“Well? What did you think?” said the Doctor, less casually than he probably intended, as the TARDIS ground its way into the far reaches of spacetime.
“Of your friend?” said Ace, pursing her lips thoughtfully. “Amazing,” she said at last.
The Doctor spun his hat between his hands. “I’m glad you think so.”
“Also surprising,” Ace went on. “Are you absolutely sure she’s a Time Lord? I didn’t think you had any old school friends that weren’t total nutters.”
“Flattering,” said the Doctor dryly. “No, Romana’s a Time Lord all right, but I didn’t meet her until... rather later.” His face took on an echo of what Ace thought of as his weight-of-the-world look, sad and reminiscent and centuries old. Then he shook himself out of it. “So you liked her?”
“Yeah, she was ace! The way she just sort of looked at that roomful of big blokes with big weapons, and they just listened to her.” Ace paused reflectively. “She’s scary, but in a good way. Also clever, funny, and since you probably didn’t notice, gorgeous, by the way.”
“I do hope that’s a purely platonic assessment,” said the Doctor.
“Eh, she’s not my type,” said Ace easily. Then she double-took and looked at the Doctor, who was leaning awkwardly on the console, staring into his hat, fidgeting with its brim. “Ohh—you did notice, didn’t you?”
“I’ve always noticed,” he said softly. “I’ve always noticed, with her.”
She couldn’t miss the intensity in his voice. “You love her.”
He gave a small nod.
For a split second, she wavered between two once-well-practiced responses—the “Mum’s got a new boyfriend” response (ugh, gross, avoid the house) and the “friend has a serious crush” response (ask about it, listen to everything, only then proceed to merciless though affectionate teasing). But the Doctor looked so small and vulnerable, telling her about his feelings for once, and she’d liked Romana, who was as unlike her mum’s boyfriends as the Doctor was unlike her mum, and—well, he was her Professor. So without conscious decision, she started in with what more delicate souls might have called prying, but she considered sympathy.
“You’ve known her a long time?” she asked, pulling out a chair and sitting down.
He nodded again as he followed suit. “By your standards, certainly. Centuries.”
“Did you meet her on Gallifrey?” said Ace, wondering if she’d encounter one of the Doctor’s strange, stubborn silences that sometimes occurred around the subject of his homeworld.
“No,” he said, reminiscently, almost dreamily. “We met after I had left. I was on my own when—er—someone sent her to me. As my assistant,” he added, “to do a sort of job.”
Well, it was vague, but it was a start.
“She was beautiful then, too,” he went on. “Tall and dark-haired, with perfect Gallifreyan manners and a perfect Gallifreyan education.” He smiled, a wicked grin that didn’t quite seem to fit on his spaniel face, as if it were someone else’s smile. “They say I led her astray.”
Ace leaned forward. “And did you?” she ventured.
“What a question,” the Doctor observed. “I wouldn’t call it astray, myself. Abroad, perhaps. Suffice it to say that when the time came to go home—she didn’t.”
Converting that into her own terms, Ace was pretty sure it meant roughly “girl likes guy back.” So that was how it was. They’d been together, she was over him now and he wasn’t? Well, it would fit with the Professor’s much-publicized dislike of unrequited love.
“So what happened?” she asked, keeping it vague.
“What happened? We kept travelling together.”
Okay, maybe too vague. “No, I mean—how’d you split up?”
“It’s been more convenient for her to travel separately for a while now. She’s much more comfortable with Gallifrey than I am and she’s pursuing a very laudable sociopolitical agenda there, which, by the way, I meant to talk to you about.”
He was deflecting, thought Ace. “So that’s why you broke up?” she pressed. “Because she wanted to go into politics?”
He looked at her in utter confusion. “Broke up?” he repeated. “Ace, all that—saving a planet, backing each other up, trading what I must say seemed to me to be remarkably witty banter while mutually rescuing each other—that’s what we do. That’s what we’ve always done. Just because we might not see each other for a few decades—we’ve got millennia. That was our relationship continuing.”
Ace took in this information, briefly thrown off. “That was a date?” she said at last. “I just third-wheeled your date?”
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Does it bother you? I really did think you’d like her—it seemed like you did.”
“No, I’m—I’m happy for you. And very impressed. You’re a lucky man, Professor; she’s quite the catch.”
“She is,” he said, happily, “and I am.”
“Only, next time—for goodness’ sake, let me know in advance,” she said, “and I’ll bring someone too!”