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A Sticky Situation

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Weightlessness was a kind of freedom, and like all kinds of freedom, River Song embraced it. She floated through monzonite caverns, buoyed by the personal gravpack strapped to her shoulders. The attached spotlights illuminated the area directly around her; beyond, the inky blackness was absolute. Mineral veins caught in the light, and River eyed them carefully, searching for her quarry.

On the surface, FX-552 was dead. A cold, bland rogue lumbering at the fringes of the galaxy. But in a fluke of physics, the labyrinths beneath the surface were a veritable oasis of warmth and oxygen. And of rumors.

River checked her guideline again, making certain the cord held. The fluorescent nylon spun out behind her, mapping the route she'd already taken through a series of rocky tunnels. The filter over her face kept her from inhaling particles of rock, while the thrusters on her gravpack kept her from plummeting to her death in the planet's hyper gravity.

There was no up or down here; no sense of direction at all, really. It was simply a warren of holes carved into the mantle as the planet formed. River felt a prickle of unease wash through her. Not for the first time, she wondered at the wisdom of attempting this alone.

She glanced back the way she had come, the lights on her gravpack illuminating the twisted passageway she'd just traversed. Resolutely, she pushed forward.

Six hours into the expedition, and she'd come up with nothing. No untold riches. Not even a mozon miner's rock graffiti. "That's what you get for listening to Dorium," she muttered. "The slug."

She fired her thrusters to avoid a wicked looking spike, and floated toward the opposite wall. A minute correction set her on the right path again. The gravpack beeped at her, the only sound in the stillness. Forty-five minutes of power left in the thing. She tugged at the line of nylon which marked the way to freedom.

"Geodes of glowing crystal my arse," she grumbled to herself. Still, Dorium wasn't the only being she'd heard the tale from. River forged ahead, and the tunnel dumped her abruptly into a wide chasm. She flailed for a moment in the sudden open space, disoriented. Her fingers closed in a death grip on the guideline. She was not particularly agoraphobic, but the change in scenery left River feeling exposed. Taking a deep breath, she pushed down the rising tide of nausea in her throat. Damn Dorium, anyway. He'd sent her on a wild goose chase, one that was going to get her killed. River looped the guideline about her wrist and turned to follow it back the way she'd come.

She was nearly to the mouth of the tunnel again when she saw it -- a flash of blue in the rock below her. She spun in mid-air and dove toward the momentary shine, using her thrusters to guide her down (or was that up?) through the darkness. The flash came again, brighter this time, and she thought she could see a shard of light in amongst the rocks.

Almost there... she was almost there... A blast of wind hit her face, as hard as a slap. Her air filter snapped off and spiraled into the nothingness. She jerked back instinctively, angling her thrusters away from the threat. Her momentum sent her careening against the rock wall.

Except the wall wasn't solid; it was pliant, warm and undulating. River could feel the heat even through her temperature controlled flight suit.

She had a split second impression of slick hairless flesh and razor-tipped wings before she was slammed hard against the side of the gorge. Something grabbed and shook her from behind, like a dog worrying a bone. She had a brief sense of endless blackness, before the gravpack's harness was ripped from her body. No longer buoyant, she plummeted into free fall.

A rush of air screamed in her ears, or was that the shriek of a creature? It had to be a creature, hadn't it? River pushed those irrelevant thoughts out of her mind and focused on the more immediate task of not falling to her death. She spread out her arms and legs, seeking to stabilize her fall, and the extra flaps in the flightsuit engaged. The rush of wind slowed, but River knew she'd eventually run out of negative space.

She saw flashes of blue whiz past. Dorium's geodes.

She fumbled for the grappling hook at her belt, but before she could deploy it, she burst through a gossamer sheet, then another, and another, her fall slowing but her body wrapped in what felt like candy floss. Then she stopped, slamming against something moist and sticky. Stunned, she lay there for a moment. A net? A web? "Not dead. And not falling. That's an improvement," she said, her raspy voice echoing against the looming rock face.  

