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Familiar Grounds

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"So, I know you take us to the fun bits of the universe," Amy said, leaning against the TARDIS console. "But how much skipping around in time do you have to do to get to all those civilizations? I mean, I figured it'd have to be a lot, yeah, but most of the species we've encountered seemed to know each other. Or, they were at least willing to work together to fight you, yeah? Like when supervillains team up against Batman sometimes. And everyone all over the place was willing to come together to help you, but time was broken, so I don't know if that counts." The Doctor shifted her out of the way so he could adjust the gamma vector of their local spatial stability, but she moved to lean back against the typewriter as soon as he was done.

"Well, it's a bit of both. There's no point in travelling in just space, and not time. And while I must confess a certain fondness for particular places or times, when you look at it on a galactic scale, a lot of that doesn't matter. The 24th century or the 53rd, humans are still there. The Daleks always show up, even if they've supposedly been destroyed. The Trion Regime lasted for millennia before it crumpled. Plus, it doesn't hurt that so many species look alike. Sure, you can tell a Silurian from an Ood, but it's harder to tell a Delian from a Samartian. Several of the places we've visited, if you'd told them you were from Earth, they wouldn't have believed you."

"That doesn't actually answer the question," Amy replied.

"Does it matter?" Rory asked. He was double-checking the contents of the picnic basket for the third time. Or triple-checking the contents for the second time. "Even if we only move physically, the fact that we move that far in under a minute means we're traveling faster than light. That's time travel."

"Well, if you want to look at it the boring way, yes," the Doctor said. "I can also travel backwards in time, which I can tell you, Newton does not appreciate. The actual answer, Pond, is some, but not as much as you'd think. It's all relative." He pulled the brake, and the TARDIS ground to a halt. "Now, let's see where we are."

"I like how you can fly us all over creation, and still not know where we're going to end up," Rory said.

"I do eventually. Just often I let the TARDIS pick. I can't pick all the destinations, you know." He opened the door for his two companions.

They stepped out onto a steep hillside. Actually, looking into the distance, they were probably in the middle of a mountain range. The land rose sharply to the east and disappeared into black mountaintops, the crests hidden by clouds. The entire sky was cloud-softened, heavy grey and purple things that promised rain soon. But not yet. He tasted the air — not for a few hours. Enough time to eat and poke around for a bit before they had to worry about getting wet.

"It looks like the Alps," Amy said. "No snow, though."

"Too warm for snow," Rory replied. "Barely jumper weather." He looked around. "No trees, just bushes and stuff. Does that mean they're all lower down, or that this planet doesn't have any trees?"

The Doctor shrugged, and set out, heading slightly downhill. He thought he could see a stream a few miles away. If it was flat enough, there should be somewhere nice to sit. "It could mean that the trees are sentient, and are sitting just beyond that next rise, waiting to attack."

Rory gave him a tired glare, while Amy laughed. "Come on, I'll race you down the hill." She elbowed around him and took off running.

Rory huffed. "Amy —" The Doctor reached around and liberated the picnic basket from him. Rory paused for a second, then shouted "I am not chasing you down the side of a mountain!" Then he took off running after her.

The Doctor followed quietly. They were easy to follow with all the shrieking and laughing. And, he imagined, snogging, but since he couldn't hear that, he couldn't exactly follow them by it. Pity.

Amy and Rory must have seen the stream as well, on their race down, because they'd found their way over to it by the time he caught up with them. And they'd found a friend as well. It was nearly as tall as Amy, though a lot shaggier. It looked a lot like a llama, but he was pretty sure llamas were kept for their fur, and this had sleek fur like a cat. And no humps. Did llamas have humps? Camels did. Amy was petting the animal, while Rory watched it suspiciously.

"Hello," he said. The not-quite-llama turned its head away from Amy to sniff at him, and he let it, scratching its nose. Its fur was coarse. More like a dog, then? It turned its attention to the picnic basket, and he lifted it out of the way. "Sorry, no, not for semi-llamas. Demi-llamas. Llama-things. Don't think you eat sandwiches, or tea."

"I think it's tame," Amy said. She scratched it under the chin. "Wouldn't it be biting or spitting if it wasn't?"

The Doctor squinted at it. "We could check its teeth..." He shook his head. "No, best not to."

Amy looked at the picnic basket, then back to the sort-of-llama. "What if it wanders off while we're eating?"

Rory shrugged. "Well, it's not our semi-llama." Amy frowned.

"We'll eat," the Doctor said. "If it is a social creature, or a domesticated one, it'll probably stay nearby, and we can collect it when we're done." He set the basket down and pulled out the blanket.

There were halfway through their meal, and not even a tenth of the way into an argument about whether the Star Wars remake was better than the 43rd-century pantos, when a voice could be heard, coming up the hillside.

