Part Fourteen — Painful Things
In the end, he didn’t run very far. The TARDIS wouldn’t let him. No matter how many times he complained telepathically, turned and dashed out of the corridor, or outright kicked at the walls in frustration, she insisted upon leading him directly back to a certain door in a certain hallway.
It was one of her interior gardens, a place he hadn’t frequented in years and didn’t particularly feel in the mood for.
He eventually just gave in, as his sugar high descended naturally into a sugar crash, leaving him exhausted and with a pounding headache. Since his other choice was to simply collapse in the hallway, he slipped through the door to the garden, letting it slide quietly shut again behind him.
It was intended to be a peaceful, beautiful place. There was a simulated sky that gently cycled through the natural sky color of various worlds, the ambient lighting slowly cycling with it but always remaining relatively bright and pleasant. As far as the eye could see, plants from across space and time grew together merrily in a loosely tangled jungle. With only the TARDIS to manage its upkeep, the garden had tended towards a sort of complicated, chaotic organization, reminiscent of the time ship’s own physical and mental presence.
The very sight of the place was calming and reassuring. He wandered through it aimlessly, following at random the paths that snaked through the foliage. A light breeze seemed to follow him, rustling his hair as well as the various leaves and branches as he moved deeper into the room. He walked slowly, fully indulging his recently recovered senses in the sights and sounds and smells of the beautiful garden.
He came upon a somewhat isolated clearing of deep red grass, and understood why the TARDIS had directed him here. She had conjured a picnic blanket, spread out on the cushion of thick grass, with a modest tea for one set atop it.
Relax, the very air seemed to breathe. Rest.
Too tired to argue, he gratefully settled himself down on the blanket and resolved to put his troubles out of his mind and just enjoy the tea. The TARDIS had outdone herself, preparing the tea exactly as he loved it and providing a small stack of his favorite lemon biscuits.
He let the blatant comfort food and the serene surroundings calm him and ease his painful headache. When he’d finished the last sip of tea and the last bite of the last biscuit, he stretched out on his back across the blanket.
The TARDIS sang to him in the back of his mind and he was asleep within minutes.
Just as easily as she had guided him to the haven of the garden, the TARDIS gently insisted upon guiding Rose and Jack to the kitchen, the console room, and their own bedrooms as they searched for the Doctor. They reacted with the same frustration the Time Lord had, though with less kicking of the walls, and took much longer to give in and accept the TARDIS’s direction. They wandered the vexingly reordered corridors almost until the TARDIS was actually ready to let them find the garden.
Ultimately, they found themselves back in the console room where they had started.
“She must have a reason for doing this,” Rose sighed, sitting on the jump seat as Jack stood with his arms crossed, staring darkly at the console. “The TARDIS wouldn’t help him hide if she didn’t think it was for the best. And she knows him, probably much better than we ever will. She knows what he needs.”
“I wish I did,” Jack muttered.
“He let my Mum touch him. He hugged her. Why her and not us? Did we let him down that badly? Doesn’t he trust us?” Rose said, hurt evident in her voice as she tried to understand.
Jack shook his head, saying, “No, that’s not it. That can’t be it. He left your mother in London. We’re still here. He still trusts us.”
It was a reassuring thought, and it made a certain amount of sense. If anything was certain, it was that the Doctor would not suffer untrustworthy companions on his TARDIS.
“He still trusts us, just not our touch,” Rose outlined the important distinction. “But he trusted my Mum’s.”
“He did,” Jack agreed.
“She doesn’t know everything that happened to him,” Rose continued tossing out facts. “Only we were there. We saw it, participated in it.”
At the look on her face, Jack wanted to stop her and remind her once again that she had no reason to feel guilty. But she seemed to be nearing some sort of conclusion, and any nugget of understanding was welcome. So he nodded encouragingly, instead.
Rose was by no means trained in psychology, but she had a strong innate ability to empathize with and understand people’s emotions and motivations. Where Jack and the Doctor could run rings around her with science babble and flashy tech, Rose often beat them to the heart of the matter through forging connections with the people involved.
The Doctor, for all that he wasn’t human, was still people. And people, she understood.
Closing her eyes, hugging her arms around herself as she sat on the jump seat, Rose tried for the first time since they’d been captured to put herself consciously into the Doctor’s emotional situation. The painful trip into her memories and understanding of his experiences would be worth it if she could just get into his head a bit, and maybe figure out what she and Jack could do to help him.
