He hated her.
There were brief moments when the nauseating dread subsided, and he hated her.
Ian hated his friend so much he could scream until the mud brick walls shattered.
No, it was not hate; it was anger. He could still love her and be angry at her.
Why did she run ahead of them, when they knew - KNEW - that something was wrong? Why had she gone into that cottage, picked up that crying infant and..... held the poor little girl until she died?
And if she had not done it, Ian would have. Then he would be the one dying, and Barbara would be the one hating him.
No, Barbara was better than that. She would be taking better care of Ian than he was of her; she would be more brave; and she would have more faith that the Doctor would find a way back with medicine from the TARDIS.
Ian was not feeling so brave, or so faithful.
Barbara whimpered softly and fidgeted in Ian's arms; he was holding her too tightly and she was sweating with her ever-climbing fever.
"Hang in there, Barbara, please," he whispered, getting up to re-wet a rag which he used to bathe her feverish brow. "Don't leave me."
* * *
"Why is it always forests?" Ian complained, knocking a low branch aside as he forced his way through the dense foliage, only to have it come swinging back down and thump Barbara painfully on the crown. He pressed on, though, and did not notice. "Why can't we ever just set down in the middle of a nice city, maybe next to a good restaurant? Or even better, a pub?"
Rubbing the sore spot on her head, Barbara mumbled, "I couldn't agree more, but if some people would just watch where they were going-"
"I know exactly where I am going, young lady!" the Doctor snapped, coming up behind her. "There is a lovely little village just at the edge of the woods, over the rise. If you don't believe me, then why don't you go back to the TARDIS and fetch a map and compass?"
"No, Doctor, that's not what I-" Barbara did not bother to finish as the old man was already hurrying ahead in a huff. Well, this was not a great start to their trip, beginning with the fact that the Doctor had promised them Vienna as a chance to recover from their ordeal with helping to rid the Earth of the Daleks. Then Susan.....
Well, if the Doctor was not on his game, who could blame him? Barbara wished that Susan was here, for company, for an ally against the other two and their bullheadedness. But she knew deep down that they would never met again. This heavy sadness seemed to make everyone distempered.
The three of them trudged on in silence for the next hour, keeping to their own thoughts, none of these pleasant.
"Oh, well, now that's different," Ian said, stopping short of a sheer muddy bank leading down to a swollen river. "This was not on your map, Doctor."
"My boy, I am forever underestimating your ability to comment upon the obvious," the Doctor sniffed, drawing a sullen glower from his verbal pin cushion.
"Well, at least there is a village over there," Barbara said in relief, shading her eyes against the sun that now shown too brightly without trees for shade. "If nothing else, I could really use a drink after that hike. So how do we get across?"
Looking up and down the bank, the Doctor finally lifted his cane to point: "There."
"You must be joking," Ian scoffed. The end of the Doctor's antique walking stick was in the direction of a large fallen tree spanning the river.
"The branches on top have been cleared away," the old man noted. "Obviously, this is what the villagers use, and if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us."
"Since when has anything human been good enough for you?" Ian growled. This time it was the Doctor who cast him a silent, withering look of disapproval.
"Come on, then," Barbara cajoled, interrupting the glare contest, pushing past them both and heading for the tree bridge. "Let's go see what they have for lunch."
With one last look at the Doctor, Ian trotted on in front of Barbara. "Better let me go first, to try it out."
Barbara did not attempt to hide the fact that she rolled her eyes in exasperation. She had bloody well jumped across a bottomless chasm on Skaro, she could certainly walk across a log. Nonetheless, Ian went first, nearly slipping a few times.
"There must have been a lot of rain, recently," he noted, yelling to the other side of the bank. "I don't think it's a good idea. We should go back to the TARDIS."
"Rubbish!" the Doctor barked, stepping up on the log and beginning his own progress across, using the cane as a balancing pole. For as unsteady as he could seem on his feet at times, the old man made a swift journey with fewer missteps than Ian. Barbara suspected this was just to show up the latter. Sighing, realising she was last again, Barbara stepped up onto the moulded tree and began to put one foot in front of the other, letting her toes test out the security of each step.
