The ragged edge of the handcuffs bit into Josie’s wrists as she stumbled down the endless hallways and stairs, trying not to burst into tears. She didn’t want to give the guards the satisfaction. She hadn’t wanted to give them the satisfaction last night either, but then they had taken away her frock and made her dress in a rough, much-laundered white prison uniform.
Then they had started speaking to her about…no, she wasn’t going to think about that.
And then they had left her alone all night and most of the next day, but she knew they could still hear her and she had tried to make her crying as quiet as she could.
She didn’t do very well.
The fabric was rough against her skin, and the air was cold, and the handcuffs chafed and the guards pulled and her feet tripped and she still couldn’t believe it was real, it was a dream–it was a mistake, it had to be, her uncle would come, her uncle would rescue her–
She could hear people screaming down the hallways, and begging, and she didn’t belong here, she was Josie Grant, she wasn’t a terrorist or a dissident or anything, she was just a silly girl and it was all a mistake and they wouldn’t really, would they? The Sedition Act was to protect people, and all she had ever tried to do was protect some people who weren’t terrorists or dissidents either, she had tried to explain–
She tripped again, and one of the guards shoved her. He wouldn’t have done that before the verdict. They had treated her with kid gloves before then, just in case, and that had been comforting, that had meant that something was still right and maybe everything would be all right and she could go home. But now they sniggered and stared at her when she had to change in front of them and told her things that couldn’t be true, couldn’t…stared and her and almost, last night, one of them had almost–taken liberties–until the other one reminded him who she was supposed to be for, who was supposed “get first crack at her,” the inadvisability of making him angry…
Josie bit her lip and told herself not to cry. Not now. Not where they could see her.
And then there was a door, with more security measures than any they had passed through yet, and a staircase, and a door with even more security measures, and a long hall.
And there was a light at the end of the hall.
The footsteps of the guards thudded in merciless precision as they pulled her down the corridor, and she thought she could hear That Name being beaten into the floor, beaten into her brain:
The Doctor .
She was handed off to another set of guards, these ones not leering or sneering but stone-faced, and somehow that was worse, that made it all horribly real and set in stone forever and ever. This was happening. This was really happening. They were really marching her down the hall, and they were really opening the door, and they were really pushing her into the cell–she stumbled, and her hands, freed from the shackles, came up just in time to hit the concrete floor–and the door clanged shut behind her and she could hear them marching away.
They were just…dumping her here like a piece of garbage. Like she wasn’t even enough of a person for them to want to humiliate her, to watch her being–
Just a thing, to be delivered.
Josie pushed herself up. The cell was cluttered with terribly complicated looking equipment, but no lights flashed or processors hummed–it all looked abandoned, forgotten. Bits and pieces were flung across the floor, smashed and shattered; other remnants hulked on the counters like desecrated towers. There was an acrid smell in the air; something black lay congealed in a crucible. Her hands had come up from the floor covered in dust.
“Who are you?”
Josie jumped and squeaked; the man had been so still she hadn’t seen him until he spoke. He was sitting in the shadows off to her left, his knees drawn up to under his chin. A spider in the darkness.
All of Josie’s words were frozen in her throat.
The Doctor stood, slowly, as if remembering how. Deliberately, as if he might lunge at any second. He took a step closer, towering over her. Josie found herself backing up, looking down at the floor, trembling.
His voice was rough, glaciers and granite: “I said, who are you?”
“I’m Josie–Josephine–Grant. I’m your new, um, assistant.”
“Hmmph.” His feet were bare and she could see bruises on his legs where the uniform trousers weren’t quite long enough, old bruises, beginning to fade. “And I suppose you’re a scientist as well?”
She didn’t understand the sarcasm in his voice. “Ah, no?” She cringed.
“Then go away.” He turned from her, and she felt air rushing into her lungs–it was like a tiger turning from her, still a threat but no longer ready to pounce and it took a second to hear his actual words, to feel them hit her– “Tell them to give me Beth back. I have no use for you.”
“B-but–“ her words shattered and choked in her throat. “But they’ll kill me.”
“I have no doubt. Perhaps you should have considered that before pursuing a career in espionage.”
