Rory was looking for somewhere to eat his lunch when he found Amelia Pond sitting under the oak tree. An apple in one hand and a paring knife in the other, she looked up at him suspiciously. "Hello," she said, making it sound like a challenge.
"Uh," he said. "Hello. I was just looking for somewhere to sit."
She eyed him from scruffy sneakers to scruffier hair, then shifted over. "Okay."
He hesitated. The other boys would make fun of him if he ate lunch with a girl, especially with crazy Amelia Pond. But it would be rude to refuse now. Besides, with Tony away sick he had nowhere else to go. He glanced around, but the oak tree hid them from all the seats and he could only see the empty football field. If he ate quickly he could leave before everyone started playing.
He sat down and took out his jam sandwiches. "I'm Rory."
"Yeah, I— I know." Everyone at school knew she was Amelia, and she had no parents, and she was crazy. He crammed as much of the first sandwich into his mouth as he could and chewed busily. Amelia watched with an odd look on her face. "What?" he said through the half-chewed bread and jam.
"You eat like my friend," she said, and turned back to carving holes in her apple with the knife.
Crazy, Rory thought. Everyone knew she didn't have any friends. That was why she sat alone under the oak tree. He swallowed and quickly took another large bite and tried to ignore her.
But his eyes kept glancing back at the concentration on her forehead, and the face appearing on the apple, and the knife in her hand. He swallowed again and said, "Are you supposed to have that knife?"
"No," she said without looking up. "So what?"
"Nothing. I guess. Why are you doing that?"
"It's what my mother did."
"You don't have a mother."
"I can still remember what she did."
"You've lived with your aunt all your life."
She looked up at him then, her eyes scathing. "The Doctor believes me."
"Doctor Evans?" Then he remembered Jeff saying she went to a doctor in town for crazy people.
"No," she said, as if both he and Dr Evans and possibly Jeff too were the stupidest people in the world. "The Raggedy Doctor. He lives in a blue time machine and he makes monsters go away and he's going to come back and take me with him."
Rory opened his mouth, then remembered she had a sharp knife in her hand. "Okay," he said instead, and went back to his sandwiches.
Through his eyelashes he could see Amelia narrowing her eyes at him, but after a moment she put the knife away and bit into the apple.
They ate in awkward silence. Rory finished his sandwiches before she finished her apple, and took out his biscuits. He studied them thoughtfully, then offered, "You know you don't have to be afraid of monsters."
She was gnawing her way around the applecore as if it was a corncob and paused to say, "I'm not. But I think he was a little bit."
"Um, right," he said. "Well. Because, I was going to say, monsters aren't actually real. They're just a story your older brothers tell you to scare you."
"I don't have any older brothers," she pointed out scornfully. "Are you crazy or something?"
He blinked at her, then saw the corner of her mouth twitching. He smiled back tentatively and on an impulse gave her one of his biscuits.
She looked surprised, but took it without saying anything embarrassing and ate it almost as quickly as he ate his. He guessed it wasn't too weird having lunch with a girl. Even if she was crazy.
"You'd better go," she said suddenly.
"They'll be coming out to play football. They'll see us. Together."
He was already scrambling up before she finished, but suddenly felt guilty. "I could come to your place," he suggested, "maybe. After school?"
She looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"
"Well..." He couldn't say he liked her. And he didn't exactly want to be friends. He ended up saying honestly, "Because Tony's sick and my house is too noisy."
She chewed on her lip in thought, then gave a nod. "Okay. But you can't walk with me. Go over the bridge—"
"I know," he said, and hurried away.
Everyone knew Amelia Pond lived in the haunted house. Not that Rory believed in ghosts, but if there were ghosts he thought they'd like the large house and wildly overgrown garden.
He walked slowly toward the door, pushing stray branches off his face. Maybe he should go to the library instead. Not that he was scared, just this was a silly idea. She'd probably just want to play with dolls or something, like his sister and her friends — they were all crazy about Pocahontas.
He jumped, but it was only Amelia's face poking around the corner of the house.
"Come around here," she said. "I want to show you something."
He followed her around to the back of the house, which was even more of a mess than the front. An old bench sat among grass almost tall enough to hide it. The swingset looked new, but Amelia was standing by a haphazard pile of planks. He left his bag by the swing and went to join her. "Is that... a shed?"
"Yep," she said, grinning. "That's where the Raggedy Doctor crashed his time machine last week."
He wasn't sure what to say about that, so just said, "Huh."
"Aunt Sharon says it was hooligans. And then she got really mad about the kitchen, and she said she's never leaving me home without a babysitter again. But she always says that and then she can never find one. Come on."
He picked up his bag while she unlocked the door and ran inside. As he hurried to catch up with her the kitchen caught his eye. It didn't look anything out of the ordinary to him. He started up the stairs after Amelia and asked, "What did the hooligans do to the kitchen?"
"I told you," she called back down in exasperation, "there weren't any hooligans." She ducked into a room off the landing, still talking: "It was the Raggedy Doctor. He's a very fussy eater and he's a bit clumsy. I was going to clean up after him but then I fell asleep. So Aunt Sharon thinks it was me. Here you are," she said, emerging with a man's shirt and tie.
"Um," Rory said, tearing his eyes away from counting the doors. "Thank you?"
"You wear them, silly. You can be the Raggedy Doctor and I'll be me. Come on." She clattered back down the stairs.
Five rooms, he counted — and the attic. If his family lived here they could all have their own bedroom.
"Come on!" Amelia shouted again.
"Coming!" he called back, and added, "I'm just putting these on." The shirt was gigantic and he ended up using a bowline on the tie, but when he got outside Amelia didn't notice. She was too busy heaving up one of the shed's walls and propping it against more of the ruins.
He waded in to help, and together they got four walls put up again, more or less. She didn't seem worried about its missing a roof, which was good, because the weight would probably have collapsed the whole thing.
"Okay," Amelia said, puffing with the effort. "Now you start in there. We can pretend that's your time machine, and it just crashed, and now you're in the swimming pool in the library."
"There's a swimming pool in a library in the time machine," she said impatiently. "And you— Wait, we're going to need some rope."
"So you can climb out of the time machine."
"I can't climb out of that!"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You have to climb out of it, the door's on the top."
"But the walls will fall down. Can't we pretend the door's here?" He showed her a corner he could open without everything else falling apart.
"But that's not what happened."
He opened his mouth to tell her she was crazy, then shut it again. She glared at him as if he'd said it anyway. Meekly he said, "No, but I bet the time machine didn't fall apart either."
"No..." she admitted.
"So I have to come out the corner and pretend I'm coming out the door at the top."
She chewed the corner of her mouth as she thought. "I guess," she decided.
In relief, Rory squeezed into the 'time machine' before she could change her mind. He followed the rest of her instructions without arguing — at least not too much. It was better than Pocahontas, anyway. Actually it was almost as fun as playing with Tony, just... really weird.
In the kitchen she got him an apple. "Yum," he said without any prompting, "I like apples," and took a big bite.
"Now you spit it out," she said.
He blinked at her but he couldn't protest with his mouth full. He chewed and swallowed and said, "Why?"
"Because that's what the Raggedy Doctor did."
"But he likes apples."
"He thought he liked apples, but he's got a new mouth and it's like toothpaste."
She explained again, but it didn't make any more sense this time, and finally she said with a sigh, "That's just what happened."
It almost sounded like fun. Except... "It'll make a mess. Won't your aunt be mad?"
She wrinkled her nose and sighed. "Yes."
While she thought, Rory surreptitiously took another few large bites of the apple.
"I guess I can tell you instead," she said. "—You can sit down if you want."
He listened enthralled and envious as she told him about the yoghurt, and the bacon, and the baked beans, and the buttered bread. She wrinkled her nose as she told him about the custard and fish fingers, but Rory thought they might actually go together pretty well. He was trying to figure out how he might be able to get his parents to let him try it when the front door opened and a woman's voice called, "Hello, Amelia!"
Amelia pulled a huge face but called back, "We're in the kitchen and we didn't make a mess."
Her aunt looked wary as she came through the door, but smiled in surprise when she saw Rory. "Oh, hello!"
He stood up quickly and wiped his juicy hand on his giant shirt. "Hello, Ms Pond. I'm Rory Williams."
"It's lovely to meet you, Rory. Amelia, you didn't tell me you had a new friend."
Rory darted a horrified look at Amelia. "I, um—"
"He's got to go home, Aunt Sharon."
"We lost track of time," he agreed in relief. "I'll just get my bag. Oh, and... sorry about these," he added, looking down at the gigantic shirt and tie. "They got a bit dirty."
Amelia's aunt blinked at them vaguely. "Goodness, did you find them in the attic? Just throw them in the laundry, Amelia, and see your friend to the door."
"Yes, Aunt Sharon." But at the door she told Rory firmly, "We're not friends."
"Of course not." He scuffed his foot for a moment, then said, "But it was kind of fun."
Cautiously she smiled back. "Yeah, it was okay. You can come again if you want. If Tony's sick again, I mean."
"Yeah, sure." She wasn't bad for a crazy girl, and it was definitely better than Pocahontas.
It was months later before Rory went back. Tony wasn't even sick, he was just being a poophead. Actually he'd been a poophead all week, and Rory had been going to the library after school all week, which he didn't mind exactly but yesterday the librarian had said, "Hello again, Rory," and it was just too embarrassing.
The house was even spookier in the rain. A tabby cat watched him from a bare silver birch and Amelia didn't appear from around a corner. He hoped she was there. He hadn't been able to talk to her during the day and he wasn't sure this was a good idea.
He stood on his tiptoes to ring the old doorbell. It echoed inside, and then all he could hear was the rain. She was probably at the shrink in town, he thought, and he'd have to go to the library after all. Maybe he could slip in and hide in a corner without the librarian noticing.
But then the door opened — just halfway. "Hello," Amelia said. "Is Tony sick again?"
"Yea— No, he's gone to Jeff's house again. Jeff's got a PlayStation."
"You need more friends."
"Yeah, I guess." That was what his mother said, but he didn't want more friends. But Amelia was just standing in the doorway, and this was a stupid idea. "Well, I guess I'll get going..."
"I didn't say you had to go," she said, sounding offended. "Just you need more friends. Come on, I'll get you your clothes."
He closed the door behind himself and struggled out of his dripping raincoat. As Amelia clattered up the stairs he heard someone talking, but when he ventured to look the door was closed.
Amelia came back down with the gigantic shirt and tie. Rory joked, "Is that the Raggedy Doctor in the kitchen?"
She rolled her eyes. "No, that's the babysitter. She'll be on the phone until Aunt Sharon gets home, don't worry about her. So you're eating fish custard, and you ask where's my aunt."
Fumbling with his buttons, Rory dutifully said, "So, where's your— Wait, how do I know you've got an aunt?"
Her face fell and he had the terrible feeling he'd said something wrong. "Okay," she said, "you ask where's my parents."
"Go on," she said impatiently.
In a rush he said, "Where're your parents?"
"I don't have any parents. I've only got an aunt."
"You're lucky," he said. "I've got two parents and four brothers and sisters and sometimes aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, and they're always shouting at each other, or shouting at me, and then the dog next door starts barking and Mr Jensen starts shouting at it to shut up, and there's never any quiet."
"But then you know they're there."
"I wish they weren't."
"Don't say that!"
He stepped back. Her fists were in white balls by her side. "Okay..."
She took a few quick breaths, then said, "You're supposed to say 'I don't even have an aunt.'"
He repeated the line, and waited for her to go on, but she seemed to be suddenly hesitating. She was chewing on her lip, and he almost thought she looked like she was going to cry.
He shifted uneasily. She really was crazy, he thought, but it wasn't funny like how people always laughed about it at school. It was kind of... wrong instead, and it made his stomach hurt. After a long silence he said, "Um, maybe I should go..."
"No! You have to fix the crack in my wall."
"Okay, well... Let's go and look at the crack in your wall then."
They went upstairs to her bedroom. She showed him the wall above her desk, but there wasn't any crack in it at all.
"Is this the Raggedy Doctor?" he asked, picking up a crayon picture from the desk.
She snatched it back. "Yes."
"Was that when you were supposed to be drawing the animals at the zoo?" He'd heard some girls giggling in the playground about how she'd got in trouble with Miss Banford.
"You're not paying attention," she said. "We need to move the desk so you can look at the crack."
It was heavy and all her crayons rolled off as they shoved it out of the way, and he still couldn't see any crack on the wall. But he pretended there was one, and followed her lines, and when she pointed to the glass by her bed he knew what to do without prompting. He tipped the water out the window and put the glass against the wall and listened to the humming of the fridge downstairs. "I can hear something," he said slowly, "but I'm not sure what it is."
"It says 'Prisoner Zero has escaped,'" Amelia said from behind him. "I hear it at night. What does it mean?"
He put the glass down and squinted at the wall and thought. "I think... it means there's a prison in there. And maybe a monster. But it's just a crack, so... so if we fix it then it can't get out, and then the police in there can catch it and you won't have to worry about it again."
"How do we do that?"
He felt pleased that he'd said it right, and he thought maybe she wasn't crazy, maybe she was just scared, and if he could make her think the monster had gone away then she'd be okay again. "Well," he said, and thought hard. "Do you have any polyfiller?"
She giggled. "Polyfiller won't stop Prisoner Zero. You need to use your wand."
"I have a wand?"
"Yes, here." She gave him a grey crayon. "You point it at the crack, and that opens it."
"But we don't want to open it, we want to close it." She looked at him and he said quickly, "But first we have to open it. Right." He pointed the wand at the crack and said, feeling a little silly, "Abracadabra!"
"It's not that kind of a wand," she said scathingly. "But it doesn't matter. It's opening."
"Can you see Prisoner Zero?"
She shook her head. "Only black, and the voice keeps saying 'Prisoner Zero—'"
"Prisoner Zero has escaped," he echoed, looking back at the wall.
She pulled at his arm.
"There's an eye," she half-whispered. "It's bigger than the crack — it's bigger than you are, and it's looking at us. Is it Prisoner Zero?"
