“I’m the Doctor. I’m here to save the day.”
Ruth: [27 years under his wing]
She remembered the day her world had caved in: her father was dead and everyone was flinging accusations, saying he had done terrible things, things he would never, never do. Lies; life was suddenly nothing but lies and disaster and there was no one left who could keep away her nightmares.
Then the Doctor came. He was a friend of her father’s, he said, another scientist. From that moment on he had appeared and disappeared in and out of her life like a cross between a fairy godfather and the right sort of headmaster, and, yes, in some ways even a substitute father (though no one would ever unseat her own father in her memory). Unlucky in every other respect, she was a girl who really did have a guardian angel.
He told her that the lies were lies; he told her lies of his own – impossible stories of his adventures out among the stars, not only keeping the nightmares at bay but destroying them forever. When things went wrong, he told her he would deal with it, and he usually did, though she rarely knew how. When she struggled over her history, he told her all the books were wrong anyway. He even told her that he couldn’t die like her father, he would be reincarnated – no, regenerated, he’d said. He had thirteen lives to live, more than any cat. She didn’t know what they would have done without him. She loved him, she trusted him, but, as it turned out, she couldn’t let him go.
The Doctor: [countdown]
Being stranded – grounded, banished, imprisoned – was always something he detested and now he was trapped on Earth, cut off from his Ship, and the only purpose he had as yet (until some other evil arrived; it always did) was to keep his promise to a dead man. He had a little girl to look after, if he was true to his word. And as yet he still kept his promises. Well, most of the time, and as long as it suited him.
He found the Professor's daughter and slipped into her life as if he had always been there. An easy lie here, and a helping hand there, and he was established as a family friend. He studied the child: Ruth Vollmer – or Mills as she was now called to hide the family’s shame – was a slight girl with dark pigtails hanging either side of her face and she wore a habitually solemn expression, but the intelligence was there in her eyes, and she learned quickly. She learned from the Doctor when he was there, and increasingly, he was.
There were reasons for that, of course. Look at her mother, and the way the woman was slowly falling apart as time wore on. It was a shame about her mother. Really, he had no choice but to lend a hand while he was trapped here. For the moment, this was also necessary.
When he slept, which he did now more often so as to stave off the boredom, he dreamt of his Ship, fathoms deep under the waves. When he was awake, he counted out every long and constricting linear moment until he could find the TARDIS again – if he could. He would, of course, he told himself. He must. The alternative really was unthinkable.
And so he returned to Ruth, and told her tales of adventures in time and space. She loved to listen, taking them for stories in the same way that her father had read to her to drive away nightmares, and he found in them the one blessing of these years – he could speak solely of the days long, long ago when he had been younger and more innocent, more idealistic, before he’d learned that indulging those principles was mere selfishness; that was the way the universe burned.
Finishing a spot of business that was no concern of a young girl like Ruth, he found he couldn’t see her where he had left her – but he could hear the taunting voice from round the corner; its owner hidden in a small alley between the shops. It wasn’t familiar, but in another sense it was: the eternal voice of the tyrant and the bully, ever the same from world to world. Ruth’s family had changed their name, but people found out, and whenever they did, there was trouble and hate.
The Doctor turned the corner sharply, in time to catch two boys standing over Ruth, huddled back against the wall, tearful but glaring fiercely. One of them darted away at the sight of him, but the other only shifted his ground and looked back at him with a gaze that said: so what? You can’t touch me.
“Ruth,” the Doctor said, moving past the boy as if he didn’t exist. He helped her up, noting that her hair was half out of her ponytail and she had gained scratches and marks that she hadn’t had when he’d left her. “Your mother is in the corner shop – I suggest you go and join her.”
Ruth took a shaky breath, also clearly trying not to put weight on one leg. “But, Doctor -.”
The Doctor paused for a moment, letting her leave before rounding on the teenaged boy with a swiftness that startled the aggressive confidence out of him. He pinned him up against the wall, much as this childish would-be tyrant had done to Ruth, and then drew back, pulling a paper bag from his pocket. “Want a jelly baby?”
“Wha-?” the boy gasped, and then tried to pull away. “No. Leave me alone. You’ve got no right – let me go!”
“I have every right,” snarled the Doctor, in his ear. “And you will have a jelly baby, because that’s what your sort do, isn’t it?” He pressed the sweet into his hand, the boy taking it in a daze. He resumed his more usual tones: “You take the soft, and the innocent, the weak, and the ones that are green-coloured and different and you bite their heads off, and swallow them whole. Go on. Show me. This is something you’ll want to remember.”
