He stands in the doorway, a silhouette of Death; he’s pale, his cheeks are too hollow and there’s a heavy black coat draped over his shoulders. Nyssa, expecting a patient, smiles kindly and gently guides him to a seat. It takes her a moment to realise that that his skin is free from blemishes and his hand is too cold for one infected with Lazur’s disease.
She raises an eyebrow, and when she speaks her tone is elegant and refined and brimming with distain. “Are you from the company?”
He shakes his head, and she realises that his whole body is shaking, just a little. Perhaps he is ill after all. She leans forward, pushes the leather away from his wrist and uses her fingers to take his pulse. There are two heart beats.
Her startled expression meets his dark eyes. She asks, already knowing.
When the Doctor opens his eyes, he’s not where he expects to be. The walls are a dull, wasting grey, and the air stinks of chemicals that he wishes he was unfamiliar with. He remembers this place, though the memory is distant and worn with time. A movement beside him and he realises that he is not alone. He turns his head.
It’s Nyssa, and not nearly as young as he remembers her. She’s not old, but she’s tired and there’s a weariness around her shoulders, her lips, that it pains him to see. She moves a hand to his forehead, her fingers warm against his skin.
“When did you last eat?” she says, picking up a cup and raising it to his mouth. He takes a sip. It’s water, with a bitter aftertaste.
“I haven’t,” he tells her honestly. I can’t, he omits.
“Are you dying, Doctor?” she asks, and there is infinite compassion in her voice, infinite strength.
“I already tried that this year.”
“Yes,” he says simply.
She looks away, her manners are impeccable: she knows he doesn’t want to talk, so she doesn’t want to ask. He reaches out to her: long, thin fingers wrapping round her delicate wrist and its warm, soft skin. She places her hand over his, and he breathes a little more easily.
“You have to eat,” she says quietly. “I know you are in pain, but you must eat.”
Talking seems easier in the morning. The Doctor assumes he’s become acclimatised to this sombre grey place and the rumble of metal against metal that rolls through the walls. He’s certainly no longer bothered by the distant murmur of voices or the sharp screams that pierce the air once or twice an hour. Nyssa barely reacts: a tightening of her jaw, a quick glance at the door and she goes back to work.
He feels stronger now. Strong enough to sit up, to look around and take an interest in his surroundings. He realises that he’s on a bunk in a lab, probably there for convenience, saving someone a walk back to their quarters after a long night…or is it for patients? His vantage point doesn’t allow him to discern whether the equipment is geared towards research or treatment.
Nyssa sits at a workbench, only a few metres away, hunched forward and deep in concentration. Her movements are occasional and quiet, and the Doctor watches her, fascinated by how someone who looks so fragile could survive in this unforgiving place.
This place, Terminus, the centre of the universe, and the leper colony where he left her all those regenerations ago. He’d spent the guilt centuries before, and all that was left was a warm gladness that she had managed to thrive here, that her confidence and optimism in finding a cure for the disease had been justified.
“Busy?” he asks, and she turns, smiling at him.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like a patient.” He jumps out of bed, looks around for his jacket, and finds it hanging on a hook by the door. “Which doesn’t seem quite right to me.”
Nyssa puts down her pen, pushing her paperwork to one side. “You should rest. It takes longer than a few hours to recover from malnutrition.”
He flashes her a smile as he shrugs his jacket on. “Not for a Time Lord.”
“Doctor…” she sighs, chewing her bottom lip, but there’s no force behind her objection; she knows he’ll do exactly what he wants.
“So how are things here? Doesn’t seem quite so doom and gloom as my last visit.”
“We’re a proper hospital colony now,” she says, the pride evident in her voice. “Self-sustaining, and a seventy-three percent cure rate for those with Lazur’s disease. In the past few months we’ve expanded our labs into researching two other terminal diseases. ”
He smiles again, but this time it’s deep and genuine, and he steps forward, embracing her quickly and warmly. “I knew you could do it.”
“We still have problems though. The company sends the occasional saboteur now they know we’ve succeeded, and money is always scarce.”
“But you’re curing people?”
He falls into a routine, and, with Nyssa beside him, the other scientists and the guards abandoned on Terminus quickly accept him. He takes care of the most tedious calculations, checks and double-checks results and always Nyssa is there, a reassuring presence at his side, steady and unflappable.
When he finally talks to her, it’s early morning and they’ve both been awake all night. She, because a ship of plague victims arrived unexpectedly the previous day; he, because he’d rather run through systems checks than sleep. She comes to him, exhausted, but unwilling to forgo her regular check of her most difficult patient.
“You should sleep,” she tells him, slipping into the chair opposite his computer and resting her chin in her hands.
“So should you,” he retorts, not bothering to look up.
“I’m used to this.”
“And I’m not?”
She laughs. Gently, sadly, but it breaks his attention away from the screen. “I wouldn’t know,” she says.
“And you want to?” He catches her eye, and for a moment she is perfectly still, then she nods.
“Very much so.”
“It’s been a long time, Nyssa. Much longer for me.”
“I understand.” She leans forward, her eyes steady. “Please, what happened to Tegan?”
