The first time she saw it burning, she couldn’t stand more than a moment of the sight. One look; tears glazing her eyes and reflecting toppled towers, mounting ash – a toppled empire. (Pulverised, nuked, burned). It sickened her, because at least when she’d done it – or thought she had – there had been no ruin. There had been nothing to look at, nothing to be reflected in glistening eyes. All in her mind. There one moment and gone the next. Nothing to spur that desperate nostalgia, nothing to fill the air with the smell of burning. No confronting sight of ash and bone.
She didn’t last long, faced with all that. Back into the TARDIS it was; to stew, to brood – she was good at that, despite the fact that she hadn’t had much of a chance to in this body. Too busy for brooding. Too bright. She stewed, anger left to simmer under the blue light. A trembling lip and a far-off stare. Then there was the message.
Of course it was him, of course he had wanted to get her attention. He was like a kid, eagerly showing off what he’d made at school, asking, with those burning, manic eyes; are you proud of me?
Proud of his sheer stubbornness, maybe. His act. His absolute refusal to change. Seventy years of healing, then betrayal. Abandonment. And now this.
She spent a bit of time knocking about after that. Going through the motions. Distress signal, drop in, work her mouth off at a bunch of strangers who’d either end up trusting her or dying stupid. She went for the really dangerous ones; as many red lights and blaring warnings as possible. Others might call it a death wish, but she was no ordinary reckless hero. She was good at this stuff – so good that it came as naturally as her respiratory bypass, kicking in. Running on instinct. She didn’t lose. She wasn’t that sort of person.
She was the enigmatic stranger who dropped in unannounced – routine inspection or royal emissary – health and safety. There was always a crowd of panic-stricken people – usually with guns, if there was a monster to catch – and there usually was, she picked her adventures well. They were wide eyed and small-minded and their thoughts screamed terror-dark-dontwanttodie-saveus. And she did. Some of them died, usually, because she wasn’t perfect, but she always saved most of them. In the end, they would thank her, or she would slink off and relish at the thought of them wondering who she was. Remembering her. Adoring her.
Sometimes, they were charming enough to take her fancy, and she almost offered them a trip in the box. They were the snarky ones, the curious ones. They asked the right questions, cared for those around them, and trusted her almost too quickly. A lot of them, she noted, were young women, but she did have a history. A type, if you would.
Almost offered a trip, almost – because she had her own humans to take care of; three of them, in fact, and she was starting to think that was more than she could handle.
You’ve got a lot of explainin’ to do.
She wasn’t ready for that, but then again – she never would be. Bouncing from distress call to distress call – submerging herself in the act of being the Doctor. Face grease-smeared, coat blood-stained, fingers calloused from all their fiddling and wrenching, building, rewiring, clawing and climbing and moving. Sorting out fair play across the universe. She noticed the way she got a little cold when her friends weren’t around to smile for. A bit snarky, a bit rude. It reminded her of being scottish.
After a week, maybe two, she went back to Earth. She scrubbed the stains from her clock and the grime from her nails. Washed her face, her hair, and her expression – in preparation for the smile that would soon be plastered upon it. She mustered up a brave face, and the TARDIS responded with a shuddering shift from blue to orange. Warm but wan, like its own plastered smile. The amber was soft, washed-out, and blue creeped in around the edges of the room from those blaring, biting bulbs. It was the best that either of them could do.
She was quite good at piloting this new model now – either that, or the TARDIS was feeling sorry for her, and didn’t want to force her to face the wrath of her fam – so she landed only an hour after she’d dropped them home after their trip back from Barton’s warehouse. Enough time for them to get changed and have a cuppa. Enough time for her run through her anger on a spree of playing the hero. Exhausting her enough to bury it. Reminding her of who she was, without them.
Really, nothing had changed. She was just a traveller, and the Time Lords had only ever tried to stop her.
