"The Ood have been more prominent in studies of ethics or politics than music or legend. They do, after all, show us a reflection of ourselves (Sawyer, 2745: 23). But to anyone interested in post-Gallifreyan, the Ood—and our treatment of them—do not just show us our own past, but also a faint, yet enduring, tale of The Doctor himself. The Doctor, and perhaps his strongest and strangest Earth Companion.
Song, R., 5130. Boxed-Up: A Collection of Timelord Ephemera. Thesis. (PhD) Luna University.
River stood on the central planet of the Ood-Sphere, snow up to her ankles and music skittering up from glaciers to prick her skin, and tried to picture The Doctor's face. Not his current face—not that strange, daft mix of old and young and silly hats that had slipped behind even her infant eyes. Not the face she had last seen from a hospital bed, shadowed as her whole body ached from the gift she had not known she would give. Not the face she had killed and kissed. No, instead she strained for the face that had been added to snowside stories and Oodsong, shared—or so she had read—over telepathic link across entire planets.
It didn't start with the divorce. It started at the pub.
Donna's friend Cheryl was mad for detective novels. Not the proper stuff—nothing like Agatha Christie—but the sort who sat in dark bars and glowered while the supernatural happened all around them. They were, to the man, brooding, long-streak-of-nothing blokes; they looked pretty interesting for five minutes, but get so wrapped up in their personal crises that they couldn't see the criminal for the Cthulu.
Chiswick was not anyone's Chicago or New York. Going down the pub had to stand in for a brooding bar, with Earl playing darts up one end, but Donna sometimes thought of Cheryl and her daft spook-books, when she found herself sketching stick figures out of beer dregs on a table top for the sixth night in seven, trying to sort out all the pictures in her dreams. "Distracted," Mum called it.
("You won the lottery, even with all the…mess." Sylvia's voice cut through three miles and the fumes of a thousand pints, careful vowels sharp in her mind. "Be happier. That's how it works."
"There isn't exactly an off-switch, you know."
"Or an on-switch."
Sylvia had sighed, hand reaching out and then fluttering back, manicured nails curling back into awkward palms. "Donna," she said. "You need to—"
"—if you say move on, I'll—"
"—you'll what, my girl?" Sylvia shook her head, as if Donna had handed her another school paper with, 'Mediocre: See Me' written out in careful, green pen. "Be obstreperous?"
"I never should have given you that word of the day calendar."
Sylvia just had an eyeroll for that. "Forget him, Donna" she'd said, and swallowed something soft in the next words. "You're good at forgetting things.")
Sitting at her booth, head pounding, Donna wished she could explain that she had forgotten about Shaun, at least as much as anyone could be expected to forget about a git who talked about "growing apart" the way other people talked about shopping lists. It had been easy, actually. Easy enough to worry her, because Donna was sure that once she would have fought; she would have fought, and screamed, and even if she hadn't been able to keep, she might have learnt, and Shaun would have more of her mark on him than a black eye.
There was something in her head. Something smothering, and blank, and thick where thoughts might be, and made her feel more like Cheryl's ridiculous, paranoid not-so-good detectives than she'd ever wanted. The night before, she'd seriously dreamt of giant bees. Wasps? Things. And her dream-self had thought it was beautiful—thought it was important—while the rest of her screamed for flypaper. The headache that morning? Worse than a hangover.
"Okay." She stood, knees popping, and let herself drift to the bar. "I'm thinking about bees. Time for another drink."
"Make it a whiskey."
The voice was light, but as richly warm and worn smooth as the wood panelling on the old pub's walls. A small, strong hand came down to tap at a coaster, and Donna blinked as Ed—worked here five years; a year younger than her in school; played a tree once in the local play because his mum had begged him, and was usually only half awake as he poured pints—blushed all over his rather unfortunate face and reached up for spirits.
Donna looked over her shoulder, following the hand up a bare, tanned arm to take a woman who might have looked at a hair-straightener once, only to point and laugh. Green eyes narrowed in turn, and Donna felt the muscles on her face tighten as she watched the woman's lips curve up in a half smile.
"Oh, yes," she said, winking at Donna. "One for me, too." The two glasses slipped in before them, faint trails shining on the sides from Ed's shaking hands.
Donna glared. She had to glare up, because the woman was wearing louboutins as if they were tennis shoes, and the hair added at least a school-ruler's length in height.
"Oi, you," she managed. "Who says I drink that muck?"
"Who says you don't want to? Rule 32. If you're going to have a drink, it should always be a good one. Especially when you need it." Donna watched as one glass was raised in a salute. "I'm River Song."
Donna felt a laugh rise, raucous and bright, from her throat. "You're mad, that's what you are."
"Aren't we all, dear?"
"Mad," said Donna. "And… raised by hippies?"
River Song laughed at that, soft and yet strangely wild, as leather gleamed in the belt at her waist; the shoes; the bag slung over one sleek shoulder.
Donna shook her head. She felt the thickness inside her rise and grow, and she struggled to keep her curiosity bright and hot inside her mind. "Bad ones? Look, do I know you?"