The Doctor looks down, not at the computer, but at his hands, remembering when they were younger and softer. “She went back to her own time, on Earth. We didn’t part under the best of circumstances.”
“Like I said, it was all a long time ago.”
“And the boy? Turlough?”
“Returned to his people.”
She nods, and there is a long drawn moment of silence before she speaks again, and says, “And you, Doctor?”
He barely moves, perhaps only his shoulders, a slight slump forward. But she is out of her seat and takes one of his hands in both of hers and holds it tightly, never looking away from him. “What happened, Doctor?” she asks, her voice barely a whisper.
He looks up, and his eyes glisten, every muscle in his face is taught. “They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
At first, she doesn’t realise what he means. But he says no more, and he doesn’t pull away and all she sees is that blind, distraught look enveloping his features, and his eyes: piercing her, holding her, willing her to understand.
It is a painful realisation.
And she can think of nothing else to say. Her Doctor, though young, had never appeared to want or need any physical closeness; this one seems afraid to let her go.
So she leans closer, and she kisses him.
He kisses her back, awkwardly, desperately, a child seeking reassurance. She doesn’t care, and she suspects he doesn’t either. This isn’t about romance, or love, or friendship. She lets him pull her to the floor because that ache deep and hidden inside her is her last memory of her lost world, her lost people and she doesn’t ever blame him, not once, not ever.
Because he’s the Doctor and he saved the universe…
…and he’s as thin under the jacket and jumper as she’d suspected. Emaciated, and wasting away with the same pain that’s inside of her.
“The Master killed my step-mother, and then my father, and now the world that I grew up in…blotted out forever.”
“Earth’s galaxy still has a few hours left…”
“You killed my father.” And the eyes, so flat and cold told her it was true.
Nyssa wakes and concentrates on her breathing, keeping it deep and steady. There is nothing here that could hurt her, nothing except, perhaps, the Doctor. She looks down at him, and shivers; his face seems almost skeletal in the grey light.
He can’t stay, and she knows that now. However he might see the timelines, she knows that she needs to be able to leave some things in the past. It’s not selfish, it’s practical: he’ll hurt her and she can’t help him.
So she gets out of bed too noisily and pours herself a glass of water. He wakes slowly, wary of the morning, but as he sits up, she doesn’t waste any time.
“I’d forgotten, but where did you leave the TARDIS? No-one’s mentioned seeing her, but it would be sensible to move her somewhere secure.”
“She isn’t here,” he tells her. “I arrived on a plague ship.”
Nyssa covers her surprise well, and asks, “How will you get back to her?”
A smile, a shy one. “I’ll find a way.”
“I can arrange a ship for you.”
“Thanks.” He gets out of bed, pulls on his clothes quickly and efficiently. She doesn’t watch him, but runs through her morning schedule, sipping at the glass of water.
When she feels him standing over her, she glances up at him, and her eyes fall on the coat, the heavy leather, his protection.
“You want me to leave,” he says quietly.
“Doctor…” She struggles, she doesn’t want to be cruel. “This isn’t the place for you. Running diagnostics, checking figures, basic triage…that isn’t who you are. This place, it’s too small for you.” This place is my place, my fight, she thinks. Terminus has always been for the dying.
“Where do I go?” he asks her simply, and, for the first time, she realises how lost he is. Whatever was in her, whatever held her together, is alien to the Doctor. She remembers Gallifrey now, the archaic splendour, the ornate costumes and the stifling bureaucracy, and how the Doctor was so desperate to be away from it all.
She remembers the gun in her hands, and the adrenaline surging through her as she raced through the great hallways, desperate to find the Doctor, to protect the Doctor. She knows that she shot Gallifreyans, Time Lords, and she doesn’t know if they survived.
But she remembers the strength of Gallifrey, and those deep foundations that stretched back across millennia, and it frightens her that there was a power great enough to bring all that crumbling down.
And whether he acknowledges it or not, the Doctor is a part of Gallifrey, and all the greatness that she had embodied.
He could not stay.
“You always seemed to be very fond of Earth,” Nyssa says, thinking quickly. “We all have our homes away from home.”
His lips quirk. “That’s a human expression.”
“And you do get along with the people there.”
“Most of them,” he admits.
“Then go there. Stay there. For as long as it takes.” Her tone is soft, reasonable, convincing. It’s a life-line so fragile that she thinks he’s afraid to touch it. He needs people who can live, and here there are only those afraid of death.
It would be too easy to stay, to find a place here and quietly live out day after sombre day. Because Tegan was right; Nyssa knows that she will die here, fighting her own private war against death, against hopelessness, but it’s her war, on her terms and it will only be over when she dies, when she loses. And whatever small difference she has made, it will be enough.
But the Doctor had always been a citizen of the universe.
So she takes his face in her hands, her thumbs stroking his cheeks, and tells him, “You’ll find a way.”
“How?” he asks, a quiet, desperate syllable.
“Because you’re alive. You’re here and you’re still breathing, and you can go on. You must go on.” She smiles. “Because you’re the Doctor, and I have faith in you.”
And when he kisses her again, he kisses her goodbye.