He opened his mouth to say yes, but she was shaking her head. "No," he said. "I think it's... the police? A prison guard?" She nodded. He looked back at the eye and demanded, "Why are you scaring Amelia? You should be catching Prisoner Zero."
"The crack's closed," Amelia said.
"Oh, that's good. Isn't it?"
"But there was a light first. Look at your wallet."
"Um..." He dug in his pocket for something that could be a wallet, but he only had a bit of string and some gum.
"Your other pocket," she said impatiently.
"Why—" Then his hand found the piece of paper, and he pulled it out and read its crayon scrawl: "'Prisoner Zero has escaped.'" He blinked at her. "How did you do that?"
She didn't answer. "Why is it telling us that?"
"Well, maybe..." he started, but then he thought it wasn't a good idea to tell her maybe Prisoner Zero had escaped into her bedroom.
She gave him a stern look. "Maybe what?"
"Maybe... Maybe Prisoner Zero came through here and is running away really fast and the eye wants to know if we saw what direction it went in."
"But if it came through here we'd know," she said. "There's something you're missing."
He frowned, then shook his head. "Sorry, I can't think of anything."
"Go out to the landing and look."
He went out and looked. "You've got a really big house? We could look for it in the other rooms."
"No, just look. In the corner of your eye."
He stood still and tried to look from the corner of his eye, but it made him go cross-eyed and the house felt even spookier than ever.
"Can you hear that?" Amelia said suddenly. "It's like a grandfather clock. Your time machine's going to explode."
"Oh, that's not good. I'd better..." He gestured at the stairs.
"Run," he repeated, and ran clattering down the steps with Amelia clattering behind him. "Hurry up!" he shouted, and yanked the back door open and ran out into— "Oh yuck, it's still raining."
He dashed back inside and stood in the doorway with Amelia, looking out at the shed as the rain poured down. "Did your aunt get it fixed?"
"Yep," she said, and reminded him, "It's his time machine now."
"And it's going to explode."
"I'll get my raincoat," he decided.
"It's okay. He just said he had to go five minutes into the future and then he'd be back and I could go with him. And then he jumped down inside, and then the box disappeared. And then..."
He waited. The babysitter was still talking in the kitchen.
Amelia shrugged and shut the door. "He's coming back at Christmas," she said, and headed for the stairs again.
"Is that what he said?"
"No, but I asked Santa to bring him back at Christmas."
"I... Um, I don't think Santa can bring people."
She turned angrily on the step and told him, "He brought the Raggedy Doctor when I asked. Only that was an emergency, and if it isn't an emergency it has to wait for Christmas. Santa's very busy, you know."
Rory shuffled his feet. He didn't think anything he could say would be a good idea. Amelia thumped on upstairs and after shuffling a moment more he went to the front door where he'd left his bag and his raincoat.
He took off the Raggedy Doctor shirt and tie, then looked around. It didn't seem right to just leave them there. He sighed, and put on his backpack to make sure she knew he was leaving, and took them upstairs.
Amelia was trying to push her desk back into place by herself, but it was way too heavy for one person. Rory dropped the shirt and tie by the door and hurried to help her. She didn't look at him until they'd finished, and then she said, "If you wait until Aunt Sharon gets home she'll give you a lift."
"That's okay," Rory said, but he glanced across at the rain lashing the window.
"She's giving the babysitter a lift anyway."
She started picking up her crayons, and Rory remembered the grey one in his pocket. He put it on the desk and put the orange and black ones there too. Amelia sat down and started drawing, so he sat down on the floor and got a book out from his bag.
He'd never realised a place could get quieter than the library. It was wonderful.
He looked up with a start when he heard steps on the stairs. He'd finished one book and started another and kicked off his shoes and now he was sprawled on Amelia's bed with the last of the grey light. At the desk, Amelia was stuffing her drawings in the bottom of a drawer. She shut it, darted for Rory's discarded book, and was sitting pretending to read when her aunt came in.
"Hello, Amelia. Michelle said you had a— Oh, not a friend. Hello... Rory, isn't it?"
He smiled weakly while Amelia shut her eyes as if in pain.
"What are you reading?" her aunt added.
"Pandora's Box," Amelia said promptly. "It's really good."
"What's it about?"
Amelia hesitated. Rory said quickly, "It's thousands and thousands of years ago, and there's a god and he has a special box, and he likes this girl so he gives her the box, and there's demons—"
"Shh," Amelia said, "I haven't got that far yet."
Her aunt looked happy, and changed the subject. "Michelle said you were playing a game before...?"
Amelia sucked on her lip, then said firmly, "I was telling him about the crack in the wall."
Her aunt took a breath. "Amelia, you know there's no crack in your wall, don't you?"
"Yes," Amelia said, but insisted, "but there used to be one. You saw it too. You said—"
"Amelia," her aunt said, and then smiled brightly. "Rory, would you like a lift home?"
"Yes, thank you, Ms Pond. I'll just put my shoes back on."
"I'll see you two downstairs, then."
When she was gone, Amelia said, "Can I keep the book?"
"It's from the library," Rory said, struggling to unknot his laces.
"I know. I mean to read, and then I can take it back."
"Oh, okay then." He pulled his sneakers on, then thought of something and looked up. "It's not about the Raggedy Doctor, you know. The box isn't a time machine."
"I know," she repeated, exasperated. "I just want to read it."
He wasn't quite sure, but when he kept looking at her she narrowed her eyes back at him, so he said, "Okay," and concentrated on tying his shoelaces.
On Boxing Day Rory had his head under his pillow when his door burst open and Bryce and Gareth pounded in shouting, "Come on, it's snowed!"
Lloyd jumped out of his bed. "Really? How much? Come on, Rory," he added, pulling Rory's blankets off him.
"Hey, it's cold!" Rory protested, but there was snow outside, even if it was mostly on the edges of the garden, and if he went back to bed now his brothers would ruin it. Even as he thought that he could see Hayley running out and scooping up a ball of snow from the best spot.
"Hey!" Gareth shouted at her, and they tore out the door as their father shouted, "Quiet down, boys!" and Rory pulled on his clothes and the next-door neighbour's dog started barking.
It was fun while the snow lasted. Once it started running out, Bryce and Gareth began stockpiling it on one side of the back garden and Lloyd and Hayley took over the other side, and Rory came back to the front to see if anyone had missed anything.
Instead he found Amelia Pond standing by their gate with a little suitcase by her feet.
"What are you doing here?" he asked suspiciously.
"I need some batteries," she said. "For my torch."
"Are you running away?"
"No. I just need batteries."
He checked over his shoulder, but everyone was still in the back garden. "Come on, then." He led her into the house and up the narrow stairs to his bedroom. His parents' door was still closed and they were playing Dusty Springfield, and everyone outside would have forgotten him already. "Just a minute," he said, and rummaged in a drawer. He found the remote control in the back, and dug the batteries out of it.
"Don't you need them?"
"My cousin Fred stepped on the robot and broke it. And then Mum told me off just because I left it out for a bit."
She rolled her eyes with a knowing sigh and took the batteries. While she opened her suitcase to get out her torch, Rory tried to look as if he wasn't looking inside. There were jerseys underneath but on top was a pile of paper, and crayons and felt tip pens in every possible space.
As Amelia fitted the batteries into her torch, the pile of paper slid off the jersey, exposing a book underneath. "Hey," Rory said, pulling it out, "you said you were going to take it back."
"You've still got it!"
"So I got it out again. ...Five times. And then my aunt gave me that for Christmas."
He looked down at it and realised it didn't have the library stickers on it. "Oh," he said. He put it back.
Amelia tested her torch then put it back in the suitcase too.
"Why do you need batteries if you're not running away?"
She sighed heavily. "Aunt Sharon always gets mad if she catches me drawing the Raggedy Doctor. So I have to do it when she thinks I'm asleep."
"Oh." Rory had tried reading under the covers with a torch once, but Lloyd had told on him. "That must use a lot of batteries."
"I know," she said with another sigh.
"You should go to the library instead. Mrs Stedman wouldn't mind."
She looked thoughtful. "Can you use scissors and glue at the library?"
"Uh, I don't know." He shifted and said, "You could maybe use them here if you want. Except my family—"
"Rory!" came Hayley's shout, and her shoes pounded up the stairs.
Amelia dropped and scrambled under his bed. Rory threw his blankets over her suitcase just as Hayley came in. "What?" he demanded.
"You're meant to be bringing us more snow."
"There isn't any more."
"Then you have to come back out and help us make our fort."
"I want to read Bulfinch."
She stomped her foot. "You can read anytime."
"I want to read now."
"Rory, you're such a poophead."
"You're a poophead," he retorted.
"Kids!" their father shouted from the other room.
Rory and Hayley glared at each other until finally she turned and stomped away. Rory closed the door behind her and leaned on it.
Amelia poked her head out from under the bed. When she saw the coast was clear she said, "Why are you reading to birds?"
"You said you wanted to read to a bullfinch."
"No, I..." He went and fetched it from his bookshelf. He'd already thrown away the dustjacket with the Christmas paper: the book looked much cooler in black with gold lettering. "See, it's called Bulfinch's Mythology, that's the name of the guy who wrote all the stories down." She looked bored already so he added, "Like Pandora's Box."
"Oh! Are there more stories about Zee-uss?"
"You say 'Zooss'," he said. "And I think so but you can't borrow it, I haven't read it yet."
"Then you can read it and I'll make my puppets."
Rory grinned and flopped down on Lloyd's bed to start reading.
He was vaguely aware of the sounds of Amelia's scissors, and Mum and Dad's music, and the neighbour starting up his chainsaw and the dog barking in complaint, but he was concentrating too much on Bulfinch to mind.
At the end of chapter two he looked up. Amelia was gluing pieces of material onto a toilet-paper roll with a man's face drawn on in crayon. He thought he recognised the material from the shirt she'd made him wear when he'd visited.
"Is that the Raggedy Doctor?" he said.
He watched her try to wrestle the little shirt in place over the cardboard roll and the little arms. He wanted to ask why she was still doing that when the Raggedy Doctor hadn't come back for Christmas, but she looked too fierce so he kept his mouth shut.
"Can you hold this?" she asked suddenly.
"Um, okay." He wriggled onto the floor with her and held the arms in place while she fitted the shirt on. The glue was making it slip around but they got it working.
"Is the book boring?" she asked.
"No!" he said indignantly, then admitted, "Well, some of it. But that doesn't matter, you can just skip the boring bits."
"No, it's not, it's... It's time management," he said, remembering something Bryce had said in an argument with Mum. He remembered Mum hadn't been very convinced, so he hurried on: "Like introductions. Nothing interesting ever happens in introductions. And poetry."
"What if it does and you never find out because you didn't read it?"
"Then you can read it again."
She frowned as if she still disagreed but couldn't explain why.
He said quickly, "It had a bit more about Pandora's Box. Actually it had two bits, and both of them were different from the storybook."
She relaxed a little bit and let him tell her about the two new versions of the story. Then, almost forgetting about the trousers she was making, she asked more about Prometheus.
Rory told her about how Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods. Downstairs the phone rang, but Mum and Dad weren't playing music any more, so one of them would get it. It was nice having someone actually listening to him for a change.
When he'd finished she said, "Then what happened to him next?"
"Well," he said, thinking — he'd skipped a lot, and had to read some things twice, so parts of it were a bit fuzzy — "Zeus was still angry with him, so then he chained him up on a big mountain—"
"What?!" Rory blinked at her and she insisted, "That's mean. How long for?"
"The book doesn't say."
"I told you you shouldn't skip the boring bits."
"No, it doesn't say!" He fetched the book down and found the spot and read: "Jupiter — that's another name for Zeus — had him chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus, where a vulture—" He stopped. If she was upset about Prometheus being chained up, Rory probably shouldn't tell her about the vulture eating his liver.
Amelia was watching him. "I was right, wasn't I?"
"Um, I guess so," he said, and shut the book quickly.
"What did the vulture do?"
"It... bit the chains off." He added in defiance of the lie, "But it doesn't say how long it took."
"So he's free, then," she said in satisfaction. Then she looked back down at the Raggedy Doctor and frowned again.
"It looks good," Rory said.
"It's okay," she admitted grudgingly. "He didn't come back, you know. For Christmas."
Rory thought for a moment, then decided the safest thing to say was, "Oh."
She added, "I don't really think he's Prometheus. That's just a story."
He looked at her suspiciously. "Then why were you so upset about him being chained up?"
"I wasn't upset! I just think it's mean."
"Well, he shouldn't have stolen from the gods."
"Pff," she said, or something like it, "stealing fire isn't stealing-stealing."
"Of course it is!"
"They still had it. Besides, they're gods. If they really wanted they could take it back."
"But—" Rory started, then heard footsteps on the stairs. "That's my Mum," he said, just before her call of "Rory?" said it for him.
At once Amelia swept her things under his bed and rolled out of sight with them. Rory had time to blink four times before Mum opened the door. "Rory, are you in there?"
"I'm just reading," he said.
She cocked her head. "With your book on Lloyd's bed?"
"Oh." He looked at it up behind him, and said, "I was taking a study break."
"Fair enough," she agreed. "I just came up to ask if you'd seen Amelia Pond this morning while you were outside."
"Um," he said, trying not to look under his bed. "Amelia Pond from school?"
She gave him a long look. "Her aunt just phoned. She's worried because it looks like Amelia's run away."
"Oh no, she hasn't run away!" Rory said. "Um. I mean, I saw her out on the road and... and she said she wasn't running away, she just wanted to draw somewhere quiet."
Downstairs Hayley shrieked, and Gareth and Lloyd shouted at each other.
"I see," Mum said in an ominous tone. "And did she also say that she was going back to her aunt right now?"
"Um..." He glanced sideways at the bed, and back at Mum, and decided he'd rather have Amelia mad at him than Mum. "I guess so?"
"Good. I'll phone Ms Pond back and let her know, then." She went back out and closed the door behind her.
Amelia crawled back out and pulled a face at him.
"You're not mad, are you?" Rory asked.