Yet still, half way across, she missed. Well, it was not exactly that she missed, so much as the log moved out from under where her foot was going. The muddy bank, eaten away by the high waters, gave up its support of the huge, ancient tree, weighed down by the crossing travellers.
“Barbara!” Ian cried, running forward. But Barbara was already running herself, and made a mad jump for the bank - and Ian’s waiting arms - as the trunk gave way. Her momentum, and Ian’s instinct to pull her to safety, meant that they wildly over-compensated and fell back onto the grass, Barbara landing on top of Ian, and both having the wind knocked out of them.
“Are you all right?” Ian gasped, his lips next to Barbara’s ear, tickling her with each exhaled breath.
She giggled in spite of herself, heart pounding and giddy with pulsing adrenaline. “Next time, I get to go first, and you can make the hurried leap,” she answered.
“Yes, but I hate to think of what would happen if I landed on top.” Ian said this without thinking, and he felt Barbara’s breath stop for a moment as her head jerked up to look him in the face. ‘Idiot’ he mentally chided, and forced his arms to let her go so that she could stand up. At least she offered a hand to help him up as well, but he did not thank her, or even meet her eyes.
“If you two are quite done playing around, we might get on to the village now,” the Doctor said. Both of them had momentarily forgotten that he was there, and the hint of a twinkle in his eye let them both know that he had happily let them make a spectacle of themselves. “We need to see if anyone has a boat to row us back across the river.”
Ian and Barbara turned to see their tree bridge now sinking beneath the muddy torrent of the fast waters. No, they definitely were not going back that way.
As they walked down one of the muddy paths between the vast green fields, Barbara suddenly stopped and looked around curiously. “Doesn’t this seem a bit strange to you? Where is everyone? It’s the middle of the day; surely someone from the village should be out tending the crops.”
“Maybe there’s a festival in town,” Ian suggested, pausing protectively close to her. With both of them stopped, the Doctor had no choice but to halt as well. “Or maybe it’s Sunday and they’re all in church.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s it,” the old man said quickly, tapping his cane irritably against the ground as a signal that they should move on. All the same, he became acutely aware as well that there was not a single sound emanating from the cluster of cottages.
Barbara did not make it more than a few steps, though, before she caught sight of something orange and furry curled up next to a bale of hay. Surprised and pleased that the small cat did not run away at her approach, she knelt down next to it to stroke its back, acutely aware of how much she missed having a pet around.
Suddenly, Ian’s hand wrapped around her wrist like a vice and pulled her back, startling Barbara. “Don’t,” he warned seriously, and gave her arm a little twist so that she had no option but to follow its path leading behind him. She was about to give him a piece of her mind when Ian’s foot shot out and kicked the poor cat. Stuck in rigour mortis, the body did not uncurl, and a small cry escaped Barbara’s lips. “There’s no sign of injury, and it’s obviously young. I think it was sick, Barbara.”
She nodded sadly, and put her hand around the one Ian still had wrapped around her wrist so that he would loosen his grip, but only so that she could intertwine her fingers with his. It was a comfort that they both needed, and they continued on in unison step to catch up with the Doctor.
“It’s too quiet,” Barbara said.
“I think something is wrong.”
* * *
“Ian?” Barbara’s dark eyes were open, but focused on nothing; she had no idea if he was actually there or not. That was probably for the best, as Ian delicately pulled her turtleneck over her head and removed her sweat soaked brassier. What should have been the heat of passion was just her fever climbing so high Ian was afraid that even if the Doctor did come back in time to save her life, he would be too late to save Barbara’s mind.
Soaking a large rag, he washed the sweat from her naked torso, trying not to let his eyes linger on her breasts, heaving with every painful, shallow breath. There is nothing erotic about dying. Ian doused her repeatedly because the water kept evaporating from her flushed skin.
“Ian?” Barbara whispered again, a sense of panic coming through.
“Shhh, shhh, I’m right here,” he reassure her, stroking Barbara’s face with his cool hand, calming her instantly. Brushing his fingers over her lips, he was suddenly aware of how parched she was. Deducing that probably less-than-sanity water was the least of their concerns, Ian soaked his handkerchief in the water from the well and placed it in Barbara’s mouth. She started to suck on it weakly right away, and that was the first encouraging thing Ian had seen in over two days. “Good girl, Barbara,” he told her softly.
