Tegan had never much bought into the idea that being close to death made one appreciate life more. Honestly, she’d considered it so much rot for the better part of her life. Travelling with the Doctor, they’d come close to death almost every day, but nine out of ten times it only made her more irritable, not more appreciative.
Even when she’d first been diagnosed with this damnable tumour, she’d hardly taken it as reason to throw herself into heedless risks. On the contrary, she’d only closed herself off more. She was ashamed to admit it but she’d given up. She’d retreated from the world before it could retreat from her.
Not until the Doctor showed up at her birthday party with trouble, as always, on his heels, had anything other than a morose despair gripped her. Only when she’d been told that the thing that was killing her was of alien origin had she’d gotten angry. In the end it was no surprise that the anger brought her back to life.
Well, that and Michael. She’d been a fool to try to shut him out the way she had, and she knew it. Ironic that but for the Doctor, she might never have realised it. She might also already be dead–killed by the very thing meant to cure her.
So yeah, maybe she did appreciate life a little more now, and she hadn’t been lying when she told the Doctor it was because of him. Even if she hadn’t been telling the whole truth, either.
One thing she did not appreciate, however, was hearing the doorbell at five o’clock in the bloody morning on a Saturday, particularly now she was so easily prone to headaches. “Bloody hell!” Tegan muttered into her pillow, pulling it over her head. When the chime rang again, she popped out of her little nest to glare spitefully through the wall at the door somewhere on the other side.
Michael stirred beside her, sitting up with a yawn. “I’ll get it.”
Tegan let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks. I owe you one.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” he called over his shoulder as he padded out into the outer room.
Smiling happily, Tegan rearranged her pillow once again in preparation for burying herself in it and going back to sleep. That was the plan, anyway. It only took the space of a heartbeat to realise she wasn’t sleepy anymore; her curiosity had got the better of her.
“Rabbits,” she muttered darkly under her breath, but nonetheless sat up. She ignored the resultant wave of nausea and felt around with both feet for her slippers while one hand fumbled for her dressing gown. About the time she laid hands on it, Michael’s voice called back: “Tegan, someone to see you.”
God help her, if it was someone from work–
Muttering under her breath what she’d like to do to them in vivid, imaginative detail, Tegan shuffled out into the main room of the flat. She was still tying the belt of the dressing gown around her waist when she reached the door.
“What sort of person drops in on a body at this hour?” she grumbled. Michael stepped aside to let her see the answer.
It took a moment for it to register. The figure outside her door had changed nearly as much as she herself had, a thing she wouldn’t have thought possible. Warm brown hair now hung straight rather than in curls to her shoulders, every here and there lightly streaked with grey. The red velvet pantsuit had been long gone before they’d last seen each other, but now it had been replaced with a simple, functional black one-piece number with pockets to rival a mechanic’s coveralls. Even the sweet face and placid smile had wrinkles and lines around them that she’d somehow never imagined, even in moments where she’d wondered about her friend’s fate. Only one thing hadn’t changed: in the end it was Nyssa’s eyes that gave her away.
Tegan’s own eyes widened. “Nyssa?” she exclaimed in disbelief. The scowl vanished into a stunned smile as she stared at the last person in the universe she’d ever expected to see again. “My God, Nyssa? Where did you come from? And how–?”
Nyssa laughed, tears filling her eyes. “From Terminus, and it’s rather a long story. May I come in?”
“Of course! God, where are my manners?” Tegan exclaimed, flushing a deep red. She threw the door open and pulled Nyssa into a tight hug before ushering her indoors.
“I can’t believe it.” Tegan couldn’t stop staring at her friend, or gripping both her hands tightly. How on Earth–or how in the universe, rather–had she managed to find her way back here? She didn’t see the Doctor anywhere. He wasn’t exactly in the habit of playing taxi service for an old companions’ reunion but he’d never been the sort to stay out of the middle of things either. Surely if he were here, he’d be here. Unless, Tegan thought bitterly, he was hiding away from anything resembling real consequences. Just as he always did when he wasn’t charging in on his metaphorical white horse to play the hero.
She forced the thought away. It was uncharitable even if it was true, which was why she’d dealt with him the way she had the last time. She’d given him an out that had–at least she hoped–satisfied that ridiculous noblesse oblige of his while still leaving her with her pride. “I thought–well, I don’t really know what I thought, but finding you outside my door was never on the list.”