“Pursuing a–but I’m not!” Josie cried, her bewilderment breaking through her fear. “I’m doing no such thing! I just made a mistake and everyone got very angry and I didn’t know–I didn’t mean to–oh please!”
His shoulders tightened but he didn’t turn to face her.
“I had a lot of science lessons,” she said, which was technically true. “Mummy and Daddy hired only the best private tutors, from all sorts of disciplines, biology and chemistry and physics and–I could learn, I could, I swear–”
He wheeled around; he was in front of her in one stride, his hand coming up towards her face. She trembled as he cupped her cheek, his fingers moving towards her temple.
“You really are afraid. How extraordinary.”
He let the hand drop.
“And what’s the formula for hydrogen sulfide, then?”
“Er…” Josie could feel her hands shaking; she tried to clench them tight. “I don’t know.”
“‘The best private tutors, from all sorts of disciplines,’” he parroted, dryly mocking.
“It wasn’t their fault,” Josie blurted. “It was–I would get so frustrated, because I didn’t understand and I felt stupid, and I would cry. And they would pass me. I thought it was because they felt sorry for me, but now I wonder if it was because they were afraid to tell my parents because my parents might fire them or send them away to somewhere like here if I told them they made me cry–”
She managed to bite down on the rest of her babbling; gulped.
There was a long silence. She was staring down at her feet but she could feel the Doctor’s eyes on her, studying her.
“Well. If they didn’t listen to Section Leader Shaw–” his voice went sardonic and slightly venomous on the name–“then I don’t suppose they’ll listen to me either. You’ll have to do.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. She dared to peek up at him through her eyelashes.
He was casting a look around the cell as though seeing its current state for the first time. “You can start by helping make some order out of this mess.”
Half an hour passed–at least according to the clock on the wall, which would have looked a bit dodgy even if its face hadn’t been smashed in–and they had barely made a dent in the disorder. The Doctor helped; Josie hadn’t expected that. She was glad she didn’t have to do it all herself; she was acutely aware of her own uselessness, more so with every passing minute.
“And this goes…?”
“Oh for goodness sake, that’s clearly a cold fusion generator, third class. That pile there.”
“And…” she tried to find some sort of descriptive word for the tangled mass of wires and charred filaments, and failed, “…this…?”
“Well, that’s clearly a–well. Probably that’s–well.” He coughed. “Just shove it under the bed.”
There was only one bed. It was a hospital bed, with curtains. It was unmade, but the cotton smelled stale and it didn’t look like it had been slept in for long time.
“I could wash these…?”
“Yes, yes, that sink over there.” He waved irritably at five different sinks in the counter opposite him.
She stripped the sheets off the bed. Only one bed. Would she have to sleep on the floor, or…?
Or. Probably or.
Her hands were shaking again as she carried the sheets over to one of the sinks the Doctor had indicated, and turned the tap.
Still, older gentlemen…maybe he wouldn’t want to…as often?
“Foolish girl, not that one!” And suddenly he was behind her, his hand was over hers, twisting the handle shut. He spun her around.“There are very delicate bacterial samples in those petri dishes; if they came into contact with dihydrogen monoxide–”
“I clearly instructed you to use the one to the left! If you can’t pay attention to simple instructions–”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry–”
He raised his hand.
“Please don’t hit me!”
His hand froze, and he stared at her. Then he moved his hand again, slowly this time, raising it up until it came to the top shelf of the cabinet beside him. He took down a piece of soap.
“I am not in the habit of striking defenseless young girls.”
She stared at him until she realized she was staring at him, and then she looked down at her feet again. Bad, bad, she kept forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to look people in the eye anymore.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, whispering.
“You don’t have to–” He ground his teeth. “Never mind. Forget the sheets for now. Are you hungry?”
She swallowed involuntarily. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. “Yes. Please. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Go sit down then.”
He didn’t gesture at anything that time, and Josie was too nervous to ask him where–was she allowed to sit in the faded green armchair? The edge of the bed? Should she right one of the fallen stools?–and her legs were about to give out beneath her from nerves, so she sat right where she was standing, on the cold concrete floor next to the counter.
