Note: So this one is a crack at trying something new. This is Part 1 of a fic-pair; it is continued in "essomenic", which should be up sometime tomorrow, or Wednesday at the latest. This is me trying for something more plotful (though not a lot more) and less fluffy (thought not a lot less). After "essomenic", I'll go back to the fluff-heavy stuff for a while. That's a promise.
No spoilers in this one - no canon spoilers, anyway. A few vague mentions of things that happen in "The Eleventh Hour", but honestly, if you can't handle those you've no business reading fic with Eleven in it. Reviews are, as always, greatly appreciated, and thanks to all my kind past reviewers!
Prompt: Decutient - shaking down; beating down.
He takes her to Chrysoprase, to the cloud forests – actual cloud forests, full of gigantic trees sprouting from a layer of storm-gray cloud that rises in mists and coils, concealing their twisting roots. The Doctor steps boldly out onto the cloud-loam, saying "Nimobstratus" as though he thinks that explains everything, and Amy follows him without hesitation, like it does.
The cloud is spongy and bends a little under their feet, and as they walk they kick it up like dust, so that Amy feels like she's wading through a drizzling Leadworth afternoon that only reaches as high as her knees. The trees encircle them completely, soaring up into dizzying heights, their thick branches arching overhead. The entire forest has the feeling of a cathedral, all dark wood and stained glass, violet and green. It's an impression that is encouraged by the silence; it's the kind of silence that, by containing a multitude of small noises to delineate its boundaries, somehow produces a hush that is absolutely deafening.
The Doctor leads her half an hour's walk away from the TARDIS ("Just had to get away from the locals. They wouldn't be too pleased to see me, especially not after what I'll do to them next time I'm here – although in my defense, it will certainly be an accident and almost probably completely not my fault"), and only then does he stop and show her the lightning-birds, flickering between the branches above them like gigantic fireflies, so fast and so fleeting that they're completely invisible unless you know how to look. Amy wants to see one up-close, so the Doctor shows her how to find smooth spots on the pitch-black bark of the stormtrees and tickle them mercilessly. The trees are, according to the Doctor, among the most ticklish entities in the galaxy; Stormcage prison, which will be built with the wood of these trees in another few thousand years, was notorious for tickle-based escapes for its first few decades.
Amy picks a tree and lightly feathers its bark with her fingers, feeling rather foolish – until the tree shudders, shifts, and starts whipping about like a flagpole in a gale, bending in a way that its thick, solid trunk shouldn't be able to, letting out a creaking, groaning noise that she can only assume is laughter.
She's laughing too, and she only leaves off tickling the tree when something round and soft, like a hackeysack, hits her square in the back of the head. Suddenly the things are everywhere, plummeting through the canopy like a bizarre hailstorm. Amy catches sight of the Doctor diving for cover beneath a nearby bush, and she throws herself flat and wriggles in beside him. Pressed together, her elbow in his ribs and his bony hip poking her legs, they wait until the tickled tree has sighed and swayed back to its normal immobility, and the last projectile has tumbled from the canopy into the cloud below.
"All right, Doctor," Amy says, "what was that?"
"Fruit!" the Doctor says, inching forward on his hands and knees and feeling about in the low-level mist until he finds one of the things, holding it up for Amy's inspection. "Well, almost fruit. Fruit creatures, actually, called applings, animal seed-pods that grow on the branch until they're big and strong enough to leave Mommy here—" He pats the tree trunk affectionately, and it shivers, knocking down another fruit that bounces neatly off the top of his head. Amy stifles a giggle as the Doctor, suddenly irritable, tosses the one he was holdinginto her hands. "Well, there you are anyway, the lightning-birds love these things, we should have one along any moment."
Amy turns the appling over in her hands. It doesn't feel like a fruit; its skin is more grainy, leathery, almost like a turtle's egg, all colored a deep blue except for lighter purple patches that form a sort of smiley-face pattern on one side. "These don't looke like animals."
"Well, they will once they grow up. Nasty little beasties, too. But right now they're out of season. Underripe for the picking."
"Out of season, huh?" Amy asks, as the mouth-patch on the appling she's holding suddenly opens wide, yawning, displaying two rows of tiny pine-needle teeth. "And, just out of curiousity, how sure are you about that - on a scale of one to ten?"
"Sure? Of course I'm sure, Pond, I don't know what you're talking about but I certainly – oh." He's been peering up into the tree-branches, and his protest dies off mid-sentence as he turns to find himself staring into the open mouth of the appling Amy is holding out to him. The Doctor blinks. The fruit blinks back, scrunching up its eye-spots. "Right," the Doctor says evenly. "Put that one down, Pond – just let it go, that's good – now come on." He holds out his hand, and Amy drops the appling into the mist at their feet and twines her fingers with the Doctor's. "Right. Okay. Good. Now let's just… go back to the TARDIS. Nice and slow."
"Doctor, are these things dangerous? They're just apples!"
