Martha smoothed her hands over the buttons of the fine fabric covering her corset. She couldn’t imagine anything would make her miss the comparatively loose dress she wore as a maid, but a corset was about there. Not to mention the shoes. She wondered why the Doctor couldn’t put a bit of Time Lord science into those—her toes would appreciate it if the fashionable slippers were bigger on the inside. Of course, neither the Doctor nor the people of this century needed to know about the Spanx she wore instead of the historically accurate bloomers.
But she felt beautiful, there was no denying that. A hat cocked on her head, lace at her neck and wrists, she looked like a portrait. Eyes followed her as she stepped along the uneven cobblestones and she thought, Quite right.
The Doctor was off investigating something or other. No doubt the fate of the Earth or even the entire universe was at stake, but Martha had begged off. When she’d heard where they were—United States of America, Boston, 1881—she had historical events of her own she wanted to explore.
“Where are you going?” the Doctor asked, sounding a bit like a disappointed child. Martha smiled through the fondness she always felt, but it was dulled like the shine on her nails from scrubbing floors. Weeks she’d spent cleaning up after men and boys who treated her with contempt, and then had to endure that same contempt from a man with the Doctor’s face. It had worn on her.
And she knew—really, she’d always known, she just let herself pretend otherwise sometimes—that he just wanted someone to talk out loud to, someone who would marvel at his brilliance. Martha didn’t have it in her just now to be his adoring audience.
“Just out,” she told him, fastening the hat to her hair with a long, dangerous-looking hatpin. “Boston, you know. America.” She dangled the TARDIS key as proof she’d be safe and left before she caved in to those ancient puppy-eyes of his.
“What if I need to find you?” the Doctor shouted after her.
“Beacon Hill!” Martha yelled back.
She had wanted to believe that any version of the Doctor would protect her. Beliefs broken always hurt, she supposed. Left a bit of a bruise at any rate.
In the flurry and the fear as they rushed from The Family, the Doctor had said the Chameleon Arch would let him remember enough to let her close, but apparently not enough to care about her. And worse, he’d fallen in love with someone who treated Martha so poorly, right in front of him. In the weeks Martha worked at the school, Matron had not said a single kind word to her. Oh, she’s of her time, she could imagine the Doctor saying, but so were William Wilberforce and those Quakers and abolitionists who fought for something resembling equality. The matron could have been one of those people. John Smith could have been, too.
Instead, Mr. Smith fell so smoothly into the prejudice of the times. The terrifying, rebellious, logic-defying Last of the Time Lords was a rubbish human. “Stupid, thick and dull.” Martha didn’t like agreeing with The Family, but not-Baines had been right about that much at least. She loved that man and he’d been so dismissive of her.
Even when Martha told herself it shouldn’t hurt, it did.
“Excuse me,” she said, pausing by the old man sitting on his stoop. She tried not to pant, but Beacon Hill was more hill than she’d anticipated, and the corset wasn’t helping. “I’m looking for the doctor.”
The man smiled, the brown skin around his eyes crinkling in a way that reminded Martha of her grandfather. “You’re just about there, miss. ‘Round the corner. Joy Street.”
Martha nodded politely and continued on, trying to walk like a lady even as her pinched toes made her want to swear like a sailor. The closer she got to Joy Street, Martha saw fewer white people on the sidewalks. Accents of all sorts reminded her that this was, in fact, a former British colony, and the elegant homes looked so much like certain old districts in London. Martha breathed in, catching the scent of blossoms she didn’t recognize and a fair bit of foul smoke. But it was here, and it was real, and she loved it.
When she turned down Joy Street, the doctor’s home wasn’t hard to find. It was the one with a small queue of patients waiting outside. A stone arch in the façade curved over the black door with a shiny “67” glinting in the morning sun. Martha wasn’t positive she’d ever actually seen the home in any history books or websites, but it felt familiar all the same.
