The Doctor couldn’t have explained why the thought had come. It had been the last in a long line of inexplicable leaps, unimaginable imagined notions that had landed at the forefront of his mind. Find River Song, something had said, and so he’d been begun to look.
His hands and feet moved of their own accord around the console: levers pushed and pulled, cords tugged, and a tiny rubber ball bounced, and they were off. To where and when, the Doctor didn’t know, but he trusted the TARDIS, his TARDIS to take him exactly where he needed to be.
“Take it away, old girl. Geronimo!”
The Ponds, who’d been chattering flirtatiously in their corner, had stopped their chattering some time ago. He hadn’t noticed. They landed with a shudder, but no one fell. At some point, even they’d gotten used to the touchdown.
The Doctor tweaked a few more knobs, typed in a last command, and pressed ENTER quite decisively. For some reason, he smiled. I love it when it a landing comes together.
“Okay, Ponds,” he rubbed his hands together giddily, “let’s see what the good Doctor Song has got for us today.”
He strode purposefully to the door and pulled it open to take a look outside. He found nothing. Well, not nothing, but very little of anything at all.
“I was not expecting this,” he murmured to himself, wondering whether the TARDIS had led him wrongly after all and if there was something he could rewire to fix that. I do hope she isn’t still cross with me for forgetting to hug her goodbye. He’d wanted to, oh, how he’d wanted to. It just hadn’t crossed his mind, something of a mortal failing for a consummate hugger. Hence, Sexy’s displeasure.
If only there’d been something to look at.
Amy skipped to his side with Rory in tow. She was as spectacularly disappointed as he was. “Bit drab, isn’t it?” He hummed in agreement. “And River’s supposed to be here?” He nodded. “Where?”
That, the Doctor wasn’t so certain of. It would have made sense for them to materialize within proximity to River’s last known location, rather than a significant distance away. The thing was, the Doctor could see desert sand for miles and no evidence that River would be here at all, much less voluntarily.
“I’ll do a surface scan. May take a few minutes, but it should give us something to work with.” He did his usual dance of bibs and bobs and whatnots at the console before he turned the screen towards him to see what was what in this boring place.
For the most part, first impressions had been telling. There wasn’t much on this planet, nor much potential for there to ever be. One-third of the planet’s surface was covered in sediment, an irregular combination of silt, ash, and sand, the rest was water—beautiful water with captivating tides. He could see that much from the scans alone. Aside from one great body, the water curved through the earthen land like ambitious ivy up a trellis; curling and creeping until it found itself again and tangled. It was a planet of shores and rivers. And suddenly it made so much more sense.
“Ponds, we’re going swimming,” he shouted behind him as he ran for the wardrobe room. “Mustn’t forget to pack your water wings!”
They were out in ten minutes with a picnic basket and all the sunscreen three ghosts could need not to burn. It was a bit of walk to the beach, it turned out, and the sun was hotter, even lower in the sky, than he’d anticipated. They ended up setting up shop against a steep sand dune, hunkering beneath a beach umbrella covered in childish drawings of what had to be the Raggedy Doctor. Amy seemed quite taken with it and the Doctor couldn’t help but find it rather sweet, even if all Rory found it was reluctantly amusing.
There was water over the dune, the Doctor was certain—his sonic said so, after all—but he found himself not quite willing to take a look. The same something that had summoned him here told him that the water was where he’d find his proverbial ‘bad girl.’ Danger followed wherever she went, and now, so did he.
Amy and Rory had taken to building a sandcastle right where they sat, the requisite haggling over moats, walls, and drawbridges notwithstanding. Rory was quite determined that they should build an impenetrable fortress while Amelia Pond wanted a city, a grand city and all the accoutrements that came with it. Amy got her city while Rory muttered over fortifications and impossible defences and catapults, damned to hell be catapults. There’s a bit of the Roman in him yet, the Doctor surmised, and left them to it.
He crept from their towel up the sandy incline of the dune. It was a rather intimidating thing for a beach, but that was about all that existed here: desert-like shore and rivers. And River. The sands shifted underfoot, sending him sliding irritably back to the start point. Charging right up on foot would have been easier, if a bit lacking subtlety. Thus, back onto his belly he went, coiling his way up to the crest like a desert snake.
At last, he reached the crest and peered over. It was this world’s grand ocean laid out before him, down a distance. It boasted a pristine coastline and white-golden sands. It also boasted River Song, dripping wet and laughing with a squirming child in her arms. The vision was nearly surreal in its domesticity; it left him oddly bereft.
