An odd, heavy silence fell over the studio once the words were put into the air. The Doctor raised an eyebrow slowly, still keeping his cheeky smile, his eyes dancing into the mysterious woman's as she kept her friendly gaze steady.
"UNIT, you said?"
"What does UNIT have to do with something as small as this?"
Cindy cleared her throat, taking a step back from the Time Lord and putting on a more serious, though still cheerful, face.
"This isn't small, I'm afraid. And if we can figure out what it is, then it holds great interest for UNIT." She paused. "We also would like to get it before Torchwood does and exploits it for themselves."
The Doctor gave a hesitant nod, not out of agreeing with her but agreeing with the circumstances. He looked over towards the corner with the canvas and bit his lip, recalling his life spent with the group and his countless other encounters with them. They weren't bad, and they were certainly more tolerable than Torchwood, but there was a reason he only begrudgingly worked with them.
"Uh – Cindy, what's…"
Suddenly remembering the students in the room, the instructor turned with a one-two snap of her heels and looked at the three, her expression mixed between concern and amusement.
"Oh, you three are here…." She sighed before smiling, shaking her head and proceeding to mumble to herself. "You won't forget, you won't be forced, you won't take no for an answer…" She then eyed the red bag held by Ginger and gave a start. "Those – are your paints, right?"
The girl rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Doc'-"
"Oi, Doctor, blimey, doesn't anybody listen –"
"- wanted them. His idea for a rescue."
Cindy turned back on her heel, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. "A rescue? Is somebody…" Revelation seemed to dawn on her at that precise moment, her eyes snapping wide as she took another step forward and pointed towards the corner. "There's somebody in there, like, right now?"
"Ai, my husband," Amy snapped loudly. "And we were going to do the rescuing thing, but you folks just keep on showing up –"
"How were you expecting to do that?"
The redhead raised her chin defiantly. "Paint."
"A ladder," the Doctor tried to add helpfully. At the looks he received, he added, "Or a – a – a what, a rope made from bedsheets? Do you want to try that? I'd be well open to anything at this point –"
Cutting people off seemed to be popular at the moment. "Don't be mad," Ginger threw in, sticking her tongue out. "Concrete ideas are just really awesome right now, okay? Geez."
There was just something so blindly infuriating with the people the Doctor was dealing with right now. Was it because they were Americans? Was that it? As far as he could tell, none of them were carrying guns, but looks weren't the most reliable of things. Taking in a deep breath, the Doctor closed his eyes, grimaced, and then swung his arms out.
The three in the youngest tier of age looked at their professor, who nodded, and off they went to the corner. Amy took a moment to count her blessings at being taller and probably coming off as older than she was (but just a little bit, not enough to be called old) before noticing the Doctor had his forehead cradled in his palm.
"Nice of you to punt off the work," she teased in an attempt to loosen his jagged edges. He peered at her from between his fingers and sighed before turning to the UNIT member.
"How long have you been on this case?" the Doctor asked her quietly, leaning slightly to accommodate to her height.
She looked up at the ceiling, eyes glazed in thought. "The disappearances have been occurring for about a month, but the activity of something odd was picked up about three years ago."
The Doctor balked. "Three years? And it's only –"
"Only now that something is being done?" Cindy tsked. "Doctor, please. This university is 115 years old, this building approximately fifty. There are things happening all the time here. Residence halls have ghosts, there's a cousin of the Ood living in the lagoon, and the president of the school at this moment is a refugee from Salyute-7." She smiled. "And the very nature of our students lends to….other things."
Taking the bait, the Doctor raised his eyebrows. "Like…?"
"You know what a muse is, right?"
He scoffed. "Of course. Considered by the Greeks to be the source of knowledge, points of inspiration for the arts – said to be nine goddesses, Plato, the old chap, called Sappho the tenth – lovely girl, talented with the word, thing is, she's actually from Sorgill, over in the Crab Nebula, and she wrote most of her things on parchment woven from threads of her own world, which deteriorated here on Earth –"
Cindy held up her hands to stop him. "Intriguing, thank you Doctor, but more to the point – most everyone who's here has their own, they have their own muse. They're created from one's imagination and guard over each artist."
The Doctor smiled, almost ready to roll his eyes. "Please –"
"VanGogh," Amy mumbled from the corner of her mouth. The Time Lord turned his attention to her. "He could see what we couldn't."
"…Point. Point, Pond."
"It's a matter of where they can manifest." Cindy gestured towards the three students, currently huddled around the canvas and pointing at which shade of brown to paint. "Our students are – well, they tend to be – normal people. But get them together, in a hive of others who are like them, and it's when things change. It's sort of like…a psychic field. Once the student is comfortable, their muses become comfortable, and here, they appear frequently. We all have imaginations and creativity." She eyed the Doctor. "The difference is who has the ability to channel these ideas from the mind to the physical."
The Doctor and Amy stared at the woman with a mixture of intrigue and slight disbelief. "So what, it's like Pokémon?" the Scotswoman couldn't help but ask.
"Sounds a bit more like Digimon," the Doctor countered, pushing himself up on his toes.
