But thou art turn’d to something strange,
And I have lost the links that bound
Thy changes; here upon the ground,
No more partaker of thy change.
Deep folly! yet that this could be—
That I could wing my will with might
To leap the grades of life and light,
And flash at once, my friend, to thee.
For tho’ my nature rarely yields
To that vague fear implied in death;
Nor shudders at the gulfs beneath,
The howlings from forgotten fields;
Yet oft when sundown skirts the moor
An inner trouble I behold,
A spectral doubt which makes me cold,
That I shall be thy mate no more,
Tho’ following with an upward mind
The wonders that have come to thee,
Thro’ all the secular to-be,
But evermore a life behind.
As it turned out, the planet was not quite as abandoned as the Doctor had thought.
Rose nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the whir of wings pass just by her ear. She spun around, trying to spot whatever had just flown by, then let out a squeak when that whatever landed on her shoulder with a solid plop.
She froze. Whatever it was, it was small — maybe the size of a sparrow. A lethal alien sparrow, knowing her luck. Rose held her breath and tried to get a glimpse of the creature out of the corner of her eye.
There was a blinding flash of light and as Rose blinked she felt a flurry of movement by her ear. The weight was gone. She squeezed her eyes shut, still seeing spots of violent colour against the darkness of her eyelids. When she finally was able to see again, her attacker was looking back at her.
It was a bug. A big bug, and not a terribly alien-looking one, at that. If anything, it most resembled a large, grey cricket — perfectly normal but for its size and a pair of brilliant, iridescent wings. Rose took a hesitant step toward the rose bush on which the insect rested, and watched as a distorted reflection of her own face grew large on the surface of the creature’s mirrored wings.
The bug shuddered and light danced across it, reflecting prismed colour into her eyes. “Disco cricket,” Rose breathed, unable to keep the awe from her voice. It was beautiful.
Which didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. On the contrary, it probably meant that any moment the thing would reveal its dripping fangs and try to eat her face.
Rose leaned closer. It seemed normal enough. Except, she noted with some concern, it seemed to be studying her just as intently as she was studying it. Suddenly, the cricket chirped, startling Rose so badly that her feet slipped out from under her and she landed on the grass with a wet thud.
The cricket perched on her knee, and chirped again.
“I suppose you think that’s funny, eh?” Rose wanted to run a finger along one of its shimmering wings, but didn’t dare. Taking a deep breath, she continued casually, “Well, you chirp, so that means you’re a boy, am I right?”
“Thought so. Trying to get some attention from the ladies?”
The cricket chose not to justify that impertinence with a reply.
“Right. Well, obviously I’ve gone mad.” The cricket seemed to cock his head to one side inquisitively — which Rose was fairly sure was physically impossible, but she answered anyway. “You see, Disco, from where I sit there are two ways to explain this. Option one, you’re a completely unexceptional, innocent bug and I’ve finally lost my grip on reality. Option two: you’re a sentient alien fiend about to devour my eyeballs. Either way–”
The cricket chirped.
“Exactly.” She bit her lip. “So which is it, then?”
He gave her a look that was eerily reminiscent of Mickey’s when he was winning at cards. Rose stared at the cricket.
The cricket stared back.
Her eyes started to water.
Beginning to feel the absurdity of the situation, she looked away. “You’re not going to try and kill me, are you?” She sighed, not a little disappointed. “Got plans to take over the planet, maybe? I hear invasion schemes can be very rewarding, personally and professionally.”
No fangs, no diabolical laughter. Rose felt the damp from the ground seeping into her jeans.
“You could throw me in jail and threaten to torture me. That’s usually good for a lark.”
The cricket wiped a foreleg over his antennae.
“Oh hell,” she groaned, her head falling into her hands. “Option number one it is.”
The cricket was just that and nothing more, and she’d reached a whole new level of nuttiness. Had her life really gotten so mad that she couldn’t recognize normal when she saw it? Yeah, the bug was shiny and alien, but it wasn’t going to hurt her and it certainly wasn’t trying to communicate with her. It was just a dumb bug, after all. Rose sighed.
