Graham and Grace had very good taste in breakfast spots. The cafe she found at the address he’d punched into the TARDIS was the picture of old-English quaint. Old stone building, timber rafters; hanging baskets of flowers and heavy wooden tables. The Doctor sat at a bench in the far corner, head pressed against the slats of the backboard, staring up at the cream plastered ceiling. In front of her, four cups of coffee steamed feebly, growing cold. The owner had cast her a wary look when she entered – all tousled hair and charred coat. She was a portly, motherly sort of woman with wire-rimmed glasses resting precariously upon greying hair.
The Doctor had made her order without her usual flare or energy (“something the matter, love” the owner had asked, which only caused the Doctor to grimace and turn her heel. She never would have asked her old face a question like that). The owner had set the frothing mugs down and hastily bustled away, silent – which the Doctor was grateful for.
Yaz was the first to arrive back at the cafe for breakfast. The Doctor wasn’t surprised by this; Yaz was always eager, especially when it came to adventures. She was also the only one that had her suitcase packed and ready to go before they were all kidnapped by MI6 agents, the others content with leaving it to the last minute. She entered with the shifting, reluctant gaze of someone who wanted very badly to find something, but weren’t all too optimistic about it being there. Preparing herself for the worst, the Doctor thought. Preparing herself for the Doctor’s absence. The Doctor looked over and gave her a warm smile, which she returned with a heartbreaking surge of relief. Yaz really hadn’t expected to find her here.
“Good mornin’, love,” the shop owner smiled.
“Mornin’” Yaz replied, just as kind. She turned towards the Doctor’s booth, and the shop owner’s eyes followed her as she walked. Curious as to what this nice young lady was doing with that strange, dirty, grumpy woman in the corner, no doubt. As Yaz approached her, the Doctor felt her gaze raking over her, scanning for evidence. Proper investigator.
“Hiya Yaz,” she crowed, voice coming out choked and haggard – from disuse, she suspected.
“All finished up on the TARDIS then?” she asked, conversationally, sitting down opposite the Doctor – a black wrought iron chair instead of the bench.
“Yeah, just a couple quick bits of maintenance, then I got you your coffees,” she shuffled the mugs around and handed Yaz her double-shot latte. “Here ya go.”
Yaz quirked her lips into a grateful smile and took the mug, all the while searching the Doctor with her eyes. Penetrating. “That’s all?” Again with the conversational tone, but it was a pivotal question. Yaz knew, perhaps, that she was lying – but had she heard the TARDIS leave or was it simply another PC Khan hunch?
“Yep.” She went with the latter. Yaz cast her another searching look before the bell on the cafe door rung again, signalling the arrival of the other half of their party.
“Oh hello Graham,” the owner beamed, giving Graham a friendly wave.
He shot her a two-fingered salute. “Mornin’ Barb.”
“What a nice surprise! I haven’t seen you in here since… well, since…” she trailed off and looked guiltily down at the front counter. She took a suffocating moment before saying, in a much softer tone; “I was very sorry to hear about Grace.”
Graham’s expression twitched, then quickly righted itself into a stiff smile. It was the appropriate response to inadequate and unwelcome apologies. The Doctor knew the expression all too well. “Ta, you’re very kind,” Graham answered. He, too, quickly changed the subject, putting on a much brighter tone. “This is my Grandson, Ryan.”
“Hey,” waved Ryan, who had been quietly staring down at his shoes until then.
“Good to meet you, lad,” she smiled.
“Well we, err,” Graham muttered, “I was just showin’ some friends of mine to your lovely establishment, thought we might grab some breakfast.”
“Those two are with you?” she asked, eyeing the unlikely couple sat in the corner of the room. Yaz grinned at her questioning glare, and the Doctor tried out a weak smile of her own. “Right then,” she righted her expression, masking incredulity, “I’ll grab you all some menus, shall I?”
At a nod from Graham, she pottered off, leaving him and Ryan free to join them at the table. Ryan sat himself sprawled comfortably on the bench next to the Doctor, while Graham sat opposite him on the chair beside Yaz.
“Left our suitcases by the TARDIS with Yaz’s,” Graham explained.
“Yeah, and you went ahead and brought everythin’ you own,” Ryan teased.
“Never know what you might need on an alien adventure – ain’t that right, Doc?” he grinned.
“Right you are,” she smiled absently. He and Yaz exchanged a glance, and beside her, she felt Ryan gazing at her out of the corner of his eye. She shut her eyes, just to block out the blaze of their stares. She hadn’t missed this.