She tried to rise to her knees, but the sticky substance held her fast. One arm was pinned to her side, while the other was entangled in the gelatinous mass.

River squirmed. Whatever passed for luck was on her side, as she was able to raise her head a bit. Her gravpack had fallen with her, and looked to be several levels above her in the folds of webbing stretched across the chasm. Its lights stuttered in the darkness, allowing her just enough light to clearly see what had broken her fall.

And then she wished she hadn't.

She lay on a bed of white strands. They crisscrossed each other and led off into the darkness. A scuttling noise drew her attention to the patchwork of strands above her, and the River-shaped hole in the structure. She had passed through several layers before being trapped.
 
A creature -- she couldn't properly call it a spider, though its home resembled a web -- was busily stitching the torn section together. The layer of webbing above her swayed as it worked. In the pale light of the gravpack, she could see that the creature was about the size of a Land Rover. Its head was entirely given over to powerful jaws and sharp teeth. From her vantage point below it, she could see that the creature's four legs ended in wicked sharp points. As it moved about the torn edges of the web, two articulated arms shot out from its sides, sporting a set of razor sharp claws.

River watched in sick fascination as it mended its home, biting down on the frayed ends of a strand and dragging it into place, then using its claws to knot them together securely.

Brute strength and ingenuity -- isn't evolution wonderful? The thought was hers, but carried distinctly Doctorish tones. River told him to shut up.

She fought the urge to struggle. There was no telling what would attract the creature.

She was able to move her right wrist just slightly. Her fingers brushed her toolbelt, and the slick metal of the switchblade it held.

She groped for the release, careful not to slice her own flesh. The blade came free, and she sliced at the strands encasing her arm.

It was slow going. Positively glacial. "What I wouldn't do for a buzz saw right now," she muttered. "Or an acetylene torch."

Then, as if in answer to her wish, a familiar wheeze sounded above her head. River closed her eyes, relief and embarrassment warring for prominence within her. Of course. Oh, well. So much for dignity.

She heard the TARDIS door open. Then the shuffle of feet on gravel.

"Um, hello?" More shuffling of gravel, and she saw the toes of the Doctor's boots peek over the ledge, followed by his head, bathed in a halo of light from the TARDIS. He was a good fifty metres up; the TARDIS must have landed on a narrow ledge or in a side tunnel. He cocked his head quizzically and called down to her. "River! What are you doing down there?"

From her vantage below, she saw the sonic's green light flash, accompanied by the familiar buzz as he waved it about, taking readings.

In spite of the glorious distraction of the Doctor's appearance, River kept one wary eye on the spider mending the web above her. It had initially ignored the Doctor's arrival, but now sat motionless, the long hairs on its limbs quivering. The massive head swung toward the sound. Its maw opened, disgorging a set of tentacles that probed the air around it. Abandoning the repair work, the creature scuttled rapidly along a thick, anchoring strand of web, working its way up, unerringly, towards the Doctor.

River's stomach clenched. Echolocation... the sonic... "Turn it off!" she snapped. "Turn the damn thing off, now!"

Both the sound and the light switched off immediately. The Doctor said, in a stage whisper: "River, do you realise you're not alone down there?"

The tentacles slid back into the creature's mouth and it backed away, no longer able to 'see' the Doctor. River let out a breath.  

"River!" His voice was like the crack of a whip, and echoed throughout the cavern. "I can't see what's going on down there -- keep talking to me!"

Her gaze snapped up. She could see the Doctor's form outlined by the faint light from the TARDIS behind him. "Here," she called, her voice rough and edgy to her own ears. She cleared her throat and added, "I'm here." Their friendly neighborhood spider had returned to its task, seemingly oblivious to their voices. "It backed away when you shut off the sonic."

