Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead.
The thought is a mantra circling ‘round her head, so loud she’s sure the entire cafe can hear it. Not that it matters. The place is bustling, and noisy with chatter, both physical and telepathic. She tries not to listen to the second part usually, but it’s loud here, and sometimes, even without touch, she can’t help it.
Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead.
The fam want time in Sheffield. Time, as understood though not stated, without the Doctor. Which is reasonable, the Doctor thinks. She can understand that. The Doctor is, as Martha once (fairly) muttered under her breath, high maintenance. She likes to jump from thing to thing, and often forgets, to Graham’s chagrin, to give them proper sleeping time. Which means a rest will do them good.
Will do her good.
Because that’s what they implied as well, wasn’t it? The way Yaz looked her in the eye, and firmly said, “ Tomorrow morning”, a phrase which implied the passage of linear time.
She hates the passage of linear time.
Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
The Doctor’s head jerks up, her mouth half-shaped around the word ‘don’t’. It’s only then, as her eyes connect with the bemused waiter, that she realizes she was muttering.
“Uh—hi.” She smiles, abashed, and, with no words to repeat, crumples her napkin in her hand. “Sorry, did you want something?”
“Yeah, uh—” The waiter shifts awkwardly. Probably new to the job, the Doctor guesses, if he isn’t used to seeing weirdos like her. He’s awfully young, with dark hair and a skimpy mustache, and a name tag that reads Marco. “—I’m supposed to take your order.”
“Oh—oh! Right.” The Doctor tears her eyes from his face and turns her eyes to the menu. She reads out the first thing she sees. “I’ll take a cappuccino.”
“Cappuccino. Got it.” Marco scribbles her order down on a pad, then turns and whisks off toward the counter, apron fluttering in his wake. The Doctor watches him go, and wonders idly if it would be odd to strike up conversation. Maybe ask him if he’s ever considered shaving his mustache—it would probably be a good choice—or invite him to play checkers. Anything to pass the time, which is inching by slower than a snail.
Snails. Now there are people who take life one moment at a time. Then, the Doctor thinks, they don’t have very much choice.
The cafe, a small one just two block down from Yaz’s flat, is very full, and buzzing with energy she can’t really make out, so she just puts her head down and lets it wash over her. Easier like this, to try to avoid the seconds as they tick by, rather than facing them one by one. You notice them less. Or maybe they notice you less, and it’s a sort of double avoidance system. Or something.
Whatever it is, it’s not really working.
The Doctor shuts her eyes, clenches the napkin in her first, and breathes in, slowly.
Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead. Don’t skip ahead.
She can do this. She can pass the minutes alone, and linearly all at once, and even without a distraction. That’s what humans do, anyway, and even if she isn’t human, she could pass for one in a pinch.
Don’t skip ahead.
She can do this.
The Doctor is spinning around at once, the crumpled napkin fluttering to the floor. Marco starts in surprise, nearly sending the cappuccino all over the floor.
“Oh—sorry!” she says, wincing as a few drops splatter to the floor. “Wasn’t looking.”
“S’all right, ma’am.” He brings it carefully to the tiny table she’s occupying, and before he even has time to let go, she’s already reaching for it greedily, because a drink is a distraction, even in the smallest sense, from the agonizing passage of linear time.
She is, in fact, so preoccupied with the small distraction of the drink before her, that she barely notices when their thumbs brush.
Marco doesn’t notice. He withdraws his hands, brushes a few droplets of coffee off on his apron, and starts to turn.
Meanwhile, such psychic pain slams the Doctor that she nearly falls out of her chair.
It happens so briefly that she barely has time to register what it means. All she gets is a lightning bolt of anguish, like a gaping wound spilling pus into open air, throbbing and ugly and entirely not hers .
The Doctor realizes this, and in another minute she’s scrambling upright and lunging forward, just in time to catch the end of his untucked shirt.
“Huh?” Marco turns, confusion write across his face. “How did you know my name?”
“Nametag.” The Doctor lets go of his shirt and draws back, studying him. “Where are you from?”
“Uh—” He’s not holding up too well to the sudden interrogation, the Doctor notes with suspicion. “Boston?”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Uh—” Once again, he scrambles for an answer. “I think?”
“What do you mean, you think?” The Doctor leans forward and frowns, scrutinizing. Marco shifts, then glances over his shoulder.
“Listen, I have other custom—”
“What do you mean, you think?"
Marco’s gaze jerks back to her, and his hands shoot up defensively. “I don’t know, dude! I’m from Boston. Well, my parents live in Boston. I live—”
Then he pauses, and his face crinkles in confusion. The Doctor catches it and leans forward slightly.
“Live where, Marco?” she says quietly.
“Uh—” His face is all scrunched up, straining for a memory the Doctor has a feeling he’s not going to find. Not if that psychic wound was anything to go by.
“Uh—” he repeats, then again. “Uh—I—I think—”
“Think what?” She’s leaning so far forward the only thing keeping her in her seat are the fingers of her left hand clamped to the edge of the table. “Marco, not to give you a bit of a shock, but I happen to be a telepath, and you have the worst psychic wound I’ve felt in years. So—” Her eyes track over his face, and her forehead wrinkles into a frown— “Where do you live?”
“I don’t know!” Marco surrenders in a panicky voice, then glances quickly around the cafe. Not that it matters—his voice is drowned in the chatter. He looks back to the Doctor, and swallows hard.
“I work here,” he says firmly, and glances down to his apron as if to affirm. “I—I’ve worked here for—for—”
Again he stutters, then gulps, his eyes growing wide as the realization sinks in.
“I don’t know,” he whispers, then louder. “Oh my god, I don’t know!”
He spins around all of a sudden, and the Doctor leaps to her feet and lays a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t panic, Marco,” she says quietly, though she has a feeling it’s useless by this point. She can feel him trembling underneath her palm. “Listen—I’m going to help you. I just want you to tell me everything you remember before this point. As far back as you can.”
“I don’t even know what this place is called,” he says, and she can see his eyes darting around the room, like an animal backed into a corner. “I don’t—”
“Come on, have a seat,” the Doctor says in what she hopes to be a soothing voice, and when he doesn’t reply, steers him into the seat opposite her own table. She plops down in her own chair as he buries his face in his hands, and leans forward to temple her own under her chin.
“I don’t know,” he moans, his voice muffled into his palms, “I don’t—”
“You will ,” she says, a tad stiffly because really, they don’t have all day (she does, but that’s another matter). “I promise you. Just tell me what you remember before this point.”
Slowly, shakily, he raises his head from his arms. His hands lower, and his palms splay flat upon the table, as if steadying himself. He stares at the wood surface as he speaks.
“I woke up,” he says, then winces. “No, I don’t—I thought I did, but I don’t remember that. I—I got to—no, no—” His lips press together, trembling, and he takes a shaky breath.
“Stay calm, Marco,” she reminds him, and wonders if that’s comforting. It’s meant to be, but then, she’s never been very good at that. “And…take your time. If you need to.”
“Okay.” He sucks in a breath, then lets it out in a sigh. “Okay. I think—the last thing I remember is I—I was thinking about a phone number. Then I was—looking at my hand. In the kitchen.” He jerks one thumb over his shoulder, to the swinging door at the back of the cafe. “And I was thinking—” His brow crinkles— “how…odd it was. Then I couldn’t remember what was so odd about it. And I walked out and…went to take your order.”
He looks up at her, but he’s not really looking at her. His eyes are focused beyond, confusion in the corners of his eyes. The Doctor leans forward, pushing her long forgotten cappuccino to the side.
“What was so odd about your hand?”
Marco looks at her, frowning slightly. “There wasn’t anything odd about my hand.”
“Really?” When Marco doesn’t answer, she tilts her chin to his hands. “Show me it, then.”
Marco stares at her for a long moment. Then, his eyes fall to his right hand. Slowly, he lifts it, turning his palm upward.
Inked into his right palm, black against brown, is a circular tattoo.
The Doctor sees it immediately, and knows by his shocked breath that he does too. She leans forward, pushing her coffee so far to the side it nearly tilts off the table.
“Perception filter,” she says, and reached out before he can protest, grabbing his hand and yanking it towards her. She brings it around, ignoring his noise of protest, and drags it closer to her face. “Makes you forget, only I don’t know why anybody would leave you with a tattoo you’re bound to notice eventually. Even perception filters can’t last that long, and—”
Marco makes a small whimper, and that’s when the Doctor recalls that there are feelings on the other end of the human.
She looks up, and shoots him a reassuring grin.
“Nothing to worry about,” she tells him, which is probably a lie. “I’m just looking at the writing, see?” Her thumb brushes over the center of the tattoo. He hesitates, then nods, a drawn, frightened look about his face, and the Doctor takes this as an excuse to continue her examination.
“If I can translate it—” She squints, peering closer— “or at least any second, my ship’s translation circuits should kick in. Problem is though, I don’t get why anybody would give you a tattoo. It’d have to be temporary, or they’d do more than slap a perception filter on it. Problem is, why make it temporary? And how? What’s it got to accomplish then? I mean who needs a—”
The Doctor cringes, then looks up. “Not ma’am, sorry. Doctor. Call me Doctor.”
“Doctor—” Marco’s eyes are large, scared. He isn’t looking her in the eye, but staring at the hands that cradle his own.
“Yes? What is it?” If the Doctor is a tad impatient, it can’t be helped. She’s right in the middle of a thought process, and those are easy to lose. “Sorry, I mean—what’s wrong?”
Marco doesn’t answer. He only stares. Then, slowly, he raises his chin slightly toward her right hand.
“What? Do I have something on my—” Her gaze follows his, and then she stops, wordless.
Because there, blooming slowly on the back of her right hand, is an identical tattoo.
The Doctor stares at it for a long second. Then, abruptly, she jerks Marco’s palm closer to examine.
His tattoo is fading, the words melting into mush. Even so, the TARDIS translation circuits must have kicked in, because just before it disappears completely, the Doctor is finally able to make out the words at the center.
Conscription transfer: activated
The Doctor stares at it for a long, long moment. Realization sinks slowly through her gut.
“That’s why it’s temporary,” she says softly. Her eyes fall to her own tattoo, now swiftly deepening in color. She stares at it, then looks up to meet Marco’s frightened gaze.
“It’s not temporary,” she says, and feels, deep in her hand, a telltale burn. A teleportation activation, she can sense it. “It’s transferable. Marco—”
That’s all she has time to say. A moment later she’s gone, whisked away into thin air.
Yaz is only just back from her shift when the doorbell rings.
“Really?” She sighs, tosses her uniform cap on the counter, and turns back toward the door. This time of day, it’s got to be one of two people: the Doctor, back earlier than expected, here to annoy Yaz into taking a second shift, or Sonya forgetting her keys again. Probably the latter. She hopes it’s the latter.
Not that she doesn’t love seeing the Doctor. Only lately, the Doctor has been a bit…much. Stuck on the three of them, for reasons incomprehensible. Almost as if she can’t bear to let the three of them out of their sight.
And Yaz just knows she’s been skipping ahead on their days off.
“Sonya,” she starts as she undoes the latch—better to err on the side of optimism, right? “Seriously, this is the third time you’ve—oh.”
The door swings open, and Yaz trails off, a reprimand dying on her lips. “Hi…Doctor?”
Internally, she almost sighs. Because of course it’s the Doctor. Nothing unusual there. Except for the fact that— “Doctor, what are you wearing?”
“Hiya, Yaz.” The Doctor doesn’t answer her question. She weaves slightly where she stands, then licks her lips and swallows hard. Her face is chalk white, Yaz notices all of a sudden, and her clothes—her clothes are not her own. Jeans and a t-shirt, nothing more, even though it’s freezing outside and—since when has the Doctor worn something normal?
Yaz steps forward, her annoyance dying as quickly as a capped flame. “Are you okay?”
The Doctor gives a jerky bob of her head, then steps inside without waiting for permission, and glances unfocusedly at the pictures on the walls.
“Nice pictures,” she murmurs, “nice family. You’ve got to love a good—a good family pho—”
“Doctor—” Yaz spins around, alarm growing in her stomach, and reaches for the Doctor, but she ducks and shies away, her gaze still floating over the photos on the wall.
“Don’t touch me,” she mumbles, and shoves her hands in her pockets, her gaze dropping to the floor. She hunches her shoulders, and in that moment looks so unlike the Doctor that Yaz’s alarm twists right into dread, then slides into gutwrenching empathy.
“S-sorry,” she stutters, and puts her hands up, just to keep them in view. “I won’t, see? Now—” she glances past the Doctor, to the table— “how about we sit down, yeah? And I can get us some tea.”
It takes the Doctor a moment to raise her gaze. She does so slowly, then nods once, just as slow. Yaz takes this as an encouraging sign, and returns it with a smile.
“Alright, let me just—” She keeps her hands up as she slides past the Doctor and into the kitchen, one ear tuned for the Doctor’s footsteps. She hears them as she puts on the kettle, treading softly to the table. They’re followed a moment later by the screech of a chair, and Yaz can’t help but close her eyes, releasing a sigh of relief.
One step at a time. What had she learned in training? Sometimes, cases are hard, and people get hurt. Sometimes, you just have to take them one step at a time.
She can do this.
She opens her eyes, and begins to move in mechanical habit, her body numb and her mind caught in a livewire. Her thoughts run on a loop, like a child’s train track.
Thought one: the Doctor is not okay. Thought two: she doesn’t know how she got that way.
Thought three has broken in by the time Yaz is pouring hot water into mugs, watching in a far off way as the steam coils off the top.
Thought three: Yaz has to figure out what happened.
The Doctor is seated by the time Yaz returns with two steaming mugs, and jumps only slightly when Yaz sets one down in front of her.
“Thanks,” she mumbles, and reaches out to wrap two hands around her mug. As she does, Yaz catches a flash of something on the palm of her hand, and frowns.
“What’s that on your—” She’s reaching out without thinking, only to snatch her hand back as the Doctor rears away, shoving both hands protectively under her armpits.
“ Don’t ,” she hisses, only its not anger driving her tongue, Yaz thinks, but desperation. At least, it has the ring of it.
“Sorry,” she says hastily, and watches the Doctor visibly relax, tension melting off her shoulders like snowcaps.
“S’all right,” she mutters, and reaches out once more for her mug. “You just—don’t touch me. You don’t want to touch me.”
“I get it,” Yaz replies, even thought she really doesn’t, and slides into her own chair, just across from the Doctor. From there she watches as the Doctor stares into her mug, then raises it with both hands to take a sip. When she lowers it, she catches Yaz’s gaze, and frowns.
“Nothing,” Yaz says hurriedly, then hesitates. “Except—you usually take sugar. I didn’t put any in.”
“Oh.” The Doctor frowns, and her gaze drops to her mug. “Guess I didn’t realize.”
“Uh—yeah,” Yaz says after a moment of silence. “It’s just you always—well, never mind. Are you alright, Doctor?”
There it is. Direct, to the point. Yaz has never been a fan of tiptoeing.
The Doctor doesn’t immediately answer. Instead, she stares into her mug and frowns, as if trying to recall something important.
“Not sure,” she says after a long moment, then winces, the heel of her hand going to her forehead. “I think—it’s coming back to me. Sloppy job they did the second time around, ‘specially since they were in such a hurry to send me off.”
“Send—huh?” Yaz leans forward, concern wrinkling her brow. “Doctor, what are you talking about? Who sent you back?”
The Doctor looks up and blinks, as if seeing her for the first time. “The high command, of course. The ones with the actual say, you know, not the scrubs and pencil pushers.” She frowns again, her gaze trailing off into the distance. For several moments, silence reigns, then Yaz leans back and not-so-subtly bumps her mug, sending it clattering.
At the clatter the Doctor jerks up, refocusing in an instant. “Sorry—where was I?”