The Doctor rooted around in some cupboards for awhile before turning up a heel of bread, a packet of sugar, and a tea bag. There were some other things in the cupboards, but he threw them away. He put the bread on a plate, and boiled water for the tea. He raised an eyebrow at where she was sitting, but didn’t tell her to get up, just sat down next to her and handed her the plate and a mug of Earl Grey with sugar.
“Thank you,” she said, still not quite daring to look up. Her stomach was rumbling now, and she didn’t care that the bread was stale; it tasted better than anything had in a long time. The tea was weak but the tingle of sugar on her tongue was wonderful, and dipping the bread in the hot liquid softened it up nicely.
She had gobbled almost all of the meal when she realized that the Doctor hadn’t got up to get his own portion. “Where’s your food?”
“You’re eating it,” he said dryly. “They won’t start delivering rations for two until tomorrow.”
“Oh!” Josie dropped the bread. She almost dropped the tea, but caught herself just in time. Her throat went dry. “I’m so sorry–I didn’t think–”
“Don’t fret so,” the Doctor snapped. Then, his tone softening fractionally: “If I hadn’t intended for you to eat all of it, I'd not have given you the entire thing.”
“But won’t you get hungry?”
“I don’t need sustenance nearly as often as hu–as you do.”
Josie took up the bread again, and then hesitated. He was so thin, even the shapeless uniform couldn’t hide that… “When did you last eat?”
The Doctor waved his hand. “Oh, one week, two, three, something like that.”
“Probably more like two. They take the food away again after twenty-four hours; the bread’s perfectly fine.”
“The bread’s–what about you?!” Now Josie was alarmed for entirely different reasons. “You have to eat some.” She thrust the rest of the bread towards him.
“I just told you, I don’t require–”
“One bite. Please.”
The Doctor was staring at her and her outstretched hand as though she were some sort of bizarre mythical creature, but then he nodded. Took the bread from her hand and took one careful, exact bite before setting it back on her plate.
“The tea too,” Josie said.
The Doctor raised the mug and took a draught before setting it back next to the plate. He was still looking at her as if she had suddenly sprouted a tail or something.
She realized that she was looking him full in the face again, and ducked her head quickly. She drained the rest of the tea and then, ashamed of how greedy that must have looked, took her time with the bread, breaking off small pieces and nibbling at them.
Finally, even the crumbs were gone. She was ashamed of that too.
The Doctor was still sitting next to her.
Maybe now was when he would–
“Miss Grant, were you told what my function is, here?”
“You’re a genius,” Josie said. “You make weapons, for–for the good of the nation.”
“Is that why you’re so afraid of me, then? The weapons.”
And suddenly her throat was very dry again. She ran her fingers along the edge of the plate. “Afraid? I don’t know what you mean.”
“I think you do.”
She dared a peek up at him. He was still looking at her, his eyes shrewd, piercing.
“What exactly were you told your duties were to be?”
“To assist you in your work.” Her voice was so small. “To do whatever you said.”
“And did they phrase it so vaguely?”
“The judge did.”
“The judge did. But not someone else?”
“I don’t want to get them in trouble,” she whispered. “They were just having a laugh.”
“You don’t want to get them in–” the Doctor cut himself off. Took a deep breath. “All right then. If you insist. What did they tell you, to make you so afraid?”
Josie shook her head.
He moved slowly, his hand cupping her cheek lightly, the faintest pressure as he turned her face upwards so that she had to face him. “You’re not going to be in trouble either.”
“They said you’d probably only rape me for the first few months,” she blurted. The words tumbled out one after another. “They said you’d hit me if I didn’t beg for it. They said when you got bored with making me scream you’d start loaning me out to the guards for favors but they said that wouldn’t last long either because I’m not as pretty as I think I am and after I’d been knocked down a few pegs and you were bored again I’d go to sleep one night and when I woke up I’d be tied down on the table and you’d be cutting me open to do experiments on me and figure out how human organs work--”
She managed to stop. She couldn’t breathe. If she tried to take a breath, more words might come out.
He was staring at her. His hand had dropped away with the first sentence, as though she had burned him.
She was terrified to keep looking at him, and she was terrified to look away.
“Miss Grant.” The Doctor swallowed. “I know you have no reason to trust me, not yet. But I swear: none of those things will happen to you. Not one.”
