Chapter Eight: Un Bel Di

"Stand back, stand back, just give him some air, will you? Get back!"

The Doctor opened his eyes. He saw a ring of faces, all staring at him. The closest one belonged to Rose. He realised he was lying on the ground. Also that he had a headache.

"He's awake, he'll be fine. Nothing to see here, move along." One by one, the curious faces disappeared.

The Doctor sat up. "What happened?"

"You got hit in the head," said Rose, still crouching next to him.

"Yes, I gathered that."

"With a fish."

He blinked at her. "With a what?"

"An Alaskan king salmon. This is the Pike Place Fish Market. Apparently they...er...they throw fish. People like to come and take pictures of them doing it."

The Doctor paused for a moment, trying to make sense of this. "They throw fish."

"Yeah."

"And people come and take pictures of this?"

"And movies."

"Do you know, Rose...humans are very, very odd creatures."

"You're just now discovering this, Doctor?"

"No." The Doctor stood, holding on to Rose for support, as his legs were still a bit wobbly. "But I suppose I need reminding of it from time to time."

"Anyway, I caught one of the boys, but I had to let him go when you...er..."

"...lost a piscine match," he said, wrinkling his nose. "That would explain the smell."

"Yeah. I tried to get it all off you, but..." Rose reached up and plucked a piece of fish flesh from his hair. "Look, let's get out of here."

"Agreed," he sighed. "No use standing here carping about it."

They left the market, descending the stairs down to the waterfront. The afternoon sun sparkled across the blue waters of the sound. Ferry boats chugged back and forth. The Doctor leaned on a railing, staring off at the nearby islands. "Doctor," said Rose. "I saw a phone box a couple blocks back. I've got to call my mum, she's going to be worried about me. Will you be all right?"

"Hmm? I'm all right," he murmured absently. His tone was flat; Rose hesitated to leave. But then he smiled. "Go on, call your mum. I'll be here." He waved her off; then returned his gaze to the sea, grimly reflecting upon mischance, fate, and his own fallibility.

"Doctor? Is that you?" said a voice.

The Doctor turned around. The voice belonged to a pretty woman with auburn hair. "Grace!"

He felt a bit giddy. Dr Grace Holloway had that effect on him--perhaps because she was the last person he had seen prior to regenerating into his current body. Thugs had shot him down in the streets of San Francisco; but they hadn't killed him. Mere bullets were no match for a Time Lord. But a wire catheter threaded blindly into his complicated cardiovascular system, tickling his exquisitely sensitive right atrial node--that was his undoing.

"Doctor! I can't believe it's you! How long has it been?"

"I don't know," murmured the Doctor, gazing into her eyes. "A month or two?"

He had been disorientated and amnestic after his regeneration; he latched onto the only familiar face he could find. She had helped him, unwillingly at first. In the end, she sacrificed her life to save him.

Grace laughed. "You're so funny. It was New Year's 2000, so wow, that makes it almost seven years."

"Not for me," said the Doctor, reaching forward and cupping the side of her face in his palm. "It's been, quite literally, seven weeks. I'm a time traveller, remember?"

"Oh my God," said Grace, throwing her arms around him and hugging him tightly. A moment or two later, she relaxed her embrace and sniffed. "What's that smell?"

"Er..." said the Doctor, stepping back. "It's rather a long story, and--"

"Grace? Grace? Grace! We've been looking all over for you." A tall, broad-shouldered man appeared behind Grace. At his side were two small children, a girl and a boy.

"Doctor," said Grace, "This is my husband, Todd. And my children, Max and Catherine."

In the back of his mind, the Doctor felt a door click shut. Now that he was part of Grace's linear timeline, he couldn't loop back upon it. True, he often bent the laws of Time; occasionally even threw them to the floor and danced upon them. He had broken one such law at Earth's second millennium: he had looped back in time, directly crossing the TARDIS's timeline. In addition to saving the Earth, this had had another happy effect: because she died on the TARDIS, in the midst of a time loop, the power of the Time Vortex transformed Grace's death to life.

Seeing her with her family, the Doctor knew he couldn't do what he had often considered doing--going back and offering once again to show Grace the stars. She'd refused his first offer. Not surprising, really; people tended to find their own deaths a bit unsettling. It had been the wrong time to ask. Now, as he gazed down at the little girl who looked so much like her mother, he knew it would never be.

Grace's husband held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Doctor--?"

The Doctor shook it. "Er...Smith. John Smith."

"He's an old friend," said Grace brightly. "He's in town for the conference, too."

"Conference?" asked the Doctor.

"American College of Cardiology," Grace hissed.

"Oh! Oh, yes...that conference."

The children began pulling at their father's hands. "I'll let you two catch up," Todd said, as he followed them down the waterfront. "The kids want some ice cream." The Doctor gazed after them.

"You could have come with me," said Grace, after a pause. Before he could reply, she added, "It's okay. Everything's worked out for the best. Oh! I just remembered. You're an opera buff, aren't you? Todd can't stand it." She rummaged in her handbag, then produced a pair of tickets. "Der Rosenkavalier. Tonight."

The Doctor's eyes lit up. "Oh yes! I'd love to--"

"Great!" she said, pressing the tickets into his hand. "I can't use them, I have to give a presentation tonight—part of the conference."

"Oh. I...I see. Thank you, Grace. I'm much obliged."

"A gift. For old time's sake." She leaned forwards, as if to kiss him; then drew away again. "Doctor, I hate to say this, but...I think you better change before the opera. You're a little--"

The Doctor laughed. "Aromatic? Yes, I know! Thank you again for the tickets, Grace."

"You're welcome. I...I should go." Grace turned and walked away, her hair shining in the afternoon sun. Presently, she caught up with her family, and picked up her son, carrying him on her hip. They continued walking down the waterfront; the Doctor watched them go. Eventually he couldn't see them anymore.

"Yeah, it is a fine day. But what's that about smoke rising from the sea? I don't see any," said Rose, appearing next to him, leaning over the railing.

The Doctor smiled. He must have been absent-mindedly singing "Un bel di," but Rose heard it in English. "It's nothing—just a song. Puccini. How's your mum?"

"Mental," said Rose, with feeling. "She and Pete are flying out. He chartered a jet. They'll be here late tonight."

A niggling scruple had been biting at his conscience almost since they'd arrived in Seattle. His course of action lay clear before him, though he hadn't wanted to look at it. He held up the tickets. "Marvelous! We can see them after the opera."

"You wouldn't say 'marvelous' if you..." She gaped first at the tickets; then at him in disbelief. "Opera?"

He smiled at her, sadly. He knew full well that by the end of the evening, she'd hate him.