"It occurs to me that you've only seen a few aliens," the Doctor began, from the opposite side of the cosy kitchen table we were both eating at.
"Zero, the Star Whale..." I shrugged. "Only two, why?"
He wagged a fish finger at me, causing custard to drip onto the table. "Three, actually."
"I don't think of you as an alien," wrinkling my nose at the thought, I shovelled more cornflakes into my mouth and spoke around the crunching, "I think of you..."
The Doctor's eyebrows rose up – it was hard to make out, what with them being almost invisible – and he gestured for me to go on,"You think of me…?"
"As a weirdo," I finished, laughing at the way his jaw dropped in offence.
"I am not weird!"
"You're eating fish custard," I pointed at his food. "That's something no normal person would do."
With a huff, the Doctor carried on munching down on his fish finger. I was curious, however; something was clearly eating him up, judging from the twinkle in his eyes.
"C'mon," I nudged his leg with my foot. "You've got your 'thinking' face on."
"I haven't had this body long enough to develop different faces," he replied.
"You've had it for almost three days." It was weird to think about it… Prisoner Zero, the Tower of London… it was days ago, even if it didn't actually feel nearly like that. Perhaps it was because, after returning from Starship UK, I'd showered and then crashed on a couch in a living room type area for over twelve hours, or so the Doctor said.
In all fairness, I needed the sleep.
"What do you want to see next?" the Doctor asked, leaning on his elbows to peer at me. "You mentioned the Library of Alexandria? You can pick wherever."
"You've got an idea," I accused, "Of somewhere we can go, haven't you?"
"You've seen a lot of humans," he said, "But not nearly as many aliens. And, if you're going to be with me for a while, aliens are something to get used to."
A while. Sometimes, like when I was in the shower, I wondered if I was overstaying my welcome. If the Doctor had only invited me out of thanks for looking after him, then this was all temporary until he found some android who could compute PI.
"Don't sell yourself short," the Doctor flicked me on the nose. "Erin, you're brilliant."
I also really needed to figure out how to shield my thoughts from him.
"Aliens it is then," I'd finished my cereal, tipping the bowl back to drain the milk as well. "Where will we be going?"
"It's a surprise."
The Doctor didn't finish his fish custard, simply leaving the bowl there as he took my hand and led us back to the console room – the twisting corridors confused me more than I would admit, so I was glad he took the lead.
"Sit down," he instructed, manic nature coming to the surface more and more as he piloted the TARDIS to our next destination. The Doctor could have childlike enthusiasm sometimes, eager to see new cultures and races, but knew to temper it when aboard the TARDIS. It was something to be grateful for… if he were at 100% all the time, I'd go barmy.
I recognised when we landed now, because of the quiet vibrations of the glass floor, the echoing vworps dying down, and from the fact that it stopped being a chaotic room where it was very easy to go flying down the stairs.
"Now, first off," the Doctor helped me stand and then covered my eyes with his hands, turning me around so I was tight against his chest.
It was not an unpleasant experience.
He gave a quiet laugh down my ear, which meant he'd heard what I'd thought, and whispered, "It's a surprise. You can't see your surprises," as we shuffled forwards, "Steps now."
"Wouldn't have this been a better thing to do after I'd taken the steps?" I asked, knowing he'd been to excited for a proper thought of logic such as that one. "I'm not complaining-" he laughed again, the cheeky sod, "- but it's just going to be a bit difficult, isn't it?"
I expected two things to occur next; either the Doctor would let me walk down on my own and then re-cover my eyes, or he'd make us awkwardly walk down them together and hope that I wouldn't fall flat on my face. I didn't expect for him to quickly pick me up in a bridal style hold and carry me downstairs, dropping me back down with little ceremony before wrapping a hand over my eyes again.
That was the Doctor though, wasn't it? Always picking an unseen third option.
I trusted the Doctor as we made our way over to the door, confident that he wouldn't navigate us into a wall or something, and I felt him come very close indeed when he unlocked the door and opened it inwards. We were very snug at that moment in time, and he was doing it all on purpose because he was an arse.
"I'm an arse who's showing you the universe," the Doctor murmured down my ear.
"I knew you were listening in!"
We stepped outside, onto something rocky, and I froze. There was no breeze, no sounds of nature, though I could feel a warmth all over my body – like I was stood in the sunlight in the middle of a heatwave.
"D'you feel the light on your eyelids?" He asked, moving me forwards inch by inch. "That is the light of an alien sun. Ready?"
"No," I gave an honest answer, at least, "But when did that ever stop you?"
With a laugh, the Doctor lowered his hands and allowed me to see. At first, I had to blink as the light came flooding in; it took a few seconds for me to see properly and when I did, a gasp tore itself from my throat.
A giant red star shone in front of us, ten times as large as Sol was back home, and an asteroid belt circled around it, some larger than others. We were stood on a smaller asteroid, a way off from the others, with the beautiful vista laid out like a portrait.
"Welcome to the Rings of Akhaten," the Doctor said, at my side. He was watching me, instead of the view, and I knew it why; it was nothing new to him.
"Woah," I replied, before laughing, "That's stupid. A whole new alien system and I say 'woah'."
"It is 'woah'," the Doctor told me, "But there's more."
"More-?" I took a half-step forward, squinting at the asteroid field. "Is there something else I'm supposed to be seeing?"
"Wait," he checked his wristwatch, counting down with his fingers, "In five, four, three, two… one."
On his cue, the asteroids moved as one and revealed a larger rock that wasn't moving. A huge – and I mean huge – golden pyramid stood there, glinting in the red sunlight. It was larger than what I believed to be possible, making the ones back on Earth seem tiny in comparison.
"It's beautiful," I said, "but I haven't a clue what it is."
"It's the Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten," he informed me, making my head reel with how grand that name was. "It's a holy sight for the Sun Singers of Akhat."
I sighed. "I know you're intending this to be all very impressive but, honestly, I haven't a clue what any of that meant. Is Akhaten the star?"
"Clever Erin," the Doctor said. "Yes. Akhat is one of the planets of the system – there's seven of them, all sharing a common belief that… well, that life started here, on Akhat."
"What, all life?"
"In the known universe, yeah."
The scoff left me before I could stop it, causing the Doctor to look at me in surprise.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Life is too diverse for it all to start in one spot," I said. "I mean, sure, we look alike – but you've got two hearts and can change your face. All I can do is reach the tip of my nose with my tongue."
"Really?" he asked, curious. I demonstrated this ability for him, going cross-eyed in the attempt, and caused him to laugh, "A few million years of evolution, all for that. You do humanity proud."
"I know," I puffed out my chest. "I'm the best representative for us out in the stars."
An amused hum from the Doctor was followed by a quieter, "It's a nice story, and it's what they believe. No different from the religions from your planet."
"I don't believe in those either, but I see your point."
I was curled into his side, head resting on his shoulder, and it was nice. Simple, in a way my life hadn't been since he'd first fallen out of the sky. I was content with it, happy to just let this moment pass us by. Despite the confusing feelings he evoked, we were just two (platonic) friends.
"We can get closer, if you'd like."
