That's Not Love, Isabel

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Despite the world being post-apocalyptic, everything felt kind of okay. I had a horrible time acclimating to the social interaction that came with living in a populated area full of inquisitive people, but I thought I did rather well after a few weeks. I simply remained in one of the small rooms of the dormitory everyone had agreed to use as a general staying alive space– at all times, ignoring or dismissing anyone that tried to come in and talk to me and ‘get to know me’ or whatever they called it.

Maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought– but I was trying. Trying to stay sane, after everything I’d known about Earth was ripped out from under my quadrophalangic feet. And above anything else, it just felt so unnatural to be able to… do things. To make my own rules. Nobody was waking me up, nobody was telling me to go to bed. Not that I listened much to the Foundation; I had a bad habit of staying up because my face was leaking, then sleeping until outrageously late in the evening. I didn’t have a good gauge of the actual times, but I did know that I usually was still up when they came to unhook my juice in the morning, and woke up a bit before they came again to hook me back up. At least, that was if I slept at all.

Having sunrise and sunset cues for the first time since I went under on my planet was both so helpful and so confusing to my messed-up biological clock. On my planet, most organisms woke at sunrise and slept at sunset, too, but the constant white lights in the ceiling of my cell had screwed up my ability to feel tired because of the dark. I was pretty sure it was more of a Pavlov response; you see the dark when you’re going to go to sleep so you associate dark with sleep, therefore whenever it gets dark you feel sleepy. And I hadn’t seen dark in what was probably months, according to human timekeeping strategies– maybe a little less than half an orbit around the sun? It didn’t help that being in a dark room felt unnatural, too unlike what I’d grown used to, so I left the lights on even when I slept. I was trying to stop. Either way, I got some comments on my habit of being asleep when they wanted to invite me to do things. It wasn’t inconvenient to me, because again, I wanted them to leave me alone.

The only person I could stand seeing was the Doctor, who appeared to need very little sleep. Initially I thought that we just had the same fucked up sleep schedule, because when I woke up scared and confused from my frequent nightmares, he was usually soon in the room with me and would ask me if I was alright.

I didn’t have the hearts to tell him about the nightmares. I didn’t want him to figure out what I’d done, or what had been done to me. I felt ashamed, weak, and ashamed of my weakness. Earth was supposed to be a different chapter in my life; I was trying to leave everything behind permanently when I volunteered for splicing. I did that because it’s the only thing I felt like I could do, the last option I had. I didn’t expect to ever become conscious again, and part of me felt slightly resentful that it hadn’t turned out the way it was supposed to– or, at least, the way I expected it to. Which was me ending up a self-cannibalised corpse, without thoughts or the ability to feel pain.

Having to put in the work to actually be, what, a real person again? To actually care about things, and do things, and talk to people? That was weirdly hard. And frustrating. I didn’t understand anything about this… social interaction. I recognised my resistance to actually learning wasn’t helping my situation either, but I didn’t want to start trying because that was hard and I didn’t know how to try in the first place. I was so used to giving up that I felt completely resigned to sitting in this room for the rest of eternity– logistically, I never had to leave. I wasn’t one of those gross biological organisms that needed to eliminate waste (well, not anymore at least), and the Doctor was the one who got my IV packs from the cold keeper. Refrigerator. Whatever it’s called. I didn’t particularly need sunlight, and besides, my skin burnt badly under Earth’s sun due to the lack of pigmentation. I didn’t need fresh air, because there were air ducts that brought purified air into each room; a system set up by some of the other UnHumans. I sure as hell didn’t need to go out and meet people or something, despite what they were trying to tell me.

Apparently, in a post-apocalyptic world, community was important or something. I wouldn’t know. I told myself I didn’t want to find out.

I was in the middle of reassuring myself that I would never have to, because I could just stay in this room for the rest of my life, playing on a handheld console that I’d been gifted– apparently I looked to be the age where humans got super into video games– when the Doctor walked in to deliver some bad news.

