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For the Glory of Ash and Bone

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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.

Chapter Text

Fast-paced it was – but the controlled kind. No distress calls for them today. Cheap, bottled adventure. Best theme park in the universe; Hedgewick’s World of Adventures. She’d been here once before with Clara and Angie and Artie; only there’d been a fair few more cybermen. She made sure to aim the TARDIS far earlier in the park’s timeline. The G-forces on certain rides could kill you – but they came with an exhaustive list of species barred from entry. Many of the rides were human compatible, so Yaz and Ryan would have plenty to do. Graham, on the other hand, would likely prefer to walk around and take in the sights, try some of the local cuisine – including the various cocktail bars. She knew them well by now, knew exactly the sorts of activities that would take their fancy. The paths of their thoughts were awfully linear, awfully predictable. She’d spent a lot of time hanging around humans; understanding their instincts and impulses. So, she knew precisely the places to avoid. 

 

She’d done theme parks a thousand times before, they were a stock-standard stop when it came to showing new humans the universe. Humans loved their canned fun; predictable in all its cheap thrills, bright lights, and saccharine. It was the perfect place to let them run amok, and watch wonder unfurl on their faces. Except when she was avoiding her humans, then, it made an excellent escape. Dodging the attack. Her against them. 

 

She slunk back to the TARDIS after just a couple of hours of wandering. Back to the blue light and the feeling of soldered, circuited metal under her fingers; intricate, delicate, sparking fire that singed her fingertips and stonified her calluses. 

 

When her friends finally made their way back to the TARDIS – the artificial sky on the orbital park long since dimmed to an imitation of night – they were exhausted. Not exhausted enough, apparently, not to bombard her with questions. 

 

“Did you come back in here right away?” Yaz asked, trying not to sound accusatory and hurt, but failing miserably. 

 

“No, ‘course not,” she crowed. Her tone came out too sharp, too indignant. Forced. Fake. “I only just got back.” 

 

“Then why are your clothes all covered in oil and stuff?” Ryan asked.

 

“Yeah, and what are all those tools and parts lyin’ about?” Yaz added. An attack. The Doctor sighed, raking an oil-gritted palm through her hair, running it through with black. 

 

“I was fixin’ things,” she said, lamely. 

 

“Right,” Ryan shrugged. 

 

“Okay,” Yaz said, at least trying to sound convinced. Graham simply stared at her darkly. A taut smile played at his lips, similar to that which he had worn the previous night when she’d snapped at him. A knowing smile. 

 

She spun an easy lie, short and to the point. Seein’ the sights, tryin’ new things. Getting immersed in the offworld culture. They didn’t seem convinced – though Yaz at least seemed as if she wanted to be. If only wanting it was enough 

 

 

Wanting was never enough, because they talked. Behind her back, they talked, planning their attack. She didn’t generally make a habit of listening into their conversations, but it was difficult to quell her curiosity when the timbre of their thoughts rung with such discord; a rough, mutinous texture. Difficult to quell, when the TARDIS controls sat tantalising before her restless hands, controls that had access to every room on the ship – all part of one being, one mind. She punched in the coordinates to each of their rooms and tried to muster the guilt she assumed she should be feeling in doing so. Her guilt was in woefully short supply – at least – when it came to her fam. Because it was her against them. 

 

On the TARDIS readout screen, three rooms appeared, two of which were empty. They were all gathered in Graham’s room – the Doctor wondered, with a scowl, if he was the one that had organised this little get together. 

 

The TARDIS had supplied them each with their own rooms, because her ship was a gracious host. Each was crafted specifically to their wants and needs. Graham had an almost outrageously comfortable king-sized bed parked in front of a TV set that exclusively played British dramas. He also had a tea brewing station stocked with every flavour imaginable – from Earth and a variety of alien brews. Ryan’s room was dark and sleek; it came equipped with a minibar and a state-of-the-art gaming set-up. Dual-monitors, the best headphones in the universe, and immersive VR tech. Yaz’s room was almost identical to her bedroom at Park Hill, except larger. She had a sidealong gym for workouts, equipped with a speaker system and iced coffee machine. They were perfect, and what was more, the Doctor was fairly sure she had stumbled upon one of two of these rooms at some stage during her long life aboard the TARDIS. That was the thing about a ship that existed across time rather than travelling linearly through it – the past and future all existed within it simultaneously, and anything that would be found there someday could be found in the present, if you were willing to dig deep enough. 

 

Ryan and Yaz were standing, while Graham sat on the edge of his enormous bed. Each of their expressions, she saw, were steeped in thought, but not the good kind. Uncomfortable thought. Thinking about things that they rather wouldn’t – things they never had to think about before – like what precisely was wrong with the Doctor. She tapped into the audio feed, and after studying the looks on their faces, didn’t feel an ounce of guilt at all. 

 

“– never been like this before,” Ryan’s voice said, as she caught the end of his sentence. She didn’t have to try hard to guess what he was talking about. This didn’t happen – meeting in each others rooms. When they wanted to be together they’d meet in the library; sit by the swimming pool or by the river in the rainforest. There were countless public places on the TARDIS – but they were all places where they might find her as well – and this was a private conversation. Her against them. 

 

“You said she said somethin’ to you, Graham,” Yaz prompted, “last night when you hung back with her.” 

 

“Oh, that was proper cold, that was. I asked her if she was alright and, well, as you’d expect she said she was – but it weren’t convincin’ I’ll tell you that. Then I told her if she needs to talk to us about anythin’, we’re here for her, you know – and her face went all,” and he mimed a hand passing over his face, wiping an expression from animated to cold. A clown’s trick. “She just said goodnight, and practically shunted me up the stairs.” 

 

“You’re right, though,” Yaz sighed, turning on the spot and pacing. Proper investigator. “She’s been actin’ really quiet.”

 

“Really rude, you mean,” said Ryan. 

 

“Maybe quiet just seems rude because we’re so used to her bein’ noisy.” 

 

“She has been a tad rude, love,” Graham reasoned, “she was well rude to Ryan yesterday. Usually she’s all ears when it comes to Ryan.” 

 

“And she just sat alone at the bar, not even drinkin’ anythin’” added Ryan. “Usually she’d be pokin’ her nose about everywhere and gettin’ into trouble.” 

 

“This has all got to with that Master bloke, it’s got to,” said Graham. He was right, in a way, the Doctor mused. 

 

“She did seem proper shaken on that plane,” Yaz added. 

 

“She looked like she were gonna be sick,” Ryan muttered darkly. 

 

“Well, she’s never liked losing control – remember Resus One,” Graham said. 

 

“That was sorta scary, couldn’t reason with her at all,” Ryan plonked himself onto the bed beside his Granddad, the two of them staring up at Yaz, still pacing. 

 

“Nobody likes losing control,” Yaz reasoned, weakly, in the Doctor’s opinion. It was true that nobody liked losing control, but she could usually regain it fairly quickly. On Resus One, she’d been out of practise. Up until then, every adventure had been a controlled, carefully plotted experience. Places and peoples that – while sometimes, often, maybe, were dangerous – were disconnected from the tangled politics of the developed universe. None of them recognised the name Doctor – a feat that grew harder by the century – which made it easier to get around without having a whole lot of unsavoury titles spat in her face. She’d been lucky, on Resus One, that her name was documented in a savoury light, but the darker parts of her past weren’t the only things she’d been hiding. Her age and power, her alienness. Regeneration, and how many times she’d done it. All of them were secrets now, because she was just a traveller, and she didn’t want their awe unless it was born of her actions. The person she was now, not the sprawling past stretching out behind her, clawing, coming for her… 

 

“She weren’t like this after Resus One,” Ryan reminded them, “she was totally fine.” 

 

“Which means it’s got to do with the Master.” Graham said, a smug smile tugging at his lips.  The Doctor couldn’t help but snarl; at the sound of his name and the expression of Graham’s face. “Who is he, do you reckon?”

 

“Gotta be the same species, like you said, because she didn’t recognise him, meanin’ he’d done regeneration –” Yaz spoke rapidly, rattling off words and leaps of logic at an almost Doctor-worthy pace. “– meanin’,” she paused, staring down at the boys, “they’ve gotta be the same species.” 

 

“Could be a common alien thing,” Ryan shrugged. At the sight of their questioning looks he added; “don’t think it is though – because he said he’d known her for ages.”

 

“Like, from home, ages,” Yaz agreed. 

 

“And what species is she? – because she still hasn’t said,” Graham threw up his hands in theatrical frustration. 

 

“Not as if we’d know what it meant anyway, if she just said the name. I don’t see why she’s hidin’ it,” Ryan shrugged. 

 

“You know, I never realised just how much we don’t know about her until O – I mean, the Master,” he corrected, “told me.”

 

“What did he tell you?” Ryan asked. 

 

“He asked me how much I knew about her, if I knew where she was from. I said I didn’t and he said he had this whole shelf of files all about the Doctor –”

 

“Did you look?” Ryan interrupted. 

 

“No – and I don’t think I should have, to be honest, right invasion of privacy that would’ve been.” Yaz shot him a suspicious, disbelieving look. “Oh, all right, I was tempted – very tempted, actually – because we’re totally in the dark, she don’t tell us a thing.”

 

“I don’t blame you,” Yaz sighed.

 

“It’s just that, I didn’t get the chance to look, because she came burstin’ out of the TARDIS right on cue with that terrible pitcher of iced tea.”

 

“I thought I got food poisonin’ from that stuff,” Ryan smirked. 

 

“What do you think, Yaz, about that sort of timing?” 

 

“I think it was a coincidence,” she said. A bit cold, a bit too sure. 

 

“Come on, love,” Graham chided, “I know you don’t believe in those.” 

 

“But don’t you see what he was tryin’ to do – the Master –” Yaz began, pacing, if it were possible, even more determinedly. More focused. Steely officer calm. “– he was tryin’ to tear us apart. He transported me to that place,” a shudder, minute, but the Doctor noticed it – whether through a lapse in her steeled thoughts or a twinge in her spine – that place. The feeling of death. “He scared me out of my wits, the most scared I’ve ever been when I’ve been with the Doctor. Then she was so busy tryin’ to save the world that she barely said a word to me. Didn’t even seem to notice.” A pang of guilt bludgeoned the Doctor’s stomach, the sort of guilt she didn’t feel about eavesdropping. She had more important things to deal with, she reasoned, but that was the problem. More important things than her new best friends, terrified –  that was exactly the side of her that the Master had wanted them to see – the side that could detach itself from the humanity of a situation with jarring ease. “And then with you, Graham, he made you question the Doctor,” Yaz continued, “and Ryan; the Master left you all alone in Barton’s headquarters, left you terrified that I’d just died.”

 

“I almost didn’t run,” Ryan admitted, stare directed down to the carpet. “I just stood there frozen while you were screamin’ and those lights were swarmin’ around you. You’re always the braver one, Yaz, you always stand out front. I didn’t want to face the Doctor, either, ‘cause I was afraid she wouldn’t forgive me for losin’ you.”

 

“Don’t say that, son,” Graham placed a comforting, grandfatherin’ hand on Ryan’s hunched shoulder. “‘Course she would’ve forgiven you – there’d be nothin’ to forgive, anyway.” 

 

“People always say that, though, they say they don’t blame you, but if you were there then you were the only one who could’ve saved them. People say they don’t blame you, but they do,” he murmured, growing quieter, “they do.” The Doctor knew that he was thinking about his dad; his thoughts were deafening and distinctive in their grief. A healing relationship, maybe, but never healed. Never whole. 

 

“See,” Yaz said, bright and tirumphant in the sombre air, “it’s like he knew exactly how we were goin’ to react – seperatin’ us, questionin’ us.”

