Veritas in Fabula (The Truth in the Story) by Adalia Zandra



Summary: The OT3 go on their first adventure together in an AU post-JE world. But the TARDIS redirects them slightly, and something is very wrong when they arrive. They decide to interfere. (In which the OT3 meet some interesting aliens and learn together about the subjective nature of truth.)
Rating: Teen
Categories: Tenth Doctor
Characters: Jack Harkness, Rose Tyler, The Doctor (10th), The Doctor (Duplicate 10th), The TARDIS
Genres: Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2009.01.31
Updated: 2009.02.10


Index

Chapter 1: Part One - Sightseeing and Interfering
Chapter 2: Part Two - Go Tell It On The Mountain
Chapter 3: Part Three - Searching for Hope


Chapter 1: Part One - Sightseeing and Interfering

Author's Notes: Written for nightrider101 as part of the OT3 Ficathon 2009. I totally did a happy dance when I found who I was writing for… just ask dark_aegis! And I was already doing a happy dance over the prompt. Not only was it something I thought I could write well (Hello, whump!), but it was giving me all sorts of interesting ideas about what sort of plot to embed the required scenes into. The prompt: Ten is seriously injured doing something heroic. Rose and Jack must finish what he started before reuniting for some healing and cuddling. No character death.

Cave Latinum! (KAH-way LAH-tee-noom! Beware the Latin!) I’m bad at making up alien words for names and things, so I decided to use the most alien language I already know: Latin. :-D

For those who are interested, here’s a short key with the (admittedly contrived) translations to the words you’ll see in the story. The (attempt at phonetic) pronunciations are for Classical Latin, so don’t yell at me if you happen to know Church Latin and think I’m wrong. You can say the names however you like. :-P

Veritas – WARE-ee-t(ah)s – truth, reality, sincerity, honesty
Fabula –FAH-boo-luh – story
Nidus – NIGH-doose (rhymes with sigh-goose) – bird’s nest
Grex – Grex – flock
Ales – AH-lace – winged, swift, quick
Castus – K(AH)SS-toose – pure, innocent, pious, religious
Sacerdos – SAH-kare-d(oh)s – priest
Mons Vitae – Moans WE-tie – mountain of life
Spero – SPARE-oh – I hope
Mater – MAH-tare – mother
Avia – AH-we-uh – solitude

Disclaimer/Apology: I don’t own these characters, I’m just borrowing them. For better or worse, I happen to be American. So please excuse my English.


Part One — Sightseeing and Interfering

Everywhere Rose looked, there was smoke and debris. The burnt-out remains of the settlement looked exactly like the devastated ruins she had seen in war photos from her own time, but no photograph could have prepared her to stand in the midst of such destruction.

There were people–strange, part-marsupial and part-avian aliens, but still people–running frantically about in every direction, seemingly at random. Most of the adults had at least one injury, and many had burnt, scarred, or entirely missing wings. Several of them carried pouchlings, some barely hatched, some with injuries as devastating as those of the adults.

Standing motionless for a moment amidst the chaos swirling around her, Rose wondered where Jack and the Doctor had wound up and if they were all right.


Just over one hour earlier…

“I swear, Rose, it’s the most amazing culture I’ve ever seen!” Jack proclaimed, one hand waving expressively even as the other deftly placed a tool in the Doctor’s outstretched hand.

Tool received, the Doctor’s hand disappeared beneath the grating once more.

“What’s so special about it, though? Honesty is supposed to be pretty important in my culture, too,” Rose replied. She was sitting beside him, watching as he and the Doctor passed tools back and forth. They’d been discussing famous alien species as they waited for the Doctor to finish calibrating the TARDIS’s time-sensitive something-or-other.

“It’s not that honesty is important to them,” the Doctor replied, making his first contribution to the discussion since he’d disappeared below the console room’s floor. His head popped back into view then, and he looked up at Rose. “It’s that they based their entire culture on a philosophy about the subjective nature of truth and the importance of understanding different points of view. That philosophy is what led them to become known throughout the galaxy as negotiators and peace-makers. Think of it: thousands of years of galactic peace because of the efforts of one species.”

“Okay, that’s impressive,” Rose agreed, smiling down at the Doctor because he was smiling up at her. It was his big, adorable smile, too. The one he got when he was excited about showing her something new.

It was nice to see that smile. It had been a rare sight since she’d crossed the universes to find him… since the fiasco with Davros, when they’d lost Donna and the Doctor’s half-human twin.

“We should take Rose to see a Storytelling,” Jack suggested.

The Doctor turned to look at him as he replied, still grinning, “The best ones are on Nidus, itself. Ever been?”

This, apparently, was something special. Jack did a happy little bounce and hopped up to his feet.

“No, but I’d love to!” he replied eagerly, reaching a hand down to grasp the Doctor’s and help pull the Time Lord up onto the grating.

Rose helped Jack lower the section of grating back into place while the Doctor tossed the tool he’d been using back into an open bin on the floor.

“So Nidus is where these… what are they called?” she asked, curious and eager to learn more.

“Grex,” the Doctor reminded her. He’d already moved to the console and was starting his customary dance around the controls as he set coordinates.

“Grex, right. So Nidus is where the Grex live?” she finished her question, carefully repeating the alien words.

“It’s their home world,” Jack replied. “And where the tradition of putting on Storytellings began.”

Jack seemed to get distracted then, and when she turned to follow his gaze she saw the Doctor sprawled across the console. It was indeed a somewhat distracting sight. The trousers on that brown suit were… form-fitting. And the form in question was… well, distracting.

Rose bumped her shoulder into Jack’s playfully, grasping a nearby railing for balance, and shared a knowing grin with him. A moment later she was grateful for the handhold as the TARDIS began to rattle and bump her way through the Vortex.

“And we’re off!” the Doctor cried gleefully. His trainers hit the grating again and he rounded the console, still smiling.

Rose felt her own wide smile growing once more in response. They were going on an adventure! Finally, after two weeks of puttering around on Earth and in the Vortex, they were really traveling again.

“So what’s a Storytelling?” she asked, continuing her quest for knowledge. “Is it like a play?”

“Sort of,” Jack replied, his hands now beside hers on the railing. “There’s a narrator and there are players, like in a play. But the ‘story’ is about helping the audience, who sometimes participate, to understand the different points of view involved. They’re partly entertainment, partly education, and partly negotiation.”

The Doctor joined them at the railing on his next pass around the console.

“They use emotion and logic to help bring to light the different truths in a story. It’s all about communication, understanding, and acceptance,” he explained.

The TARDIS bumped violently, and suddenly there were three sets of hands on the railing.

“Hey, who’s driving this bus?” Jack complained.

The Doctor looked sheepish, let go of the railing, and returned to the console.

Rose couldn’t help but smile again at his antics. This was the Doctor she remembered, as opposed to the quieter Doctor she and Jack had been living with since Davros.

But as she thought of Davros once again, her smile faded slightly. She couldn’t keep her thoughts from running over what had happened, glad that Jack and the Doctor seemed fully ensnared by their own excitement and thus unaware of her shifting mood.

The Doctor tap-danced around the console again, hitting buttons and flipping levers with unrestrained joy just as he always had those few short years ago.

She really couldn’t blame him for having changed since she’d last seen him. They’d both changed, both been through so much since then. He’d had his darker moments back then, too, of course. But as far as she could tell it had almost become the norm for him now. It wasn’t that he brooded or sulked the way her first Doctor had. It was more that he seemed to have lost some of his endless energy and love for living life to the fullest.

She wasn’t sure if this was something that had been going on for a while, or if his conversation with Davros had precipitated it. Maybe Davros had just exacerbated it.

She and Jack had been hard pressed to convince him to even take them with him that day two weeks ago. The others who’d fought Davros had all left for their homes and families. Sarah Jane had her son. Mickey and Martha were, last she’d heard, helping out at Torchwood while Jack was away. They’d had just enough time to drop her mum back in the other universe to be with their family there… and that’s when it had all begun to go wrong.

The Doctor had meant to leave Rose there too, along with his half-human twin. He and Donna had been in the midst of trying to convince her and Jack that it was for the best when Donna had first shown signs of being ill. And while the Doctor was distracted with her, his twin had also collapsed.

The metacrisis had been unstable in both directions, and neither one of them could survive as they were. To Rose’s horror, the only solution had been to wipe the Time Lord from both their minds. Essentially it would erase their personalities, in Donna’s case returning her to the woman she’d been before meeting the Doctor. Despite Donna’s heartbreaking protests, that was exactly what the Doctor had done. Rose had seen how devastated it left him, and understood that he hadn’t really had a choice.

But the human Doctor, supported between Rose and Jack as he looked on with his horror written plainly across his face, had calmly and steadfastly refused the treatment. In his case, the memory wipe would have left him a blank slate. Claiming that he would rather die, he had fought off the Doctor’s mental touch with all of his remaining energy.

In the end, unwilling to actually kill him and unable to do much else, the Doctor had instead literally dragged him into the TARDIS and into a stasis pod in the infirmary. He was still there, and it seemed likely to Rose that he would be there indefinitely. She knew there was nothing she could do for him and doubted that there was really anything the Doctor could do, either. If there had been, he would certainly at least have done it for Donna right there on the beach.

Rose had said yet another potentially permanent goodbye to her mother on that beach in Norway, a fact which she wasn’t sure had really sunk in yet, and then they’d left to return Donna to her family. They’d cut it close, nearly getting stuck in the alternate universe as the walls closed yet again.

And then she and Jack had spent one nerve-wracking afternoon convincing the Doctor that they were not about to let him go off on his own. It hadn’t been an easy battle, but eventually they’d won just by out-stubborning the Time Lord. Clearly emotionally exhausted from the events of the previous day, he’d eventually just told them to do as they pleased and disappeared into the depths of the TARDIS interior. They’d been living together in relative harmony for the two weeks since, finding an easy balance between the close bond they’d once had and the ways in which they’d each changed.

Rose’s attention snapped back to the present as the TARDIS landed with her usual graceful clatter. She saw the worried look that Jack was giving her, but decided to brush it off in the hopes of retaining the air of excitement about their trip.

“Are we there?” Rose asked the Doctor.

He was still standing at the console, but was frowning down at the monitor.

Rose’s heart skipped a beat. Had he noticed her withdrawing from them? Did she ruin his rare cheerful mood with her brooding?

No, he was still fiddling with the controls and he looked more consternated than anything else.

“What is it?” she asked, following Jack away from the railing and over to the Doctor’s side.

“Strange,” he muttered. “We’re there, but we aren’t then.”

“Right place, wrong time?” Jack surmised.

The Doctor nodded.

“So when are we?” Rose asked, wishing for the thousandth time that she could make heads or tails of the alien readouts on the console monitor. It was something she had promised herself she would start learning before she’d first been separated from the Doctor. It was time to start making good on that promise.

“A few tens of thousands of years too early for a classic Storytelling,” the Doctor replied, one finger tapping on a gauge. “I’d say we could try again, but I’ve found that when the TARDIS does this she usually has a reason.”

This pronouncement worried Rose a little, but only a little. While the Doctor had never before admitted to the TARDIS’s willful navigation changes, Rose had long since noticed the pattern. Almost every time they wound up in an unexpected time or place it was because something was going wrong that they could help to fix.

“Are you sure the calibrations aren’t just off?” Jack wondered.