"Alien apples, that bite," the Doctor corrects her. "Venomous bite. I meant to land us out of season, must have overshot by about three months, these five-moon systems throw my gravitational targeting gyros all out of whack… they're still pretty dormant, they can't be fully grown yet, we should be fine. Come on, this way, we'll head back to the TARDIS – just don't step on any of them, they really can't stand that…"
He hasn't even finished the thought when a loud squish rises from the cloud-layered forest floor. As the Doctor lifts one appling-smeared shoe into view, a chorus of high-pitched squeals and tiny growls strikes up, and the cloud starts billowing around their ankles with the movements of a hundred unseen fruit-monsters mobilizing.
"Right, new plan." The Doctor takes several swift steps back, tugging Amy with him. Suddenly one lone appling jumps above the mist, teeth bared, and the Doctor spins on his heel and shoves Amy towards the nearest tree. "Amy! Climb!"
"Won't that take us toward the monsters?" she snaps, but she's already reaching for a low-hanging branch, pulling herself up and hearing the Doctor scrabbling for footholds just below her.
"Neural hookup – to the parent querciform -" he yelps, clinging to the first branch he can reach, as applings leap from below and snap at his ankles. "They're not so alive when they're on the tree!"
"Course not, that would be ridiculous," Amy mutters, but she keeps climbing. It's pretty easy going; there are lots of branches, all strong and woven together so that in places she can almost step from one to the next. Before long she can see pale light glimmering through the huge leaves, sun or moon, it's impossible to tell – then she reaches up to push a brush of twigs aside and is suddenly surrounded by the sweeping curve of the sky, so vast and vertigo-inducing that she nearly loses her footing, and the Doctor has to steady her as he scrambles up alongside.
"There we are," he says. He hesitates a moment, his hand hovering at the small of her back until he's satisfied that she's regained her balance; then he picks a sturdy branch and settles down, letting his feet dangle back into the canopy. He immediately starts fussing with his clothes, picking bits of twig and appling off the tweed of his jacket, muttering under his breath. Amy doesn't understand how he can bear to be looking down; she's too captivated by the sky, by the huge dark expanse of it, looking more violet and substantial than it ever had on Earth. In that sky, the stars look like holes punched through the firmament, blazing with light that spills through from someplace entirely else.
"Nothing to do now but wait," the Doctor says, and his voice brings Amy back to her senses. She picks her own branch, a little up and apart from his, and leans against the treetop behind her that tapers away to a point but still feels as solid as an iron post. Bunches of purple-veined leaves tickle the back of her neck, and she brushes at them absently as she watches the Doctor readjust his bow tie. He looks up and catches her gaze with a small smile, then heaves an exaggerated sigh and leans back against his own tree. "God, I hate waiting."
"And you're rubbish at it," Amy adds helpfully. "Maybe it's time you got a little practice at waiting, Doctor. It could be good for you. You know, character-building stuff."
"My character doesn't need any building, thanks," the Doctor scoffs. He looks up at her, almost says and you don't need to wait anymore, you've waited long enough, but doesn't. The thought weighs at the front of his skull and the ghost of it is heavy on his tongue, but she's looking at the sky again and he doesn't want to take that away from her, even for a moment.
Then she leans forward, looking not at the sky but at something nestled in the treetops, and the Doctor feels his mind go curiously blank, all other thoughts fading before the way her fiery hair shimmers in a curtain over her shoulder, the way her face is half shrouded in shadow and half illuminated by the distant stars, the way she will always have been, for him, a child five minutes ago but a mad, impossible woman in the here and now, and how he should be better equipped to deal with that paradox but isn't, not nearly, not at all.
The rush of all that to his head is disconcerting, even to him, and he looks away for a moment, tearing his eyes from her silhouette and peering down into the green and scarlet and shadows of the canopy. Lightning-birds flicker far below them, weaving distantly in and out of darkness.
"Apples with faces," Amy says, a laugh in her voice, and the Doctor looks up at her again instinctively, before he can stop himself. She's found a dormant appling still on a branch, and she's cupping it in one hand, pulling it forward out of the leaves to study its patterned patches. She glances up at him, her eyebrows raised, her lips twitching with amusement or anger, the Doctor can't be sure which. "Did you know about these?" she asks. "When you came to my house? When I gave you an apple with a face did you think the Earth was being invaded by fruit-monsters, or something?"
"It's not always a matter of knowing about things, Pond," the Doctor drawls. "It's a big universe. Pandas can square-dance, moutains can fly, apples can have faces. Got to keep an open mind, that's what I always say." He taps himself on the forehead knowingly, then pauses. "Well, not too open, else things might start falling out. I had a day like that once. Learned my lesson pretty quick."
