“Behold,” he said, four raps against the arch of the cathedral door, grinning terribly, “I stand at the door and knock.”
Her lip curled with disgust.
“Ugh,” she said. “I’m dreaming.”
Outside, everything was on fire. Colours caught dreamily through stained glass to touch his face. Water under glass, darting like fish. Her head pounded.
His grin deepened.
“And?” he said.
Her head was cracking in two. Oxygen deprivation would do that to you, though. The TARDIS was even bluer than usual, in sympathy.
“Doctor,” Yaz said, with a voice like broken glass, appearing at the head of the steps like a ghost. Where had she come from? They snuck up on her so easily, these days. “What are you doin’?”
“Maintenance,” the Doctor said lightly. Too quiet, by the way Yaz’s face was twisting. She braced herself and cleared her throat. “Just—repairs. The usual.”
The sound of her own voice grated. It was nothing a lie-down wouldn’t fix, but—well.
“Oh.” Yaz spoke softly, taking in the gloom with unease. She made her way down the stairs. “Dark, in here.”
“Well, it’s—” she hazarded a guess, though Yaz was still dressed in the clothes she’d been in earlier, “nighttime. Probably.”
Yaz conceded with a nod, a bit warily.
“Everything alright?” the Doctor asked, turning her attention back to the console. There was always something that needed fixing, if she spent enough time fiddling around. And she had time to spend. Hours and hours of night to fill, while the rest of them slept.
“Yeah,” Yaz said. “Come to apologize, actually.”
She frowned down at the console. If she pulled the zig-zag plotter out of alignment it would take an incredible amount of work to fix—maybe even enough to fill the whole night cycle. She nudged it out of position thoughtfully, the TARDIS wheezing with disapproval. “Apologize for what?”
She chanced an upward glance, wincing as her neck protested. The TARDIS blinked, psychic hand-on-hips, annoyed. She wrinkled her nose in answer and ducked back down to bend over the console.
“For getting cross at your earlier,” Yaz went on. “I know you were just trying to protect us.”
“Protect you from—” Oh dear. This was all starting to have the air of a conversation she should have been paying closer attention to. She paused, tongue darting out to wet her lips. “Oh. This is about the orphan planet.” Earth. She kept the word behind her teeth.
She expected a slightly irritated reply—that tended to be the norm, lately, when she didn’t pick things up the way they wanted her to—but Yaz only continued, like she was reading lines from a playbook.
“You didn’t want us to see it burn,” she said. “You didn’t want us to think of it, dead and abandoned. Destroyed beyond recognition. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”
“I didn’t know you liked poetry,” the Doctor muttered, finally looking up. She frowned. Hold on, she thought. “Hold on,” she said.
“So you lied instead,” Yaz said steadily, hair catching blue in the gloom. Her dead planet’s dirt still caught in the soles of her shoes, but—
“No,” the Doctor protested.
“I think you’re lying all the time,” Yaz said, gazing at her plainly. Empty-eyed. “I think you’re a liar, and a coward, and a monster. You abandoned your home, just like us, and it burnt.”
Time slowed, sticky.
“No,” she tried, “no, that’s not—”
“You left it to burn.”
“No,” she insisted, but it was dry and cracked.
“Don’t you think,” Yaz offered, “that you might as well have pushed the button yourself?”
The Doctor jolted awake, where she’d drifted off against the console, elbows buried in wires and circuits. The console room was empty, blue. The TARDIS moaned uneasily. The back of her neck throbbed.
“Doctor?” Ryan poked his head around the top of the stairs, nose tilting up at the gloom suspiciously before his gaze landed on her. He was dressed in pyjamas, a cup of tea in hand. Nighttime, then. Roughly. She wondered if his bare feet were ever cold, against the grate of the TARDIS floor. “Heard you mumblin’,” he said, tentative. “Everything alright?”
“Er,” she said. “Yeah.” She swallowed. “Just—talkin’ to myself.”
The past and future sometimes met, when everything burned.
“Will you tell them?” Susan asked her, one socked foot turning red with dust and sand. She shimmered like a mirage in the heat, treading closer, smoke trailing in the distance. Far beyond her. She could never bear to park the TARDIS any closer to the citadel. Or maybe it was that the TARDIS couldn’t bear to land herself any closer. Either way.
“Where would I start?” she said. “How could they possibly—?” She swallowed back the thought. “Besides, they have enough to worry about.”
She looked for survivors, sometimes. Picked her way through dust and rubble, choked on the smoke. Some nights—like tonight—she only sat with her back against the TARDIS and watched. The light made her eyelids ache. There was no one left to put out the fires, and they burned and burned and burned. The spires of the capitol glinted in the distance, a snowglobe set ablaze. Jagged glass. She thought of the painting, which had shattered outwards, shards on the floor, gleaming with firelight. And then it hadn’t.
Gallifrey Falls No More, she thought, and almost laughed. Then, she thought: I should have left it as a painting.
“Are you a ghost or a dream?” she asked Susan, who had settled comfortably beside her.
“Yes, I think so,” Susan replied, helpfully. “Oh, Grandfather. You left me to burn, too.”
The Doctor ground her knuckles into her forehead, aching.
“I was going to come back,” she said.
Susan leaned against her. She smelled like ash and bone. The past and present, stretching.
“Yes,” she offered, thoughtfully. “You always say that.”
“Back already?” Graham asked, as she wandered into the galley. It was a kitchen, in theory, but the TARDIS had made it so small this go-around that galley seemed more apt. She edged her way past him, making for the coffee pot. She frowned down at it, wonderingly. Hmm, she thought. It was also a coupon dispenser, somehow.
“Back?” she parroted. She hadn’t been down to the galley in—well. She’d lost count. But admitting that would mean admitting that she’d been living mostly off of custard creams for the past however-long-it-had-been, and that seemed poor form as well.
