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he who wins shall lose

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Five planets. Five days. She doesn’t sleep for any of them.

On Epsilon Prime’s biggest theme planet, she takes them for ice cream that’s always your favourite flavour and a rollercoaster so terrifying that its safety warnings start two kilometres from the start of the line.

It’s hot. Theme parks are always too hot, it’s some kind of rule. Sweat drips from Graham’s forehead, ice cream melts sticky across her hand.

It tastes like berries that no longer exist. In the hills behind Arcadia, she’d watched bushes and bushes of them burn to char.

Twice.

“Mango kulfi,” Yaz says, half in wonder, ice cream dripping down her hand. There’s a dab of it melted sticky in the corner of her mouth. “What’s yours like?”

Ash in her mouth. She smiles around it.

“Fish fingers and custard,” she lies. Ryan bursts out laughing and Yaz’s nose wrinkles in disgust. “Oi, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!”

“Mine tastes like my mum’s shepherd’s pie,” Graham offers, which starts off a new round of debate on whether ice cream should ever, under any circumstances, taste like something savoury. They’re all buoyed by the sun and the heat and the relief that always comes with survival, and the conversation carries on without her.

They’re not looking.

She drops her ice cream to the ground.

“Doc,” Graham tries, once, after they’ve stumbled in from the rainforests of Antigony, dripping with water and happily exhausted. She turns, buzzing in her ears. Still smiling.

He still falters. She makes a mental note. Try harder. Smile better.

“Never mind,” he says quietly, kindly. “Where to next?”

They don’t want to go home, and that should worry her, but it doesn’t. Instead, she smiles—better—and pulls down the zig-zag-plotter. She throws the biscuit lever for good measure, pops a custard cream into her mouth. Ashy, dry. She swallows painfully. It sits like lead in her stomach.

“Anywhere you’d like,” she says.

That night, she makes the mistake of fiddling with the helmic regulator—a boring job even when she’s not exhausted—and drifts off leaned against the console, a torn-apart circuit abandoned in her lap. A marmalade sky tears itself open behind her eyes. Her barn in the desert burns to the ground. She presses the button and they all die. She doesn’t press the button and they all die anyway.

She wakes with a fist pressed to her mouth, no air in her lungs to scream, eyelids gritty. She’s alone.

She’s alone.

She’s alone, but—he’s never far from her. Sick desperation climbs up her throat, nestles in the hollows of her chest.

Her fingers tap. It seems important, somehow. Four beats, against the TARDIS floor.

Contact, she breathes.

He meets her halfway, and it’s furious-familiar-stars-bursting-behind-her-eyelids-anger-like-a-taste. For a moment, the whole of her head is a snarl that ripples, a scream of fury, pain like a vice, but she can wait for it to end. She can always wait.

He can, too. For all his faults, he’s never been able to say no to her. Not for long, anyway. The scream peters out into a silence, expectant.

Why? is all she can rasp, eyelids burning.

He doesn’t laugh. She feels the answer settle into the back of her mind, boundless fury at what he’d found but wouldn’t share, anguish without sense, a madness that she’s only ever been able to grasp at the edges. The image of a pendulum in perfect balance is placed delicately, tenderly, behind her eyes.

It’s always been my job, he whispers, to finish what you started.

New New York—before the plague and the pollution and Rose Tyler grinning at her in the apple grass, all those years ago—is a stale, boring place, but she hides her disdain for it behind a grin that’s wearing thin. She lets them decide where to go, what to see, places a plastic map in Graham’s hands and wanders behind them. They meander past monuments of historical figures that won’t be born for thousands of years—boring. They take in ancient modern art that hasn’t been painted yet—double boring—and eat lunch in a museum cafe—triple boring, so boring it should have its own post code in Boring-ville. But she tolerates it. She drifts through it, hanging by the barest string. Boring means safe. Boring means easy. No one knows her, in these stale, boring places. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

After, they bring dessert out onto the lawn, and she picks apart the pastry with her fingers but doesn’t let it touch her lips. Everything tastes like ash in her mouth. The sun on her face is too hot. Behind her eyelids, everything burns.

