“Mind you, it isn’t a proper world,” the Doctor told them. “Not one on which life naturally grew, at any rate. Kith’lim explorers found it, and liked what they saw. So they named it after their own very artistic selves — proof that humans aren’t the only beings a bit too full of themselves — then geo-formed it. A few of them have lived there for generations, providing a little something for discerning tourists. You might say it’s a destination for those in the know.”
He lounged in the jump seat, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
“That’d be you, right?” Rose loved seeing him this way.
“And you’re not going to tell us what you’re in the know about,” Jack grinned at her as he leaned over the Doctor’s shoulder.
“Absolutely right, Captain,” the Doctor said, his eyes dancing. “But I’m definitely in the know.”
“Not even a hint?” Rose asked, trying to keep her wheedle from becoming a whinge. She didn’t really expect an answer, but she also loved playing the game.
“Nope. Not one word.” He relented slightly, when she sat next to him and put her head on his shoulder, dislodging one of Jack’s arms. “Oh, all right. Two words; light show.”
Then he jumped up, rubbing his hands: “And that’s enough chatter. Next stop, Kith’l, just outside the city of Der’la Nauth.”
“How come these cities never have names like, oh I dunno, Manchester?” Rose asked.
“Or even Cardiff?” Jack chimed in.
The Doctor snorted as he set the coordinates and threw the levers.
They arrived on Kith’l just as the larger of the planet’s two pale suns was doing its frail best to cast light over the walls of Der’la Nauth; the ghostly blue and lilac illumination was weirdly beautiful, but not optimal for navigating through the postage stamp city’s equally tiny streets.
They managed, following the Doctor to a restaurant he promised would be an unforgettable gustatory experience.
It was, Rose admitted later, everything he’d said it would be. The food was beautifully prepared, smelled heavenly, tasted better, and was remarkably filling for being melt-in-the-mouth delicate.
(She’d long since learned, when eating on new planets, not ask what anything was, and had found that approaching everything on her plate as an adventure made it exactly that. Oh, she’d always love good greasy chips and crisp newspaper-wrapped fish, but the new food — even the occasional multi-legged items in alien bazaars — was never less than an experience, and often brilliant.)
The service was equally wonderful, although the three of them tended to interpret “not chasing, arresting, or killing us” as wonderful service, given their lifestyle. At the end of the leisurely meal, the graceful Kith’lim maitre de took Jack’s credit bar with a smile, her eyes large and friendly, then asked if they had plans to view Aer’lia rise.
“It’s still midday, so there’s plenty of time to find the very best viewing site,” she said in a low, pleasant voice. “If you would like to return here, I can hold your table.”
“No, thank you,” the Doctor replied. “I think my friends and I have a spot already picked out.” Jack and Rose looked at each other; Jack shrugged.
They left the restaurant. At the Doctor’s urging, they headed back toward the TARDIS, which sat just outside the city. He still wasn’t answering any questions, but it didn’t mean she shouldn’t keep pestering him, Rose thought.
“Doctor, what did she mean by midday? Isn’t this dusk?” she whispered as they walked, leaning into his shoulder to keep her words private. Another thing she’d learned traveling with the Doctor was not to anger the natives by exhibiting ignorance too loudly.
“This? Nah. This is midday for Kith’l,” the Doctor said softly. “Kith’lia — that’s the sun up there — isn’t up to any stronger illumination. Come on, then, you two. I said we had the perfect spot to see Aer’lia rise, and I meant it.”
He grabbed Jack’s hand, and hers, but didn’t really pick up the pace until the blue and lilac of the sky seemed even darker than it had when they arrived. By the time they reached Her, the TARDIS was just one more blue shadow among many, but Kith’lia still cast enough light to comfortably walk by.
The Doctor didn’t reach for his key. Instead, he turned and looked around until he spotted a piece of hilltop meadow that met with his approval.
“Here we go,” he said, dropping with loose-limbed grace onto the grass, and patting it on either side of him. Jack broke out into one of his smiles and obeyed, matching the Doctor’s grace with his own. The Doctor, in turn, matched Jack’s expression with his own beautifully goofy grin. Rose sat down, looked at the two of them, and responded in kind.
Once they were settled, the Doctor began to speak, still very softly.
“Their second sun comes out during Kith’lia absence. It isn’t when Kith’lim sleep, but you might as well call it night — which comes a lot sooner after their midday than you might think; smaller world, faster rotation. And Aer’lia’s in such a loose orbit with Kith’lia Prime that for all intents and purposes it’s just a particularly brilliant star. It’s a beautiful sight, glowing in the sky with other stars around it ... Kith’lim call it Star in a Forest of Stars.”
She had heard that note before, the one in his voice as he described Aer’lia. There was a gentle distance there, an intensification of the alien living under his northern-seeming skin. What spoke were centuries of having seen what she could not comprehend, of loving things she might never be able to love, appreciating things she might run from. She shivered, and loved him the more for it.
Jack chose that moment to reach across the Doctor and pat her knee. Bless him, he always saw the change, too; and he knew how it affected her. She smiled at him, knowing it affected him the same way. They watched the Doctor, and he watched the skies.
Kith’lia set, briefly plunging the trio into what seemed at first like near-complete darkness. Had she not been with Jack and the Doctor, she might have panicked.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Jack murmured — this entire planet seemed to coax quiet from everyone, she thought — “I don’t think this lasts long, and I do think we’re supposed to keep looking up.”
She did, and was rewarded with a rapidly growing starscape, a celestial scroll opening above her head. Before she had time to do more than gasp in wonder, Aer’lia rose.
Unbidden, all of them lay back in the dark meadow, the better to see the sky. The Doctor kept his arms around them both. “Now you’re goin' to see something really special,” he said, turning first to kiss the top of Rose’s head, then back to kiss Jack’s cheek.
The star (“It’s like the nursery rhyme,” she whispered, delighted, “a diamond in the sky!”) hurtled up above the horizon of Kith’l and Rose held her breath at its velocity. Surely it was going to shoot beyond their sight, and out into the dark forever?
It didn’t. It slowed and settled; the other stars, which had dimmed or disappeared when it took over their sky, reappeared. Now, though, they seemed to dance and sparkle as they had not in Aer’lia’s absence. Rose supposed there was a scientific reason, but she was glad when the Doctor failed to give that particular tutorial.
When it happened, she could hardly believe it. The sky, already gorgeous, began to shimmer. Lilac and blue and teal ribbons of light moved across it, and Rose suddenly recalled long-forgotten science classes. “It’s like the aurora borealis, yeah?”
“Shhh.” The Doctor’s admonishment was softened by love. “A bit like, yeah. But they move differently here. Watch.”
She did as he said, and saw the curtain of light twist and move, the stars caught in them. And suddenly they weren’t ribbons, they were waterfalls, showers, with clusters of stars frothing in their wake.
Rose would never know how long the heavenly waters danced above her. Eventually, the falling waters faded. She bit back a disappointed cry, because she could still see Aer’lia and its attendants sparkling in the sky above her, and that was still beautiful.
The three of them sat up, but made no move to rise. Rose put her head on the Doctor’s shoulder, and slipped her arm around his waist. Jack’s hand was there, waiting for hers.
They stayed that way until Aer’lia’s brief reign came to an end, and she fell from the firmament. The handmaid stars faded as gentle Kith’lia rose.
Only then did they finally stand.
“Worth it?” His eyes still held the sky.
“Worth it,” Jack breathed, his blue eyes full of tears.
“Worth it,” she said, her own eyes filled with glory.
Behind them, the TARDIS beckoned with Her own light. They opened the door and came home.