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lovely branches

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The pain that rises in my breast brings forth a little shoot
it spreads its thick trunk of despair in my soft heart
puts out lovely branches made of the rumors in the town.

-- Auvaiyar, also called Avvaiyar and Avvai, (circa before 300 B.C.E.), Tamil bard, war poet and diplomat.

i. the witching hour

There is a crack in Amelia's wall, and it leads to another world.

Amelia knows these things. She's read all the proper stories to prepare herself, of course. She considered the possibility of Narnia at first, then dismissed that as fanciful. Even with witches and endless winters, Narnia was a land of marvelous things, fauns and Father Christmas and wonder. The crack in her wall is nothing like that. There's something there, something dark and terrible and frightening. Amelia doesn't want to find out where it goes.

Sometimes she hears a voice through the crack, late at night alone in this big creaky unfamiliar house when her aunt is out working too late. The voice is low and booming, like music played too loudly on a stereo that makes the floor vibrate. "PRISONER ZERO HAS ESCAPED," the voice announces, and Amelia hides her head under her blanket and shivers.

But then sometimes she hears something else though the crack. It sounds like singing, distant and faint and golden. She can't make out the words, if there are any. But softly, slowly, the song drowns out the voice, and it lulls her to sleep.

She dreams of a woman with pale hair and dark eyes, wearing a purple jacket, wandering through a forest. The air around them hums with the strange, wordless melody. "Hello," Amelia says to the woman. "Are you lost?"

The woman looks down at her. When she smiles, she reminds Amelia of her mother. They look nothing alike at all – Amelia's mum was tall and angular, with short auburn hair and bright blue eyes. But the smile is just the same, bright and warm. "Not at all. I just don't know where I am. Do you?"

"We're in the woods," Amelia tells her seriously. "A long way from home."

The woman laughs. Her laugh sounds a bit like the song, golden and wistful. "Kid, you have no idea."

Light breaks through the trees. It's somehow not like sunlight at all. The singing intensifies.

"Time to go," the woman says softly. She reaches out to brush her hand across Amelia's hair. "Be careful, kid. Don't slip through the cracks."

She steps into the light and is gone. Amelia startles awake to find her pillow damp with tears. The crack in her wall is silent as a grave.

Then the Doctor comes and closes the crack, and then he vanishes in his strange blue box. Amelia's room is safe now, free of the crack and the terror and the voices. But the singing is also gone, gone forever, just like the Doctor. She misses the lullabies, even if she misses him more.

She doesn't dream of the woman or the forest again.

*

ii. into the woods

The second therapist is all about Creative Expressions Of Her Subconscious Mind. At least that's one of the phrases Amelia overhears, during one of his Grown-Up Conversations with her aunt. What matters is that he brings paints and clay and colored pencils to Amelia's house for their therapy sessions. She nicks a few tubes of blue and red paint when he's not looking, for her private projects.

For the therapist, she paints watercolor pictures, moons and stars and galaxies. She spends one afternoon carefully painting a dog riding a horse, because the thought of him trying to puzzle out its Deeper Meanings makes her giggle.

Another day, she finds herself painting a forest, as many different shades of green as she can mix together. Something tugs at her memory. She adds a figure in amongst the trees, indistinct, just an outline really, with a splash of purple for a jacket and yellow for hair.

"That's lovely, Amelia," the therapist tells her, smile wide and false. "Who's that in the forest, is that you?"

Amelia just stares at him. "My hair is red," she points out.

"Ah. Yes. Of course it is," the therapist says hastily. "It's not…ah, the Doctor, then?"

"No," Amelia says scornfully. "Course not."

If he can't tell the difference between her Doctor and the lady in the forest, then Amelia has no use for him at all.

When he finally goes upstairs to talk to her aunt, Amelia makes good her escape, slipping out the back door and down the street. She throws pebbles at Rory's window until he opens it and starts throwing things back. (Two erasers and a tennis ball, to be specific.) "Go away," Rory shouts down. "I don't want to play Raggedy Doctor today. I've got Donkey Kong."

"My game is way cooler than your stupid Gameboy," Amelia shouts back. "And anyway, I was going to let you play yourself today, because I've got a new story, but if you're going to be stupid and boring…"

Rory sticks his head out. "I get to play myself? Having my own adventures?"