Jerking out of his grip, I stared up at him in shock. "What?"
"To the Rings of Akhaten," the Doctor said, nodding his head towards the asteroid belt. "There's a bazaar there, multi-species. You'll love it, I know."
"Yeah, sure, that sounds…" I thought about it a bit. An alien bazaar, orbiting an alien star, full of aliens. "Well, it sounds… indescribable."
The Doctor's head tilted to the side, like a dog hearing a strange noise. "You okay? Your cheeks have gone all pink."
"You can hear my thoughts," I accused, "and you don't know why I'm blushing?"
"I can't just… it's not like tuning into a radio station!" He hands waved around as he explained it, almost hitting me in the face as he did so. "It's a very delicate thing, you know, and it's not my fault if you broadcast it out-!"
"Doctor, I don't even know how I'm a 'low-level' telepathic or whatever you called me."
He hesitated, going to place his hands on my shoulders before re-thinking it and letting them drop by his sides. "It's- they're- you're- it's complicated."
I raised an eyebrow in a silent 'oh, really'.
"Time Lords are touch-telepaths," he awkwardly explained. "If I'm touching you, it's easy to… see something – but only if I search for it! Which I won't, obviously. Otherwise, it's- it's like you're beaming out the thoughts. Anyone can pick up on them, not just me. The Star Whale was a minor telepathic, too, that's why you heard the screams."
It made sense, I hated to admit. The touch-telepath thing was interesting; could they convey complex ideas and plans through a simple handshake?
Yes, the Doctor whispered. His lips didn't move and, when I glanced down, I noted that he'd crept across and taken my hand.
"How… how do I block it out?" I asked, wetting my lips. "I- I don't want you seeing every dumb thought that gets in my head."
"I'm terrible at teaching," he complained. "Especially with humans. It takes so much patience!"
You're an idiot, I thought at him, glaring.
"I can give you some defences but you'll have to work on making them stronger," the Doctor said, suddenly stern. "A mental wall, sealing you off from everyone else. It'll hurt."
"I'll take it," I said, squaring my shoulders. "Go on, then."
The Doctor laughed. "I'm not doing it now! It takes preparation and has to take place in a calming atmosphere. You also have to relax to let me inside your mind on such an intimate level."
My shoulders dropped. "So, when-?"
"Later," he confirmed. "After I've taken you to see the full splendour of the Rings of Akhaten."
I made him promise to teach me later – which he'd crossed both of his hearts in response to – before allowing him to whiz me off to the closer section of the asteroid belt. The heat here was much more potent, causing sweat to roll down my skin in small drops.
The Doctor, on the other hand, seemed deep into his element. "Oh, look, a Terraberserker of the Kodian Belt – you know, Erin, I haven't seen one of those in four bodies. Rare nowadays. And, over there! A Lugal-Irra-Kush, a Hooloovoo, Panbabylonians!"
"A 'Hooloovoo'?" I repeated, sceptical. "That's an actual species? From where?"
"The local system, mostly," he answered. "Oh, I've forgotten how much I like it here. We're visiting again! Is that- Qom VoTivig!"
Perhaps it was a name, or that specific alien was just really happy to have its species' name called out amongst the rabble, because they walked over to the Doctor and began this… sort of greeting dance, which involved shaking every appendage and ended in a rather enthusiastic pelvic thrust.
"Friend of yours?" I asked, curious.
"Never seen him before in my life," the Doctor replied.
We carried on through the crowd for a few more moments, tightly clasping hands so we wouldn't be washed away, when his previous words caught up to me. "Wait, you've been here before?"
The Doctor's eyes flickered back to me, "Once, ages ago. I brought my granddaughter here."
I was very conscious of his hand on mine – and the touch-telepathy thing – so I didn't allow myself to consider his words until he'd disappeared off into the tightly packed bodies, not even his bright tweed jacket remaining in sight.
Then I let myself breathe out, nice and slow. He'd all but confirmed being a father back on his home planet… was being a grandfather as well really so surprising?
Yes, I admitted. Yes, it was. At nine hundred and six, it wasn't impossible for his children to age and have their own kids, but it was just weird to consider. The Doctor looked my age. Perhaps if he had a different body, an older one, it wouldn't be so hard to believe.
I just… kept forgetting he was an alien. It was stupid of me, really.
When I found the Doctor again, in a little side street that wasn't as busy, he was busy sonicing a bowl of luminous blue balls.
"What're those?" I questioned, keeping a careful watch of his face.
"Exotic fruit," he said, without a flicker of doubt or hesitation. Maybe he hadn't heard me – could I be so lucky? "Non-toxic, non-hallucinogenic, should be perfectly fine for you to try."
I gave the 'fruit' a dubious look. "Doctor, it's glowing."
"It's fruit from another galaxy," he replied, in that annoying tone of his. "How many times have you been given the offer to try that?"
"I haven't paid for them!"
"They're left out in the open for weary travellers who've made long pilgrimages to eat," the Doctor told me. "It's their purpose."
He wanted me to eat it, I realised, maybe as part of a test. To see what kind of companion I'd be to him; one who was a stickler for the safe and normal, or one who ate weird blue alien fruit.
"Can't be that bad," I supposed. "You can get food poisoning anywhere in the universe."
"That's the spirit," he encouraged, picking up one of the fruits and moving it towards my mouth. I realised, a moment too late, that he intended to feed it to me.
"I can manage this part," I said, snatching it off of him, cheeks stained red. The Doctor muffled a laugh in the crook of his elbow and I knew – he'd only done it to embarrass me.
To cover up my humiliation – to think, I'd actually fallen for it! - I bit down fiercely into the fruit, almost choking as the juices immediately hit the back of my throat. The taste was, surprisingly, quite normal. It was similar to a raspberry, only mixed with alcohol and sprouts.
"You're an arse," I told him, "and this is disgusting."
The Doctor shrugged. "Alien cuisine isn't for everyone."
He took the fruit from me and munched down on it quite happily, which wasn't a shock. After seeing him eat fish custard, weird raspberry-alcohol-sprout fruit was probably a delicacy for him.
"So," we carried on walking, arms linked, "Why's everyone here?"
"Festival of Offerings," the Doctor said, around the fruit. "Takes place when the rings align, so it's only every few thousand years. It's a big thing, 'round here, like Pancake Tuesday."
"I like pancakes," I muttered, "But I don't usually celebrate eating them by organising a festival."
We came to a stop when I met the gaze of another alien, one with lots… and lots… of teeth. It- they snarled at me, causing me to flinch back in shock. "What the-"
He barked next to me, high-pitched like my neighbour's Yorkie, and I stared up at him. "She was only saying hello."
"All I heard was barking," I said. "Say hello back, okay?"
The Doctor didn't do anything. "You- you didn't understand her?"
I shook my head. "No, I didn't. Was I supposed to? She's an alien, Doctor."
"Yes, well-" He straightened out his bow-tie, gesturing with the half-eaten fruit towards the alien. "Erin, meet Dor'een. Dor'een, meet Erin."
I waved, feeling stupid. "She's an alien called Doreen?"
