Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
After an eternity that took no time at all, there was silence.
Rose gasped and rolled out of her protective crouch, coughing up dust and the acrid bile of fear that rose up from the back of her throat. When she had the voice to do so, she cried out for him.
His name sounded choked and strange in her ears, and she knew he couldn’t hear her. Not through all that rock. She tried to stand, and realized that her legs were shaking too violently to support her weight. She crawled to their shared wall on her hands and knees, scrabbling over fallen clods of dirt and long dead roots. When she reached it, she pulled herself upright.
“Doctor!” she sobbed (her ears still echoed with the unbearable screech of stone, the crush of collapsing walls and even as clever as he was, what could he have done–) but then she stopped, took a deep breath, and bellowed his name in the clearest, strongest voice she could manage.
She tried again, an edge of panic making the word echo sharply. There was no reply but a gentle rain of dirt from overhead.
Rose gripped her hands into tight fists, and the throb of her injuries cleared the frantic haze from her mind. She needed to think.
Assuming the Doctor was injured and unconscious (there were no other options she could accept, unless he’d decided to take a rather inconveniently-timed nap), she needed to reach him as quickly as possible. The thorny root ladder was still a possibility but, struggling to be rational, Rose had to admit that even if she actually managed to use it to climb to the surface, her hands would be fairly useless in any sort of rescue plan that would follow. Hard to pull an unconscious alien out of a pit if you couldn’t hold a rope.
Something else, then. There had to be another way.
He could be regenerating right now. Dying again, changing again, and again it was her fault.
She wondered if he always went through his lives this quickly, or if she killed him more efficiently than anyone else.
She slammed her fist into the dirt wall, and the pain was a blossoming white light behind her eyes. “Stop it,” she hissed to herself. “Stop it, you useless little ape. He’s fine, you know he’s fine. Just think.”
It was Christmas morning all over again. Without him, everything she’d become since that night beneath the London Eye disappeared. When he held her hand, she could pretend she deserved to be there, that she’d learned and grown and become something more, but–
Wait a tic, she thought suddenly. Something’s off. She frowned, trying to locate the source of her unease. She looked around her, taking in the walls, the hole leading to the surface above her, the dirt and grass floor, her bleeding hands…her hands. Her fist.
She’d struck the wall, hard. As hard as she could in a punch with all her anger and fear and frustration behind it. And it had hurt, but not nearly, not nearly as much as it should have. Holding her breath, she reached out and poked the wall where she’d hit it.
The dirt gave way.
After that, she went a bit wild. She started with her elbow, slamming herself into the rapidly forming hole with the full force of her body. But it wasn’t fast enough for her, not with him right there on the other side, so she thrust her hands into the cracks and ripped clumps of dirt from the opening until her fingernails were torn to shreds and her eyes burned with dust.
When her hand finally made it through to the other side, she almost laughed, shouting, “Hold on, Doctor!” She didn’t wait for an answer, but kept digging, expanding the hole until it was the size and shape of a large serving platter. Then she did laugh, staggering back from the wall to scrabble on the floor for her torch. “Light, light, light,” she muttered under her breath. “I need light.”
When her hand finally came down on the torch, she almost couldn’t feel it. Her fingers had gone entirely numb.
Rose held the light to the hole she’d made and peered through into the pit.
It was worse than she’d expected.
The room was obviously man-made (sentient being-made, she corrected herself absently). The walls were lined with great slabs of stone, many of them now fallen and shattered. Some had fallen yet remained relatively intact, creating huge towers of rock. She could see neither the floor of the pit nor its ceiling. The Doctor was nowhere to be found.
She couldn’t contain the small sob that rose up in her throat. The torch shook in her hand.
From the other side of the wall there was a gurgling sound, shortly followed by a damp sort of sputtering. She froze.
“My, my,” the Doctor croaked. “Is that you, Tinkerbell? It’s been ages.”
Rose threw herself against the wall, pressing her face to the hole and shining the torchlight desperately around the pit. “Doctor, where are you? Are you all right?”
“Oh, quite, I should think,” he said lazily, as if she’d just woken him from an afternoon nap. “Though I’m not entirely sure where my arms and legs have got off to. Slippery beggars, aren’t they?” Then there was a great hacking cough, and the sound of nearby movement. When it stopped, she heard a whispered, “Rose?”
“I’m here,” she said, and felt the tears slip down her cheeks even as she grinned. “I’m right here.”
“There was an earthquake,” he said, his voice panicked and oddly young.
“I noticed, actually,” she replied gently. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
She swallowed hard. “You don’t–”
“You’re dead,” she heard him gasp, and his voice was like thorns ripping into her skin. “Rose, my Rose, I killed you.”
“No, I’m here,” she said as steadily as she could, though her heart slammed in her chest. “I’m fine, I promise.”