 

“Why bother?” Ryan muttered. “Why go through all the trouble of pretendin’ to be O and messin’ with us if he just wanted to kill us all anyway?” 

 

“Insane?” Graham offered. 

 

“There’s always a motive,” said Yaz, voice whisper-like, searching. As if she could ever come to understand the intricacies of their relationship, the Doctor thought. “On the plane, it were almost like he were desperate to reveal himself. He enjoyed it,” she shook her head, narrowing her eyes. “He enjoyed it just as much as the Doctor, you know, when she reveals her big plan to the bad guy.”

 

“Except not the same,” Ryan added, almost in reprimand. “Not the same at all.”

 

“Of course not,” she agreed. Still, and the Doctor could tell, all of them were stuck playing out the comparison. Manic glee at the defeat of the enemy, cornering her prey. “He did say he was her best enemy,” she mused, “not her worst. What’s that supposed to mean?” 

 

“Don’t know,” Ryan answered. 

 

“They sorta seemed like rivals, you know, back in Barton’s warehouse they were playin’ off each other, tryin’ to gain the upper hand.” The look in the Doctor’s eyes when she’d left the Master to the non-existent mercy of the Kasavin had been ruthless. She remembers the way her eyes had burned, and that was before the worst of his actions had been revealed. Her ruthlessness; a reaction to seeing him again, playing games, betraying her, trying to break apart everything she’d built with her new fam. Maybe, if she’d known they were the last two again, she wouldn’t have left him there, screaming out in that murky dark. But she had. No time for regrets now. 

 

“If they know each other so well, how come she never mentioned him?” Yaz thought out loud, revelling in an impossible mystery, unravelling. “When we met her, she seemed so alone. Said she had no family or friends, and I felt sorry for her, we all did. I figured she was some lonely alien strikin’ out on her own. Figured she had no one else but us.” 

 

“There’s more to everyone than meets the eye, I suppose,” Graham wondered. Wise. Certainly there was far more to her than most. 

 

“And what about what the Master said when he came into the warehouse – he said he’d waited seventy-seven years since he last saw us – ‘cept he hadn’t aged a day.” Graham said. The thought, the Doctor feels, sends a shudder through the group’s psyche. Discomfort. More than meets the eye. 

 

“So you’re thinkin’ the Doctor is the same – she don’t age?” 

 

“It would certainly explain all the anecdotes – all those things she says that seemed impossible. I mean, I thought the part about her bein’ a man was a joke – but then it turns out that was true. Maybe the rest of it is, too.” 

 

That was all her fam knew about her, really; anecdotes. So many and so jarringly dissimilar, so ridiculous, no wonder they thought they were jokes half the time, told to lighten the mood. Agaththa Christie and the giant wasp, Venice and the vampire fish people, a wet weekend with Houdini, and Pythagoras’ sunglasses. 

 

“How old d’ya reckon she is?” Ryan asked. 

 

Graham’s face was twisted into an uncomfortable smile. “Don’t know, son. Don’t think she’d tell us, either.” She wouldn’t – then again, maybe she would, just to stop them asking. Just to see the shock on their faces when she told them she’d lost count. 

 

“Why is she draggin’ us around with her if she’s that old?” Ryan asked, again, an uncomfortable question. She can feel doubt tugging at their nerves, unravelling that perfect image. 

 

“She cares about us, son, you know that,” Graham reassured him. 

 

“Why’s she actin’ so grumpy then?” Because the game is up , the Doctor thought; the jig, the dance – whatever you wanted to call it. That, and, of course, the flames playing a lazy haze behind her eyes. The smell of burning. 

 

“She’ll come around,” Yaz’s turn to reassure. She stopped her pacing and sat down as well, on the other side of Graham, sinking into the velvety soft, mathematically engineered comfort of Graham’s bed. “Things’ll be back to normal soon enough, s’long as we don’t press her.”

 

“Come on Yaz, we’re not just goin’ to not ask. We can’t ignore this,” Graham reminded her, sternly. Fatherly. “We’ve got a right to know who she is, and what’s got her in such a slump. Just let her know we’re here for her, she’ll open up.”

 

“Yeah,” Yaz shrugged. “Yeah. I just don’t want her to spook and leave us. I don’t want to lose this life.”

 

“Same,” Ryan agreed.

 

“It has to get better, right?” Yaz clamoured, “It has to.” 

 

“It will,” Graham assured her with a grin. He put his other arm around Yaz’s shoulders and squeezed them both in close. Yaz grinned – and though Ryan’s was more reluctant – he did too. “It always does.” 

 

Her scowl deepened, and she shut off the audio feed, killing the image. She brought her fist down against the console, to which the TARDIS replied with a barrage of indignant whirrs and beeps. Above her, the crystal structures cast her face in a ruddish glow – blue spiked with sharp crimson. Anger. She had no right to be angry. She couldn’t tell if it was directed at her fam or the Master or, as it so often was, herself. A disparaging cocktail of all three, perhaps. They were right, about almost everything. She was good at picking clever friends. Clever friends who, now, were wary of her. Who wondered just how long she had lived, who she was besides a happy-go-lucky alien tour guide with a lonely soul and a big heart. She could try to put on a more convincing facade, but it wouldn’t stop them from asking. The seed of curiosity was sown, an attribute of which her companions possessed a near infinite supply. 

 

And what did they know about the betterment of things, over time. Things didn’t always get better – they didn’t even dip down to worse and rise again, better – sometimes, they just got worse. In fact, they always got worse, in the end. Long term. Entropy. An exponential decline, a spiral. A world on fire, its arsonist trapped in a darkness like death, and its mourner spiralling down into a metaphorical dark just like it. There was the day when everything died, and you found yourself alone in the universe, and then there were all the days to follow in which everything stayed dead. And she had nothing left to do, except mourn. 

 

Nothing left to want, except him.

Chapter Text

She spent the night – if one can call anything night while adrift in the time vortex – working. Not simple, unnecessary repairs. Nothing done for the sake of keeping her hands working and her mind building, sketching out inventions, tweaks to the systems, improvements, just to give her mind something to picture other than the burning. There was a point to this work. She was going to find the Master. 

 

She rerouted the TARDIS’ secondary timonic generator to act as a beacon – a cross-dimensional beacon. She wasn’t delving into the realm of parallel universes, because she wasn’t quite desperate enough to tear a whole in the universe, though she had definitely been there before. She was searching for the realm of the Kasavin, keying her own conscious memories of the place into the TARDIS telepathic circuits, along with all her memories pertaining to the Master. It was a tricky endeavor, because engaging with telepathic circuits is a two-way street. You feed it your memories, and it feeds back their nature amplified tenfold – boosting the psychic resonance of your thoughts, twisting it into something physical that can be broadcast across spatial media. 

 

With her fingers splayed and pressed into the fleshy innards of the TARDIS circuits, great tendrils of tubing and lattices of wiring twining themselves around her, connecting broken pieces of salvaged machinery to boost and direct the signal, she filled the contraption with everything she had. Around her, the TARDIS purred a sympathetic tone. She didn’t want its pity any more than she wanted anyone else’s. She poured out the images in her mind’s eye; wandering in the dank, murky recesses of the Kasavin realm, watching electric bursts of light snap between dark reels of vegetation like signals between synapses. She recalled the feeling of death and hopelessness – what he must have been feeling now, the Master. She almost felt sorry for him. 

 

She pictured him, as well, in her effort to find him. Red, trailing robes with a golden finish. Running across grassy fields with aching hearts and burning lungs. Sprawled under the stars, promising to reach them all. A future of duty, tearing them apart, and the person she had met so long after, both running for so long – him, far longer than her – and the devastation in discovering how different they’d become. Watching him charred to blacked, crumbling ash, and watching him twisted and hollow, squeezing himself into the bodies of countless innocents. His cruelty. She pictured him as she’d found him, toiling away at the end of the universe. The way they’d made fast friends, admired one another. The horror, and the longing, upon discovering his identity. The hope that, now that they were the last (and again now, the last) that they might forgive one another. Holding him as he died, refusing to regenerate just to spite her. Just to hurt her. Seeing him again, a broken, pitiful thing. Dying. Barely alive at all – and him, sacrificing that half-life for her. Regretting it, she suspected, because of what they did to him on Gallifrey. What they always did to him on Gallifrey; hurt him, tried to turn him into a weapon. Never working, always fighting, always hurting. Always needing to make them pay. Then her, Missy, desperate to show him they were the same, after all. Desperate for approval, and desperate to kill. She ran, perhaps, the fastest and the farthest of them all, only to end up right back where she always did. At his side. And the Doctor kept her. For seventy good years, they kept each other, but one gaze back into the past had turned her around. One more stare into the fires of destruction, and she was back. And she said that all she ever wanted was to stand with the Doctor, but she didn’t. Then O. The perfect disguise, but the truth was desperate to escape him, always. Revealing herself, toying with her and her new friends, scolding her for believing she could ever outrun her past. Just to hurt her. Always, hurting her. The Master, now a shell, now so unsure. Desperate, again, to hear his name, to see her subservient, because that was who he was, and he needed to be reminded. He was torn; between killing her and letting her live, to watch her suffer in spite and hurt. Never quite knowing where he stood, and now, more unsure than ever. Who was he, without the Time Lords – who was she? Jaded hearts, running from a home, until there was no home to run from. Then, always running to each other. Dancing around one another in increasingly elaborate ways. Best enemies. She pressed her eyes shut and dug her fingers in deeper; best enemies. 

 

Against the metal floor of the TARDIS, her boot tapped a beat of four. 

 

The telepathic signal relayed from the timeship in cacophonous waves, searching hidden dimensions, searching for a match. The Doctor was concentrating so hard she could feel her face growing red, a vein pulsating relentlessly at her temples, the tendons in her neck strained harsh under the skin. Tears pushing themselves out of her eyes, whether from recollection or from effort, she didn’t know. 

 

“Come on,” she whispered, “please.” Her mind reached out with clawing, desperate hands, searching for that darkness. “I really need you right now.” Because she wanted to ask him why, wanted to scream at him – but not only that – she needed to know he wasn’t dead. She needed to hear his thoughts, feel the way he saw the universe and saw time as a tangible substance – the perception of her species, contact with her kind. So long taking it for granted, the two of them together in Bristol, always someone there to reach out to. 

 

“Please,” she whispered again, tears falling. “I know you’re there, I know it – answer me!” she raised her voice, squeezing her eyes shut and syncing the beat of her hearts with the pulse of the signal. Four beats like an ostinato, a sound so deeply ingrained in him, that struck such pain, that he couldn’t simply ignore it. Unless he was unreachable. Unless he was dead. “No,” she murmured, “I know you’re not dead. It’s not the sort of thing you do.” Unless this was his final act, like refusing to regenerate. A conscious decision to leave her alone in the universe because he knew that it would hurt her more than anything else. Again, she brought her fist down against the console, much to the ship’s annoyance. She hadn’t much liked being torn apart and rerouted into a signal tower, either, but, she thought, we don’t always get what we want . She wrenched her fingers from the telepathic circuits, instantly feeling those painful images and memories fading in their vibrancy. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and the TARDIS, once again, hummed her sympathy with sorrytoo-burningtowers-bluelight. She began to tear down the relay, though not destroy it – she would try again. There were always improvements to be made, new strategies she could try. Maybe she just hadn’t been trying hard enough, wanting large enough. Screaming out loud enough. She’d just have to keep trying. 

 

...

 

When her three favourite humans slunk out of their seperate rooms some hours later, they looked bedraggled, drained. As if none of them had slept a wink. 