Cindy shook her head, driving off a laugh but smiling. "So understand, Doctor, that when something unusual happens around here, it's hard to qualify. For us, the odd is the norm."
"Disappearances are normal?"
"That's when it became a point of interest." She glanced over at the trio again, wherein Jiaqi was crouching and squinting, holding a paintbrush with tightened fingers as the other two encouraged her on. "I've been proposing the idea of the use of muses for years to UNIT. Seems only that when something bad happens that they take interest."
"Well, that's how it tends to go," the Doctor sighed, falling back down to his heels. "Preventative measures no, dealing and cleaning up the mess, yes…"
Jiaqi raised her brush in cautious triumph to Ginger's words. She looked at the painting and shrugged, bobbing her head in a way to say 'not bad, considering I'm not getting a grade for it'. Terumi waved her hand to beckon the other three towards the canvas.
Upon arrival, the Doctor stuck his thumb out, squinting an eye so as to appear to be focusing. At the bottom of the painting was a stripe of brown, with alternating stripes of light and dark narrowing to a point next to a tree. They read quite easily as stairs, crude but somehow refined – enough to hopefully give Rory the hint.
"Good, excellent work," he said with a clap of his hands and one to Jiaqi's shoulder. She grunted at the impact but otherwise remained mute, nodding at his words instead. "And now…we sit and wait."
He hated those words. The worst part was that he had said them completely of his own free will.
If there was one thing Rory hadn't been counting on, it was the musical taste of his "ally" in the canvassed world. Geoffrey had been humming a tune the Brit recognized, and soon they found themselves discussing and swapping band names. Low-fi experimental rock music was hard to talk about with other people less they knew what in the world he was referring to. Bit too underground for the general populace.
"Yeah, they're pretty groovy, just breaking out the Chicago scene now," Geoffrey spoke to the sky, still drained and unwilling to move. "Met the drummer at a gallery opening once, pretty chill dude."
"Oh wow," Rory murmured, his jealousy flaring at people who lived in or near big cities. "You ever – wot is that…"
Beyond the grass, beyond the scratches of color, stretching out over the abyss of white, a set of brown streaks were weaving their way towards him. They appeared to be descending from some point he couldn't make out – it looked far away, but like everything in this world, his eyes screwed up and it was difficult to give a solid meaning to anything.
Rory scuttled out of the way as the streaks came to a stop a few feet away from the tree he had rolled into previously. He stood there, staring at them for a moment, before looking back at Geoffrey.
"This?" he asked, pointing at the brown. The man groaned, sitting up and adjusting his glasses while looking skeptically from the nurse to the brown. He nearly gave himself whiplash from the move his head performed.
"I think someone knows we're here." He paused, glancing at Rory. "Your redheaded giraffe?"
Rory was about to argue that the adjective did not describe the noun, but then realized the words created an appropriate nominal phrase. "It's possible," he said instead.
"So what are you gonna do? Climb 'em?"
"I dunno, seems like a good idea." He paused. "And you're coming with me."
Geoffrey sighed, rolling his eyes. "You sure you want to drag me along?"
He hesitated. "I'm…I'm not going to leave you here."
"Yeah, yeah you are." He flopped back to the ground. "Listen up, limey – I'm fine. You're the one who's not supposed to be here. Pretty sure harpy-lady would starve if she tried her magic on you."
"…Starve? Why? I'm not that stringy –"
"Ya mean yew haven't figured it out?" From the silence that proceeded that sentence, the answer was an obvious 'no, now please explain'. "That thing doesn't kill you, it takes away the thing artists need."
Rory had several words running in his mind. Paint? Pencils? Supplies in general? Money? …Nude models willing to pose in exchange for pizza and beer?
"Their muse. It eats your creativity."
Having only known the man for about an hour, Rory complimented himself quietly on being able to recognize a profound sense of loss in his words. His expression didn't show it all that much, but the tone of his voice certainly had changed. "And everyone who's ever been sucked into this stupid thing has come out of it with a loss in their abilities." Geoffrey looked at his hands, flexing his fingers, before shooting his gaze back to the other man. "So it doesn't matter if I go with you or not. That harpy's not gonna kill me. I think she wants to kill you, 'cause you're not helping her."
"Wouldn't be the first time," Rory muttered to himself.
"It just wants the part of me that makes me employed to be dead."
Sighing, the nurse tapped his foot before looking from the stairs to the professor, guilt creeping into him from his words: "Fine, I'll go. I'll go – and get help."
"That'd be nice," Geoffrey replied on a breath, settling further into the grass. "Or – don't get help. It doesn't matter. Catch you in a bit, though."
Rory turned to the steps, setting a cautious foot on the first one, followed by his next on its next. They didn't even creak, just gave him a secured state of grounding. Starting off slow, he soon gained speed, before finding himself racing up the steps, staring straight ahead so as to not look at the canvas below.
He did, just once, because his curiosity wanted him to see his encouragement. There was no sense of green, no indication of ground. In fact, there was no sense of space, and that might've been the most terrifying thing of all.