The humans had already been busy doing what humans did best – forgetting. The whole debacle with Barton’s tech was, apparently, a widespread glitch in the wireless network. Those who had witnessed Barton’s speech personally had likely been compensated generously to keep his words under wraps – though the man himself had gone off the radar. The story would probably air on the news for a week or so, maybe surface a few conspiracy theories about killer mobiles, and then it would be right back to regular old human life. Ryan, Graham, and Yaz’s fugitive status had been lifted too – a hack, Barton’s company, VOR, had stated – all smoothed over now. All forgotten. If only her fam would forget, too, then she wouldn’t have to explain a thing.
Five days, five planets. A thousand chances for them to ask those burning questions that rattled across their minds like a LED banner flashing whoareyou-whowashe-trust-fading-scared.
Yaz was the worst, because her faith in the Doctor had been unwavering, once. The Master must have known that she was the strongest in their gang, had the brightest smile and the sturdiest courage. So he took her to a place that felt like death. Being there, in the realm of the Kasavin, felt like a shiver down your spine, a missed step in the dark, the sensation of falling – except it never stopped. Alone, in the unknown. That place had shaken even her, but Yaz was human. She’d come out with tears in her eyes, trembling. PC Yasmin Khan, reducing to tears and quivering fear. No wonder she was wary after that. The little trick with Graham had been ingenious as well, in the worst way. Plant a nagging question in his mind; how much do you know about her? He’d been forced to conclude; nothing. It was lucky she’d been listening, and ready. Always keep a spare jug of iced tea hanging around your time machine – never know when you might need a pick-me-up, or a distraction. She should have known then, maybe, that he wasn’t really human – her doting ex-MI6 buddy. He did pick the perfect cover story; kind, intelligent, sweet. A little bit bumbling, scatter-brained, but kind. Misunderstood. Social pariah harbouring a borderline obsession with her. Naturally, she couldn’t resist. The Master knew her type all too well. Companion material.
First, she took her three best friends to the intergalactic markets of Akhaten. It was a relatively safe bet, given that the angry sun god had been dealt with. There were plenty of crowds to get lost in. Plenty of smoke and shifting bodies behind which to hide her face. Plenty of talking points; species and merchandise and food supplying her with an infinite spurring of anecdotes, and her friends an infinite source of wonder. The wafting smells of boiling pots; soups and stews. Salt and spices almost Eartly in their nature, but distinctly alien – something just a little off. Clamouring voices of shop owners, vying for their attention in a thousand laguages; deep, warbling tones, to high-pitched squeaks. Proper alien, as Ryan might have said – except that none of her friends were talking to her. They tried, at first, but she hadn’t exactly been forthcoming. Not in the mood to chat. They were, however, putting on a show of enjoying themselves – trying a little too hard to please her. Wearing her down, she thought, so they could go in for the kill. The questioning.
“Have you been here before?” Yaz asked, innocently enough, but one question endeavours to lead to another, especially when it came to Yaz and her interrogating glare. Her relentlessness. “You seem familiar with this place.”
“Oh yeah,” she shrugged noncommittally. “Couple of times, actually. Long time ago.”
When it became apparent that the Doctor wasn’t going to elaborate, she continued; “There’s so many different species here,” again with that thinly veiled innocence. A casual shrug, hand on hip, wandering eyes that glanced peripherally to gauge the Doctor’s reaction. “Do you think any of your species might be here?” She was used to them asking these questions – where she was from, who her people were. Usually, they were easy to shrug off, to spin an excuse to. Some variation of ‘it doesn’t matter,’ pretending she didn’t hear, if it was loud enough, or diverting their attention to something far more exciting and far less exposing. This time, her mind doesn’t work fast enough, or she doesn’t care enough, to come up with anything half as convincing.
Her mouth went hard and sharp, eyes cold and half-lidded. Hands clasped at her sides as if frozen. She didn’t even have the politeness to avoid Yaz’s questioning eyes – just stared her down. Daring her to press on. This new face wasn’t good at intimidation, usually – but there was always something invigorating in proving right that good old Earth saying, over and over again, about not judging a book by its cover. “No,” she said. Simply and stony. “They won’t be in a place like this.”
“What?” she smirked, “too cool.”
