Written for the twdw_ficathon "Happy Prompts" challenge. Prompt: "Our Song."
Unbeta-ed and rather meandering, but I hope it's as much easygoing fun to read as it was to write.
"If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles." -- J. B. S. Haldane (possibly apocryphal, unsourced variant)
“You’re sure this is a park, and not some primeval jungle teeming with carnivores?” Donna asked, studying the lush greenery with suspicion.
“Yes, I’m sure it’s a park,” the Doctor sighed with put-upon patience.
“How can you tell?”
“Well, for starters there’s a path,” the Doctor said reasonably, pointing at the freshly-raked ribbon of gravel winding past the TARDIS.
“There were paths in Jurassic Park, too,” she sniffed. “Look at what happened there.”
The Doctor pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “That was a fictional story, Donna. I swear this is just a perfectly ordinary botanical garden. Really.”
“Well, all right. But if I get eaten by a velociraptor, you’re never hearing the end of it, bucko.”
"That I believe,” the Doctor murmured as he slipped his hands into his pockets and they set off along the winding pathway.
The air was at the exact balance point between warm and cool, loaded with rich, green-scented humidity. Donna was quickly glad for the silk top and lightweight trousers she’d chosen to wear. The Doctor strode along without visible discomfort in his usual multilayered suit combo, though he’d skipped a tie today and wore his shirt open at the throat. That seemed about as much of a concession to the local climate as he was ever likely to make.
The sheer mass of the vegetation was stunning — she’d never known there could be so many shades of green before, and so many different textures: lacy, fern-y fronds; moss; broad glossy leaves; trailing vines; all shot through with subtle hints of animal life: the flicker of brightly-colored wings in the canopy (the sky was completely invisible though the leaves), musical chirps and calls echoing through the misty air, the occasional patter of (thankfully small) fleeing feet in the leaf litter, and an almost-subliminal hum or buzz that hinted at crickets or cicadas
“If this is a park, where is everyone?” Donna couldn’t help asking. It was so peaceful she was getting the jitters just on general principles.
The Doctor shrugged. “It’s the off season. And it’s early in the morning, local time. I wouldn’t expect to see anyone else until after lunch.”
Donna could only manage to maintain paranoia for so long, and much as she expected some imminent disaster, she couldn’t help relaxing a little. “It’s lovely,” she said, meaning it. “So . . . natural.”
“Oh, nothing natural about it,” the Doctor replied cheerfully. “Nothing looks this nice without a lot of constant work. Take those lianas, for example . . .” and he was off and running, the Neverending Gob at work. He actually did make an excellent tour guide, though Donna was careful not to encourage him too much.
The path meandered hither and yon through the trees until it took a sharp left turn and they were walking along one side of a narrow, rocky gorge; far below, a crystalline river tumbled over smoothly rounded rocks. The muted roar of the water echoed gently, and a wooden railing provided a genteel sense of protection in the face of the plunging drop-off.
As they followed the path, Donna began to look past the profusion of greenery. Once one got adjusted, it really was easy to see how . . . manicured everything was. It was just a bit too lovely, and the way the winding path kept opening up prettily composed scenes around each bend soon became obvious. The cumulative effect was familiar. Frowning, Donna thought it over, tuning out the Doctor’s burbling chatter about ecosystems and succession communities and compost and whatever else was on his quicksilver mind. Then she had it, and snapped her fingers.
“Yes?” the Doctor asked, looking at her over the rims of his spectacles, which had appeared at some point during the switch to Lecture Mode.
“I know what this place is like,” she told him. “It’s like being stuck inside a New Age relaxation video!”
The Doctor huffed. “No, it ‘tisn’t” he responded, annoyed. “First off, it’d have to be the New, New, New, New, New, New, New, New Age, and secondly this park is a work of pure artistry! It’s genius, it’s . . .”
They turned a wide bend in the path, and there in front of them was a vista mostly composed of an enormous, gorgeous, cascading waterfall (source of the river below), perfectly centered at the head of the gorge, with a graceful bridge arching in front of it from one rim of the gorge to the other. It looked exactly like an album cover for a single-"new"-New Age CD.
“ . . . rather predictable,” the Doctor finished, deflated, as Donna doubled over laughing. “Honestly,” he continued in an irritated-apologetic tone. “It wasn’t nearly this trite the last time I was here. Of course,” he added, “that was about a hundred years ago, and I was a different man back then.” He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Maybe I didn't notice."
