The Doctor hurried through the TARDIS, ducking around corners and under objects, hoping it might have fallen somewhere and he might find it. But he couldn’t see his recorder anywhere.
He felt anxiety rising up inside him and, despite knowing it was pathetic to get so worried about a misplaced recorder, he couldn’t calm himself down. He had poor control over his emotions at the best of times, let alone when he was feeling stressed.
He ran into another room, his arms flapping about like they always did when he ran. His hand banged into a doorframe, and it hurt a lot more than it probably should have; a hideous tingling pain shot up his arm and he winced. The recorder wasn’t in here, either.
The panic was getting worse. He pressed his fingertips to his temples, trying to calm the burning sensation filling his skull. It was usually quite effective, but it didn’t work this time. So the Doctor slapped him hand against his face. The sharp slapping noise made him flinch, the noise making his ears throb. But it didn’t make his head stop burning.
He considered trying to find Jamie, but he had no idea where he was. And Jamie probably didn’t know where his recorder was either. What if he had lost it? Anxiety shot through his abdomen until he felt sick, because what if he had lost it? Maybe it had fallen out of his pocket the last time he left the TARDIS. What if it was gone forever?
It was too much. He couldn’t cope with this. As he sank to his knees, the Doctor knew he was going to have a meltdown. He hated meltdowns – they were painful and humiliating and just plain horrible – but he had no control over them, and he certainly couldn’t stop one once it had started.
He rocked backwards and forwards; the motion was always calming, especially at times like this. But it wasn’t calming enough. His hearts were palpitating, slightly out of synch so all he could hear was a cacophony of pulsing thuds in his ears. His eyes were starting to sting and he knew he was near tears.
He slapped his face again, harder this time. The stinging sensation not only hurt his face, but shot right down his arm, and he cried out. His face felt damp, and the Doctor knew he was crying. His breathing hitched and he let out a shuddering sob. His chest, tight with anxiety and stress, actually hurt as he gasped for breath, and that only made him feel worse.
His brain was burning, too many thoughts swirling and whirring until the pressure inside his head was unbearable. And, from personal experience, the Doctor knew there was only one thing he could do to stop the pressure. So, almost like it was a reflex, the Doctor suddenly clenched a fist and slammed his hand against his forehead.
Gritting his teeth, he did it again, pain shooting down his hand but somehow making his brain burn less. Tears dripped off of his chin. He rocked harder, until he was hot and sweat started to dampen his forehead. He couldn’t stop crying.
He felt awful, and just had to hope that this would be over soon.
“Doctor, I was wondering—”
Victoria cut herself off as she saw the Doctor, unable to believe what she was seeing. To her horror, the Doctor was hunched up on his knees on the floor of the TARDIS, rocking backwards and forwards and crying. She had never seen him cry before.
She approached him, wanting to ask him what was wrong but struggling to find the right words.
“Doctor?” she said, crouching down in front of him.
In an attempt to reassure the Doctor, Victoria put her hand on his shoulder. But he flinched at the contact and slapped her hand away. Shocked at his reaction, Victoria stumbled backwards.
“Doctor?” she said again, raising her voice. But that only made him cry harder.
What was wrong with him? She didn’t understand. He’d been all right not that long ago. What had happened to him since then? And why was he acting like this?
Victoria was torn out of her thoughts when the Doctor, rocking even more violently, suddenly punched himself hard in the head. Her eyes widening, Victoria rushed forwards and grabbed his arm, not wanting him to hurt himself. What if he knocked himself unconscious?
“Doctor!” she cried. “Stop it!”
He screamed like he was being murdered and pushed her away with immense force. Her fingers bent back as she fell backwards and he wrenched his arm out of her grip, and Victoria hit the floor of the TARDIS with a thud.
Slowly, Victoria sat up. She rubbed her back, wondering if she was going to bruise. Her heart racing, she looked back over at the Doctor. He was still rocking and crying, but he now had his hands clamped over his ears. But why would he be trying to block out noise? Unless...
