"Doctor Song," the guard outside her cell barked rudely.
The wild-haired woman sitting on her cot did not even glance at him as she held up her forefinger and turned the page of the book she was reading.
"Doctor Song, you are to come with me at once. The Warden wishes to speak with you."
After a moment she sighed, rolling her eyes as she laid down the book and stood, stretching. "What does he want this time? I haven't skipped out in weeks."
The guard did not reply, but stood there, watching, as this prisoner who acted like she ran the place took her sweet time answering the official summons.
He became impatient when she wandered over to a cabinet on the opposite wall. "What are you doing? The Warden requires that you come before him immediately!"
She laughed softly as she turned back to him. "You don't expect me to go visit the Warden dressed like this, do you?" River gestured to her modest t-shirt and fitted pants. "I'll be out in a minute, but first I've got to change. Now go on, turn around. There's a good boy." River smiled patronizingly before pulling out a hanging rack of clothes that could not possibly have fit in the standard issue wardrobe she had been rummaging through.
The guard gaped at her, completely at a loss for how to handle the situation. "Now, see here, Doctor Song-"
"Oh lay off her, mate. It's easier to just let her do what she wants. You won't be able to make her to do anything else." The guard who normally patrolled her section walked up, clapping the newcomer on the shoulder.
"Geoffrey's right you know," River added, "I can be a very... troublesome prisoner when I want to be." She smirked. "Now, if you could be a dear and give me a bit of privacy, we can be on our way to see the Warden a lot sooner."
Not bothering to see whether or not they complied, the demanding woman walked around behind the impossible rack of garments and reemerged a moment later, wearing a fitted v-neck green dress and a pair of jodhpurs. Shaking out her hair and sliding the rack back into the cabinet where it couldn't possibly fit, she cheerily announced, "Ready! Let's be off then, shall we?"
Her escort was still puzzling over the wardrobe and just stood there for a minute. Geoffrey, helpful as ever, noticed the issue his colleague was having and leaned against the cell. "Oh, don't mind that, it's just bigger on the inside. Ain't that right, Doctor Song?"
She awarded the man a small smile as she let herself out of the barred door.
"Wait, how did you manage that? I haven't unlocked it!"
Not dignifying the question with a response, she set off confidently down the hall towards the Warden's office.
"Don't bother your head about it, eh? Just go along with her and don't worry, the Warden knows what she's like. Now get on after her or you'll have to explain why she showed up to see him without you."
The other guard took Geoffrey's wise advice and hurried down the corridor after the receding form of Doctor River Song.
Still leaning against the bars of River's cell, the old man chuckled, then resumed his rounds to go check on the other, far less interesting inmates.
The Warden sat at the desk in his office, staring down at the screen before him while speaking into his communicator.
"And you're sure this wasn't another one of her tricks? Is that even possible? You're sure? And these orders are confirmed, they came directly from her Holiness?" He shook his head incredulously at the response.
"Well, alright. Can't say I'm loathe to be rid of her. She has a habit of causing trouble. Yes sir, I'll take care of it. You too, sir." The Warden hung up and sat back in his chair, baffled at how his most ingenious prisoner had managed to pull this one off.
There was a rap at his door.
"Come in!" The door was thrust open by two armed guards, and in flounced the number one problem-causing inmate of his entire career, followed a second later by a cleric who didn't look very pleased to be there.
"You wanted to see me Warden?" She stood with hand on hip, looking at ease and completely unperturbed by the fact that he could have her shot at a moment's notice.
"Johnson, you're dismissed. Return to your post."
The young man saluted stiffly then exited the office, relieved to no longer be responsible for keeping track of the infamous escape artist.
Only once he was gone did the Warden address her. "There's been some news regarding your sentencing."
That seemed to get her attention. She sidled closer, looking him up and down like a cat eying her next meal. He was familiar with the routine. It meant that Doctor Song wanted something, but wasn't ready to say so outright.
Her approach halted as she leaned on the back of a chair and feigned disinterest, turning her gaze to inspect her fingernails. "Oh? Have the powers that be decided I ought to serve a few hundred more years?" Idle amusement laced her tone.
"Quite the opposite, in fact. It seems that the man you killed, the Doctor, no longer exists. According to all available records, he never existed at all. Ever. There is no such man as the Doctor in any database in the universe." He waited for her to give any indication that his words had sunk in.
