"How can you possibly never have seen a cicada?" said Peri, over the insects' swelling, warbling hum.
"I didn't say I'd never seen one," insisted the Doctor. "Of course I've seen them, I simply haven't had the opportunity to stop and look. As you might have noticed, I tend to be otherwise occupied when on Earth. Although Aristotle did give me a recipe once..."
"We're not eating them," she said firmly.
"Not unless you like," he replied. "The Onondaga people do them much better anyway. Not a good cook, old Aristotle. Typical academic."
"There was a huge cicada swarm at my uncle's place one summer, when I was little," Peri went on. "Us kids pretended it was an alien invasion. Of course, now..."
Now what? the Doctor wondered. Now she knew what aliens were really like—was she frightened? Impressed? Amused? He wished he could understand her better. He spent so much time thinking about her—trying to figure out what she would like, or guess why she was upset, or put something in terms she could understand, or just find her and keep her safe. But he wasn't sure they would ever, as she would say, "get" each other. When he imagined simply telling her how important she was to him, how much he needed her in spite of everything he'd done, the surging emotions that seemed to be characteristic of his new regeneration almost overwhelmed him.
She had spotted something now, leaning in with her face inches from the shrubbery. "Look!" she said, beckoning him over. "I found one that's just hatching."
He came to look at her find, bending his head next to hers. Sure enough, there was one of the insects slowly clambering out of its wingless juvenile exoskeleton. "It's not 'hatching,'" he said. "It's not an egg. It's transitioning from its final nymph form to its adult form."
"I know that, Doctor. Figure of speech. Look, see how soft and pale it is at first." The creature's head and thorax had emerged, and it was starting to rear backwards, thrashing its tiny legs as it began to pump fluids through its new body. The Doctor felt a twitch of wry kinship. What was it like for a cicada, getting to know a new body?
"Did you know," Peri went on, "some insects, if they were injured before, they can re—they can grow back the injured tissue, when they molt."
Had she also been thinking about his last regeneration? He couldn't blame her for not wanting to bring it up. Was he as alien to her as an insect? (Of course he was—he'd been with humans too long, even to ask the question—how could he not be?) Ought Earth housekeepers to scream and throw him out of the window?
"It's soft and pale now," he said, "but it'll become colorful as the exoskeleton hardens, over the next few hours."
"Mostly green and brown," she said, with a little laugh. "Hardly up to your standards. But I always thought the ones with the red eyes were kind of pretty, in a weird way."
His left hand went to his right sleeve, rubbing at the material. She was just talking about cicadas, he told himself. Just cicadas.
The cicada was almost out of its old shell now, almost free in its new body. But—"Oh no," he breathed with an irrational prickle of horror. "It's come out wrong. Its wings are crumpled. The process must have failed." Just cicadas....
"No, no, it—it's all right," Peri said. She seemed to be picking up on his emotion—surely he wasn't broadcasting?—although she couldn't possibly understand its cause, could she? She laid one hand on his arm by her side while she explained. "They often look like that when they hatch. Sorry, molt. Nothing's gone wrong. See, it just takes a little while for its wings to unfold. It'll be perfectly functional in just a minute, and as loud as you like soon after that."
"Oh, like the Skerronoids of the Velno system," he said, relieved—far more relieved than he had any right to be, not just that the cicada was going to be all right but that she'd explained it to him so gently. "They're an exoskeletal species who have developed elaborate rituals and taboos around molting season for exactly this reason."
"Yeah, like them, I guess." She slipped an arm around him, and he returned the gesture, as they continued watching the insect's slow progress.
At last it was free, stepping away on its clumsy little legs from the shell of its old life. Peri put a hand out and let the cicada crawl onto her finger.
"Peri!" he objected.
"Don't worry," she said. "I'm just holding it for a minute. I'll put it back on the same tree." She smiled at the tickle of the insect's gripping feet. It trundled along the back of her hand. "Here, you take it!"
Surprised, not really sure what she had in mind, he put his hand over hers and let the cicada crawl onto it.
"Aww, look!" she said, and he felt a welcome warmth between his hearts as she went on, with a peculiar emphasis, as if there was something slightly different that she really wanted to convey: "I think it likes you."