"What do you mean, you're a werewolf," said the Doctor flatly, his cup of tea falling out of his hands to land with a clatter on the small coffee table that Ace had temporarily cleared of papers and notes. Hot dark liquid sloshed over the sides, splattering the cheap wood, but neither of them noticed. Ace winced a bit, and took a sip from her own cup, trying to avoid his eyes.
"It's a bit complicated," she admitted. "I'm not even one hundred percent sure if a werewolf is what I am."
The Doctor sighed. "Let's take this from the beginning. Why, exactly, do you think that you're… a 'werewolf'."
She could practically hear the quotation marks around that last word, and steeled herself for what was coming. It was hard enough accepting what was happening at face value, but telling someone else all about it and hoping that they'd believe you… well. That was a different thing altogether. It certainly was a good thing that she had a friend like the Doctor on hand.
"I have no idea where to start," she told him, staring into her half-full cup of hot water and soaked leaves with added cow juice.
"Try the beginning," he suggested, raising his eyebrows.
Ace took a deep breath, and adjusted her jacket around her. She exhaled slowly. "A couple of days ago, it was the last day of the full moon, right? I didn't think anything of it, and I went out with some mates. It was fun, I guess, but the important bit was what happened afterwards."
The Doctor waited for a moment. "What happened afterwards?" he asked, when Ace showed no sign of continuing.
"Honestly? I have no idea. All I know it that I crashed at Benny's place overnight, and when I woke up in the morning, I was lying half-naked in the forest, feeling like several steamrollers had taken turns going over me."
The Doctor's face displayed several emotions very quickly in succession, before closing off, and becoming blank again. "A nasty experience, for anyone," he said, a twinge of concern still lurking beneath the façade. "But what makes you think you're an- er, werewolf? Are you sure it wasn't… well-"
She caught his meaning instantly, beneath the awkward skirting around the subject, and almost laughed. "No, Professor, I'm fairly sure that someone didn't molest me and dump me out there. It didn't feel like that. Trust me, I'd know."
"Hm," he said, and finished what remained of his tea in one gulp. "Hm."
"Exactly," she said. "And to add to the evidence, Benny complained about her front window being smashed to bits. She wants me to pay for the damage."
He stared at the wall for a full minute, humming under his breath. "As far as I can tell, with my limited experience with werewolves- and by that, I mean practically none at all- the best course of action would be to wait until the next full moon."
"Brilliant," groaned Ace, head falling down to collide with the table. "And what if I spontaneously turn into a big furry mutt sometime during the rest of the month?"
"Then at least we'll know that something's wrong," he said, entirely seriously, before flashing her a brilliant smile. "Come over to my house in twenty-eight days. Until then, I'd advise you to keep away from the silver cutlery."
"Very funny," she said sarcastically, raising her head from the table. She paused. "Actually, I've never been to your house. Where do you live, anyway?"
He reached over for a blank sheet of paper, produced a ballpoint pen out of nowhere, and scribbled down an address. He pushed it in Ace's direction, and she picked it up, reading it. She frowned, and looked up. "Wait a sec, this is in-"
But he was already gone.
"Bloody typical," she muttered, and went to clear up the mess in the flat before Mel got back.
A month had flown by surprisingly quickly for Ace. She had been working through her chemistry course at a fairly good rate, with the absolute minimum of practical experimentations and explosions. 'The absolute minimum' being about two, of course. Or maybe three. It was hard to keep track. Ace had kept the scrap of paper with the address written in neat, spidery handwriting pinned to her board, next to the formula for the prototype Nitro-10 she was working on. She had read it so many times that she knew it off by heart by now.
The full moon was tomorrow.
She caught a bus to the outskirts of town, and walked the rest of the way. The Doctor's house was apparently in the middle of the forest, which seemed very him. She had brought only a small bag with her, with some clothes and other useful items inside, slung over her shoulder. She couldn't refute the fact that she was incredibly nervous for some reason. If she really was a werewolf, or whatever, what would they do? What would she do? Would they have to contain her, sedate her; restrict her to stop her hurting other people? She unconsciously patted her bag, its comfortable weight reassuring her, and began to walk down the path.
