The alarm roused River Song from her sleep, it took a moment for her to realise she was being watched.
“So I thought we would go out for dinner, your choice this time, since you complained last time.”
“Well I didn’t get dessert, I didn’t even get to finish my main…”
He interrupted “Now River, be fair, how was I supposed to know a Sontaran battlefleet would blow up the kitchen?”
“It’s the same everywhere we go, there is always something that stops us just having a nice quiet evening out, if its not Sontarans then it is someone else that feels the urge to kill you.”
“That is not true,” he paused “sometimes they want to blow up the planet we just happen to be on, sometimes they are just being grumpy, and sometimes, sometimes they are after you River Song! You manage to wind up just as many people as I do.”
“No I don’t, you wind people up just by showing up. “
“I came to take you out for dinner not to discuss who is the most hated! Now do you want to go out or not?”
River walked past him towards the TARDIS “You will always win hands down at being hated, but a little arguing certainly builds up the appetite Sweetie, let’s go eat.”
The Doctor watched her disappear into the police box, damn that woman, she is infuriating, shaking his head he followed her in, the door closed behind him just as the TARDIS de-materialised.
River stood at the console, vectors plotted and destination set by the time the Doctor reached her side. She looked up at him, as always conflict raged in her chest, the desire to see him yet knowing each time she did was one time closer to the final goodbye. He looked down into her eyes as if searching to see what was going on in her mind, she looked away unable to hold his gaze.
“I am just going to get changed, don’t touch anything I have her set for the best burgers ever.”
“Should I change?” the Doctor asked.
“No, just resist the urge to add any head wear.”
Five minutes later River reappeared dressed in what appeared to be the same clothes, the Doctor frowned, obviously something was different, but he struggled to work out what it was before a light bulb came on, “Nice boots.”
“Thank you Sweetie.”
The TARDIS materialised in the corner of a Space-port loading dock, River led the Doctor between the piles of cargo waiting to be loaded and headed to the doors that opened out into the Space-port Terminus. Vendors seemed to fill every inch of the place hawking their wares while around the edges more permanent businesses were housed in brightly lit stores.
River threaded her way towards a gaudily lit diner, not pausing as the sellers proffered a variety of goods towards her. She swung open the door and, after a quick glance round the half full room, she picked out an empty booth and swiftly wound her way between tables and secured it. Only as she seated herself on the leather bench did she notice the Doctor hesitating just inside the door.
“Sweetie over here!” She called to him assuming he had momentarily lost sight of her, but as he moved towards her as if in a trance her brow furrowed as she realised something was wrong. “What is it? Don’t tell me you have been to Sto before? Are we going to get thrown out?”
He slid into the booth to sit opposite to her but his eyes were downcast as if studying the table, it took him a moment to answer and as he did his voice faltered.
” No that’s not it, I haven’t been here before, just someone I met once…”
The Doctor fell silent as a shadow formed across the table. He looked up at the petite blonde who had come over the the booth.
“Hi, my name is Astrid and I will be your waitress for this evening, would you like to order your drinks while you take a look at the menu?”
River looked at the Doctor who had gone pale and saw his bottom lip trembling.
“Could you just give us a minute?”
“No problem just give me a shout when you are ready.” With a beaming smile Astrid turned her attention to another table who were ready to settle their bill.
“Start talking, and tell me everything!”
The Doctor stared down at the table in front of him. River watched with concern as he fought to bring his emotions under control, she knew that the Doctor was not one to face his emotions if he could avoid it. He would rather deflect with humour or anger than face the pain that was always there, simmering beneath the surface, threatening to consume him. With a exhalation he began allowing the story of his meeting with the waitress to flow from him. River sat and listened, resisting the urge to question him until he was finished. Only at the completion of his tale did he lift his eyes and look into Rivers.
“I failed her, she died to save me, like…” he left the sentence unfinished.
