“River! It was an accident!” The Doctor huffed and tried again to toe the very small and unnecessarily sharp pebble in his left shoe at least a little bit to the side. Which... didn’t work. Well, of course it didn’t work. He dug his heels into the dirt instead, trying for some leverage for his voicebox. “Riveeer!”
How many times could one be cold-shouldered by archeologists? And not only him; they’d snubbed the flowers as well. Who snubbed a bouquet that had only caused one small explosion? Everyone – including River, especially River – had withdrawn into a great drab saggy tent and left him sitting in a pile of sand that was soft enough to crumble at random and not slant enough to let him lean against it without going over, knee over elbow over... ear, was it?
Well, they could spend as much time in their tent as they wanted; he was the one with the bouquet, after all. It was one of those arrangements swathed as diligently as a newborn; long red stems mostly hidden, glittering petals resting on his arm. He tried his best not to actually cradle it.
“Next time I’ll leave,” he told it. “Just you watch me. I’m only staying because the weather’s nice.”
After what was probably too long a while since he’d stopped shouting that he could take credit for it, River slipped under what passed for a tent door. She wiped her hands on a handkerchief – stuffed that into her satchel – redid her ponytail – and zipped up her jacket before striding towards him, which was so rude he got a little weak in the knees. “There’s tea in there if you want some,” she said. “Sugar’s all gone – the shock – but there should still be some milk left.”
“Who puts twenty people in a cave full of reactive gas? River.”
She brought a not-so-faint odour of dust, damp and somebody else’s burnt hair and perched next to him, as if the pile wasn’t a crumbly fiend at all. “Who brings the only substance it reacts with into that cave?”
“I’ll have you know I could have brought flowers that exude nothing and then this would have been just another boring, just – Why am I expected to know everything?”
“Why are you sitting in the dirt when you could have come inside?”
“I wanted to sit here.”
“Ah.” She looked the flowers over, steadied herself with a hand on his upper thigh, and leaned forward to sniff them. “Any pollen?”
“No-no, completely allergen-free. Just... the exuding.” He was definitely not squirming; he was so used to her... hands now he was entirely blasé.
“Not even a trace of pollen?”
Oh. “We are not getting pollen-ed in public! Again. Shhh. That was evil potpourri and you know it.”
River removed her hand, freed the bouquet from his slackened grasp and propped it up against her shoulder. “They’re very pretty. Why are you giving them to me?”
“How can you possibly not be tired of the digging? And why do all these sites look the same?”
“I’m thinking of becoming that professor,” she said, fussing with the flowers.
He crossed his legs (casually), sunk thirty-two millimetres and two degrees to the left, and swallowed. “Already?”
“Oh, being confused with someone else is getting tiresome.”
“You abbreviate yours. Dee-Arr-full stop Song. Completely different.”
“Would you at least stop publishing postscripts to my work?”
“If you started writing in iambic pentameter yours would fit.”
“I mean; fine, I’ll stop.”
“And what is it you're doing here?” She pushed some of his hair behind his ear, which was quite unexpected and tickly and was there still not enough oil in there to keep it in place and – utterly blasé.
“Come with me?” he asked, resisting the urge to lean into her touch. “I’m – for a while?”
“Hm. Just for a while. And you’re donating more sugar to the university.”
It had been four hours and twenty two minutes since she fell asleep and he had almost made peace with the fact that he’d have to face the choice of really thinking or really sleeping.
Fully clothed and night-capped, he’d dressed the heat out well enough.
Blood sugar: fine.
The TARDIS was: working, and quite rudely insisted to stay that way.
Thinking versus sleeping?
He didn’t have to bed himself just because she needed sleep. Of course not... but the grooves her fingers had made were still in his hair and he didn’t want to be rude when he’d rebelled against her – all their – wishes and travelled by himself. Again. What did they expec –
He should get something for this room, something that wasn’t a boring piece of boring furniture or a length of fabric or little boxes whose content wasn’t half as exciting as he’d hoped – should get something simple, just your basic holographic display in the ceiling. Maybe a bed that was round instead of rectangular? Sheets that were patterened with fractals instead of uniform gold? More pillows? Less pillows? More closets in unusual places? They needed more things.
It was on his list.
As it was, he’d already finished his recreational maths and his Venusian finger-and-toe exercises and an imaginary meringue (it was terrible) and was presently listening to a memory of a version of A Night in Venice he particularly liked. It was complex enough to hold almost all of his attention (okay, that was a lie) and the TARDIS just-barely-flickered her nightlights in time to hold some more, and then there was River’s hair across the pillow; River’s foot hanging over the edge of her side of the bed; River’s hand across his chest, pulse beating against the third button down; the rest of her quite hidden, there and not there, vulnerable in a way he hoped he would reciprocate at least once, if only he remembered how.
