Since the TARDIS had been restored to him, the Doctor had been sneaking out at night.
He hadn't been leaving often. Just enough to reassure him that he was the master of space and time. Or close enough to it, anyway. Jo -- and then Sarah Jane -- would have been upset not to be included, so he didn't tell them. After all the time he'd put in with UNIT in the last few years, the Doctor rather enjoyed striking out a bit on his own. And if it took him a little longer than he'd thought to get back in time to meet the Brigadier for breakfast -- well, the Brigadier was only human; he'd never notice.
The Doctor had been sneaking away for longer lately. He knew why.
He'd gone out for a drive around the base one day, been ambushed by a black obelisk, and found himself on Gallifrey with a host of allies and enemies, including other incarnations of himself. Sarah Jane had been there, but it must have been a future version of her; she'd been shocked to see him. "You changed," she'd said quietly. "You went all... teeth and curls."
The thought was more than a little disquieting for the Doctor, who quite liked his present incarnation. The white hair was elegant, unquestionably, and the nose was quite becoming, but his manner was the best. His first incarnation had gotten a little too elderly and irascible to be dashing, and the second... well, he thought, suppressing a shudder, the less said about that little tramp, the better. No, his third persona was the best yet, and if he was honest, he didn't see how it could be improved upon. He'd planned to live in it a good while yet.
But Sarah Jane had seen his regeneration. A Sarah Jane who didn't look much older than she was now. Which meant it would probably happen soon.
Teeth and curls.
Well, he told himself again, maybe I did, but I haven't yet.
The central column of the TARDIS console rose and fell, rose and fell, then returned to its rest position. The Doctor flipped the switch for the viewscreen. "Hm," he said as the shutter rose. The city outside wasn't one he recognized. Of course, that didn't mean he hadn't visited it before.
He double-checked the console. "Gotham City," he chided the TARDIS, "has next to nothing in common with Brighton." He patted the console. "Ah, well. We'll get it right next time, shall we?"
The seashore was out, but a good dinner wouldn't go amiss. American cities might be all but devoid of fish and chips, but one could usually count on finding some good ethnic cuisine. A little short on Indian, compared to London, but depending on Gotham's immigrant community he might be able to find some excellent Thai or Ethiopian.
Two steps out of the door, the Doctor realized that he was unlikely to find a decent restaurant anywhere in the vicinity. By the third step, he’d realized that he should really walk back into the TARDIS, but it would be a mistake to turn around.
There was the young woman to think of, after all.
She was only a little down the street from the Doctor. The TARDIS had elected to land just inside the mouth of a darkened alley, so she hadn’t seen it. She might not have seen it if it had stood next to her; the two young thugs closing in on her probably made for quite a distraction. She was slender, athletic. Asian. Very young. Her trenchcoat was far too expensive for this neighborhood. It made her even more of a target.
"Good evening," said the Doctor.
One of the thugs turned, blinked, and then laughed. "Hey, Gramps," he said. "What's with the outfit?"
“You’re one to talk," said the Doctor. "You do know that your trousers are falling off?"
The young man looked down at his baggy pants. His multicolored boxer shorts were clearly visible well above them, and his belt was cinched just enough to keep his pants up at mid-thigh. "Damn," he said. "I believe the old geezer wants to get hurt."
The Doctor gritted his teeth at the ‘old geezer’ remark. Well, they’d soon learn a thing or two, wouldn't they? "Strange," he said. "I was just thinking the same thing about you and your friend here."
The thug looked at his friend. Then back at the Doctor. Then he turned to the girl and raised a threatening finger. "We won’t be long," he said. "Don’t run. We’ll get mad."
"Go on, my dear," the Doctor said. "It's quite all right."
"No," she said. "You go. Please."
"I couldn't possibly. After you."
"No," she said. The trace of a smile played at the corner of her mouth. It lit her face, for just an instant, but then her features flickered wearily and the light was gone. "After you."
