The man at the door was young. His suit was cut well, but he wore it stiffly, like a new skin.
“Miss Grant,” he said. She nodded. “UNIT thought that you should be given the news in person.”
“You're from UNIT?” Jo said. He flashed a card — official lines, John, Smith. “Come in then,” she said, ushering him through the entrance way. “And it's Mrs Grant, by the by, though Mr Jones has been dead now for some fifteen years.”
She led him to the kitchen and sat him down at the round wood table. As he sat, she put some water on the stove and dug out some jam cookies, her secret indulgence.
“What I've come to tell you,” the young man began.
She shushed him. “Tea first, dear. I can't take tragedy on an empty stomach.”
“Tragedy,” he repeated in a blank voice.
“Yes, tragedy.” Was she really so worldly as all that? The young man looked off-balance and not just because he was sitting on the very edge of his chair. She explained gently. “There's only one kind of news they'd send a young man like yourself down here to tell me.”
He kept quiet as she made the tea. Now that she'd stopped him, he seemed content to let the silence hang. He made no movement to assist her as she lifted the kettle and poured the steaming liquid into his cup.
“Now,” she said, as the steam warmed her mouth.
He nodded. “Miss Grant,” he began again, reluctance clinging to the word. Jo wondered why he'd stuck to this first address, even though she had corrected him. Nerves, perhaps?
His next words smashed her speculation. “The Doctor is dead.”
They looked at each other, caught in shared disbelief — him for speaking, and her for what he had said.
“The Doctor has been dead before,” she said, fairly sure that her voice was still mild and steady. “Don't you chaps down at UNIT know that?”
“Dead,” the young man said, “permanently. There was a war.” He spoke falteringly, as if, she thought, trying to paraphrase something he had read about. Was there some neatly typed report right now circulating the halls of UNIT? “A war between the Time Lords and the Daleks. The Doctor fought in that war. The Doctor — died in it.”
Jo took a mechanical sip of tea. It was still too hot and it left her tongue scalded. In any thoughts she'd had of the Doctor in the long years since her husband had died, death had never seemed liked a possibility. He'd been too alive for that, somehow. “I don't mean to be rude,” she said. “But I don't think I'll believe you. Space is so vast, you know. I'd prefer to think of him alive, somewhere in it.”
Let him think her a foolish old woman. There were certain truths that kept a person going — that there would be birdsong in spring, a single teabag hidden in the back of the cabinet, and that the Doctor was dashing about somewhere in that old blue box of his. But she was taken aback by her visitor's reaction.
“He's dead.” The words were clipped, tense, thrumming with repressed energy. His eyes were dark, and she wasn't sure what she saw in them. “He is dead,” he said again, as if he'd just now found the words.
Jo thought of how he'd spoken. She'd been wrong, she realized. He'd spoken like someone first giving voice to a long-held memory. “You were with him,” she said. It was only a guess, but as she spoke she became sure. “You saw him die.”
He breathed out. “Yes.”
“You traveled with him.”
He hesitated. “Briefly,” he said.
“Ah.” Jo felt the tears crowding her eyes, like bees on her honeysuckle vines. The Doctor. That wonderful, beautiful man. She made no motion to wipe away the tears falling freely now. Tears were good, she'd learned after her husband passed. Tears helped.
Her angel of death was sitting motionless. If her tears discomforted him, he gave no sign.
“Ah,” Jo said again, and she wept.
Now it was later, and the dusky sunlight played across the kitchen, as wearily exuberant as an old dancer making his last bow. Jo wasn't sure how long they had sat there, the both of them, like stones by a pond, growing wet and moss-covered with the passing hours. There was a stillness to grief that reverberated loudly in quiet spaces. She let that stillness engulf her, as if a heavy cloak had been laid over her shoulders.
Then the late sunlight passed, and suddenly motion was back upon her. Trance-like, Jo rose and drew closed the curtains, and switched on her old oil lamp. “I used to think an alien planet would either be very dark or else like a holiday resort,” she said conversationally. “It looked nothing like I'd thought. Not very special at all. But the smell was different, like nothing I'd ever known before.
He was such a very brave man. Very silly, sometimes. I remember that old car of his. Bessie, he called it. Her, bless him. She'd fail in the most unfortunate places, but it was always an adventure, and I never could scold him too long when we were late.