“We must return to Site-19.”

“What?” I looked up from my game, unattended tetrominoes immediately stacking up to the top of the playing field. The game over screen flashed in the corner of my vision as I looked at the Doctor, trying to figure out what the problem was without directly asking him. Because that was awkward, and I was already awkward enough.

I didn’t figure it out in time before he added, “One of the occupants here, Onyx, put solid oral food in the same refrigerator as your IV fluids. This is unsanitary and there is a possibility the fluids have been contaminated, which is unacceptable. We must get new, sanitary ones from Site-19.”

“But–” I didn’t like that idea, although I didn’t really have a solid reason why. It just felt bad.

“You don’t have to come with me,” he said tentatively, “although I would have to appoint another occupant to look after you, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable trusting any of them with that yet.”

Look after–? Uhh… “I’ll go with you.”

“Alright. I prefer that solution as well. The journey should not be so lengthy this time around, for there are many, well, scavenged vehicles.”

“Do you know how to operate them? I mean, like– drive?”

“I have known for… a while.”

I raised an eyebrow but didn’t question it. I guessed it made sense that– from what historical material I had been able to sneak away and read– someone approximately 600 orbits old would have learned how to operate a motorised vehicle somewhere in there.

It was still weird to me how colossally old he was. In earth orbits… I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked out to something like 40 to 50 times older. My entire lifetime, that many times over? It blew my mind it was even possible. I wondered what the lifespan of his species was; I didn’t even know the lifespan of my own. And in addition, I was… new technology, to put it one way. I still was unsure how my body hadn’t eaten itself inside out, starting in my Leydig’s and probably destroying my circulatory system or something. Although, my lungs weren’t exempt and I was pretty sure at least one of my hearts had palpitations.

“—Vending machine, with a keypad that you can– Are you paying attention?”

“Do you age like a human?”

He cocked his head. “I do not… think so? I do not show signs of age decay like a human organism.”

“That’s cool. I really hope you live forever,” I blurted, and then cringed. For some reason, I had a hard time suppressing the impulse to do certain things, and that coupled with extreme impatience and little understanding of social cues culminated in a lot of blurting and interrupting people. I didn’t mean to or want to– I guessed there was just something wrong with my brain, because I clearly wasn’t acting how the Foundation told me normal people - humans - acted. And I wasn’t acting like a normal Two, either. I was never able to sit still either, bouncing legs or fidgety hands being quite a trademark for me.

“Sorry, what were you saying?” I offered.

“Simply that there is a machine that should be able to produce your IV fluids.”

I shut the top screen of the game console so that it was a flattish rectangular pyramid, slipped it into one of my many pockets, and then stood from the bed I had been sitting on.

“So, what are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

The ride was mostly uneventful. I realised the only times I’d been in an Earth vehicle was when I was either delirious and mostly unconscious, or completely petrified and confused to the point where I was dissociating the whole time. It kind of reminded me of the latter, as I was being transported to a Foundation building.

But as I sat in the front seat of an Earthen vehicle for the first time in my life and gazed at the Doctor– whose eyes were thankfully on the road– I let it really sink in that things were going to be different now. I couldn’t help the fact that my blood pressure spiked immensely whenever someone in a white coat so much as stood nearby, and I couldn’t stop the fear that people only wanted me in order to hamstring my corporeal form by farming my immune system. But as I talked to him more, got to know him, from things as simple as changing my IV to as weird and squishy as sitting by me when I was having a particularly hard time. I didn’t know how to describe it besides maybe… trust? I… trusted him.

I felt weird thinking that. I decided I would never admit it out loud.

Stepping into the silent building was strange. I had grown more used to the smell of decomposing human bodies, and so it wasn’t quite as nauseating. I by no means liked it, but I simply breathed through my mouth and hoped I wasn’t inhaling some kind of human disease. Although, I trusted– that word again– the Doctor to have told me if there was something of the sort.