 

The Doctor was still toiling away at the console, packing and stowing the last pieces of her relay and rerouting the central power back to their usual designated priorities. She hadn’t managed to get the lights back up to their usual amber glow – or tired, orange flicker, as was more often the case of late. The console room was bathed in deep blue, casting all of them under its melancholic stare. 

 

“What’s with the lights,” Ryan asked, rubbing his eyes as he stepped out towards the console. 

 

“Oh, tryin’ out somethin’ different,” she shrugged. The goggles come in handy, because they hide her eyes. Behind a mask of shining beetle black, her tears were just condensation against the inside of the glass. Just another way to hide her face. “Night mode – d’ya like it?”

 

“Bit intense,” he remarked, staring up at the pillars. 

 

“Did you sleep last night?” Yaz asked, bluntly. 

 

“I’m alien,” she smirked, “I don’t need to sleep.” She went to lean an elbow nonchalantly against the console, but undershot the distance and ended up stumbling across to keep her balance, “much,” she added, trying for humor. The others only looked concerned. She could blame it on having shorter arms than before,, but to be honest she’d had this body for long enough now that she’d gotten used to the diminished size, the unending energy – the youth, after all that time spent reeled up in elegant sagacity. She turned back to the console and began plotting coordinates for their next trip. She would take them somewhere extra boring, extra human. Somewhere she wouldn’t be sorry to miss visiting, because she had other plans for today. She  pulled her goggles up to her forehead as she did so, thinking her tears suitably dissipated. 

 

“You sure you ain’t tired, Doc?” Graham asked, sceptically. He eyed her with that infuriating air of wisdom he sometimes mustered up. Pitiful, given his youth, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. Not after what she’d overhead the previous evening. 

 

“Your eyes are all red and baggy,” Ryan pointed out.

 

“Well, Ryan,” she turned on the spot and glared at him, “so are yours, but I wasn’t going to say anythin’ about it.” She smirked, a little cruelly. “I’m nice like that.” 

 

“Sure you are,” he mumbled under his breath. 

 

“Seriously,” Yaz shook her head, “what’s wrong.” 

 

“Nothin’s wrong, Yaz,” she said, turning back to the console in the old and increasingly familiar act of giving her eyes something to look at rather than their crestfallen expressions. “Sorry,” she added, lamely. “I’m serious though, the lot of you look like you barely slept at all. Up all night talkin’ about boys?” A cruel remark, though she tries to keep her voice casual. 

 

“I, for one, was just feelin’ a bit restless,” Graham admitted. 

 

“Same,” Ryan nodded, “was havin’ bad dreams, too.”

 

“Yeah,” Yaz nodded, looking down. Her concerned expression said me too. 

 

The Doctor’s throat went dry. She had been pumping the TARDIS full of her own psychic resonance – the worst of her thoughts. She’d been reckless to do it with humans on board, hadn’t even thought… but that was just her, wasn’t it? Not even thinking. Not even comforting her best friend when she’d been torn out of a dead dimension. She was lucky that she hadn’t caused them any serious damage – unless they were hiding it, which friends of hers were wont to do. 

 

“What about?” she asked. Again, trying for casual, but coming out strained and dry. 

 

“Can’t remember,” Ryan shrugged. The others murmured their agreement. Lucky, she thought, or they were lying. Her against them. 

 

“Want to do somethin’ relaxin’ today, then,” she offered, feigning brightness, “since you didn’t sleep well?”

 

“Oh, that’d be marvellous, Doc,” Graham smiled. He gave a pointed look to the other two, and they nodded their fast agreement. So transparent was their pretending – though she supposed hers was just as obvious. Both parties, pretending. Both hoping that the other wasn’t noticing just how much of their behaviour was an act. 

 

“Tropical resort on Gesteron Nine?” she asked. “They’ve got beaches of silver sand that’s warmed to the optimal temperature for every guest – psychic sand, it’s brilliant. They’ve got the best massages this side of the universe, a waterslide park, an anti-grav sun deck, twenty-seven swimming pools – of every flavour – and the best pool-side bars serving any drink you can think of.” 

 

They soaked up her words without their usual wide-eyed enthusiasm, though they nodded when she was finished, gave her their best appreciative smiles, and agreed. The perfect day out for her fam, while she was off doing more important things. She needed to take another trip home. 

 

 

She’d never been one for resorts. She would usually drop her companions off to do things like sunbathing and leisurely swimming and sipping summer cocktails while she poked around and tried to find something wrong with the establishment. Something exciting in a place built to be dull. Sometimes she did; sometimes she almost got thrown out of a plane after being possessed by an unknowable entity of consciousness on a planet made of diamonds – on a good day, anyway. 

 

She tried to imagine spending the entire day here, as her fam no doubt expected her to. Lounging on those perfectly warm, silver sands, stewing like a piece of cheese left out in the sun to melt and sweat and rot. 

 

When she opened the TARDIS doors, her friends decked out in bathers under their light, tropical beachwear, she hung back, still resolutely clothed in her usual overheating outfit. 

 

“Aren’t you coming?” Yaz asked, eyes narrowed into a suspicious squint. 

 

“No, you go on ahead,” she shrugged, “got some repairs to be gettin’ on with.”

 

“You were doin’ repairs all of last night,” Ryan points out. 

 

“Not all night,” she retorted, affronted. 

 

A frustrated look passed between Yaz and Ryan, though Graham simply looked tired – as if he knew what she was doing and wasn’t about to fight her on it. Yet. 

 

“Look,” the Doctor said, putting her hand to her forehead, massaging the premonition of a headache. “There’s still heaps more I have to do, and I don’t really like resorts, anyway, I’m not one for relaxin’.” 

 

“Clearly,” Ryan huffed. 

 

Graham nudged him gently and shot them both a calming look. “Come on kids,” he chirped. “Let’s go have fun and leave the Doctor to her sulking.” He cast the Doctor a cheeky, half-grin as he said this, and though it was meant to be lighthearted, she couldn’t help but take it to heart. She scowled and crossed her arms. Resolutely, she didn’t say a word. The smile fell from Graham’s face as he led the other two away. She watched them go, and saw Yaz look back over her shoulder with a longing stare. The Doctor turned away as soon as their eyes made contact, closed the doors, and went back to work at the console. 

 

 

She waited a while before taking off, in case they were watching. Then, she began the arduous task of calculating the coordinates of the precise incision in the walls of reality that would allow her entrance to Gallifrey’s secluded bubble universe. 

 

She stepped out of the TARDIS and tried to prepare herself for the scent of ash. Tried, being the key term, because nothing could have prepared her for the renewed sight of her home on fire. A wound, stitched up and reopened. She paced out onto the red sands – one trembling step at a time. During her first visit, her hands hadn’t left the comforting blue wood of the TARDIS door frame. A single step further would have sent her plummeting, falling to her knees in those crimson sands, dashed with ash. This time, she kept her feet. Walking, eyes down; towards a schism in time as a terrified child, across no-man’s-land toward a barn to make an impossible choice, toward a firing squad and a war-weathered, ancient president. Red sand. The terror it had caused her grappled with the grief that she felt. And this secret – this secret supposedly so enormous it had driven the Master to burn their home to the ground... Dully, she wondered if it was just a trick – a false mystery, a title spun to spur her into fruitless action. She wondered if he’d only done it to spite her. Always, hurting her. 

 

She trudged down the dunes towards the ruins of the Capitol. The trouble with a society of psychics with an affinity for the fourth dimension was that they echoed. The ghosts of their minds could remain, drifting in the psychic subspace and amplified by the network. Usually, these husk-like creatures of consciousness where uploaded to the amalgamated intelligence of the matrix – but these souls had never gotten the chance. They were alone, strung out, still individuals in a sense, but unravelling. All of them unravelling into one, great mind, teeming with fear and pain and loss. Confusion. Their voices cried out around her, clawing at her, the only flesh. The only thing living in sight. 

 

She saw shadows shifting in her peripheral – shadows that blew away into the ambient smoke and dust when observed, like quantum states. The great brace of the citadel; its metal girders once clasping at glass, were snapped and spiked, torn jagged and sharp towards the sky. Around it, sheets of the citadel’s jewelled golden glass hung in shards, and fallen to the smouldering dirt in great stained sheets. The metallic towers that had once glistened under twin suns now glistened with the ever-burning fires of cataclysm. Beauty, in a way that only the Master had ever understood. In a way that she almost had, when she’d left Gallifrey in political ruin after banishing Rassilon and his council. A destructive power struggle, spiralling down. They’d deserved it, for four and a half billion years of torture, they’d deserved it. So what, she wondered, had they done to the Master? 

 

Around the glassy ruins of the citadel, the city proper shuddered under the weight of the citadel, fallen upon it. Always stifling, was the citadel; the Time Lords, stifling the Gallifreyans with their long lives and their infinite timonic wisdom. Despite its idolisation – even from her, in the way that something lost always becomes rosier in hindsight, like childhood once its lost – it had always been a hellish planet. Hellish as the burnt orange sky. Hellish as the flames now consuming it. The city crumbled in brown slabs of plain stone and metal, always in the shadow of that glassy orb, now shattered. Traipsing through the rubble, red dust and black ash streaking her coat, she came across the bones. There weren’t many of them – because the power of the seismic blast that had ravaged the city had been so powerful that most of its people were no more than ashen shadows on the wind, nuclear ghosts. The only tangible, organic reminders that there were once people here who lived and breathed. People who were now only ash and bone. 

 

 

She scanned the planet for lifesigns. She’d done it the first time as well, and found nothing, but it had been done hastily, in the throes of shock and grief. No results. She hopped to the nearest city – the Capitol being the largest, of course, and one of the few left standing after the Time War – nothing there either. Nothing except the fire and crumbling towers. She visited some of the (again few, after the war) Great Houses in the wilderness. The estates that had once flourished amongst dense silver forests and red grasslands, left to toil in the dust after being ravaged by war, and now, burning. Still burning. The licking flames taunted her, as if to say they were freshly lit – that she could still put them out, still save someone. Just someone. It was merely a testament to the strength of the Master’s destruction that the fires still raged as brightly as ever. Raged, like him, somewhere out there – perhaps, if he was to live up to his reputation – already halfway out of the dark. 

 

She would meet him there, halfway, if she needed to. If that’s what it took. 

 

She wasn’t sure how long she spent there, letting the suns burn at her back and the sand stain her coat from sky-blue to burnished gold in the red. Not sure how long she spent listening to their voices screaming out – young and old, Time Lord and Gallifreyan, terrified and confused –  helpme-burning-needtoregenerate-flesh-alive-flesh-helpus. Long enough that her calves began to ache with the strain of walking, and her stomach began to rumble for lack of nourishment. No one left. It shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did, because she’d done it before, hadn’t she? She knew how to be the last. It was her humans that had stopped her going over the edge the last time; Rose, more specifically, but she was out of reach. Happy, without her, and out of reach. Her fam felt just as unreachable – the task of explaining herself to them completely insurmountable. Nine-hundred was an easier number to swallow than three-thousand. Blunt honesty was easier to swallow than what she’d done to them this time; hiding, dodging, lying, by omission. The longer she left it the worse it would get, but wasn’t that always the way. Things never got better. She reached out to him again, the Master, and even though she knew, without her relay scouring the spaces between dimensions, she had no chance, she hoped that perhaps his mind would cast itself here. She hoped that he was searching for her, too, if even just to gloat. Gloating was better than silence – but silence was all she got. 

 

“Just tell me why,” she whispered, sinking into the sand, running her hands through the course particles slung through with the dead. At her touch, they cried all the louder. “Just tell me why.”