Amelia tosses her hair back, hiding a grin. "Only it's got to be in the woods back past the stream. I'll meet you there in ten minutes."

Her aunt has a blonde wig stashed in her closet, from some Halloween costume years before Amelia moved in with her. Amelia fetches that, plus her aunt's favorite leather jacket. It's the wrong color, but it'll have to do for now. In the bathroom, she studies her aunt's cosmetics, then carefully applies lipstick and some dark, goopy mascara. She feels very grown up.

"So what's the new game?" Rory asks, sitting back against the wide trunk of an oak and hugging his knobby knees. The trees are sparse here, but the woods get thicker the farther they go from the village. It's almost perfect.

Amelia dons the wig and jacket, standing up very straight and tall. She has two inches on Rory anyway. "You're Rory, right, and you're lost in the woods. And I'm the Lady in the Forest. And you got to be careful, okay, 'cause there's wolves out here…"

*

iii. breadcrumb trail

The Raggedy Doctor returns and vanishes once again in his magical blue box. Everyone has seen him, this time; no one in the town calls Amy crazy anymore.

The pity in their eyes is far, far worse.

There's a room in her house that shouldn't exist. Amy catches sight of the door out of the corner of her eye – the only way she can ever see that it's there. About a week after the Doctor leaves her behind for a second time, she stops trying to ignore the imaginary room. She walks right up the space where the door is and isn't, takes a deep breath, and shoves it open.

The room looks as though it's fallen into deep disuse. Not that it was sparkling a week ago, but even more so. The single light bulb has long since burnt out; fortunately, Amy thought to bring along a torch. She flicks it on, the light beaming thinly through the still, musty air. Cobwebs cover the crates in the corner, the wallpaper is stained two shades darker than before, and the windows are nearly opaque with grime. There is a thick layer of dust over the table in the middle of the room.

Something glints in the torchlight. Amy walks over to the table, catching a flash of metal through the filth. She blows out a breath over it, stifles a sneeze in the dust that stirs up. Atop the pile of dried goo that had once ensnared the Doctor's sonic screwdriver is a golden key. Amy pries it up. She breaks a manicured fingernail in the process and doesn't care a whit. She studies the key carefully, but it looks perfectly ordinary, like a key for an office or a cabinet – and not one of the big, heavy old-fashioned keys that lock the doors to this old house, either. She doesn't even need to fit it to the lock to know it's not the key to this room, for example. It bears no identifying marks of any kind.

Amy looks back down at the table where the key had been. It looks like there's something scratched into the wood; she can make out two letters, O-L. She doesn't carry a handkerchief or tissues or anything, so she shrugs and scrubs the corner of the table clean with her sleeve.

There are two words gouged into the wood, as though with a pocketknife. Like lovers carving their initials into a tree, Amy thinks. BAD WOLF, the table says.

She has no idea what that might mean. Nor does she ever find the lock to match the key, but she keeps it in her dresser with some of her Raggedy Doctor bric-a-brac. Just in case.

Two years later, on the night before Amy's wedding day, the key turns white-gold with heat and sears its brand into the wood of her dresser drawer. She doesn't notice.

*

iv. the beast within

These are some of the things she forgets on the Starship UK:

Wars, disease, poverty, children screaming, one last chance appearing in the cracked and broken skies. Graffiti sprayed on a wall, a crack yawning through the darkness, bad wolf, instruments of torture. Electricity zaps through a lonely creature's brainpan and it groans with unfathomable pain. The impossible choice. Children enslaved and crying and prisoners fed to the beast below, my how large your mouth is, how sharp your teeth, how terrible terrible terrible…

Static bursts across the television screen, resolves itself into the image of a woman with blonde hair and dark eyes, face streaked with tears and mascara. "Doctor," she mouths, but the static crackles too loudly to hear the words. "Doctor!"

The image distorts, cuts back out, and back in again – the same woman, but more composed now, face clean. The sound hisses. "You've got to stop him," she tells the camera. Amy somehow thinks she knows this stranger, recognizes her, like a dream half-forgotten upon waking. Impossible as it seems, she feels certain that the woman is speaking directly to her. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, but he can't stay here – you've got to get him away before you all slip through the cracks—"

And she's gone again, the broadcast reverting back to the endless horrible loop of the beast below and its unbearable moans.