"Really? Good. Let's try something else to be sure." The Doctor cupped his hands to his mouth and gave a hearty yodel, his voice bouncing around the catacombs, and causing River to clench her teeth in irritation. The spider simply tied another knot and glued the webbing together with a substance it spit out from -- what looked to be -- its nostrils.

Once the echoes died down, he said, "Looks like the sonic makes the landlord cranky."

"He's not the only one. If you're done testing out the acoustics, I could use a little help, here."

"No need to be cross." He studied her predicament and gave a low whistle. "That's quite a pickle you're in. Is the web secure?"

"Oh, I'd say so." She blew a puff of air over a stray curl that had bounced in front of her eyes.

"All right then. Okay. Hang on," he gave a nervous little laugh. "I mean, hang in there. No, wait -- stick around. I'll be right back."

"Oh, I hate you," she grumbled at his retreating back.

"No, you don't!" he called back cheerfully.

A few minutes later -- minutes that felt like centuries -- a sturdy, braided rope dropped from the ledge. It dangled in her vision like an otherworldly snake under the spell of its charmer.  

"Can you get to the rope?" The Doctor asked hopefully.

She eyed it dubiously, but strained toward it.

The webbing oozed around her as she scooted forward a few inches. "Plan B?"

"I was afraid you'd say that." The end of the rope bobbed and twisted, and a moment later, she could see the Doctor's silhouette as he eased over the edge and lowered himself down the rope.

"That is not Plan B!" she cried. River reached for the rope again, to no avail. "Don't you dare come down here!"

"Simmer down, River," he admonished as he climbed.

"Simmer down? Did you just tell me to simmer down?"

"Well, you can't simmer up, now can you? Though that might make things a lot easier right now," he added thoughtfully.

She glared at him, and kept sawing.

In the darkness, she couldn't see him beyond a swaying shadow that flowed in and out of the light. She watched with trepidation as he worked his way down the rope, ducking past strands of webbing as he did so. Unlike Earthly spiderwebs, this one wasn't symmetrical. In fact, the fabric sported several gaping holes, one of which the Doctor was climbing through to reach her. It gave the whole structure a swiss-cheese effect, as if someone had carelessly layered one slice on top of another. As near as she could tell, River was somewhere in the middle.  Above and to her left, the gravpack hummed softly, entangled in the candy floss-like upper layer.

The Doctor continued down the rope, struggling to remain steady. "Nice view," she commented as the edge of his tweed coat fluttered outward, offering her a stunning look at his bum.

He tentatively eased his booted foot onto an anchoring strand, testing it. His cheeks puffed out in effort, and then he put his other foot down and let the web take his weight. Satisfied, he planned his path to River, keeping his feet on the less sticky anchoring strands. River watched him closely, willing him to stay upright and free of the glue-like webbing that surrounded him.

"I'd say you're quite the picture yourself."

As he grew closer, she could see a bead of perspiration slide along his temple. "You don't have to impress me," she said quietly.

He grinned. "I live to impress you," he said. And then he stepped out onto the web.

***

The Doctor's mind, by nature, ran in several directions at once. But just now, he sternly instructed the voices in his head to stop arguing over the why and how of his apparent navigation failure and focus on the task at hand: rescuing River without either of them dying.

He put one foot in front of the other, carefully navigating the anchoring web strand. Like a tightrope walk, he thought. A tightrope walk on a spiderweb, over a bottomless pit, and with huge alien insect creatures ready to pounce on you if you fell. Which was, on the whole, better than plummeting to your death, he told himself. Always look on the bright side.

A dusting of fine webbing coated his shoulders and dotted his hair. He could hear the spiders scurrying on the levels above them, but he didn't dare look up. Or down. The strand beneath his feet shivered. He paused for balance, waiting for the movement to quell, then carried on. The cavern yawned below him. No, looking down was definitely not a good idea.

"So," he said a little too brightly. "Any particular reason you decided to pull this ridiculously dangerous stunt?"