The people waiting stepped aside for her, for a lady. Martha smiled at them. She took in their deep brown eyes, the myriad wrinkles in their skin. They smiled back. A little girl clutching her mother’s hand stared up at Martha like she was a star.
The wonder in the girl’s eyes struck her and Martha’s heart throbbed with a feeling she couldn’t define. In their eyes she saw sorrow, the kind of bone-heavy sadness that left its print on a person for a lifetime and beyond, but also strength; so much strength; and when they smiled, they shined.
One of the men opened the door for her and she thanked him with a nod. More patients crowded just inside, seated along benches in a foyer turned waiting room. Martha struggled with her skirt. Though pretty, this fashion made it difficult for women to stand within two feet of each other. A man in a waistcoat hopped to his feet, offering his seat on the bench in the corner. Martha’s toes gratefully accepted.
It was only a few minutes later that the doctor appeared.
Martha gazed at the woman’s strong brow and bright eyes. She was nearly 50 but seemed ageless. The gray streaking her hair only made her look wise.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first black woman to ever become a doctor. She served those ignored or turned away by the white hospitals. She cared for the men, women, and children freed from slavery.
The doctor welcomed a waiting patient and her daughter—“Come on in, Ellie. And how are you, Maggie-honey?””—with a gentle smile.
Martha’s breath felt caught in her lungs and this time she couldn’t blame the corset. There she is. Martha could still recall the illustration of the doctor’s face in the back of a kids’ magazine she’d read when she was eight years old. She remembered gazing at that tiny black-and-white drawing like the little girl outside had stared at her.
Dr. Crumpler’s dress was plainer than Martha’s, but still so much fabric and structure. Martha couldn’t imagine practicing medicine in such a heavy garment. The doctor escorted her patients through a door toward the back of the house and Martha craned in her seat, just to make out shelves of amber bottles and shiny tins that probably contained good old 1880s medical cocaine.
She sat for perhaps an hour, watching patients coming and going, assuring those who asked that, no, she’s fine, no, she doesn’t mind waiting. She held one woman’s squirming baby, making faces to get a giggle and thinking, for all she knew, this was Barack Obama’s great-grandparent. What bright futures would each of these children have? she wondered. What kind of painful pasts had their parents?
The mother seated beside her adored Dr. Crumpler and told Martha so much that she longed to know. It felt so good to think and talk about medicine again. The Doctor filled her thoughts in a way that was uncomfortable at times. She felt almost obsessed, like he was a song she couldn’t get out of her head. But here, as chatty patients shared Too Much Information about their rashes and sores, Martha took great delight in sifting through her studies, categorizing and sorting symptoms to diagnose more than one mother with atopic dermatitis or a yeast infection. And each exchange was punctuated with another appearance of the doctor and her intelligent, discerning gaze as she dismissed one patient and called another.
Martha had completely lost track of time when two men pushed through the door. One was nearly dead on his feet, supported heavily by his friend. What Martha saw first was the blood. She leapt to her feet without a thought.
“What’s happened?” she asked, forgetting where and when and who she was. Forgetting everything save that instinct within her that always screamed help them in every situation. She immediately applied pressure with her lace cuff to the man’s forehead where blood pulsed out in bursts. His skull felt reassuringly firm beneath her palm.
“Load fell at the site,” the injured man’s friend answered. “Got ‘im on the head.”
Hearing the commotion, Dr. Crumpler rushed out from the back. “What’s gone on?”
“Frontal laceration on the scalp,” Martha replied, steadying the man.
“Bring him here.” Dr. Crumpler directed Martha and the man’s friend through the door to the examination room.
Once there, they helped the stocky man up onto the table. Martha’s hands itched for latex gloves. Sterilization and a million other yet-to-be-invented features flickered through her head, but she pushed those aside and kept the pressure on the wound. “Hold this,” Dr. Crumpler said, handing her a thick bandage, and Martha obeyed.