Chapter Text

Before she returned to Gesteron Nine to pick up her team, she made sure to hide the damage. She washed her coat, the red sand (and the voices of the dead carried in its ashes) out of her fingernails, the dried salty tear tracks from her cheeks. When she turned up, they were already waiting for her. She’d aimed for two hours after she left, so she could go out and at least pretend to enjoy the day, but she arrived after ten. She suspected that the TARDIS did it on purpose, to spur their questioning, make her open up a little. Not a chance, not after the day (days?) she’d had. 

 

“Where’ve you been?” Yaz asked, as soon Ryan had relayed the news of the Doctor’s lateness. Ten hours, and she’d missed all the fun. 

 

“Doin’ repairs, like I said.” 

 

“Doin’ repairs while flyin’?” Ryan asked.

 

“No,” she sighed, frustrated, speaking to him as if he were very slow. “I was testin’ the repairs.” 

 

“What’s with the tan?” Yaz smirked. Steely and triumphant. Got you. Curse Gallifrey and its twin suns and sparse cloud cover. 

 

“Ugh, okay, fine,” she muttered, theatrically feigning defeat. “I did some repairs, then I went up to the tanning deck. Thought I’d give it a try, seein’ as you humans are always goin’ on about having slightly darker skin – you know, see what it’s all about.” Again, Graham was the only one not joining in the conversation, staring right through her lies. 

 

“Really?” Yaz asked, clearly skeptical. “And it’s that fast actin’?” 

 

“What, none of you tried it?” she asked innocently. 

 

“Didn’t think I needed it, actually,” Ryan muttered, trying for humor. 

 

Yaz gave him a weak smile, and turned back to the Doctor. “Take off your coat then, lets see the coverage.” 

 

The Doctor’s face darkened, but she righted it in a moment – too late, though, for them not to notice. “I quite like my coat, actually.”

 

“Roll up your sleeves, then,” Ryan tried. 

 

“No,” she said, far too forcefully. “Right, come on, there’s another day done and dusted – where to next?” she asked brightly, not facing them as she said it, but charging back through the TARDIS doors. Behind her, she heard Yaz scoff, and detected the near audible look cast between her and Ryan, and Graham’s reassuring shrug. 

 

“Err, actually, Doc,” he began, edging up behind her. She turned around too fast, and didn’t have time to rearrange her face into something resembling pleasant. “Err,” he stalled, again, at the sight of her cold expression. “We were thinking –” and he turned minutely back to Ryan and Yaz, who nodded along. Her against them. “– why don’t we have tea here tonight? The TARDIS kitchens are great and all, but wouldn’t it be nice to do something different, you know, something with a relaxing atmosphere and a nice view?” 

 

She smiled wanly. She really didn’t want to, but denying them this, especially after the disaster of her tanning lie, was sure to tip matters over the edge. “Sure,” she agreed, bracingly. Flippantly. It sounded a bit too much like she didn’t care. 

 

“Right then,” Graham clapped his hands. “Let’s get a shift on,” he winked, and threw a smile her way. She couldn’t muster the energy to plaster one on herself, and so she was met, again, with a disparaging look from Graham as he led them away. 

 

....

 

Dinner was quiet, at least from her end. The others all tried their best, for which she should have been grateful, but could only scrounge up irritation. She didn’t eat anything, either, despite the meal they ordered her with their infinite supply of intergalactic credits. She’d been all for eating until she’d seen it there in front of her; suddenly the act of chewing felt like grinding sand between her teeth (sand that was ash, and ash that had voices). 

 

They told her about their day at the resort; Yaz had spent the morning alternating between lounging on the beach with a drink in her hand, and splashing lazily in the water. Ryan had taken a look at the anti-grav sun-deck and the indigo wavepool – which, the Doctor thought, without much interest, hadn’t been there the last time she’d come – then the two kids had met up for some water-sliding shenanigans. Ryan walked them all through the largest, most physics-defying slide of them all, the lament fully equipped with sound effects and gratuitous hand-gestures. A Doctor-worthy explanation – though maybe not the Doctor that was sitting at the table beneath the shade of a large, clashingly-coloured umbrella with a sour expression and the mental capacity for nothing but slow nods and murmurs of agreement. Graham had spent the day, as he put it, sitting as still as possible, in a variety of relaxing locations. Proper boring – though, hadn’t she spent her time doing just the same? Stewing in grief the same way Graham had stewed in blissful nothingness – both of them getting a tan. She only half-listened to their tales – maybe not even that, because she knew the inclinations of their characters so well that she could probably have told them exactly how they were going to spend their day before they’d even landed. Paths of logic. Human minds. Just another perk of getting old; the discouraging predictability of all things. 

 

What she did notice was their flickering looks, exchanged between eyes like bolts of lightning. Quick as a flash, thinking she wouldn’t notice. Thinking she couldn’t hear the rattling exasperation in their thoughts. She looked out at the setting sun, dipping below the atmospherically modified horizon of Gersteron Nine. The great burnished semi-circle hung above violet waters, casting the sky and its sparse stringing clouds in a haze of orange. Like flames, and like home. The genetically-engineered palm trees stood black silhouetted against the setting sun; jagged shapes carved out in the sky like the shadows of crumbling towers… 

 

Even there, she reached out to him. On a tropical resort planet nowhere near any suitable equipment, she reached out. She wanted him to see the palm trees and the way they looked like slanting citadel towers, melting down to the arid soil. She wanted him to see the orange sky that echoed home, wanted him to be sorry. She wanted him to feel a taste of what she was feeling, and then ask him why. She screamed it in her mind, from behind closed eyes; contact, contact, contact

 

“Doctor!” Yaz cried, the irritation in her voice biting through the Doctor’s reverie. She hummed her attention, pushing the sound of his wild laughter from her mind. “If you’re not going to eat that, let’s go back to the TARDIS. It’s getting dark.” So it was; the blue skies cast marmalade were fading to black, stars beginning to sparkle through. Again, no words from the Doctor’s end, just a nod, her face a rigid mask. 

 

“Here, love –” Graham said – and she wished he wouldn’t call her that, there’s no way he’d call her that if she was still a bloke with a wrinkled face and a permanent icy scowl. She hated the way her sullenness was no longer a cause to stay away, but a cry for help, pulling them closer. Sympathy, and not an ounce of fear. It was infuriating. “– do you want me to ask for a box so you can take it back to the TARDIS?” She felt like a kid that had just had a tantrum in a restaurant, and was sulking, getting her meal brought back home. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being small; hunched over, thin, ragged-haired, hollow-cheeked. And young. And pitied. 

 

“Sure,” she muttered, jutting out her jaw, sinking further in upon herself. Smaller. 

 

“Right then,” he nodded, avoiding her eyes and wobbling to his feet. He pottered off towards the bar, dodging decorative barrels and tables occupied by gaggling aliens. Loud aliens. 

 

“Come on then,” Ryan said, getting to his feet and extending an arm towards her, “let’s get goin’.” She glared up at him, unreasonably icy – perhaps, she thought, trying to muster up some of that old anger. Again, with the towering over her. Again, in his thoughts, the pity. She hated it. Sometimes she wanted to scream at them; her true age, her true titles. Anything to stop them from looking at her like that. Except, she wasn’t that sort of person anymore. Just a traveller. 

 

“I can manage,” she snapped, and got to her feet. Again, a look shot between two sets of eyes behind her back. Attacking. 

 

On their way back to the TARDIS, takeaway box clutched under her arm, she charged ahead, letting her gaze burn. 

 

Behind her, they talked, they always talked. Oncoming, was the barrage of questions, like a storm. Keep it at bay, she thought, just for tonight. If they asked her tonight she was afraid of what she might do. 

 

So she didn’t give them the chance. Back in the TARDIS, she waited for them to file in and, as soon as they were safely beyond the threshold, yanked the dematerialisation lever with an unnecessary amount of force – enough to make the ship groan in protest – and stalked off up the stairs, and down the hall. Behind her, the console blared deepest blue, swimming stark with cirrussed red.

 

She would pay, she knew, for tonight’s irritability, her inability to plaster on her usual mask. She’d have to do better tomorrow.  

 

 

For once, she spent the night in her room instead of at the console, toiling away. She called it her room, though she came here less often perhaps than anywhere in the TARDIS – at least, counting the permanent rooms. There was a plain bed, barely slept in, and a hardwood desk, often sat at. She would sit there when she felt she didn’t deserve the comfort of the bed, which was often, and would lay with her head against the dark wood until her face was stained in bruise. There were photographs of a great many people, whose faces filled her with insurmountable shame, and a collection of old screwdrivers. She’d moved everything from her office at St Luke’s university after she’d regenerated, having delivered her resignation papers in guise as a personal assistant. She’d come to this room, then, to drop off the items, but left as quickly as she could, because it wasn’t a place she came when things were going well. Not a place she came when she’d just dropped three wonderful humans back on Earth after a range of exciting adventures – because they’d agreed to travel with her, and what was more, they hadn’t the faintest inkling of the person she truly was. Before that, she’d sulked here for a while about her wife, their long night up, and before that, a long time sitting and trying to curb the instinct to tap-tap eighty-two against the armrest in preparation to run, and trying to remember the face of a girl named Clara. 

 

And here she was again, a fact that was a testament to the depth of her pain. Here she was again.

 

....

 

“Mornin’ Doc, feelin’ any better?” Graham asked, as soon as she ducked back out to the console room the following morning. 

 

“Loads, yeah,” she muttered, unconvincingly. “Thanks Graham.”

 

“Did you eat your leftovers?” Again, treating her like a kid. She resisted the urge to scowl. 

 

“Yes, I did, thanks Graham,” she said, trying to smile. Failing to smile. 

 

“So,” Ryan said, clapping his hands together,” where are we off to today?”

 

“Anywhere you want – time and space and all that jazz – remember?” she smirked. 

 

“How about some sort of nature walk – like proper alien nature,” Yaz suggested. “I’m gettin’ sorta tired of artificial stuff, you know.” 

 

Pools, waterslides, roller-coasters; canned fun. Yaz was right, they needed something real. Something subdued, the realisation dawned upon her, something quiet. Somewhere she wouldn’t be able to hide her silence behind a clamouring crowd. “Sounds excellent Yaz,” the Doctor beamed, too enthusiastic. She really couldn’t win. 

 

“Yeah, I’m game,” said Ryan.

 

“Alright,” conceded Graham, “just nothin’ with steep hills or loads of stairs, mind.” 

 

“Alien nature park it is,” the Doctor smiled. She spun around and began working her fingers at the console, buying time, at first, because she still wasn’t sure where to take them. She searched her memory for a planet that was exciting and completely unearthly – but that was also as dissimilar to Gallifrey as possible. She didn’t want to be going anywhere with even a hint of orange in its skies, or russet in its sands. Not even the sunsets. A cool colour palette, if she could. Somewhere with a human-breathable atmosphere in a star system uninvolved with the Time War – so unlikely to be scanning for Time Lords or to have any sort of fear/admiration for them – and one that had never heard of the Doctor – whether in myth or in person. She was like a real estate agent, and, ticking off the list of criteria, found her options extremely limited. There were only so many worlds in the sky, despite the teeming nature of the universe. 

 

 

She took them to Kresilo; a wintery world – so no chance of red sands. It was summer – the park was closed in the winter, on account of the deathly cold snow storms – but still, when they exited the TARDIS, the humans and their disgruntled tag-along were jacketed and warm for the light summer snows. The Doctor had the TARDIS materialise her a thick woolen jumper emblazoned with her signature rainbow stripe. 

 

“Promise you’ll stay with us this time,” Yaz asked the Doctor, as they stepped out onto the pale blue frosted grasses of Kresilo. 

