Memories have a funny way about them. Stories too. They shift over years and decades, like sand on the desert, each grain a tiny detail that moves with the wind of our experiences. It’s part of why we change, because really all we are in the end are our memories and stories. Everyone in the universe has visions of the past that they think are true or tales they tell in a certain way, but they couldn’t be more wrong. This is one of those stories.
Hollywood, 1939. Neighbor to the City of Angels. It seemed cliché, but a director who won’t be born for several years once said they’re clichés because they work. It was for that reason, along with the odd time energy fluctuations I received, that I was standing in front of the Hollywood Tower Hotel. If my suspicions were correct, tonight it would be a beacon for something much more sinister than its usual crowd that turned out to see and be seen. I was neither invited nor was I called, but even when one has all the time in the world, a girl can’t sit around waiting forever.
I’d hate to say it was a dark and stormy night—another cliché—but sometimes it pays to get to the point. Rain pounded the pavement outside the hotel as the taxi that brought me rolled off into the darkness, and though I had my trademark trench coat and fedora on, I was keen to get inside. A flash of lightning accompanied me into the bustling lobby, but only the hotel staff reacted at all. To the lightning, not me. It was hardly a surprise, though. Here in the heart of the glitz and the glitter, these stars, the rich and the privileged, were used to a lightning storm of flash bulbs pointed in their direction. They were well trained in the art of keeping up their masks in any situation. What was one tiny bolt to them?
I suppose I should take a moment to introduce myself. Melody Malone of the Angel Detective Agency. Melody to those I like; Ms. Malone to those I don’t. Well, that’s one of my names. I change names like I change outfits, each one carefully selected to fit the current mission. It is the name I chose to go by when I’m operating under the guise of the detective agency, but it’s not my favorite by far. For now, though, it will do. I specialize in all things bizarre, some would even say impossible. The thing is, in a universe as vast as ours, nothing is impossible. One just has to be at the right place at the right time.
The bizarre could wait for a moment, though, because now happened to be the right place and time to fix the non-reaction to me. See, I do like to make an entrance. A stranger in a trench coat with a fedora shielding their face may not be remarkable on a rainy evening in Hollywood, but it was time I demonstrated just how remarkable I was. My hat was first to go because my hair, well, that attracts the attention. My body will hold it. I took the pins out that were keeping it back and shook it a bit. Not that I needed to; the moment I released my curls from their hairpin shackles, they bounced out like an animal freed from its cage. But it adds to the effect all the same. Once I was sure the appropriate number of eyes were on me, I opened my coat, made darker by the rain, to reveal a deep indigo dress that hugged my curves in all the right (or wrong, depending) places. My neckline was low, perhaps immodestly so to be generally accepted by fashion during that time period, but based on the looks on the men’s faces—and several of the ladies’—it was perfectly acceptable to them.
A bellboy appeared out of nowhere to take the coat I had shed along with my hat. They often do—men, I mean—appear out of nowhere when I’m around. They flirt and I respond in kind, like a cat playing with a mouse. It’s a game to me, but they’re always willing participants. Little do they know only one man in all of time and space has my heart, or hearts as the case may be. But that’s a story for another time.
Another flash accompanied the lobby doors opening once again, this time for a nurse and her ward; an old, frail woman in a wheelchair. The moment they were inside, the nurse began fussing over her patient, using a handkerchief to wipe down the chair and making sure she was still warm and dry. It was obvious, though, the woman had other things on her mind. She seemed focused something or someone in the lobby, her mouth moving noiselessly and her hand struggling to rise from the armrest.
I tried to follow her gaze, but there were too many people to pinpoint exactly what she was looking at. Across the way, there was a young couple standing entirely too close to be socially acceptable, a small girl grabbing a doll from one of the plush velvet sofas and running after her mother or, more likely, nanny, and some other average-looking guests. When I say average-looking, I mean average for celebrities with more money than sense.
“No.” The whisper barely reached me above the din in the lobby. I turned back to the old woman, her hand now raised, reaching toward the same point she had been staring at before.
“No,” she repeated, a bit stronger this time.
“Ma’am?” the nurse asked, stopping her industrious wiping.
Another bolt outside and the woman’s breathing became ragged. The nurse jumped to her feet, checking the woman’s pulse points but after one last gasp, the old woman slumped over in the chair and said no more.
“Doctor!” the nurse cried out. “Is there a doctor?”
My breath momentarily hitched as a top hat came bobbing through the gathering crowd. It couldn’t be him, I knew that. But when one spends so much time with a cosmic twelve-year-old, some of his boundless hope is bound to rub off on even the most cynical of hearts.
The hat finally emerged, resting on the head of a distinguished salt and pepper haired gentleman. As the doctor checked the woman, I surreptitiously checked my scanner, keeping the anachronous device in my purse as I did so. It was her heart. Perhaps it was death itself she was warding away earlier. There’d be nothing the doctor could do to stop it. Not in this time period. Maybe in 100 years or so when portable defibrillators were commonplace. But even then, with her being so frail, the device that could save her may have equal chance of killing her.
I’d seen enough death in my time, so I turned my attention elsewhere. That elsewhere happened to be a tall potted plant in the opposite corner currently having one of its leaves licked by the most anachronous thing in the room.
“Oh, Doctor,” I mumbled under my breath, shaking my head. “Why do I let you out?”
As I headed over to him, I fluffed my hair and adjusted my dress so instead of showing just enough cleavage, it showed entirely too much. I mentioned I like making an entrance. Out of all the entrances I make, the ones into his life are the most important. I sidled up next to him as close as I dared without alerting him to my presence. “Hello, sweetie,” I purred so close behind him the hairs on his neck stood at attention. I suspected it probably had an effect in other areas as well.
“River!” He spun around like some off-balance child’s toy, flailing and nearly knocking over the plant as he did so. “Look! You’re here! What are you doing here?”
Every bit of his face said surprise except his eyes. Rule one. It’s the only thing they drilled into me that I found to be completely true about him. Rather, almost completely true. He didn’t lie all the time. Usually only when he was avoiding something. Or trying not to avoid something.
