Characters: Eleven/River, Other Characters
Summary — The Doctor brings River to a theme park in an attempt to escape his inner demons, but he can never seem to hide from himself. Their search for a mysterious child brings them both face to face with their painful pasts.AN — This started with the first little bit and grew legs. I’m a fan of the way Eleven’s darkness is almost always masked by his childlike behaviour. It’s creepy and I love it. Anyway, plot happened.
Thanks again to my dedicated cheerleader, clare009. Title from Wallis Bird’s In Dictum.
The More you Hold on to me
Time hung heavy on his shoulders, clinging to every molecule of his being. He didn’t know how long he had been wandering vagrant this time, hours and weeks and years were meaningless units. The only true measure he had was the steady fade of his once vivid memories—the facts remained, but the colours were lost.
He had been avoiding the inevitable for a while now. He knew he needed to see her; he had sunk to the point where he scarcely recognised himself and she was his cure. He was aware of that, and yet the thought of going to her, admitting defeat, was almost too much.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see her, he did. Desperately. Hardly a day would pass where she wouldn’t cross his mind. But he had been foolish with their time together. If only he hadn’t used so much of it up before he knew the truth of who she was. He felt an idiot and a cheat, because even if he hadn’t known she was a Pond, he always knew what she would be to him. And since the first time he met her he knew their time together would be finite, but he spent it like pennies when it should have been treasure.
It had reached the point now where he felt if he left it any longer she wouldn’t recognise the man presented to her, and as cruel as he felt for denying her the person she fell in love with, that would be a step beyond the pale.
He built the image in his mind of the last time he saw her. Bright and brilliant, she had appeared in his path possibly a month after he had last purposely seen her. He thought of her hair, her smile, and how he had felt to unexpectedly have her there to bicker with. The thrill in his hearts as she outfoxed his enemies, and the overwhelming urge to hold her, sated at the end of the day.
He had felt very much alive that day, unlike the husk he inhabited now.
Decision made, he felt instantly lighter as he keyed the coordinates from the few remaining options. He threw the lever, bounced to the door and drew a long breath as the TARDIS set down at Stormcage. He flipped the latch and swaggered out.
There she was, caressing the bars as she watched his approach with an expectant smile. He took his sonic from his pocket and opened her cell. “Get your coat.”
“I like it when you give orders,” she said, not getting her coat, but coming out and taking him by the arm. He allowed himself a second to enjoy her closeness and the simple scent of her hair before leading her into the TARDIS.
She reclined against the console and produced her diary. Taking a quick look at him, she opened it at a particular point. He retrieved his own from his jacket on the hat stand. “Have you done boating on the Sisperol?” she asked.
He blinked as his diary, flooded with relief. “No. Don’t have that one.” He flicked forward a few pages. “Corusca?”
“I remember it well. City in the clouds, stunning views.” She gazed across at him, exactly as she had at the end of that day, and he felt his hearts swell.
“That was the last time I saw you.” He smiled up at her, hoping she wouldn’t notice the years in between.
She closed her diary as he ascended the staircase and stood next to her to plot the coordinates. She leaned towards him, watching his face as his hands moved on the keyboard. “So, what have you planned for me tonight?”
“It’s a surprise,” he said, stroking her cheek with the back of his index finger.
“I’m not the best fan of surprises.”
“I know. But it’s a good one, I promise.” He reached across her to the plotter and pushed it into the appropriate slot. As he straightened again, he caught her watching him. Her every gesture and expression spoke of her love for him, reminding him of his worth. To her at least. He pressed his lips to the corner of her mouth and she slipped her arms around his neck. “Maybe the surprise can wait.”
He put a finger to her lips. “So impatient, Doctor Song.”
“I’ll have you know, I am a very patient man.” He moved away from her and continued his efforts at the console. Stepping behind him, she wrapped her arms around his waist. “I’ll believe you,” she said. “Thousands wouldn’t, mind you. But I will.”
He threw the lever, and spun around in her arms. “We’re here.” He kissed her quickly on the forehead and made his way towards the door.