"Oh, you know me, Darling. I live for the thrill."

"'Live' being the operative word there."

"All right, I'll concede the point. I wasn't planning on being lunch."

"One never does, as a rule. And yet here we are."

A gust of wind picked up in the cavern, and the Doctor considered the phenomenon of weather in such a place. Pressure variations, tidal forces, or perhaps a cave-in on the other side of the planet. Either way, the web undulated far more than was strictly comfortable. The Doctor outstretched his arms to maintain balance, and was just about stabilized when a distant, piercing cry echoed from a side-tunnel.

Now that was not something he had counted on. Distracted, his step faltered, and he planted his boot on a cross-web. It stuck fast in the thin, sticky strands. His momentum carried the other foot forward, and he stumbled precariously, arms cartwheeling.

"Argh!" he cried. He managed to remain upright, but was now missing a boot.

River was less than amused. She pressed her lips together and jerked her chin at the layer above them. Another spider had joined the first, and they were chittering, as if in conversation.

He looked up, assessed his surroundings, then focused once again on River. She had, he noticed, a trusty sidearm holstered on her hip. That was good. He shouldn't like it, but he rather did. Assets, liabilities, small details added themselves into a lengthening ledger in his brain. Step one: get to River. A few more teetering steps, and he knelt beside her.

Step two: free River. Brightening into a wide grin, he said, "Hi honey, I'm home," as he pulled a set of pink-handled pruning shears from his pocket.

"Pruning shears?" She raised an eyebrow.

"Are you seriously in a position to argue?"

"You have a point." The first strands snapped free, and River rotated her wrist and flexed her fingers. She darted another look to the creatures above them, and her hand strayed to her blaster.

He leaned over her, awkwardly reaching across her body to snip her left arm free. The shears weren't the best tool for the job, and rapidly gummed up with gooey webbing. Something this gooey should be tasty, he thought idly.

He glanced at River, her green eyes alert, scanning for threats. She would be cross if he licked the webbing, so he buried the impulse.

He freed her arm and settled back on his heels and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the blades clean. "This could take longer than we like," he said.

River grunted in response, her gaze still fixed on the webbing above them. "Just don't cut the belt  --" A shriek split the air. The cry bounced off the cavern walls, and sounded eerily like the sonic. The web bucked beneath them.

The Doctor fell backwards, his world spinning in a confusion of darkness and light, up and down. He reached out blindly, but was moving too fast to catch hold of the web. The structure bucked again, and this time, he saw the flash of a barbed tail in the corner of his eye.

He tumbled, out of control, bouncing along the web as he fell. He thought, briefly, how bad his luck must be if he could fall to his death after being dislodged from a web as sticky as this one. But the force of his motion was too great to arrest his fall, and he broke through layers of gossamer as he spun.

Flailing, thrashing and kicking with the violent motion, he grasped at whatever he could find. Webbing slipped through his fingers until at last his left arm found traction in the dense strands. He kept sliding, but the sticky mass balled up along his arm, slowing his frantic slide.

Finally, he stopped. His shoulder was held fast in a thicket of webbing, and ached miserably as it had arrested his fall.

The Doctor was grateful for the wrenched shoulder. He peered down to the chasm that lay beneath his dangling feet. He gulped, and, very deliberately reached his right arm up to grasp a thick rope-like strand of web just above his head.

At this point, getting hopelessly wrapped up in webbing was looking pretty good. He inhaled a lungful of air and called out, "River? River are you okay?" desperately hoping that she hadn't tumbled over the edge.

"I'm all right!" she called over the cacophony of screeching and thrashing. The ball of panic in his belly subsided. Her lovely face appeared over the edge of the sheet of webbing just above him, her curls bouncing as the entire structure swayed. "I was able to break free --," she said before giving a wince at his predicament. "Damn. Time for Plan C, then."