She hissed surprise as River's hand fell warmly about her own, pressing it around the remaining glass. "You might." River shrugged. "Some other time."
Wonderful things, surprises. The Doctor had always thought them served on Wednesdays, or as a distraction from Sunday afternoons, but even a Tuesday might be miraculous, if it started with River Song, a carpet, and a planet run on dirty limericks.
The problem was, of course, that sometimes surprises didn't know when to stop.
"Body in the Library?"
The book landed with a small thud on the Tardis console, white fold-scars running across its cover, its pages brittle and curling up towards him, echoing older hands. It was battered. It had been loved. His breath ground down against his throat.
"How did you find that, River?"
River Song shrugged, leaning around his stiff, tweed-covered body to squint at the paperback. Her hair tickled his cheek, and it was both light and terribly dense, somehow; the air between them thick with the fresh-washed smell of it, overlaying her skin and the particular crispness the old girl could lend to the clothes she kept for them all.
"Bathtime reading, sweetie," she murmured, pressing a kiss to his shoulder. The gesture, her warmth at his back, all felt so deliciously, delicately comfortable that he was tempted to turn around and make her forget the book, forget anything that didn't involve their brief days of synchronicity. His hand found her hair, sliding up under the weight of it to cup the base of her skull, and River purred, low in her throat.
"It was right there," she said. "Waiting."
The Doctor sighed, catching bright, superfine threads of curiosity in her voice.
"Waiting. Lots of things are waiting, River. That doesn't mean you have to—"
"—Go poke it with a stick?" River snorted, and he did not need to turn to know how she smirked, both eyebrows raised. "Oh, my love. Be careful. I'll point and laugh."
"If we start pointing out each other's constant inconsistencies, River, we'll be here all day. Twice." The Doctor picked up the slim book, fanning the pages with the edge of his thumb, so they rustled and flapped together. "Why are you interested in Agatha Christie, of all people? Not that she isn't charming, of course. Lovely woman—has pluck in spades. I think pluck is the word, isn't it? Dashing, smart people from the early twentieth century have pluck—or is that pheasants?"
"I think," River managed, words only a little strangled, "They wore pheasants, sometimes."
"Yes, of course. And that's just confusing. Agatha Christie wasn't confusing, she was gallant." The Doctor turned, dropping a kiss to the tip of her nose. "Love a gallant girl, me."
"Always." His face twisted as River gently tugged the book from his hands. Empty, they twisted together, knuckles creaking. "Donna was splendid, too." he said.
"Oh." River's tone had softened, but her eyes were bright on his face. Bright, clear and scholar-sharp, while he followed a faint flush as it flared along her cheekbones. "This was Donna's? Donna Noble?"
This woman, said the familiar thought, has tried to read everything about you. And written some of it.
"Yes," he said. "Old girl must have kept it. You know she does that, sometimes. The whole business of Jack's Squareness Gun ending up in your Byz—"
"—spoilers, Doctor." River laughed, one hand reaching up to cup his face. "If you're dripping information, then you must be trying to distract me. And if I know you're trying to distract me, it's only going to be rubbish."
"She was my best friend," he said.
"Then, sweetie, I bloody well hope I get to meet her."
River smiled. "Oh, yes."
"Several ways. That was their redeeming feature."
Donna wasn't sure how she and the stranger had gotten talking about Nestene Duplicates. She did not, after all, even know what a Nestene Duplicate was, but River's knowing voice—something in her presence—seemed catching. Sitting with River Song, their legs tangling slightly the scarred pub tabletop, River's shoes kicked away and her instep warm and not entirely unwelcome against Donna's calf, made her feel bright and brilliant about all her edges. And she felt entirely educated in the benefits of swappable heads.
"You're insane." Donna grinned. "Complete nutter. You do realise that, don't you?"
River shrugged. "People do keep reminding me. But you seem to be enjoying it."
"I—the stories you tell." Donna shivered, pushing her hair back out of her eyes, letting her palms press there. "I feel like my head's going to explode."
"That," River muttered, "Is because it is."
"River, you can't!"
River let her hand rest against the Tardis's outside wall, watching rich blue show through the gaps in her fingers as The Doctor paced and glared. Stormcage's barred shadows striped their faces. "And who says I haven't?"
"You haven't. It's not possible. It's so impossible that—"
"—I love a challenge."
"I am not challenging you."
"Oh yes, my love. You are."
They both staggered as they left, though Donna was sure River must be putting it on. Her arm was tight about Donna's waist, fingers toying with the silky purple material of her shirt. Just a Top Shop thing—not a favourite, until now. Now, anything could happen—and that might be the whiskey; the stories; the new tightness in her stomach mixing with the endless thrumming in her head—but whatever it was, it was glorious.
"I'd forgotten," she said. The night was cool around her, though she was sure that air must be boiling off her skin like water hitting a hot stove. Something was crackling over her, and River's hair was blown all about the place in the slight wind, whole swathes of it blowing across the other woman's face.
"Forgotten what, Donna?"
"What it felt like. Not being a temp." She shrugged. "Not that this isn't just some sort of really weird dream, or something like that, but I know there was this—this—"
"—This what, darling?"