Once we grew close to the hospital, I started feeling… different.

There were whispers, at the very edge of my consciousness; if I focused on it for too long, it went away. I was wondering if I was just imagining things at first, but then it got so distracting that I took a wrong turn and found myself alone.

“6118? Where are you going?” I felt a hand on my shoulder and I jumped, only to turn around and realise it was just the Doctor.

“Sorry. I thought… I thought I heard something, sorry.”

“If you’re hearing some noises, it is most likely the footsteps or… dragging sounds of the Cured ones. I am having them flank us, as a safety precaution. I did not want you to see them, because they may frighten you. I did not mean to frighten you.”

“Oh.” I guessed that made sense? I felt really confused… I decided to accept that explanation.

I felt watched and paranoid, but I brushed it off as just being a byproduct of returning to a place that had bad memories attached.

I felt a lot better when we were driving back, but then woke up the next night to a rustling noise outside my window. Sitting up, I looked out into the darkness; I may have been painfully sensitive to light, but at least the upside is that it was easier to see in the dark. But even with slightly above average darkvision, I couldn’t make out anything other than the flora.

Turning off the light in the bedroom didn’t help; my eyes needed more time to adjust to the light than I had. I thought I saw something move, but I was still tired and it was hard to tell if my brain was playing tricks on me or not.

A few days later, I woke up to sharp tapping on my window; it was just barely dawn, and I was groggy because re: fucked sleep schedule. I dragged myself out of the bed to open the window, a gust of cold air chilling me as I picked up a small scrap of paper. As I read it, my eyes widened. I didn’t know how to react to the words.

I’d gotten used to feeling like someone was watching me, feeling a little paranoid… I told myself it was just normal for me and my personality. But something about scrawled notes covered in little love hearts confessing undying love made me uneasy.

I soon had received quite a collection of them, ranging from compliments to paragraphs that elicited a visceral reaction of fear in me.

I love you so I love you so
I want to murder anyone who stops me from seeing you.
I’m obsessed with you.

There were multiple instances of kidnapping plans, as well as talking about the means and method of slaughtering everyone in the building with me. All in the name of having me all to themself, forever and ever.

I tried to laugh it off, and I told myself it was someone playing tricks on me. Someone else in the building wanted to joke around, and this was their way of doing that.

I tried. But I was terrified. I was confused and didn’t understand what was going on. And the worst bit was that a part of me craved validation so badly, wanted to hear that I was special so bad, that it was almost gratifying that someone could like me enough to kill people over me.

And the person was also writing a lot of information as to why I couldn’t trust the people in the building, why I couldn’t even trust the Doctor. They continuously urged me to keep this secret, keep these notes between me and them, that it was really all because of me they were sending them in the first place. If I wasn’t such a– their words– transfixing, attractive person, they would have no reason to send these to me in the first place. The people I lived with were truly bad, and there was no doubt about it, and they would most certainly be angry at me for being on the receiving end of such disturbing notes. Because the only reason I was getting them, is because of how I was, such a… I didn’t want to think about the words they used.

Their reasoning made sense. They provided adequate reasoning and justification for their points, or… at least, I thought. It was all really confusing.

It felt like the person could read my mind, knew exactly where my insecurities in all my relationships lay. Each piece of evidence felt like it was designed to specifically target those insecurities. But it was probably that those people were actually bad, because nobody could read minds. Nobody.

I was pretty sure.

I woke up gasping for air and shaking. Another fucking nightmare. I felt sick to my nonexistent stomach, drained and uncomfortable. I held my head and tried to calm down, taking breaths, but I felt like I was suffocating.

It was the middle of the day, sun gleaming overhead. I rubbed my eyes and got out of bed, feeling lightheaded as I stood up but I managed to put on shoes, then to stumble to the door and out of my room. I needed to take a walk, I needed to move, I needed something to distract me from my thoughts.

