Michael hadn't stepped out for more than three minutes before she heard footsteps returning toward her room. Sharp clicks of masculine shoes, not the snap of high heels she expected from the nurses. Michael couldn't have gone down to the cafeteria and come back so soon. Not with the lunch rush. Not if he was going to snag her one of those delicious chicken salads.
It wasn't Michael that stepped through her door. The heart monitor gave a little jolt, though to be completely honest with herself, Tegan wasn't the slightest bit surprised to see him walk back into her life unannounced. That was always the way he came, the way he went.
He removed his hat as if saluting a flag, as if a hearse was passing between them. His eyes hadn't changed. They still looked so sad.
"Hello, Tegan," he said, that familiar greeting from gray mornings in space, in the leafy greens of some far-off planet and time. His face hadn't pulled back into its accompanying smile, and her heart told her how much she missed it then tucked it away.
She opened her mouth, but he held up one hand and one finger.
"Let me say my piece first," he began, stepping lightly into the room and spinning to shut her door, "and then I promise you that you can talk me into the ground." He turned back once the door had shut, the merest ghost of a smile clinging to the edges of his lips. "And if there's one thing you know how to do, Tegan--"
"Doc," she interrupted.
He held up his single finger a second time.
"Do you know how long it took me to decide to find you?" He asked. The television from the room adjacent to hers was blaring. A soap opera--no, even better, a telenovela. He approached with soft steps, careful as if avoiding something winding about his ankles. "Seven minutes," he replied.
She frowned, looking toward the door anxiously. Michael had sworn that if the Doctor dared to show his face again, after what he'd pulled two years ago, he'd break the timelord's nose.
"Don't worry about him," the Doctor cut in. "The register at the cafeteria seems to be malfunctioning for some reason. He'll have already got you your salad with no croutons and, I'll wager, found himself sandwiched between a surly man in a full beard with a slice of cheesecake and a woman with three children shouting for their crackers."
He smiled at her defiant frown that furrowed even further, and when he made a move to sit at the foot of her bed, she threw her leg quickly over his destination and crowded him out.
"Doctor," her voice bit the air.
"Eight minutes," he said, holding both hands out placidly between them. "Please, just let me talk for eight minutes."
He looked exhausted. Weary and tired and sad. And she buttoned her lip and slowly edged her legs back to the center of the bed. The Doctor nodded thankfully and took his seat on the crisp white sheet and blanket. For once, he stood out against his surroundings, she thought with an internal laugh.
"Tegan," he began again, sounding breathless. "I left you in 2006 and seven minutes later, I'm in a hospital wandering the corridors and asking blindly for Tegan Jovanka." He looked at his knees, where his hands bunched until their knuckles turned white. His voice was remarkably clear when he continued: "I didn't know you'd married him."
The single finger shot out again and he shook his head, blond hair shifting across his eyes. "Seven minutes."
He looked away, out the window, out over the heads of gray buildings that surrounded the hospital, the golden sparkle of the noonday sun in the windows, the cloudless blue sky. He gave a helpless sort of laugh, turning his eyes back to her with the sun still caught somewhere inside them.
"Two years for you, Tegan, but all it took me was seven minutes to realize how unfair everything you told me was. Seven minutes and all of your twenty years gone for me to sort it all out. It's damn unfair of you to say that, Tegan."
"Doc, it's been two years--"
"I have six-and-a-half minutes, Tegan," he said, his voice careful and thin, treading on the thin ice that had formed over his throat. He didn't bother to clear it away, simply sealed his lips for a moment in thought. "It's egotistical of me to deny what you said. I know you didn't love me, never did, likely never could." His eyes lingered, sad and cold like winter. "That you'd walk away with that notion, never considering that I might have loved you. That was awfully unfair of you, Tegan."
She might have sat straight up in her bed of she'd felt the strength. Her heart monitor screeched a warning at her sudden increase in BPM, and the Doctor watched it warily, silently. He didn't seem to regret a word of it, ashen in the finality of it.
"Doesn't matter," she said slowly. Her voice was too soft, not even a hint of the strength she'd had two years ago, running from Cybermen, saving Brisbane, saving him. "I still wouldn't have gone with you. In the TARDIS."
"I know," he said. He had the same look in his eye, the same defeated, hopeless look as they watched the ship crash into prehistoric Earth, Adric trapped inside. He looked exactly the same. Worn, afraid. "You're going to die, Tegan."
