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it's lost in our embraces like stars against the sun

Chapter Text

Through windows in the dark
The children come, the children go
Like arrows with no targets
Like shackles made of snow
- Leonard Cohen, "True Love Leaves No Traces"

*

“Hello, sweetie. If you’re there, pick up. Of course not. You never answer your bloody phone. Never mind, then. Thought you might be up for a bit of adventure—who am I kidding, you’re probably out adventuring right now. Swanning off, saving planets, bringing all the girls to your feet with a flick of your bowtie. I hope that’s where you are, my love. I hope you’re well.”

--

A rib cracks and the air whooshes from her lungs. She doesn’t have time to inhale, doesn’t have time to close her eyes before there’s another crack, a boot in her stomach, and she gags. Tries not to scream. She bites her lip to keep the sound tucked away.

“I’ll ask you again,” she says from the sidelines, face half shielded in shadow. “Where did they—”

River huffs out a laugh. “It’s a shame your methods of extraction are so primitive,” she grits, because Nessa hates to be interrupted. “In the 62nd century they’ve got termites that see into your memories. Well. I say termites, but they’re really more like—”

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Nessa nod, and the man above her grabs her by the hair, hauling her to her feet.

“Again?” she manages, blocking the pain. “Next time I’m shaving it off.”

Nessa’s lips twitch. “There won’t be a next time, Doctor Song.”

“Promises, promises,” she says, just before a fist connects with the back of her neck. Her knees hit the concrete and she winces, but it’s all manageable. Nothing worse than she’s felt before.

“Get it out of her,” Nessa snaps. “I don’t care how you do it, make her talk.”

The man nods, his expression unwavering, and River hears the door slide open and shut, the panel hissing as it locks.

Staggering to her feet, River appraises the man—Clyde, she’s calling him—with a smirk. “Looks like it’s just us girls. What’d you think? Tea time? Monopoly? Pretty Pretty Princess—” The last word is sucked away as his fist connects with her sternum.

He has no training. Doesn’t know where to hit or when or what force to use—he’s just big, nearly twice her height, muscled arms and solid torso, his face obscured by a thick helmet, sides encased in the same, shatterproof material. It would be so easy—one blow to the skin beneath his armour, and every time he grabs her arm or her wrist or knocks her head against the wall, she has to remind herself not to react. Not to let her training overtake her.

It’s a long game, this time, well worth a few bruises. Even if most of them are to her dignity.

Wheezing, River rights herself again. “Seriously? My mum throws a better punch.”

His expression doesn’t change, and he doesn’t say a word, just grabs her arm and drags her to a chain in the corner, suspended from the ceiling.

River sighs. “Oh, come on, Clydey. My stretch marks are bad enough as it is—although, there’s a delightful cream on Saturn II that’ll fix it up in no time.” She pauses, considering. “Maybe we should get some for your face.”

The lock clicks in place above her head, and she wiggles her toes. They don’t quite touch the ground. Her arms are already burning, and her ribs groan in protest, but she smirks, and pushes it aside.

Two broken thumbs and she’d be free of the shackles. One broken rib, and she could wrap her legs around his neck and twist. The chances of puncturing a lung are higher than she’d like, but doable odds.

Patience, she reminds herself, as Clyde cracks his knuckles. Patience.

He pulls his arm back to swing, and River closes her eyes, empties her mind, and lets go.

--

“Bogota!” he exclaims, throwing a switch on the console. “The planet, not the city. Best Fritanga you’ve ever eaten, on my life.”

Clara snorts. “Rather not bet your life on a plantain, thanks—I’m still getting used to this face.” She pauses, setting the book in her lap. “On the other hand, could you regenerate into a woman?”

The Doctor rolls his eyes at her smirk. “Could do. Still be married, though.”

Clara brightens at the mention of his wife. “You still see her?”

He falters, just slightly. “No. Not since—not since Trenzalore.”

“So not with this face,” Clara says gently, and he nods once, curtly.

“Might do. Might not.” Skidding around the console, he snatches her book and throws it over the railing. “So! Bogota, yay or nay?”

Clara considers. “Will there be—”

“Cocktails, yes.”

“And cabana boys?”

He frowns. “Why would there be cabana boys?”

Clara shrugs. “I dunno. Seems like they’d go nice with fritangas.”

The Doctor scowls, but she can see his amusement, and clasps her arms behind her back, grinning.

“Fine,” he huffs. “One cocktail, two fritangas, and a cabana boy coming right up.”

Smacking a kiss to his cheek, Clara smiles. “That’s my Doctor.”

--

Getting captured hadn’t been part of the plan, but she admits it’s had its advantages.

Guards discuss plans outside her door, and she’s gained more intel in the last four days than she ever could have from the outside. It’s a run-down place—dirt floors, stone walls, limited technology, save what the Daleks have brought with them. The station in orbit above the mines used to be a Helkan research centre, before the invasion, and she’s chalked it up to luck that they’ve brought her here instead of one of the Dalek ships. She thought there’d be more Daleks themselves, but if her suspicions are correct, they’re just dormant. Waiting.