“Well, you just left,” he said, and there was an edge to his voice. She turned, coffee-less, banging a hip against the narrow counter, arms crossing.
“No, I haven’t,” she said, nose wrinkling. “Is everything alright?” she asked.
Graham only stared back at her, uneasy. He’d wedged himself into the corner, a cup of tea in one hand, a copy of the Times from—she squinted at the date—1941 in his other. His face looked pinched. Sallow, nearly, in the ambient glow.
“Doc, I swear to you, we were just talkin’,” he insisted. “You left all in a huff, you were—” His fingers ruffled the newspaper in his hands nervously. He glanced away. “Well, I know I’m not always great company, I—”
“You’re wonderful company,” she said.
He huffed. “You weren’t so sure, a minute ago.”
“Graham, I’ve only just got here.”
“And you were all—well, a bit moody.”
Her tongue sharpened. “I’m not in a mood.”
He glanced back at her, tentative. “Bit like that.”
She blinked. His face softened.
“You know you can always—” he tried. Her stomach dropped. Ah, she thought. And that’s my queue to escape.
“Temporal echoes,” she interrupted him, making the term up on the spot. “That’s probably what it was. Big ship like the TARDIS, dimensionally transcendent, temporally displaced when we’re in the vortex, you’re bound to get—echoes. Little bits of things that didn’t happen but almost did. Nothing to worry about. You’re not going mad, or anything.”
I might be, she thought grimly to herself, but she kept that part quiet.
“Oh,” he said. He shot her a shaky smile. “Oh, well, then. Good. That’s—good. Thanks, Doc.”
She smiled back at him, stretched tight.
“No problem,” she said, making to leave.
“You forgot your coffee,” Graham said quietly, but she wasn’t there to hear it.
“I’m dreaming,” she said again, stained glass staining his face, washing over it, a fire-rhythm. Flames beating at the windows, but it wouldn’t burn, here. It hadn’t burned, here. “Which means you’re not really here.”
He laughed, at that. Great, gasping howls that bowled him over, shuttered his eyelids.
“Oh,” he wheezed, sagging against the frame of the arch. “Oh, you just never change. I’m very real,” he said sharply, turning on a dime. His face darkened. “More real than the rest of this, anyway.”
Her nose wrinkled. Behind her eyes, there was a whisper of pain. Like she’d forgotten, just for a moment, that it was all meant to be hurting. “St. Paul’s Cathedral? It’s perfectly real. Light of the World’s just round the corner, take a look for yourself.”
“Light of the World,” he muttered.
“Not the original painting, of course,” she said, frowning. “It—they removed it, during the—during the—”
Unthinkingly, a trembling hand raised to the back of her neck.
“They didn’t want it to burn,” she whispered. “It was just a painting, but they—”
“Oh, come on,” he snapped, stalking towards her, coat flapping behind him as her knees buckled, as the glass high above them shattered with a whistling howl. Coloured shards fell like rain. Fire followed, billowing smoke. “Pull yourself together.”
“It didn’t burn,” she insisted, even as the pews surrounding them caught ablaze. The wood crackled as it burnt. Her skull split with the noise. Ah, now she remembered. Everything hurt. “It didn’t—it didn’t—they tried to save it—”
“They hid it,” he said, oddly quiet. Looming above her, but for once he didn’t gloat. “At the end of the universe.” He crouched, eyes glinting like small black stones. His fingers caught her chin, the tips whitening when she tried to wrench out of his grasp.
He stared at her, so close she could count every eyelash. “Where are you, Doctor?”
“Get out,” she snarled.
“You left the door unlocked,” he said, nonsensically. Fire crackled behind him. “Where are you?”
“I’m dreaming,” she breathed.
“No,” he hissed, releasing her chin, “no, you’re not hearing me. Listen. Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” The church was burning to the ground around them. That was wrong. It had never burned. Just the roof, just a bit, it had been saved—
“Why am I here?”
“I didn’t invite you,” she said, disgusted. “Why are you here?”
His lips twisted. “Door was unlocked, like I said, the question—” He shuddered. “—is why.”
He took her by the shoulders, leaned in even closer. She retreated as far she could, grimacing. “Where,” he breathed, shaking her gently, “are you?”
“Don’t know,” she said lightly, enjoying the rage that crossed his face. “Wouldn’t tell you, anyway. Where are you?”
There was a great crash behind her, the roof falling in, a rush of light and flame. Snap crackle pop. That would be the altar going up, probably.
He wasn’t prone to panic. Otherwise, she would have been certain it was crawling across his face, settling in behind his eyes.
“You need to wake up,” he said. “Now. You need to wake up, now.”
She could humour him, on occasion. Idly, she considered punching him instead. If it really was only a dream, it couldn’t hurt. And if it wasn’t, all the better, really. Either way, he wouldn’t be expecting it.
“Why?” she asked, tartly, shelving the idea. For now.
He dropped her shoulders. “I think you’re dying,” he said with distaste.
“Am not,” she protested. “I think I’d know.”
“Where are you, Doctor?”
“I don’t know.”
The fire was moving in. All wrong. Head-splittingly wrong, it hadn’t burned, she wanted to shout. It hadn’t burned, stop it! All that effort to remove the painting, all the other precious artefacts, the fire-watch, the unexploded bomb they’d dug away from it, to have it burn anyway, what a waste, what a tragedy, what a—
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.” The heat from the flames felt disconcertingly real, for a dream. She could smell singed hair. She wondered faintly if it was her own. Probably, that was a problem. “I remembered. I think I got caught in an air raid.” Her breath stuck. “My friends—”
“Forget the pets,” he breathed, sharp. “Wake up. Come on, wake up.”
She stared back at him quizzically. “What do you care?”
“WAKE UP,” he roared, standing abruptly, spit flying
She crossed her arms. Her nose wrinkled.