There's a third button in front of the console, beside PROTEST and FORGET. Amy slams her hand down on it.

RECORD.

"This isn't a trick, this is for real," Amy gasps out, tears streaming down her cheeks. "You've got to find the Doctor and get him back to the TARDIS—"

*

v. little red

She's all alone in the star cruiser's artificial forest. The Doctor and River are long gone; the soldiers left to guard her have all vanished one by one into the crack, like breadcrumbs gobbled up by birds. The path home has disappeared, and Amy is blind and alone in the woods.

Light dances against her eyelids, cold and clear. She squeezes her eyes more tightly shut. The air stirs around her, brushing her cheeks like a sigh, smelling faintly and inexplicably of flowers. Distantly, she thinks she can hear singing, wordless and sad. Perhaps she's just imagining it.

She wonders how long it will take her to go mad here, alone in the dark.

"Hey, kid," someone says. It's a woman's voice, soft and warm, and something about it echoes a chord in Amy's memory.

"They've all gone," Amy says.

"I know. I'm sorry. You're a long way from home."

That's when it clicks. The Lady in the Forest, the golden singing coming through the crack in her bedroom wall before the Doctor first came. This is the forest from her childhood dreams. She was remembering her future in her sleep and she never even realized it.

"It's you!" Amy breathes. She wants so badly to be able to open her eyes.

"Yeah," the woman from her dreams says with a short laugh. "I suppose it is."

"Who are you?"

The woman sighs. When she speaks again, her voice is distant and sad. "The big Bad Wolf."

Amy's jumper is red. She almost laughs at the irony. "Come to eat me up?"

She hears an inelegant snort. "Not in this story."

"Why are you here? Wait – how are you here? Where did you come from?"

"Long ago and far away," the woman says quietly. "I'm not really here at all."

Amy's mouth twists. "So I really am going mad."

"No. Never." The words are forceful, insistent. "There are entire universes in your head, Amy, and they're all real. Remember that. Always remember that. Remember him."

"The Doctor? How could I ever forget—"

"Remember, Amelia Pond," the Bad Wolf whispers. "Remember."

Amy feels a hand rest on her shoulder, grasping gently, and then she's left behind again.

*

vi. briar rose

The Dream Lord blips out like a disconnected television set, leaving Amy alone in the slowly freezing TARDIS amongst the crumpled ghosts of her Doctor and her Rory.

She kneels between them, ignoring the frigid metal grating beneath her knees. The Doctor's unruly hair is frosted with ice, as though caught in a snowfall. Rory's soft lips are blue and chapped with cold.

Even blind in a forest on a spaceship in the future, Amy hadn't felt quite so perfectly alone.

What if they remain like this forever, sleeping and dreaming and never waking? How long can these dream worlds last? Amy imagines a hundred years passing them by, a thousand, rosebushes growing up around the decaying TARDIS, an impenetrable forest of thorns. Like Sleeping Beauty's castle.

"My boys," she whispers. "My beautiful boys." And she's the princess who can awaken them with a kiss.

But first she has to choose. And she never could.

Birdsong claims her.

Later, much later, somewhere after crashing and dying and waking and freezing and dying, she dreams. She feels a press of soft lips to her own, unfamiliar and warm, and inhales the faint scent of flowers. "Wake up," her Bad Wolf whispers in her ear. "Wake up, Amelia Pond. It's not your time yet."

Amy awakens.

*

vii. happily ever after

"You're very quiet," Amy informs the Doctor as they make their way back to the TARDIS. The air is cool, misty with the promise of rain. There are strange creatures under the Earth who will be awakening in a thousand years' time. And Tony and Nasreen with them, like a fairy story. The ambassadors for humanity.

She knows they'll do well for themselves, and doesn't know why there are tears in her eyes. She's not supposed to cry over happy endings.

Something catches her eye across the valley, a figure all red and brown. "Oh, hey, look, there I am again," she says with a grin. She waves her hand high in the air, calling out to herself. "Hello, me!"