“Like who? Donna? Rose? They aren’t dead, they just couldn’t be part of your life any more, just like Sarah and all the others. Knowing you made their lives better, even if they had known how it would end they wouldn’t have changed anything,”
“No, not like them, it doesn’t matter what I meant, it doesn’t change anything, Astrid died to save me.”
“No! She died because she took a job she wanted and Max Capricorn killed her, and all the other people who died on that ship. I love you but you are so damned infuriating at times. If you hadn’t been there they would all have died, and as much as you would love to believe that you were the only person she saved, I do believe there were other survivors.”
“Don’t you River me! If you want to make yourself feel better then do something to make it up to her, but don’t you dare play God with her destiny, you have been there and you and I both know that it doesn’t suit you.”
River looked over at the waitress and motioned for her to approach the table.
“Are you ready to order?”
“Yes please, we will have half pound burgers with the works, side orders of fries and onion rings, a side salad, and diet coke for me and sarsaparilla for Mr Grumpy here.”
Astrid wrote their order down with a smile, then turned and headed to the kitchen. The Doctor glared across to where River was now depositing coins into a table top jukebox.
“River! What do you think you are playing at? Do you seriously expect me to sit here and eat? Letting someone I know is dead, because I didn’t save her, serve me?”
“Yes, I do! You brought me out for dinner, my choice remember? Well I chose here and we are going to have dinner, then while I eat dessert you are going to keep your promise and take her on a trip to see the stars. So right now you can stop giving me that look and pick a song while I pop to the bathroom to wash my hands, Stormcage is a little grimy you know.”
Astrid was in the bathroom when River entered, she turned and smiled but the red eyes gave her away.
“What’s wrong? Please don’t tell me the burgers are off?”
Astrid laughed, “No, just my boss being a pig, it’s my last shift, tomorrow I start my new job. I never intended staying here as long as I did, just wanted to get away from home and travel, so I took this job intending to save up money but the tips just never seemed to make it into my savings jar, and so I ended up stuck here.”
“What’s the new job?”
“A waitress still, but on a cruise liner, at least I will finally get to travel. I just need to get through this shift, get my wage and then, watch out universe, here I come.”
“I think you are going to be amazing.” River gave her a knowing smile, “Trust me, I think that you are about to begin a whole new life.”
“I hope so, the pay on the space cruiser is a joke but the chance to see the stars just once, well that has to be worth taking a chance for.”
River observed the wistful look on the girls face, sometimes one chance is all you have, but today is your lucky day.
Winding her way between tables River took the chance to get a lay out of the diner. The red black and chrome décor was straight out of a Fifties Earth Diner, only the clientèle gave away that they had travelled in space rather than time. Through a hatch she could see a man barking orders to the harassed looking staff, hmm the boss I presume or should I say dessert.
She had barely resumed her seat in their booth before Astrid was back with their order, the smell was heavenly and River allowed her eyes to roam across the dishes, mentally tasting each one before reaching for the ketchup. The Doctor made no move to help himself to anything, he remained silent, his gaze accusing River of insensitivity.
“Sweetie you may as well face it, you know I am right, I always am!” She smiled at him but it was a gentle smile, her normal teasing absent. “Come on eat up we have a very busy evening ahead of us.”
“Of course Sweetie, we are going to make sure your waitress friend has the time of her life.”
The Doctor watched as River picked at the last remaining morsels on her plate, he had merely pushed the food around his absent mindedly as he tried to work out what he was going to do. He could appreciate Rivers suggestion had merit, but how was he supposed to just whisk Astrid out of here, without explaining anything, or changing what had already happened. Damn River, he hated it when she was right, he couldn’t change his past, her future, other lives were too tightly entangled to make that possible.
River looked across at him, it hurt her to see him like this but she knew that she would not change him for a single moment, every meeting was too precious to her. She smiled at him, and watched as he attempted to feebly respond, he felt everything so deeply, she wondered at times how long he could carry on before that beautiful, fractured spirit within him turned upon itself and plunged him into darkness. Not in my lifetime but she knew one day she would not be there and it broke her heart to know one day she would break his. She fought back the rising tears and turned to the jukebox, using the chrome as a mirror she smiled once more as she applied her lipstick.