"Loosely, yeah. She's a bit grumpy today but usually, she's a total sweetheart, aren't you?" He switched to baby-talk, voice going gushy, "Yes, you are! She wants to know if we fancy renting a moped."
"Oh, no, I've already ridden with you once, I'm not doing it again."
The Doctor let out an offended gasp. "It wasn't that bad!"
"You took us up a flight of stairs!" Doreen seemed very interested in our fighting and, eager to change the subject, I pointed out, "We don't have any money, so, there."
"Don't need money," the Doctor said. "Currency here's something of sentimental value – y'know, photograph, love letter, your first screwdriver, stuff like that. Psychometry; objects psychically imprinted with their history. More treasured by the owner, more value."
I couldn't – literally, couldn't – understand. "So, they give up their most treasured possessions for food and water? That's terrible."
"It's better than bits of paper," he defended.
"You're not the one paying," I pointed out. "Or are you?"
The Doctor considered my question, even going so far as to pull out his sonic and stare at it, pondering if he could part with it. Then he shoved it away again, saying, "Nah."
I wasn't a maternal person, contrary to popular belief, but after Starship UK and Mandy, maybe I had an affinity for finding scared little girls. This thought was caused as I spotted a young girl wearing red robes race 'round the corner, chest heaving.
"Hey," I began, moving forwards. "You okay?"
She looked at me, eyes wide with fear, and carried on running. I made to move after her, already yanking onto the Doctor's arm for his attention, when two tall men arrived, wearing red robes similar to the girl's.
"Did you see her?" They asked the crowd, almost as panicked as the girl had been. "Did you see the Queen of Years?"
"Who-?" I looked up at the Doctor, not wanting to garner the men's attention. "Was that the little girl?"
"Yes," he answered. "Did you see which way she went?"
"Over here," I led the way, careful to make sure the men couldn't see us. "I think she ducked down into here."
"Queen of Years," the Doctor mused. "She must be scared."
I found the entrance to a little storeroom, where the door had been obviously shoved open, and entered to find it dark and more than a little bit damp. It was a nice reprieve from the relentless heat of outside, and I enjoyed the darkness. A flash of red from ahead made me speed up, catching sight of the little girl before long.
"Hey!" I called, "Are you lost?"
"Leave me alone!" she called back, "I'm not going!"
"Going where?" I asked quietly, to myself.
"Queen of Years," the Doctor said again, making me jump – I'd forgotten he was there.
"I still don't know-"
I turned the corner and found the girl sat on the dusty floor, head between her knees. She was shaking like a leaf, terrified beyond her wits end as I inched my way closer to her.
"Hey, hey," I soothed. "It's alright. Why are you in here?"
"I'm hiding," she said.
"Because of the ceremony, I'm guessing," the Doctor spoke up from behind me. "Nerves?"
The girl nodded her head, causing her hood to slip down and reveal right red hair. "I- I might get it wrong."
"Get what wrong?" I looked between the two, utterly confused. "An explanation would be nice, y'know."
"You don't know who I am?" the girl asked, finally looking up at me. "Why did you follow me, then?"
"You looked lost," I said, "And- well. I can't really sit by and watch children cry."
The Doctor nudged me with his elbow and whispered, close to my ear, "I think that's my line."
"I don't believe you," the little girl turned away again, "they sent you."
"Listen, sweetie, I haven't got the faintest clue of who you are," I sat down next to her, making sure she had space to herself, "I'm a tourist – only here because mister over there wanted to show off the sights. All I saw was a scared little girl who needed a hand to hold."
She glanced over, curiosity beating her refusal to let me help, and I waggled my fingers at her in invitation. "Really?"
"Erin never lies," the Doctor said, "ever. She's too nice."
"I said the tweed looked good, didn't I?"
Thankfully, the girl laughed. "You're both so… strange."
"Strange is good," I told her, "Strange is unique."
"Can you help me?" she asked, leaning forwards eagerly. "I- I need to hide. Please. Only for a bit."
I looked at the Doctor, wondering if I could just reach out and- TARDIS.
He frowned at me in disagreement, then froze. I knew that face – he was sensing something I couldn't. Looking over our heads, the frown only deepened, before the Doctor said, in as quiet a voice he could manage, "Yes, we can."
"Really?" I was unable to stop myself from voicing my surprise. "Seriously, are you sure?"
The Doctor didn't answer; instead he took the girl's hand and pulled her to her feet, saying as he did, "Make sure to hold onto Erin as well, okay? Don't want you getting lost."
And so we fled the stockroom, haste speeding our steps for some unknown reason, and played a game with the little girl as we wove our way back through the crowd, hiding her from sight as we did so. Eventually, when we reached the abandoned side-alley where the TARDIS was parked, she perked up a bit and swung herself from our joined hands.
It was… weird. Nice.
But very, very, massively weird.
"What's this?" she asked, upon spotting the TARDIS.
"It's my ship," the Doctor said, "she travels through space and time."
"It's teeny," replied the girl.
With a laugh, the Doctor stepped forwards and unlocked the doors – moving aside with a grand bow, he let the doors swing open slowly, giving a dramatic reveal of the TARDIS' larger interior.
She ran forwards, dragging me along with her, and stared in awe. "By Grandfather, it's amazing!"
"Go explore," I urged, dropping her hand. She ran off, finally acting her age, and I switched gears instantly. "What the hell happened back there?"
"Something was looking for her," he explained, hastily. "Something- something that shouldn't be around scared little girls."
I accepted his words, nodding along with him. It certainly gave a reason to why we'd left so quickly. After a pause, I noticed his eyes lingering on the girl; "You look sad."
"It's nothing," he said, brushing off my concern. "You should look after your new friend."
"You've bonded," the Doctor shrugged. "Just like with Mandy."
"Come off it," I scoffed, "you were holding her hand too, y'know. And you were the one who started that whole thing with Mandy, so don't even go there."
He sighed. "You can't let me have this one, can you?"
"I would if you were being honest," I said.
I didn't wait for a response, bounding into the TARDIS with enthusiasm I didn't really feel. "Little girl?"
"It's Merry," she corrected. "My name, it's Merry."
"That's a pretty name," I sat on the glass steps and patted the spot next to me, waiting until she was sat down to begin, "So, what's wrong? Is someone trying to hurt you?"
"No," Merry shook her head. "It's like- like what he said," she jerked her head over to the Doctor. "I'm scared I'll mess up."
"Mess up what?" I asked, "Is it to do with the Festival of Offerings?"
"I'm Merry Gejlh," she boldly stated.
I shrugged. "Still not getting it."
"She's the Queen of Years," the Doctor spoke, making his way towards us. "If I know my Akhaten traditions, that means she's the vessel of their entire history."
Merry nodded in agreement, "I know every chronicle, every poem, every legend and every song."
"But..." I looked over her, head-to-toe. "You're, like, eight. How do you remember all that?"
"It's hard," she admitted, "and that's what's scaring me. What if I forget it in front of everyone?"
The Doctor sat down on my other side, a few steady inches between us at all times, and said, "She has to sing in front of the entire crowd. Everyone you saw here, today, came to hear her."