“Telling me what happened,” Yaz says patiently, and rests her hands on her lap, fingers interlaced. Easier that way—the Doctor won’t see how her nails are digging into her flesh. “You were telling me where you were. What happened.”
“Oh. Oh yeah.” The Doctor blinks, and then something crashes across her face, something open and wounded and oddly enough—young. It’s gone in a flash, leaving Yaz to suck in a breath and wonder if she’d been imagining.
She hopes she’d been imagining.
“I was…” The Doctor’s gaze drifts back to her mug, and she frowns again, concentrating hard. “I was…I was in a coffee shop. And then—”
She blinks, and for a terrible moment, doesn’t know where she is. Immediately she flounders, adrift in gutwrenching unfamiliarity— this isn’t home, this isn’t anywhere, I don’t know where I am —only to stabilize a second later, recognition slotting in like a cassette into a walkman.
Cassette. Walkman. Words she doesn’t know, words she’s never heard. She doesn’t even have the words to describe who she is, if she’s anybody at all.
“You,” a voice growls, and she blinks. All of a sudden there’s a man in front of her, kitted out in faded fatigues and armor, his helmet at a slant and his rifle—large, sleek—cradled in his arms. She glances to the left and the right, and sees curious faces, turning to look at her. Same fatigues, same armor, same rifle. They’re in rows, the lot of them, including herself, though she has no context for why.
“You,” the voice repeats, and she snaps back to the front. There’s something heavy hanging off a strap around her neck, and it clicks a moment later that she’s carrying a rifle.
Something about that bothers her, for reasons she can’t explain.
“Me,” she replies, and gives a swift glance around. Dread is growing in her gut, though for what she can’t explain. The feeling of displacement lingers, haunting. “Sorry, who are you?”
“Your commander,” the man growls, then his hand shoots out and circles around her wrist. He yanks it toward him, ignoring her cry of protest, and examines a bracelet she hadn’t realized she’d been wearing. The moment she notices, of course, she can’t stop noticing. It’s tight, the metal almost melded to her flesh.
“Hmmm. Serial number 4211.” He lets out a grunt, then drops her wrist. She draws her hand back, and wraps it almost unthinkingly around her rifle. “Alright. You’re new. Didn’t notice we had a replacement.” His entire face is a scowl, though she doesn’t think it’s directed at her. Rather, it seems to be its natural state, an expression frozen through time and oft-use.
“Replacement? Hang on—” She’s not supposed to be here, part of her screams. Another, larger part, lulls her into security. Of course she’s supposed to be here. She’s in formation. They’re getting ready for a field exercise. If she weren’t here, she would be in trouble.
Formation. Field exercise. Words drop instinctively into her mind, and she doesn’t know from where. She reaches for a name, curls her tongue around it, but there’s nothing there. Only empty space, darker than the space around it.
The man—commander?—is turning away, strolling down the row. She leans out after him, ignores the whisper of a hand on her shoulder, and calls out.
“Wait! Wait—I’m not supposed to be here!”
She doesn’t expect him to stop—but he does. He pauses in his step, then turns back to face her. For a long moment, his eyes only move up and down her form, his permanent frown impossible to decipher.
Except for his eyes. His eyes, she notes with a sinking feeling, are incredibly empty.
“Give it a moment,” he grumbles, then puts one hand absentmindedly shoves his rifle forward and turns away again. She watches him go, panic building in her throat.
“But—” she calls desperately, and shrugs off another, firmer hand on her shoulder. “Wait—I don’t even know my name!”
“Get back in line,” a voice beside her hisses, and this time a hand really does grip her shoulder and drag her back into place. “Weren’t you listening? He told you your name.”
“What?” She turns to the voice, and blinks as a shock of welcome familiarity runs through her. Dark hair, brown skin, a skimpy mustache—she knows him.
No. She doesn’t. The familiarity fades as fast as it had come, and in another moment she’s only standing there, trapped in ill-fitting gear, with a rifle she doesn’t want hanging around her neck, and a sense that she doesn’t belong.
And even that is quickly fading, replaced by the strange sense that she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be, even if she doesn’t want it. Where else would she go, after all? There’s no where to go.
The boy beside her is still scowling at what must be her ignorance. When she continues to stare at him, confused, he nods towards the metal bracelet on her wrist.
“4211. He told you just a second ago. Geez, you really are new.”
“I—” She opens her mouth to object, then shuts it again. He’s right, isn’t he? She’s new. New and she doesn’t belong, except she has to, because she doesn’t know where else she would belong.
Has to belong. It all makes sense, doesn’t it?
“I’m 4211,” she repeats, and the boy beside her nods, indulgent like a teacher imparting a lesson to a child.
“Yeah,” he says, “and I’m 5446. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” she echoes, and as she does, the sense of wrongness slips away, displacement melting into certainty, and she clings to it. She knows where she is. She knows what she’s doing. She’s here to—
“5446?” The name is awkward and clunky on her tongue. “What do we do here?”
“Here?” 5446 raises an eyebrow, as if it’s obvious. “What do you think we do here?” He pats his chest, the breastplate of the armor he’s wearing, stiff and gray. 4211 follows the movement, and something heavy falls in her chest. She knows the answer even before he says it.
“We’re here to fight.”
The Doctor falls silent, so abruptly it takes Yaz a moment to realize she’s not continuing. She waits for several moments, unsure what to do—or for that matter, say—then reaches over to snag the Doctor’s now-empty mug. She picks up her own, and carries them both to the sink, one eye still on the Doctor, who only sits in silence.
The water is cold when it hits her hands. She shudders briefly, then sets both mugs in the bottom of the sink and moves the faucet to fill each one. Dishes can be done later, she decides. For now, the Doctor is the one she should be worrying about, even if she won’t say a word.
Silence continues. Yaz finishes rinsing the cups, then shuts off the water and turns around, settling her back against the edge of the sink. She crosses her arms without thinking—it’s a habitual gesture, the kind she’d use when interrogating somebody. Demanding, authoritative. Probably not what the Doctor needs right now.
She drops her hands to her sides.
“Did you want to continue?” she calls softly when it’s clear the Doctor is not going to prompt conversation. The Doctor doesn’t immediately answer, too busy boring holes into the wooden table top, but after a moment she nods slightly.
“Sorry.” Her voice is a whisper. “It’s all—” She grimaces, teeth clenching— “Fuzzy in my head. I don’t remember the details, or even how I got here. I just remember the—”
She stops, frowning at the table, a deep furrow in her brow. Yaz waits, and only then realizes she’s been leaning forward slightly, hanging on to each murmured word. Waiting, tension building, for the revelation that might not even come.
“What?” she prompts after several moments. Impatience is getting to her—even her, the stoic. The calm. “What do you remember?”
The Doctor raises her head then, and hits Yaz with a gaze so woefully unsure that Yaz draws back, her breath catching.
“The feelings,” she says. “The feeling that I couldn’t find—”
Home . Or at least what passes for it. The tent is old, nothing more than heavy tarp and fiberglass poles, but they heave a sigh of relief anyway as they pass through the opening, collapsing one by one on old, dusty cots, crowded together at knee height so as to barely spare room. It’s the only thing they have, and it’s been weeks since they’ve seen it—weeks in the field, eating food out of cans, tramping through bushes and playing at war games. They’re preparing for something, the rumors fly, though nobody knows what. Even the commanders don’t seem to know, and they’re the ones who are meant to know everything.
4211 sags upon her cot with a sigh, sending up plumes of displaced dust which billow like clouds. They settle upon her immediately after, but she barely notices. She’s too tired.
Full body exhaustion is interesting, and awful all at once. The sheer physical wear of constant movement, the lack of sleep, the hunger, the desire for a moment of comfort, only saps the limbs and the mind, makes it impossible to think. Which is a problem, because 4211 has the feeling she needs to be thinking.
But about what? That’s the problem. There’s nothing to think about, except the constant hope of a moment’s reprieve, or the looming threat of actual war. She’s still not sure why they’re going to war, but 5446 assures her it’s important.
“They wouldn’t train us for no reason,” he assures her, and every time he does, she has the same fleeting thought: he’s awfully young .
“Wouldn’t they?” she says doubtfully, but he only shakes her head, and she falls once more into uneasy complacency.
They aren’t lying about the war, she’s sure of that. She can sense it coming, the taste iron and spilled blood lingering in the future, but she’s not sure how she knows that, or why it’s so familiar. Sometimes facts—memories, hints—float through her mind, but they fall right out before she can grasp them.
Not enough room, that’s the problem. There’s too much to learn in the here and now, a whole new life to wrap her head around. New, or perhaps, she sometimes thinks, she just hasn’t been paying enough attention.
“You’re odd, you know that?” 5446 had told her the other day. Blurted it out right in the middle of an exercise, a crawl across a field with simulated fire and their mouths full of sand. 4211, constantly lingering behind, had looked up to him and squinted.
“Why am I odd?”
“Because you don’t get it.” He’d ducked a a simulated bullet—they don’t maim, but they do hurt a lot—and then reached back and dragged her forward, so as to be level with the rest of the squad. “You keep questioning things. You keep asking why you’re here.”
4211 had stared at him for a long moment, broken only by a nearby simulated blast. A fake land mine, tossing half their squad to metaphorical shreds. Any moment, they’d have to go help them.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she’d asked, and it wasn’t a challenge—more like a plea—but he frowned anyway, clearly annoyed.
“Of course!” He’d shouted over the chatter of fake gunfire, then winced and raised his head slightly at their commander’s impatient call. His gaze moved past her shoulder, then returned to her.
“Later!” he’d called, then shoved her shoulder, pushing her in the direction of their wounded comrades.
And 4211 had dropped the subject. But she hadn’t forgotten his promise.
And now, she decides, is the time for him to make good on it.
She spots 5446 as he comes in through the tent opening, and lurches to her feet, sending another soldier stumbling. He gives her a dirty look, but she ignores him to being shoving her way through the cots, towards the one 5446 occupies.
She catches him just as he sits down, and by the look on his face when he glances up, he’s clearly not happy to see her. Probably, 4211 thinks, he just wants a moment’s quiet.
But she can’t give it to him. Not when unease gnaws at her gut, and uncertainty nags at the base of her skull. She’s supposed to belong here, she’s pretty sure, except she can’t help the feeling that she doesn’t, and it would all be so much easier to understand if she only knew what was going on .
“Hi,” she tells 5446, and he grimaces.
“Hi,” he replies, and glances down to his rifle. It sits in his lap, half disassembled, which remind 4211 that she should probably be cleaning her rifle as well.
Later, she decides. First—answers.
“You said you’d tell me why I’m here,” she says, and his grimace deepens into a scowl. She pushes on, undeterred. “You said you knew.”
“’Course I do!” he snaps, then glances around to see if anybody heard. Nobody even looks. Too lost in exhaustion, probably, to turn around.
5446 looks back to 4211, then sighs and leans forward, dropping his voice. “Listen—I’m just trying to help you out, okay? That’s what we do—help each other out.”
He studies 4211 for a long moment, as if to make sure she’s gotten this, then continues. “The thing is, I don’t get you. Everybody else knows why they’re here. We all know what we’re doing. But you don’t . Or you don’t act like it.”
“But what?” she presses. “What are you—we—doing here, exactly? And how do you know?”
5446 stares for a moment, then shrugs and drops his gaze to his rifle. He reaches absentmindedly into his pocket, fishes around for a scrap of cloth, and, with swift, mechanical movements, begins to clean the weapon.
“We’re drafted, right?” he says. Each word is accompanied by a swipe of his cloth. “You know, called up for service. We serve our term, and then we go home.” He shrugs. “It’s not that hard to get.”
It explains nothing. 4211 stares at him, and tries to pluck one question from the million swirling around her head.
“But I can’t remember—” She grasps for recognition, for understanding— “ anything . How can I fight if I don’t know who I’m fighting for?”
He glances up at her then, brow creased in confusion. “We’re fighting for the Zenthian empire. Geez, what planet are you from?”
It’s a good question. 4211 puts it to the side for the time being.
“Zenthian empire,” she repeats, and for a moment feels that awful, stomach dropping sensation of displacement— she doesn’t know what that is, she’s never even heard of it —and then recognition clicks. “Oh. I remember now.”
Of course she remembers. The Zenthian empire. She is a Zenthian citizen. The Zenthian empire is a humane civilization, and treats their draftees well. These facts fill her mind, soaked in familiarity, and she welcomes them eagerly.
Except she still can’t quite—
“Why can’t I remember?” she presses. There’s a reason for it, she’s pretty sure, something that fits into all the facts she’s just learned— no, remembered —but she can’t quite grasp it. At the edge of her mind, uncertainty still lurks, looming and hideous, but she ignores it.
Displacement reeks of loneliness. If she follows the facts, she’ll find where she belongs, she’s sure of it.
Even if it is among the tents and uniforms and ugly weapons she can’t help but shy away from.
5446 sighs, and shifts his weapon to jab the cloth down the barrel. He talks as he works, with an indulgent sort of impatience that she thinks might be kindness, if she’s not being optimistic.
“You forget because they wiped you. They wiped all of us.” He jabs his chin towards the rest of the tent, to the limp, unconscious bodies splayed across cots. “It’s a favor, don’t you know? They take it all away, so you don’t have to miss it. I mean, you get it back once you’ve served your term, but—” He shrugs— “can’t miss what you don’t remember, you know?”
“Oh.” It makes sense. It all makes sense. And yet at the same time, something small and quiet breaks in her chest.
But I do, she thinks, even though it can’t be true. But I miss it .
Ridiculous. Nonsense. She doesn’t even know what she’s missing. Maybe she did once, but—no, even that rings false. Whatever she’s longing for, it aches like a just-missed train, a fumbled life lost to the wind. Always lost, maybe.
“What are we training for?” she asks 5446, if only to break the choking quiet. Everybody else is asleep, or nearly so. She has the feeling 5446 would be too, had she not decided to bother him.
With a clunk! 5446 snaps his weapon back together, then shoves the used—but still usable—cloth back into his pocket. Then he bends over, and starts to untie his boots.
“We don’t know,” he says after a moment, and 4211 thinks he might be lying, but maybe she’s just not paying enough attention. There have been rumors— “I mean, the commanders probably know, but they won’t tell us. Why should they? We’re nothing.”
“Seems like they care a lot about a few nothings,” she pops off without thinking, then stops, surprised. Where had that come from? A hint of angry rebellion stirs in her stomach, and it’s both welcoming and not. It stings of a different life, one she shouldn’t be worrying about all that much, if 5446’s words are anything to go by. They’re in a fair system, after all. A humane system.
Those facts taste artificial on her tongue, but she swallows them all the same.
5446 shoots her a glance. “Yeah, well—” He finishes untying his boots, then straightens and starts to kick them off— “They know us nothings are the ones carrying the whole system on their back. That’s why they take care of us.”
With that he pulls his legs onto the cot and, sock-footed but otherwise still dressed, lays down and rolls to face the wall of the tent. 4211 stares at him, and a moment later realizes that the conversation must be over.
“Goodnight,” she tells him, and he only grunts in reply. With that, she turns, feeling vaguely cut short, and maneuvers back to her own cot, stumbling and muttering apologies the whole way. When she reaches it, she copies 5446, bothering only to pry her boots off before lying on her back and dragging her musty sleeping bag over her body. The smell of it—old, slightly damp—envelopes her, but she ignores it to stare at the ceiling of the tent, just barely visible in the nighttime gloom. Around her the tent stirs and sighs, a quiet clamor of sleepy life, and 4211 sinks into it, and pretends that its hers.
It doesn’t feel like hers. None of it does, and a shadow of rebellion lingers at the back of her mind, the remnants, perhaps, of a life once lived, but when she reaches for it the remnants slip through her fingers and she’s left floundering.
