They land the TARDIS on the side of a highway in February–well, the closest thing they’ve got to February there, it’s actually the month of Dlox, says the Doctor, but to be honest, Dlox is much Februarier than any February he’s ever seen, and this is the Februariest place he’s ever visited, all bare branches and old snow and puddles and that quietness that hangs over the trees in the morning air, the kind you feel you could just reach out a finger and–
Amy pushes him over.
“What’s this place called?” she asks as they stroll along the road, hands shoved deep into coat pockets and collars turned up against the chilly breeze.
“Aularind.” The Doctor’s breath clouds in the air. “Fourth planet in the Vremva system, sparsely populated, only colonized within the last three or four centuries. That’s Palutos.” He stops and points at a weathered road sign. “Capital city. Well, I say city. Village, really. Small. Not a lot of people. Great fun though. They know how to throw a parade.”
Amy wraps her coat closer around her body and shivers. “Can’t we come back when it’s warmer?”
“Warm as it gets here!” He grins. “Buck up, Pond!”
“It’s summer!” The Doctor grabs her by the shoulders and steers her towards the street sign; she blinks rapidly as the high sun falls into her eyes. “First day of the Feast of Geraniums! The men here spend the rest of the year making instruments, hand-carving them out of their own wood and stringing and tuning them until they’re absolutely perfect, and then! they bring them outside. Today. They play them for the first time, the only time, just these next nineteen days, and the village holds a feast, and for nineteen days there’s nothing but food and drinks and music.”
He takes Amy by the hands and pulls her around the bend of the road, through puddles and snowdrifts, until they can see Palutos below them down a little slope, a cluster of whitewashed houses and cobbled streets. Amy shields her eyes with one gloved hand and looks down at the village. She can see people milling about already, though it’s early in the day: figures carrying laden platters, spreading cloths over outdoor tables, setting up lights, and filling the stone well with what looks like trailing flowers, spilling out onto the street.
“Want to dance, Amy Pond?” the Doctor murmurs into her ear, and then he’s off, rushing down the hill. Amy rubs her hands together and follows him.
The first person they meet is Aula, a girl not much older than Amy but who already has three children clinging to her skirts. Amy smiles at her, and she smiles back. They say hello, introduce themselves as tourists. A few minutes later Aula’s father Zeteny comes out, a glossy fiddle in one hand, and greets Amy and the Doctor each with a kiss on the palm. He is followed by three of his sons and two nephews; then the neighbors wake up, and they wander out onto their porches to join the conversation; someone’s grandmother comes around the corner with a keg of spiced milk; and suddenly there are fifteen more people all asking if they can help her carry it.
Amy tries desperately to remember names and corresponding faces, but after the eighth group of cousins who she swears are wearing identical outfits, she gives up. Her face is flushed with embarrassment as she sits wearily down on the picnic bench beside the Doctor.
“Oh shut up,” he scolds her from underneath the no less than twenty children who are all trying to sit on his lap at once. “No one expects you to remember who’s who. Relax, let your hair down.”
She puts her hair up, actually–the wind has picked up and she can’t keep it out of her face–but she lets the kids drag her, and then the Doctor, into a game of hopscotch, and after ten minutes she’s stopped caring that she doesn’t know who she’s laughing with.
The music starts at high noon. The whole village is awake by then: the cobblestone streets are filled with flowers and children and tables piled with food. Amy has feasted on blackberries, persimmons, peaches, grapes and pine nuts; the musicians’ wives have plied her with dumplings and fresh perch in parsley and honey and something called sea moss; she has had at least four mugs of spiced milk and cinnamon, several glasses of mulled wine, and one excruciating swallow of “fire tea.” She doesn’t know where the Doctor is–getting into trouble somewhere on the other side of the square, she imagines–but she doesn’t care. She leans back in her seat, absently stroking the hair of the five year old girl who has claimed her as a chair, and thinks she could sleep for the rest of the year.
But then the music starts–and suddenly everyone is moving. The little girl jumps off her lap. All around her, the men are striking up harps and mandolins and ziqa, bursting into melody, a cacophony of notes, outrageous harmonies, strange chords and foreign rhythms. The village begins to sing–then the village begins to dance.
Amy is astoundingly lost. She stays where she is, swinging her legs to and fro, and wonders if she could sneak back to the TARDIS for a nap without getting noticed.
Before she can think much further, someone grabs her by the arms and swings her to her feet. The Doctor. He’s got willow fronds in his hair and a grin on his face. He says something–over the din she catches the word ridiculous–and pulls her into the crowd. Amy finds herself holding hands in a circle dance, the Doctor on her left, an incredibly spry old woman on her right, and no idea what the rules are.