Michael coughed lightly and she shot him a half-hearted glare. “Right. Michael, this is Nyssa, one of my oldest friends. Nyssa, this is Michael. He’s my…” Her voice trailed off into a weak smile. “Well, I guess you’d say we’re still sorting that out, somewhat.”
They shook hands and Michael gave her a thoughtful look. “An old friend, eh? How old?”
Translation: was she from another planet too? Tegan grinned. “Feels like forever, but likely only about twenty years, give or take.” She looked at Nyssa. “How long has it been for you?”
Nyssa hesitated a moment before answering with a rueful smile. “Let’s just say a good deal longer and leave it at that, if you don’t mind.”
“Right.” She kept forgetting Nyssa’s species was longer-lived than her own. They might look about the same age, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Truthfully, she’d rather not to know for sure that the friend who’d always been younger than her was now a good bit older so she let it go. “Michael, would you mind putting the coffee on?” Tegan’s smile cracked a little. “Nyssa and I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Michael didn’t look happy at being banished, but he acquiesced with a resigned nod and disappeared into the kitchen. Tegan immediately led Nyssa over to the chesterfield. “Now. Tell me everything.”
“Everything” turned out to be a rather tall order, for both of them. So much had happened since they’d seen each other last. Nyssa dutifully told Tegan all about Terminus and about Lasarti and Nica, from time to time interjecting questions of her own about Michael.
She was grateful that Tegan seemed to have found someone she cared about. From the Doctor’s too-brief description of the last time they’d met, she’d almost expected to find her friend a bitter, lonely old woman, neither content to be alone nor willing to accept companionship and dying just for spite. Unless–surely the Doctor hadn’t brought her back to before Tegan had learnt of her own illness, had he? Their Doctor would never have considered it, but with this Doctor it was harder to be sure.
But, no. Nyssa had just enough experience of Earth and more than enough of dealing with the sick to distinguish the plethora of medicines and medical paraphernalia that lay scattered about the room. Tegan seemed self-conscious about them at first, but seemed to relax when Nyssa didn’t react however she’d expected.
Tegan shook her head in wonder. “Honestly, I’m just glad to know you survived,” she said of Terminus. “I wouldn’t have lasted a week in that dreadful place.”
“There was a time I believed you could survive anything,” Nyssa answered, not sure whether to be more surprised by the sadness or the reproach in her voice. “You were indestructible, remember?”
Tegan’s face grew serious. She shifted uneasily in her seat and glanced about the room again before answering quietly. “Yeah, I remember.” Both defense and defiance crept into her tone. “So he told you, did he? I thought…when I saw you at the door that it must be his doing, but when he didn’t appear and aliens didn’t invade…” A wry smile twisted her lips. “Did he send you here to change my mind? Take me back to that fancy new hospital of yours and cure me?”
Nyssa shook her head. She supposed she might have taken umbrage at the suggestion she wouldn’t come of her own free will, but she knew Tegan too well to assume her friend really meant it. “The Doctor didn’t send me at all,” she answered simply. “I needed to see you. To say goodbye. And to try to understand.”
Nyssa looked at her frankly. “It isn’t like you to give up so easily.”
“Oh, hell,” Tegan murmured, looking embarrassed. “It isn’t like that. I haven’t a death wish or anything. I just–I love my life, Nyssa. The life I built for myself here. I step into the TARDIS, and what guarantee have I got that I’d ever return to it? We could be killed tomorrow by revolutionaries on some world light years away and centuries in the past. Or even if we weren’t…it might take years just to find our way back. I’d rather spend the time I have left here with the people I love, than gallivanting about the galaxy after a chance that might turn out to be worthless.”
“But it might not, as well,” Nyssa pointed out. She tried to ignore the fact that Tegan’s words spoke to nearly every one of the doubts she’d had about her own decision when the moment came. Beyond the work that still remained to be done on Terminus, could she really give up precious time with Nica? “Didn’t you think it at least worth the try?”
Tegan sighed. “Maybe. But what about Michael? I couldn’t leave him again–I’ve already wasted far too much time there. And I won’t take him along: whether I’d risk my own neck or not, there’s not a chance I’d risk his. I love him. And I daresay he loves me, though I can’t imagine why.” This time her smile was warm and affectionate. “I guess I figured, if the Doctor appearing–with chaos at his heels, as usual–didn’t frighten him off, then nothing will. I’d be a right fool to throw that away again.”
Nyssa studied Tegan’s face for a long moment before finally deciding to be direct. “It’s been my experience that matters of life and death are never certain. While I understand not wanting to leave the people you love behind, it seems to me that’s exactly what you’re choosing.”