“Mummy, mummy, I want to swim,” came crashing on the back of the wind unto his ears. Mummy, he mouthed to himself, Mummy? River Song was a mother. This completely rearranged his impression of her and he couldn’t decide why. All that time ago, you died for me and left her all alone. Why for me, River Song? Why me? He’d determined it was a daughter from her voice and the TARDIS blue skirt of her swimming costume. He hadn’t even met her yet and he was already intrigued. Hello, Little Song, we’re going to have ever so much fun together. He just hoped she hadn’t inherited ‘spoilers’ from her mother.
He about squeaked when he turned his head to scan the beach and got a view of Amy Pond’s bare skin instead. Quickly redirecting his eyes, he found her peeking over the ridge in much the same fashion he was, then discovered that he was bookended by Ponds, nosy Ponds. Nosy Doctor, Amy no doubt would have retorted, so he kept his thoughts to himself on the matter.
“Will you look at that? River’s playing mum,” Amy observed thoughtfully, and a tad wistfully. The Doctor had laid a comforting hand on her back before he consciously noted she needed it. His Amelia didn’t seem to mind at all, nor did Rory for a change.
Roranicus chipped in, “Looks to be fairly good at it as well.” And the Doctor had to agree, given the way the girl fluttered about her mother’s orbit with a permanent smile. She was lit-up, same as the Tuarullian night sky. And River? Well, River all but glowed at the lips and there was veritable light show happening underneath her skin. Never had he felt her pull so strongly as he did now. What are you?
Then, she began to sing, and he nearly started to cry, something he didn’t do.
Her low crooning flirted with his hearing, was a temptress to hearts that had been, were still, would always be breaking. Gallifreyan, a morning song. Not a mourning cry for the dead, but a greeting to the day. This one was waking to River Song’s how-do-you-do.
He could not resist her call now; he hardly even tried. The sand shuffled about beneath his boots, hindering his efforts to crawl over to the other side, to make himself known. He wanted to be so much closer, so terribly closer. Why, now that he wanted her, couldn’t he get close enough?
After crossing over, he surrendered to the planet’s lighter gravity and bounced-ambled down till he hit the more densely-packed surface of the beach itself. The sand whirled about his feet, a miniature sandstorm to his cyclone wind.
“River, River, River Song,” he sang, “so once again we meet.”
She spun quickly on the balls of her feet, a previously concealed Alpha Meson pistol suddenly aimed directly at his chest. Her alertness became awareness, became confusion, became irritation.
“What on earth are you doing here?”
Taking another rhetorical look about, the Doctor responded, “Definitely not Earth, but I’ve been there. Have you?” It couldn’t hurt to know just where in time she was from.
“This is not a game you want to play with me, Doctor.”
“Good thing I’m not here about a game, then.”
The drenched archaeologist no longer seemed to be having fun. “I didn’t call for you.”
“Is that all you can say when a friend comes to visit,” the Doctor sulked. “I do hope you’re teaching the little one better manners than that.” He bent over slightly to get a look at the child who’d gone to hide behind her mother as soon as he’d appeared. Only thin limbs and errant curls made themselves known. “Come now, love, I don’t bite.
River gave the girl a push back and took a step away. “You should not be here.”
He looked at her askance. “Why not? We are friends, aren’t we, River?” He made a move to go around her, but she followed him, keeping the child quite firmly out of sight. “Family, even?” She said nothing and made no move to lower her weapon. “Or is that a spoiler as well?” Clicking his tongue in disappointment, he came to a standstill. “Really, River Song, when will you learn that not everything can be resolved with guns?”
“When you stop giving me cause to have one on hand, Doctor. Now, tell me, why are you here?” The Alpha Meson gun was charged up, thrumming and alive. Almost as though she was expecting something like this. But how could she? Even to him, this felt like a deviation from the norm, from the set path of temporality.
“A feeling,” he answered honestly. “Something told me to find you and this where the TARDIS led me.” River swallowed with something like unease and, now, he was uneasy, too.
“You should know better by now than to entertain every passing flight of fancy, sweetie.”
“Perhaps I thought you’d be worth it.”
She inspected him silently, from his booted feet to his bare knobby knees and duck-covered swim trousers to his bow-tie shaped floaties. He’d never been gifted at dressing for the beach, but he’d tried. River appeared decidedly unsurprised by his ensemble. “You have no business meeting me now, knowing what you’re here to discover.” Lowering her weapon at last, she frowned. “This is not the way our story’s written and I should know.”
He offered, “Our story changes.”
She rebutted, “Not this soon, it doesn’t.”
“But,” he clapped, more than ready to be getting on with things, “since I’m here.”
Heaving a sigh, she began to turn away, before angling back to meet his eyes. “Doctor, have you brought your companions with you?”
Puffing up a bit at the idea he’d leave them behind, “Of course I have.”
