For the fifth time in as many minutes Dr Grace Holloway checked her watch. This time she frowned.
It was a minute past noon. She was standing on 42nd Street, outside the entrance to Grand Central station. The August heat was fanning her face. An unceasing flow of souls bustled past her in both directions. The traffic was backed up and the horns of yellow cabs played their own angry concerto, interrupted only by the occasional staccato machine-gun burst of an NYPD horn. Welcome to NYC!
He was now late. Grace found that she was properly surprised by that. After all, time was his business.
She had been in a lather ever since the message had arrived out of the blue four weeks ago in her in-box, suggesting they meet here, now. It had been no problem for Grace to cash in her accumulated leave at the hospital for an extended trip to the East coast. For a week she had done the touristy things – Washington, Pennsylvania et al. But her mind had always hurried on ahead to New York, New York and a date with a man she had not seen in eight years.
When the day arrived she had done her normal trick and arrived way too early, her stomach bubbling with excited anticipation. She remembered feeling this way at her prom as she had awaited Dan Randall and his old Volkswagen Beetle. But that was a different life, aeons ago. A different her. For pity's sake she was Dr Grace Holloway, Deputy Director of the Hester Arlington Hospital, West Burbank – not some wide-eyed seventeen year-old! But still the butterflies fluttered.
As she looked up from her watch again she took a surprised step backwards. In front of her, uncomfortably close, stood a stranger. He was youngish, with a crop of wild hair and nerdy, black-rimmed spectacles. He was dressed in a rather crumpled, brown pinstripe suit.
"Hi ya!" he exclaimed breezily.
And a bad complexion, thought Grace. "I'm sorry, I'm just waiting for somebody..." she looked pointedly over his shoulder, hoping he would take the hint.
"Who would that be then? Boyfriend?"
"Yes, that's right. My boyfriend. He'll be here any moment. Look, I don't want to be rude..."
"Boyfriend! I'm very flattered." he smiled rather thinly. "It's me, Grace. The Doctor."
They went over to a diner in Pershing Square where the stranger enthusiastically tackled a steak and Grace fiddled moodily with a salad. They made some small talk.
"It never occurred to me that you would have changed again...like you did before." Grace said, at length.
He looked up from his food. "Life depends on change, Grace."
"What happened to him? My Doctor?"
He looked serious. "There was a war. I was wounded. Badly. I had to change to survive. I changed again after that, too. Another war."
"Why did you wait until now to get in touch? Eight years may not be a long time for you..."
"I'm sorry about that. I meant to get in touch before this but I've been a bit busy."
"You wouldn't happen to know why I found myself and half the medical staff on the edge of a roof a few Christmases ago would you?"
"Are you blood type AB?"
She nodded. And so did he.
"And that day the sky burned all over the world?"
His expression was enough. "The Earth needs a bit of TLC at the moment," he said, downing his cola.
"So you've got a bit of free time between assignments, is that it?"
Grace looked at him and wondered what, if anything, was left in there of her Doctor. The man with the soul of a poet and borrowed shoes.
The man in front of her started fiddling with his steak and looked hesitant. Grace had a flash of insight.
"You're lonely. You want me to go with you don't you."
He looked up at her over his glasses. "If you've nothing better to do..."
"Nothing better to do? You told me...he told me that I would do great things. I think I am. Every day. At the hospital. Helping people. Sick people. Saving lives. And you turn up after eight years and expect me to drop everything!"
"I could have you back here a minute after we leave."
"You might not get me back at all. I was on the edge of the roof remember! Then where would all my patients be?"
He looked at her for a long while, his lips pursed.
"You're right, Grace. You are doing great things. I'm being selfish."
He stood up suddenly and leaned forward. "But tell me this. What would you have said if HE had asked?"
Grace opened her mouth to answer but nothing came out.
The man in the brown suit smiled thinly. "Goodbye, Dr Holloway."
He dropped some money on the table and left.
The Doctor stood at the Tardis control console weighing things in his mind. In the walk back to Central Park he had gone through the gamut of emotions. Grace's rejection hurt and surprised him but there came the realisation that he couldn't expect to snap his fingers and have everybody jump. Not all the time.
He could still see the disappointment in Grace's eyes when he had first introduced himself. She deserved better. By the time he had reached the Tardis, hidden behind the cycle-hire building in the middle of the park, a plan had formed in his mind.
It was totally against the rules of course. But there was nobody around to enforce the rules now. Not after the Time War. It wasn't as if Grace Holloway was a fixed temporal point. And he certainly wasn't!
Coming to a decision the Doctor slid open a small communicator grill on the console, activated a few switches and spoke down through the mists of time...
For the fifth time in as many minutes Dr Grace Holloway checked her watch.
It was a minute past noon. She was standing on 42nd Street, outside the entrance to Grand Central station. The August heat was fanning her face like a dry curtain. An unceasing flow of souls bustled past her in both directions.
She looked up and suddenly he was there. Velvet coat, cravat, long straggly hair. Right in front of her. Up close. He smiled. She hugged him to her.
Somewhere, from a shop-front, the music of Puccini floated out onto 42nd street.