The billet was a Queen Anne mansion somewhere south of Derby, which had taken three minutes to reach from the electronic gates that bore an 'MOD Property: Keep Out' sign.
As the car drew up behind the Brigadier's Land Rover at the front steps, Liz saw Corporal Palmer standing guard outside the front door. He snapped to attention as the Brigadier – still in the Doctor's jacket – jumped out of the vehicle's passenger seat, then saluted as the more properly-dressed Captain Yates emerged from the back of the jeep. She saw the Brigadier point at the car she was in, and he must have given Palmer an order, for the Corporal immediately scuttled down the steps and opened the door for her. "Do you have any luggage, Miss?"
She nodded, tiredly. "A small suitcase in the boot. Thank you, Corporal." It was only her 'emergency' case – not much in it besides a toothbrush, make-up, nightwear and a change of clothes – but she was glad she'd learned to keep it ready.
"We don't have any 'ot food, Miss," said Palmer, apologetically, as he carried her case through a marble-floored hallway and up a wide, carpeted staircase. "There'll be sandwiches and tea in half-an-hour though." He jerked a thumb. "Back down these stairs, turn right, second door on the left."
At the top of the stairs, he turned left, and proceeded along a corridor painted a depressing shade of green, passing three doors on the right and two on the left. At the end of the corridor, he opened the last door on the left and led the way into a room with an ancient canopied bed that occupied most of the floorspace. Placing her case on the utility beige counterpane, Palmer opened a door at the side of the room, and Liz glimpsed a tiled interior and a mirror. "'Ope you don't mind, Miss, but there are only two rooms with a bathroom adjoining. Only thing is, it's shared – but you can lock the door to the next room and the door to this room from both the inside and the outside, see?" He pointed to small brass bolts on each side of the bathroom door, and Liz could see a similar bolt on the inside of the door on the far side of the sink. "The plumbing's pre-war, but everything works alright." Crossing to the far door, Palmer pushed the bolt home, and added, "I'm sure the Brig won't mind if you has first dibs. But for God's sake, Miss, make sure you unbolt it when you've finished, eh?"
Of course, Liz thought, It would have to be the Brigadier. RHIP, as Captain Yates was so fond of saying: Rank Hath Its Privilege.
She caught sight of herself in the mirror, and hoped Palmer hadn't noticed she was blushing.
He certainly seemed oblivious, leading the way back into the bedroom and pointing at the carved chest of drawers in one corner. "Pop your stuff in there if you like, Miss, there ain't nothing in it. Anything else you need…" He pointed at an old Bakelite telephone on the wooden bedside cabinet. "Just dial zero."
The MoD certainly knew how to live, Liz thought, looking around at the lounge's elderly but good quality furniture. Deep-pile carpet, overstuffed sofas, panelled walls, polished mahogany tables and what looked to be original oil paintings. "Some billet!" she murmured.
Captain Yates, currently the room's only other occupant, had been admiring the Reynolds over the fireplace, but turned around as she spoke and gave her a smile.
"Not sure the men would agree with you, Miss," he said, waving a hand toward the back of the building, "They're in the Nissan huts out back. Still - RHIP eh?"
"Apparently." Plates, napkins and a several large platters of sandwiches had been set out on a large table at the side of the room, and she eyed them, hungrily.
"I'm sorry, do pitch in," said Yates, "Tea's just coming."
"Where's the Doctor?" asked Liz, keeping her gaze on the sandwiches. She didn't need to ask about the Brigadier's whereabouts. The sound of running water just beyond her bedroom wall had told her exactly when he'd taken a shower, and she had spent the past fifteen minutes trying not to go hot picturing that. She'd also tried not to think about what sort of impression her earlier behaviour had made on the UNIT troops, and had toyed with the idea of staying in her room for the entire evening, but had eventually decided that that would only make things worse.
Besides, she was hungry.
Picking up a plate and a paper napkin, she helped herself to a couple of egg-and-cress, a tuna-and-cucumber, and what she thought might be chicken, remembering from past experience to leave the corned beef alone.
"Wise choice," said Yates, picking up a plate for himself and piling a half-dozen sandwiches on to it before he answered her question. "The Doctor's gone back to Headquarters. Said something about wanting to 'make sure our guests were properly looked after'."
"Properly looked…? But he can't possibly believe you'd mistreat them, surely?" A momentary doubt flickered at the back of Liz's mind and she added, more hesitantly, "You wouldn't – would you?"
