Fancy Meeting You Here
by D. D. Randall
Tom leaned on the rail of the upper deck of the ferry, watching the far coastline grow minutely larger. A brisk wind cut through his graying blond hair and was enough to bring tears to his eyes no matter how much he squinted. He kept wiping away the moisture in attempt to keep his view clear, only to have it pool up and blur it all over again.
The breeze felt good.
Summers on the Sea of San Joaquin could be cloying, dusty and dry, hot. Simply put, unpleasant. When the wind blew there, the air came off the end of a blow-dryer on high – March through October.
This wind, created by the speed of the boat, possessed an added layer of moisture which was refreshing. The brine in the air smelled clean, making him forget the heavy layer of smog which socked New Fresno in. He frowned as his gaze took in a similar layer blanketing his still distant destination.
Concord's skyline didn't seem much changed from what he remembered of it. Unlike San Francisco, Concord never really grew to be a big city. It's downtown didn't have much in the way of high rises, seeming content to spread out rather than up.
He drew in and let out a heavy sigh, trying to release his nerves with it.
Home. He was going home.
Straightening and perching his hands on the rail, he contemplated whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. When his long fingers curled tightly around the teak and his knuckles stood out, he thought maybe a mixture of both.
Concord remained an unopened book on his life's shelf for the past fifteen years – a tome he wrote with blood, sweat, and cybernetics – with no desire to reread it. Too much happened back then. Too much darkness. Too much pain. Too many things left unsaid. One very abrupt departure. They were aspects he was unsure he was ready to face again.
But the three-day microsurgery conference – a field he specialized in – was being held at Kline Memorial. He refused to fall behind on possible new techniques, so New Fresno Memorial sent him to his old stomping grounds.
And all the past he'd left behind.
Even Mira lived there.
Tom sighed and folded his arms along the upper rail once again. In that stoop, he watched the sun race the ferry to the other side of the San Joaquin with careworn, blue eyes.
While time pressed on him, Tom loathed the idea of going below. He wanted to enjoy the hint of simpler times and less people. When they were closer to Concord, he rationalized, he would descend into that small man-made hell.
Half an hour later, the dock loomed large before the ferry, and with a heavy sigh, Tom pried himself from his perch and headed below. The ladder wells and passageways closed in around him – a physical presence looming over his shoulders and souring his mood. As he let himself out onto the vehicle deck, an overwhelming smell of petrol, sweaty bodies, and exhaust hit him in the face. He stalled for a moment, muttering, "Lord," as he cupped his hand over his nose and mouth. It did little to cut the acrid stench.
With a brisk pace, he slipped between the cars packed like sardines in a can and found his SUV. Luckily he was skinny, because the neighboring car was hugging the line that separated the lanes of vehicles and left him little room to get his door open. Threading the needle between frame and door, he settled his tall, lanky physique behind the wheel, belted in, and started the vehicle. At least the cabin air filter would keep most of the noxious fumes out of the cab while he waited.
Another half an hour passed waiting for the ramp to be secured and the vehicles ahead of him to move. They shuffled like cards into three lines as they exited the front of the vessel.
Even then, it took him another fifteen minutes to hit the familiar streets of his former home town. He didn't even require the Mapz app to help him maneuver to the hotel his bosses put him up in for this business trip. The trip was about seven minutes of travel from the ferry and probably about five minutes between his hotel and the hospital's conference center.
Pulling into the parking lot, he checked in and dragged his attaché and suitcase to the third floor. Taking only long enough to fill the dresser drawers, Tom headed out again, walking this time. There was a restaurant he remembered liking when he worked at Concord General, and, happily enough, it was just a few blocks from here. He found himself pleasantly surprised when it proved to still be in business.
The door announced his arrival with the tinkling of wind chimes, barely heard over the drone of conversations around the joint and the clink and clank of dinnerware being shuffled. The sound and sight of it made him smile. He didn't go to restaurants often, not even with Sarah. His inner introvert much happier dining in. When he did go, it felt like such a special occasion.
He joined a short queue of patrons waiting to be seated. While he waited his turn, he leaned on the brightly-lit, singing, claw game to his right. Not two ticks later, a harried-looking, business-suited woman and her toe-headed little boy approached. With a smile, he straightened and took a step to the left, waving them towards the machine.
The woman gave him a strained grin in return, nodded, and then pushed the boy gently closer. Tom watched from the corner of his eye as she scanned her band to pay the appropriate credits, only to feel bad for the boy when he didn't get his intended toy. That set the boy to whining and his mother's expression to deeper desperation. His pity shifted to the boy's mother as she financed three more tries with no better luck.