Better, she thinks, to preserve what she has in the present, rather than search for a life once lived. After all, assuming she finishes her service, she’ll get her memories back. She’ll find out who she is, and then maybe she won’t yearn quite so badly for something she can’t find.
Maybe she’ll have found it.
It’s these thoughts that comfort her into sleep, which turns out to be short and fitful, and haunted by nightmares she can’t remember when she wakes up. She only knows that they ache of memory and deep-bitten fear, and so terrified is she by them that, by the time the commanders come in four hours later to rudely awaken them, she’s almost happy.
It’s been five minutes. Five minutes since the Doctor has gone quiet.
One more minute, and Yaz won’t be able to stand it.
Quiet—especially around the Doctor—makes her nervous. Sometimes, she thinks it makes the Doctor nervous as well, and that’s why she makes such an effort to fill it.
But now she makes no effort at all, and it puts Yaz more on edge than the quiet itself.
“Doctor,” she tries again, and this time it rouses her slightly. She gives an infinitesimal jolt, then reaches for a mug that’s no longer there.
“Oh.” Her fingers scrape nothing, and she frowns, then looks up to Yaz. “Did I—?”
“I put it in the sink.” Yaz launches to her feet immediately, relieved at the need for movement, for a task, for— something . “I can get you more, if you want.”
“Oh. Sure.” This is all she gets, and Yaz lingers for a moment, half-hoping for something more, than decides it’s not going to happen.
“Give me one sec.” She moves to the kitchen, glancing every once in a while towards the Doctor, and sets the kettle on, then rummages for tea bags. “Are you—do you want sugar this time?”
“Sure.” The Doctor’s hands rest upon the table, her palms flat against the wood. She seems to be studying them, though for what Yaz doesn’t know. “Love sugar, me.”
It’s nowhere close to the Doctor, but she’s trying and Yaz is secretly thankful. Trying is good. Trying means—well, that you haven’t given up yet. Not that she’d thought that the Doctor had given up, but her vacant stares and long silences leave plenty of room to read worry. And Yaz is a natural worrier. It’s what makes her a perfect big sister.
“Here you go.” The tea poured and sugar distributed, she brings two mugs over and slides one before the Doctor before settling into her own chair. The Doctor’s hands wrap around it absently, and for the first time Yaz notices that she has dirt under her fingernails.
“Doctor?” Yaz eyes her over the rim as she raises her mug to take a sip. It’s far too hot, and she grimaces, then sets it down. “Did you want to keep going?”
“Yeah,” the Doctor says, her eyes on her mug, then gives a stiff, jerky nod. “I mean, yeah, I do. Sorry, I just—”
“It’s okay,” Yaz says. “You can take your time.”
And she means it, though a part of her—the worried part—is niggling with desperate impatience, the kind that comes from knowing your friend is in trouble, and having no idea what to do about it. Other than listen. Which is fine, but—
The Doctor nods, then clears her throat, and raises her mug to her lips. When she sets it down, she does so carefully, making no noise.
“Like I was saying, we were waiting for something.” She frowns. “I’m not sure what. I feel like—the memories are there, but I think—” she winces— “somebody tried to take them. But I do remember,” she adds hastily.
“Remember what?” Yaz is leaning forward despite herself, despite her promise of patience and calm and everything else she’s supposed to maintain.
The Doctor frowns into her tea, and Yaz watches steam waft into her face. For a moment, she says nothing.
“Remember the days after that,” she says. “The waiting, and—” she shudders, shuts her eyes— “the feeling . I don’t know how to describe it. Like—”
“What?” 4211 looks up. She’s got a can of unidentifiable food balanced on one knee, and a foldable fork in her hand. Her rifle sits across her shins, one elbow keeping it in place.
Beside her 5446 looks up as well, and frowns. He’s busy picking apart what might be a biscuit, though it’s closer to the color of paper. “What are you talking about?”
2457 lowers herself carefully into the dirt beside them, then reaches up and unstraps her helmet, removing it with a sigh. 4211 frowns. They’re forbidden to remove their helmets—and punishments are nasty—but 2457 is the sort of person to flaunt that regularly. She doesn’t like rules, nor does she like the dark they’re kept in regarding upcoming events. Neither does the rest of the squad, but there’s little they can do except trade rumors, which they do, with abandon.
2457 is the source of most of them.
“I heard the commanders talking,” she says after she’s situated herself comfortably, armor and all. “Over by temp HQ. They say this is the last field exercise.”
“Oh thank god .” 5446 rolls his eyes and turns back to his biscuit, now nearly reduced to crumbs. 4211 stares at him, a faint bell going off in her head. She’s never heard the term ‘thank god’ before. She’s pretty sure it’s not a Zenthian term at all.
Yet it’s familiar, and she can’t place why. It’s certainly never come off her own tongue before.
“’Bout time we get out of the dirt,” 5446 is saying, and she blinks, then refocuses on him. She tries to pay attention to him as much as she can, even when it’s boring. He has stuff to teach her, she’s sure of it, and besides—he’s the only friend she’s got, so far. The others think she’s odd. He thinks she’s odd too, but he’s more tolerant than the rest.
“You don’t fit with us,” he’d told her once, a frown on his lip and scrutiny in his gaze. Not mean scrutiny, not rejection, just…vexation. As if he couldn’t quite puzzle her out.
“What do you mean?” she’s asked him. They had just finished a run through of a simulated ambush, and she longed to take her helmet off, or at least drop her heavy pack for a moment. Of course, such things were forbidden. “I’m the same as all of you lot.”
But 5446 had shaken his head, a frown on his lips. “No,” he’d said, “you’re not. And you know what the thing is? It’s—” he’d paused for a moment, struggling for the right words— “like just now. In this exercise. When they all woke us up for the ambush, everybody started running and rushing around and you just—went still. Like you were used to it.”
“Oh.” She’d stared at him, and hadn’t known what to say. She knew what he was talking about, in the vaguest sense. Because emergency doesn’t hit her the same way it hits the others, she’d come to realize. It runs slow and builds, quiet and technical and always ticking, ticking, ticking at the back of her mind: how can I get my way out of this?
Of course, in the army, there isn’t anyway to get out of it. So she sits still, and she waits, and she plays at tin soldiers—a phrase she can’t plumb the origin of—and she gathers information. About herself, about 5446. About who they’re fighting, and why she’s here.
She knows why she’s here. She does. She is a Zenthian soldier, a denizen of the human and civilized Zenthian empire, and she is treated well by—
Same facts. Same taste. She believes them, but the shadow still lingers in the back of her mind. A question, indistinct and beckoning.
Sometimes she feels like she’s staring at the wall of a cave, watching the shadow of a flame flicker across the stone. She feels the heat at her back, and she wants to turn around, but knows if she does, they’ll be nothing but another wall, the same flames and the same shadows.
Sometimes, she wonders if she’ll find something else. She can’t imagine what that would be.
“Are you crazy?”
The question isn’t directed at her. It’s directed at 5446, but it jolts 4211 out of her reverie anyway. She looks from 2457 to him, confused.
She isn’t the only one. 5446 pauses, a piece of biscuit halfway to his mouth.
2457 huffs, and leans forward, drawing her rifle close. “No more exercises. What do you think we’re gonna do if we’re not doing field exercises?”
5446 shrugs and pops the piece of biscuit into his mouth. He speaks around a mouthful of crumbs. “Sleep?”
“No, idiot ,” 2457 snaps, though 4211 has long since learned there’s no bite to it. She’s just short on patience, and long on worry. They are all, but some wear it easier than most. 4211 herself wears it deep in her bones, settled and still. Constant.
“We’re going to the front,” she finishes, and as they stare, leans back, triumphant in their astonishment. “Yeah, obviously. Why else would we finish training? They’ve probably got a gap on one of the outer planets they need us to fill.”
For a long, silent moment, 5446 stares at her. The biscuit crumbles in his hands. Then he scowls, and stuffs the rest into his mouth.
“You’re making that up.” He speaks through a mouthful of crumbs. “There’s no reason to send us to the front yet, not when—”
“Why not?” 2457 challenges. “When we haven’t finished our training? I just told you, we’re almost done.”
“You might have heard wrong,” 5446 argues. He’s going pale, 4211 notices, and she feels a stab of sympathy. He’s too young for this, some part of her brain thinks, and then another part wonders—is she?
No. She answers it in a millisecond. Outwardly, she doesn’t look old, or at least from the few glimpses she’s caught in the mirror, but inwardly she feels age like a second skin underneath her own, frail and tired. She’s too old for this, she thinks instead, and almost laughs, before recalling that she doesn’t want to look odd.
They’re still arguing, the two of them, and 4211 gives each a glance before letting out a sigh and setting her can to the side. Slowly, she leans back, allows the backplate of her armor to act as a pseudo-resting place, and closes her eyes. It would almost be comfortable, except for the straps digging into her back. She’s too tired to adjust them.
Too tired. Too old for this. She smiles to herself, hears the distant drone of the argument beside her, and allows it to lull her into a doze.
Just rumors, she’s pretty sure. If something were going to change, they would have heard about it by now.
Two days after the exercise, they find out they’re rotating to the front.
“From here on out, you may consider yourself trained soldiers!” their commander barks as they stand in bedraggled rows, tired and dusty and sweating. “Each one of you has carried yourself well in training, and I am sure that you will continue to do so in the trials to come.”
He pauses for a moment, and clasps his hands behind his back, then takes a few paces down the row, eyes scanning over the soldiers. Nobody returns his gaze, but they watch him move. It’s instinct, after weeks and months of training. Watch the commanders, because they’re the ones who set the traps and the ambushes and the grueling exercises. Watch their movements, watch when they’re getting ready to make you suffer.
On the front line, it won’t be the commanders setting the attacks, 4211 knows, but she thinks the same principal applies. Watch the commanders, for their movements telegraph your own. Whether to advance or to retreat. Whether the battle is going well, or on the brink of loss.
She’s nothing but a rank and file soldier, a nobody as 5446 so often mutters in complaint, but she feels long distant eyes upon her anyway. Sometimes, she thinks that she’s the person people might have looked to, in her past life. A leader, or a parent, or just a person with a lot of charisma.
At other times, when she’s singled out and pushed to the side, when nobody talks to her except 5446—“You question things too much,” he tells her when she asks why—she’s reminded that she’s a nobody, and morever, she’s worse than a nobody. Because they’re all nobodies there, but she’s the odd one out, which makes her lower than nothing.
She might as well not exist at all.
The commander stalks up and down the line for several seconds, then growls in pseudo-reprimand, “I know you all might feel scared, upon hearing this. You might be worried, or anxious about what may come. And you have a right to be.” He pauses, probably, 4211 thinks, for dramatic effect. “But—this I know. No matter what you had back home, or who you are now, you all have one thing—” he jabs a finger at the ranks— “each other. And the people here, those to your left and right, are the people who will carry you through this.”
Uneasy silence follows his statement. It’s not particularly inspiring, 4211 thinks, mainly because they’re all just hoping for a shower and a few hours’ rest. But as his words hang in the air, a few of the soldiers do glance to the right and left, and eye their comrades nervously. 4211 can almost tell what they’re thinking.
Are you going to carry me through this?
She wonders if that same principal applies to her, the odd one out. She wants to think it will. The others brush her to the side as often as not, but they pull her to the front when she needs it too, and so far they haven’t left her behind.
She glances to 5446, who catches her eye, and though his face is pale with fear, shoots her a limp grin.
“We’ll be alright,” he mouthes, and startled, she nods. It occurs to her that maybe she’s not as entirely out of place as she thought.
“Yeah,” she mouthes back, and as he turns back to the front, wonders if he’s going to die. Funnily enough, the idea that she herself might doesn’t bother her. Her own death seems transient and insubstantial, for reasons she can’t fathom. His, however, reminds her of a younger brother she can’t be sure she ever had, and the idea that she might see his end fills her stomach with dread.
Ephemerals , a voice whispers in her head, fleeting and indistinct, and she grasps for the voice, but it’s gone as quick as it came.
Shadows, she reminds herself. The heat of the fire on her back, which can only be a fabrication of her mind. She’s here now, and this is her family, or whatever passes for it. Even if she’s not sure she belongs.
Maybe, she thinks, if she stops looking so hard for some place to belong, she’ll find it.
The Doctor falls silent, and Yaz stares at her.
“So you went—” she nearly chokes on the word— “to—to war?”
“Well, when you put it like that it sounds rather awful,” the Doctor mutters, and shifts in her chair. Her tea is empty again, and with nothing to occupy her hands, she shoves them under her armpits. It occurs to Yaz that she might be cold.
“Doctor—do you want a blanket?” she asks. “Or a jacket?”
“Huh?” The Doctor looks up, blinks. She’s out of it, still out of it, even after two cups of tea, which her mum always declared could fix anything. Yaz frets and worries over this fact, and languishes knowing that she can’t offer anything but a blanket. Not even a hug, per the Doctor’s wishes.
“A blanket,” she repeats, and nods to her hands. “You look cold.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah.” The Doctor glances down, then closes her eyes and chuckles. “I am, actually. Didn’t even realize, but—” she shudders. “It’s freezing in here.”
“My dad always turns the thermostat down—he gets worried about the heating bill.” Yaz stands and beckons toward the sofa. “C’mon. We can move it over there, and I’ve got loads of blankets and stuff.”
The Doctor blinks and follows her gaze, then rises stiffly to her feet and follows Yaz. She knows she’s being motherly, but she forces the Doctor to wait as she drags out the largest blanket and hands it to her, then arranges the pillows so they can both sit comfortably.
When she turns around, the Doctor has a faint, weary smile on her face. It’s gone by the time she sits down, but Yaz commits it to memory.
It’s probably the best thing she’s seen all day.
“Okay.” Once the Doctor is settled, Yaz sits down herself, folding her legs to her chest. “Where were you?”
The Doctor looks up at her, confused. “Where was I?”
“In the story,” Yaz prompts gently, and it takes the Doctor a moment, but then recognition hits and she nods.
“Oh. Right.” She swallows, her lips pressing into a flat line, and Yaz gets the feeling that whatever it is the Doctor is about to say, she probably doesn’t want to relive it.
“You don’t have to, you know,” she says just as the Doctor is opening her mouth. “We can…talk about something else. The weather, I dunno. Just as long as you’re comfortable.”
“I am,” the Doctor says, but there’s a sick look to her face, the kind that Yaz sees on people right when they realize they’re about to be arrested. “I—I want to talk about it. Well, I think I need to. Because I’m missing something, Yaz. I don’t know what it is, but—” she shakes her head. “Something. I don’t know. I have to bring it back.”
“Okay.” Yaz still isn’t entirely convinced, but she’s willing, at least for now, to let the Doctor take the lead. Until things get bad. Then Yaz will change the subject, or maybe just call her mum for advice—the age old instinct. She’s not sure the Doctor has a mum, but she’s pretty sure she needs one, and she thinks her own will do in a pinch.
She nods toward the Doctor. “Go ahead.”
“Alright.” The Doctor closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath.
First, they get a reprieve. A move back to a large and comfortable base, showers every day, hot meals, the works, there’s even a movie theater, though all the movies are jingoistic and, 4211 thinks though she can’t place why, strangely one-note. They depict soldiers charging into battle, and never, ever show the enemy.
“Who are we fighting?” shes asks 5446 one day as they’re filing into the mess hall. 5446 actually pauses, to her surprise, and thinks about it.
“Does it matter?” he says after a moment, and jolts back to life, grabbing a tray. 4211 only stares at him, shocked.
“Of course it matters!” She follows suit, grabbing a tray, and hurries after him. “How are we supposed to win if we don’t even know who we’re fighting?”
How are we supposed to care if we don’t know who we’re fighting? another voice pipes up in her head, and she squashes it ruthlessly. Even if she didn’t care about the Zenthian empire—which she does, because the Zenthian empire is a civilized and human empire, treats their draftees well —she would care for the people around her. They’re all she has left, doesn’t she?
