For the last several hours, the Doctor has been contemplating life, the universe, and this new regeneration of his, and has been having a grand time of it. Really. The perfect pair of shoes and quite the head of hair–not strictly ginger, of course, but at least headed in the right direction. It’s not like that sort of thing happens every day.
He’s certainly not disappointed that Grace said no. She was right–she had her own life to lead, and he respects that. He doesn’t begrudge her that adventure.
Not even one tiny bit.
And he’s definitely not upset about it. Not pining away, no fretting or pouting. Mulling, maybe. Yes, perhaps that’s it. Just a bit of polite mulling.
Fifteen minutes ago, though, the jelly babies ran out, the classical music got a little monotonous, and mulling started to lose its charm. He’d had a stray thought about popping back to San Francisco, maybe six months or so after he’d last been there, just to double check, but that struck him as unnecessarily desperate. So he’d decided to set the TARDIS controls to random and see where it took him.
That bit’s just prologue, though. This is where it gets interesting.
The Doctor’s just checking the monitor read-out for his location, and that’s when he hears it–three quick taps at the door. Knock-knock-knock.
Granted, his memory is not the best this regeneration, but still, he’s fairly certain he doesn’t know anyone in this particular where and when. He goes to pull the door open but keeps a hand on it just in case.
Deep green forest greets him, thick with moss, ferns, those little red toadstools with the white spots on the top, and–a woman. Young and blonde, wearing a blue leather coat and black trousers, and struggling to get a pesky bit of nature out of her hair.
“Hi, um, hate to be a bother,” she begins, the words coming quickly as she tugs her ponytail loose, “and this might sound like an odd request, but could I borrow some clothes? I wouldn’t ask, but I’m not really dressed for town, and I think there’s something wrong with the apples…” She trails off as she flicks the offending leaves and twigs free and finally gets a good look at him, eyes traveling up and down.
Her lips form a silent word. Wow.
“Sorry,” he says, looking her over in return. “Have we met?”
Ariel is a mostly peaceful planet, as planets go, and he’s managed to land during a mostly peaceful time in a mostly peaceful location. That said, there’s room for adventure anywhere–at least he’s always said so. And for all its peace, Ariel is an odd little world. A bit fairytale, you might say, and definitely the sort of place where Things Happen. (His favorite sort of place, if he’s being honest, and certainly when compared to the sort of world where Nothing Ever Changes And There’s Lots Of Parliamentary Procedure. Believe him, he knows–he’s from that sort of world. Dreadfully, deadly dull.)
So the point is, having a woman pop seemingly out of nowhere, claiming to be a friend from his future and chattering on about an apple conspiracy really isn’t all that surprising for Ariel, in the scheme of things. For the most part.
(She won’t tell him her name.)
(And yet somehow he’s fetching her a dress.)
(He’s not entirely sure how that happened.)
He grabs the first suitable thing at hand in the TARDIS wardrobe and then hurries back down to where she’s waiting at the threshold. The dress is red and white with little embroidered roses all over it, a small fabric rose bouquet sewn on at the waist, and some extra roses thrown willy-nilly around the hem of the skirt for good measure. Her eyebrows ascend to new and exciting heights when he hands it to her.
“There, that should do.” He’s not quite sure how to read the look on her face, but it’s definitely in the neighborhood of unnecessarily befuddled. “It’ll fit well enough, I think.”
“Yeah…” She rubs a finger over her brow, eyes locked on the dress. “It’s certainly…subtle.”
He looks it over–it is a bit bright. “I promise, it’s completely appropriate for this particular culture,” he assures her. “You won’t look out of place.”
“No, no, I’m sure it’s…fine.” She’s still holding it out in front of her, staring at it like it’s some sort of linen and brocade riddle.
“So…the apples, you were saying?” he asks, wondering where exactly this story is going.
“Oh.” With a blink, she comes back. “Right. We should definitely check that out. Let me just get into the dress, and we’ll go.”
