Jo Grant Jones’ voice was sweet and sandy, a perfect match for the smile that shone through their fragile Skype connection. She kept brushing the fringe from her eyes, an action that made her look younger than her years; then again, Shaun doubted the woman gave a toss about how she appeared to anyone.
“I … erhm … thank you,” he said. He wondered what Martha Jones might have told her that he rated such an enthusiastic greeting from a woman he didn’t know.
“Martha called to tell me about your situation. Well, Donna’s situation, but I know it’s yours, too, because you love her. Martha said that’s obvious, and I can tell right through the screen that you’re a good man who loves deeply. Your mum and dad must be so proud.”
Shaun fought a sense of warm hypnosis as he listened to Jo. He couldn’t decide whether she was, perhaps, as alien as her one-time offworld friend, or whether she might have been this way even if she’d never met the Doctor. “I think my mum and dad would want me to help Donna,” he said, stubbornly sticking to the matter at hand.
Jo immediately lost her smile. “I”m so sorry … stupid me, going off on a tangent again. OK, time to get serious. After Martha filled me in, Mr. Smith and I did some checking. The Doctor’s been busy in England, as per usual, but he’s gone through a couple of changes, as far as we can tell.”
“Mr. Smith?” Did the Smith and Jones operation include a blood relative somewhere in the Mato Grosso?
“Our friendly neighborhood AI, who’s actually I and not A,” she said, “courtesy of an old friend who no longer needs him.” Her smile slipped a trifle. “Mr. Smith has connections both here on Earth and to off-world grids. He’s ever so much better than UNIT at tracking things in outer space, like the Doctor, although Kate’s been busy upgrading their systems.
“Anyhow, Mr. Smith tells me that the Doctor that I last met with that old friend … is no more.”
Bloody hell. All this, and he’s dead? Shaun slumped in his desk chair.
Jo’s smile returned, but with a hint of concern, “You do know about regenerations, right?”
Oh. Right. After a moment of confusion, Shaun nodded and straightened up. He’d forgotten. This was that weird bit that Sylvia didn’t know, and which Shaun had only picked up via some Doctor-stanning websites. The man supposedly changed shape or something like that, every so often. As if everything else wasn’t overwhelmingly weird.
“I … yeah, I’d forgot.” He knew he sounded completely addled, but at this point he didn’t care. Jo apparently didn’t either, as she went blithely on.
“Here’s what we know, thanks to Mr. Smith — with a little help from Kate Stewart, since the last Doctor was very involved with some UNIT events a couple of years ago. And Coal Hill School, come to think of it, which seemed to be involved with UNIT as well ….”
Jo trailed off for a second, then picked up again. “The good thing about that most recent Doctor was that he stopped by Earth fairly often, and he actually taught for a few years — his years, not ours, but Kate says the record shows him quite clearly in the lecture hall — and her people were able to put a new tracer on him during that time. Just because Mr. Smith is farther out there, so to speak, it doesn’t mean UNIT’s given up on keeping track of our alien friend. Good old Kate!” She sounded very approving.
“We’re pretty sure he didn’t find it, or didn’t bother to throw it away if he did, because it’s been tracked across, oh, I don’t know how many planets and galaxies, so there we go. And here’s the good news; he’s back on Earth now!”
“Really?” He hoped it didn’t sound too gormlessly hopeful, but he couldn’t resist Jo’s air of gleeful triumph, even if he’d only understood about half of what she’d said.
Her smile grew positively beatific. “Absolutely! And I’m pretty sure we can get him to talk to—”
She shook her head. “Not Donna, no. That’s too dangerous, I should think, even if he looks different to the one she shouldn’t remember. But this one … I think we can convince him to talk to you.”
There was the crux of the matter, Shaun thought. Did Jo understand that? Had Smith or Jones told her everything?
“I guess … that’s it, isn’t it, that’s the thing. Back when everything happened, he said he couldn’t do anything but block her memory. Donna’s mum told me he said that was the only thing he could do.
“And then he left.” He couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice.
“And he never should have left without doing something more for Donna. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it.” Jo wasn’t asking a question.