Even if they don’t seem to like her very much.
But 5446 only shrugs. “The commanders know. Or the commanders above them. Or something.” He frowns for a moment, then visibly shakes it off like a horse brushing off a fly and moves to the next counter, where a man slops unidentifiable food onto his tray. “I told you already. We’re the lowest around here. They don’t tell us anything.”
“They should at least tell us something!” 4211 hisses, and for the first time, feels a hint of unfairness unfurl in her chest. It surprises her with its familiarity, and she wonders briefly if things were ever unfair back home. Where ever that is. “Just because we’re nobody doesn’t mean—”
“Hurry it up over there!” A commander, lounging by the door, barks, and 4211 huffs, but shuts her mouth. They move down the line, receiving more unidentifiable food, and as they do, 4211 identifies a new feeling in her stomach.
Anger. It slides on like a fitted glove and sits there, boiling. It follows her to the table, and only settles as she begins to pick at her food, grimacing at the greyish substance.
But it doesn’t leave. It lessens, settling into a quiet simmer, but it doesn’t leave.
Two weeks after they have been rested and fitted out with new gear, they’re taken to the front.
The commanders herd them into grimy, dust-worn ships where they sit jam-packed, a mess of knees and elbows and rifle muzzles poking into sides. 4211 is seated near a dingy window, and she leans forward to catch a glimpse of their fellow troop carriers rising in the air. They trundle slowly over the landscape, a halting, bumpy flight, skinving around mountains and dipping into valleys, until they rumble to a stop at a nameless, unrecognizable place.
“Where are we?” 4211 wonders out loud, which is a mistake in itself. Questions are discouraged under the commanders’ watchful eyes, especially foolish ones, and this is a foolish one, she can already tell. Who’s going to answer her? None of them have been here, except maybe a few of the commanders, who haven’t been keen to share their experiences.
Or another, shorter answer: they’re at the front. What else needs to be said?
The troop carrier jerks to a stop, and their commander signals them to rise. “Quiet as you go out,” he growls, “and follow me. We check in at the outpost, and then move to take position.”
None of them answer. They know they’re not supposed to. Instead they rise silently and, tripping and stumbling, follow him out the doors and into the breach.
Close up it’s quiet, but in the distance they can hear the rumble and whistle of artillery, accompanied by the occasional boom. There’s a strange cadence to the noise, 4211 thinks, and as they troop through a landscape so rocky and barren it might be a moon if not for the occasional shrub, she starts to count.
There’s a pattern, she’s sure of it, or maybe she’s just going crazy. It tugs at her ears, irritatingly almost-present, and so absorbed is she in the rhythm of fire and exchange, that she doesn’t even realize they’ve arrived until 5446 stops in front of her.
“Wait here,” their commander whispers, then turns on his heel and creeps off, disappearing behind a rocky outcropping which 4211 realizes a moment later to be a camouflaged outpost. They do as he says, standing in nervous silence, until he appears a moment later, a holographic map in hand.
“We’re taking sector 6B,” he tells them, and says nothing more but turns and waves a hand, indicating that they should follow. They do, slipping over loose rocks and crunching on sandy debris, nothing to accompany them but the distant booms and the rhythm of war.
There’s a rhythm, 4211 is sure of it. She strains her brain as they follow, trying to spell out just what it might be, but to no success. Something is nagging at her, the sense that she should know this, she should be smarter that this , but she feels stuck like a stick in mud, consolidated with the rest of the soldiers.
She’s not special, she reminds herself. Only different. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
“Everybody—stop,” their commander orders, and they do as he says, pulling up to a halt. For a moment, 4211 is confused—the landscape is no different from what they’ve been tromping through. There’s a mountainous ridge ahead of them, rocky and high enough to block whatever might be on the side, and the area they’re standing in is only a continuation of that—rocky outcroppings and dried riverbeds which, if followed far enough, will probably through that ridge, and right into—
The enemy. It hits 4211 at the same moment that the commander says it.
“This is the front line,” he whispers, and waves a hand to the ridge, which is more like a small mountain range, if she’s being honest. Now that she’s looking close, squinting in the darkness, she can see that it’s porous, full of valleys and dried riverbeds, the kind an enemy force might easily slip through. “This is our sector—15 clicks square. We patrol it, we keep an eye on it, we wait. If they attack—we respond. If we get orders—we attack. Understood?”
Of course it’s understood. It’s what they’ve been training for, after all. Even the last sentence, 4211 thinks, is a tad unnecessary, possibly a stiff reminder that there’s no turning back now. Even if they don’t like the orders. Even if they don’t know who they’re fighting.
Why, 4211 wonders for the dozenth time, won’t they tell them?
“Alright,” the commander grunts, and turns, eying the landscape. Then he turns back to them, and points to a nearby, rocky riverbed winding its way through their territory. It’s a natural trench, 4211 realizes. Perfect cover. “This is where we sent up camp. Spread yourselves along, two men to a spot, a good distance apart. Set up, and listen to your squad leaders. In about fifteen minutes, I’ll assign patrol.”
2457 is their squad leader—a recent, and vaguely perplexing, promotion. Still, she takes command well, directing the soldiers down the riverbed, and when she pairs people off, she puts 5446 and 4211 together, for which 4211 can only be vaguely relieved. The others don’t really understand her.
Neither does 5446, but he at least makes an attempt.
“C’mon.” 5446 nudges her, and points down the riverbed. “Let’s get a good spot, before they’re all taken.”
4211 follows his gaze dubiously—it’s all rock and gray sand the whole way down, along with the occasional shrub—but trots off after him anyway, and doesn’t argue.
She has a feeling she used to argue about things like these—or maybe just argued in general. Somewhere in her gut, she things, she’s got a lot of opinions, loud and sometimes at odds. Sometimes, she used to give them.
Now, however, she doesn’t really see the point. Usually.
“5446,” she says anyway as she catches up to him. “Do you hear that—the artillery fire?”
5446, busy picking his way over rocks, doesn’t look up. “In the distance? ‘Course. Hope it doesn’t reach us.”
“Oh—oh yeah. Me too.” She’d forgotten about that part. The whole scene doesn’t seem real, is the problem—like something out of a movie. It’s distant and unsettlingly atmospheric, in a way that makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Danger is a thunderhead on the horizon, not a rainstorm on her head.
“Do you hear that pattern?” she persists, and this time 5446 glances to her, brow crinkling in confusion.
“In the artillery fire.” She’s relieved as he stops, standing in the bottom of the riverbed, and cocks his head. Actually listening. “It’s—I can’t pinpoint it.”
“But there can’t—” He frowns then, and she knows he catches it too. His eyes widen slightly, and then he presses his lips together and shakes his head.
“Might be the firing pattern. I don’t know. I’m not in artillery.” He turns and starts off again, leaving her to jog to catch up.
“But, wait—” She gets to his side and falls into step, panting beside him. Bloody heavy pack. “Don’t you want to know what it is?”
“Why?” His eyes are on the move, scanning the riverbed for a suitable spot. They’re a good distance from the others by now, and 4211 can’t help but be relieved. The others would look at her funny for asking such things. “It’s just an artillery thing. Probably.”
“But what if it’s not ,” she hisses, and, as he starts forward again, takes off after him. “5446! It might be—”
Then she stops, because she doesn’t know what. She’s not even sure there’s a mystery here, except she might be inventing one, for reasons she can’t be sure of. A need, maybe, to pick this thing apart, just because she doesn’t want to be here. Doesn’t want to be different, and alone except for one person who barely tolerates her endless questions and constant oddities.
Without warning, an overwhelming surge of longing sweeps over her, nameless and sharp. She’s not sure what she’s longing for, except to not be here, alone and lost among a war she doesn’t understand.
I am a Zenthian soldier. I have my memories wiped to make it easier to fight. I am not alone, I’m part of a unit, and an army that treats its draftees in a humane and civilized manner—
But if the lack of memories make it easier, she wonders, then why do they hurt so much?
5446 has turned and, in her pause, is waiting for an answer. An olive branch of patience, and she’s grateful for it.
“—it might be related to who we’re fighting,” she says at last, and watches his patience disappear in a second.
“Oh, not that again,” he mutters, and turns back to the front, leaving her to once again follow. “Seriously, why? Why are you so curious about that? Why do you want to know who it is you’re trying to kill?”
“Why do you not?” she retorts, forcing herself to match his pace. He’s got longer legs, and it’s incredibly unfair. “Why do you want them to be faceless? Don’t you want a reason to fight? Besides that we have to? Don’t you—”
“No, I don’t!” He turns around abruptly, planting himself in her path, and she stops, taken aback. 5446 doesn’t snap, generally, but now he’s glaring at her, and she’s only now realized that she doesn’t really like the anger of other people. Especially friends.
“I don’t,” he repeats, and swallows hard, scowling. “I don’t want to know who I might shoot in the face. I don’t want to think about who I’m responsible for killing. And besides, it makes sense , 4211. If you dehumanize the enemy, you make them easier to fight. Easier to kill. Throughout history, that’s been the number one tactic for every army trying to win a war. You use propaganda, or make them faceless, just so your own soldiers don’t have to think about what they’re doing. It’s practically a mercy, if you ask me. Why don’t you think we’d do the same?”
He finishes, and heaves a breath, as if surprised by his own outburst. 4211 is too—he’s not one to rant—but at the same time—
“How’d you know all that?” She frowns, her eyes roaming over his face. “They never told us that.”
“What?” He draws back slightly. “What do you mean?”
“They never told us any of that.” 4211 steps closer, her gaze scrutinizing. “That sounds like—like you learned it somewhere. Or studied that. Because that’s the kind of stuff the generals know, but not us. We’re nobodies.”
5446 stares at her, open-mouthed. After a moment, he snaps it shut, and his jaw goes stiff.
“I just—picked it up somewhere,” he says gruffly, but there’s a hint of uncertainty in his eyes, and 4211 knows that’s not the truth. It doesn’t fit, like a puzzle piece slotted into the wrong place.
Maybe that’s all they are. Puzzle pieces jammed into the wrong part of a puzzle.
“You couldn’t have,” she breathes, and for the first time in what might be months, feels a hint of revelation. A spark, like she’s undoing a mystery she wasn’t even sure existed. “We never learned that. You must have—”
“No I didn’t,” 5446 snaps, and before she can respond, turns on his heel and takes off, gun cradled in his arms. “C’mon, 4211. We need to set up.”
4211 stares after him. Reluctance rises in her mind, reluctance for the task at hand, reluctance to drag her mind from the mystery at hand.
There has to be a mystery, she thinks. Only she might be the only one who sees it.
Maybe difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.
4211 stands for a moment, then jerks to life and hurries after him.
By the time the Doctor pauses in her storytelling, she’s about three blankets deep. She clutches them like capes about her, and Yaz almost wants to laugh, if only to shatter the tension that hangs in the air, fragile and thick.
“Are you okay, Doctor?” she asks for the dozenth time, the words well-worn by now. The Doctor never refutes, usually doesn’t even reply except to nod, but Yaz has to ask anyway, if only to be sure. It’s more of a check-up at this point, a verbal temperature-taking.
“Yeah,” she says this time, and shivers slightly, pulling the blankets closer. “Sorry, it’s a long story. I just—”
“I don’t mind,” Yaz says quickly, before she can start wading into the apologies. And she doesn’t, not a bit, not if it’ll help her figure out just how to help the Doctor, whether that be finding her better clothes or helping her locate the TARDIS.
Where is the TARDIS? The question rises in her mind, and she almost asks it, but then the Doctor starts to talk again and Yaz immediately shuts up.
“I want to get to the end of it,” she finishes, brow crinkled in contemplative thought. She’s not all there again, Yaz thinks, and she wonders briefly where she might be, and suppresses a shudder.
She’s not sure she wants to know.
“We will,” Yaz says, and backs it up with a firm nod of her head. Use ‘we’ statements, her boss once told her. Makes it a ‘them’ problem, rather than a victim facing a uniform. “What—do you want to talk about when you were on…the front?”
The front. The word sounds awkward on her tongue, like it belongs in the mouth of a GI in World War II, not on her sofa in her living room. But the Doctor brings her eyes back to Yaz, then she nods slowly, solemnly.
“It wasn’t bad at first,” she says. “A lot of it was waiting, and guarding. And then we started going out on patrols. That’s when—” she pauses, and something in her gaze shutters. “That’s when it got worse sort of…tough.”
“Tough?” But we’ve been in tough situations , she wants to say. We’ve been through battles and fought aliens and even seen people die. How can you — ?
But it wasn’t just violence, her Nani had once told her, in a rare divulgence about her life before England. It was the cold machination of it all, faceless and cruel, a perpetrator-less crime in a world full of victims. In war, her Nani had told her, nobody had clean hands, but every single person was a casualty.
“Yeah,” the Doctor says, and Yaz refocuses. “Tough as in—just different. Or, no—” she takes a deep breath, her eyes fluttering shut— “not different. It was familiar. Very familiar.”
She pauses, just for a moment, then opens her eyes again, but leaves them glued to the blanket.
“Maybe that’s why it hit me so hard the first time.”
“Hey, 4211.” 5446 hails her as he rounds the rocky bend, and she jerks her head up.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” she says immediately, which is a lie. “I was—”
“Keeping an eye on the line?” 5446 laughs as she scowls, and tosses her something. She catches it in surprise, and turns it over in her hands.
“Cool rock I found.” He squats to dig through the small pile of rations they’ve cached, and frowns at their selection. “Damn, we’ve got to grab some better stuff, next time they deliver supplies. We’re out of chocolate.”
“Oh.” 4211 makes a face in sympathy, and neglects to mention that she’d eaten their last candy bar two hours ago. Some things are best left unspoken.
Instead, she looks down and examines the rock, which is surprising cool, with a crack down the middle which reveals the sparkling geode within. “Do you want me to add this to the collection?”
“Huh?” 5446 straightens, then nods. “Oh, sure. Then we’ve gotta go, though. They’re waiting on us for rotation.”
4211 grimaces, but bends down and carefully places the rock next to the others they’ve found—a small pile hidden from view. Not that anybody will steal them. The rock collection is a sad attempt they’ve made at passing the time, which drips by with the steady sluggishness of a leaking faucet, never ending and never changing. They have no schedule, but every day—and night—brings much of the same.
Guard the line. Sleep, if you can. Go on patrol, and hope you don’t get shot at. Pray you don’t die.
It’s tedious and scary, and 4211 hates it. It puts her on edge, the constant, waiting danger, and she never quite gets to jumpy, but instead lives out her days as tight as a rubber band without the relief of snapping. 5446 is the same, she can tell, but they never talk about it. What’s worth talking about what you can already see with your own two eyes?
Instead, they collect rocks.
“Okay, I’m ready.” She straightens and hefts her rifle, then follows him as he clambers out of the riverbed and onto the rocky plains that stretch into the mountainous ridge above them. They’re just in time; 2457 is waiting for them with two more squadmates, and in the distance, they can just make out the silhouettes of the returning patrol.
“Gotta love nighttime patrol,” one of the others—3399, 4211 can tell by his voice—grunts, and the 2457 scoffs.
“Barely nighttime,” she says, and waves one arm to hail the returning patrol, her rifle nestled in the other. “3399, you’re lucky we’re on evening patrol. We were supposed to take the dawn patrol, but I traded spots.”
3399 shifts, clearly cowed by the force of her response, and 5446 and 4211 exchange glances. Since reaching the line, 2457 has taken to the role of squad leader surprisingly well. Problem is, she’s taken to it with abrasive force as well.
“Thanks,” he mutters, and the other girl—borrowed from another squad, and therefore someone 4211 doesn’t recognize—gives them a halfhearted smile.
“Well, we’ll get this over fast, won’t we?” she says with a smile, and 5446 and 4211 give each other another glance. An optimist.