“But it’s all I’m really good for, isn’t it?” The words refused to stay down; they burst out like bubbles. “I don’t know where anything goes and I’m hopelessly dim, everyone always said so–”
“First of all, Miss Grant, I am most emphatically not ‘everyone.’ Ignorance and stupidity are two entirely different things, and I don’t for one microsecond believe you to be stupid. If you like, tomorrow we can start having lessons; review some of those things you missed.
“Secondly, the value of a human life is hardly measured by what use others can make of them.” He reached out again, tentatively, to touch her shoulder. “Someone who insists on feeding the man she believes want to harm her–who protects the identity of people who threatened her, even when she herself is frightened–well. I am honored to have her as my assistant."
There was silence for awhile, and then Josie said, “You really won’t…”
“I really won’t.”
“And you’ll teach me?”
“I’ll make you a scientist Omega himself would be proud of.”
“And I won’t have to–to–“
“Do a thing besides pass me test tubes, pay attention, and help with the sweeping up.”
The knot in her stomach was starting to loosen. “Thank you.”
“Thanks aren’t necessary,” the Doctor said. “But there is one more thing you could do for me.”
Josie felt her spine tense right back up. “What?”
Startled, Josie gave a hesitant smile.
“Now that lights up the room quite nicely.”
It was really going to be all right, Josie realized. They were sitting here on the floor and she was smiling , a little, at him and he was smiling back at her, a little, and her life wasn’t over and it was really going to be all right.
“I could do other things to make the room nicer,” Josie said, thinking. “Do you have any scrap paper? I can make paper flowers and garlands and wreaths and such. Make it look a little more…homey. If that’s all right.”
The Doctor looked non-plussed for a second, but replied, “Certainly, Miss Grant.”
“Josie,” she said.
“Well, it was a life sentence, wasn’t it? So it’s silly for you to be so formal. Miss Grant and all that. All my friends call me Josie.”
“Don’t you want to take a little longer to decide whether I’m worthy of friendship?” the Doctor asked. “It’s not even been two hours.”
“No,” Josie said decisively. “It’ll take too long. I’ve been terribly spoiled, you see; I don’t know how to wait.”
“Then it would be my honor,” he said, patting her shoulder.
He stood, and helped pull her to her feet.
“I should have known it wasn’t true, what they told me about you,” Josie said. “It was all so over the top. And the other things they said–they made you sound like some sort of, I don’t know, monster or alien or something. It was all so ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous,” the Doctor said. “Yes, of course. Still, the brain under stress...” The Doctor turned away. “It’s late, Miss Grant–Josie. You should get some sleep. The bed is yours; rest is something I don’t require much of either. Let me just find the extra sheets.”
She didn’t know where she was when she woke up and then she remembered the cell, I’m in the cell and soon the guards will come and take me to the trial and I have to keep my chin up like Daddy says, there’s a good girl but then she remembered that the trial had already happened but the guards are still coming, they’re going to take me to the Doctor, and I have to remember not to look anybody in the eye because now that’s disrespect and they can hit me and then she saw the bed curtain and remembered that her old cell didn’t have a bed curtain, and woke up all the way and remembered that she was in the Doctor’s cell now.
The sound of footsteps faded down the hall: the guards on patrol. That must have been the sound that had awoken her.
She was in the Doctor’s cell now; the guards had come yesterday and taken her there but the Doctor hadn’t hurt her at all so it wasn’t so bad really, even if it was forever and ever…
To her horror, Josie started crying.
She couldn’t seem to make it stop, so she tried to at least keep it silent; she didn’t want to disturb the Doctor or make him think she was ungrateful or–
A shadow fell across the bed-curtain. “Josie?”
“I’m sorry,” Josie gulped, “I’m being stupid and silly and–”
“Nonsense,” the Doctor said. There was a scraping sound as he pulled up a chair; his shadow dipped lower as he sat. “Your new home is a frigid cell with limited toilet facilities and absolutely no wallpaper, and your new roommate is a bad-tempered old man who makes you do all the cleaning. Crying is quite possibly the most rational reaction you could have.”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“Don’t talk rot,” the Doctor said. “Crying is a perfectly valid therapeutic tactic. Indulge in it myself, on occasion.”
