There was no blood, no flesh, no nothing except pebbles and faded patches of ancient chewing gum and the green dust of springtime pollen on the concrete path I could see where her abdomen should have been.
The Doctor just stared at her from a few feet away, his mouth tight, and studiously avoided my gaze when I stood again.
"You haven't moved anything?" I asked Peter.
"Just the baby." He nodded to a uniform pacing on the grass in the distance, bouncing a toddler in her arms. "Kid's white. We're guessing she's the nanny. Or even if she isn't... We're trying to find family before we put the kid in the system."
But there was nothing to have been moved, it seemed, no evidence to be collected. The dead woman on the ground was the only unusual thing in sight.
"Witnesses?" I asked. "There must have been hundreds of people around..."
"A lot of them ran, as you might imagine. We're still getting statements from the ones who didn't. And so far they're all unanimous: she was fine one minute, and the next she was on the ground with a hole in her." Peter screwed up his face like he was deciding whether to tell me the next bit... and then he did. "Apparently it took a few minutes for her to die."
"Shit." I stood there stunned and bewildered for a moment, trying to find my bearings by thinking what I always thought in these situations -- What would the Doctor do? -- and he was right there, refusing to look at me, not taking his eyes off the woman on the ground. And then it hit me, and I rounded on Peter. "You said 'Victim Number One'?"
Peter barked a humorless laugh. "Yeah. As if this isn't freaky enough, we have an identical dead body in each of the other three corners of the park."
He nodded. "Near as we can tell, they were all killed at the exact same moment."
Now the Doctor spoke. "I want to see all of them," he whispered.
In the southeast corner, it was a girl with blond dreadlocks, an overstuffed backpack, and an NYU ID. In the southwest, an elderly black man, one of the chess players who made a daily hangout of that area. In the northwest, it was a young white man in dirty jeans who was -- Peter informed us with a grimace -- an undercover cop on a drug detail.
The Doctor hovered over each of them, but near as I could tell, he just looked at their faces: they all wore that same look of astonishment, and his own was shadowed with rage. I knew that look, and I recognized the aura he was radiating, though it was bleaker even than when I'd used to feel it so long ago -- he was disgusted at the waste of life, at the clear intrusion of otherworldly influence where it was not yet even understood, and the obvious pointlessness of it.
Peter and I left him to it, and conferred over organizing witness statements, analysis of the park's surveillance cameras, and other tedious minutiae of police work, and when the Doctor finally wandered back to us, he was distracted and quiet.
"What would do this, Doctor?" I asked him. "What kind of weapon?"
He shook his head uneasily. "Not a weapon. Not something meant to be a weapon. A focused quantum borer, a targeted microwormhole, a transdimensional--" He interrupted himself to throw a dismayed glare at Peter. "You're completely bloody useless." And he stalked off.
Peter was so stunned the Doctor might as well have punched him in the jaw. And, for the Doctor, who wielded disdain like a bludgeon, that was basically what he'd done. "Who the fuck is that guy?" Peter stammered.
I couldn't say anything for a long moment, and then I almost laughed, and caught myself, because Peter didn't deserve that. "He's Tristan's father."
"Holy shit, really?"
"Yeah. Look, you already know way more about him than you should" -- and you don't know the half of it -- "so just keep it to yourself, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Is he always like that?"
"I haven't seen him in a long time... but, yes, I'm afraid so."
The temperature between us suddenly dropped about twenty degrees, and I knew he was thinking about what a man has to do with a woman in order to become the father of her child. "And he just shows up out of the blue, today, after how many years?"
Now I did laugh. "Oh, Peter, that shade of green does not suit you."
He shrugged elaborately. "Hey, I'm just saying... he's an alien, right? Maybe he's our perp."
"I think I can promise you that he is the one suspect you can definitely cross off your list."
The Doctor's timing, though... I had to admit to myself that it was highly suspicious. I watched him marching in circles at the edge of the park, waiting for me but too agitated to stand still, and I knew that if he hadn't arrived here in New York aware that something was up, it meant he was seriously off his game, and that a lot more had changed with him than I'd realized. And that if he didn't already have a very good idea who was responsible for the mess in the park, he would soon.