“I could ask the same of you,” I pointed out with a gentle arch of my brow.
“Ah, well, I was aiming for the opening day of Disneyland, see. But you know the TARDIS! Takes me wherever she likes. I’ll try again sometime. You should come with me. We would have fun!” He paused, the curtain of pain still drawn over his eyes, but now hope was peeking through, appraising its audience. “Together.”
“You could take your new companion,” I bluffed, suspecting he hadn’t found one. Sure, I could’ve been wrong, but after knowing him as long and as well as I did, I could read him like a book and know exactly which chapter he was on.
His face fell like a puppy denied a treat, then he frowned. “Wait, where are we for you?”
“We’ve done Manhattan,” I replied, studying his reaction. “Both of us.”
An entirely new curtain of pain and rage crashed down over his entire face as he lashed out. “How do you know? Maybe I haven’t! How many times, River? How many times have I—”
“I can tell.” I knew from more experience than I care to remember that it was better to stop him before he got going. His words were predictably sharp and would’ve hurt someone unprepared. Luckily for him, I’m always prepared with an impenetrable shield, forged of many layers over even more years. I placed a calming hand on his cheek and after a moment of resistance, he leaned into my touch. The anger melted from his face and a tear threatened to emerge, so I changed the subject. “So, who is the lucky girl?”
“What makes you think it’s a girl?” he asked, a slight sulk remaining.
“Just a guess. Or spoilers, one of the two. Take your pick.” I shrugged. He studied me intently, the suspicion clear, but I knew he couldn’t read me as well as I could him. Of course I knew his next companion. Honestly, by that point he had met her too, though he likely didn’t realize it yet. She was bright, unique, and everything he needed. However, just as it was with me, his time with her would be anything but straightforward.
“She’s, ah, in the TARDIS,” he said finally, waving vaguely around. “I picked up some time distortions. I assume they’re why you’re here. I, ah, wanted to take a look before, you know, she’s new. Didn’t want to overwhelm her.”
A noncommittal hum was my response to this lie. He was trying entirely too hard to be casual in his explanation and it did nothing but confirm my suspicions that he was traveling alone against advice. Well, advice was the nice way to put it. The truth of the matter was that he was defying his wife’s order and that is always a very dangerous thing. But I let the lies go for the moment. There were more pressing matters. “I believe an old friend of ours is here.”
“Oh, really?” His face filled with childish delight and he scanned the lobby as if expecting someone along the lines of Vastra or Jenny to appear at any moment.
Before I was able to dissuade him, the nearby French doors opened and an elegant man dressed in a sharp tuxedo with tails stepped out and announced, “The dining room is now seating for supper.”
The majority of the crowd in the lobby began migrating over to the dining room, filtering in through the exquisite stained glass doors as the gentleman at the podium checked his reservation list, admitting those who were on it and turning away those who were not.
“Shall we?” I asked.
“Certainly,” the Doctor replied with a grin, offering me his arm. “It’s a good thing I always have reservations.”
We joined the queue and slowly moved toward the front as the parties ahead were seated. Once we reached the host, before we had a chance to say a word, he studied the Doctor appraisingly, his face twisting in a grimace as if he was force-fed something horribly bitter. “Sir,” he said with a tone dripping with sarcasm. “You must have a reservation to dine with us. You do not have one.”
“Ah, I believe you should check again,” the Doctor said, bringing his psychic paper from his pocket with an overdramatic flourish.
Whatever the host saw on the paper, his eyes went wide and the blood drained from his face as he tripped over his words stuttering apologies. He hissed urgent orders to a server and we were seated in record time, even ahead of the likes of Clark Gable, who did a double-take as I passed with a wink and a toss of my hair. It was hardly surprising; he had been a mouse in my little game not long ago. For him, anyway. It was a good while ago for me. He fancied me, wanted me to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara opposite him in his new film. But that, too, is a story for another time.
The server led us on a weaving course through tables that were a who’s who list come to life. Actors, dignitaries, as well as those of more dubious ethical practices were dining at adjoining tables. Although, I suppose most of those in attendance had some level of questionable morals. They didn’t get to where they were without them. It was a requirement to survive in this town. That’s probably why I do so well.
The Doctor was busy trying to act formal, which he really shouldn’t, as he greeted all those he passed. A couple recognized him in return, or they were merely good actors. Others, well, if he did know them he must’ve had a different face. His long and winding path had cut through so many in his time, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point he knew everyone in that room. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been engaged to some of them. He claims it’s usually by accident. I claim it’s one of his hobbies.
We were seated at a prime table, right by the fountain in the middle of the room. Because his attention was focused everywhere but where we were heading, he didn’t notice that we had been seated directly next to our old acquaintance. Instead, he merely picked up his menu and started browsing the selection.
I followed suit with my own menu and calmly remarked, “Doctor, don’t be rude.”
“You should say hello to our friend.”
He jerked his head immediately to the table on his right with the same excited expression he wore earlier, but I redirected his gaze to the fountain on his left. His features changed, twisted, and I couldn’t tell if he was shocked, angry, heartbroken, or maybe a bit of all three.
In the middle of the pool on a pedestal was a weeping angel.
“Don’t worry, she won’t move, not with all these eyes on her.” My words relaxed him a bit until I added, “I believe she’s the one who broke my wrist.”
The Doctor flinched visibly at that, an expected reaction. But unexpectedly, he reached across the table to gently take my hand. “How is it?”
“Good as new, of course, after that waste—“
“It was not a waste! You are never a waste.” A fraction of the rage that always lurks just beneath the surface broke through before he was able to rein it in. He dropped his head and sighed before looking up at me and continuing in a softer, almost desperate tone. “River, I can’t say the words that I want—that I need to say before you—you fade from me. I had to do something to show you what I can’t say.”
I often wondered about my end, or our end, which I’d long assumed would be one and the same. At some point, he’ll leave knowing that he’ll never see me again. And then I’ll meet a man with the soul of my husband who won’t have the faintest idea who I am. It’s a day I’ve long been dreading, but for now I shoved it away and shrugged. “It was still foolish.”