She very nearly turned red at that, which he didn’t care for. Nor was he particularly fond of the baring of her teeth. They were very nice teeth, to be sure, and he found them particularly pleasant when exhibited in a smile, but he wasn’t enjoying them presented this way in the least.
“I shouldn’t have brought them,” he concluded hastily.
“No, Doctor, you shouldn’t have.” With a noisy exhale, she set the little one on her way. “Mummy and the Doctor need to have a chat. You can play in the water, but don’t go in too deep or I’ll call you straight back.”
“’Kay, Mummy.” The little miss turned on her lanky legs and trotted into the waves. River watched for tense seconds to make sure there’d be no immediate trouble. There wasn’t any; Little Song took to the water the way a fish would, or a mermaid. The Doctor began to wonder if that’s what they were.
“Are you part-Mermaid, River Song,” he asked as soon as she faced him again. Given her instant transformation from watchful mother to enraged conversationalist, he suspected the answer was no.
“Is it too late to retract that question, because I’d prefer to try another?” He tried it with a smile and was a bit miffed not to receive one in return. How rude.
“You’ve altered the timeline, Thete. This is no laughing matter.”
He was left momentarily speechless at her casual use of his old sobriquet. “How do you know that name?”
“How are you still asking that question? We’re back to front. I know far more than you possibly can about what’s to come. At least, I did until you went and changed it all.” She no longer sounded just angry, River Song sounded afraid. “I can’t even imagine what chain of events you’ve set into motion.”
“Perhaps it’ll be a better one.”
She snorted derisively, “It rarely ever is.”
“How do you know?” The only beings aware of deviant timelines were Time Lords, so far as the Doctor knew. Had he not heard her sing and seen her luminesce, he might have thought her only human. He knew better now. What he didn’t know was what she was.
“If you were here, you saw me. It’s too late to pretend ignorance.”
Hand raised, he vowed, “I rarely pretend.”
She fixed him with a long, searching look. He didn’t know what she sought in his eyes and, thus, he couldn’t give it to her. I’m sorry, he wanted to say, but the explanations for that were longer than time. Not a little disheartened, she dropped his gaze to study the sand.
“You change your name, Doctor. We become ours.” And he was utterly lost.
River turned to face the horizon, where the sun was finally rising high. Light that had previously only caressed, now blithely kissed their upturned faces. It cast the beach in breathtaking colours, the bioluminescence of sand unseen in the dark, sparking to life in response to its rays. The littlest Song danced and glittered along with the brightening day. Energy pulsed from her fingertips and eyes, swirled about her pirouetting toes. If he hadn’t known better – and he didn’t; he was discovering how truly little he knew well – he’d have said she was regenerating, being reborn before his very eyes. Impossible, he nearly thought, but he knew better than that.
“Is she always like this,” he asked her mother.
River smiled, mysterious and oddly sad, perhaps even more so than she’d ever been in his presence. “Only here.”
The Doctor looked curiously at the tranquil, but quite empty place. Water and sand, dirt hills and nothing, as far as the eye could see. “Where is here exactly?”
“Home,” she answered simply enough. Simply enough to be infuriating, that is. The TARDIS could tell him many things, but even Sexy could not tell him everything.
“There’s nothing here.”
“Come now, Doctor. Surely, you, of all people, can see the layers that time have stripped away.” She tossed him an unimpressed glance, tinged with affection nonetheless. “Isn’t that your specialty? Time and space, space and time-”
“—I watch you run,” he remarked out of turn. It wasn’t quite the same, the words jumbled in comparison to a memory far gone, yet the sentiment remained.
She said nothing to what must have seemed, to her, a non sequitur. River Song had an occasional gift in that, in knowing when not to speak. It wasn’t something he’d managed to appreciate before.
“This is the safest she’ll be her entire life. Long after I’m gone, she’ll have to live in fear of those who’d destroy her for simply being born. But not today, not here.”
The cool wind off the ocean blew loose curls into her eyes. She brushed them away absently, not seeming to mind that nature had no respect for the solace of the moment. But then, he thought, nothing really surprises her at all.
“‘The only water in the forest is the river.’”
She hummed quietly, her familiarity with the phrase readily apparent. “And the river runs for all time, so the forest never dies.”
“What exactly does that mean?” He’d turned the words over and over in his mind for weeks; but, all of the possibilities had been too grand, too enormous to speak. So, he hadn’t spoken them, not to anyone; not to the Ponds and not to the frustratingly silent, yet opinionated, TARDIS he called his soul kindred and home.
“In universal time, the Time Lords have been gone for thousands of years.” Another diversion, he noted immediately.
“I know, sweetie, but you’re only one man and the universe, the whole of space-time is much too big for even you to police alone.”