Mother and son, both frustrated, left the establishment – the boy crying and dragging back and pointing at the machine. His mother was having none of it, hand firmly on his wrist. When he flopped to the ground in a fit, his mother simply lifted his boneless frame over a shoulder and continued towards the parking lot.
Tom blinked when they disappeared around the nearby corner of the building. He was about to return his attention to the line when another person approached the entrance. When he recognized the woman, a gasp escaped him. His heart thumped against his ribs as the bottom of his stomach fell out. When she seemed to be entering this very building, he faced front and moved closer to the hostess' podium, hoping he would get seated before she got through the doors.
No such luck.
Tom could feel her presence as she shuffled in behind him. He closed his eyes, and despite his horrid track record, sent a silent prayer to the heavens.
Please don't let her recognize me.
The hostess smiled at him a moment later and chirped, "How many, sir?" She tucked a straw-straight strand of brown hair behind her ear, waiting for him to respond.
"Just one, please."
"Would you like a booth or the counter?"
"I'll wait on the booth if you don't mind."
"Sure," she replied, checking the handheld lying on the podium top. With a nod, she said, "No wait necessary, sir, we have a booth available. Right this way, please."
Tom let out a breath he'd been holding as the hostess pulled a menu and a set of utensils and led the way to a small booth near the rear of the restaurant. As he slid into the booth, back to the entrance, she told him about the day's specials and asked him what he wanted to drink.
"Coffee please," Tom said, smiling up at her.
"Cream and sugar?" she inquired.
"No, black is fine."
She nodded and added, "Julie will be your server today, she'll be by shortly to take your order."
"Thank you." He lifted the menu as she walked away and began perusing their offerings.
When Julie arrived, a no-nonsense young lady with slicked back hair gathered in a tight bun, a combination which left him clueless as to its true shade, Tom ended up ordering a cheeseburger with sweet potato fries. His initial thought was to order a higher-end meal, being that his bosses were footing his food bill as well. In the end, however, the burger just sounded like what he wanted.
As he sat nursing his coffee, he mused about the things he was most interested in seeing at the conference. There were new robotic assistants being purchased by their hospital and Tom was certain he wanted to be in that symposium. There were a couple general surgery workshops that he thought might be a good fit to fill in the gaps.
This mental organization stole the entirety of his focus, such that people passed by him and returned from the bathroom without his notice.
It wasn't until someone said, "Excuse me?" that he broke free of his mental planning.
Blinking the real world back into focus, Tom lifted his gaze, finding the person he'd been trying to avoid earlier stood just beyond the far side of his booth.
"You…?" she tilted her head, her white hair highlighted blue by the overhead florescent bulbs. "Dr. Martin?"
Tom swallowed, completely at a loss on what to say or do.
She didn't take his silence as a no, promptly sitting across from him in the booth. Her expression was unreadable. "I thought that might be you. I haven't met a single other soul who wears turtlenecks throughout the seasons."
Still he remained mute, hoping to convince her she was mistaken.
"It's me," She pointed at herself, "Dora."
"Yes," he blurted, kicking his brain and his mouth into gear. After all, his subterfuge failed. "Dora! Good to see you."
"Fancy meeting you here," she replied. "You, um…"
She waved her hand vaguely and looked away.
"Disappeared," he sighed, nodding and trying to take the awkwardness out with it. "I know."
She frowned, but didn't speak further.
Before either of them could break the impasse, the waitress returned. "Sir, will this young lady be joining you?" she asked, flashing bleach-white teeth.
"Young," Dora tutted, still sounding flattered by the address.
Turning to Dora, Tom asked, "Did you have a table already?"
"No, not yet."
Tom peered up at the waitress. "Yes, she is, would you please bring us another menu?" Returning his attention to his former assistant he asked, "Something to drink, Dora?"
"Could I get hot tea, lemon and honey?" She asked of the waitress.
The smile she shot Dora was false. "I'll have that right up. Sir, did you want us to hold off bringing your meal?"
"Yes, if you would be so kind."
As soon as the woman was out of earshot, Dora tilted her head the other direction and said, "There was… the accident."
Heat flooded Tom's cheeks, embarrassed to this day about that event – from the reason for it to the consequences after.
"Then no one would tell me anything. Whether you survived. How bad off you were." She appeared stricken, as if she was confronting his ghost. "At least until that malarkey about…"
She trailed off squinting rheumy eyes and analyzing him.
Tom remained silent, afraid to ask, even when he knew what she was probably going to say.
The return of Julie gave him a bit of reprieve from the coming inquiry. She stayed only a few moments as Dora ordered a Denver Omelet and a side of sausages.
"I'll get that going right now," she said and stalked toward the kitchen once again.