“Wait,” she said, trotting down after him. “Should I change?”
“Don’t you dare.” He extended his arm and she took it.
“Celtris Pleasure Gardens!” he said as their eyes adjusted to the daylight.
River appeared decidedly unimpressed. “An amusement park.”
“Not just any amusement park. The largest and most impressive theme park ever built, and within its boundaries lies the tallest, most terrifying rollercoaster ever constructed. And you’ll never guess what it’s called!” He took her by the shoulders and rotated her ninety degrees to face the imposing snaking structure in the distance.
“The Vortex.” River read the enormous sign bolted to the side, which ensured that it was readable all the way across the grounds to where they were standing. “Don’t tell me we’re here to ride a rollercoaster.”
“Of course not. That would be ridiculous. Why would you come to the biggest theme park in all of history and only go on one ride?”
“Come on, it’ll be fun! Anyway, in a year’s time it’ll be shut down and all the rides will be dismantled; it becomes too expensive run and the owners go bust. Very sad. Thank heavens for time machines, eh?”
“Doctor? Remember when we went to see the Helletian tapestry before it mysteriously disappeared?”
“This is not like that, River. I’m fairly sure this place follows adequate fire regulations. And what were they thinking keeping something so precious outside of a humidity controlled environment? May as well have been tinder.”
River shook her head and smiled. “Come on then. Lead the way.”
River didn’t take long to warm up to the idea of spending the day in a theme park. The Doctor chose their route through the attractions carefully, starting with the dodgems. River vented her frustrations by making her red dodgem collide with his blue one at full speed, then tearing off before he could wreak his revenge.
After that came the mirror maze, and River creased with laughter when, after they got separated somewhere in the middle, he walked straight into his own reflection trying to find his way out.
Next he let her drag him onto the ghost train, fully aware of her intentions. Rather than enjoy the strategically manufactured scares, River took the opportunity to nestle in under his arm and pull him into a snog. He wasn’t going to complain, he’d been wanting to kiss her properly since the moment he saw her standing in her cell, but he wouldn’t have been able to hide from her if he had. At least here in the dark, surrounded by wailing, laughing and flashing distractions, he had some chance.
They emerged again into the light and River thumbed the mark of her lipstick from his mouth. “Where to now, Sweetie? I’m a bit peckish.”
“No food before the big one,” he said, hopping out of the ghost train carriage and pushing his hair back into some semblance of sanity after what River had subjected it to.
River winged an eyebrow. “The big one?”
“The Vortex. Can’t have you with your human constitution throwing up at three thousand feet now can we?” He offered her his hand and she rolled her eyes at him as she took it.
They stood under the impossibly engineered construction and looked up, barely able to make out the top. Car after car—some occupied, some not—ticked up the incline, growing smaller and smaller until they almost vanished out of plain sight. Then they came hurtling down at breakneck speed to wind around the impossible tangle of spiralling track. The Doctor rubbed his hands together in determination. He always relished an opportunity to let gravity know that it was not the boss of him.
“Right ho. Last chance to take a spin on the tallest rollercoaster ever constructed. What do you say, River?” He grinned over at her, but her attention was elsewhere. “River?”
“Sorry,” she said, and the Doctor watched her hurry over to a nearby park bench where a young Feratian girl was sitting and looking rather worse for wear. River knelt in front of her to talk to her and the Doctor followed.
“Where’s your Mum?” River said, taking the child’s little orange hand. She flinched at River’s touch.
“Are you hurt?” the Doctor asked, and the child turned to look at him with her big dark saucers of eyes. There was a large gash on the side of her forehead and she was bleeding quite heavily; her bright pink blood seeped into the neckline of her scruffy top. The child didn’t respond, so he fetched his sonic from his pocket.
“I’m just going to scan your head to make sure you’re all right.” The child stared blankly at him, making him fear the worst, but after scanning the gash and then rest of her, he couldn’t find anything beyond a flesh wound.
“That’s good,” River said.
“Except… Why isn’t she crying?”