"Very well," said the Doctor, who was annoyed that she hadn’t run. "We’ll discuss this later." Unless something happened to make him go all teeth and curls.
"You’re gonna go away, old man," said the thug. "One way or the other."
"I don’t think the young lady cares for your company," said the Doctor.
The thug reached into the depths of his waistband and produced a large gun. They all seemed to have guns nowadays, the Doctor thought, and so few of them were ever any good with them. Of course, he’d once seen Annie Oakley defeat Lillian Smith in an impromptu contest after a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, so his standards were arguably a little high.
"My friend the Brigadier is very fond of those."
"Never much cared for them, myself. Nasty little toys. They release vaporized lead when fired, did you know that? You breathe that in. Can't be good for you. Now, for sport shooting, a Rykesian blaster -- "
The thug flicked off the safety on his pistol.
"Ah," said the Doctor. "Thank you."
His hand flashed forward and grasped the slide, pushing back. The thug pushed against him; the slide moved back and the action cycled, ejecting the cartridge in the chamber. With one long thumb, the Doctor pressed the magazine release. The loaded magazine dropped free, leaving the gun unloaded and the slide locked back.
The thug stared at his empty pistol.
"Yes," said the Doctor. "It rather impressed Sergeant Benton, too."
Behind the thug, other shapes were emerging from the shadows. The girl hadn't run, and now it was too late. One of the new party stepped toward the Doctor, but the rest encircled her.
Four more of them. Well, he'd handled worse.
As the thug went to swing, the Doctor dropped him with a swift bit of Venusian aikido. He glimpsed another's fist swinging toward his ear, slipped the blow, applied a lock, and sent the attacker face-first into a brick wall. The last one had trained in a boxing gym, but the Doctor had learned the arts of bareknuckle and serious drinking from John L. Sullivan, and he put the young man down with two quick blows to the jaw and turned to spring on the girl’s attackers.
He found them face-down on the pavement.
The girl stood with one foot on the sidewalk and one on the back of an unconscious thug. She wasn't looking at them, but at the Doctor. She cocked her head to one side and regarded him with interest.
"That's quite impressive," the Doctor said. "Now, how'd you do that?"
The girl ignored the question. "Your first style," she said. "It's... strange." There was an odd accent to her words. No, not an accent. Her timing was unusual. A hesitancy, a searching for the proper phrase. English wasn't her native language, but the Doctor couldn't guess what was.
"It's Venusian aikido," he said. "I shouldn't think you'd see it much around here."
"Not that," she said. "It's. Wrong? Should be smoother."
"Well, it's modified, of course. To do it properly requires a couple of extra limbs."
The girl frowned. She nodded slowly, then closed her eyes. The Doctor watched her eyes move back and forth beneath the lids. Her upper body leaned slightly left, then right. The movements were mild, but he recognized the basic posture for Second and Third Form. He'd just employed them a few moments ago. "That's right," he said. "You've got quite a memory."
She opened her eyes and pursed her lips. "Tail?"
"No, no. They don't have tails."
"But... they did," she said. "Once."
"Yes," said the Doctor. "They -- " he blinked. The Venusians had had tails, early in their history; they’d prided themselves on them. Then one tailless mutant rose from ignoble beginnings to absolute monarchy and instituted a program of tail-docking that continued throughout the remaining existence of the race. "How'd you know?"
She took two steps forward, away from the thugs, then slipped into Third Form. She perfectly performed the high strike and the low, applied a joint lock to the air, and stepped backwards, swinging her hips as she pivoted her torso. She looked at the Doctor and raised her eyebrow.
That one step backwards and side-swing had always struck the Doctor as clumsy. At last, after an embarrassing interval of years, he understood. It was a tail-trip. For Venusians with tails. Which meant the form was older than he'd thought. "You're very clever," he said. "What’s your name?"
"Cassandra," she said. "You?"
"I’m the Doctor."
She looked up at him. "Of what?"