“Well, there’s no need to be rude about it,” she said.
She startled upwards blearily, from where her head had been cushioned on her knees. The back of her skull collided with the column behind her with a dull clunk. The impact sent vibrant colours down the centre of her vision, sucked the blood from her face. She grimaced. Then she waited a moment, not entirely sure.
“Are you the real Ryan?” she asked, just in case. The past few days had muddied the issue.
“Um,” he said. A free hand raised behind him to scratch at the back of his neck. “Are there a lot of not-real Ryans, wanderin’ about?”
“Can never be too sure,” she muttered, but she was sure enough now. This Ryan had a cup of tea held carefully in his hand again, feet bare against the grate of the stairs. And he didn’t sound like a lunatic. Or like herself. “Is everything alright?”
She uncurled herself from the base of the column as he ventured slowly down the steps, staggering to her feet. The world spun very prettily. She clenched her teeth until it stopped.
“Yeah,” he said. “Uh. Yeah. I was just—sorry, I was just passing by, I didn’t know you were asleep.”
“Wasn’t,” she said shortly.
He nodded. “Right. Okay. It’s, uh.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “It’s dark in here, that’s all. Atmospheric.” He glanced back to her, eyebrows raised. “Bit moody.”
Her face flattened.
“It’s the night cycle, it’s meant to be dark.”
“But you don’t sleep, you said.”
She moved to the console, so she had an excuse not to look at him. Had half a mind to throw the zig-zag plotter out of alignment again, but the TARDIS wheezed a warning, psychic breath hot on her neck. Irritated.
Fine, she thought.
“—just a bit of a headache,” she admitted through her teeth. “Easier on the eyes.”
“Oh.” She waited, resigned. “Are you alright?” he asked, because he was Ryan, because he was kind. Because he was—wandering around, late at night, again, when by all rights he should have been fast asleep.
“It’s late,” she said, “probably. Why are you awake?”
If she looked at him, she knew she’d catch disappointment in the curve of his lip, so she didn’t. They were used to her dodging their questions. She was used to dodging them. It was an equilibrium, of sorts. The scientist in her was very happy with it, probably.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he admitted, after a moment. “Bad dreams.”
Her breath caught. “About—”
“Well, you know. All that. Those things, y’know, with the teeth.” He pantomimed the teeth with his hands, unnecessarily. “But mostly, just—everything on fire. I keep thinking—is that where we’re going, all of us? And I know you said it could change, still, but...” He trailed off, frowning. “I feel like I’m running away from a house on fire,” he mumbled. “When I could be puttin’ out the flames.”
She waited for him to blame her, but he was Real Ryan, not Not-Real Ryan, and so he didn’t. She crossed her arms, tucked her hands away. Glanced at him sideways.
“Er,” she tried. “Still not great at the whole—at the whole—”
“I know, Doctor,” he said. He looked tired, though. Was he disappointed with her? Were they all disappointed? “It’s cool. Don’t worry.”
“But I’m—” She uncrossed her arms with surprising difficulty. “I’m sorry. I’m listening.”
Are you? he looked like he wanted to say, but he didn’t. He only nodded, eyes trailing away from her own, like he hadn’t quite found what he needed. She fumbled.
“Anything I can do—” she offered. She sucked in a breath. “Do you want to go home?”
He shook his head, to her relief. Then he paused.
“Can I just—” If he could have blushed, she thought he would have. “Can I just stay here for a bit? While you—do whatever it is you do. I won’t trouble you or whatever.”
The TARDIS wheezed comfortingly, and he glanced up, uncertain.
“Of course,” the Doctor said. She smiled.
In the back of her aching head, she worried.
She expected to wake to ear-splitting noise, but she didn’t. Ah, she thought, head throbbing. Well, that’s probably good.
Her hair was, in fact, slightly on fire, which was less good. She beat it out with one hand, struggling onto her elbows.
Ah, she thought next. There’s not no noise, my ears have been blown out by a high-energy bomb.
This was also less good.
Shattered glass surrounded her. Every few seconds, a searchlight passed over it, sent it glinting into the night. The rest was all dust and rubble and fog, immutable. Like peering through soup. Soup that was sort of on fire. She’d never find anyone. She’d barely found herself. And who was she looking for, anyway?
Children’s laughter broke through the watery thrumming in her eardrums. She stumbled to her feet, boots slipping on the glass, hands catching on the shards. Turned, searching. Her coat tangled around her legs.
There was no one in the fog. Just more fire, just more smoke, just the ghosts of buildings rendered to rubble. She’d been nowhere near the actual bomb, the shockwave had only shattered the window and blown her to the ground. The fires around her were from incendiaries, broken gas lines, sparks ignited. A temporal bomb? she wondered. Would the rest of the shockwaves hit her in the past or the future?
It didn’t matter. She was looking for someone. Someones.
“Susan?” she tried, soundless. The ground beneath her feet was London, she was sure of it. There might have been Daleks, waiting in the fog, and she wouldn’t be able to hear them, wouldn’t be able to see them, until it was too late. “Chatterton?”
Or maybe it was London like a pin-point bomb, torn out of time and aimed like a bullet. Her head ached, sour. Was her hand on the trigger?
“History is now and England,” she breathed, and couldn’t hear herself. “When am I?”
She followed the sound of children deeper into the fog.
“Oh, come on, Doc,” Graham begged. “You let the kids choose all the time, ain’t it my turn to pick?”
She hummed noncommittally, hands buried in the console, trying not to flinch at the sound of his voice. When had they all gathered in the console room, anyway? She could have sworn they’d all just disappeared for bed. There was a minor fault with the helmic regulator—rainwater, she thought with chagrin, from their last venture out into the rainforests of Zanzinn V—and the TARDIS was pitching a silent fit about it at the back of her head. The soothing gloom had lifted, irritably. Sympathy over. Sandpaper behind her eyes. Red dust on the bottom of her boots, but they never looked. Or maybe they just knew better than to ask.