“River! What are you doing?”
“Shhh Sweetie, I am just going to give our compliments to the chef, especially as once he sees all the food on your plate, he is likely to be offended.”
She rose and headed towards the kitchen, the Doctor was about to follow her when Astrid blocked his view of where River had gone.
“Was everything okay?” She sounded nervous as her eye flitted over the Doctors still laden plate.
“Yes, lovely, wasn’t really hungry, but she doesn’t like to eat alone.”
“I understand, she is lucky to have someone who cares about her more than money. None of the guys I’ve ever dated would have paid for food they weren’t going to eat just to make me feel better. In fact, most of them would insist on me paying for them, or at least eating where I work so they got a discount.”
The Doctor laughed “I can just imagine trying that with Riv…er…” He was distracted by the sight of a large flustered looking man in a greasy apron heading towards them, Astrid appeared to visibly shrink as the man loomed over them.
“Astrid, here is your wage plus a bonus, have a safe trip, you can finish now, plenty of time to enjoy yourself before you board ship.” The man looked towards the Doctor. “Your meal is on the house please call again.”
The Doctor could not take his eyes off the crimson smear adorning the man’s lips, River, he glanced round and saw her moving towards the door, a glint in her eye, reaching back he grabbed an astonished Astrids arm.
Dragging her along with him he made for the door, which River was now holding open, Astrid protested as she was hauled along. As they reached the door the Doctor glanced back to see the owner shaking the effects of the lipstick off, River blew a kiss before closing it and following the Doctor and Astrid back to the TARDIS.
“I thought you were staying there for dessert?” The Doctor could not resist letting a smile play across his lips as he teased her.
“Nothing I liked the look of, besides if we want to make sure Astrid gets back for her new job, I thought it would help having someone on board who can actually get us back on the right day.”
Astrid stood looking confused by the exchange, a mixture of excitement and fear raced through her veins.
“Erm… excuse me but who are you and what do you mean get me back?”
“Sorry how rude of us, my name is River and this is… Mr Smith. I just thought as you are starting a new job, and as you gave us such excellent service, well we thought you deserved a treat. So we want to take you out for dessert, and as you have finished work now, there’s no reason not, is there?”
” I suppose not, but you want me to go in there? Don’t you think it will be a little cramped.”
” I love this bit,” the Doctor opened the door and stood back gesturing. “Ladies first!”
He stood smiling watching as Astrid went in, then with wide eyes, retreated to walk round the outside before once more entering. River was at the console setting co-ordinates, he closed the door and stood watching as Astrid took in her surroundings, the wonder shining in her eyes.
“It’s… it’s bigger, inside, bigger…”
“Yes it is, do you like it?”
“It’s magical, it’s amazing.”
The Doctor smiled this time his face lighting up, he never tired of watching the effect the TARDIS had on people for the first time, the only person who he missed experiencing it for the first time was River, but then she had just tried to kill him at the time, succeeded more like and then saved me again, the smile remained in place but the sparkle in his eyes flickered out. Of course that was not strictly true, everything happened in the wrong order, her first day as River she had entered the TARDIS as someone else, then she had become his River, and soon he would have to let her go.
He felt the tears welling up and forced himself to snap out of his melancholy, it was time for an adventure
The TARDIS was now in flight and River was taking Astrid by the arm suggesting they go find something for her to change into to enjoy their adventure. Astrid was beaming as the two women disappeared down the steps to the wardrobe room.
The Doctor closed his eyes fighting back the images threatening to engulf him, Astrid falling and River giving him that final smile before disappearing in a blinding flash. It was not lost on him the parallels between them, both he had first met on the final day of their lives, both died saving him.
Knowing River was right and he could not change anything did not make it any easier, he noticed River had left her diary on the console, it would be so easy to just pick it up and see how many more meetings were left to them. He knew the time was coming for that final date, when he would look into her eyes knowing that he was saying goodbye for the final time, a single tear rolled down his cheek, before he reached up and wiped it away.