The silence spread between us, but his face was unreadable. Finally, he quietly pointed out, “No more foolish than building a beacon on top of a pyramid to say the same thing.”
Oh, I wanted to be cross with him so bloody much for bringing that up. It was completely different. But how could I be angry, really? The way he looked at me, pleading, his eyes filled with the love he couldn’t vocalize. The way his thumb stroked the back of my hand, each feather touch still expressing concern for a wound long since healed. Worst of all, he was right. The closest I’d ever come to saying those words to him was on the top of that pyramid. True, I was young and foolish then, but he’s old and just as foolish now. Not trusting myself to speak, I simply nodded.
The server came along just then to offer some wine which I happily accepted and the Doctor refused. He took our orders; lamb chops and a chocolate soufflé to be brought separately for me, filet of sole and crème brûlée to be brought together for the Doctor.
While he explained to the server in detail how he wanted the filet to be sliced into strips and fried, my attention wandered past the angel in the middle of the fountain to the table on the other side. It was occupied by the girl with the doll from earlier, along with the woman I had thought to be the child’s nanny. It didn’t take a detective to see the doll was obviously custom-made, having the same features as the child that was doting over it, right down to the sweet smile and pronounced dimples.
“So what makes you think she’s the one?”
Turning, I saw the server walking off, a level of frustration on his face that I could closely identify with, and the Doctor’s eyes on me. It was a serious question deserving of a serious answer. But to me, a dash of flirting can never go wrong, so I leaned casually on the table to give him more to look at. I allowed him a moment to fluster a bit before I spoke. “There was an estate sale of Mr. Grayle’s collection. Bidding was furious on the angel, but the owner of the hotel won in the end. Also, if you look closely, you can still see some of the wounds Grayle inflicted on her. They’re healing but still there. Meanwhile, I got an excellent deal on the remains of the Qin vase.” I leaned back again, lifted my glass and took a sip of wine with a self-satisfied smile. By excellent deal, I meant I stole it. Why pay for something when it’s so much more fun to just take it or trick its owner into giving it to you?
It was the Doctor’s turn to lean across the table, not out of flirtatiousness but of purpose. “How did you get back there? And why did you let someone buy the angel?”
They were fair questions, though hardly the one I was expecting. I’d think that maybe he didn’t pick up on the implications of me being in New York during that time frame, but he is far too clever to miss something like that. So for the time being, I assumed he wasn’t ready to know.
“I realize you think my manipulator is rubbish, sweetie, but it does have its uses. I did take a bit of a long way around just to be safe, but I got there in the end.” I took another sip of wine before addressing his next question. I was calm—too calm—and I knew that drove him mad. I kind of liked it. “As for the angel, I thought that if there were other clusters of angels around, she’d lead me to them. Plus, I enjoyed writing that book and thought maybe I’d write another.”
“Isn’t there anything else you could write about? Anything less dangerous?”
“Of course there is, but where’s the fun in that?” I paused and took another sip of wine and regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “Although, there is that huge upswing in popularity of romance novels in the early 21st century thanks to some rather questionable books. Maybe I should make my own mark on the genre with stories of our—adventures—and show them how it’s done.”
“River! You—you can’t!” He stammered, “You wouldn’t! Amy—your parents—might read them and . . . and . . . “ he leaned forward, anxiety drawing the muscles in his reddening face taught as he hissed, “they’d know!”
Bless, he was so adorable when embarrassed. I probably shouldn’t take such delight in taunting him so, but I do. “It’s not like I’d use our names, and I couldn’t still publish under Melody Malone 70 years from now. I’d need to come up with another pseudonym. Maybe Smith or Roberts or something simple and unassuming like that.”
The Doctor sputtered some more and I laughed, catching a glimpse of the angel as I did. Her head had moved, nearly imperceptibly so, tilting toward us.
“Our friend has taken notice of us,” I observed.
“I thought you said it wouldn’t move?” the Doctor asked, turning to face the statue.
“Not enough to cause any problems,” I replied with a dismissive wave. “I suspect she’s just turning her head in order to better hear what we know. Isn’t that right?” I asked, shifting my attention to the statue. “Well, I know that you’re hoping to duplicate here what you had in New York. All these starry-eyed young actors come to find fame, so many of them are lost to this town anyway, aren’t they? You think you’re guiltless because you don’t kill, don’t you? But what you do is worse than killing.”
With every ounce of hatred I held for those monsters, with every fiber of my being, I stared at that statue. Not that it would move, not with all these people around, but I needed to focus. Hide the damage, always hide the damage. Directing my anger and pain toward it helped me do just that. These chunks of sentient stone ripped families apart, much like I had been ripped from mine. Sure, I’m alive, I probably have more adventures in a month than the average person has over an entire lifetime, but there’s always that what if. It probably was appropriate, then, that it was alongside the angels that my mother first met me and finally left me.
A splash from behind the angel broke my concentration. I turned my focus to the source of the sound, and saw the girl dunking her doll into the water.
“No, no,” scolded the nanny. “Don’t put the dolly in the water. Your mother and father had that made especially for you. Look at you, water all over, now we have to go get you changed.”
The woman stood in a huff, pulling the girl from her seat with more force than was strictly necessary. As they passed I got a better glimpse of the doll and I would’ve sworn that its expression was slightly less cheerful, but decided it must have been a trick of the light. With the protesting child in tow, the nanny left the restaurant fussing all the way.
“River . . . I . . .” The Doctor’s wavering voice drew my attention back to the man across the table from me, who seemed to age several centuries just in the time my attention was on the angel. I’ve never been sure how he does it, but it breaks my heart when he does. It was my turn to reach a comforting hand across the table and cover his.
“Shh, hush, my love,” I whispered soothingly, running my thumb across the back of his hand. “I chose this life and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“You didn’t have a choice in the beginning,” he objected with a dejected shake of his head.
“Maybe not, but I wouldn’t go back and change it even if I could.”
Still apparently unconvinced, the Doctor opened his mouth to say something when the lights flickered off, just for a moment. To most of the restaurant’s patrons, it was no cause for concern. We knew better. There is a lot more danger to the dark than most people realize. By the time the lights had come back on, I already had my eyes on the angel. She hadn’t moved at all, except for the small smile that was possibly even more disturbing than her expression when she screams.