One eyebrow quirked with amusement before she shook her head, chuckling and mumbling to herself something that sounded like "Of course you did, you daft man".
Ah. So she does know who's behind this. "Have something to share with the class, Doctor Song?"
"Hmm?" The woman did her best to look at him innocently, as guiltless as the proverbial cat that caught the canary.
"You have no idea how this happened, or who might do such a thing?"
She nodded, curls bouncing around her face. "That's correct. Now, what does this mean for me, exactly?"
He sighed. "It means... it means that all the charges against you have been overturned. Since it is impossible for you to have killed someone who never existed, the murder sentence has been revoked. And since you've already served enough time to atone for all the other felony charges of theft, prison breaking," he glared at her before continuing. "And impersonating government figures on more then one planet-"
River gave a small shrug as if to say, "Who, me?" Either she didn't care that he knew, or everyone she conned was incredibly thick, because right now she wasn't fooling anyone.
"Melody Pond, otherwise known as Doctor River Song, you are free to go, with the apologies of the Papal Mainframe. You will be compensated generously for the years you served for a crime you did not commit." The irony of the situation almost pained him. Dignity, self-respect, and the responsibility of his office were all that prevented him from placing his elbows on the desk and hiding his face in both hands.
She blinked, staring at him as if to be sure this wasn't a joke. "Well, I must say I was not expecting this. A full pardon, with no strings attached? And you're paying me? I never thought I'd see the day. If I didn't know better, I'd say this was a ploy to get me to reveal how I would get in and out of here, if I were to do such a thing, and as soon as I leave I'll be clapped in irons and dragged off to some dungeon."
Her thinly veiled reluctance to accept her freedom was more than a little surprising. "You of all people should know that the Papal Mainframe would never allow such risks to be taken with prisoners as dangerous as you're reputed to be, unless there were some dire situation that required it. I've confirmed the orders myself; the pardon is legitimate. Besides, I would think this wouldn't be all that confusing for you, seeing as you regularly waltz in and out of here as if there were no walls anyway." He looked at her pointedly.
"Oh, that's old news. It's not like I've caused any real trouble, have I?"
He pinched his brow and breathed deeply. "Since you arrived here, Doctor Song, we haven't had a single breakout drill. There's been no need! You trigger the alarm once a week at the very least."
"Just keeping the boys on their toes." She smirked.
The Warden leaned back in his chair as his gaze softened. "So, where will you go now? Not planning universal domination I hope." He may have even smiled a bit.
I must be going soft in the head, chatting with a known criminal like this. Though it was true they had grown to tolerate one another over the years, and he did see her far more often than any other inmate due to her escapades.
The formidable woman tried to mask her unease with a bright smile, but he saw right through it. "I'm not sure! I could really go anywhere now- might do some traveling, even get back to university, do some more research. You might not have heard, but I had just received my doctorate the same day I moved in here. Funnily enough I can't remember much of what happened between those two events." She shrugged tensely with a hollow chuckle and he quirked a brow in disbelief.
Her voice grew softer, her tone more genuine. "I've never really thought about where I'd go when I got out. I guess it didn't actually seem possible." In an unusual show of vulnerability, she sank into one of the chairs in front of his desk.
He signaled for the two guards by the door to exit his office and close it behind them. With concerned, and blatantly curious expressions, they complied.
He knew he was risking his image as a tough, no-nonsense Warden by showing such kindness to her, but he could afford to show a bit of humanity now and then. "Would you like some tea, Doctor Song?"
Clearly flustered by his unexpected offer, she nonetheless retained her composure. "That'd be lovely, thanks."
There was a comfortable silence as he pressed a few buttons on his communicator. She hesitated as if deciding whether or not she could trust him, before adding, "And... call me River, would you? Doctor Song feels so... formal. Like I'm being punished for something."
Nodding ponderously, he made a decision of his own. "Well, Doctor-" He cleared he throat. "I mean, River, I suppose it's only fair that I extend you the same courtesy. You can call me Michael. Though, if I may take the liberty of saying so, you shouldn't feel that way about your title. The circumstances of its use may have been less than ideal, but it's something you earned for yourself and is worthy of respect."
"Thank you, Michael. I'll keep that in mind."
They were interrupted by a knock at the door, as a cleric arrived with their tea. Once they each held a warm mug painted with a black-on-white label that read, 'Property of Stormcage Containment Facility', the man was dismissed, and their conversation resumed.