 

“‘Course I will,” The Doctor assured her, accepting that, today, she’d just have to go with it. Above them, the skies were deep blue – deeper than Earth’s usual hues – and blazing with green and fuschia in nebulous spirals of radiation. The colours danced across the distant mountains, ice-capped and glinting in the soft, muted sunlight. Before them, a homely wooden lodge, square windows glazing the show with a yellow sheen, and puffing clouds of pale smoke (smoke; curling above a seething, charred ruin). 

 

“Looks like that’s the guest lodge,” Graham said, pointing towards the building. 

 

This place is so cool, seriously Doctor,” Ryan gaped up at the spiralling colours in the sky, and the Doctor wasn’t sure if he was being sincere or trying to soften her up again. Attacking, in a round about way. 

 

“No problem,” she said. 

 

They headed across the glistening grass towards the lodge, shaded in towering trees of deep brown wood sprouting blue leaves swirled throughout with colour like opals. Inside, the warmth was stifling. 

 

“Shall we get ourselves a tour guide?” Graham suggested, leafing through some brochures advertising the walking trails and guided tours. 

 

“Got our own, don’t we,” Ryan chuckled, nudging the Doctor playfully. 

 

“No, you, err, you go ahead and get one if you want one, Graham,” she said quietly, hand clasping at her upper arm where Ryan had nudged her. It hadn’t hurt, just taken her by surprise. She felt, these days, as if she were living a few seconds behind the rest of them, and straining to hear them from a few extra meters away. Distant, always. 

 

“Oh, err alright then,” Ryan grumbled. 

 

“You sure?” Yaz asked.

 

“Yeah,” she shrugged, “I’ve actually never been to this planet before, just read a brochure or two.” It was a lie, she’d been here at least twice in her many lives, and given extremely animated tours both times. A lot better, she’d wager, than anyone who was actually paid to do it. “Thought I’d try out something new for all of us. Couldn’t tell you a thing about it – except,” she added hurriedly, “that it’s perfectly safe for humans, so don’t worry ‘bout that.” 

 

“Ok,” Yaz nodded.”

 

“So, why don’t you three go ahead on the park tour, and I’ll stay here and gather some readings on the native wildlife, and –”

 

“No way,” Yaz cried.

 

“Yeah, not havin’ that,” Ryan agreed. 

 

“Come on, Doc,” Graham pleaded, “you left us on our own the last three trips!” 

 

“I had dinner with you last night!”

 

“Yeah, you were a right laugh, too,” Ryan muttered. 

 

“You’ve been avoidin’ us,” said Yaz. All of them rounding on her, attacking. 

 

She sighed, burying her anger. “Can we please not do this here, now?” 

 

“It’s gotta happen sometime,” said Graham, “ever since that business with the Kasavin and the Master –”

 

“I said not now, ” she hissed, lowering her voice to a steely whisper. It shut him up good and proper. They didn’t even wait for her to turn around to exchange a mutinous look. She desperately wanted to turn her heel from this suffocating lodge and trudge back to the TARDIS, face their protestations later. She didn’t. 

 

They got themselves a mediocre tour guide and traipsed along through the Kresilian wilderness. They took a winding trail under the opal canopy of the dark forests, passed by a frozen waterfall that seemed to hold crystal prisms of captured rainbows within its ice. They stopped by a mountainside cafe and drank rich hot chocolate that stained their lips and burnished their noses red. They took a sleek monorail up one of the shorter slopes, and looked out from the crest upon the beauty of the famous Kresilian lights, amplified in the darkening sky. It should have been a wonderful day, but not one of them seemed to be enjoying themselves. Throughout the trip, their thoughts cried havetoask-who-why-cantkeepon, though she stuck too close for them to converse in more than hushed, huddled whispers. 

 

She, on the other hand, didn’t say a word. She grudgingly kept her promise to stay with them for the entirety of the trip, and thought that perhaps, despite her discomfort, it was for the best. Imagine what they’d have said if she hadn’t been here to hear them. At least if they talked back on the ship she could listen in. Dully, at the back of her mind, she wondered how it had ever come to this; the secrecy, the hot, putridity of boiling hatred. Hidden glances, whispered words. They were all supposed to be friends. Again, just as dully – just as ambient in her mind – was the thought that this was exactly what the Master had wanted. Just to spite her. Just to hurt her. 

 

 

Back in the TARDIS, they didn’t confront her. Not yet, because she suspected they wanted to have a bit of a team huddle before they charged in, guns blazing. She thought she was cordial enough, when she said goodbye. They too, were nice in their farewells. Innocent. Calm before the storm. 

 

When she went to the TARDIS screen again to key in the coordinates to Graham’s room, where they were no doubt planning their attack, the console sparked and flashed. 

 

“Seriously?” she hissed, “not you too.” 

 

The TARDIS replied with a series of groaning, engines wailing a lament of wrong-redanger-love.

 

“Oh, shut up,” she grumbled, folding her arms. “It’s just that – everything was so good, and now it’s all,” she threw up her hands, “everything’s falling apart.” she sighed, and stepped back from the console. “What am I doing?” She looked up at the crystalline pillars laced to a point above her, like a star. 

 

The TARDIS beeped an incomprehensible reply that sounded in the thrum of its engines and the soft spell of soft blue that crept into the lights. “What are we going to do, old girl,” she whispered, hand splayed and soft against the ridge of the console, trying to feel the essence of the ship’s mind, searching for advice. Someone else, she realised, from home. Adrift. She repeated, uselessly, aimlessly; “everything’s falling apart.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, they asked her. Those conspicuous side-glances and exchanged whispers – all those little plots coming to fruition as they stood before her like an army. A united front. 

 

She busied herself around the console, dashing about, flicking levers and spinning dials – stil clothes, as those sharp, observant minds of theirs would have doubtless picked up, in yesterday’s dark jumper. Each one of them put great effort into their feigning of casuality; leaning against the pillars, standing down a few steps. Unthreatening. She wondered if Yaz had given them an overnight crash-course on how to approach a potentially dangerous individual with care. She wouldn’t know, seeing as the TARDIS had cut off her access to its own internal surveillance systems. Perhaps, she reminded herself, that was for the best. She was trying her very best not to be cruel. 

 

Yaz was the first to speak, as always. A bursting comment, innocent, and rapid in its exit. Brusque, blunt. “Are you alright? – you’ve been really quiet.” 

 

She tried to bat around their comments with her usual air of ease and energy, but it was strained. All of it stiff, as if she’d been wrung out. 

 

Questions. Always curious. She liked curious, when they were asking her things like “what does it want?” or “how does that machine work? Or “where are we?”. They were easy things to answer. Fun, even. 

 

Questions like “who are you, really?” – she didn’t like those one bit. There was a time when the question would have brought a prodigious glint to her eye, a smile bared behind a stoic mask, because there was a time when she loved to blow their minds. She’d announce it, proud, as if proving herself; I’m the Doctor. She wasn’t like that now. Where once she’d relished in her age and her power, wore her loneliness and her nefariousness like a badge of pride, and then accepted it along with the more subdued life of a sacred oath – now, her age felt like something shameful. Something she should hide. She’d told them that she was just a traveller, just their buddy mate the Doctor. Mates weren’t supposed to be feared across the galaxies, they weren’t supposed to be passed about like a legend and given titles like Butcher and Destroyer and Beast.

 

What she did instead was reel off a list of nonsense words that, for all they knew, she was making up on the spot. She told them that she could regenerate, but not how many times she had. Let them assume once, maybe twice. Fourteen was far too many lives to have lived. Too many, even for a Time Lord. 

 

They weren’t satisfied, she could tell. As she slunk away from them, brows drawn together in irritation, shoulders stiff and posture brittle enough to snap. Behind her, the orange undercurrent of light whimpered feebly, and she let the TARDIS bathe her face in bitter blue, letting herself breathe. She felt as if there was too much air inside her to reasonably escape; no matter how many breaths she took there was always another one waiting its turn, bustling to exit, jostling about in her stomach and churning nausea. She needed to leave. She needed them to leave, at least for a while. She couldn’t stomach the feeling of their stares much longer, the whisperings of their thoughts still asking, always asking questions. Always doubting, nowadays. They used to believe in her so completely that it made her hearts sing in harmony with the feeling. Always agreeing, even when she felt nothing but doubt. 

 

“So,” she said, turning around and clapping her hands together. She bounded down the stairs with a skip in her step – still stiff, mechanical, almost. Rehearsed, pre-programmed. “Where to today, then?” 

 

Yaz gave her a weak smile. “Wherever you want.” Indulging her, they thought, but in reality, it was just another decision she had to make. Just another thing weighing on her mind. 

 

“Tell you what I’m missing,” she grinned, dashing over to the console and resuming her usual busywork. Behind her, the lights on the walls still flash a discordant blue cold, and beneath her fingers the console struggles to overpower it with gold. “Earth!” she said, timing the exclamation with the pull of a lever. Old theatrics. Not, by the looks on their faces, working at all like it should. 

 

“Really?” Yaz asked, voicing their unanimous skepticality. 

 

“Yeah! Good’ol’Earth, 21st Century – Sheffield!” she exclaimed. 

 

“Right,” Ryan sighed, “you want to take us home.” 

 

Yaz grimaced, blinking profusely. The Doctor was terrified she might start crying, though thankfully she didn’t. Graham’s face fell flat. 

 

“Not home!” she assured them, “just back for a bit – a cafe or something – you know, a good and proper English breakfast. I just thought it would be nice, you know, after all the alien planets. I know how you humans get homesick.” Homesick – she wished she hadn’t used that particular phrase. Homesick, for ash and bone. 

 

“So you’re not just going to drop us all back home because we asked you a personal question?” Graham asked, stonily. 

 

“What?” the Doctor cried, affronted. “Of course not, I wouldn’t do that to you, team.” She was over doing it on the enthusiasm, she knew, but it seemed the only thing she could manage was coldness or an obvious act. “Just a trip back to Earth for something familiar, some breakfast, grab your suitcases from home, then back into the box to wherever you want to go.” 

 

“Right,” Yaz nodded, faking a smile. “Okay, let’s do it.”

 

“Know any good places near home?” she asked them. 

 

“Oh,” Graham piped up, “there’s a great breakfast place Grace and I used to go on Sundays – walkin’ distance and everythin’ – here, I’ll punch in the address, shall I?” 

 

“Graham, this is one of the most sophisticated temporal space ships in the known universe – it takes coordinates in five dimensions at a minimum, and navigates across the –”

 

“Yeah, okay, but can I not just punch in the address like on a GPS?” 

 

She sighed, “well, yeah, okay, I guess you can.” She made a show of stepping back to allow him access to the console keyboard. 

 

“Get in!” he exclaimed, rubbing his hands together before keying in the details. 

 

When the Doctor turned around, she saw that Ryan and Yaz were engaged in an intense conversation, heads pressed together, whispers spitting between the both of them with rapid ease. “What’ya talkin’ about,” she interrupted, all false cheer and glinting smile. 

 

“Err, nothin’” Ryan hastened. 

 

Yaz whipped around with a wide, fearful expression on her face, which she quickly plastered over with an echo of the Doctor’s cheer. “Just discussin’ menu options – it’s been a while since we’ve eaten somethin’ we can recognise from its name.” 

 

“Yeah, no more Zoggropis for me,” Ryan chuckled, shifting his feet. 

 

“Couldn’t be worse than those kebabs on Akhaten,” Yaz grinned. 

 

The Doctor glared at them, but didn’t press the issue. She could hear their thoughts rattling around in those awfully hollow heads; didn’thear-leavingus-don’ttrust-who?  

