"The wardrobe?" I wondered. "I thought you wanted to find out more about what's going on."
"That's right," he replied, voice chipper, his eyes twinkling. "And I plan to do it with style."
I looked around, a smirk blossoming on my lips. "Good plan. Count me in."
We walked through the immense collection of clothes until we found a section that was clearly dedicated to cowboy style attire. Immediately I grabbed one of the plaid shirts, only to get it torn out of my hands in almost the same movement.
"Not that," the Master commented, ignoring my pursed lips and instead picked a button down in black, holding it in front of me with a grin. "That's better."
I grimaced at him. "Guess I'll have to go in style too, eh?"
His grin grew nasty and he bent down to meet my eyes. "Want me to pick a dress for you instead?"
"Nope!" I squeaked. "Black's fine."
It actually didn't bother me at all. My only worry was that it might be unnecessarily warm in the sun, but the dry kind of heat this place had was surprisingly easy to endure.
And having him pick different outfits for me was at least distracting. I didn't want to think. Not about why it made me almost panic when the Master came too close, not about how it had made me feel to see him kiss the Doctor, not about how, despite all of that, I had felt so safe as he held my hand in the darkness.
"And red is always a nice contrast if you ask me."
Okay, not thinking didn't work as planned. I had missed whatever the Master had told me the entire time and now he looked at me as if it might be a good idea to shoot some holes into me with his laser screwdriver.
"Sorry," I muttered and rubbed my arm nervously. "Just too much stuff in my head."
"I told you not to think about it." He rolled his eyes, obviously very well aware of at least some of the things that plagued me. When he saw me only pouting at that comment, the Master hooked a finger into my collar and dragged me in front of his face. "And if you can't let it go, at least have the decency to admit to yourself that it's too complicated for a tiny ape brain to understand."
"Pffff…. Fuck off," I told him, unable to keep a smile from widening. "As if you could comprehend how the incredible depths of a mind like mine works." I made an effort to exaggerate my words. "I do keep on surprising you, don't I?"
The Master huffed and let me go, then pushed a small bundle of clothes into my hands. A pair of boots on top.
"Do something useful with that brain and get dressed."
"Yes, Master," I said, very careful to not let it sound obedient at all. The opposite actually. And still there was a content spark in his eyes when I did so.
Maybe he was right, though, and all of this was simply too complicated. For me, at least. And according to his reaction probably also for the Doctor?
Okay stop this! I scolded myself. This was leading nowhere and a lot of it wasn't even my business. At all.
I frowned at the person in the mirror that was I and somehow also not at all. In the end, the Master had chosen a dark red button down and a black leather vest, black pants and boots. Which actually did look cool on me, although I was undecided whether or not I should bind my chest again.
I decided not to, mainly to make the temperatures less of a problem. And who knew… maybe we had to run or fight or whatnot. And I'd need every bit of lung capacity I could get then. I did however take the contact lenses that, somehow, had mysteriously appeared in the bundle of clothes. This time there even was a small pouch with spares.
When I spotted the Master's cowboy look I only sighed. He was, of course, clad in all black. Shirt, vest, belt and even the leather jacket he wore. The only contrast was a red neckerchief. And of course he had a proper cowboy hat too.
"You could at least stop looking hot, you know," I muttered, half sarcastic.
"Not ever gonna happen," he quipped and nudged me with his elbow. "Come on, partner, we have a mystery to solve."
I raised both brows and grinned mischievously. "A drunken Time Lord and his autistic companion. Lovely."
He chuckled and locked eyes with me. "Do I still seem drunk to you?"
"Uhhh… honestly… not so much?" I squinted at him. "Lemme guess… super fast metabolism?"
"Something like that." He poked his tongue out and waved me along. "Chop, chop, lil' lumin. We don't have all day."
"And the Doctor?" I asked, following back to the console room.
The Master shrugged. "I bet he's already gone. I don't care."
However, the disappointed look on his face when we found the room empty told another story. I decided not to mention it and a few seconds later the Master straightened and marched out into the darkness, leaving me no choice but to follow swiftly to not stay behind.