She hadn’t been married before, probably. He was the resident expert on these things.
He patted her limp hand; one, two times, just enough to translate the small bones and the sinews and the tiny scars through his fingertips, even with his too thick leather skin and neglected receptors.
Oh. The last song was over and the applause weren’t all that exciting and the stray olfactory memory of someone else’s cinnamon pastry and someone’s else’s advocaat as he’d re-coiled his scarf and removed himself into the sharpness of winte– Hols! Bright, yes. Tasty, yes. Happy crying. Wasn’t that what he’d thought when he’d got the bouquet? That it was festive. It probably was, you know.
Just what he needed.
He quite enjoyed traditions, when they weren’t so Gallifreyan. They shouldn’t be so Leadworth-y, either, for reasons obvious and it had been hours and hours and sorry River. He uncrossed his ankles, folded his yellow nightcap around her hand and pushed it to the side, and then he absolutely did not stumble out of bed nor get a twinge in his lower back.
He had to set things in order, go for a gift run.
Find his hat.
The TARDIS had made a special room that was almost better than he’d imagined and he’d got the tree and the lights and a pile of presents and a modelled-after-his-height bauble. He didn’t really care for the small ones anymore and these large ones were very 51st century. Once he’d figured out how to get himself inside, it’d be the most incredible of presents.
He had still to find any of his hats, which had gone from mildly irritating to highly suspicious.
Overlooking that, he hadn’t taken advantage of hols with River, really. He’d quite not considered them at all, really.
When she finally appeared, still in her nightshirt, barelegged and barearmed and barefoot, hair reminiscent of the most perfect dandelion he’d ever helped seed (a lovely afternoon on the field planet of Xöö Major), he was cross-legged on the floor in front of the fondue set he’d got himself as incentive, trying to dip an overlarge shrimp into warm cream-cheese-and-icing-sugar.
“Did you put this in my slipper?” she asked, dangling her incentive.
“Any particular reason?”
“Well, I made it. It’s a glass cutter.”
“It’s very nice. I always wondered where that particular royal diamond went.”
“I know! Have you seen our new room? Guess what it’s for?”
“Your Christmas list in the other slipper was kind of a hint.”
“Hm, I’m always losing that thing.”
“You just want to put on a hat, don’t you?” she asked, picking up a bright pink cracker and tossing it from hand to hand.
“Actually, I want to skip the Brussels sprouts. ‘No, thank you’, I’ll say, ‘I don’t care for them’. Yes, I’m making Brussels sprouts. And turkey and ham and mince pies.” He was making rather a lot of it, too, he suspected, but Vastra and Jenny would see that the food was put to use. “You can mull if you’d like.”
“Mull? Are you stockpiling happiness again?”
Oh, toast crumbs, her smile was far too understanding. Time for plan E! “Hot cocoa? I’ve got seven pints.”
“Can it wait? The TARDIS wants to go to...” River waved a hand; he sensed the co-ordinates and the TARDIS’s delibitating insistence.
“See, I was just thinking: market!” The one time – one and a half, maybe – his ship gave him a hand, he wasn’t going to let it go. He tipped his head back and called to the glimmer of coral in the ceiling: “Speaking of, dear, going as the box or the woman?”
“The snow is too cold!”
“You can’t be surprised, I told you the temperature before we left.” His TARDIS – Idris facsimile, woman, travelling by letting people hold her hands (which wasn’t very convenient when he didn’t get to go but he had this time so it wasn’t a current issue was it), woman, talking with a mouth, woman – wanted to make a snowman, only the snow was too cold.
“I’ll sonic it.”
“Yes, the snow, the snow! I have a carrot and a scarf, but no snow to make anything out of! This was your idea – the last snowman I saw tried to eat me!” The whole thing was oddly reminiscent of that trip; he was on his hands and knees, the grainy chill of the snow bunching between his fingers and crunching under his knees. If he substituted being chased by a barmaid with a TARDIS seemingly reluctant to stop touching her cold nose to his, it was practically the same.
“Hyperbole,” stated the TARDIS, her breath smelling like the last vestiges of crackling artron energy dissipating.
“You’ve seen several snowmen since and it was only my idea before you got the date wrong. There are eleven thousand four hundred and fifteen people here and we are the only ones on the ground.”
“We were going to go the day before this one – when it is warmer – but you refused. ‘The busier the better.’ Yes, you do talk too much, that’s why.”
“You didn’t give me a choice! You just announced that I refused! Who goes when it’s quiet anyway? Look at all these people! They are gorgeous!” They were giving berth and everything. He committed the scene to memory; the piles of snow; the icicles hanging from the streetlamps and the stalls; the dense clouds hiding the moon and the sky and wrapping the market in a cocoon of colourful warmth. The wisps of smoke; the breath-hampering cold; the sharp glint of frost and the buttery fire roiling in the bowls hovering –
“You did refuse. Would have. Here’s River, are we going to stand up or not?”