 

“Right then,” she felt her face twitch in irritation, “to Earth.” 

 

 

Upon landing, she opened the doors to a dreary Sheffield alleyway. 

 

“So, when are we?” Graham asked, dodging past. 

 

“Morning after we left,” she Doctor smiled. “You lot can pop home and grab your bags after this if you’d like, I know things got a bit messy after Barton and all that – you know, recently revoked fugitive status, technological conspiracy. We can do our proper long trip now – that last one was just to make it up to you for leaving you in a crashin’ plane.”

 

“Right,” Yaz laughed. Making it up indeed. “I’ll just say I’ve rescheduled the flight. Wonder if my Dad’s still on Facebook goin’ on about that Barton conspiracy.”

 

“He’ll be goin’ on about that one for years,” Ryan chuckled. “At least he’s right about this one.”

 

“And the spider one,” Yaz reminded him. “Maybe he’s right about all of them,” she gasped, half-kidding. 

 

“Even the one about Roombas bein’ mobile wiretaps for the government?” Graham chuckled. 

 

“Not in this century,” said the Doctor. 

 

“Ominous,” Ryan grinned. It almost felt like old times, but in her chest, her hearts were still racing, breath still struggling to escape her. She could feel that blue light blazing into her pores even though the source was far behind her; grief, boring in. 

 

“I figured we’d hold off our proper long trip until after this,” the Doctor continued, cutting of their banter. “Two weeks of your linear time, and as long as you want of space time. It’s like I said, though, just be wary of spending too much extra time aboard the TARDIS, because people notice lost time.” She thinks of the Ponds, who found it so difficult to balance two lives, and of Clara, who’d given up on her second life entirely. Best to limit the travelling to realistic bursts, keep a balance – and keep the families and friends out of the loop, if she could. “So,” the Doctor smiled, “bags, bring ‘em back here, then breakfast?”

 

“Soundin’ good,” Graham nodded. 

 

“So, what is this breakfast place anyway?” Yaz asked Graham as the three humans started walking away from the TARDIS and towards the grey morning light of the street proper. 

 

“Oh, it’s golden Yaz, honestly,” Graham assured her. The Doctor stayed by the doors, grappling with herself. She couldn’t be around them right now, she couldn’t keep up the act much longer. She would come back, she assured herself ( oh yes , an old voice echoed, I will come back ). Unless she didn’t. 

 

“Too fancy,” Ryan grumbled, “you and Nan were always tryin’ to drag me along on Sundays.” 

 

She ducked back inside the TARDIS doors and pulled them closed. 

 

“What d’ya reckon Doc?” Graham asked, voice muffled behind the doors. She took a deep, ragged breath, and rushed over to the console. Around her, the console blared a blue so deep it was nearly indigo, and her hands shook violently as she reached for the dematerialisation lever. Her hand faltered. She wondered if the ship would moor her here entirely, refuse to leave. 

 

“I’m going to go back,” she whispered. “I will, not even a moment will have passed for them, I promise.”

 

“Doc?” Graham shouted, poking his head inside the door. “Aren’t you comin’ with us?” 

 

She yelled over her shoulder; “you go and grab your stuff and bring it back to the cafe – I’ll wait in there for you – order some coffees, yeah?” 

 

“Remember to get skim,” he winked. 

 

“Yes Graham, I think I know your coffee orders by now.”

 

“See ya in a bit.” Graham pulled back from the doors and closed them behind him.

 

“What’s she doin’?” She heard Yaz ask from beyond the door, agitated. Panicked. Still thinking she was going to leave. 

 

She listened with mounting relief as their tirade of anxieties diminished. She waited until she was sure that the wheezing of the TARDIS wouldn’t attract their attention, took a deep breath, and pulled the lever down.  

 

...

 

She didn’t go looking for distress signals, not straight away – no, she was in dire need of something familiar. The only place her mind craved to visit, because there were people who spoke the many-layered telepathic tones, high and glimmering and sharp and glass, of her language. If only echoes, ghosts of ash and bone, it was better than those brutish human thoughts she’d been surrounded by for so long. The place her mind kept wandering back to, was Gallifrey. 

 

She was getting good at breaking out of the universe now; piloting a machine with expert psychic entanglement between pilot and engine. A six-manned craft flown by just one – if only her driving examiner could see her now. Except, that old coot was dead, and so was everybody else. 

 

Again, she landed upon the ridge above the Capitol, because it afforded to most spectacular and confronting view of the destruction. She found catharsis in torturing herself with the sight, a twisted excitement as she scaled down the slope towards the fire, welcoming the voices of the dead. 

 

In amongst the rubble, she knelt, and scraped the sand and tortured glass from a charred, petrified bone. Second metacarpal bone, from the look of it, though it was considerably deformed, and the rest of the hand lay around it in crumbling chunks, else scattered on the ashes in the wind. She reached out and touched the bone. Instantly, her eyes were pressed shut as a cacophony of sounds and images and feelings raged through her mind. A life of duty, a life spent dreaming and in fear and living in the shadow of a war raged before they were woven and pushed out into the world. Quakes in the ground, tremors to raging stalactites like jagged sword-points slicing through the city. Bombs of white-hot ultra-violet, radiation storms and mushroom clouds; clouds of poison, crumbling stone and metals and shattering glass, an orange sky blacked out in the soot and torn through by flames and screaming – an entire city screaming, a planet, screaming from their straining vocal chords to their synapses across the psyche of the world, screaming, burning. Dying. The Gallifreyans died first, she tasted, bitter, and the Time Lords after. Some of them even made it to another body before they were killed by the acrid air of the falling sky; stumbling, barely born, and dying all over again. 

 

Psychic imprints, laced through the biological remains like a final message. Like a black box. She was breathing it, those final messages, carrying them with her – literally, this time. She heaved it in, all that pain, half-wishing she’d been here to see it happen. Been there to die with them. The Master would never have done it if she were her, she realised, because he was always trying to hurt her, and this was the best way to do it. She sunk down into the sand and curled herself up – no longer worried about small and thin and being pitiful – there was no one left to see her. Nothing but the dead voices, wondering how she is still flesh, when everything is burning. She tucked her knees to her chin and let tears fall freely, let her body wrack and convulse as she heaved them from her soul. She let the sands wash over her and the ash riddle her lungs as she clasped the bone in her hand. Nothing left for her to do, except mourn – and still, always, wanting him. Him, hurting her, and their people, hurting the both of them. All sickly dependent on one another. And she was never-ending, never-dying, even if she stayed here until her body hollowed out there’d be new fire and a new life, born here amongst ash and bone.  

 

 

Sometime later, when she trudged back up the ruddish desert slopes of Gallifrey, she still wasn’t ready to go back to her friends. Drifting through the vortex, sitting with her legs swinging over the edge of the door frame, letting the timewinds scorch and scathe her, breathing it in, she still wasn’t ready. She kept the bone, a constant reminder of home as a slight bulge in her expansive coat pockets. 

 

Going back to her friends would mean explaining herself. It would mean hearing more of those ceaseless questions and brusque, barging thoughts. Dancing around snatched glances behind her back, and their talk, and their doubt, and worse – their fear. 

 

She didn’t want to be around people who knew her, even those who only knew a tiny fraction, like her fam. She needed fast and simple, lonely travelling – the dangerous sort. 

 

She went looking for more distress signals. There were certain patches of space and time where they were more likely to occur. Wait until the humans or human-adjacent species were out and mingling amongst the stars – because they were always getting themselves into trouble, and were more likely to trust a being of a similar form to themselves. Go to the industrial areas, the fringes, the abandoned places newly explored of tapped into for new resources; those were the places that danger lurked, undiscovered and undisturbed. Whether it be a space ship, an orbital station, a planet, or a galaxy; when people needed help, she never refused. She couldn’t refuse – because she needed to help or else what was she? – just a lonely old, grieving thing, hiding behind an empty title.

Chapter Text

 

When, finally, she received a distress call, she jumped up with an energy that was far too much excitement and not nearly enough alarm. The flashing red warning lights of the TARDIS spiked harsh through the blue (she didn’t bother to keep the console bright anymore – there was no one to comment on the moody decor). Alarms blared, and the Doctor revelled in the chaos of the situation. Fast-paced. It was exactly what she needed. 

 

It was just her sort of adventure. Desolate world in a desolate system – mining for rare resources on a planet assumed abandoned but that was, in fact, home to a lone Krafayis – the TARDIS scanners told her as much. Invisible creatures, blind, but extremely deadly. A lone Krafayis, stranded on this abandoned planet, attacking the mining team that had dared to disrupt its slumber. It was a classic tale of industrial greed versus the natural order – she knew just how these adventures were wont to go. 

 

It was the beginning of a classic romp; isolated facility, no hope, no help, and a murderous beast hunting them – picking them off one by one. She was a good hunter, too – good at turning the tables, prey to predator. 

 

...

 

She flashed her psychic paper to a crowd of wide-eyed, dark-browed humanoids clad in industrial gear and wrapped in panic. 

 

“They sent you?” a grizzled man asked, clearly sceptical. The ones in charge usually were – especially when it came to her new appearance. All sunny smiles and rainbows – bright sky coat and summer hair. Soon enough she’d prove him wrong in doubting her – or, as was the case otherwise, he’d die. The man was clothed in a once-neon industrial jumpsuit, scathed and singed black, muddied in the frantic chase. 

 

“That’s right,” she confirmed, reading the psychic paper for herself, “I’m the industrial incidents investigator – come to investigate the cause of your troubles – get you off-world and back to your supervisors once I’ve put the matter to rest.” She glanced around at the surrounding crowd of employees – all experiencing a different stage of disgruntlement and distrust. Some of them had worked their way across to hopeful – and they were the ones that she’d try the hardest to keep alive. “Can I take a look at your systems?” she asked, keeping up the image of politeness.

 

One of the employees shot a nervous look to her supervisor – the grizzled man who still seemed extremely reluctant to let the Doctor take charge. 

 

When no one answered her question, the Doctor tried; “look, I’m just tryin’ to be polite – I don’t actually care if you say yes or no.” A scowl deepened on her face; “I’m lookin’ at your systems either way.” The supervisor glared at her, but nodded reluctantly. “Right,” she chided, rolling her eyes, “got there in the end, didn’t we?” 

 

Hands on machinery – it felt good. Classic forty-fifth century software – so a bit outdated where they were, which (based on the taste of the chemical brands in the air and the way the time winds seemed to favour a clockwise spin) was the forty-eighth. Proper retro screen to save on costs; green 2D rendered floor-plan with red dots indicating life signs. Five in this room and three more in other sections of the plant – ah, she corrected, two – because one of the lights had just flickered out. Oh well, she’d started out with eight, now they were seven. As long as she kept three or four alive she’d count this as one of her good adventures. 

 

“Right, so from my, err,” she stalled, “industrial scanning, err, ship. I’ve worked out your invisible vandal-slash-murderer is not a natural disaster or a disgruntled spirit – both of which are quite likely to happen on an offworld mine – it’s actually a Krafayis.”

 

The grizzled bossman huffed, “there’s no such thing as Krafayis – they’re just a myth.”

 

“What,” she rebuked, turning to face him, “just because you can’t see them you think they’re not real. If you’ve got another explanation for the invisible force destroyin’ your plant and killin’ your workers, I’m all ears.” When he didn’t answer her she turned to look at the four others standing in the room, trying to pick out the ones that were more likely to live to see the surface of another planet. “Now, which one of you is the techy, I need to interface with you systems.”

 

“That’d be me,” the youngest of them piped up. A young woman, of course, and very pretty – also, of course. “I’m the IT guy.” 