"Pashti! Paaaaaaaaaaaaashtiiiiiiii! Come back here, you lump! I'm gonna turn you into soup if I'm out here all day chasing after you, just you — oh, hello." A woman had appeared, picking her way up the rocky hillside on a dappled horse. She seemed only mildly surprised to see them. The not-a-llama was blatantly ignoring her. She nodded to them, dismounted, and made straight for the not-a-llama. "Of course Pashti found travelers. You're a great big flirt, aren't you, Pashti?" She reached up and grabbed him by one long pointed ear, bending it back gently. He resisted for a moment, twisting his neck, then knelt down. "Good boy," she said. She attached a bridle of some sort, and moved to join the three of them. Pashti followed placidly. "He didn't interrupt your meal, did he?" she asked.

"No, he was very well-behaved," Amy said.

"That's a first," the woman said. "He gets uppity with the others, so of course they bite him, and after enough of it he'll run off. That's what he gets for being the smallest. I should probably put him back with the yearlings for another season, until he learns to behave better." She shook her head. "Sorry! My name's Ayla. Been a while since we've seen travelers this far east. Normally we don't see anyone in the High Pass after the rainy season starts."

"We don't normally come this way, but it's been doing us all right so far." The Doctor smiled at her. "I'm the Doctor, and this is Amy and Rory." He stood as he made the introductions.

Ayla laughed. "You certainly don't look dressed for the High Pass. It's been a mild autumn so far, but it's going to pour tonight. Come down to our camp, you can spend the night with us. Maybe a few days, if it's on your way, and you don't mind helping out with the shteti." She gave Pashti a friendly nudge with her shoulder. "They're not all as bad as this one, I promise."

'Camp' was probably the wrong word for it. There was a herd of at least a hundred semi-llamas — shteti. From this distance they looked more like cows, which sounded like a more appropriate analogue for how the Esselar used them. Four riders were scattered along the edges of the herd, nudging a shteti here and there, but there were no signs of more horses. Resources must be scarce if herding animals was a hands-on job.

To one side the smoke from several cooking fires was rising, and people were gathered in groups, putting together massive tents. They reminded the Doctor of yurts, though the roofs were shaped differently, and the inner structure didn't seem to be wood — maybe there were no trees on the planet. There was also a handful of lean-to like structures set up near the herd of shteti, and a few smaller more traditional tents, that would probably only hold four people, as opposed to the yurts, big enough for ten. Rory and Amy both looked impressed by the spread of the camp.

"Well, they only got a few miles further than I thought before they stopped for the night," Ayla said, dismounting. "At least Pashti decided to wander off near the end of the day. If he'd wandered off in the morning, I'd have had to spend all day playing catch-up." She patted his neck.

"You found him!" someone called, and the Doctor looked up to see another woman approaching them. She had a bundle of cloth on her shoulder — probably she was helping to assemble one of the yurts.

"I think he got distracted from running off," Ayla replied. "Mind like a pebblefish." She turned to the three of them. "This is my sister Henn. Henn, I've brought us some guests for the night. This is Amy, Rory, and the Doctor."

"Oh, you're a healer?" Henn clapped her hands together. "Does your knowledge extend to animals? We have a few shteti that were hurt in an attack a few days ago, and while they're well enough to move, obviously, they're still a little slow, and if you have any knowledge you could share —"

"I'm afraid I don't know much about animal husbandry," the Doctor said, shaking his head. He looked over Henn's head at Rory, who shook his head as well, giving him a look that said 'don't you dare,' so he continued on a different tack. "You said you were attacked? By whom?"

Henn shrugged. "It's fall. Anyone who didn't stock enough to be ready for winter would send out a raiding party. We're not far enough into the mountains yet for them to be protection enough, though Lamána is well guarded by the pass." She seemed unconcerned by it, so the Doctor put it aside as well. Probably not the kind of raiding party that'd really get your blood up anyway. He'd let Rory and Amy gawp about for a day or so, then they'd be on their way again. "Later into fall and winter, we might hire on a few guards from the coastal settlements, once we're at the winter pasture, but it's too early for that yet. After the rainy season ends."

"Well, at the very least I'd be willing to take a shift or two on watch. I don't sleep much, so it's no hardship." The Doctor clasped his hands behind his back, fingers twitching restlessly. "How far is it to the winter pasture?"

"Lamána is another two days away. Three if we get slowed down by another attack, but that's unlikely. If you're interested in helping to keep watch, Doctor, you should talk to Wyan. He's in charge of the flock. In the mean time, I'll see if I can't scare up a tent for the lot of you. We're short on supplies since it's the end of the herding season, but we should be able to find something for you."