“You aren’t even listening,” he said, and it wasn’t accusing, it was just a bit disappointed. Disappointed enough that she startled upwards, nearly detaching an important wire in the process. It sparked, and the TARDIS groaned, irritated.
“I’m listening,” she protested, swallowing back a wince at the movement. Graham met her gaze, also looking faintly irritated. Everyone looked a bit irritated, lately. Herself included, maybe. Scorched earth had done them no favours, and the rainforest hadn’t quite helped, though she’d thought it might. She’d have to try harder. Come on, Doctor, she thought. Pick it up a bit.
You pick it up a bit, she thought in reply, which wasn’t especially helpful.
But the irritation bled from Graham’s eyes as he took in her face.
“Are you alright, cockle?” he asked. “You look a bit—”
She bowled right over him. “But I’ve told you before, absolutely no Elvis,” she said, abandoning the helmic regulator for the biscuit pedal.
“Don’t give in, Doctor,” Ryan advised, from where he was sprawled on the stairs, phone in hand, engrossed in some sort of game. She could hear the little pings, even from all the way over by the console. Prickly, staticky against her eyelids. “He’ll make us all go to the first Eurovision, or to see where they invented the first sandwich or something.”
“18th century,” she said automatically, around a custard cream. “Earl of Sandwich, easy, we could drop in on one of his picnics. Though, really, the concept of a sandwich has been around since Hillel the Elder started wrapping things in matzah—”
“I don’t care none about where the first sarnie was invented,” Graham protested, throwing a scowl behind him. He turned his head back to face the Doctor. “Or about Eurovision. Or Elvis.”
“Hold on,” Yaz said, where she was leaned against a column. Her face twisted, but it was good-natured. Was she tired, beneath that smile? Were they all? “You were just sayin’ over breakfast that you’d—”
“I wasn’t serious!” he insisted.
The Doctor leaned into the console, tuning out the exchange, the back of her neck aching. They were wearing thin, the lot of them. A balm for scorched earth, maybe that was what they needed. Maybe that was something she could give. Maybe that would end their disappointment.
“Hmm,” she said, warming to the thought. “Go on, you lot, wardrobe. I have an idea.”
Graham frowned suspiciously.
“This ain’t gonna be another space squid in mating season,” he ventured. “Right, Doc?”
“Of course not,” she said, flipping a switch, wincing at the sparks. The TARDIS was temperamental, today. Disapproval, in the blink of those lights, but she couldn’t quite decipher it. “Trust me.” She beamed over at him. “You’re gonna like this one.”
She wandered. Around her, London burned. Probably, it was London. It usually was. But it might have been Arcadia, might have been Pompeii, might have been a thousand cities, a thousand nights of fire. She picked her way through the rubble, searching for survivors. Occasionally, the ground shook. If she’d been able to hear it, the air would have been full of a thousand awful sounds. Sirens and high-pitched whistles and anti-aircraft guns and snap crackle pop as buildings caught fire, as bombs dug themselves into the ground and exploded. But the hypothetical racket was better, in some ways. Once they started sending rockets over in ’44, it was when the noise stopped that you had to worry.
Oh, she thought. That’s interesting. For a moment, I knew where I was, and what was coming.
But it was a bit like Schrödinger’s cat in the box. Once she looked at it directly, the thought scampered away, cheeky.
Come back, she thought, a hand trailing against weathered brick, onwards into soup and flames and frost. Come back, come back. The brick shuddered against her hand. The ground shook. More fire, to her right. Everything was so bright, now, it was almost like daylight. Marmalade sky. Searchlights, cutting yellow through the fog. She looked up into the sky and imagined the drone of planes. The spewing of a volcano. The light of a hundred thousand Dalek ships.
It wasn’t safe, out in the open. Even as the thought crossed her mind, the ground trembled again, an angry god. What was she doing out here?
I’m looking for my children, she thought. Except they were long dead, probably, and so that was wrong. I’m looking for somebody else’s children, except were there any children left? She ground to a stumbling halt, because she’d run out of brick wall to lean against. The children had burnt in their beds already. She was just picking through the rubble, counting bodies, watching for ghosts.
The ground shook. She stumbled to her knees, out of wall, out of time. Her eyes stung. The back of her neck throbbed.
Out of the soup came a stumbling shape.
“Grandfather,” Ryan said, in a voice that wasn’t his own, and she heard him as clearly as a bell. Fire snaked up the leg of his trousers, the side of his shirt and blazer, tore across his arm, outstretched. He was only wearing one shoe.
“Oh, no,” she breathed, a mumble she could only hear inside her head. But Ryan’s voice carried like he was talking right in her ear, and so he couldn’t be real. He couldn’t be real. “Where are you?” she begged.
“I don’t know,” he told her, flames crawling up the side of him, eating away at his skin until it charred away, left glinting bone in the firelight. “Are you gonna come find me, though? Only here in the first place ‘cos of you.”
“I’m trying,” she said. “It’s just—it’s just everything’s burning, and I can’t quite—I can’t quite—”
She squinted up at him, determined, as he flaked away into ash.
“I’ll find you,” she said. “I promise.”
There was a great flash of light, marmalade sky torn in two, and it all shattered again.
“V-E Day!” she said, twirling a lever with more gusto than was strictly necessary, probably. But it was part of the show. They were expecting it. Probably. “Come on, best part of any war is the day that it ends, what do you think?”
The TARDIS moaned as they landed. Still irritable, brittle. Out of sorts. The Doctor placed a hand on the console, meant to comfort, and glanced across at her friends, eyebrows raised hopefully.
“You’ve dressed up,” Yaz said, confused but delighted.
