Martha zips up her leather jacket and tightens her scarf. The wind has picked up again blowing her long braids over her shoulder and into her face. This hilltop is damned uncomfortable in the late fall, but Martha wouldn’t be anywhere else. Before her, the city lights twinkle and shine against the night sky. From this distance the city looks so peaceful, so different from that day years ago when she stood here watching the world go up in flames.
Few remember that day, that year when the planet burned. But Martha can still smell the scent of burning flesh in her hair underneath the lavender. She sometimes thinks she hears their childlike cackle on the wind. Most days Martha is able to forget, burying the memory for a time underneath the weight of present worries.
Martha grins at the welcome wheeze and groan of the Tardis.
“You’re late,” Martha states, her eyes fixed on the skyline.
“A Time Lord is never late,” the Doctor replies as he settles onto the grass beside her, his long legs stretched out before him. “We always arrive precisely when we mean to.”
The Doctor laughs at Martha’s eye roll. “Hey you.”
“Hey yourself,” Martha replies. She smiles as he presses a mug of hot Denubian cocoa into her hands. Martha takes a sip of the bittersweet brew and sighs. “Just how I like it.”
“I know you, Doctor Jones. Only full fat milk of the bovine variety, extra marshmallows and a hint of cinnamon will do. The proper kind too, not that rubbish imposter cinnamon they sell at Tesco.”
“You didn’t forget the splash of Kahlúa,” Martha adds in between sips.
“Oh, I never forget the Kahlúa,” the Doctor continues. “Had to make a special trip to 1936 to get it. That really is the only year for it.”
Silence settles between them. Martha returns her perusal to the skyline while the Doctor studies her profile. He can see the years beginning to creep onto Martha. There is just a hint of crows feet at the corners of her eyes and the faint groove of a laugh line framing her full lips. However, she is still the shining fearless young woman he kissed a lifetime ago on the moon. Only ten years have passed since then but Martha has seen and carried burdens enough to stretch a century or two. She’s been to the end of the universe and back. She’s walked the dying world with just a word and a fool’s hope. She’s held her finger to the button that could destroy the very world she walked to save.
Despite all of this, she is always there for a mug of tea, digestives and a chat when he begins to feel the great weight of his years and the lives he has taken. So when his phone rings once a year he comes running equipped with the good stuff.
“You’re staring again,” Martha murmurs.
“Sorry,” the Doctor responds sounding anything but. “Can’t be helped, really.”
Martha turns towards him with a smile. She reaches over and adjusts his bow tie before settling her free hand against his chest.
“How long has it been for you?”
The Doctor sucks his teeth and inhales strongly through his nostrils. “Oh, one year, two months, three days, sixteen hours and two minutes give or take.”
“Been anywhere exciting?”
“Oh, you know me,” the Doctor replies. “And I know you. Your diversions won’t work on me. The Doctor is in, Miss Jones, and he’s all ears.”
The Doctor swipes his hand over his lips as if closing a zipper before settling his elbows onto his knees, cradling his mug of cocoa as he watches her. Martha sighs and resumes drinking her cocoa, feeling the chocolate and Kahlúa beginning to work their magic. Every year she tells the Doctor a story from that year that never was and she supposes that this year will not be any different.
When she empties her mug and licks her lips, the Doctor gently takes her mug from her and places it on the grass beside his. She sighs and begins.
“One night in September I took shelter in an abandoned warehouse in Chicago. Most of the city had been destroyed, but my contacts told me that there was a cell of the resistance that had taken shelter in the underground tunnels. Since the above ground was rumored to be empty, I figured that I’d be alone for a few hours.
“When I woke up that morning, I found out how wrong I was. A little boy was snuggled up against my side. I don’t know how he saw me with the perception filter on, but I figured he wasn’t a threat.
“He couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. His name was LaShawn and he had been wandering the ruins for weeks on his own eating garbage or whatever he could find. His entire family was killed right before his eyes. He was thin, hungry and scared. I shared what food I had and decided to take him with me to the underground cell. I knew it would be risky, but I couldn’t just leave him there. It was a miracle that he survived as it is.
“The going was slow. We had to stop often to use the loo or to take a quick nap. It took us a full day to get to the rendezvous point. On my own it would have only taken a few hours.
“We thought we were home free when all of a sudden there was this explosion. LaShawn stepped on a landmine. A fucking landmine! I picked him up and carried him to safety before any Tolfacane came to investigate. I tried helping him, but there was nothing I could do. He lost so much blood and he was already so weak. He just kept crying for me to help him. But I couldn’t. I just watched him...”
Martha stops her story as her body is wracked by sobs. She cries for the boy who did not die in her arms that day, for all the people who did not burn, for the people not laid low trying to protect her.
Strong arms wrap around her shoulders and bring her close against a cool body. Martha buries her face into his shirt, her tears wetting the fabric. The Doctor doesn’t tell her that LaShawn is alive and that that year never happened. He doesn’t remind her that she saved the world. He just holds her close as he brushes a finger against her warm temple, rounding the jagged edges of the memory into something safer to handle.
After a time, Martha sighs and relaxes against him, soothed by cocoa, liquor and his touch. The Doctor shrugs off his jacket and leans back, coaxing Martha to lie next to him. She settles down with her head on his shoulder, one arm bent and resting on his chest, her palm open and pressed flat against one of his hearts. She shuts her eyes and breathes in deeply, taking in his particular scent that is as eccentric as his personality.
The Doctor watches her as she falls asleep, permitting himself to enjoy this moment that is dangerously domestic. He could almost get used to this bit of normalcy in the great chaos of the universe. Part of him yearns to give her a lifetime of this moment. He thinks he owes her more than that for all the times she’s saved him, for all the times he’s pushed her away. He thinks again that his tenth incarnation was a twit. How could he have been so careless with someone so marvelous? But his Martha is a strong one, a survivor. He can see the cracks and the bubbles of dried glue that somehow make her sturdier than before. There is a beauty that is familiar in this patchwork.
He pulls Martha closer and kisses her reverently on the forehead.
“You are a marvel, Doctor Martha Jones,” he whispers against her skin. “An absolute marvel.”