Chapter Fifteen

The warming fingers of the sunrise did not reach into the forest where the Doctor and Catherine had rested for the night. Although they were only on its edge, the density of the undergrowth further in and the darkness of the forest canopy overhead served to block out most of the early morning sunlight from reaching their haven. It was still quite cold at this hour of the morning, without the warmth of that morning glow. However, the Doctor, who had slept very little during the night, by human standards, was very aware of the general glow as the new day began. As was always the case with him, now that it was light, he was itching to be on the move again. If it had been solely up to him, he would have been. But Catherine was still asleep, curled up warmly in the arc provided by the Doctor’s arm, her head resting comfortably against his right shoulder. The Doctor knew she needed her sleep, not just because she was human, but because of her injury and the effect the probably uneven terrain ahead may have on it.

Dawn had passed some time ago, the Doctor estimated, when Catherine finally stirred and woke. She was confused for a moment before she remembered where she was and how she, and the Doctor, had arrived in the forest the previous evening. Realising that she must have spent the majority of the night asleep with her head on his shoulder, Catherine sat up almost immediately, blushing bright red, partially from embarrassment and partially from annoyance. The Doctor, being an observant man, had, of course, noticed the blush immediately and was inwardly amused, but did not say a word about it. He didn’t even grin or raise his eyebrows, just nodded and almost jumped to his feet. When he was standing, he looked down at Catherine and said, unemotionally, “Are you alright?” The Doctor held his hand out to Catherine and without replying, she put her hand in his and he helped her to her feet, only dropping her hand when he was sure she could stand. “How’s the knee?” he asked.

The lack of emotion in the Doctor’s voice somewhat dispelled Catherine’s embarrassment and annoyance, just as he had intended it to do. All the redness in her cheeks faded and Catherine was able to reply, calmly, “Thanks. It’s still tender, Doctor, but not as uncomfortable as yesterday. I should be able to walk without too much difficulty.” It was certainly much improved, but not completely recovered, as yet. However, she was fairly sure that if she was careful with it that she would be able to walk without the Doctor’s assistance. To make doubly sure of this, she looked around for a good, long sturdy branch that she could use as support, if she needed it. A nearby shrub had exactly what she was looking for – a branch just the ideal length for a tall woman, like herself, to use as a walking cane. Pulling a small, but sharp, penknife-like tool from the right-hand pocket in her slacks, Catherine cut the branch from the shrub. It had no twigs or rough edges that she would need to strip from it before she could use it. “Fantastic!” she thought, slipping into the Doctor’s vernacular for a moment, as she leaned on the ‘cane’ to test its supporting strength. “That’ll do,” she thought.

The Doctor watched her, not surprised that she would carry such a tool on her person. However, he did accuse her of vandalising the environment. She couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not, as his expression could best be described as a ‘poker-face’ – an expression that gave absolutely nothing away – and his tone of voice matched his facial expression perfectly. So she just smiled brightly at him, replaced the tool in her slacks pocket and asked, “I don’t suppose there is anything for breakfast, is there?”

“Dunno,” he replied, cheerfully. “Would you class this as breakfast?” He held up a clear, waterproof resealable bag, containing a mixture of glucose jelly beans and jelly babies. “If it were up to me, I’d prefer chips with a good sprinkle of salt. But if you’re after a quick glucose energy burst and something to start the saliva working, these are ok.” He opened the bag, selected a few jelly babies and then handed the bag to her.

“That was in my jacket pocket!” Catherine said, as she almost snatched the bag from him. She opened it up, selected a few jelly beans – she always preferred jelly beans to jelly babies – resealed the bag and slammed it back into her pocket. Frowning at him, she asked, “How did you find them?” She hoped he hadn’t searched her while she was asleep – he seemed such a gentleman.

The Doctor grinned broadly and his eyes twinkled with amusement. “Just the same way as I’m retrieving them for you now!” he replied, as he picked the bag up from the ground and handed it back to her again. “If I were you, I’d place them in another pocket – you must have a hole in that one!” He was right, of course. Her frown vanished and, appreciating the ridiculously simple nature of the problem and the explanation, she nodded and smiled at him, again. They both munched on their quick ‘breakfast’ – he on his jelly babies, she on her jelly beans.

When they had finished, the Doctor held his hand out to Catherine, saying, crisply, “If we want to make Node Two by sunset, we need to leave now!” She didn’t reply, just picked up her ‘cane’ to carry in one hand and placed her other hand in the Doctor’s. He held her hand firmly once again; he was not going to allow her to stumble this time. Despite his apparent criticism of her cutting her ‘cane’ from the nearby shrub, he knew it had been a wise precaution. But he was not about to tell her that. Instead, all he said was, “Here we go, Node Two!” The Doctor smiled at the sergeant in that disarming way that she found quite irresistible. She smiled back.