"Kind of like not noticing a cricket bat to the head," Donna observed with good cheer, wiping her eyes. The pathway they were on continued up to the bridge, which arched across to a mirror-image path along the far side of the gorge. She ignored the Doctor's irritated sputter as a matter of course. "C'mon then," she told him. "Might as well at least stand on the bridge and get our money's worth."
"We didn't pay anything," the Doctor pointed out, as he moved to follow her.
"Yeah, I know," Donna told him, grinning. "Makes it a low bar to cross. Good thing, too."
They spent a few minutes in the center of the bridge; no matter how precious the setting, that much water roaring vertically downwards possessed a certain raw, elemental fascination. The fierce updraft ruffled their hair, and the air was filled with a fine cool, mist. They had to lean close together and yell to communicate over the thunder of water as they planned their return trip. The Doctor insisted that there was another bridge further down the gorge, and that they could follow the trail around the opposite rim of the gorge in a large loop. Donna was dubious, but finally agreed.
On the far side of the gorge, the cricket-cicada hum was louder, and sounded less like the insect noises Donna was used to. It was more of a dreamy, oscillating, harmonic hum, like the chime of a wineglass when a fingertip is run 'round its rim.
"What is that noise?" Donna asked, finally.
"Hm? Pardon?" the Doctor asked, pulled out whatever reverie had temporarily shut him up.
"That noise, the humming."
"Oh, that!" The Doctor grinned. "That's beetles."
"Beetles," Donna repeated, raising her eyebrows.
The Doctor nodded enthusiastically, his hair bobbing in time. "Great, big, iridescent beetles. Lovely things. Would you like to see one?"
Donna glanced around frantically, expecting to see lorry-sized insects converging on them. "How big?" she asked, only squeaking a little, "Why on Earth would I want to see one?"
The Doctor chuckled indulgently, coming within a hairsbreadth of receiving a light smack. "No bigger than your hand," he qualified, "and we aren't on Earth. Besides, I used to be pretty good at calling them -- might as well see if I've still got it."
He cleared his throat dramatically, closed his eyes . . . and emitted the weirdest, strangled squawk Donna had ever heard from him. His eyes popped back open, and he doubled over coughing. Donna started to move towards him, concerned, but he waved her back. When it was clear he wasn't going to go into convulsions, Donna relaxed, and give him a smirking half-smile.
"Yeah, that was real impressive," she said.
The Doctor glared at her over the rims of his spectacles before he removed them, folded them with a click, and dropped them in a suit pocket.
"Ooooh, going all Clark Kent, now," Donna cooed. "Guess you mean business." She leaned back on the path railing with the attitude of one who expects an entertaining show.
The Doctor ignored her with prickly dignity. He straightened his spine, rolled his shoulders, shook out his arms and shot his cuffs, as if getting ready for some major physical effort. He took another deep breath, closed his eyes, and hummed like a singer finding the correct pitch.
Donna was tempted to give him a round of sarcastic applause just for that performance alone -- but then, unexpectedly, his hum split apart into an eerie, two-toned harmony. Taken aback, Donna blinked.
The Doctor's eyes popped open, and he gave her a smug half-smile, the way he did when one of his crazy schemes and cobbled-together gadgets actually worked. Then he closed his eyes again, and began to . . . sing. It was a glassy, oscillating tone, an eerie replica of the distant insect noises. Donna would have suspected him of faking it somehow, except for the way his adam's apple -- clearly visible in his skinny throat -- was vibrating in time to the oscillations.
He's an alien, Donna reminded herself, and the thought sent a little shiver of wonder down her spine. No matter how much she teased him about it, some days it was hard to remember that he wasn't just some long drink of water with a time machine.
Still smiling, the Doctor split the singing vibration into thirds, creating weird harmonies that Donna felt as pressure deep in her ears. Then he broke off and opened his eyes.
All around them, the natural hum had fallen silent, leaving only the rush of the water below in the gorge.
"Ha! They noticed that," the Doctor said, grinning broadly as he scanned the surrounding greenery eagerly. His normal speaking voice sounded freakishly ordinary in comparison. "It's the males that sing, staking out their territories. If I convince them I'm a rival, they'll all come over to put me in my place. If I can just get that overtone . . ."