"This rescue," the Doctor admitted as he dangled over the chasm, "is a work in progress."

He could practically hear her eyeroll. He tore his gaze away from impending doom and looked up, catching a glimpse of brown boots as she moved.

"Sweetie, everything about you is a work in progress."

He was about to admonish her for being rude, but before he could complain, a thin, strong rope dropped in front of him. "You have a rope! Where have you been hiding that?"

"Wouldn't you like to know. Can you reach it?"

It took a good deal of discipline to relinquish his hold on the web strand and trust his life to the gobs of webbing stuck to his shoulder, but he did. He grasped for the cord and wrapped it around his free elbow. "Um, River?"

"Yes?" Her face appeared over the side of the web, strands of webbing tangled in her curls, an exasperated look in her eyes.

"I'm still stuck. Can't move my left arm."

The next thing the Doctor saw was the muzzle of River's blaster as she pointed it directly at him.  "Don't move," she said sternly.

He let out an undignified squeak. "River..."

"Shhh. Don't rush me." She re-sighted the weapon and fired.

Remaining absolutely still whilst dangling over a bottomless pit required every ounce of the Doctor's Time Lord self-control. The blast left sunspots on his retinas, but burnt enough of the webbing around his shoulder to pull free. He hauled himself up the cord and all but flopped onto the secure portion of the web. He resisted the sudden, powerful urge to kiss both the strong webbing, and River's boots.

He sat up in time to see River slicing away the rope attached to a wickedly sharp grappling hook embedded in the strands. She toed it with her boot. "Another one gone," she sighed, as she coiled the rope around her forearm and attached it to her tool belt.  

He pulled himself to his feet and said sulkily, "I lost my shears, and I can't use my sonic. You have all the toys."

She sheathed the knife into her boot. "Sweetie, my backups have backups."

"Yowza," he said, and waggled his eyebrows at her. They grinned smugly at one another for a brief moment before turning their attention to their predicament.

The catastrophe knocking them loose became apparent. Above them -- and below them -- huge skate-like creatures were writhing in the webs. They could feel the motion even now -- as if they were sitting in a rowboat in a strong tide.

The entire landscape had changed. The structure had been knocked free of some supporting strands and upended. But the majority of the elaborate, colossal web remained held fast against the tunnel walls. Except their lifeline was nowhere to be seen.

The Doctor looked across the cavern and frowned. "We lost the rope."

"That's not our only problem." River nodded to where three spiders were converging on a trapped skate. The creature was screeching, the sound reverberating off of the cavern walls. Below them, more spiders were climbing up to join their brethren.

The Doctor craned his neck, taking in the expanse of web, the unreachable rope, and then the gaping chasm beneath them. He counted the spiders -- three, then eight, then fourteen -- that clambered into view. Mercifully, they were focused on the writhing skate. But for how long?

His eyes fixed onto the gravpack trussed up on the uppermost layer of webbing, casting a weak light across the cavern.

"There's always a way out," he muttered, and then said clearly: "Follow me."

River drew her blaster and placed her steps after his, careful not to upset their precarious balance. "You don't need to impress me," she said again, "but I do love it when you try."

A spider nearly ran them over, scuttling past to get to the downed skate behind them. The web wobbled beneath their feet, and they almost crashed into each other as they both fought for balance.

Once the shockwave ebbed, the Doctor gave her a grin and led the way as they picked across the maze of webbing. Keeping carefully to the thicker, supportive strands, they were able to work their way steadily towards the sheet of web that held the gravpack. They dodged the occasional spider answering the dinner bell, and tried to tune out the sounds the poor skate made as it was being feasted on. They continued their climb, navigating a thrust of rock that extended into the crevasse. The creature's sonic rattling quieted.

They stood just two metres beneath the shelf of web that held the gravpack. The direct route up  went through a veil of gossamer. If they tried to push through, they'd wind up hopelessly cocooned. The rock was too smooth to climb, and the indirect route up would take them through the center of the skate buffet still in full swing.