She obeyed for the next several minutes, assisting Dr. Crumpler in stitching closed the two-inch wound. She wiped away blood, held thread taut, handed the doctor scissors before they were requested because for the first time in so very long Martha was in her element. No Doctor gaping at her like she’s an idiot for not knowing about some obscure galactic nonsense. Good old anatomy and medicine. It was like having the ground beneath her feet after months at sea.
The friend left to retrieve the man’s wife and a change of clothes not covered in blood. The injured man rested on the exam table, dazed but otherwise okay. He had a nasty headache ahead of him and needed to be attentive he didn’t have a concussion, but no one lost a friend or a father today. After the man’s wife came to collect him and help him home, Martha found herself alone with Dr. Crumpler, side by side at the sink in the woman’s kitchen.
“You’re good with a stitch.” The doctor handed her the bar of soap, the suds tinged pink with blood.
“Thanks,” Martha said, scrubbing her hands. She soared, and no one, absolutely no one in her life would ever understand what this moment meant to her. Shakespeare was nothing compared to this. “I’m a doctor. Well, training to be one. Like you.”
Dr. Crumpler dried her hands on a striped towel. “In England?” She handed the towel to Martha.
“Family bring you here?
“Sure, family holiday,” Martha lied. Then, more honestly, “And really, you. I wanted to meet you if I could.”
“Me? You’ve heard of me all the way over in London?”
“Yeah. Oh, yeah. You’re my hero. I wanted to become a doctor because of you.”
Dr. Crumpler’s face twisted a bit, the ghost of a smile on a woman too proper and humble to give in to the praise. “Well, hearing that I’m glad you seem to be on your way to bein’ a good one.” She took the towel from Martha’s dry hands and folded it. “You want to help me out today? That room’s been full all morning and I just got set back even more with old Marcus comin’ in here.”
“Oh. I’m not—I don’t have my license yet.”
Dr. Crumpler laughed, a raspy sound in her chest. “They don’t recognize mine most the time.” She tossed the towel on the counter and started back toward the examination room. She rubbed at her shoulder, massaging out some nagging soreness. “I’ll do the doctoring, how’s that? You can be an extra pair of hands.”
Martha grinned wildly. “Sounds good to me, doctor.”
It felt so much like her studying days, though Dr. Crumpler was a far better companion than Mr. Stoker ever could be (and cocaine was prescribed more than reasonable—though, Martha couldn’t argue, it definitely would help soothe a toothache). She rolled up her sleeves to help calm screaming infants and comfort anxious mothers. She provided bandages when requested and cleaning alcohol when needed. And more than once, Dr. Crumpler asked for her opinion on a series of symptoms. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler asked for her, Martha Jones, to give her opinion. After a few hours, Martha forgot the year, the time, her feet. She was a little girl living out her deepest and oldest daydream.
Night fell before the last patient left Dr. Crumpler’s home. Her husband had returned some time earlier and left a small plate of food on the kitchen table for his wife. “Can I feed you for your trouble?” Dr. Crumpler asked.
Martha longed to stay, but “I really shouldn’t. I have—my friend, that is—he’ll be waiting.”
Dr. Crumpler sat with a sigh and rubbed that bothersome shoulder again. Those intelligent eyes peered up at Martha. “All right, then. Make sure this friend of yours feeds you. You’ve worked hard today.”
“Don’t suppose you’ll be around tomorrow.”
“No.” Martha shook her head. “My friend and I, well, we travel. A lot. Leaving tonight. Soon as I get back probably. Oh, don’t get up on my account—”
But Dr. Crumpler did. She moved to stand before Martha and extended a hand. “Thanks for comin’ by today, then, Martha. Good luck with your studies.”
Martha shook the woman’s hand. “It was an honor working with you, Dr. Crumpler.”
“May we be the first of many, eh? No one will take care of us like us.”
