"They thought we were sick as well?" Barbara asked.
"Yes, as I said, medical attention. That's why they've kept you as they have. I'm rather surprised at it, to be sure; this plague of theirs seems to have great rapidity. If they'd thought you were a lost cause they might have left you to those, eh, scavengers. Chesterton here is the only one coloured as a healthy adult."
"I am?" Ian was grinning.
"Then they're leaving us alone because we're in his care," Barbara said, taking his arm.
Ian chuckled. "Well, this is an interesting turn. I think I like it."
"Don't let it go to your head," Barbara warned.
"I won't. Now come along, or I'll send you all to bed without supper!"
They watched as ahead of them the Doctor felt his way along the tunnel wall then reached up and firmly pushed his hand across a patch of ropy fibers. The fibers pulled apart, leaving a hole through which they could see the welcome sight of the sky and trees.
"Come along," he said impatiently climbing out. "What are you waiting for? It's high time we got going."
"How did he learn to open that?" Barbara muttered to Ian, accepting his help in climbing up. "We tried everything!"
"He didn't say - a bit childish sometimes, isn't he?" Ian whispered back. Barbara snorted, gratefully climbing out into one of the bark-fissure canyons.
"It's so nice to be outside again!" Susan exclaimed as Barbara reached back to help pull her up, Ian boosting her from behind.
Ian followed them out, watching as the fibers drew shut once again. "This place would be great for hideouts," he observed.
"How will we find the TARDIS?" Barbara wondered as they looked around.
The Doctor pulled out his pocket-watch and glanced at it. "That way!" he said, pointing. He marched off without hesitation leaving them to follow as best they could. Thankfully it wasn't far, considering Susan was already limping again. Barbara and Ian helped support her as they worked their way over to the familiar blue box.
"You see," he was continuing as they came back up to him. "You won't find many of the healthy native people up here on the surface. My theory is this disease has them too afraid to stray from their food source. Without this sap in their bodies, they begin to change colour and essentially dry up. Both bright and brittle. Our eyes might see the colours as quite beautiful, not unlike autumn leaves."
"Beautiful but tragic," Barbara said. She stood back to allow the Doctor to use his key on the battered doors.
"You might say that, though it is their natural cycle." He fished in his pocket for his key. "The problem is the very thing they are looking to for life may be what's killing them - and apparently it's accelerating. For the most part, the only ones that come above now already dead. They take them outside once they're deceased."
"I don't really want to think about that," Susan said.
The Doctor opened the door and they all gratefully filed into the familiar, soothing interior. "I expect those scavenging creatures have had a time of it too. Maybe even had to go below the surface themselves, to find sufficient food."
"They have! One of the ones I ran into was in those tunnels," said Ian.
"Ah. I thought so." The Doctor went to one wall and pulled out a couple drawers, rummaging in them. "I sincerely doubt these natives have a natural predator while in their prime, but they certainly have the scavengers for their weakness."
"No wonder that thing ran off when I kicked it," Barbara reflected. "It wasn't used to its meals fighting back."
"Speaking of meals, I'm starving," Susan complained.
"There's been nothing to eat around here but sap," Ian agreed. "And aside from syrups, I don't think I'm too partial to it."
"And speaking of syrup, come on, Susan," Barbara said. "Let's go change out of these sticky things!"
"Yes, yes," the Doctor said from where he was arranging various small items on a table. He waved a hand at them dismissively. "Go on and get cleaned up."
"Oh yes!" Susan ran ahead of her down the hall.
"Be sure you save a little for me, Barbara," Ian said.
Barbara paused and gave him a look. "I'll assume you mean hot water."
"Oh, of course. Hot water! Yes, I might need a bit of a shower myself," he said innocently. "That too."
"You're incorrigible." Barbara rolled her eyes and headed down the hall after Susan.
Ian whistled to himself as he came back over to the Doctor. "Can I help?"
He didn't look up. "No, no, go on, make yourself useful somewhere. I'll need some time for these results to show and I'd rather not be interrupted."
"I'll get us all something to eat," Ian offered. Getting no reply - he hadn't expected any - he headed for the kitchen.
The Doctor poked at his experiment and flipped a small switch. With a tiny hum, a curl of paper slid up from the machine. Running it through his fingers he made one adjustment and flipped the switch again. The second curl of paper brought a smile.
"Of course," he said to himself. "Now let me see… powdered, I think. Yes." He looked down at his own attire and patted it thoughtfully. "No, no this won't do…hm."
After digging around in the wardrobe for a few minutes, he selected a brown hound's-tooth suit and brown tie, then after a moment topped it off with a somewhat floppy bohemian brown hat that half-hid his features. He paused in front of the mirror to consider this ensemble and adjusted the hat, which was a little too big, and gave himself a nod of approval.
Humming, he headed back to the console room where he packaged up his experiment. Susan came in, combing out her damp hair and he smiled at her. "Hello, child. Feeling better?"
"Oh yes," she said. "I never thought I'd get it all off. I was going to help Barbara comb out her hair, but she sent me out here instead. Said Ian would do it, can you imagine? He doesn't know the first thing about hair."
