“You know,” said River, waving a hand past the sensor again and again and again, until it glowed ruby-red and the door wouldn’t admit even a puff of ozone-laded corridor air, “it’s hard enough to keep track of the governors as it is.”
The Doctor just smiled benevolently and patted the vast expanse of smooth metal that was, for lack of a better word, his desk. He was in black tie; all of it of a cut she hadn’t seen before, something getting increasingly rare, and the silk bowtie was almost as glossy as his hair. He wore a scarf tucked under the lapels, and fingerless gloves, but no coat (which was probably just as well). “Did the guards wake you up?”
“I just got back from a two month dig, they nearly caught me fusing a Loddian tapestry with my wall. Lucky I changed into uniform before I left!”
“Ah, that old place. How will you enjoy this – undoubtedly highly graphic – piece of art if you can’t see it?” The Doctor helped himself to a bright purple leaf off the plant.
“I’ll know it’s there. Don’t eat that.”
“Why not just put it in a museum?” The leaf seemed unwilling to be reattached, so he stuffed it under the pot.
“I will, when the time is right.” River sat on the edge of the desk and wasted a second on turning her face to the lamp. This room was bathed in yellow and had no discernible windows; she could still hear the rain, but that mattered less. “Doctor… why are you here? And what is that?” She nodded to the contraption on top of the very large screen dominating the right side of the huge desk.
The Doctor leant back in his rigid chair and slammed his feet and the shiny shoes they came in onto the desk, jolting both River and the plant. “It’s – well, it’s a twirling blinking thing that makes noise... and might cause a slight increase in the electrical storm department. Sorry. Just – it took a surprisingly large number of trips to establish myself as a figure of authority without having this handsome face run through the database, and I’d already read all the files twice and then the guards were scared to get you because they thought you might be sleeping! I had to do something. By the way, your cell is now in the vicinity of some highly unreliable camera feeds.”
“You better not have ruined my work on them.”
“Only improved them, dear.”
He looked confident, which was cause for concern – but she needed a new day project. She slid a bit closer to him – for once this preference for perfectly smooth metal paid off – and placed her boots on one of his armrests. “Can I see my file?”
“File-s, and it isn’t necessary.” He stripped off his gloves and stuffed them into an inner pocket.
“Oh, why not?”
“Because you could have written them! ‘Beware Song, she steals… kisses…bites…draws…’ and it goes on like that. ‘Song likes to sleep in’. ‘Song doesn’t really need you to hold her varnish’. ‘Song will come out of her cell and pinch your nose’. ‘If Song says it’s incense it’s not incense’.”
“Ah, they’ve figured me out, bless.”
“Hm. All those guards are going to get replaced soon; they deserve it.” The Doctor nodded to the screen. “Anything you want me to add? How you’d like your socks folded, perhaps?”
“I think I want that discretion.” She grinned, and kept it wide. “Did you read all of the files?”
“I… couldn’t really stop. Sorry.” He looked down at her boots on the armrest, stroked the toes. “You don’t have to worry about the hyposprays, that compound doesn’t loosen your tongue as much as give you a bit of a tingly feeling.”
“I know… and I’m not. Worried. But I appreciate the concern.”
“That wasn’t the file you were asking about?”
Oh, she’d told him she’d stopped fearing in an alley in New York, but he’d never understand, would he? So she laughed, let it transform into a question: “Where are we going?”
The Doctor looked up and frowned. “We’re staying here.”
“Just for a while.”
“I don’t want to stay.” River let her face fall, deigned herself to applying one of his rules. “If you’re running, don’t stop until you want to.”
“We’ll just bend the rules. This one time.” He measured the, truly tiny, amount of bending between thumb and forefinger.
“Then why are you here?” She leant towards him, stroked the faux wool scarf from shoulder to heartbeat.
“Would I waste a perfectly good morning staging this if I was going to leave in a minute?” He flung his limbs around irritably, shifting her hand. “That’s just silly!”
“Why would you stage this at all?” He was revolving on his own axis too tightly, today, so she fell back on studying him. She glanced from his oily hair to the gilded clasps of the braces; from the creased hem of the jacket to the imprints on the toes of the damp shoes. “Been hull-walking?”
“Your shoes. The dents. Strap-on demagnetisers?”
“You skate? On ice? I’d like to see that.” The look in his eye said she would, so she smiled. “No companion? Or are they the guards?”
“Plum market, on the seventh moon of Former Aloo. Best plum sauce in the universe. Haven’t tasted it, but the data the TARDIS obtained suggests that really, it is, because it adapts its consistency to your palate!”