"She's eight," I said, for a second time, "she's only a child."
"I know that, but these are their traditions. We have to respect them, even if we don't agree with them," the Doctor's words were quiet, meant for my ears only.
"It's not just the people," Merry told me, "I have to sing it to a god. I'm scared."
"Everyone gets scared sometimes," I nudged my shoulder into hers, "Especially when they're little."
"Even you?" she asked.
I leaned back on my hands, considering the question. I'd been scared as a child, of course, but none of that was on the same scale as singing to a god. Then again, maybe it didn't have to be.
"When I was younger, our world got attacked. There were planets in the sky and these… things killing us, Daleks is what we called them. It was six o'clock in the morning when it happened, I was asleep at a friend's house. Those Daleks… they rounded us up like animals, killed anyone who tried to escape."
Both Merry and the Doctor were focused on me intently, hanging onto my every word. For Merry, it was simply a cool – if scary – story, one that every child liked to hear. It was personal for the Doctor.
"What happened?" Merry begged to know.
"The mothership exploded and all the Daleks went with it. The planets in the sky disappeared and everything went back to normal. My dad found me and gave me a hug."
"Makes my fears seem silly," Merry said.
"No," I disagreed. "Every fear, everything you're scared of, none of those things are silly. Y'know, bad hair days, a really horrible zit, issues of the heart. You're young, very young, and sometimes it feels like the world's out to get you. You're scared of loads of things when you're a kid."
Merry seemed to think over my words, and I took the moment to notice how… alien she was. There were lines of raised flesh across her face and arms, pupils white in colour. A completely different race, yet so similar to my own. Was this how the Doctor viewed me?
"I'm not scared of everything," Merry explained, after a beat. "Just… what if I mess up? What if Grandfather's angry?"
"If he's a good grandfather, he'll only care that you tried your best," I said, "and you won't get it wrong."
Merry took my hand suddenly, with a fierce grip. "How'd you know?"
"'cause I do," I stood, helping her jump down the steps, "now, isn't it time for you to get back?"
I led Merry back to the bazaar, where the men where still looking her – they were relieved to find her again, placing a lei around her neck before leading her off. I watched them go, happy to know Merry was going to be okay.
The Doctor, stood at my side and eating another one of those blue fruits he'd pulled out of nowhere, said, "why do we always run into little girls?"
"Foreshadowing," I joked. "What're we doing now?"
"It's the main event," he said.
I considered asking him why he'd been so off before, when Merry was in the TARDIS, but it was inevitable that he'd side-step the inquiry with a tale about the time he saved the fifth Empress of Botilink from a rogue slipper.
Eventually, the Doctor brought us to an amphitheatre that faced the golden pyramid, on an asteroid only a few miles away. It was several stories tall, tiered seating full on every row, and the Doctor and I apologised every few seconds as we found seats on the front row.
He was polite enough to be British, I thought.
"How'd you get tickets for this?" I asked, noticing how all of the aliens held the same golden piece of paper, "it couldn't have been planned."
The Doctor studiously ignored me, focusing instead on a program he'd lifted from a basket on the way in, "oh, here it says they offer free food and drink! Nothing you could digest, but the thought counts."
"Doctor," saying his name sternly, I caused the centuries-old Time Lord to cast me a glance like a naughty schoolboy found writing naughty words on the bathroom stall, "are we allowed to be here?"
"Oh, there's Merry!" he pointed a finger out to the centre of the amphitheatre, making me look over despite myself.
It was her; head held high, even as her hands shook slightly. As she stepped up onto the podium in front of everyone there was a second of hesitation, and Merry looked back – catching my eye almost by accident. I gave her a big thumbs-up and a nice smile, which made her grin back.
She began to sing and it was… magical. A haunting, revering song, the words of which were lost to me. I simply enjoyed the grandness of it all, the sense of rarity inscribed in every word that left Merry's talented mouth.
"They're singing to the Mummy in the Temple," the Doctor told me, from his leaflet. "The 'Grandfather' that Merry mentioned earlier, also sometimes 'Old God'."
"What's she singing?" I asked, "it's beautiful."
"The Long Song," he answered, "a lullaby without end to feed the Old God. Keeps him asleep. It's lasted for millennia, chorister handing over to chorister, generation after generation after generation."
I noticed some of the crowd, offering goods and trinkets up to the star above us. Their belongings disappeared into sparkles, turning into nothing but dust.
"Are they offering their stuff? 'cause you said that the currency around here was stuff you cared about and they're… oh, I don't like this."
"They're giving the Old God gifts of value to feed him," the Doctor said, "there's lyrics in here, if you want to join in."
"I'm a terrible singer," I told him.
The Doctor shrugged and started singing along under his breath, surprising me with a natural talent for it. Of course, he could sing. Why not? He was basically perfect at everything else, why not this, too?
There was a rumble throughout the amphitheatre, echoing out from the Pyramid, and we all stopped singing. Merry's arms dropped from where she'd stretched them out, nervously waiting for something else to happen.
A golden beam of energy hit Merry, lifting her up a few feet off the ground. I jumped out of my seat, wondering if that was meant to happen. The beam started to carry Merry across the chasm to the Pyramid and she called back to me, "help! Someone, help!"
No one lifted a finger, as though this was all perfectly normal even when it wasn't, and I turned to the Doctor, saying, "we need to do something!"
"We will, don't worry," the Doctor took my hand and led me from the amphitheatre, running back to the bazaar, which was now empty, "c'mon."
"We're going the wrong way," I said, tears prickling my eyes, "this is all my fault! I told her it was going to be okay! Doctor! I'm not walking away from this, rules be damned!"
He came to a stop, tugging our joined hands up so he could clasp them close to his chest, "Erin, listen to me, we're going to save Merry. You know that I wouldn't let that scared little girl be hurt."
"I do," I assured him, "really, I do, but… Doctor, this is my fault. I said she'd be fine! Why didn't you stop me?"
"Because..." the Doctor shrugged, "it was good advice. Advice I'd have given if you weren't there."
I snorted, "you're just trying to make me feel better."
He lifted up my hand and patted the back of my knuckles, then let them drop, "well, yes, but I can say the truth at the same time, can't I?"
We turned the next corner and I spotted Dor'een, who barked in recognition.
"I still don't understand her," I said.
He talked to Dor'een for a few moments, then looked at me sheepishly, "I need something valuable."
And by that he meant something 'precious' to me.
"You're almost a thousand years old," I said, "surely you've got something worth a million quid?"
"Nothing we won't need in that Pyramid," he answered.
I wasn't wearing much from home – only a necklace and a few bracelets, none of which were too important to me. I didn't think I had anything of sentimental value on me, other than- necklace.
Fumbling around my neck, I unhooked the silver chain and the ring that rested on it, "Doctor, can rings be accepted too?"
"Yes," he said, curiously peering at the ring, "what's that?"
"Um," it was awkward to explain, here of all places, but… "my engagement ring."
I ran my finger over the diamond and swallowed softly; it meant so much me... I didn't want to give it up… the thought of Merry made me hand it over to Dor'eeen, breathing deeply to control my emotions.
