Doug closed his eyes for a moment as he drank his coffee. It was something Renée always did, savoring each first sip, although he doubted she was even aware of it. Maybe it was better that way, but he couldn’t tell the difference. Hard to really appreciate something when you’ve never had to miss it. Or when you’ve forgotten the taste of the seaweed substitute.
“Hey, nice shirt, man.”
Setting the cup down, he blinked his eyes open to see a woman at the table next to his grinning over at him. “Sorry?”
“Timey-wimey,” she said vaguely, as if that was a response that followed logically.
Doug gave her a blank stare.
“It’s...the TARDIS, right?” Her voice was laced with doubt now, as if Doug’s confusion was catching. “Or are you just, like, really into phone boxes?”
Ah. This was why he normally avoided wearing any of his—of Eiffel’s old clothes. Most of them were sitting in boxes in Renée’s storage room. But he hadn’t done any laundry on this trip so far, and he needed a shirt, and Kate had given him another bin of things that week. (She certainly hadn’t kept anything of Eiffel’s, but his parents had, and they’d asked her to pass them on. That was one of many things he had learned about Eiffel since coming to Texas: his parents hadn’t spoken to him in years, and Doug had no idea why.)
(To be fair, he also had no idea why Kate was speaking to him.)
The woman looked at him expectantly. Doug shook himself out of his thoughts. “Well, I like to think I appreciate a good phone box as much as the next guy, but probably the first one.”
“Probably?” Her mouth quirked, like she wanted to laugh but didn’t want to come off as rude.
“Is it from a movie or something?” he asked. (Of course it was. It was always from a movie or something —he knew that much after deciphering the former Hephaestus officer’s communications logs.)
“Doctor Who,” the woman answered. “TV show, mostly, though it’s grown a bit beyond that. I’ve gotta ask, why wear a t-shirt from a show you’ve never seen?”
“It’s...a long story.”
“Steal it?” Now she was grinning again.
“Belongs to a friend of a friend,” he answered—truthfully, in a roundabout sort of way.
“Not that long of a story, then.” She sounded almost disappointed.
“Trust me, the full version is a bit much.” And not something he wanted to get into right now with a stranger. Or ever, for that matter. He cast around for something else to say. “So what’s Doctor Who about? Aside from marketable phone boxes.”
“You’ve really never heard of it? Sorry, not trying to be that pretentious nerd who can’t fathom the fact that some people have different tastes in fiction—it’s just a pretty popular show. Long-running and all; it’s been airing since the sixties. The show’s mostly a sci-fi romp, but it wobbles around in subgenres. Usually a bit of an adventure, sometimes historical, sometimes social commentary, sometimes just wacky aliens and time shenanigans.”
“I’m not big on adventures with aliens. Or space,” Doug said.
“Sounds like you’re wearing the wrong outfit then, pal,” the woman told him. “I’m Sally, by the way. Dr. Sally Grissom. Mind if I join you? I’m waiting for a friend who’s rolling back into town tonight, but she’s not exactly keen on timetables, so for all I know it’ll be another hour or two. Some idle conversation wouldn’t go amiss.”
“Sure, pull up a seat. Idle conversations are basically my number one hobby. My name’s Doug.”
Sally relocated to his table, bringing her laptop (it was decked out in stickers, one of which—ahah—matched his shirt). “So, Doug, are you from Waxahachie?”
“No,” he said, before realizing that technically that wasn’t accurate. “I mean, I lived here when I was younger, I guess, but this is the first time I’ve been back in years.”
“Ah, see, other way around for me. Grew up somewhere else—a few different somewhere elses—but I’ve been here for the past couple of years now. Long enough to know that this is the best drink served in a ten-mile radius.” Sally raised her cup, which had so much whip cream on top that even Doug (who currently had three sugar packets in his left pocket) had to be impressed. “So, what brings you back into town? Visiting family?”
An excellent question, one that he’d been asking himself every day since coming here. After everything he’d heard from his old audio logs, the crew of the Hephaestus, and now Kate, he wasn’t so sure the old Douglas Eiffel deserved to call himself Anne’s father. Whether or not Doug was still that person, he sure as hell didn’t feel like he had earned that right. He danced around the question the same way he’d been dancing around the thought: “Visiting...a few people. Sorting through some things. I’ve been here for a week now, I don’t know how much longer it’ll be. At least until Thursday; a couple of my friends are driving down.”