"I told you I wasn't running away," she said, a little grumpily. But after he helped her pack her suitcase again she added, "If I was going to run away, I'd wait until Aunt Sharon was at work and then I'd go and take the bus to the train station and go back home to my Nan."
"I bet she'd just send you back here though."
"Yeah," Amelia said with another face.
He walked her downstairs, scouting ahead a little, but Hayley and his brothers had disappeared for the moment. "It was nice having you over," he said politely at the door.
"I hope you don't get in trouble."
It was worse than that, he discovered when he went into the kitchen: Mum and Dad were in there giggling with each other about him. He scowled and stomped back up to his room with some bread and cold ham, but at least they never told Hayley or his brothers.
Next summer holidays they were eight. And what was fun when you were seven was just a bit silly and boring when you were eight.
"Maybe we could play a different game," he suggested.
Amelia narrowed her eyes at him. "It's not a game. It's remembering."
"I don't remember it," he pointed out, but she just waited for him to get into the time machine to start.
He planted his feet stubbornly apart. "But it's silly that we always start looking for Prisoner Zero and we never finish looking."
She sucked at the corner of her mouth, then nodded. "Then we can find it and when the Raggedy Doctor comes back I can tell him where it is."
"Okay," he conceded.
They started up outside her bedroom, where Rory stood and said, "So, it's just out the corner of my eye," and Amy nodded, and he said, "Well, the stairs are out the corner of my eye. It must have run away when it saw the Raggedy Doctor's wand."
"You're the Raggedy Doctor," Amy reminded him, and handed him the wand. It wasn't a crayon anymore: she'd made it out of grey cardboard with blue cellophane taped on the end.
"Right," he said, and straightened. "Well, come on, then."
They went downstairs and looked around. Rory wanted to tell her Prisoner Zero had gone straight outside and down the road and miles and miles away, but he had to be convincing. So first they hunted through the other rooms downstairs, looking under couches and inside cupboards while he asked her what exactly Prisoner Zero looked like and she insisted that she'd never seen it.
"Have you lost something?" the babysitter asked, sounding a bit exasperated, so that seemed a good time to decide that Prisoner Zero wasn't in the house and go and look outside.
"Trees," Rory said in his Raggedy Doctor voice. "And long grass. We'd better tread carefully. This way."
But Amelia was staring at the shed. "The time machine," she said.
"No, we're not playing that part of it, remember?"
"Stupid!" she said, "Prisoner Zero went into the time machine. That's why it started donging. The Raggedy Doctor said something was wrong with it. It was Prisoner Zero's fault, and then he went in after it and he— he—"
Alarmed at how upset she looked, Rory said, "You don't know that. You didn't see it go there, did you?"
"But it must have, and that's why he never came back!"
He took a deep breath. "He never came back because he's not real. He's just make-believe, and Prisoner Zero is make-believe, and—"
She shoved him, and he landed flat on his back.
"Ow!" he said, and scowled at her back as she ran into the house. It wasn't fair. They were just make-believe, and he'd just been trying to tell her she didn't have to worry and be afraid anymore. He picked himself up and stomped his foot. It wasn't his fault she was crazy.
A door banged inside the house. He sighed. It wasn't her fault either, he supposed, and trudged in after her.
"Hey," the babysitter said, covering the phone with a hand, "tell Amelia no door-banging."
"Sorry," he said, and went upstairs.
Her door was closed. He eyed it warily, then knocked on it. "Amelia?"
She didn't answer.
"I'm sorry I said they weren't real," he tried.
There was a long silence, then a muffled, "Sorry f'pushing you."
"Can I come in?"
"Oh." He shuffled. "Well, I could go home, I guess."
"Um. Okay..." He shuffled some more and tried to see things out of the corner of his eye. It was a really spooky house sometimes.
He looked at Amelia's door again and sighed. She wasn't exactly crazy really, but it was hard being her friend when she kept getting upset about people who weren't even real. He frowned, and thought about Prometheus, and said, "Amelia? What if Prisoner Zero isn't a bad prisoner?"
"I mean, what if it's like Prometheus?"
"Prometheus isn't real," she said. He could almost see her rolling her eyes.
"I know that, but, I mean, sometimes people get put in prison and they didn't do anything wrong. Or not really wrong. Maybe it was only stealing food to feed its family. So then it wouldn't hurt the Raggedy Doctor, would it?"
She was silent. He hoped it was a good silent.
"And maybe the Raggedy Doctor's helping it go back home, and making sure it won't have to go to prison again. And... and maybe there's other people he has to help too, and that's why he can't come back."
"He's got a time machine," she pointed out. "He said five minutes."
"Well... Well, I don't know," he said in exasperation. "Maybe he's just being a poophead."
He thought he heard a giggle, but he wasn't sure. A long silence followed it, then at last she said, "You can come in if you want."
He opened the door cautiously. Her hair was a bit mussed and her face was red and blotchy. He pretended not to notice. "So... what do you want to do?"
"We'll pretend," she said: "You're the Raggedy Doctor, and we're hunting monsters."
And it was fun, and a relief to be playing something even she agreed was a game. But he did kind of, very secretly, miss the part where he got to hold her hand and tell her, "Everything's going to be fine."
It was a month after school started again before Tony was sick and Rory went back to Amelia's house. It seemed even quieter and spookier than usual, which was strange because he was way too big to be scared by things like that now, so usually he didn't think about it being spooky anymore.
He knocked on the door, and no-one answered.
He frowned. Maybe she was at the shrink in town. But today was Tuesday, and usually she went on Friday. Sometimes he saw her in the library on Saturday morning, drawing furiously.
She wasn't at the library now, so he found some Encyclopedia Brown books to reread instead.
When he got home, the neighbour's dog was tied up in Rory's own front yard. It was looking down the road with big eyes and howling miserably. It didn't look like it was going to bark at him or bite him, but he walked a wide path around it just in case. As soon as he stepped inside Bryce shouted, "Shut the door, Rory, can't you see I'm trying to study?"
"You could go upstairs," Rory muttered and asked aloud, "Why's the dog there?"
"I said I'm studying!"
"Rory, leave your brother alone," said Mum.
Rory poked his tongue out at Bryce and the books spread over the table as he went on into the kitchen. "Are there biscuits?" he asked her. "And why's the dog there?"
"No, and because Mr Jensen's in hospital."
"But I'm hungry."
"Good thing it's almost dinner time then."
He eyed the carrots she was starting to peel. It was going to take forever for dinner to be ready, but if he complained she'd just make him help. That gave him an idea: "Do you want me to set the table?" he asked innocently.
"Leave your brother alone," she repeated as if she was a mindreader. "He and Gareth have got a big year ahead."
He pulled a face. "Why's Mr Jensen in hospital?"
"Oh, have an apple then," she said in exasperation, which made no sense, but he grabbed one and made his escape before she changed her mind.
Hayley bounded out of her room and caught him at the bottom of the stairs. "You missed the ambulance," she said smugly.
"So?" he said, and thumped up the stairs. It wasn't fair, the one time something interesting happened he had to miss it because he was out looking for Amelia Pond and she wasn't even there.
"Rory!" his mother shouted, and he sighed and walked more quietly.
Hayley bounced happily up behind him. "They had to break in to get him out."
"What, they broke the door in?" he asked despite himself.
Gareth came out of his room upstairs, rolling his eyes. "No, Mum told them about the key under the mat. And afterwards she got some dogfood and made sure the gas and lights were all off and locked it again."
"We watched from up here," Hayley said, pointing at the bathroom window. "They had their lights and sirens on and everything."
"What's wrong with him?"
Gareth shrugged. "Dunno. Mum says the dog's got to go to a kennel tomorrow, so if you kids stop fighting then we might get some quiet around here." He stepped back into his room and shut the door again.
"Poophead," Rory muttered.
"He's just annoyed because Bryce got to use the dining room table," Hayley said, and went back downstairs.
He looked for Amelia at school next day. Carefully, so no-one knew he was looking, which meant it took a while. But when he found her he didn't have to try to get close enough to ask where she'd been yesterday: she was playing hopscotch with the new girl.
After school he wandered through town until he found himself at the hospital. He scuffed his shoes on the gravel for a minute, then went inside.
"Um," he said to the receptionist, "hello?"
"Hello, dear," she said. "Are you here to visit someone?"
"Yes, Mr Jensen." He didn't know his first name, he realised, and added quickly, "He came in yesterday."
"Oh yes. Are you a relative?"
If he said no she mightn't let him in. "Yes," he lied. "I'm Rory Jensen. Um, his sister's grandson. Um," he added, thinking that probably didn't match with the last name. The receptionist had half a smile on her lips, so he hurried on, "Is it okay if I see him just for a little bit?"
"I'll see if I can find a nurse to take you up," she said. "Just have a sit down while you wait."
He had to wait a while. He even picked up some of the magazines, but they were all five years old and all the crosswords were already filled in. Maybe the receptionist had forgotten about him, or maybe she was expecting him to get bored and go away again. He straightened up and stopped swinging his legs so she'd know he was serious.
It must have worked, because finally a nurse came and said, "You're the boy here to see Barney Jensen?"
He nodded, suddenly nervous again, and followed her down a corridor to the lift.
"How much do you know about Mr Jensen's condition?" she asked, pressing the button.
"Well, my Mum said he was in a coma, so I read about that in the encyclopaedia at the school library, but she didn't really say why."
"We think he had a stroke," she said. "That's when something happens in the brain so the blood can't travel around properly. So now his brain needs some time to get better, and the coma lets him rest while that happens."
"Okay," Rory said. "But— But it doesn't always work, does it? That's what the encyclopaedia said."
She blinked at him and admitted, "No, not always. But we're taking really good care of him." She led him out of the lift to a door, where she stopped and tried to look very casual. "So while he's asleep we've got some tubes attached to help him breathe and eat and so he doesn't have to go to the toilet, and there's some other wires that just make sure his heart's doing okay."
Like on TV, Rory thought, but she looked like he was meant to be afraid. He shifted his bag on his shoulders and took a breath. "Okay," he said, and followed her in.
It was like on TV, really. Mostly. Anyway, it wasn't scary, just weird to stand there looking at someone who was lying there unconscious. The nurse picked up the chart from the foot of his bed and made some notes in it.
The encyclopaedia said some people thought coma patients might be able to hear people around him. He licked his lips and stepped forward again. "Hello," he said. "It's Rory. Rory W— Um. We took your dog to the kennel and it's okay. I mean, it's a bit sad, but... Actually that's how Mum knew something was wrong, with you I mean, because it wasn't barking like it usually does whenever a car goes past, it was howling instead. And we had it at our place for a bit and it stopped howling and just lay on the ground all mopey, but at the kennel they said it'll be okay."
He wasn't used to talking for so long without being interrupted, but the nurse was looking busy with the chart.
He added, "When you're better you can go and get it back from the kennel and— and it'll be barking at cars again in no time." He tried to think of something to say, but he didn't really know anything else about Mr Jensen, except that Bryce and Gareth always joked that he looked like his dog, big and growly. He didn't look like that with tubes all over his face though, just... tired.
Rory shifted from one foot to the other, and was glad when the nurse finished with the clipboard and took him back downstairs.
"What's for afternoon tea?" he asked when he got home, and went to look in the kitchen.
Mum poked her head out of the laundry. "Where's Tony?"
Yum, squashed fly biscuits. "He's got chicken pox. Can I have three?"
"Oh, Rory," she sighed, "please tell me you're not going to get chicken pox. I don't think I can bear going through that again."
"I'm not going to get chicken pox," he said obediently, and took three squashed fly biscuits.
"Write 'baking soda' on the shopping list."
"The pen's not there," he said, and added in the hope of distracting her from his impending doom, "There's a new girl in my class. And she's got an older sister."
"Oh, that is nice," she said. "I always say it's strange how few girls there are in your year. And far too many only children in Hayley's year."
"And not enough babysitters," Rory finished by rote. And then Dad always said it was just a statistical anomaly and started teaching all the kids about probability again. He picked up an apple and said, "Can I cut a face on my apple?"
"Just eat it like normal," she said in exasperation.
The front door banged and Hayley called, "What's for afternoon tea?" and Rory took his cue to go upstairs.
"And don't leave the apple core on your floor!" Mum called after him.
As it turned out he didn't get chickenpox until next April, and that was only because Lloyd got it in late March. And it wasn't fair, because when Lloyd was sick Rory had played with him, even though it made Mum sigh, but now Rory was sick Lloyd was out playing football all the time. Even Hayley only popped into his room for a minute to give him her Operation box before running out again to meet her friends. He wasn't even any good at Operation, he was way too clumsy.
Maybe Tony would come and visit today, he thought hopefully. Or Jeff, or even Mike — except Mike hadn't had chicken pox yet. What was the point of making new friends if they hadn't had chicken pox?
He was trying to extract the wishbone when there was a knock on his window. He jumped and the light buzzed, again. Amelia Pond waved at him from the tree outside.
He dashed over to the window and opened it a crack. "What are you doing?"
"Your mum wouldn't let me in because she said I might get sick."
"So you climbed the tree instead?"
"That's right," she said with a grin.
"But— But what if you fall?"
"I won't fall," she said scornfully. "Open the window properly."
He started to, then stopped. "Why?"
"So I can climb in."
"You can't do that!"
"I won't fall," she repeated.
"Well, but— You might get sick."
"I've already had chicken pox, Aunt Sharon just doesn't remember. Actually, I think I can open it myself, if I just—"
"Don't!" he said in alarm, and hurried to push it right up and help her in so she wouldn't fall. Her backpack almost caught on the edge, and she did a kind of sideways somersault on Lloyd's bed.
Annoyed, he lied, "I can see your knickers."
"Can too." He scowled as she took her backpack off and pulled out an icecream container full of Fimo. "Why don't you go and play with Amanda?"
"Can't," she said matter-of-factly. "She's gone back to Manchester."
"Yesterday, with their dad. Their mum's in a coma or something and he says he can't keep taking time off work so they're going back to live with him again."
"What kind of coma?"