The TARDIS made a grinding noise and flickered her lights as if in protest.

“Positive,” the Doctor chuckled. “Just fixed them, remember?”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, petting the console. “Sorry, Beautiful. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

“You talking to the TARDIS, or the Doctor?” Rose asked him, amused.

Jack just grinned and continued petting the console.

The Doctor ignored them both with infinite patience.

“We’d best go see why she brought us here,” he told them, heading towards the strut where they usually tossed their coats. “If she’s sensed something wrong in this time, we need to find out what it is.”

Rose and Jack followed him. As they reached the coats, Jack stopped to grab his.

“Nidus is a pretty cold world,” he told Rose. “Coats are probably a good idea.”

Nodding thanks for the warning, Rose reached for her own coat. It was a green waist-length jacket that she’d found in the wardrobe room two weeks ago. She’d gone there looking for something to wear after finding herself stuck in a universe where she had no clothes of her own, and been captivated by the sheer number of useful pockets to be found in the warm garment.

All three of them coated and ready, they congregated at the door.

“Ready?” the Doctor asked, an adventuresome gleam in his eyes.

“Lead on!” Jack replied happily.

“What he said,” Rose added, grinning. They were about to see a new planet, their first back together as a team!

The Doctor pushed open the door, and they stepped out onto a new world. It felt just as exhilarating as it always had, and Rose found herself bouncing lightly as if testing the consistency of the ground beneath her feet.

Her first impression was of brown. The dirt, the grass, the leaves on the trees she could see in the near distance, and even the sky itself were all varying shades of brown. At first look it seemed that everything was dead, since brown foliage had that connotation in her mind. But as she took a closer look, she could tell that the grass and the leaves were flourishing… and they just happened to be brown.

Jack had been right about it being cold. A brisk wind whipped playfully past them, blowing through their hair and making Jack and the Doctor’s coattails flap around their legs. It brought with it a strange scent, a combination of sulfur and stale air, which Rose attributed to the alien nature of the atmosphere. It wasn’t the most pleasant of aromas, but it wasn’t so strong that she couldn’t get used to it.

Rose threaded one arm each through one of the Doctor’s and one of Jack’s, sandwiching herself comfortably between them.

“Well, where to, then?” she asked. “It doesn’t look like there’s much around here.”

“Maybe the Grex are in the forest?” Jack mused. “They are avian.”

“And marsupial,” the Doctor added. “Either one wouldn’t been out of place in a forest. But in this time period they are mostly bipedal and should be in a few small settlements, just getting the hang of agriculture.”

“No signs of that here, though,” Rose pointed out.

The Doctor shrugged, and started to say, “I suppose…”

Just then, a voice called out curiously from behind the TARDIS.

“Who are you? And what are you doing out here?”

Bemused, the Doctor noticeably changed what he was about to say and instead continued, “… we really ought to learn to look behind the TARDIS, too.”

Sharing sheepish grins, the trio had to laugh at their own folly. Rose let go of their arms so the three of them could turn and step around the TARDIS.

The sight on the other side of the time ship was breathtaking, and breathtakingly different.

A large mountain loomed on the other side of the valley in the middle of which they had apparently parked. What looked to be a large settlement sat nestled at its base. The mountain, too, was brown, and its flat peak was emitting an ominous column of brown smoke.

“Is that a…?” Rose breathed.

“It is,” the Doctor confirmed, an odd grim note in his voice. “It’s a volcano.”

Rose looked at him sharply. She was fascinated by the idea of seeing a volcano, if a little nervous. Why did he sound like it was something horrible? People lived happily near active volcanoes on Earth all the time. She could only assume that the Doctor knew something she didn’t.

“I said, who are you?” the voice repeated itself, this time sharply.

Rose’s attention snapped to the speaker, only to find that Jack had made his predictable advances while she was busy staring in awe at the mountain.

“Friendly travelers, that’s all,” Jack replied, holding a hand out in greeting, seemingly unaware of the fact that he was talking to a man who had a pair of wings.

Rose tried not to stare impolitely, but found it difficult. The man, like his native surroundings, was largely colored in varying shades of brown. He looked essentially humanoid, bipedal as the Doctor had suggested, and having the usual assortment of limbs and facial features. But folded up against his shoulders and back were what was obviously a good-sized pair of wings.

It was impossible for Rose to tell if he was normally capable of flight, but it was easy enough to see that he currently was not. Both of his wings were wrapped in large bandages.

Unimpressed by Jack’s overtures, the man crossed his arms across his chest. He was shirtless, sporting instead a light coat of brown fur that went up to his neckline, though he wore what looked like a warm pair of trousers and boots. They, too, of course, were brown.

Rose was beginning to see a pattern.

“I can tell that you’re travelers, though there hasn’t been anyone from outside the village in years. And I don’t understand how you made that blue box of yours appear like that,” he said, sounding ever so slightly nervous. “But it doesn’t matter right now. Castus said to gather everyone back in the village and I suppose that includes you three… whoever you are.”

“Splendid! We’d love to see the village,” the Doctor replied genially. “My name’s the Doctor. This is Rose, and that’s Jack.”

“I’m Ales. Pleased to meet you,” the man replied. “Now, please, back into the village.”

“Lead on, Ales!” the Doctor said cheerfully.

With one last suspicious glance at the TARDIS, Ales turned and strode off across the valley towards the settlement at the base of the mountain. He walked at a brisk pace, clearly hurrying home now that his duty as a messenger had been carried out.

The Doctor let him pull ahead before starting to follow, allowing the TARDIS crew some privacy.

“Something very wrong is going on here,” he said quietly when they were out of earshot.

“Yeah, I noticed,” Jack replied. “What’s with all the brown?”

“That’s not natural, then?” Rose had to ask. Sometimes it frustrated her that she had so much less general knowledge about the universe than Jack. But now that they were traveling together again, she could comfort herself with the thought that he and the Doctor would both be doing their best to help her catch up. She planned to be an avid student and enjoy every moment of her education.

“No, the color scheme should be more like Earth except with a little more blue and a little less green. And the Grex are supposed to have red feathers,” Jack explained. “What do you think is going on, Doc?”

“It’s the mountain,” the Doctor replied darkly. “I can’t be sure, of course, until I get closer and run some scans. But I can smell from here that the volcano is putting out at least one type of poisonous gas.”

“How poisonous?” Rose asked, worried both about the people who apparently lived so close to the volcano and about themselves. Even if Jack was immortal, something else she was still having trouble wrapping her brain around, poisonous gas did not sound like something to trifle with.

“Probably enough that I wouldn’t recommend living here,” Jack said. “If that’s what’s turned everything here brown, even the Grex, it’s got to be potent stuff.”

“I’ll know more when I can run some scans,” the Doctor repeated. “But Ales said that there hasn’t been anyone outside the settlement in years. If all the Grex are here, and have been for years, then they’ve all been exposed to the poison.”

“Why are they still here if it’s poison? Wouldn’t they be sick?” Rose asked.

The Doctor shook his head. “Not necessarily. It depends on how concentrated the gas is, and how active the volcano has been. Judging by its looks, it’s certainly active now.”

Rose saw him give the mountain another dark look, and again wondered what he wasn’t telling them.

“If this is the main population and we’re talking about poison… are the Grex in danger of extinction at this point in time? Is that why the TARDIS brought us here?” Jack asked.

The Doctor shrugged, but didn’t reply.

“Well, the least we can do is meet them and run your scans, Doctor,” Rose pointed out. “Maybe there’s another explanation.”

“Maybe,” the Doctor allowed, though he didn’t sound like he really believed it.

They had almost reached the sprawling settlement. It looked less like a village and more like a refugee camp the size of a small city. Rose estimated that around a few thousand Grex were living there. Those that she could see seemed to be dressed similarly to Ales, right down to the bandages on many of their wings.

She also saw many who were entirely missing one or both wings, left only with carefully bandaged stumps on their shoulders. It at least explained why Ales didn’t seem concerned that three wingless people had suddenly appeared. Wingless people apparently weren’t that unheard of.

Several of the Grex Rose could see had also suffered burns and other injuries. There was hardly one that looked whole and unscathed. Her heart ached for the sheer amount of suffering these people had so obviously endured.

The village itself looked as injured as its inhabitants. It didn’t look haphazardly constructed, but rather like it had once been a much more impressive city that had since severely declined, or perhaps been thoroughly bombed. Based on the damage evident to many of the remaining buildings and tents, Rose guessed that the volcano was more active than it looked. Every part of the settlement she could see carried obvious signs of terrific destruction. The mountain had probably spewed rock and ash over the village repeatedly for the last several years.

What she couldn’t understand was why the Grex were still living here, and had apparently all congregated here! Especially if the mountain was also spewing poisonous gas as the Doctor suspected.

Ales was waiting for them at the edge of the village when they finally caught up to him again. He looked less nervous now that he was back on his home territory and away from any and all mysterious blue boxes.

“Castus wants everyone to meet in the village square. He’s going to speak to us at noon,” Ales explained.

“Will you show us the way?” the Doctor asked. “Noon is only a few minutes away and we don’t want to get lost and be late.”

Ales looked uncomfortable again, as if he’d really hoped to end his association with these three newcomers as soon as possible.

“I suppose you can follow me,” he replied reluctantly. “I’m heading there myself, anyway.”

“Good man,” the Doctor said cheerfully. “Now, who is this Castus fellow?”

Ales started walking further into the settlement, as if he wasn’t planning on answering the Doctor’s question. But the Doctor easily kept pace with him, clearly unwilling to leave him alone until he’d had his answer.

Rose and Jack brought up the rear, close enough to hear the conversation if not participate, as throngs of Grex closed in around them. The entire populace seemed to be heading in the same direction, towards the middle of the village. Rose felt Jack’s hand bump against hers, and she slipped her hand into his in reply. They hurried to keep up with Ales and the Doctor.

“Castus is the Sacerdos, the High Priest. He is the leader of the Grex who have made the holy pilgrimage and now live here,” Ales explained hastily as he walked.

“Brilliant! Some nice old-time religion, just what we three weary travelers need,” the Doctor replied, still in that excessively cheerful voice that only he could so convincingly manage. “Do you know what he wants to talk to everyone about?”

“I am his First Acolyte,” Ales admitted. “But he did not tell me why he has called a meeting today. Perhaps it is because the Mountain has been so quiet this morning.”

“That’s different, is it? The mountain being quiet?” the Doctor asked.

Rose could see Ales turn his head towards the Doctor to give the Time Lord an incredulous look.

“You must be from far away, indeed. But even you must know about the Mountain,” Ales said. “Else how would you have known to come here?”

“We’re sort of… hermits,” the Doctor replied, sounding a bit sheepish. Rose watched his hand fly up to rub the back of his neck, an adorable mannerism she remembered fondly from other times he’d been caught out in a lie. Some things never changed.

Jack gave a snort at the Doctor’s hermit explanation, and had an indulgently amused look on his face when Rose turned to glance at him. He shook his head, and she got the message that he’d tell her what was so funny later.

“We don’t get out much,” the Doctor was continuing. “Except for conventions, you see. Hermits United.”

This time Rose saw him turn to glance back at Jack, and she watched the two of them share lopsided grins. Some private joke from some adventure they’d had while she was in the other universe, she assumed. She didn’t begrudge them that. Rather, she was glad to know that they had shared some pleasant memories.