“Oh.” River’s face fell. She knew what that meant more than he did, more than anyone. She had been a child who never cried, because what was the point if no one was going come? River looked down to get something from her pocket and blinked a couple of times before bringing a handkerchief to the child’s head and pressing it to the wound.
The Doctor stayed with the girl while River went to get some water and something sweet to restore the child’s energy. “Do you want to see something cool?” he asked, and the child made no response. Not put off, he continued. “See this pocket?” He opened his jacket and indicated his breast pocket; the child looked at it, but her expression didn’t change. He put his hand inside and felt around. “Just a sec,” he said, reaching further into his bigger-on-the-inside pocket until his arm was almost entirely swallowed up. The girl’s mouth dropped open and the Doctor took hold of what he had been looking for. He drew his arm out slowly and produced a long red balloon, already inflated.
The child finally spoke. “Wow!”
“If you think that’s good, just wait!” the Doctor said, immensely relieved, and he twisted the balloon into what he had intended to become a poodle, but turned out a bit more tentacle-y.
River returned and grinned as he handed his creation to the girl. “Balloon Cthulhu?”
“An Abyssinian poodle, actually.”
“You just made that up!”
“Did not!” he said. “Okay, maybe I did, but either way, it’s cool.”
The girl giggled and rarely had he heard a sweeter sound. River gave her a sip of water and handed her a bag of intensely sugary sweets. “I’m River and this is the Doctor. What’s your name?”
The girl looked confused for a moment, and then replied. “Ninety-three?” A number.
The Doctor felt his hearts constrict. “That’s a bit of a mouthful. Do you mind if we call you Nena?”
The girl seemed pleased. “Okay.”
“Nena, where are your parents?” She squinted at him. “You know, like the other children here; they have bigger ones to care for them?”
“We don’t have bigger ones. We’re all the same.”
“Doctor? Can I speak to you for a moment?” River said.
They moved out of Nena’s earshot as she ate the sweets and sipped the water. “I know,” he said. “Feratian society is built on familial bonds. Something is not right here.”
“Not that,” River said. “Well, yes, that. But I was going to say, when I was buying the things I tried to get some information from the girl at the counter and she clammed up. And not only her, but everyone else who heard me too. They all stared at me until I left.”
The Doctor glanced at Nena who was holding up her balloon tentacle-monster to the light and sipping the water. Suddenly a voice boomed down the path. “You there!”
They turned to see a man in a Celtris Gardens janitor’s uniform, but the shout wasn’t directed at them—Nena was its intended target. She froze and let her balloon fall slowly to the ground before sliding off the bench and dashing off.
“Nena!” River shouted and darted after her, but Nena had somehow disappeared. She returned looking distraught, and the Doctor marched up to the shouter. “You frightened an injured child. She needs medical attention and now we can’t see that she gets it.”
He turned back to River; there were tears brimming at her lash-line, and it suddenly felt very personal. He spun on his heels and moved almost nose to nose with the man. “Why were you shouting at an innocent child?”
The man backed up a little. “But… but she’s not supposed to be up here.”
“What do you mean, ‘up here’?”
“What seems to be the problem?” A woman stepped in, and the man, suitably scared, scuttled away.
The Doctor squared his jaw and turned to the woman. “The problem is that an injured child was being shouted at in a place where children should be safe and cared for.”
The woman stood her ground without flinching, her pale primrose skin almost translucent against the shock of violet hair that was bound neatly on top of her head. “That’s certainly not how we operate here at Celtris Gardens. My profound apologies. Where is the child now?”
“She’s gone,” River said. “Disappeared off somewhere before I could catch her.”
“I’m Coll Fenwick,” the woman said, extending her hand for River to shake. “General Manager.”
“River Song. And this is the Doctor.”
“Any Doctor in particular?”
“No, just the Doctor,” he clarified, eyeing Coll. “You’re Feratian?”
“Yes, ninth generation of Fenwicks to run this park. My ancestor opened it almost five hundred years ago, after the war of the six tribes ended. The quincentenary is coming up in a few years.”