“It’s a celebration,” the Doctor replied, beaming. It was only a tweed vest under her usual coat, but it was more of an attempt than she usually bothered with. “Besides, nothing wrong with blending in with the local colour.”
“You hate blending in,” Graham said fondly, adjusting his hat. But he was smiling too. “It’s alright with me, Doc, I’ve always had a hankering to see it all, to be honest. Trafalgar Square, the speeches at St. Paul’s.” He paused. “My days, will the King and Queen be there?”
“Graham O’Brian,” she said wonderingly, leaning across the console. “Are you after a piece of the old empire?”
“No,” he blushed, furiously. “It’s just, I remember my old dad talking about it, sometimes. The relief of it all. The joy. He grew up during the whole mess, y’know, they was too poor to evacuate him to the country. Needed his ration coupons.” He blinked, considering. “He might be out in that crowd, right now.”
“Only one way to find out.” She headed for the doors, throwing a warning look over her shoulder. “But no—”
“—interfering,” she heard them say in tandem. Good-natured, light-hearted. Nice one, Doctor, she thought to herself, smiling as she barrelled out the doors—
Into pitch darkness, stale. She wrinkled her nose and felt a hand out for the wall in front of them. Scraped what she could from it and stuck it in her mouth on instinct.
“I think we’re in a cellar,” she said. “Very old dust. Lots of umami. Come on, gang.” She waited a few seconds for her eyes to adjust, squinting across at a ladder on the other side. “Just up here.”
“TARDIS couldn’t have parked us any closer?” Ryan wondered, reluctant.
“Nah. She’s in a mood,” the Doctor muttered, pointedly ignoring the looks she knew they were exchanging behind her back. “If she wants us here...”
She climbed up the ladder, sonicking the padlock at the top of the cellar’s entrance until it broke with a snap. Outside, it was impossible to tell if it was day or night. Her nose twitched—the faintest hint of a fixed point in time. And sewer, and pavement, and bodies, and coal-fire, and cold, biting wind. Definitely London, at least.
Hmm, she thought. Bit chilly for May.
She glanced down into the cellar, back at the TARDIS, half-glaring.
“Where have you brought us?” she asked. “Is this because of the water in your helmic regulator? Because I apologized for that. Profusely.”
“Doctor?” Yaz poked her head out next, seemingly unfazed by the cellar dirt smudged on her nose. “This don’t look like Trafalgar Square. Or, y’know. Daylight.”
“Could just be heavy fog,” she said, helping her out into the alley. She waited, pulling Ryan and Graham out next. “Or we could be out a day or two. The TARDIS isn’t always overly fond of my attempts at precision piloting.”
And she ignored the looks they shot each other there, too.
“Come on, let’s get a shift on,” she said, the cotton behind her eyelids pulling with every second they spent stationary. “If we’re early or late, I’m sure it’s for a reason. The TARDIS—”
“—always takes us where we need to go,” Ryan finished, skeptical. “Yeah.”
Unease blanketed her, sharp pain at the base of her skull, but she ignored it, pressed forward into the coal-fire smog. She could work with this. Whatever this was, she could work with it.
The fog only thickened as they exited the alley, spread out like soup. The three of them trailed behind her as she wandered, nose wrinkling, head pounding. Very dark, for May. Very cold. The ongoing blackout meant the lack of lights anywhere was perfectly normal, but it was still eerie. There was nothing to cut through the fog. Only the sound of their footsteps against the stone.
“Doc,” Graham hissed, finally. “Where are we?”
“One more block,” she said, frowning. “Or maybe two. We’re bound to run into a landmark eventually.”
“Why’re all the street signs covered up?” Ryan asked, as they approached a corner intersection. A bus wheezed past, veering towards them out of the fog. A chill reached the back of her head, and the faintest hint of sour brine. Near the river, then.
“Ah,” she said. “I think we’re close.” She took off away from the damp river smell.
“To confuse the Germans,” Graham explained to Ryan as the three of them followed her. “In case they invaded. Doc,” he protested, panting slightly as he did his best to keep up. “Close to what?”
“It’s a bit cold for May,” Yaz pointed out, on her heels. “Are you sure this is right? We could ask someone.”
“Hmm,” she conceded, but as the blocks flew by, there were very few people out and about to ask. By the time the fog finally spat them out near what she was sure had to be Paternoster Row, Yaz had her hands tucked into her armpits, shivering, and there was no one to be found. They’d passed great ruts in the roads on their way, rubble waiting to be cleared, some of it impassable.
“Oh my god,” Ryan said, when the muffled, watery lights of a passing car lit the road they were walking on, threw the ruined buildings alongside them into weak but devastating relief. The Doctor raised a hand to what was left of a brick garden wall, frowning.
“This should be over by now,” she muttered. She swallowed. “Fam—”
She couldn’t quite believe what she was about to suggest.
“I think we should,” she tried, but before the words were out of her mouth, a piercing wail sliced them in half.
Ah, she thought, very helpful, and finally managed to pinch the temporal coordinates from the air. A fixed point. An air raid siren that had gone off at quarter past six on the twenty-ninth of December, 1940. By all accounts, she recalled with a sudden chill, the very worst night of the Blitz.
Reckless, she thought then. Reckless reckless reckless stupid—
“Change of plans. Time to go,” she said tightly. “Come on, quick.”
“Doctor—” Yaz said sharply.
“I should’ve thought of the fog,” she muttered, plunging them back into the side-streets, frantic. “Why didn’t I think of the fog? There’s no fog in May—unless there is.”
“Doctor, we’ll never make it back,” Ryan said. Scared, and that was her fault, and if he was blown to pieces on a London side-street, that would be her fault, too. “All this fog—”
“We have at least fifteen minutes before we’re in danger,” she said. “Plenty of time to get back.”
“In danger from what?” Ryan demanded, but when she turned around, she could tell that Graham already knew. His face was white as chalk in the gloom. Ryan and Yaz only looked uneasy.