A ragged-looking woman rolls past them with a rusted cart, the wheels squeaking against the grass. A plastic patch glints on the side of her neck. Early days, she thinks numbly. There’s nothing she can do that she hasn’t already done.

“Happy?” the woman offers, slowing. “Any Happy for you, my loves?” Her rheumy eyes catch on the Doctor’s. “You look like you could use some Happy,” she says, kindly. She watches, for just a moment too long. Her voice softens with pity. “I sell Forget, too, my dove.”

Behind her, sprawled on the picnic blanket she’d dragged from the TARDIS, their eyes are burning into her back.

She smiles.

“No,” she says. “No, I think we’re alright, thanks.”

“There’s a bruise,” Yaz says, drinking her tea in the warmth of the TARDIS’ manufactured evening. Too quickly, too quietly. Worry flashing in those lovely dark eyes, but caution, too. A bracelet she’d bought at The Galaxy’s Largest Shopping Mall on Flingus dangles from her wrist, glinting. “Around your neck. Fingerprints.”

Contact.

She fingers her neck lightly. She doesn’t wince. She’s not even sure it hurts, but she almost wishes it would.

“Nothing to worry about,” she reassures absently, smiling, plunging her hands deeper into the console. Searching, searching—for what, she can’t quite remember, but there must be something that’s broken. Otherwise, why would she be searching?

But Yaz isn’t quite finished.

“Did he do that?” she asks, not bothering to clarify. A hint of anger edging into her voice, but all of it cautious, cautious. They’re all walking on broken glass around her. She’s not sure what to do to make it stop. She’s not sure what will happen when it does.

“It’s not the worst thing he’s ever done,” she says, and the understatement is so hilarious that she almost bursts into laughter. She swallows it back, but it bubbles hysterically behind her lips. “Don’t worry about it, Yaz. It’s been like this for ages, me and him.”

“Yeah, but—” Yaz isn’t satisfied. Yaz is never satisfied, and normally she adores that about her, but today it tightens the corners of her mouth.

Yaz sets down her tea on the console, gingerly.

“Sorry,” she says, faltering. Just that bit more tentative, that bit more afraid, and it’s a mix of all sorts of things that the Doctor should be more worried about. The Master, whispering in her ear. The Kasaavin’s realm, and what she’d seen there. “I’m just—you never explained. You and him. Where you’re from, who you are.”

“It’s not very interesting.” She looks up from the console, really looks. Yaz’s eyes are shiny in the dimness. How many more excuses? they ask. How many more diversions?

“I’m a Time Lord,” she says, and Yaz’s face opens with hope, expectation. It all sits sour in her own gut. “From a planet called Gallifrey, in the constellation of Kasterborous. The Master was my friend, when we were boys. We went different ways.”

Yaz frowns at the thin explanation, but her eyes are half-alight with wonder.

“Can we visit?” she asks, hushed. “Your planet. Your home.”

“It burned,” she says. She’d thought saying it out loud might make it lesser somehow, make it better, but it doesn’t. It only makes it real. The words are ash in her mouth. There’s still a weight on her chest. “It’s gone.”

Not even gone, not really. At least the first time there had been no wreckage, no ruins. No bodies. No children to find, left scattered and charred in their beds. When she’d been a boy, she’d thought that distant glass dome had been unbreakable, impenetrable, but she’d learned better.

She’d learned better.

The colour drains from Yaz’s face, leaves her sallow, darkens her eyes.

“What?” she breathes. Her eyes fill with horror, then pity. The mirror shatters. The illusion breaks.

“It’s alright,” the Doctor says. There’s a buzzing in her ears. This isn’t better. “Forget I said anything.”

No, something says, and it might be her own voice. It might be Donna’s, might be Clara’s, might be Ada’s, pleading, pleading, pleading.

She’d rip it out of her own head, if she could.

She touches a gentle hand to Yasmin Khan’s temple.

Late night. The TARDIS is blue again, and she can’t tell if it’s a kindness, or if she’s mourning too. Hunched against the console, eyes half-closed; fingers tapping against the floor, against her own skin.

How many children? she begs, or snarls, or sobs.

He hadn’t laughed before, but he does now. It’s an effortless, unhinged sound that echoes in her ears for far too long. It rings sharp behind her eyelids. Her stomach roils with it.