Tegan’s expression grew belligerent for a moment. “Maybe I’ve just made my peace with it: is that so hard to believe?”
“Yes.” There was a dry edge to her voice. “I’ve never known you to make peace with anything.”
Tegan looked away, the embarrassed expression on her face confirmation enough. “You don’t beat around the bush these days, do you?”
“Something I picked up from an old friend,” Nyssa answered gently. A long silence fell between them, then she spoke again with a little more hesitation. “Tegan…I don’t doubt the truth of the reasons you gave me. I just can’t imagine they’re the whole truth. Can you tell me?”
Tegan let out a short, strangled laugh. “What do you think? What is it that always gets me into trouble?” she answered tiredly. “My own stupid pride that’s got a direct line to my mouth, bypassing the brain altogether even when it’s working right.” She dropped her eyes to her lap, as if ashamed. “I hate the way people look at me, Nyssa. As though I were the infection they’re afraid of catching. Or a thing to be pitied or a curiosity. In the Doctor’s case, it was like he didn’t even see me anymore, just the tumour and whatever caused it.” Her expression grew listless. “I was just another problem to be solved, another chance for him to be the hero.”
Nyssa ached for her friend. She remembered that moment when the Doctor, so caught up in his own loss, had been so blind as to accuse her of not understanding it. It wasn’t the same but it was similar enough that she understood why Tegan had found it offensive.
The Doctor had more courage and more compassion than nearly anyone she’d ever known. Still, there were times when, just like any other creature in the universe, he allowed his own fears and desires to rule him. Thinking back on her own time with him, it was easy to imagine that his greatest fear had been the fragility of life around him.
“I don’t think the Doctor ever really understood what it meant to be mortal,” Nyssa conceded quietly. She thought of the Master, who had feared death so much he’d stolen her father’s life. “The Time Lords had spent all their energies to master time rather than allow it to master them like it does every other creature in the universe. Defying death by acquiring the ability to regenerate was as much a part of that as time travel. But most Time Lords shunned the company of ‘lesser’ races, so they only had to face that fear when they reached the end of their regenerative cycle. The Doctor…he risked facing it every day just by being with us.”
“But he didn’t face it, that’s the problem,” Tegan argued. Nyssa knew she was thinking of Adric. “If he couldn’t stop it, then he just pretended it never happened.”
Nyssa shivered a little. She wondered if the Doctor had ever told Tegan what had happened to Adric in the end. Somehow, she doubted it. Admitting that he’d inadvertently used block transfer computation to create a bubble of space-time where Adric lived wasn’t really the Doctor’s style. Not when doing so had nearly wiped out all human life on Earth before it had the chance to evolve.
Sometimes she still wished her memory of the eager young boy they’d travelled with hadn’t been contaminated by the glimpse of a bitter, power-mad old man living only for revenge. Even if he had redeemed himself in the end by sending Thomas back to them, their friendship had been forever tainted.
If Adric hadn’t died as he did, if she hadn’t chosen to stay on Terminus, would either one of them have stayed with the Doctor forever? Her home was destroyed and Adric’s unreachable: they’d not had a wealth of other choices. Yet somehow she still felt certain that sooner or later, the Doctor would’ve found a way to leave them behind rather than face the inevitable slow decay that all non-Gallifreyan life succumbed to.
This Doctor, though…he didn’t fear death anymore. Not his own, at least. It was a hard thing to fear when the alternative seemed interminably worse.
Tegan looked at her sourly. “That’s why he’s not here, isn’t it? He can’t face what’s happening to me, so he’s hiding away in the TARDIS as if I don’t even exist.”
“Not…exactly.” In sparse, simple language Nyssa told Tegan what had happened: to Gallifrey, to the Time Lords, to the Doctor.
“Hell’s teeth,” Tegan murmured when the tale was told, her own face pale with sympathy. “I had no idea. Maybe I should…”
She didn’t finish the sentence, but she didn’t have to. Nyssa could see the indecision in her face. “Don’t do it for the Doctor, Tegan. Nor for me. One life, even one as precious as yours, can’t make up the loss of a world. I ought to know.”
Tegan’s shoulder sagged. “Right.”
“You need to make the choice for yourself, whatever you choose.” Nyssa covered her friend’s hand with her own, waiting until Tegan looked up at her to ask, “What do you want?”
“I…I’m sick of being the guinea pig. I don’t want to be someone’s good deed for the day,” Tegan answered. She looked pensive for a long moment before adding decisively: “I want to live. But I want it on my own terms, not someone else’s.”