“So,” she exhaled, “the Song, my kind, intervened. Everything shall live and keep living for as long as a river runs through the universe.”
“A river,” he enquired. “As long as you’re there, all will be well?”
“As long as my kind exists, yes. ‘River’ is just a name and I’m just one of many.” She paused pensively and murmured, “Well, I used to be.”
“Your people are gone now, then?” That wasn’t something he’d ever wanted them to share, though he was less than absolutely certain of what all she meant.
“Nearly to the last,” she gestured toward the impish child playing in the surf. Young and so very timeless. He felt twin pangs in his hearts.
“I’d protect her with my life, you know.” He had nothing to go on other than River’s word and he was already certain of this. He wouldn’t see another end come about on his watch. It wasn’t time for the universe to shudder again. And it was a relief, he had to admit, not to bear the weight of Time alone.
“Oh, Doctor, I’ve always known that.”
The imp did an impressive cartwheel, turning toward them excitedly, “Mummy, did you see me?”
“Brilliant, sweetheart. You were absolutely brilliant!” The girl didn’t ask after him. Either she was afraid or she hadn’t a curious neuron in her delightfully alien brain. He’d be disappointed if either was the case. She skipped back to the saturated sand to begin building a sandcastle of her own.
The Doctor looked behind them to see that the Ponds had vanished the way they’d all come. He didn’t look especially hard; they shouldn’t have found any trouble on such an uninhabited world.
Shouldn’t have being the operative phrase.
He’d search for them again later.
But for now, “Look at you, River Song,” he declared in renewed wonder.
She allowed her gaze to flit back to him, inquiry in the twitch of her brow.
“You’re a mum and I didn’t bring you flowers. I haven’t even got any balloons!” Before she could protest, he drew her into his arms and kissed her soundly on the cheek. She laughed, a sound he was coming to cherish, and allowed him to ensnare her in a forest of limbs. She potently damp where he was patently dry, he adored the odd sort of intimacy that stole over their embrace.
“Theta Sigma, what ever am I going to do with you?” That name sent of an ancient ripple through him. She couldn’t know that he’d refuse her nothing so long as she called him that. He could refuse her so little as it was. A name so little spoken becomes a charm.
He pulled away and tapped her nose. “Tell me all your spoilers, then, run away with me.”
She poked playfully at his chest, “And what of the child?” The one who’d stopped her construction of what now appeared to be a facile replica of the Cruciform to watch the adults play. The Doctor brushed off the resemblance, knowing it was simply a residual yearning for things lost.
“She’ll come along, of course. Plenty of room for all of us, not that I have to tell you that.”
“No, you don’t,” she conceded, rubbing an appreciative hand down his chest. “You never hesitate to ask for the world, do you?”
He covered her hand with his lest it continue in a naughtier direction. “Is there someone who’ll miss the two of you?” He stroked his thumb across the range of her knuckles. “A father, perhaps, for her? A husband for you?” She was a woman of the 51st century; conventions tended to change over 3000 years.
Ignoring him, she leaned up to kiss his chin and began to give it a soft nuzzle. It was devilishly easy to turn his mouth to hers, and so he did just that. Not nearly as awkward as his first time, in his opinion. Releasing her hand, he curled his fingers around her hips. And what wonderful hips they are. Clad in only her swimming cozzy and sarong, River Song was a bit too tempting for comfort pressed right up against him. He parted their lips much sooner than he wanted for fear that things would go farther than they naturally should. As though they haven’t already.
“So, no Mr. Song, I take it?” He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t the least bit curious of Little Song’s origins, and her name, but her mother was offering no answers.
River tutted gently, “Spoilers, love.”
He groused, “Always with spoilers.” He rather disliked the idea that there was someone he would have to share her with.
She tapped his water wings, “And with good cause. Can’t have you leaping ahead into your future just to learn all the interesting bits. You have to earn it.” Her look was a chastising one and he was duly chastised.
“Right. No peeking.”
“No more peeking, no.” She reached up to brush his fringe from his eyes, her face marred by a wistful expression. “You have to leave, now. I’ve already told you too much.”
“Maybe you told me what I was meant to learn. Perhaps it was simply time.”
“Nothing’s ever been that easy for us.”
Patting his chest, she disagreed, “Empirical fact.” She moved away from him. “Go back to wherever you’ve come from. We’ll find one another at the proper time.”
“And I’ll meet her then,” he asked, nodding toward the child who’d surrendered all pretence of play. Something about her nagged at his attention. She was darling, but somewhat serious for one so young. She might have been four or five, if human development was an adequate scale for the Song. She hadn’t smiled at him once since he’d come down and he usually found children the easiest to sway.
“Don’t you have a schedule to keep?”
