Communication, 3190 words. The Doctor/Jo, PG.
When Jo ran into that strange young man, her papers scattering across a busy street, she was further away from UNIT than she had ever been.
Spoilers for 'The Green Death' and references to 'The Big Bang'. Ignores 'Death of the Doctor'. Beta-read by apolesen.
When Jo ran into that strange young man, her papers scattering across a busy street, she was further away from UNIT than she had ever been. She was twenty-seven, divorced and stuck with a desk job in Sheffield.
A few years earlier, she had married Clifford in a state of mindless love, a teenage-like infatuation that could (and should) have blossomed into something more stable. Within weeks of the engagement and the marriage, Jo was in the deepest Amazon rainforest, knee-deep in mire and trailing her husband, helping him whenever he required the expertise of a former UNIT member, although all she got to do was hold a petri dish as he attempted to identify whatever type of mushroom he had found that day. Her obsession with the scientist before they had met and the feelings that had grown in her heart when he saved her life were diminished by time and his lack of interest in her as a person. As a tea lady, he valued her above the world itself. As a wife, not so much. They had their first fight on her twenty-fourth birthday, after he announced that dinner with the president of the Royal Society was more important than dinner with her. I can have dinner with you any day, dear. She smashed a plate but didn't cry until he had left. From then on, things went downwards. She didn't go back to UNIT when they returned to Britain. Clifford preferred to have her at home, so she could help him with his experiments and the never-ending washing-up. By the time she needed to come back, there was no longer any need for her. The Doctor had left.
In the end, she packed her bags and went to stay with a forgetful aunt in the outskirts of Sheffield, as far away from London as she could. (It was Sheffield or Inverness, and she couldn't bear the thought of Scotland.) After a succession of unsuccessful job interviews, she was made secretary at a bank in the city centre. She found a bedsit near her job, left her aunt ('Jo, will you be coming back for tea?' 'Yes, auntie.' No, auntie), and settled down to this new humdrum life routine.
Jo was not happy, but she did not have it in her to be unhappy enough to give up, come back to London and beg the Brigadier for something, anything, at UNIT. Both Benton and Mike kept in touch, and once they even came to visit. She forced a happy demeanour, but Mike frowned and held onto her longer than their friendship warranted before getting on the train back to London. Coming home to her one room and kitchen, she bit her lip and steeled her nerves. That night, she dreamt of adventures with the Doctor. He took her hand and led her through an alien minefield. She woke up crying. Back at the work, she stayed determined. Her co-workers would look at her and between themselves, they would remark what a sombre and different girl she was.
She made do.
One day, things changed. It wasn't like the first time she met the Doctor, when she ruined an important experiment and was almost thrown out before anything even began, but it was a catastrophe. After two years at the bank, she had been entrusted with bringing a set of case notes from one of the bank lawyers to an important client. It was not usual procedure, and she was secretly proud of being picked for the task. Running late, she clutched the papers to her chest and grabbing her keys, she rushed out the building. Just outside, she collided with a young man in a worn tweed suit and a red bow tie, a fez perched atop his head. The collision struck her off her feet and as she scrambled to catch her fall, the papers were caught by wind and flew into the busy street. The man blinked in surprise as she fell, before he reached out and helped her up.
'The papers, please, the papers!' Jo was frantic, already chasing after the papers. They were scattered across the street, and she could see no way in which she could retrieve them, and at that moment, she was certain that she had lost her job.
'Oh!' exclaimed the man, fumbling in his pockets, looking for something. He turned, and as his back was turned, she heard a strange whizzing sound and the wind changed, bringing the papers back to her. If her attention had not been so intent on keeping her job, she would have seen the flash of silver and green as the man stuffed something back into an inner pocket and caught the last few remaining sheets of paper. 'There you go!' The man grinned and handed the papers to her.
'Thank you, thank you so much!' She glanced up at him as she tried to reassemble some sort of order to the papers. He looked odd, she thought, but nevertheless strangely familiar. He grinned widely, his fez now in his hand, his bow tie askew. He couldn't be much older than her. She thanked him again and turned to leave, well aware that she had a client to catch. But as she turned away from him, he called after her:
'Jo!' She looked back at him, not stopping to wonder how he knew her name. 'Chips?'
'Chips! Do you want chips? People want chips, do you want chips?' The man weighed from one foot to another, furtively looking at her.
'I'm late, I'm terribly late to a meeting, so I can't, I'm really sorry.' She blushed, flattered at the stranger's offer of chips. (She couldn't remember the last time she had chips; every time she bought chips in throws of overwhelming loneliness, they only made her feel worse and she threw them out after a couple of bites.)
'Later, then?' There was a note of strange sincerity in the man's voice. 'I've caused you so much trouble yet again, the least I could do is get you chips. With, uh, money.'
She worried her lip, the papers clutched to her chest. She glanced at the building where she worked and then back at the young man. Oh, he was pretty.