You know, I can't imagine him fighting a war. That used to be his great insult — don't be playing soldier, he'd say. But I suppose when it's your home.” She broke off. “I suppose it's different, then.”
Her mind, flinching from the rawness of the memories, settled instead on the mystery of the man opposite her. “I know you aren't really from UNIT,” she said. “Your manner is wrong, and you've stayed here much too long.”
He inclined his head.
“The Doctor — does the brigadier know?”
“No,” he said softly.
“Who else knows?”
Suddenly, he laughed, an abrupt sound that cut the sleepy air. “You,” he said, “and I. The only two in the world.”
Jo considered this quietly. “Why me?”
Just as abruptly as he had lost it, he regained his composure. The slight smile he gave her was withdrawn and wry. “Miss Grant,” he began, and in the tone of his voice and the tilt of his head, she was transported back forty years ago. She knew this man.
“Master,” she said.
His sudden sharpening told her that she had guessed right, but even his reaction seemed muted. Everything was muted about him, she thought, like an abandoned shadow.
Jo wondered if she should be afraid.
“Why me?” she said again.
He tapped a finger against the table, drumming out a light beat as he seemed to consider her question. “I was fond of you,” he said at last.
Jo nodded. “And did you kill him?” she asked, in the same level tones, as she wondered what she would do if he said yes.
Maybe he had chosen to tell her because he knew that out of all the people on this planet, she was the one most likely to believe him.
She did. For the grief that he wore like an ill-fitting suit and the way he had looked at the Doctor sometimes, with reluctant, furious care.
“How did he die?” she asked.
“Saving a friend.”
“No.” His smile was pointed. “I wasn't his friend.”
“He told me you were his oldest friend.”
He seemed to ignore this. A half-minute passed before he spoke again. “He died going back for a friend. It was very stupid and very brave, if that's how you want to remember him. A heroic fool.”
“He wasn't a fool,” Jo said sharply.
The Master shrugged. He was so very different now, she thought, younger, and with an energy that even the choke of his grief couldn't altogether dampen.
“And what about you?”
“Me?” He grinned, suddenly, bright as a star going nova. “I have the universe.”
And what will you do with it? Jo wondered. She felt all her age on her back. “Don't do anything I'd have to hate you for,” she said. “Because it's been a long time. And I almost remember you fondly.”
He made her a seated bow. She could see that some weight was now gone from him. Maybe he'd passed the burden of his load to her. Jo remembered a time after her husband had died. It had been a few months past, and she'd fallen into conversation at the farmer's market. The honey-man had mentioned her husband, so casually, and just as casually she'd found herself saying that he was dead.
She knew he was dead. The knowing had drawn lines in her face and salted her mornings. But saying it out under the sun, she'd felt the knowing detach itself from her. The polar caps were melting. There were grain shortages down South. Her husband was dead.
“Would you — ” the Master began, and the words caught in his mouth. He looked at her, and in his youthful uncertainty Jo found something ancient looking out.
“No,” she said gently. She reached across the table and lifted his hand. She marveled at the feel of it, unlined and smooth. Any fear she had felt was gone with the tears on her face. “Some memories need to be put away,” she told him. “Like old silver. And brought out every so often to polish.”
He had caught her left palm in his, and laid it out flat on the table. “Shall I tell you when you will die, Miss Grant?” he whispered. His fingers traces the lines of her palm, oddly tender.
“No,” she said. “And you knew I'd say that.”
“I spent a very long time wanting to live and a short time wanting to die,” he told her, looking away. “And now I — I suppose I wouldn't mind either.”
“I feel like that sometimes,” she admitted.
“And what do you do?”
She smiled. “I clear the table and I clean the teapot. Not much help to you, I'm afraid. It's a human thing.”
He nodded then, like he had known all along she couldn't help him.
“Why did you come here?” she asked. She thought she knew the answer; she wondered if he did.
The Master seemed to consider this. “I wanted someone else to know.”
She said, softly, “Now I know.”
Abruptly he rose, and Jo understood that whatever fragile shell of a moment they'd built up between them was ended. He didn't bother with goodbyes. Another change, she cataloged vaguely, he'd always been courteous, even with a knife to her throat.
She watched from her doorway as he picked his way down her garden path, until he was out of sight.
Only then did she go inside and begin to clear the table.