“River, do you see that?” he hissed. “Why is it smiling?”
“I don’t know, but—“
Shrill screams from the lobby sliced through my words. I ripped my eyes away from the statue and looked back at the Doctor, but I didn’t need to be told what to do. If traveling with him this long has taught me anything, it’s that running is nearly always an appropriate course of action. So run we did.
When we emerged in the lobby, a crowd gathered around the right elevator, its doors open to an empty shaft.
“Excuse me, let me through, please. Lift inspector,” the Doctor said, flashing his much used and abused psychic paper.
“They’re called elevators here, sweetie,” I prompted.
“I’m on an international lift-slash-elevator inspection mission,” he continued without missing a beat. “Kind of like a spy except I work with lifts instead of secrets. Can someone tell me what happened here?”
A young man with a baby face to rival even the Doctor’s volunteered the information first. “Some people—a young couple, a bell hop, and a child with an older woman—got into the elevator. Then there was a grating metal sound and that’s when the lights flashed. When the elevator doors opened, there was—nothing.”
“The lift’s emergency systems probably kicked in with the power fluctuation,” the Doctor explained. “Let me take a look and see where it stopped.”
Bracing ourselves against the sides, we carefully leaned out over the threshold peering into the sharp drop off below and the hollow backbone of the tower above. But the young man was right. The shaft was completely empty. No elevator car up or down.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are evacuating the hotel,” the host called from behind the gathered crowd. “Please leave quickly but calmly. Taxis are being called.”
We turned to see the host ushering people from the lobby on to the small covered area at the front of the hotel. Through the open doors, I could already see the headlights of vehicles turning up the drive. Celebrity has its privileges, I suppose, but too many drawbacks for my taste to make those privileges worth it. There are some I know who wish they could wipe their name from history. But believe me, that comes with its own set of problems.
Presumably planning to offer reasons (i.e. lies) for why he should be allowed to stay, the Doctor headed over to the host. But he needn’t have bothered because the host stopped him before he could speak. “If it’s no trouble, sir, you should stay. I’m sure the authorities would appreciate your assistance.”
“Well, certainly,” the Doctor replied immediately, puffing himself up with that overinflated sense of self-importance he could slip into so easily. “I suppose I can stay for a bit. Check things out. Lend a hand.”
“We probably should take the second elevator, see what happens,” I suggested.
The Doctor pointed at me with that big, silly grin he always gets when I suggest something he thinks is clever. Which is actually quite often. The host, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced and asked, “Is that safe?”
“I certainly hope not,” I replied with a wink.
After pressing the call button, the Doctor held his hand out to me. “Geronimo?”
“Geronimo,” I agreed, taking his hand and squeezing it gently. He returned the affectionate gesture and I smiled without looking at him. These were times to be cherished. Times that he didn’t flinch at my touch, or give me blank stares, or ask ‘who are you?’ Whether the words were said with affection or anger, they always cut deep.
A chime signaled the elevator’s arrival and the doors slid open to reveal a car that was small but well-appointed with wood paneled walls and plush carpeting underfoot. Hand in hand we stepped over the threshold, the Doctor positively beaming like a child on a trip to an amusement park.
“So, up or down?” the Doctor mused as he rubbed his hands together and studied the selection of buttons. “I’d wager the guests were going up, so that’s what we should do too. Only the basement below us.”
He hit the button labeled 14, which really was for the 13th floor but they tended to skip over 13 when numbering floors during this period. Nothing happened. He pressed it again, leaning into it a bit when suddenly the whole car dropped. It only fell a fraction of a meter, but it was enough to knock us off our feet. Shakily we stood, each of us with identical ‘what the hell?’ expressions when it dropped farther, maybe a full meter, this time accompanied by the horrid sound of metal grinding against metal. We stayed seated on the floor this time ready for another drop, but with a shudder, the elevator began to lower normally.
“Going down is so much better anyway, don’t you agree?” I asked with a flirty wink.
“Hopefully it’ll help us get to the bottom of things. Hah! Get it, basement? Bottom?” He laughed at his own joke, clearly missing the meaning of mine. He’d figure it out eventually, bless.
The doors slid open with an off-key chime to a grey basement filled with grey machinery and no color at all. Except one thing; the doll that the little girl from earlier was carrying.
“Obviously they were here,” I observed, gesturing toward the doll. “I suppose we should have a look.”
As if in response, the elevator immediately jerked out of the shaft and began lurching forward, eerie squeaks and rattles emanating from every side of the car.
“This is . . . unusual,” I remarked.
“Actually, it’s not,” the Doctor began. “There’s a whole planet where, for the longest time, the closest thing they had to a lift only moved horizontally. I showed them the benefit of adding vertical movement. You wouldn’t believe how much—“
“Sweetie,” I interrupted before he got on the inevitable long-winded story about how their elevators all contain plaques in honor of him. “We’re not on that planet. We’re on Earth in an elevator in a 1939 Hollywood hotel. It is unusual for them.”
“Ah, right. Yes.”
We continued to trundle slowly forward toward the back wall of the basement. As we got closer, I wondered what would happen if we met it. Could it be that it’s a false wall and we’d end up—who knows where? Or would we be trapped? If we couldn’t push the car away from the wall enough to escape, I suppose we’d have to climb through the hatch above. That would be an attractive option, I decided. Then, the Doctor would give me a boost through first and he would see exactly what I didn’t have on under this dress.
Before I had too much chance to amuse myself by picturing the Doctor’s reaction, the lights flickered in the car. Suddenly, the car swung around in an impossibly fast 180⁰ turn and we were flung against the side. Luckily we remained on our feet with eyes forward. Lucky, I say, because when the car stopped, the narrow open door was completely blocked by a weeping angel, ready to attack.
“How did it get down here so fast?” the Doctor asked.
Even though I knew his attention was on the angel, I shook my head. “I don’t think it’s her, she doesn’t have the scars.”
“How many do you suppose there are?”
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point.”