He lifted his hand and then muttered something that the Doctor only just managed to catch.
“They’re not poisoned,” said the Doctor, with a twitch of amusement. “Of course not. Why should they be? It’s a jelly baby, that’s all. Just a defenceless creature you’re going to stand here and eat.”
The boy pressed further back against the bricks of the wall and did as he was told.
“And the next,” said the Doctor, looming over him. “All of them, one by one, until you’ve got that lesson into your brain. I trust you have a brain, despite all appearances to the contrary?”
The bully might have tried to say something about him being crazy, but he couldn’t quite get the words out properly, in between jelly babies.
When he was done, the boy looked up, definitely queasy by now, in the unspoken hope that the madman was going to release him. The Doctor did, and then reached in his other pocket for a second bag of sweets. The boy blanched at the sight; his face having turned noticeably green around the edges.
“There,” the Doctor said, pushing the bag into the bully’s hand. “And do understand how lucky you are. I’ve decided you’re young; you might yet change. Let me see you preying on the weak again and you will regret it. Consider the sweets a warning – and don’t forget. Don’t ever forget, or I won’t be responsible for what happens next time we meet.”
The boy tore down the road, too terrified to worry about hiding the tears.
The Doctor watched him go, and then wondered if he had been growing inexplicably lenient in his old age.
“So I told the Draconian Ambassador,” he said airily, in between trying not to assist her too much with her extremely dull homework, “that I had indeed stolen the crown jewels and had them hidden in my pocket at that very moment. It was perfectly true, of course, but since he wouldn’t believe me, he let us go. It’s a sad thing, Ruth – or a useful thing, I suppose – but the cosmos is full of small-minded people who can’t see the obvious when it’s in front of their noses.”
Ruth, now a teenaged girl and sensitive to being patronised, only stuck out her tongue in concentration as she completed a diagram, refusing to give him the rapt attention she once had. “Well, I’m not surprised. I don’t believe you, either, Doctor. I know all those stories of yours can’t really be true. I’m not a little girl any more.”
She had been saying that ever since he had met her, although it would be true one of these days – sooner now than seemed possible, even for a human with their mayfly lives.
“You ought to believe me,” he murmured. “The stories were true.”
“What exactly is it you do?” she asked, when he was visiting, in between writing up an assignment of her own. “You’ve always said you’re a scientist, but you never seem to have any work with you, and you don’t talk about your projects. My father never stopped talking about his. Sometimes he hardly paused to eat or sleep when he was working on them. It was all he ever thought about. Mum was forever having to remind him – to tell him -.”
There was the tremor in her voice again, and he frowned at it. Even now, she couldn’t entirely keep it back when she talked about her father, Professor Vollmer. He sighed with impatience, because he could do nothing to rescue the girl’s father and he couldn’t restore the man’s tattered reputation, either.
“Oh, he thought about you, Ruth. I can assure you of that.”
“That,” said Ruth, putting away her laptop, “is not an answer to my question, Doctor. It’s a very odd scientist that doesn’t try to bore people silly about their pet theories – at least, I think so.”
“I’m not sure if that was a compliment,” he returned dryly. “I am a scientist. I’ve explained before; you should remember that. I advise a United Nations military outfit on matters relating to rather more advanced technology than this planet is used to. It keeps me occupied, and from time to time, I save the world.”
She shook her head at him, biting back a laugh. “You said ‘planet’, Doctor.” She didn’t even start on ‘save the world’, which was probably as well.
“I did, Ruth. I’m not from Earth, and any scientific projects I might have in mind would be a little too dangerous in this primitive time and place.”
“That’s the sort of nonsense you used to tell me when I was small. I am grown-up now, Doctor. If it’s too secret to speak about, I can understand that.”
“When you were a little girl,” he said, twisting in the chair, and facing her. “When I first met you, you would insist on sitting on my lap and demanding a story every time I visited. I told you not to, but you didn’t listen.”
“Well, yes. I know that -.”
“And yet you failed to notice I had two hearts? I expected you to be more observant, Ruth. Don’t disappoint me too often, will you?”
Ruth held her breath for a minute. “I think I was more interested in the sweets in your jacket pocket.”
“Oh, now. That was -.” A mistake? A foolish, almost senile attempt to grow soft in this period of waiting and pretend he could still solve anything with frivolity and a cup of tea? He smiled and shrugged. “Well, I couldn’t have you finding an alien hand grenade or that sentient string I used to have – vicious stuff.”
