The first time he saw her after she died, she had her dress hitched up and was dashing barefoot in his direction mouthing something. He barely had time to process the fact that she was there, let alone feel anything about it, before she was within earshot and he could hear the word she was repeating.
Emerging from a hatch behind her was what appeared to be the burning cloud of an explosion, only it was moving much more slowly than an explosion, erupting and billowing out gradually into the hangar. She grabbed his hand and dragged him along with her; she was surprisingly strong.
“What the—what’s that?” he said, twisting back in an attempt to finish processing what he had seen.
She tugged his arm again. “A swarm, Sweetie,” she said with a snap of irritation.
“What type of ‘swarm’?”
“A swarm of angry flaming nanobots. Now come on, before you get us both killed.”
That was enough to get him moving; he pulled out ahead and dragged her along for a bit to see how she liked it. Annoyingly, she seemed to like it quite a lot. They charged through the door, heaved it closed and engaged the deadlock. The metallic torrent crashed into it a half second later.
“River, what are you doing here? And why on earth are you wearing a ball gown in the middle of an interstellar shipyard?”
“Do you like?” she asked, giving him a better view of the figure-hugging midnight blue number as she curtsied.
“Very nice, but answer my question.”
“Questions,” she corrected and winked. “I’m wearing a ball-gown because—surprise, surprise—I was at a ball. And I’m here because someone got themselves into a little bit of a life or death situation without realising it, then neglected to tell me until the very last minute that Iwould have to sort it out.”
He was trying to follow her, he really was. “What? Who?”
“Who do you think?”
“Me? But I haven’t told you anything.”
“Oh you will,” she said, throwing her eyes to heaven.
“Wait, what was the life or death situation? I don’t remember anything remotely life-threatening happening until you showed up.”
She sighed heavily, seemingly over having to explain the details. “Interstellar shipyard, right? Lots of cargo ships going to and fro, docking here, there and everywhere, picking up all kinds of flora, fauna and god knows what else on their hulls? So to make sure that there is no cross-contamination or unexpected introduction of non-native species—”
“Quarantine,” he concluded, slapping himself on the forehead, “Oh, I am an idiot.”
“Only very rarely,” she said, and he wasn’t quite sure if she was being facetious.
He had been standing in a quarantine bay that was about to be flushed with billions of tiny life-form destroying robots—he would have been converted to atoms before he even knew what was happening. “But why were they on fire?”
“Well, not having much time to prepare,” she threw him a mock glare, “I didn’t have a plan so I had to work with what I had to hand—which was a small bottle of perfume and a box of matches.”
“Wait, matches? You don’t smoke do you?” he asked, sounding slightly thrilled. Which was surprising considering how thoroughly he disapproved of smoking. He cleared his throat.
“No!” she said, glaring at him in earnest this time. “I found them next to the control panel.” She stared at him for another moment before continuing. “As I was saying, that’s all I had, the countdown was set and I couldn’t find the emergency shut off button—”
“It was probably big and red and might have had ‘Emergency Shut Off’ written on it,” he interjected unhelpfully.
“Are you going to let me finish or am I going to have to gag you?” He shut his mouth, stifling a smirk over how easily he could wind her up. “So, with two seconds to go, I broke the perfume over the exit port and lit it.”
“You firebombed them?”
“Basically. It slowed them down, but I didn’t expect them to continue working for quite this long.” They were still hammering up against the deadlocked door. “You weren’t even supposed to see me. I was going to be in and out without you ever knowing you were in danger. And it was my favourite perfume too; that bottle cost a small planet.” She pointed an accusing finger at him.
He grabbed her wrist. “You have a vortex manipulator.”
She quickly put her hand over the display to hide her next intended destination. “Cheeky!” she said and he grinned.
“Where are your shoes?” he asked, looking down at her feet, and noticing that one was slightly bloodied.
“I didn’t want to ruin them, so someone’s holding them for me.”
“You can’t go running around an industrial dock without shoes.”
“Funny, that’s what he said too.”
“He sounds clever, you should listen to him.”
“I do. Mostly.” She lifted her foot up to inspect it and hissed as she tried to pick out a metal shaving with her fingernails.
He rolled his eyes, picked her up and plonked her on a swivel chair next to a communications console. He sat back against the console and pulled her by the ankle until she was slouched at the very edge of the chair—pissed off with his manhandling—and he could get a better look. “You really made a mess of your foot, you’re going to need stitches.”
“No I won’t,” she said.
“Unless you have some nanogenes handy, you will. I’ve seen how horribly you lot heal.” She sighed her displeasure and tried to retract her foot but he had a firm grip.
