She saw him across the campus, and at once she was reminded of Will, painfully, viscerally, and without apparent reason. There was such an ordinariness to the man, a quiet, intense brownness that proclaimed him to be nothing special at all. She didn't trust it. That kind of ordinariness could only be projected from an extraordinary mind; Lyra knew that with a certainty that burned through her consciousness and demanded action.
The paving stones were hard beneath her rough bare feet, but she raced across the courtyard with a heedless, headstrong passion she'd not surrendered to so completely in years. Whatever composure and self-control her adolescence had brought her vanished as she bounded across the way, her eyes bright and fixed on the stranger. It wasn't until she was nearly upon him and an excited Pantalaimon swirled around her ankles that she realised he had no daemon.
Lyra's breath caught in her throat with a jolt that pulled her up short. She stood gasping, one hand at her neck, fingers covering her mouth, and stared. The brown man gave her a bright, enigmatic smile, meeting her eyes and penetrating her shock with a sudden, pervasive sense of ancientness. Looking at him felt a great deal like being in the land of the dead.
'Oh,' she blurted, as though he'd pulled the word from her lips with nothing but that smile. 'All right?'
His smile morphed in a blink into something wacky, madcap, and he gave the hint of a shrug. 'Hullo! What's your name then?'
'You're from the other Earth.' Lyra whispered, her voice rasping out of a tight throat and tripping off a dry tongue. 'The Other Earth.'
'Well, sort of,' he acknowledged, quirky grin brightening in a way that served only to make her more aware of his sadness, of how he Did Not Fit. 'I'm the Doctor.'
'Oh sure,' Lyra agreed, studying him without seeming to study him. Somehow she didn't think he was fooled, and that didn't happen often. Subterfuge was one of Lyra's dearest gifts, but it was wasted on this one.
She thrust her hand out to shake and added, 'There's loads of those around here; this is Oxford, you know. I'm Lyra, and this is Pan.'
At the mention of his name, Pan surged up her body and perched on her shoulder, eyes bright and curious. The Doctor's gaze took him in, and he inclined his head to Pan before looking back to Lyra. As fascinated as he seemed with Pan, he couldn't seem to keep from staring at Lyra's face, and she couldn't help but notice.
'Lyra, I was looking for an other Other Earth, but--' he clapped his hands together in front of his face and rubbed them in what seemed to her to be determined enthusiasm '—this will have to be a different adventure.'
'Adventure?' she echoed, a sharp thrill going through her at the word, the memory of Will and their wild, impossible mission washing over her. She swayed on her feet a moment, then pulled it together and cut her gaze back up to the Doctor's to find him studying her with the same kind of useless subtlety she had employed on him.
'You remind me of someone.' His voice was flat, and the comment felt offhand in a way that reeked of desperation. It cut Lyra to the quick, and, on her shoulder, Pan nudged his face into her hair to cover the sudden grief they felt.
'Yeah. So d'you.'
She looked at him, her eyes wide and her mouth pursed as she studied his expression, the faint lines at his mouth and brow, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. For a moment, he was open, fathomless, radiating such loss and beauty that it swelled in her heart until she thought she'd die of it.
Then the light went out, and he was dark and closed off, inscrutable. Tears rolled down her cheeks unnoticed until Pan's soft whimper in her ear drew her back to herself. His tail came up to dry her face with his silken fur, and she felt sudden pity for this stranger that he had no daemon to care for him when he was holding such pain within him.
'How'd you get here?' Her voice and heart were raw with the impossibility of this meeting, with the implications of the Doctor's presence that were only now beginning to sink in. 'You en't from this world, and there en't any more travel between the worlds.'
On her shoulder, Pan stood and looked at him, fixing him with the same look of challenge Lyra gave him. Something in what she'd said made the Doctor flinch. Though she couldn't see it, she felt it: a stepping backward of his soul inside his body. If he'd had a daemon, she knew it would be crouching behind his feet, peeking out at her.
With a startling suddenness, his hand came to rest on her shoulder, strong and almost humming with some great energy that seemed barely contained by his skin. Without speaking, he guided her away from the strolling students and bustling faculty, leading her into mystery. An empty archway between buildings yawned in her face and then swallowed them in shadows. They stood there in the dark and secret, and his body so close to hers transported her.
It was unbearable and wonderful, this remembering. Time faded Will, faded his face, his voice, his scent, but she saw him now in the eye of her mind with a clarity she'd mourned as lost forever. It hurt beautifully.
'Tell me about this travel between worlds,' came the Doctor's voice in her ear, fervent and pleading. His fingers curled tighter on her shoulder urgently. 'I must know, Lyra. I must understand, and you must tell me.'
'Closed 'em,' she murmured, her eyes closed tight and her body with Will, years and years ago. She leaned against the solid, warm body in front of her, her cheek against his chest, and she heard two hearts pounding, neither of them hers. His daemon, she thought with detachment; how nice for him to have it there inside him, safe inside his skin.