Future Amy waves back. And just for a moment, her vision blinks, like a staticky recording. A flash of yellow and purple, strokes of watercolor from a child's paintbrush, blonde hair glinting gold in a stray sunbeam like a key in torchlight. Like a reminder. Like a warning.

Remember, Amelia Pond.

"Are you okay?" the Doctor asks. His voice is soft and concerned. He keeps his eyes on her and her alone, not so much as glancing across the Welsh countryside.

He didn't see it.

Amy's breath hitches. "I thought I saw someone else there for a second," she murmurs. Future Amy turns and walks away, alone, vanishing into the misty forest. It's familiar, somehow, like a story once acted out amidst the scraggly trees behind the stream down the road from Amy's old house in Leadworth. But she'd had someone else to make up stories with then—

No, she never had. Just her alone, playing both parts, herself and the Raggedy Doctor. And once or twice the Lady in the Forest, alone. There had never been anyone else. How silly to think there had.

"I need a holiday!" Amy announces, blinking back imagined tears. "Didn't we talk about Rio?"

The Doctor just looks at her, solemn and sad.

*

viii. once upon a time

After leaving Vincent behind, after the museum, Amy just needs to get away from everything for a while. From the Doctor, from the vast uncaring universe, from herself. She wanders the halls of the TARDIS at random, mindlessly twisting and turning in endless concentric circles. She finds rooms she never knew existed. In one, crystals grow down from the ceiling like stalactites in a cave; in another, a panel in the wall opens like a window to look out upon a vast, desolate plain of silver grasses and war-gouged earth.

Finally, she wears herself out, and pushes open the next door she reaches blindly. The TARDIS is generally very good at reading her moods; when Amy's exhausted like this, it always provides her bedroom at the nearest doorknob to hand.

This time, though, something must have gone awry. It's a bedroom, sure, but not hers. The room is decorated cheerily, all pale pinks and yellows; the walls curve upward in an unfamiliar fashion, almost organically, unlike the misfit steampunk décor in the console room and corridors. The bed is unmade, tousled; there's a hairbrush askew on one bedside table, and a couple of feminine T-shirts strewn across the bedspread. It's as though someone has just been here, left in a rush. Much like Amy's TARDIS bedroom looks most days, she admits to herself ruefully, always dashing off for the next adventure and leaving her sheets in hopeless tangles.

But this bed looks comfortable and Amy's tired, so she tosses the shirts to the floor and crumples atop the bedspread in a heap. She reaches out to flick off the lamp, then notices the framed photographs on the nightstand. Two teenagers mug up at her from one, a black boy and blonde girl; the same girl is in the other photograph with her arms around a somewhat older woman, probably her mother. It takes Amy a moment to recognize the girl: she's so young in these photos, grin wide and carefree, brown eyes gleaming.

Oh, Amy thinks.

She falls asleep there, and doesn't dream of the Bad Wolf. But the photos are still there when she awakens, reminding her. The colors of the room feel muted to her now, soft with remembered grief.

She doesn't tell the Doctor about the bedroom, doesn't ask him who the girl who would become the Bad Wolf used to be. It feels somehow cruel to reopen a book so firmly closed.

*

ix. bad wolf

Captured in an endless time loop of failed materializations, stranded alone on the TARDIS – well, apart from the periodic disturbances of flashing lights and shaking floors and abject panic, it gets kind of boring. The Doctor is off pretending to be human (badly) and hopefully resolving the great dual mystery of What The Hell Is Upstairs and Why Does The TARDIS Hate Us Today. And Amy is sitting around the console room wearily anticipating the next not-quite-landing.

The sound of footsteps on the grating behind her nearly gives her a heart attack.

And suddenly Amy is very, very angry.

"All right, I've just about had it!" she yells, whirling around to confront the Bad Wolf. "We have got to stop meeting like this."

The Bad Wolf's lips quirk into a smile. "Whatever do you mean?"

"What are you?" Amy demands. "Everywhere, anywhere I go, I seem to run smack into you again. It's like you're following me around – like the bloody crack in my stupid bedroom wall! You're in my head and you say you're not even real—"

The Bad Wolf opens her arms, hands palms up, in the universal gesture of surrender and supplication. "I am real. I'm just not real here. I live in a parallel universe."

