Once upon a time there was a girl called Khan. She adored, without stint or measure, the most wonderful person who had ever lived – a blonde woman, who lived a nomad life beyond the stars. This woman’s existence was a tissue of (let’s say) marvels; she ate nightmares for breakfast, lightly fried. The girl called Khan only had to think about that person, and all the tiny tribulations of her life would go away. There were worlds beyond this; and she was there.
One day, the worlds beyond grazed the life of the girl called Khan. All her daydreams started to be true. There were adventures, and hair’s-breadth escapes. Family history, the dark sorrows of Partition, knitted into her bright present like a scarf – with a small, deft time loop to cast off. The girl called Khan had the chance to be a hero. Who wouldn’t be embiggened (don’t give me that look, Bruno, it’s totally a word) at the thought of that?
Once upon a time, there was a girl called Khan. But – even leaving aside that "multiverse" thing which everyone on the Doctor Strange subreddit had started posting about – there was an essential truth that she had to face.
Nothing ever happens just the once.
“Could you just step back a moment, please, Miss?” The young woman in the leather jacket sounded English, to Kamala’s admittedly inexpert ear. Her voice was like that of some contestants on The Great British Bake-Off, to which Kamala’s ammi was fannishly devoted. “My friend is on top of this, but she needs room to work.”
“Your friend?” Kamala craned to look past Leather Jacket. Beyond – amongst the flames of Grove Street, and the intermittent screaming – a blonde woman in a long coat was dashing around. Kamala’s eyes widened; that air of confidence amidst mayhem was familiar. “Is she… a superhero?”
“Um… not as such.” Leather Jacket cast a quick glance back over her shoulder. The blonde was now waving a small tube around. It made a noise a bit like what Kamala had seen in a YouTube channel about Wakandan tech. “Although I think she accidentally made a superhero once. In The Doctor’s defence, she was Scottish at the time.”
“She’s got a Saving People Name?” Kamala stood tall; the conversation had now entered the zone of her (more or less) professional competence. “Definitely a superhero. Doctor what?”
“She must be a Doctor something. Like Doctor Strange. Or… er… Doctor Druid.”
Leather Jacket looked puzzled. “Why would anyone be called ‘Doctor Druid’? That’s just sticking two job titles together and hoping for the best.”
“I don’t know,” Kamala admitted. “I made that one up.”
“She’s The Doctor. Just ‘The Doctor’.”
“Minimalist. Respect.” The Doctor seemed to be hypnotizing an enormous angry mop with the keening tube. “I’m Kamala.”
“Nice to meet you, Kamala.” Leather Jacket smiled. “I’m Yaz. Why…”
At this point, the conversation was interrupted by a moderate quantity of falling building. Kamala called on the Noor to shield the two of them from harm; everyone else, thanks to Yaz’s chivvying, had already retreated. Secret Identity compromised yet again, but never mind. Yaz and The Doctor were in the trade, as well.
Aliens were weirdly invested in subjugating Jersey. Maybe Bon Jovi was big in the galaxy at large. Germans (and sapient planets) loved David Hasselhoff, whoever that was.
They were odd aliens, too. Kamala considered herself something of an expert on aliens – it went with the territory, if you were a Moderately Big Name Captain Marvel Fan. The ones that cropped up in her research were often blue, and always hot. (She’d seen purported footage of Yon-Rogg and Minn-erva; and, yes, nasty as heck, but whoa…) These ones looked more like evil plungers.
Alien invasions seemed to draw Yaz and her Doctor. These joint gigs (or, as Kamala liked to think of them, “Crossover Events”) soon fell into a rhythm. Kamala would suit up and play defence, shutting the bulk of the invaders down. This left Yaz and The Doctor free to MacGuffin-d the exhaust port and hit it with the proton torpedoes, or something (the technological side of superhero-ing was an area Kamala left to Bruno).
Yaz was brave, and smart, and funny, in her own right, but she glowed when her Doctor was around. Seeing the two of them together made Kamala a little wistful. Only a little, of course: wielding the Noor was already awesome beyond anything Kamala could have imagined. But Carol Danvers was almost always out amongst the stars. Yaz’s hero was right in front of her.
“Can you imagine how cool that must be?” Kamala said to Bruno. They had just played a small, but significant rôle in helping The Doctor and Yaz thwart the Menace of the Rutans, or the Triumph of the Vervoids, or the Apostasy of the Judoon, or something like that, and were sitting on the roof where Kamala liked to train. “To adventure alongside your rôle-model, day in, day out?”
Kamala looked sharply at her friend. “Don’t you like The Doctor?”
“I do.” Bruno hunched down into his coat; the night was cold. “The Doctor’s amazing. She’s like Tony Stark and Princess Shuri of Wakanda rolled into one. But…” he hesitated.
“What?” Kamala prompted.
“Have you ever done your Fan Thing with her? Looked into her on-line the way you do with Captain Marvel?”
“I’ll send some links.” Bruno looked out over the city. “Amazing isn’t the only thing The Doctor is.”
The Nestene Consciousness had worked out how to invest itself into micro-filaments. This had made the Hudson River a big green allegory waiting to happen. The Doctor, Yaz, and the home team had saved the day. But Black Sloth Down had needed to be executed twice; and Bruno had had to go home to wash off the anti-plastic.