"I'll help you," Amy said, and moved off with the two women, pointing to something and getting a laugh in response.

"You've got that look on your face," Rory said.

"No I don't," the Doctor replied. He paused. "Which look?"


"Oh. Well, then probably, yes."

He could see Rory keep in a sigh. "Are we staying a while, then? If they're on the move, we're just getting further from the TARDIS. And I don't see any cars."

"Don't worry about that." A drop of rain fell on the Doctor's shoulder, followed quickly by another, then two, then ten. "Worry about how waterproof those tents are." He pulled his coat up over his head, and they dashed for the nearest bit of shelter.

"I thought you hated camping," Rory said. He kicked at the pile of fabric between them. Waxed and felted, it felt almost like leather in Amy's hands.

"I don't like it, you're the one who hates it," Amy corrected. "Ever since Mels threatened to leave you out for the bears." And then pretended to be a bear, at three in the morning. That was the last time Rory had gone camping with the Ponds.

Rory made a noise of dissatisfaction, and returned to patching his own section of the tent cover. They'd been given items that had been set aside for repair over the winter, patchwork in exchange for their use. "It's not so bad if there's something to do," he acknowledged. "Which is why I'm worried about the captain of the ADHD brigade over there." He tilted his head towards the Doctor, who was sorting through the pieces of the tent proper. Probably looking to make some 'improvements.'

Amy snorted. "He's not that bad."

"He woke me up in the middle of the night last week to ask me to help him undo some repair work he'd done because he'd broken the environmental controls and it was snowing in the control room."

"Is that where that parka came from?" And the snow boots. And the skis in the control room.

"I now know more than I ever need to about the 1988 Winter Olympics," Rory replied dully.

"Well, I don't think we have to worry about that here," Amy replied. "They're nomadic, right? So we'll be moving tomorrow and —" she paused. "Hang on. Did you say he woke you up?" She looked at Rory. The edges of his lips were starting to twitch. Rory. Who only wore clothes to bed reluctantly, and never bothered to put anything back on if it got removed during the night. "You — did you — did he —"

Rory burst out laughing, putting down his work. "He turned bright red. He didn't turn the lights on when he grabbed me, so he didn't notice 'til he shoved me out into the hall. And of course I wasn't awake enough to protest."

Amy gasped with laughter, the image vivid in her mind. "Oh god, I wish I'd seen that."

"He probably would have noticed you being naked a lot quicker," Rory snickered.

"I wouldn't bet on that," she said. The Doctor had been officially declared a hopeless cause years ago, after the fifth time he didn't pick up on their 'three people on a honeymoon' hints, and the sixth two-person stop. While it still caused a little pang, Amy didn't feel bad about mocking him when he brought it on himself. And it wasn't like she and Rory didn't tease each other when they had the chance.

Rory picked up the cover again. "Still. Proves my point, doesn't it? The Doctor's not going to be interested in living in a tent for too long. If he doesn't find trouble, he's going to make it."

Amy shook her head. "I'm sure he can hold out for a day or two." No she wasn't. But it'd be easier to deal with a restless Doctor if he thought she thought that.

She peered out into the rain. "The poncho looks nice, though." Not being equipped for a rainstorm, they'd been loaned rain gear as well. Unfortunately that meant ponchos here. Amy had gone back once to look for the bin full of blankets in the control room, but it had disappeared. Still — ponchos.

Rory shook his head. "Very fetching." His was folded up next to him, since they were nice and dry in one of the larger communal tents.

The rain didn't stop, but by the time they'd finished all the mending — mending! Travel time and space and mend strangers' tents, there was a sales pitch — the rain had petered down to a steady sprinkle, and the sun was shining through the clouds. The Doctor was setting up the borrowed tent, on the far side of the communal tent that functioned as a kitchen. Past that was the feeding grounds for the llama things. The Doctor waved them over, and they stepped out into the rain to help him set up the last details of their temporary abode.

"Wow, this is a two-person tent?" Amy said, looking around at the inside. It was big enough for her to stand up. Her and five of her closest friends.

"Two very large people," Rory agreed. "And their luggage."

"It'll do," the Doctor said dismissively. "It's... cozy."

"Just because it's not bigger on the inside —" Rory started.

"No —" The Doctor stopped, clearly unable to think of a retort. He frowned.

"Give me some of those blankets," Amy said. "And put that poncho somewhere it won't drip everywhere."

The Doctor left it on. "I like ponchos. Ponchos are cool." He tugged it down a little and went back outside. Amy exchanged a look with Rory, and fought the urge to roll her eyes.

By the time Amy caught up with the Doctor again, it was evening, the deepening shadows throwing every peak and fold of the mountain range into sharp relief. The rain had stopped, and the Doctor had shed the poncho. There was mud on his shoes and streaked on his left shoulder, smudged where he'd brushed at it before forgetting again.

