Fandom: Dr. Who
Characters: Jack Harkness, Rose Tyler, the Ninth Doctor
Edited by: the wonderful buckaroobob , aka dr_whuh
Summary: Humans are such fireflies, brief and bright, and so willing to let anger turn into other, better things. The Doctor gets reminded of that in a dusty book shop.
Author's Note: Written during the 2013 fandom_stocking effort for muccamukk, who is fond of one of my own favorite Who teams. This is the last non-drabble story I did in 2013, and it was a great deal of fun.
Rose and Jack glared at him.
Rose lowered her head and looked over the sunglasses she’d donned to hide her brown eyes as they ducked into the Rhiefian book shop, staring pointedly at the angry crowd off in the distance, the one surrounding the TARDIS.
Jack just continued to glare at him, grim and unhappy.
“Do you pull this sort of thing often, Doc, or is being monumentally, arrogantly oblivious just a recent hobby?”
Oh, he was angry, the Doctor realized; Jack never called him “Doc” unless he was furious.
Despite the disrespect, the Doctor didn’t snap back. He’d earned the epithet. He would rather have swallowed a glass of cockleburrs than admit how much he hated having Rose and Jack angry at him, so he tried to maintain his air of injured innocence, but it wasn’t working.
He knew full well why they were livid. And they were absolutely right, another uncomfortable truth he had to accept.
He’d insisted that it was perfectly safe to leave the TARDIS in the main square of Rhief Prime’s tiny capital to go nosing about. He’d ignored Jack’s worried review of Rhief Prime’s current historic era, loftily informing his companions that “There’s no way they’re even gonna notice Her, or us for that matter” despite the fact that everyone outside the TARDIS doors appeared to be enthusiastically xenophobic and on the frenzied lookout for anything that smacked of “outworld tech,” on their isolated frontier world — especially if it was operated by humanoids who didn’t look exactly like people from Rhief Prime.
He should have predicted, and avoided, what followed. Instead, they found themselves holed up in this dusty book-lined shop, hiding from the violent crowd and the only slightly less violent authorities. They were grateful that the proprietor had her nose so fully buried in something from her inventory that she apparently wasn’t fully cognizant of her three alien patrons.
“We should have ducked into a clothing store,” Rose said gazing at the surroundings. “Books make horrible disguises.”
Disguise; such a simple ploy to avoid so much trouble. The Doctor’s thoughts were rueful as he looked at his companions. Rose and Jack had been far more careful about their surroundings than he had been. They’d both worn caps when they left the TARDIS to hide the fact that their ears were much rounder than the natives’ and that they didn’t sport fluffy thatches of green hair.
The Doctor hadn’t bothered to disguise himself at all, of course. Normally, this would not have drawn attention to them; the Gallifreyan had gotten used to casting his own personal perception filter wherever he walked. It was what had allowed him to so confidently and incorrectly predict that they wouldn’t be noticed.
And normally that was enough. Walk in like you own the place and no one notices. How often had he told traveling companions that? How many hundreds of times, over hundreds of years, had that worked? Nearly always.
The problem was that “nearly always” bit, he thought as he peered through the bookshelves, searching for anything that he could use in an escape plan. He always forgot that there are always exceptions to any rule. You’d think after centuries of traveling the universe, he’d have picked up some common sense, at least when it came to the safety of people he cared about. But no, he was a Time Lord and that meant he was exactly what Jack had called him: arrogant and oblivious.
All he’d wanted to do was show them the starfields of Rhief from the center of Rhief Prime, he thought with wounded pride.
Well, and pick up some much needed heat exchange units for Her tertiary chronal relay network. To be brutally honest with himself, the latter had probably taken precedence over the former in his huge but much less than impressive brain. And look what that selfish desire had generated.
There was nothing for it, then. He’d plunged them into hot water. It was his responsibility to haul them out.
He gave in to the inevitable.
“I made a right mess of it, didn’t I?”
“You did indeed.” If Jack was surprised at the Doctor’s quick agreement, he showed no sign of it. But his smile showed that he accepted the apology. “So what do we do now?” The Doctor could see the old time agent surfacing in Jack, could see him move from unproductive anger into calculation and threat analysis.
“And how can we help, Doctor?” Rose asked. She, too, was apparently ready to let go of her ire. She moved carefully past a pile of books to get to his side.
“Don’t know yet, but I promise I’ll get us back to the TARDIS,” he said, equally quietly, grateful that they had forgiven him so quickly.
“We’ll get us back to the TARDIS,” she corrected. “If we leave it up to you, there’s no telling what might happen. Might find ourselves in jail or worse.” But she, too, was smiling and her acerbic comment was softened by the look she gave him. She took off the sunglasses, and her eyes were sparkling with excitement.
So much anger, so swiftly transmuted into a thirst for adventure. Such firefly creatures, humans, burning so brightly and so briefly. He looked at the two of them, and was suddenly unable to speak, astonished at the tears that thickened his throat. He was once again forcibly reminded of the fragility of those he loved. This man and this woman were precious to him. He would keep them safe not only for their sake but for his own—
“You folks looking for a way to get back to your ship?”
Rose squeaked in surprise and Jack whirled to find the proprietor standing at their shoulder.
“Ehrm … yes. We are.” Rose took the lead, smiling tentatively at the woman, whose fluffy green hair was pulled back into an untidy bun, and greying just a bit at the temples. “Do you mind us staying inside here, reading your books until we can get back home? To the ship, I mean? We won’t make any trouble.”