She knows one thing: she’s not cold anymore. The sun is bright on her face, and the music swells.
Zeteny and his wife Hinna have a spare bedroom, and neither Amy nor the Doctor feels like walking all the way back to the TARDIS after this many hours of dancing, so they accept. The room only has one bed, but Amy is too tired to care. She flops down onto the huge quilted mattress and lets her breath out in exhaustion.
The Doctor is pulling up a chair by the single low window. “Oh, don’t be like that,” Amy groans, “it’s just a bed, it’s not gonna be weird.”
“Well, no. But I don’t need as much rest as you do, I won’t drift off for hours yet.” He settles himself back, and Amy wriggles out of her coat and underneath the blankets, closing her eyes, letting sleep overtake her.
“Do you like it here?” the Doctor asks after a few moments.
She stirs herself back to coherent thought. “Mmmf.”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
He’s looking out at her from under his hair, and there’s an almost anxious stillness in his eyes. Have I impressed you yet, Amy Pond?
“’Course I do,” she mumbles. “I like everywhere you bring me.”
He says nothing. The night passes. Amy disappears into a deep sleep and dreams of snowdrifts and willows. She wonders, when she wakes up, what the Doctor dreams of.
“How long can we stay?” asks Amy the next night.
They’re gathered around a roaring bonfire, everyone from the village, on the beach of a lake fed by saltwater rivers and overhung by stars. The pair of them are sitting in the sand on the Doctor’s jacket, watching the skilled fingers of the musicians or the nimble feet of the dancers, and clapping whenever one song seems to end and a new one to begin, although it can be hard to tell–Amy wonders whether it isn’t meant to be one long song stretched out over a whole day. She’s not sure, come to think of it, if the men ever actually stopped playing last night.
The Doctor shifts in the sand next to her. “Long as you like. The Feast lasts nineteen days, that’s a month for them. We can see it through, if you want.”
She nods sleepily and leans back on her hands. “What exactly is the Feast of Geraniums?”
“Ahh, it’s sort of…Imagine Easter and Saint Valentine’s Day and…the New Year, all in one. New life, beginnings, new love, all that.”
“It is. It’s the only holiday they get all year, actually.” He lies back on the sand, and Amy does the same, losing herself in the starscape of the sky and the crackling of the bonfire and the Doctor’s voice beside her head.
“It’s not as dismal as it sounds,” he continues. “A year here isn’t as long as it is on Earth. And it makes it special. It’s considered incredibly lucky to be born during the Feast: you’re supposed to have good fortune for the rest of your life. Most people get married during this month, too. And this is the only time of year when they’re allowed to play music.”
Amy glances over at him. “What?!”
“Oh, yeah, it’s against their religion. No music except in the seventh month–that’s why they have to make new instruments every year, because they destroy them on the last day of the Feast.” He waves his hand vaguely in the direction of the musicians. “All those drums and ziqa and fiddles go up in this bonfire in seventeen days.”
“That’s…that’s terrible. That’s unfair. The women don’t even get to play anything!”
“Well, the men aren’t allowed to sing.”
“The men. They aren’t allowed to sing.” The Doctor rolls onto his stomach, props himself up on his elbows, and starts twisting at the dune grass pricking up out of the sand in front of him. “Forbidden by the gods. Didn’t you notice, only the women and children have been singing all day?”
Amy blinks, but he’s right, now that he mentions it. She shivers, and tries to imagine a year without music, a lifetime without singing, a harp being thrown into a fire. “I can’t even…that’s just…that can’t be right. There’s no planet that should be right on.”
The Doctor flicks a bit of grass at her. “It’s their way of life.”
“But come on.” She rolls onto her side, staring him in the face. “Don’t you think it’s terrible?”
He tilts his head and looks at her askance. “I think it’s sad. And a little bit beautiful.”
Amy is quiet as they walk back to Zeteny and Hinna’s house. Her sleep that night is haunted by the sound of bonfires.
They do stay for days. The celebrations continue, unflagging in their enthusiasm: there are sunrise parades and christenings, and an exchange of gifts beside the well filled up with flowers, and contests of musicianship and baking and singing and brewing. On the tenth day, Zeteny’s daugher Serry is married, and everyone wears green. They sit out on the marriage lawn afterwards drinking fire tea and laughing.
Amy is walking back to the table to refill her drink when she feels a tap on her shoulder. It’s one of the mandolinists from the beach, a boy near her age with yellow hair and a suntanned face. He smiles and holds out a red flower.