“Stop struggling and let me get the metal out of your foot.” He stared at her. “If you use your manipulator now some of it could work its way into your bloodstream.” She stopped struggling.
He glanced down over her exposed thigh and frowned; she pulled her skirt up to cover her bare knee.
“Thanks.” He took his sonic from his pocket and fiddled one-handed with it. “Lowest setting,” he said, looking her in the eye, “it will take longer, but hurt a hell of a lot less.” The sonic emitted an uncharacteristically low-pitched sound and River winced as the metal began to move.
He glanced up at her. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“Nice are they?”
“The shoes. They must be something else to be worth this.”
“They were a gift.” He half-laughed and she regarded him curiously. “I don’t know what it is about this face on you, but I never know what I’m going to get with it.”
“Oh?” He was concentrating on resonating her foot.
“You’re very moody.”
“Moody! And in the future, how am I?”
“Oh still very moody, but predictable at least. Maybe it’s because you don’t react to my charms with this face. It’s strange, but I quite like it. It can get a bit boring knowing exactly which buttons to push.”
“No, not really,” she grinned, “but a change is nice too.”
“River, can we change the subject?”
“I’m sorry. I’m making you uncomfortable.”
“Yeah. Just a bit.”
“Well there’s a subject. What makes you uncomfortable about it?”
“Are you a psychiatrist now as well as an archaeologist?”
“No,” she chuckled, “I just thought it might be something we could talk about.”
“What about ‘spoilers’?”
“We can avoid specifics. Tell me, maybe I can help.” He shook his head. “Why not?”
“Your foot’s wounded, I don’t want to extend the damage.”
“I promise you won’t wound me with your words.” She placed a hand on her heart.
“Okay,” he said, switching off his sonic for a moment. “I don’t see it. I don’t see how I could… with you.” She didn’t look wounded.
“Well you wouldn’t.”
“Firstly, you barely know me. Secondly, you don’t know who I am,” she said. Surely those two things should really count as one? “Thirdly and most importantly, you’re in love with someone else.”
He blinked at her. It was true of course. It had been years since Rose, and it still hurt just as much as it had to begin with. “But you’re telling me that changes?”
“Oh no, that never changes. You just discover that you have more room in there than you thought you had.”
“Room enough for you, you mean?” She shrugged. “River, I know that I give you more than I could have given to Rose, but I just can’t see how. If it was going to be any human, it would have been her.” He looked at her again to gauge the reaction; she seemed impassive.
“That doesn’t hurt you?”
“It hurts me that it hurts you,” she said tenderly.
“When it happened, she wasn’t ready. It was too sudden.”
“Is anyone ever ready to lose you? I know that I won’t be when my time comes.”
“Probably not for a long time though,” he said and she shook her head; she knew he was lying.
Her voice was thick when she spoke again. “Who knows, after you, I might meet some gorgeous multi-billionaire intergalactic spy.” There was a hint of bitterness in the laugh that followed and he found himself stroking her ankle with his thumb.
“River, I only know you a very short time, but I already know I’ll never forget you.”
“You never forget any of us,” she said, smiling sadly. “Can you promise me something? After I’m gone… remember the good things and be happy. I’d hate to think of you going through it all again over me.”
“How can I promise that when I don’t know yet?”
“Promise you’ll try.”
“Okay,” he nodded, “but why are you asking me and not him?”
“Because, this way, I can imagine that I’m asking someone else.” She looked down at her hands on her lap and he could see her lip tremble.
“I’d better finish getting this metal out of your foot so you can get back to your shoes.” He turned on the screwdriver again and started to work.
“Turn it up a bit, I can take it.”
“You sure?” he asked and she nodded. He made the adjustment and before long all of the shards had been removed. He helped her to her unsteady feet.
“They’ve either given up or died,” she said, indicating the door.
“I’m going to have to have a word with the TARDIS when I get back—dropping me off and sending me out into almost certain death like that,” he said resentfully.
“You go easy on her. She loves you more than any of us,” River said with a coolness that he hadn’t expected.
“Sorry,” he said, feeling a little sheepish as she looked down at her vortex manipulator.
“Thanks for saving me.”
“Any time. See you soon,” she said and she tapped on her wristband.
“Yeah,” he breathed as she disappeared in a puff of smoke and electricity, the afterimage of her lingering on his retinas for a few moments longer.
Another puff and she was back. “I forgot to say, you should get moving before they get back from their lunch and see what’s happened to their nanobots.”
He opened his mouth to speak but she was gone again. He heard a rabble of livid voices in the distance and decided to take her advice and get going.