Darling? Must be a dream. All of it. Donna pictured herself back in the pub, slumped over her usual table with her hair sprawled all about the bloody place and a small puddle of spit growing beneath her mouth until Ed finally felt brave enough to wake her. She shuddered. She'd take the dream. River's voice was soft, her lips pressing for a bare second against Donna's jaw.
"This time," she said. "I don't know. Mum says it's just because I'm trying to make my life into something it's not, what with Shaun and all the psychology programs on telly, but there was one time before all of this, and it was perfect. Or it would be, if I could remember it. All I get is…headaches. And dreams about great-giant-bloody wasps. Or libraries with dead people's donated faces on them. And that doesn't sound perfect—it sounds mad. But it was."
"Fleshbanks really are common, you know," River murmured, bringing one hand slowly up along Donna's back to tangle in the long, smooth mass of hair, almost black in the night, though streetlights brought out flashes of bloodier hues. "Giving a face is…like putting a plaque on a park bench."
Donna shuddered. "I've heard that before. Why have I heard that before?"
"Maybe someone told you?"
River smiled, wistful and sweet. "We both know the type."
"I don't know anything about you."
River laughed, head falling back. "Oh, you know quite a bit, actually. I don't tell that Silurian story to just anyone, Donna Noble. But there are songs about you, so I thought: if I'm going to tell anyone, it just has to be you."
Donna flinched, skin stretched tight. "I do not know who you are," she said. "And I don't know why I want to invite you home."
River smirked, shadows dancing over her face under the streetlights, traffic rumbling at her back. "That second part's easy. As for the first…"
Donna gasped as River brought two hands to her face. Donna felt the edges of River's palms against her cheeks; fingers light against her temples. River's eyes were wide, and she seemed to stiffen where she stood, the tips of her nails pricking Donna's skin and that wicked, full mouth tightening in anger.
"Oh," River breathed. "Cowboys in your head." Her own head shook: a sharp, tight motion. "I hate him sometimes. Donna, I want to help you."
"By tearing off my head? Because that's what this is starting to—"
"—I can help you. He was wrong." River grinned, quick and fierce. "So very wrong, though if he did this when he didn't even know a thing about me, then I suppose it makes sense, if anything makes sense once you've persuaded yourself that you are a Lonely God and you're dealing with a metacrisis. That daft, dear, stupid man."
Donna was crying. She felt it; felt the heaviness in her throat and nose; the tears on her cheeks, even when it was impossible to blink away from River's tumbled, impossible speech. Her head was burning. Her skin; the muscles laid tight and pulsing over her skull and down her neck; she burned, all while River's voice seemed to come from somewhere increasingly far away.
"Oh, no you don't."
River's lips were against hers, urgent and ardent; sweet and sharp. Donna's mouth gaped a little, but all the other woman did with that little piece of human awkwardness was something disgustingly clever with her tongue.
And something broke. River cried out into her mouth, biting her own lips and Donna's as the burning sensation twisted up and out and around the two of them, golden light, with images flecked through it, like dust in sunbeams.
The dust in sunbeams. Stone bodies beneath the earth, and her hand on the lever that broke Pompeii. Unicorn-wasp-Agatha Christie-planetfall-planetlost-shadows-faces-faces-his-face-his-hand-his-world-and-theirs-and-and-and—
Donna blinked. "He just went and did it." Donna shuddered, barely noticing as blood pooled in her bottom lip. "He just—that mangy, skinny little—all of that, he took from me?"
River's smile was crooked, though she could not dim the triumphant gleam in her eyes, heightened by a new, shifting glow. "And I just went and put it all back. We're both dreadfully interfering, you know."
"Oh," Donna breathed. She could feel her mind turning. Expanding. Felt thoughts leaping through new channels, playful and familiar and as wonderful as time with her grandfather under an open-starred sky. "I know," she said. "Wait. I know. I really know, and I'm not dead, which means something must have—"
"—re-absorbed the Time Energy left over from the metacrisis. And taken down his memory block, of course." River scowled. "With those unnecessarily troublesome self-defence mechanisms. They nearly had my teeth out."
"But that means—"
"—yes, I could take the power without melting bits of my insides. Very useful." River kissed Donna's cheek.
"He said no one could withstand the—the Vortex." Donna shuddered, stepping back to look again at the smiling woman, more familiar now than ever. "And I knew that. I was…he had my head and I knew that."
"And the Doctor lies, darling. Especially to himself." River laughed. "Mostly, though, he just happened to be wrong. No one could absorb the life of a Timelord. Except me."
"And who are you when you're at home—oh." Donna swallowed, re-drawing River's face into something younger and strained, watching her friends fall and a man's face drain of all recognition and warmth. "I know you. I s—"
River's hand fell gently over her mouth. "Spoilers," she said. "I know what that look means by now. On you, as well as him."
Donna pulled her head back, staring up at the other woman. "I remember it all, now," she said, slowly tasting the words while the other woman reached for her hands, squeezing.
"The DoctorDonna." River nodded. "Hello."