“Good,” the Doctor said. “Then you’re the person to answer my questions.” Coll nodded. “The child is Feratian too. What did your employee mean when he said she wasn’t supposed to be up here?”
“Ah. Well you see the park is paid entry and sometimes children from the city use the storm drains to gain access without paying. My employee was operating under a sense of misguided loyalty I’m afraid. You said the child was injured?”
“Yes. She had a nasty gash on her forehead.”
Coll took her notebook out and began tapping on the screen. “How old approximately?”
“Ten,” River said.
“You’re human?” River nodded and Coll entered some further details. “Feratians reach maturity five times faster than humans, so about two then.”
“What’s that?” the Doctor asked, trying to sneak a look at the screen, but Coll turned it so he could see.
“Person finder. I can locate anyone who has ever worked for me, and their families. Most of the children who use the storm drain are the offspring of former employees.”
“You have your employees ‘chipped’?”
“Nothing so crude, Doctor. We keep a genetic data bank; it’s in their contracts. It makes it easier to track productivity rates. This may be a place of fun, but it’s also a business, and overheads make or break us. Did the girl give you her name?”
The Doctor chuckled. “Said her name was ninety-three, of all the daft things. Children, eh?”
There was a flicker in Coll’s eyes. “They can be funny creatures, can’t they?” She entered a few more details into her notebook then looked up at River and the Doctor. “I have her. Hoban Lington, daughter of former employee Ruane Lington. Mystery solved.”
“If you don’t mind,” River said. “Could you contact her family? We want to make sure she’s all right.”
“Of course. It must have been such a shock to you both. I’ll do that straight away and contact you once I hear from them.”
“Thank you,” River said. “We appreciate it.”
Coll turned and strode off, tapping her in-ear communicator as she went. The Doctor and River watched her go. “What absolute rot,” River said.
The Doctor sighed. “I’m beginning to think this might be like the Helletian tapestry after all.”
“Do I have to wear this ridiculous thing?” River asked, poking at the novelty antlers perched on top of her hair.
“I told you. No one will suspect we’re snooping if we’re wearing these. Trust me, the more ridiculous you look, the more you can get away with.”
“I’ll concede that, considering who it’s coming from.”
The Doctor smirked at her as he surreptitiously soniced the storm grate behind him. “You look adorable.”
“Adorable is not in my list of preferred adjectives.” She scowled at him, looking even more adorable than before. The grate swung open with a shuddering creak and the Doctor coughed in a futile attempt to mask the sound. He turned and peered down into the darkness for a moment then ducked inside, knocking his antlers off his head in the process. River swiped hers off her head, and his from the ground, before following him in.
The drain was silent aside from the gentle trickling of water and the distant scurrying of vermin. The sounds from above ground were completely dampened by the thick concrete of the tunnel.
“Here!” River said, crouching down to look at a large crack in the wall. “She could have squeezed through here.”
The Doctor bent down to look through; there was a low red light and a deep mechanical rumbling coming intermittently from within. “Sounds like it’s right under the rollercoaster.” He scanned with his sonic and looked at the readings. “Multiple life signs. They don’t seem to be moving about much. I have a feeling that whatever is on the other side of this wall will give us the answer we need.” He put his sonic back into his pocket. “We’ll have to find another way in though. Your hair will never fit.” River smacked him on the arm and he laughed.
When they emerged from the drain the Doctor insisted they wear their antlers again, partly to lower suspicion, but mostly to see River scowling in them again. She bought herself a coffee and a Funtime Freezy drink for him. “What flavour did you get?”
River read the side. “Rainbow. Apparently.”
He hoped it tasted better than a rainbow because rainbows tasted of nothing. He wasn’t disappointed. “Oh, yum!”
River shook her head and smiled at him.
Ten minutes later as the Doctor noisily slurped at the remnants of his drink through the straw—and River looked as though her last nerve might very well snap—a man approached their table. “Mr and Mrs Song?”
“Yes,” River said before he could correct the man.