She rolled her eyes as best she could. "I've been dying for a long time."
"In five minutes," he told her. "As much as you want to blame me for the cash register in the cafeteria, that was none of my doing. You were going to die alone, Tegan, and I wouldn't stand for that." His voice caught on the last, and, stubborn to the end, he turned his eyes away from her to retain what little control he had left on his voice.
Instead of thanking him for the company, she struggled up to one elbow to gain some indignant height on him. "You could have grabbed him from the line! Bollocks to my salad! Doctor, he's my husband!" Her vision of him clouded, blurring beige and blond and blue together. She didn't even bother to scrub away the tears.
"I can't change history," the Doctor shot back. "Michael gets the news from a nurse in ten minutes and he spills the salad all over the hallway. And he won't let them take you away for another two hours. He shouts at the nurses that it's all the doctor's fault... But you know which Doctor he really blames." His voice didn't have its bite any longer. His eyebrows have turned up, twisted back into something sorrowful, premature mourning. "That's how it happens."
Her breath felt thin. Space helmets on the Urbankan ship, the air slowly running out, the Doctor's breathing shallow, desperate, eyes wide as she stared down at him, safe in her space helmet.
Her anger melted. Melted away along with everything else.
"How long?" she asked. Her voice didn't feel like her own. The Mara, using her body and breath and voice, the snake swirling as it danced between the mirrors, the Doctor shaking her back to reality. Shaking her, steadying her.
"Four minutes," he replied. His eyes were anchors, the only part of the room that hadn't begun to swirl. "Lie down," he uttered from somewhere close. He helped her ease back down into the bed, lingering. The bed sagged as he moved nearer, up close against her side, ribs against his leg.
"No, I mean..." She closed her eyes, and the right words burned against the inside of her eyelids. She half laughed. It didn't hurt so much anymore. "How long have you secretly been in love with me, Doc?"
She opened her eyes again as he smoothed her hair back from her brow. He felt cool, a fall breeze against a warm body still lingering in summer. Leaning over her as her consciousness fell away after the android had tossed her aside, worry in those blue eyes. Blue that never blurred.
"A long time, for a human," he replied simply.
"Hell's teeth," she breathed with much effort. "Can't even get a straight answer when I'm on my back and dying."
He sighed, something like that annoyed hiss she remembered from years and years ago. She'd never forgotten. Even if she'd never been in love with him. Even if she had been...
"Do you remember the Terileptil?" he asked, cold hand soothing hot brow. She was vaguely aware of her machines pinging all around her.
"How d'you forget? If you can tell me how... I'd like to know." She almost felt like laughing. She'd been as angry as hell two minutes ago. Now she felt twenty-six years old again, flitting about in a little blue box like the rules of time and space meant nothing.
"Around the Terileptils, before the Cybermen," he replied, a soft echo of an echo.
"Then why'd you leave me?" Was it her asking? Had it been out loud?
"The Cyber Leader used you against me," he answered. "He could have used Adric, but he used you. I didn't... Is this really the time for explanations, Tegan?"
"When's a better time for you, Doctor?" She asked, her breath tight and loose at the same time. The room and the world reeled, but not his eyes.
He didn't smile. She was sure that she'd meant it to be funny. Fingers in her hair.
"Tegan Jovanka," he said. And this time she didn't mind. Michael would be all right. He knew it was going to happen sooner or later. They'd done what they could. She'd been happy.
She'd been happy. The Eye of Orion, the air that smelled like roses.
His eyes finally blurred, and he held a blurring hand to one of them. "I didn't want you to be alone," he said at last, his voice wavering like his image.
She couldn't stand the whirling and the blurring of the world any longer. Funny, she hadn't felt so odd until the Doctor showed up. She wondered if it would have been the same if he hadn't show up. Then again, she had almost been expecting him. Maybe she knew. Maybe something inside knew that when the time came, he'd be there.
His kiss was just as cold against her brow. A rushed good-bye kiss, the kind you pressed to your secret lover's forehead as he climbed out your window before the sun rose. Something she'd been expecting for a long time.
A nurse approached Michael at a run as he entered the long, sterile hallway from the cafeteria. His wife had died three minutes ago, very suddenly. The chicken salad dropped from his hand, the flimsy plastic container springing open and dashing greens all across the linoleum and the nurse's white shoes.