“Whatever,” Ales replied brusquely. “I’m sure you’ll learn everything you need to know quickly. We’re at the square. I have to go, now.”

He disappeared off into the crowd before any of them could say anything else.

“He’s a friendly sort,” Rose observed sarcastically. She reached her free hand out to grab one of the Doctor’s before they wound up separated in the crowd.

Their fingers intertwined, fitting together naturally. Standing there in an alien crowd on a troubled alien world holding hands with the Doctor and Jack, Rose suddenly thought that perhaps she’d finally found a little slice of heaven. She wiggled her fingers in between the Doctor’s and grinned up at him.

He grinned back, squeezing her hand in reply. But his mind was clearly still on the Grex’s plight and her comment about their new friend, Ales, since what he said was, “I don’t know, I rather like him.”

“Well, he admitted to being the head honcho’s number one man,” Jack pointed out. “He’s got responsibilities. More important things to think about. No wonder he was a bit leery of riffraff like us.”

“Riffraff?” the Doctor repeated the word, looking across Rose to give Jack an affronted glare. “Riffraff?”

“Well, look at them, and look at us,” Jack pointed out. “We don’t exactly fit in.”

“Well, we don’t,” Rose told him. “But the Doctor does.”

She nodded at the Time Lord.

“He’s all sort of… brown. Like them.”

“You’re right,” Jack agreed. “It is a good look for him, though I wonder what he’d look like with wings?”

“If we’re done discussing my fashion sense, it looks like someone is about to start talking,” the Doctor replied, still sounding the affronted high-and-mighty Time Lord despite a small smile. He gestured to a raised platform in the center of the square.

Atop the platform stood an older man, a Grex who still had both wings but whose fur seemed to be greying. One of his arms was in a sling. Even he had not escaped injury during whatever events had befallen the village.

“I am Castus, the Sacerdos of the Grex! I speak to the devout gathered here, the pouchlings of Nidus herself, with the authority of the ancestors!” cried the man on the platform.

“We hear and we believe,” echoed the crowd around them.

Rose frowned. That did not sound very much like the ritual response of a society based on the subjective nature of truth. She wasn’t surprised to see the Doctor frowning as well when she glanced at him to see his reaction.

“I bring news of the guardian spirits of Mons Vitae!” Castus proclaimed.

The Doctor snorted, causing Rose to glance over at him again.

“Mons Vitae means ‘Mountain of Life’… just a bit ironic,” the Doctor whispered.

“I’ll say,” Jack agreed on her other side.

“Grex have lived here at the base of the Great Mountain of Life for many generations!” Castus continued. “Our ancestors gained great favor in the eyes of the spirits, and their village grew mighty. But in recent years the Mountain has grown angry, the spirits dissatisfied. We, the faithful, have congregated here to show our reverence to the spirits as our ancestors taught us!”

“So that’s why they all stay here!” Jack breathed. “Religion!”

“Some nice old-time religion,” the Doctor said, repeating his previous words with a somewhat darker tone.

“But the spirits of the Mountain have continued to show us their anger!” Castus proclaimed. “We have not been pure enough! We have not brought ourselves close enough to the spirits! I have meditated long on our failures, and when I awoke from my meditations this dawn the spirits had at long last spoken to me!”

The crowd gasped at this, and seemed to surge closer to the platform where Castus stood. Rose felt herself pulled along as Jack and the Doctor were jostled by Grex on either side.

“I resolved in that moment to speak to you all this noon, to tell you all what the spirits had revealed to me and to act upon their commands. And behold! The spirits of Mons Vitae have been silent today! Our obedience appeases them!” Castus cried, his hands stretched out as if in supplication to the smoldering mountain.

“We hear and we obey!” the crowd replied in a ragged shout of religious fervor.

“I have been blessed with the knowledge that will bring our salvation!” Castus continued, his voice rising. “We must leave this village, this place tainted with our failures!”

“Well, that’s a good idea, at least,” Rose commented.

“Maybe,” the Doctor replied, a cautious note in his voice. “Maybe not. He still thinks the mountain is a font of life.”

“We must all leave this place, and make new lives closer to the spirits! We must build a new village closer to Mons Vitae!” Castus finally revealed his plan for salvation, in the same breath confirming what Rose now understood were the Doctor’s worst fears.

The crowd seemed pleased with this pronouncement. Rose supposed it was at least something proactive that they could do to try to control their fate, even if she knew that it was ultimately misguided.

“He’s got it all wrong!” the Doctor whispered angrily. Then, louder, he repeated, “He’s got it all wrong, and they’re listening to him!”

Rose felt the Doctor’s fingers slip away from hers, and before she could reach out for him he was shouldering his way forward through the crowd.

“Doctor!” Jack hissed, ineffectively, before attempting to follow. He kept his grip on Rose’s hand and she found herself dragged along behind him.

The Doctor made much quicker progress than they did, and managed to reach the platform long before they had made it very far into the crowd. Rose had lost sight of his brown shape in the multitude of other brown shapes arrayed around them, but saw him again just as he made an athletic leap up onto the platform beside Castus. His coat, somehow, swirled around him dashingly rather than tangling up in his legs and tripping him.

Jack gave up trying to push ahead and so they stood there, as breathless as the surprised Grex standing around them, waiting to see what would happen.

“Who are you!?” Castus demanded.

“I’m the Doctor! Hello!” the Doctor replied, waving at the crowd.

“What are you doing?” was Castus’s predictable next question.

The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short. Rose tried to see what had caught his attention, and caught a glimpse of Ales and another Grex climbing onto the platform on Castus’s other side. The other was wearing what looked almost like a dress. A woman?

The Doctor seemed to wave a greeting at Ales and his mysterious companion, and then turned back to Castus.

“I’m a hermit. Just ask your acolyte there, he met me out in the valley and led me back here. I’m a… a holy hermit. A prophet! And I’m here to tell you that you have all been deceived by evil spirits!” the Doctor cried, addressing the crowd as well as Castus.

“How dare you speak such sacrilege!” Castus cried in outrage. “You are a stranger with no wings, you are no holy man!”

“Oi! That’s rude,” the Doctor pointed out. “My wings aren’t important. My message is! Mons Vitae has been inhabited by evil spirits who only wish harm upon the Grex. They have tried to trick you into staying here and even moving closer to their poisons!”

“Poisons? Evil spirits? What are you talking about, you fool? You’ll anger the spirits of the Mountain!” Castus protested.

The crowd gasped and shifted again, but this time it was an uglier sound. Rose began to keep a wary eye on those standing near her and took the tiniest step closer to Jack for comfort and safety. She felt Jack squeeze her hand in reply.

“The spirits are already angry, you said so yourself!” the Doctor reminded him. “You must move away from here! Start new lives in a safer place!”

“You fool!” Castus shouted. “We tried to leave! When the Mountain first began to smoke and shake the ground many years ago, many Grex tried to leave! But they, every one of them, grew ill after they ventured too far from the Mountain. Those who refused to return each died from that illness!”

“Oh, no,” Jack whispered.

Rose took her eyes off the action on the platform to spare him a questioning glance.

“It’s the poison. They’ve become addicted to it!” Jack explained.

Suddenly, Rose understood. The Grex who had lived here for so long, which by this point was most of them, had become addicted to the lower levels of the poison that the Mountain had always emitted. But now that it was more active…

“They became ill because they were trying to escape the evil spirits!” the Doctor tried to explain. “There are poisons in the air and water that comes from the mountain. You are all immune to small amounts of it, but it will make you all very ill soon now that the mountain is putting out more of it! Not to mention the danger from the eruptions themselves!”

“You are lying,” Castus asserted. “They became ill when they left the mountain. If you were telling the truth, they would have been fine!”

“It’s because your systems are used to lower levels of the poisons now! You’ll need help to safely leave the area, but I can give you that help. I… I know how to break the hold that the evil spirits have on the Grex! But I can only help you if you’re willing to leave the mountain,” the Doctor pleaded with Castus. “They listen to you, they’ll follow you. Help me save your people!”

“No,” Castus replied. “No, I think it is you who is under the control of evil spirits. The guardian spirits of Mons Vitae have been quiet since I vowed to lead the Grex closer to the Mountain. Your sacrilegious talk will anger them again!

As if choosing that moment specifically to make life difficult for the TARDIS crew, the mountain began to rumble ominously in the distance.

Everyone, from the Doctor and Castus up on the platform to every single member of the crowd standing down in the square, turned to look at the mountain. It was billowing more of the dense, brown smoke.

There was another rumble, and that seemed to break the shocked calm that had gripped everyone.

Chaos broke out. The crowd seemed to surge in multiple directions at once, the very air laced with panic.

Rose could still hear Castus berating the Doctor even though she could no longer see the platform.

“Look what you have done! Look what you have brought upon us! This is your doing!”

She didn’t hear the Doctor’s reply, if he had even given one. There were too many screams and shouts of fear assaulting her ears for her to hear anything else clearly.

She felt Jack trying to pull her closer to the platform again, but they lost their grip on each other as the crowd churned around them. She lost sight of him quickly, but was too busy trying to stay on her feet and make her way towards the Doctor to look for him. She knew he’d be doing the same.

As the panicked crowd began to disperse outwards in all directions, flowing out of the square and back into the rest of the village, the ferocity of the mountain’s rumbles increased.

The ground shook violently beneath her, and Rose barely kept her footing. Hearing an earth-shattering boom and more panicked screams, she stopped trying to run against the current of the crowd and turned to look at the volcano.

It was spewing flaming rocks, many of which seemed to be falling straight towards the village.


tbc…

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Chapter 2: Part Two - Go Tell It On The Mountain

Part Two — Go Tell It On The Mountain

Everywhere Rose looked, there was smoke and debris. The burnt-out remains of the settlement looked exactly like the devastated ruins she had seen in war photos from her own time, but no photograph could have prepared her to stand in the midst of such destruction.

There were people–strange, part-marsupial and part-avian aliens, but still people–running frantically about in every direction, seemingly at random. Most of the adults had at least one injury, and many had burnt, scarred, or entirely missing wings. Several of them carried pouchlings, some barely hatched, some with injuries as devastating as those of the adults.

Standing motionless for a moment amidst the chaos swirling around her, Rose wondered where Jack and the Doctor had wound up and if they were all right.

After being separated from Jack in the square in the initial stages of the eruption, Rose had found herself carried along in a stream of panicked Grex fleeing for the edges of the village. She had no idea what had become of either Jack or the Doctor since then.

The mountain had sporadically bombarded the village with hot ash and rock for at least half an hour, raining down heavy missiles that caused damage and spread flames wherever they landed. Seeing one determined group of Grex trying to form a bucket brigade to control the fires, Rose had elbowed her way into a place on the line to help.

It was while passing along buckets on the line that the Grex next to her had saved her life. He’d suddenly dropped his bucket and knocked her to the ground, landing on top of her with his wings outspread around her, covering her head and shoulders completely. When he stood and helped her to her feet, Rose saw that he’d pushed her out of the path of a large piece of flaming debris.

She’d thanked him, trying to calm her breathing. He’d only nodded in reply and passed her the next bucket. After the eruption seemed to calm and the fires seemed to all be out, the bucket brigade had disbanded. Her savior disappeared off into another part of the village before she could even ask him his name.