“I fly a time machine,” he reminded her, a touch haughtily. The best time machine there is. He’d have proudly straightened his tweed if he’d been wearing it. He missed his bowtie to be perfectly honest, and his fez. Fezzes are cool.
“How very nice for you, sweetie, but I do have a schedule to keep.” She bent down and began to gather her beach towel and picnic basket, collapsing her umbrella and packing it away. He was a bit put out that he wouldn’t get to bury her in the sand while she bathed in the sun. He rather thought she’d make a delightful sand mermaid.
“Do you have to go right away?”
“I’m afraid so.” She glanced at his expression and her face split into a delighted grin at his pronounced displeasure. “Oh, don’t pout. She brings you where you need to be, doesn’t she?”
“Most of the time.”
She still wore a fainter version of her victorious grin when she curled manicured fingers around the base of his neck once more to bring him down for a kiss. He kissed her back, a hint more chastely, but only just.
“If you’re staying, we’ll go. Enjoy my beach, Thete.” He blindly followed her lips as she turned away, deaf to her pleased laughter. Much too tempting, that woman. “Try not to destroy anything, hmm?”
He was still pondering what exactly there was to destroy when River called her daughter in. He had to admit it felt a jot tawdry snogging in front of another’s child. The girl appeared to be less impressed by his appearance than her mother and twice as disapproving. If I’m lucky her father has access to neither an Alpha Meson arsenal nor a vortex manipulator. I’ve grown rather fond of this body. Naturally, the Doctor devised, he’ll have access to both.
“Come along, sweetie. It’s time to go. We’ll meet with daddy later on.” The girl gave her creation one last pat before hopping onto her feet and trotting to her mother’s side. “Say goodbye to the Doctor.” She waved somewhat shyly at him, tucking her face into River’s hip. He couldn’t help noticing that she seemed to be somewhat tall for her estimated age. Smiling distractedly, he waved back.
River’s lingering smiled failed to escape his attention as well. He rarely surprised her and never so pleasantly. That he could please her and make it last—he was only too proud to try it again. So focused was he on her face at this point that he noted the sudden absence of her smile before the beginning of her frown. She’d been programming her vortex manipulator for her destination and, if he was reading her expression correctly, it wasn’t going according to plan.
“Something wrong?” Distracted, she continued to enter data, her frown growing deeper each time. His feet seemed to move of their own volition, carrying him to her side, never mind that she would have preferred him not to see when she was headed.
She tilted her wrist toward him. “It won’t work. If I’ve correctly input the coordinates—and I have, I’ve triple-checked—it should be charging to teleport, but it isn’t.” The Doctor took firm hold of her wrist, making absent note of the numbers she’d entered as he snagged his sonic from the band of his left water wing.
He shrugged self-consciously at her dubious look. “Never leave home without it.” He began to scan her manipulator with a click. Then, another. Once more, with contrivance. “Your manipulator is fine, but there is something else very wrong.”
“What do you mean? Doctor, it’s clearly not working.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” he murmured. “And neither is my sonic.” He shook it, tapped it on his open palm, frowned at it and shook it again. The green light flicked on and off in rapid, pointless succession before flickering off altogether.
“Doctor.” Her voice was hushed, tight, possibly even shaking. He hardly noticed so preoccupied was he with poking at his sonic. I’ll have to have give it a look-see in the TARDIS. Can’t have it failing out here. Someone could get hurt.
“Thete,” she hissed, grabbing him by the arm and pointing toward the sky. He was quite ready to give her a piece of his considerable mind when he absently followed the line of her arm—nice arm, firm, very inviting, really—to the clouds. More beyond them, actually. Faint in the bright green sky was what could naively be called a neat gathering of ships. He would have called it a fleet, though he preferred ‘armada’ or ‘flotilla,’ both far more adventurous, descriptive terms for what could only be bad news.
“River Song,” he said with a great deal more affection than he dared explain, “I believe that’s our cue to run.”
She smiled wonderfully, filled with courage and not a little excitement. “Sweetie, I thought you’d never ask.”
They must have made a ridiculous sight, sprinting pell-mell from dots on the stratosphere in bathing costumes and not much else. Little Song was pleasantly unexcitable and quick on her feet. Used to running, he presumed and discovered that fact left him considerably less baffled than it might have. They streaked up the crest of the protective dune and down the other side, coming close to trampling the Ponds as they canoodled on their blanket.
“Ponds! This is no time for connubial bliss; we’ve got company,” he shouted behind them en route to the TARDIS. “Drop everything and run for your lives!” He imagined they’d have taken him a lot more seriously if he hadn’t cackled with something like glee. Worst timing, I’ve got. The absolute worst. He laughed again.