She shrugged as if she didn't care and started rubbing a block of pale blue Fimo between her hands.
Rory studied the position of the wishbone, thinking about it. "That's really weird," he concluded.
"No, it's not," Amelia snapped.
"Well, it kind of is," he started apologetically, "because—"
"No, it's not. Sometimes people get sick, and— and sometimes people go places, there's nothing weird about it."
"I just meant about it being a coma, because—"
"It's not weird!" she shouted.
"Okay! Okay, shush, Mum'll hear you."
"It's not weird," she insisted in a fierce whisper.
"You're right," he agreed — he didn't like how upset she was getting — "it's probably just a statistical anomaly."
She looked at him warily. "What's that?" she asked, so he got out a coin and explained it the way Dad did, until she realised it was maths and made him put the coin away again. But she looked happier anyway, and went back to making a model of the Raggedy Doctor while Rory went back to being really bad at playing Operation.
A week after Rory was finally allowed out of the house, Amelia wasn't at school. As soon as they got out he made an excuse to Tony and Jeff (it was disappointing how few questions they asked) and went to visit her. Her aunt opened the door. "Sorry, Rory, but Amelia's got chicken pox."
"I just had them," he said, then realised he was probably the one who'd given them to her. "Um. Sorry.... She said she'd already had them."
Her aunt sighed and shut her eyes. "Rory," she said after a moment, "Amelia... has a very vivid imagination. Sometimes it's best not to believe everything she says."
She meant Amelia was crazy. That wasn't fair. Your own aunt wasn't supposed to go around telling people you were crazy. He nearly scowled before remembering he had to be polite. "Okay," he said meekly, and in case she'd seen the scowl he added another, "Sorry."
She gave him a smile. "No use crying over spilt milk. You can go up and play with her if you like."
"Thanks, Ms Pond," he said, and went on up the stairs.
"Try and keep her from scratching," she called after him.
They were ten when Torchwood came to take away the head teacher.
No-one knew what Torchwood was, exactly. Tony reckoned it was like the armed offender squad and Mr Welsch had planted some bombs in the school. Jeff thought it was something to do with taxes, but couldn't explain why they'd all been evacuated onto the football field.
Then Mike bounded over with a relishing, "Ian Townshend says Henry Simpson saw them taking him to the van, and he was fighting them and screaming for help and saying they were going to dissect him and stuff like that. They must be taking him to the loony bin."
Rory bit his lip because he knew what Tony was going to say before he said it:
"They should take Amelia Pond too, then."
Jeff and Mike laughed. Rory bit his lip some more, but he couldn't help it. "I bet that's rubbish, Henry probably never saw anything. I bet it's something boring, like—" Not taxes, because Jeff had laughed too— "Like unpaid parking tickets."
"Boring!" Mike scoffed.
"Yeah, well, Leadworth's boring."
They argued, watching what they could see of the black convoy through the trees, until behind them Amelia Pond said, "He's not a bomber, he's an alien."
Jeff and Mike looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"He eats pencil shavings," Amelia continued undaunted, "and once he blew steam out his ears like Wile E Coyote. But he's not a scary alien, not like Prisoner Zero."
Rory winced. Didn't she know they were just going to make fun of everything she said? "What are you doing here anyway?" he asked.
"I'm going to tell them he's a good alien, and tell them about Prisoner Zero, and ask if they know the Raggedy Doctor."
"Go on, then," Tony said with a smirk.
"I already tried and now Mrs Fairweather's watching me. I need a distraction."
"Why don't you just go and do your homework or something?" Rory said a little desperately.
"Are you scared?" she asked.
He glared at her. "No, it's just stupid."
"You're scared," she insisted gleefully.
"Go on, Rory," Mike said, grinning. "Go be a distraction."
"Yeah," Tony added, "then Amelia can tell them all about the Raggedy Doctor."
He was never talking to Amelia Pond again.
At least Jeff said reassuringly, "The teachers won't get mad at you. Just say you've got to go to the toliet."
The toilet. Right. He took a breath and started walking towards the driveway where the convoy was parked. Mrs Fairweather and Miss Banford were talking together nearby. They were bound to notice him as soon as he separated himself from the rest of the crowd on the field. Or anyway very soon after. He steeled himself for the shout — but when it came it was an outraged, "Amelia Pond, I've already told you—!"
And he was past the trees, face to clipboard with a tall blonde woman. He stepped back and nearly tripped over his own feet.
"And what's your name?" she said coldly.
"Rory Williams," he said, and winced as she made a note on her clipboard. "I was just going to the toilet."
She gave him a disbelieving look and he wished Mrs Fairweather had caught him after all. "I mean," he said, "I just— a— a friend of mine wanted to tell you that Mr Welsch is a good— person, and he is, and I think the thing about eating the pencil shavings is just a story or a mistake or something."
"I see." The woman made another note. "And did your 'friend' want me to know anything else?"
He shook his head quickly, but she kept looking at him. Reluctantly he said, "She wanted to tell you about the monster in her bedroom too. And the Raggedy Do—"
"Wait." Now she looked like a cartoon too, the way she held her hand up for him to stop. "You're not talking about something you've seen, are you? This is just some game you've been playing."
"Ye-es," he said, "but she thought of it because she was scared, so if you could just tell her you've caught Prisoner Zero, then—"
"Will someone get this kid back to the rest of them?" she called, and turned away muttering, "Raggedy Anns and monsters in closets. They need to pay me more."
Amelia kept trying to talk to him and he kept avoiding her. As long as he stayed with Jeff and Tony it was easy, but on Saturday Jeff was grounded and Tony had gone to Mike's place and Rory didn't think he was invited. Besides, he wanted to go to the library. It was just annoying when he was trying to concentrate on the encyclopaedia article on neurology to have Amelia Pond plop herself down beside him with a cheerful "Hi".
"Go away," he whispered. Belatedly he added, "I'm not talking to you."
"What are you reading about?"
"Neurology." Feeling spiteful he told her, "It's about crazy people."
"No, it's not," she said, not looking in the least upset. "That's psychiatry. Neurology is when they do MRI scans and things to see if you have brain tumours or something. Did you get in a lot of trouble?"
He scowled. The annoying thing was he hadn't. He hadn't even needed to say anything either: Mrs Fairweather had taken one look at him and said, "Really, Rory, this is the sort of thing I expect from Amelia Pond, not you. If you need to go to the toilet you'll just have to wait another half an hour."
Amelia persisted, "What did Torchwood say?"
"You're not allowed to talk in a library," he said.
She sighed loudly, picked up the bag and went to the lending desk. "Hi, Mrs Stedman," she said cheerfully, and Mrs Stedman smiled back and said, "Hello, Amelia. How can I help you today?"
"I want a book," she said, "at least I think I do. People write books about how to do things, don't they? So, are there any books on how to draw cartoons?"
"I'm sure we've got something like that," Mrs Stedman said. "Let's have a look."
Rory put his hands over his ears, but it didn't help. Finally he gave up, put the encyclopaedia back on the shelf, and picked up his backpack. And that was when he noticed the bag of licorice allsorts Amelia had left in it.
He sat on the bench outside the library eating them and kicking his heels. After a while Amelia came and sat beside him with a stack of Asterix and Tintin and How to Draw books.
"How did you do that?" he asked.
"Are you still mad at me?"
"I guess not." He looked into the bag, then offered it to her: she picked a yellow one. He said, "I told her about Prisoner Zero and the Raggedy Doctor, and she said they've already caught Prisoner Zero, and the Raggedy Doctor's probably busy somewhere catching some other monsters."
"Liar," she said around a mouthful of allsort.
He worked on prying the green away from its licorice. "Well," he said, "but you don't know that."
"Yes, I do. You look all... shifty."
"No, I mean maybe they have caught Prisoner Zero. Or— or maybe Mr Welsch was Prisoner Zero."
She thought about it for a moment. He chewed on the licorice hoping she'd believe it. But whether she did or not, all she said was, "Want to come over after lunch?"
Amelia let him read the Tintin book and he let her have the rest of the yellow licorice allsorts.
Over the next few weeks he read all the Tintin books in the library, and visited Mr Jensen and Ms Kingsfirth in the hospital three times, but he still couldn't figure out the mystery of their coma. The nurses said the doctors had given up too. Well, they didn't say it exactly like that, but that's what they meant.
One Sunday afternoon he was reading Destination Moon to Ms Kingsfirth when a girl behind him said suspiciously, "What are you doing?"
It was Ms Kingsfirth's younger daughter Amanda. "Uh, sorry," he said, standing up with the book. He'd closed it in his startlement. "I was just reading. It's supposed to be good for them."
"Okay," she said warily, and came to take the seat by her mother.
He wasn't sure if he should just go. It didn't seem quite polite. He said, "Did— did you come by yourself?"
"No, Dad is taking Louise to visit her friends first."
"Oh, I think Amelia's home if you want to visit her."
She gave him an even stranger lock. "Amelia Pond? She's not my friend."
"But... but you always played with her."
"Yeah, but there was no one else to play with." Which was true: there were only four other girls in the class and they all hung out together. Rory had thought they just didn't like Amelia but maybe they didn't like anyone. "Besides," she said, "I've got new friends now." She turned back to her mother, muttering, "Friends who aren't crazy."
"I'd rather be friends with someone who's crazy than— than someone who's mean," Rory retorted and made what would have been a great exit if he hadn't opened the door the wrong way and then, halfway home, realised he'd left his bag behind.
One Thursday next May (even Jeff was playing football with Mike and Tony now; Rory was getting worse and worse at anything that might make him trip over his own feet) he and Amelia were lounging in her bedroom with the window open. He was scowling over his homework and she was scowling over her cartoon. He wanted to tell her it looked good, but didn't quite dare: just about everything seemed to make her angry these days.
She scrunched the page up suddenly and rolled on her side. "What are you doing?"
"What I want to be when I grow up," he quoted with a sigh.
"That's easy. What's taking so long?" She jumped up and grabbed it from him before he could object.
What was taking so long was he was trying to explain why he wanted to work in a hospital without saying what he wanted to do in the hospital, because Mr Sanderson had a habit of making them read their work out to the class. He watched Amelia anxiously but couldn't tell whether it had worked. The expression on her face was so strange. Then she scrunched it up like her cartoon.
"It's stupid," she said fiercely. "You can't be a doctor just because you used to dress up as one."
"That's not why—"
"It was a game. It was a stupid, stupid game, and you're stupid, and—"
"I don't even want to be a doctor," he said desperately, "I want to be a nurse."
She was so startled she stopped and stared at him with her mouth open. Then she narrowed her eyes. "Why would you want to be a nurse?"
"Because," he said, "when you're in hospital, the doctors are always off being busy with some other patients, they don't have time to stop and talk to you and tell you what's going on. It's the nurses who are always there if you need anything."
She was still staring at him, and now she was biting her lip.
He hastily reviewed what he'd just said. "I don't mean the Raggedy Doctor!"
"Course not," she said: her voice shook. "He's not even real, he's just a stupid game."
Rory shifted uncomfortably. He should be glad that she'd stopped believing in it, but she looked so miserable it didn't seem right. Finally he said, "It wasn't a stupid game."
Her face crumpled and she dived under her bed.
He opened and shut his mouth, then quietly thumped his forehead. Stupid. She wasn't making any noise, but he knew she was crying. He shoved his homework — stupid — in his bag and shuffled beside it. "Um," he said nervously, "are you okay?"
"Course I am," the bed told him.
"Okay." He waited another few minutes.
"I'm going to tell you something," she decided then.
"You've got to promise not to tell anyone."
He turned that over in his mind. In books that always ended badly. But if he didn't promise, she wouldn't tell him at all, and that seemed like an even worse idea. "Alright, I promise."
She didn't say anything at once, and he thought she must not have believed him. Then he heard a quiet sniffle, and finally she said, "For my sixth birthday I had a party with eight girls from my class. Or— or maybe seven. One of them was called Melanie."
Rory frowned. There weren't seven girls in her class, there never had been. And definitely not eight, and there wasn't any Melanie. She was testing him, he decided, though he didn't know why. "Okay," he said warily.
She poked her head out and pushed her hair out of the way to watch him. "And there used to be ducks in the duck pond."
"When I was six. And I was lonely so I caught one and took it home and put it in a box under my bed so my Mum wouldn't find out, and I went to get bread for it to eat."
Rory chewed his lip as she waited for him to say... what? "What happened to it?"
"There's no ducks in Leadworth, silly. And I don't have a Mum, and there's only four girls in my class, and I hate them all." She hauled herself out and thumped to her feet. "I remember it, and they don't exist. And I know it's crazy, and if they didn't exist then maybe the Raggedy Doctor and Prisoner Zero don't exist either, but— but they do. And— and— and it makes my head hurt," she said, tearing at her hair to demonstrate, "and I hate it. And I'm sick of people calling me crazy and shrinks telling me it was a dream or a hallucination or a vivid imagination. And I'm sick of arguing with Aunt Sharon all the time, and of her feeling guilty for bringing me up wrong. And I don't want to remember anymore. I just want to be normal!"
Her fists were balled up and she blinked her eyes — already red-rimmed — furiously. Casting about for something to say, Rory blurted, "I don't like normal girls," then stopped in horror. "I— I mean— I don't like you— No, that's not what I mean either, I—"
That was when her aunt burst in. "Amelia, what's wrong?"
Amelia crossed her arms defensively. "Nothing, we were just talking."
"Amelia, I heard you shouting, and—"
"And you've been crying."
"I have not!" she said indignantly, and turned in appeal to Rory. "You never saw me crying, did you?"
"Rory," her aunt said in a quiet, firm voice, "I'm sure none of this is your fault, but I need you to leave now."
"It's okay," Rory said hastily, grabbing his bag, "it's getting close to dinner anyway. I'll come back another time, okay?"
He ran down the stairs. The babysitter was long gone, and as he opened the door to go he heard Amelia shouting, "Stop asserting your reality! I know what your reality—"
"Amelia Jessica Pond!" her aunt said, and Rory hurriedly shut the door behind himself and ran all the way home.