She cleared her throat. “I was wrong. We’re not a few days out. We’re a few years out. This isn’t 1945, it’s 1940.” She cleared her throat again. “InthemiddleoftheBlitz. Come on, get a shift on.”
She spun on her heel, urging them to keep up. Fifteen minutes was only at a guess. History was notoriously unreliable when it came to remembering sequences of events. The bombs could have started falling earlier or later than they were meant to, and there would be no way to know until they started falling.
And the TARDIS, she thought grimly, was all the way back at the edge of Whitechapel, shrouded in soup and utter darkness and streets without names. But they could make it. Probably. They could probably make it.
But probably wasn’t always good enough, and she’d already made far too many mistakes today.
“Doctor,” Yaz said again, searching. For an answer, for a reassurance. All but demanding.
“We’ll find a shelter,” she said. “Just in case. Come on, down the road. Someone’s backyard Anderson, or an Underground station. Lots of options, perfectly safe.” Lots of options, plenty of them blown to pieces or set ablaze anyway. Stupid, stupid, she thought, why haven’t I memorized all the places that were safe? Why have I memorized every possible variation of crisp flavour instead? Half of London would burn to a crisp, tonight. She’d wanted to soothe scorched earth, not rub it in their faces.
“We have time,” she breathed, catching a flicker of light in the window pane of a passing shop. A few miles away, a roof was on fire. The sound of their breaths and their feet and the siren’s wail had drowned out the drone of passing planes. Even as she stilled, breath loud in her aching ears, the sound of a nearby anti-aircraft gun sounded raucous into the air. Impossibly loud.
In the glass, she saw a ragged old man staring back at her, grizzled in the firelight. He had the saddest eyes she’d ever seen.
“No more,” he said. The glass shattered.
“Why is the cathedral burning?” he asked, when she opened her eyes.
She clawed her way to her feet, using a piece of burning pew as leverage. “Because it was meant to be saved.”
“Hm.” He sniffed, considering. “I thought you woke up.”
“Fell asleep again.”
He raised an eyebrow. She scowled.
“Why do you care? Why are you here?”
“Maybe,” he said, ‘I’m here because I care.”
Her head throbbed, sick behind her eyes. She thought longingly of punching him again.
“No,” she said.
They were even keel, now she was standing. Fire flickered in the shine of his eyes.
“Is that so hard to believe?” he asked, softly.
Her lip curled. “No,” she breathed. “You don’t get to say that. You walked away. You walked away, and then you—you—”
The fire grew. Flames licked at her feet, and her eyelids throbbed with the heat and the light, her hearts were sick with it—
“It was meant to be saved,” she said.
For a moment, he only watched her, gears ticking behind his searching gaze.
“Oh,” he said softly. “Oh.” Laughter hissed out of him, a choked and broken noise. “That’s it! I get it—oh, I get it now. I understand. I undid your act of god,” he breathed. “That’s what’s got you all—”
He made a dismissive, fluttering motion with the hand closest to her. Rolled his eyes to the flames on the verge of engulfing them both.
“But then, you’ve always been dramatic,” he mused. “And self-righteous.”
She shook her head, disgust rising in the back of her throat. Tears threatening, but there was no point, with him.
“There were children,” she breathed, head splitting. “Whatever you found out, whatever you discovered—”
“They all deserved to burn for it,” he said flatly. “Every last one of them. You’ll understand, eventually.”
“Tell me why.” She had bigger problems right now, bigger questions, but she couldn’t help herself. “Tell me where you are.”
He shook his head. It was an oddly calm movement. “I said I wouldn’t make it easy for you,” he told her, still quiet. His eyes flicked back to hers. He sucked in a breath. “I have plans, dear. Big ones.” A flash of teeth, glinting, but he sobered. “And you’ve still got a part to play.”
She froze. “Is that why you’re here? Is this part of your plan?”
His mouth twisted into a snarl. “Why is the cathedral burning, Doctor? Why are you—?” He laughed again, wheezing, deranged. “It was meant to be a little chaos. A bit of discord, sewn. Classic. Instead, you’ve blundered into the Blitz and nearly spoiled yourself before the big finale and I—”
Her stomach dropped.
“Why are you broken already?” he wondered, leaning in. Her knees gave out, the pain behind her eyes blinding, and his hands struck out to grasp her arms, lower her to the soot-covered floor. Fire cracked and snapped all around them. The scent of everything burning, inescapable. She wanted him to smell it. She wanted him to understand, but he wouldn’t. He wasn’t. Maybe he couldn’t.
“What have you done?” she mumbled, around the ache at the back of her neck, behind her eyes.
“A parting gift,” he said, lips twitching as he held her upright. “Left it on the geo-tracker. Nasty little bugger, causes the most dreadful hay-fever on Atraxis Prime, it’s been burrowing down for, hmm, weeks. Feasting on the cluster of psychic nerves at the base of your skull, causing hallucinations, but you didn’t—”
He stared at her, briefly uneasy.
“You didn’t notice,” he said, realizing.
“Psychic?” The back of her neck—oh, and she was stupid, wasn’t she—went cold, all the little hairs stood on end. “But I’m not the only…”
Five years out. Her piloting wasn’t that bad. Usually. She lunged at him.
“Did you infect—” she demanded, plunging them both to the ground, barely missing the flames, “—my TARDIS—”, hands ringing around his shirt collar, slamming his head to the floor as he cackled, “—with psychic pollen?”
His chest heaved with laughter.
“Oh, not just your TARDIS, I reckon,” he gasped. “Your little pets, too, not that there’s much in their tiny little brains for it to live on. And you didn’t notice.” He wheezed with mirth, trembling beneath her. She slammed him into the floor one more time, for good measure, and scrambled back onto her knees.