He’s about to suggest she come in and change since the only alternative is her stripping down out here in the woods, and that seems like it would be rude. But before he has a chance to offer, she shrugs off her jacket and shirt, stuffs them into her pack, and pulls the dress on right over the rest of her clothes.
“Oh. Oh, that’s very…” He trails off as he watches her maneuver her vest and bra straps under the neckline of the dress, pull her hair back in an elastic, and sling her pack over one shoulder.
She grins as she straightens the long skirt, checking that it covers her trousers and boots. “Efficient?”
He swallows. “Yes.” Quite the transformation, really. Looking at her, you’d never know there was more hidden just beneath the surface.
She’s peering down at the dress, a charming little dent forming right between her eyebrows. “I look ridiculous. Like Snow White or something.”
“Funny,” he says as he offers her his arm, “I was going to say Rose Red.”
They are halfway to town before she stops laughing.
“So I’d only just arrived, was wandering over near the market when this little old lady started yelling at me about my clothes. Something about propriety, the ruination of civilization, moral failure, and all that.” She shrugs. “You know how it goes.”
He does, actually, although most of the lectures to that effect that he receives are delivered by Time Lords in funny hats. Still, he can sympathize.
“But it wasn’t worth arguing about, you know? So I was just going keep my head down and wait for my ride. Then,” she taps him on the arm for emphasis, hurrying the story along before he has the chance to question who or what that ride might be, “then, over my shoulder, I see her eating an apple from the cart. Next thing I know, she’s following me down the road, and when she walked passed, she didn’t even recognize me. And she had this really blank look on her face, like she’d been hypnotized.” She nods at him knowingly. “Definitely something up with that.”
She’s making these little gestures as she talks, her free hand fluttering like a bird. It’s surprisingly distracting, making it tricky to focus on things like the content of her story and whether this girl is really all that she seems. Her other hand is still tucked comfortably under his arm, as though there’s no question it belongs there. Just as though she walks with him like this all the time.
Of course, if what she says is true, perhaps she does.
That thought is surprisingly distracting, too.
He makes himself concentrate as she describes the path the old lady took, the spooky old house to which she staggered, and how the gates closed and locked themselves with a terrible clang, all in great detail. Now that he’s paying attention, the whole story seems a bit…well, obvious, if he’s being honest. Like maybe there’s another shoe dangling in there somewhere.
When she’s done, she hooks her free hand over his arm as well. “So what do you think? Sound like something dangerous?”
“Probably,” he agrees. “But you still haven’t answered my original question.”
“Oh.” She bites her lip. “What was it again?”
He gives her a level stare. “Where did you come from?”
The look she gives him is less an evasion, more a deliberate tease, maybe even a flirt–bow lips curved and tongue peeking out between her teeth. “Nowhere interesting.”
Something dangerous, indeed.
The town of Ballyhoo is no more than a pleasant walk away, just on the edge of the forest. When they arrive at the marketplace, the mysterious apple cart has disappeared in a puff of proverbial smoke. They ask around–the gruff baker, the cheerful flower peddler, the freckled-faced urchin playing in the street–but nobody seems to remember that it was ever there.
For some reason, she seems to think this is evidence in her favor. He shakes his head but somehow doesn’t quite have the heart to point out that–
From out of the gutter, she produces an apple. “Somebody must have dropped it,” she says, hopping up and pressing it into his hands. Then she just stands there, looking at him expectantly. “Well, go on, then. Check to see if it’s got any mind control powers.”
He eyes the apple in his palm. “It doesn’t seem to be exerting any influence over me yet. You, either.”
“Well, yeah.” She rolls her eyes. “The old lady ate hers. So it must be something inside the apple or maybe on the skin. Aren’t you going to check? Give it a lick.”
He blinks at her. “You want me to lick the mind-controlling gutter apple?”
“Is that a problem?” She tilts her head, frowning at him. “Superior biology, right? Besides, you lick stuff all the time.”
He’s suddenly extremely concerned about the state of his future regenerations.