Rose had been wandering the village since then, generally heading back towards the square, keeping an eye out for her friends and for anything she could do to help the Grex. For all the frantic activity amidst the ruins of the settlement, there was such a heavy feeling of resigned defeat that she could almost taste it on the air as she looked around.

Or maybe that was just the volcanic ash.

Standing still for a moment when she reached the edge of the square, she watched as the Grex began preparing to pack up their lives and move their settlement closer to the very volcano that seemed to be doing its best to kill them.

She looked around for Jack and the Doctor again. They had to do something to save these people!

“Mater?” a small voice suddenly cried somewhere near Rose’s feet. “Mater!”

She paused in her frantic search of the disorganized crowd to look down at the source of the tiny cry. A pouchling barely the size of a human toddler had found his way out into the busy main causeway near the edge of the square and was in danger of being trampled underfoot.

Rose quickly bent over and scooped him up, cradling his surprisingly light form in her arms as she straightened again. She kept him securely tucked against her shoulder as she ducked under the relative safety of one of the few tents that had remained standing.

“Mater!” he cried again, clutching his tiny arms around her neck. His wings, not yet fully developed, rested motionless beneath her hand. The left wing was swathed in a rough bandage.

She put him down on his feet once they were within the dark interior of the tent, but then knelt beside him when he reached both arms up to tug at the hem of her green coat. He latched on to her again, cuddling against her.

“Hi,” she said softly to him. “I’m Rose. What’s your name?”

“Spero,” he replied, sniffling slightly. “Where’s Mater?”

Before Rose could even begin to think of how to reply, Jack distracted her by making a dramatic entrance. He dashed into the tent, everything from his boots to his hair covered in a fine layer of brown ash. He was panting breathlessly and looking around wildly.

His eyes quickly came to rest on Rose, and he breathed a sigh of relief and seemed to calm slightly.

“There you are! Thank God you’re all right,” he said.

“It’s good to see you, too, Jack,” she replied, feeling no small amount of relief, herself. “Have you seen the Doctor?”

Jack shook his head. “Not since we got separated in the square. I was hoping you’d have found him.”

“Not yet,” Rose replied. “Found someone else, though.”

She looked down at Spero, who was still clinging to her and now seemed to be watching Jack warily.

Jack knelt beside her on the floor, meeting Spero’s gaze solemnly.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Jack. I’m a friend of Rose’s.”

Spero seemed to consider this, and then judge Jack trustworthy by some criteria known only to him.

“I’m Spero,” he replied. “Where’s Mater?”

“Did you get separated from your Mum when the… when the mountain spirits got angry?” Rose asked him.

Spero nodded.

“She was up with Uncle Castus. When everyone started running, I couldn’t find her, or Uncle Castus, or Uncle Ales. I’m supposed to stay with them,” he explained.

Rose shared a look of sudden understanding with Jack. This, at least, was good news. If they could find Castus, Ales, or, Rose suspected, the woman she’d seen with them on the platform, they would have found Spero’s family. And, in all likelihood, the Doctor.

“All right, tell you what, Sport,” Jack said. “You stick with us, and we’ll find your Mater and your Uncles.”

Spero seemed to take Jack at his word, and proceeded to let go of Rose only to stick himself to Jack. Jack took this in stride, easily lifting the pouchling in his arms when he rose to his feet.

Rose stood to join them. “Shall we head back to the platform, or ask around here for Castus and Ales?”

“Both, I think,” Jack replied. “We can ask around in the square. Everyone seems to be busy, but someone’s bound to know where the Sacerdos is, at least.”

That decided, they left the confines of the tent and reemerged in the busy causeway. Some of the Grex rushing this way and that paused to stare at the unlikely trio. Rose supposed they had a right to stare. Two strangers in oddly colored clothing carrying a pouchling around in the aftermath of an eruption… they were certainly an odd sight.

“Excuse me, have you see Castus?” she asked one woman who seemed to pay more attention to them than the others. “Or Ales? We’re trying to get Spero here back to his family.”

“I don’t know where the acolytes are,” the woman replied. “But the Sacerdos at least is probably meditating in the Shrine, trying to appease the Mountain spirits. You don’t look familiar… are you with that stranger who angered the spirits?”

Despite her helpful answer, the woman was clearly not a fan. Rose thanked her but didn’t admit to knowing the Doctor. The woman lost her interest in them when she was distracted by another Grex carrying a pack basket and asking her which blankets to bring along.

Leaving her arguing with the other man, Rose and Jack made their escape.

“Okay, which way to the Shrine, Spero?” Jack asked his passenger.

Spero looked around, clearly considering the layout of his home from the new vantage point which Jack’s height afforded him.

“It’s that way,” he finally replied, pointing across the square.

They set off, their way mostly clear since most of the Grex were busy elsewhere in the village. The square was nearly empty now.

Rose watched a couple of older pouchlings chase each other across her path, unsurprised when an adult voice called after them in exasperation. Children were children, winged or otherwise, and that made Rose smile.

But watching the short interaction also made her think. These people clearly cared greatly about their young and their families. How had Spero wound up alone even before the eruption? Didn’t his mother care?

“Spero,” she asked him. “Did your Mum leave you with someone when she went up to Uncle Castus?”

Spero gave her a guilty look, which eloquently answered Rose’s question.

“Did you run away?” Jack guessed.

“Maybe,” Spero replied reluctantly. “Mater told her friend to watch me. But I don’t like her! She smells funny.”

Jack was clearly trying to hide a smile and sound stern as he said, “You’ll have to apologize to her next time you see her. It wasn’t nice to run away.”

“I know,” Spero admitted in a small voice. “I didn’t mean to get lost.”

“It’s okay, Spero,” Rose replied. “We’ll find your family.”

“Look,” Jack said then. “Isn’t that your Uncle Ales?”

And, in fact, there was Ales, standing just outside one of the more solid looking buildings near the other end of the square. He noticed them a moment later, his eyes widening in surprise and relief.

“Spero! Where have you been?” he cried, rushing forward to accept Spero from Jack.

Spero wrapped his small arms around his uncle’s neck and replied, “I’m okay, Uncle Ales. I was lost, but Rose and Jack found me.”

Ales gave Rose a suspicious look.

“I found him in the street on the other side of the square,” Rose told him.

“He said you were his uncle,” Jack added.

“I am,” Ales said, hugging Spero tighter. “His mother is my younger sister, Avia.”

“Where’s Mater?” Spero asked him.

“I don’t know, Spero,” Ales admitted. “Nobody has seen her since the spirits were angered.”

With this pronouncement he glared at Rose and Jack again, as if this were their fault.

“No one has seen your friend, the Doctor, either,” he added, his voice implying that his sister’s disappearance was clearly thus the Doctor’s fault, as well.

Rose was about to reply to these accusations when a familiar voice called out from inside the nearby building.

“Ales!” It was Castus, and he sounded stressed. “Ales, have you heard the reports yet?”

“Come on, Spero,” Ales said, turning to enter the building.

Spero gave Rose a helpless look over his uncle’s shoulder before they disappeared inside.

“Well, he didn’t say not to follow him in,” Jack pointed out.

“No, he didn’t!” Rose agreed.

They shared grim smiles, and followed Ales into the building.

The interior was dark and sparsely decorated except for a sprawling mural depicting Mons Vitae that took up an entire wall. Small pots of incense and what looked to be offerings of unsurprisingly brown flowers lined the base of the wall with the mural. There were no windows. There was however a door on the opposite wall, probably leading to the rest of the small building.

This, apparently, was the Shrine.

Seated around the room on floor pallets were three people Rose recognized, and four that she didn’t. The only one who looked happy to see her and Jack was Spero, who was sitting on Ales’s lap.

Ales was seated next to Castus, who glared stonily across the room at them.

“You must be the other strangers Ales mentioned. Why are you still here? Haven’t you done enough?” he accused them. “Ales, tell them what you just told us.”

“I was outside to get the casualty and damage reports,” Ales said. “There was yet more damage to several of the remaining buildings, and we lost another cache of food stores. It burned. And over two hundred people were injured. At least eleven have died, including two pouchlings!”

“This is what your blasphemy has brought upon us!” Castus snarled. “This sacrilegious Doctor of yours has apparently even led one of my acolytes astray on a fool’s mission!”

At this revelation, Spero wiggled himself free of Ales’s grip and scampered over to Castus. “Uncle Castus! Where’s Mater!” he insisted, sounding as distressed as he looked.

Castus’s expression softened as he accepted Spero onto his lap. Looking down at him, he replied, “I don’t know, pouchling. But I fear that she’s run off with this Doctor. They’ve both disappeared.”

Spero turned to look up at Rose and Jack, and Rose felt her heart contract at the sheer desperation on his small face.

“Did your friend disappear Mater?” he asked them.

“I don’t think he ‘disappeared’ her, Spero,” Jack replied.

“He might have gone somewhere with her, though, to help her,” Rose added. “He does that. Helps people.”

She addressed the last to Castus, who was glowering again.

“The Grex do not need help such as he can give us,” the priest insisted. “We know what we must do. No mysterious ‘proof’ to be found on the Mountain will change that.”

“Is that where they went?” Rose asked, reading between the lines of what Castus had said. “Did Avia go up the mountain with the Doctor to find proof of what he told you in the square?”

“There is no proof!” Castus shouted, startling Spero off his lap. Sparing an apologetic glance for the pouchling, he continued in a normal tone of voice, “My niece has always had many unconventional ideas. I suspect she was too easily swayed by your friend’s seductive untruths, and I fear for her.”

Spero had allowed Ales to pick him up again, and was now huddled miserably in his uncle’s lap. He gave Rose another desperate look, as if he was still silently pleading with her to find his mother.

“We don’t think they are untruths,” Rose said quietly. “We truly believe you are all in danger from the poisonous gasses in the mountain, and we only want to help.”

“I do not want to hear any more of this,” Castus replied firmly. “We neither want nor need your help. Please leave.”

“All right,” Jack agreed, a belligerent edge in his voice. “We’ll leave. But we’ll be going up the mountain to look for our friend and Spero’s Mater.”

Castus sighed, suddenly looking tired.

“I should probably stop you,” he said, “if only to keep you from angering the spirits any further. But part of me only wishes for the safe return of my niece, and we will be traveling up the mountain ourselves soon enough. You may go, but remember this: your blasphemy has already hurt many of us. If I find that you have made things any worse, I will do what I must to protect my people.”

Rose quickly glanced at Jack, seeing resolve in his eyes to match her own.

“We understand,” she told Castus.

Exchanging a round of grave nods with the assembled Grex, Rose and Jack turned to leave the Shrine.

Just before she stepped through the doorway, Rose turned back to try to catch one last glimpse of Spero.

He was watching her, a look of trusting hope on his face. Rose tried put as much reassurance as she could into her own replying look before stepping out of sight.

Once outside, she spared a moment to throw her arms around Jack and hold on tightly.

“Didn’t get a chance to do this before,” she explained. “I was worried when I couldn’t find you.”

“Me, too, Rosie,” he replied, hugging her back. “But you know I’m always fine. I’m indestructible.”

She pulled back from him slightly to reply, “Yeah, I know about that, not that I really understand it. But it doesn’t mean I’m not still gonna worry when you’re in trouble.”

He looked evasive, perhaps uncomfortable about her reminding him that she didn’t understand his immortality. He’d been extraordinarily reluctant to discuss such a hugely important aspect of his life during the past two weeks, which had only left her more curious.