Yates gave her a reassuring smile, and dropped onto one of the sofas. He examined his sandwiches as though trying to decide which ones were least likely to poison him, and said, "We're just going to keep them under lock and key till the Powers That Be decide what to do with them." He glanced up as a couple of young Lieutenants entered the room, told them to 'carry on, chaps', and returned his attention to Liz as she perched herself on the edge of one of the vast armchairs. "There won't be much need to interrogate them – after all, they thought the Brigadier was the Doctor, remember. They pretty much told him everything he needed to know."
"That they're from the future." As the Brigadier's voice from the doorway answered Liz's question, Yates and both Lieutenants jumped to attention. "As you were," he said, wandering across to the sandwiches and piling his plate. He was back in his uniform, looking smart, efficient and completely in charge, and Liz hurriedly switched her gaze to her plate as he looked in her direction. Stepping over the coffee table, he sat down next to Captain Yates, said "For goodness' sake, sit down!" to the Lieutenants, who were lingering uncertainly beside the fireplace, and munched a mouthful of tuna-and-cucumber sandwich before continuing with his explanation. "They claim to have met the Doctor before – or some version of him anyway. They'd asked for his help to complete their experiments with time travel, he'd have none of it, and took himself off in his TARDIS." He finished the sandwich, and looked around as the rattle of cups and saucers announced Sergeant Benton's arrival with the tea.
"But if they travelled here from the future," said Liz, as the Sergeant placed two brimming cups on the low table in front of the sofa, "They must have completed their experiments. Why did they still want the Doctor's help?"
"Ah." The Brigadier stirred his tea and sipped it, while behind him Benton poured tea for the other officers. "Well it seems that they hadn't entirely solved two-way travel. They could travel to the past – obviously – but couldn't return to their own time without…" He shrugged. "Well, I didn't understand the technicalities, but I did grasp that the first returnees had sort of… uh… dissolved."
"Sounds nasty," said Yates. He picked up the last of the sandwiches on his plate and bit off a corner.
"Downright messy, from what I could gather," said the Brigadier, "So you can see why they wanted the Doctor's help. And since they had no idea where he'd gone after he left them, they came looking for him in the only place and time where they could be sure of his whereabouts: earth, and now."
"So they're stuck here then?" said Liz, draining her tea and sitting forward to replace the cup on the saucer, "They can't travel back to their own time?"
"Not in one piece," said the Brigadier, "In any case, we've confiscated all their equipment."
"So what will happen to them?"
"That will be Geneva's call," he said, "But ultimately they'll probably be split up, assigned to UNIT specialists in different countries, and integrated into the present day." He picked up another sandwich and, just before biting into it, added, "It goes without saying that we would welcome any help they might give us to advance our own technology."
"Yes," said Yates, "Like that armour stuff they were wearing. Now that would be a useful piece of kit!"
"So would those guns," said one of the Lieutenants from his seat beside the fireplace, testing the conversational waters.
The Brigadier nodded. "The one I fired had a lovely balance," he said, "And hardly any recoil at all."
Liz got to her feet, half-amused and half-irritated that the men all politely stood up as she made for the door. "If you are all going to start discussing the merits of shells and shields," she announced, "I'm going to take a bath."
Tying her robe just a little tighter around herself, Liz unfastened the bolt on the inside of the door that led to the Brigadier's room and, taking a deep breath, knocked on it.
She opened the door just enough to slide around it, halting with her hand still on the door handle and one foot still in the bathroom. The Brigadier was sitting on his bed, propped against the carved oak headboard. His jacket, tie and boots had been discarded, and he was holding a copy of 'The Day of the Jackal'.
"The… um… bathroom's free."
"Obviously." He closed the book, threw it onto his bedside table, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. She saw his gaze slide from her face all the way down to her bare feet and back up again, and for a moment she wondered whether she ought to just rush back through the bathroom and hide away in her own room till he'd gone back to HQ in the morning. Then he said, quietly, "I think you'd better come in."
Standing up, he waved her to an armchair in the corner, and drained the dregs of amber fluid from the glass tumbler on his bedside table. He hefted the glass, questioningly: "Drink?"
She shook her head, and he moved around the bed to refill his glass from one of the bottles set out on top of the oak cabinet on the far side of the room.
"I wasn't sure you'd be in here," she lied, casting about for something innocuous to say, "I thought you'd be enjoying all that soldier-talk for hours yet."
He shook his head, and walked back across the room, placing his charged glass on the bedside table before seating himself on the edge of the bed, facing her. "As you so eloquently pointed out earlier this evening, my dear Liz, I'm a sodding Brigadier," he said, his tone quiet and matter-of-fact. "My junior officers are never going to relax while I'm in the room, not even if we're all supposedly off-duty."
