They’d resumed walking almost as soon as the sun had risen, knowing they couldn’t afford to waste any more time. Mishell was calm and composed, directing him as best she could, and gave no indication of the emotion that must have finally burst forth that night. The Doctor didn’t mention it.
“So,” Mishell finally shattered the silence. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“On Frax. Why’d you come, you and Rose? It doesn’t make sense.”
“We travel,” the Doctor said, trying to think of how best to say it. “Sort of anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes we go places on purpose, and sometimes we just...end up places.”
“And this was one of the latter?” she asked.
She eyed him, clearly suspecting that he was holding out on her, but not willing to pry any further. Instead, she indicated to their left, checking with a small compass she was carrying as she did so. The Doctor automatically reached out to the TARDIS, confirming the direction. Just to be on the safe side. Then he followed after Mishell.
The TARDIS being taken was one of the most troubling parts. Rose had been taken by the patrols, the same patrols who’d shot Dennel. But what would patrols want with a big blue box that couldn’t even be opened by normal means? They wouldn’t recognize her for what she was…but then, if they hadn't, why would they take her?
He couldn’t even be sure that the same people had taken the TARDIS as had taken Rose. He had to assume it, and he knew that they were headed in the direction of the TARDIS, but what if Rose wasn’t there? If that was the case, he supposed, they’d be able to use the TARDIS to possibly locate Rose, but still…he needed to find Rose. The TARDIS could protect herself, so long as she was locked and there were no Daleks around. And the Doctor hadn’t seen any signs of those monstrosities since the Game Station.
He sighed, and Mishell glanced at him over her shoulder.
“We’ll find her,” she said.
He couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
“Thought I was the one who’d have to be convincing you of that,” he observed.
“Excuse me for trying to be reassuring. Watch your step,” she added, as she nearly lost her footing on some slippery wet leaves. The Doctor maneuvered around them.
“Thanks for the warning.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They continued in silence, until the Doctor signaled for a break. Again, he wasn’t really in need of one, but he wasn’t going to let Mishell exhaust herself, and he could see that she was out of breath. He handed her a bottle of water, and she took it gratefully, before eyeing him suspiciously.
“Okay, how did that fit in your pocket?”
The Doctor merely smiled and shoved his hands into his pockets innocently. Mishell shook her head.
“I’m learning new things about you all the time, Doctor. And each one just paints a stranger picture.”
“And I know almost nothing about you,” the Doctor added.
Mishell crossed her arms, suddenly looking as defensive as when he’d first met her.
“Is there a question in there?”
“Depends,” the Doctor said. “I’m not one to give out much personal background, and something tells me that you’re the same. But I do think it’s only fair for me to know a little bit about who I’m relying on.”
Mishell eyed him for a minute, and then something like a challenge flared up in her face.
“All right, then,” she said. “Most of what I know about you, I guessed. So now it’s your turn. What can you tell about me?” Her tone was light and teasing, but there was a definite edge. This was a dare.
“I…don’t think that’d be a good idea,” the Doctor said. He’d made the mistake of pointing out observations about people before, and the result usually got him an elbow in the ribs from Rose if he was lucky, and thrown in jail if he wasn’t. He immediately reconsidered the personal question line of inquiry. “Forget I said anything. Come on. We need to keep moving.”
He took the bottle back from her and began to walk again. Mishell easily caught up with him, matching his pace stride for stride.
“Why not? You think you’re going to tell me something about myself that I can’t handle?”
“No, Mishell,” he said as gently as he could. “But sometimes there are things in the past that we’d rather not think about. And a surprising amount of those memories are closer to the surface than we think.”
“You sound like you speak from experience.”
She didn’t speak again for a bit.
“Tell me. I’m not afraid.”
“Never said you were.”
“Doctor, tell me!”
He sighed, but acquiesced. He studied her for a minute, drawing on what he knew of her.
“You’re smart,” he said finally. “Not just book smart, but street smart too. You’re incredibly brave, and stubborn.”
“I asked you to describe me, not compliment me.”
“Stubbornness is a compliment?”
He sighed. She wasn’t going to relent until he deduced something substantial.
“You’ve lost a lot of people,” he said quietly. “Not just during this war…before that. You had to survive by your wits, and you had a hard childhood. And that’s all I’m going to say.”
Mishell looked like she was debating whether to push him further or not, but the next second, something caught his attention. The softest of sounds, barely audible even in the relative silence of the forest. But it was enough to stop him in his tracks.
Mishell froze too, and he glanced at her.
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
He looked all around, trying to seek out the source of the noise. Then, all in a rush, several things happened at once.
A near-deafening explosion of a gunshot rang out in the trees, and Mishell tackled him to the ground. A bullet whizzed past where he had been standing only a moment earlier.
Neither of them spoke, but he met her eyes gratefully. Then, without even needing to communicate it, they leapt to their feet and dove for cover, splitting up so as to make two smaller targets, instead of one big one.
Another shot ripped through the air. The Doctor saw Mishell draw her weapon, and wanted to protest, but didn’t dare speak. He crouched behind a tree, straining to hear where the shooter was. He could hear something in the trees, and he peered around his shelter, just enough to catch a glimpse of a shadowy figure darting from tree to tree.
Careful not to make any noise, and to keep out of sight of the armed figure, the Doctor slipped out from behind his tree. Hearts pounding in his ears, he made his way to another one, closer to what he now knew to be a soldier.