He’d been cut off. Blind and deaf, unable to smell or taste anything, his connection to the TARDIS broken, his time sense gone. He’d been left only with touch, enhanced to the point where it must have been painful just to sit still, let alone endure the beatings they’d regularly assaulted him with. The only sensory input had been pain. Nothing else to focus his extraordinary and active mind upon.
No, not nothing else. He’d started feeling their pulses almost right away. An attempt to make up for the loss of his time sense, so Jack had theorized. Her pulse had calmed him right after he’d first lost his senses. Until the last hours before their escape, he’d unashamedly reached out for any pulse that was offered to him.
Their captor had taken advantage of that. Dressed in the stolen coat, the impostor had forced the Doctor to distrust any comforting touch. With the final outrage she had participated in, he had lost even his faith in pulses.
With that loss, he had been truly isolated. It had taken the wholly unique feel of the TARDIS controls and the hum of her engines, and Rose and Jack’s initials traced patiently on his skin to convince him they had escaped. Even then, he’d been easily startled, retreating into a sort of defensive panic until they could persuade him to feel one of their pulses again.
He had trusted their touch when he believed it was them, but only then. The unshakable certainty that any comforting touch might be the trick of an impostor had kept him wary.
Now, his senses had returned. The threat of an impostor was no longer so frightening. He no longer needed the feel of a pulse beneath his fingertips to counteract his lack of time sense.
All that was left was the memory.
And suddenly, Rose understood. She and Jack, their concerned touches and the feel of their pulses, were deeply intertwined with the memory of everything he had endured under the influence of the chemical blindfold.
“She wasn’t there,” Rose reiterated, opening her eyes again to see Jack watching her worriedly. “My Mum. She wasn’t there, so she’s not associated with what happened. That’s why he can let her touch him but not us.”
Jack was astounded. It was so simple, so obvious, so understandable. And yet he never would have realized.
“It’s not us he doesn’t trust, or even our touch,” Jack said.
Rose nodded, continuing, “It’s himself he doesn’t trust. His memories and his own mind.”
“So when the TARDIS lets us near him again, what do we do?” Jack asked her.
“I’m… I’m not sure,” she replied. “Maybe we can help him break down the association between our touch and those memories. Sort of touch therapy? If he lets us… I just don’t want to hurt him again.”
“You never did hurt him, Rose,” Jack took the opportunity to remind her.
“Didn’t I, though?” Rose protested. “His broken wrist… he stopped feeling for our pulses after that, until he was sure he was on the TARDIS again. That was my fault.”
Jack shook his head, speaking exasperatedly, “No, it wasn’t. But I’ve told you that before, and you never believe me. You need to hear it from him.”
“I’m not sure if he knows it was really me. I don’t want him to know,” Rose said, dropping her gaze to the floor.
“Trust me, Rose, it’s better all around if he does,” Jack said, sitting next to her finally and putting an arm around her shoulder. “Keeping it from him is hurting you, and he’ll eventually notice. And that really will hurt him. But if you tell him now, he won’t blame you and you’ll feel better.”
If it hadn’t been her own emotions, Rose would have agreed with him easily. But the guilt was hard to fight. She snuggled into his shoulder, avoiding giving him an answer.
He let it go, knowing that she was strong enough to make the right decision on her own.
“Should we try looking for him again?” he asked at length.
Rose sat up slowly, nodding. They both knew they’d have no luck if the TARDIS was still hiding him from them, but neither of them preferred inaction to even fruitless action.
Evidently, however, the TARDIS was ready for them. The door into the interior of the ship led to a hallway neither of them had seen before, with one door prominently placed.
“I suppose this is it?” Rose said.
“Let’s find out,” Jack answered, and together they opened the door and stepped into the garden.
It was a kaleidoscope of color and scent, full of both recognizable flowers and trees and plant life that neither of them were familiar with. Jack and Rose both spent a long moment simply gazing up at the impossibly changing sky, respectively wondering how the trick was managed and how someone had fit a sky into a room in the first place.
There was a dirt path leading directly away from the door. Bright enough to take the obvious hint, they followed it.
It led them on a short walk through the amazing and beautiful garden, opening out into a small clearing where a picnic blanket lay spread out on a cushion of thick, red grass.
The Doctor was sprawled on top of it, sound asleep. A small tray with a lone teacup and a few yellow crumbs sat in the grass behind him.
They approached him carefully, trying not to disturb him unnecessarily.
Suddenly, they felt the dual consciousness telepathic brush they had thought they’d seen the last of when the Doctor’s senses had returned. It was different to what they had become used to, with the TARDIS seeming to dominate it as the Doctor’s unusually soft portion of the interwoven thoughts originated from his sleeping mind.