The proprietor’s faded blue eyes were clear and sharp as she looked all three of them over. “I don’t mind at all. Those fools out there will get tired of yelling when their throats get dry. They’ll be off to wet their whistles in an hour or so. They’re not the problem.” She looked over her shoulder at the front window and sniffed dismissively. “It’ll be the gendarmes you have to watch for. You’re welcome to stay here until the hooligans clear out, but I’m fairly sure the official boys will be visiting me soon, so perhaps you’d like to take advantage of my back parlour?”
“Your back parlour?” The Doctor was curious.
“Oh, yes. It’s quite nice. Very quiet,” the proprietor said. She looked openly gleeful as she said it. “It’s got a back door, too, right on an alley that goes behind all the stores here. If you were to turn left and follow the alley, why it’d lead you all around the square. If you were to go to the front window, which I highly advise against at the moment, you’d be able to look across the square and see where the alley comes out. Just a few paces from your blue box, as it happens.”
“Why would you want to help us?” Jack was polite, but wary.
“Why? Oh, I suppose it’s because I’m a bit of an unsavory type myself.”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“I should introduce myself,” the woman said. She pulled her thick body a little straighter. “My name’s Maureen Adair, and I can’t be trusted. I’ve been off world.”
“Ah.” Jack nodded, understanding. At this time in Rhief Prime’s development, with a frontier government still ruled by the cult of isolation that had prompted the world’s settlement in the first place, anyone who went off-world would be viewed with suspicion at the very least. “But you’re back here. Why?”
Maureen shrugged. “I was born here. My parents came here to raise kids free of worldly temptations. I was their black sheep.” She looked sad for a moment, then continued. “I got bored. I shipped out on a tramp freighter when the boredom got too big. I was lucky a lot more ships called on Rhief Prime in those days. I bummed around a few systems, saw myself a bunch of new worlds, had a satisfactory number of adventures … and then my mum died and my dad got sick.
“So I came back. After all, you take care of the people you love,” she said. “When Dad died, he left me some money. I don’t think he’d have approved of me starting this bookstore. But I figured if I was stuck here — and I was; I was 47 by that time, and no one’s going to hire a 47-year-old stevedore — I might as well try to bring a little of the rest of the universe to Rhief Prime. Best way to do that, I figured, was a book shop. I get real books in here from off-world; old-fashioned paper ones along with threedees and holos. It’s still legal to import, and I do. The gendarmes don’t like it, but they can go pound sand for all I care.
“I get a lot of young people in here when school’s out.” Her eyes glittered as she said it.
“Well then, Maureen Adair,” the Doctor said, approval coloring his words, “We’ll gladly accept your hospitality. I imagine you’ve got a lot of stories, and not all of them in the books.”
“I imagine you do, too,” she said, ushering them into the back room. “Come on into the parlour. I’ll shut the door when the gendarmes arrive. I’ll send them off on some sort of goose chase, and then we’ll see you to your ship.”
Four hours later, the crowd had dispersed. Maureen had fed them little sandwiches, and poured cups of Rhief Prime’s strong tea. She had indeed gotten visitors, two officious gendarmes who really didn’t want to be anywhere near Maureen’s books. She whispered to them about the four strangers she’d seen, aliens with blue-tinged skin. She thought she’d seen them ambling off in the direction of the militia station … that was all it took to send them tumbling out the door to thwart an imagined alien incursion.
“Time to go, folks,” she said.
As they walked through the quiet alley, sticking to the shadows of the buildings, the Doctor eyed her speculatively, then cocked his head and spoke. “Would you like to see the inside?”
Maureen shook her head. “ I reckon I’ve seen the inside of life capsules often enough.”
“Oh, this isn’t a life capsule,” Rose began, but Maureen shook her head again, more emphatically. “Seeing your ship would just be—” She stopped and thought. “It would make me homesick for away. And I’m here for the duration. I’ve got a lot of kids to educate.”
Rose only looked confused for a second, and then she grabbed Maureen’s hand. “You keep doing that, then. Maybe the next time we visit, we won’t have hide out in your parlour.”
“I wouldn’t mind hosting you again,” Maureen said. She looked a little wistful, but didn’t come the last few paces to the TARDIS. The Doctor suspected she was afraid she wouldn’t return to her store if she looked inside. A wise woman.
“It’s goodbye, then, Maureen Adair,” he said. “You be careful.”
“Says the man who got us into this,” Jack said fondly. Rose laughed. After one last round of shaken hands, they went inside. The Doctor caught one glimpse of Maureen’s amazed expression before he shut the door. Perhaps there was a glint of delight there, too, he thought, making a note to drop round Rhief Prime a couple of decades down the line to see if Maureen’s guerrilla tactics had helped reopen the planet’s collectively closed minds.
For now, though, he was just glad to be back home. And he owed Rose and Jack a proper apology
“Look—” he began.
Rose threw up her hand. “Don’t say a thing. You were a right idiot getting us into trouble, but we were the idiots who didn’t stay inside when we knew you were wrong. And you already apologized. And we got to meet someone interesting.”
“And we didn’t get arrested,” Jack continued. “Hell, we hardly even got chased.”
This was the same man who had looked ready to walk away from the TARDIS permanently, the same woman who he’d been afraid might replay the infamous Tyler slap? Here they were, talking as if it had just been another day in the park, the Doctor thought with confused relief.
Humans. They really are a book I’ll never get tired of reading. Perhaps someday I’ll understand them as much as I love them. And if I’m lucky, and if they’re lucky, I won’t get them killed as I learn.
“So. Anyone for tea?” He rubbed his hands together and went off to put the kettle on.