“And do they like plums?”
“Oh. I should probably have asked.”
She barely noticed the scuffing of shoes and clanging of equipment anymore. She could even tune out the whistling. But then the whistle took on an unexpected and slightly impossible vibrato – one that could be worth getting up for.
She was leaning against the bars when he came into view – he was stroking the damp wall with one hand and conducting himself with the other. “Hello!” she called. “You must be new here.”
The Doctor stopped mid-tune, spread his arms, feigned surprise. “Troy Handsome’s the name, but my friends call me… well, Troy, I should suppose, thinking about it.”
“Did you get a promotion?”
“I thought you were with International Rescue.”
“Oh, yes! Promotion. Good behaviour and all that.”
“So it is.”
“And that’s quite the ill-fitting uniform you’ve got there.”
“Well, it most definitely doesn’t have pockets that are bigger on the inside.”
“And that’s a tool belt. Yours.”
“Yes, well, look how unexciting these things are.” He tugged at the tight, bowtie-less collar. “Barely cool at all! I had to do something to be able to wear them.”
“Ah. Why are you a guard?”
“Because, River, I haven’t been one yet. And look!” He took half a step back and twirled until the tools rose clumsily from the pleather belt.
“Lovely.” She turned her back on his noises as the various implements were – one by one – reclaimed by gravity, let him sonic himself in. “Where’s your helmet?”
The Doctor left her cell open. “Boring, boring helmet. Lost it. Took me an embarrassingly long while, though you’ll be pleased to know it – and the gun belt and the knee pads and the radio – are tucked away next to a hive of Krxs. Question: did you know they were there and why didn’t you visit them, because that was a bored lot and you know what they’re like when they’re bored, nearly lost an appendage!” He brandished a little finger accusatorily.
“What about your gloves?”
“Should I keep the Krxs in here?
“They’re excellent company, as long as you keep your toes to yourself.” He tugged at the belt, hooked the screwdriver between the torch and the spoon. “They just want a blanket and a corner of the bed.”
“Speaking of, if you replaced the guard who was going to bring the food, I’ll be cross.”
“Matters not, I have something… from your father.” He detached a piece of armour that most definitely wasn’t supposed to be detachable, and snuck a hand beneath it. “Shirt’s a bit inaccessible at the mo… Ah, here we go!” He thrust a deformed container made out of blue plastic into her hands.
“What is it?”
“Some sort of… pie.” The Doctor fairly beamed. “Your parents told me to bring it! Your mum sent a rosé, but it wouldn’t fit in any pocket – it’s on the TARDIS, next to your favourite couplings.”
“I’m glad they entrusted pie to you.” She turned the container over. “Oh, Tupperware! I held a lecture on Tupperware at university.”
She raised her brows and wrestled the lid off; the scent of cinnamon quickly overtook the smell of everything else.
The Doctor sauntered about the best he could in his new boots; studied her growing collection of moonstones, her tealights, her half-empty bottle of Delight. “I was the one snoring.”
“You were there? I didn’t see you.”
“It was a big room.”
River replaced the lid and sucked some stray applesauce off her finger. “You must have looked stupid when everyone else started applauding.”
The Doctor laughed, made his way toward and behind her. “Like a complete idiot.” He patted her neck muscles, stroked her shoulder blades, ran fingertips down her spine and the small of her back.
“Loved that class.”
“I bet you did.” He propelled her towards the bed, which was a fairly short distance.
River tumbled onto the mattress, which wasn’t really made for tumbling, and used her momentum to slip the container to the side and draw her legs up. “Where’s the TARDIS?”
The Doctor sat down. “Not in the vicinity.”
“As in we have to walk?”
“As in we’re staying…” He curled his lip, tugged a fraction more viciously at the collar. “… in.”
“Really?” She quickly pulled herself up on her knees and poked at the armour covering his back (it was, mostly, correctly placed). “You know, I’ve been wondering what they keep under this.”
“Oh, it’s a jacket, more armour, two vests, maybe a bit of thermospray if you’re one of the chilly ones.”
“You don’t say?”
“Let’s just, ah, sit.” He looked around the cell, rubbed an eye. “Stormcage… never really been here, you know.”
“Trust me, it’s not that interesting.” River ran her hands through her hair. “I’m sick of Stormcage.”
“You chose it!”
“I know, and I’m sick of it.”
“Then you shouldn’t have stopped in the 52nd century.”
She sighed. “So, haven’t been a guard, have you?”
“Not once! Went through a bit of training and everything.” He crossed his hearts as thoroughly as the armour let him. “Ten minutes. They demonstrated the thumbscrews on me.”