"A little bit of everything." The Doctor hesitated. "I don’t suppose you’d know where to find some Ethiopian food around here."
She shook her head. He could tell she wanted to speak, but there was a long pause between the thought, and another between her mouth opening and the words coming out. "Venusian aikido," she said. "It’s from… Venus?"
The Doctor nodded.
Cassandra frowned. She raised a hand and hesitantly pointed a finger toward the sky. A questioning look appeared on her face.
"Yes," said the Doctor. "That’s the one."
"How far is Venus?"
"This time of year? About ninety-five million miles." The Doctor scanned the sky and pointed. "If it weren’t for the city lights and that building, you’d see it in your sky about there."
Cassandra looked disappointed. "Too far," she said.
The Doctor turned the TARDIS key over in his fingers. "It doesn’t have to be."
She accepted the console room with barely a blink. The long, expensive trenchcoat went onto the hatrack. Underneath, she was wearing a dark bodysuit. It was badly torn, and was stained with what looked like blood. Not all of it was hers.
"There’s a wardrobe in the back," the Doctor said. "Some of the things should be about your size. If you’d like to change."
"No," she said.
"At least you'll want to get the stains off of that, and patch it up."
She blinked at him, then glanced down at her clothing. "No," she said. "Not clothes. Me."
The Doctor looked up at her. His hands stilled on the console, halfway through setting the coordinates for the finest dojo the ninth Venusian dynasty had had to offer. After Cassandra’s explanation of the Third Form, he had been tempted to try for earlier, but the Venusians were a touchy people and the relatively enlightened ninth dynasty was plenty xenophobic enough.
"No, you wouldn't like to change, would you?" he said softly. "Never any telling what you'll change into."
Startled, she looked at him. Her eyes were deep brown, and as they locked onto him the Doctor felt strangely transparent. "You’re changing too," she said.
"Not for a while yet," said the Doctor. "Not if I have anything to say about it."
Cassandra cocked her head to one side. "Do you?"
"No," said the Doctor quietly. He smiled sadly at her. He liked this incarnation's warm, closed-mouthed smile, and he’d miss giving it when the new teeth came. "No more than you, I expect."
"You… don't want to."
"I abhor the very thought. But sometimes you can't do anything about it."
"No," she said. She looked down, and the Doctor wondered what she’d been that she was reluctant to leave behind. Or what she might be, that she hesitated to become. "Sometimes you can't."
"Is that why you’re leaving Gotham?" the Doctor said. "Leaving your friends and family?" He flicked the viewscreen closed, and secured the outer door. "I suppose what I'm asking is if you think that Venus is far enough."
Cassandra took a long time to answer. He saw her lips move, silently, as if she were rehearsing what she was about to say. "I think I'm changing," she said. "But don't know. Into what. If I want to." She looked at him, and again the Doctor felt the strange focus of her eyes. "If I’m… safe."
The Doctor nodded. "I appreciate the warning," he said. "Let’s just try to have a good time in the meanwhile, shall we?"
"Yes. But… still." she hesitated. "We are changing."
"Well," the Doctor said. "Maybe we are. But we haven't yet."
By the time he’d finished setting the coordinates, double-checked them, and gotten the TARDIS underway, Cassandra had returned from the wardrobe and was wearing a vintage sixties outfit that he suspected had belonged to Barbara. "Long trip?" she said.
"It varies," said the Doctor. "Time doesn’t really matter very much in here. Even less when you have a time machine at your disposal."
"Really?" she said.
"Yes. You can take all the time you need, and I'll bring you back on the day you left."
"The same day?" she said.
The Doctor remembered, with some embarrassment, the occasion last week that he'd tried to land in Croyden and wound up in Aberdeen. It would be a cold day in hell before he'd make that mistake again. Still, humans only had so much patience, and he couldn't spend too much time making her return perfect...
"Well," he said, remembering that honesty was always the best policy, "perhaps one year later."