He needed to pull himself together he owed it to both of them to make this night as magical as possible, he looked at the co-ordinates River had set and smiled before altering the course.
He had just stepped away from the console when the two women reappeared, both looking resplendent in figure hugging evening gowns, River in a deep claret and Astrid in midnight blue.
“Now I need to get changed.”
He skipped past them and raced down the corridor, a few minutes later he reappeared wearing his top hat and tails.
“Well at least your not wearing the fez.”
Before the Doctor could reply the TARDIS made the wheezing noise signalling she had landed.
“You changed the destination!”
“Me? No! What makes you think that?”
“As if I would! Now ladies would you like to accompany me to the theatre?”
The Doctor opened the door and held it for them as they passed him and stepped out onto the mystery planet.
“It’s going to be okay Sweetie.”
Straightening his bow tie, he closed the door and the three of them walked away from the TARDIS together.
They walked through an ornate arch way, the Doctor consulted a seating plan on the wall just inside the entrance, then pulling out the psychic paper, he waved it before the face of a bemused looking usher. The usher grasped the Doctors wrist, holding it still before bursting into laughter at the blank piece of paper before him.
“Really sir! Did you honestly think that would work here?”
The Doctor looked round flustered and a little embarrassed before leaning in and whispering to the uniformed man,
“Look, I am trying to impress these young ladies,” he motioned towards an amused River, and confused Astrid. “I lost the actual tickets, Now you have the chance to do a random act of kindness for your fellow man…”
“No tickets no show!” The usher turned his attention from the Doctor and continued taking tickets from those who had formed a queue behind them.
Crestfallen the Doctor began to apologise to the two women,
“Shhhh give me the paper.”
“River it won’t work, he can see it isn’t really a ticket.”
“Shhh just give it to me! Why do you always have to argue with me? Just hand it over.”
The Doctor passed the slip of paper over, his bottom lip protruding slightly as he did so, he was trying to maintain an air of dignity, and belief that River would be no less persuasive than he had been. Then he noticed her slip something from her handbag, the glint of light reflected from a mirror left him in no doubt what she was doing, despite her having her back to him, cheat. Knowing he was beat, he had no choice but to watch as River approached the man, a manicured hand smoothing the lapels of his uniform as she leant in.
“If madam and her friends would like to take their seats the show will be beginning shortly.” The ushers smile intensified by the crimson smear he now wore.
“But how did she do that?” Astrid turned to the Doctor, puzzled by the turn of events.
“Sometimes it’s just better not to ask how River does any thing, come one before he comes to his senses.”
The Doctor led the way through the double doors which opened up into a magnificent amphitheatre. Astrid audibly gasped at the sight before her, but barely had she time to come to terms with the scale of the venue than the Doctor had her by the arm pulling her down flight after flight of steps until they were only a few rows back from the front. Spotting three seats together, they squeezed past disgruntled patrons, River apologising profusely several times as the Doctor clumsily reached his seat leaving flattened toes, bruised shins and at least one scuffed hoof in his wake.
Just as they settled into their seats the orchestra slithered into the pit, Astrid pulled on the Doctors sleeve and gave him a questioning look.
“They are Orchpusiods, distantly related to Octopuses on Earth, highly intelligent but also incredibly talented musicians, the fact each member can also play at least two instruments at once cuts down on the number needed. Incredibly highly strung though, you don’t want to be stuck in a lift with one…”
His voice trailed off as they began tuning their instruments and he saw the look of awe cloud Astrid’s vision. He smiled before turning to look at River, as always she was scoping out their surroundings, he wished she could relax and just enjoy the moment but he also knew she had her reasons for constantly being on edge. He tried to take in the scene as River would view it but was quickly distracted by what appeared to be the lights dimming despite being unable to visually locate any.