“Not my favourites.”
“You didn’t get recognised?”
“Dare I ask what else you’ve been?” She was getting used to the surges of eccentricity, to the cycles of brilliance, to what it was and what it is and what it will be, but it was still bloody annoying. (And self-conditioned pragmatic or not, she’d kept the string the diary came wrapped in.)
“Hm?” And that was a non-answer honed to perfection.
“Did you build this place too?”
“You know what I think about working with concrete. Unless you don’t, in which case I don’t like it; the concrete, I mean. I had tea with the architects. Liked the tea. Didn’t care for any of them.”
“Am I supposed to feel better about this great concrete box enfolding me then… or not?”
“This isn’t, actually, concrete… and why would you feel better?”
“If you say you’re going to be good with something, you can’t complain about it later. New rule.” He pulled his feet up, placed them on top of her blanket; the boots were too high and too clean and he’d only put the laces through the wrong eyelets twice. “Tell me, where did we go last?”
“You mean last night?”
“Yes, fair enough, last night. Where?”
River stared out into the corridor, counted to twenty. Waited a few seconds longer. “Old Rost.”
“Ah, yes. Sunsset… Tell me about it.”
She turned back. “Have you forgotten?”
“I still have food in my hair.”
“Then why do I have to tell you?”
“Just do it, eh? Indulge the old man.”
“Don’t I always?” So she talked about the sunsset and the food fight, used the vaguest and floweriest terms she knew in case there was a scheme for a spoiler in there somewhere, and he closed his eyes and drummed an erratically distracting and slightly calloused tune against her knee. She finished with, “You infiltrated Stormcage to come here and have me tell you about a place you’ve been.”
The Doctor looked up. “Basically.”
“So are you checking up on me, or should I take this costume for the cry for attention it obviously is?”
He went for the collar again. “It is not.”
“Are we really just going to sit here?”
He made a face, placed a hand more firmly on her knee. “The Universe… You know, sometimes it’s ridiculous, but the end result, the end result is…. nice.”
It was mid-morning in Stormcage, she could tell. She peeled off her jacket and rolled her aching shoulders and – realised that the tapping that had been annoying her for a good while wasn’t in her head (well, not just in her head), but somewhere a bit further down the corridor.
She studied the stretch of soiled, cracked concrete leading up to cell 402, tied the jacket sleeves around her hips and, after some deliberation, tugged her vest at least a bit closer to modesty with the other. (Hyperelastic, right. Couldn’t even handle a snowstorm.)
That particular cell had been empty for a good few weeks, and River approached with interest. She had her mouth and her gun and, if necessary, gold from Sto in her earlobes, its sheen disguised by a layer of carefully applied eye shadow. She closed the distance, had a look, and said, “Oh, it’s you, sweetie? What did you do?
The Doctor flicked the flat lock of hair covering one eye aside. “Lied.”
“Well, thank heavens for that.”
He wrapped his fingers around the bars; the metal watchband scraping against metal did nothing for her headache. “Currently I’m Sun Storm, speaker of uncomfortable truths, kidnapper of good thoughts, infamous space pirate and so on.”
“Please tell me you didn’t use that name.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
She covered his hands with her own. “You’ve decided to check in, then? I see you didn’t even bother changing your clothes this time.”
“How do you manage to upset so many while technically in here? Last time I checked, zero point two percent of the Sontaran battlefleet was dedicated to finding you! Do you know how many Sontarans that is?”
“I probably shouldn’t have dared them to.”
“Why?” he asked, pressing himself as close to the bars as possible and making the Angry Face. “How? When? Where?”
“Oh, please, you’re callusing your rant finger.”
“I can’t even move my fingers, you’re touching all of them!”
“Just,” she said, letting go, “open the door.”
River made sure her hair was out of the way and sat down on the bed; the mattress was naked and torn, but at least it was reasonably soft.
“Are your feet wet all the time, too?” The Doctor plopped down next to her and straightened his jacket enthusiastically.
She leant to the side; kissed him full on the mouth, pressed their noses together. “Keep them up, love. Now, how clever was this? Really?”
He crossed his legs, folded his hands around a knee, kept his boots ever-so-slightly above the floor. “Very, as always.”
“You have done Utah, haven’t you?”
“Nixon, spacemen, unsettling orphanages, yep, done that. I’m sorry.”
She studied a nail with ion–emission burns. “I know. And you died.”
“Yes, well, you’ve got younger and younger. I’m not sure the powers of observation in this place are first-rate anymore. The number of times they must have been lipsticked, it’s a wonder they recognise themselves in the mirror.”