“Oh! Thank you,” Amy exclaims, blushing and reaching out to accept it.
Suddenly the Doctor’s there, out of nowhere. “I wouldn’t, if I were you,” he says quickly, grabbing her hand and plucking the flower from the boy’s fingertips. “This’ll get complicated.”
The boy’s smile disappears. He turns tail and disappears amongst the wedding guests.
“Oi!” Amy glares up at him. “What are you, jealous?”
“Not in the least,” he replies easily, dropping her hand. “Do you want to get married?”
She stares at him.
“Not to me. To him.” He points in the direction of the vanished mandolinist. “He was giving you a red geranium, that’s a proposal of marriage.”
Amy coughs. “What.”
“I don’t even know him!”
“–prefer to take things a bit slower than that, even if he is in a band.” The Doctor chuckles and pours her some fire tea.
“How do you know he wasn’t just being nice and giving me a flower?”
“No such thing as just a flower here. You give someone a geranium, you’re giving them your heart. Different colors, different meanings. Pink, heart of a friend–white, heart of a sister or a brother–red, marriage. Heart of a lover. Everyone gives them out at this time of the year, it’s tradition.”
Amy takes a swig of fire tea and flinches. “Kind of sappy, innit?”
“Well.” He tosses the flower over his shoulder. “It’s February, give them a break.”
February gets colder. The festival begins to wind down. There is supposed to be a parade on the sixteenth day, but it rains, and instead they stay inside, eating leftover dumplings out of the refrigerator and trading stories with Zeteny and Hinna and Aula.
On the seventeenth day the sky is grey and overcast, and Amy looks out her bedroom window and watches little kids giving each other flowers, white and pink and, every once in a while, bright red. More often than not this last one results in the kid getting pushed over. Amy winces every time.
On the night of the eighteenth day, she can’t sleep. They’re leaving tomorrow, and she lies there now, unable to close her eyes for more than five minutes or find a comfortable position under her quilt, until at last the Doctor jumps up from his chair and pulls her out of bed. They throw on the warmest clothes they have at hand and tiptoe outside into the dark and the cold, and they play hopscotch until the moon sets.
On the last night of the Feast of Geraniums, Amy stands in front of a bonfire and watches music burn. The men approach, one by one, and lay their instruments on the blaze: Zeteny his fiddle, the yellow-haired boy his mandolin, Serry’s husband his drum. The Doctor stands beside her and looks on as the flames lick at the polished wood and stretched hides, turning them into glowing embers that rise above their owners’ heads and vanish like notes in a song. A harp string snaps violently, and both Amy and the Doctor jump. The rest of the village is silent. Nobody speaks; nobody sings.
Amy feels a lump in her throat. It’s like a funeral–sad and a little bit beautiful. She doesn’t like it.
“Why did you bring me here?” she asks quietly as they walk back to the TARDIS in the dark, stepping over puddles and blinking against the cold.
The Doctor stops and reaches out a hand. She takes it, and his warm fingers wrap around hers. He looks at her seriously. “Don’t you think everyone should see this place?”
She can’t answer–not because she’s afraid to, but because she doesn’t know what to say. The Doctor lets go of her hand.
Amy slips inside the TARDIS and breathes in the familiar smell, all bright lights and soft humming. “Be just a moment,” calls the Doctor from behind her. She shrugs off her coat and throws it over a chair, walking around the console and trailing her fingers over the buttons and keyboards and fiddly bits. Already the planet outside seems distant and forgettable, even though she’s just spent nineteen days there, living with its people and learning its dances. She wonders if it’s always like this.
The Doctor comes in through the open door and shuts it soundly behind him. “Onward and upward?” he inquires, bounding up to the console and starting to hit things that make noise.
“Where to?” Amy replies, a little breathless.
“Dunno. Anywhere you like. We could try Space Florida again, I can try to land us somewhere less…shark-infested…or there’s always Lymic, they’ve got genetically-enhanced alphabets, it’s hard to explain, but they taste so good…”
Amy sits down and lets her eyes wander back to the TARDIS doors. She knows the Doctor. It’s over for them, out there. They’re never going back. Every time he says goodbye to another world, it’s a funeral.
There is a tap on her shoulder, and she looks up. The Doctor is holding out a yellow geranium.
“Here,” he smiles.
Amy stares. “What’s yellow?”
“Heart of a…time-traveling, space alien imaginary friend.”
There’s a stillness in his voice. Warm as it gets here. She swallows. Buck up, Pond.
She takes the flower. Time strikes up around them, and they skip ahead.