“Help me close the doors.” It was more of an order than a request, but I moved forward quickly but carefully and helped him slide the doors shut letting my focus on the angel waver. As soon as they met in the middle, the Doctor took out his sonic screwdriver and ran it around the edge, jamming the doors shut. After a brief silence, the angel banged on the doors, leaving a noticeable dent in the relatively thin metal.
“Sweetie, these doors won’t keep her out for long,” I warned.
“I know, I just—I just need a moment. To blink. And think. Think and blink,” he mumbled as he paced around the small car.
One of the Doctor’s strong suits is coming up with insane plans under pressure that will probably never work but somehow always do. In this case, though, the plan found him.
In one of the Doctor’s many blinks, a second identical Doctor appeared in the elevator with us.
“Hello!” he cheerfully announced.
The original Doctor, the thinking and blinking one, spun around, pointed at his newly arrived self with a grin and replied, “Hello!”
I did the only reasonable thing. I stood between the two, ran a finger down identical tweed-covered arms and purred, “Hello.”
Both Doctors flustered identically, which was twice as adorable with two. They were twice as everything, really.
“How can she make a single innocent word sound so—so naughty?” the original asked.
“She’s bad about that,” the second agreed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I hummed, still looking between the two and going over plans in my mind. This could definitely provide inspiration for those romance novels. “I think I’m rather good at it myself.”
Another bang and dent on the door. The newly arrived Doctor called with an annoyed tone, “Yes, yes, we’ll be with you in a moment.” He turned back to us and in a lower voice said, “Right, I have a plan. Follow my lead.”
The original clapped, looking immensely pleased. “Oh, River, did you hear that? I have a plan! I love it when I have a plan!”
“Technically, it isn’t your plan,” the second Doctor said as he ran his sonic around the door. “It will be, but it isn’t yet. Pay attention!”
He motioned for us to step back from the door, as far as we could in the small space. With another flicker of the light overhead, the doors flew open revealing the angel, one of its arms fully extended.
“Ah, yes! Hello!” the second Doctor began as he held his arms open in a welcoming manner. “I see you’re surprised there are two of me. Not that you actually look surprised but I suppose that’s probably as surprised as you’d look. Now see, here’s the problem. Well, your problem to be precise. Each of us is from a different point in one time stream. That’s bad enough, really, lots of nasty side effects can occur. What can I say? I like seeing how far I can push time. Never let time be the boss of you, I always say!”
“That’s a good rule, Doctor,” the original commented.
“Why thank you, Doctor.” The second straightened his tie and continued, “Now, see here’s the other problem. You don’t know which of us is from earlier in the time stream. You can’t risk sending the younger one back because, well, the older one obviously didn’t get sent back and that’d just muddle up time further.”
“And don’t even think about going for her,” the original broke in moving in front of me. “You’d have to get through us first.”
“Yes,” the second agreed. “You touch either of us and you risk making the already poisoned well even worse.”
Then, nothing happened. We stared at her and she stared at us. After several long moments of nothing continuing to happen, a pinpoint of light appeared in the stone, tiny, almost like a fleck of a precious gem that had just caught the light. Soon, other pinpoints of light appeared and they began to spread across the statue, slender fissures that raced and crisscrossed like a glowing web covering her completely. Then in a flash, which I struggled to keep my eyes open during, she was gone.
The two Doctors clapped and congratulated each other with identical smug expressions.
“Brilliant plan as usual, Doctor.”
“I do agree, Doctor. We did come up with another cracker didn’t we?”
“Too right, we did.”
All I could do was shake my head. He’ll take credit for anything as long as it worked. “You were bluffing. You have no idea exactly what stopped that angel.”
They turned to me, faltering under my stare. The original explained, “Paradoxical time recursion, it’s—”
I cut him off with an arch of my eyebrow, “You just made that up because you think it sounds cool.”
“Maybe, but the point is,” the second lightly tapped my nose and winked, “it worked.”
They exited the car, still congratulating each other over their success. I rolled my eyes and followed. That man, that impossible man. One of these days, he’s going to come up with a plan so reckless, I’m going to have no choice but to step in and save him from himself.
The basement somehow seemed brighter as we retraced the path of the elevator. It was still all dingy grey with no color, but perhaps there were more lights on.
I stopped. There was absolutely no color.
“Doctor? Where did the doll go?”
The original paused and looked around puzzled, while the second obviously wasn’t surprised at my revelation.
“Now’s where you two go on upstairs. I’ll be up for you in a bit once I’m sure I’m gone.”
“But the doll?” the original asked.
The second Doctor gave me an apologetic glance and quietly said, “Spoilers.”
We chose the stairs over the service elevator and climbed to the ground floor. I couldn’t help but to be a bit disappointed by the lost opportunities of having two Doctors together, but perhaps another time. As we emerged in the lobby, we found it to be surprisingly empty. Perhaps after our disappearance, they decided to evacuate the hotel completely and investigate under the light of day.
“We should see if the one on the fountain is still there,” the Doctor suggested.
I had a feeling she wouldn’t be, but we headed across the lobby to the restaurant anyway. My suspicions were proven correct by the empty pedestal in the middle of the fountain. Several tables were upturned in a path leading to the lobby.
“She’s probably still in the hotel,” I began as we left the restaurant. “We should—“
The Doctor flung his arm out, stopping me in mid-sentence and in my tracks. I followed his gaze to the middle of the lobby, where the girl’s doll was now laying.
“How did it get here?” the Doctor asked to no one in particular. “It wasn’t here when we passed. I didn’t hear anyone come in. Would the angel have carried—“
“Doctor,” I interrupted. “What if it is an angel?”
He scoffed at that. “Don’t be ridiculous. Does it look like an angel?”
“The Statue of Liberty wasn’t a typical angel, either,” I responded. “The image of an angel is an angel. What if any statue inspired by an angel also became one? They would spread like a virus, especially on a planet with creatures so inherently creative as Humans. What if that doll was made by someone infected by the angels in his mind?”
The Doctor clapped his hand over his mouth and stared wide-eyed and unblinking at the toy in the center of the room. Knowing him as well as I do, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by his next reckless move, but I was. The Doctor went to the middle of the room and knelt by the doll blocking it from my line of sight.