Oddly, the Doctor had been just as reluctant to speak of it. There was clearly something important going on which they felt the need to keep secret from her, and Rose was determined to get to the bottom of it in due time. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust them, just that she knew they were uncomfortable about it and hoped to ease their minds somehow once she understood the problem.

“Thanks,” Jack replied, apparently deciding to ignore her curiosity. “I worry about you, too.”

She silently squeezed him in reply, hoping that he was taking as much comfort from the hug as she was. She would leave her mission to understand his immortality for another day. They had other priorities at the moment.

They separated with a mutual sigh a short while later.

“So how are we going to do this?” she asked him then. “We don’t know which way they went, and that mountain isn’t exactly small. Can you scan for them?”

Jack was already opening the leather casing of the computer he always kept strapped to his wrist.

“I can track Mr. Spock’s biosignature,” he told her with a grin.

“Can you really do that?” came a voice from behind them.

They whirled to look. It was Ales, standing just beside the open doorway to the Shrine.

“Can you.. track them somehow? Find your friend and my sister?” he asked.

“We can,” Jack replied. “Easily.”

Ales shook his head. “I don’t understand. But Castus has given me permission to go with you as a guide. I think I may know where my sister has gone.”

“We’d appreciate your help,” Rose told him before Jack could respond in the negative as his facial expression caused her to believe he would. He grumbled under his breath instead.

“We should leave as soon as possible,” Ales replied, ignoring Jack. “If she’s going where I think she must be, she’s already halfway there. It must be almost an hour since I last saw her in the square.”

“Fine with me,” Jack agreed, glancing at his wrist computer again. “I’ll follow you as long as your directions agree with mine.”

Ales looked ready to argue, and Rose tried to defuse the situation.

“We want to help find Avia, too, Ales. We promised Spero. But we need to find our friend, and Jack’s computer is the best way for us to do that,” she tried to explain.

“I don’t know what a ‘computer’ is or how you made that box of yours appear, or even who you really are. You don’t even look much like Grex. But I don’t care. I just want to find my sister!” Ales said impatiently.

“We understand,” Rose replied sympathetically. “We’re anxious, too.”

“So let’s get going!” Jack interjected brusquely. “Standing around here talking about it isn’t going to find anyone.”

Rose tried to catch Jack’s eye as the trio set off towards the edge of the village nearest to the mountain. He avoided her gaze until she reached out and put a hand on his arm.

The look she saw in his eyes then was three parts determination and one part hidden worry. She tried to tone her own disapproving look down into one of understanding and reassurance.

This protective, single-minded soldier was a side of Jack she was familiar with from their original travels, but he seemed to have gained a harsher disposition since then. She squeezed his arm gently, and was glad to see his expression soften.

“Sorry,” he mumbled quietly as they walked.

“S’okay, I’m worried, too,” she replied, also pitching her voice quietly so Ales wouldn’t hear.

“We’ll find him,” Jack reassured her.

Rose nodded in reply, and dropped her hand from his arm.

“I think she went this way!” Ales called from just ahead of them. He was pointing up a pathway that led out of the settlement, and towards one side of the mountain.

Jack checked his computer, and nodded. “Looks good,” he reported.

“We’ll find them both,” Rose said decisively, a small part of her hoping that saying it was enough to make it so.

They followed Ales out of the village and into the harsh landscape of the mountain’s slope.


The edge of the village, a moment later…

Spero stood on the outskirts of the village, watching as his new friends Rose and Jack made their way up the Mountain.

Uncle Ales was with them, and that was good. He knew the Mountain, and was always telling stories about how he and Mater had explored it when they were little more than pouchlings. That was before the spirits had turned from the Grex, of course.

Spero didn’t really understand the world of the spirits. It was part of his daily life, being the son of one acolyte and the nephew of another, with his great uncle the Sacerdos himself. He knew a lot about the rituals and about meditation, but he wasn’t sure he understood why the Mountain was angry, or what Uncle Castus was planning to do about it.

The Mountain had been angry for as long as he could remember, so he wasn’t even sure if it had something to do with him or with the ancestors, Those-Who-Came-Before. He tried to be good most of the time, anyway, just in case.

But sometimes he did things, like run away from Mater’s funny-smelling friend. He’d done that twice today. He was sorry for the first time, but not for the second. Uncle Ales had gone with Rose and Jack, and Uncle Castus had told him to stay with the funny-smelling lady, who’d wanted him to follow her back to her home. But Spero wanted to help find his Mater.

Spero figured that the Mountain spirits wouldn’t mind him looking for his Mater. One thing Spero knew was that family was important, and the spirits were pleased when families worked together and helped each other.

He’d seen Uncle Ales leading Rose and Jack out of the square when he’d been carried out of the Shrine by the smelly-lady. So he’d insisted that he could walk by himself, and then snuck away from her for the second time that day.

He’d ducked into the crowd and hurried after Uncle Ales and Rose and Jack, trying to keep out from underfoot amongst the busy people. It wasn’t as hard to keep up with them once they reached the outskirts of the village, since there were less people around to get in his way or stop him to ask why he was walking around alone.

It wasn’t hard to hide from those he was following. They weren’t looking behind them at all.

So he followed them all the way to edge of the village, but there he paused as he watched them start up the slope.

Mater had told him never to leave the village alone. It was dangerous, she’d said. He could get lost.

But wasn’t Mater already lost? And he wouldn’t be alone, after all, he’d be following Uncle Ales. And Rose and Jack.

He wasn’t sure why he liked and trusted Rose and Jack so much, he hadn’t even really thought about it. They were just nice. They’d helped him when he was lost and afraid. They were going up the Mountain to look for Mater. He trusted them.

Spero stepped beyond the boundaries of the village without another thought and hurried after the trio ahead of him.


tbc…

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Chapter 3: Part Three - Searching for Hope

Part Three — Searching for Hope

The Doctor was not having a good decade for volcanoes.

Finding out that he was the cause of the eruption that wiped out Pompeii and then nearly being killed in the blast, along with his companion (oh, Donna…) and the entire population of the city, apparently was not enough.

Now there was another mountain with its molten heart set on causing him trouble. And, of course, there was a volcanic cult suicidally bent on moving closer to the mountain instead of politely listening to his advice and thus surviving to grow into the hugely important species they were supposed to be.

Why couldn’t the TARDIS come up with an easy mission for him, just once? Maybe save a two-headed Xoiqish kitten from a Roatian dog-tree? Help a little old Tezh androgyne cross the street on Dool VI?

No, she had to dump him here just in time to be upstaged by a volcano whilst trying to convince the prehistoric Grex to save themselves from their own religious misconceptions.

The Doctor sighed philosophically, trying to ignore Castus’s continued ranting in his general direction. This was one thing he knew for a fact was definitely not, in any conceivable way, his fault.

There was nothing, after all, which he could directly do about the volcano.

Large chunks of nearly-molten rock began to rain down across the village. The Doctor hopped off the platform but remained standing near its edge, keeping a wary eye on the sky, waiting for the panicked crowd to disperse enough to clear a path for him out of the square.

The next time he happened to glance up at the platform, it was unoccupied. Castus had apparently decided he had better things to do than berate the Doctor.

He also kept an eye out for Rose and Jack, hoping that they were as safe as they could be amidst the panic. He expected that they’d be trying to find him, but knowing them they would be distracted by helping any individual Grex they encountered along the way.

He was worried for them, but he also knew they could take care of themselves. They were both competent and experienced.

It was still just the littlest bit odd to think of Rose that way, though. She’d always been competent, but it had been his job to help her start gaining some experience. Wasn’t she still two days out of Henrik’s and charmingly surprised by how alien the aliens were? Or maybe he’d just idolized his memory of her as that wide-eyed innocent after he’d lost her.

She’d been a wide-eyed innocent with a disturbingly large gun when he’d found her again. When she’d found him again.

She’d found him again! That in and of itself was still a bit unbelievable. And wonderful. And unbelievable. He felt like he’d spent the last two weeks blinking at her to see if she was still there.

Which she was, of course. But she was different. Not really bad or… wrong… just different. A little more militaristic and a little less naïve. And that was sort of the point.

Davros’s words, if not Castus’s, were still ringing in his ears.

“But this is the truth, Doctor! You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor, you made this!”

It really was the truth. He’d left his mark on all of them, in one way or another. They’d all changed because of him. Sadly, Davros hadn’t even been wrong about their newfound potential for murder.

Martha had almost destroyed her entire planet with the turn of a key. Though, unlike his oh-so-lucky self, she would not have survived her experience of genocide. Not to mention what the others had been up to with that warp star… dangerous little things, warp stars. They could have done almost as much damage as Martha.

So, yes, he knew what he tended to do to his companions. Had already done to them. Davros was right. He pulled them out of their proper lives, fashioned them into his weapons, and then left them behind when they were broken.

He’d been thinking a lot about it since the mess with Davros. And Donna.

It didn’t seem fair to do that to them just because he was lonely. He didn’t want them to suffer just for being his friends. He cared for them.

Each and every one of them. He… really cared for them. Maybe too much.

He was just pretty sure he didn’t deserve them.

Not that Rose and Jack seemed to be giving him much choice these days. They’d stuck to him like the proverbial glue for the past two weeks. They’d been determined to stick around long enough for things to settle on Earth, and for the Doctor to get the idea that they were not going to let him leave alone.

They’d taken turns staying with him on the TARDIS, complete with facetiously staged changings of the guard. That way each could get things done outside and still be sure that he’d be there when they returned. He’d refused to leave with either of them onboard, so their plan had worked admirably.

Cheeky humans. Sneaky, cheeky humans.

On one hand, he supposed he was grateful. After everything he’d done to both of them, he couldn’t imagine why they insisted on staying. But he was grateful.

On the other hand, he knew it would be better for them if they stayed away. The only question was if he had the courage to do what was right for them.

He suspected that he didn’t, and already mourned how much more he would inevitably hurt them.

So on the one hand, he hoped they would (stay…) rejoin him for the trip he knew he was shortly going to have to take up the Grex’s all-hallowed volcano. And on the other hand, he hoped they would stay (stay away…) relatively safe, in the village, helping the Grex as they could.

He mused idly for a moment about how full his ‘hands’ apparently were, and how someone really ought to invent pockets for that sort of thing. Maybe that would make his life easier.

Then he was accosted by a large, brown blur, barreling into him and spinning him around. He found himself slammed up against the platform face first, a rather unexpected and equally uncomfortable development. Strong hands pinned his arms at his sides.

“Oof!” he said in protest, his hands scrabbling for purchase, searching for any sort of leverage with which to free himself.

“This is all your fault!” cried his attacker. His voice wasn’t familiar, meaning he was one of the nameless thousands of Grex who had stood in that crowd and listened to Castus blame the Doctor for an inconvenient Act of Nature.

The Doctor abruptly gave up struggling in favor of returning his new acquaintance’s unfriendly sentiments verbally.

“Sure, blame me! Of all the things in this misbegotten Universe that one could consider to be in any way my fault, your ruddy volcano is last on the list!”

With one concentrated effort, the Doctor used his relatively unencumbered legs to shove off from the side of the platform. Both he and his attacker tumbled to the ground.

He rolled free and stumbled back onto his feet only to find himself confronted with two more very angry Grex.