Nothing's in here. Nothing's in here, I repeated in my head, keeping my eyes fixated on the dot of light in the distance. The Master walked too fast to catch up with him and I didn't just want to grab his hand anyway. It would be weird. And he would think of me as weak and pathetic again.
How bloody huge must this space be to allow for a walk as long as this? How long did we even take? Ten minutes? Maybe more. And each step rang loud and foreboding in my ears. Boots on metal, the moaning of time itself, bouncing from wall to wall in eternity.
If it worked with all the shit I had been through in the past, then surely it could work with this as well. Just imagine, I told myself. This wasn't me running through the darkness. This wasn't me, but some character I controlled, like in a video game. Third person. Slow your breath, if your body is calm your mind can't panic. It's not possible.
It worked. Somehow it always did. And by the time the Master reached the portal and turned to wait, I was calm, not giving him the slightest hint.
I couldn't see his face. The portal barely emanated light. But he surely wore a nasty grin, as always when he found an opportunity to taunt me. "Look, you didn't get eaten," he said and chuckled.
"Yeah, 'cause not," I answered. Did my voice always sound so hollow?
Light swallowed us, a short moment of blinding white followed by bright rays of sunlight, where only half an hour ago there had been night.
"Time distortion," I mumbled.
Experiencing something like that was surprising and still didn't catch me entirely off guard. It was simply… there. A fact and an anomaly at the same time. And definitely something I already had encountered in many sci-fi stories.
"Yep. It's faster on this site."
"How long have you two been here while I was sleeping?" I wondered and nodded a greeting at the bartender on our way out.
It was still morning, the temperatures bearable, although the sun was already hot on my skin. Maybe I should have used sun protection… The thought vanished as fast as it had appeared, unimportant and stored too far away in the back of my awareness.
"A day and a half? Roughly," the Master mused.
"Wow. That's… long. What did you do all day? Found anything useful?"
"You could say so."
We walked slow enough to have a conversation, but fast enough to tell me the Master had a destination in mind. The people around barely noticed us and if they did they only stepped aside and resumed whatever they were doing.
It all still felt to me as if I was wandering through décor, a movie set, a scene from a book. Even though I heard and saw and smelled how real it was, my brain had a hard time accepting it as such.
All the other places we had visited had never felt like this. Almost as if I was still dissociating, watching a different me walk down the roads. But somehow I always did, didn't I?
"People tell stories," the Master said. "Legends, you could say. But they happen all around them. They repeat." He tossed a glance at me to probably see if I was as fascinated by this as he sounded.
"How do they repeat?" It was fascinating. The emotion simply didn't completely reach me.
"The guy in the saloon. I bet it's not the first time people saw him. They probably even know when and where he shoots his bullet and avoid the place."
"So, the dead guy was just ill luck."
"Yep. He was too slow, or too stupid. Whatever."
I slowly nodded and mumbled, "It's like a broken record. He sounded strange, didn't he? That wasn't some weird dialect. He was… broken?"
The Master grinned at my observation. "That's what I thought, too. And he is not the only one. There are other scenarios like that. Mostly small, unimportant things. A boy who plays with his dog, a girl with an umbrella greeting the empty air… And all of them crumble to dust, as soon as their script is played."
"We're in a ghost town," I muttered, amazed.
Our steps led us to a stable where some horses stood outside, waiting to be…
"Whoa, wait…" I grabbed the Master's arm as he approached the animals. "I've never ever ridden a horse. Well yeah, I have… on a fair. But it was a pony and it only walked in super slow circles… and I was five or so… uh…"
He snickered and loosened my hand from himself. "I want to check out something and if you're not eager to walk for half a day-" he waved at the animals- "then those are our best option."
I bit my lip and waited for the Master to hypnotise the owner and come back with… one horse. Relief and disappointment flooded me at the same time. I wouldn't have to learn how to ride, but that also meant I'd be left behind.
"Oh no, no no no, you won't just get away." The Master laughed when he saw the look on my face and nodded at the animal next to him. "Up with you."
"Whaaaa? B… b… but…" My eyes darted back and forth between him and the horse. "That thing's twice as big as me!"