“Did the Keller machine teach you nothing?” she demanded. “Rassilon’s pants, you and your toys, I swear, one day—”
“Doctor,” he interrupted, some of the glee seeping out of his voice. “It’s killing you.”
“You’re lying,” she said. “And anyway. I assume that was the point.”
He smiled again, jagged teeth. Oddly melancholy. “No, no,” he whispered. “No. Not yet.”
“Then get out,” she said. If she sounded tired, she’d forgive herself. “You’ve done enough here.”
His eyes gleamed with what couldn’t have been panic. “You’re not listening. You’re too weak. It’s killing you.”
“Is not,” she protested. But even as the words left her mouth, sourness filled the back of her throat, that familiar ache behind her eyes. The cathedral would burn, and it would take her with it. The flames drew nearer, nearer. The pews were all but gone, tapestries charred to ash, the windows shattered in. All that was left was the fire.
“And I need you alive,” he hissed, standing, flames licking at his feet. Looming.
“Help me, then,” she said, thinking of her friends. Her fam. “Help me, and help me find my friends. I’ve lost them.”
His face twisted. “Your pets can burn with the rest of London town, tonight. They’re not important. I don’t need them.”
“But I do,” she spat. “Help me help them, or I’ll kick you out of my head and die just to spite you.” She stared up at him, frowning. “Not that it matters, anyway. I’ll just regenerate.”
For some reason, that only twisted his face deeper, darkened it with fury. He smoothed it out, lips trembling, and crouched to meet her.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure if he wanted to strike her or kiss her.
“Fine,” he whispered, and touched a hand to her temple.
His voice was the only thing she could really hear, and she was already regretting it. She groaned into the dirt, aching.
“Get,” he said sharply, “up.”
When she wasn’t fast enough, he dragged her up by her coat sleeve, and wasn’t that an interesting metaphysical thought experiment? He wasn’t really there. But he also—was. A mental visitor, familiar and foreign at the back of her head, anchored by her mind to the real world. Everything spun as she gaped into the night, frowning, but for the first time in a long time, she realized, her thoughts were perfectly clear. Painless. He’d blocked it all, somehow.
“What have you done?” she asked fuzzily, frowning.
“Something elegant,” he said. “I’m mediating.”
“Mediating.” She scoffed. “This way,” she said, taking off back towards where she’d come from. Stupid, stupid, wandering off, but then, she hadn’t been in her right mind. No one had been in their right mind for a very long time.
Everything still sounded muffled, except for him, but her hearing started to return in a fit and start, peeling away the cacophony around them. Flames crackling, the drone of bombers in the air, the fitful, dreadful, impossible noise of the anti-aircraft guns. The churchyard, she thought, there’d been one there, and though it was blocks and blocks away, still, it sounded as though it might have been right next door.
The main street she turned to, eventually, was barely recognizable as such. Lit by flames on either side, rubble piled high, holes in the centre of the street. A water main had broken and was rapidly filling them. Even as she stood, frozen by the scene, a firetruck trundled by, rickety over the damaged road, a frantic sound.
A thousand cities, a thousand nights of fire, but tonight it was London.
No more, she thought, feeling her hearts pound in her throat, the blood seep from her face, but his not-real hand grasped at her own firmly. When she turned to glance at him, the fire lit right through him, translucent. A mirage, or a dream, or a ghost. He stared at her like she was a jigsaw he couldn’t finish.
“Come on,” he said, and pulled her away.
She picked her way through rubble, down side streets, dodging flames and people whenever possible. The sky had melted from ebony black to a sickly yellow, lit by fire and smoke and searchlights. It threw the whole world into sallow relief.
“Just like home,” he said once, beaming down at her, but she yanked her hand free from his and stalked onwards. “Oh, come on!” he shouted at her back. “You’re thinking it, too.” He caught up with her easily, because the laws of physics didn’t necessarily apply to him at the moment. “I know you visit,” he said, strolling leisurely as she stumbled over upheaved brick. “You can’t take your eyes off it. I understand. Something that beautiful—”
“I,” she trembled, grinding to a halt. There were two figures, up ahead, trapped in the eye of St. Paul’s as everything burned around it. She plunged forward, stumbling.
“Yaz,” she gasped, hands on their shoulders, dragging them off-centre, into the false shelter of what was left of Paternoster Row. Relief so deep her knees almost gave out. “Graham.”
They’d all been lucky to have gone down a side-street, she thought with a chill. Everything else was in ruins. There was almost nothing left to save. If she’d had to pick their bodies out of the rubble—
“Doctor,” Yaz breathed, twisting, reaching for her hand. Eyes shining in the gloom, dust coating her hair, her coat. She picked a piece of glass out of the Doctor’s hair, almost absently. “You’re okay. Where did you—?” Her breath caught. She was speaking far too loudly. “We lost Ryan. We couldn’t—we were all thrown away from each other, Graham hurt his foot, I—”
“Useless,” the Master muttered, and if there had been any point in kicking him, she would have.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Yaz said, looking lost. Her brow pinched, like she was waiting to be reprimanded.
“I’m so sorry,” the Doctor said.”But it’s alright.” She smiled. “Best thing you could do was stay in place. Brilliant, as usual.” She clasped Yaz by the forearms, briefly. Turned to Graham, leaning, chalk-white.
“I’m alright,” he insisted. He clearly wasn’t. His chin trembled. “Doc, it’s Ryan, he—”
“We’ll find him,” she said, though her stomach was sinking. I promised.
In the gloom, his face pinched in pain, he looked terribly old. Terribly afraid. St. Paul’s was swathed in flames behind him, surrounded by a sea of fire.
But it hadn’t burned. Not to the ground, at any rate.
“Beautiful,” the Master breathed, beside her, and she knew he meant it.
“Come on,” she urged. “He can’t have gone far.” I didn’t, she didn’t say. “We’ll just—”
“Oops,” the Master whispered. “Incoming.”