“Doctor, what are you doing?” I moved forward to again watch the toy.
“She’s right, isn’t she? See how clever she is?” he asked, addressing the doll and ignoring me. He paused for a moment, bowing his head before he turned away from the toy. “And she’s clever enough to realize I need to ask her to blink.”
My heart clenched in my chest. “What? Doctor, no.”
“You have to, River. This is how it happens.”
It was a struggle to keep my voice steady but I protested, “You don’t know that.”
“It’s weak. If I’m correct, it sent at least some of the people in the elevator back. Maybe all of them. It won’t be able to send me back more than 15 minutes or so. Exactly the amount of time it should.”
Shaking my head, I swallowed hard. I didn’t trust myself to speak, but I forced out one final objection. “I can’t.”
I closed my eyes at his harsh words, more to ward off the tears than anything. When I opened them, the Doctor was gone and the doll was closer to me. In that moment, everyone I love had been taken by angels. Some part of me knew the Doctor was right, I’d see him again shortly. He’d come bounding up those stairs like a proud little boy, still pleased with the ‘plan’ he came up with. But the rest of me was consumed with the same emptiness that took over after Amy and Rory were taken. I had to hide it then, to protect the Doctor from the angel and from his own guilt. But now, alone in the lobby, the tears flowed.
With my gaze still locked on the doll, I moved to the umbrella stand by the door and selected the largest, heaviest one. I swung it experimentally as I walked back to the toy. “You angels can communicate, yeah? You give them a message for me. Never lay a finger on my Doctor again. Or I will hunt each and every one of you down, no matter where or when you are.”
The space golf lessons I signed up for due to a mistake in translation finally paid off. I took the perfect swing, keeping my head down and eyes on the doll, and sent the toy flying across the room. It broke into pieces—arms, legs, head and torso—when it crashed into a vase, shattering it.
I’m not really sure how long I stood there staring at the pieces of the toy, daring it to pull itself together. It could’ve been seconds or minutes, but I somehow couldn’t be bothered with the concept of time just then. Suddenly, there was a crackle and a flash behind me, and the air was filled with the distinct scents of ozone and time. I spun around to see the Doctor, wearing my vortex manipulator, and lacking his trademark tweed coat and bow tie.
Checking my purse, I saw I still had my vortex manipulator. “Doctor, what—“
“No time!” he broke in, checking his watch. “We have to get you to the roof.”
“The roof? Why the roof?”
“So you can do what you always do. Jump off.”
To be fair, I don’t always jump off buildings or other assorted large objects. It’s something I usually save for special occasions. But he was already leading me by the hand so I humored him. As he ushered me to the stairs, I noticed him casually drop a folded scrap of paper in the middle of the lobby. I pretended not to because I could tell he didn’t want me to, but when the Doctor tries to be sly, it usually ends up being more painfully obvious than when he doesn’t try at all.
We climbed the stairs, keeping an eye both above and below for angels. When we reached the top, the Doctor stopped me and opened the door just a crack to peek out. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he opened the door and we walked out on an empty roof, lit only by a single bulb by the door and the flashing light of the hotel sign on the side of the building. The storm had slowed into a light mist that was still uncomfortably cold when buffeted by the stiff breeze. Holding up a hand, the Doctor tested the wind, looked over the side, and checked his watch again before finally motioning where I was to jump.
“Hurry now,” he said, “have to keep to the schedule.”
A joke about him allowing time to be the boss for once was forming in my mind as I started to climb on the ledge. But then he grabbed my arm and stopped me. In that instant, he pulled me close, pressed a kiss against my cheek, and murmured into my skin, “I’ll be there to catch you. Always.”
Out of habit, I reached to touch his bow tie and ended up only patting his collar instead. I wondered what he had done with his coat and tie, but I was sure I’d find out eventually. Asking would surely only get spoilers echoed back at me. “I’ll see you soon.”
He nodded and I smiled. I sat on the edge of the roof and let myself fall backwards. He leaned over to watch, his expression fading into despair just before he shot a glance over his shoulder and disappeared in the flash of the vortex manipulator.
The next thing I knew, golden light and warm tweed and the scent of time enveloped me. I was disoriented from the fall and it took me a few moments to realize I was on the floor of the console room in the Doctor’s arms. This one was obviously prior to the one I had just been with on the roof; his bow tie was still on and he still had his coat.
“We really need to stop meeting like this,” he said teasingly as he brushed my hair from my face and let his fingers linger among the curls.
“Personally I think it’s a lovely way to meet, especially when there are no prying eyes about,” I said pointedly, but he only flushed at the intention and missed my observation. But before I could bring up his lies from earlier, he jumped to his feet and climbed the stairs.
“Angels. There are more of them,” he explained, circling the console in his overly complex dance of flipping switches and pressing buttons. “It’s up to us to lure them to the roof.”
“The roof again?” I asked, getting up and joining him at the console. “Why the roof?”
“Spoilers. So, River, ideas?”
An angel screaming for her sisters would be the fastest way, but how could we get an angel to the roof? Then I remembered. “The doll. In the lobby. After what I did to it, I’m sure it’s still screaming.”
“Oh, oh! Was that you?” He beamed at me and looked inordinately pleased. Bless. I think it turns him on a bit when I do things like that, though he’d never admit it. “You did a number on that doll didn’t you? The vase too, but it was a forgery anyway. They won’t miss it.”
“You’ve been to the lobby?”
“Of course, I told you I’d come for you. I did have to take the long way around to find you, but here I am!” He held his arms out and grinned, but I could tell he was hiding something. Of course, he was nearly always hiding something from me, but this time it seemed likely that it was pertinent to the events at hand.
He continued around the console, entering the coordinates and making adjustments while I surreptitiously fixed them. The Doctor shot me a suspicious look as we landed in the lobby, properly without the breaks, then produced a box from seemingly nowhere. I’d have questioned it, but I’ve been known to produce a pair of handcuffs with equal swiftness.