“You angered the spirits!” one of the newcomers accused, advancing on him. The other stopped to help the Doctor’s original attacker back to his feet before both of them advanced as well.

The Doctor backed away a few steps. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to talk about this?” he suggested hopefully.

“It was your talking that angered the Mountain!” one of them replied.

“We are being punished because of you!” another added.

They closed in on him. The Doctor backed away another step.

“Look out! It’s coming right for us!” he shouted suddenly, pointing dramatically into the air.

The three Grex in front of him instinctively and fearfully looked up to search the sky for incoming rocks or debris.

The Doctor hastily backed further away, turning to put some distance between him and them with a good run.

In his next step, he nearly fell over the edge of the short ramp leading up onto the platform. He caught himself in time, but the moment was lost and the three Grex were closing in again.

He was pinned in the corner between the platform and the ramp. There wasn’t enough time to jump up. They’d only grab him and pull him back down.

He wondered if they’d fall for the same trick twice, but somehow he didn’t think so.

They looked very, very angry.

This was going to hurt.

“Oi! Leave him alone!”

Only two of the Grex could actually reach him at a time in his corner. Two was enough.

“I said leave him alone!”

Could he stop them without actually damaging them? Or himself? Time to find out…

“Stop! I said stop! You have more important things to be doing right now!”

Suddenly there was only one Grex in front of him, threateningly waving his fists.

“Stop it, I said!”

Then there were none.

“Go see to your families, your homes! Go!”

And then there was a Grex in front of him again, but this one was different. Smaller, dressed differently.

Less violent.

She was waving her happily un-fisted hand in front of his face. “Are you all right?” she asked. It was the woman who’d joined Ales on the platform before the mountain had abruptly ended the village meeting by impolitely erupting.

“Brilliant!” he replied, taking a moment to try knocking some brown dust off his brown coat. He couldn’t really tell if it had worked. “Friends of yours, were they?”

She shook her head. “Not really. They’re troublemakers. But I’m an acolyte, so they listen to me. Usually.”

“Well, thanks,” the Doctor said. “I really didn’t think that was going to end well.”

“It still might not,” she told him seriously. “Were you telling the truth about the Mountain?”

“What, about the poison?” he replied. “Of course I was telling the truth! I don’t go around claiming things like that just for fun, you know.”

“But can you prove it?” she insisted. “The only way to make Castus tell everyone to leave the Mountain is to prove it!”

He nodded. “I know. I’m going to go up the mountain to get samples of the gas and the water. I can prove that they’ll make you sick, and that I can help cure you if you leave this place. I’ll prove it if I have to kidnap Castus to do it!”

“I’m going with you,” she told him firmly. “I know where to find water and air from inside the Mountain. And Castus might listen to me. I’m his niece.”

The Doctor considered her critically. She clearly had a good head on her shoulders and plenty of courage under fire. She was determined, and she claimed to know where to look for what he needed.

But she was young, she had her whole life ahead of her, and the trip would probably be dangerous. In the end, he couldn’t let her risk her life just to help him.

“No,” he said, shaking his head decisively. “It’s too dangerous. I’m going alone.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she replied angrily. “We don’t have time for that kind of lone-hero foolishness. It makes more sense not to go alone if it’s dangerous. And I know where to find the water and air from the Mountain!”

She shocked him by grabbing his arms and proceeding to physically shake him. “I’m going. Are you coming with me, or am I going to have to waste time convincing my brother to join me?” she asked him.

He blinked. When had this become her expedition? “Why do you believe me, anyway?” he asked her. He was startled, and it was the first question that came to his mind.

“I don’t,” she replied honestly. “But what you’ve said seems saner to me than moving closer to this spirits-forsaken mountain. I want to see you try to prove your claims.”

“What’s this, then? An acolyte who doesn’t mindlessly revere the Great Mons Vitae?” the Doctor said brightly, suddenly more interested in her than in convincing her to stay behind. “That’s brilliant! What’s your name?”

“Avia,” she replied. “And ‘the Great Mons Vitae’ killed my husband. I have neither love nor reverence for it any longer, and I refuse to see my pouchling grow up in fear of it.”

As if in response, a large rock thudded into the ground several meters away. The Doctor had been too distracted by his new friend to pay attention to the sky and didn’t notice it until its impact. They were lucky it hadn’t landed any closer, but as it was they were showered with hot ash and dirt.

It was actually surprising that they hadn’t been hit sooner. Telling by the muffled thumps and panicked shouts audible from all direction in the village, the entire settlement was getting quite a pounding.

They both coughed as they breathed dusty air, but other than that Avia barely blinked in reaction. She just ruffled her wings and ran a hand through her short, brown hair. As the Doctor tried to brush ash out of his own hair, he noticed that Avia, unlike most of the Grex he’d seen, was completely uninjured.

And she did know where to look for the samples. She might actually be helpful.

She had a stake in this, as well. It was the fate of her child and her species hanging in the balance.

“All right! You can come with me,” the Doctor acceded, speaking as if it had been Avia making the arguments in her favor aloud instead of himself in his own mind. “My name’s the Doctor. We’re going to make a lovely team, you and I.”

She gave him an odd look.

“I’m still not sure I trust you,” she reminded him. “I don’t know who you are, Doctor, or where you’re from. I’m not even convinced that you’re Grex and not… something else. Spirits only know what, though.”

“Oh, I’m something else, all right,” the Doctor replied cheekily, giving Avia a grin. He liked her. “Are you coming along, then?”

With one last ineffective swipe at the ash covering his shoulders and arms, he set off resolutely towards the mountain. The square was now mostly clear, the Grex having scattered either to flee or to attempt to minimize the damage from the eruption.

He was pleased when Avia reappeared beside him a moment later, hurrying to catch up.

“We’d do better to go that way,” she said then, pointing slightly to the left of their current path.

“You said you know where I can find my samples?” he asked, even as he obligingly adjusted his course. They were now headed out of the village towards a different part of the mountain’s slope.

“My brother and I used to play on the slopes when we were pouchlings, before the mountain turned on us,” Avia explained. “We found a cave, about an hour and a half’s walk from the edge of the village. Inside the cave, we found a hot spring. There was warm air bubbling up through the water, heating it.”

“Water and air from inside the mountain, just as you said. That’s perfect,” he replied, “though it sounds a bit far. I’d be happier to find something closer.”

“There might very well be a closer spring, but not that I know of from my own explorations,” she told him. “We can look as we go.”

They were deep into the settlement now, the square out of sight behind them. All around them, people rushed about carrying buckets of water, moving belongings or supplies, or helping each other. There seemed to be a few people here and there whose sole purpose was to stand lookout, watching the sky and warning their fellows of incoming missiles.

Despite the devastation the mountain was wreaking upon them, the Doctor was at least pleased to see how the Grex pulled together to make the best of their nearly hopeless situation. Here was a glimpse of the Grex as he knew they had the potential to be.

He was still keeping an eye out for Jack or Rose, but saw neither of them before he and Avia reached the boundary of the village. In the full three hundred and sixty degrees of settlement around the square, apparently neither Rose nor Jack had found themselves anywhere on his particular path towards the edge.

There was no time to go back and look for them if Avia was right and the nearest source of samples was an hour and a half away. Perhaps a bit less, if that estimate was based on the average walking speed of a pouchling. And if they rushed.

He picked up his pace a bit, happy to see that Avia appeared to have no trouble keeping up. It was, he had to grudgingly admit, nice to have someone along.

He really hoped Rose and Jack were all right.

In no time at all, he and Avia were beyond the edge of the settlement and on the mountain’s slope. It was a dreary and brown landscape dotted with boulders and scraggly trees.

Ash from the eruption covered nearly everything, though fewer of the large rocks seemed to be landing at their level the further up the slope they ventured. That, at least, was a blessing. The Doctor found it difficult enough to keep his footing without having to dodge falling boulders as well as stationary ones. Luckily, what exposed magma there was seemed to be confined to sparse and easily avoidable pockets.

Avia led the way confidently, keeping up the brisk pace the Doctor had set back in the village. He was curious about her, about her life and what had made her into the frankly amazing person she was now, but she seemed reluctant to talk as they travelled. Eventually he stopped asking her questions and instead focused on keeping up.

She seemed to have an easier time than him on the rougher terrain they encountered about twenty minutes into their journey. The trees had thinned out even more and then disappeared completely, leaving only a barren and rocky landscape before them. The slope was fairly steep, and the loose dirt made for tricky footing as they continued to climb.

About ten minutes after they left the timberline behind them, the eruption seemed to finally peter out and stop. Avia only increased her pace in response, explaining, “Castus will have everyone packing up and getting ready to move now. They’ll start out as soon as they can, and go back later for what they can’t carry at first. We’re running out of time.”

He agreed, but found himself marveling at how quickly and easily she was able to navigate the perilous landscape. He was busy working on a theory in the back of his mind about the extra stability afforded by a lower center of gravity and a pair of articulated wings when, unsurprisingly, he became the first of them to take a tumble. A rock he’d though was secure turned out not to be, and his foot slipped out from under him.

He didn’t fall far, but landed crookedly with most of his weight bearing down on one wrist in the instant before it gave way and dumped him nearly on his face.

He rolled over, holding his right wrist carefully, and looked up to see Avia making her way back towards him.

“Are you all right?” she asked, concern in her voice and written across her features.

“Lovely,” he replied, sitting up easily. His wrist was throbbing like mad, but didn’t seem to be broken.

He levered himself up using his other arm, instinctively brushing at the dirt on his coat even though he knew by now that it was a lost cause.

“Fit as a fiddle, see?” he added when she still looked concerned. He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels, careful not to topple over.

She flashed a quick smile, which the Doctor returned.

“Let’s keep going, then,” she said. “I think we’re a little bit more than halfway there.”

“We’re making good time, then,” he observed. “It’s only been just over half an hour.”

“We still need to hurry,” she replied, and that was that. They set off again, and again she seemed reluctant to talk.

She’d been so forthcoming back in the village. The Doctor wondered if it was something he’d said.

He turned his attention back to the physics of articulated wings on humanoids, mostly as a mental diversion from worrying about how Rose and Jack had fared in the eruption.

They were fine.

Probably.

They could take care of themselves, and each other. It was his job to worry about finding proof of the harmful gasses in the mountain.

And to keep Avia safe in the process, though she’d mostly done a much better job of taking care of him than the other way around. The Doctor didn’t get his chance to return the favor until about fifty minutes into their trek, when it was Avia’s turn to slip and go down.

He was too far back to catch her, and had to spend a very busy moment dodging the rocks sent tumbling down at him by her fall. When he got to her, she was flat on her stomach on the steeply sloped ground, her wings raised and spread out over her head and shoulders in much the same way a human would instinctively cover their head with their arms.

The edge of one wing was pinned underneath a medium-sized rock.

“Avia?” he questioned.

Her free wing slipped away from her face.

“I’m fine,” she ground out. “Can you please get that rock off my wing?”

“One removed rock, coming right up,” the Doctor replied, carefully positioning himself next to her wing. He checked his footing, then bent down to lift the rock.

It was more difficult to get a solid grip than it was to actually lift the weight, and he had the rock off her and tossed down the mountain behind them in short order.

“How’s the wing?” he asked as he helped her stand. A few mottled brown feathers remained behind in the dust where the rock had been.

She shrugged her shoulder experimentally, ruffling the limb in question. Another feather shook loose and fluttered to join its brethren on the ground.