* * *
“Doctor,” Ian called, when he and Barbara were only a few yards behind. “Where are the people? Where are the bells? If there was any sort of public gathering, shouldn’t we hear something?”
“Nonsense, my boy, nonsense, this is just a quieter, more civilised age that-“ The Doctor halted in his tracks mid-rant, as the wind changed and carried to his acute olfactory senses the smell of sickness and decay, of rapid death that spared none, and it chilled him to the bone on this warm spring day. “We should go. Now.”
“What is it?” Ian asked, looking at the collection of mud brick houses like their veneers would reveal their terrible secrets to him. He had never seen the old man stop and turn tail so suddenly. “How can we? Someone here will have to take us back across the river.”
“My boy, there is no one here to help us,” the Doctor whispered, gripping his lapel tightly.
The smell caught up with Ian and Barbara then, along with a sound, one that reached deep into Barbara’s soul and sent her sprinting across the fields and into the village without thought or comment.
“What is she doing?!” The Doctor was aghast, and realised that Ian was still standing next to him. “Well, go stop her, Chesterton! There’s death in this place if I’ve ever seen it!”
Needing no more convincing, Ian was off like a shot, clearing the field and rounding the corner of the first house, only to suddenly find himself firmly planted on the ground — again — this time with a mouth full of dirt street. “What the-?” He turned to look at his feet to see what has so ingloriously stopped him, and found a wide-eyed, skeletal face staring back at him from beneath its disrupted linen shroud. Stunned, he slowly reclaimed his footing, but was transfixed by the site of the corpse. Seeing a nearby stick, Ian used it to slowly push the coverings back, looking for a cause of death.
“Leave it be, dear boy, leave it be,” the Doctor instructed quietly, using his cane to push the blanket back over the hapless victim, and used it to point up the village’s main road. “Look. All the same.”
Ian saw, then, the rows of corpses laid out in front of houses, untended because there was no left to tend to them. No signs of violence, no looting, no blood, just death. Barbara may have been the one to specialise in history, but Ian knew of only one period of time such as this. “Plague. The Black Death.”
The Doctor nodded solemnly. “Precisely. We must return to the ship immediately, and you and Barbara both must be treated, as a precaution.” Ian did not question why the old man did not include himself in the need for medical attention. “Where is Barbara?”
Panic seized Ian. “I...I don’t know. When I fell, I lost track of her.” He looked around the empty village, flustered.
“Come on, then, she can’t have gone far.”
They heard her before they found her, and Ian was surprised by the sound: he had never heard Barbara sing before. Low and husky, it was a simple children’s lullaby, sweet and sad. Following the tune to an open cottage door, Ian stepped into the dark rankness of a family home turned family mausoleum. “Barbara,” he called, and saw her turn around from the shuttered window on the far wall, a swaddled baby being rocked gently in her arms.
“You probably shouldn’t come any closer,” she suggested to him, and Ian could see tears in her eyes.
The Doctor appeared at Ian’s side, his firm disapproval showing in the grim set of his face. “Good God, young lady, do you have any idea what you have done?”
Barbara could not help nobly lifting her chin defensively. “Yes, of course I do. But you should both go now. Go find a way back across the river. I’ll stay here as long as I need to.”
A single, fleeting thought moved from one neuron to the next in Ian’s brain, the urge to tell Barbara to just put the baby back where she found it and leave it to history. But it was shuttered out by a hundred more synapses telling him that such a comment would make her hate him forever. Nor would she do it anyway. Ian suspected that if he actually tried to physically force her outside, he would be the one to end up with a fat lip or black eye. No, the minute the wind had carried the faint sound of a crying infant in their direction, Barbara’s actions were set with the mortar of instinct. He’d seen it before, in the Stone Age, with the Aztecs. Her heart would never allow another human being to suffer, no matter the risk to her own life.
The Doctor’s urging hand on Ian’s arm made him turn and followed the old man back out into the sunlight; the sunlight that was causing the heat, that was making the stench of the corpses nearly unbearable. “Young man, I need to go back to the ship.”
“What?” Ian was horrified. “No, we’re not leaving Barbara here alone! What if she gets sick?”