And then she had an idea. Despite being a bit scared that he might hit her again, she crept back towards the Doctor. Victoria kept her voice quiet and soft as she said, “Doctor?”
He didn’t react badly, but he didn’t respond either. Maybe he had that problem where he was crying too hard to speak. But if he didn’t say anything, how was she supposed to find out what was wrong?
Confused and anxious, Victoria sighed and hurried off to find the only person who knew the Doctor better than she did: Jamie.
She found him in his bedroom, sat on the bed he shared with the Doctor and attempting to read a book. His eyes widened when he looked up and saw her.
“You look awful,” he said, his Scottish accent as thick as ever.
Victoria felt it too. Trying to catch her breath, she told Jamie about what had just happened with the Doctor. When she had finished talking, he looked as anxious as she felt. Jamie jumped to his feet and grabbed her arm, obviously knowing exactly what was happening just from her description.
“Where is he?” he said, and his voice was hushed yet urgent.
“I’ll show you,” Victoria said, and Jamie kept hold of her arm as she led him through the TARDIS.
When they reached the Doctor, who was still rocking and crying, Jamie looked even more anxious. In fact, for a couple of seconds, Victoria thought he might start crying. But then his face set into a firm, determined expression and he sprang to action.
Treading lightly so his clumpy boots didn’t make as much noise, Jamie hurriedly turned the lights down, and tampered with the controls so the TARDIS wasn’t making as much noise. And then he took her arm and whispered, “Let’s leave him be.”
“But he keeps hurting himself,” she whispered back, feeling a bit sick as she remembered the Doctor punching himself in the head.
“I know, but he’ll be all right in a wee while,” Jamie said softly, and Victoria reluctantly followed him out of the room.
Victoria’s bedroom was the closest, so they were soon sat on her bed, close together but not touching each other. She would have felt very uncomfortable being alone in her bedroom with a man, but she trusted Jamie, and, given that he was in a relationship with the Doctor, it seemed rather obvious that he wasn’t going to try to kiss her.
Still, even though she felt safe with him, the situation was far from comfortable. And Victoria knew it was because of what was happening to the Doctor.
“How do you know he’ll be all right?” she said.
“You said the Doctor would be all right in a while. How do you know that? Has it happened before?”
Jamie nodded. “Aye. It’s happened hundreds of times in his life, and at least six times since I’ve known him. It’s a pretty common occurrence.”
“But... what’s happening to him?” Victoria said, not understanding why Jamie wasn’t panicking.
“When he gets really stressed, usually because of his senses getting over-stimulated, he goes into a major panicky episode called a meltdown,” he said, sounding like he had said this several times before. “That’s what’s happening right now.”
“But why is he so sensitive to stimuli?” she asked. “I didn’t think that was normal for Time Lords.”
“It isn’t. He’s autistic,” Jamie said, and he might as well have been speaking another language.
“Of course, you wouldn’t know,” Jamie said, more to himself than Victoria. “Look, autism is a disability that affects your neurodevelopment, so the way your brain works as you grow up. It wasn’t really noticed at all on Earth until the 1940s, so I shouldn’t have expected you to know – I didn’t until he told me, and I didn’t know what he was talking about either. Heck, even humans in the twenty first century don’t know much about it, from what the Doctor’s told me.”
“I didn’t know the Doctor’s got a disability,” she said, puzzled.
“You wouldn’t know unless you knew what you were looking for. He hides it really well. It all stems from when he was growing up. He... wasn’t treated well...” Jamie’s voice trembled slightly as he spoke, and Victoria thought he looked almost angry for a few seconds. “He’s always hidden his traits, and only really lets his guard down around people he trusts.”
“Does that mean he doesn’t trust me?”
“He does trust you,” Jamie said, giving her a brief smile. “You know when he wrings his hands or presses his finger against his head or flaps his arms? That’s him letting him be himself, and you wouldn’t see him do it unless he was really stressed, or he trusts you enough not to mock him.”