“S’all right, I think,” she replied after a moment, sounding almost surprised. “It was mostly caught on the feathers, so it’s just bruised. Thanks.”

“Least I could do,” he replied in turn, glad that she was okay. “Onward, then?”

“I think we’re there, actually,” Avia told him, turning to look around carefully. “That ridge looks familiar…”

Her voice trailed off, and a moment later she nodded resolutely. “Yes, that’s it. The cave entrance ought to be just over there.”

“Well, let’s go get ourselves some samples, then!” the Doctor said, clapping his hands and then rubbing them together excitedly.

Avia once again led the way, this time much more slowly as she kept an eye out for the cave entrance.

“Do you actually have something to put those samples of yours in?” she asked him as she looked.

The Doctor blinked, and abruptly began rummaging in his coat pockets.

“Of course I do!” he replied only an instant later, proudly displaying a handful of vials. They were made of a specially formulated glass compound, designed to be extra-strong, which was probably why they had survived in his pockets since… oh, when had he last seen them? That time in that laboratory on that planet…? He hoped they were clean, and nonchalantly pried the rubber stopper out of one and waved it under his nose with a sniff.

Avia was giving him another strange look.

“See?” he said, and waved the open vial at her.

She shook her head like she wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, but that was a reaction he had long since become used to. He grinned at her, then put the stopper back in the vial and returned the entire handful of vials to his coat pocket.

“This is it,” she said, apparently opting to ignore him and instead pointing to what appeared to be a hole in the ground. “It’s a small drop, then it opens up into a passageway into the mountain. The spring is at the other end of the passageway.”

The Doctor eyed the hole uneasily, suddenly worried. He hadn’t realized that Avia’s cave was actually a fully underground tunnel leading into the mountain. For no real reason, he’d assumed it would just be a stereotypical hole in the mountainside.

“And you haven’t been here in how many years?” he asked.

“It’s been at least ten summers,” she replied with a shrug. “Why?”

“How do you know it hasn’t caved in during all the eruptions that have happened?” he asked.

Avia looked up at him nervously.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said. “Does that mean we’ve probably come all the way up here for nothing?”

“Maybe not,” the Doctor replied, trying to be cheerful. “Let’s have a look. Worst case, we try to find another water or steam source somewhere else on our way back down to the village.”

Avia gave him another nervous glance, and then seemed to gather her courage. She practically hopped into the hole.

The Doctor peered in after her, but it was too dark to see much other than the ground just beneath the opening.

“It looks clear so far!” Avia’s voice called up to him. “Come on!”

Feeling a little more optimistic, the Doctor eased himself down into the hole. It was just barely deeper than he was tall, but there was a steep slope leading down from the edge that made it easy to slide down, and hopefully to walk back up.

Near the entrance, the walls and ceiling of the tunnel seemed to be more dirt than rock. It was tightly packed, but still sent clouds of ash into the air if knocked into or otherwise disturbed, such as by the passage of two would-be spelunkers.

Shaking more ash out of his hair, the Doctor turned to follow Avia’s voice. She was waiting for him just beyond a bend in the tunnel a few meters down.

“I can’t see much past here,” she told him. She was holding what looked to be an old torch, using it to gesture towards a pile of similar torches stacked up against the wall. “We used to leave these here for when we visited. Looks like a few of them are still usable.”

“That’ll be helpful,” he replied happily. “Give us a tick, and we’ll have that burning.”

A quick spin through the sonic screwdriver’s functions and he found one that would ignite the ten year old torch. In short order it was burning merrily. He spirited the sonic away back into his pocket.

“What was that strange sound? And how did you do that without flint?” Avia breathed in awe.

“Aw, that’s nothing,” the Doctor replied. “You should see what I can do with everlasting matches. Now! Which way to the hot spring?”

“Who are you?” she asked, still staring at him in the flickering torchlight.

“I’m just the Doctor,” he said, shrugging.

“But… what does that mean? Where did you come from?” she persisted.

“What does it matter? You didn’t care before,” he replied defensively. “Are we going to go get samples, or not?”

“I don’t understand you,” she said, shaking her head. She obviously wasn’t talking about the samples.

“Join the club,” he suggested with a wry smile. “But interspecies misunderstandings aren’t our most pressing problem. Well, not right now. Well… anyway. Hot spring?”

“This way,” she finally said, but as she turned to lead the way down the tunnel the Doctor clearly heard her mutter, “Inter-… species?

Well, this was an interesting development. He wondered what Avia would make of the confirmation of her suspicions that he was not even Grex.

He considered what he knew of her again as he followed her. She seemed nice enough. She was a young mother from a family with high social standing, currently in training to be a religious leader and yet still able to make rational decisions that differed from her training. She was willing to go out on a limb for the sake of a stranger. And she hated the mountain they were currently wandering further into because it had killed her husband and was terrorizing her pouchling and her people.

He liked her, for all that he was a little worried how she’d react when it became obvious that he was an alien. She’d already made it clear that she didn’t really trust him, which honestly was part of why he liked her. She was smart.

“What’s your pouchling’s name?” he asked her suddenly, ducking to avoid hitting his head on an overhang. She hadn’t wanted to talk about Ales, or Castus, or her childhood, or the village, or the mountain… maybe she would talk about her child.

“Spero,” she replied, pride evident in her voice. “He’ll soon be five summers, not really a pouchling any longer, but he’s still small for his age.”

“You must love him very much,” the Doctor continued.

“Of course I do. I’m doing this for him,” she said quietly. Then she gave him a level stare over her shoulder. “Why do you keep asking me about myself, when you won’t answer my questions about you?”

Well, she had him there.

He shrugged. “My friends tell me I’m rude,” he said by way of explanation, grinning sheepishly.

Avia couldn’t seem to hide a tiny smile. “They’re right. You are. But I still don’t…”

She stopped suddenly and reached a hand out to touch the wall near her head.

“What is it?” the Doctor asked. He reached out to touch the wall as well. Here, further into the tunnel, the walls were now mostly stone. But they still seemed to be partly made up of a large quantity of packed dirt.

They also seemed to be rumbling ever so slightly.

“Oh, no, not again…!” he complained. This just wasn’t fair!

“Come on!” Avia shouted. “The spring should only be a few minutes ahead if we run!”

Their dark little world shook around them, and suddenly the Doctor was trying to breathe dirt again.

He coughed to clear his throat and shouted, “We need to get out of here!”

“It’s lasted this long, it isn’t going to cave in now! Come on!” Avia replied, using one hand to steady herself on the wall as she moved further into the tunnel.

“Avia!” he tried again, but she wasn’t listening. They really needed to get out. But he’d brought her here, and he couldn’t leave her now.

He had no choice but to follow her.

The torchlight sputtered as the entire mountain seemed to shake, dousing them yet again in dirt and ash. They turned another corner, and came to an abrupt halt as they discovered that the cave had not, in fact, survived the last ten years completely unscathed.

“Can we go back, now?” the Doctor asked, coughing again. It was getting noticeably harder to breathe.

Avia was wheezing slightly, staring in obvious anger at the large stone that seemed to be propped up against the tunnel wall, almost completely blocking their path.

“I think I can fit underneath it!” she said, and pushed the torch into the Doctor’s hand.

He accepted it rather than let it drop to the ground.

“Avia, don’t!” he cried after her, but she was already on her hands and knees, working her way underneath the stone.

“I’ve not come this far just to give up!” she shouted back at him, her voice muffled.

The mountain rumbled again. The walls were shaking, shedding more dirt on and around the Doctor.

He looked at the walls and the stone above Avia carefully.

Some of the dirt around the stone was shifting.

The mountain shook again.

Make that a lot of the dirt around it.

“Avia! Get out of there!”

Too late. It was going slide down the wall.

“No!”

He dropped the torch and dove under the stone as the mountain continued to shake.

The Doctor was really not having a good decade for volcanoes.


Sixty-three very long and very loud seconds later…

Avia’s ears were ringing, but that was the least of her problems. She was stretched out on her stomach underneath the large stone that had blocked their path, one wing and one leg up to her hip pinned tightly between it and the dirt floor of the tunnel.

She wasn’t crushed, just painfully pinned. She also wasn’t yet sure why the whole thing hadn’t just flattened her into the ground.

The mountain was still shaking and rumbling, every vibration running through her painfully, but the loud sound of the nearby cave wall collapsing at least seemed to have stopped. This was a good thing, since she currently seemed to be underneath said wall.

“Not your brightest move,” she whispered to herself.

“No, not really,” came a strained voice from very nearby.

“Doctor?” she questioned. She opened her eyes carefully, blinking the dirt out of them, only to find that she couldn’t see. “What happened to the torch?”

“Buried in what’s left of the wall, I expect,” the same strained voice replied. “Can you get free? Back yourself out into the tunnel?”

Avia tried to inch herself backwards, but was too tightly pinned to move. She tried using her arms to dig at the dirt beneath her trapped wing, but couldn’t make any real progress. She couldn’t even reach her leg to try to free it, and it hurt too much to try moving it.

“I’m stuck,” she admitted. She felt like an idiot.

The mountain rumbled around them again.

She felt like a very frightened idiot.

Oh, Spero, she thought, I was trying to save you but I think I may have just orphaned you instead! Oh, my son, I’m so sorry…

“Okay,” the Doctor said very slowly, interrupting her inner monologue. “I have good news, and I have bad news.”

“Yes?” she prompted him when he didn’t continue. Some good news would be nice, and she couldn’t imagine what bad news would be worse than what she’d already done.

“Well, which do you want first?” he asked, as if this was obvious. “You’re s’pposed to say.”

“Er… I don’t know. Bad?” she answered, wondering why it was important. He’d tell her both, wouldn’t he?

“The bad news is that we’re trapped underneath this rock and I don’t think we’ll be able to get ourselves free without getting squished in the process,” he replied. “And I don’t really recommend getting squished.”

Okay. That was pretty bad, but she’d pretty much guessed that already.

“What’s the good news, then?” she asked.

“We aren’t dead,” he replied succinctly. “That’s always a plus in situations like this.”

Avia had to laugh at that. “You’re mad!”

“So I’ve been told,” he agreed amiably.

There was still an odd edge to his voice. It didn’t sound like fear or blame.

Maybe it was pain. Was he hurt?

The mountain gave another almighty heave around them. As it settled again and her own pain eased off, Avia thought she heard the Doctor moaning quietly.

“Are you injured?” she asked him after she had coughed enough to clear her lungs again. It was getting noticeably harder and harder to breathe. She wondered if it was just all the dust in the air, or if the Doctor’s poison was starting to affect her.

He was also coughing, and seemed to be having trouble getting in enough breath to speak.

“P-probably,” he finally managed to say. “Can you reach my pocket?”

“What?” she replied. He was ‘probably’ injured and he wanted her to reach his pocket?

Well, she’d ‘probably’ got them both killed with her stupidity, the least she could do was humor him before they died. Trying to blink back tears as she thought again about leaving Spero alone, she reached out towards the Doctor’s voice and soon encountered what felt like the hem of his strange-looking clothing.

“My sonic… the thing that lit the torch… no, not in that pocket, in the inside one… if you can reach it, we can use it for light,” he explained.

Light. That would be nice. Maybe it would illuminate some hope. Maybe she hadn’t left Spero an orphan, after all.