“It’ll wear off.” This Doctor was young; still pressed by the Question, naturally, but hiding it well. It was a rather broken déjà vu, transformed through years and lives and free will.
“This really is a remarkably damp place, isn’t it? Oh, well, at least it’s keeping your hair all oomph…y.”
“Doctor, what is it?”
“Are we good?” His voice had dropped an octave, and he scratched at his arm.
“Always.” She never hesitated before answering that particular question. Gave what he could give her, as it were; and Mels had died in an offshoot of the universe, wound into a piece of cloth. “Did you really get arrested? Or did you just land in an empty cell and make her invisible?”
The Doctor shrugged. “You know me and shortcuts…”
“Get up, get in, take me dancing.”
“Your mother,” said the Doctor, while stuffing his betasselled nightcap into a pocket and fighting a rough patch on the floor for one of his slippers, “left me here.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. Barely nothing. It wasn’t like I meant the console to short circuit and I’m not taking any blame for the ketchup dispenser.”
River pulled the door open. “Well, then. Step inside.” This version of the Doctor wore his tweed over a pair of chequered red pyjamas, was exercising his dimples and the fluffy hair – and had already gone through about half the contents of her little shelf.
“Aren’t you afraid this will come alive?” he called, pointing to something she couldn’t see on account of his starched jacket.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m quite sure it won’t.”
He picked up her vase, and (as he always did) peered into it. “Ooh, bigger on the-”
“I keep warning you: don’t.”
He made a noise, but put it down again. Tapped the bottle of Petrichor with a nail, prodded the little plant growing in the shape of her favourite nebula. “You know where we should go? A planet where there’s nothing but space, deliberate space, because otherwise it would be pointless to go to a planet where there’s nothing but space!” He looked between the shelf and the bed and the bars. “You’ve got a manipulator, right?”
“Several,” she conceded, curling up on the bed. “All broken.”
“I can fix one.”
“Really? You can revert vaporisation? I’m afraid you’re stuck here.” She patted the mattress. “Isn’t it time you learnt not to tinker in your pyjamas?”
He tugged at his trousers and sat down, crossing his legs and dangling a slipper. “I thought this time would be different!” He scratched at his cheek aimlessly, staring at the opposite wall.
“Why are you making that face?”
“Excuse me, my facial muscles are entirely relaxed.”
“Oh, so that’s what it’s supposed to look like?”
“Oh!” He shoved a hand into a jacket pocket; withdrew a boring-looking square the size of her smallest gun. “Brought you a puzzle!”
“Ah, how thoughtful! What kind of puzzle?”
He juggled with it a bit before handing (well, throwing) it to her, and he only nearly dropped it once. “Well, it’s either from Sol 17 or 19, if you end up with a lap full of face spiders you’ll know which and I think we had a row.”
“A row?” River did her best to keep her features neutral. He tried so hard, sometimes, the poor young thing.
“Well, the shouting was a bit more… intense than usual.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“You called me an alien, I got confused.”
“You thought it was a compliment?”
“Well, at the very least it rather is a statement of fact. And you’re also… you know.”
“We’re good.” River crossed the space between them without getting too caught in the sheets, bent his neck and ran her thumbs across the tensest muscles there, forced them to relax. Oh; he was still so obviously swayed by the promise of physical contact.
“As I was going to sleep,” said the Doctor, his voice strained, “I had an idea. An epiphany, if you like. While I was… can’t you petition for a bouncier bed? This one is almost uncomfortable.”
“Be glad there is a bed. So, while you were… lying back rigidly?”
“While I was reclining leisurely, I thought… Do you want me to fix it for you?”
River moved to look at his face; that tone of voice wasn’t entirely comfortable, either. “Fix what?”
He had put on a smug little smile and lit the irreverent light at the very back of his pupils. “Well… Stormcage.”
“I don’t want you to fix Stormcage for me,” said River; it came out rather flat. The man who wanted to understand everything.
“All right. If that’s what you want. How can you stand all this sitting still? It’s making me sore.”
“The TARDIS won’t be long, you know, not yet. She might pick us up before the guard comes.”
“Oh, sometimes she leaves you the entire day. It’s quite cruel of her, really.” The man she’d seen last was thin and droopy-haired and worn and brilliant, and the one next to her… was not a man who had suffered (at least) three one-sided heart-attacks, who had survived Tranzalore, who had brought her to the Seven Castles. That, too, was a statement of fact. “Doctor, what do you know of Acorn Question Mark?”
“Why? You want to go?”
“Love to. Tell me about it.”