Shaun felt the snap inside him, as if someone had taken the lock off a shed door, and let out a bloody-mouthed dog that wanted to howl at everything around it, tear at everything and at itself. Everything that he’d stifled since hearing about the Doctor boiled up in a poisonous tide. The rage caught in his throat, and he could only nod.
“But you know, he’s … hmm.” She stopped for a moment, then continued. “Have you read any C.S. Lewis?”
“He’s the Narnia guy,” Shaun said, trying to deal with the intellectual whiplash caused by Jo’s conversational u-turn
“Right,” she said. Her voice was so gentle that Shaun felt the raging dog inside him settle just a bit. “I don’t much hold with him, as marvelous as his creations are. Too much religiosity for me, way too much sexism and some unpleasant racism. But he said one thing about Aslan that always stuck with me. Some character’s trying to understand what Aslan has done somewhere or other. Something that seems cold, or cruel. And another character tells her, ‘He’s not a tame lion.’”
The inference was obvious.
“It’s still —” he began, but Jo interrupted him.
“It’s not fair. It’s awful to have to live through the way he thinks, when he’s being his most alien. I know. I’ve dealt with him, and with an old version of the Master, and then another version of the Doctor, so I’m pretty much a specialist on the emotional toll we Earth types suffer thanks to Gallifrey. Not to mention that each time I’ve run into the Doctor, he’s seemed older and stranger. And not necessarily kind, not at all.
“But he is good,” she said firmly. “That’s different, and it’s the important thing.
“And I will make him listen. I promise.” There was just a hint of iron in her voice. Then she stopped. “It may take a bit of time, though.”
“That’s fine. I mean, it’s fine if it’s not too long. Donna’s in rough shape,” Shaun said. He kept his voice steady and realized that he sounded as he did when he was trying to calm Donna. Now he was trying to calm himself, he thought distractedly. What Jo said about the Doctor both made sense and frightened him even more.
“I’m talking perhaps a week. Do you think she’s … well, is she well enough to last that long?” Jo looked ever more worried.
Shaun considered the question. Donna’s deterioration had been slow at first, but it had accelerated over the last two months. Still, seven days couldn’t be more of a wait than all the days and weeks before, when he’d had no hope at all. “I think so. If we have to wait, we have to wait.”
Then he thought about how he must sound. “I’m grateful; I really am.”
Jo looked sad again. “No, dear, you don’t need to be grateful until there’s something to be grateful about. Let’s get hold of the Doctor first.”
*** *** ***
When Shaun got Jo’s email eight days later, he knew something was wrong.
He fired up Skype not caring what the time was in Brazil. “What’s up?”
From the look of her, Jo had been up all night, fatigue draining her face of color. It was pinched and white, its curves rendered into hard planes by something worse than weariness.
“I’ve got news, but … oh, I’m so sorry Shaun.”
It settled in on him then, the stone in his stomach and the crushing weight on him that had grown with every day of Donna’s agony. “You couldn’t find him.”
“No, I did find him,” Jo said. “And he said … “ She stopped, then spoke again. “He said he couldn’t—”
“You don’t need to finish,” Shaun said quickly. “You don’t.”
Jo shook her head, and he realized that she was angry. He hadn’t seen her angry before. “He was … I’ve seen him arrogant. My Doctor was arrogant, I learned how to deal with it. And arrogant didn’t mean he didn’t care, my Doctor. The other one I met was a little bit cruel, I think, but he had a heart underneath.
“This one doesn’t seem to have one. He told me,” she said, her voice rising just a little bit, her fury incredulous, “that he didn’t have a duty of care.”
Shaun wanted nothing more than to shut down Skype, go out into the night and cry where no one could see. It was only the manners his mam had beaten into him that kept him online and speaking. “Well, thank you for trying. You didn’t have to do it.”
“Of course I did!” Jo looked at him with disbelief. “And I went round and round with him. Didn’t help.” She looked close to tears herself.
“Well, you said he wasn’t a tame lion.” To his horror, he started laughing.
“Oh, Shaun.” Now she was crying.