Strong arms encircled her, hugging her as though her need for the embrace had been communicated telepathically. It was brilliant, and she breathed in deep, thinking she could smell Will on this doctor, could smell something of who he'd been, that if she smelt him now, a man grown, he would smell like this.
'Who closed them? Why were they open?'
'The subtle knife. Years gone, now. Cut holes right through reality, but we patched 'em all right.' Lyra sniffled and rubbed her nose against the rumpled fabric of the coat her face rested upon. 'Had to, you see? Didn't have a choice, but to break our word, and he wouldn't have done it. He had to go back where you come from, and that was it for us.'
A handkerchief was applied to her face not ungently, and Lyra plucked it from the long fingers holding it to dab at her own eyes, scrubbing them with her fists to punish them for leaking.
'The philosophers mucked it up for the lot of us. Almost brought down the worlds, all of 'em, I mean, not just this one, or yours. Had to do it.'
Lyra's voice cracked, and she steeled herself before tipping up her face to look into this doctor's. There was such compassion on his face, such Understanding as she'd never thought to see. A strong jerk unsteadied her; Pan clung to her and stared at the Doctor, as wide-eyed as Lyra herself.
'Oh, I do see,' was all that he said, but the way he said it said everything. 'Who did you lose?'
'I en't lost any--' Defiance sparked for a moment, habitual, and then died away. 'I lost everyone, but everyone didn't matter. I lost Will, and he did.'
'I had a Rose,' the Doctor said, his eyes limpid and knowing, full of ineffable wisdom. 'I lost everyone, and I survived. I lost Rose, and--'
'Some of the losses are too big, I reckon. Losing things you never understood any old way.' Lyra gave the Doctor another hug, impulsive, hungry for the affection from someone who could think nothing amiss in it. 'It's the specific ones that get you, the ones you can wrap your head and heart around so that they leave a hole through you.'
She stepped back and patted his damp coat ineffectually with the borrowed handkerchief. He gazed at her as she darted her hand across the tear-stained fabric with fierce little motions, and she knew he understood how bizarre this was, that it was bizarre for him too. His little smile provoked one of hers, calculating, deceitful, and full of affection.
'I could take you with me,' he blurted, and he looked as surprised to say it as Lyra did to hear it. 'Back to the Other Earth. Maybe you could find your Will.'
Habit kept her smile up like a good pair of braces, and she let out a long breath. Then she shook her head, and Pan felt heavy against her skin.
'That en't the plan. What the plan is, is to remember. Long as we don't forget, we can keep making our worlds better, see? This is my world, and it's my job to fix it as best I can, and Will... he's got his world to fix up, and it needed lots of fixing.'
'Remarkable. Humans are remarkable creatures,' the Doctor muttered under his breath.
Something in him lightened, like a weight coming off his shoulders, and Lyra could see it as he stood taller, as the ancientness fell away from him a little. He caught her in a rush, a rapid hug that lifted her soles from the cobbles for a moment, and then he released her and stepped away.
'Come with me anyway. We'll have grand adventures! It'll be fantastic. I've got tea in the TARDIS! Come along, then.'
Lyra looked at him, taking in his radiant, expectant face, his keen gaze, and she felt Pan resolute and still by her ankle.
'Too much fixing, Doctor. If I don't get it done, who will? Besides, if it's done in time, maybe someday--' Heaving a soft sigh in tandem with Pan, Lyra shook her head and smiled her most beguiling smile. 'There's a time for it, and it en't now. There's a time for ev'rything, you know, and wisdom says wait on it.'
'Wisdom says wait on it,' the Doctor echoed, pursing his lips as though mulling it over, his forefinger and thumb pinching his chin as his brow furrowed. 'Do you know, I think that's something I often overlook? The wisdom of waiting. There's something about waiting that seems obscene when time is at your beck and call. Well! I'll be off then. Thank you, Lyra,' he added, then nodded to Pan as well before striking out with quick strides away from them.
'Doctor,' Lyra called, and he paused, though he did not turn. She dashed up to him and tiptoed to press a quick kiss to his cheek. Lowering back to her heels, she kept her gaze on his face and murmured, 'That's for Will Parry, if you see him ever. You'll remember; I know you will. You remember everything.'
The Doctor's eyes closed, and she felt his aloneness reach out to her like a physical touch, pleading with her, but she had her own aloneness, and she knew the only path to end it was the one she was on. His heart and his daemon's beat like drums, and she could feel it through his body, the steady rhythm of life going on.
Then his eyelids fluttered open and his lips ghosted over her cheek in turn, hesitating by her ear to breathe, 'For Rose Tyler.'
As he moved away from her, he seemed on springs, walking much too fast, with too much impulsion. Lyra watched him for a few moments, then held out her hands to Pan and hugged him against her. Her path led them onward, and she didn't look back.