For a moment, Martha could see the stretch of history before her, here, her hand linked with Dr. Crumpler’s, a woman born almost 200 years before Martha would read about her in a children’s magazine. A woman who had seen slavery’s end and pursued her education doggedly despite everyone, even her own instructors and classmates, not wanting her there. A physician who tirelessly served those deemed least deserving, while so many hospitals and pharmacies refused to even recognize her degrees. A person who opened every single door that Martha hoped to walk through.
Martha hugged her, she couldn’t stop herself, and tears burned in her eyes. Due to either exhaustion of the day or perhaps she felt the connection, too, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler hugged her back.
“How’d you find me?”
The Doctor pushed way from the brick wall and crossed to her. “Beacon Hill,” he answered. “Found the area and then I started asking about.”
Martha shook her head. “I don’t even want to know what sort of questions you asked to track me down.”
The Doctor gave her a crooked smile and extended his elbow. Martha took it, wrapping her hands around his arm. She started to walk, but he didn’t. “Is that your blood?” he asked.
“What?” Martha looked down and noticed the red-brown staining her lace sleeves. “Oh, no. Not mine. Had a patient who busted his head.”
“I got to be a doctor today, that’s all,” she said. “Felt good. What did you get up to? Saving the world again?”
“Same old, same old.”
He gave her a wink and there was that flutter in her chest again. She didn’t know if the Doctor was the drug or the disease, but the relief of the last few hours was gone. Instantly, the butterflies were back in her stomach at his glance and her heart floated with hope, even knowing it would be dashed to the ground with one reference to Rose. His cleverness, his desperate need to do good, his giddy joy in a riddle solved, the power to travel through Time and Space all bundled in a form that didn’t look half-bad in a suit... She supposed it would be impossible to not fall a little in love. Still, she wished she hadn’t. Wanting nothing would hurt less.
“But I didn’t end up covered in blood,” he continued. “Tell me about your day.”
“Aeh, you don’t want to hear it,” she said, because he didn’t, he never did.
“No, I do.” He stopped her so he could turn to face her with earnest eyes, with that open expression and focus that almost made her believe that he could love her back, maybe, someday. “You rushed out this morning, and this—” he gestured to her dress—“what’s all that about? You have a date at the theater I didn’t know about?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she just held his eyes until that playful smile of his dimmed. He said those things sometimes, little comments like he was jealous, but she wasn’t sure he was. Not for her sake anyways. It felt more like she was a toy he didn’t want, but he also didn’t want anyone else playing with it. Yet, she wondered what the passersby made of the two of them. A fine woman and a gentleman. Would they see a couple of equal worth, or a John Smith taking advantage of the maid?
“Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler,” Martha said at last. “The first African-American woman to ever become a doctor in the United States. Sees patients right there, at that house.” She pointed back to the unassuming black door and stone arch.
“Really? I don’t know anything about her.”
“No, you wouldn’t, would you?”
The Doctor’s eyes shifted back to hers and he wanted to object, she could see it. She could practically hear his scoff, but to her surprise, he closed his mouth and schooled his expression. “Okay. Tell me about the doctor.”
“Well, first, she told me to make sure you feed me.”
“I can do that.” He walked on, again offering her his arm. “How do you feel about baked beans? Boston’s known for ‘em.”
She told him all about her day at Dr. Crumpler’s side. His eyes glittered in the lamplight at the Union Oyster House and, beans aside, she could almost pretend they were on a proper date. He laughed at her jokes, cringed at the gory bits, and—for maybe the first time ever—truly listened to her. Just to her. Not imagining a similar moment with Rose or another time when he’d been here and had been much happier. When he smiled, she felt like he was smiling at her rather than just to see himself reflected in her eyes.
Maybe that was all she’d ever wanted. The doctor, the caregiver, the one everyone turned to when they needed help, but no one seemed to just want. She heard the chaos of a thousand phone calls from her mom, her dad, from Tish, from Leo—all of them asking her to fix their problems, to soothe the tides, to make everything easier for them. They loved her, she knew they did, but it didn’t always feel like love. It didn’t always make her feel loved. Instead, it felt like they wanted her around as mediator, therapist, defender. Not as a sister, not as a daughter. Never as a friend.