Shaun, on the other hand, became afraid he might not be able to stop laughing. He turned away from the screen, and pinched the skin under his eyes. It was the painful way he kept himself awake during long nights at work, and tonight, it helped him keep the laughter from spiraling into full hysteria. He turned back.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “It’s been a bit of a roller coaster —”
“— and the car just went off the rails,” Jo finished up for him as she wiped her eyes with a large and very unladylike handkerchief. “He hung up on me, so I feel as if I got tossed from the car as well.” Her gaze abruptly turned speculative. “Hrrm ….”
“What?” He hated how sharp his voice sounded. I’m sounding like Donna used to, before all this mess. Guess someone in the family has to keep up with Noble tradition. Other than Sylvia. He ruthlessly bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing again.
“He didn’t hang up on me immediately, now that I think of it. He let me have a go at him. At one point, I thought I was actually making inroads — didn’t, of course, but still — he didn’t hang up immediately.”
Shaun leaned into the computer, putting his face very near the screen. “What does that even mean?” Then he pulled himself back, ashamed that the edge was still there in his words.
Jo didn’t appear to mind his snappishness; he wasn’t sure if she was deliberately ignoring it because of her own sweet nature, or completely oblivious, also owing to her own sweet nature. “I’m not quite sure myself, Shaun, but I can tell you, I feel a lot better now than I did at the start of our call.
“Call it instinct, or maybe my being completely daft — wouldn’t be the first time, as my friends can tell you — but I still think we have a chance. I’d say I’m sorry that I asked you to call me, but I can’t, because I’m not sure I’d have reached this conclusion without our conversation.
“So let’s cross our fingers, shall we? Even wild lions can be kind if they’ve good hearts, don’t you think?” Jo was actually bouncing in her chair as she said that, something that should have made her look ridiculous but didn’t.
Still, Shaun didn’t think he could take much more of their topsy-turvy conversation. He nodded wordlessly.
“Alright then. You go on with taking care of Donna, and I’ll keep whacking away at the Doctor.” Jo’s smile altered; Shaun was abruptly reminded of his Pap, who was sweet and nurturing and completely unbending when it came to expecting the most from his sons. It made him feel better. He smiled back at her as they broke the connection.
Shaun looked around. It wasn’t yet 7 a.m. — it really had been the wee small hours for Jo — and he was as wrung out as if he’d survived a marathon deadline day at work. He stood up and went to the door of his home office. To his surprise, he heard Donna moving about in the kitchen, and smelled coffee brewing.
He tried not to take the steps two at a time.
“Morning.” He kept the question out of his greeting with an effort.
She was up. She’d made coffee. She looked like death warmed over but she was up. Shaun didn’t stop to think; he walked around the kitchen island and enfolded her. She responded in kind, her arms tightening around him so hard he gasped a little. She relaxed her hold the tiniest bit.
“Morning, yeah. Woke up, heard you talking, couldn’t get back to sleep, so coffee was the only thing to do,” she said, tilting her head up the bare inch he had on her. To Shaun’s delight, he heard wan amusement warring with the exhaustion in her voice. “Don’t know whether it’s going to do me any good, though.”
“Well, it’ll do me loads of good,” Shaun said. “Thanks, love.”
“You’re welcome — but taste it first. You know me and coffee; we have a fraught relationship.”
As she said that, Donna winced, her hand flying to her forehead. “Bugger.”
“You want me to get your pills?”
She nodded, her eyes closed. “Maybe if I catch this one early enough … I shouldn’t have thought too much about coffee. It always does this.”
“Sit down, then. I’ll be right back.” Shaun took the stairs as quickly as he had coming down to the kitchen, with the usual repressed panic shouldering its way past everything else. Based on what Sylvia had told him, he knew that Donna’s previous boyfriend, a complete rotter named Lance Bennett, had tried to poison her as part of yet another unbelievable alien invasion effort foiled by the Doctor. Bennett had apparently administered the stuff in Donna’s coffee.
The walls were coming down.
Jo, if you were ever capable of doing miracles, do one now.
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