4211 can’t help but think that this will be an interesting patrol.
“Alright.” 2457 nods to the returning patrol as they pass, then hefts her weapon and turns towards the others. “Ready? Good. Let’s move out.”
She starts off without waiting for agreement, and 4211 stares after her. Beside her, 5446 sighs.
“C’mon. Let’s go.” He starts off as well, and after a moment 4211 follows, the other two trailing behind.
It’s evening, but dusk has long since fallen, and the world around them is quickly settling into night. The ridge before them looms large in the fuzzy almost-darkness, and as they near, 4211 can make out individual bumps and boulders, as well as the old, dry riverbeds that snake through. On the other side lies the enemy, she knows, and though neither side has yet managed to take the ridge—which would offer an unprecedented advantage—patrols are constantly moving in and out, on both sides, just to be sure the other side isn’t planning on mounting an attack. It’s a necessary part of the job, 4211 knows, but she hates it.
It’s dangerous, and even worse, it’s boring, and together those two elements combine to create what might be the most dreadful task 4211 has ever experienced. As she lopes along now, her hands tight upon her rifle and her shoulders tensed for the expected attack which may never come, she can’t help but wonder when this will all be over. Will her term end before the war is done? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. They’ve been on the front a few weeks now, and though they’ve sat under the occasional heartpounding barrage of artillery and taken a few light rounds of gunfire, nothing seems to have changed. Sometimes, she wonders if anything will ever change. Rumors fly of planned attacks, both from the enemy and their own side, but they fizzle out quickly, and none come to fruition.
Maybe they’re just here as a distraction, 4211 wonders, and then she thinks: a distraction from what?
From the rhythm, maybe, another voice chimes in. The constant rhythm of fire and return, the rhythm that purports to make sense but at the same time nags her with something she can’t place. A puzzle piece that she’s missing.
She just can’t figure out what she’s missing.
A hand on her chest armor stops her, and she looks up to realize that 5446 has stopped, as have the rest of them, waiting in silence as 2457 peers around a boulder. She sucks in a breath and moves back slightly—not a fan of touching, even if it’s for a good reason—and waits as well, until 2457 at last beckons that they move ahead.
They round the boulder and into a wide, empty area—a large, bowl shaped dip in the ridge, leading straight into a narrow gap—and 4211 grimaces. This is undoubtedly the most dangerous part of their patrol. They’ll have to sweep the area, but there’s little cover, and an attack—if anybody is lying in wait—would wipe them out. Still, to leave it unchecked would only invite an ambush on their position back in the riverbed.
So, they have to advance.
They do so in slow-motion caution, creeping around the edge of the bowl, tension caught in every shallow breath they take. They’re like cockroaches, 4211 thinks wildly, creeping along a kitchen counter when the lights are off. Freezing the moment somebody flicks the switch.
If somebody fired upon them now, she wonders, would they freeze? Or would they do what they’re supposed to do, never mind that she can’t even remember what that is?
It’s ridiculous, she thinks, and the urge rises up in her to laugh. It’s all ridiculous, the whole thing of it. Sometimes, beyond the pure question of it all, she simply can’t fathom why she’s here.
They’re halfway through their sweep when the pattern falters.
It’s so surprising that 4211 freezes, even though she shouldn’t. For a moment she doesn’t even know why, until the pattern falters again, and then she realizes; the rhythm is changing. It’s shifting, subtly but surely, and she has no idea why.
She doesn’t even know what it means.
She doesn’t register she’s stepping forward, out into the open, until a hiss from behind jolts her back to reality.
She turns, and 5446 is glaring at her in frightened confusion. She stares at him quizzically, and he jerks his head back to the boulder he’s plastered against.
“Get back to cover,” he spits through gritted teeth. In front of him, the rest of the squad haven’t noticed the drama; they’re moving ahead, oblivious.
Right. Cover. She has to get back to cover. Except—
“The rhythm,” she whispers, and sees his brow crinkle in confusion, before familiar scorn sets in. “It’s different. It’s—”
“Seriously?” He glances around, then takes a timid step out from the boulder, followed by another. Soon they’re both drenched in moonlight, away from the protective shadows which stretch thinly around the bowl. “Can’t we do this later?”
“I mean—” They can, but an old, familiar excitement is buzzing at her, the excitement of a mystery almost solved, and she hesitates, then glances to the ridge. Moonlight pours across it, illuminating how very empty it is. No ambushes tonight. She can feel it. “But can’t you hear it?”
He can, she can see it on his face. His expression flattens for a minute, then scrunches into a scowl. “Sure, whatever. But not now . Can’t you just—wait?”
“I—” For a moment, stupidly, 4211 hesitates. All at once, caught out in the open, in danger though she might be, she doesn’t even feel like she’s here. She feels like she’s in the exact spot she should be, caught on the trail of a mystery she’s about to solve, wherein everything will make sense. She’s reluctant to relinquish the feeling.
But 5446 is right. She’s being very stupid.
“Yeah,” she admits, and watches him nod in relief.
“Then come on,” he whispers and turns back to the others, by now a good distance away. 4211 follows him as he takes off on a diagonal path towards their position the moonlight throwing a beam across his shoulders.
That’s what imprints itself in her mind’s eye, a moment before it happens. The diagonal beam of moonlight illuminating the dust on his shoulder straps. It’s bright in a way it shouldn’t be, because the moon has yet to have risen to its zenith, and she’s thinking about how that doesn’t make sense, how it must be a trick of the light. Or perhaps it’s just another thing that doesn’t make sense in this war, like the pattern of artillery fire, or the way 5446 is three steps in front of her when he stumbles and falls to the ground.
She doesn’t even see the bullet hit. She barely sees him cry out. She only sees him fall.
“5446!” She stumbles forward, only to duck and trip, cursing, as another bullet zaps over her forehead. She can’t tell if it’s from the enemy or her own squadmates
“4211, get down!” 2457 calls out, and 4211 does as she’s told, if only because the next bullet to fly by whips right by her ear. She’s close enough to 5446 to touch anyway, and she thumps to her knees and kneels over him, her own rifle and the possibility of return fire forgotten, as she searches for his injury.
She spots it immediately, and her lungs jump right into her throat. There’s a messy hole in his shoulder, blood pooling beneath him, and for a heartrending moment she thinks he’s dead— her fault, it’ll be her fault —before he lets out a low moan.
“I said get down!” 2457 skids into the rocky dirt beside her, just as another chatter of gunfire erupts behind them. 4211 doesn’t even listen. Instead she reaches out with shaky fingers, though she doesn’t know what for. First aid, she needs to do first aid. She can’t remember what that is. She can’t even remember where the important veins are in humans, she has no idea if he’s badly injured—
“Oh for god’s—” There’s an impatient huff beside her, and then 2457 is whipping out a gauze pad and stuffing it into 4211’s hands. “Apply pressure. Now, damn it!”
4211 does as told, cursing herself internally, because she knows that—if only because they learned it in training—but her brain is like sludge and all she can think is that it’s her fault . Her stupid mystery, and his life bleeding out before her, and soon she’ll be alone again, stuck in a war she doesn’t understand, with nothing but a rock collection for company.
Familiar grief bleeds on her tongue, and she hates it. Her chest folds with it, and she kneels there like a statue, paralyzed into the single, simple task she’s been given, because for what might be the millionth time, she’s failed to save somebody.
The millionth time. A small voice wonders at the back of her head. How had she’d known—?
“We got him.” 3399 jogs over, and it’s only then that 4211 notices the cessation in gunfire. “Just a lone sniper. We think.”
“Yeah, well we don’t want to find out.” 2457 glances to 4211, then stands. “C’mon, let’s get him back to the line. 4211, keep pressure on. 3399, you help me carry. We aren’t far, but we need to be quick before he loses too much blood.”
She looks around, then curses. “And we’re out in the open. For god’s sake, what the hell were you two doing out here?”
Because of her. 4211 doesn’t say that. She only shakes her head numbly.
Maybe, she thinks miserably, some things don’t need to be said.
The Doctor is quiet for a long time after that. Enough time for Yaz to get up and clean the mugs in the sink, then make them both a third cup of tea. This time she makes sure to dump extra sugar in the Doctor’s, because she’s pretty sure she needs it.
“Here you go.” She passes the tea to the Doctor, who accepts it quietly, then settles back into the sofa. They’re both quiet for a moment, Yaz processing, the Doctor…lost. She’s not sure where.
“I’m sorry.” She’s said it already, but it’s worth saying again. She’s not sure what else she can do, extra sugar besides.
Maybe just lend an ear. After all, some things don’t need to be spoken aloud to be understood.
She stirs her tea quietly, then taps the spoon against the side to shake off the droplets and sets it on the coffee table. The Doctor doesn’t stir hers at all, which is why Yaz took the liberty of stirring in the sugar before passing it off.
The little things show you care, her mum used to say as she cut off the crusts for Sonya’s sandwiches. They only take a second, but they’re worth a lot more than that.
“So,” she says after a minute or so of stone cold silence. Not exactly to move things along, but just because the silence has turned solid, and there’s a point, Yaz thinks, where it’ll start to squeeze the life out of both of them. The Doctor is drifting in her own eyes, and any longer, Yaz worries she’ll be lost there. “Did you want to keep going?”
“Huh?” The Doctor blinks and refocuses. “Oh. Um…yes.”
But she doesn’t sound entirely enthusiastic, and Yaz has the feeling she might be the one to prompt the conversation. New territory—she’s not sure she likes it. It feels a bit like tiptoeing over a minefield, if the minefield is her best friend’s mental health.
But some fields require tiptoeing no matter what, and Yaz can read between the lines. So she takes a breath, and asks, as gently as she can:
It might have been the wrong thing to ask. The Doctor stares at her tea, her chin sunk so low her nose might as well be touching the liquid within, and for a moment doesn’t speak. Then she looks up, and pins Yaz with a woeful look.
“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s the problem.”
After they take 5446 to the aid station, 4211 is left in a partner-less post. Not enough replacements, her commander claims, and 4211 doesn’t know if she really believes him, but she doesn’t care either way. She doesn’t want a replacement. 5446 was the only one who put up with her. Now there’s nobody left, and 4211 is alone.
She’s not sure how she knows that the ‘again’ follows, but she feels it the way she can sometimes sense the hour with no watch on her wrist. It’s innate, maybe, some inborn sense she’s carried with her for however many years she’s lived, which means she should probably be used to it by now, but she’s not. With 5446 gone, the sense of displacement she felt when she first joined the army returns, this time stronger than ever, and she flounders once more, lost and afraid. The feeling never leaves, but stays as a constant ache in her gut, following her from patrol to guard duty to sleep to the boring hours in between, and despite how much she tries, she can never find a name for it.
Homesickness, she overhears in a passing conversation, and it gives her pause. They aren’t meant to have homesickness, not with their heads empty as cracked eggs and their memories wiped clean. Besides, what could she possibly be homesick for? Homesickness has an end goal, a destination to long for. She has the sensation, and nowhere to go with it.
It can’t be homesickness, but the thought lingers with her all the same.
In the meantime, days pass under a light rain of artillery and gunfire, and 4211, with no way to fight and nothing left to fight for, curls up and takes it like the soldier she is. She goes out on patrol and aches to go home (wherever that is) and never steps into the moonlight lest she draw ambush. Occasionally the thought of her mystery nags at her, but she puts it to the side and blocks out the strange, patterned cacophony of artillery whenever she can. Mysteries are useless here, she decides. More than likely, it’s her own mind slowly drifting off, trickling into insanity drop by eternal drop. Soon, she’ll be nothing but an empty uniform, so out of her head it will be a mercy to die.
She keeps these thoughts to herself. She keeps her mystery to herself, and her loneliness to herself, and doesn’t bother with questions anymore.
Until the general comes.
It happens three weeks after 5446 goes off to the aid station, and it’s because, 4211 learns, congratulations are in order.
3399 showed courage by killing a sniper while under enemy fire. The general wants to congratulate him. Apparently, 4211’s missteps have been swept under the rug.
She doesn’t object to this. She doesn’t say anything when 2347 informs their squad, and when the general arrives, his fatigues clean and his armor free of scuffs and scrapes, she crowds quietly with the rest of the unit to hear him speak.
The ceremony is quick; the general calls a beaming 3399 forward, claps him on the back, and gifts him a burnished medal (burnished, 4211 thinks, so it won’t draw enemy fire). Then he sends him back to the crowd, turns to the others, his hands clasped behind his back in a rather fatherly way, and starts to talk.
“I want to let you know that you’re doing a great job here,” he begins, and 4211’s eyes immediately glaze over. So it’s a speech. Probably just a load of empty words, shallow and meaningless, extended as if they’re supposed to do something.
What are they supposed to do? 4211 wonders. Motivate them? Inspire them to charge into enemy lines, never mind that they’re being told to sit tight.
One part of her wonders if she’s being cynical. The other part doesn’t care. And it occurs to her, as she stands and listens quietly—she’s always quiet these days—that the general probably doesn’t know a single bit of what he’s talking about. The cloth covering his armor crinkles with newness, and his sleeves are rolled stiff and precise to his elbows. His helmet sits at a jaunty angle upon his head, as if he’s carefully styled it.
Has he even been here before? 4211 thinks, and with the thought rises anger. Sudden, uncontrolled. The general is droning on, something about strategic patience and the importance of their sacrifice, and all she can think is that it’s not a sacrifice if they didn’t even ask her to do it.
Did they even ask him?
“The situation, so far as we can see, remains steady—”
“Where are you from?”
Her voice punctures the attentive silence, and slices straight through his sentence. The general pauses, mid-word, and his eyes move to her.
Around her, the others shift. A few cast glances. Several meters down, near the front of the crowd, her commander looks mutinous.
“What kind of a question is that?” he asks, and it’s funny, 4211 thinks, how he shifts immediately from fatherly geniality to gruff authority. Textbook, just like the rest of the commanders, but maybe it’s programmed into them all. Maybe they’re not even human like the rest of them.
“Where are you from?” she repeats, and, despite the curl of his lip, persists. “Were you drafted? Have you even served here? Why’re you talking at us if you’ve never even been here before?”
The lip curls further. His eyes narrow. He takes a step forward, and the commander beside him steps back on instinct, cringing under the sudden authority in his gaze.
4211 doesn’t cringe. She’s not scared of authority, she realizes. Not one drop.
“Of course I’ve been here,” he says. “I served on this very line when I was a recruit. You think I would put you through what I haven’t been through myself?”
“4211, shut up,” 2457 hisses off to her right. 4211 ignores her.
“Where are you from?” she asks. “Which planet? Why do we have our memories erased if we—”
“Shut up!” 2347 spins to face her, shoves a gangly fellow aside to get in her face, but the general holds up a hand to stop her.
“Wait a minute.” His eyes remain upon 4211, searching. 2347 halts, fidgeting reluctantly. Beside the general, the unit commander looks furious. Around 4211, the other soldiers are shifting and muttering, uncomfortable.
The general eyes her for a long moment before answering.
“I was drafted, just like you,” he says. “I don’t know which planet I came from, because I elected to move up in the ranks. I’ll get my memories back when I retire. Just like you.”
He pauses. His gaze roams over her face, and a small smile stretches his lips, self-satisfied in the way only an authority figure can be. He’s answered the question, and shut her up all at once, or so he thinks. Besides the smile, there’s no other emotion in his face. Not even in his eyes.
Nothing, 4211 thinks, and a wave of dread rocks her. There’s nothing in his eyes, because there’s nothing to put there. He’s an empty uniform, as are the rest of them, their minds wiped like windows, so clear you can see right through to the other end.
A person isn’t the sum of their memories, no, but what if there’s nothing else to put there?
The general is still watching her. His smug smile stretches wider.
“Does that answer your question, soldier?”