“Weird stuff,” she adds thoughtfully, wrinkling her nose a little. “Like–”
“Right,” he interrupts a bit too loudly. “Let’s just go do an actual chemical evaluation, shall we?”
She shrugs amicably. “If you like.”
Something is definitely afoot with the apples.
“Seems like they’re coated in some sort of nonnative organic compound…a neurotoxin, if I’m not mistaken,” he tells her, peering at the bright green solution bubbling away in the beaker. “It’s a complicated little chemical, though. I’m not quite sure of the origin.”
She’s been perched next to him on the counter of his makeshift lab in the chemist’s shop for the past hour, watching him work and tossing out the occasional question about the experiment or his methods or the science in general. She’s very pleasant company, actually, and he worries that he’s not nearly as concerned about all those secrets she’s keeping as he ought to be. It’s just rather hard work, being suspicious of someone who looks so incredibly pleased to be here.
At his pronouncement, she hops down and leans over to have a look, her shoulder bumping lightly against his. “So, alien mind control stuff, yeah? How’s it ending up on the apples?”
“Secreted, I expect,” he says and then grins when she pulls a face. “But by what I have no idea. There are plenty of different alien species that could fit the bill.”
“Bet you five quid it’ll be slimy, whatever it is,” she predicts and with such a serene acceptance of the idea that he can’t help but beam at her, just a little. “C’mon, let’s go check out the house.”
He extinguishes the candle he’s been using for a heat source while she corks the reagents. When they’re done, he offers her his hand. It’s meant as a gesture–he still doesn’t know who she is or why she’s here, and she certainly plays her cards very close to her chest, but he’s willing to trust her. He wants to trust her.
(And maybe he wouldn’t mind holding her hand, either.)
She smiles and reaches for it, but she doesn’t take it the way he expects, palm to palm and each set of fingers in a polite grouping of four. Instead, her hand spreads over his, their fingers messily intertwining, searching for a good fit, and when they finally settle into position, there’s stroking, definite stroking, her thumb over his. “You ready?”
“Yeah.” With some effort, he looks up from their joined hands. “I mean, yes. Yes, I think so.”
Her tongue makes another appearance from between her teeth. “Well, as long as you’re sure.”
The sonic screwdriver gets them through the gates–no deadlock seals here, at least. There’s not a soul to be seen on the grounds, just dead trees, dead grass, and a faded collection of garden gnome statuary. They go up the steps to the porch, carefully picking their way across the rotted boards.
The door isn’t locked, and when he turns the knob and pushes it open, the hinges creak out a long and eerie note like a banshee’s wail. Inside, the front parlor is awash in cobwebs and portraits of owls, piercing eyes all staring sternly down at them over fierce beaks.
His companion puts her hands on her hips as she looks around. “So what do you think?” she asks, pursing her lips. “Should we split up?”
He raises an eyebrow at her. From somewhere far off in the distance, they hear mad, cackling laughter.
“Er, alright, maybe not.”
The evil invading alien at the end of the adventure turns out to be predictably villainous–a Gremlin with a great blobby body; snatchy, scratchy claws; and wings like a dragonfly thrown in for variety. It has lured unsuspecting townsfolk into the basement of this abandoned house to serve as food when its ravenous brood hatches. It turns out that it also spits foul-smelling goo when annoyed.
Too bad he forgot that little fact about this particular species.
“Ooh,” she winces when his obligatory-threatening-speech-about-respecting-sentient-life is rudely interrupted by flying alien saliva. “Time to run?”
Minutes later, they are trapped inside the dusty remains of a bedroom, his shoulder pressed against the rapidly splintering door in an attempt to keep it shut as the angry Gremlin rams against it again and again.
His companion is frantically searching for something to serve as a barricade, tossing debris left and right as she goes. Her dress is torn and slipping off at the shoulder, her hair has fallen out of her ponytail, and her cheeks are pink with exertion, but her eyes focus in on the prize, a big brass headboard. Once she reaches it, she struggles to drag it over to the door, giving a chunk of garbage a rather magnificent kick as she goes. The headboard wobbles this way and that, she’s muttering something about hell and high water as well as a few creative alien curses, and frankly, in this moment, he can’t think of a single reason why he ever doubted her.