"So what, this is some kind of pulp sci-fi story now?"

The other woman looks around them pointedly. After a moment, Amy gives her a reluctant laugh. "Okay, touché."

"I don't really know how to explain how I'm here now," the Bad Wolf says quietly. "It all gets very technical. Cracks in the fabric of space-time, universes slowly shattering, psychic projections – that sort of thing."

Amy folds her arms across her chest. "So simplify."

The Bad Wolf smiles wryly. "Okay. Once upon a time there was a young girl who fell in love with a madman and his magical machine."

"That sounds familiar already."

"Yeah, well, that's where it starts getting complicated." The Bad Wolf takes a deep breath. She runs her hand lightly across the console, the expression in her dark eyes twisting somewhere between reverence and grief. "I looked into the heart of the TARDIS, and she looked into me. That's a connection neither time nor space nor walls closing between parallel universes can ever truly break. So how did I get here? Ask her, not me."

Amy hesitates, then steps up to stand beside her. She reaches out and places her hand on the console, just next to the Bad Wolf's but not quite touching. The TARDIS hums longingly beneath their fingertips. "She led me to your old bedroom," Amy admits. "He lost you, didn't he?"

"He loses us all." The Bad Wolf pulls back from the console regretfully, tucking her hands into the pockets of her purple leather jacket.

"Why are you here with me?" Amy asks.

The Bad Wolf looks up to meet her eyes. "Because you're my shot in the dark, Amelia Pond. There are cracks open across all the universes, and they all seem to center on the TARDIS – the TARDIS, and you. Remember this, Amy. Remember me. You may be the only one who can."

Amy remembers a nation traveling through the galaxy on the back of a star whale, a big red button shouting FORGET, tears staining her cheeks and she doesn't know why. And something else, just at the edge of her memory, something very, very important that's she's forgotten. "And what if I can't?" she whispers.

"You will," the Bad Wolf says. She smiles widely then. It's sudden and almost blinding in its brightness, the years falling away from her face. She looks like the young girl in the photographs in a long-abandoned bedroom, wide-eyed and gleeful, the whole vast universe opening up before her. "Because you know what, Amelia Pond? You're fantastic."

At precisely that moment, alarms shriek and the TARDIS starts lurching around all over again. Amy grabs at the console to keep from falling, yanking haphazardly at levers and pulleys and giving the square yellow button a good hard whack. When she's back on her feet properly, she's alone in the console room.

*

x. long ago and far away

Five hundred years have passed. The Pandorica has been moved several times, and Rory travels with it, safeguarding the box. They now rest in the middle of a sacred glade, ancient trees stretching up to blanket their small, private universe, dappled sunlight streaming down through the leaves. It's a peaceful few decades for Rory, almost pleasant.

He dozes lightly in the cool of a late summer evening, torches lit at each corner of the clearing, the Pandorica solid and comforting at his back. It's a silly sort of indulgence – he's made of plastic, it's not like he needs to sleep. But he likes to sometimes all the same, when he's certain the Pandorica will be safe for an hour or so. It passes the time.

The ground is thick with moss, so he doesn't hear any footsteps. Just the air stirring beside him with a faint, unfamiliar floral scent. He opens his eyes to see a stranger standing in front of the Pandorica.

He pulls himself hastily to his feet. "Where on Earth did you come from?"

The stranger lets out a short huff of laughter, pushing a few wayward strands of blonde hair back out of her face. "Wrong Earth."

That's when Rory realizes what's really strange about this woman, apart from being the first person in half a millennium to get the drop on him. She's – modern. As in, twenty-first century. Not even remotely contemporary. Peroxide blonde hair glinting gold in the torchlight, leather jacket, jeans.

While he's busy gaping, implanted memories whirring madly in his plastic, automated brain, the anachronistic woman takes another step closer to the Pandorica, pressing her palm against its side. Rory reacts on instinct – protect the box. "Hey, now, none of that," he says, and reaches out to grasp her shoulder.

His hand passes right through her. The image of the woman jitters, like a faulty projection, then restores. Ancient memories reawaken – the freezing TARDIS, the Doctor throwing an apple at the Dream Lord, that same glitch in the image.