“New friend?” asked a voice by her ear, and she jumped. The cricket shifted in annoyance (No, Rose reminded herself, just a dumb bug, remember?) but stayed on her knee.
She looked up at him. “You found me.”
The Doctor gave her a tight, false smile and settled next to her, wiping some mud from his trouser leg. “Of course I did.” There was an edge to his voice that she’d never heard directed at her before. “I always will.”
She looked away. “I know.”
“Do you? I wonder.” His shoulder brushed hers, and he was cold. “I’m entirely furious with you, you know.”
“You don’t mean that, so I’d rather you didn’t say it.” He paused, then reached out a slender finger and gently prodded the cricket, who chirped. “Gryllus speculis. The mirrored cricket.”
“Oh,” she said. “I thought he was a bit disco.”
“Certainly is. Come here, little fella.” Without much prompting, the cricket stepped from Rose’s knee to the Doctor’s outstretched palm. The Doctor slipped his glasses on with one hand and held the insect close to his face with the other. “Oh, look at you,” he said, his voice hushed. “You’re beautiful.”
Rose’s stomach turned to stone.
Usually, revelations are meant to be all light and clarity — the singing of an angelic choir, the electric zip of a light bulb popping to life. But in that moment, as the cold, damp earth sapped the heat from Rose’s body and the pale sun began to set in the distance, Rose saw not a light, but a door — slamming in her face.
Look at you. You’re beautiful.
She couldn’t breathe.
The pressure on her chest was incredible and she was gasping but there just wasn’t enough air, she couldn’t get enough air and she could feel the Doctor’s hands on her shoulders, gripping her hard. Her vision swam and there was his face and a blue light in her eyes (the sonic screwdriver, of course, said a voice in the back of her mind. Get it together, Rose) and she still couldn’t breathe–
He was pulling her to her feet and she was stumbling and he was saying something about the TARDIS and for some reason that made it even worse, that or the way his arms wrapped around her, dragging her along, when she just wanted him to let go, and, oh, why wouldn’t he let her go?
Then some part of her mind that had been lost or drowned out returned, and she realized what was happening to her. She, Rose Tyler — who had faced down Daleks and Cybermen and Slitheen; been turned to stone, possessed by a prissy megalomaniac, and survived nineteen years of her mum’s cooking — was having a panic attack. Now. Over a bug.
That’s when she started to laugh, suddenly gripped by a breathless hysteria and unable to walk. The Doctor half-carried her the last few steps to the TARDIS; the doors closed behind them. He started to make for the infirmary, but she shoved him, hard, in the chest, and he stumbled away, finally releasing her.
“Rose, you’re sick,” he said, reaching for her again, and she eluded him. “I need to find out what’s happened to you.”
She shook with silent laughter. One ragged breath, and she had just enough air to say, “No, no, it’s nothing. I’m nothing, I swear.” She giggled, dizzy and gasping, and collapsed onto the jump seat. “I’m fine.”
His eyes were dark and anxious, and for a moment her focus sharpened and all she could see was his face — hair wild, his lips drawn to a thin line. “You are not fine. Rose, listen to me–” His hands gripped her forearms, and she panicked.
“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked, striking out with her arms and legs. She connected once, twice; hitting him in the chest, in the shoulder. He stared at her, stunned, before coming to his senses and pinning her limbs to the chair, holding her down with his own weight.
“Rose, please,” he panted into her hair, and suddenly she could hear how afraid he was. “Please, you’re in hysterics. Tell me what happened. Let me help you.”
She laughed so hard tears began to run down her cheeks. “I will, I will, just stop touching me. Oh, please, don’t touch me.”
He pulled away from her so quickly he nearly fell over. Which, of course, only made her laugh harder. She dug her fingernails into the upholstery of the chair and tried to breathe. He hovered nearby, but she pushed him from her mind. There was only breath, in and out and in again.
She held up a hand to stop him. “No.” She still felt like she was teetering on the edge of an abyss, like the slightest push or pull would send her reeling and she would lose what little control she had.