 

“Right then, IT guy, get over here I need to feed some biodata into the site computers,” she grinned. 

 

“Marters, you take orders from me, not her,” the bossman – as she had decided to dub him – blustered. 

 

“Marters, do you want to survive or do you want to sit in this bunker and get crushed to death by an angry Krafayis like this guy?”

 

“I’ll go for option one,” she quipped. Her hair, the Doctor noticed, was long and dark, braided into a single plait and twisted up into a loose bun. Because of course, of course, she had to look like Yasmin Khan. 

 

The Doctor pulled out her screwdriver equipped with a bio-scan of the local Krafayis – undetectable on most systems. “What sort of device is that?” Marters asked, incredulous. 

 

“Oh, invented it myself – swiss-army sonic.”

 

“Swiss?” she asked, confused. 

 

“Right, sorry, I’m from Earth.”

 

“What–” she began to question – ever the investigative types, were these PC Khan lookalikes. 

 

“I need you to re-program the system-wide bioscanners to recognise the biological imprint I’m parsing into the system – can you do that?” 

 

“I, err, I think so. Shouldn’t be too difficult, it was only built to recognise species of human origin but I can expand the boundaries.” she bit her lip and bent over the console, setting to work. “You said Earth – I’m guessing you mean New Earth, old Earth’s long since dead.” 

 

“Orphan 55,” the Doctor recalled, grimly, “I’m aware.” The current course of events certainly favoured that particular outcome for the human race. The Doctor pulsed her sonic, transferring the scan of the Krafayis. 

 

“Ok, I’ve set the computer to scan for the bio-prints imported from your device.”

 

“Excellent work!” She exclaimed. Marters beamed at her as new life signs appeared on the screen. One, namely a Krafayis, stalking the upper levels of the facility. “There we go,” she spun around to face the four others, “your computer can now pick up the location of the Krafayis – however, we won’t be able to see it, so I suggest you all open your comms units –” she pointed her sonic towards the bulky devices the employees were wearing on their wrists and activated their screens. “– and keep track of it using the map.” 

 

“You know,” she said, turning back towards the screen and bending down, “I met a Krafayis once – wonderful weekend with Van Gogh, by the way – they’re invisible, but their hearing is very sensitive. The seismic disruptions of the mining operations woke it from its hibernation, and now it’s doing the only thing it knows how to do – destroy,” she glanced around half expecting to see Ryan, Graham, and Yaz standing there, their eager eyes eating up her explanation. She didn’t let their absence deter her – because Marter’s expression was nearly as good – and the Doctor; wide eyed and wild handed. She was in her element. “The Krafayis, you see, are pack animals. A warrior race. They’re brutal – and if there’s a weak link in the pack, it gets left behind.” She pointed towards the screen and the new lifeform marked upon it. A red dot in a maze of cyber green, stalking. “This one’s alone now, alone in the universe,” she said, voice growing quieter by the word. “Stumbling across this desolate planet filled with all that rage and quashing loneliness.” She stared at the screen, at the little red dot. The light reflected in her eyes like so may burning towers; like red sand, blowing across an ashen ruin. “It’s raging out at anything and everything it can touch,” her voice was barely a whisper – gossamer thin, and just as fragile. “Anything to stop that pain.” She coughed and snapped out of the spiral. Beside her, Marters was looking at her with concern writ across her face. 

 

“Err, I think it’s coming towards us,” one of the employees said, staring down at his comms unit.

 

“Right, yes, that’d be because of the station-wide electromagnetic signal that just pulsed outwards from this room when I imported the Krafayis biodata into your systems,” she blurted out, rapid, worried. Exhilarated. 

 

“What?” the bossman shouted. 

 

“Shh, did I not just say that Krafayis have very sensitive hearing?”

 

“What do we do?” another of the employees cried, looking between bossman and the Doctor, wondering who he should trust. 

 

“We’ve gotta get a shift on,” she grinned, manic. “Right, out the door you lot, that’s it. Stick together, find someplace quiet, watch for the Krafayis on your comms units. I’m going to go and find the other two survivors.” 

 

“On your own?” Marters asked.

 

“Right then,” bossman blustered, raising his voice at the other crew members, “what she said.” He, of course, was first out the door, the others trailing behind him. The last one – the weedy boy who, a minute or so ago, hadn’t believed in Krafayis, cast a look back for Marters as he left.

 

“Yeah,” the Doctor sighed, smiling at Marters, “on my own – that’s okay though, I’m good on my own.” 

 

“But,” she argued, wide eyed. Dark eyed. “You don’t know the systems – what if something goes wrong. I don’t want to just hide out in a closet while people are in danger.”

 

The Doctor smirked, “you make a compelling point, M– actually,” she cut herself off, “what’s your first name? Marters is a bit formal for Krafayis hunting.” 

 

“It’s Cass.” 

 

The Doctor blazed a grin and held out a hand in ofference. “Nice to meet you Cass,” Cass took the Doctor’s hand with an echoing smile, “run for your life!” 

 

...

 

Soon enough, they were running through dark tunnels, tin rattling overhead and crumbling out onto a grey sky. An invisible beast lumbered after them, and the Doctor grinned something wicked. Cass was just behind her, a smile teasing at the edge of her panic, too. 

 

She was perfect, in the chase, because the chase didn’t afford time for asking questions. 

 

They managed to make it to the two survivors; one trapped in a room sealed from the outside, and another trapped under some fallen rubble. Both were easy saves, and uninjured. Easy pickings, she thought – she was getting a little too good at this. The Doctor and Cass sent them on their way to where the others were holed up near the control room, then set their minds on catching the Krafayis. She was rather forceful on the ‘catching’ rather than ‘killing,’ which had been Cass’ first instinct. Humans, she reflected – see a monster and immediately dream up all the ways you can destroy it. 

 

With Cass’ brilliant help, she managed to gain full access to the facilities industrial systems, allowing them to heard the Krafayis into the most secure part of the facility using a series of alarms to draw it into corridors while they hid in the shadows, and streaked out to seal off the bulkheads behind the creature as it lumbered past. They led it, following its progress as a little red dot on their comms units, into a domed central chamber of the facility housing the main site drill. It twisted, heavy and wrought, like a pillar running from the ceiling to the great steaming hole in the ground, great slabs of rusted metal, teeth caked with dark mud. The Krafayis blundered in; hungry and bulking and desperate. Vicious, it raked it’s claws across the reinforced metal walls in vain, and cried something low, guttural, and solemn into the din. 

 

The Doctor heard the sound of it echoing muffled and forlorn through the bulkhead, and tried not to let the creature’s agony resound. It was difficult – it’s loneliness was pungent in the air, overpowering. Beside her, Cass was panting through a wicked grin, forehead slick with sweat and dark eyes wide with triumph. 

 

“Got it!” she grins, nudging the Doctor gently. 

 

“So we did,” she returns, preoccupied. 

 

“What do we do now?”

 

“Well,” she begins, returning to her usual authoritative energy. “I think it’s time we evacuated the site.” She nods at Cass, “send a message through the comms channel – get everyone to meet at the docking bay. Then we’re going to need to call you a ship.” 

 

She sighs. “The boss isn’t going to like this, we’ve been making good progress here. Really profitable site.” 

 

“Well that’s just too bad,” she snaps, to Cass’ alarm, and annoyance. One of her eyebrows shoots up in an expression of challenging bemusement that would look right at home on the face of a certain Hallamshire probationary officer. 

 

“Didn’t say I agree with him,” she defends. “So what’s going to happen to the Krafayis, then? Are you going to call someone from incident investigations to get it?” 

 

“Can’t,” she admits, “they won’t be able to help it. Krafayis can’t survive very long without their own kind, loneliness is a disease to them, it eats them up from the inside.” The Doctor swallowed thickly, and tasted ash in her mouth. Her fingers darted to her pocket and closed around a scorched bone. A dead voice echoed at her touch, and it was almost comforting. “Besides, it’s way too dangerous to transport anywhere.”

 

“So, what’s going to happen to it?”

 

Her words came out bland, blanched – a bitter no-taste left in her mouth. “It’s going to die. No food here, and none of its own kind. It’ll die in that room.” 

 

“Are we just gonna...” Cass’ voice trailed off, eyes darting towards the bulkhead, from behind which the creature roared. “Are we gonna leave it there?” A small, hurried nod, and Cass’ eyes softened, turning back to the Doctor’s. “It’s sad.”

 

“It killed your colleagues,” the Doctor reminded her, kind.

 

“Yeah but it wasn’t its fault – it was just scared and alone and hungry. It was just lashing out.”

 

“Yeah,” she said, curt. It reached out to her from behind the door, pleading, but she tried not to sense it. 

 

...

 

Cass called the other survivors, and soon enough they were standing by the docking bay while one of the workers patched out a distress signal – this time boosted by the Doctor’s sonic – to get them a rescue ship. From across the bay, shoulders hunched, cast in a bland greyish light from the barren sky beyond the windows, the bossman stared at the Doctor. His brow was furrowed, his foot tapping an impatient rhythm against the metal floor. 

 

“Alright mate?” the Doctor called cordially after this had been going on for a good few minutes. She gave him a friendly wave laced through with sarcasm. 

 

“You’d have us abandon this site?” he asked, gruff. 

 

“Yup.”

 

“This site has been making us good profit, keeping them happy upstairs – do you have any idea how hard it is to get decent paid work with all them robots about?” He began to walk towards her, the muscles in his neck working up to a twitching dance. 

 

“Sorry mate, got a Krafayis down there in your main drill site. Can’t exactly keep goin’ business as usual.” 

 

He grunted, and she smiled. At that, he turned on his heel, evidently muttering something that was likely very mean, and called out to his colleagues. “Right, everyone with me, we need to get this place sealed off properly before we abandon site.” A few of the others nodded, and made towards him. Cass rolled her eyes and cast the Doctor a knowing smirk. “Not you Marters,” the bossman snapped. “You stay with your buzzy mate from incident investigations, I don’t want to deal with your cheek right now.”

 

“Fine by me,” she shrugged, smiling at the Doctor. 

 

Cass was quite content to talk about herself, which was just fine by the Doctor. The girl did cast a few inquisitions her way, but they were batted off with vague answers, and quick turnarounds on subject. All through the conversation, the Doctor fought a losing battle of wills, her fingers brushing against a bone in her pocket; whispering, fearing. She was fighting the temptation to ask Cass to come with her. She felt a little guilty about it, with her fam waiting back in Sheffield – but that was that thing about having a time machine. Her friends could be waiting in Sheffield for as long as she wanted – so long as she didn’t regenerate, because they were bound to notice that. 

 

After some time spent talking – or listening, rather, on the Doctor’s part – an almighty thud echoed through the facility. The Doctor jumped to alert. 

 

“What was that?” Cass exclaimed, quick on her feet, but the Doctor could feel a fading tug at the back of her mind – the Krafayis making a final, desperate attempt to connect. At her hunch, she poured over the screen on the comms unit, and, to her horror, a little red dot was flickering into darkness. 

 

“It’s the Krafayis,” she muttered, steely. She grabbed Cass’ hand with perhaps too much force. “Come on!” 

 

 

Five humans stood at the entrance to the main drill chamber, encumbered by the weight of bulky excavational laser tools – useful for carving up debris and obstructions in mining operations, and for killing monsters. Each one of their faces sung with a mingled, dark pride – and the Doctor was furious. 

 

“What have you done!” she cried, skidding to a halt before them, Cass on her heels. 