As soon as she makes it to the door, they wedge the headboard into place and lean against it, bodies jolting every other moment with the force of the alien’s attack. He opens his mouth to speak, some sort of an apology waiting on the tip of his tongue because this is quite a mess they’ve gotten themselves into, and it’s certain to have a very sticky, if not deadly, outcome. But before he has a chance to speak, she turns to him, breathless.
“You should know,” she confesses as her head bumps against the brass rails, “this is the best day I’ve had in ages.”
Her eyes are shining with excitement and her golden hair bounces on the bare skin of her shoulders with each thump. Suddenly he’s a bit breathless himself. “Me too.”
Naturally, they save the day, and the Gremlin is vanquished, its wicked plans foiled. It and its eggs are carefully housed in a cryofoam storage container for transport back to its native planet, and the ensorcelled villagers are all given an antidote to the neurotoxin. No one was harmed, and everyone thanks them profusely for the rescue. All in all, an excellent result.
His companion is standing in front of him, flushed and triumphant, with a beaming smile on her face that he can barely return because he knows what should happen next. By all rights, this ought to be the ending, the close, the denouement–but he can’t quite bring himself to turn that page. He’s not ready to say goodbye just yet.
Neither, it seems, is she. “Your, um,” she says, stepping forward and gestured toward his collar, “your tie thing–”
“Cravat,” he tells her, stepping a little closer himself.
“Right, cravat.” She reaches up to fiddle with his neckwear, and he swallows as her knuckles brush the skin of his neck. “It’s um. It’s got a little bit of…goo on it.”
She’s untying the knot, leaning in close to see how to loosen it, and her tongue is poking out the side of her mouth, and she smells wonderful, really wonderful, and frankly, all these facts are to blame when considering why it takes so long for her words to sink in.
“It’s got…what?” Just then, she tugs it free, and the hairs on his neck rise up at the sensation of the silk sliding beneath his collar.
“Gremlin spit,” she says succinctly, holding it up for him to see.
“Oh.” He makes himself focus on the bit of fabric in her hand. “I suppose that’s the price I pay for not remembering to duck.”
“Yeah, looks like it’s a bit of a loss,” she says sympathetically. “Shall I just toss it out?”
He takes it back from her quickly, tucks it into a pocket. “No, no, I’ll get it clean.” When she raises an eyebrow at him, he adds, “It’s the only one I’ve got.”
She stares at him, openmouthed. “You’re kidding. Only one? You?”
He shrugs. “I used to have more, ages back, but there was this accident with a temporal anomaly, a pan-dimensional entomologist, a swarm of chrono-flux moths, and–”
With a look of disbelief, she shakes her head, interrupting his story. “Ok, look, I can’t let you do this. After we get these people back to town, we’re going shopping. If you’re going to go around in decorative neckwear, you need to own at least a couple different pieces. Life you lead, they’re bound to get slimed occasionally, and even if they don’t, you’ve got to give ‘em a chance to air out a bit in between wearing.”
He’s about to refute that statement on principle, tell her all about how he once wore the same scarf for years at a time, and did he hear anybody complaining? No, he did not. But the look in her eyes stops him in time, and he hears the command for what it is–an excuse to keep this adventure going just a little bit longer.
Oh, to hell with proper story structure, anyway. He’d love to go shopping with her.
There is quite the celebration when they get back to town. Madam Peabody Dalrymple the Third, Mayor of Ballyhoo, is extremely grateful for their assistance, so much so that she’s orchestrating some sort of impromptu festival in their honor. His companion accepts the invitation and thanks Her Honor the Mayor before he even has a chance to weigh in on the subject. Furthermore, the two of them get their heads together, the result of which is that the Mayor’s agreed to cover their shopping bills as well–something about recompense for property destroyed in the service of the town and its citizens.