“I didn’t reach you in time. I felt you fall between my fingers, turned to dust, too late.” He gave a choked cry. “Too soon, I closed the door and stood by like fool while you said goodbye. Wouldn’t have missed it, not for the world, but you’re gone and I, and I miss…” She heard his laboured breathing as he struggled for control. “Rose,” he said finally, desperate and low, “something’s wrong with me.”
“Hold on, Doctor,” she said and began to widen the hole with the butt of the torch. “Hold on, I’m coming.”
“That’s what she said!” His manic giggle turned to a groan. “Oh, please tell me I did not just…” his voice trailed off into a miserable silence. Rose dropped the torch and began to claw into the dirt with her fingers.
“Keep talking,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’d really rather not. God knows what I’ll say.”
“Don’t care. I need you to talk.”
He laughed weakly. “I’ll be reminding you you said that. Unless, of course, that odd sensation at the back of my head is my brain leaking out onto the floor, in which case–”
“You’ll probably have forgotten yourself?”
“At the very least.” There was a pause, and then he sounded almost himself when he asked, “Rose, are those your fingers I see coming out of the wall?”
“I certainly hope they aren’t anyone else’s,” she replied, full of terrified cheer. Then her hands hit stone, and she nearly shrieked in frustration.
“You dug a hole through the wall with your bare hands?” he asked, sounding both annoyed and a bit awed.
“Didn’t exactly have a choice, did I?” She closed her eyes and let her forehead fall against the dirt. “I can’t get through. This is as big as I can make it without something to break through stone.” She looked up. “Does the sonic screwdriver have a jackhammer setting?”
“Would that it did. Oh, the fun we could have.” He coughed. “I think you dropped a clump of dirt into my left nostril.”
“Well, I would blow your nose for you, only I haven’t a hanky and I’m trapped on the other side of this stupid, bloody wall!” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Sorry. I’m sorry, I’m just–”
“‘A rosebud set with little willful thorns, and sweet as English air could make her, she,’” he said suddenly. “That’s Tennyson, you know.”
“Of course it is,” she said and slid down the wall, her every muscle trembling.
“That’s what I thought, when you first told me your name. And I didn’t really much like poetry then, you know, but I had a bomb in my hand and there you were in that alley behind the shop, all gold and fear and confusion and I heard those words. Still do, all the time. Funny how that happens.”
She had no idea what to say. “Doctor–”
“Fiddlesticks. I think I’m going to vomit.” She heard a soft gagging sound, then a grunt as he pushed himself up. “Oh, well done me.”
“Do you think you have a concussion?”
“If by concussion you mean massive brain damage, yes, I think I have a concussion.” There was loud smacking sound. “My tongue feels huge.”
“Are you…” her voice broke. “Are you going to change again?”
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” He paused. “Maybe.”
“All right,” she said, her voice soft.
“Will you leave if I do?” he asked flatly, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment before she gave her answer.
“Good.” He sighed. “Good to know.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It is.” She searched for a clean bit of jumper she could use to wipe the dust from her eyes. Then she looked up. “I’m an idiot.”
He hesitated. “Is this some sort of trick?”
“No, really. I’m an idiot.” She pulled herself to her feet. “The tunnel.”
She gestured to the dark passageway at the far side of the cavern, though she knew he couldn’t see. “There’s a tunnel leading out of here and I didn’t even think–”
She frowned at the finality of his tone. “I’ll take the torch. It’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know where it leads.”
“Neither do you.” There was a stubborn silence from the other side of the wall. She sighed. “Doctor, we need to get you back to the TARDIS. The tunnel might take me right to the surface.”
“How do you know?”
“Well,” he began reluctantly, “this planet has occasionally been used for purposes slightly less sunny than gardening.”
The Doctor cleared his throat. “Such as the death row of an intergalactic penal system?”
Rose sat down, hard. “We’ve fallen into an abandoned gaol.”
“We’re in prison.”
“Yes, we are.”
“So it would seem. Mind you,” he continued brightly, “it’s hardly the worst incarceration I’ve ever experienced. Remind me never to tell you about the two months I spent scrubbing toilets after I offended the Rajah of Amsterdam. Amsterdam the planet, of course, not the city. You see, toilet brushes had been out of date there for centuries and my hair was quite curly at the time, so–”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“Well, to be honest it’s not that good of a story. Mostly just a decent anecdote with a dancing monkey and jokes about poo.”
“Not that,” she snapped. “The fact that we’re trapped in ancient, underground execution chambers!”
“Oh.” He paused. “I didn’t want to spoil our holiday.”
For a moment, Rose wanted to throttle him. Then, quite unexpectedly, she began to giggle.
“What? What did I say?” the Doctor asked, bewildered.
The giggle turned to a laugh.