He did go back, but Amelia was even quieter and unhappier. "We could play if you want," he suggested.
"We're too old to play," she pointed out. She rolled on her back and looked up at her ceiling. She said, "There aren't that many girls in my class, so the birthday party wasn't real. And there's no ducks in Leadworth, so the duck wasn't real. And there's no Santa, and... and Aunt Sharon says there was never any crack in my wall, so..."
She scowled. "But the shed did get smashed. Only Aunt Sharon says it was hooligans. Why don't I remember hooligans?" she demanded.
"Maybe you were asleep?" he suggested tentatively.
"I guess so," she said with a frown. But a minute later she added, "Why would I make fish fingers and custard?" and he couldn't think of an answer to that, especially not one that would make her happy again.
Then one day, reading on the way home from school, he read the same paragraph three times, and started running through Leadworth to Amelia's house.
Her aunt answered the door. He'd forgotten it was Friday and she got off work early to take Amelia to the shrink in town. "We're just leaving in five minutes," she said.
"I'll only be one minute," he said. "Or... or maybe two."
She checked her watch, then nodded reluctantly and let him in. "Thank you!" he said, and ran up the stairs brandishing the book. "Amelia?"
She stepped into the hall looking puzzled. "What?"
"It's this book," he said, and pulled her into her room as he gasped for breath. "See, they were being bullied at school, and then they fell into a magic world, and—"
"That's just a story," she said scornfully.
"Yes, but then they go underground and a witch does a spell and tells them that nothing exists above ground, and they start to believe her, but then a friend says— Listen," he said. His finger still marked the place. "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself," he read, glancing up at her anxiously. "Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia."
For a moment she was silent. Then she said, "Let me see," and took it and read it for herself, pacing the room. She took so long he decided she must be reading it several times too.
Her aunt called, "Amelia, it's time to go!"
"Coming!" She whirled back to Rory. "Can I borrow it?"
He wanted to find out what happened next, but she was looking so hopeful he nodded at once.
She gave him a quick, fierce hug, and while he was recovering she hid the book under her mattress. "I'll bring it back tomorrow," she promised.
But when Mum called him downstairs the next afternoon, it was Amelia's aunt sitting in the kitchen. On the table was a cup of tea and The Silver Chair.
He stepped in warily. "Good afternoon, Ms Pond."
Mum pulled out a chair for him and sat down with her own cup of tea.
Rory hesitated at the back of his chair. "Where's Dad?"
"He's taken the others for ice cream so we can have a quiet talk. He'll take you later," she added. "You're not in trouble."
He sat down, but he didn't feel any better.
Mum asked, "Did you show Amelia this page?"
"Yes," he said without looking.
"Can you tell us why?"
"Because," he began, and stopped: he'd promise not to tell about the birthday party or the duck. "Because she wasn't happy and I thought she'd like it. And she did."
From the corner of his eye he saw Amelia's aunt put a hand to her temple. He didn't want to meet her eyes, but she said gently, "Rory, I know you're trying to be a good friend to Amelia. But she's very confused about a lot of things—"
"She's not crazy," he told the tabletop, "she just... remembers things that don't exist."
"Rory," Mum murmured warningly.
"It's okay," said Amelia's aunt, and took a breath. "I didn't say she was crazy. But she does believe in— no, she's obsessed about... things that don't exist, and it's not healthy. You understand that, don't you?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"Good," she said, sounding relieved. "Now, her doctor thinks she's been making a lot of progress recently, and yes," she said as Rory shifted, "I know she's been out of sorts, but that's because it's very hard work for her to... to work through all the different new ways she has to think about the world. And sometimes it seems easier to her to just go back to thinking in the old ways, but if she does that it will make everything harder again. Do you understand what I mean?"
He nodded unhappily. "You want me not to— not to encourage her to think in the old ways, like with that book."
There was a pause. He looked up. Mum and Amelia's aunt were sharing a Look, and then Mum nodded and Amelia's aunt completely changed the subject. "In September Amelia is going to go to high school in town. It's a chance for her to make a completely new start, with new friends, away from everyone's expectations, and everything that reminds her about the old ways of thinking. You see how that will be good for her, don't you?"
He bit his lip. "You mean things like me."
"I don't... I just think—"
He stood up quickly, shaking. "Okay."
"Rory," Mum said again.
"I said okay!" he said, struggling not to shout. "I won't be friends with her any more. That's what you want, isn't it?" He looked back and forth between them, hoping they'd contradict him, but Amelia's aunt was staring into her teacup and Mum was looking all sympathetic.
He swallowed hard. "Okay, so... so can I be excused then please?"
"Go on," Mum said, and he ran out of the house and down to the library and read encyclopaedias for the rest of the afternoon.
Mum and Dad both talked to him afterwards. Hayley went from gloating that he'd missed out on ice cream to complaining that he was getting too much, and Lloyd told her she was a whinger, but that was because he was jealous too but thought he was too old to show it.
Of course none of it helped. He tried to be polite but the talks were rubbish. He already knew it was for Amelia's own good, and she'd be happier in the long run, and he was doing the right thing, and besides he should be out playing football with his other friends. But none of it made him feel any better, and nor did the ice cream.
For the Graduation Exhibition, Rory made a poster all about comas, and smiled politely and said yes every time one of the parents and grandparents asked if he was going to be a doctor; and nearby he saw Amelia showing off her Raggedy Doctor comic book and cheerfully telling everyone it was a story she'd made up.
And he never had the heart to finish reading The Silver Chair.
He got heaps of homework at high school, but it was useless complaining: Hayley and his brothers just laughed and started going on about how their homework now was even worse, even though they'd complained even more than him when they'd started high school.
The only good thing was in November Bryce and Gareth found a flat near the uni in town so they didn't have to drive in every day, which meant Lloyd could move into their room and (except for when Bryce and Gareth came back along with his grandparents at Christmas, and his cousins at New Year's, and his other cousins for Mum's fortieth birthday) Rory had a bedroom all to himself.
He was dropping some letters off at the post office for his Mum on Easter Saturday when three strange girls came giggling in. "Oh my God, Amy, but those cars are so cute!" the last one in said. "It's like something out of an old movie."
"Wait till you see the postcards," the girl called Amy replied, and Rory did a doubletake, because it was Amelia's voice. Her hair now was shorter than his, which somehow made it look even redder than it used to be.
"You cut your hair," he said in surprise.
She turned to him with a start, then tipped her chin defiantly. "Well, yeah." She didn't look like she was going to introduce her friends. Of course not. Why would she?
"Well, I'll— I'll just be going," he said, and grabbed the extra stamps he'd bought.
He heard one of the girls whisper on his way out, "He's kind of cute."
"Pff," Amelia whispered back scornfully, "he's kind of a dork. Look," she added more loudly. "Okay, I lied, there's only one postcard, but—" The bell on the door drowned out the rest.
Tony and Jeff and Mike had started hanging out with some of the other high school boys, who were okay, but being in a crowd always made Rory feel like he was being swallowed up and turned invisible all at the same time.
By the end of the year he was spending a lot of his time with Jonas instead, who bussed in every day from someplace so rural even the primary school was going to close next year. They complained to each other about their stupid names and their annoying families — Jonas had two older sisters. Otherwise they didn't have much in common, but they got on well. Rory helped him with maths and Jonas gave him some tips for running so at least he stopped tripping over his own feet most of the time. Then next year, when Jonas got on more sports teams, sometimes Rory hung out with Greg instead of catching up with his homework or reading old James White books in the library.
Amelia had new friends too: lots of them. Her aunt had been right about the chance for a new start. She'd wanted to be normal and now she wasn't just normal but popular too.
Popular with girls and boys, he noticed when they were fifteen. Seeing her holding hands with a boy reminded him suddenly of staring at her bedroom wall, taking her hand, and telling her everything was going to be fine. For a moment his stomach went all squoozy.
Stupid. They'd just been kids playing a silly dress up game. Hormones made people remember really weird things, he decided, and hurried on to his volunteer shift at the rest home.
He kept visiting the coma ward at the hospital and reading to the patients. There were five of them now, and the doctors still didn't know what was wrong.
"Could it be a virus?" he asked Nurse Tinsley. That had been his theory when he'd been a kid recovering from chickenpox, but it seemed stupid now. But something had to be causing it. "Or... or environmental contamination?"
"Nice thought, Rory," she said from behind her keyboard, "but anything like that would have shown up in the tox reports."
"It can't just be a statistical anomaly. There's too many."
"It could be psychosomatic."
"How can a coma be psychosomatic?" he asked just as a light flashed from another ward.
She stood up, saying, "People get stressed, want to get away from it all, they hear about someone in a coma and their subconscious thinks, 'Yes, I'll give that a go.' The mind's more powerful than most people realise."
Rory watched her hurry down the corridor. It was the only thing that made any sense... but it just felt wrong.
He turned seventeen. The deal was he could treat Jonas and Greg to fish'n'chips and a movie if he endured the large family party first. So as usual Dad's parents argued over where they'd parked the car, Nan shouted at Lloyd to stop mumbling while Gramps snored in the rocking chair, Mum's nieces flirted with Dad's nephews, Bryce and Uncle Richie held forth on fiscal policy, and Gareth, Hayley, and Aunt Sylvia argued over the umpire's calls in the latest football match.
Rory managed to edge his way to the door with some sausage rolls. He was wondering whether Mum would notice if he snuck out, when the door burst open and Amelia Pond was there with an indignant, "She wants to sell it!"
"Um, who?" Rory said as she started pacing back and forth across what little space was left in the room.
"Aunt Sharon," she said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Actually it was. He should've asked, and did now, "What does she want to sell?"
"The house!" She raised her hands for emphasis and spoke in short words. "Her job's moving to the other side of town, and she says it's getting too far to travel, and my school's in town, and my friends are there too, so we should move there to live and sell the house."
"Well," Rory said tentatively, "it sounds logical when you put it like that."
"Argh!" she said, and made as if to pull her hair out. It was long again, and straight and red and distractingly gorgeous. "I can't move. I just can't! It's like, Monet had his water lilies, you know? And Van Gogh had his wheat fields, and Hockney had his swimming pools— I've got no interest in swimming pools," she interrupted herself defensively.
Why she should be defensive Rory had no idea, but he hastened to shake his head. "Of course not."
"It's nothing to do with swimming pools," she insisted, "or— or anything. I just want to stay in my own house."
"It is my house, you know. At least, half of it is. I just don't get any say in it until I'm twenty, and by then she'll have sold it. Argh! —Wait, why are there so many people here?"
He looked around the room at them. Suddenly it seemed like even more than before, and all of them had stopped talking to watch him and Amelia. Even Gramps had woken up.
"Um," he said, "this is my Dad's parents, and Nan and Gramps Parker, and Aunt Sylvia and Uncle John, and Rich— I mean, my other Uncle John, we just... Anyway, and that's my cousins Helena and Natalie and Simone, and Fred and—"
"And Colin," Amelia said with a flirting smile and wave. "You didn't tell me you were Rory's cousin."
"I, uh," Colin said, for once speechless.
"And Mum and Dad and Bryce, Gareth, Lloyd, Hayley," Rory finished in a rush. "This is Am— Um." He remembered the post office. "Amy Pond?"
"Yes," she said distractedly, looking around the room. "This is all your family?"
"Well, Dad's other sister's on holiday in Plymouth, and—"
"No, I mean—" She turned in a full circle. "You really have a huge family. Wow. I'm never going to— Oh, God, it's your birthday, isn't it?" She clasped her hands (purple fingernails) apologetically in front of her mouth. "I've crashed your birthday party."
"That's okay," he said quickly, "there's plenty of cake." Or there had been a moment ago, if Fred and Colin hadn't scoffed it all.
"No, I should go and have a family conference." She pulled a face but added "Thank you!" and before he could ask what for, she was bouncing onto tiptoes and giving him a peck on the cheek. "One to grow on," she said with a wicked grin, and left Rory to the merciless teasing of his entire extended family.
The next morning he went, for the first time in six years, down the road to Amelia— Amy's house. He stopped on the porch to take a deep breath and shake his nerves away like before an exam. They were too old for her aunt to stop them being friends now, and if she tried he'd— well, he'd shout past her, or go around the back and throw stones at Amy's window. Or probably just come back when her aunt went for some milk.
But it was Amy who opened the door. "Oh, Rory, thank you!" she said, and took him firmly by the arm to lead him in to the kitchen. Her hair was still faintly damp and smelled of fresh Palmolive. He'd never really paid attention to that smell before now, he realised— then wrestled his mind away from it, because she was still talking, something about taking a break from their family conference.
"Oh," he said, "I'm sorry, I thought you were doing that yesterday."
"We did," Amy said. "It's a very long conference."
"Yesterday we had the keynotes," her aunt said with a slightly weary smile, "and today we're in workshops. I'm afraid if it goes on much longer Amy will break out a poster presentation."
"Oh," Rory said. The kitchen table was littered with poster paper already, some in bulletpoints, some in sums, and some scrunched up and shoved out of the way.
"I'll make us some tea," her aunt added.
"We're going out for some fresh air," Amy said, and led Rory out into the back garden.
"So," he said when the door was closed, "is it going okay?"
"I think so," she said, sounding faintly surprised by the fact. "I mean, she's giving me this tremendous list of rules, and I'm going to have to submit a budget every month, it's ridiculous, but I think she's actually going to let me keep living here."
He wasn't sure what to say next, and stuck his hands in his pockets while he looked around. It was strange being back here after so long, and awkward. He kept seeing things which reminded him of their old games, but that just reminded him of her aunt coming to tell him to stop being her friend. Finally he blurted, "So you're not mad with me?"
"What?" she said, startled. "No, why would I be mad at you?"
"Because I stopped being your friend."
"Well, you had to, didn't you? Anyway, she was right, in her way."
"I guess she was right," Rory admitted grudgingly, "but... I'm sorry, I know she's your aunt, but it just wasn't right."