She wonders who Nessa was, before.

Shaking her head to clear the thought, River glances around her cell. Four days without food and water isn’t much to her, but she can feel her body working overtime to compensate.

Ripping a piece of cloth from the bottom of her trousers, she ties it around her arm in a makeshift tourniquet, covering the wound they’d burned into her skin. It stings, but she pushes it aside. She’ll have time to deal with it later, deal with all her injuries, once it’s over. The shackles clank against one another as she ties it off with her teeth and she leans back against the cold wall, closing her eyes for just a moment.

Unbidden, she wishes for her father. For his warm hands and careful touch. The nursing kit he carried with him everywhere. “I wish you’d be more careful,” he’d say. She’d smile, and shake her head. “But careful is ever so dull.”

A light flickers on and the door hisses open, but she keeps her eyes closed, a smile on her lips. “Back so soon, Clyde? I was afraid I wore you out.”

A whirring sound fills the room, and she isn’t surprised to see Nessa, standing beside a Dalek, its eyestalk fixed on her form.

“Is this the prisoner?” it intones, and River resists the urge to laugh.

“Doctor Song,” Nessa replies. “No first name.”

The Dalek scans through its records, and she counts backwards in her head. Three...two...one…

The Dalek jitters, lights flashing. “Records discovered. Records indicate Doctor Song is a threat to the Dalek race.” Sliding backwards, the Dalek turns its head frantically. “Kill her! Kill her!”

River watches, amused, as Nessa turns to the Dalek. “We cannot kill her. She has information on the whereabouts of the slaves.”

“Exterminate!”

Nessa snorts. “She isn’t going anywhere, look at her.”

Turning slowly, the Dalek stares her down through the eyestalk. River raises her chained hand and gives a little wave. “Hello, again. Glad to see your records are up to date this time. Shame your friend wasn’t able to deliver the information personally.”

“Daleks have no concept of friendship.”

River snorts.

Nessa turns to the Dalek. “We need her alive. She has the location of the Helkans; she orchestrated their escape.”

The Dalek seems to consider, eyestalk rotating back and forth across the cell. “Extract information and exterminate.”

River smirks. “I was so hoping you’d say that.”

Glowering, Nessa watches as the Dalek exits, disappearing down the hallway, and Clyde appears at her shoulder. Turning her attention back to River, she smiles. “We have something new for you today, Doctor Song.”

Pulling a chair into the room, Clyde bolts it to the floor before dragging her up by her hair. She fights back only minimally, but she isn’t sure if it’s because she doesn’t care, or she can’t. The thought worries her, but she pushes it away. Clyde straps her wrists to the arms.

“Is it a pony? I always wanted a pony.”

Nessa scowls, but quickly schools her features into one of indifference. “The Dalek archives are incredibly vast. They were able to uncover some...interesting methods.”

Crouching to the floor, Clyde binds her ankles to the chair before unrolling a swatch of cloth, and River tries to calm her heartbeat as he picks out a silver tool, almost like a pliers.

“We’ve done our fair share of research on human anatomy since you’ve arrived,” Nessa says, hands folded behind her back. "Human nerves are intriguing, as far as humans can be. This technique began in what you call Medieval times. Hasn’t seemed to have lost its popularity."

"Neither has Journey, but then I never cared for fusion."

Nessa smiles serenely. "Joke all you like, Doctor Song. Clyde."

Before she can blink, Clyde clamps one beefy hand over hers, and with the other, grips the nail on her left hand index finger and pulls.

Pain spikes down her spine and up her arm and through her head, and it's everything she can do not to scream. He pulls again, and again, until her nail comes off and she gasps, head falling forward as her body goes taught and she jerks. Her hand tries to close reflexively, but Clyde keeps it flat, blood smeared over both their fingers.

She can't breathe, and her vision blurs until Clyde slaps her hard across the cheek.

“Did you know there’s a bed of nerves directly under the fingernail, Doctor Song? And apparently major nerve branches from the...what do you call it? Spinal column, I believe, feed into the shoulders, arms, and hands.”

Gritting her teeth, River manages, “Did you know, a ‘coward’ was originally a boy who took care of cows? Since we’re exchanging useless information.”

Nessa’s jaw clenches and she nods, and Clyde grasps another nail and tugs. Her vision goes white, her arm and neck flaring with pain and she it’s all she can do not to cry out or whimper.

"Doctor Song?" Nessa enquires serenely.

Swallowing, River raises her head and smirks, though she know her lips are trembling. "What the hell," she rasps, "I’m due for a manicure, anyway."

Lips twitching, Nessa nods to Clyde, who raises the pliers again.

"Enjoy your afternoon, then."

The doors slide shut and lock, and River steels herself, meeting Clyde's gaze. Just before he takes hold of her nail and pulls, she swears she sees him smile.