The Doctor clambered to his feet with a sigh and brushed the too-cold-to-cling snow from his knees and offered the TARDIS his hand only to find that she had not only got to her feet but also braided her hair and picked up a stray kitten.
Waiting his turn to pet it, he spied for River... and after ages and ages he finally found her slipping between a group of carolers who hardly broke formation. “Found anything?” she called. "I was finally able to get some more good picklocks.”
He waited patiently until she was much, much closer before hissing, “Picklocks?”
River shrugged, pulled her fluffy blue trenchcoat closer and adjusted her curls around her earmuffs. “I’m always out.”
“How can you be out of picklocks? Do you wear them out?”
“Don’t pick number five,” said the TARDIS, kitten-less and talking at the same time as him and much louder. “Don’t sulk, Doctor, the feline had better things to do than hang from your grasp.”
He had the most perfect scatching reply on the tip of his tongue, but then, of course, River was quicker:
“What’s number five?” she asked.
“I don’t know! Nothing!”
“In his right coat pocket,” the TARDIS said, and then: “Oh, I’m leaving.” She spun around and disappeared into the crowd, as much as a being with a faulty chameleon circuit could disappear… at least the bustle worked wonders against the throng.
The Doctor slapped his pockets surreptiously; there was the sonic, the yo-yo, the cup of tea, the mop. “Did you tell her to put something in my pocket?”
River rolled her eyes. “While you were teaching the fire eater how to eat fire, we discussed the next trip. I have no idea what’s in your pocket, but I’m just dying to know.”
“There’s a glorious market on Gellato, we should go there next. Effervescent food!”
“Surprisingly bland drinks.”
“Oh, you’ve been.”
“So have you.” She wrapped an arm around his lower parts and slipped the other hand into his coat pocket, while he tried to not think about how practiced that move was. And she came away with... that dusty page ripped from a 1942 magazine he really thought he’d stuffed a fair bit further into the pocket... the trouser pocket. “‘Fifty surprises to treat your husband to’,” she read.
“Yes.” He had to find out how the TARDIS kept making herself all woman-ly. It was getting embarrassing (and he’d already put it off a few hundred years) and, come to remind himself of it, it wasn’t supposed to be possible, either. “It should be the other way around, probably, and we don’t have to go to Earth in 1942. And there’s a pattern for a tea cosy on the other side. I’m knitting a tea cosy.”
“There’s an ad for soap on the other side.”
“Give that back! Don’t think I’m out of ideas and you don’t get to pick a number, it’s all of them or nothing! And number five twice!”
He felt the TARDIS appear behind him and turned just in time to have a toffee apple thrust toward an eye. “I’ve just seen someone coughing,” she announced. “I want to try it.”
“You can’t just talk to River behind my back!”
“You always say that and still I always can.”
So the Doctor found himself holding the stick with the shining apple, while his time machine grasped his wife’s ribs and demanded to be taught coughing. And somehow, somehow, River still had time to catch his eye, wink, and say, “Number one – thanks!”
Number one had said something about ‘kneading’ and ‘shoulders’, if memory served, which meant the most renowned and least boring spa he knew would be better in every way. (Shoulders, ha!) Even women who almost certainly were aging backwards could still use a hot towel sometimes. He’d let the TARDIS choose the moment – the River – and if she’d bent the rules a little bit, well, it was for a good cause.
He’d got over that he’d been so unfairly robbed of number five and he’d been able to speak and/or kiss for some time, now. He’d even forgiven the TARDIS for the toffee apple indicent. (Talked too much, ha!) His hair was swooping in all the right places. His bowtie and waistcoat were dark blue brocade. Yes. He looked magnificent. He was having bathing his feet, too, and it was, co-incidentally, also magnificent.
He wasn’t supposed to be bathing his feet.
He wasn’t even supposed to be here, but River hadn’t showed up yet and the attendants all loved him and once he’d paced the corridor a few times they got him a chair and some evenly-temperatured water and some salt and a magazine and a biscuit, which was gone, and soaking his feet was a luxury he’d never truly appreciated until he’d turned 1300 a couple of times.
Why had they left the new room with the tree and crackers and chestnuts? To look for Claras? No. No, the TARDIS wanted a market, that was it… He should find that room again – the pies were probably done.
Finally, finally, River appeared behind one of the sliding doors. It was a pardoned River, he could tell. University River. The River who now had so many nom de plumes in so many stories he was getting a headache telling them apart. They would all get together in the Library and have a tea party. Well, maybe not tea so much.
“Got your message,” she said. She didn’t look as excited as he had imagined. She looked rather suspicious, actually; her gaze flickered, but continously came back to his feet. “Some emergency.”