He inhaled, expanding his narrow ribcage visibly, and began to sing again. He split the tone into thirds, and then, with a slight frown of effort, a full chord. Donna listened, entranced, until the spell was broken by something large, round and fast buzzing past her head. It thunked to a halt on the wooden railing next to Donna, and the Doctor's call broke off.
"Oh, that's done it," he said, pleased as punch, looking at the railing.
Perched next to Donna's arm (a little too close for comfort -- she hastily moved away) was, yes, a beetle: the approximate shape and diameter as a saucer, if a bit thicker through the middle. Its basic coloring was a deep, metallic red, but it was also, as promised, highly iridescent. As Donna watched, it rotated this way and that on its little beetle-y feet, as if searching for something. Now and then it raised its wing cases and buzzed its transparent wings in agitation.
Donna held very, very still. "Does it bite?" she asked, as calmly as possible.
"No, it doesn't bite," the Doctor said with good-natured derision, as if that was the most ridiculous idea in the world. He flapped one hand in dismissal. "They only drink nectar. But they do . . ."
He was cut off as the beetle began to emit a glassy throb of sound -- much louder at close quarters than Donna had expected.
". . . sing," the Doctor finished, raising his voice and giving her his full-out, open-mouthed grin of delight.
A second impact reverberated through the the railing, and Donna turned to find another beetle -- this one a vivid royal blue. Disconcerted, she pushed away from the railing altogether as the newcomer also began to sing.
A third voice joined in, and she spun to find the Doctor back at his beetle-calling, cupping his hands around his mouth, presumably to get better projection. A glittering purple projectile came shooting out of the greenery and plopped onto his shoulder. He rolled his eyes to look at it, but didn't stop calling. Beetles began shooting in from all directions, until the ground and railing seemed covered with an irritated, buzzing, singing rainbow.
The din was astonishing. It was like being trapped inside some gigantic glass harmonica. Donna could feel the oscillations in her bones and lungs, but it stopped just on the bearable side of comfort. Something thumped into her shoulder, and she looked down to find another red beetle clinging to her front, the little claws prickling faintly through the silk of her top. It was heavier than she would have expected, and as she stared at it, it waved blunt antennae at her and buzzed its wings.
That was the moment when she might, under other circumstances, have completely freaked out, but the little creature seemed so comically irritated -- and didn't she know how the Doctor could do that to a person? -- she found herself laughing instead. It was all so perfectly surreal.
Apparently convinced that Donna wasn't a threat, the beetle shoved off into the air and plopped to the ground, to crawl around and over its compatriots. Donna watched it a moment more, still amused. She no longer felt the slightest bit apprehensive. When she looked up, the Doctor had at least five beetles clinging to him in various places, and he was putting his all into calling more. As Donna watched, a green beetle dropped out of the air, right onto the Doctor's spiky hair. He rolled his eyes upwards, going a trifle cross-eyed, and stopped singing with an expression of loopy delight, as if having a giant insect on his head was simply the most delightful thing he could have hoped for.
Taken as a whole the scene was ridiculous, chaotic, and utterly mad . . . but it was also beautiful, the world temporarily filled with color, motion and inhuman music as pervasive as the air itself. The Doctor was at the epicentre -- with Donna right along for the ride.
There was nowhere she'd rather be.
The Doctor reached up and gently detached the beetle from his head (the little claws clung with surprising stubbornness to individual strands of hair) and bent to set it on the ground. Two of his other passengers took wing, startled by the movement. He watched them indulgently, then looked at Donna.
"Well, that's probably enough of that," he called out. "Best let them get back to their territories. Give 'em a few minutes and they'll calm down."
Sure enough, without the Doctor's encouragement the beetles began falling silent and then taking wing back towards the forest by ones and twos. As the ground cleared, the Doctor picked his way carefully towards Donna. He stopped in front of her, slipped his hands in his trouser pockets and waited, positively beaming with smugness.
Donna's lips quirked upwards against her will. "Beetles," she said, making the word a flat statement. "Only you."
"Still got it," he said flashing all of his teeth and giving her a cheeky wink.
"I'm guessing that wasn't part of the standard tour here."
"Only if you're with me," he replied. Then he added, "I still wouldn't recommend drinking the water, though."