 

The bossman smiled. “Put down that bloody beast, that’s what. Now,” and he turned to one of his subordinates, “that reinforcement ship should be here within the day. We’ll have three new members replacing those we lost, plus some temps to help rebuild the site. As for this thing,” he indicated vaguely behind him to whatever invisible horror awaited beyond the bulkhead opening, “I say douse it and set it off.” He let out a lazy chuckle, which set the Doctor’s anger boiling over the edge. 

 

“How dare you!” she yelled, charging up to meet the man, chin tilted up to his height, boiling eyes blazing. “You had no right to do that!”

 

“It would have died anyway,” offered one of the other workers, one that the Doctor had dragged from the rubble – and this is what she gets in payment. “Better a quick death than a slow one.”

 

“Exactly,” the bossman concurred, “and this way’s a whole lot better for business. No point holding off operations just to starve it out. Time is money!”

 

“Yeah, and money’s what puts food on the table,” another piped up. To the Doctor, they all merged into one face, one being. Identical. Tiny. 

 

She repeated herself, voice harsh in a deadly whisper; “you had no right.” The bossman scoffed, and the Doctor scowled as she shoved past him into the chamber. It was a mess. The excavating beams had done a decent amount of damage to the machinery while aiming for an invisible target, but it seemed their aim had struck relatively true. Still, the walls and ceiling were scorched, the metal clawed away in silver strips, mauled by the creature. 

 

The Krafayis was still breathing; a laboured, wheezing, choking sound, catching on a torn throat scorched through with laserfire. The Doctor stepped cautiously towards its form, hearing the sounds of its body collapsing, convulsing, skin giving off burning heat where it had been torn away, ridged and worn like leather. She went to her knees by its massive head, sawn apart  and unhinged. It’s breathing there was loudest, and its thoughts, too. The Doctor reached out a hand and touched it. Raw flesh beneath her cold fingers, and raw pain unfurling in her mind. Body torn apart and slipping, thoughts trailing off into nothingness. Thoughts of boring hunger and debilitating loneliness crushing a gargantuan heart. A monster’s heart. It couldn’t die alone, she wouldn’t let it. 

 

“Hello,” she said, out loud and within, willing it to understand by the timbre of her thoughts. Comfort, comfort . “You’re not alone. I’m here.” It could only respond in a harsh resonance like a knife slash, of anger and pain and hunger. Loneliness. 

 

“I understand,” she whispered, “I’m sorry.” She pulled away the moment before it died, because that void is a place that even she can’t visit without the sight of it maddening her. She waited a moment, kneeling, hand held hesitant stretched in the space before her. The only signs that the creature was there at all was the quiet simmering of its skin, and the gurgling of its insides as the corpse began its slow and purposeful rot. 

 

“Doctor?” a soft, kind voice asked. 

 

She opened her eyes and struggled to her feet on light and weary legs. “Cass,” she breathed, turning to face the girl. 

 

“I’m really sorry for what they did. Makes sense why the boss didn’t want me going along.” Yes, and the Doctor should have seen it. She should have stopped it, but she was too busy fawning over a girl who was smart and fast and brave. PC Khan lookalike. 

 

“You gonna stay here and help rebuild the site?” she asked, trying for a conversational tone. 

 

“Well, yeah, ‘pose I’ve got to. Not exactly any other jobs going.”

 

The Doctor brightened her eyes and jumped at the opportunity. Inwardly, she cursed herself for doing this again. She wasn’t supposed to do this anymore – the showing off, the persuading. The only reason her fam ended up travelling with her was because they insisted and, well, because she’d stuck around, and played the lonely alien card, and got them so guilty and wonderstruck that they could never have said no. She never really changed. “Would you like to come with me?”

 

“What, to industrial investigations?” The Doctor raised her eyebrows, egging her on. Cass sighed. “You’re not really from industrial investigations, are you?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Should’ve been obvious – I mean, for one, you’re clothes,” she chuckled at the Doctor’s affront. “And there’s the tech – that screwdriver’s the most advanced thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

“Oh, Cass,” her smile stretched wide and daring, “you have no idea.” She held out her hand in offerenance, for the second time, and felt an overpowering pull of familiarity. “What do you say?” 

 

She shrugged, a bright grin of her own unfurling, “what the hell,” and took the Doctor’s hand. 

 

Behind the girl – dark hair trailing in defiant wisps against the dimness – the bossman stood. For a moment, the Doctor forgot her brightness. 

 

“You!” she shouted, barging past Cass and again putting herself before him, drawn tall as she could manage and twice as fearsome. “Just so you know,” she put on an air of false happiness, “I am going to make sure that your superiors know this was all your fault. The damage,” she hissed, “the dead. Everything.” 

 

“My fault?” he exclaimed, almost laughing. “How can you possibly spin this mess into being my fault?” 

 

She tilted her head with a smile; “I can be extremely persuasive,” she tapped the side of her head with a finger, “old trick.” His eyes flashed for a moment with something that might have been fear, but was quickly glossed over with a disbelieving contentment. Laughing eyes. She smiled right back into them. “Okay then!” she clapped, rounding on Cass. “Shall we be off? Leave these losers to their knitting?” 

 

She grinned and nodded, making to follow the Doctor. 

 

“Cass, wait!” one of the workers called – the weedy kid who’d been casting her heart eyes back in the control room. Out of all of them, he was one the Doctor had picked from the start as the good sort. Kindness in the eyes. The sort she would never have forgiven herself if she let die. He cast the Doctor a furtive, fearful look as he grabbed Cass’ wrist and pulled her aside. The Doctor smirked and crossed her arms. To be perfectly honest, she wouldn’t be opposed to taking them both on, could be a good time. They’d balance each other out – eager and patient, reckless and cautious. Real Amy and Rory types. These cycles had a tendency to repeat. She watched in contempt as the bossman and the remaining three of his workers heaved off their murder weapons and made for the docking bay, talking amongst themselves like people without the death of an innocent creature weighing on their consciences. Focusing on the two left behind, The Doctor couldn’t help but catch their hushed, sharp whispers. 

 

“Look, I’ve been analysing her lifesigns,” the boy said.

 

“So?”

 

“Well she didn’t register when she first came on site.”

 

“So she’s not exactly human, so what? Janelle’s not human either and you get on with her just fine.”

 

“But when she hooked up that device of hers with the Krafayis’ biodata, her own data was uploaded to the register too,” and he brought the comms screen up the Cass’ face to show her what was, undoubtedly, another dot on the screen. A pair of dots, actually. Two hearts. The Doctor felt her stomach drop. There was a reason she stuck to the past when it came to Earth – no space-faring, just regular old Earthlings. Earthlings didn’t know anything. “And I had a closer look at the readings and it’s definitely –”

 

“Definitely just a bivascular species, there’s plenty of them–”

 

“No, Cass, look,” he jammed his finger up against the screen. “Look at this data.” 

 

She gaped. “That’s impossible.”

 

“She’s a Time Lord.”

 

“No she’s not – Time Lords don’t exist.”

 

The boy smiled grimly. “A minute ago Krafayis didn’t exist either.” 

 

With a tremor in her lip, Cass looked up at the Doctor. She didn’t bother plastering on a smile, just glared at her with an old, weathered look. Arms crossed and face plain, hair lank and silver over dark eyes. “Well done,” she said. “Smart boy.” 

 

He screwed up his face in a mustering of intimidation. It didn’t work. “What do you want with her? What do you want with us?” 

 

“I wanted to help.”

 

“Is he right?” Cass asked, pleading. 

 

“Yes.”

 

“But,” she glanced between the two of them, “but the Time Lords are just a story!” 

 

“Ah, but every story ever told was real, once upon a time. They only become stories when they’re forgotten.” Old legends, but the tale lived on; rulers of time, absolute, ruthless, unfeeling. 

 

“Why would you want to help us?” the boy asked, putting himself bodily between her and Cass. Never underestimate the power of a crush. 

 

“Because I’m nice,” she said, beaming, “really, I am. I’m not like the others –” she nearly choked on the word. No others. Her fingers reached for bone just to hear the echo. “I just knock about, helpin’ out.”

 

Cass swallowed. “You asked me to come with you.”

 

“Offer still stands,” she smiled. 

 

“You’re a Time Lord,” she repeated, trying those impossible words out in her mouth. 

 

“Last of the Time Lords, yep,” it hurt immeasurably to fall back into that tired habit. Last of the Time Lords. “I’ll ask again, Cass – fancy a trip in the box?” 

 

She shook her head, stepping back. Fearless girl, suddenly struck to the core with it. That was fair enough, the Doctor supposed – it was like the bogeyman turning up at your bedroom window and asking you to run away with it. The Time Lords were like a ghost story to these future strains of the universe – far from the blight of the war, but not the carrying tales of its horrors; and the Time Lords, the great orchestrators of the fire. Merciless, immortal, twisted things. Maybe she should have taken offence, but it was an accurate enough assessment. 

 

The Doctor pressed her lips together into a grimace. “Right,” she turned on her heels, took a few steps, and wheeled back around to face the two. “Just for the record, I’m really not scary at all.”

 

The boy’s face twisted in tempering courage; “just go! We haven’t done anything wrong.” Of course, Time Lords were always there, in the stories, to step in and interfere in their self-proclaimed non-interfering way. Righting wrongs, shifting time, moulding it. Destroying minds with a touch, and planets on a whim. The Doctor took one last look at Cass Marters, and turned away. 

 

Not a bad adventure, not bad at all. Only one dead – result! She couldn’t quite find it in herself to feel elated, not when the pain of a dying Krafayis was weighing heavy on her hearts, and the fear in the eyes of a girl that should have been a friend reminded her that she was just as much of a monster to them as the thing they had torn to pieces with rays of merciless laserfire. It’s why she liked the 21st century, no one knew what being a Time Lord really meant. There weren’t many places in the universe that didn’t – but they’d be where she’d have to take her fam from now on, lest they go poking around after hearing the name of her species, and find something she would really rather they didn’t. She didn’t need to give them another reason to hate her, and she definitely didn’t need anymore questions. 

 

The trip had proved less of a distraction and more of an exacerbator – reminding her of what she was. Alone, and in pain, and lashing out. Dying, in her own, slow way, in every way save the one that mattered. As she slunk back to the TARDIS, she tried to puzzle it out – why did she care so much? What species in this universe had caused her more grief and pain than her own; merciless, immortal, twisted. In theory, their demise should have been like a burden lifted, but it was the opposite. She felt bogged down under the weight of all their souls, lost and wretched. They were a pack animal; ruthless, raging across the universe in their unseen way, from the shadows. Now there was just her, stumbling across a barren universe instead of a grey, desolate planet – a universe of fraying webs and untangling timestreams, once held fast.  She couldn’t hold the scraps of them together, not alone. She couldn’t be alone. 

 

In her ship, drifting again through the vortex, she reached out. A final attempt, because she couldn’t be alone. Quiet, but for the gentle hum of the engines, the soft hazy blue of the lights. She sat upon the cold metal ground, cross-legged and shut-eyed, reaching. Clawing. Contact. 

 

She couldn't be alone. 

 

Contact.

 

And even if he was a monster, and he deserved to starve there in the dark, she couldn’t be alone. Tears welled in her eyes at the silence, and her hands again found the bone in her pocket. It’s voice, so far from home, was muffled from an excruciating scream of pain to a dull exclamation of hurt. A slight and fading protestation. It was almost like having someone there to share the psychic subspace, someone like her. Not enough. There was only one place, she knew, that she belonged right now. She’d belonged there ever since she decided to live again, and crashed into a train compartment to find their eyes gazing at her in disbelief. Etched onto her hearts. 

 

No matter how much it hurt to see them and their stolen glances, their disapproving eyes, their questioning – she needed them, because she couldn’t be alone.

Chapter Text

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.