The conversation evolved in a way the Doctor had learned to expect. A well worn path of logic. They’ve trailed over the same ground countless times, a friendship deeply ingrained. She used to enjoy the familiarity, but today it grated against her, bored her.
Ryan and Graham kicked it off with a bout of token banter concerning how much luggage it was appropriate to pack on a space/time-faring voyage. This somehow escalated into a domestic gripe about Ryan’s lack of laundry-doing, and onto the state of Ryan’s bedroom floor. She might have smiled (the same way that Yaz was doing, gazing sideways at the Doctor with a bemused smirk) if she hadn’t been so preoccupied with the simple act of keeping her eyes open and her mind out of the dark. It was endearing – indicative of how far they’d come – that Ryan and Graham were arguing about chores like weary father and jaded teenage son. The Doctor disguised her silence in the act of scouring the menu, though she already knew what she wanted. Something sweet, something childish. That was her whole brand – being childish – it would fit, open the way for a conversation exasperatedly attacking her diet choices. Paths of logic. She needed that familiar routine of an interaction; needed it to ground her, make all the jaded, jutting parts at the edge of her soften and squeeze into something of a fit into the puzzle of their old dynamic.
“So, my Dad’s still goin’ on about Barton – didn’t sleep all night because he was talkin’ to some conspiracy nuts on messenger,” Yaz explained, leaning over while, beside her, Ryan and Graham were arguing about how many cups of tea it was appropriate to drink in one day. Less than what Graham had, apparently. When the Doctor didn’t answer, Yaz pressed on, something of a pinched sigh escaping her lips. “Mum’s already explainin’ it all away as a publicity stunt, and Sonya was just scrollin’ through insta – they’ve already got a heap of memes about that blue energy that came outta all Barton’s devices.”
“Well, that’s humans for you,” the Doctor said, still hunched over her menu, finger trailing lazily across the laminated surface. “Always tryin’ your best to forget the worst.”
They made their orders; Ryan, a stack of chocolate pancakes, at which the Doctor jumped to attention, because it sounded like exactly what she needed. Maximum sucrose; a real kick in the gut to get her moving. Sweet and savoury – she’d get fish fingers and custard if she could. Yaz, ever sensible, ordered a vegan frita, after teasing both Ryan and the Doctor mercilessly about their food choices. Paths of logic. Graham didn’t even need to be asked, just winked at Barb, who smiled back and got him his usual – a mountainous English breakfast with every added extra imaginable, and a pot of tea to wash it all down.
They passed the meal in companionable near-silence – or, it might have seemed companionable from a distance. In reality, it was full of those infuriating stolen glances, those false smiles wiped clean the second they went unobserved. Attempts at small-talk, quickly stifled by an overwhelming cold disguised by a forkful of food stuffed into the mouth. Paths of logic, unravelling, because the Doctor was distant, and the others met that distance with a mixture of desperation, exhaustion, and frustration. Still, she reflected, at least it was going a whole lot better than dinner.
Back in the TARDIS, she told her fam to unpack their luggage, which, in the case of Graham, was likely to take all afternoon. As soon as she heard their footsteps receding in a gentle clangour down the hall, she hung her head and gripped the edges of the console. Her fingers trembled with a mixture of tension and sugar-induced high as she threw the lever and plunged the ship into the vortex.
“Hey, err, Doctor?” Yaz stepped out of the hallway – from the shadows, not from its length – meaning she’d been lurking just out of sight, waiting to catch her on her own. The Doctor tried not to sigh.
“Yeah,” she answered, turning stiffly to face her. Yaz appeared to steel herself, holding her shoulders tall and straight as she walked down the steps, eyes trained on the Doctor.
“Are you sure you’re doin’ okay?”
“What makes you say that?” In her haste to answer, she had almost cut off Yaz’s question, to the effect that the retort seemed sharp and rehearsed.
“It’s just,” she hesitated, trying to construct a sentence that couldn’t possibly be reacted to with affront, elicit a defense. She relaxed those tensed shoulders, softened her eyes. Unthreatening. Yaz was good at getting what she wanted, but, perhaps, had finally met her match in stubbornness. “I know you already answered our questions, and I know you didn’t want to, and we really do appreciate it.” She didn’t, that was obvious. The Doctor knew it had been a feeble attempt to appease them on her part; cold eyes, glacial tone, wishing for old eyebrows, and a mask of lines. “We won’t pry, we’ve all got stuff we’d rather keep private, just don’t shut us out, okay?” She was dancing around the issue, around the words she really wanted to say. Things that would, Yaz clearly knew, evoke a more aggressive response.