There was a single path leading through the forest, paved stones gleaming with early-morning dew. It wove around trees and bushes in such a way that you couldn't quite see your destination until you arrived. It was, at the risk of sounding ridiculously clichéd, a wonderful morning to be walking in the forest. Sunlight filtered through the branches, creating a dappled effect along the cobblestones. It was magical in a way that Ace had never seen before.
Through the tangles of vines and shrubbery, she could see a small hut. It seemed friendly enough- most likely the Doctor's, then. She picked up her pace, practically skipping towards it. There were warm, friendly lights on in the windows, and the front door was painted a bright shade of blue. She hesitated before it for a moment, before knocking three times. Within two seconds, it was flung open enthusiastically from the inside.
"Ace!" exclaimed the Doctor delightedly. "I wasn't expecting you until later!"
She shrugged; a half-smile slipping onto her face. "Well, you know me, Professor. Never one for waiting."
They stared at each other for a moment. The Doctor looked the same as always- question-mark jumper, old brown jacket thrown over the top- Ace briefly wondered if it was all he ever wore.
"Oh, come here, you," she said affectionately, and pulled him into a hug. "Where the hell have you been for the last four weeks?"
He returned the embrace, smiling. "Mostly research, actually. Come in and I'll show you. Sorry for the mess," he added, almost apologetically.
They broke apart, and Ace stepped into the entrance hall. "My flat is probably worse, and you know that. Wow. That's one hell of a library."
The entirety of the living room's walls was covered with bookshelves, every one of them filled to overflowing with books of every type and description. There wasn't any logical way to how they were laid out, either. Compendiums of The Far Side sat next to cake cookbooks, and small piles of science textbooks were scattered all over the floor.
"I collect," he said with a small smile, manoeuvring to a card table that was set up in the middle of the room.
"This lot is seriously impressive, though," she said, following him. "Do you have a secret room of priceless treasures tucked away somewhere too?"
He carefully avoided her eyes, which either meant that he had, or was still considering it and just didn't want to tell her about it yet. "I looked up everything I could find about werewolves."
She frowned, moving some books to the side to make some room for her to sit down. "Don't you have other things than me to worry about? I don't want you to get fired or something."
He coughed, and mumbled something under his breath which sounded suspiciously like 'not a problem'.
Ace took a moment to process that, and her eyes narrowed. "Wait. You've been fired already?"
"Well," he said, rifling through pages of meticulously written-out notes and printed-out research. "It depends what you mean by 'fired'. There are lots of definitions, you know. You could possibly mean a state of combustion in which fuel or other material is ignited and combined with oxygen, causing it to explode, which you very well could mean, knowing you, or maybe-"
Ace shot him a Look.
"-or, as I suspect you're implying, you're asking me if I no longer work at the school where we first met," he continued, looking sheepish. He stopped going through the mess, and turned to look at her. "In that case… no, I don't. I've been, er, 'fired', as you put it."
"What happened?" The questions spilled out of her mouth, sentences colliding together. "Was it my fault? Why did they do it? Do I-"
He held up a hand, forestalling her. "It was nothing to do with you. They just started to question my decision in teaching the students to make less-than-savoury substances. Such as those that, er, blow things up."
She gaped at him. "You got fired because you were teaching us the proper way to create explosives?"
"It would seem so."
"You weren't doing anything wrong!" she exclaimed angrily. "You taught us the proper safety procedures and everything! You were the best teacher I ever had! They can't just kick you out like that!"
He smiled sadly at her. "It's very kind of you to say that. But I'm afraid the point is moot."
She turned and made for the door. "They can't do that. It's not fair. I'm going to-"
He caught her by the arm, and spun her around. "Ace. I don't mind, really. And you're forgetting- werewolf."
She blinked, having forgotten completely about her problem in all the commotion. "Oh," she said, quietly. "Sorry."
"Exactly." He released her, and brandished a wad of notes in her face. "Now, why don't I show you what I've found?"