"I've always wondered, ...River, however you do manage to get out, where do you go when you leave here?"
She sipped from her mug, mentally gauging what she could reveal. He took her pause as a sign that she was still suspicious of his intentions.
"You can't get in trouble for telling me, if that's what you're thinking. I couldn't keep you here if I tried. Tasha Lem herself is overseeing your release, and she is very insistent that we not inconvenience you further in any way. Lord knows why."
Processing that information to look into later, River swallowed a sip then said, "Well, I go lots of places. Times too. You may have noticed that some of my trips last only a very short while?"
He nodded, a puzzled look on his face.
"Truth is they're actually much longer. I've had a vortex manipulator ever since my second year. You remember when I got that phone call and then tricked the new guard with my hallucinogenic lipstick?"
"You're going to have to be a little more specific. As you recall, that wasn't a one time occurrence."
She thought for a second. Setting down her mug she grabbed a marker out of the cup on his desk and scribbled on her palm, turning her hand to show him. "Look familiar?"
The Warden squinted at the stick figure with curly hair, then burst out laughing. "Oh yes I remember- poor Zachariah didn't live that down for months. We sent in a whole squad and they found him pointing his gun and shouting at a wall."
She smiled. "It was one of my more amusing escapes, wasn't it? Didn't feel so funny at the time though. The resulting situation was... rather tricky." Gazing into the distance, she seemed lost in thought.
"But you still haven't answered my question, River. You've confessed to obtaining an illegal means of transport and using it to come and go as you please, but you haven't told me where it is you go."
"That depends, Michael. But... usually it's to see my family. And there's almost always some sort of disaster involved that needs fixing before I can come back." The corresponding eye roll told him that she found these "disasters" to be more inconvenient than anything.
"Family? There's nothing in your file about relatives, in fact your record doesn't go back further than your admittance with the Sisters of the Infinite Schism. It has something to do with time travel, I assume?"
"Yes, yes it does. My life has always been very... complicated. My parents are from Earth, the original one, in the 21st century."
Michael's eyebrows shot into his hairline. "Time travel wasn't even prototyped until the 45th! How did you end up here?"
"My husband." His eyebrows rose even higher than seemed possible.
She laughed merrily at his reaction. "So you had no clue I was married? I suppose that's understandable, seeing as our first wedding took place on top of a pyramid in an aborted timeline..."
He nearly spit his tea all over the desk. "How did you manage that?"
"By refusing to comply with a fixed point in time. All of history started happening at once and we had to fix it by getting married. It's the only other thing I remember from when I moved in here. It was a very busy day actually- I became a doctor, got married, supposedly killed my husband who now doesn't exist, and got sent to prison. It makes for quite the anniversary, let me tell you."
The Warden shook his head, completely out of his depth. Never in his life had he heard such an impossible story, and yet for some odd reason he was inclined to believe her. Then the implications of what she had said fully dawned on him. "Wait- you're telling me that you married the Doctor?! The Last of the Time Lords; savior of civilizations, planets, galaxies, hell the entire universe if the legends are true; the man you murdered, is your husband?!"
Unperturbed by his outburst, she calmly swallowed another gulp of tea, smacking her lips. "Yep."
"You're going to have to explain that one. And if all this is true, which I doubt, why on Earth would you have killed him the same day?"
Swirling her mug, she answered, "Time travel is funny that way. One time I broke out of here, it was because I received an anonymous letter telling me to be at a certain place and time. I showed up and had a nice family reunion with my mum, dad, and the Doctor. We were having a picnic by a lake when a spacesuit, which I now know contained a younger version of myself, came up out of the water, and shot him dead. I watched myself kill my husband, and he knew it was going to happen. He told us not to interfere, and then just walked up to it and let it kill him. There was nothing I could do. And to top it off the daft idiot invited a younger version of himself to the party, and we just had to go along and not say anything to him about the fact that we had just seen an older version of him die." River gave a hollow laugh that seemed more like a sigh of resignation.
"Oh, and the whole time my mum was just a flesh avatar linked to her consciousness, while she was really in a different time on the asteroid known as Demon's Run, pregnant with me."
"Something tells me that it would take an advanced degree in physics to even try to understand your biography."
That comment did elicit a genuine laugh from her, as she conceded, "You're probably right about that. I can't even keep track of it all myself without writing it down."