One day, you’ll count them, she breathes.

Well, he says, very reasonably. You would know.

Yaz has a headache, so she takes them to the beach. New New South Wales, and really, she thinks, sand burning the soles of her feet, these Earth colonies are getting to be a bit much, even for her friends. There’s a restlessness to the way Ryan wades out into the unfamiliar sea, to Graham’s uncomfortable smiles. Yaz’s eyes are hidden behind shades and a comically large sun hat, but she imagines them, pained and confused. They all shoot each other glances, when they think she’s not looking.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, in the sand. He settles, furious and familiar, into the back of her mind. She lets him smell the salt breeze, feel the grit of sand particles under her touch. It might be a kindness or a cruelty. She’s not sure.

Vacationing, Doctor? Even in her head, his voice is a sneer. You never struck me for the type.

She boots him out without a warning, mouth twitching, unsure why she’d let him in to begin with. Her eyes are gritty. She hasn’t closed them in days.

Ryan and Yaz wander the shoreline. Graham naps in the sunlight. She spends the afternoon building towering spires, a shining city in the sand, while the sun burns her nose.

She knocks it down herself, before the tide comes in.

Later, back in the TARDIS, Ryan tears off a chunk of leftover sandwich and holds it out to her like an offering. Graham had insisted on bringing them out to the beach, pickle and cheese, cut clumsily into triangles.

“There’s only a bit of sand in it,” he says. There’s only a bit of sand everywhere, tracked in by their bare feet and damp towels. Sand sends the TARDIS into conniptions, usually, but she’s silent on the issue today. Tinged blue, even though evening feels far away.

She declines with a smile. “Thanks, Ryan.”

“You’re not sayin’ much,” he tries. Fumblingly kind. “Or sleeping much. Or eating much.”

Try harder. Smile better. She ups the wattage, hands wandering blindly over the console, searching. Finding nothing, she pulls a circuit out of alignment, just to have something to fix.

“Lots to do,” she says, though there’s not. If they think she’s busy, they’ll leave her alone. “Not to worry. Where to next?”

He takes a breath, but the words catch in his throat. Any concerns, any complaints, he swallows.  He smiles at her, trying. There’s a frown tugging at his brow.

“Wherever’s good,” he says. “Yeah. Anywhere you want.”

For once, it’s not her. She drifts with her hands in the guts of the console, breaking things and fixing them, hands covered in grease.

Contact, he breathes. She shudders, and the forest floods her senses, cold-alien-nothingness-pain-pain-pain-fury-she-can-TASTE

Her nose is bleeding.

Rude, she says, lip curling.

Eye for an eye, he replies. How was the beach?

Before she can stop herself, she thinks of her sand-city in ruins, washed out by the sea. A beat. He smiles, slow and languid, and even in the back of her mind, barely an image, it’s realer than anything she’s pasted across her own face today. Then he laughs again, wild and uncontained, a wheezing, breathless thing. Sharp behind her eyes, but it cuts out the burning, that marmalade sky.

Tell me, she demands, because she’s strong enough to ask today. Tell me what you found.

The laughter tapers off.

Look for it yourself, he spits, and kicks her out of his head. She sprawls to the floor, head banging on the edge of the console on the way down.

It’s not quite sleep.

No one finds her in the morning. She wakes on her own. Washes the grease off her hands and the blood off her face, cleans her hair and her clothes while they’re not looking. Try harder. Smile better.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, against the console, against her wrist, but there’s only aching silence in her head. She’s alone. They’re behind her, even as she spins and twists, putting on the right show as she takes them wherever they’re going next, but she’s alone.

“Doc,” Graham tries again.

Five planets. Five days. All things considered, they’ve been more than patient, but now they’ve got her cornered. They know it. She knows it. There’s not a mind within reach. There’s only so much of the truth that she can dodge.

She tells them the story. Tap, tap, tap, tap, on the edge of the console. Silence. She tells them the story, but the story might be a lie.

And Yaz’s eyes, half-alight with wonder, dark and bright.

“Can we visit?” she asks. “Your home.”

Tap, tap, tap, tap. Behind her eyelids, everything burns.

“Another time,” she says.

She smiles.