She only scowled, shaking her head, this time having the good grace to turn away, lest Yaz catch a glimpse of something the Doctor would really rather she didn’t.
She felt Yaz’s expression fall as if she were watching it. Her thoughts reeled off like a familiar tune, grating; neversays-hatesme-rude-whoisshe?
By the end of their psuedo-family trip to Akhaten, the Doctor was sure that the lapse in her tolerant facade had been related to both Ryan and Graham, and when she ushered them into the TARDIS, maybe a little too blunty, they exchanged a meaningful glance that they thought she didn’t see.
They slept in the TARDIS, and she didn’t. She hadn’t slept since before the incident with MI6, but she’d gone longer without it. She stayed in the console room, a piece of the underside grating pulled off to a wall of exposed wires and rumbling machinery. Something for her fingers to work at, and an excuse to have her hands near the telepathic core that is either a comfort, in its understanding, or a hindrance, in the way it amplified her grief tenfold with its constant lamenting of orangesky-flames-barninthedesert.
Around her, the crystal pillars blasted euphonic blue so blinding in its sadness that it made her twitch. Snarl. This new TARDIS was just like the new her; laid bare. Emotions running colour through its looming pillars like they ran across her face. Twitching lips and a scrunching nose. Both of them, transparent. Always the two of them, in the end.
She took them to an underwater city. Not Atlantis, because she’d had enough bad experiences with the Atlantians in the past. New Earth, the fifty-seventh century, and humanity – or the cross-bred, beautiful, diverse collection of people they had become – were ever the nostalgic bunch. An underwater city themed around all the brighter parts of the 1950s. The harsh, brutish shapes and golden finish of art deco architecture surrounded them – diamonds and straight, sharp lines boxing themselves into intricate patterns, stretching up to a high, domed ceiling. Glass; filtering blue.
They stood in a vast atrium, leaning against the railings of a balcony. Before them; a great glass window looking out at the vast coral reefs and deep-sea creatures populating this Earth-like planet. Amongst the tendrils of swaying seaweed, chizled, barnacled rocks, and vibrant corals, the city juts defiant against the clawing of nature; blackened skyscrapers in the deep turquoise gloom – an homage to new york. New new new york, she mused, except, underwater. The universe, as she was trying to remind her new best friends, was full of surprises.
Ryan, Graham, and Yaz stood beside her – knitted close, decidely apart from where she was standing. This place was a bit too quiet for her liking, but there was a decent amount of swinging tunes and thronging crowds – milling about and sipping disgusting, fancy drinks – for her to keep her fam occupied.
Yaz was wearing a maroon cocktail dress that hung low on her back and clung tightly to her hips. The Doctor tried not to look to closely, because she did have a history, especially in these newer, younger bodies, and she didn’t want to do anything rash just because she was feeling lonely.
They sipped their champagne, and she sipped her much more delicious cordial. They whispered in hushed, nervous voices, and she stood apart, straining her ears for a sense of their words. Their thoughts were loud enough; shesquiet-wonttalk-cold-why?
Her against them, and it shouldn’t be like that, but it was. Her against them.
“Enjoyin’ your cordial?” Ryan asked. Her eyes snapped to attention at his question. He looked bemused, and the other two beside him smiled in a similar way, as if they knew something she didn’t. As if indeed, she thought, cruelly. There was nothing they knew that she didn’t.
She pushed the anger out of her tone and said; “yes, thank you. Much nicer than that horrible stuff you’re all drinkin’ thanks very much.”
Ryan excahnged a very obvious look with Yaz. His eyes asked ‘now?’ and her eyes answered, with a jerk towards the Doctor, ‘yes, go!’. The Doctor resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She really was trying not to be rude today. It wasn’t their fault, they were just curious, but she wished they could just act like they did before. They used to be happier, calmer, used to talk to her. Some of it was her fault, she knew. She hadn’t exactly been approachable of late. Ryan sidled up beside her with a sheepish grin. Graham gave him a woefully-hidden thumbs-up as he turned back to the view and feigned a conversation with Yaz. She thought she heard him mention the weather – they were underwater, try a little harder for Rassilon’s –”
Not only did the word raise in her a pang of grief, but Ryan had just finished saying something to her, and was looking at her as if he expected an answer.