"Oh. No, I suppose not." It genuinely hadn't occurred to her before, and she suddenly understood why he confided so much in herself and the Doctor: there simply wasn't anyone else around he could talk to on level terms. She reached across to put a hand on his arm. "Alistair…"
"Don't." It was more of a plea than an order, and he made no move to pull away. His eyes were searching her face but wouldn't quite meet her gaze. "I'm sorry, Liz." He looked down, covered her hand with his own and then, very gently, lifted it away from his arm and released it. "You were right. You have to resign."
"But you said…"
"I know what I said." With a sigh, he got to his feet, touching her face gently with the backs of his fingers before turning away to pick up his glass and take a large draught of its contents. "I was kidding myself."
She wanted to touch him, and clasped her hands together in her lap to prevent herself doing so. "Is this about not wanting to break the rules?" she guessed, a harsh edge in her voice betraying exactly what she felt about mindless military regulations and the obedience thereof.
He put the glass down and turned around, leaning back against the edge of the bedside table. "The rules are there for a reason, Liz." He folded his arms, and this time when he looked at her he held her gaze. "I need everyone under my command to know that I give orders without fear or favour. How long do you think those men downstairs would believe in me, if they ever even suspected that I might be weighing every order against whether it could put your life in danger?"
"Well, they wouldn't have to know! Would they?" Even as she said it she knew it was a forlorn hope.
His mouth quirked in one of those almost-smiles. "Don't be ridiculous. Mike already knows. So does the Doctor. They'd worked it out before I did."
She smiled at that. "The Doctor was ahead of me too." Pulling her gaze from his, Liz focussed instead on the swirling pattern on the candlewick bedspread in front of her, and pushed away the thought that resigning would mean she wouldn't get to see him every day. Maybe not even every week. But there would, she realised, be a positive side to not being with UNIT, and she seized on it: "Alright. Alright - I'm wasted here anyway, passing the Doctor his bloody test tubes and telling him how brilliant he is. If I go back to Cambridge I won't be your subordinate any more, and I won't be so very far from London - we could see each other without worrying about any stupid regulations…"
He pushed away from the table he'd been leaning on and snatched up his whisky glass, swallowing half of what was left before he turned toward her again. Sitting down once again on the edge of the bed, he stared into what was left of his drink as he said, quietly, "You need to understand. It's not just regulations. It's not just protocol. It's me." He looked across at her, just for a moment, and she leaned toward him as she read the anguish in his eyes.
The silence stretched and she was beginning to think he wouldn't say anything else. Then she heard him sigh and, without looking at her, he said, quietly: "Ten years ago, I met a girl I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. For two years, I thought she felt the same way about me, but as soon as I was posted overseas she stopped writing to me – didn't answer my letters, didn't send me so much as a Christmas card. Then Fiona…" He shook his head, stood up, drained his drink and spun around to rest the empty glass on the table. "Turned out she couldn't cope with the army either. Now you."
"Alistair…" She stood up, and took a step toward him, but before she could touch him he let go of the tumbler and turned toward her.
"Please, Liz." Catching her left hand in his right, he rested his other hand on her shoulder. "Leaving aside that I'm still…" He swallowed, and lifted his head to look ceilingward for a moment, before he went on, "Still hurting. And leaving aside the way I feel about you…" He raised his hand from her shoulder and tucked her hair behind her right ear, just as he had done in the car. "I can't go through that again. If you can't cope with what I do, it's best if we never see each other again. If we do, then sooner or later my job will get in the way, because even if you're safe in Cambridge, I'll still be here, in the line of fire."
She stared up at him, stricken. "Never see you again? Alistair, I can't do that!"
"You must! Liz…"
"I won't." She shook her head. "I can't."
Then, to her astonishment, he laughed and, as she looked up in amazement, he said, "Good Lord, woman, will you ever stop arguing with me?"
"No," she said, stubbornly, "Not if I can help it."
Then somehow his arms were around her, his mouth was on hers, and Liz slid her arms around his neck, tasting the whisky on his lips as she kissed back, hard, losing herself in the moment.
"Run." His voice was low, raw, his mouth still resting against hers. "Run back to Cambridge." His mouth trailed hot kisses across her cheek and along her jaw. "Run to someone safe, and secure, and dependable." He was nibbling her ear as he whispered into it, and Liz tangled her fingers in his hair and slid her other hand down his back to pull him closer. "Run, Liz. Please." His hands slid inside her robe and brushed over warm skin.
"Tomorrow," she managed, moving her hand around to fumble with the buttons of his shirt, "I'll run tomorrow…"
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