The common area had multiple people in it, who all turned to look at me. I wanted to be ignored, I wanted them to pretend I didn’t exist. One of them, a humanoid much taller than me who I was pretty sure was named Onyx got up from their seat on the couch and approached me. Their hands were out, reaching for me as they said something. My brain was foggy and I had a difficult time trying to discern what they were saying.

“Buddy— take it easy— you okay?—”

I pulled away from them and kept walking. I reached the entrance and exited the building, getting immediately blinded by the sun. It was warm on my skin, and so was the air. I was wearing only a baggy t-shirt and shorts, as I hadn’t thought to put on something more covering. Normally I would have been self-conscious, having a thing for not wanting people to see my body and all, but I was too panicked to care and so I just wrapped my arms around myself as I walked. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I headed into part of town with more houses and other large buildings. I would be more hidden there, harder to be followed by the people I was living with. I just wanted to be alone right then.

For the first 10-ish minutes, I started feeling better. Maybe I really did need fresh air once in a while, even if it meant having to leave my room. Walking briskly helped me get out some of the nervous energy, the strain in my legs giving me a focal point while I told myself over and over that it wasn’t real, it wasn’t happening again.

But a few blocks after, I felt a strange sense of dread again. It was like the whispering from before, the same feeling I’d gotten when something had knocked at my window. I brushed it off as a reaction to my nightmare and kept walking. That was, until I heard footsteps behind me and felt a hand on my arm.

I flinched and whipped around. I expected to see Onyx or someone else from the building, but to my surprise it was someone entirely different.

“Why so jumpy, my love?” came a deep, slightly distorted voice. The source of it was a white porcelain comedy mask, uptop the body of what looked to be a teenage human girl. They wore an intricate victorian-esque dress, adorned with many frills and lace. I recoiled in fear from the sight of the mask, as I recognised it from my encounter in the hallway at Site-19.

They took my hands and held them, pulling me closer. I had the instinct to pull back, thinking it should hurt, before I realised that the body wasn’t covered in acid. Her skin had a bluish tint, because she was a corpse, but the long black hair with two half-pigtails were completely intact, and there was no black corrosive substance spilling down the neck of the body. Additionally, the hands, while bloated and strange to touch, were clean.

“Are you admiring my new look?” They dropped my hands, then took a step back and twirled. The voluminous skirt and petticoat spun around them.

“I- Um. Are you-?”

“What, you don’t remember me?” the voice lulled.

“I do remember you.” I stared at the smiling mask, more than slightly horrified that I was seeing it again. I didn’t want to see it again. I didn’t think I was going to have to see it again.

“We got off on the wrong foot, didn’t we? I know, it’s hard to resist my beauty– you were just so entranced, you couldn’t help yourself. It’s only natural. This time I decided to go with a less threatening host, maybe one you would like a little more?” They crossed their arms, supporting their chest tissue so that it appeared more prominent. I didn’t understand the gesture, but I knew it was some kind of human mating thing from the shows I’d watched. I felt grossed out by that.

They must have taken note of my grimace, because they dropped their arms and put their hands on their hips. “What, you don’t like girls? I got this host specifically because she’s soft and weak like you. I’m doing you a favour here.”

I felt bad and guilty. I didn’t want this person to be here, and I hadn’t asked them to possess that body. But they had gone through the trouble of doing it anyways, and I felt like I owed them an apology at the very least. “Thank you for the favour, but I don’t understand what you mean by ‘like girls’. I respect female humans, like all organisms, as should any decent person.”

“Oh, you know…”


“Okay, maybe you don’t know. That’s so cute– or naive, more like it. How old are you, after all?”

“Um… sorry, I have to be going.” I turned away from them and started walking– I would find the way back to the dormitory somehow. Dỳo called out after me, voice initially high and sweet and asking me politely if I would remain. When I started walking faster, the voice grew louder and angrier before stopping entirely. I wondered if they were going to leave me alo-

I woke up in a dark, cold room. I tried to sit up before I realised I was already sitting. Then I tried to stand, and I realised I couldn’t move.