And now his companion is guiding him through the process of buying a selection of cravats with no small amount of expertise. He’s not entirely sure how she managed to find a shop that sells formal menswear in a town that she’s ostensibly never visited before, but there it is–his girl is on a tear, and nothing is going to stand in her way.
Two in every color and fabric is the final verdict, a veritable mountain of neckwear.
He leans against the wall of the store as the store clerk wraps them up, pleased and grateful and maybe just a little shell-shocked from the process. “You’re very good at this, you know.”
“Thanks,” she answers through the fitting room door as she changes into a new dress–a gift from the shopkeeper whose son had been among the alien’s intended victims. “Used to work in a shop, once upon a time. I guess it’s one of those things you never really forget.”
He mentally adds that to his rather short list of facts about her as he jokes, “And here’s hoping that there’s room for all of them in the TARDIS.”
There is a rustle of fabric, and then the top of her head appears, brown eyes peeking over the edge of the door. “You have an entire wing dedicated to housing tuxedos,” she points out. (Does he? It’s certainly possible.) “I think you’ll manage just fine.”
There is a retort waiting there on the tip of his tongue (not that he objects one bit to the cravats–to be honest, he’s really just enjoying sparing with her), but he never gets to use it. She opens the door, and this, this is a sight that will end all arguments.
(In her favor, of course.)
“Oh, you look beautiful.”
She does. He didn’t mean to say it like that, didn’t mean to sound so awestruck, but she really does, all pink and yellow elegance. No, he corrects himself–that’s not quite the right word. He can’t imagine her affecting airs or attending to all the finicky particulars of social refinement. Whatever she is, it’s for the everyday. She wears the ball gown the way she wore the rose frock the way she wore the leather jacket–with a sort of careless ease, eminently comfortable in her own skin.
He has the odd stray thought that she could probably curtsy to the Queen half-dressed and still manage to hold her own, and then he sees it, a quick flash of some undefined timeline.
She is lying down with her arms behind her head, with nothing on but her plain, everyday knickers and bra. One leg in the air, crossed over a bent knee, and she rotates her ankle as she talks. A hand, his-hand-but-not, comes into view, mapping the curve of her ribs, and she laughs when those fingers draw patterns on the skin of her belly.
One blink, and the vision is gone, leaving him bereft, wanting. His future, hers, theirs…or just a might-have-been, he doesn’t know.
She’s still there in front of him, beaming at the compliment but at some point during his moment of inattention, her eyebrows have crept up and her smile has become a bit fixed. “Yeah? And…?”
He doesn’t think she’s fishing. More like bracing, really. He wonders again about his future regenerations, about what sort of man he’ll be when he meets her. “And nothing. You’re lovely.” He offers her an arm. “Shall we go?”
They are greeted with cheers when they join the festival already taking place in the town’s square. Everyone is thrilled to see them, and after a vigorous round of handshaking and gratitude, they are pressed into joining the dancing.
It’s a cotillion, or something similar. Pretty, charming, and, he finds, not at all to his liking as they clasp hands only to be whisked away from each other in an endless rotation. Honestly, whoever thought a dance with this much partner-swapping would be a good idea?
He catches glimpses of her as they weave in and out, flashes of pink and yellow. Hears her laughing as she learns the unfamiliar steps. She’s doing quite well, considering; he only wishes he was the one to help her master it. Finally, finally, they are reunited for a last tour down the aisle, and it’s almost worth it, the way her already-brilliant smile shines all the brighter when she sees him and how their fingers fit back together so easily, the new pattern already familiar.
She doesn’t have the dance down perfectly yet, but she has a good sense of rhythm, is good at improvising when she misses a step and laughing at her own mistakes. She is graceful as she moves through space; he can see why he might imagine that she’d move through time the same way.
The cotillion ends, and they turn to each other and bow. The music changes into something more akin to a waltz, and the Doctor notices with relief that the dancers are starting to pair off. His hand already feels empty without hers.