She started to chuckle, remember her complaints about Earth-bound tours -- then a thought struck her and she slumped back against the railing, laughing in earnest.
"What?" he asked.
"That could be your Native American name," she said, gasping, "Y'know, like 'Dances With Wolves' -- 'Sings With Beetles'"
The Doctor's face went odd for a moment. "I've danced with wolves, after a fashion," he said, voice momentarily serious -- something to do with Rose, Donna could tell instantly. She'd learned to catalogue those strange expressions and flashes of emotions. That bleak, hurt look meant "Rose," same as a guilty, unhappy look meant "Martha." It was gone in a second, though, replaced by a half-smile. "Beetles, though -- I rather like that. I've always shared an inordinate fondness for them, to paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane. Now there was a man who was always ready with a pithy quote. He would have loved this planet . . ."
And he was off again in chatterbox mode. The last of the beetles were buzzing away as Donna fell into step with him and they continued along the pathway.
As it turned out, their next few stops were more traditionally exciting -- in the running, jumping and saving the planet sense. Donna's constant complaints about sore, aching feet finally prompted the Doctor to roll his eyes and promise to take her somewhere more peaceful. His choice turned out to be a perfectly lovely spa, which promised the finest pedicures in the galaxy.
It seemed a grandiose claim, but after having her feet buffed, massaged with oil, trimmed, pumiced, and massaged with hot salt, Donna was willing to give the establishment the full benefit of the doubt. And then some. She was currently slumped in an immensely comfortable deck chair, her feet immersed in a bubbling pool of warm mud that looked hellish and felt heavenly. She wriggled her toes in the friendly goo and sighed happily.
An answering sigh echoed from the deck chair beside her, and she cracked open her eyelids to take in the unlikely sight of the Doctor gone completely limp and non-hyper, for once. She'd expected him to drop her off at the spa and then go do something manly, like fondle engine blocks or something, but he'd gone right through the spa's regimen with her.
"After all," he'd said, shrugging in response to her surprise. "My feet take just as much of a beating as yours do, if not more."
Donna had been nonplussed enough to miss making a snarky comeback before they were swept up in a whirl of solicitous attendants and comfortable chairs. She'd taken the opportunity to sneak glances at the Doctor's bare feet, which were disappointingly normal, if predictably long and bony. Donna was still half-convinced he was hiding scales or tentacles or something equally Martian somewhere under that suit. She wouldn't put it past him, anyway.
As if he could feel her attention, the Doctor opened one eye and smiled at Donna. "So, is this a pedicure, or is this a pedicure?" he asked.
"Mmmm, s' not bad," she allowed, reaching to the small table between their chairs to retrieve her glass. She took an appreciative sip of the ice-cold orange liquid therein. Whatever it was, it tasted like a first-class mimosa.
The Doctor arched an eyebrow at her and picked up his own glass. "Not bad?" he responded, though he didn't quite manage to work up to his usual squeak of outrage.
"Oh, all right. It's bloody marvelous. At this rate, by the time they're done with us, my feet'll be too posh to walk on."
That earned an appreciative chuckle. The Doctor drained his glass, and picked up the pitcher for a refill. He paused in the middle of pouring, visibly pricking up his ears. "Would you listen to that! They're playing our song!"
"Our song? We have a song . . . ?" Donna had largely been tuning out the discreet background music/soundscapes playing in the background -- neutral instrumentals, waves on the beach . . . she focused her attention and heard rushing water, and a faint, glassy, musical hum. It took a minute, but then the oddly-familiar combination triggered her memory of that brief, beautiful, iridescent soap-bubble moment.
"Beetles? 'Our song' is beetles?"
"I think it suits," the Doctor said, topping off his glass.
"Well, yes, but you're a complete nutter," Donna told him kindly, holding out her glass expectantly for a refill.
The Doctor obliged. "Takes one to know one," he responded as he poured.
"Oh, that's mature," Donna said, rolling her eyes. "Nine hundred and how many years old?"
The Doctor raised his eyebrows at her over the rim of her glass, and she snorted, as much at herself as at him.
"Yeah, maybe it does at that," she admitted, and held out her glass. "Beetles."
"Beetles," the Doctor repeated solemnly, clicking his glass against hers in agreement.
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