4211 stares at him, and something snaps in her chest. The rubber band, finally reached breaking point.
“No,” she whispers, and then, without warning, she turns on her heel and flees.
Nobody follows her. A few shout after, but not even the commanders want to dirty their hands taking care of the misfit. She’s a good soldier, and little else, but there’s no emotional investment there.
How can there be? They’re empty shells, all of them. Placed into lockstep, and it’s the nature of humanity to follow the pace, isn’t it? Goose stepping for no reason, no destination in mind, only the psychological inclination to do as the group says.
It’s the whole war, she thinks wildly, or whatever is out there—if anything is. It’s just ghosts, the ghosts of people and the ghosts of memory, and nobody seems to notice they’re haunting the place except for her.
The commanders probably expect her to return to her post in the riverbed. It’s probably why they didn’t go after her. That, or they expect her to take off into the dark, never to be seen again. She couldn’t blame them for that.
She doesn’t do either. Instead, she turns sharply, and takes off to the bowl shaped spot where 5446 got shot.
She’s not sure what she expects to find there. It’s dangerous to go, especially alone, and it’s stupid to boot, but she’s not sure she cares anymore. She’s not even fully kitted out, just her helmet and her body armor and her rifle, which is low on ammunition anyway. She never bothers to refill.
Maybe, she thinks, she’ll find someone to put her out of her misery.
She doesn’t find anything. The bowl is empty and silent except for the endless distance artillery, the pattern changed and somehow not, and she stops dead center, the moonlight shining on her shoulders, and stares at the gap in the ridge. It beckons, dark and empty.
If she went through, she wonders, what would she find? Another army, camped out on the opposite end of the ridge? Or nothing but an empty expanse, a silent testament to their foolishness?
She’s never even seen the enemy, she thinks, and panic rises up in her throat. She doesn’t even know what they look like. She doesn’t even know if they’re there at all—what, after all, do they have to prove their existence but the constant pounding of distant artillery? The barrage that sometimes hits their lines, or the gunfire that spurts over the ridge—nothing more. They’re posted in a ghost war, and the only thing they have to even prove their own existence is—
She reacts without thinking, whipping her rifle up just as a voice calls out from the gap.
The voice is young, gruff with fear and false authority, and it hits 4211 with such familiarity that she nearly takes a step back. She stares at the gap, her heart pounding in her throat, her finger still pressed against the trigger, and strains to make out something, anything—
And that’s when the figure takes a step forward, into the moonlight.
4211 stares. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she has the funniest feeling that she’s shattering into dust, her entire mind falling to pieces.
This is it, she thinks, and has the hysterical urge to laugh. She’s finally gone insane.
Ten feet away, framed in the gap between the ridge, 5446 stares at her, his face drawn with mirrored shock.
“4211?” he whispers, and she only stares. She doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t even know what to think.
It can’t be real. That’s the only thing that floats across her mind. 5446 is back at an aid station, hopefully alive or maybe dead, recovering from an injury that’s her fault. He’s not standing in front of her, wearing the same fatigues and the same helmet and the same dumb mustache, the barrel of his rifle pointed straight at her chest.
“You can’t be here,” she whispers, and he can’t because that would make him the enemy, and he’s not even wearing a different uniform.
But then, she thinks with a hint of dread, she’s never seen what the enemy looked like.
“How are you here?” he demands. His rifle doesn’t drop, not even a millimeter. He’s scared, she realizes, and she is too, and maybe that’s why she doesn’t drop her rifle either. Maybe because she knows she’s staring at a hallucination, which is the only way this can make sense.
“I’m here because—” she says, then hesitates. “Because—”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why she’s here, in this bowl shaped wedge, and she doesn’t know why she’s on the front, or even participating in this entire damned war. She’s not fighting for anything. She’s not even fighting.
5446 doesn’t drop his rifle.
“You have to be—” he says, then hesitates. His lip curls. “You’re a trick, aren’t you? They’re putting you in my head!”
“No,” 4211 says automatically, even though she’s not sure that isn’t true. “I’m not—I can explain—”
But 5446 is shaking his head, and his rifle jerks higher, jams into his shoulder— “I don’t know who you are, but I’m not going to let you—”
“5446, wait—!” But it’s too late. His rifle raises, his finger flexes on the trigger, and in that moment, 4211 realizes she is about to die. Panic leaps into her throat, and without thinking, she gets there first.
It’s the first time in her short career, she’ll think later, that she finally reacts like a soldier.
It’s not even on purpose. Her finger twitches, without thought, without connection to her brain. The rifle jerks in her arms, and 5446 crumples to the ground, so suddenly it takes her a moment to realize he’s dead.
He doesn’t move. He lies in a heap, his rifle on the ground beside him, and she only stares, and stares, and in her mind there’s nothing but a void, blank and screaming, and she can’t take it.
She turns on her heel, and runs.
It’s not real. She repeats this to herself, footstep after pounding footstep, the only thought that will circulate in her mind. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not—
5446 is not dead. 5446 is lying in an aid station, and the person she just shot is an enemy soldier, or maybe a hallucination brought about by her own crumbling insanity. They are not one and the same. They can’t be.
She didn’t, thanks to a reflexive twitch of a finger, kill her only friend.
The aid station is nearly half a mile behind the line, and longer because she skirts the riverbed to get there, sprinting as fast as her heavy gear will allow, avoiding any familiar face, thinking of nothing.
She can’t think. She can’t feel. Her head is on pause as her feet move, because the only thing she has to do is she has to get there, and she has to be sure.
A medic greets her at the door, which is to say, he glances up from his smoke break and gives her a frown.
“You don’t look injured,” he says, and for answer she pushes past him, ignoring his indignant shout to burst into the wounded tent, where soldiers lay scattered on cots, all in various states of injury.
5446 is not near the door, and she shoves past another surprised medic to head towards the back, scanning cots and tripping over bags and legs and people, who shoot her dirty looks as she goes.
She doesn’t care. She has one goal in mind, and she can feel the timer ticking on her sanity should she not achieve it.
She has to find him, before she falls apart.
It’s the last bed that bears fruition. Crammed in the back corner, the last cot in the row, she spots 5446 propped up on a faded white pillow, his injured arm at a stiff angle as the other props up a comic. The title splashed across the front reads ‘GI Joe and the Ghost Army’.
“5446!” She stumbles to a halt at the foot of his cot, and swallows hard, a lump in her throat. Insanity momentarily recedes.
He’s okay. Well, not okay, but—alive.
5446 looks up in surprise, which quickly turns to confusion.
“You’re alive,” she chokes out, and doesn’t even have the brainpower to contemplate what that means. She doesn’t think she’s the type to cry, but it feels like it might be a relief, at this point. There’s too much emotion in her throat to speak. “I didn’t kill you.”
“Yeah?” A hint of amusement twitches at his lips. It’s in his eyes too, and she thinks, in a stunned sort of daze, that he might actually be relieved to see her. “I mean, that sniper tried to, but he didn’t do a very good job.”
4211 doesn’t say anything. She can’t. Her chest is thrumming with relief, her whole throat closed off, and she can only stare, until 5446’s smile drops off into concern. His brow crinkles.
“You okay?” he asks, and when she doesn’t answer, shifts slightly, setting the comic down on his lap. “Um—you know I don’t blame you for this, right?”
4211 nods dimly, still unable to form a word. When she still doesn’t answer, the crinkle in his brow deepens.
“I—uh—” He shifts again, clearly unsure what to say— “I’m being released early, you know. Because of my injury. It’s almost done being fixed up, then they’re going to send me back. To…whoever I was before.”
He smiles, tentative, and she wants to return it, but isn’t quite there yet, so she only nods again. He seems to understand.
“So, I should probably be thanking you.” He grins crookedly, only to pause. “Uh, not that it’s your fault. It’s not, seriously, I just—”
“5446, something’s wrong here.” It’s the first thing that comes out of her mouth, and the only thing she can think of to say. 5446 stops, confused.
“The mystery,” she says, and waits for his expression to drop, the familiar scowl to appear, but he just watches her. Listening. “I know you think I’m crazy, but—”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” he says. “Okay, you’re a little different, but that’s not bad, you know? Besides, nobody else would collect rocks with me.” His grin returns, a clear offer, and she almost takes it. Almost.
“I know,” she says instead, and swallows hard, prepping herself. “But you don’t understand. There’s something happening here, something about this whole war, and I need to figure it out before I—”
Go crazy , she wants to say, but she doesn’t say that. She doesn’t say anything else either, because she doesn’t get to finish.
“Soldier, what the hell are you doing here?”
A familiar, authoritative voice growls behind her, and 4211 freezes. She doesn’t even have to turn to know who it is.
She does anyway, and her heart sinks as she meets the furious glare of the general. He’s flanked by an aide and a medic, both who look awkwardly caught between a showdown they didn’t know existed.
“Uh, sir,” the medic starts. “We didn’t let her in, she just—”
“I’m sure she did,” the general growls, his eyes fixed upon 4211. “I can imagine. What’s your name, soldier?”
She almost laughs. What name? All she has is a number.
“I’m not telling you,” she says instead, and takes a step back, until the back of her knees bump into 5446’s cot. “What are you doing here?”
His expression twists, and 4211 knows it’s the wrong question to ask. Not only that, but it’s a stupid one, because she can tell what he’s doing here. It’s publicity, a tour of the wounded to give them inspirational speeches they don’t need anymore, with maybe a medal or two thrown in for good measure.
She wonders if the wounded enjoy it. She doesn’t think she would.
“I’m here to give your friend a proper send off before he leaves tomorrow,” he says, and beckons to 5446. “He performed honorably in his duties, and he’s getting discharged. I hope you aren’t trying to disrupt that.”
“Of course not,” she replies automatically, even as her mind races for a solution and she can see her window of escape narrowing. “Where’s he going?”
“Home,” the general replies, but there’s something stale about the way he says it, as if he doesn’t really believe it either. As if it’s a faraway concept, and not something that might actually exist.
Home. Her heart pangs at the thought of it. It seems too good to be true.
“I just wanted to say goodbye too,” she lies. She’s got to buy time, she thinks wildly, but she’s not sure for what. The mystery is clawing at her with desperate abandon, begging attention, but she has nothing to give it. She’s only at square one again, lost and alone, and with her best friend about to leave forever.
“Will he remember this?” she bursts out, and the general’s eyebrows rise in surprise.
“Remember what?” he asks.
Me, she thinks, but instead she says, “this. His—term. Will he remember what he’s done?”
Behind her, she hears 5446’s quiet breath, and thinks he wants to know too .
The general looks at her for a long moment before answering.
“No,” he says. “To protect against trauma, we wipe all memory. We’re a humane organization, if you haven’t forgotten.”
Humane . 4211 almost bursts out laughing, but 5446 gets there first.
“What?” he exclaims. “Hang on—you can’t do that! I’m not agreeing to that.”
The general’s eyes move to him, and they’re cold as stone.
“This is above your head, soldier,” he says icily. “You should be thankful you get to return to your old life at all. Some people make the ultimate sacrifice instead.”
Empty words. 5446 stares at him, and then his eyes connect to 4211, and she can read the message there. Help me.
He doesn’t want to forget, she realizes, and then thinks maybe he doesn’t want to forget her .
Still friends, she thinks, and in the back of her mind, an old thought swims abruptly to the surface.
I have a duty of care .
“I won’t let you,” she tells him, and before the general can react, swings around to the side of the cot and kneels. “Listen—”
The general shouts indignantly behind her but she ignores him, even as she hears him issue an order for her swift removal from the tent.
“I’m going to do something,” she says, and she’s not sure what exactly that thing is, but it comes to her instinctively anyway, a memory from her long-forgotten life. Something she used to be able to do, though she’s not sure now.
5446 nods, his face drawn tight and scared, not at her, she knows, but at whatever awaits him in the future. It’s all spinning out of his control, she can see it in his face, but that’s always been the trick of the army, hasn’t it? It’s never been in their control, but they’ve been cowed into thinking it doesn’t matter. Goose stepping towards an end they can’t even see.
This time she’s choosing a different one.
“It won’t hurt,” she promises him, and reaches out to touch to fingers to his temple, just as the hands of the aide and the medic her shoulders. They start to pull her back, and she knows she doesn’t have two seconds, if that, so she digs deep into whatever memory she has, and shoves the first thing she finds into his head.
A number. She has no idea what it’s for, and she doesn’t have time to do anything else before the aide and the medic yank her back and pull her, struggling, to her feet.
“Let go of me!” she cries, but they’re dragging her back, pushing her in front of the general. He regards her with a flat, stern gaze, no emotion in his eyes but cold disapproval.
“You should be brought to court martial,” he tells her, “for deserting your post at the very least.”
His eyes run up and down her form, and a sneer forms on his lip.
“Problem is,” he says, “I don’t want you in my army. You’re defective, soldier. That, or improperly trained.”
“Improperly trained?” she spits back, unable to move for the aide and medic holding her hostage. “Trained for what? Trained for something I don’t even agree with? How am I supposed to fight if I don’t even—”
“You’re not supposed to agree,” the general growls, and steps forward, so close she can feel his hot breath on her face. She grimaces. “You’re supposed to do as you’re told. That’s what we all do, because that’s what keeps us going. That’s how we win.”
“You’re not winning,” 4211 retorts, a snarl on her face. “We’re just fighting, and not even that. We’re just sitting here, waiting for a victory that’s never, ever going to come. You probably don’t even know what you’re fighting—”
And then her eyes widen, as it hits her. She doesn’t know how, or why, but realization clicks as smoothly as a key turning in a lock, and all of a sudden, she understands.
They don’t know what they’re fighting for. Nobody knows what they’re fighting for, or who they’re fighting, because they’re not fighting anybody at all.
She knows what’s going on. The pattern, 5446’s double, even why they’ve all been brought here, everybody down to the general himself, with no memory of their past lives.
“Oh,” she breathes, her eyes widening. “I know what the mystery is.” She twists in the arms that hold her to 5446’s cot. “5446, I know what—!”
“Shut up!” The general roars, and reaches out to grab her by the collar. He pulls her close, his eyes narrowed to slits, and studies her for a long moment, his expression mutinous.
“You’re a piece of work, aren’t you?” he says. When she doesn’t answer, he snorts and steps back, leaving her to sag in the grip of the aide and the medic.
“Take her away,” he says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Put her to sleep, wipe her mind, and send her home. I want her out of my army.”
“But—” But she doesn’t even know where she’s going, she thinks desperately, irrationally. She doesn’t even know where home is. “But—wait—!”
But she doesn’t get the chance to finish her sentence. Behind her, distantly, she hears 5446 shout her name, desperate, but more presently she feels a prick on her shoulder, right through her fatigues, and then her head sinks and her vision blurs, and she’s out before she has time to form another thought.
“And then I woke up here.”
It takes Yaz a moment to realize the story has ended. She blinks, then jerks back to reality.
“I woke up here.” The Doctor shrugs, then leans over to set her mug on the coffee table. Her eyes are shining brightly, but she’s not crying. When she draws back again, Yaz sees something dark on her hand, but can’t make it out. She opens her mouth to ask about it, but then she realizes that the Doctor hasn’t finished speaking.
“And I think I was—I can’t quite remember where I was. It’s fuzzy, but I think I was talking to some…Yaz?”
“Yeah?” Once again, Yaz snaps back to reality, and only then realizes that she’s been gazing at the Doctor’s hand. “Sorry. I just…”
The Doctor’s gaze follows hers, and then she nudges her hand out of view. “I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s touch activated, from the way the ink feels. But I don’t know what it activates.”
She shifts uncomfortably, and pulls her blankets closer. She’s not quite shivering anymore, Yaz notices, which is something. Probably the tea helped, as well as the blankets.
Problem is, she doesn’t know what else to do. Usually the Doctor is the one who lends a hand, whether it be to Yaz or the boys or just some person off the street, except now she’s the person who needs help, and Yaz is closely aware of how short she’s falling.