He’s not the only one to appreciate the change, apparently–there are a few hopefuls already gathering near her, jostling for position, and he watches for a moment as they try to catch her attention. She bestows smiles on all and sundry, but when he extends his hand, her answer is immediate, automatic, and he tries not to look too smug as he leads her to a clear spot on the dance floor.
Well…mostly he tries.
Did he ever mention that he loves town square dances? Because he does. He really, really does. All the lights and the people twirling about and the laughter, her laughter. Wonderful things, town square dances.
She’s beautiful when she flirts, more so when she blushes, and he finds that it’s quite easy to elicit either reaction now that they’re face to face. For all that she’s been pushing boundaries today, the littlest move from him makes her cheeks come over all rosy. It’s marvelous.
They dance closer to one of the clusters of fairy lights illuminating the town square, and in the soft glow, he catches a glimpse of the edge of her vest, just under the neckline of her gown. Smiling, he asks, “Efficient dressing again?”
She shrugs and then laughs. “Gotta be prepared, in case I turn back into a pumpkin at midnight. This being a fairytale and all.”
He nods in agreement as he spins her around. He certainly feels enchanted.
The music changes again, slowing down, and they draw closer together. There are enquiries from a few brave souls asking if perhaps she wouldn’t mind switching partners, but she just shakes her head at them. It occurs to him that it’s probably rude, dancing just the two of them the whole night long, but looking at her, shining in his arms, he decides that rude will do just fine if it means that he can keep her.
He’d very much like to keep her. It’s the how that’s the problem. The how and the when. Timelines and all that...
The moment’s consideration must show on his face. She tilts her head, gives him a look. “You’re staring,” she mock-accuses.
“I am trying,” he says seriously (if somewhat inaccurately), “to figure out who you are. Since you still won’t tell me your name.”
She shrugs with a teasing smile. “You saying you can’t figure it out on your own? And here I was thinking you were clever.”
“Hmm.” He takes a moment, looks her up and down quite overtly. When his gaze settles on her face, he has the pleasure of watching her lips part just a little. He smiles into those brown eyes that are widening, in concern maybe, but interest, too. A tip of pink tongue makes an appearance just under her upper lip–oh yes, definitely interest.
“You look like a…” he pauses to drag it out a little, “Claudette.”
She blinks. “Claudette?”
The moment breaks as she guffaws. When other dancers turn to look inquiringly at her, she ducks her head against his chest to hide her amusement.
“Maybe not,” he allows in a slightly deeper voice, enjoying the sensation of her chortling into his lapels. “And nothing French, I take it.” He guides her hand to his chest and leaves it there, his arm moving to join the other at her waist. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he takes another guess. “Gertrude?”
This sets off another round of giggles, and he takes advantage of that fact, pulling her a little closer, his hands sliding to the hollow of her back. “Hmm, that’s not it, clearly.”
“Not quite,” she agrees, raising her head and grinning at him. “And here I was so worried. You’re not even close.”
He smiles and leans in, sharpening his focus. “Something more traditionally English then. Anne? Mary? Elizabeth?”
Her reaction is noticeable only because he is looking for it–just the hint of a retreat to tell him he’s getting nearer to the mark. Five or six, he thinks. Just five or six more questions, and the answer would almost certainly reveal itself, but he doesn’t like the uneasiness. It doesn’t belong here between them. With a sigh, he backs off.
“Would it really be so bad to tell me?” he asks gently.
“Dunno,” she says with more frankness than he’d expected. “But it’s just another risk, and honestly, I’ve got more than enough of those to be going on with.”
He frowns. “Are you alright? Do you need help?” The idea of her in danger is disturbing, and his arms tighten around her protectively.
She is pressed up against him quite snuggly now, but somehow she manages to get a hand free to reach up and cup his cheek. A smile, soft and warm, plays on her lips as she looks up at him for a long moment. There is a wealth of shared history in her eyes and the promise of his eventual inheritance, but it’s not his to claim today.