When the coast was clear, Dora whispered, "You didn't really assault Turner, did you?" When she straightened, she added, "I mean I know he was a right pain in the ass…"
Tom dropped his gaze. "Pain in the ass would be tip of the iceberg, trust me."
When he lifted it again, he found her with folded elbows on the table top, her mouth pinched and the rest of her expression reproving. "So you did?"
He didn't want to answer it. He never wanted to talk about it again. However, Dora deserved answers about his sudden departure from Concord. If she never wanted to see him after that, he wouldn't blame her one iota. That whole chain of events left poor Dora in the lurch.
"I'm afraid so," Tom sighed. Despite steeling himself, his gut knotted in anxiety.
Shaking her head, she asked, "Why? I thought you were a bigger man than that."
"Would you believe me if I said it's because he had no respect for you?" Tom muttered in a poor stab at a joke, not even sounding like he meant it.
She pulled her chin in, looking at once confused and honored. "Did you?"
He glanced away, tapping a few times on the veneer of the table with his knuckles. "That wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back, no. It was one part of a whole pile of stuff that just built up before and after that."
"Care to enlighten me, Dr. Martin?" Dora said, though her expression told him she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"It's Tom, Dora," he uttered. "I'm not your boss anymore."
Her eyes softened somewhat and what wanted to be a smile ticked at the corners of her mouth.
"And no. I'm not proud of my loss of control that day." He folded his arms and rested his chin on his wrists.
"So, you actually did go to jail?"
Tom breathed in and let it out in a long, drawn-out sigh. "Afraid I did," he repeated. His gaze flicked up to watch her expression, to see if her opinion of him may have changed for the negative. "The aftermath of all that wasn't pretty. Lost my license to practice, my job at Concord, had to move."
Now she appeared horrified for him. "So what are you doing now?"
He straightened, running a hand nervously through his hair. "I'm… doing alright, Dora, don't worry. I got hired across the San Joaquin as a cyberneticist."
"Oh, well that is right up your alley," Dora paused to sip her tea. "But, you're not a doctor anymore?"
"Oh!" He straightened, smiled in embarrassment, and waved a hand through the air. "No, I am. It was a hard-fought battle, but the Board of Medicine reinstated my license to practice about a year after it was taken. So, I tacked on my old role as physician and surgeon in my new capacity at the New Fresno Medical Center."
"I see," Dora muttered, peering down at her cup. Tom couldn't be sure what she thought of all that, her expression was too muddled to process. "So what are you doing back here, Doc… Tom?"
Tom leaned back, crossing his arms over his waist. "Kline Memorial is hosting a microsurgery conference, and New Fresno Medical Center approved my request to attend."
Her blinking became more rapid. "Wait… isn't that where the M219 virus broke loose?" Her gaze locked on his face once again. "Oh my God, why didn't I realize it before now?"
"What?" Tom said his gut back to churning.
The waitress returned with their dinners and set down their plates. "Can I get you two anything else?"
"No, dear," Dora said before Tom could shift gears. "This is lovely."
A more genuine smile graced Julie's face before she dusted off her hands on her apron and moved to tend other customers.
As if the interruption never happened, Dora added, "You were in a press conference right after the public became aware of it!" She wagged a gnarled finger at him. "I thought that guy looked familiar, but I didn't realize it was you!"
"Heh," Tom huffed, blushing again for her making the connection. "I promise you I got involved in all that completely by circumstance."
"You saved a lot of lives, from what I know." She did grin then, leaning on one fist as she picked up her fork and started into her omelet.
They ate in silence for a little bit. Dora chewed on her thoughts just as she chewed each bite. After a few mouthfuls of his burger, Tom set it aside and began picking at his fries.
"What about you, Dora?" Tom mumbled around a mouthful. Swallowing it, he added, "Are you still working at Concord General?"
She waved dismissively. "I haven't worked there in ten years. Full on retired."
"Oh?" Tom wiped his fingers on his napkin before picking up his coffee cup and shooting her a questioning glance.
"Well, after what happened," she made circles with one arm, "they assigned me to another doctor. While I wanted to work with Doctor Gomez, he already had an assistant, and the board didn't want to displace them. So, I got bounced around for a bit. A year here with Doctor Sampson, two years there with Doctor Emmanuel. Started feeling like a yo-yo after a bit, and decided I had enough pension that sticking around wasn't worth the headache." Her head nodded side to side a moment. "'Sides, none of them treated me as well as you did."
Tom stopped mid-chew to stare at her.
"Well it's true," she replied to his incredulous gaze. "I never felt talked down to working for you."