After slowing my breathing to calm down from intense panic, I did some experimental wiggling, and found that my legs, waist, and arms were all firmly affixed to a chair. It felt like some kind of cord, scratchy on my exposed skin.

The room smelled like burnt rubber and roses, and breathing it in was uncomfortable. That darkvision thing was coming in handy, because the only illumination was a soft light coming from underneath a door, on top of stairs that went to the floor above. The room was fully furnished with exercise equipment, couches, and a television monitor. My shoes had been taken off, and I could feel a coarse carpet under my feet.

I tried to pull on the cord, and it had some give to it– but would it be enough? Trying to loosen it by twisting my wrists hurt, and I couldn’t tell if it was working in the first place. I was considering my options when a door creaked open.

My head snapped towards it, and I saw bright yellow light spill down the stairs from the doorway. A dark silhouette stepped down, and I heard the voice of a girl. “Hey, don’t worry, I’ve come to get you. Just be quiet…” I relaxed slightly, and then the light switch flipped on.

I squinted, long eyelashes not doing much to keep the yellowish light from my sensitive eyes. After a few seconds of adjusting, I was able to make out the person at the bottom of the stairs, and… all the colour drained out of my face.

It was Dỳo, who seemed to be smiling more maliciously than usual. They were holding something behind their back and walking slowly towards me.

“Did you miss me, kit? How long have you been awake? I hope you didn’t have to wait for too long.” These words were spoken in the deep, distorted voice again.

I struggled against the restraints and tried to sound calm. “What do you want?”

“I want you to know that you’re mine, and only mine, forever and ever and ever!”

They were clearly insane. I couldn’t say that, though, because this was a horribly precarious situation and I was worried what would happen if I said anything to make them upset. They stood by me, then swung one leg over me so that they were sitting on my thighs, facing me. The weight was uncomfortable and I imagined between that and my poor circulation, my legs would soon fall asleep.

“Ever since I noticed all of your scars, I’ve had such an insatiable craving to do this…” They cooed, moving their hand so that I could see the object they had been hiding. A sharp metal object shone in the light as they rotated their hand slowly, seeming to take delight in my clenched jaw and increased respiration rate.

I generally tried to forget my scars, but I had a lot of them. Some thin, some keloid, all long and straight and mostly in rows along my arms and legs. I didn’t mean to cause them, and I didn’t want them, but I had caused the injuries that turned into scars.

The only comments I’d ever gotten was by small children asking me how I got them, and then only on two occasions. I just said that they happened when I felt upset and they accepted that as an answer. I’d never had someone… like? Them. I’d never met someone who wanted to inflict more.

“I just love you so much, I want to cover you in marks and everyone will always know that you belong to me. Forever and ever– scars are permanent, you know.” They reached behind me, to where my wrists were bound to the chair. “Do you promise to not move?”

I just tried to focus on breathing in through my nose, and out through my mouth. I unfocused my eyes and stared blankly at the dirty shirt they had changed into.

“No response is a yes, after all. Just know if you try to move, or try to get away, I could easily overpower you.”

If I had a digestive system, I would have felt bile in my mouth. Even without one, I felt my insides clench. They untied the rope around my right arm and brought it up in front of me, holding it very firmly as their other hand– the one with the blade– hovered just above the skin covering my supinator.

My eyes flitted to it on their own accord, and I couldn’t do anything but watch as the tip of the blade dug into my skin and dragged. It stung, but I was morbidly used to the feeling of cut skin; I was thrown backwards into the sensation of past maladaptive coping skills as bluish fluid leaked down my forearm from the wound.