"Should that be enough?" I asked the Doctor.
"It should be more than enough," he replied.
Dor'een barked a few times, throwing in a grunt here and there, and then threw a key to the Doctor, who caught it with a flail of his hands.
"Parking's behind the shop," he explained, leading the way.
The 'moped' was a weird silvery-brown construct that looked like something out of Star Trek. The Doctor climbed aboard first and revved the motor, offering me a hand a moment later to take the seat behind him; I was forced to sit rather close, arms wrapped around his waist and my chest pushed into his back, as he hit the speed and we took to space with a rev of the engine.
I was too focused on Merry's distant form to be scared, even as we passed over the abyss between the bazaar asteroid and the Pyramid. The closer we got, the more Merry's body became defined, and the Doctor sped up to close the distance between us; she was so close our hands were only inches apart as I reached out, only inches away from pulling her to safety…
Then the beam flashed white, knocking me away as it zoomed Merry quickly into the Pyramid, door slamming shut behind her. We were going too fast, I realised, as we quickly approached the tall stone door.
"Brake!" I ordered, bracing myself against the Doctor's body, "brake, now! Brake!"
"I can't!" he replied, "it's not responding!"
We hit the wall with a groan of metal, a sharp pain exploding across my temple as I bounced off the door and fell to the floor. I let out a low groan from the back of my throat, feeling blood trickle down the side of my face.
"Ow," I said, pitifully.
"Erin," came the Doctor's voice, from not too far away, "Erin! Are you okay?"
Everything spun before me and I had a hard time finding my ability to speak… everything felt… weird… my hands and feet tingled… the world blurry and out-of-focus… I was feeling kinda sleepy…
The Doctor's face popped into my line of vision, worry making his brow crease, "Erin! How many fingers am I holding up?"
"You aren't holding any fingers up, dumbass," I grouched, flicking his forehead as I sat up. Everything span for a moment and I had to grab onto him to ground myself.
The Doctor let out a noise from the back of his throat – it was the deepest thing I'd ever heard from him, coming straight out of his gut, "Erin."
"What's wrong?" I asked, leaning towards him, "your face is all red."
He gulped, eyes cast away from mine. "Hand."
I frowned and looked down, wondering why he'd – oh. Oh. Oh no. I thought I'd grabbed his knee… but I hadn't. I'd reached higher than that, apparently, and my smooth hand was actually wrapped around the very top of his tight, tips of my fingers very close to-
"Sorry!" I blurted, going bright red, "didn't realise! Didn't, er, mean to, either!"
"It's fine," he reassured, "it happens. This one time with the Queen-"
"Which queen?" I asked, despite a million more pressing things. "You know loads of queens."
"Er, well, that's a good question, but I mean the Queen to which I was the husband and -" the Doctor paused, "you still haven't moved your hand."
I sent him a cocky grin, "you still haven't asked me to."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow, smug and flirty. We didn't say anything else – that wasn't really the nature of our relationship – and he helped me stand up on unsteady legs. After that, he walked over to the Pyramid's door and scanned it with the sonic.
"Oh, that's interesting; a frequency modulated acoustic lock. The key changed ten million, zillion, squillion times a second."
"'Squillion' isn't a word," I said, "and also, can you open it?"
"Technically, no. In reality, also no," he sent me a cheery smile, "still, let's give it a stab!"
He stepped forwards, scanning different parts of the door, eyebrows furrowed. I occasionally heard a word - 'crumpet', 'unlikely', 'higher being', 'hormones', 'natural' - but he was otherwise silent, leaving me to my own musings.
"Why was she taken, though?" I eventually asked, after a few minutes passed with no change, "why'd no one do anything? They let her be taken."
"This is sacred ground," the Doctor explained, "the centre piece of their religion. They'd never step foot here."
"She's eight, Doctor," I said, "I don't care what religion you are, if it involves sacrificing a child it's just plain wrong."
"They think there's a slumbering god here, Erin," he said in reply, "would you risk awaking him?"
I met his gaze, "if it was the right thing to do, sure. Gods don't exist anyway, so the point is mute."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," the Doctor laughed under his breath, "I still remember meeting Satan."
"You did not-"
A scream came from inside, stopping the rest of my sentence, and I banged on the door to capture the attention of anyone inside, "Merry! Merry, we're coming! Doctor, what can we-"
"Oh, hello," he purred from next to me, making the hairs on the back of my neck raise up, "the sonic's locked onto the acoustic tumblers."
"So?" I didn't see the relevance of it.
"So, I get to do this;" he took a step back and activated the sonic. At the now familiar whirr, the door slowly began rising – I let out an excited gasp and slapped his arm.
"You're a bloody genius!"
The Doctor held the door open so I could duck under it, with surprising ease.
"Hello," he said, as I was in the awkward position of easing passage past his arms, "you're met us – Doctor and Erin, blah blah blah. I was supposed to be giving her a nice day out, y'know? Impress her a bit."
"The day's still young," I assured him, a bit stunned. He'd wanted to impress me?
I was reading into it, surely. Impressing your friends was a thing.
"Did I mention that the door is immensely heavy?" the Doctor added on, readjusting his grip, "really, quite extraordinarily heavy."
"Leave," hissed Merry. I raced forwards, finding her stood in front of a metal casket, inside which sat a mummy on a throne, "you'll wake him!"
I was torn between helping her or helping the Doctor – he'd been pushed to his knees, beads of sweat rolling down his face.
The Chorister was still singing, unbelievably.
"Merry, we need to go," I said.
"No," she took a step back, "go away!"
"Not without you," I promised, "the Doctor and I don't leave people in need."
"This is your fault!" Merry cried, "you said I wouldn't get it wrong and then I did! This happened because I got it wrong!"
"You didn't get it wrong, Merry," I said, moving closer, "you were perfect."
"You don't know anything, you said so yourself. You have to go now, or he'll eat us all!"
I glanced at the zombie, who was just sat there doing nothing interesting at all, and tried not to laugh in the face of her religion, "zombies don't usually eat meat, y'know. They're too dead to digest it."
Merry sighed, "Grandfather doesn't eat meat. He eats souls."
Then she pressed two fingers to her forehead and a sort of purple energy came at me like a bat out of hell, whipping me around and slamming me against the glass box. I tried to move but found I couldn't; I was stuck.
"Doctor," I called, "Doctor, she's-"
"If you leave, you'll be fine. If you don't, he'll eat you, too."
"Well," I tried to move again and the purple energy slammed me against the glass even harder, "I'd do that if I could move. Great idea there, kiddo."
"You don't want us to be eaten, do you?" the Doctor asked, barely able to keep the door up any longer, "you want Erin and I to walk out of this really quite astonishingly heavy door and… never return to this bloody asteroid belt again."
"Yes," Merry said.
"Erin's right," the Doctor muttered, "we don't leave people in need."
Quick as a flash, he darted forwards and rolled into the Pyramid, grabbing his screwdriver just before the door smashed it to smithereens. Straightening up, he met my incredulous gaze.
"Did you just lock us in?" I asked.