Sadness crept into the Doctor’s voice. “Chesterton, I suspect she is already sick. These bodies show all the signs not of bubonic plague, but pneumonic; highly infectious and far more deadly. She picked up a crying baby, which no doubt exhaled its own Yersinia Pestis into Barbara’s lungs, and it is already overwhelming her immune system. She has four days, five at most.”
The sound of Barbara’s gentle, slightly flat melody drifted out to them, and Ian sighed. “Can’t we all just go together?”
“Think, man!” the Doctor snapped, not in genuine anger at Ian, but in his own helplessness. “That poor infant is probably going to die before the sun goes down, and neither you nor I can convince Barbara to leave it. If nothing else, that child deserved to be buried with its family. By the end of tomorrow, Barbara will already be feeling the effects of oncoming pneumonia; muscle fatigue, shortness of breath, slurred speech, memory loss. Pretty soon, the fluid will begin to fill her lungs, and it will be a race between suffocation and septicaemia to see which will kill her first.”
“But you don’t know that she is sick!” Ian insisted, desperate. “You are basing a lot on a guess. Maybe only you leaving her here longer will make her sick.”
“And what should we do if two days from now, when we are still hiking down river looking for a boat, she becomes too ill to go on? How will you treat her in the middle of a field? No, Chesterton, I should go on my own.”
“Why down river?” Ian asked suddenly.
“Because there were no boats, my boy. I suspect that any villagers who could took their boats and went with the current down river. Not that it will do them much good. Sickness always travels down river, and it will follow them. I only hope that I have more luck with another village, or can at least find an abandoned craft along the bank before too long.”
“But, maybe I could try swimming across the river, Doctor. I could go back to the TARDIS.”
“And how would you open the door, hmmm? And what if you did not make it? Then I would have no key, and no healthy companion. You would only doom Barbara. At least this way there is a chance.”
Frustrated, Ian slammed his fist into the side of the cottage, relishing the pain. Finally, he lowered his head in defeat. “You win, Doctor. Go. But you come back. You come back in time for her.”
“I’m always on time, dear boy,” the Doctor said with false bravado, then added seriously. “If and when you must go near her, keep your mouth covered. Here.” The Doctor handed over his handkerchief. “It’s very fine weave that should help to keep out some of the germs. And I would advise looking out for any rats and fleas — there may still be a bubonic variant about. Take care, Chesterton, take good care.”
Ian watched him disappear into the fields, and then turned back to the dark doorway, to the sound of Barbara’s singing and the weak cries of the baby. Not knowing what else to do and desirous of being some help, Ian picked up the poorly made shovel leaning against a stack of firewood and went to dig graves in the wet earth. There could be simple markers, but no names. No one would ever know the names of who was buried here. Unless...unless the Doctor was not timely.
* * *
Barbara’s next coughing fit was so severe, Ian thought it would never stop. In an effort to keep her lungs from filling too rapidly, he used himself as a pillow to keep Barbara in a reclined position, sitting with her between his legs, and her head resting on his chest. This also allowed Ian to doze from time to time with one hand placed between Barbara’s breasts to feel for her heartbeat and every ragged breath. If it faltered, he would wake.
At some point, Ian’s nose let him know that Barbara had soiled the blankets they were using for bedding on the cottage floor. Left to choose between dignity and modesty, Ian decided to preserve dignity, removing the rest of Barbara’s clothing and giving her a thorough sponge down. From the pile of pilfered villager blankets he laid out fresh ones on the floor, and used a finer piece of linen to wrap around Barbara.
Though his muscles ached with stiffness from having sat in an awkward position for so long, Ian resumed his place, rocking Barbara gently as he spoke to her to keep them both company. “So many times when it seemed like the end, but we always pulled through, eh? Well, we’re going to scrape by on the skin of our teeth, aren’t we? Just promise me something, won’t you? Promise me you’ll never ask about all of this. Or at least don’t ask before I’ve come up with a good lie. I hate it when you look at me like...like you did by the river when we arrived; the look that says my words are straying too closely to a truth you would rather not face, that we’re too close, you and I. Because I can’t stand it, Barbara, I can’t. Tell me you understand.”
Barbara coughed violently, every muscle in her body contracting with the force of it, and Ian held her all the more tightly, as if it would help. “Is that a yes?”