'I end at five,' she smiled and ran away.
The man returned a grin and retrieving it from his pocket, threw up his sonic screwdriver into the air, catching it as it fell.
Jo was in a terrible state of nerves as the clock ticked closer to five. She had been told off by the client for being late and with papers in such a state, but after she explained that she had been knocked down and the papers had been thrown over the street and, really, it was massively lucky that she even got them together again (which was only a bit of a lie), she was forgiven and even offered an extra Jaffa cake. Back at the office, she enthusiastically helped the director write a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. When left to her own devices, she tried to neaten her creased skirt and straightened up her lines of pens. Five to five, she realised that the man may not show up. Or maybe he would show up and he would be a terrible person. She told herself not to hope for much. Most days, her bag was packed and she was on her feet when the church clock chimed its first chime. Today, she hesitated and didn't pack up until it had already chimed twice. She left the building at five past five. Looking around, she couldn't see him. Her heart fell.
She waited a further five minutes, furtively, but at last, she turned to leave. She walked towards her bus stop, eyes fixed at the pavement. Her heart jumped when someone tapped her on the shoulder and turning, she saw the young man, head cocked, eyebrow raised.
'Running away on me again, are you?' His eyes twinkled, and she laughed despite herself.
'I thought you weren't coming,' she said, blushing again. She felt like a schoolgirl and the butterflies in her stomach fluttered. He looked confused, and she explained, 'you're late.'
'I'm late?' He fished up a pocket watch, a massive Victorian thing, and he pursed his lips. 'Yes, I suppose I am late. I'm very sorry. Time - it's all a bit of a hullabaloo, don't you think?' He grinned at her: 'I promised you chips, didn't I?'
'Yes, you did.' Jo grinned back at him. She did not know when she last felt this happy. She did not even know why she felt this happy.
'Where's the closest, or should I say best chip shop? The best chips are the best. We can have fish as well. Fishy fishy fish.'
Jo pointed and the man took her by the arm and led her toward the chip shop. It wasn't a forceful gesture, but it was clearly possessive. Once there, he ordered two fish and chips and spent a few minutes, picking at a mass of coins, trying to fish out pound coins. She watched him as he muttered, identifying one currency after another, but with a distinct lack of sterling. After several minutes, he found coins enough and stuffed the rest back into his pocket. (Later, she wondered how come his pockets didn't jingle with the change.)
They ate in a park, on a bench under a mighty oak tree. She unwrapped her Times wrapping and realised that she did not have the first idea about who he was.
'What are you called?' she asked, aware that it was the kind of question you ought to ask when you first meet, not when you're having fish and chips together on a bench. The man's face was blank for a moment before he answered.
'John Smith,' he smiled. 'You?'
'Jo Grant. That's not a Sheffield accent - where are you from?'
'Oh, here and there.' He shrugged and stuffed a few chips in his mouth. 'And you're a Londoner?'
'Yes, London. Born and raised.'
'And now - Sheffield!' John made a sweeping motion, as if he tried to encompass the entirety of Sheffield with one hand. He did a decent job.
'Yeah, well... you have to fly the coop sooner or later, don't you?' she tried for flippant and happy, but she didn't quite manage. She concentrated on dismantling the haddock and hoped he wasn't looking at her.
'You didn't want to leave. Why did you?'
Jo shrugged, uncertain how to phrase the reasons without sounding childish or, worse, like a failure. She ate one chip after another as she thought, and John looked at her, breaking off large pieces of fish and stuffing them into his mouth without any attempt of manners. When she was down to four chips and a tiny piece of fish, she spoke again.
'I was married.' John nodded, but Jo didn't wonder if that meant that he was listening, or if he knew. (But how could he have known?) 'It didn't work. He's so clever - so very clever. And me. I'm plain. I'm daft. I can't even get a proper job on my own! I'm just Jo, really. He won the Nobel Prize really young. That sort of person. I'd only known him for a week when he proposed. I was, I was working with - with this organisation, as a sort of assistant. It's all very hush-hush, and I can't tell you anything about it, sorry. And I met Clifford, that's my husband, well, ex-husband, and he was... I don't know. He was... human.' Jo frowned and John squeezed her hand. The touch was welcome, not intrusive or demanding. 'That must sound so silly - of course he was human. But, I don't know, he was real? Y'see, I was working for this man. He was a lot like Clifford, except he wasn't. He was older, and he was so clever and he was just... he was good. A good person. But somehow, I could never really reach him. He was always a mile ahead of me, even when we were sitting at the same table. He's a scientist; I couldn't even pass A-level science. He was very very special. He made me see the world. And I chose my husband. They're both gone now.'
