At the cafe _Osteria Aida_, a large group of Bohemians sat around several tables that they had pushed together, carousing far into the evening.
It was a mixed, motley group. A number were students at the Conservatoire; the rest were artists, writers, actors and musicians, with an emphasis on the poor and starving variety. Roughly half of the revelers had just wandered across the party and had decided to stay. No one minded.
Wine, food, and song flowed freely. Occasionally, an argument would threaten to break out, as someone succumbed to a bellicose impulse, perhaps fueled by an excess of spirits. The group's natural peacekeepers generally managed to sort it out, though, keeping the celebration from spinning out of control, and the cafe owner from an excess of anxiety. No one had started to dance on the table-tops, either - yet.
What was the party for? It might have been to celebrate the end of exams, but those were still some time away. Perhaps one of the writers at the table had just sold a novel to a publisher? Actually, no. Most of the revelers there were hanging on, financially speaking, by their fingernails.
They were celebrating for no good reason at all. Just because.
One of the few woman at the table, Grace Holloway, a traveler from the United States, sat, resplendent in rust-colored silk. She was talking, laughing, and enjoying herself more than she had in quite a long time. Most of the men at the table were flirting with her outrageously, much to her amusement.
Well, all except one.
She flicked a quick, amused glance at the fair-haired man in the green jacket who sat at ease across the table, conversing with great animation with several artists and writers. The Doctor, her time- traveling companion from Gallifrey, seemed to be oblivious to her. A cup sat at his elbow, but he seemed to have forgotten it, as well. She gave a mental shrug and turned her attention back to the man next to her. Was he a writer, or a playwright? She couldn't remember. She took a sip of her glass of wine and snickered inwardly - she was drinking for mere pennies what snobbish wine connoisseurs in her time, the end of the 20th century, would eventually pay top dollar for.
The Doctor noted Grace's glance, but did not acknowledge it, deep as he was in conversation. To his left, he could just see out of the corner of his eye that the fellow next to him was sketching with a charcoal pencil on a small scrap of paper. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation, the Doctor took the opportunity to look more closely at what he was drawing.
To his surprise, he saw a portrait of Grace forming before his eyes. The artist had caught her spirit perfectly with just a few perfectly- placed lines.
"Oh, well done!" the Doctor said in admiration.
The artist smiled, pleased. "It's yours, then," he declared, carefully handing the impromptu portrait to a delighted Doctor. "Keep it; I insist."
"Thank you!" he said, and meant it. Displaying the sketch with a flourish, he turned to his fellow conversationalists. The others leaned forward to admire his prize and compare it with the real thing across the table, before returning to the discussion. The Doctor fished in his pocket, removed a small tube, rolled up the small piece of paper carefully to avoid smudging the portrait, and slid it inside the tube. He then returned it to his pocket.
The artist leaned over. "You are a lucky man, to have such a lovely companion," he commented slyly, a hint of a question in his inflection. The Doctor deliberately turned a bland gaze to him. "Hhmm? Oh, yes..." he replied, distractedly. The artist sat back with a speculative look.
The Doctor looked to see what exactly Grace was up to. It appeared she had seen none of his portrait presentation; she was too busy being chatted up by a handsome, dark-haired, mustachioed fellow. He was holding one of her hands, under the pretext that he was about to read her palm.
"Your hand...it is so cold," he said, smiling at her. "Ah, yes," the fellow exclaimed. "Here is your life-line..." He paused suddenly, frowning down at her palm, as if puzzled, but continued. The Doctor saw Grace roll her eyes. Did she need rescuing? No - she was handling that rascal, Giacomo, well enough.
The Doctor shot a glance of pure mischief their way.
Everyone at the table flinched, startled, as he abruptly stood up and slammed a fist down on the table top, hard enough to jolt wine out of several glasses. Most of the party-goers looked up in anticipation. Was there about to be a row over the American woman?
Grace was gazing at him speculatingly, an eyebrow raised, as the Doctor leaned forward, glaring.
"It's been going on long enough, Giacomo!" he said sternly. Grace's would-be swain dropped her hand somewhat guiltily.