A crooked grin worked over Tom's lips. "Thanks, Dora. I just… well I feel like crap for never making contact with you before this. Truthfully, I wasn't sure how you would take all that sordid news."
He wondered what else the rumor mill got back to her ears, and ran cold a moment later.
"Won't say it wasn't a shock." Her gaze remained steady on him. "Only because it was so unlike what I knew of you. I mean, sure, I saw those… moments. But I never considered you could…" she trailed off, shaking her head.
Tom couldn't meet her gaze for long moments.
"But Turner?" She tch'ed through her teeth. "He rode you hard, I saw it. And everyone's got their breaking point."
He lifted his gaze in time to see Dora's grin rise and fall like a swell on the ocean.
"I'm still not proud of that whole debacle," Tom insisted.
She reached across the table top settling her soft wrinkled hand atop his fingers. "Even good people make poor decisions. Forgive yourself, Dr. Martin – seems you've punished yourself long enough."
Tom drew in and let out a long, relieved sigh. "Thank you."
She smiled, warm and wide, before finishing off her plate of food. Tom wasn't far behind her, his appetite returning with a better than hoped for interlude with his former assistant.
Dora sighed. "Despite I didn't like the man, Turner's death was tragic."
Tom did all he could not to choke on his last bite. Unable to respond to that with words that wouldn't sound forced, he merely nodded.
"God have mercy on his soul," Dora prayed.
That's not what Tom would have prayed for.
When the waitress returned the ordered dessert and refills on their drinks. They sat talking for nearly a half an hour after they'd finished their meals – his new job, his wife, her grandchildren, and second nieces and nephews. But eventually, they ran out of things to discuss.
Tom checked his chrono and sighed. "Dora, this has been such a refreshing meet up. Thank you for braving the reintroduction."
"My pleasure, Tom. And thank you for treating me to dinner."
"It's the least I could do." Tom returned the smile with one of his own.
Dora began to rise, but didn't make it to her feet before she settled back into the bench and twisted to look at him again.
"So… humor me here," Dora started, looking a bit nervous to bring this new topic up. "There was another crazy rumor floating around the hospital after the accident."
"Yes," Tom replied to the question she was dancing around. "That's true, too."
She mouthed, "You're a cyborg?" Her face scrunched up as if she thought he was pulling her leg.
Glancing about their immediate area, Tom ensured no one was paying them any mind. When the coast was clear, he leaned over the table top, tucked an index finger into the collar of his turtleneck, and pulled it far enough down to where some of his post-production work was exposed. Only then did he affirm her silent question.
Dora leaned into the backrest with a thump, her eyes huge. "Since when?"
"Long before you found out about it," Tom demurred.
"Well, now." She shook her head and rose from the booth, saying no more on the matter. She didn't immediately leave, simply watched him.
Getting the hint, Tom grabbed the check and rose as well.
"May I?" She stretched out her arms to indicate her intent.
Tom was flattered she still remembered he didn't like people touching him. "Of course!" he uttered. "My mental skin's a bit thicker these days."
She hugged him about the waist as he wrapped up her shoulders, trying to be careful not to crush her utterly. "It was so good to see you again!" came her muffled words.
"Same," Tom sighed as she leaned out of the show of affection. "I really have missed having you as my right brain, y'know."
"I've missed having you as a boss, Tom," Dora replied. As she smiled up at him she asked. "How many days are you in town?"
"Three," Tom answered a small twinge of hope sparking in his gut. "Why do you ask?"
"Well how'd you like a homecooked meal one night while you're here?" Dora offered.
"That would totally make my trip," Tom answered.
"Give me your net phone," she said, more a demand than a request.
He blinked, but complied, handing the device to her and watching as she plugged in her number and created herself a contact.
"Text me?" she asked.
When he sent that, she replied with her home address.
"What time's best for your schedule, Tom?"
"I think we're done for the day by six?" He glanced at the text as it came in, firming in his head where it was in relation to the hotel and about how long a drive it would be.
"So, seven? Tomorrow?"
"Sounds perfect!" Tom agreed.
They both turned up the aisle and headed for the cashier. They chatted more while Tom paid the bill and tipped the waitress, and they paused again outside to wrap up their conversation.
After ten more minutes they managed final goodbyes and then began walking away from each other. Tom grinned from ear to ear all the way back to his hotel.
As he let himself into his room he could only think that this return home was going to be so much better now.
A/N: So this didn't actually come out of nowhere? I've been kicking around this idea now for about a year. Tom never got closure with Dora after all that happened in Forgotten Ties. So after all this time, Tom's made some pretty wild speculations on what the news of all that might have done to Dora's image of him. I know I get paranoid like that sometimes as well
I hope you enjoyed this little one shot!