She’s supposed to fix things, just like the Doctor. But how can she even come close to fixing whatever it is the Doctor’s gone through?
But that’s not the point, her Nani’s voice whispers sharply in her mind. It’s not the fixing that matters. It’s doing what you can after the fact.
It’s just helping, she thinks, and this time the voice in her head isn’t her Nani’s, but the Doctor’s.
Maybe, Yaz thinks, the least she can do is get to the bottom of this.
“Doctor,” she says, and waits until the Doctor’s gaze raises to meet hers. “What was the thing you figured out?”
The Doctor frowns. She’s lost again, Yaz thinks, drifting in her own thoughts. “What?”
“The thing you just told me,” she says patiently. “It sounds like—like they did what they were going to do, doesn’t it? They sent you home. But what did you figure out before? What did you tell your friend?”
The Doctor shakes her head, slow, confused. “I don’t…” she whispers. “I can’t remember. I just—”
And that’s when Yaz’s phone starts ringing.
They both jump, then turn as one towards the coffee table to see the phone buzz across the surface as the default ringtone jangles tunelessly. For a moment, they just stare. Then, just as it skitters towards the edge, Yaz reaches out to snag it and shoots the Doctor an apologetic grimace.
“Probably Sonya,” she says, and swipes it open without bothering to look. “I’m really sorry, she gets worried when I don’t answer. I’ll just tell her—”
“Hello?” A strange voice hits her ear, and Yaz pauses. Then, she frowns.
“Sorry, who is this?”
“This is Marco,” the voice answers, jumpy with impatience. “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” Yaz shakes her head slightly at the Doctor’s quizzical look, and mouths ‘one second’. “Listen, you called me, so if this is a prank call, I really don’t think—”
“No, no—wait!” the voice says, desperate enough to give Yaz pause. “I need—I got this number, and, uh—is 4211 there?”
“I—” It takes Yaz a second to get it. Then she does, and her blood runs cold. “Oh my god.”
“Do you know her?” the voice—Marco—asks. “Please, can I speak to her? I think I was just talking to her, but she disappeared, but I think she put something in my head to make me remember, and I—I—”
The Doctor is staring at her, a question on her lips. Yaz doesn’t know how to answer it, so she just hands the phone silently to her.
The Doctor takes it, puzzled, and holds the phone up to her ear. “Hello?”
She’s not sure if it’s the volume of her phone, or Marco’s sheer excitement, but she can hear his voice from the other side of the sofa.
“Oh my god, you’re alive!”
The Doctor’s face crumples, not into tears, but into such utter relief that Yaz feels her own shoulders sag in sympathy.
“You’re alive,” she whispers, and then her eyes widen. “You’re—Marco! We met in the cafe!”
“Yeah, you were just here!” Marco’s voice, tinny and distant, nevertheless jumps with excitement. “I don’t understand what happened—it’s like I’d never seen you before in my life, and then suddenly I remembered all these things—”
“You remembered,” the Doctor breathes, and then her eyes go round as saucers. “Oh. Oh! I remember too! I—”
Without warning she jumps to her feet, sending the blankets flying. Yaz leaps to her feet as well, poised for—well. For whatever it is they’re about to do.
“Marco,” the Doctor says very seriously, “my friend and I are coming to meet you. We have something we need to fix.”
Marco is twenty four, a former conflict studies and human rights major, and a barista at a cafe two blocks down from Yaz’s flat. He explains all of this to Yaz and the Doctor after a hurried reunion, and follows them without a single look back as the Doctor drags them out of the cafe and down the street, where her TARDIS, she explains, is safely parked.
“And your name is the Doctor?” Marco calls after her, and Yaz can’t help but grin to herself. All that, everything they’ve been through, and that’s the thing he keeps sticking on. “But that’s not a name. It’s a—”
“Promise!” The Doctor calls back. She’s slightly ahead, striding at her usual pace, but Yaz can’t help but think it lacks effect in jeans and a t-shirt. “It’s a promise. And I promised I’d help you, Marco, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to help us.”
“But—” Marco begins, and then catches Yaz’s gaze, and falls silent.
“Don’t fight it, mate,” she says, grinning slightly because at least this is the Doctor she knows. “She’s always like this.”
Marco’s gaze drifts back to the Doctor, then he gives a rueful shake of his head.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess so.”
They find the TARDIS tucked into an alleyway, and as they clamber inside, Marco gaping in shock, the Doctor gives a scattered explanation of her discovery.
“It’s stuck,” she says as she yanks a lever, sending the doors shut with a clang. “The whole war. It’s stuck.”
“Stuck?” Marco comes up to the console carefully, touching nothing. Better than Ryan, Yaz thinks, and nearly has to smother a laugh.
“Stuck,” the Doctor repeats, and lunges for a button on the other side of the console. She slams it and the TARDIS rocks, sending them all flying. “I didn’t understand why—I didn’t have the context to understand—but just before they sent me back, I realized something.
She pulls a control, then straightens and turns to face them.
“The general was mindwiped too,” she says. “And everybody else. All mindwiped, all up to the highest echelons. So the question is, who’s fighting the war?”
“Us,” Marco says, and her grin, having slowly returned, falters slightly.
“Yes,” she says, “but not just us, historically speaking. Because we’re not from the Zenthian empire, whatever that is. I’ve never even heard of it, and I know of all relevant powers in the local galaxies.”
The TARDIS lurches, and she spins around to grab a control.
“It must have died out long ago!” she calls as she wrestles with a stiff lever. “I’ve seen things like these! Empires who’ve fought themselves to death, and when they have nobody left to send, they reach back in time and pull from other time periods. Endless bodies to fill uniforms, and a perfect one-one ratio.”
She straightens as the TARDIS levels, and turns to face them. Marco, Yaz notices, is staring, his face sickly with realization, and she gives him an encouraging clap on the back.
“We’ll figure this out,” she tells him, and he nods without looking at her. His eyes are on the Doctor.
“So that’s what happened to me?” he asks. “That’s what happened to us? We were just…kidnapped?”
The Doctor’s expression drops, and something in her gaze shutters.
“Yes,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry, Marco. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Oh.” Marco shifts, clearly unsure what to say. “I mean…same for you too.”
He glances off, to the flooring, and Yaz watches the Doctor watch him, something strange in her gaze. Or, no—she’s seen it before. It’s failure, and even though it’s not her own, it cuts deep.
After a moment, the Doctor clears her throat. “Er, anyway, I’m guessing the Zenthian empire died out long ago, but their automated recruitment system kept going. The war never ended, because there was nobody around to finish it.”
“What?” Marco finally looks back to her, his brow wrinkling in confusion. “But who were we fighting then? We had to have been fighting somebody. I mean—”
He stops and rolls his shoulder ever so slightly. The Doctor’s gaze goes to it, and something painful flashes across her expression.
“That’s the thing,” she says softly. “There wasn’t an enemy to fight. If there was, the war would have ended long ago, with nobody on our side to properly run it. Problem is—”
She hesitates, and in that moment Yaz knows exactly what she’s thinking about. Because she’d seen the enemy, hadn’t she? She’d known who they were fighting.
“Doctor,” Yaz prompts, if only because she isn’t quite getting it herself, “who was it? How could—who were you fighting?”
The Doctor’s eyes go to her, and her lip twitches slightly, though there’s no humor in her gaze.
“There are such things,” she says, “as temporal weapons. Weapons of time itself, usually only used by those who know how to handle them. Anybody else would have a really bad time.”
Her gaze shifts, and drops to the floor. She studies her shoes for a moment, her palms propped back against the console.
“I’m guessing the Zenthian empire tried to use them, back when they were fighting somebody,” she continues. “Problem is, certain weapons, if you don’t know how to use them, you can cause massive damage. Rips in time and space, or temporal fluctuations.”
She lifts her gaze to find both Yaz and Marco watching her, waiting for her to continue.
“You could even,” she says, “tear a timeline in two.”
She says that as if she expects them to understand what that means. Yaz isn’t sure she does. By the look on Marco’s face, he definitely doesn’t.
“But what does that mean?” he presses. “What does that have to do with who we fighting?”
And that’s when Yaz gets it. Her eyes widen, and she looks sharply to the Doctor, who nods in confirmation.
“You were fighting yourselves,” she whispers. Marco looks at her, baffled.
“What?” he asks, and glances to the Doctor. “How can—?”
“A timeline split in two,” Yaz says, and his gaze snaps back to her, but she’s not watching him. Her eyes are all for the Doctor. Watching her face to see if she gets it. “They used temporal weapons, and tore themselves apart, didn’t they? And then—”
“The temporal fluctuation swallowed up their enemy, I’m guessing,” the Doctor says. “Then rippled into the past and present, except now there were two sides instead of one. And if you both think you’re at war, and you’re sitting on opposite sides—”
“You start shooting at each other,” Marco finishes. He’s staring at the Doctor, his mouth hanging open. “But—how can—how can that continue? How could anybody—?”
But he trails off and doesn’t finish, and Yaz knows why. Because it all makes sense, in the most terrible sort of way. An army of displaced persons, no memories and no place to call home, given a direction and told to follow it—
It would almost be a relief, Yaz thinks, to know where to go.
“That’s…” Marco’s voice is distant with disbelief and horrified realization. He’s shaking his head, something empty in his eyes, and the Doctor is only watching him, looking woefully, quietly, guilty.
It’s not her fault, Yaz knows. But she’ll think it is until the end of time.
“What do we do then?” she asks. “We’ve got to stop it, haven’t we?”
The Doctor’s gaze snaps to her, and then she straightens in a single movement, something close to a smile shuffling onto her features. Not a real one, Yaz thinks, but she’s only trying.
“We’re going to fix it, Yasmin Khan,” she says, and turns back to the controls. “I transferred the teleportation coordinates off of my hand and into the TARDIS. She’ll take us back, and—”
“Wait a minute.” Marco’s voice cuts through her monologue, paled with fear. “Back? We’re going back?”
The Doctor looks up at him, her mouth half-open, then snaps it shut.
“You don’t have to leave the ship, Marco,” she says, her voice soft. Reassuring. “I promise. I just need to step outside and do one thing.”
“And what’s that?” Yaz asks suspiciously. Suspicious because it would be just like the Doctor to launch herself into a war zone, again . “What are you going to do, exactly?”
“Uh—” The Doctor stumbles, and Yaz knows immediately that she’s not going to like it. “I’m going to shove a temporal bandage into the war, Yaz. It’s going to consolidate the timelines, which will register to the automation running the recruitment process that the war is won. Which means that it’ll send all those people fighting home.”
“Yes,” Yaz says, impatient, “but what are you going to actually do? ”
The Doctor stares at her, her hands poised on the controls. Then she straightens and rocks back on her heels, hands sliding in her pockets. The stance she takes when she’s about to do something she knows Yaz or the boys would never approve of.
“I’m going to stabilize the war by mooring it to my own timeline,” she says. “Just for a little while, so it can stitch itself back together. It won’t take long.”
Long, Yaz has learned, is relative to a Time Lord. What the Doctor is talking about may very well take a short time indeed, but that doesn’t mean it won’t tear her to pieces in the process.
It sounds like the kind of plan that might.
“That sounds dangerous,” she says, and glances to Marco for agreement. He’s clearly at a loss, but nods along fervently anyway.
“Yeah,” he chimes in. “It does. And we’re not staying on the ship. We’re coming too.”
The Doctor opens her mouth to protest, but Yaz jumps in before she can get there.
“Yeah, we are,” she says, and gives the Doctor the kind of big-sisterly look that would stop Sonya in her tracks. “We’re your friends, Doctor. And we’re going to help you however we can.”
The Doctor stares at them, and for once, has nothing to say. In the quiet between, the TARDIS wheezes gently to a halt.
“Fine,” she says after a long moment, the words tight. “But—just be careful. Please.”
Beside her, Marco scoffs. “As if we haven’t been here before.”
The Doctor looks at him, and doesn’t say anything. She only swallows hard, then turns to the door, the others trailing behind.
The TARDIS empties them out into an empty, bowl-shaped space, like a horseshoe carved into the side of the ridge which rises gently in front of them. An alien moon, large and white, hangs bulbous in the sky.
It’s nothing like any place Yaz has ever been, but it’s overwhelmingly familiar in a way that sends a shudder down her spine. She follows close behind the Doctor, Marco on her tail, and in the distance hears the batter of artillery.
“It’s patterened,” the Doctor whispers, and she can tell that she’s explaining for her benefit, a distraction in the face of the eerie quiet and dark shadows. “That’s what made me realize. In war, you can’t predict the exact sequence in which the enemy will respond to your fire. But here—” she raises a finger to the sky— “every barrage on our side is met with the exact same barrage from the other. It’s a perfect, unnatural call and response.”
“That’s what you meant,” Marco breathes behind her. “That’s what you meant when you said—”
“Not so crazy now, am I?” the Doctor asks, but there’s no humor in her tone.
They stop several meters away from a gap that looms in the ridge. Or rather, the Doctor stops, her footsteps stuttering, and for a moment Yaz thinks she sees something, but there’s nothing there. The gap is empty, though the moonlight-soaked stones are stained dark.
“W-we can start here,” she says, then corrects herself. “I can start here. I just needed to be close to a midpoint between the two sides. This is the best I can get, all considering.”
“What are you going to do?” Marco whispers behind her. There’s tension in his voice, and when Yaz glances back, she sees him glancing up to the ridge, an unidentifiable look in his eye.
“I’m going to feel out the timelines.” She puts a hand out, then stops and turns to face them, groping blindly. “I just need to find the linking points between, and then anchor myself to them. Like—oh, there we go!” She pauses, squeezes her eyes shut, and takes a deep breath, then lets it out in a sigh. For a moment, she just stands like that, shoulders hunched.
It looks like it hurts.
Then she drags her eyes open, and shoots Yaz a pained smile. Her voice is strained. “There. Easy, see? I just need to—” she winces— “stay hooked in. Just for a little while. I promise.”
“Is it dangerous?” Yaz is watching her anxiously, as Marco scans the ridge, his brow knitted together in concern.
“No,” the Doctor says, then grimaces. Pain flashes across her face. “Well, danger is relative,” she forces out. “Standing out here is dangerous on its own, even before you add—”
“ Doctor ,” Yaz says, and the Doctor pauses, then looks at her.
“Yes,” she admits. “If you want it straight. It might kill me. Well, lots of things in the universe might kill me. I’ve survived most of them.”
“Doctor—” Marco says, and Yaz, without looking back, nods in agreement.
“Yeah, you’re not doing this alone,” she says, and glowers when the Doctor shoots her a glance that has the nerve to look guilty. “I mean it. We can help.”
But the Doctor is already shaking her head. “You can’t, Yaz. I swear, I’d let you if I could. But this is the kind of thing only a Time Lord could do. It would kill both of you to try.
Yaz rocks back on her heels. Stymied. “Fine,” she allows. “But I’m not letting that go. We can do something to help. We will do something. Right, Marco?”
Marco doesn’t answer, which is a bit of a disappointment, because Yaz had been sure he was on her side. She huffs, and turns around, ready to hammer in her point.
But Marco isn’t looking at her. He’s staring past her, past the Doctor, and into the gap beyond, his face pale.
Yaz stares at him for a fraction of a second. Then she spins around, just in time to hear the bark of a familiar voice.
She freezes in place, facing the Doctor, who has her hands in the air and her shoulders tensed. She’s not looking behind her, which might be a good thing, Yaz realizes, a wild burst of laughter caught in her throat, because she might not believe what she would see.
Standing there, in armor and dirty fatigues, an ugly rifle pointed at the back of the Doctor, is the Doctor herself. Her face is pale as the rocks around her, and she looks anything but a soldier, trembling in gear that would hang off someone half a head taller, but the rifle in her hands glints darkly and Yaz doesn’t question it.