“I would never mock someone for doing that,” Victoria said, and she was being earnest; she could never understand why people were cruel to each other. “He looks so happy when he’s doing it... why would people think that’s wrong?”
Jamie shrugged, but she saw the pain in his eyes. “I don’t know. But I do know that lots of people hate autistic people doing things that harm no one and make them happy, and I still can’t work out why.”
Jamie sighed, and Victoria did too. It was hard to think of people being mean to the Doctor just because he was disabled. And he was such a lovely man too. It wasn’t fair.
“Jamie, there’s one thing I don’t understand,” Victoria said. “Why do you leave the Doctor alone when he’s having a... meltdown? Wouldn’t he feel better if he had you with him?”
Jamie smiled. “He might, I guess. But we’ve had a chat about this, and he said he’d rather be left alone until it’s over. He said being touched really hurts when he’s so overwhelmed.”
Victoria felt a tight sensation in her stomach. That must have been why the Doctor hit her when she touched his arm...
“What’s that doing there?” Jamie suddenly said, his eyes focusing on something behind Victoria.
He got up and picked up the Doctor’s recorder from where it had been resting on top of Victoria’s cupboard.
“That? I found it on the floor by the front door.”
“But that’s the Doctor’s,” Jamie said, looking a bit panicked. “Why didn’t you give it back to him?”
Victoria frowned in confusion. “I know it’s the Doctor’s. I was going to give it back to him when I next bumped into him, but I hadn’t come across him... until I found him having that meltdown just now.”
Jamie picked up the recorder and sighed.
“What’s the matter?”
“I think we might’ve found the cause of his meltdown,” Jamie said.
“What do you mean?” Victoria asked, more confused than ever.
“His recorder’s a comfort object for him. He needs it with him otherwise he gets really anxious. It sooths him, especially the noise it makes. When he doesn’t have it...” Jamie trailed off, and Victoria knew he was thinking about the Doctor having the meltdown.
Now she understood. Victoria stared at the recorder in his hands, starting to feel quite sick. “I can’t... I’m so sorry, Jamie. I can’t believe I’ve done that to him...”
Jamie sighed and patted her shoulder. “You didn’t know. Let’s just go and see how he’s doing.”
Jamie walked out of her bedroom, and Victoria followed after him, her stomach still churning.
“Jamie, he won’t hate me now, will he?”
Jamie chuckled slightly. “Of course he won’t. When was the last time you saw the Doctor hate someone?”
Victoria tried to smile, but she couldn’t help but feel dreadful when she saw the recorder in hand.
It was over.
The Doctor stayed hunched forwards, and let out a shuddering breath. Even breathing hurt; every muscle in his body was aching. But that made sense, considering what had just happened.
Slowly, he sat up. The TARDIS span slightly, which made sense considering how hard he had hit his head. His forehead throbbed, but the feeling passed, although his head was still rather sore.
The Doctor stumbled to his feet, having to lean against the wall as his legs wobbled, hating how drained meltdowns made him feel. He closed his eyes for a few seconds as the TARDIS spun and he swayed on the spot, leaning heavily against the wall until the dizziness passed. He groaned and rubbed his eyes, which were sore from crying, and worked out what he was going to do now.
Unlike in his previous incarnation, the Doctor never went fully nonverbal after a meltdown, but it was still hard to make his mouth say the words his brain wanted him to say. So he had to really think as he opened his mouth and called, “Jamie?”
Jamie must have been waiting close by, because it only took him a few seconds to appear. He smiled as he came into the room and approached him.
“Hello, Jamie,” he said weakly, his words still not coming as easily.
“Hello, Doctor,” Jamie said, keeping his voice soft. “Would you like a hug?”
The Doctor tried to nod, but it hurt his sore head. Instead, he mumbled a quick, “Please.”
Smiling, Jamie wrapped his arms around him. He squeezed him tightly, obviously remembering how the Doctor liked pressure, especially at times like this. He leaned his head against Jamie’s, and sighed shakily.
