When Mrs. Pollifax came home from her karate lesson, she found the young man sitting on her doorstep.
"Bishop! How lovely to see you," she cried as he scrambled to his feet. She unlocked the door and ushered him in. "Come in! I baked some muffins this morning, walnut-fig. I was going to bring them to this afternoon's meeting of the Save-Our-Environment Committee, but I'd much rather offer them to you, you're always so appreciative. Cyrus will be sorry to have missed you, he's at a conference in Princeton this week -- and I assume you can't stay?" she asked, her gaze suddenly sharp. "Where is Carstairs sending me this time, anyway?"
Bishop laughed. "Pakistan," he said, through a mouthful of muffin, and ruefully thought -- not for the first time -- that it was no wonder Emily Pollifax was such an astounding success as a spy; she had him off balance in less than a minute, and he knew what to expect. "We have some information about a possible Al Qaeda attack this summer. We need you to go to Karachi to meet with our contact," Bishop said. He put down his muffin, sadly, in order to get some files out of his bag and then paused, aware of Mrs. Pollifax's glittering eyes. "Er. Is something wrong?"
"I won't be a party to any of those secret foreign-country kidnap and torture arrangements you people seem to be so fond of, lately," she said, grim, and Bishop was reminded once again that while this woman made muffins and wore ridiculous hats and looked more cozy than his own grandmother ever had, she was also an extremely effective spy who had undergone some fairly brutal times for the department.
"Do you honestly think that Carstairs would have anything to do with that part of Homeland Security?" he asked frankly. "Or that they would have anything to do with him? He's actually had quite a time rearranging the department to stay under the radar of the political hacks." He took another bite of his muffin, and continued. "All we need you to do is pick up some information from our contact, who has learned -- through legal means, I might add, not through illegal wiretapping or warrantless searching, " he added rapidly, as she looked prepared to argue again, "about a potential attack. In fact, one of the reasons it's so important that this mission be successful is that Carstairs is trying to prove the success of traditional means to prevent terrorism."
Mrs. Pollifax relaxed and poured out two cups of coffee. "So what's my mission, then? Pakistan is our ally, isn't it?"
Bishop took the coffee gratefully. It had been a long flight. "Yes, technically. But the situation is difficult, there. We want to support General Musharraf -- he's got something of a reputation of a reformer -- and he certainly wants to maintain good ties with us. But Pakistan-India relations are always strained, and of course you've heard of the madrasas?" He waited for her nod, then continued. "Then you know why we're understandably worried about the possibility of Al Qaeda attack originating in Pakistan. Pakistan is the world's second-largest Muslim country, you know, and while Musharraf believes that observance to Islam isn't contradictory with a liberal society, and many of the madrasas really are just religious schools, there's still plenty of terrorist training grounds operating in less-populated areas." He looked sadly at the denuded plate of muffins; he hadn't eaten them all, had he? "Anyway, Carstairs wants you to leave tomorrow, if you can."
Less then a week later, Mrs. Pollifax hobbled down the steps of the British Museum, exhausted but happy. Her arm was itching inside her new, hygienic cast, but she still insisted on wearing the colorful Kuchi sling Waresa had bound the injury with as the two of them had crouched silently behind that arms depot in the Afghan mountains, determined not to make a sound and alert the raiders to their presence. She wasn't bringing back as many presents as she would have liked for Cyrus, as her healing arm prevented her from carrying very much, but she had plenty of postcards, and of course she had memories of the new friendships she'd made. Mrs. Pollifax smiled as she thought of Waresa. She wouldn't have expected when she met the young prostitute who only wanted to escape from the brothel that the girl would become a dear friend who would help her thwart a plot to blow up the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, and just in the nick of time, too. She wondered how Waresa would look next time they met, though she suspected that Farrell would make an excellent father, no matter how shocked he had appeared when Mrs. Pollifax had deposited the eleven-year-old girl on his doorstep with the injunction "now keep him out of trouble." And of course, before Waresa, Ishrat and all the boys from the Kashmiri madrasa who'd helped hide her from the Syrian operatives running the school. Brave boys, all of them, who'd come to the school thinking it was a rare chance to help their desperately poor families by learning to read and write, and had instead been taught how to use guns and bombs. Of course, she thought fondly, now they actually are all learning in a genuine school, and I expect they sometimes wish they were back home instead of studying. What a clever child Ishrat was, fooling the bomber with that fake machine gun he'd built!