The Noor was more about light than heat; all the same, it tended to warm Kamala when she wielded it. Looking down, tired but happy, at the darkly gleaming ripple of the river that was no longer trying to strangle her, she heard a soft gasp behind her and turned. Yaz was leaning against a signpost, eyes closed. The Doctor was nowhere to be seen.
“Are you OK?” Kamala asked.
“I’m… I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.” Now that Kamala examined Yaz’s countenance more closely, she could see that there were bags under her eyes; lines of endurance etched deep around her mouth.
“Just… just need a momen…” Yaz sagged; and began to slide down against the signpost. Kamala hurried over to take her weight.
“You’re exhausted.” Kamala generally tried very hard not to channel her ammi, but there were times in any good Pakistani girl’s life where that ceased to be viable. “When did you last have a good night’s sleep?”
“Not sure. Hard… hard to keep track, in the TARDIS. Three days ago, I think? Before Bannockburn, and Peladon and… and now.”
“Where did The Doctor go?”
“She’ll have found something that intrigued her. Might be a new flavour of ice-cream; might be a lost civilization hidden behind a shrub. I should have kept track, in case there’s another crisis. But I just don’t have the strength.” Yaz’s head was heavy against Kamala’s shoulder; her hair smelt of peat-fires, and of blood. “She loves us all, so much. Sometimes she forgets that we need to rest.”
Kamala made a decision. “I’m taking you home.”
“But The Doctor…”
“The Doctor’s an almost immortal, quasi-omniscient alien.” Kamala awkwardly supported Yaz as they staggered away from the signpost, embiggening a little to mitigate the strain. “She can find an Uber if she has to.”
Under normal circumstances, a scenario in which Kamala, still dripping slightly from the Hudson, arrived home with an attractive Englishwoman; took her upstairs; and put her to bed before slipping under the sheets to join her (Yaz, she reasoned, might be hypothermic, as well as spent; fanfic tropes got that way for a reason) would have entailed a lot of negotiation with her parents. Muneeba took one look at Yaz’s face; nodded vigorously at Kamala; and retreated to the kitchen to cook something fortifying. Sometimes, Kamala was a little scared at how chill her folks had become about her lifestyle.
“Are you OK?” she asked Yaz quietly, as they lay, faces inches apart on the pillow.
“Feeling better,” Yaz whispered. “Sorry for putting you through all this. I… I’ll go, as soon as I’ve had a little rest.”
“You can stay as long as you need.”
“I can’t stay. The Doctor isn’t safe.” Yaz shut her eyes. “You have no idea how fragile the future is, Kamala. You have no idea how fragile the past is.”
“I know the fragility of the past.” Above their heads, in the attic, all of India that was left to the Khans rustled and mouldered in yellow and faded brown. “We all do.”
“Not just the long ago – although that’s important.” The line between Yaz’s brows had deepened. “This life we lead… One breath can take your yesterday away.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you know who Peter Parker is?”
Kamala’s nose wrinkled at the non sequitur; Yaz really must be woozy. “Is he in Downton Abbey?”
Yaz sighed. “A few minutes’ rest.” Her voice was so soft now that Kamala strained to hear. “Just a few minutes’ rest.”
Her face relaxed. In another couple of minutes, Kamala was sure she was asleep.
Kamala’s desktop beeped. She wriggled out of bed, careful not to jostle the slumbering Yaz, and settled down in front of it. A new e-mail from Bruno; he had sent the links about The Doctor. Kamala clicked through them, eyes wide.
In some ways, the online landscape was much as it was for Carol Danvers. Short on data; looooong on speculation. The Doctor’s profile, though, was much lower than Captain Marvel’s. Folks who knew about her – or believed they did – thought that she might be the important subject in the world. But they weren’t many.
What jumped out of the screen at Kamala were the names. Yaz had said that The Doctor was just ‘The Doctor’; if Bruno’s research was anything to go by, she had her pseuds. The Oncoming Storm. The Lonely God. Ka Faraq Gatri; Bringer of Darkness; Destroyer of Worlds.
Kamala looked over at the woman sleeping in her bed. She gnawed her lip; and continued the Wiki walk. She was still doing that when a sudden wind began to flutter her posters; and a wheezing and groaning sound ground the air.
“The Doctor landed the TARDIS in your bedroom?” Bruno asked.
“Yes. It was very, very cool.” Kamala’s expression clouded. “Although I think that Yaz could have used a few more hours of rest.”
“Did The Doctor apologize for haring off on a side quest?”
“Sort of. Kind of. A bit. Yaz didn’t complain. I think it might have been better if she had.” Kamala watched as Bruno continued to fiddle with his latest gizmo. “That’s the thing about being starstruck. To be struck by an authentic star is 100% fatal, if you’re not Thor in shop class.” Kamala remembered Yaz’s drawn face. “I guess some things are prettier from far away. Maybe even Captain Marvel.”
“Maybe. Did you read the links?”
“Yeah. I see what you mean. The Doctor’s dangerous.”
“Many good people are. Even you.”
“Thanks for the edgelord endorsement. But The Doctor having her Galadriel moments isn’t Yaz’s main problem.” Kamala sighed. “She wants The Doctor to look at her in a way The Doctor can’t, or won’t. Can you imagine what that would do to a person?”
Bruno did not answer. He was suddenly intent again on his circuit-board. Kamala thought that he had failed to hear the question.