"Hm," said the Doctor. "Well in that case, how about you come along with me. I'm glad to see you're already dressed appropriately."
She glanced down at her brown jumper. "Oh, you mean in brown? I guess I am…"
"Come, then," he said, scooping an arm around her shoulders. "We've a cure to take them."
"You found a cure for it then? That's wonderful! What about Ian and Barbara? Won't they want to come too?"
"Oh, oh no… I'm sure they'll be just fine by themselves…" he smiled, steering her out the door.
. . .
Now that he knew what to look for and how to open them, it didn't take long to find their way back into the spacious dim tunnels beneath the bark-like surface. He helped Susan climb down, apologizing belatedly for dragging her along with him in light of her sore ankle and leg, but overall he seemed quite chipper.
"Child!" the nanny exclaimed as he pushed aside the rough curtain of fibers and entered the nursery. She stopped in confusion, her hands fluttering.
"Yes, yes. It's me. But as you can see, I am a child no longer," the Doctor said with a small bow. His hat slid down and he pushed it back up. "Nor is my companion here old. Now, listen," he said as she swayed and fluttered. "I need you to do something for me….
. . .
Susan sat by a small black-and-white leaf-child and politely declined, yet again, a taste of his sticky treat. The Doctor stood surrounded by a crowd of the natives.
He held up the empty pod-cocoon he'd picked up along the way. "I don't know how else I can explain the why of it, my good sirs. The pod lining, that soft white part here, yes, this part, contains a protein that will bind to the foreign bacteria in the sap. In brief, this counteracts the effect and everyone who takes in some of this should be perfectly able to absorb their necessary nutrition."
They looked at him blankly, then looked at the nanny who could offer them no further explanation. "It is as he says," she repeated to them. "The old one there is cured!" She gestured over at Susan and all of them turned to stare at her, making Susan's cheeks blush at the attention.
"Yes," the Doctor said, taking whatever was offered to convince them. "And as I said, all you have to do is mix a little of this into those little balls of sap you use." He gestured to the nanny, who handed him one a sticky little globe. He mashed the pod-fibers into it then held it out. "All of you, the old ones first and then the rest, are to eat these. All. Don't leave anyone out or they might become ill!"
"We'll be sure of it," the nanny said, and the others all swayed in agreement. They might not completely understand it, they might even come to regard it as magic, but at least they knew enough to take a cure when it was offered.
"Only one or two should be needed, but it won't hurt to take a little more," the Doctor said as they began to pass around the pod, each pulling out a bit of the fibers. "That's right. Good, good." He left them to it and came over to where Susan had been patiently waiting.
"So now they'll be all right?" she asked.
"Provided they each have a nice ball of that sap with a bit of pod-seasoning for their tea," he smiled and tapped the end of her nose. "You see, my dear, they were effectively starving to death while surrounded by food."
They watched as the 'leaf' people each took a portion of the pod then grouped here and there, speaking among themselves. There was an air of hope and festivity among them that their visitors had never seen before. "Yes," he continued, "That should let them absorb their meals nicely. And don't worry, the bacteria will run its natural course, but this way it won't be taking these good people along with it." He looked down at the child and tapped his nose. The child reached up and tapped it back.
"Now, I think it's high time we returned to the TARDIS, my child. Always easier if you can slip away before they want to give you awards and such."
Susan smiled and gave the child a parting pat, accepting her grandfather's arm. They slipped out of the room quietly and, for the most part, unobserved. Following the now-familiar tunnels, they reached their exit without event where he opened it and helped her up, then followed.
"Grandfather," Susan laughed as he clambered back to his feet, shoving the bohemian felt hat back from his eyes again. "You aren't going to keep that hat, are you?"
"Why not? I rather like it," he sniffed as she took his arm.
"It's much too big," she pointed out.
"True. Well, one never knows. Maybe someday I'll have a head to match it."
. . .
"We're back!" he announced loudly as they opened the doors. Hooking the hat onto the hat-stand, he set about poking a variety of the TARDIS' buttons and switches. "And it's about time we were off," he added.
Susan smiled and started toward the hall, passing Ian as she did so. He was whistling happily.
"Did you do Barbara's hair up?" she asked.
Ian's eyebrows quirked, his cheeks pink. "What? Oh… I… ah yes, her hair. I'm sure I did a terrible job of it. She took it all down again," he said quickly.
Susan rolled her eyes. "I could've told her. I don't know why she lets you even try. I'll go help fix it."
"By all means!" He bowed and waved her down the hallway. "Practice makes perfect, after all," he added with a grin. Coming over to the Doctor, he leaned upon the edge of the console companionably, watching as the console's pillar began pumping up and down, lights flashing. "Where are we off to now?" he asked.
The Doctor twiddled his fingers on his lips thoughtfully as it he hadn't even heard him. After a moment he reached out and poked a couple more buttons. "These readings aren't quite what I expected," he finally replied, "But there's bound to be something interesting once we get there."
Ian propped himself up with his elbows. "There always is."