“Err,” she murmured, “sorry, what was that?”
Ryan sighed. “I said, I think I played a video game like this once.”
“What? A video game about gettin’ cocktails on New Earth?”
“No, about an underwater city in the 50s. There were these guys with hooks for hands and they were all – arrrgh” and he mimed claws with his fingers, wagling them up and down with a theatrical snarl on his face.
The Doctor smiled, a bit too late, maybe, and a bit too forced. She would have laughed, if she was feeling like her usualt self, which she wasn’t. Maybe she should have been, considering that things were, in a sense, back to normal. She was the last of her kind, carrying the weight of a burning world and all its dead on her back.
“Except –” Ryan continued, desperate to keep the conversation going. He was nice for trying, but she couldn’t bring herself to appreciate it, because she knew he was warming her up for the big leagues. Graham and Yaz had sent in Ryan, who was good at getting the Doctor in a light-hearted mood, to make her easier to deal with. “– In the game, the whole city was in ruins. All the people went crazy and everythin’ was collapsing so – not as nice as this place.”
A city in ruins. He didn’t know it, but he’d just made her a whole lot harder to deal with. “Sounds fun,” she muttered, harsher than intended.
“Err, yeah. Well, anyway, me and Graham and Yaz were thinkin’ –”
“Were you?” she snapped, and winced, because she really didn’t mean to do it, but there were shadows of tumbling towers in her minds eye, and the bluish glow of the sea reminded her of the TARDIS and its comforting, gut-wrenching light.
He looked down at his shoes – all proper and polished to a 50s shine – and muttered; “nevermind.” He slinked back to Graham and Yaz, while the Doctor stared resolutely out at the view, trying to identify species of coral to stop the salty glaze of tears from becoming any more than a sheen of moisture over her eyes.
An evening of decorum – her companions enjoying the delights of the city and her, sitting at the bar and trying to discourage any passers-by with a waspish glare and hunching shoulders under her oversized tux. She ushered them back into the TARDIS when they came to her, expressing their exhaustion. She felt like a chaperone waiting for the kids to be finished playing at the park. Sitting on the bench, counting down the minutes.
She couldn’t muster the mental effort to brighten the TARIDS lights to more than a pale yellow tinge, as she shoved her team up the stairs towards their rooms. Graham hung back, and the Doctor attempted to prepare herself for an incoming conversation.
“Aren’t you tired, Doc?” Graham asked, as she resisted the effort to shove him bodily from her vicinity. “You seemed well exhausted back at the bar.”
Concern; maybe it was just concern. Maybe it was an attack, though, and she couldn’t be too careful. “Just feelin’ a bit out of sorts. Never really liked the ocean, or the fifties,” she shrugged, “I like a bit more adventure, me.”
“As for me, I’m just fine with a bit of peace and quiet.”
“Aren’t you just,” she mutters, and it came out a little dark. Impatient.
He shot her a quick, furtive look. “You doin’ okay, after… everything?” To him, it was just an adventure gone a little awry. An old enemy on a plane, and her, as shocked and panicked and out of her depth as they’d ever seen her. To them, it must seem as if she’s just brooding over the Master. She was, in a way, brooding over the Master. What he had done. Always, the Master.
“M’fine,” she grinned. A thin, weak attempt. “Seriously, don’t worry about me.”
“Can’t help it, you’re our best mate.”
“Yeah,” she murmured.
“Got any ideas for tomorrow’s adventure?”
“Somethin’ a bit more fast-paced?” she offered, hopeful.
“Not if I have anythin’ to say about it,” he chuckled. “But, really, Doc, if you need to talk to us – any of us, about anything –”
Another cold smile, and the hopeful look on his face vanished. “Goodnight, Graham.” He took the hint, thankfully. With a laborious, bitter smile, he left. As soon as he was safely out of sight down the corridor, the yellow tinge faded to deep blue.