God, she’d hit the Doctor. Screamed at him. The small part of her capable of rational thought cringed in horror. The rest of her longed to scream at him again.
You’re beautiful. Just look.
“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said through gritted teeth, her eyes still closed. She couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his face.
“It’s all right,” he replied softly.
“No, it’s not.”
“You forget how often I’ve been on your mother’s bad side. I’ve survived much worse.” She knew the Doctor was hoping for a smile or a laugh or any reaction at all, but she couldn’t give it to him. She breathed, and he waited. Minutes passed before he spoke again. “Was there anything you touched or smelled, anything at all that could pass along a toxin of some–”
She heard him take a hesitant step toward her. “Rose, something did this to you.”
She opened her eyes and stared at the space just past his shoulder. “A bug,” she mumbled. “Just a dumb bug.”
The Doctor shook his head. “No, no, that’s impossible. Even if by some freak chance you have some sort of allergy, there’s no way the cricket would have–”
It took her a moment to realize that the sound that interrupted him was coming from her. It didn’t sound like her laugh — barely sounded like laughter at all, really, too angry and broken to ever be mistaken for humour or happiness.
“That’s not–” She paused and tried to swallow, her throat tender and raw. Her voice was so harsh. “That’s not what I meant.”
He waited for her to continue, and she knew how he hated waiting. How he hated not knowing. She laughed again, and it stung.
“Don’t you see?” She looked into his eyes. “I’m the bug.”
In all the time she’d known him, she’d never seen him look so utterly befuddled.
Before he’d changed, become a man she knew wearing a face she didn’t, he had been so easy for her to read. For all he’d tried so hard to hold himself apart from the world, she’d seen his thoughts and fears spelled across his lovely, ridiculous features with an ease she accepted as her due. Then he’d died, and when he came back to her he’d smiled and winked and hidden everything away behind twinkling brown eyes. He was a closed book to her now.
I’m always all right.
At the moment, though, he obviously didn’t have the presence of mind to hide anything. She could see quite clearly the forty or so impatient questions he wanted to demand she answer, the creeping certainty that she really had gone mad, and the barely repressed desire to take her by the shoulders and give her a good shake. It was all there in his face.
After a silence he settled on a frustrated, “Rose, you’re not making any sense.”
“I am, though. You just don’t understand.” She slid down from the jump seat. Her legs felt strange taking her weight, like they hadn’t had to do so in a long time, and she wobbled. He reached for her, and then jerked his hands back self-consciously. “Don’t know why I lost it like that,” she said, mostly to herself, and leaned against a railing. “It’s a bit embarrassing.” She giggled.
“Rose,” he said softly, beseechingly.
“I was just so…surprised, you know? Which is ridiculous.” She shook her head and held tightly to the metal under her hands. “I must be deaf, yeah? It’s not like you don’t say it nearly every day. ‘You humans’ this and ‘you humans’ that. Some days we’re stupid, some days we’re brilliant, but it’s all the same.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “And I knew. I just didn’t understand.”
The Doctor’s face was perfectly empty. When he spoke, his words were flat and resigned. “I’m alien.”
“No,” she said, her voice nearly breaking. “I am.” She released the railing and took a step forward, trying not to shake. “It’s like…when I was small, there was this boy who lived on the Estate. Robbie Davison, I think his name was — he and Mickey were mates. And Robbie, he loved bugs. Ants and centipedes and moths and spiders — anything he could get his hands on, and his favorites he kept in this great glass jar that he carried with him everywhere.” She made a face. “We never got on that well. I used to ask him why he liked them so much, those gross little wiggling things, and he would always say, ‘They’re not gross to me. I think they’re lovely.’”
She took another step forward, and the Doctor stepped back. She wondered what he saw in her eyes.
“But the problem with bugs, Robbie learned, is that even if you punch holes in the lid of the jar, it’s still…it’s only ever a matter of time. They wither and they die, and he didn’t like to watch — so eventually he figured out that it was best to chuck his lovelies before it happened. So he wouldn’t have to see.”