The Doctor managed a wan smile. “Thanks Yaz,” and she really was; thankful. She had a feeling, however, that they would pry, it was just in their nature. Brilliant, kind, curious humans – they wouldn’t be able to stand by and plaster on their usual smiles when their friend was clearly suffering – so she’d just have to try harder. Smile better, to make up for their disenchantment. “Now, she clapped her hands together, the sound falling flat, lank in the din. Gold, sliding resolutely to blue. “I’ve been thinking about where we should stop off on our latest space-slash-time extravaganza,” she put a hand on one of Yaz’s shoulders, leading her away with a slight push. Willing her to save her words for later – or never. “I’m thinkin’,” she grinned, “planet of the giant squid!”
Yaz raised an eyebrow, making for the stairs as the Doctor practically herded her with her own insistence upon reaching them. The beating of her hearts were quickening, thumping blunt and aching against her ribs. She couldn’t be alone – until she had to be, until she felt as if she would crumble from the effort of holding herself together in some semblance of a favourable image. “Sounds great,” Yaz smiled, a dash of concern flashing in her eyes.
“Great! Should be amazin’, they’re beautiful creatures, though the squelchin’ can get a little loud.” Loud enough to excuse her silence, maybe. Hopefully. “See ya later Yaz!”
Yaz cast her a final look; half despairing gaze, half frustrated glare. She nodded, and turned away. The Doctor almost let herself relax – as much as she could, with her hearts hammering that rapid one-two-three-four in her chest – but Yaz turned back, dissatisfied.
“Look,” she began, stern, but eyes cast down, a hand reaching across her body to grip her opposite arm. Nervous. “I know you weren’t just doin’ repairs back there. You went travellin’ didn’t you?” The Doctor paused for a moment too long, and Yaz’s expression fell into one of self-satisfied resignation. “Did you think we wouldn’t notice? There’s scratches and bruises all over you, and you haven’t even washed your coat!” Another pause, but Yaz rose to meet the Doctor’s stuck, dragging silence. “We’re not stupid.”
“Well done,” she muttered. “Want a gold star?” She recoiled from the sound of her own voice, cruel and spitting. Gold, spinning like a globe to the side without sun; into dark. Blue.
Yaz’s eyes widened before they narrowed. Vulnerable and hurt before they slit into a pointed, determined glare. “Don’t be like that.”
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out, sincere and quick through her breaths, still coming fast. She needed to be alone. “Really, I am.”
Yaz sighed. “I know. It’s okay.”
She leapt to her defense. “I didn’t go anywhere excitin’, just got a distress call. Thought it would be a bad way to kick off our adventure, seein’ as I’ve been putting you all in a lot of danger lately.” It went unspoken; the Kasaavin’s realm, a crashing plane, alone on the run. It was almost the truth, or, it almost resembled something that could be the truth. For now, it seemed good enough for Yaz.
“Ok,” she nodded, “but you know we don’t mind, right? I’m always up for an adventure.” And that, thought the Doctor, was precisely the problem.
“I know,” she smiled; still weak, still wan. Dark side, turning. “I’m just tryin’ to be better, make things fun again.” Fix the gaping hole in her hearts by smiling at it, stuffing it with human wonder and new worlds just to smother the flames she saw when she shut her eyes; smoke in her nose, voices in her head. Suffocating.
“You don’t need to try, yeah?” Yaz reassured her. Don’t try, she said, as if the Doctor hadn’t been trying so hard it hurt ever since she was born. Ever since she fell to Earth, strung through with the stiff and grating effort of trying. “Just relax, and remember, we’re here if you need,” A smile so true it almost slowed the hammering in her chest. Relax, be herself – it was something she could never do. If she was ever herself, her true self, under the bright-toothed smiles and pinwheeling motion, they wouldn’t be there to catch her. Not there when she needed, because they’d be too scared, grip shaking too violently, to hold anything at all.
“Thanks Yaz,” was all she said, echoing herself. It was all she could manage with that dark panic encroaching, fingers darting to the comfort of bone. The voice had nearly faded into silence.
Yaz smiled in return and seemed, for now, as if she were satisfied. It wasn’t the end, because her friend’s caring was relentless; absolute, immortal, ruthless. She left, and the Doctor sunk to the floor, clutching her chest, and willing her hearts to slow.
She wondered if they ever would again. She wondered how she could go on living, and running, if they never did.