“Ms Fenwick said that she has the information you requested. She would be obliged if you joined her in her office.”
Coll’s office was set midway up the rollercoaster, glass-walled on three aspects and spacious. The Doctor felt his head swim a little as he entered and took in the panoramic views of the entire park.
Coll stood to greet them as they entered. “Good news. Hoban is just fine, in fact her mother was so delighted that someone took the time to care for her daughter that she wanted to meet you both. Ruane?”
The door behind Coll’s desk sighed open, and in walked Nena with an adult Feratian who was awkwardly holding her hand. The woman looked gaunt but was dressed impeccably. Nena had her forehead stitched and had changed into a pretty dress with white patent leather shoes.
“Ruane, these are the people who found Hoban.”
The woman looked a little confused at first but then looked at the Doctor and River. “Thank you for helping my daughter.”
Coll smiled brightly.
“You’re expecting another?” River said, indicating the obvious swell in Ruane’s abdomen. Ruane blinked her large dark eyes and dropped her free hand to her stomach. A hint of panic flashed across her face.
“How lovely for Hoban to have a little brother or sister,” Coll said. “Congratulations Hoban.”
“We have to go now, but thank you again.” Ruane moved to the door and pulled Nena along with her. Now it was Nena’s turn to panic. The Doctor winked at her whilst Coll’s attention was on their departure. Nena relaxed again and the corner of her mouth tipped into a half-smile as she was lead out of the room.
“Such a lovely family,” Coll said. “Hoban worked here for six years before she left to start a family.”
The Doctor got to his feet. “Thank you so much for doing this, Coll. So good to see little… Hoban back in the arms of her mother. Warms the cockles, it really does.”
“Our customers are our number one priority here at Celtris Gardens.”
“Well you’ll certainly be getting five stars for customer service from me when I fill out the comment card.” The Doctor rocked on his heels and grinned at River. “What do you say, Schnookums? Shall we continue to enjoy the rest of our day?” He knew he’d pay for it, but it was worth it to watch how expertly she could paint over her fury with a smile.
They descended in the lift in silence until the Doctor soniced the security feed. River wasted no time and kicked him hard in the shin. “Schnookums! If you ever—”
“Ow!” Even though he was in pain, he couldn’t help but laugh. “Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
“You don’t seem too sorry.”
“Scout’s honour.” He gave her the three-finger salute.
“When were you ever in the scouts?”
“Second regeneration. Got a bit bored one evening and decided to earn a couple of badges. I can tie six types of knot and light a fire with twigs!”
“I’d like to meet the idiot who thought it was a good idea to teach you how to light fires willy-nilly.”
He grinned at her until she said, “What?”
“Nothing.” He dropped a kiss to the top of her head. “Now, how are we going to get into that passageway, eh?”
“I noticed when we were on the ghost train that—”
“Wait. You were noticing things on the ghost train?”
River threw him a half-lidded gaze. “Oh all sorts of things, honey.” She smirked. “But I also noticed that they had maintenance doorways marked with little red lights inside.”
She stepped over the side of the lift and looked down at the wild spirals of track below. The Doctor joined her and they watched as the cars, one by one, pitched down and disappeared underground before emerging again to make their ascent to the indescribable heights above. The Doctor grinned. “So we’re going to make it onto the rollercoaster after all.”
The Doctor tested the restraints as the rollercoaster attendant passed them. “Don’t worry, sir. We triple safety check everything at the start of each shift,” she said.
River put her hand on his knee and he stopped fidgeting. “That’s good to know. Thank you.”
The attendant smiled and moved on to the next occupied car and theirs juddered to a start. The car undulated over the track and twisted round until the ground gaped open ahead of them. “Here we go,” he said and the car tipped forward and was swallowed into the darkness.
Disabling the surveillance cameras and slowing the car enough to escape the restraints was almost too easy with the aid of the sonic. Finding the door was less so considering the pitch-black conditions and the intermittent hurtling past of rollercoaster carriages. “I thought you said there was a red light?” he said as he palmed the wall. He started to worry that they were on a wild goose chase until he heard River call to him over the whoosh of another passing car. He moved towards her and they pushed through into the room beyond where the sounds of the rolling carriages were amplified down through to the foundation, rattling the metal staircase that lead down to a platform below.