My breath hitched as Dỳo made another cut, then another. I could feel the edge dig deep, cutting into my dermis– I could see the shiny white layer, blood beading up from the capillaries and spilling down. I whimpered and tried to pull away from them, but they only gripped my arm tighter, giggling. After about a dozen repetitions, the blood was dripping off my forearm onto their thighs. They repositioned so that the arm holding the blade was pressing me hard into the chair as they brought my arm up and their head down so that the mouth of their host was pressed against the cuts. I felt something warm and slimy and–

My skin crawled and I involuntarily squirmed, severely uncomfortable and disgusted. They dropped my arm and put their hands on the sides of my head, palm pressing the flat of the blade into my cheek.

“Why do you resist me? You love me, kit! You love me! Maybe you didn’t notice, but I have the ability of telepathy– I can read your mind, I know what you really feel. Don’t you see? We’re madly in love with each other! I’m only doing this because I love you. I only took you away from those people because they would prevent us from being together, and that’s wrong! We’re meant to be, we’re meant to be~” they declared in a singsong voice, trying to smush our faces together. I turned my head, and their bloody mouth collided with my cheekbone.

They exclaimed and sat back, their face morphing into an expression of great sadness, then slapped me– hard. Tears welled up in my eyes and I dropped my head so that I was staring down into my lap. Shame and fear washed over me, but most of all, I felt resigned. I felt like I deserved it. I had made them mad, it was my fault.

Dỳo got up off of me and stood. “You ungrateful little shit, I can’t believe you.” I squeezed my eyes shut and liquid spilled down my cheeks. “You’re pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.”

I tried to keep from sniffling as the light turned off and I heard the door hinges creak, implying that Dỳo had gone.

I have to leave. Deep breath. I have to leave. Deep breath. I have to leave. Deep breath. This pattern continued until I’d gotten over my severe emotional reaction, convincing myself along the way that I needed to actually do something to leave instead of just telling myself I was going to over and over. I registered that my bleeding arm was still untied. Maybe they had forgotten?

I felt around the back of the chair for the restraints on my left arm. After quite a bit of wriggling and tugging, I got my other hand free. Then I undid the cord around my waist, then each leg. My hearts were racing and I was so scared that I couldn’t feel my limbs, but I managed to get my whole body free and stand up.

I immediately greyed out and stumbled, falling down. Less of a slow fall onto the hands and knees, and more of a whole-body collapse with my head spinning. This was bad, very bad.

I heard the door creak open. Head still spinning, I shoved to my feet and tried to keep myself from passing out. Dỳo was suddenly right next to me, holding me by my upper arms.

“What do you think you’re doing?” They sounded positively furious.

I swallowed hard. “Are you trying to leave? Escape? You really think you can? No, no, you’re staying right here, forever and ever. Why won’t you listen to me? You’re such a dumb brat!”

My face made an expression on its own accord. I didn’t have the energy to resist anymore. I just nodded and tried to stay upright.

A few long moments passed, during which I felt like I was phasing in and out of my own body. I couldn’t feel the corpse’s hands on my arms, I couldn’t feel my feet on the floor, I couldn’t feel how bad my head had hurt just a little bit before.

“I’ll give you a second chance, okay? Because I’m extremely nice and gracious. You should thank me, shouldn’t you?”

“Th-Tha, Thank y-” I felt like I was gasping for breath. Maybe I was hyperventilating. “Tha… ank you.”

Their face returned to the sockish smile of before. “Now, let’s try again. Just hold still.” Dỳo pulled me towards them and pressed their cold, smiling mouth to mine.

I hated it. Hated it. I knew what it meant, had seen it from human media. I didn’t want any part in that. Without thinking, I pushed on their chest, trying to get them away from me.

“Ple, Please stop,” I tried to back up. “I don’t- don’t want to do that.”

“You don’t have a choice,” they exclaimed, pulling my back towards them so that we were flush. “I don’t like violence, kit. Don’t make me do this.” Their voice came out distorted, warbling at the edges.

They tried again, and I helplessly stood in their grip as they did whatever strange and disgusting ritual they wanted me to be complicit in. I thought it would be enough.