Affection / distress / protective / exhaustion.
The Doctor stirred as the telepathy faded away again. He pulled himself in from his open and relaxed posture as he woke, finally sitting up and drawing his knees up to lean against as he blinked sleepily at the new arrivals.
Rose and Jack joined him on the ground, pointedly not reaching out to touch him. They simply sat down so they were all facing each other across the blanket, and waited for him to make the first move.
“Hello,” he said finally.
They nodded in reply, keeping quiet to let him speak if he wanted to. It was the first time since they’d been captured that all three of them were simultaneously awake and aware and calm enough for a real conversation.
He knew the time had come to talk about what they’d been through, but he still didn’t know quite how to express what he wanted to communicate. After a little while he dropped his forehead onto his knees and just admitted, in a small voice, “I’m scared.”
They ached to reach out and hold him, comfort him. But both Rose and Jack knew they had to give him space, no matter how painful it was. It was something the TARDIS had understood and they had finally come to realize.
“I know my senses have healed. I know we’re safely on the TARDIS. I know that there’s nobody else here,” he spoke into his knees. Then he raised his head to look at them, adding, “But I still can’t forget.”
He looked as much frustrated as he did frightened. He was used to being in complete control of his own mind. This uncontrollable and deeply rooted reaction was something he didn’t quite know how to deal with.
Jack knew without a doubt that Rose had figured out the Doctor’s horrible dilemma exactly. He couldn’t separate his companions from the memories of the traumatizing experience they’d shared with him, and that left him simultaneously wanting, or even needing, to seek out their touch, and yet utterly unable to. If only they could somehow symbolically destroy those memories… break down the association, as Rose had put it… maybe they would all be able to move past this.
Suddenly, Jack had a brainstorm of his own.
“I think I know something that might help,” he said, standing and helping Rose up to join him. “Can we go somewhere we can make a nice sized bonfire?”
The Doctor stood as well, happy enough for the distraction, looking thoughtful. “I suppose. Come on.”
He led the way back out of the garden, and through the restored corridors to the console room. It was the work of a moment to set the coordinates, and a few minutes of typically bumpy TARDIS travel later they materialized.
“We’re in an empty bit of northern Vermont, in the early autumn of 2008. Perfect for a bonfire,” he said, moving to the outer door and throwing it open.
The three of them ventured outside, taking in the strikingly beautiful wooded surroundings and the distant skyline full of gently sloping mountains. The air was clean and fresh, and pleasantly cool.
Jack immediately set about clearing an area for a fire pit and defining it with nearby stones.
The Doctor gathered likely looking pieces of wood while Rose collected dried leaves for kindling, neither of them knowing why Jack wanted a bonfire but trusting him and willing to follow wherever he would lead them.
The Doctor produced matches from one of his pockets and they quickly had a cheerful fire blazing. They had arrived in the late afternoon, and their fire helped to replace the quickly fading natural light as evening fell.
They stood in the light and warmth of the fire for a moment, several inches between where each of them stood and the next, none of them speaking.
Suddenly, Jack turned around and headed back inside the TARDIS, leaving Rose and the Doctor bemused. He reappeared a moment later, having fetched his coat from the dark corner of the console room where it had been left lying since their escape.
He fished the few belongings he’d had in it out of its pockets, stowing them in his trousers or, as in the case of his still muddy blaster, placing them on the floor just inside the TARDIS doors. Then he carried the coat over to the fire where the others still stood, watching him.
The Doctor took an involuntary step back, which Jack tactfully ignored. He produced the sonic screwdriver, the last item in the coat’s pockets, and nonchalantly handed it to Rose.
Rose wiped most of the mud off of the device on the leg of her jeans before handing it over to the Doctor. He took it almost reverently, holding it as if it were the most fragile and precious thing he’d ever seen.
“Thank you,” he breathed, happily tucking the sonic into an inside pocket in his suit jacket. Emboldened by this, he stepped back up to the fire and reached out to touch the coat.
Jack let him take enough of it into his hands so that they were sharing its weight equally between them. It was still covered in the mud of an alien swamp.
“I used to love this coat,” Jack mourned, rubbing its familiar scratchy wool between his fingers.
Shivering slightly, the Doctor replied, “So did I.”
Rose watched silently as Jack and the Doctor met each other’s gazes. They nodded solemnly, and then together they carefully fed the coat into the bonfire, consigning it and the memories it represented to the flames.
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