She fell silent after this, suddenly aware of the comparison she had drawn. It wasn't the first time she compared Clifford to the Doctor, but it was the first time she considered that she had had a choice, and that she had chosen Clifford - human, Nobel Prize winner, clever - over the Doctor - Time Lord, genius, brilliant. She could feel the tears rising and she looked firmly away, trying hard to keep the tears in. As the first tear fell, John wrapped an arm around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. One hand traced circles in the cloth of her jacket, one hand rested on her head, fingers in her hair.
'I'm sorry,' he murmured and kissed the top of her head. She rested her head against his chest, reassured by the way he smelt. He felt like home.
When the tears stopped and when she sat up again, she felt like a fool. Her mascara had smudged against his shirt, two dark blotches over his heart. John looked at her with a fondness harboured for years.
'Don't cry, Jo,' he said and brushed away a tear and dark smudges with a calloused thumb.
'I won't,' she promised and shook her hair, as if to shake away her sadness. She glanced up at the young man, who wore a smile of years ago and affection grown in silence. She wondered how he could be a stranger - she felt as though she had known him for years, even though she knew nothing about him. 'I've been terribly rude, just babbling on about my drab old life. Tell me about yourself. What do you do? Apart from buying girls chips, I mean.'
John looked up toward the sky, stars twinkling. She was reminded of the Doctor, who would look at the sky in a very similar manner. He lost this habit after his TARDIS started working again.
'I don't buy just any girl chips, I'll have you know.' He paused, winking at her. 'I'm a traveller,' the young man continued, again staring at the sky. 'I go places.'
'Anywhere exciting?' Jo pushed her fringe out of her face, peering at the man. The Doctor went places, too. John smiled, somehow sadly.
'Oh, all the time. Never a dull moment with me.'
'Bring me along next time, won't you? It must be better than Sheffield.'
The young man laughed, and again she thought of the Doctor, of how he laughed, how his head tipped back a little as he gazed upon the sky. She suddenly realised that he had called her name before chips and proper introductions, before he could possibly have known her name. She stared at him yet more intently, as though she could find the answer in his face.
'What is it? Do I have something on my face?'
She looked away, shaking her head. She felt foolish. She had always felt foolish around the Doctor, but she had always been happy. They sat silent for several minutes, eyes on the stars and sneaking glances at each other. All at once, John jumped up from the bench with surprising alacrity, galvanised into action.
'Jo! I need to go!'
'Already?' Jo stood up, too, worrying her lip as she tried to sound barely interested. 'Where do you have to go?'
'Oh, I - I promised to meet some people after a wedding and I'm terribly late and I was going to take them on their honey moon. Long story. Can't wait.' He appeared to be ready to bound off when he looked at Jo again, properly looked. The careless grin on his face faded, replaced with a fondness she had seen hundreds of times before. 'Jo, it's been wonderful to see you.'
He took her in his arms and as he enclosed her, she knew that the Doctor had come back for her. He looked different in almost every aspect, but that did not matter, because standing in front of her was the same man she had met seven years ago. He wore a bow tie instead of a ruffled shirt, tweed instead of a cape, but that didn't matter much. He had not changed.
'Doctor.' It was an awed whisper, not the gleeful shout she had always imagined would come when she at last would see him again, but she was grown up now, and the Doctor was different, all gangly limbs and impossibly young. Things had changed, and so had she. 'I missed you.'
'I know,' He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead. 'I'm sorry I've not come earlier. I'm sorry I left you. I thought you were happy.'
'I was. Then I wasn't.'
She didn't know how long they stood like that. She hoped he would never let go, but she knew that he would. He released her with trepidation, stroking her face and wearing a contented half-smile. He hesitated and drew his breath, as though to gather courage, leaned down, and kiss her.
'I have to go.' His murmur sounded like that of a secret lover, not like the man who had spent so much time tinkering with electronics in his UNIT lab. 'I'll come back.'
'To Sheffield?' She laughed, but she wanted to cry again. The Doctor had come back to her, and he was leaving, already.
'Pff! No, why would I?' He laughed, too, shaking his head. 'You should call the Brig. I think it's about time, don't you?'
'I will do. First thing tomorrow.' She wrung her hands and watched him bounce on the heels of his shoes, hands in pockets and staring at his feet.
'Yes. Good. Well,' he made a quick two-finger salute before he shoved his hand back down in his pocket, and he seemed to want to be anywhere but there. 'Take care of yourself. See you around. Be cool.' He pointed at her with both hands, and looked ridiculous. She laughed.
He turned to leave.
'Doctor.' He swivelled round to look at her, and she could not understand how anyone so old could look so young, and someone so young could be so old. 'I love you.'
'And I.' The Doctor looked away, looked back, smiled nervously - and left.
Jo watched him walk away through the park in silence. She wondered if this is how he felt when she decided to stay with Clifford. She hoped it was. Jo closed her eyes, and suddenly she heard that wailing sound, so familiar, and felt gusts of cold air against her face. He was gone.
She walked home alone. Tomorrow she would call the Brigadier, and one day the Doctor would return to her.
All she had to do was wait. Until then, she would make do.