Amy gave an awkward shrug, shuffled a step closer to him, then retreated again. "Anyway," she repeated, "we can be friends now, can't we? That is, as long as you don't mind being friends with a 'normal girl'."
He laughed at the quotation marks she made of her voice — laughed especially because he was so relieved that he'd have sounded like a blathering idiot if he'd tried to say anything. Anything like, for example, the fact that he didn't think there was anything normal about her at all.
Amy and Rory didn't become 'inseparable' the way his family teased him about ("Baby brother all gwowed up"), but they did hang out a lot, especially once they were both studying in town. Mostly Amy worked on her portfolio while Rory pored over his books and readings. Which led to... moments.
Like when she caught him checking the pulse at his neck and said, "That's useless. Do it on me instead," and sat on the edge of the desk. It took him three tries to find it and then vast quantities of willpower to keep his eye on his watch and count instead of thinking how soft and smooth and... soft...
Or when she covered his hand in paint trying to get the hang of flesh and talked about how flesh wasn't a colour, it was several or maybe hundreds. And Rory listened intently because that was much safer than letting himself think about the cool paint she was brushing onto his skin with one hand, or the warm fingers of her other hand holding his palm steady.
Or when she got the munchies and, shocked that he didn't know how to cook, bossed him through making a batch of chocolate chip biscuits which almost burned because they got distracted licking the bowl and splashing the dishwater at each other until Amy had to run upstairs and change her top and so Rory was... well, distracted.
Which he tried not to be. Not just because it was embarrassing having to explain why he was determinedly reading the recipe book while the biscuits were burning, but it just seemed wrong to be constantly... well, fantasising about someone who didn't see you that way.
Also a little bit soul-destroying. Because he knew she didn't like him like that. When she liked people, she went up to them, asked to borrow a pen, and wrote her number on their hand.
(Rory tried this once, hoping going out with someone else would get him over his hopeless crush on Amy. He stuttered through the question, and then the girl said apologetically, "I've got a pencil, will that do?" Later he had to borrow a rubber from Amy to erase the pencil notes he'd scribbled in his library textbook, and Amy laughed for half an hour.)
And he liked just being friends, it was good, it was nice fleeing to her house when his place was full of twin screaming nieces and he suddenly realised he was an uncle.
Or poring together over courses in the student handbook at the end of their first year when she'd decided that fine arts was fun but it wasn't going to pay the bills.
Or practising roleplays for class. (His bedside manner was fine at the resthome, with real patients, but when he was being marked on a fake scenario he always tripped over his tongue).
Or practising interview techniques for her class. (She'd decided on journalism, and he could totally see her as the intrepid reporter trailing people to their secret warehouse and then wheedling quotes out of them.)
Or getting engrossed in databases at the library researching treatment for coma patients and forgetting she was even there until, an hour later, she slid a charcoal sketch of the back of his head in front of the computer screen.
Or one evening late in their second year when he was driving them back to Leadworth and she said, "I could be a kissogram."
Rory knew that tone of voice, joking on the verge of steely determination, so he kept his eyes on the road and said, "In Gloucester?"
She twirled a lock of hair around a finger with studied indifference. "Yeah, well, there's calls from all around, but there wouldn't be enough in Leadworth to make a living, so it'd have to be Gloucester too. So transport's the problem, but it's a good pay rate for not many hours. Plus," she added smugly, "I'd be really good at it."
"Well, yeah," Rory said a little too emphatically. It sounded like he was saying she was hot, which she was, but that wasn't what he meant. "I mean, it's a kind of performance, and you're good at that." He wasn't sure why he'd said that, because she'd never actually performed in a play or anything. It was more like she was always performing.
Before he could follow that train of thought she laughed: "Yeah, imagine you trying it, they'd probably think you wanted to borrow a cup of sugar!"
"I'd be a terrible kissogram," he agreed deadpan. He'd started out the conversation determined to think of it like any other financial conversation, but actually it really was. "It's just the transport that's the problem, right?"
"Right. I mean, around town it's not a problem, I can grab a bus, just it'd be late evenings sometimes."
"Well, that's easy, I can just stay late studying at the library."
He shrugged. "Sure, I've got heaps of study to do anyway. And if you need a lift somewhere else — you know," he added, because he didn't want to be clingy and he knew she hated not being independent, "if something comes up suddenly, I could do that sometimes."
"Rory Williams," she said in amazement — he glanced at her worriedly, wondering if he'd said it wrong after all — "you are the best friend ever!"
He blushed and looked back at the road.
"No, seriously," she said, "all the girls would be all, 'But is it sa-afe?' and most guys would be all jealous hulk and 'No girlfriend of mine is—'"
Rory bit his lip in the sudden silence.
She added hastily, "Not that we're—"
"Of course not," he said quickly. "Anyway, that's silly, it's just a job."
"Right, so as long as you like doing it and it pays okay, and regular hours — otherwise budgeting's harder, but you could build up a buffer and make it work anyway, so that's—"
"I know you fancy me," she said abruptly.
"I don't," he started, and stopped, and opened and closed his mouth, and on reflection pulled over and turned off the engine.
Amy was looking out the window, her arms folded tight. "I'd have to be pretty daft not to."
"Well," he said, and took a breath so that when she said no he could be matter-of-fact about it and say that settled that and he was fine being friends and actually he really liked being friends, "but do you fancy me?"
"I think so," she said defensively. "Maybe. Yes. It's complicated!"
He blinked and shook his head as if it was full of cobwebs. "Wait, what?"
"My therapist says I've got intimacy issues. Which, well duh, everyone I've ever really liked has gone and disappeared on me, even the ones who— who aren't real, so why would I want to waste time getting close to someone when we can just enjoy what we've got?"
"We can," Rory said quickly — you had to be quick to get a word in when she was in this sort of mood — "if you want. I like being friends."
She looked at him wonderingly. "You really mean that."
"Of course I do. I mean, I'd like to—" kiss her — "go out with you even more, but if you don't want to—"
"I want to."
He blinked again. "Well, then—"
"It's just," she said, a desperate look on her face, "what if we go out, and then we have a fight, and then we hate each other and it ruins everything?"
"Um," he said, "you'd hate me if we had a fight?"
She blew a raspberry. "No, of course not."
"Well, nor would I."
She frowned at him, then folded her arms again and frowned at the glovebox instead.
Rory chewed on his lip. His heart was beating so fast he couldn't possibly be thinking very clearly, and that seemed like a good excuse to say, "We could try it out anyway. Just like a trial or... or whatever. If you want."
Amy looked at him sideways. "And then if it doesn't work out we just go back to being friends?"
He furrowed his brow. It did sound like a stupid idea when you put it like that. But it wasn't, because... "No, because we'd never stop being friends, we'd be... friends and girlfriend/boyfriend, and then if it doesn't work out we'd be friends and exes, but the important part would be we'd be friends. —Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Because you're always so thinky and logical. I keep expecting to see little Spock ears on you." She laughed. "Relax, doofus, it's a compliment."
He ducked his head in confusion.
She shifted over in her seat and nudged shoulders. "How about, we're not actually boyfriend/girlfriend, but we go on a... a sort of date and see what it'd be like."
"Like to the movies?" he asked slowly.
"We can get a gigantic bag of popcorn," she said, making her voice into an ad for romantic Tahiti, "and sit in the back row and every time our hands touch we can get all giggly, and then when it gets scary—" She looked up at him, batting her lashes — "you can comfort me."
"Um, if we go to a horror movie you'll have to comfort me," he pointed out.
"True. Well, then, we could just—" She moved a little more (when had she got so close?) and kissed him.
He lost track of pretty much everything then. At one point he heard himself say, "Yes, we could—" except it came out in a squeak and he had to clear his throat to finish, "We could definitely do that," just before they were kissing again.
Then she pulled back. "You're going to be late."
"What? Oh." His shift at the rest home. That. He focused on the clock on the dashboard. "Oh crap," he added, and fumbled for the ignition.
Their first fight was Rory's fault. He just assumed she'd fail her driving test the first time, and was ready to remind her that so had he, and promise he'd help her practice more for next time. So when she swung out of the driver's seat and sauntered over to him with a grin on her face, he said, far more incredulously than necessary, "You passed?"
She stopped short. "Why? Did you think I wouldn't?"
"Um," he said, because 'yes' didn't seem like a good idea. "I didn't mean that."
"Really." She folded her arms and shifted her weight. "So what did you mean?"
"Um, I just—"
"Do you think I'm a bad driver?"
"No! No, it's just when you've got a passenger you talk to them. A lot. With your hands. And your eyes." She seemed to be softening so he risked, "And I thought the driving instructor mightn't, you know, appreciate that."
She thwapped his shoulder. "Silly, that's just with you."
"Oh. But—" She did it when Nicola let her drive too — but then Rory only saw her when he was there in the back seat too. "Oh." Now he really felt stupid. "I'm really sorry."
She gave him a considering look. "Buy me icecream?"
"Three scoops," he agreed at once.
So it wasn't a big fight. And when they were eating the icecream by the duck pond they ran into Hayley, who exclaimed, "You passed on your first time?"
"Rory's jealous," Amy said smugly.
"She seduced the driving instructor," Rory retorted, because they had a reputation of not being boyfriend/girlfriend to uphold.
"Hey!" Amy said, and thwapped his arm again, but later she showed him how she'd go about seducing a driving instructor if she wanted to, so he figured it was worth it.
The second fight was more Amy's fault. He was on his way home from visiting the coma patients at the hospital when she ran up and looped her arm through his. "Come and hang out at my place," she said, which meant kissing.
"I've got to study," he said.
"So, study at my place."
"Yeah, but I've got to study properly. I've got an assignment due every day for the rest of the week, and then there's exams—"
"Pff, you're always studying, you'll be fine."
"No, I don't really, I keep putting things off to the last minute—"
"So you get a B instead of an A, big deal!"
"Well, yeah," he said, "it is a big deal. If I—"
"Rory, come on," she pleaded, tugging at his hand. "You're going to give yourself a nervous breakdown."
"We can hang out in the weekend," he tried — they'd reached the turnoff.
"I've got to work in the weekend," she pouted. "Come on."
He hesitated, but he really had to finish the assignments. "I've got to study," he said, and detached himself from her. "I'm sorry."
"Rory," she said in exasperation as he walked away. "Rory!" And then she shouted for the whole street to hear, "You were the one who wanted to get together!"
He stopped and turned angrily, his mouth already open to shout back and his index finger raised to emphasise it. Except there were about ten things he wanted to say and none of them he thought anyone else should hear, so he just jabbed it towards her, once, and whirled back around to go and study.
He holed up in his bedroom, for all the good that did. At half-past six Hayley called him for tea, and when he said he'd get a sandwich later, she said, "Shelley says you had a fight with Amy Pond."
He hit his head against the desk. "Hayley, I'm seriously trying to study here."
Ten minutes later Mum brought him a plate of shepherd's pie and said, "For what it's worth, whatever happened between you two, I know she really likes you."
"Mum!" he sighed, because that missed the point on so many levels.
And then at eight, Amy texted him:
Staying in town tonight, so you don't need to pick me up tomorrow.
So it took him until midnight to finish his assignment, and then the rest of the night to do it again because it sucked. Around five he decided that it was as good as it'd get, and that it wasn't worth sleeping for only two hours so he worked on Thursday's assignment instead. At least that one was easier. Finally he caught the bus into town so he wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel.
And that meant catching the bus back out in the evening, and running late to his shift at the rest home, so at first when he saw old Mrs Caldwell in the village green he didn't think about it.
Except a dozen steps later he remembered old Mrs Caldwell was in a coma, and he stopped and turned around.
And she was gone.
He looked around the green, then shook his head. Sleep deprivation. That was all. Of course Mrs Caldwell wasn't there, she was in a coma. He shook his head again and hurried on to the rest home.
"There you are, Rory," said Diane Saunders. "Mr Jefferson's in one of his moods, can you persuade him to come out for tea? Oh, and Amy Pond left a bag of licorice allsorts for you in the office."
Amy was waiting for him outside when he finished, too. "Hey," she said, casual and tense at the same time as she swung in beside him.
"Hey," he echoed, and then they walked in silence. It wasn't that he wanted to make her talk first, it was just that until she said something he wasn't quite sure where he was at, and also he was so tired he was surprised he wasn't snoring.
At last he remembered the allsorts and dug the bag out to offer her one.
She smiled in relief and took a yellow one. "So," she said then, "why is it such a big deal to you?"
He bit down on a green allsort and instantly felt the dissolving sugar permeate via his tongue into his bloodstream. He should have thought of that three hours ago. He chewed on another one, then remembered the question and hastily swallowed. "These are good. Nurse Washburn's retiring at the end of the year, and they say if I get good marks they can hold the position open until after Easter and then hire me as a nursing assistant until I'm registered."
"Wow," Amy said as he crammed more sugar into his mouth. She took another allsort (orange) thoughtfully: "But why the rush? There's plenty of other jobs."
"Yeah, but not here."
"So... it's so you can stay in Leadworth?"
"Yeah," he said, and there was an awkward silence, because they weren't girlfriend/boyfriend so it'd be really stupid and clingy to be making major life decisions as if they were.
At last she said with a nervous laugh, "You must really like those coma patients," and he laughed too and played along with the pretence that that was all it was.
The first few months of the year were ridiculously busy, cramming in as much study as he could before Easter and putting together the perfect job application — knowing that if it worked then after Easter he'd be even busier finishing his studies while working.
He spent Good Friday at Amy's house, sweating over his job application while Amy called suggestions from the toothpick cathedral she was making for the architecture course she'd replaced journalism with.
And on Saturday he helped pick up the toothpicks that had borne the brunt of her frustration, while she fiddled with his fonts and border and layout.
And on Sunday she met him at the door with her hair swept up in a bun and wearing a costume distractingly dissimilar from a nurse's uniform. At first he thought she had to go to work, but then she stuck out her hand and said formally, "Good morning, Mr Williams. Thank you for coming."
"Um," he said, shaking her hand, "thank you for the opportunity to interview with you?"
She rolled her eyes and told him, "Okay, but now without the 'umming'. And use her name."