"Don't exaggerate, silly. You're going up on your own'' - he leaned down with a cruel little smirk - "or I'll heave you up. And I don't care where I might grab you then."
"Bugger," I grumbled with a defiant squint and turned. "Right… uh…"
I turned to face the horse and the saddle. It was big enough to hold us both, but to reach the stirrups I had to stretch quite a bit. My hands reached up to the knob of the saddle and somehow I managed to drag myself up, which made me feel inappropriately proud.
Until the Master did the same in one swift movement. I could practically hear his grin, but decided not to give the satisfaction of a comment. Having him sit so close behind me was distracting enough, anyway, his every movement palpable as he stirred the horse away from the stable. But I also felt the animal below me and it was a strange sensation, to say the least.
The horse was calm and made not much noise, but it still was a living being and had its own mind. Being so willingly guided by strangers… I wondered if it was aware of this. Horses weren't stupid after all.
At first there was one of the Master's arms to either of my sides, holding the reins, but soon he let one go and wrapped the other loosely around me. Something about the gesture was strangely protective and, yet again, scared me somewhat. Being that close to anyone… up to this day it had always left me much more broken than before and so I had started to… yeah… right.
It had been me who had avoided everyone, too scared of being hurt again, to lose even the last shards of the broken vessel I was. Of course it was hard and sometimes almost impossible for someone like me to make friends or even close acquaintances, but had I been less closed off… had I still ended as lonely as I had?
But then I remembered something else that had completely slipped past me due to the sudden surprise about the horse.
"Where are we actually going?"
"Och, you know… we were a little busy while you slept the day away." The Master chuckled.
As if the time skip was my fault!
"Yeah, looking at how it ended, I can imagine how busy the two of you were," I countered sarcastically.
"Oi! That wasn't… we didn't…" The Master caught himself, growling in my back.
It seemed like I had hit a nerve and it felt inappropriately nice to have this tiny victory, for once. At least for a short moment. His silence quickly started to gnaw on me, as did the hurting feeling that slightly emanated from him. I wasn't even sure if that was a real thing, but my instinct told me otherwise.
"Sorry," I mumbled. "That was a low blow."
The Master huffed and gave me a short squeeze. "It was indeed. Should be proud of you."
"Sorry," I mumbled again and sunk together. "You alright?"
There was a pause, then he suddenly started to laugh and even startled the horse for a moment. I gripped the saddle knob, but was still held securely enough not to fall.
"You're hilarious, little one," he giggled, steadying the animal below us. "Ho, calm down, shhhh." For a bit he let go of me and put his hand on the horse's neck, mumbling some more soothing words, until it stood still and started to relax.
"You're just good with animals or was that hypnotism?" I wondered.
"Both. Well, not quite. Can't connect to most animals, their mind is too flat. But horses are smart, they feel intention."
"Huh… I see."
The Master grabbed the reins again and maneuvered us back on track. His hand came back to hold me in place, his fingers gliding under my shirt a little, almost accidentally. But as soon as skin touched skin I felt his mind hovering inside my own. A twinge of relief was there, but also a slight distress, uncertainty and maybe… regret? Whatever it was, it told me he was blatantly lying when he spoke next.
"Do you really think you could get to me with some stupid comment?" he mocked. "You don't even know what you're talking about."
I sighed and relaxed against him, trying to let him feel how little I believed him. All those small moments I had witnessed between him and the Doctor, put together they drew quite the obvious picture, even to me.
"Maybe time has turned it to hate," I muttered. "And you're right, I don't understand the details, but… it wasn't always hate, was it? And some of that is still left."
The heartbeat in my back sped up a little, his hand gripped the reins tighter, and his other vanished from my skin. The Master snorted.
"And even if…"
"Then I shouldn't trample all over it," I ended and decided to leave it at that. "Anyway, where are we going? You still haven't told."
There was a pause and I had the distinct feeling there was more he wanted to say. But after some time he exhaled and his fingers slid back onto my skin, letting me feel his presence once again.
"Believe it or not, we're going to visit an ancient burial ground."