The Doctor stood below the tangle and gazed up. His shoulders hunched in defeat and he took off his tweed jacket. He slipped the sonic into his trouser pocket and swung the jacket up, like a tweedy feather-duster.

Bits of floss rained down on them. The Doctor hauled himself through the hole he made, using the support strands as a hand hold. River followed him through. Neither of them spoke, spirits dampened by the sounds of crunching and tearing behind them.

The web's upper level stretched before them, shimmering in the light of the gravpack. To call it a simple web did not do it justice. The thick strands converged in dizzying spirals, a complex fractal design of tunnels and funnels. Across this skeleton lay sheets of the delicate, ethereal lace that captured the prey. Had their situation been less dire, the Doctor would have been tempted to examine the architecture more closely.

***

River took a deep breath and drew her blaster. The Doctor was gazing across the expanse before them, a dreamy look in his eyes.

River cleared her throat. "Dinner," she said pointedly. "Not us."

"Er, yes." He glanced at her briefly before setting out cautiously towards the gravpack. River followed behind him, blaster held loosely in her hand. A few of the spiders were breaking off from the meal, moving slowly back to their duties. Bellies full, she thought. Good. She fired a warning shot as one scurried too  close to their position. Confused by the noise and heat of her blaster, it backed off.

The Doctor froze at the sound of her weapon, but she prodded him forward.

"Just keep moving," River said quietly. "Don't look back."

He picked up the pace, doing an admirable job, River thought, considering he was missing a boot.

The Doctor picked his way toward the ensnared machine and River took up sentry duty in front of him. She balanced herself as best she could on the uneven surface, weapon held at the ready. The spiders had long since finished their meal and a few were crawling up to their level. She'd counted fourteen earlier. Her head snapped up as she heard another ungodly shriek. A skate wheeled haphazardly over their heads, injured. She could see fragments of webbing trailing from its body. The poor thing must have broken free and was making a run for it. Lucky thing, she amended.

The spiders, drawn by the skate's distress, surged onto the top layer of the web. They climbed over each other, frenzied, jaws snapping at the low flying prey. It was a living mass of screeching, maddened creatures, and it was headed right for them.

"Time is of the essence, Sweetie," she said tightly.

He didn't reply, but moved quickly behind her, muttering to himself. She felt him wrestle the gravpack into position, and his quick motion sent the web undulating.

River gritted her teeth and fought the urge to lock her knees. Doing so would only unbalance her further. She eyed the roiling mass of spiders. Were they eating each other? "Blood in the water," she muttered, and fired as a spider detached from its fellows and charged them. The creature was blown back a few feet, but was undaunted. It rose and charged again. River upped the intensity on her blaster and released two rounds in rapid succession. The spider wavered, then toppled onto its side, its legs thrashing before going still. It was quickly overrun by its brethren.

River ducked as a spider opened its jaws and tentacles lashed out. Her foot slipped, and she nearly went down.

Behind her, the Doctor grunted as he prised off a panel, and then muttered some inventive curse words in an agrarian Gamma-Hedron dialect. She heard the sputtering, and out of the corner of her eye she saw sparks flying.The gravpack spotlight turned blue, and dimmed just enough for her heart to leap to her throat.

"River," the Doctor said, his voice flat. "I have to use the sonic."

"Are you insane?"

"Very probably," he said quickly. "But that's not what's important. What's important is that I can't fix this thing without switching on the sonic."

She nodded, then remembered that he couldn't see her. River swallowed hard. "All right. One.. two... three... go!"

"Don't rush me!" he squeaked. "Hang on... let me do the countdown this time, will you?" She heard him flip some switches, and then the familiar sound of him adjusting the settings on the sonic.

She anxiously waited for the sonic to buzz -- and the spiders to advance. She spent her time picking off the closest interlopers, one by one, keeping the rest uncertain, hesitant. Still no sonic. What was he doing back there? The web wobbled some more, like a suspension bridge, and she heard the Doctor grunt.