Nevertheless, they managed to pile into the TARDIS doors in time to avoid a storm of hovering ships and scout parties teleporting down. This was beginning to feel nastily familiar and he doubted he was the only one to feel that way.
“We can’t even go on holiday without someone chasing us across paradise.” Amy Pond dusted herself off with her bare hands as all their beach paraphernalia had been abandoned for the sake of expediency.
The Doctor charged for the console to begin to enact their escape. He highly doubted their visitors were coming for tea and biscuits. The operation was an oft-rehearsed dance, no less exciting for the repetition, but completely unconscious. That might have explained why its complete failure came as a bit of a shock. The TARDIS wheezed, the lights dimmed, and the whole thing jolted them nearly off their feet. Not good.
“They’re blocking our entry into the vortex. They shouldn’t be able to do that.” He whacked a green knob with a handy mallet, sprung a spring here and another there, threw a lever and expected some kind of result. He got nothing of the sort. “Come on, girl. Now would be a great time to be leaving.” The TARDIS engine continually attempted to engage without success. “No, no, no. This cannot happen again. We’ve done this already; many, many ugly t-shirts present and accounted for.”
River came closer to the centre console, her fingers tangled with Little Song’s. “What’s happening?”
“She won’t fly. She can’t fly, to be more precise. She’s grounded and I haven’t the faintest idea how they’ve managed it.”
“So, you’re saying we can’t leave,” Rory asked, alarmed. He and Amelia shared a silent, married look of dread. The Doctor hated when they did that, nothing he did could quite compare.
“No, I’m saying we can’t leave yet. I can fix this.” He dropped to the deck and scooted underneath the console for a closer look, muttering to himself, “Probably.” He pulled down the bundle of wires that should have controlled formation of temporal conduits and began to examine each individual connection by hand. It was a hodge-podge of all sort of jury-rigged connections, but it had lasted him centuries. They did this. They’ve sabotaged my ship. Heads are definitely going to roll for that. Nobody touches Sexy but me—and maybe River, but primarily me. He worked furiously, able to sense the TARDIS apologizing all the while. He hated to feel her so helpless.
Everything’s fine, he soothed, I’ll fix this.
He twitched madly when suddenly he was joined in the cramped space by another body and another set of hands that moved as certainly. The scent of River’s salt-damp hair made him slightly dizzy, but he persevered. She was quiet, for which he was grateful, knowing what to hand him without his asking and moving about her own inspection with practiced ease. Their fingers brushed in passing, sending fits of awareness flitting in the rear of his thoughts.
“Who are you, River Song,” he asked without averting his eyes from his current task.
She pulled carefully at entwined wire with her pruned fingertips. “I’ve already told you who I am.”
“No, you’ve told me what, not who. Why have these people come for you?”
He felt her pause at his side, her shoulder tensing against his own. “Me? What makes you think they haven’t come for you?”
“This is your homeworld. They’d have no reason to expect I’d be here.”
“They’d have no reason to come here at all if they hadn’t had you to follow. My world is, for all intents and purposes, cloaked. Someone would have to know where to look to know where to land.”
He couldn’t think of anything more to say to that. The TARDIS scans hadn’t indicated any complex cloaking mechanism to speak of, which he supposed a useless reality if it turned out he was responsible for leading them here. It was a world that didn’t appear to contain much, but it was her home.
“I’m sorry,” he replied sincerely.
The Doctor was prevented from saying anything further by an abrupt concussion from outside. The TARDIS shook as it had before, But no sparks, he thought. No sparks is good. He and River slid out simultaneously, her taking up a defensive posture and his speculative. The girl and the Ponds had retreated down the stairs to peak over the landing. He couldn’t think of a better place for them.
The concussion repeated with a rough bang, nearly throwing the Doctor to the floor and pelting River into the controls. She scowled while muttering a distracted apology to the affronted TARDIS. Food for thought, but for another time.
He staggered to her side to see the situation outside via the external monitor. He didn’t like the looks of their captors: Judoon, Sontaran, at least one Dalek, and a number of life forms with which he was entirely unfamiliar.
“I’ve never encountered them before,” he gestured toward the startlingly delicate lilac beings beside the Sycorax. “Or them,” to the shimmering, slithering black organisms draped across the shoulders of Slitheen and Sontarans both. “But, yes, those.” So very tall, he recalled, and almost immediately forgot.
River hummed noncommittally, preoccupied with her weapon, which also seemed to labour under whatever had grounded his ship and voided his sonic.
“Do you recognize them?” he turned to her.
“Spoilers,” came and went with her as she turned her back to walk away. “We need to leave.”
“Thank you for that riveting observation, Doctor Song. That’s nothing I could have figured out on my own!” The obvious made him punchy; now was not the time!