Renée had wanted to be with him the whole time, but he’d asked her to stay behind, at least until he’d had a chance to talk to Kate in person. (They’d spoken over the phone several times before; after landing Doug had called her as soon as he managed to track down a number, and to his surprise she hadn’t hung up the moment she heard his voice. At least, not on the second try.)
Doug told her—well, not the full story. He didn’t think he would ever know that. But the true story. The basics were public knowledge, after all, and most of it hadn’t been entirely fabricated by Goddard Futuristics’ clean-up crew. He’d just filled in a few gaps, enough for her to believe him when he explained why he couldn’t fill in all of them. That’s when Doug had asked if she wanted to speak to someone who could, someone who knew who Douglas Eiffel had been during everything that happened out there.
Kate said no. She didn’t need or want to know the rest. But Anne did, and so that was that. Renée would be on her way in just a couple days, and Hera was coming as soon as she and Isabel cleared their way through the legal entanglements of Goddard Futuristics.
“Well, if you’re not busy ‘sorting through things’ tomorrow, and you’re willing to put up with aliens for a couple of hours in the name of becoming familiar with your shirt’s origins, I was planning on dragging a buddy through a Doctor Who marathon anyways,” Sally said. “You’re more than welcome to join us.”
“Thanks, but I—”
Doug stopped short. In the month since his return to Earth, he’d done nothing but try to piece together the shattered remains of a life that didn’t feel like his. It wasn’t all bad—he already knew that he loved Eiffel’s ragtag family more than he could say, and most days a lifetime of memories seemed like a fair exchange for waking up in the Minkowski-Koudelka household, or for getting to know Anne. But between all the lawyers and debriefings and interviews, not to mention all the baggage (literal and figurative) involved in this trip, he hadn’t had the chance to breathe since stepping off of the Urania. He definitely hadn’t had time to reacquaint himself with all of western pop culture. Doug could practically hear the ghost of his past self urging him on—or maybe it was just that he wanted to do this one thing for himself. Wanted to have a friend who wasn’t only friends with him because he used to be someone they cared about.
It felt a little selfish. Maybe he was a little selfish. But the old Eiffel had been, after all, and from what Doug knew, he’d turned out alright in the end.
“...I’d love that, Sally.”
“Groundhog Day?” Even though Doug was halfway across the country and couldn’t see her, Sally made a face. “ That’s your favorite movie?”
“I’ve got my reasons,” Doug said, indignation clear even through Sally’s half-broken headphones.
She snorted. “Oh, yeah?”
“Let’s just say it’s why I like the Twelfth Doctor best, too.”
“Yeah, no, sorry, I’m missing the parallels,” Sally told him, shaking her head. “Guess we’re gonna have to add Groundhog Day to our list of things to watch while you’re here.”
“Skip it for now, the list is already way too long. I’m visiting for Anne’s recital, I’m not moving in.”
“Hey, you can complain to the guys who are pulling my project’s funding. They’re the ones to blame for all of the spare time I’m about to have on my hands.” She laughed, but the sound rang hollow; all her bitterness and anger was still there. It probably would be until long after she’d left the Superconducting Super Collider for good. But she pushed it down—Doug had already heard more than his fair share of her rants about the project, and she didn’t want her problems to spoil his trip.
“Speaking of spare time,” he began, “when are you going to come up to New York? Dominik still hasn’t met you and he’s starting to feel left out, especially now that Jacobi has. He won’t stop talking about whatever hazardous science you two got up to the last time we were in the same state.”
Ah, now there was a memory to wipe away the threat of imminent unemployment. “Hey, the homemade fireworks were your own fault for leaving the two of us alone, and he promised they probably weren’t even illegal. And I’d love to make the trip, but I can’t until I’ve got everything settled back here. Maybe around Christmas time, if you don’t already have plans?”
Doug groaned. “ Please , not Christmas. Trust me, you don’t want to take that risk.”
“That’s...vague and concerning, but alright. New Year's?”
“Too close to the Christmas time bubble for my comfort. Valentine's Day?” Doug joked. “We could make last year’s Pacific Rim viewing and aromantic spectrum bonding a tradition. Eat candy hearts, make some new friendship bracelets with the ace and bi colors.”
“Well, you know how much I love to eschew amatonormativity,” Sally said, “but hopefully I’ll have a new job way before then, and that’s not really long weekend territory.”
“Fair enough. What about Thanksgiving? Are you going to see your parents?”