After a few minutes they got through the front door and to the kitchen table, which she'd decked with glasses of water and an impressive array of paperwork. Rory dug out his CV and battered copy of the job description in self-defence, and got an approving nod from her.
The mock-interview went pretty well, because even though the questions were hopeless — he wanted this position because it was a good job and it was in Leadworth — he did really know the kinds of answers they were looking for, and this gave him the chance to practice saying it smoothly.
Of course, Amy kept pitching him curveballs, like dropping into a sultry tone: "Can you tell me how you would respond to a patient flirting with you?"
"I would explain that I've got a girlfriend," Rory said, holding her gaze as her fingers toyed with a button on what was already a very low-cut top, "and ask what the patient thought about a threesome."
This might have been responsible for derailing the interview. It was almost responsible for a lot more, except that sometime between when he pushed back his chair so she could straddle his lap, and when she leaned back so he had room to undo her Sexy Nurse buttons, he started silently flailing about what they were doing and whether he really wanted to do it when he didn't even know what they were anymore. When she got to the second-to-last button on his shirt, he blurted, "I think my parents think we're having sex."
"What, right now?" she said, and kissed him again.
Which made it hard to argue in so many ways. But eventually he said, "No, I mean in general. I mean, I think everyone thinks we're going out. Properly, I mean."
"So?" she asked from around his collarbone.
"So," he said, planning to ask if they were right, but then her hand reached his fly and instead he found himself saying, "So can I buy you a birthday present?"
She sat back on his knees, bracing against the table. "Rory, what are you talking about? Or do you just not want to be fooling around?"
"No! A bit. Wait, I mean... I like fooling around, just maybe with our clothes on? For now?"
"Okay," she agreed, still looking bewildered. "Why did that come out as 'birthday present'?"
"Um." It was possibly even more distracting watching her button the costume back up. He shook his head clear and started fumbling with his own buttons. "Because it's something that usually you'd give a girlfriend, not someone who was just a friend."
"So I wasn't sure—"
"Right." She looked at him calculatingly, then said, "Okay."
"Okay, then," he said, trying to play it cool, except if there was one thing Rory wasn't it was cool. "Really?"
"Sure," she said with an awkwardly light shrug. "Like you said, everyone already thinks we are anyway, so why not?"
"Right, why not?" he echoed, feeling even stupider than usual and too happy to care. "So, then—"
"Are you dressed enough?"
He looked down at himself, shirt-tails loose and half the buttons in the wrong holes. "Yep."
"Good, because I'm getting a cramp," she said, and stood up and pulled him by a fistful of shirt out to the living room couch, "and I need you to demonstrate how your massage skills will add value to this hospital."
"This might," Rory said between kisses, "be the best job interview ever."
After a more conventional job interview he got the job, and then things got really busy. Most mornings he couldn't even drive Amy into town because he couldn't wait for her in the afternoon. (She had her own car now at least, an ancient Ford that was perpetually threatening to break down.) Most evenings and weekends if he wasn't working she was.
They did get to celebrate his second shift. The first had been mostly with HR filling out paperwork. Admittedly the second shift, and the shifts after that, were mostly making beds, mopping up obnoxious fluids, gathering dinner orders, and telling people he'd get them a qualified nurse, but it was still helping. It was better than being the work placement student who had to be babysat, and way better than being the cute kid with a bit of an obsession about coma patients.
And he made sure he had the day off for her birthday, though he felt so nervous about the necklace he might almost have called it a sickday without lying. When she opened the box and clapped her hand over her mouth he felt a pit open in his stomach. "I can exchange it, if you don't—"
"Don't you dare," she said, thwapping his shoulder, and put it on. He'd been daydreaming about putting it on her himself, but watching her do it and bounce to the mirror to admire the little silver A against her throat was even better.
Mostly, though, they only saw each other for a few minutes between classes and talked on the phone a lot. With his exams coming up he went three weeks without spending an hour with her.
Instead he saw Ms Kingsfirth walking down the road with a daughter on each hand. But she was in a coma and her daughters were ten years older now, and when he followed them around the corner they were gone.
He tried to brush it off — he'd only seen them from behind, at a distance — but then he woke up the morning of his last exam, opened the curtains, and saw Mr Jensen standing on the lawn with his dog.
He drove to Amy's house and knocked on the door until she opened it. She blinked at him in jeans and a flannel shirt and her hair in all directions. "I think I'm going crazy," he said.
She shook her head. "Don't you have an exam this morning?"
"Maybe it's the stress," he said. "A nervous breakdown. No — that doesn't involve hallucinations. It could be psychosis."
"Yeah," she said, "or it could be that medical students are the worst hypochondriacs ever."
"Well, true," he admitted. "But I'm actually seeing things. People. People that can't be there."
"Okay," Amy said decisively, and he relaxed. She'd know what to do. "Have you got your student ID?"
"In my wallet, in the glovebox," he said, confused.
"Why would I have pens?"
She sighed in fond exasperation, dashed into the kitchen, and reemerged with a full jamjar of them. "Keys?" she asked, locking her own door.
"No, I'm not—"
"Keys," she repeated sternly. "Hand 'em over. Friends don't let friends drive freaked out, and my car's in the garage."
"But, I mean—"
She rolled her eyes heavenward and held a hand up as swearing an oath. "I promise I'll keep my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road. Now, give!"
It was easier not to argue. So she drove while he told her about Mrs Caldwell and Ms Kingsfirth, and about calling Dr Carver to ask if Mr Jensen had woken up and been released, and about the highly awkward conversation that had followed. "I think he thinks I'm crazy. But I did manage to leave out the part about actually seeing him."
"Definitely don't tell anyone that part," Amy declared, and he nodded miserably. "Not until you've got photos."
He nodded again, then stopped. "Wait, what?"
"If you have photos they can't say you're crazy."
"Amy," he said, "I can't take photos. The people aren't there. There won't be any people in the photos."
She started to lift a dismissive hand off the wheel, then noticed what she was doing and clamped it back on. "First get the photos," she concluded.
"Okay," he said slowly, and thought about it. He supposed it'd be useful to find out if he'd be able to tell the photos had no people in, or if the delusion would spread...
And spread, and spread. "But I can't be a nurse," he said.
He looked at her: this wasn't really helping him get a grip on reality. "I can't be a nurse if I'm hallucinating. What if I hallucinate Doctor Ramsden telling me to put bleach in someone's IV?"
"Well, what would you do if Doctor Ramsden really did tell you to put bleach in someone's IV?"
"Well, I wouldn't do it."
"Sounds safe to me."
"Look," she interrupted, "people say you're crazy if you see things they don't see, but that's just stupid. It's only crazy if it messes up your life, and as long as you can tell the difference between the things you see and the things they can see you can stop it messing up your life."
"Okay," he said dubiously. It made sense, except whatever else it was doing, it was definitely messing up his head. He sat and frowned out the window as the familiar countryside went by at a familiar Amy-speed. She still hadn't said where she was driving him, except obviously into town. Probably to her old shrink.
He wasn't sure if that reassured him or just scared him more. But it was definitely the right place to go, he admitted to himself.
So when she pulled over as near to the university as you could take a car he sat in confusion, blinking. "Why are we here?"
"Your exam starts in half an hour, remember?"
"But I can't—"
"Oh, for goodness' sake," she said in exasperation, grabbed a handful of his flannel shirt, and pulled him in for a deep, long, head-spinning kiss.
Afterwards he caught his breath while she wrapped his hands around a bundle of pens and his wallet.
"I'll meet you at the café afterwards," she said.
"Okay," he agreed in a daze, and spent the next half hour so busy trying to focus on complex needs and enhanced care instead of kissing that he forgot about going crazy as well — and aced the exam.
Maybe it had just been the stress, because from the end of the exam to the day he got his registration certificate he didn't once hallucinate another coma patient. Instead he spent a lot of time catching up on the sleep he'd been missing, and a lot more time catching up with Amy.
And then he was a real nurse with real responsibilities and he was learning just how much they hadn't taught him at university, not to mention doing the shifts no-one else wanted to do. There were plenty of them over the summer holidays, his colleagues wanting to spend time with their children.
He did get the night of the costume party off. Amy took charge of costumes (and measured every inch of him with an old measuring tape, though he wasn't sure this was related), which meant he ended up dressed as a Roman Centurion while she came in her Sexy Police outfit.
"Shouldn't you be... I don't know, Cleopatra or something?" he asked on the way, once he was confident he could keep his eyes on the road instead of straying to the way her hair was pulled sternly up under her hat.
She gave him an odd look. "Why would I be Cleopatra?"
"I mean, shouldn't we match?"
"We do match," she said smugly. "We're both really, really hot."
Which was true for one of them, anyway. And a few minutes later she was giving him directions to Jo's house, and then there was thumping music and shouted introductions and lots and lots of dancing.
Rory was taking a break by the stereo system, sorting through the CDs, when Amy rolled up and draped her arm around his neck. "Wanna go home?"
"Nah, I'm good," he said. He didn't hate parties these days, since he'd figured out how to talk to people in small groups and then take breaks between to clear his head, and he could tell Amy was having fun with her friends.
She pulled back slightly to look at his face, and said, "Let me rephrase. I want to go home, and play cops and robbers, and maybe get a little bit naked, but mostly just kiss you all over those sexy Roman centurion legs."
The party was far too loud for anyone else to hear, but he looked around nervously, feeling his cheeks flush beetroot-red. "Uh, right," he said. "Um, now you mention it, it's getting a bit dull here."
They got halfway back to Leadworth before Rory had to pull off the road to stop Amy handcuffing him to the wheel. Wrestling ensued, ending up with them both spilling out of his door in a tangle and Amy accusing him of resisting arrest.
"I'm not resisting arrest, I'm resisting handcuffs," he pointed out. "Anyway, you have to tell me what you're arresting me for. It's not illegal to be a Roman."
"A time-travelling Roman centurion driving without a license?"
She very nearly pinned him, but he got to her ticklish spots first. "Or maybe we're in my time," he said between her giggling shrieks, "and you're a rebellious redheaded Gaul."
"I can be rebellious," she agreed. "Do I get a magic potion?"
There was also some chasing each other around a field (Rory really hoped it was lying fallow) and, when they were both worn out, some lying on their backs looking up at the stars.
"What's it like," Amy asked after a while, fingers entwined with his, "being all grown up and settled down?"
"What? I'm not settled down. I'm definitely not grown up."
"You've got a proper job and everything."
"Yeah, well," he said, casting about for something to refute the irrefutable, "you've got a house."
"Half a house," she corrected. "Which I can't afford because I don't have a proper job. I can't even finish a proper course and all my friends are getting degrees, and jobs, and married. And pregnant," she added, sounding a bit like Rory had felt when he'd realised he was an uncle.
"You can finish a course," he argued. "You just haven't because it's not what you want to do, but once you work out what you want you're going to breeze through it."
"I know what I want," she said with a heavy sigh.
"What's that?" he asked curiously.
She was grimacing, when he looked at her in the moonlight, as if she'd said something stupid, and then in an instant replaced it with a grin and a light elbow in his side. "You, silly."
He grinned back, his stomach full of the good kind of butterflies. "See, you've got a boyfriend too."
"Yeah, I kind of do," she said, snuggling closer.
Which was nice and warm against his side, except the butterflies were suddenly scattering in a jitter. "Um. Kind of?"
"Oh, Rory, you know I'm no good talking about this sort of thing."
"What sort of— Do you want to break up?"
"What? No! Of course not."
He remembered arriving at the party: "You told Jo we were just friends."
"I said we'd been friends forever."
"But she asked if I was your boyfriend."
"'Boyfriend' is a silly word," she complained. "We're more than just some kids going out on a couple of dates."
"We're more than just friends, too," he pointed out.
"We are definitely more than just friends," she agreed, and rolled onto him with a surprise kiss.
Later, when he'd forgotten what they'd been talking about and they were dusting themselves off on the way back to the car, she said, "Huh. I must have dropped the key to the handcuffs."
Considering the amount of ground they'd covered fooling around, there was no way they were going to find it again by moonlight. "I am so glad I didn't let you cuff me."
He was very proud of himself for not freaking out again when he saw Mr and Mrs Chopra walking hand-in-hand along the road to work. Instead he very calmly pulled over, took a photo, and then proceeded to the hospital and walked-not-ran up to the coma ward. There, Mr Chopra lay in his coma while Mrs Chopra fiddled with some sweetpea flowers in the glass by his bed.
"Good morning, Mrs Chopra," Rory said.
"How's Mr Chopra today?"
"I think he's getting bored of me talking about my job," she admitted.
"I'm sure he'd much rather listen to you talking about your job than to us talking about his blood pressure."
"I don't know," she said, "he seemed pretty restless." Then, embarrassed, she added, "I was probably imagining it. Anyway, I'd better be going."
"Before you go," Rory said quickly, "um... I thought I saw someone leaving the hospital on my way in. Did he have any family visiting?"
"No, his sisters are still in Canada, so it's just me." She smiled that smile people gave when they weren't really happy but were determined to be fine, really, and shrugged her handbag over her shoulder.
"And you... Um, you didn't take him outside for a walk, or—"
"Rory, can I talk with you for a moment?"
He turned in startlement to Dr Carver in the doorway and silently swore. "Uh, yes, doctor. Uh, I'll see you next time, Mrs Chopra."
As she left he realised his phone was still in his hand. Hastily he shoved it in his pocket. He was in enough trouble without Dr Carver seeing it and asking why he was taking photos of an empty street. "I can explain," he said. It didn't sound any more convincing in real life than it did on TV.
"Is this like the morning you phoned up to ask if Mr Jensen had been released?"
He winced and tried, "I just thought maybe she'd taken him out for some fresh air, or—"
"Rory, you can't say things like that to patients' families."
"No, doctor, I— I understand that and it absolutely won't happen again."
"Good, because I know how much they all like you, but if this does happen again I'm going to have to talk to Matron about moving you to another department."
He gulped. "It won't," he promised again.
"Okay. Go and get changed."