“Touchy, are we,” she needled, dropping down to the stairs to take her daughter from Rory’s arms. “Deal with them, so that we can go. I have things to do today.”
“Of course you do. Nothing like being held captive to throw one’s schedule off-balance,” he growled with what may have been more than appropriate frustration. He couldn’t stand her cavalier attitude; it didn’t charm him in moments like this. It said that she knew more than he did and if there was anything the Doctor hated, it was being less than the most informed person in the room.
“Deal. With. Them.” Her words were plain, yet he keenly felt the depths of her seriousness. Hell to pay and all that. The Rivers he’d met in his past had been masters of concealing their fear; this one, this younger woman was not so gifted. He couldn’t stand that either.
His time travelling ship was rocked by another startling blow which the Doctor began to realize wasn’t an attack, rather an overt attempt to storm the castle. They’re attempting to penetrate the doors. Genghis Khan’s army had tried and failed. But Khan didn’t have the might of a dozen galactic empires at his wrist.
The Doctor grabbed frantically for a handhold as they battering intensified. He turned over plan after plan in his head, discomfited by the knowledge that with their failing tech, they were temporarily at the mercy of the greater number. His ship began to whine, to howl; it felt ready to peel off its hull to be free of what held it. His own flesh prickled in kind.
She has to stop trying to enter the vortex. They’re going to make her tear herself apart, he surmised, with the knowledge that he couldn’t let that happen. As long as the TARDIS remained intact, he had the upper hand. He intended to keep it. She’s also a bit crucial to the fabric of the universe, but let’s not think about that.
He pulled firmly on a lever and threw a switch. She shuddered at his command, but conceded, going quiet. Hastily exchanging his beachwear for his discarded slacks and tweed, he moved to the doors to meet their audience where they still waited, a poor re-enactment of Woodstock without any of the happy regrets. A gargantuan canon lay in the arms of men, soldiers, and androids, poised before his eyes. There was still steam pouring from its mouth.
Bullies were high on the list of things he couldn’t stand, along with cabbage. Nasty stuff, cabbage. Especially boiled.
The Doctor stood at the entryway, having sharply motioned for his companions to hide out of sight, and waited for his summons. He wasn’t one to invite himself to private events without express invitation, even if others saw fit to help themselves to his TARDIS. He really didn’t care for that sort of behaviour, if he’d failed to make that clear. They said nothing, so he took that as his cue to speak:
“Aliens and gentlebeings, what brings you to this lovely planet on such a lovely day?” He recognized the assortment of enemies from his nightmares, most from the annals of his personal history. He’d thought himself quite through with the lot, given that the majority had been wiped from existence last he saw. “The beach is delightful, I assure you, but there’s plenty of sand and water for all of us. No need to fight.”
“Give us the girl, Doctor, and we will release you unharmed,” spouted a decidedly belligerent Judoon.
He lifted his chin defiantly. “Girl, what girl do you mean?” The choices which came to mind were limited; the number of which he’d willingly surrender was nil.
“We know this planet and we know who it belongs to. Give us the girl and the time lock around the planet will be released.”
“Time lock, you say? You’ve time locked this planet?” They shouldn’t have been able to do that. “Well, that wasn’t very nice and neither are you.” He put a hand in one of his bottomless pockets and began to rock on the balls of his feet. Time locks reminded him of Gallifrey; he didn’t care for the reminder. “Here’s a proposition for you to consider: Release this planet, and my TARDIS, and live to see another day. Don’t and there’s a very good chance you will limp away at best—for the fourth time, is it? I’m afraid I can no longer keep count of the number of times I’ve sent your kind fleeing to your system reeking of defeat. Shall we make it five?”
“Give us the child.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then, we will take her.”
“No, I don’t think you’ll do that either.” He may not have had his trusty ship, nor his loyal sonic, but his intellect remained wonderfully intact. A Dalek ground forward, its chains sticking in pervasive sand. The Doctor did not retreat, despite a compulsion to do so. Rather, he stepped fully from his ship to face the phalanx that awaited him. Careful steps approached his position from the TARDIS; his companions had taken lessons in ignoring his instructions once again. Always with the Amy and the Rory and the River. He could have sighed.
“We will not allow the Time Song to gain dominion over time and space. We will not allow the abomination to prevail. We will not allow the Song of Time to rise again.”
The Doctor scowled darkly at his oft-defeated foe. “What in heaven’s name are you on about? ‘Time Song’? ‘Song of Time’? I haven’t a clue what any of it means.”
One of the inky, slithering beasts of leisure coiled itself tightly around a Sontaran head, obscuring the individual’s facial feature until it was a writhing mass of something unidentifiable though alive. He found himself shifting toward his companions at the sight of it, his gut impulse to shove them to safety only shy of overpowering.