* * *
Until the sun was casting a violet haze, Ian dug frantically, burying as many families by their homes as he could, the Doctor’s handkerchief wrapped tightly around his nose and mouth, to help keep out the stench as much as the Plague. With mental apologies to the dead, Ian also took from the empty cottages every clean blanket and edible piece of food that he could find, though the villagers that had fled did not leave much behind. There was a cow, but Ian’s attempt to milk it nearly ended with a broken tibia; as it was he settled for a cracking bruise on his calf.
Only once did he poke his head into the dark room to ask after Barbara, and all he got was a rasped “Please don’t come in” for response. So he crouched in the doorway awhile to watch; Barbara was pacing around slowly, still singing softly and rocking the infant gently, occasionally stroking its cheeks with her long, cool fingers or planting a light kiss on its brow.
For her part, Barbara did not know Ian was there, did not really stop to consider how worried he might be, nor even question where the Doctor had gone. This was where she needed to be, and this was what she needed to be doing. During her sprint in the direction of that lone wailing, eyes taking in everything, Barbara’s mind had already put the pieces together. The untended fields, the quiet village, the corpses in the street; this was France in the 14th century; this was the Black Death, and she did not give a damn.
What Ian could not see was what Barbara saw, the young girl, about Susan’s age, and presumably her young husband, their bodies melding together in decay on their bed. Barbara had picked the screaming girl, maybe six months old, up from her wooden cradle beside the bed, obviously untended for some time. It was a miracle she had lasted this long, that she had still possessed the strength to cry loud enough for someone to find her. It was obvious, though, that there was not long to go, and Barbara was determined to make her passing as peaceful as possible. She sang every song she could remember her mother singing, and lamented that she was not as good a vocalist, but thought she was actually getting better the longer she was at it.
At some point, long after dusk, head aching, back and shoulders throbbing, throat soar, Barbara looked down at the baby girl and realised that she was gone. How long it had been she was not sure. In truth she did not want to know, she did not want to face the unfair reality that this precious life, just beginning, so innocent, was already gone. No longer having to put on a brave face, she sat down with the little bundle and cried, trying not to sob too loudly, but Ian heard anyway and finally came in, whether she wanted him to or not.
“It was a very noble thing you did,” he whispered to her, a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“It was reckless and pointless,” she responded harshly, shrugging out from under his grip. Barbara did not want his comfort or his sympathy. She hated the world right now, hated history, hated the Doctor for bringing them here, for showing her this, and then for running away.
Ian seemed to be reading her thoughts and knelt on the floor in front of her, resting his hands on her knees. “Surely you can’t believe that. I know you too well; I know you don’t believe that.” Barbara did not responded, and ever so slowly, Ian took the child from her arms and carried it outside to the tiny waiting grave already marked with a cross he had fashioned from scrap planks and twine found in another home. Barbara followed, standing silently behind Ian as she watched him shovel the dirt over the body. Neither of them could say a prayer aloud, but both were thinking of one.
After waiting for what seemed a respectful period of time, Ian suggested that they get some rest, that the Doctor should hopefully be back in the morning with a boat to cross the river. Barbara made no effort to move, as if appointing herself a shivering, dark gravestone to watch over the departed. Taking her by the arms, Ian said softly, “You’re in shock, Barbara. You need to lie down for a while, get something to eat.”
“I can’t go back in there.” Barbara’s hollow voice reflected her hollow gaze, and she remained rigid under Ian’s touch.
“No, we’re not going back there.” Having already prepared for this, Ian had selected another cottage, one of the more well appointed in the village, in which to wait for the Doctor’s return. Ian suspected the owners had fled as soon as it became apparent the neighbours were sick, because it was one of the few homes that did not stink of death. Nonetheless, he had given it a vicious cleaning, and had piled clean blankets on the flood; he had no intention of either of them using the medieval beds; he knew where the phrase ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’ had come from. It also seemed best to heed the Doctor’s warning and avoid any place fleas might lurk.
Barbara followed like a zombie, sitting in the chair at the table Ian led her to, and drank some of the wine he put in front of her; he thought it was not a bad vintage for being so primitive; she did not notice the taste at all. Ian proceeded to put a fire in the hearth, because it had grown quite cool in the night, and he wanted to boil some water as well.