"You," Rory states, "are not normal."

"Neither are you," she says, with a sidelong smile. "Normal is overrated."

This is the most interesting thing that's happened in, oh, a century or so. "What are you? Where did you come from? What are you doing here?"

The woman traces the design along the Pandorica, gaze distant. "You'd have to ask Amy," she murmurs. "Maybe she's dreaming."

"That shouldn't be possible," Rory says automatically, before his brain catches up to the fact that she knows Amy is in the box. "He said—"

"Don't believe everything the Doctor tells you," the woman says wryly. "He's making most of it up as he goes along." She pulls her hand back with a sigh, turning to look at him. "You're her soldier?"

"I'm her—" Well. When you get right down to it, Rory's basically a figment of Amy's imagination. Not unlike this strange woman with the sad brown eyes. "Rory. I'm her Rory. What's your name?"

The woman opens her mouth, then closes it again, hesitating. He's not sure what she meant to say. But – "Rose," she tells him. "My name is Rose." She looks up at the canopy of leaves, the unmitigated darkness beyond. "The stars are going out."

Rory doesn't know what to say to that. He watches silently as Rose makes herself a seat at the base of the Pandorica, legs drawn up to her chest. She looks to be in her late twenties, but in the torchlight, hugging her knees, she seems very young. He wants to rest a hand on her shoulder, maybe; he hasn't had any human contact in a long time. Maybe she hasn't either. But he doesn't want to disrupt her projected image again. She might blink out and vanish for good.

The Pandorica thrums quietly with the echoes of a half-forgotten lullaby, golden like torchlight amongst the murmuring trees. Far off in the distance, a lone wolf howls.

"This isn't your story anymore, is it?" Rory says at last.

"No," Rose agrees, soft and sad. "It's not."

Rory hesitates a moment, then thinks: oh, why the hell not. "But you can stay a little while," he offers. "If you'd like."

Rose looks back up at him. Her dark eyes are wide and wistful. "Yes, I'd like that very much," she says. "I really would."

"Well, then," Rory says, and sits down beside her to wait out the starless night.

*

xi. neverending story

"I've got to change!" Amy shouts over her shoulder, heels in hand. "Can't go running through God-knows-what in my wedding dress, can I?"

"You wouldn't be the first!" the Doctor hollers after her, but neither he nor Rory try to stop her.

Amy giggles to herself as she wends her way down the corridor, tipsy from champagne and dancing and happiness. Wardrobe. She needs the wardrobe room. This door looks about right—

And she stumbles into the pink-and-yellow bedroom.

It looks subtly different now. The bed has been made up properly, all the clutter neatly cleared away. But the photographs still remain on the nightstand. Amy walks carefully over to have another look.

A third framed photo has joined the other two. This one is the blonde woman alone, a candid shot. She's turning slightly away from the camera, hair windswept, eyes shining. The hint of a smile teases the corners of her mouth. She looks young and beautiful; will remain young and beautiful forever, here in this quiet room out amongst the stars.

There's a note tucked into the edge of the frame. Amy pulls it out gently and opens it.

Remember Rose Tyler, it reads.

Amy closes her eyes. She remembers a lonely little girl, lost in the woods, and the big bad wolf who found her there. She remembers holding the blue book in her hands at her wedding reception, just a few hours ago, and hearing that soft voice in her mind's ear, willing the universe in her head back into reality. She remembers dark, sad eyes regarding her across the TARDIS console.

He lost you, didn't he?

He loses us all.

The cracks have all been sealed. Rose Tyler is soundly ensconced over in her parallel universe. Amy knows she'll never meet her Bad Wolf again; that book is closed.

Amy carefully slips the note back into the picture frame.

Later, much later, she'll find the room for the third and final time, and add two items to the nightstand: a photograph of herself, from her wedding, laughing joyfully at someone just out of the frame; and a child's watercolor painting of a forest, an abstract sea of green, with one lone, indistinct figure in the center emerging in splashes of purple and yellow.

There's a note scrawled at the bottom of the canvas: Remember Amelia Pond.

Amy closes the door firmly behind her and doesn't let herself wonder who'll be the next to open it.