Collecting the pieces of the doll went much more smoothly than I had expected. I thought that simply breaking her apart wouldn’t be enough to still her, so I was surprised to find all the pieces exactly as I left them. The Doctor gathered them all in the box, a suitable size for a doll’s coffin, and we went to the roof.
Exiting the TARDIS, we found the roof empty and illuminated by the single bulb over the stairwell door and the light from the hotel sign on the side of the building bleeding over the edge in even flashes. The Doctor marched past me and unceremoniously dumped the contents of the box, and they skittered wildly across the ground. He surveyed the area for a minute before he shook his head and muttered, “Too bright.”
“Maybe if we could climb up there and unscrew the bulb?” I asked, motioning to the light over the door.
The Doctor checked his watch and shook his head. “No, no, not enough time. If only I had a—ah.”
With one hand he loosened his tie and yanked it out from his collar. In that moment I was transported back to the top of the pyramid, the tie our promise to each other that it was not time and inevitability that bound us, but our love.
The tie’s purpose at the moment was decidedly less romantic. The Doctor wrapped it around the doll’s head in an apparent attempt to use it as a makeshift sling. After taking careful aim, he flung it toward the bulb, shattering it with a small pop of sparks. Unfortunately, he let the tie fly along with the head, and the strip of cloth tangled itself around the light’s hood.
“Ah, oh,” he said, gazing despondently at the tangled tie. “I suppose I should’ve held on to one end, yeah?”
“One does tend to hold on to that which they intend to keep.”
Without another word, the Doctor took my hand and squeezed gently as he stared the edge of the building. I smiled. The little gestures like that, more than anything, spoke volumes about the words he was unable to say.
In the stillness, I could hear it; the sound of stone scraping against stone alternating with the buzz of the electric sign when it flashed on. There were subtle but distinct differences between the two, and I much preferred the electrical buzz.
“They’re coming,” I whispered and he nodded.
What followed was a macabre stop motion animation. Each time the lights blinked off, the grinding of stone got louder and louder. First there was a hand reaching over the edge of the building, then a head, and more hands clawing their way over the side. In the lead was the scarred angel, her attention focused fully on me, advancing ever closer with each consuming blackout.
Not daring to take my eyes from them, I said, “Doctor, if you have a plan, now would be a good time to put it into action.”
Raising his wrist to the level of his eyes, the Doctor checked his watch quickly. “Any moment now.”
“Doctor . . .”
Just then, the familiar wheezing of a TARDIS materializing with its breaks on struggled through the ever growing cacophony of stone on stone. The blue box faded into view, only about a meter from the one that this version of the Doctor and I had just stepped out of. Bringing the TARDIS here from a different point in her time stream was brilliant. Mad, but brilliant. But then, ‘mad but brilliant’ was the Doctor’s usual M.O.
“Name one thing that has more time energy than a TARDIS,” the Doctor said matter-of-factly as he started pacing in front of the now motionless line of angels. “Well? You can’t, because there isn’t. And with two of them, the time energy will clash in a huge way. You already feel it don’t you? Overloading you, tearing you apart. Rather like having too many holiday treats. Except multiplied exponentially.”
The ground shook beneath my feet and, just as with the angel in the basement, pinpoints of light began appearing on the statues surrounding us. Each time the sign went out, more points of light came into view like an expanding star field. Soon, they began carving glowing channels across the stone, and the vibrations intensified. Then in a burst of light, the roof was again empty except for the slightly younger Doctor stepping out of the newly arrived TARDIS, the Doctor without his bowtie, and myself.
“Two Doctors may be a match for one angel, but two TARDIS can clear out an entire building!”
“Won’t it hurt her?” I asked, worried.
“Nah, she’s sturdy enough an old girl to hold it together for a few.”
“Excuse me,” the slightly younger Doctor said, stepping closer. “Wouldn’t the plural be TARDII?”
“No, it wouldn’t,” the Doctor without the bowtie huffed. “That makes it sound like we’re late.”
“To be fair, we often are,” said the younger version.
“He’s got a point,” I said with a smirk.
“Oi! Whose side are you on?”
“Whose side would you like me to be on?” I asked with a flirty wink at each.
The Doctor without a bowtie blustered and stuttered at me for a moment before spinning around on the younger. “She’s your wife!”
“She’s been your wife longer!”
“Boys, boys,” I purred. “There’s enough of me for both of you.”
There it was again, the double fluster. I really did need to figure out a way to keep two of them around together more often.
“Right, you,” the older Doctor pointed to his younger self. “You need to go catch your bloody-minded, unpredictable wife who jumped off the building. East side, 10th floor, about 15 minutes ago.”
The slightly younger Doctor stared at me. “Again?” I merely held my hands apart as if to say, ‘you know me.’ He just shook his head and headed back to his TARDIS before he paused at the door and held up the scrap of paper I spotted the Doctor dropping earlier. “Unless you already have, you may want to leave these coordinates in the lobby.”
They saluted each other and the younger Doctor pointed to me with a grin then stepped in his TARDIS and left to catch me. It was really a waste, I thought, having the two of them together for such a short period and not get to really enjoy it. Ah, well. Maybe he’ll get himself together for my birthday again if I’m good enough. Or bad enough, one of the two.
“So, why did you jump off the building?” the Doctor asked, drawing me away from my birthday plans.
Arching my eyebrow, I studied him for a moment. “Because you told me to.”
A wave of surprise crossed his features. “Right, then. I suppose I should go do that.” He turned to go in the remaining TARDIS but I stopped him.
“You don’t take her,” I said, retrieving my vortex manipulator from my purse. “You take this.”
As I held the manipulator out to him, a gust blew over the roof and caused me to shiver. His face softened and before accepting the device, he took off his coat and draped it gently around my shoulders. The weight of it was warm and comforting, beyond just being a barrier against the wind. I’d seen what happened to the tie, now I knew what happened to the coat.
“You really should go easy on the paradoxes, sweetie.”
“Ah, well, you know.” He shrugged and looked up from fiddling with the manipulator, giving me a smile. “They’re like crisps. Once you have one you just can’t stop.” Then in a blink, he was gone.