“Rose, are you sure you didn’t get knocked in the head?”
She laughed so hard she snorted. Twice.
“Have you gone completely mad?”
“Not yet,” she managed to get out between snickers. “But if we don’t get out of here soon…”
“Will you still be able to climb out when the thorns retract at sunrise?”
She turned to inspect the root system dangling from the adjacent wall. It looked a bit more precarious since the earthquake, but was still basically intact. “Yes,” she said, though her hands twinged slightly at the thought.
“You’re sure?” he asked sternly.
Rose smiled. “Ninety-eight point seven percent, yeah.”
She could practically hear him roll his eyes. “I’ll assume that’s you being sassy and not a figure you’ve actually calculated.”
“My, you’re clever. When did that happen?”
He snorted. “I have a gaping head wound, do you mind?”
“Are you saying you can’t keep up with me?”
There was silence from the other side of the wall.
“Doctor, did you hear me? I just implied that you may not, in fact, have the biggest, barmiest brain around. Don’t you have something to say to that?” The silence continued, and dread crept into her voice. “Doctor? Doctor!”
“That’s not my real name, you know,” he said slowly, and she shivered against the warm dirt wall.
“I figured that.”
“I can’t tell you what it is, and I can’t tell you why I can’t tell you.” He clicked his teeth together, two loud clacks of enamel against enamel. “Such a lot of secrets I keep.” Then she heard the skitter of rocks as he stood and a groan as he pulled himself up to the hole she’d made. He whistled. “Nice work. Very thorough. Very…much like there had been wall here, and now there isn’t. Which is just what I like in a hole in the wall.”
Her stomach felt like lead. “Thank you.”
“No, really, this is excellently done. I’m surprised it’s your first–” He stopped, and when he spoke again his voice was like ice. “Rose, is this your blood?”
She pulled her knees to her chest and pressed her cheek against the filthy denim. “I called for you and you didn’t answer.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” he snarled. “Get up here.”
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“Of all the idiotic…Rose, let me see your hands.”
She reached for the torch and stood, keeping away from the hole. “I’ve cut them up pretty badly, all right? And yes, they bled when I dug through a foot of solid soil using only my manicure. But I–” She laughed shakily. “I am not the one who can’t tell the difference between Satellite Five and a hole in the ground!”
Then she shone the light into his face.
He was pale, his skin ghostly white but for where a vivid purple bruise spread across his left temple. His hair had gone grey, the whites of his eyes shone red.
He squinted and winced. “Oi, give a bloke some warning next time, eh?”
“Oh,” she gasped, like she’d been punched in the stomach. She dropped the torch.
“Ashes,” he said.
“The floor of this place is covered in them. Now so I am.” He sneezed. “Ick.”
She stumbled towards the wall, and when her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could just make out his shadowed features. “But your eyes–”
“That would be the ‘concussion’.” He scratched the back of his neck with the hand he wasn’t using to keep himself upright. “We’re going to be okay, you know. Nothing we can’t handle.”
“Of course.” She wanted to reach through the opening, to touch him, but she didn’t. “You have a plan?”
He grinned. “Oh, absolutely.” There was a pause. “And in three seconds, I’ll remember it what it was.”
“Count it down, Rose.”
“Count it down! Count it down to Chinatown!” he cried, and she seriously doubted he should be bouncing up and down like that in his current state.
“All right, all right,” she said quickly. “Three, two, one!”
“No, no, no. Other way, other way.”
“You’ve got be to kidding me.”
“Have I?” he asked, as if he really weren’t certain himself. “I suppose I am a bit of a kidder. A josher. That’s me, just joshin’.”
Rose had had enough. “Doctor,” she said, her voice even and very, very calm, “if you do not start making sense right this moment, I will reach over there and give you a slap so hard it’ll knock your brain back into place.”
The Doctor gaped at her. “Blimey, you’re terrifying!”
She shrugged. “It’s genetic.”
“Sure you didn’t learn that one from me? I used to be very good at ‘serenely furious’.” He rested his chin against the rim of the tunnel. “Now I mostly just yell.”
Rose could count the number of truly normal conversations she’d had with the Doctor on one hand, but this was beyond surreal, even for him. “You’re, um, very good at it. Yelling.”
“Am I? That’s nice.” He snapped back into something approaching his usual self. “So this is a three part plan. Part one: I stop feeding you blackmail material and instead enjoy a lovely restorative coma. Part two: the sun rises. Part three: you make me a cup of tea back at the TARDIS and give me a well-deserved foot massage. Any quest–”
The Doctor was interrupted by a howl, a low-pitched, staccato sound that reverberated throughout the cavern. It was like nothing Rose had ever heard before.
Rose and the Doctor stared at each other for a long moment.
“Okay,” he said lightly. “Looks like we’ll be revising part one of the plan.”
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