By the time everything felt settled, he sat down at the table and noticed that not a bite of the food on the plates was missing. “Here, now, Barbara, you have to eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.” Except it came out sounding more like ‘’m n’hungr’ and in the dim light, Ian could see that Barbara’s cheeks were flushed.
Picking up the bottle of wine, Ian noted that it was significantly depleted. She had been drinking more than he thought while his back was turned. Sighing, Ian put the bottle up, and drank hot water with his dinner. He wanted to speak to Barbara, but he did not know what to say, and was afraid that saying anything would only make things worse; she obviously had no interest in conversation. So he showed her to the pile of blankets on the floor and tucked her in for the night.
Ian took off his shirt and sponged off the day’s sweat and dirt, drying with what he hoped was a moderately clean scrap of wool, then settled into his own smaller bedroll. Much as he tried to keep his eyes open to watch over Barbara, he was asleep in minutes.
The sound of something heavy clattering to the floor had Ian on his feet the next morning before he even knew he was actually awake.
“Sorry,” Barbara apologised, picking up the metal tankard that she dropped, the wincing as she straightened. “I was going to try to make breakfast.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Ian told her seriously, taking the cup from Barbara and setting it on the table. He was concerned to see that her cheeks were still flushed, and her eyes a little watery. “How do you feel? Are you in pain?”
“What? No,” she insisted, then sighed at the scrutiny of Ian’s intense gaze. “My back hurts, but who can blame me, and my head still hurts from you giving it a whack yesterday in the woods.”
“When did I do that?” Ian looked hurt at the accusation, but Barbara dismissed it with a wave of her hand, and an “Oh, never mind.”
“Why don’t you just sit down and let me get breakfast,” Ian said, forcing Barbara to sit down in one of the chairs. She gave him a dubious look, but he persisted. “Just humour me. I insist. You can keep me company by telling me more about this period of time.”
Silence. He turned away from the larder and saw that Barbara was staring at her feet, wringing her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Never mind,” and he went about fixing their meal in silence. By the time he got the eggs, bread and cheese on the table, though, Barbara no longer showed much interest in food.
“I’m just not very hungry. I was only going to fix breakfast for you,” she told him.
Ian frowned. “You still look tired. Why don’t you lie down and get some more rest? I’m going to keep... clearing the village today, before the smell gets any worse. Maybe try to milk that cow again. Just give a shout if you need me. I’m sure the Doctor will be back by this evening.”
He thought Barbara might object to being sidelined, but worryingly, she did not, just nodding her head in acquiescence to the idea. When Ian came back at lunch time, Barbara was laying curled on her side, coughing heavily. She looked up at him with sad, bleary eyes. “I’m so sorry, Ian.”
* * *
The next time Ian came back in with fresh water from the well, he found Barbara coughing up pink tinted foam, and choking on it as she tried to catch her breath.
“No!” he shouted to no one in particular, dropping the bucket and running to turn Barbara over onto her side, and using his fingers to try and clear the offending fluid from her mouth, even though he knew that the problem was in her lungs. When it finally subsided, he rubbed her back soothingly and whispered, “Good girl, Barbara, just hold on. The Doctor can’t be much longer now.”
But he knew their time was almost up, and Barbara’s body was giving up the fight. Her fever had broken, but she did not wake, her body temperature continuing to drop as organs slowly began to shut down. She was in a coma, her breathing shallow and pulse barely detectable. Using his handkerchief to try and wipe the remnants of blood from her lips, Ian noticed that they were blue; she was cyanotic. Ian finally dropped his manly veneer and cried now, curling up with Barbara in his arms and waited — prayed — for death to come to them both. Damn the Doctor. Damn the TARDIS. Damn getting home to 1963. Ian’s voyage would end here.
* * *
Barbara had begged Ian to stay outside of the cottage, telling him she would be fine, reminding him that it was her own fault, saying anything that she could think of to keep him away. But without a word, Ian came and sat on the blankets with Barbara and wrapped his aching arms around her in a strong embrace. She broke down sobbing then, and tried to keep her mouth covered with her hand. Realising this would be insufficient she struggled out of Ian’s embrace and tried to push him away.