He nodded quickly and ducked to the door — then hesitated with his hand on the jamb. "But there isn't any way they could be wandering in the village, is— Uh." Dr Carver's face was a deep shade of incredulous. "Sorry, never mind. Sorry," he finished, and fled.
No-one asked him to put bleach in anyone's IV, but he didn't dare look at his cellphone until he got home that evening. It was just going to be the empty road, he told himself, but when he looked at it, and even when he emailed it to his webmail and printed it out in Dad's office downstairs, it showed the same happily married couple he remembered seeing this morning.
Just how crazy was he?
"Is that your Mr and Mrs Chopra?" Mum asked.
He jumped and whirled around. Why did people keep sneaking up behind him today? "W-what?"
"They had a photo of them in the article about the coma ward, remember? She must really like you to send you that one."
"Um," he said, head reeling over the fact that Mum could see it too. "I— Yeah, I guess..."
"Is she trying to give you a hint about Amy?"
He blinked, even more confused. "What?"
"You've been dating quite a while now," she pointed out.
"It's not," he tried. "I don't— She wouldn't—"
"Well, have you asked her?"
"Mum, I really need to go and—" From habit, he almost said 'study'. "Do things," he finished desperately, and darted to the door, then darted back to log out of his webmail, and finally made his second ignominous escape of the day while Mum watched with raised eyebrows and something suspiciously like a smirk.
He dodged Hayley on the stairs and barricaded himself in his bedroom. Things like this wouldn't hapen if he could figure out a way to move out, he thought. Amy's house had plenty of room. Maybe—
Aargh, he thought, and threw himself onto his too-small bed. Parents. Amy still didn't think of him as her boyfriend without a "kind of" tacked on the end: there was no way she was going for anything more.
His phone rang while he was beating his head against his pillow. He scrambled to grab it off his desk, tripped over his satchel on the floor, and said, "Hi," as he managed to fall back onto his bed.
"What's up?" Amy said.
"Mum's driving me up the wall," he complained, rubbing his ankle.
"Oh, poor booboo," she said sympathetically. "What's she doing?"
"Uh." He cleared his throat. "Just... you know, Mum-stuff. But I got a photo."
"Of your Mum?"
"No, of one of the coma patients. Remember, you said—"
"Take photos and they can't say you're crazy," she finished for him with a grin in her voice. "That's fantastic."
"I'll come over and—"
"Oh," she interrupted apologetically. "It's just that I just got a call for this party in town..."
"Isn't your car still at the garage?"
"Yes..." she said, sounding hopeful.
Suspicious, he got up and poked his head out the window. Amy was trotting into view in her nun costume, wimple fluttering in her wake. She saw him and gave him a big wave, then tucked phone between shoulder and ear and pressed her hands together as if in prayer. "Can I borrow your car for the evening? Please?"
"Promise you'll leave the radio alone."
"You've got it on the most boring—"
"It's for your own good."
He dangled the keys out the window. "Promise or you have to go ask Jeff."
"Nnngh! Okay, mister old fart, I promise." She caught the keys one-handed. "If your light's out when I get back I'll drop them through the mailslot. But meet me for lunch tomorrow in the green and we can plot your next move with the photo, okay?"
"Okay. Wait — next move?"
"Love you." She snapped the phone off with one hand and blew him a dramatic kiss with the other while he was still opening and shutting his mouth.
Had she just said she loved—? She'd just said—
She got in his car and with another wave and a toot of the horn sped away.
He grinned stupidly after her, then grabbed a jacket and headed out. It was far too nice an evening to stay cooped up inside. Besides, there were coma patients out there to find and take photos of.
But the next morning was when the Raggedy Doctor came back and in less than an hour solved the mystery of the coma patients, found Prisoner Zero, saved Earth from the guards hunting it, and disappeared in his blue time machine right before Amy and Rory's eyes.
Rory made himself close his mouth. Then he made himself open it again. "I'm sorry," he said.
He couldn't see Amy's expression from where he stood a step behind her on the garden path, but he could guess what it looked like when she said roughly, "What for?"
"I thought he was just a game."
"Yeah," she muttered. "Well. So did I."
"No, you didn't," he said before he could stop himself.
He did. He waited, watching her shoulders warily as she controlled her breathing. She wasn't going to cry in front of him; maybe he should leave and let her cry alone.
But he'd hardly had the thought when she whirled on him and said, "Marry me."
He thought for a moment that she was proposing to him. Then he realised she was, and his brain short-circuited, and when he could think again he said, "What?"
"Marry me," she repeated, all casual-determined, and grinned through damp eyelashes. "Okay, it's not very romantic, but we just saved the world so that's got to count for something, right?"
He opened his mouth indignantly, then shut it again because she was having a pretty crappy day. Then he thought screw it, so was he. "What, so I can be your kind-of-husband?"
She actually laughed. "Well, you know me."
"You told the Doctor I was your friend!"
"Oh, Rory, come on," she wheedled.
"No, I— I'm sorry I didn't believe you about the Raggedy Doctor and I'm sorry he left again, but I'm not a booby prize. You can't go proposing to people just because they're there."
"I've got to go," he said, because he couldn't deal with this conversation when he was so angry and stunned and left-over-terrified that the world had almost been destroyed and instead was just turned upside down, and why had he even come out here with her? "The coma patients are awake and... and Prisoner Zero said Doctor Ramsden's dead. I'm got to get back to work."
Work kept him too busy to think. The coma patients might be awake, but years in bed left them in no condition to just get up and start wandering the village green. They'd need months of physiotherapy. Their stomachs needed to get used to solid foods again. And before that they had questions, and their families had questions, and Rory had to keep explaining that Dr Ramsden was in surgery — no, she wasn't operating, Dr Carver was trying to resuscitate her — and everyone else was busy in the ER because you wouldn't believe what people tripped over and drove into while they were staring at a giant eye in the sky.
"No," he explained again to Ms Kingsfirth's ex-husband (Ms Kingsfirth herself had understood the first time), "the Eye didn't wake them up, it just took away the thing that had been keeping them asleep."
"Isn't that the same thing?" he asked, and while Rory was trying to think of a more reassuring explanation than It was going to incinerate the Earth! Amanda said with a sniff, "It all sounds crazy to me."
"A-man-da!" her sister Louise said.
"Excuse me," Rory said: at the other end of the ward Mr Jensen was struggling to get out from under the bed covers. He hurried over, past Mrs Chopra happily blowing her nose and three-year-old Lilian proudly singing an out-of-tune song for the grandmother who'd never met her. The ward was almost as noisy as one of his family's parties. "Mr Jensen, please—"
Mr Jensen swung himself off the bed; Rory reached him just in time to catch him when his legs collapsed under him. "Let go of me," he snapped hoarsely.
"I'll get you a wheelchair," Rory said. "We can go somewhere quiet. But I need you to wait here for me, okay?"
"I don't need any bloody wheelchair," Mr Jensen grumbled. But he let Rory help him back onto the bed and didn't attempt another solo adventure in the couple of minutes it took Rory to duck out to tell Matron where he was going. She looked surprised he was still there, but with three clipboards and a phone in her hand she was too harried to send him home.
No-one else gave him a second glance as he snagged the wheelchair and escaped with Mr Jensen out the back. The chapel with its rose gardens would have been a lot more picturesque in the sunset, but there'd also be people. No-one ever came out here among the compost bins and half-hearted vegetable garden.
After a few minutes of silence, Mr Jensen asked, "What did you say your name was again?"
"Rory," he said.
"My neighbours named one of their kids Rory. Named their kids all sorts of funny names. —I suppose they're all grown up now."
"Um," Rory said.
There was a pause. "Oh," Mr Jensen said then. "Well, it's been a while. I suppose Billy's dead, too."
"About four years ago," Rory said apologetically. "Of old age."
"Well," he said again gruffly. "He— It was just a dog." Rory was trying to think of something to say to that when he added, "Wait. You're the kid who read me things. Tintin and medical stuff."
"Um, yeah," Rory admitted. "You really heard that?"
"Kind of. Must have got bored talking to an old grouch in a coma."
"It wasn't boring," he said, and risked adding, "Besides, you weren't that grouchy when you were in the coma."
It got him something like a snort; then, a moment later, a sigh. "Best get back upstairs, I guess."
All the ex-coma patients were getting tired. Rory herded their visitors out under cover of dinner and checkups. He thought the patients would rest afterwards, but instead they read newspapers and magazines and talked to each other quietly about how long it had been for each of them. Partly they wanted to talk to people who'd shared their experience — but mostly, he realised, they wanted to avoid falling asleep again.
A bit like how Rory partly wanted to make sure everyone was okay, but mostly wanted to avoid going home and dealing with this... thing with Amy.
He was rummaging in the supply cupboard when Matron found him. "Do we have an alarm clock?" he asked before she could do something like tell him to go home.
"It'll disturb the other patients," she said.
"They all want it," he said. "They're voting on what time to set it for. I told them we could wake them—"
"But they really want to control it themselves, and I think—"
"Rory," she repeated. "Doctor Carver's stabilised Doctor Ramsden. There's some damage he doesn't understand, so he's induced a coma to give her a chance to heal herself."
"Oh," he said. He should say something else, but he wasn't sure what. "That's..." And he couldn't even decide what it was. Good? Ironic? Horrible?
"I know," Matron said, for an instant sounding almost as tired as he felt. "Go home, Rory."
"I'll find them an alarm clock. Get some rest."
He collected his things from the locker room: keys and wallet and phone. There were five texts and two voicemail messages from Amy, and more texts from Mum and Jeff and even Dad whose texts were always illegible with predictive texting errors. He really should call Amy back. Or go to her house. Or call her back and then go to her house. With icecream, except it was well past eight and Mr Gibbons would have taken the icecream van home by now. A tub from the supermarket wasn't the same, but it'd have to do.
Except when he got out to the carpark, Amy was already there in cut-off jeans and an over-sized shirt, bent over the lock on the driver's door of his mini.
"Um," he said, and she jumped around and hid her hands behind her back. "Why are you breaking into my car?"
"Because picking locks seems like a useful lifeskill," she said defensively. "...And because it was getting cold out here waiting for you."
"Oh," he said. After a moment's slow thought he got out his keys and fumbled the door unlocked. While he got in, Amy joined him on the passenger side, and they sat a moment in silence.
Abruptly she asked, "Is Doctor Ramsden really...?"
"She's in a coma."
"Oh. That's..." She trailed off.
"Yeah," he said. He still hadn't figured it out. He liked Dr Ramsden. She was kind of intimidating sometimes, and brusque, but she really cared about her patients: when she tore strips off you it was because she thought they deserved better. She didn't deserve for someone she thought was a patient to turn into an alien multi-form and— So he was really glad she wasn't dead.
But a coma, really?
After a longer silence, even more abruptly, Amy burst out, "You know, people always promise they'll be there, but they're not. And you never promised a thing, but you were there when the Doctor wasn't. And when he was. And when you thought I was crazy, and when you didn't. And you don't even know how incredible that is. Like, literally incredible. Time travel and aliens—" a flick of long fingers and red nail polish dismissed them into a privet hedge — "but someone who's always there? That takes some time to get your head around. And then you go and say—" She made a noise of utmost exasperation and shook her head: the security lights made every strand of her hair glow, and her eyes flash with urgency. "I didn't propose to you just because you were there. I proposed to you because you were just. There."
"Oh." His chest ached at the word, and he realised he'd been so busy listening he'd forgotten to breathe. Not for the first time. She was amazing and he adored her — it was just... Just. "I... I just don't think it's a good idea to be making major life decisions when we just found out there were aliens in your house and my hospital and almost destroying the planet."
"You're so thinky," she complained with wrinkled nose, but didn't argue the point.
It was Rory who interrupted their third silence: "We could still make out, though."
"Thank God for that," she said, and, a fair amount afterwards when they'd both caught their breath, "What'd be the point of saving the world if you couldn't make out afterwards?"
Two months later they were playing pooh-sticks on the bridge. Amy claimed to be winning and since Rory was thinking about something else he couldn't very well argue.
"So, um," he started, just as the icecream van came around the corner playing Clair de Lune.
"Ooh, icecream," Amy said and ran into the middle of the bridge to wave. Rory would never have thought you could flag down an icecream van if he hadn't met Amy. "Loser pays. That's you," she added helpfully.
"Wait, I don't actually—"
"Pff, don't be a sore loser," she dismissed him. "Hi, Mr Gibbons! Can I get a double cone with pineapple, mango and kiwifruit? My boyfriend's paying."
She'd been doing that recently. Not making him pay for things — well, not just making him pay for things — but casually telling people he was her boyfriend at every opportunity. He thought it had started off as an apology, or proving a point, but now she was just enjoying it. And so was he, but that wasn't the point. "I don't actually have my wallet on me."
"Yes, you do."
"If that's not a wallet in your pocket," she said with a rakish look down at his jeans, "you must be really pleased to see me. Come on, let's see it."
"Amy, no," he tried as she darted at him. "That's not—"
But after a brief scuffle she stood with the red jewellery box in one hand and the other clapped over her mouth.
Rory gulped. "Um," he said, "so, I had this speech and now I can't really remember it except it was about how being with you makes me feel like I'm really there and I love that — I love you — and I want to be there— I mean, with—" She was already grinning and nodding and bouncing on the balls of her feet, so he just took the plunge: "Amy Pond, will you marry me?"
She flung herself at him before he'd even finished. "Yes!"
When they'd kissed and laughed and kissed again, and remembered the ring and slid it onto her finger, Mr Gibbons was standing there with an icecream cone in each hand. "Save me a spot at the wedding reception and we'll call it even," he said with a wink, and got back in the cab.
Rory saw the faintly desperate look come over Amy's face, and for a terrifying moment he wondered if she was having second thoughts after all. But she said, "How are we going to find somewhere big enough for all your family, in Leadworth? And a date they can all— And the invitations. Rory, just writing all the invitations is going to take months."
He laughed again and managed, between and around the icecreams, to embrace her for another twirl in the middle of the road. "That's okay," he said: "we've got all the time in the world."