“It’s like kissing a brick wall. Honestly, couldn’t you take an active part in this? Do you not love me enough to put some effort in?”

“I don’t- I don’t know wh-what that means.” My voice cracked with desperation.

“You’ve never loved someone before?”

I didn’t know. I cared about people sometimes. I was attached to them sometimes. Both of those things were very true in relation to the Doctor. But I didn’t think I was capable of what humans referred to as romantic love. And even if I was, I wouldn’t feel that for the sadistic theatre mask that had tied me to a chair.

Their expression soured. “What do you mean by that?”

Oh, oh no. They weren’t lying about telepathy.

“What do you mean by that?!”

I tried to open my mouth to say something, but didn’t have a chance to before they slammed me into the wall. I fell onto my side, pain shooting through my arms where I’d tried to catch myself.

“I am so kind to you. Do you know how much worse it could be? Do you know what you deserve? I’ve showered you with compliments and told you how much I love you, over and over and over, despite knowing who, what you are.” They took a step towards me, looming overhead. “You’re a killer, a murderer. You’ve massacred innocent people.”

It hurt to hear, but wasn’t unlike what I’d told myself time and time again. But then they added, “Do you think the Doc could ever forgive you if he knew that? Do you seriously think he would care about you if he knew? He’d hate, hate you.” My eyes widened.

For a moment, it was so quiet that I could hear the droplets falling off my face and hitting the ground.

“Don’t you understand? I’m the only one you have. I’m the only one who can put up with a monster like you. But you’ve just decided you hate me for no reason.”

I tried to say something to reassure them that I didn’t, but all that came out of my mouth was a broken sob.

“You hate me so much, maybe I should just kill myself! That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

I tried to push myself into a sitting position. My body was not cooperating with me; everything just felt so stiff and painful. They grabbed something off of the stand the TV was on– the blade from before.

“If you don’t tell me you love me, I’m going to kill myself! I’m going to do it right here, right now!”

My mouth felt numb and I simply stared. I couldn’t say it if I wanted to.

“This is your fault! It’s all your fault!” They raised the blade to their neck. “I’m only doing this because of you!”

Before they could make a cut, a door flew open, hitting the wall with a bang. Dỳo and I turned at the same time, and I saw the Doctor. He looked to be absolutely boiling with rage.

"Qu'est-ce que tu FAIS?”

“Ben, mon ami, je-”

There was a bodily collision. Several fast movements, then a loud crack.

I pulled the small person to his feet and hugged him to my chest. I could feel his racing heartbeats, his trembling flesh as he gripped onto me and hyperventilated. I smoothed my hand over his back, and I could feel his bones through his shirt, his cold skin; he felt so fragile.

His forehead was pressed to my sternum and I could feel his breath, feel the fear and anguish that came out with every exhale. When we first met, I’d been nothing more than intrigued by him. It was a shallow interest that only started because of my work. Now, as his frail form struggled to breathe between sobs, fists balled in my robes, I felt an overwhelming urge to do nothing but protect him. Save him from every hard thing in the world, everything I hadn’t been there to help with. I decided right then and there that I would die for him with no forethought.

I had knocked down every last door on every last house in the neighbourhood other survivors had last seen him in, and now I hugged him tighter, wishing I could tear everything that had hurt him into a million pieces; Dỳo lay cracked on the floor, normal memetic broadcasts finally quieted, finally harmless— finally gone. It had been one thing when they stalked me, or tried to turn my profession against me; it was another thing entirely now that they had been terrorising the– my alien.

“Are you hurt?” I meant to sound even, measured, but the desperation I was feeling bled through. I just wanted him to be okay. He appeared to be attempting to even out his breathing, and I traced the fingers of one hand along his vertebrae. “It’s alright. Take your time. I’m here, you’re safe.”

After a minute, he had calmed down enough to mumble, “I just have some, some scratches on my arm, and everything hurts, b-but you’re here and it’s okay now.”

“Let’s get you home and bandaged up.”

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