“You stupid, stupid, man!” she hissed hysterically, wiping at her tears and running nose with the back of her hand. “What’s the point of us both getting sick? You said the Doctor would be back soon anyway, and here you would leave him with two plague carriers instead of just one! Use your head!”
Ian looked at his hands, abashed. “You’re right,” he said slowly, like the words hurt to form. “I wasn’t thinking. But I’m not just going to leave you here alone, Barbara. I can’t. I won’t. If it was me, would you?”
“Of course I wouldn’t!” she objected fiercely.
“Then how can you expect me to do the same?” Ian asked, casting his eyes up and forcing her to meet his intense gaze. “Can you really have so little regard for my own feelings, for my friendship?” Barbara recoiled; he had stung her, and they both knew it, but it stopped cold her arguments against his presence.
So the waiting game had begun; it was like the Dalek cell on Skaro all over again, except this time he felt even more helpless. Susan had not had a torrential river between her and the TARDIS, and she had been determined to help her Grandfather. Now...Ian could not trust the Doctor’s current mental state. Maybe the old man had already forgotten. Maybe he intended to leave them behind the same way he had left Susan. Ian could not go for help, nor was there a soul within miles who could come to their aid. They might as well have been the only two people on Earth.
“Ian, could you bring me some water?” Barbara called weakly, and Ian’s head popped into view from outside where he was gathering up more firewood, a look of consternation on his face.
“I did, ten minutes ago, Barbara. It’s there to your left. Did you forget?”
“How silly of me,” she mumbled, picking up the mug, only to have it slip out of her hand and spill all over the floor. “Damn.”
“What?” Ian asked, looking back in.
Righting the empty cup, Barbara answered, “Nothing.” But it was something; the water had been too heavy to lift; the muscles in her hand had simply given way. There was no need to worry Ian, though, not yet. Barbara tried to focus her mind, to think of some way to help, to make this easier, but for some reason, nothing was coming. Her normal cleverness was failing her. Or maybe it was just the pain in her chest that came with each breath that was fogging her mind. So Barbara closed her eyes and decided to take a nap.
“Wake up, Barbara! Wake up!” Ian was shouting. Why was he shouting? What was he shouting about? Barbara finally forced her eyes open to see what was going on. “Oh, thank God,” Ian said, brushing the hair out of Barbara’s eye in a gesture of nervous energy. “I thought, I thought —“
“What? I was just taking a nap,” Barbara complained hoarsely, trying to sit up, and then suddenly finding herself falling back, racked with a deep cough.
Ian consciously covered his mouth with the Doctor’s handkerchief with one hand, but kept another steadying one on his friend. When she stopped, Ian held a cup of water to her lips, and Barbara drank eagerly, but stopped to cough again. Though she said nothing, Ian could see the lines of pain etched into her face. Finally, Barbara asked, “Why did you wake me? I don’t want any dinner.”
“Barbara, that was yesterday,” Ian insisted, pointing out the window. “I thought you would only sleep a little while, but its morning now.”
“Oh?” Barbara looked around the cottage, mildly confused. “Is the Doctor here?” Ian shook his head. “Where did he go?”
The sad look on Ian’s face made her wish she had not asked. “The TARDIS, Barbara, don’t you remember? He’s going back across the river to the TARDIS to fetch medicine.” Laying the back of his hand on her forehead, his sadness deepened to a frown. He did not need to tell her; she knew. She knew all too well, and wondered just how much the Doctor had told Ian before leaving.
“I think I’ll take a nap,” she whispered, and closed her eyes once more.
Ian tried not to despair, and the only way to keep his mind off of the agonizing was to immerse it in work. He cleaned frantically, even finding a good lye soap in the pantry, which he used on himself, on some linens, on every surface of the cottage. By lunch time his hands were stinging with lye and his stomach with hunger.
Putting some cheese and salted fish on a plate, he sat down next to Barbara and shook her shoulder gently. Much to his relief, she woke up more easily this time. “Still here then?”
She smiled. “Obviously.”
“Ask a silly question...” he finished, holding the plate under Barbara’s nose, but she made a sour face and turned away. “Make that two silly questions. I’m sorry, Barbara, I wish I could offer you something better, but I have to admit, I haven’t any idea how to cook with what they have around here. And I definitely can’t bake something useful like bread. I set the stove on fire once, and my mother never let me back into the kitchen. When I was teaching at Coal Hill, I relied on the cafeteria and take away, mostly. Promise me when we get back to the TARDIS, you’ll teach me a few things?”