"Sure." She sat down, cross-legged, on the ground. "What's the prognosis, Doc?"
"I'm afraid it's fatal," he said, an amused twinkle in his eye. "The only way to cure it is to curb these violent tendencies of yours."
"Fat chance of that," she smirked. "I think I'd better resign myself to a long and lingering death."
"What a shame. We could make a proper lady out of you yet." He paused, and glanced down at a page of neatly set out scribbling. "In all seriousness, there wasn't a lot of useful information. There was the usual rambling about how werewolves are ferocious beasts, and must be killed, and even more information on how to kill one- silver bullets seem to be the weapon of choice."
Ace pulled a book on mythology over to her, and flipped through it. "Nothing about how to cure them?"
"Oddly enough, no. Nobody seems to be interested in anything other than the best way to slaughter them and mount their heads up over the mantelpiece."
"Charming." Ace wrinkled her nose. "Maybe I could start a werewolf union. Rise up against the oppressing masses and all that."
The Doctor laughed dryly, and slid a folder in her direction. "I'd advise against that, but I suppose it's a free country. Here."
"What's this?" she asked, opening it up.
"Information on the transformation," he told her, standing up and dusting himself off. "Read up on it. There'll be a test later on."
"You're not a Professor anymore," Ace protested light-heartedly. "Where are you going?"
"To make some tea," he said solemnly. "I find that any situation can be improved with the addition of tea. How do you like yours?"
"Three lumps," she told him absently, already reading. "And sugar."
He smiled, and quietly left the room.
Ace joined the Doctor in the kitchen just as the tea was brewing. She located a chair, and the kitchen table, and put the former to good use, slumping into it.
"Well?" he asked without looking up. She sighed.
"It's excruciatingly painful, by all accounts. And by 'all accounts' I mean barely any. There's hardly anything. I'm really not looking forward to this."
He hummed, the sound mingling with the buzzing of the various electronics throughout the kitchen. Not only that, though. The entire house seemed to have its own internal energy, and it seemed alive somehow. Ace should have found it creepy, but it was almost comforting, like having a best friend wrapping you in a warm hug.
The two slightly chipped mugs sitting on the counter were beginning to steam with clouds of smoke that smelled absolutely wonderful.
"It's my own mixture," explained the Doctor as he carefully lifted both cups onto the wooden table. Ace took a cautious sip.
"Oh my god," she said, stunned.
The Doctor took a sip of his own, and leaned back. "I'm going to assume that that's a good thing."
"Oh my god," she repeated. "Why have you been hiding the fact that you make the best cuppa in this universe or any other? You must have thought that my tea was-" she paused, trying to find a suitable word, and failed. "-I have no idea."
"It wasn't actually that bad," he said mildly. "Now, we seem to have ten or so hours until the full moon rises, and I doubt that you have the attention span for spending all of that time flipping through books-"
"Oi," Ace interrupted. He raised his eyebrows at her.
"Well, I was going to suggest that we explore the woods surrounding my house, but since you seem to be so eager to stare at books… who am I to argue?"
She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head frantically. "Actually, exploring sounds like a good idea. Who needs books, anyway?"
He smiled over his mug. "That's exactly what I hoped you'd say."
The woods seemed to be more expansive on the inside than Ace had seen from the outside of it. Or, as the Doctor had put it when she had mentioned it, 'they're dimensionally transcendent'. Which probably meant the same thing, but in more scientific words. It was the type of forest which looked as if it could hold unicorns and mythical beasts.
It was way too much fun to climb the trees. She perched on a high up branch, searching for interesting things, while the Doctor, below, gave her a detailed history of anything that she mentioned to him. The patterns of light played across her face and a light breeze ruffled her hair.
It was possibly the most relaxing day she'd had in a while. The last month had been overtaken by worrying- about classes, friends, and most of all, the werewolf problem. It was an amazing feeling, just to let go for a while.
"How long does the full moon usually last for?" she asked lazily, stretching her hand out to catch a ray of sunlight that danced just beyond her reach. The Doctor paused, mid-description of evolution theory and how Darwin had actually got it wrong.