During the night, the Doctor had thought through the possible reasons why the sergeant and her team could have been on special duty at the Eye. None of the possible reasons seemed likely. However, it was a puzzle that only Catherine could solve for him. The Doctor resolved that, sometime before they reached Node Two, he was going to find out. This was the perfect opportunity. Coincidentally, Catherine was also just as determined to find out why the Doctor was investigating the Eye. She, too, thought this walk was the perfect opportunity! Not realising each was thinking similar thoughts, they walked out of the forest together and continued along the footpath roadway in the direction of Node Two…..

At the same time as the Doctor and Catherine set out for Node Two, the two constables were just about ready to return to their duty at the Eye of Orion. Constable Black was conducting a final check of the regional operations site, to ensure that the site was secure before turning on the transmat terminal again. Lastly, Constable Crane went to reset the invisibility protection barrier as a precaution. “Barrier reset, George,” he said, as he reset it. Neither the constables nor their sergeant used any reference to invisibility when they were discussing it, as yet another security precaution. Constable Black nodded in acknowledgement. Both constables stepped into the transmat beam to return to their mundane guard duty at the Eye and await their sergeant’s return…..

“Hang on a bit,” the Doctor said to Catherine, as he stopped at an intersection, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. That’s the way Catherine thought of it anyway. Strictly speaking it was not the middle of nowhere, but some way along the roadway they had been travelling for the past three hours (in Earth terms). No obvious landmarks; no milestones or direction signs, just a side track and more open plain with small trees and shrubs along the easement at the edge of the roadway.

Exasperated, Catherine nearly replied, sarcastically, “Hang on a bit of what?” to the Doctor, but thought better of it, when she saw the frown on his face.

He dropped her hand, took his sonic screwdriver out of an inner pocket in his leather jacket and switched it on to calculate their bearings afresh. “Bloody hell!” he exclaimed aloud. Inwardly, he thought. “It’s further to go along the roadway than I thought. My powers of estimation are not what they should be!”

His frown had deepened. Catherine looked at the Doctor warily, then asked, “What’s wrong, Doctor?”

The Doctor pursed his lips together in concentration, then replied, “It’s a bit further to go than I thought.” He paused, thinking for a few moments. “However, there is a shortcut, if you don’t mind following a creek bed for a bit?”

“No problem that I can see, Doctor,” she replied. She relaxed as she realised that her wariness had been unnecessary. He presented no danger to her.

“Fantastic,” the Doctor replied.

His frown disappeared and he grinned broadly again. The characteristic mischievous twinkle was back in his eyes once more. Catherine thought, “He really is a man of very changeable moods. Still, he can be trusted.” The Doctor replaced his sonic screwdriver in the inner pocket and held his hand out to her. Without any hesitation, Catherine placed her hand in his again and they turned off the roadway down the sidetrack.

“You’ll be glad of that ‘cane’ of yours, soon,” the Doctor said to Catherine, a shade too casually, as the track started to slope downward. The Doctor, his hand still firmly grasping Catherine’s, moved a little closer to her, so that he could ensure she didn’t stumble again. Her knee had improved, but he was fully aware that it had not improved quite as much as she would like him to believe. He did not want her injuring it again.

Between the Doctor’s strong grip on her hand and the use of her sturdy ‘cane’ to lean on, Catherine was still able to walk relatively easily down the slope. The track surface was firm without any loose pebbles and the gradient was reasonably gentle. She also knew, without having to ask, that if she needed it, the Doctor would support her as he had done the day before. But she was determined that his support would not be needed. She was no fragile tourist, but a sergeant in Central Orion Protection and Security and was not used to leaning on anyone! However, she was very appreciative of his support when it was needed.

As the slope became steeper, as it headed down towards the creek, the Doctor slowed his pace to make it easier for Catherine to walk. “Are you alright?” the Doctor asked her, quietly, as they slowly walked down the track.

“Yes, Doctor, I’m fine,” the sergeant replied. She thought for a moment, and then asked him, “Doctor, you’re not a tourist, you’re a scientist. What brought you to the Eye of Orion in the first place?” The Doctor didn’t reply. He didn’t even look at her. The same instincts that had, correctly, warned her that something had happened to the rock path back to the TARDIS from the beach were telling her that she shouldn’t ask any further questions. But, as a sergeant in Central Orion Protection and Security, she knew she would ignore her instincts on this occasion. “Doctor…” she began to ask.

At that, he stopped and looked at her, but his face did not display any of the reactions her professional experience told her should have been there. She couldn’t put her finger on it exactly, but he had a strange faraway look in the depths of his eyes and, for a moment, it looked to her as if he was racked with some inner torment and unshed tears. Then, the ‘poker face’ expression descended on him again and his expression was unreadable.

Catherine was both puzzled and shocked. This man was much more complex than she could ever imagine and she believed that she owed him an apology. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I...” she began, as they recommenced their walk, still hand-in-hand. She grasped his hand a little tighter than before and decided she would never ask him that question again.

(* To be continued….. *)