The first time Ryan saw the Doctor’s facade drop, nobody else noticed.
They were standing in the doorway of the TARDIS, watching twin nebulas form in a binary star system. Ryan hadn’t been big on astronomy in school, never even so much as looked through a telescope. But seeing the clouds of gases up close, swirling through space to birth to dual stars, he was mesmerized. His mouth hung open slightly as he took it all in.
“I never realized how colorful it would be.“ He managed to say at last.
“It’s all based on fluroescence of different elements. A different color for each one.” The Doctor exclaimed, pointing to it. “Aren’t they amazing?”
Ryan glanced over to Graham, similarly enraptured. In front of him, Yaz was gushing about the nebulas. In front of him, the Doctor who had for once fallen silent. But she wasn’t looking at the nebula. Her head was cast downwards, and she looked depleted, despite the awe and wonder in her voice not even thirty seconds ago.
He listened to Yaz ramble on while keeping an eye on the Doctor. Her shoulders slumped, she sighed, still looking at the ground. When she finally looked up, he quickly turned his head upward, as if he’d been looking at the nebulas all along. But he wasn’t paying much attention to them any more.
The Doctor was always so perky and bubbly. Full of energy, ready to move at a second’s notice For once, they weren’t being chased by monsters or in mortal danger. She looked deflated, kinetic motion brought to a stop. Troubled. What was going on with her?
In a second, she snapped back to the self he knew. “That was great, right? Come on, fam! Let’s move forward in time and see the same stars as white dwarfs!” With a wide sweep of her arm, she led them back into the console room, coat flowing behind her. Ryan followed slowly, pondering what he’d seen.
In the days that followed, Ryan kept a close eye on the Doctor, and noticed a subtle change from their previous trips with her. She seemed more impatient with them, eager to move from one thing to the next. When she wasn’t she was lost in her thoughts. More than once, he’d had to repeat something he’d asked her because she hadn’t been paying attention. That wasn’t like the woman they’d first met; she’d paid close attention to everything.
He worried he was imagining things. He didn’t want to talk to Graham about it. Graham was still trying way too hard to ingratiate himself on him, and Ryan didn’t want to give him the impression his techniques were working. He didn’t want to trouble Graham either; he was still having a hard time coping with Nan’s death. Instead, he confided in Yaz.
“Does the Doctor seem a little off to you?” he asked. They were standing at the edge of a pond on a moon wildlife sanctuary, where the Doctor had brought them to view the local fish.
Yaz frowned. “You noticed it too, huh? She’s not paying attention to where she’s going. Look! She pointed. “She got stuck in the mud!”
The Doctor was on the other side of the pond, bent over, trying to get her boots unstuck. “Do you need help, Doc?” Graham asked.
“No, no, don’t come any closer.” She waved him off with one hand. “Don’t want you getting stuck in here too.” She reached with both hands, pulling and grunting.
“Just…she seems distracted. She’s in a hurry. She’s talking a lot, but more at us, not to us,” Ryan said.
Yaz gave a slight nod. “I’m sure she’s fine. Maybe that’s just how she is. We haven’t known her that long.”
“That’s true.” Ryan agreed.
The Doctor was still struggling with her boots, the mud having created a suction. “Almost got it...there we go!”. Her foot flew up and she staggered backwards, hopping on one foot, before falling on her back into the mud.
Yaz and Ryan cringed. “We should go help her, yeah?” Yaz said.
“Hope you brought a spare jumper,” Ryan told her as they headed to the other side of the pond. Yaz had a point. How well did they know the Doctor? But he still had a nagging feeling something was wrong.
“All right, then, back in Sheffield. Off you go.” The Doctor announced, as the groans of the TARDIS still echoed in Ryan’s ears. This was also new; she usually seemed reluctant to leave them when they stopped off at home. This time, she couldn’t be wait to be rid of them.
Graham stepped out of the ship and checked his phone, studying the screen. “No messages” he sighed, speaking to no one in particular. Before they’d left, he’d left voicemails for some of his mates, fellow bus drivers about catching up with him. None of them had called back. It meant spending long hours home by himself, Ryan being only minimal company.
Addressing the Doctor, he asked, “We’ll see you next Thursday, right?”
“Right! Can’t wait.” She was smiling, but it looked plastic and fake to Ryan. He knew that look well. He’d seen it a lot after his mother died, from grownups who told him his father was definitely coming back for him. A smile that was holding something back.
He leaned over and whispered to Yaz, “Does it seem like she wants to get rid of us?”
“She does seem impatient today.” She shot a glance back at the Doctor, who was standing at the door, hands on her hips. “She’s probably just...busy. Alien stuff to do. Maybe she saves worlds without us sometimes.” She smiled at the thought.
“Should we talk to her? Maybe she doesn’t want to travel with us anymore?” They’d invited themselves, after all, and she’d tried to warn them off. What if she’d grown tired of them? Humans were probably boring, compared to all the incredible beings out in the universe.