"Hey," she said, casual. She nudged him with her elbow. He nudged her back.

"Where's Rory?" the Doctor asked. He plucked a leaf from the bush and sniffed it. Amy hoped he wasn't going to try eating it again.

"Hanging around one of the common tents — the blue one." She laughed. "Nona complimented his sewing skills, and he tried to brush it off, but he ended up getting dragged into a conversation on fiber and something to do with brushing horses — or llamas, I guess, but Rory only knows horses —" She stopped. "I kind of stopped paying attention," she admitted. Horses were cool, but they were talking about burrs and felting and whatever. Rory had looked lost, too, but he was too polite to excuse himself from the conversation.

The Doctor looked at her out of the corner of his eye and grinned. "Sometimes Rory's too polite for his own good."

"Most times," Amy agreed. His pliability was endearing, but she wished more people would appreciate how amazing he was.

"Still, maybe he can teach the TARDIS how to sew a proper buttonhole," the Doctor said. He offered her his hand, a mischievous look in his eyes. "Meanwhile, we're pretending to be berrypicking."

"Pretending?" Amy said. The Doctor's hand was warm in hers. "And what are we actually doing?"

"Following whoever's snuck off into the woods." Amy turned to look, but he tugged her back. "Don't look," he hissed. "Whoever it is is trying to blend in. If we do the same, then they'll leave us alone for as long as they can. But if we barge in now, we won't get any closer to finding out what it is he's up to."

"How do you know he is up to anything, and not just berrypicking himself?" Amy asked, trying to ignore the way the Doctor had her pressed against his side. Instead she concentrated on scouring her memory for any suspicious activity, but she couldn't think of anything, unless it was subversive semi-llama activity.

"He's been following us. I saw him when Henn took Pashti back to the herd, then skulking around the back of the communal tent when you and Rory were making repairs. Now, that alone is enough to be a coincidence, but then I started poking my head around, and he was everywhere. There's nothing more obvious than someone trying to blend in." Like he'd be one to know.

"Maybe he was just interested in the new people," Amy pointed out. She moved away from the Doctor a little, casually, and he moved with her, so she could see the man he was watching without being so obvious about it.

"Yes, but any of the Esselar who were curious about us just came right up and introduced themselves," the Doctor pointed out. "Kaêl even brought his kids." The chieftan had eight kids. Amy shook her head. "He was outside the tent, and he followed me up to the pasture again. I wasn't even doing anything interesting. If he was actually curious, he would have been following the two of you. Especially with Rory and his inability to turn anyone away."

"You make him sound easy," Amy said. The Doctor made a face. She changed the subject. "Do you even have any berries?" she asked.

"There was one bush, about twenty minutes ago. Haven't seen anything with fruit since then," the Doctor replied, sounding regretful. "And I wouldn't recommend eating them, I think they're poisonous."

"Right," Amy said, and kept walking. They weren't going in a straight line, instead wandering from bush to interesting rock to cyprus-like shrub. Most of the time she could see whoever it was, moving fifty meters or so ahead, but sometimes he disappeared from view. The Doctor didn't seem particularly concerned, so she let her attention wander some, looking at the scenery.

They were in the mountains, yeah, but it wasn't a steep climb. The ground just gradually sloped up. And up. She would have felt like she was climbing a hill if it wasn't for the fact that if she turned around, she could see for miles, everything sloping away in gentle turns and wrinkles, like a blanket kicked off the bed. Mostly a patchwork of dull greens, brown was starting to fade in as plants went dormant in preparation for winter. Already starting to shrink with distance, the Esselar camp was a bright spot, with its patterned tents and yurts, cooking fires blazing and semi-llama herd the only obvious movement. It was different from the type of places they usually visited. It wasn't Rio, but the lack of running around made for a nice breather.

"So what do you thinks this bloke is up to, if he's not berry-picking either?" Amy returned to the earlier topic of conversation. She jumped off the rock she'd been using as a perch, making a neat landing next to the Doctor.

The Doctor tilted his head to the side. He'd found another bush, but wasn't managing to fake an interested expression. "That raid Henn mentioned. He could be working with whoever instigated it — a spy, or trying to steal back some of what was taken. But I don't think that's it."

"Why not?" Amy asked.

"He doesn't look right. He's trying to blend in, but he didn't look like the rest of the Esselar."

Amy frowned as she looked at the man, who had stopped and was looking around. But not at them; they were too far away. "He looks normal to me."

The Doctor scoffed. But he didn't get a chance to elaborate before a series of red beams shot out of the ground around them, boxing them in.

Then everything went black.