Mrs. Pollifax limped idly down the street, enjoying her forced day of rest in London, between the debriefing at the Embassy and the shocked gratitude of the director of the British Museum when she returned the stolen gems. Lost her own thoughts, she didn't even notice that she'd wandered into a less-than-savory neighborhood until she merely stumbled over a group of scruffy teenagers huddled around -- was that a crack pipe? She backed off quickly, mouthing apologies, but the damage was done. Twitchy, the three adolescents stretched and stood, and grinned as they assessed her with dilated eyes. The tallest girl, skeletally thin, drew a knife, caressing the handle almost affectionately. Mrs. Pollifax knew what she looked like: an American tourist, one arm in a cast, a feeble old woman, which she was, now, with her broken arm and sprained ankle making self-defense a lot more awkward even given her black belt in karate. She resigned herself to handing over her purse and hoped she got away without having to hurt anyone -- or be hurt myself -- she admitted, pragmatic about her own physical condition. An oddly familiar sound down the alley didn't quite register, though she did wonder if she were becoming hysterical. Defeat an Al Qaeda plot and be taken down by three poor drug addicts in a first-world city, she thought. I'll never hear the end of it if I get mugged.
Mentally, she catalogued her weaknesses, and prepared a few swift moves in case they weren't satisfied with her purse.
But as one of the teenagers made a desultorily lunge for Mrs. Pollifax's purse, she heard a shout from the alley. "Hey!" called a woman's voice, with a heavy Australian accent. "Leave that poor lady alone!" Something whizzed past Mrs. Pollifax's ear and hit the nearest addict on the arm. A rock? Someone was throwing rocks?
After a moment of stupefecation, she took advantage of the moment. Dropping the purse, Mrs. Pollifax delivered a glancing blow with her unbroken left hand. It wasn't nearly as well-placed as it should have been, but there was still power behind it -- the girl screamed and dropped her knife. Two more well-placed rocks was all it took. The teenagers turned and ran the other way down the street.
Exhausted and relieved, Mrs. Pollifax dropped heavily to the sidewalk. The adrenaline was fading, and she could feel the screaming pain up her left ankle from where she had placed too much weight.
Her rescuer rushed forward and plunged down next to Mrs. Pollifax in the street, heedless of her oddly dated suit. "Ma'am, are you all right?" What a pretty girl, Mrs. Pollifax thought, as the young woman offered her a hand up. She wondered where the young woman had come from, and looked back up the alley, where she saw a man and a boy emerging at a more sedate pace.
"My pride is sprained," she said, dryly, but that clearly confused the young good samaritan, so she took the proffered hand and eased herself up. "Never mind, dear, I'm fine. Thank you for the timely rescue, you and your friends." She looked again at the man and boy, trying to place them. There was something oddly familiar -- not either of the two people, but something about the scene. What was that blue object she could barely see in the alley? It almost looked like --
"Emily?" said the man, opening his arms wide. "Emma, how marvelous to see you!" She looked at him oddly. There'd been many people she'd met in her missions for Carstairs, but she couldn't recall this man, and she rather thought she'd remember someone who wore -- was that celery? -- like a boutonniere. And nobody had called her Emma in decades.
"Who is it, Doctor?" the boy asked, and it all became clear. The unfamiliar face, the woman's dated outfit, the boy's bizarre pyjamas. The blue police box -- obsolete in Britain for decades now -- hiding in plain sight in the alley.
"Doctor? It's you?" she asked, and without waiting for an answer, flung herself into his arms like she was 23 again and she'd just seen him yesterday. Laughing for joy at old friends grown inexplicably younger, younger than either face she'd known him with, and then she was crying, sobbing uncontrollably and foolishly, while he patted her on the back awkwardly and said "there, there," and his young companions stared at her like she was some sort of alien. Which she supposed she might be, to them. When she had calmed down to the hiccuping stage, she pulled back and wiped her face on one of Cyrus' overlarge handkerchiefs.
"I'm so sorry," she said, smiling with what she hoped was her Harmless Grandmother face at the young people. "I don't know what came over me." She did know, though. She had been forcibly reminded of the delight of being young and powerful, saving the universe and laughing (well, screaming) in the face of danger -- and then of the desolate decades that had followed. The genuine joys of marriage and motherhood would never measure up to the thrill of stepping onto an alien world, seeing strange new stars, the adrenaline of fighting off the Master, rescuing the Earth from incomprehensible dangers. When even the more everyday joys of having the family had faded, she'd found her life bleaker and bleaker in comparison, until she stood with her geraniums on the roof one day and quite seriously considered throwing herself off. Only in her work for Carstairs had she refound that thrill the Doctor had first introduced her to, of meeting strange and alien people, of saving the world, of having a purpose.
She hoped none of this showed on her face, but she wasn't sure; the Doctor as she'd last known him was somewhat oblivious but hadn't always been. She looped her arm through his. "Are you in a hurry? Because now that my erstwhile attackers have been so bravely scared off, I could really use a cup of coffee. You can introduce me to your friends, and tell me all about how Sarah and Harry were when you last saw them, and the Brigadier."
He smiled down at her and patted her hand absently, and she rather thought that this one had a bit of obliviousness going for him, too. "Coffee! Yes, splendid idea. Teagan, Adric, come along."
"What's coffee?" Mrs. Pollifax heard the boy ask as they fell in behind her and the Doctor. And she thought that maybe the life she'd led really wasn't so bad at all.