"Three days," he said, after a moment's consideration.
"Or three nights," she muttered. He seemed to sense her slowly darkening mood, and leaned back so he was looking directly up at her.
"Don't worry, Ace," he said. "We'll sort this out. It might not be easy, but believe me, we will."
She snorted. "If you start giving me a speech on how 'teamwork can make a dream work', I swear to god, I'll head straight home and chain myself to the balcony railing. Mel can sort out the mess. And I'm sending you the bill."
He smiled, and lowered his hat so it covered his eyes from the glare of the sun. "You have a way with words, young Ace. Very well, no inspiring speeches."
"Glad to hear it."
There was a moment's silence.
"It's getting hot out here," she remarked suddenly.
"There's a small stream a short walk away," said the Doctor without moving an inch. Ace swung down nimbly from her branch and landed lightly on her toes. She kicked off her shoes, and ran off into the forest. It was turning out to be a beautiful day, despite the odds.
Ace glanced out of the curtains, and quickly retreated. "It's pretty dark right now."
"How perceptive," said the Doctor dryly, pushing furniture to the side of the room. "Come here, then, and sit down."
Ace looped the strap of her bag over a hook on the door, and seated herself, cross-legged, in the middle of the room, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She watched anxiously as the Doctor bustled about, clearing items away. "Do you think I have to be outside or something?"
He shook his head. "You said you were indoors when it started last time." He eyed her carefully. "Are you ready?"
She laughed, a bit of hysteria creeping in. "Would it matter if I said I wasn't?"
"Probably not," he conceded, and patted her hand. "Wait here, I'll be right back."
She rubbed her suddenly goosebump-covered arms as he left the room. A cold feeling of dread was now forming, setting her senses tingling with warning bells. Despite her light-hearted quips and apparently calmness- or at least that was how she hoped she was calling herself= she was terrified out of her mind.
The Doctor re-entered, patting his jacket pocket. "At set, I hope."
She forced a smile, really wishing he hadn't added that last part, and shivered a bit. "Any idea how long this'll take?"
He checked the clock that was hanging high on a wall behind her. "It's nearly nine. If anything is going to happen, it should do so soon."
She shivered again, and grimaced. The Doctor must have noticed, because his frown, none too light to begin with, deepened. "Ace? What's wrong?"
She twisted her ponytail through her hand, twining it over on itself. "I don't know, it's almost like-" She stopped abruptly, a wave of intense nausea washing over her.
"Ace?" he repeated, moving forwards to rest a cold hand on her shoulder. She shook him off violently, pushing herself backwards and towards a wall. She pressed her hands against it shakily, as if its smooth coolness could stop the prickling, burning feeling that was worming its way beneath her skin.
"It's happening, isn't it," said the Doctor in a soft voice, which was rather considerate of him considering the mother of all headaches that was currently forming in her skull. She murmured something unintelligible in response, and coughed.
"What is it?" he asked. She took a deep breath in.
"…hurts like hell," she managed. "Like- like I just drank acid or something-" She gasped as a sharp lance of pain drove through her back, as if someone had shot her through the shoulder, and clamped her mouth shut to prevent herself from screaming. "-y-yeah, it's started."
He reached over and squeezed her hand tightly. She did her best to pull away, but he was holding her too tightly.
"Please let go," she said as calmly as she could manage.
"Because I think I'm starting to get claws and I might rip you to pieces," she told him, and shuddered as another wave of pain coursed through her.
He sat back, but not too far, and began to talk to her in a low, comforting voice; the words just beyond her hearing and the blood rushing through her ears, but the meaning clear enough. She appreciated it- really, really appreciated it, because if he wasn't there, she'd be screaming in complete agony already. As it was, she could just about ignore it and concentrate on his low, rolling voice. She had no idea how she had endured this last time. Maybe she had been drunk at the time; that would explain quite a lot.