She wanted to be wanted for herself and nothing else. To be enjoyed. Maybe even loved. And to be loved by someone like the Doctor... Maybe it could make up for all the times she’d been needed and not wanted.
“She sounds brilliant,” the Doctor said at last, leaning back in his chair. “Wish I’d met her.”
“She was. She is,” Martha said. She didn’t know why she ached so much. “Ahead of her time, she was.”
She almost suggested they stay one more day and she could make introductions, but the idea soured immediately. She wanted Dr. Crumpler to be hers alone. Not to mention, she knew how the Doctor could be. She loved him, everybody ended up loving him, but wherever he went, he took over—often rightfully, so. So often, it was the right thing to do. But Dr. Crumpler had a lifetime of white men waltzing into her space like they owned it. Martha wouldn’t introduce another, no matter how well-meaning the Doctor would truly be.
“A writer, too,” she said. “Wrote medical books. Maybe we need a set of those in the TARDIS library, eh?”
The Doctor smiled. “Oh, yes. First editions, I’d think.”
As they stepped outside into the chilly night, she curled close to him. Horse hooves clattered on cobbles and oil sputtered in lamps, casting a golden glow. It was romantic. She knew the Doctor sensed it, too, because he pulled his arm away and made distance as they walked back to the TARDIS. Oh, if only she could cauterize the part of her heart that wanted him, burn out the longing and the yearning and just enjoy this mad adventure without wanting to touch him or kiss him.
Her feet hurt and she was tired. She toed off her beautiful shoes and rooted under the heavy ruffles of her dress to pick them up. Her corset wouldn’t let her bend at the waist, though, so she finally kicked them aside. Perhaps some peddler would find them and make a good profit, or some young girl would have the shoes of her dreams. A few people glanced at her, whispering, but Martha didn’t care. Not only was she minutes away from leaving this city, she would soon be leaving this century. Judge me, she thought, I dare you.
She suddenly wondered how many times Dr. Crumpler had had to go forward in her life with that same energy—Judge me, I dare you.—as everyone snorted at idea of a woman doctor, as they downright laughed at the idea of a black woman doctor.
It was only when she fell several feet behind that the Doctor noticed her absence, and Martha decided that was a good metaphor for everything they were. “You all right?” he asked, soft concern in his voice.
Martha wanted to hold onto her hurt long enough to let it become anger, but it always just transformed into regret. Here she was having the most unbelievably amazing day, and yet she hurt because a boy didn’t like her. She was an adult, for god’s sake, a physician, or soon to be one. She was a great inheritor of all that Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler had fought for in her life.
“I’m all right,” she replied, and let it be an obvious lie because the Doctor wouldn’t ask. If he asked, she might tell him the truth and he couldn’t handle that. They both knew their parts in this dance.
Even as she ached for him, she didn’t know what she would do if he ever truly wanted her in return. If he—her beloved, brilliant madman—ever looked at her with love and desire… The thought quaked inside her and it wasn’t entirely a good feeling. It reminded Martha, strangely, of when she’d been five years old, standing on a beach. She remembered only a flash of sunlight and then a wave sweeping her body away. Water poured into her mouth and her father had dragged her out coughing and sputtering. Maybe that’s how it would feel to be loved by the Doctor, like being suddenly embraced by the sea.
The TARDIS hummed and brightened as they entered. It settled some churning in Martha’s body to hear it. She liked to think they’d bonded, the TARDIS and her, during those weeks without the Doctor. At any rate, it felt like a proper home now. She unpinned her hat and started towards her room.
She turned back to him where he stood at the controls.
“You’re brilliant, too, you know,” he said.
“I know,” she replied, and walked away, bare feet against cool metal and a soft bed waiting for her.