River took in the scene around them, there were so many races, creatures, species sat around them it was impossible to pick out and name them all, overall she could see no threat or anyone who she knew would target the Doctor but she was still uneasy. Every sense in her body told her that something was going to happen, she glanced across at the other two, both totally oblivious, immersed in the experience. She turned her attention to the musicians, nothing there to alarm her as they skilfully tuned their instruments, for a moment she was hypnotised by the speed and flexibility in what she could only think of as tentacles.
With a slight shake of the head she brought her focus back, now studying the blank space which would serve as a stage, nothing immediately jumped out at her, the lights dimmed and a spot light appeared illuminating the centre of the stage.
At first she could see nothing and settled back, despite her protesting instincts. Slowly a figure began to materialise in the beam of light, as it did so River slid to the front of her seat, her hand snaking into her hand bag and taking a reassuring grip on the laser pistol concealed there.
River tightened her grip as a figure slowly began to take shape, she could not make out any distinguishing features initially, then the singing began, a mournful song drifted from the creature. Her grip relaxed, come on River get a grip, we are at the theatre, even the Doctor can’t get into trouble here, she settled back in her seat once more and allowed her hand to slide from the bag back into her lap.
The creature was fully visible now, exquisitely beautiful, feminine but without any recognisably gender specific features. The Doctor searched in his memory, trying to put a name to the chanteuse who held their attention with her intoxicating performance. Was it a her, should that be it? He was unsure but there was a definite female aura…
Astrid felt herself lean forward as two more singers appeared, one either side of the first. She had never seen such beautiful creatures before but more than that the voice swept her away, he was surely singing directly to her, He was different from any other man she had seen before, he lacked the rugged look she had learned to associate with the male of every species she had so far encountered but still he was unquestionably masculine. She could feel her pulse rate increasing and her heart racing as the song embraced her.
“They are rather good!”
When there was no reply River turned to look at the Doctor, his eyes were fixed on the creature on the stage. A glance at Astrid then the rest of the audience showed the same glazed expression. She looked back at the creatures on the stage again, as she focused her attention on them she noticed waves of energy between them and the people sat in the audience, tiny ethereal strands, like ribbons of the thinnest organza, gaining in clarity. She could not tell if they were coming from or into the creatures, only that she was the only one who seemed immune to the link. She shook the Doctor by the arm but nothing seemed to stir him. She stood up drawing the attention of all three of the creatures who now seemed to be singing just to her, she fought to hold on, to hold them off.
With the last of her energy and free will, she raised her hand and brought it down across the Doctor cheek, before falling back into her seat, her eyes wide as she beheld the beauty before her, drowning in it like all the others
The sound of the slap echoed around the theatre, the Doctors head flew back, his eyes widening from the mixture of surprise and pain.
His voice trailed off as the situation became apparent to him. Tightly closing his eyes he slipped from the seat and hunkered down in the gap between the rows. Only once the singers were obscured by the seats in front did he open his eyes once more.
He pulled the sonic screwdriver out from his pocket and held it up in the air pointed towards the singers. Pulling it back down he looked at it.
“Not good, definitely not good. Now think! I can’t use the sonic to disrupt the hold they have on every one or that will leave them all brain damaged, I need a plan…I need someone to listen to me, what is the point in coming up with an amazing plan when there is no one to listen to it!”
He glanced to the seats either side of him, he made a decision based on his still stinging cheek and grabbed Astrid by the ankle and dragged her to the floor. It took a few moments for her to come to her senses, the Doctor clamped his hand over her mouth as she began to speak.
“No! Shhhh! Listen! Those creatures are using their voices to hypnotise people, somehow they are drawing the energy from them, I need to break the connection but I need to do it without leaving all the people here brainless idiots.” He looked along the row to where a group of strange looking creatures were frozen by the singers spell, “Okay so more brainless than they already are, I have a plan, well not a plan but a thing, a thing that will be a plan as soon as I finish talking. If you understand nod your head but don’t speak.”
Astrid nodded her head and the Doctor removed his hand. Astrid opened her mouth to speak but one look from the Doctor silenced her.