The Doctor continued. "Everyone's been telling me that you have yet to finish that opera, what was it - "Le Villi", that you've been working on! When will it be produced, and the name Puccini get the recognition it deserves?" He sat back down.
Grace's jaw dropped, and her head swiveled around to stare at the man next to her. "Giacomo Puccini? You're *the* Giacomo Puccini?"
"Er...yes," the man replied, surprised by her reaction.
She'd just spent the last ten minutes being chatted up by her favorite opera composer.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, grabbing hold of his hands, feeling momentarily star-struck. "I love all of your operas! In fact, I just recently saw Madame-"
Across the table, someone cleared their throat meaningfully, and she stopped, wincing. She'd been babbling. What had she been saying?
Puccini was looking at her, confusion written all over his face. "I'm sorry," he said. "You must have me confused with someone else. I'm scoring an opera, but I haven't yet finished it."
"Ah...What I meant," she said quickly, rapidly back-pedaling, "is that I'm sure that you're going to write the music for a number of operas, and that people will love them." She squeezed Puccinis hands in hers, and smiled broadly, as he looked back at her, bemused. "You are going to write operas, aren't you? You must!" She thought she heard a strangled noise from across the table, but ignored it.
"In fact," she said, a wicked gleam in her eye, "I *know* you will!" Puccini stared at her, obviously a little unnerved by her intensity. She leaned forward conspiratively. "You see," she said, dropping her voice down low, "I have a...feeling for these kinds of thing, sometimes. And I just know that you will be a successful composer."
He smiled back at her, now, not at all displeased by her words of encouragement, as she released his hands. She could see why the Doctor did this sort of hint-dropping so often - this was *fun*!
The Doctor captured everybody's attention again, as he got to his feet once more and raised his cup. "A toast!" he shouted, and the rest gladly took up the cry. "A toast to all the Arts, that bring Beauty to our lives!"
Everyone raised their glasses and cheered, and the party wound on into the night.
As the party finally broke up, hours later, the revelers began drifting off somewhat tipsily into the mist-shrouded Milan streets. Grace wrapped the shawl that was serving as a jacket around herself, as the Doctor waited nearby. She probably looked, she mused, like a character from one of Puccini's operas. Ahead of them, Giacomo Puccini, future composer of several operas that would in time become standards in the repertoires of opera houses around the world, was heading out of the square. He looked back at her and the Doctor, and she waved. He grinned, wistfully, and lifted a hand in farewell.
The Doctor regarded Grace slyly. "What if I told you that what little you said to him here tonight was going to change history, cause him not to go on to write those operas?"
She looked at him skeptically. "I'd say that you were full of it."
"Oh? How does that follow?" he asked, amused.
She looked momentarily skyward as she slipped the drawstring of her reticule over her wrist. "Well...if he had gone on and not written those operas, I'd have no memory of them right now. But I do. So he did." She rolled her gaze expectantly back to him.
"Well," he conceded, wryly, "as it happens, you're correct about history remaining unchanged, though it's not quite as simple as you described it. You've got to be very careful about that sort of thing; you have no idea what historical events and minute details may be important in the end."
She put her hands on her hips and gave him a Look. "You're a fine one to talk - you do it all the time!"
"Yes, but I know what I'm doing."
"Uh-huh," she said, sardonically. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Time Lord is a Professional. Do not try this at home!"
"Something like that, yes," he laughed. "So, what do you think of Puccini, now that you've met him?"
She considered, thoughtfully. "I didn't really know that much about him before; I just enjoyed his music. He certainly was fun to talk to, though he *is* an awful skirt-chaser, isn't he? I mean, please - Grace, your hand is so cold-" She stopped abruptly. "Oh, my." She shook her head and laughed, as her friend grinned. "Well, at least it worked for Rodolfo!*"
The Doctor gallantly offered her his arm in the proper gentlemanly fashion of the time. Grace took it, and they set off through the lamp- lit streets, for the TARDIS.
* Who used that line on his love, Mimi, in Puccini's opera "La Boheme", with considerably more success...