Jamie was so wonderful. He was so accepting when he told him about being autistic (it shouldn’t have been a big thing at all, but a long lifetime of ableism towards his autism meant it took a lot to bring himself to tell Jamie), and did everything he could to help him with his sensory processing problems and social issues. He even educated other people about the Doctor’s problems when he was too tired to tell them himself. Jamie really was the only person he had met in a long, long time who he felt he could trust completely.
He wanted the hug to go on forever, but Jamie eventually pulled away.
“How d’you feel?” he asked.
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve had worse.”
He was telling the truth; as far as meltdowns went, he had experienced ones that were far worse than that.
“Yeah, but how do you feel now?” Jamie said.
“The usual. Achy, tired and embarrassed,” he said, and Jamie smiled sympathetically.
“Well then,” Jamie said, taking his hand and squeezing it tightly. “Let’s get you to bed. Hopefully you’ll feel better soon.”
The Doctor smiled back, part of him still amazed he had met (and was in a relationship with) someone was wonderful and loving as Jamie.
Five minutes later, the Doctor was in bed in his and Jamie’s bedroom. He was so exhausted he actually looked ill, and Victoria felt dreadful for knowing she inadvertently caused this to happen to him.
But despite his dreadful appearance, the Doctor was smiling broadly, because Jamie had just handed him his recorder. Even though his knuckles were swollen from hitting himself and his fingers were shaking, the Doctor wrung his hands together excitedly.
“Thank you,” he said.
The Doctor put his recorder in his mouth and played a small tune; Jamie must have recognised it, because he smiled and started nodding his head along to the music. In the seconds he was playing the tune, the Doctor looked so relaxed, almost content – but as soon as he had finished, he sighed, his face falling.
“I’m sorry,” he said, staring down at the bed covers. His forehead was red and swollen, and was surely going to bruise horribly. His eyes tracked the pattern on the sheets, and Victoria wondered if he had picked them specifically because of the pattern. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Jamie said, sitting down beside the Doctor on the bed. “It’s not your fault. You can’t help it happening.”
The Doctor smiled weakly, his fingers still moving even though he wasn’t playing his recorder. Smiling back, Jamie pressed a kiss to the Doctor’s cheek. The Doctor leaned against him, sighing. They really did look sweet together.
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” Victoria said, hating seeing the Doctor looking so sad. “I never should have moved your recorder.”
“You didn’t know,” the Doctor said, his voice still hoarse from crying. “I should’ve told you.”
“I know, but—”
“It’s an easy enough mistake,” he said. “Even I’ve set myself off before.”
Victoria wanted to apologise again, but she could tell the Doctor had already forgiven her.
“Does she know?” the Doctor said to Jamie, who nodded.
“Aye, she does. I told you all about his autism, didn’t I, Victoria?”
“Yes, he did,” Victoria said. “And I just want you to know that I’m never going to treat you the way those hateful people did. You’re a lovely person just the way you are, and I don’t know why anyone would want to change you. And I really am sorry for causing your meltdown.”
Victoria glanced at the Doctor, and was shocked to see tears in his eyes. He leaned forwards and grasped her hand; beside him, Jamie was smiling.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
And Victoria had to turn away before she had a chance to burst into tears.
The next morning, Victoria went into their bedroom with two cups of tea. The Doctor and Jamie were both awake, but were so still they might as well have been asleep. The Doctor’s head was resting on Jamie’s chest, and Jamie had his arm around him.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling, and they both smiled back.
Although he had a full right to be angry with her, the Doctor wasn’t holding a grudge. To be honest, he seemed to be acting like yesterday’s events never happened. Victoria didn’t blame him; she knew how much his meltdowns embarrassed him, and she would want to forget about it had it happened to her. So she didn’t mention it, simply handing them their tea and smiling.
“Thanks,” Jamie said, and the Doctor gave her a grateful nod.
It was going to be difficult to pretend the yesterday’s events had never happened, but Victoria knew she needed to try. At least she knew what caused the Doctor’s struggles now, and she hoped she would never cause him to have a meltdown again – and she also knew not to touch his recorder again.