The Doctor retreated another few steps, and though his expression was still blank, he was shaking his head in tight, jerky movements — denying the implications of her words, denying her. She felt the pinch of her fingernails as her hands curled into fists, and her voice grew as cold as she’d ever heard it.
“I remember watching him dump out the jar on a patch of grass by the Estate and wondering what those poor, ugly little creatures must think. Snatched up, taken places and shown things they could never understand, and then dumped back where they came from,” her laugh crackled, “more or less. I wondered if they had any idea what had happened to them, whether they could understand any of it at all. I wondered how they must feel, being left behind.” Without realizing it, she’d cornered him, his back against the console and his face inches from her own. She leaned in slightly, still not touching him. “But I won’t have to wonder long, will I, Doctor?”
His eyes were wide, but she could read nothing in them — not shock, or anger, or amusement. She looked up at that strange, familiar face, traced the lines around his eyes and the freckles dusted across the bridge of his nose, and saw nothing at all.
Then she was spinning — not from a return of vertigo, but because he’d taken hold of her shoulders and whirled her around, reversing their positions so she was pressed against the console. Before she could protest or resist he had the sonic screwdriver pressed hard against her temple, digging uncomfortably into her skin. She froze.
The screwdriver whirred. “Adrenaline,” he muttered, not meeting her eyes. “System’s practically flooded, which would explain the hyperventilation and tachycardia.” He moved the screwdriver to the delicate skin of her throat, and she could feel the cold metal against the throb of her pulse. “Abnormally high levels of acetylcholinesterase — though, falling quickly enough that at a consistent rate, which…yes.”
He stood back and slipped the sonic screwdriver into the pocket of his coat. “There’s nothing physically wrong with you,” he said, his voice raw.
“I told you.”
“You did.” She thought she saw a flicker of something, some emotion in his face, but he turned away, casting his features into shadow. “Is that really what you think of me? What you think we are?”
She paused. “What else could we possibly be?”
For a moment, she thought he might actually have an answer.
Then he jammed his hands into his pockets and the doors of the TARDIS swung open, seemingly of their own volition. He stalked to the threshold and paused, the back of his head silhouetted against the grey twilight of the sky.
“Don’t follow me,” he said, and she flinched.
The doors slammed closed behind him.
Rose slumped against the console, and looked down at her hands. They were still shaking.
Generally speaking, the Doctor did not curse.
This is not to say that he did not wish to, or even that he did not occasionally try. Trouble was, his TARDIS had developed a rather priggish attitude towards profanity in her old age, and thus had the unfortunate habit of censoring his more colourful turns of phrase by mistranslating them. He could blaspheme until his face turned blue, but those around him would hear only nonsense — or French, which was essentially the same thing.
Usually, this restriction didn’t bother him overmuch. But this regeneration loved words of all kinds, the roll and taste and stink of them, and he wanted to try them all. Even more importantly, he wanted Rose to hear him try them all. So he was a bit peeved. Miffed, if you will.
Not long after his regeneration he’d spent a good two hours saying absolutely filthy (yet very complimentary) things to his young companion, just to drive the old girl mad. Rose was a well-educated young woman and thus knew all the decently dirty words in French and German, so the TARDIS had chosen Italian instead, with an occasional dash of Swahili to keep things interesting.
Rose hadn’t understood a word, of course, but the undeniably rosy hue of her cheeks had implied she’d caught more of his meaning than he’d intended.
At the memory, he couldn’t help but think of those same cheeks red and splotchy with tears, and hear the sob in her voice as she begged him not to touch her.
Generally speaking, the Doctor did not curse, but generally speaking the Doctor had not just fallen ten meters into a pit with an inhospitable stone floor, a pit he’d been too angry and miserable and unbelievably stupid to even see. Generally speaking, the Doctor wasn’t watching brightly-coloured lights dance before his eyes, a clear sign that he had a great big honking head wound and was about to slip into unconsciousness.
Ah well. It wasn’t like there was anyone around to hear, anyway.
“Bollocks,” the Doctor said, and passed out.
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