Ace could hear her bones cracking and flexing and elongating, which was possibly the most painful part of the whole process so far. She gave up trying to resist, and screamed. Sensations were beginning to filter through to her mind- strange, wild sensations that she hadn't ever felt before. Her brain was rewiring itself, and the feeling wasn't in the least bit pleasant. She grimaced, and began to pull herself jerkily towards the door.
"Ace?" said the Doctor, voice soft but still concerned. "Where are you going?"
She shook her head- that was all she could manage at the moment- and tugged at the strap of her plain black satchel, still hanging off the door. It fell to the ground, scattering its contents everywhere, and she dug through it frantically, trying not to notice the strange, unfamiliar shape of her hands. The Doctor moved closer to her, hand closing over her shoulder, maybe intending to pull her away. She instinctively snarled at him, and instantly regretted it. He backed away instantly with an apologetic expression.
Her hands closed on a cold and smoothly shaped object, and she tore it out of the pile, brushing it across the floor in the Doctor's direction. He stared at it for a second, not comprehending. Ace swallowed, trying to get the words out.
"If I," she croaked, and coughed to clear her throat. "-if I attack you, or try to k-kill you-"
He stared at her with sea-blue eyes that were so deep and so very sad. "Oh, Ace."
"-shoot me," she demanded weakly. "Please. I don't want to wake up and s-see you dead- I'd know t-that I killed you, and I couldn't-" she choked, and tried to continue, but couldn't.
He picked up the gun distastefully, and turned it over in his hands, before opening it up with nimble fingers and emptying out all of the bullets.
No, she thought desperately, her eyes filling with tears. No, don't.
"I could never shoot you," he told her firmly, placing the now useless gun on the floor. "And you'd have to be a fool to ever think that I would, even to save my own life." His eyes seemed to bore into hers. "There's always another way, Ace. Remember that."
She wanted to scream; to beg, to plead, to do anything, but her voice had completely failed her, and she was only holding on to sanity by a thread. And she was slipping.
"P-professor," she growled through tortured vocal chords. "Please…"
He smiled at her, and her vision flickered to yellow. She saw him, briefly, as a hunter would- flesh and bone and prey to be hunted-
-and she didn't remember anything after that.
Sunlight filtered in from a nearby window onto her closed eyelids, and she could feel a thick, warm blanket draped over her. She could hear the Doctor's house- it was kind of humming at her. She lazily opened her eyes, blinking a few times to get rid of the film that had formed.
"You're awake," said a voice. "I was beginning to worry."
She looked away from the window, still half-asleep. "Did I sleep in?"
"It's just past ten," said the Doctor, setting down a steaming mug of something next to her. "How do you feel?"
She took a moment to think about that, and stretched tentatively. "Sore all over," she decided. "What the hell was I doing last night?"
He smiled, a bit sadly, she thought. "Trying to kill me, mainly."
Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth (although she wasn't quite sure what she was going to say), but he cut her off.
"Let's go have breakfast," he suggested. "I think it'll do us both the world of good."
They had breakfast on the terrace- crispy bacon for Ace, and fresh fruit salad for the Doctor. They ate in silence for a while, enjoying each other's company and the fresh air, free of pollutants.
"I have some good news," the Doctor offered after a couple of minutes, once Ace had finished her coffee. She placed the mug down, wiping her mouth, and raised an eyebrow.
"You're not a werewolf."
It took her a moment to process that, and she dropped her plate in shock, which shattered into tiny little shards of china all over the pavement. "I'm not a-"
"You're not a werewolf," he repeated calmly, brushing a flake of broken plate off of the table.
She stared down at her hands, covered with spots of fine white powder. "Then why- what? How?"
He coughed. "Well, to be precise- you aren't a werewolf in the traditional sense."
"I swear to god, Professor- I will walk out of here and deal with it on my own. Stop being cryptic."
He sighed, and stopped inspecting his fingernails, meeting her stare steadily. "You're an ailuranthrope."
She paused. "-and what's that when it's at home?"
He seemed almost reluctant to say it. "A were-cheetah," he admitted.