Her top was dull gold, her hair was of a shinier gold and in a bun; the trousers as hot pink as her lips and the coat dark and over the arm. She did look quite tired which was good supposedly and... like quite a young University River. There was a hard set to her jaw and a stiffness in her neck. The Doctor swallowed a few choice words of disdain for administrivia.
He licked the tip of a finger; turned the page. “Present.”
“It’s a gift. This.”
“Hm. And where is ‘this’?”
“What – it’s a spa! Best spa –”
“Your footbath in the corridor of a spa is my gift?” River wrinkled her nose. “What about the spa in the TARDIS? Did you eject the tubs again?”
“You’re supposed to go in there.” He nodded to the door opposite. Sternly. Hopfully. “You’re late.”
“Deep tissue massages! Energising scrubs! Eatable face masks! Wraps with seaweed from the shores of Delphon! Exfoliating steam that changes colour depending on your mood!” He wasn’t passing off stern any longer, he suspected, but – “A face mask you can eat!”
“All right, since I’m here.” She fiddled with something in a pocket before draping her coat across his knees. Before placing her hands on his shoulders, and a firm and very nice kiss on his lips. “Don’t move.”
“Not a chance.”
The Doctor ignored what was obviously a full holster pressing against his thigh and focused on a very intresting paragraph about footspray.
He even ignored the vapour. All right, he was getting warm, but not that warm... and then he cough-sneezed. Noxious vapour? No, just smoke. Just normal, slightly-noxious smoke drifting up from River’s coat...
And oh, oh, there was the alarm! There was the slam-bam of closing fire doors. He cruelly smothered a grin and batted at the source of the smoke – which, for some reason, only served to make it darker and more plentiful, so he patted it some more.
“Did you say something?” said River, slipping out from the treatment room in an enormously fluffy towel and a citrus smelling cloud of steam. He could see her question mark tattoo. She did – which was the point, really – look quite content.
He launched himself upright and tried not to sound too cheerful; the bath teetered, the treacherous thing. “It’s an alarm! Not my fault!”
“The scrub was marvellous, love,” she flung her damp, rapidly-frizzying hair over her shoulders as best it would. “Just what I needed.”
“No, no, River, your jacket is on fire! See, smoke! Not my fault, did I mention!” He coughed some for good measure and stroked the coat soothingly. “Did you forget a smoke packet again?”
“Didn’t forget, no. It’s more fun this way, isn’t it? Which exit should we use?”
She dropped a quick curtsey.
“East. East exit. Definitely the best one.” He held the coat by the stiff shoulders, shaking it towards her. All the smoke drifted straight to his head, and he finally gave in to respitory bypass. “They’ll be watching the north.”
River was swallowed up; only sharp sudden glimpses of features. “I think the towel and the smoking coat might be a bit too much.”
“Well, then, go back in there. Change. I’ll wait.”
“Once made an entrance wearing bathroom memorabilia. Love to close a cirle. A stolen towel’s almost too dull to qualify.”
“O-ooh, I hoped that epic poem about you and the soap dish wasn’t a metaphor. Ha! Soap dish!”
“It was a limerick, dear, and yes. I’m sure they’ll have the doors opened soon.” She reached for his hand and he followed automatically, sloshing water everywhere, tipping the bath and slipping rather a lot. “But my – shoes!”
Eventually – and co-incidentally while River was home – the room with the tree and the crackers and the giant bauble re-appeared, smelling like turkey and satsumas.
The pile of presents was bigger, and upon checking he cried: “Oh, you got me things!”
River fussed with the glittering red-stemmed flowers on the table. It would have been a long time for her. “Yes, I know.”
The presents were always nice, except after the guess-which-ones-have-the-springloaded-itching-powder and eyeing each other over the hot cocoa steam nothing got opened but somehow ended up unwrapped and all over the TARDIS anyway.
(Guess-what’s-in-this-present-without-opening-it was the best part, anyway.
“12th century Earth figurine.”
“No, definitely not!”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Turkey on fire.”
“That always happens.”)
“Last time it went to the Fluorescent Mountains there was a revolution in full bloom,” said River conversationally, dipping chocolates into the fondue pot.
“Why didn’t you stay?”
“It was really more your thing.”
“Mmm. I was just thinking these fairy lights would make a terrific rock-climbing rope.”
The room still smelled like turkey and satsumas when they re-apperared in a swirl of smoke and soot and adrenaline and vortex manipulator static. The Doctor fell not-very-gracefully onto the floor. River landed on top of him with almost too-much grace. He carefully did not mention that some of the lights had got lost in her hair. “Now, dinner!”
River found the indentations in the pattern of his shirt and sunk her nails into some. “No, definitely later.”
“Oh. Hoped so.” He leaned back and relaxed into the kissing and writhing, and the floor felt very... thick and soft. He broke for air suspiciously, “Is this a new carpet?”
“Yes. It’s a present.”