She reached her hand out further, trying to find the inside pocket he was directing her to, and found herself accidently pushing against what felt like his side.

Avia didn’t think ribs were supposed to feel that obvious. Her mother would have said that he needed to eat more.

“You need to eat more,” she told him.

His only answer was a soft sigh. She imagined he was tired of being told that by well-meaning strangers, but she didn’t ask.

She continued her blind search instead, moving her hand back and forth in an attempt to find the pocket he claimed was inside his outer garment. His shoulders were hunched and his clothes seemed to be partially bunched up beneath him, making it hard to tell where one piece of fabric began and another ended. She wound up with her arm reaching around his at an awkward angle.

He seemed to be on his hands and knees. Maybe his other arm was pinned?

Tugging on a piece of cloth, trying to straighten it out at his direction, her hand slipped and banged up into what felt like his throat. He jerked up, away from the touch. There was a muffled thump and then she heard him moan painfully.

Avia found his side again with her hand, trying to convey apology through the touch.

“Sorry!” she reinforced the apology aloud.

She could feel his body shaking beneath her hand. The stone above them seemed to shake in sympathy, shifting as he buckled slightly, causing her to gasp as it pressed against her wing and her hip.

She resisted the urge to snatch her hand away. The stone stopped moving when he did, and returned to its previous position when he straightened his arms again.

“Oh, spirits!” she breathed. “You’re holding it up!”

“Yes,” he hissed through what sounded like clenched teeth.

“You’re holding it up, and you’re hurt, and I’m pinned, and… and oh, spirits! This is my fault!” she babbled, trying to fight back tears. It was as if a dam had broken, letting her panicked thoughts free. “Spero’s going to be an orphan and it’s my fault!”

“Avia,” he said. He sounded just a little bit desperate.

She heard him, but couldn’t seem to stop herself now that she’d started. “We’re going to die. My son is going to be an orphan. And Castus will make everyone move closer to the Mountain. If you’re right, they’re all going to die, too! Spero and Ales and Uncle Castus and everyone else! And now you can’t prove it and make them stop because we’re going to die! Oh, spirits, what have I done?”

“Avia!” she heard the Doctor pleading with her again.

“What!” she shouted back.

“D’you think you could maybe calm down a minute? Ta,” he said mildly.

Avia took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm herself. This was not helping. Just like any other time the Mountain was angry, panicking was not going to help. Panicking would not get her back to Spero.

And getting back to Spero was all that really mattered.

“Sorry,” she said after a moment. What would Castus say, to see one of his acolytes panicking like a small pouchling?

“S’all right,” the Doctor replied. “Nothing wrong with a good panic as long as it doesn’t get in the way of getting things done.”

“But what can we do? We’re trapped,” she reminded him.

“You still haven’t got my sonic out of my coat pocket,” he reminded her in turn. “Who knows what we’ll see once we shed some light on the situation?”

Right. Light could be helpful. She reached out towards him again, this time a bit more carefully. She eased her hand under the edge of his odd outer garment, his ‘coat.’ To Avia, one’s coat grew in the late autumn and started to shed in the early spring. It was not a garment with pockets.

But pockets this coat had aplenty. Eventually, with a little more guidance from the Doctor, she had tugged the coat until it was straight and then found the correct pocket. Her hand closed around a small tube. She pulled it out.

“Hit the button on the side,” he told her.

“It won’t set me on fire or anything, will it?” she had to ask, still wary of anything so magical.

“Not likely to, no,” he replied. “Go on.”

Avia decided that she had nothing to lose, and pressed the raised bit she could feel on the side of the tube.

The end pointing towards her began to glow blue and emit a strange whirring noise.

“Eep!” said Avia, and dropped the tube.

The light went out and the noise stopped.

The Doctor chuckled.

“Not on fire, are you?” he asked.

“Shut up,” she replied, feeling around for the tube. When she’d found it again, she was careful to point it the other way before she hit the button.

This time the noise didn’t surprise her, and she was able to look around.

“Well, I have good news and I have bad news,” she said a moment later.

“Go on, then, good news first,” the Doctor replied. He was on his hands and knees beside her, well within reach of her outstretched arm. He appeared to be bracing the stone with his shoulders. Somehow he was actually supporting its weight, keeping it from crushing both of them.

“Okay,” she answered. “The good news is that I can see past you. The wall collapsed around us, but it widened the passage on the other side. It’s clear now over there.”

“That’s nice,” he replied. “Or it would be, if we weren’t trapped over here. Dare I ask what the bad news is?”

“You’re bleeding,” she told him.

He was. She didn’t know if it had been the large stone currently pinning them or another falling rock he’d encountered on his way down, but something had done battle with the back of the Doctor’s skull and he had apparently come out the loser.

“Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” he replied, sounding as if she’d just told him nothing more bothersome than that there was a twig caught in his feathers. Not that he had feathers. Whatever.

She wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, but he really didn’t seem to be bothered by the blood streaked through his hair and over his ear.

“How’s your vision? Can you see clearly?” she asked him.

As an acolyte, Avia had learned a bit about medicine. She wasn’t sure what she hoped to accomplish by determining how serious his injuries were, since they were still trapped, but it did give her something to do other than panic about her son.

“I suppose,” the Doctor replied. “All I can really see is the ground right in front of me. It looks… like ground. Dirt and rocks and things.”

If Ales had spoken like that, she would have been sure her brother was addled. But it was hard to tell with this Doctor. He used such strange turns of phrase to begin with.

“Have you ever had a head injury before?” she asked him next. She knew that head wounds tended to look more serious than they were, so the blood didn’t bother her too much. But she also knew that a solid knock to the head could have other, less visible repercussions. Repercussions which tended to get worse with each subsequent injury.

He was chuckling. “It depends on how you define head injury, but I think we can safely say I’ve had a couple. Well… a few. Well… maybe more than a few. But less than a lot. Say, several? I have a thick skull. I’ve had some experience with the phenomenon.”

“Can you tell how bad it is, then?” she questioned. “Did you just get a cut, or do I need to be worried about keeping you awake?”

“I know my name is ‘the Doctor’ but should you really be trusting me to self-diagnose a possible concussion?” he replied calmly.

She still couldn’t tell if he was being serious. He’d been just as rambling and confusing before getting conked on the head as he was now.

“It’s not like I really have a choice,” she reminded him. “I’m pinned, and you’re the only thing between me and finding out what it’s like to be flat. Thank you, by the way.”

“You’re very welcome,” he replied, then coughed again. The rock shifted above them as he moved.

“So I think I have the right to be a bit worried about your health right now,” she continued when he quieted. “How badly are you injured?”

“Er… my head and shoulders feel like I’ve been run over by a lorry,” he admitted after a moment.

“What’s a lorry?” she asked.

“Let me put it a different way,” he replied patiently. “I feel like a huge rock fell on my head and now I’m holding that rock up with my shoulders.”

Okay, that was sarcasm. She knew sarcasm when she heard it.

“Are you always this way or is it just because of the head injury?” she retorted.

“All of the above,” he replied. Whatever that meant. “I think. What were we talking about?”

“Your head,” she reminded him.

“Oh, yes, my head. I like my head. Especially this one, what with all the hair. Gotta love the hair! Not as much some other heads I’ve had, but definitely more than last time. Yes, I quite like my current head,” he rambled. “It feels a bit funny at the moment, though.”

Wonderful. He was delirious.

“You’re delirious!” she told him.

“Am I? That’s nice,” he replied. “It explains why I’m so tired. Which is funny, because I don’t often feel tired at all.”

“Oh, spirits,” Avia whispered to herself. Tears pricked at her eyes. She was going to die here beside this odd stranger. She’d got both of them killed, along with what she feared was the last hope for her son and their people.

“I don’t see what they’ve got to do with it,” the Doctor said.

“What?” she replied. How did he know what she was thinking?

“The spirits. I don’t see what they’ve got to do with it,” he repeated.

Oh. He was clearly referring to her absent-minded call to the deities of the mountain.

“Actually I don’t, either,” Avia admitted. “I just say that out of habit. But this is my fault. I’m sorry.”

“What for?” he asked.

Was he serious, or was that the knock to the head talking again?

“For getting you killed! And for failing Spero,” she explained.

“Well, I don’t know about Spero, but I’m not dead,” he replied. He coughed again, then added in a slightly worried voice, “Am I?”

Avia couldn’t help but reach out to touch him again, resting her free hand on his upper arm in a way that she hoped felt reassuring. He’d sounded so vulnerable just then.

“No, you’re not dead,” she told him. “We’re just in a whole lot of trouble.”

The Doctor wheezed out a small laugh. “That’s all right, then. A whole lot of trouble is no trouble at all!”

“You’re an optimist,” she observed sourly. “Always looking for the sunny side of the mountain even when it’s raining, I bet.”

“Something like that,” he replied. “I find that it helps keep one’s spirits up. Weren’t we talking about the spirits?”

“We were,” she reminded him. “We decided the ones in the mountain had nothing to do with it.”

“That’s nice for them, I suppose,” the Doctor said. “Lets them right off, doesn’t it?”

Avia was pretty sure one of them had lost the thread of conversation somewhere along the way, but wasn’t entirely sure which of them it was.

“Er… yes,” she replied, an answer which seemed safe enough.

“That’s nice,” the Doctor repeated. “Not that I’m not having a wonderful time, but how about we get out of here?”

“I wouldn’t mind it,” Avia said, humoring him, “but I’m afraid we’re stuck.”

“I,” the Doctor said haughtily, “have a plan.”

Avia deeply wished she could tell when he was being serious and when he was just raving. If he had a plan, there was hope. If he was just raving…

“What’s your plan?” she asked. It was better to play along and find hope than it was to give up.

There was no way she could just give up. She could panic a bit, easily. But she wouldn’t give up. Spero needed her.

“It’s a good plan,” the Doctor replied. “Tried and true. I’ve tested it dozens of times.”

“But what is it?” she asked again.

“We’re going to wait for my friends to find us and rescue us,” he explained.

Well, it wasn’t a horrible plan, assuming his friends knew where to find them. Assuming he actually had friends, and not concussion-induced imaginary figments.

“Your friends would happen to be real people, yes?” she asked.

“Of course they are!” he replied, clearly offended on their behalf. “Well, Jack’s sort of an anomaly in space-time now, but he’s still a person. And Rose is really, really real, which is just brilliant!”

He was giggling, but then he trailed off into coughs again. When he’d caught his breath, he continued.

“Besides, if they weren’t real, who was it that spilled milk all over the kitchen floor in the TARDIS yesterday? I know it was one of them, though they both tried to deny it. Protecting each other, I suspect. But that’s as it should be. They protect each other. They even try to protect me… that’s why I know they’ll come find us.”

“Okay, Doctor, I believe you,” she said when he paused for breath, only to start coughing again.

Mostly she just thought they’d both be more comfortable if he stopped talking, coughing, and causing the stone above them to shift. But a small part of her dared to hope that his ravings had some sense in them.

Maybe his friends Jack and Rose were on their way. Maybe Ales would remember the hot spring and know where to help them look. She had told him that she was curious about the Doctor’s claims before they’d been separated back in the village square. Maybe he and Uncle Castus would realize what she’d done.

Maybe there were already rescuers searching for them.

Maybe there was still hope that she would see Spero again.

Oh, spirits, let there still be hope!


tbc…

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