Asgard. It seemed like as good a place as any to go. Take a little break, have a little think about everything, maybe a bit of a mope. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he was feeling wretched over Donna and was finding it increasingly difficult to tolerate his own company now that everyone else had moved on.
Even leaving aside the foreknowledge, Asgard would have been top of the list. A retirement planet was the obvious choice for someone down in the dumps. Just the sight of those geriatric humans in their comfortable clothing and mobility hover scooters (What was it with humans and their desire to hover?) was enough to cure even the foulest of moods.
Yeah, he wasn’t even fooling himself.
There was no real way of knowing whether he had the right time period or not, but it didn’t matter because it had happened for River so it was going to happen for him. He just wished she’d hurry up.
He sat on a convenient bench under a willow tree and watched out over the lake and the ducks. Ducks! Another human favourite. God forbid they go out and find new birds to like; they had to bring every bloody thing along with them.
“I got your note” River plonked herself down next to him, crossed her arms and stared straight ahead.
“Great. You summon me here, and you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be making it up to me for.”
His mind raced for a moment. “Oh! So I upset you at some point in the future, then I send you a note to tell you to come here. But why don’t I tell you to come then?”
“Probably because whatever you do here works so well that you’re loathed to change it. I can’t wait to see what it is. It had better be good is all I’m saying.”
“That bad, eh?”
She turned to him. “Look at me.” She studied his eyes. “Oh, very soon.”
“You can tell that from looking at my eyes?”
“Yes. And stop it.” She turned back to the ducks.
“Being so agreeable. It’s making it very difficult to be angry with you.”
“I could try being horrible if it would help? Growl at you or something?”
He glanced at her and the corner of her mouth was curving into a smile in spite of efforts to prevent it from doing so. “Shut up.”
He rifled in his pockets and produced a couple of apples and a small packet of Bourbon Creams. “Here.” He passed her an apple and tore open the biscuits.
“Let’s call it a picnic.”
“Okay, we can call it that. Provided I get the third Bourbon.”
“Deal.” He took one and passed her the packet with the two remaining biscuits. “You know, I met someone who reminded me of you last week.”
River sat up and turned to him. “Oh?”
“Lady Christina DeSouza, she was called.”
River relaxed again. “Oh. Never heard of her. So what reminded you of me then?”
“Well she was sort of clever—”
“Sort of clever? Oh thanks!”
“You didn’t let me finish!” River gestured for him to continue. “She was a little bit bad and could look after herself. And well… you know… attractive.”
“What? Don’t you want me to find you attractive?”
“I’d rather you found me likeable.”
“River, look at me. Sitting here on a dull little bench on what’s probably the most boring planet in the universe. And what was I doing? Waiting. You know me, right? Do you think that sounds like something I would do if I didn’t at least like someone? And it’s a Thursday afternoon.”
River chuckled. “You know, I always thought that you knew the right things to say because you knew all about me. But now you don’t even know who I am and you still get it right. It shouldn’t be allowed.”
She rested her cheek on her palm and looked at him. Her eyes were filled with tenderness and whatever he had done, or was going to do, he was already forgiven. She was good at shielding her thoughts but he caught an outline—possibly because he knew it already—I love you.
“River, I’m on my own now, and you know, maybe—”
“Please don’t ask me.”
“Why not? It could be nice, me and you.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it, but I can’t. Some day you’ll understand, and if you ask me now I’m afraid I might accept. And then where would we be?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll take your word for it. I’m sure I’ll be fine on my own.”
River’s smile turned watery. “You’re always fine. Here, why don’t you take the extra Bourbon?”
“You’re about as subtle as a brick.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” River said breezily and then frowned at her Bourbon. “I mean this in the best possible way, Sweetie, but this is a pitiful excuse for a picnic.”
The Doctor sat up straight and looked over his shoulder. “I’m sure there’s somewhere around here we could get something more substantial.”
“I was rather hoping for something more alcoholic.”
“Ah. I think we could be out of luck then.” River’s shoulders dropped and she went back to nibbling her biscuit. “But you know I might have a bottle of something on the TARDIS I could dig out?”
He returned to the bench after a few minutes with a bottle of whisky and two glasses. “I have to warn you, I can’t get drunk.” River grinned at him for a second before bursting with laughter. “What? Alcohol doesn’t affect time lords in the same way it does humans.”