They ventured down until they came to a concrete wall and followed it until they found the crack. “Well we’re in the right place,” the Doctor said, putting his hand to the wall and looking up. River moved along the platform and he followed her to an unmarked door. She took the handle and the Doctor put his hand over hers. “Are you sure you want to go in?”
She looked up at him. “Yeah.”
He moved his hand to the small of her back and allowed her to open the door.
Dozens of girls—women was too generous a term— in various stages of pregnancy were strapped to beds and kept unconscious. There were no machines monitoring vitals, just the steady drip of anaesthetic and nutrients into their arms. River put her hand over her mouth—either to conceal a scream or to keep herself from being sick, he couldn’t tell—and she looked at him with big wet eyes. They both knew what was going to be in the room, but he for one had not expected it to be so much like a battery farm.
River moved closer to one of the girls and put her hand gently to her forehead as she looked down at her. “How do you think they do it?”
The Doctor sighed. “I suppose they work until they’re old enough and then, if they’re lucky, they’re sent to sleep before the insemination.”
River stroked the girl’s motionless cheek. “And then?” She knew, but she wanted to hear it said.
“And then their daughters are taken and put to work in the plant as soon as they’re able. So the cycle continues.”
He walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder; she shrugged him off. “River,” he said, and took her arm gently. “We can’t save them now. But I promise you we will.”
She looked up at him. “Where are the children?”
They found the security room without much effort, and River quietly tranquillised the guard as he slept on his chair. They cycled through each of the below ground security cameras in turn. Each one showed a different group of little girls maintaining the rides, or the plumbing or cleaning. Some were sleeping on camp beds in the middle of the hubbub. They were all virtually indistinguishable from one another. “How many are there?” River asked.
“Two hundred. Maybe two hundred and fifty.” He felt his jaw clench. “We should get going.”
They made their way out to the track again and waited in silence for an empty rollercoaster car to pass. The Doctor slowed it and they climbed in, settling the restraints back down over their shoulders. As they ascended back into the light of day, the Doctor looked at River; she was staring dead-eyed ahead, and it made his chest feel tight and heavy.
They climbed and climbed but he felt no thrill or fear as his rage built and smothered all other emotions. He barely noticed when they reached the top and tipped over the edge, nor did River, who was allowing herself to be buffeted by the movement of the car on the track. Riding this rollercoaster could have easily been the most terrifying experience of a person’s life, but anyone who felt like that had never experienced true terror—the type that gnaws at your bones and leaves you forever changed.
After an endless cycle of meaningless spirals and twists they finally came to a stop and the bars raised to free them. River climbed out without a word and the Doctor followed her to the lift.
“Sorry, there’s no access for the public.” The security guard manning the door said as they attempted to board.
“We’re guests of the General Manager’s. My wife accidentally left her scarf in Ms Fenwick’s office when we were up there earlier.”
The guard looked at them, dubious. He tapped his in-ear communicator. “Ms Fenwick, I have a couple here who say they left something in your office.” There was a pause while he listened, then asked, “Mr and Mrs Song?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said.
“Yes, it’s them. A scarf.” The guard spoke to the Doctor again. “Ms Fenwick says that she’ll see you get your scarf back.”
“No. Sorry. We need to go up. Important scarf that, gift from her great aunt Susan. She’s distraught without it. Look at her.” The Doctor flexed his jaw. He was finding it hard to keep his anger in check.
The guard looked at River, who did indeed appear suitably devastated, and for once she didn’t need to act. He received another message to his earpiece and spoke to them again. “Ms Fenwick says you can come up.”
“What are you going to do?” River asked when they were alone again in the lift.
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
The lift doors opened and they stepped back into Coll’s office. “I couldn’t find your scarf. Maybe you left it in the maintenance passageway?” Coll was pointing a gun at them.