Until suddenly the Sontaran spoke. Rather the voice of a Sontaran spoke in the tongue of another. The syllables writhed off jaggedly from its tongue, wiggling tackily into the Doctor’s head. They evidently had some variant of malignant psychic ability. The texture of the language left him retching, uncomprehending, on the ground. It insinuated itself like sludge, oozing over his consciousness. He even felt them sluicing under his nails.
Only the swift intervention three sets of hands saved him being scuttled by their mayhem. River’s sure hands braced on his arms, Nurse Rory’s at his wrist, and Pond’s on his shoulders. They kept him grounded, anchoring his sanity to the loose sand.
“What do you want,” River demanded in his stead. She visibly began to gag as it answered. Its abilities are affecting her as well. The Ponds fidgeted around him, also suffering.
“We want the Time Song.”
“No.” Her grip tightened, belying her calm, if nauseated, countenance. Incredibly strong, he gathered, stowing the data away for later contemplation.
“You will give us the child.”
“Then, we will take her.”
She snarled, “Not while I’m breathing.
“That is a condition which can be rectified.”
The Doctor sprung from under his companions’ care spryly, staggering a bit and swaggering to hide it. “Not while I’m breathing.” He waved a grandiose hand about and spun to take in the count. “You will not touch a hair on her head, or I will pursue you to the start of the next universe. It won’t be as enjoyable as I’m sure you’d like to think.”
“We did not ask your permission,” said the inky, black, slithering something-or-other. The Doctor felt his skin crawl once more but ignored it in favour or sending the creature a withering glare. He had no tolerance for psychic warfare, or warfare at all for that matter.
“You cannot have her. Now, leave.”
“You cannot stop us.”
“I can certainly try.”
“You will fail.”
A high-pitched whine began in the air above them and they weren’t ready. High and awful, it came screaming at that those on the ground with tangible weight. The Doctor could see in his mind’s eye the tidal waves that it would send rippling across the surface, ruthlessly draining rivers and expanding the ocean at will. Had there been more than their lives to lose, they might have devastated the planet, wiped out the population. Now, the only ones who stood to be lost were them.
But the sound was more than a hindrance or an obstacle, more than a bloody-minded good morning. It had a purpose, one that ruptured the Doctor’s hearts like the popping of cork. Previously sealed, safe, secure—as much as she could be, right here, right now, right ever—his TARDIS flew open, her intricate, masterful modesty maintained by the merest of bulkheads and interfaces. Alloys and synthetic Plasticine equivalents were mere membranes and could hardly be expected to hold up under the scalpel of intruders. Metaphors, metaphors, too many metaphors. His mind chose the oddest of moments to wander.
His wandering ceased once he recalled—thick, thick, I’m so unbearably thick—that they cared not at all for the ship, his box, his fantastic, barmy box, but the song hidden inside her. The whine became notes, became measures, became light, became awful and terrible and he couldn’t look away. Why not?
Then, there was her body, small and still damp, clinging to a beach towel her mum hadn’t packed. And she was howling fit to raise the dearly departed, fit to raise ghosts. River Song’s daughter screamed under the force of the beam. Her petite form twisted and contorted attempting to evade its reach. It was no use, the attempts were in vain. So, she screamed when nothing else would do.
River lunged for her as only a mother could while the Doctor, Amy, and Rory pulled her back as best they could while trying to guard their hearing. The noise hadn’t halted its anthem to carry out its mayhem. The beam was corrosive and, he’d wager, keyed to Little Song’s DNA. The field was tormenting the child it was meant for, there was little doubt that it would maim an intruder.
“Let me go,” River ordered, at first in Standard, and switching next with their continued defiance.
He’d wanted to see her rattled once, he remembered; he’d had no desire to see her heart break. The Doctor couldn’t reach her daughter, neither could he risk exposing his companions to their opponents’ retribution were he to erroneously make the attempt. They’d have to let her be taken, and then get her back.
River named him a disgrace to Rassilon’s legacy, a betrayer of his own blood, accused him of being ready to drown her planet, the way he had left Gallifrey to boil. These cutting words in the language of his forebears, yet he wouldn’t release her. He could have released her to charge to her death had he not already been present for it. He recited to himself patiently, Needs must, and held her fast.
When the girl fell still, suspended in her photon prison, River called out to her. The words were neither Standard nor Gallifreyan. Whatever they were, the TARDIS was either unable or unwilling to translate for him. Given time, he could have worked it out for himself, but time was something they dearly lacked and no one knew better than the child. Or her mother.
She begged. She peered at him with trusting eyes and begged for the entire universe to hear. She asked for the one thing he could not provide. More of their years would be squandered in apology than could ever be spent in love, and he resolved that this was where that path would begin.