“There you go again,” she said, laughing at him. “I’m trying to be serious, and you’re -.”
Telling the truth? he responded, and irritation stifled affection. “I’ve not exactly aged in twelve years. I did tell you, Ruth, but it seems you took it for a fairy tale. I don’t tell fairy tales. Not any more.”
“And yesterday,” said Ruth, “you got Mum fish, despite all the shortages. How? How do you do it? Is it magic or something I don’t want to know about?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, but you don’t seem to have anyone but us and UNIT, yet somehow you can always get whatever you want for us, and for you – like that time Mum lost the house -.”
“Only what I need, Ruth. What we need.”
“Well, maybe I ought to know. Did you rob a bank?”
She was joking, he realised with a humourless smile. He walked to the window, and stared out of it, his hands clasped behind his back. “Several,” he said, lightly, “but generally I stick to high-tech robbery, bribery and extortion, nothing worse. One has to get by.” People were, after all, so very corruptible. They brought things on themselves.
“Very funny. The thing is, you can do all that, but you can’t find out anything about what happened to Dad? You have been trying, haven’t you, Doctor? You know how much it means to me – to us.”
“Ah, Ruth, Ruth,” he said. “There are some things even I don’t know.” And there were some things that were far, far better left untold. A line echoed in his head, but he kept it there: There are things you need not know of, though you live and die in vain.
The Doctor headed into UNIT HQ’s at a pace, and then stopped to look behind him, with some exasperation.
“Ruth, I told you to wait in the car.”
“You asked me to drive you here because you were hurt. I thought maybe I should see that you were all right. Besides, I’ve always wanted to know what goes on here.”
The Doctor glanced down at his arm, in a makeshift sling she’d put together for him, although her knowledge of first aid wasn’t particularly extensive and he’d had to instruct her. They should have covered that, he thought. It hadn’t really crossed his mind until now. He let her take his other arm. “Since you’re here, you’re here. In this case, though, you’re going to have to pay for this.”
Ruth hesitated, and then gave him a quizzical glance to see what the joke was.
“I’m only here to make my, ah, report,” he said. “The Major insists, and from time to time I like to humour him – he provides me with equipment and so on, you know. I’m afraid we’ll have to find you somewhere you can sit quietly and wait. Not terribly thrilling.”
“I’ll live. Although maybe you should see someone while you’re here, if they have a doctor.”
“My arm will be fine, Ruth. Don’t fuss. As far as the price for saving the world goes, it’s barely worth mentioning.”
“Saving the world,” she mocked.
“Well, maybe only a section of it on this occasion, but nevertheless worthwhile, I’d have thought.”
She looked about her. “It is funny, though,” she said. “What is it you always said about not liking guns and weapons, and here you are, hobnobbing with the military all the time.” Then she stopped, and frowned. “Doctor, wait. There’s more blood – all over your jacket, here – it’s soaked. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I said, don’t worry,” he told her, walking on. “It isn’t mine.”
He found her afterwards. “Ready?”
“Yes,” she said, taking his good arm again without thought. “And for your information, there was a very nice Captain who kept me entertained and tried to teach me how to shoot straight.”
“Really.” He didn’t even make it a question, registering his lack of interest. Guns, soldiers – not things he was interested in. Things he was forced to use more often than he liked, yes; interested in, no. “I trust his motives were pure?”
“Honestly, Doctor, I can take care of myself. I’m not a little girl any more.”
“So you keep saying.”
“You’ve been asking about the DEEP, haven’t you?” Ruth wasn’t smiling, but there was a light in her eyes. “Oh, don’t try to hide it. I know you have. Someone told Mum someone had been interfering and asking-. Never mind.”
“Oh? And what if I have?”
“You’re going to find out what happened, aren’t you?” she persisted. “We’ll do it; we’ll find the truth and clear Dad’s name. Put a stop to those endless bloody lies and get at the truth at last.”
Damn, thought the Doctor, who was sitting in the nearest chair, and ostensibly picking unwanted fluff from his brown jacket. How did she know? He must have taught her a little too well. “Yes, Ruth. I’ll find out.” And, yes, I’ll end the lies: so many years, so many lies. This one would be the last; the waiting was almost over and he would finally be free to rectify his mistake.
“If it’s possible,” she added, more softly, and looked at him. “Do you really think it is?”
He leant forward, and thought there would be some regret in leaving her. She seemed to see the man he used to be, and it had been centuries since anyone else had. Whether that made her more or less dangerous than most remained to be seen. He smiled, and shrugged, and said, “I’m the Doctor. Anything’s possible.”