“How unimaginative! I thought you’d be at least a little more creative.”
“I’m a traditionalist.”
“Funny that. I thought your traditions were built around family life and community.”
“We Fenwicks adopted our own traditions.”
“I can see that! So tell me, how many generations back does the tradition of farming your own people as slaves go, eh?”
“Like I told you earlier, it’s all about the bottom line.”
He laughed humourlessly and pointed at her, then glanced at River who looked horrified. He licked his lips and in two long steps he had Coll backing away, raising her gun to his head. He put his hands up and cocked his head to the side; Coll’s arms were noticeably trembling.
He took two more steps, grabbed her by the throat and pushed her roughly against the windowed wall of her office. The gun dropped from her fingers and she struggled to get free, but he pushed her higher so her feet could find no purchase.
He glanced down at the gun on the floor. “You shouldn’t play with weapons if you’re afraid to use them.” His fingers tightened around her throat and bright purple bruises flourished around her jawline as he held her up. Her hands pawed desperately at the glass, and tears pooled on her long lashes.
Then River’s hand was on his arm, and he snapped his head around to see her face. She looked frightened, frightened by him—a look he had never seen on her face before. He let Coll go and she crumpled to the floor gasping for breath and sobbing hoarsely. River picked up the gun disarmed it.
The Doctor stalked away from them both to steady himself. Coll looked up at him and croaked between sobs, “Who are you!?” The Doctor squeezed his eyes shut and River stood over her. “We’re your worst nightmare,” she said coolly. “And we’re about to set fire to your tapestry.”
River took on the task of summoning the Shadow Proclamation and explaining to them what she had seen. The Doctor stayed with a restrained Coll whilst River brought the investigators to record the evidence.
“You don’t understand,” Coll said after they had left.
The marks his fingers left on her throat mocked him and he looked away. “That’s an understatement.”
“Eight generations of Fenwicks ran this park successfully and when it’s left to me—the first woman—profits start to nose-dive.”
“Don’t try to make this about gender politics when you have shown such blatant disregard for your sex.”
She shook her head. “The first children I brought here, I saved them.”
“They were street children. The Feratian government didn’t care; they were happy to let them suffer and die. The social structures of our society aren’t as utopian as you might think.”
“So you decided to capitalise on their misery?”
“No. At first I thought I could maybe pay them a little less, give them proper jobs.”
“But, they were too young, the labour laws wouldn’t allow it. So I found a way around it, paid them off the books and had them work out of sight. And then…”
The Doctor looked up at her. “Then one of them had a baby and, hey presto, new business model.” Coll looked ashamed for the first time. “How could you do it? These girls are your own people, your own race.”
“Don’t you think I know that? Everyone who works here knows about the children. Everyone. But no one spoke up, not once. They just let it happen. And then I thought, maybe it’s not crossing the line. And it just went further and further and no one stopped me.”
“You shouldn’t need someone to stop you. You should stop you.”
Coll dropped her head, his fingerprints on her jaw clashed with her primrose skin. “I know.”
They watched as Coll was led away to answer for her crimes; the Doctor rubbed a line across his forehead.
“The girls are going to be brought back to Ferat. There are transport ships down by the entrance gates, are you coming?”
“Yep,” he said, facing her and forcing a smile.
The park had been emptied of patrons and was eerily quiet in the evening light as they approached the gate. It was a sorry sight to see rows and rows of children lined up and their details being taken. A medic swabbed the insides of the girls’ cheeks, one by one, and labelled the samples.
“They want to get them back to their own specific tribes, it should help them integrate better,” River said.
The pregnant girls were being brought into tents, one at a time, for a medical check-up before take-off. River pulled the Doctor by the hand when she spotted Nena having a torch shone down her throat by a medic. The Doctor stood awkwardly as River crouched down to talk to the girl. Nena closed her mouth and smiled as River took her hand. “You’ll be okay now, these people will take care of you. They’re going to take you to your new family.”
“Can’t I come with you instead?”