"Yeah," he nonchalantly said.
"With the soul-eating mummy?"
Realising that it was futile to try and escape the purple energy, I sent the Doctor my most exasperated look, "and have you figured out a way for us to leave?"
"Not yet, no," he tried to stay positive, "but I will! Possibly. Probably. There's usually a way out!"
His enthusiasm was probably the best escape plan we had so far, given the fact that I couldn't even move, and instead I turned my attention to the still singing Chorister, "Doctor, he hasn't stopped."
"That's 'cause he's trying to sing the Old God back to sleep, only it's not gonna happen. Mate," the Doctor surprised with his use of that term – it was such a normal word for a non-normal man, "he's waking up, he's coming, ready or not. You want to run."
The Chorister stopped mid-word, eyes wide as he realised the truth of what the Doctor was saying. He stood, looking me in the eye, and said, "my name is Chorister Rezh Baphix, and the Long Song ended with me," before he disappeared in a flash.
The Doctor sighed, "that's it, then. Song's over-"
A roar came from behind me, making me screech in shock. The purple energy kept me still, even as I began to hear movement from inside the glass box.
"You've woken him," said Merry, fright making her go very quiet, "what've you done?"
"The mummy's up?" I tried to twist my head around to see, "what's it doing?"
"Oh I wouldn't worry," he assured me, "he's only have a nice stretch."
There was a bang on the glass, then another one, and it only took a single look at the Doctor's face to realise that the mummy was trying to break out, "Doctor!"
"We didn't wake him up, Erin," the Doctor said, earnestly, "and neither did you, Merry. He's up because it was his time to wake, to feed. On you, apparently, on your stories."
"What?" I frowned down at him, "okay, she said souls, not stories, and where'd you even get that idea from?"
"The people here trade in items of sentimental value, what's more sentimental than a story? That's all a soul is made from. Everything that ever happened to us, people we love, people we lost. People we never expected to meet at all. The Old God threatens to wake, they offer him a pure soul. The Queen of Years."
"You're scaring her," I told him, eyes fixed on Merry. She'd gone even paler than usual, which was saying something for her.
"Good, she should be scared."
"Doctor," I said, appalled, "she's- no!"
He crouched down in front of Merry, tone soft despite the words leaving his mouth, "she's sacrificing herself, Erin, she should know what that entails. Do you know what that entails, Merry?"
"A god chose me," she said, gulping heavily.
"It isn't a god, Merry," the Doctor explained, in the same gentle tone he'd used with Mandy, "it feeds on your soul, but that doesn't make it a god. It's a vampire, and you don't need to give yourself to it."
Merry bit down on her lip, dropping down onto the bottom step. Sending me a glance, the Doctor sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her narrow shoulders.
"Mind if I tell you a story?" he asked, then continued on without waiting for an answer, "you probably haven't heard it before. All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago, in the heart of a far away star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After many millions of years, these elements came together to form new stars and new planets. On, and on, it went, with the elements coming together and bursting apart, forming shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. Until eventually, they came together to make you," the Doctor bopped her on the nose, "you are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gejelh, and there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn't a sacrifice… it's a waste."
After his speech, there was silence. I stared at the back of his head, feeling something new flutter to life in my chest. I couldn't put a name to it, though I was certain that it was accompanied by pride. He was a good man.
"But..." Merry began, haltingly, "if I don't, then everyone else-"
"-will be fine," the Doctor finished off.
"How?" Merry's voice held hope, and I was overjoyed to hear it.
"There's always a way," I told her, "the Doctor will make sure."
The Doctor stood, keeping his face solemn, as Merry's eyes flickered between us – she was on the cusp of agreeing with us, I knew.
"Promise?" she sounded so young, yet had been ready to let herself die. How could people have let his happen?
"Cross my hearts," the Doctor said, index fingers flicking over both sides of his chest.
I let myself smile at the sight.
A splintering sound reached my ears shortly before I felt the glass crack behind me, growing louder and louder, and then the mummy's hand shot through, mere inches away.
Merry screamed along with me and the energy glowed an even more vibrant colour of purple before releasing me. I'd been pushing all my body forwards, trying to escape, so when I wasn't held back any longer I went flying down the steps – the Doctor had to catch me before I fell right on my face.
"'Nice stretch'," I repeated, mockingly.
"Well, he was earl-"
A rumble reached our feet, echoing throughout the asteroid, and I felt quite confident saying, "something's coming."
"It's the Vigil," Merry said, backing up to us, "when Queen of Years is unwilling to be feasted upon, it's their job to feed her to Grandfather."
"Wait," I left the Doctor's arms and turned Merry to look at her properly, "you knew that Grandfather would eat you?"
"No," she shook her head, "but in the books they say the Vigil will make us sing even if we don't want to… and if singing leads to being eaten, then..."
Three pillars of black smoke rose up, leaving behind robotic figures. They wore dark cloaks that trailed across the floor, each menacing step bringing them closer to Merry.
"They're the ones who came earlier," the Doctor said, "in the warehouse."
I stared at him in shock, "and you didn't think to say anything?"
"I'm sorry," Merry told the Vigil, "I'm sorry!"
One of them reached a hand out, aiming for Merry, and I yanked her away, snarling as I did so, "don't you dare."
"Stay back," the Doctor warned, brandishing the sonic, "I'm armed! With a screwdriver!"
The Vigil closest to us raised an arm, closing its fist as a blast knocked us both back – we hit the walls with groans, and everything went blurry again. It was worse than when the moped crashed, nausea rising up in my stomach. Through my dizzy vision, I saw the Vigil leading Merry off into the distance.
"Doctor," I moaned.
"Erin," he replied, looking far better than I did, "sonic."
I frowned at him, or where I thought he should be, and cast my hands about until I felt the cool metal of the sonic. Throwing it over, I lay back down on the stone floor, letting out a sigh. I was in too much pain to notice what was going on around me; I'm pretty sure getting thrown against a wall twice in under ten minutes wasn't a good thing.
"Erin," came the Doctor's voice a few moments later, from far away, "Erin, you need to stand up."
I grasped at the wall, dimly recognising Merry helping me stand, "what'd you do?"
"He set up a shield," Merry explained, "he's very good."
"He is, yeah," I took Merry firmly by the shoulders, "okay, we need to get out of here. You know all the stories, right? Is there a secret entrance? I've seen Indiana Jones, there are always secret entrances to temples."
"There's a secret song," Merry said, after a few seconds of thinking, "the Thief of the Temple and the Nimmer's Door."
I let out a breath of relief, "okay, d'you know the secret song?"
Merry's mouth opened and she released a series of high-pitched notes, each one melodic and beautiful, causing a door to slide open… just behind the mummy and the Vigil. I finally noticed what the Doctor was doing; he held the sonic up, beaming out a silver shield keeping the Vigil back.
"Great..." I muttered.
"Go!" the Doctor yelled, waving us forward, "I'll cover you!"
I grabbed Merry's hand and legged it, ducking under the Doctor's outstretched arm and past the Vigil – who reached out to us before being repelled by the Doctor. The secret exit left us outside the Pyramid, back under the burning sun, and I refused to move any further without the Doctor. I looked back to see if he was following, just in time to watch as the sonic shield faded.