“Doctor—” she starts, and shuts up immediately as the rifle moves to her.
“Don’t move,” the Doctor repeats, only it’s not the Doctor, Yaz realizes. It’s 4211, or the Doctor without her memories, or both. She looks just as afraid as the rest of them, but she keeps the muzzle of her rifle high, and when Yaz doesn’t move, she swings it back to their own Doctor, who has her eyes squeezed shut like she doesn’t want to see.
“Pretty sure I recognize that voice,” she mutters, and 4211 swallows hard.
“Don’t speak,” she says, but her voice is lacking authority, and even Yaz doesn’t believe. The Doctor has loads of authority, has it coming out her ears when she wants to, but she’s never carried herself in the military way 4211 is trying and failing to.
There are limits, Yaz thinks humorlessly, even to the Doctor.
4211 hefts her rifle and steps closer. “Don’t move,” she warns again, her eyes running over the Doctor, before darting to Yaz. “I won’t kill you. I’m just here to find my—”
And then her eyes land on Marco, and she stops. And stares.
“—friend.” The word is barely audible. The muzzle of her rifle drops a faction of a centimeter, and then she jerks it up again, swinging it between Yaz and the Doctor.
“Who are you people?” she asks. Her voice rises in pitch, fright warring with confusion. “5446—how did you get—”
“I’m not 5446.” Marco steps forward, his hands up. “My name’s Marco. I’m—I don’t think I’m your friend. I don’t know what happened to him.”
A muscle tightens in the Doctor’s jaw. She doesn’t move, nor turn around. Her eyes stay tightly shut.
“I—but—” 4211 is staring at him, gobsmacked. The muzzle of her rifle drifts lower. “That’s impossible. You can’t be working for—”
“There is no enemy.” It’s the Doctor who speaks. Her eyes are open now, her gaze boring holes in the ground. Her hands are still in the air. 4211’s gaze jumps to her back.
“You sound like me,” she says, accusatory. “How do you sound like me?”
Yaz watches the Doctor swallow tightly, shoulders tensed. Then, slowly, hands still raised, she turns around.
4211 stares. And stares, and stares, her mouth open in confusion, her rifle nearly forgotten. Any attempt at military airs is gone. She’s only the Doctor and not, a blond woman in an ill-fitting uniform and a helmet that tilts too low over her eyes.
“This is impossible,” she says, and swallows hard. Her eyes dart to Yaz, then to Marco, then back to the Doctor. “You can’t—you look just like me. How can that be—?”
“Bet you know,” the Doctor says, a grim, tight smile on her face. She rocks back on her heels slightly, and watches as her own self’s mind works furiously for a conclusion.
“I don’t,” 4211 claims, then clears her throat and says louder, “I don’t. Listen, I don’t want trouble. I don’t care about this whole thing. I’m only looking for my friend because—”
“He disappeared yesterday,” the Doctor says softly, and 4211’s eyes fly back to her.
“They say they brought a body to the aid station yesterday,” she says, “but I don’t believe it. Nobody confirmed who it was. I wanted to—”
“Check,” the Doctor finishes, and 4211 stops, then nods. Her eyes dart once more to Marco and linger, confusion knitted into her brow.
“How can you be here?” she asks.
“Might want to ask yourself that,” the Doctor pipes up, and 4211’s eyes fly back to her.
“As if I haven’t since day one,” she snaps, and her rifle hefts higher. “I know exactly what I’m trying to figure out. Something is wrong here, and—”
“We’re trying to fix it,” Yaz chimes in, and 4211’s gaze moves to her.
“How?” she asks.
“Timeline anchoring.” It’s the Doctor who answers now. She’s holding herself at an odd set, as if trying to keep from keeling over. A muscle is working in her jaw, and Yaz watches her teeth grind before she answers. “I’m doing it right now. Just—setting things right.”
4211 frowns, and steps closer, her rifle drifting down. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“Does it?” the Doctor forces out through clenched teeth. “Dunno. Maybe because you’re—ow!”
She stumbles forward, and catches herself just before she hits the ground. She doesn’t straighten, but stays doubled over, her arms wrapped around her stomach.
“Maybe because you’re me,” she growls, “and I know exactly what you’re thinking now. I know exactly where you’ve been. You want out of here, don’t you?”
She’s not looking up at herself as she speaks, but 4211 is watching her. Wavering.
Her rifle muzzle sinks lower.
“Timeline anchoring,” she mutters, feeling the words out on her tongue. “Knitting a temporal rift back together. But how…?”
The Doctor groans, and Yaz steps forward. “Doctor—!”
“Wait.” The rifle muzzle swings to her direction, but the action is halfhearted and 4211 isn’t even looking at her. She’s staring at herself, her gaze distant and unsure.
Then she drops to her knees as well, her rifle swinging to her side.
“You know who I am,” she says, and it would almost be a command if it weren’t so desperate. “You’re me, you know where I come from. You know what I’m doing here.”
“’Course I do,” the Doctor grits out. “Haven’t you understood, by now? I can help you get out of here, if you just—”
She stops and bites back a groan, and in the air around them Yaz feels the crackle of tension like a storm about to hit. The timeline, closing in on itself. Knitting back together, piece to piece.
And the Doctor at the center of it all.
“You’re going to kill yourself,” Yaz realizes out loud and fear surges in her throat. “Marco, help me—”
She rushes forward, but it’s not 4211 who stops her this time but the Doctor herself, flinging out a hand.
“Wait!” she gasps. “Yaz, trust me, I can fix—”
“You can’t,” Yaz says, but the Doctor just shakes her head, her jaw tight.
“It’s not what you think,” she says, and glances up to her and Marco, her gaze pleading. “Please. Just—let me do this.”
Everything in Yaz screams against it, and even Marco bristles at her shoulder, seething with uncertainty, but before she can protest, or indeed, even take a step, the Doctor’s hand shoots out and grabs a strap on 4211’s gear, pulling her forward.
“Listen to me,” she breathes, her voice harsh. “I’m going to tell you something. And then you’re going to do as I say.”
4211 opens her mouth to respond, but the Doctor doesn’t wait for a yes or no. She only drags her forward, cups her ear, and whispers something too low for Yaz to hear.
She doesn’t know what it is. But she sees 4211’s eyes widen, her face draining of color, her mouth forming around a word she doesn’t say. She tries to jerk back, horror rising in her face, but the Doctor doesn’t let her go.
“Wait,” she commands, and before 4211 can object, she leans forward and tells her something else.
This time, 4211 goes still.
Yaz has no idea what she says. She can’t even fathom a guess. But after several long seconds—an eternity—the Doctor’s grip goes slack, and she slumps forward abruptly, her hand falling to her side.
This time, Yaz does rush forward, Marco hot on her heels.
“Doctor!” She skids into the dirt beside her, as 4211 slowly draws back. Her hands are trembling.
“What did she tell you?” Marco demands, and when 4211 doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look at him, he leans forward and nudges her on the shoulder. “4211. What did she tell you?”
It takes 4211 a long time to tear her gaze away from the Doctor. Her eyes, when they rise to meet Marco’s, are indecipherable.
“She said—” she bites her lip, something uncertain flashing across her expression, but then her gaze hardens, and she beckons beyond them. “She said to get back to the ship. She fixed the timelines, but if she stays here any longer, she’ll die.”
Yaz stares at her. Panic swims slowly in her stomach, muddy and distant and urging her to act, but she doesn’t. Not yet.
Because the Doctor is lying.
“4211,” she says quietly, the number strange in her mouth, “what did she tell you?”
4211 looks at her then, and her gaze is both firm and incomprehensibly foreign—a different life haunting her eyes—but it’s at once incredibly familiar.
It’s still the Doctor, Yaz thinks, and something in her gut twists with dread.
“Please,” she says softly, “take her back to the ship.”
Yaz looks at her for a long moment. Searching. Then, without looking, she gives Marco a gentle elbow.
“C’mon,” she says, and pushes her hands under the Doctor’s shoulder, starts to lever her into a position to carry. “Help me get her.”
Marco looks to her, then to 4211, as if searching for an answer, but 4211 just nods. There’s a stiff, fractured look about her face, as if she’s about to do something she very much doesn’t want to do.
“Okay.” Marco reaches over and starts to help Yaz, and together they manage to get her upright. “We’ll take her from here.”
4211 nods and clambers to her feet, then steps back and watches them, her rifle dangling off her side, as they stumble their way back to the TARDIS, the Doctor’s limp body dragging between them. Marco looks back once or twice, but doesn’t say anything, and the only time Yaz looks back is just as they make it past the threshold When she does, she sees 4211 still watching them, nearly hidden in the shadows except for the single splash of moonlight that hits her face. In her eyes, there’s something woefully lonely.
Then they stumble fully into the TARDIS, and the doors shut behind them, and before Yaz can even wonder what to do next, the central console starts to rise as if it had been waiting for the order.
The TARDIS wheezes out of existence with the Doctor unconscious on the floor, and Marco and Yaz by her side, waiting and watching. Neither of them speak. There’s not much to say, anyway.
The Doctor wakes up by the time they make it to Sheffield, and they drop Marco off at his cafe, though he doesn’t seem entirely too happy at the prospect.
“Customers are kind of weird,” he jokes, and leaves the Doctor with a friendly but awkward hug before they part ways, with a promise that they’ll both come ‘round for coffee sometime.
“He’s nice,” Yaz comments as they climb back aboard the TARDIS. The Doctor is unnaturally quiet, and she’s desperate to break it. “You always manage to make good friends, Doctor. And I’m including myself in that too, thanks.”
A smile twitches at the Doctor’s lips, but she otherwise doesn’t respond. Instead she only punches something into the console, even though Yaz knows they don’t have anywhere to go.
“So.” Yaz watches her pretend to work, and feels desperation rise in her throat. This isn’t the stunned, traumatized quiet of before. It’s a guilty, drowning quiet that she more easily recognizes, and she can already see the Doctor shuttering herself away. “Did the timelines thing work?”
“Should have.” The Doctor twists a dial, and doesn’t look up at her. “It’ll be slow, at first. People probably won’t notice it early, but—” she shrugs. “The artillery pattern will change. There’ll be less enemy encounters. It’ll ripple backwards and forwards in time, until there’s nothing left to fight. And those people will be free.”
“That’s good to hear.” She’s not sure how else to stretch the conversation. Or rather, there is something she wants to ask, but she’s not sure she has the right.
But the Doctor is quiet, and slightly worryingly so, and maybe it’s not the time to broach difficult subjects, but when is it ever?
“Doctor,” she says, and there must be something serious in her voice, for she watches the Doctor’s hands stutter on a dial. “What did you tell 4211? Only I know she was lying.”
The Doctor’s hands still. Then they come to rest on the console, palms pressed flat. Her lips are pressed together, and there’s something stiff in her eyes.
“I told her what happened to Marco,” she says at last. “Her Marco. I thought I deserved to know.’
“Oh.” It’s what Yaz thought. Still, it’s not the whole story. The rest of it hangs in the air between them, heavy and obvious. “And what else?”
One hand on the console curls into a fist. The Doctor stars at a lever, and swallows hard.
“When I entered the war, my timeline was split in two.” She speaks rigidly, like she’s talking through a mouthful of glass, every word cutting her tongue. “Me and her. And it was too much for me to knit back together, I felt that the moment I tried. It would have destroyed half of my timeline.”
She pauses, then sighs heavily.
“Me or her.” Her voice is quiet and rough. “It would have killed one of us to fix it. Doesn’t matter which one, we’re the same person. So I told her to take you two back to the ship. Told her the TARDIS would help her get her memories back.”
Her hands are digging against the console, her skin across her knuckles stretched tight. She sucks in a deep breath, and closes her eyes.
“She didn’t listen. I didn’t listen.” She shakes her head, then lets the breath out in a shaky laugh, exhaustion and mirthless frustration spilling out of her all at once. Relief too, maybe, but Yaz knows she’ll never admit it. “Typical of me, not even listening to myself.”
“So…you told yourself to let yourself die?” Yaz gapes. It is, she thinks vaguely, something very typical of the Doctor to do. “But…you saved yourself.”
The Doctor lets out a sharp huff and turns abruptly away from the console. “I was trying to save myself. She didn’t deserve to stay there, after what I—what I—”
She cuts off, and Yaz continues to stare at her, stunned. Deep in her throat, she can feel a laugh bubbling up, a mixture of relief and bemusement.
Because as usual, the Doctor is being an idiot. And as usual, she doesn’t even realize it.
“Oh my god,” she says, and before she knows it, she really is laughing, and shaking her head. “Oh my god. You really are an idiot.”
“What?” The Doctor looks up, surprise shaking her out of whatever self-ravaging pool of guilt she’s drawn herself into.
“Yeah, you are.” Yaz steps forward, still shaking her head. “Are you listening to yourself? You’re drowning in guilt because you tried to save yourself, twice. And you’re mad that you succeeded.”
The Doctor stares at her, then slowly shakes her head. “No, you don’t get it. She—”
“Is you, dummy,” Yaz says, then throws up a hand to stop the oncoming objection. “I know! I know what you’ve done. You told me. But it doesn’t matter, Doctor. And you know why?”
By the look on the Doctor’s face, she has no idea. So Yaz steps forward, and closes the gap between them.
“I’m going to hug you,” she warns, and waits for a moment, checking for an objection that doesn’t come, before leaning forward and scooping the Doctor into the tightest hug she can manage.
“I’ll tell you why,” she says, her voice muffled into her coat. “Because you keep trying to save yourself. That’s what matters. Other people can’t do that, Doctor. I mean, they can forgive you, and they can condemn you and love you and hate you and all that stuff, but the final say comes from you, you know?”
She leans back slightly, just to make sure her words aren’t lost in the fabric of her coat.
“I’m glad you saved yourself,” she says. “I want you around, Doctor. I mean sure, I need a day at home every once in a while, and I like my alone time as much as anybody else, but you’re still family. And you’re welcome with us always. I promise.”
The Doctor is stiff under her embrace, rigid as a board, and Yaz draws back a little farther, just out of slight concern, but then she sees the tightness in her jaw and the too-bright sparkle in her eyes, and she understands.
“I just wanted you to know that,” she finishes quietly, and a little awkwardly, and the Doctor nods, one jerky bob.
“I—” She starts, the stops, and swallows hard. “There’s a planet I heard of last week. Pink clouds and half of Earth’s gravity, heard it’s a right laugh. I thought if you wanted to pick up the boys—”
Yaz laughs and steps backwards, releasing her from her embrace. Immediately, the Doctor clears her throat dislodging a cough and maybe a few tears she’s trying to hide, then spins around and lunges for the controls, talking a mile a minute.
“I’ll have to get out of these clothes first.” She glances down and makes a face, then presses a button that sends the TARDIS rocking. “Can you believe they put me back in these? Could have at least gotten my clothes back, I had loads of interesting things in those pockets—”
Yaz doesn’t even bother to reply—not that the Doctor leaves her room to fit one in. She’s jabbering away, clearly cleaning up all the emotion she’s almost spilled, and Yaz can only watch, a smile upon her face.
Sometimes that’s how it is with the Doctor, she thinks with a hint of fondness. Like a cat going to the vet, you’ll have to trap her in a cat carrier just to make sure she gets her yearly emotional check up. The rest of the year it’s fine, mostly. Probably. At least, it’s the best Yaz can get out of her.
But it’s the trying that counts, she reminds herself, as the Doctor rambles on, something about the invention of a new kind of biscuit she wants to try. Trying on both sides, the Doctor’s as well as hers.
It occurs to her that she knows what the Doctor is fighting for, and a grin reaches her face. She doesn’t tell the Doctor. Some things, she decides, are best worked out on one’s own.
In the meantime, they have planets to see.