She hadn’t heard the footsteps, and the reflection off the helmet didn’t register until it was far too late.
“Ma’am,” the warden interrupted, grave in the gloom, far too old to be out and about. But then, London had been defended by the children, by the elderly, by the shopgirls left behind. He spoke loudly and crisply, clearly taking them for blast victims. “Ma’am, this is no place to be out wandering. Are you and your companions alright?”
Wandering, she thought dryly. Like they were all out for an evening stroll, glass caught in their hair, soot smeared across their faces.
“We were trying to get to a shelter,” she said, watching his face. “Our friend, he was separated—”
“A young man?” he asked, frowning. Her hearts quickened.
“Yes,” Graham said, taking a trembling step forward. Yaz grasped at his elbow. “Yes, is he alright?”
“Shaken up,” the warden said. “I took him to the tube, it’s the closest shelter.
Graham sagged against Yaz in relief. The Doctor smiled.
“Can you take us?” she asked. “Terribly sorry, for your trouble.”
He smiled back at her wryly. “It is my job. Follow me.”
He beckoned and they followed, down the street, in the shadow of ruins, leaving the fire behind them. Down, down, until they reached the stairs that would take them into the ground.
“Terribly crowded,” the warden said kindly, “but you’ll be safe.” Which was a lie, there had been plenty of stations bombed in the course of the Blitz, hundreds dead from the crushes that sometimes ensued when people panicked. But maybe not tonight. Please, she thought, exhausted, not tonight.
They traipsed down the stairs together, Graham limping between the two of them, the Master hanging on the end like a ghost, trailing. Occasionally commenting.
“I knew there was more to him than just the running commentary,” he remarked in her ear. “He’s dead weight, too.”
She scowled in his direction, but held her tongue. Her friends already thought she was mad on a good day. Especially this week.
Very little had prepared her for how crowded the station was. Children bolted in front of them, across the tile, shrieking. Everyone else was crammed in like sardines, lined up along the wall, staked out with silk pillows and threadbare blankets and picnic baskets. Life, as much as it could go on, went on. Underground, at least, they were too far down to hear the shriek and wail of the chaos outside.
“We’ll never find him in this lot,” Graham despaired quietly, but he must have been lurking at the edges, waiting hopefully, because as they ventured into the crowd a shape flew at them, hat in hand, covered in soot.
“Graham,” Ryan breathed, all but tackling him. “Oh, my days, I thought I’d ever find you.”
“We’ve been looking for you up there, this whole time,” Yaz teased him, relinquishing her grip on Graham’s elbow. “Should have known you’d find the comfiest spot.”
“Like I had a choice,” he said, shaking his head. “That warden—” But he was trembling, still, the Doctor noticed. Missing one shoe. Knuckles tight around Graham’s arm, but he wasn’t complaining. Shocky, like the rest of them. Her fault.
She sighed, relieved and guilty in the same breath. Her fam, in—mostly—one piece. No thanks to her.
The Master shimmered at the edge of her sight.
“You saved them,” she whispered. “Thank you.” Never mind that he’d played a hand in the whole thing to begin with. It was always circles. Trying to untangle it would only drive her mad.
He soured. Then he smiled, treacly, slow.
“I know how you so love mayflies,” he said. “Don’t worry, love. When the time comes, I’ll make sure they die properly. In agony.”
She considered him quietly. Had he been a comfort, once? She thought of his hand in hers. A ghost, or a dream.
I don’t need you, she thought. Then, cruelly: maybe I never did.
He caught it, and scowled. He glanced at her friends. Something passed over his face that she couldn’t decipher anymore.
“Fend for yourself, then,” he told her, softly, bitter. And disappeared. Pain drove a spike through her skull like it had never left. She bit back a moan, knees buckling.
“Doctor,” Yaz started, reaching for her. She allowed it, just this once. Stumbled in tandem as they all shuffled towards a glimmer of bare wall, sunk towards the ground in a clump of soot and torn stockings and missing shoes. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” she breathed, leaning against the wall, cool tiles on her cheek. “Mostly. Sort of. Long story.” She swallowed. “Will be. I can sort all of this. Easy fix. Your foot, too, Graham, don’t worry.”
“Sort all of what?” Ryan asked, swiping a trembling hand over his head. Now they were sitting, some of the wildness had fled his gaze, but there was still leftover panic in the curve of his mouth.
“Long story,” she said. “I’ll explain later. We’ve all gone a bit funny, but I can fix it, I promise. Just have to hold on until morning, when the all clear sounds.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve gone funny,” Yaz said. She frowned.
“That,” she told her, “is because for all your many skills, you’re about as psychic as a brick, Yasmin Khan.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well. Thanks.” Possibly in retaliation, she dragged the Doctor upright until she was slumped against the wall at a better angle, wrangled everyone else until they were all wedged in as comfortably as they could be. Surrounded on all sides by people and chatter and sandwiches being passed around and crying babies and the harsh smell of chemical toilets.
Very human, the Doctor thought, feeling her eyes start to slide closed despite herself. Very human, indeed.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered into Yaz’s shoulder. ‘About this. I meant to take you somewhere better.”
“I know you did,” Yaz said quietly.
Graham shifted. “It’s alright, Doc,” he said. His hand grasped hers gently, just briefly.
“Don’t worry about it.” Ryan crossed his arms and leaned his head against the wall, breathing out slowly. “You know what, at least we’re all together.”
“Yeah,” she breathed. Warm, on the inside. Maybe they weren’t so disappointed, after all. She had a poor habit, she thought, of sometimes ignoring what was right in front of her.
“Blimey,” Graham whispered. “What a night, though. London on fire. I never thought I’d see the likes.”
She gave in and let her eyes close. “It won’t burn forever.” She smiled, faintly. Bittersweet. “You saved it.”