"Doctor!" I yelled, ready to go back for him. I heard glass shatter from further inside and, moments later, a yellow beam fired at the sun. The Vigil disappeared and the Doctor, taking the opportunity as it was handed to him, began running to our side.
"Where are you?" I heard a voice whisper, unsure if it was inside my own mind or not, "where are you?"
"Oh god," I embraced the Doctor as he reached us, quickly wrapping my arms around him before stepping back, "what was that? I wasn't the only one who heard it, was I?"
"No, no, you weren't," the Doctor moved his gaze to the sun then back to me, "the Vigil disappeared because Grandfather's woken up."
"You sound like someone kicked your puppy," I said, "what's wrong?"
"Nothing wrong, per say… more of a tactical boo-boo," the Doctor shrugged, grinning slightly, "more of a semantics mix-up, if anything. How was I to know?"
I punched his shoulder, hard, and he rubbed at it, "explain."
"We thought that the Old God was Grandfather, but it was just Grandfather's… alarm clock."
"Grandfather is real?"
"Yes," he said, looking past me, "he's very… very real. And big."
I followed his gaze up to the sun; it'd… changed, if that possible. Somehow angry, solar flares lashing out from its surface, and if I tilted my head a bit, it almost looked like a face was emerging on the… oh no.
"You've got to be kidding," I said, faintly, "what can we do?"
The Doctor ran a hand through his hair once, then again, then tugged at it with both hands and said, with desperation in his voice, "against that? I don't know, d'you? Do you know? I don't. Any ideas?"
"You promised!" Merry cried, "he'll eat us all, he'll spread across the system, consuming the Seven Worlds, and then when there's no more to eat, he'll embark on a new odyssey amongst the stars, and you promised you'd stop him!"
"I know it's the right thing to do," I said, wondering if I should just keep quiet, "but stars expanding is sort of natural. They all do it, don't they? Should we stop it?"
"That isn't a star, Erin," the Doctor told me, "maybe, at one point, it was. Then something else moved in and took it over."
"Doctor, it can't be a living thing," I gestured to the giant star, "those things don't live. They burn and burn and then, eventually, they burn themselves into a supernova. They don't breathe, they aren't alive."
"The universe is infinite and complex," the Doctor replied, staring at me with a new look in his eye, "you've seen whales that live in space, men who can change their faces, a box that can travel in time. Where's the science that says that a living sun is impossible?"
He was right, I was forced to admit. I hung my head and breathed out through my nose; Earth was so primitive, I could hardly expect the entire universe to comply to our laws, the laws which changed with every new discovery.
"Besides," the Doctor continued on, "that's not a star. It's a brown dwarf."
My head shot up, frowning at him, "aren't brown dwarves just… stars that didn't make it?"
The Doctor opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again, "… yes."
"It- there's seven planets," Merry protested, "not eight!"
"Merry, Erin," the Doctor gestured towards Akhaten, "that thing is a gas giant, and we're on its asteroid belt. Stars don't have asteroid belts, and they certainly aren't that small."
"Small?" I repeated, incredulous, "it's a bloody giant."
"I've seen bigger," the Doctor said, straightening his bow tie.
He rounded on me, "are you joking?! That thing is massive!"
"So what do we do? Send Merry back on the moped and… come up with a plan?"
"Actually..." the Doctor fidgeted in the way that meant I wasn't going to like what he said next, "you're not staying."
I raised an eyebrow, "yes, I am."
"Nope," the Doctor said, shaking his head rapidly, "you're leaving."
"Um, no, I'm not, no," I placed my hands on my hips, frowning up at him, "you've never sent me away before."
"You never said you had a fiancé before," he retorted.
I laughed, unable to believe that he actually sounded jealous, "have you told me all about your dead loved ones? I didn't think so."
The Doctor froze, staring at me with unblinking eyes. I stared back, unwilling to let him win.
"Sorry," said Merry from next to me, as heartfelt as a child could manage, "Grandfather's getting angrier."
The Doctor and I broke from our contest to look up at Akhaten – that planet wouldn't wait. Not for this. Time running out on me, once again.
"I'll go," I told him, "but if anything happens to you, I'll kill you."
"I don't doubt it," the Doctor replied, "you take the moped."
"I wasn't really planning on walking to the next asteroid, Doctor."
I took Merry's hand and left without another word, not really wanting to carry on… whatever that was. What business was it of his who I used to be with? He'd barely said a thing about his own past, other than he was the last of his kind and used to be a family man, and yet he was upset that I hadn't shared everything in my own past immediately and with no hesitation?
I was worried that the moped might be damaged from the crash, but there were only a few scratches on the metal, luckily.
"Not getting the deposit back, then," I joked to Merry.
She was too focused on the sun to laugh.
The ride back was silent and fraught with tension and we landed back on the bazaar asteroid with little fanfare, Merry leading us back to the amphitheatre with a bowed head. The crowds there began whispering when they saw that she was still alive, though the activity of Akhaten put a downer on things.
"I'm scared," said Merry, "d'you think the Doctor is frightened, too?"
"I'm sure he's terrified," I told her, "but that makes him all the more braver."
There was a beat, then, "I'm sorry about your fiancé."
"It's okay," I said, gentle, "it was a long time ago."
"I thought the Doctor was your boyfriend," Merry said, with a small smile.
I opened my mouth to reply, then stopped. His reaction, the 'imagined' flirting… 'pretty' Erin…
"I think he did, too," I said, with realisation. Or he at least thought we were something…
"I want to help," Merry said, decisively. She got onto the pedestal and took a deep breath before carrying on her song. The crowd joined in, fear making their voices stronger.
I watched her, thinking – it explained a lot, over the past few days, plus the 'trying to impress' me comment. You don't impress your platonic friends, but you do if they aren't platonic. Was… was this a date?
"This is totally a date," I hated how dumb I was, "how the hell didn't I know that this was a date?"
I want to help, Merry had said. I wanted to help, too, but how?
Akhaten howled and I knew why; the Doctor was doing something, feeding him or fighting him, and I was stuck here, with a bunch of singing people.
Lewis had hated singing. Never went to concerts unless I made him. He proposed to me on the banks of the Thames, on a boiling hot summers' night, after I'd begged him for a month to come watch some indie band play at the local pub. I'd cried and some passer-by had recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube.
He was dead a month later, with broken promises and broken bones.
I'd never told him, never told anyone, but I'd always hated that ring. It was a size too big and the diamond looked tacky. I considered Akhaten, the sheer size and beauty of such a monstrous thing, and thought that the ring could be used for something, after all.
I left the amphitheatre and made a beeline for Dor'een, who'd taken shelter at the back of her shop. The bazaar was deserted and with each step I took the asteroid vibrated beneath my feet.
"What do you want?" she demanded, upon seeing me.
"I can understand you!" I cheered, "also, I need my ring back."
Dor'een's eyes narrowed at me, "why?"
"To stop Grandfather from eating us all," I told her, and seconds later the ring was thrown back to me.