“It’s not safe, Nena. And you deserve to be safe now.”
Nena looked at the ground. “Will I see you again?”
River swallowed, and her voice was thick when she spoke. “Probably not, no.”
The Doctor felt the sting of tears as he wondered why every single thing he did—they did—felt like history repeating itself. Why the past followed them at every step, mocking them with their own memories.
Then Nena said the most extraordinary thing. “Okay then, but can I have another balloon to take with me?”
River laughed and looked back up over her shoulder at the Doctor. “Well?”
The Doctor couldn’t contain his smile. “Oh Nena. That is one wish I can definitely grant.”
After over an hour of balloon wrangling, numerous misshapen animals, and one expert tutorial for Nena, the children boarded the off-world transport. River and the Doctor waved goodbye from the ground. “You know,” she said, “you just gave them their first ever proper childhood experience. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
“That’s the easy part.”
“It doesn’t make it any less important.” He looked down at her, her skin was luminous in the soft light of dusk, her eyes were bright, and the tear tracks on her cheeks were still visible.
There was a time when her unyielding devotion had unsettled him. Long, long ago. But now it was nothing more than the perfect reflection of his. It cancelled out the pain of the past and the worry about the future and allowed him to live in the moment, where everything was not all happening at once for a change. Nothing mattered but the here and now. And here and now he was with her, and she was so very alive.
She made his fingers gentle as he cupped her cheek. She made his eyes kind and his mouth soft as he kissed her. He didn’t need her to stop him, because she showed him how to stop himself.
It was rare for Time Lords to lose track of time, but it had been known to happen during periods of extreme emotional distress. Part of the reason, he always supposed, they were taught to keep their emotions in check as children. But it had never cropped up for him as in issue in such cases. It was only at times when his universe had boiled down to a pinprick of space in the tiniest sliver of time, where everything else could wait, that he didn’t feel the pull of time’s fingers on his mind. Moments like this one, when he was kissing his beloved wife in a newly abandoned theme park under the shadow of the tallest rollercoaster ever constructed. So it was no surprise really when he opened his eyes and let their lips part that the world had grown dark and the stars were shining in River’s eyes.
He grinned at her, feeling vaguely intoxicated and suddenly starving.
“I could murder a fish supper,” River said, breaking the silence.
“One again, Doctor Song, you have read my mind.”
Later, sequestered in the TARDIS once more, the Doctor took River to bed. He wanted to lose himself in the warmth of her skin and the gentle puff of her breath on his neck. She would be going back to Stormcage before long, and he wanted to have as much of her as he possibly could before then. It never mattered how long she stayed, when she left, it was always too soon.
She had him sit at the head of the bed and kissed him tenderly as she settled into his lap, sighing into his mouth as she guided him in. She rocked her hips slowly as he ran his palms up the sides of her body, eyes closed and kissing her still. She broke the kiss and pushed his hair back before placing her lips on each of his closed eyelids in turn. “Hi,” she said, and he made the corner of his mouth quirk up. “Earlier. In the office…”
He felt a dart of shame and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry.”
She kissed him tenderly and stroked his cheek. “Don’t be, my love. It just that, last time you saw me was on Corusca. What’s happened between then and now?”
He had hoped that she wouldn’t notice, or if she did that she’d write it off. But she was waiting until he dropped his guard, until he had let his armour all fall away. She knew exactly how much to push so he’d talk. And they both knew it helped, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her what she must already know—that he had been avoiding her during the uncountable years since Corusca, that he had been foolish with her time and he wasn’t ready to let her go yet. Because, what then?
So he shook his head and instead he told her another truth. “You make me better, River. A better version of me. And I need that. I need you.” He kissed her softly on the throat and his hands circled down to her hips.
She tipped his chin and pushed his hair off his forehead again before kissing the scar at his hairline. “You can’t hide from me,” she said, unsatisfied by his avoidance of her question.
Opening his eyes he saw hers, green and curious, staring back. “I know,” he said, turning her onto her back and then kissing her with added fire. “I know.”