Sitting with her head in her hand, Ace idly scuffed at the floor of the cell with her shoe as she tried to come up with an idea for an escape attempt. It might have been easier to do so if she and the Doctor had been locked up together, but since he was being held elsewhere, it wasn’t quite so simple.
Just as she was deciding to give her brainstorming a rest and let her subconscious work away on the problem, she became aware of the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. Static electricity? A faint buzzing noise filled the cell, causing her to get to her feet in wary readiness for whatever was about to happen.
A young woman suddenly coalesced, just a few feet away from her. She looked to be about the same age as Ace, with short blonde hair and an outfit that really didn’t fit with the style of the locals; a fitted tunic in muted colours that suggested it was a uniform of some sort.
“Sorry!” the woman said breathlessly. “I had to have a bit of a fight to get them to send me back.”
Ace didn’t quite know what to say to that. She eventually settled on bemused and hesitant.
“You know, my employers. They’re more than a bit bureaucratic, so anything outside the mission specifications takes a bit of haggling. But I came back to say goodbye!” she declared triumphantly.
As Ace continued to struggle for words, wondering whether this interloper had merely teleported into the wrong cell, she saw the woman’s face fall.
“Oh.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “They’ve put me down at the wrong time. We haven’t met yet, have we?”
“Nope,” Ace replied, glad to get some context. “Sorry. But we will?”
The sound of heavy footsteps and indignant protests began to echo from the far end of the corridor, and the woman hurriedly tapped at what looked like a wrist communicator.
“Actually, make that ‘in a few seconds’. I’d better go,” she said, smiling reluctantly. She stepped quickly forward and, before Ace could react, kissed her on the cheek. “Lovely to have met you, Ace. I hope we cross paths again.” She paused and glanced at the door. “Which I suppose we will… Oh, you know what I mean!” she said with a grin, and with a final press of a button, she vanished.
Ace touched her hand to her cheek and smiled faintly, still a bit confused, but she’d mostly gotten used to these sorts of tangled timelines over the years.
“Listen, if you’d just let go of me –” the voice in the corridor said, as keys jangled on the guard’s belt, and Ace readied herself to properly meet the strange young woman.
“I’ve got nothing to do with the virus! Well, I do, sort of, but I didn’t cause it! Listen to me!”
“Get your hands off me! If you’d just – Oh!” Charley gave a short scream of frustration as the guard shoved her through the door of the cell and slammed it behind her.
“You – just wait!” she shouted uselessly, giving up halfway. She banged a fist against the now tightly-locked cell door, then rested her forehead against it and sighed heavily.
“Yeah, they’re right bastards, aren’t they?”
Charley spun round at the sudden, unexpected voice, and locked eyes with the woman who was standing at the back of the relatively small cell, looking a little shaken.
The woman rubbed her cheek absently with one hand, and nodded towards the door. “The guards,” she clarified. “Not the nicest ones I’ve run into by a long shot.”
“I’d agree with you there,” Charley said. “And I’ve met a lot of prison guards in my time,” she added with a laugh.
“Tell me about it.”
Charley eyed the woman up and down, taking in her practical clothing, tied-back hair, and the look in her eyes that suggested this was all just another day to her.
“Are you with the political activist they’re holding in the stocks outside?” she asked with a sympathetic smile.
“They put him in the stocks?” the woman echoed, then looked like she didn’t know whether to laugh or start yelling. She settled for shaking her head and smiling wryly. “Not again; he’ll be complaining about his back for days!”
Charley gave a short laugh. The woman sat down on the cell’s one wooden bench, and motioned to the space beside her.
“We might be in here for a while,” she warned. “The Doctor says this culture isn’t too big on doing things quickly.”
Charley felt ice run down her spine. “The Doctor?” she repeated.
“Yeah,” Ace replied, Charley’s surprise going unnoticed. “I’ve never been able to find out what he’s a doctor of. I think he just calls himself that.”
Sitting down slowly, Charley let out a shaky laugh.
“I’m Ace, by the way, what’s your name?”
“And what are you in for, Charley?” she asked cheerfully, in the sarcastic tone of one who has spent many a night in a jail cell, safe in the knowledge that rescue was on the way.
“I’m working for, um … an outside company, that’s trying to contain and eliminate the virus present on this world. However,” she sighed, “the local government thinks that because I know about the virus, I had something to do with introducing it to their world.”
“Ah right, they’ve taken the time-tested approach of locking you up when you’re actually trying to help. I’ve had that happen to me a few times.”
“So it is the actual Doctor you’re travelling with, then?” Charley found herself asking, almost without meaning to.
Ace gave her a look of surprise. “You know the Doctor?”
“I will do.” At Ace’s slight frown, she elaborated. “I mean, I’ll travel with him in his future. It’s a bit complicated.”
Ace nodded, a smile flickering around the corners of her mouth. “A lot of this life is,” she agreed. “So, when you knew the Doctor, he wasn’t the same one you saw in the stocks, I take it?”
“No, your Doctor looks older. And mine doesn’t wear hats. Usually. You should see his get-up when we go to the opera,” Charley said with a giggle.
Ace laughed. “We go to the opera sometimes. He doesn’t dress up for it, although sometimes he gets backstage and tries to give the performers tips.”
“Sounds like the Doctor to me.” Charley grinned. “So how long have you been with him?”
“Oh, ages.” Ace made a vague attempt to count on her fingers, but gave up. “Time’s a bit weird in the TARDIS, you know that.” Charley nodded. “But I was seventeen when I met him, and look at me now.”
On Charley’s estimation, Ace seemed to be in her mid-twenties, similar to herself. She nodded and made a noise of acknowledgement.