He’d known that they would eventually encounter soldiers, though he’d hoped they would cover more ground before they did so. He knew that there was no way that these forests were devoid of the soldiers that were so pervasive in the towns, and he reminded himself that they’d been fortunate to make it this far. Now he could only hope that this man was actually alone, as opposed to part of a troop.
The soldier advanced carefully, but didn’t seem to realize that the Doctor had moved from his original location, for he drew nearer to him without so much as looking in his direction.
The man held his weapon at the ready, aiming it at the last place he’d seen the Doctor and Mishell. Where was Mishell? He didn’t know, but he had to hope that she could take care of herself.
Suddenly, the soldier stopped, startlingly close to the Doctor, and raised his weapon. The Doctor followed his line of sight, and caught the smallest glimpse of Mishell’s shirt.
“NO!” he shouted, leaping out from behind his tree. It was his turn to tackle someone, and he and the soldier fell heavily to the ground, the gun firing harmlessly into the trees.
Mishell burst out of her hiding place, weapon at the ready.
The soldier had stopped struggling, and the Doctor was surprised to find that the man had struck his head as he fell, knocking him unconscious. Terrified that he’d accidentally killed the man, he was relieved when he found a pulse. The soldier would have a nasty headache when he awoke, but it didn’t look as though he’d have any permanent damage.
The Doctor got to his feet, and went to Mishell’s side.
“Did you kill him?” Mishell demanded.
“No. He’s just unconscious.”
Mishell stared at the soldier, utter loathing in her face. She took a step forward, aiming the gun at the man’s head.
“No,” the Doctor said firmly, stepping in between them. “Don’t. He’s not going to hurt us now.”
“He tried to kill us.”
“And didn’t succeed.”
“Doctor, get out of the way!”
There was something akin to desperation in Mishell’s face, along with her fury.
“He doesn’t deserve to live!” she insisted.
“He doesn’t deserve to die,” the Doctor countered.
“DENNEL DIDN'T DESERVE TO DIE!” Mishell shouted, her eyes wide and full of unspeakable pain.
“I know,” he said softly. “I know he didn’t. And it’s not fair. But killing this man won’t make it hurt any less. Trust me.”
“What if it were Rose?” Mishell demanded. “What if Rose had been the one who was killed?”
The Doctor refused to let her distract him, even though her words sent a chill down his spine.
“This isn’t justice. This is cold-blooded murder. You’re better than that, Mishell, and you know it!”
Something changed in her face, ever so slightly, and the Doctor wondered when the last time anyone had told her something like that.
“You’re better than that,” he repeated.
Slowly, he held out his hand for the gun.
Mishell stared at him for a long moment, and silently handed it over.
The Doctor breathed a sigh of relief as he set it aside on the ground, and squeezed Mishell’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” he said.
She only shrugged, and crouched down by the unconscious soldier’s head.
“How long will he be out?” she asked.
“No way of knowing,” the Doctor said. “He hit his head as we fell. He could wake up any time.”
“We can’t have him follow us,” Mishell said, looking up at him. “If we don’t kill him, how can we make sure he won’t?”
The Doctor remembered something that he’d stashed in his pockets several weeks ago, after he and Rose had escaped from police custody on a small planet. (A completely unjustified arrest. How were they supposed to know that stepping on the grass was a crime?) He’d stowed them in there, not even really thinking about it, and as he reached inside, he realized that they were still there.
He pulled them out, and Mishell eyed him.
“Why do you have handcuffs in your pocket?”
“Long story, involving a lack of keep-off-the-grass signs.”
She shook her head.
“Like I said…the picture just keeps getting stranger.”
They cuffed the man’s hands behind him, around the trunk of a tree. He was still unconscious, to the Doctor’s relief.
“But…” Mishell actually looked hesitant to ask, but she finally voiced her thought. “If we’re just chaining him up out here, isn’t that just condemning him to a slow, painful death all alone? How is that any more merciful?”
“He won’t be trapped forever,” the Doctor answered, sonicing the locks on the handcuffs with one of the lesser-used settings. “This will make them unlock in thirty six hours.”
“Your stick-thing can do that?”
“Sonic screwdriver. And yes. So it gives us a 36 hour head start. If it was any longer, he’d start seriously physically suffering, but it’s not overly hot or dry, and he’s young, so he’ll be all right. We’ll leave him some water for when he gets free.”
It was far from ideal, but Mishell was right, they couldn’t risk him following them or tipping off anyone to their presence. If he wasn’t going to allow Mishell to kill him, this was the next safest option.
“What if he calls for help before then? Or alerts someone? Surprise is our only advantage.”
“He’d need this,” the Doctor held up a small wrist-computer, or “wristcomp” as they were more commonly known, which he’d removed from the soldier. “And we’re taking it with us. It might be useful. However, first…” he aimed the sonic at it. “Disable the tracking.”
Mishell shook her head.
“Okay, I admit it, I’m impressed.”
“Thanks,” the Doctor smiled at her, setting the soldier’s canteen down next to him. He got to his feet, and turned to her. “And while we’re saying thank you, thanks for saving me back there. That bullet would’ve hit me if you hadn’t acted when you did.”
“Well, you saved my life too,” Mishell shrugged. She picked up her gun again, holstering it. The Doctor frowned, but didn’t comment. “He was going to shoot me when you jumped him. So we’re even.”
“Guess so,” the Doctor agreed, removing the clip from the soldier’s weapon and leaving the gun itself on the ground.
They both looked down at the soldier, who was just beginning to groan.
“I’m going to suggest that we get away before he wakes up,” the Doctor said.
“Agreed!” Mishell replied, and they both began to run.
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