“Really?” Josie asked. “Truly?”
“Really, truly,” the Doctor confirmed.
Josie wiped her eyes on the edge of her blanket. “It’s not…being here,” she confided. “Not mostly. And it’s certainly not you, you’ve been nothing but–it’s just–“ She swallowed. “I miss my family.”
“Of course you do,” the Doctor said, “And there’s nothing wrong with–”
“But I shouldn’t!” she burst out. “My uncle, he–he’s bad! He’s horrid! He sits in his government office all day signing execution orders and suppression orders and incarceration orders with a smile on his face, and he locked me up without a second thought, but all I can think about is how he played tea parties with me when I was little and the Christmas he got me my very first puppy–and, and m-my mother and father didn’t even come to s-see me during the trial, they just got up and testified and didn’t even look at me just in case somebody thought that was disloyal, but all I can think about is how much I miss Mummy brushing my hair and Daddy telling me ‘well done’ when I got good marks in something, and they didn’t even come to say g-goodbye–“
She choked on the word and the tears that had begun to die away bubbled up again, her body shaking as her throat seized in harsh sobs. They seemed on go on forever; it was so hard to make them stop.
The Doctor was so quiet that if it weren’t for his shadow across the curtain, she would have thought he had gotten disgusted with her sniveling and left. Then:
“Did they tell you how I came to be here?” the Doctor asked. “Those people who offered you all that other colorful detail? Or perhaps the presiding judge at the trial?”
“No,” Josie admitted, sniffling. “Why?”
“When I was about your age,” the Doctor said, “well, relatively speaking–there was one person who was my best friend in all the universe. We had been schoolboys together, though the teachers liked him much better–I’m afraid I may have even, ah…prevailed upon him once or twice or a dozen times to adopt a posture that did not block his exam paper from my view. He was no saint, though–oh, we got each other into and out of such dreadful trouble: paradoxes in the Panopticon, time tunnels in the corridors, Tyrannosaurus Rexes in the tea rooms–”
“Figure of speech,” the Doctor said hastily. “Very old, before your time, not at all literal. At all. In any case,” he went on, “we were inseparable, this friend and I. We could stay up all night, drinking and talking of when we’d leave home, of all the adventures we’d go on together.
“Of course, we never did. He was a rising star, moving swiftly through the ranks, and it would have been ridiculous to ask him to abandon all that work; I was a coward, and could not go without him. So we settled down and forgot our dreams, but we did not forget each other. And when I had to leave–when the consequences of staying were such that even in my cowardice I took notice–there was only one man I trusted enough to leave a signaling cube–a way to contact me–with.
The Doctor paused. “Seven years later, he used it to lure me into a trap I barely escaped.”
Josie sat bolt upright. “No!”
“I’m afraid so.” He sighed. “He was up for a promotion, you see. He may even have got it–while he didn’t capture me, he did strand me on your shores, and by the fact that I am still here, we may judge that the authorities in my case have deemed that punishment enough.”
“I’m so sorry–wait, you’re not British?”
She can hear the smile in his voice. “That was not quite the message I was hoping you’d take from this story.”
“Sorry,” Josie said contritely. “You speak English very well, you know.”
“Why, thank you, Josie.” The shadow on the bed curtain wavered as the Doctor leaned in a bit. “What I was trying to say to you was…well, I suppose that it does happen that the people we love sometimes betray us, for reasons good or bad. But that does not mean that we were wrong to love them. And it does not mean that we cannot remember the good in them, the good times we once had together, with fondness.
“Does that help at all? Do you think you will be able to sleep, or would you like me to stay for awhile?”
Josie pulled the curtain open. The Doctor was sitting on a low stool next to the bed, his brow knit with concern as he stared down at her.
He’s got sad eyes, she realized. How could I ever have been afraid of someone with such sad eyes?
She threw her arms around him and hugged him tight.
The Doctor twitched, his shoulders tensing, but didn’t pull away. “And what’s this, then?” he asked softly.
“For being kind,” she said into his chest.
“Ah,” he said. “Well.” And then he relaxed, and she felt his arms come up around her. “If I have been kind, it is only because I have recently acquired such a shining example.”