"May the fish speed your way," Dor'een said.
I frowned, but accepted the wish and returned to where I'd parked the moped. I'd adopted an intense focus, the likes I'd never seen, as I rode over to the Pyramid and parked without crashing at the back, far closer to Akhaten than I'd like to be. I could hear yelling in the distance, probably the Doctor, and I investigated.
"- a universe based on a paradox! Twisted until nothing remained! I'll tell you of… the Last Centurion and… the Girl who..." the Doctor was on his knees in the centre of a courtyard built facing Akhaten, who was smirking down at us with a sinister look in its burning eyes. The Doctor noticed me stood there and waved me away, "Erin, go!"
"You can't feed Akhaten, Doctor," I said, stalking forwads, "he's too hungry. Not even you have enough memories for that."
"You'd be surprised," the Doctor muttered. He was unable to stand, which showed how weak giving up his memories had made him, "Erin, what are you-"
I held up the ring, letting the light glint off the rock and cascade into a million new colours.
"I was given this ring on the 11th of August, 2013. That's a few thousand years ago, I think. It was only three years ago for me. I was only twenty-one, but I thought I'd met the 'one' so, I figured… why say no?"
I'd caught Akhaten's attention now; the… face-thing had formed a smile. It was really unnerving, though that didn't stop me.
"I'm pretty sure I was the love of his life, but I wasn't- I didn't feel the same. He's dead, now, and I kept the ring to signify a promise I'd made to myself; to remember the future we could have had. Futures, really. I could've said no, and saved his life. I could've said yes, and saved his life. I could've given him the same devotion he gave me."
The planet reached out with golden tendrils, wrapping around the ring and lifting it up from my grasp. I watched it go with tears in my eyes; perhaps it was time to move on, after all.
"That ring holds an entire future that never got lived. It holds more than just one future. Lives that could've been lived. Children that could've been born. A whole existence, a whole reality, all represented in that ring."
With a groan, the Doctor pulled my attention back to him, "Erin, you just gave him an eternity."
"So?" I asked, staring at him.
"Eternity is too much," he explained, "Akhaten feeds off memories that have already passed. You just gave him an endless source of memories that could've happened."
I helped him stand up, noting the tear tracks on his face. He looked vulnerable, "so, I saved the day?"
"Again," the Doctor smiled at me, all soft edges, and I couldn't stop myself from hugging him tightly, "thank you."
"For what?" I whispered into his shoulder.
"Akhaten was going to eat my entire being," the Doctor said, "that's what I was giving up. Almost a thousand years of memories. It would've consumed everything I am."
I stilled in his arms.
"You would've died," I gasped, "you were- that's why you sent me away!"
The Doctor's only response was to hug me tighter, face pressed against my hair.
I would've been angry, but… well. I didn't have it in me; I was exhausted. I needed a rest. I needed a break. I needed…
Saying goodbye to Merry was an emotional experience – mostly because she kept crying and thanking us – and by the time we got back to the TARDIS, leis wrapped around our neck and a promise that we'd always be welcome there, I was ready to relax.
The Doctor had other plans.
"Where to next?" he asked, already flying us away from the Rings of Akhaten, "the Lost Moon of Poosh? Y'know, I was the one who found it again?"
"I want to go home," I told him, looking at his back.
He seized up for a moment, sighing deeply, then admitted in a quiet voice, "I was expecting that."
"I want to go home," I repeated, slowly walking to him side across the glass floor, "so I can tell Cooper our parents are divorcing, pack a bag, say goodbye properly, then visit the… Found Moon of Poosh."
The Doctor's head lifted up and he met my gaze with hesitant hopefulness, "a quick visit home?"
"Yeah," I nodded, "you can have a look at my childhood room, laugh at all the ugly photos of me that my mum keeps around."
"I'm not sure you've ever been ugly," the Doctor said, "but there's something else we have to do first."
I knew what he was talking about, "the mind-thingy?"
He laughed, quietly, "yeah, the mind-thingy. Can't have you telling everyone how bored you are by accident."
"When do we do it?" I blushed at the question – it sounded… wrong, "I mean, when do you put that mental wall up?"
"Sit down," the Doctor gestured to the floor, sitting down himself, cross-legged.
I sat opposite him, nervously smoothing down my hair, "now what?"
"Close your eyes," he instructed, waiting until I complied before continuing, "take in a deep breath and release it… again… again..."
The Doctor waited until I was peaceful, relaxed, almost a bit sleepy, before pressing his forehead against mine. The feeling of his skin against mine was unusual but not unpleasant. That's when I started to feel it; like someone had cracked an egg against my head and had let the yolk trickle down inside my skull.
"Imagine a door," he whispered, so close his breath ghosted across my lips, "tall and strong. Then imagine locking it; the key is in your hand. Only you can use it."
It was oak and a dark brown, identical to the front door to my first house – we'd moved out when I was seven, but I always felt safe there. The key was as large as my palm and a solid gold colour, heavy and smooth.
"Now, picture a wall surrounding that door. As far as the eye can see. It blocks out everything… build it up, brick by brick. Make it wide, firm. Make sure no one can break past it."
I did as I was told, this taking longer than the door had. It hurt my head – I let out a pained whimper and the Doctor moved closer, our noses brushing. A sort of… yellow feeling passed throughout me, soothing the ache I felt. It took me a moment to realise it was him. After he was gone, the wall had been finished and the door looked imposing. I wouldn't want to try and break it.
"Done," he said, softly. I almost didn't hear him.
Opening my eyes, I saw that the Doctor was mere centimetres away; his eyes were green, but they were currently close enough for me to pick out each individual colour and how they all blended together. There was a pause where neither of us moved, frozen in place, before I coughed and the moment was broken.
"Right," the Doctor stood, blinking rapidly as if he'd been as entranced as I was, "home, for you. Parents' house, yeah?"
"D'you need the address?" I asked.
"Nah, the TARDIS will know. I can just trace your timeline back..." he began piloting at the console, sending me a concerned look when he noticed I hadn't moved, "you okay?"
"Yup," I told him, with false cheer, "just wondering if that… wall thing works."
"Try it," he suggested, looking away again.
I think you like me more than a friend, I thought focusing directly on the back of his head, and I'm afraid I might like you more than one as well.
The Doctor didn't move an inch.
"Did you get it?" I questioned, curious despite myself.
"No," he grinned at me as I reached his side, "not a thing."
I was disappointed, against all reasoning, "that's… good. Great, even."
We landed with a large vworp and the Doctor gestured towards the doors, "home again."
"Looking forward to seeing where I grew up?"
AN: thanks to everyone who reviewed! Reading your thoughts on the story really cheered me up! I'm really glad that Erin as a character is coming off well; I've put a lot of work into her, and I'm so pleased that you all love her as much as I do. And to a certain reviewer who asked if the American man who taught Erin how to lockpick was Captain Jack; I'm afraid their identity won't be revealed for quite some time. Seriously though, reading reviews (especially detailed ones) really lift my spirits and encourage me to carry on. Much love! Also, thanks to my beta-reader! Brooke, you're a star.