“No!” he said defensively.
“Tell me then, when was the last time you drank something alcoholic and what happened?”
He ran though the events in his head; Champagne with the royal courtesan, and poor Rose nearly getting killed while he was… “Nothing out of the ordinary,” he said, inwardly cringing.
“Right,” River said and winked.
“Wait, you’re not hoping to take advantage of me in a delicate state, are you?”
“What makes you think I’d need to get you drunk?” she asked, and he opened his mouth to make some effort at a response, but his words dried up. “I’m joking, you idiot. Come on, pour.” She proffered her glass.
* * *
The Doctor chose a stone and set about skimming it across the lake, but it just plopped into the water, making only a single sad ripple.
“Almost,” River said, passing him another. He turned it round in his hand.
“This is a good one, nice weight, flat planes. Well chosen, Miss Song.” He stopped and gestured at her. “Miss? Ms? Mrs?”
River rolled her eyes dramatically. “River will do.”
“Can you answer me something… River?”
“No, nothing like that. I was just wondering. I mean. What is it with humans and ducks?”
River exploded with laughter and bent double at the water’s edge. “What!?” she said eventually.
“No, seriously. Serious question.” He rolled his tongue around in his mouth to make sure he wasn’t slurring. “Wherever there are humans, there are ducks. It’s so weird. Of all the birds in the universe, you choose these slightly boring brown and greenish ones as your species mascot. They can’t even sing. They’re rubbish.”
River wagged the stone she had in her hand at him. “You take that back! Ducks are brilliant!”
“Pah! What about the six-crested ber… berisna? Now there’s a bird!”
“You would choose that showy tart of a thing, wouldn’t you? And what’s your problem with humans bringing their home comforts with them exactly? You’re not the only one with a dead planet for a home, you know?”
He stopped in his tracks; a hard lump rose in his throat. River walked up to him, placing a hand gently on his arm. “I’m sorry. The whisky was a bad idea. Loosens the lips.”
“No,” he said, noting her genuine concern. “I’m having fun. Really.” He patted the hand on his arm and the wave of guilt and horror slowly subsided.
“It gets easier. I promise,” she said. It could have been a lie, but there was still comfort in not needing to explain his reaction to her, in not to have to sidestep the subject or dredge up the past. It could have been a lie, but it wasn’t.
“Thank you.” He turned and sent the stone she had given him skimming across the surface of the lake. She did the same with hers, and all of their ripples collided and merged and died—randomly to the untrained eye, but conforming to rules and laws that existed long before there were ever words for rules or laws or lakes or stones. Before there was anything.
“So what now?” the Doctor asked, straightening up.
“Well,” River said, “I saw those mobility scooters earlier. They look like they’d be fun if only they had a bit of extra oomph.”
“I have just the thing,” he said and pulled his screwdriver from his pocket.
* * *
“River Song, you have achieved the pinnacle of human ambition and are now hovering. We could leave it at this and you’d not have to face the hu— humil—” He put a hand up and took a second. “—shame of being beaten.”
“Oh please. I could beat a drunk you with my eyes closed.”
“Not drunk,” he said, wagging a finger. “Time Lord physiology. Resistant to it.” She groaned in exasperation and he heard himself giggle. “Now,” he said seriously. “Ready. Set…” But River was off before the gun. “You rotten cheat!”
He revved his engine and set off after her.
The next thing he was aware of was rolling down a grassy hill. He thought it best not to struggle and submitted to gravity. When he stopped rolling the stars above his head were streaking prettily and he sighed.
“Okay?” River asked as she fuzzed into his field of vision.
“I won’t tell anyone,” she said, clambering awkwardly down to lie next to him on the grass.
“I won’t tell anyone how you cheated in a hover scooter race either.”
River snorted. “Thanks. My reputation is very important to me.”
He looked over at her and her eyes were closed. “River?”
“I will be okay though, won’t I?”
She paused for a moment before answering. “Eventually.”
It was still dark when he woke, the stars had stopped swimming in the sky and River was gone. The grass where she had been lying was still a little warm and the smell of ozone hung in the air. In a way he was glad she had left, because he knew that he would have asked her to come with him. And then where would they be?
He wished he knew.