"They're not so keen on open minds in Leadworth," Amy sighs. "They laughed at me for years for puttin' faces on apples." She stops for a moment, then lets out a laugh that startles the Doctor. "Listen to me, going on about Leadworth when we're hiding from apple-monsters in an alien forest! Go on then, Doctor, tell me about this place." She waves a hand upwards, taking in the smoldering horizon and bizarre constellations. "Tell me about that sky."
The Doctor obliges, kicking into automatic and letting himself start to babble about the uniquely heavy air, the strange pollutants exhaled by the pitch-black trees, the five quarreling moons. He's just getting around to telling her about the Essomenes when something starts trying to get his attention, like a memory tugging at his sleeve, like a shape moving out of the corner of his eye.
Then a twig twitches under his absent fingers, and suddenly it all snaps into place. The trees are trembling, almost imperceptibly, but the Doctor is paying attention now and he can feel the oscillation, the rhythmic whump of far-off colossal footsteps. He moves to stand up, but the shaking is rapidly growing worse as the footsteps get closer, and the limb he's perched on jerks violently, nearly throwing him off.
"What's going on?" Amy cries, just before she's thrown backwards by another sudden shift. She manages to clutch onto the top of her tree, but it's starting to bend and sway again. Its creaking this time sounds much less like laughing and more like screaming. "Doctor, what is that?"
"I think it's the welcome wagon," the Doctor says. He's on his feet again, struggling not to plummet down into the canopy as the shaking gets even worse. It's definitely got a rhythm to it now, and they can clearly hear the gigantic footsteps from below growing inexorably closer, like a herd of elephants all marching in step. "That's the Essomenes," the Doctor shouts over the racket. "They're after me, of course they'd know I was here – Amy, you've got to run, if you can get to the TARDIS they won't –" The rest of his sentence is drowned out as another shudder tears through the trees, and this time they begin to scream in earnest, with the strained sounds of cracking wood.
The thunder of footsteps stops as suddenly as it began, and soon the trees die down, leaving only an eerie silence. The Doctor shakes leaves out of his hair and scrambles upright again, fumbling his sonic screwdriver out his pocket and scanning around them, scanning down, scanning everything – not that it does much good. Finally he gives up and clambers over to where he saw Amy fall, where he can see her hair burning and her skin glowing pale in the canopy shadows. The tremors have knocked her down a bit, not far, but enough that the Doctor has to wriggle through a gap in the branches before he can see her clearly, before he can reach out to her.
He finds her splayed across two broken branches, one hand twined into a nearby mat of leaves to keep her steady, the other cradled oddly, almost protectively, against her stomach. "Doctor," she says when she catches sight of him – but her voice is odd, distant and dreamy, and as his eyes adjust to the gloom he notices her pupils are dilated in a way he doesn't like at all. He squirms the rest of the way through the gap and eases down beside her, reaching to run his fingers through her hair, check for some sort of head injury – concussion maybe? – but she lets go of the leaves and grabs his forearm, stopping him, then works her way up his wrist until she can twine her fingers with his. "Doctor," she says again, hollowly. "Explain."
The Doctor feels himself go very still. "Explain what?"
"The apples," Amy gasps. Her breath is beginning to come strangely, labored and shallow. "You said – before – they had a poisonous bite. What does the poison do?"
Cold horror blooms between the Doctor's hearts as Amy uncurls the hand that had been clenched against her stomach, revealing the appling she had been holding on the treetop, that she had taken with her instinctively when she fell. Woken by the severing of its link with the mother tree, it had lashed out with its pine-needle teeth at the nearest thing available – and now, chittering softly, it lapped up the beads of blood that welled from the shallow bite on her palm.
"Amy," the Doctor says, and again, "Amy," because saying her name helps, it keeps them both anchored and that's what he needs, to keep her anchored, to keep her eyes focused on him and not drifting in the awful blankness he can see threatening to take over. "Amy, listen to me," he breathes, framing her face with his hands. "Listen to me very carefully, this is important. The poison is chronoactive, it sort of phases you out of normal time – it's supposed to work on the Essomenes, it isn't meant for humans, your body's never seen anything like it before and it doesn't know how to react – but it'll be fine, I'll get you back to the TARDIS and I can just –"
Just what the Doctor will do, neither of them gets to find out, because before he can finish the thought something huge and gray and roaring smashes through the trees just beside them. It throws Amy to one side and cuts the branches out from under the Doctor completely. He scrabbles at the bark, grabbing at anything within reach, trying to keep his footing, but it's no use; first he's clutching at splinters, and then at thin air, and then he's falling, crashing through layers of foliage as the great gray Essomene comes around for another pass.
"Amy!" he roars, but it's faint and fading, no louder than the echoing call of a distant bird, and Amy is falling too, into the haze and oblivion that are rising suddenly to swallow her up.
She surrenders easily, and the next second she's aware of nothing but someone somewhere calling her name; and the second after that she's aware of nothing at all.
To be continued...
So there's my little attempt at drama. The next part, "essomenic", will be up tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest. Reviews are, always, loved and cherished!