He mused that this conversation confirmed, beyond a doubt, that River Song was the most complicated woman he had ever met. "And how did your mum and dad get involved in all of this?"
"They were best friends with him before I was even born. My mum, Amy, first met the Doctor when she was a little girl. He came back for her once she grew up and took her with him on his adventures. I was there the first time she set foot on another planet. That covert op I went on with Father Octavian to try and earn my pardon? They were there. He didn't know me very well and mum had no clue who I was. I couldn't tell them for fear of messing up the timelines. You have no idea how difficult it is to be part of a family that practically lives in a time machine. No one ever meets in the right order." She took another sip of her now cold tea. Making a face, she refilled it from the heated pot on the tray.
By this point, Warden Michael Heath had given himself over to a willing suspension of disbelief. It was clear that she was telling him things she didn't often speak of, if she ever did at all. And he understood the need to be able to talk to someone about things instead of keeping them all to yourself. How she lived sounded like enough to drive one mad.
"So you're married to the Doctor, who's best friends with your parents, and they travel through time and space in his... what's that box called again?"
"That's the Tardis. In a weird way she's also sort of my parent. Thanks to her and the meddling of some people I'd rather not talk about, I'm not completely human. I have two hearts, and I can regenerate. Basically, I'm part human, part time lord."
He blinked. "Seriously?" She nodded. "So, why would you go and erase the Doctor from every database in the universe? Surely there would be less difficult ways of earning a pardon. You almost succeeded last time, if not for the death of Father Octavian. And how did you even manage to do such a thing?"
River's curls bounced back and forth as she shook her head. "That wasn't me. The Doctor's the only one who could've pulled it off, though I have no clue why he would do such a thing, or when. Time travel, remember? He's obviously been very thorough, if even the Papal Mainframe has no record of his existence." A look of irritation appeared on her face as she realized something. "Oh, damn he must have gotten rid of them! I didn't think of that. He's certainly got some explaining to do next time I see him. Just hope he's old enough..."
"Gotten rid of what? And how are you going to see him again if he's always traveling about in time and space? Seems to me someone like that would be pretty hard to contact."
With a heaving sigh she flopped back in the chair. "Our marriage licenses. Since our first wedding was in an aborted timeline, we've had at least a dozen ceremonies in this one. It's become a sort of anniversary tradition. Some were huge, with lots of guests, pomp, and circumstance. Then there were the quiet, small ones with just the two of us. But if he's gone and deleted himself from the universe, heaven knows what's happened to the certificates. I suppose, legally speaking, I'm single now." She rolled her eyes. "As for finding him, I have my ways." There was a wealth of secrets implied in the wink and smirk she gave him.
"One more thing, River. It's been obvious from your first night here that nothing we do can keep you locked up, and it's always baffled me why you come back. Every time you escape I think you're finally gone for good, but without fail you always turn up again. Why?"
The enigma of a woman mulled it over for a minute. "There are several reasons, most of which I can't tell you, but the best explanation I can think of is that it's home. I've told you a little about my past, but what you know barely scratches the surface of how truly complicated and messed up it really is. I've thought about not coming back before, but I don't really have anywhere else to go. When I do see the Doctor or my parents, we're always out of sync, never quite on the same page." She spoke slowly. It was clearly difficult for her to explain. "I can stay with them for a little while, but the longer we're together the more likely it is that one of us will spoil something, give away some hint of an event that hasn't happened for all of us yet. I can't risk that happening, because the consequences might be a paradox that could potentially undo half of my life." The sentence was punctuated by a halfhearted laugh that failed miserably. "And... when I leave them, there's a chance, a very slim one, that the next time we see each other, they might know me a little better." Her tone was quiet and sad, and her eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "Because it hurts, knowing things you can't tell the ones closest to you, having to let them go through it for themselves. And when they don't know you, there's no one to care. The only people who would if you told them, are the same ones that can't know because they haven't lived through everything yet. It's the burden of a time traveler." There was a small hitch in her voice. She swallowed. "So I come back, over and over again, because it's the one place that's mine. Where I can live my life in order, and they always know where to find me. It's enough, because it has to be."
She cleared her throat, wiping both cheeks with her hand and choking out a smile in an effort to hide the tears.
Warden Heath didn't allow the fact that he was... moved, by her story, to show outwardly. At least, he hoped he didn't. Clearing his throat, he asked, "So... now that you've been pardoned, what will you do? You can't just bounce around from place to place, never having somewhere to go back to."