"Okay. I'm almost there... three, two, one..." and the sonic buzzed.

Three spiders rushed her at once. She fired at two, but before she could get the third shot off, a fourth spider rammed her in the side. River swayed and fell to one knee. Without thinking, she brought her blaster up and fired into the spider's soft underbelly. The creature screamed as it flew. River shook her head, her ears ringing.

A strong, thin arm wrapped tight around her belly and she felt herself being lifted up... up. Her feet cleared the web, and the spiders scrambled over one another, ineffectually lunging at her. Her instincts kicked in and she fired off a fusillade of blaster fire, ending the charge.

She realized it wasn't really her ears ringing, after all. The Doctor laughed heartily in her ear, and the roaring had been the sound of her gravpack engines kicking in. The Doctor had gotten it working again, and freed. He pulled her against his chest to launch both of them into the air.

"Oh, I could kiss you right now!" she grinned madly at the retreating spiders.

"I'm counting on it!" he shouted back. They floated up, and River hoped the Doctor's repair job would hold. At last, the Doctor maneuvered the antigrav to land them gently on the ledge where the TARDIS was waiting. The welcoming doors were open, casting a soft golden glow into the cavern. The Doctor shut off the antigrav and tossed it aside, but didn't loose his hold on her. "And how's that for a finish?" he said with a jaunty lilt to his voice.

She chuckled. His tweed jacket was gone, as was one boot. He was caked in webbing from head to foot, and wearing a lopsided grin. In answer, River grabbed his hand and dragged him through the TARDIS doors, which closed behind them with a satisfying thump.  

"I finally got to rescue you!" he said, absurdly pleased with himself.

"I had no idea that was a goal of yours." She picked at the webbing in his hair.

"Ouch! And yes, It's been something I aspire to." He reciprocated by picking webbing from her sleeve.

"Oooh. Sorry," she added as she accidentally pulled his hair. "You don't have to, you know."

"What? Not rescue my wife?" he said, bounding up the ramp. "That would make me an even more rubbish husband than I already am! You okay?"

"I'm all right, really. And you don't have to prove anything to me. You know that, don't you?" She turned to face him, leaning against the console.

He mirrored her posture, leaning against the railing, but his hands fluttered around him as he spoke. "Let me get this straight: you're telling me I needn't have come to your rescue?"

"Of course you should have! And thank you for doing so. I'm just saying that you shouldn't think of it as some sort of competition. I'm not evaluating the quality of your rescuing." She made a face. "I can't believe I just said that."

"Well, yes," he said as he steepled his fingers and gazed at her, "how would you rate this particular rescue?"

She laughed. "I just said I wasn't rating them."

"I heard that, yes. But I'm very keen on feedback, you know."

"Hmmm... I'd give it a solid seven."

He tossed his head to push his fringe from his eyes, but the gummy webbing didn't budge. "A seven. Room for improvement, then."

"I only marked you down because I had to bring all the toys."

"But shouldn't I be marked up for creative thinking without my sonic?"

"Let's call it even. There were those pink pruning shears, after all."

He shrugged and said, "Fair enough. I'll keep it in mind for next time."

She grinned and reached up to smooth the fringe from his eyes. "I look forward to it. What were you doing there, anyway? Bit out of the way for you, isn't it?"

He picked some fluff from her hair and said softly, "I'd say I was right where I needed to be."

She slid her arms around his neck. "Ooh. Charming. You're avoiding the question. You really shouldn't, you know. You've got my curiosity piqued. Now you'll never hear the end of it." River ran her fingernails along the back of his neck.

"Curiosity?" He slid his hands up her back, clever fingers working the complicated fastenings of her flight suit. "Is that all I've got piqued?"

She just laughed, and drew him to her for a slow kiss.

The End