“No! Wait! Yes! That’s it! Sing! Sing now at the top of your voice!”
“Sing what?” Astrid questioned looking perplexed by the sudden request.
“Anything, everything, sing a shopping list I don’t care just sing!”
Both the Doctor and Astrid broke in to verse, Astrid singing an old Stoe lullaby while the Doctor began singing seemingly random words into the sonic screwdriver which he appeared to be using as a microphone. The singers on stage wavered before increasing the volume of their own singing, the Doctor adjusted something on the sonic and his voice boomed out overwhelming the other singers, Astrid put her hands over her ears but carried on singing her own song, adding more volume to her own words. Gradually she noticed people beginning to look round to where the Doctor stood still producing some form of noise which was passing as singing.
There was a flash and the Doctor spun round just in time to see a final glimpse of the mysterious singers as they faded from view.
“Damn, they got away!”
“Doctor!” River was now alert and noticing that the majority of the people in the theatre were now moving in their direction looking rather unhappy.
“Ah yes,” the Doctor followed her gaze “maybe we should cut our evening short. Run!”
He grabbed Astrid hand and the three fled from the theatre only stopping once the were safely back in the TARDIS. River set the co-ordinates and minutes later they set down back in the space port.
The Doctor opened the door and followed Astrid back into the place they had left only a short time before.
“Doctor? I thought your name was Mr Smith?”
“It is that is just a private joke River likes to play. Well Astrid you have a few hours left to go prepare for your new job. I don’t suppose I can change your mind about taking it?”
“No, if anything the little bit of excitement you have shown me today has made me realise how much I want to get out here and see it all. I want to see the stars, see all the places these different people come from.” She gestured around the space port. “Today you showed me more excitement than I have had in my whole life, you made me feel alive, like I could do anything, be anyone.”
“Astrid Peth you are incredible and you will see the stars and you will change lives. You are one of the most incredible women I have ever had the honour to know.”
Astrid laughed as she started waking across the space port, “You make it sound like I am someone special!”
“Astrid Peth, you are special, and don’t ever forget it.”
Astrid’s brow furrowed as she turned “I never told you my surna…” Her voice drifted off as the blue box disappeared with a wheezing groan.
Back inside the TARDIS the Doctor stood with his back against the door, eyes closed, his lip trembled. River waited for him to compose himself as she knew he would. My Doctor, always running but he can’t run away from himself, she set the co-ordinates to return to Stormcage. She watched as he straightened his bow tie and bounced up the steps to the console to join her.
“So Professor River Song, where to now?”
“Back to penal servitude I’m afraid, for me anyway. I think you should go pay mummy a visit, I think they might just have forgiven you for leaving the Ood in the toilet by now.” She turned from him as a smile formed on his lips, then noticed something on the floor.
As she picked it up she recognised the Doctor’s Psychic paper which had so recently failed him, with almost a giggle she opened it, the words that formed before her eyes silenced her mirth and replaced it with confusion as she held it out to him.
“Come to the library, and signed with a kiss? If I didn’t know better I would think that was my writing.”
The Doctor snatched it from her grasp, staring at it with wide disbelieving eyes. “That’s wrong, no, no, no, this is wrong.”
“Doctor, what’s wrong?” Fear entered Rivers voice, it was an emotion she had not felt in a very long time.
The TARDIS landed and the Doctor grabbed River by the hand and hauled her out to her cell. “River something is wrong, very wrong. I need you to promise me you will stay here until I come back. No going off and amusing yourself, no popping home to see your parents. Just stay here until I come back. Promise me!”
Looking in his eyes she saw the confusion and uncertainty, “Yes!” She wanted to push for more but she realised that she had no choice but to put her complete trust in him.
She watched as he departed, knowing that she would keep her promise, no matter how hard it was.That he knew more than he was letting on, she had no doubt, but she knew he would be back for her.
Only then did she realise, he had not embraced her as he said goodbye.