"Well... Earth wouldn't be a good idea, since my parents live there. I could stay with them for a little while, but I would eventually need a place of my own. Preferably in a time where I could continue my research... I'd like to go back to Luna but I've already graduated. Besides, the last time I was there an entire squad of Judoon made quite the scene, barging in and arresting me for murder and genocide. Even with a full pardon, it'd be pretty shaming to try and face everyone after that."
The Warden thought for a moment. "I'm not familiar with the use of time travel myself, but couldn't you, I don't know, go back to Luna sometime in the future when people don't really know you, if you really wanted to? I'm sure the Papal Mainframe would straighten out the paperwork, help you find a way to fit in. They're very eager to clear up this 'misunderstanding'."
Sitting up, she smiled brightly at the suggestion. "That's actually not a terrible idea; thank you Michael. And after all, he did call me 'professor'..." Seeing his curious glance, she explained, "The last time I saw the Doctor, when I was on that mission, he accidentally introduced me to Amy as 'Professor River Song'. I laughed off the spoiler at the time, but maybe he said it on purpose. He was still incredibly young and didn't know me very well, but it's possible a future version of myself told him I would need to hear that to figure out where I'm going. Even if it was just an accident, it creates a self sustaining paradox to get me to where I need to be." River's mood had certainly brightened at the idea.
"So you're going back to Luna University to teach? What kind of doctor are you anyway? I never thought to ask."
She laughed, "That's not the first time I've heard that question. I'm a doctor of archeology- it's amazing how much you can learn about people just by looking at the past. Besides, it makes finding the Doctor a lot easier when you know where he's been. Although," she paused as a thought struck her, "it might be a bit more of a challenge now that he's wiped himself from all of the databases. Ah, well. That's what makes it interesting."
Warden Heath just shook his head, bemused at the thought of the free-spirited, flirtatious woman before him in charge of students, grading, and leading archeological expeditions. "You're always full of surprises, aren't you Doctor Song." His tone made it more of a statement than a question. "I must say this place will be a lot less interesting without you to worry about."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll find something to keep you busy. I might pop back every once in a while to check in, keep you all on your toes." She winked, then stood, brushing down her dress with one hand and holding onto her mug with the other. "You mind if I keep this?"
He chuckled. "Technically, I'm shouldn't allow it, and if asked I'll deny I ever said so, but sure. Why not?" He also rose from his seat, crossing his arms across his chest. "Doctor River Song, you have been the most troublesome, irritating, and downright problematic prisoner I have ever had the misfortune to be in charge of." River's grin told him that she appreciated the compliment. "You have also been the most entertaining. I'd tell you to stay out of trouble, but somehow I feel that would be pointless."
Laughing heartily, she agreed. "You and me both, Michael."
"Take care of yourself River." He smiled warmly, concern in his eyes for the woman who had to bear so much. "It's been a pleasure." Michael reached across the desk to shake her hand.
Accepting the gesture as a sign of his sincerity, she took it with a strength that belied her figure. "Likewise, Warden. I do appreciate the consideration you've shown me over the years, and hope I haven't caused you too much trouble. Stormcage has certainly been less... dismal than I expected. I might even miss it a little bit. Do send me a Christmas card."
Offering him a wink, she spun and breezed purposefully out of his office, leaving him to stare thoughtfully at the space she had occupied mere moments before. He was just sitting back down when she reappeared in the doorway.
"Oh, and Michael?" As he met her gaze, she smiled. It was a friendly smile, unlike the mask she usually wore. "Thank you for listening."
He nodded gruffly as she turned, strutting down the corridor with even more ownership than before.
In retrospect, he puzzled over the fact that the mug was no longer in her hand, before he remembered her cabinet. It gave him a quiet chuckle to realize that her pockets must be bigger on the inside as well.
The guards watched her go, giving the Warden inquiring looks as to whether they should allow a prisoner, or, former prisoner, to roam about freely. He waved them off, and they closed the door. The Warden of Stormcage Prison did not begrudge River Song her freedom. She may have gotten on his nerves at times and been overall incredibly difficult to manage, but he had always known that she didn't belong here. She wasn't a coldhearted murderer. And whatever happened to her, he hoped she would be happy.
"Good luck, River Song."
to be continued... =)