Yaz’s frown turned to a look of horror. “No! I’m sure she does.”
Ryan didn’t want to stop traveling with the Doctor either, but he wanted to be sure. “We should talk to her.” He told Yaz.
“Now?” she looked at her watch. “I really need to get to work. I’ve been late the last two shifts. If I’m late again I get written up.”
“I’ll talk to her then.” He hated the thought of it, of going back to his old life, but he wasn’t going to stay in a place where he wasn’t wanted. He approached the Doctor, who was bouncing at the balls of her feet. Yaz watched them, eyes darting to the door, but not moving.
“Hey, Doctor. Everything okay?” he tried to sound casual.
“Yeah! Fine! Just got a lot to do around the TARDIS. She doesn’t repair herself. Well, actually she does, but sometimes she needs a little help.” The words rushed out of her faster than a bullet train.
“You’re okay with having us aboard, right?” he asked. “Because if you’re not…”
“Oh, no, don’t say that! Of course I like having you here!” she looked aghast at the thought. “You’re not…thinkin’ about leaving, are you? There’s so much more I want to show you!”
“No, no, no, nothing like that. I just wanted to make sure we weren’t overstaying our welcome.”
“Ryan Sinclair, not at all. You are wonderful company. All of you.” Her smile this time was genuine. “But, I do want to get to these repairs. See you later?” She nodded towards the door.
“Yeah. Bye, Doctor.” The door slammed shut behind he and Yaz as they walked out. Within seconds, the TARDIS wheezed out of existence.
“That was weird. Feels like she’s hiding something from us.” Ryan said.
“Well, maybe she doesn’t have to tell us everything going on with her,” Yaz said. “Isn’t that right, Graham?”
“Sorry, what?” he asked.
“Didn’t you notice how weird the Doctor was acting on this trip?” Ryan said.
Graham shrugged. “She always acts weird.”
“No, I mean, like, didn’t you see how she was in a big hurry to leave us today?”
“I don’t think she was. You’re imagining things, son.” He noticed as Ryan tried not to flinch at the word. Maybe the Doctor was acting weirder than usual, but the thought of having to leave the TARDIS felt unthinkable, especially now.
“Well, what should we do?” Ryan asked.
“We can’t do anything right now. She’s gone.” Yaz started briskly walking to her flat. “And I can’t talk about this any more right now. I need to get to work.”
Not only did Yaz end up being late for work, she got a lecture when she dashed into their flat to change. Her mum went on at length about how she was never home any more, and she wasn’t doing her share of household chores. Of course, Yaz couldn’t tell her where she’d actually been, so she had no choice but to sit through Mum’s complaints, ready to sprint away as soon as she was done.
When she got to work, not only did she get written up, she got an assignment she hated: posted along a road looking out for moving violations. She always got people arguing with her that they hadn’t really been going that fast. Particularly older men who thought they could swing their weight around, because she was a woman. But even worse than them were the drunks. They would swerve all over the road, then swear up and down they’d only had one pint at the pub. Right before they passed out on the asphalt.
She sat in her squad car, still annoyed hours later. She’d asked the Doctor to drop them off earlier, with more time before her shifts, but she’d said time travel could be a little imprecise, and it was hard to pinpoint an exact time; she did her best. And then there was Ryan worrying the Doctor was acting weird, and seemed to not want them around. Yaz hated the thought of it. They’d only barely begun to see the universe. On top of that, getting lectured by her mum-it had not been her day. Not at all.
She turned the heat up in the car. The nights were getting chillier. She wondered if she could get away with going for a coffee run. It was nearly midnight, and the traffic had dissipated.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a crackling over the radio. “PC Khan?”
“Yes?” she answered.
“Can you head over to 44 Oak Street? There’s someone there specifically asking for you.” The dispatcher sounded confused. “A trespasser. Sergeant Daniels is at the scene.”
“Did you get a name?”
“She won’t give one.”
“I’m on my way.” Yaz shifted the car into drive. Oh no, it’s Sonya, she thought. She had a habit of sneaking out past curfew. Yaz had agreed to keep quiet in exchange for more bathroom time in the mornings. But if she got busted for underage drinking or whatever she and her knob friends did, there was no keeping the lid on that. What would Mum and Dad say? They’d probably find a way to blame Yaz for that, too. She didn’t know Daniels well, but he seemed like the grandfatherly type. Maybe she could talk him into letting Sonya go.
The address was a white bungalow tucked away at the end of a lane. She knew she was in the right place when saw another squad car pulled in front of the house, and caught a glimpse of a high-vis vest in the side yard. Picking up her pace, she walked through the gate.
Her mouth dropped open in shock.
The arrestee was not her sister. Standing in the yard with Daniels was a middle aged man in his pajamas and a certain blonde alien, her wrists handcuffed in front of her. She wasn’t wearing her coat, and there was a miner’s headlight strapped across her forehead.
Suddenly, her day was much worse.