Barbara did not answer; she had slipped away again. “Sweet dreams, Barbara,” he whispered. It was their last conversation.
* * *
“Chesterton! Chesterton, dear boy, let go! I need you to let go of Barbara!”
Never. Ian would never let go of her. Then a resounding slap across his cheek made the young teacher jerk awake, stars blurring his vision. “What? What?!” As the world cleared a little, and he saw a familiar, twinkling pair of eyes. “Doctor?”
“Well, I’m certainly not Queen Elizabeth,” the old man retorted gruffly. He was kneeling next to the pair, Ian and Barbara curled together, the former with his arms wrapped around the latter. “Now, my boy, will you please do as I asked and let go?”
Reluctantly, Ian did as he was bid, sitting up and gently rolling Barbara onto her back. The Doctor was eying him carefully. “It’s not just the tap I gave you, Chesterton, that has you so flushed. I think you’ve got a touch of the fever. Couldn’t stay away like I told you, hmmm? Oh well, here, take these,” and from the bag at his side, the Doctor handed over a clear bottle of assorted pills and a pouch of good, clean TARDIS water.
Ian looked at them suspiciously, and then downed the whole lot, deciding it could be worse. “What about Barbara?”
But the Doctor was not listening and had already moved onto his next patient. He pulled back the linen, exposing Barbara’s naked chest, which made Ian wince to think what Barbara would say. He decided, though, that he did not give a damn so long as she lived. What surprised him were the purple bruises along her arms, and Ian finally realised that was his doing, from holding her so tightly for so long.
Putting his ear to her breast, the Doctor listened closely, then tutted in displeasure. “Oh dear, oh dear, this certainly progressed further than I had hoped. If I hadn’t had to go twenty miles, and then all of that trouble with that constable over —“
“Doctor!” Ian interjected impatiently, making the old man finally look up and notice him again. “Will she be all right? Is it... is it too...”
“Late?” he finished. “My boy, I am never late! Another hour, maybe, but no, no, I can fix this.” Reaching into the bag, the Doctor pulled out a wicked looking alien syringe, and before Ian could object, the Doctor stabbed it into Barbara’s heart, just under the left breast. Sensing the other man’s complete shock, he explained as he went along. “Because her heart is barely pumping blood, we need to give it a good kick start to force the medicine through. First,” and he injected a red phial of fluid into the alien shunt, “a stimulant. Next” — blue this time — “something to clear out and dry up her lungs. The green is a powerful antibiotic for the Yersinia Pestis. And this,” a gray phial looking like mercury, “is a little bit of nanocite medicine I picked up that will start to repair all of the damage to her other internal organs. Useful stuff; I really must remember to pick up some more when I have the opportunity.”
This last one done, Ian could already see that Barbara was breathing easier, the blue fading from her lips, and some colour returning to her ashen cheeks. “I told you, right as rain,” the Doctor bragged, closing his bag and standing up. “Now, dear boy, do you think that you can carry her out to the trap I’ve borrowed? There is a ferry waiting down by the river for us. A good deal for it, too. All I had to do was trade the owner a few pills that I promised would keep his family safe from the Plague. I don't think history will mind; who knows, they could just as easily have survived anyway!”
Whatever was in the pills Ian had taken was fast acting, because he already felt like he could carry Barbara all of the way back to the TARDIS if asked. Grabbing the last clean quilt, Ian carefully wrapped her up in it and carried her out into the bright afternoon, settling into the back of the open cart while the Doctor took the horse’s reigns.
“I hope you managed to keep from being too bored while I was away, Chesterton,” the quirky old man called back congenially. “I know there can’t have been much of interest around here.”
“I kept busy,” Ian asked softly, looking up as they passed the rows of fresh graves dug with his blistered hands. He prayed to any deity listening that the Doctor’s medicine was not too good, that Barbara would not have to remember this place. He would remember for the both of them; he could bear that alone. When he thought the Doctor would not notice (though the old man never missed a thing) Ian planted a gentle kiss on Barbara’s closed eyes, and she smiled in her sleep.