That was a question. She should, probably; she hadn’t seen them in almost a year, and had missed more phone calls than she liked to think about. But her parents were one thing; the prospect of facing her entire extended family was another, especially just a few months after everything with the SSC fell apart. “Not if I have convenient plans in New York, I guess,” she said, making a mental note to call her mother back sometime tomorrow. “But you’re sure Minkowski and her husband won’t mind?”
“Are you kidding? Renée loves you.”
“Aw, the feeling is mutual.” Sally meant it—she’d only spent a little time with Minkowski, but that was all she needed to understand why Doug loved her. “You’re not going to be here over the holiday with Anne?”
“Kate’s planning on taking her over to her grandparents. I guess they do it every year now.” He hesitated for a beat. “They’re...not particularly fond of me.”
“Oh. Right.” Sally tried to find something else to say, something honest and consoling and helpful and whatever other adjectives fit the hallmarks of a Good Friend, but before she could locate the right words Doug cut in again.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, ever since the plug got pulled on your project. Look, I know that you’re brilliant—”
“Good, I was hoping you’d picked up on that,” Sally said.
“—and that you’ve probably got half a dozen new job offers lined up already,” Doug continued, ignoring her. “This probably doesn’t even matter, and it sounds kind of weird, but I know they run a lot of operations out of Texas and I can’t...okay, look, here it is: if you’re thinking about sending a resume out to the company Goddard Futuristics, don’t. Shred it. Burn it with fire. And if they approach you, or if they already have, don’t accept the job. Don’t even accept the interview. They’ve been having a rough PR year and all, but trust me, their issues go way, way deeper than anything you might have heard.”
So. They were finally about to have this conversation. Sally was glad she wasn’t the one to bring it up, even though she knew she probably should have done so long ago. Guilt flickered as she tried to figure out how to tell him that she maybe knew a little more than he thought—if not about Goddard Futuristics, then at least about him. “You’re...you’re speaking from personal experience, aren’t you?”
A long, long pause on the other end of the line. “So you know, huh?” Doug said finally. His voice was flat. “Don’t know why I assumed you didn’t recognize me. Despite Goddard’s best efforts, we made a bit of a splash when we came back.”
Honest. Consoling. Helpful. Adjectives. “Yeah, a bit. I’m not gonna lie, I probably wouldn’t have invited a random guy in a coffee shop over to my house if I hadn’t seen his spaceship on the news a month before.”
“Okay, so any guys with spaceships from two months before would have been out, then?”
“Definitely on thin ice,” Sally answered, relieved to hear him making a joke. Of course, that was how he dealt with most things—that was also how she dealt with most things—but at least he wasn’t accusing her of befriending him just because he was a mildly famous back-from-the-dead space ranger. Which, okay, she had done, but only a little bit. Only at first. “Listen, I should have told you that I knew who you were in the café that day, but I didn’t think peppering you with questions about your clandestine corporate space mission was a great way to start a conversation. And then—well, then we began hanging out whenever you were around, and it was pretty clear you didn’t like talking about yourself or your past, so I...didn’t bring it up. But even if that’s why I started talking to you, it’s not why we’re friends.”
“Yeah?” Doug asked.
“Trust me, if all I wanted was to hang out with an astronaut, I’d go see my grandfather. You’re—look, we haven’t known each other for that long, and we’ve spent most of that time in different corners of the U.S., but I care about you,” Sally said.
Another long, long pause. “Even if my favorite movie is Groundhog Day?”
And then they were both laughing, and everything was fine again. “Even then,” she agreed, once she regained her ability to speak. “And look, you don’t have to tell me about it. I’ll take your career advice and steer clear, you don’t have to explain why.”
Doug sighed. “I want to, though, I do. It’s just—it’s a lot. And it’s not all mine to tell, there are people I should...I don’t even know if you’ll believe half of it, but I want to give it a shot. Not like this, though. Not where you can hang up on me if you think I’m making it all up. I’ll see you in a couple days, and you’ll get the full backstory then, sound good?”
“Sounds fantastic,” Sally said. “And—thank you, Doug. For trusting me.”
“Hey, thanks to you too. No getting sappy now, that’s my turf.”
“In that case, I’ll let you go before my emotions get the better of me.” It was a good thing that they weren’t video chatting, or he’d be able to tell that she was already past that point. Not that it was Sally’s fault she loved her friends so much (darn emotions). She glanced at her watch. “I should head back to the lab, anyways. One of the assistants is going to help me run a couple of tests while I still can. Who knows? Maybe we can scrape out some last second results and save the day. But either way I’ll see you soon, ‘kay?”
Doug's smile was almost audible. “See you soon.”