Ace stared blankly at him for a moment. "A were-cheetah? I'm a cheetah?" She thought about that for a moment, and a grin slowly spread across her face. "That is so cool. What do I look like?"
The Doctor seemed mostly relieved that she hadn't flipped out over the revelation, and dug in his pockets, producing a small digital camera. He pressed a few buttons, and passed the camera to her. On the screen was a slightly blurry image of a large cheetah, staring at the lens, and snarling. Ace traced a finger over the plastic screen, slightly awed. "Wow. I was- I looked like that?"
"Yes," he replied, taking the camera back. "You did." He frowned. "I'm rather afraid I had to lock you in that room for most of the night. You were literally bouncing off the walls, and you seemed quite angry about it too."
Ace rubbed her shoulders, noting how sore she felt. It was a pity that the myth about were-creatures having regenerative properties hadn't turned out to be true. "Now that you mention it, I do feel kind of bruised."
The Doctor got up, and headed around the side of the house. He returned a minute later with a broom, which he used to clean up the shattered plate. He swept it into a bin, and sat down again. "There is one thing that bothers me about this whole mess."
Ace laughed. "Only one thing?"
He appeared to ignore her. "People don't spontaneously go around turning into were-cheetahs for no good reason."
She blinked. "What?"
"Well, it strikes me as rather odd that it was only last month when you first changed. It wasn't an auspicious date on a druidic calendar, it wasn't Halloween, and it wasn't your birthday- that's tomorrow. The only thing remotely special about it was the fact that it was a full moon."
"You're right," she realized, frowning as something occurred to her. "-and I had completely forgotten about my birthday, too, so thanks."
"So there's a reason that I'm changing all of a sudden," she mused, trying to think. "How does one go about being infected by a were-cheetah?"
The Doctor shrugged helplessly. "You know, I have absolutely no idea." He paused, a secretive smile spreading across his face. "However-"
"Oho," she said happily. "I know that tone of voice. It's your 'I have a clever plan and I'm going to try to keep it from Ace for as long as possible' voice."
"Don't keep me in the dark," she pleaded. "Come on. Just tell me."
"An old- er, shall we say, 'friend'- of mine happens to be an expert of genetics. She's quite a genius in her own right, and she might be able to tell us a thing or two about what's happened to you."
Ace caught the quotation marks around the word friend almost as soon as he had said them, and frowned. "By 'friend', I'm guessing you mean another one of those people who wants to kill you."
"Er, yes. Quite. But I'm sure she'll be extremely helpful."
"I'm sure," Ace parroted, with a completely deadpan expression on her face. "Where does she live?"
"Gallifrey," said the Doctor cheerfully. "My home, actually. Lovely place- not that welcoming, but still lovely."
"Gallifrey? I think I've heard of it- is it in Ireland?"
The Doctor thought for a second, and shrugged. "Why not?"
They had a plan now, and a way to execute it, which was all that they needed. Ace knew that the Doctor always felt more confident with a plan, and he knew that she always felt more confident when she had a definite course of action. They weren't so different, really, if you thought about it for a while.
"Then what are we waiting for?" she asked enthusiastically, eyes gleaming. "Let's go! I didn't have anything scheduled for the next couple of weeks, and a road trip sounds brill."
He held up a hand, chuckling a bit. "You're forgetting that there's still two more days of the full moon left. I don't think we should let you out of this house at night, if you'll pardon being treated like a dog."
"Oh, yeah," she said, slightly crestfallen.
"Not to forget that there's your birthday to attend to," he continued, a twinkle stealing into his eye. "I think I might have some cake mix. How do you feel about chocolate?"
She leaned back in her chair, enjoying the warm sunlight and the out-of-time chattering of birds roosting in the cherry blossom trees- all of them blooming, despite it not being the season for it. "I think that it sounds ace. I'm all for it, Professor."
"Then what are we waiting for?" The Doctor placed his straw panama hat on his head, and stood up, reaching for his brolly, leaning against the side of the house. He flipped it up with one hand, twirling it expertly. "Come on, Ace. We've got work to do!"