“Don’t rush to my defence or anything!” Ace said with a laugh, and Charley, realising her faux pas, covered her mouth in horror.
“Oh goodness, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to imply –”
“Calm down, I’m only kidding,” Ace assured her, still chuckling. Uncertain, Charley hesitated, then gave her arm a playful push.
“You had me worried.”
“When are you from?” Ace asked curiously.
“Well, I was born in 1912, and I met the Doctor in 1930. So, I guess I’m from the Thirties, although I didn’t really get to see much of them. And yourself?”
“I met the Doctor in 1987. Well, it was actually in the future, in a place called Iceworld, but I was sent there by a time storm in ‘87.”
“I was aboard the Airship R101 when I met him.”
“I think I’ve heard of that. Didn’t it crash?”
Charley raised an eyebrow. “Fairly spectacularly, so I’m told. According to history I should have gone down with it, but the Doctor rescued me, doing quite a bit of damage to the Web of Time in the process.”
Ace nodded solemnly. “Did it get sorted?”
“Eventually. And then I almost wrecked it all over again when I left my Doctor and accidentally ended up travelling with his past self.” She rolled her eyes, intending it to be directed at herself. “I know what you’re thinking – ‘a right troublemaker, this one’. But I did manage to fix it.”
Ace let out a short laugh. “Don’t worry about it; I think screwing things up beyond all recognition is something all of us do from time to time. It’s just that, with the Doctor, you have the opportunity to do it on a massive scale.” She grinned, and Charley smiled, relieved that her transgressions were not a deal-breaker for this new friendship.
“So, on the subject of the Web of Time,” she began, “please don’t tell the Doctor you met me. If he knows anything about me before he actually meets me, it could change time. And I don’t think the – um, I don’t think my employers would be very happy about having to tamper with his memories.”
“Sure, I won’t say a thing,” Ace assured her, and Charley smiled gratefully. After a short pause, Ace asked, “So, what kind of stuff did you get up to with your Doctor?”
“Oh, loads,” Charley said, resting her head on the wall behind her and thinking back. “Well, there was one time we got trapped inside a book – well, a whole lot of books, really – and were nearly killed by Dick Turpin. We spent quite a while in a Divergent Universe where time … sort of didn’t exist. What else… We got trapped in a sentient house at Christmas where the house staff kept being murdered in really weird ways. Oh, and I almost became a demon’s mistress at the Hellfire Club,” she added flippantly.
Ace raised an eyebrow and laughed.
“Yeah, I know,” Charley giggled back. “Luckily the Doctor got his memory back in time to rescue me, along with an old soldier friend of his.”
“Oh, which one?” Ace asked eagerly.
“The Brigadier. Do you know him?”
Ace nodded, grinning widely. “Yeah, we met years ago. Defeated a bunch of Arthurian legends who’d come through an interdimensional portal, then had dinner with him and his wife. Oh yeah, and there was this girl,” she added, her grin going up a notch. “Shou Yuing. Shared my love of home-made explosives.”
“Explosives?” Charley echoed in confusion.
“Yeah!” Ace enthused. “Can’t beat my Nitro-9 for localised destruction,” she added proudly. “Shou Yuing was pretty impressed with it. You meet any girls like her on your travels?” she asked, taking Charley by surprise.
“Um. What do you mean?”
“You know, the ones you almost want to nag the Doctor into taking along with you.”
“I guess Lucy was fairly fun to be with,” Charley replied thoughtfully. “I thought she was just a nobleman’s daughter at first, but she turned out to be a con-artist. She was ‘awesome’, I think you’d say.”
Ace laughed at her awkward use of the word. “You meet some pretty awesome people when you travel through time and space, yeah.” She gave Charley’s knee a squeeze.
You really do, thought Charley, looking at the hand on her knee. She looked up at Ace, who was giving her a warm smile, with just a hint of cheekiness.
“These girls you met,” she said, trying to confidently meet Ace’s eyes. “Did you ever, uh…”
Ace’s warm smile became a grin. “I wouldn’t like to kiss and tell.”
Charley giggled. “Something tells me that’s a lie.”
“Okay, well, I did play dress-up with this girl called Gwendoline. And dress-up at seventeen isn’t as innocent as it sounds, especially when it involves cross-dressing,” Ace said with a laugh.
“I’ve dabbled in cross-dressing myself,” Charley said with a smile, and laid her hand on top of Ace’s. “A little less scandalous than yours, though – I was sneaking aboard an airship as a boy.”
“Scandalous?” Ace repeated softly, and Charley realised she had moved closer. She nodded, smiling, and closed her eyes.
Ace’s kiss was soft, but firm. Charley leaned into it, curling her fingers around the hand on her knee. She felt Ace’s other hand brush her shoulder as the young woman withdrew slightly, then kissed her again, lightly, before sitting back.
They smiled at each other. Charley felt rather shy all of a sudden and ducked her head to the side, unintentionally giving Ace the opportunity to press a couple of quick kisses to her cheek and neck.
Charley giggled and sighed. It had been so long since she’d had human interaction like this; she’d be quite happy to stay in this dark little cell for quite a while longer.
As though summoned by her wishful thoughts, her wrist communicator began to beep.
“Oh, botheration!” she said under her breath. She pressed a quick, heartfelt kiss to Ace’s lips and squeezed her hand. Moments later, the cell dissolved around her and became the dim metal interior of the Viyran ship.
Muttering to herself, Charley stepped out of the transporter booth and marched off down the corridor to find the commander. Someone was going to get an earful… Perhaps she’d be able to convince them to send her back for a few minutes, so she could at least say goodbye.