Shaking my head, I placed a hand on the TARDIS door when I heard a low ominous scrape behind me. I spun around, ready to face an angel that had somehow survived, but what I saw was much worse. Or at least, much more disturbing. The doll head, scorched and missing an eye, was reaching toward me using only one of its arms wedged in its neck.
“How did you survive, then? Is it because you were in pieces?” I took a step toward the grotesque abomination and paced around it. This—this thing managed to persist against all odds. Who knows how many more it had hurt, or would hurt if I let it be. It was that thought that made something click in my mind. “That woman I saw when I got here, the one who passed away, she was the little girl, wasn’t she? She’d come to stop herself from taking you. You really don’t have the faintest clue what it is like. Growing up away from your family, struggling in a time outside your own. I know how it feels and that little girl discovered how it felt. And you’re going to pay.”
Calmly, I retrieved my blaster from my purse and aimed carefully at the doll. “Survive this.”
I didn’t think twice about the smoldering bits I left behind as I entered the TARDIS. Without a head, I doubted it could pull itself together. Needing something to do, I fiddled with the console and double-checked to make sure the TARDIS was still as fine as the Doctor claimed she’d be.
A cough behind me caused me to turn and see the Doctor, still coatless but with a bow tie, standing at the edge of the console platform.
“When did you get here?” I asked, surprised.
“Just a few, popped in to the wardrobe. Needed a new tie. I—I think you kind of missed it.”
He was right. I did. I smiled at him but he didn’t return the gesture. His face was filled with the same despair that faded onto it as I fell backwards off the roof. Though, I suppose to him that was just a few minutes ago.
“River . . .” he said, voice cracking. “I’m so sorry.”
I didn’t ask what he was sorry for. Goodness knows there’s enough to fill a library. I just shook my head and said, “Don’t be.”
“No, I need to be.” He strode forward and pulled me into a hug, pushing the coat from my shoulders in the process. “I knew I hurt you when I made you blink. But I think I hurt you worse than I realized. It wasn’t until I went back for you that I saw. Or almost saw. You never do let me see completely.” The words were both an apology to me and a curse on himself, all in one.
“I work hard at it, sweetie.”
“You shouldn’t have to. I just . . . I never think.”
“No, you always think,” I objected. “It’s just that you think too much and sometimes you miss things.”
Still holding me close in his arms, he sighed heavily. “I realized after I saw you. You watched your parents taken by the angels, then I forced you to watch me taken. I didn’t think about it then, but I’m sorry for it now.”
We batted words and phrases back and forth like a tennis match, and it was time for me to borrow his. “You’re forgiven. Always and completely.”
He hugged me tighter at those words, and then whispered. “You went to New York.”
“I did,” I confirmed.
He held me at arm’s length and searched my face. I knew he wanted to know but didn’t want to ask.
Nodding, he shifted his gaze from me to stare off into the distance. “That’s the way it should be. I’m just selfish. Selfish and alone. Also the way it should be, I suppose.”
The shock of realization crossed his face just a beat too late at what he said. I shook my head and assured him, “I’ve known you were alone the whole time. I’m not new at this, sweetie. Rule one.”
A weak laugh was his response. “I guess you know I wasn’t heading for Disneyland either, then.”
“I suspected as much.”
Reaching under the console he pulled out a book. This book, as a matter of fact. “I was in the library and the TARDIS chucked this at my head. I only read the back cover. Hollywood, 1939. Neighbor to the City of Angels,” he read. “It was fairly easy to find you from there.” He ran a hand over the book then whispered, “I miss you.”
I knew what was coming next. I knew what he would ask, and I wanted to avoid it because I also knew I couldn’t give him the answer he wanted. “Why don’t you pop us down to the lobby so I can get my coat, yeah?”
The Doctor turned his attention away from me and down to the console, the look on his face clearly indicating that he had received the answer to his unspoken question. He looked so sad. When his face crumbled like that it was hard to keep the regret off mine. Before I could dwell on it too much, with a jolt, we were sailing off into the vortex.
When we emerged from the TARDIS just outside the hotel, it was a bright crisp autumn day and the doors were open, welcoming guests. I wondered briefly how many days, or maybe even years, had passed since we had been here.
“Took the long way, did you?” I asked the Doctor as we entered the hotel.
“Ah, we’re just a day or two off,” he shrugged.
The bellhop’s station was empty, but I spotted my garments in the lost and found box on the floor. I went ahead and helped myself to them only to be stopped by the Doctor’s indignant sputtering. “River, you can’t just take someone’s hat!”
“I’m not. It’s mine, sweetie,” I said with a wink and perched it atop my head.
The Doctor’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped but before he could say a word, the host from our last visit saw us and came over and forcibly shook our hands. “Ah! I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again! We didn’t know what to think when you vanished like those five guests. I’m sorry how that evening turned out, but would you allow me to make it up to you with dinner on the house tonight, Mr. Hoover?”
“What?” the Doctor asked, obviously confused while I tried to swallow my laughter. “Ah, no. Just came to pick up a coat we forgot.”
“Another time, perhaps.” The host nodded in understanding and left to go about his business.
“Hoover?” the Doctor hissed as we left and entered the waiting TARDIS.
Once we were inside, I couldn’t contain myself anymore and I burst out laughing. “I believe your psychic paper may have indicated that you’re J. Edgar Hoover.” The Doctor yanked his psychic paper from his pocket and I watched him pore over every inch and I hesitated. It wasn’t like it’d be a promise to stay. But maybe just one more adventure? “You know, I was planning on following a lead to Washington D.C. Maybe write another book. Who better to help than Mr. Hoover?”
He looked up with an expression of hope and happiness that just about rivaled the one he had the day he discovered who I was. “Really? I mean, really, River?”
“Not forever,” I insisted. “But yes, really.”
He laughed and spun around the console, giddy as a schoolboy on the first day of summer. Yes, it was a temporary fix; he still needed to find someone to travel with. But right now he was happy, I was happy, and we were happy together. Maybe, for once, right now was all that mattered.
A warning to all those fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to experience a retelling of this tale; just because the angels aren’t mentioned doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Remember, whatever you do, don’t blink.