As he sighs his acceptance and leans into her hand, she answers softly, “M’alright. I’ve got a long way to go still, but…but I’ll make it, I think. And you’re there. You’ll be there, waiting for me at the end.”
“Yes,” he breathes. He will be.
They are hardly dancing at all anymore, more like hugging. Holding. Her arms wind their way up around his neck, and their faces are very close together, nearly touching. He sees her shiver as one of his curls falls forward against her cheek, watches her teeth play at the edge of her lip.
“It’s getting close to midnight.”
“There’s some time yet,” he says in a voice deeper than his own. His eyes are still on her mouth, and concepts like angle of approach and optimal pressure with variant friction coefficients are starting to run through his mind.
She tilts her head, raises her chin a fraction higher, and simplifies the maths. “Are…are you going to kiss me?”
As their noses brush together, he feels her breath hitch. “I was thinking about it. It’s sort of a new thing I’m trying,” he murmurs, and the last syllables land on her lips.
Oh, it’s a lovely, delicate thing, this kiss. It shimmers down his spine and through his blood, all at once chaste and electrifying. A soft exploration of lips, exquisite, torturous, far too much and not enough. No, not nearly enough.
That is, until her fingernails graze the nape of his neck and her mouth opens beneath his, and suddenly, they’re there, right at the precipice. The tipping point where a kiss becomes a snog, or a companion becomes a Companion becomes a...Something Else. Something he’s not allowed to have a word for, but that’s no matter right now, not with his mouth otherwise occupied with hers. Something pink and yellow and precious and warm, oh-so-warm in his arms.
Somebody moans, probably was her, must have been, because he wouldn’t…he doesn’t think…oh. Oh. Why yes, that is her tongue in his mouth. He moans again. How absolutely, delightfully brilliant.
The moment stretches out, soft and pliant and warm. Somewhere, his brain dimly registers the sound of tittering from the other dancers, but as neither of them seems willing to make more than a half-hearted effort to pull away, he decides that propriety can just bugger off. By the time they finally do break apart, she’s flushed and breathless, and his imagination has gone to all sorts of intriguing places, possibly never to return.
They are clinging to each other, and she’s biting her lip to keep from laughing out loud. What comes out instead are these breathy, joyful chuckles. “Yeah, I was right. Definitely my best day in ages.”
He makes a noise of agreement, leaning in to capture her lips again.
Above the square, the town hall clock beings to chime.
It’s a funny thing, running into somebody out of chronological order. There’s frequently that confusing jumble of who-knows-what-when or that awkward sense of mismatched intimacy. All those inside jokes that inevitably fall flat. Occasionally, it’s just baffling. (I spend time with you on a regular basis? Really? Voluntarily?)
Sometimes it’s not any of those things at all.
They can’t stop smiling at each other over the bushel of apples they’re carrying as they walk back to the TARDIS. It’s mildly hazardous–she’s already tripped once over a tree root, and he got his frockcoat snagged when he didn’t manage to steer clear of a bit of prickly undergrowth. They had to stop and unload everything–apples, cravats, her bag, and the Gremlin still trapped inside the cryofoam storage unit–to get him untangled. And they giggled about it the whole time.
It’s lovely, all of it, and he wishes he didn’t have to let her go. He will, of course. Once they get back to his ship, this story has to reach its conclusion so that he can find her and she can find him.
That idea leaves him feeling a bit giddy, actually. On impulse, he asks her, “I don’t suppose you’d give me a hint? How long it’ll be?”
She glances at him out of the corner of her eye, smiling a little. “Which one are you on? Which body, I mean.”
“This is my eighth.”
Something odd passes over her face, just for a moment and then it’s gone. She smiles, mostly she smiles, and shifts her grip on the apple basket. “Oh, a long while yet, probably. Hard to be sure.” Flicking her eyes down to the fruit, she asks, “Are you really going to be able to eat all these?”
He’s tempted to poke at the obvious evasion, but the time for that sort of thing has passed. She can keep her secrets. Instead, he says, “The TARDIS will store them, no trouble.” Speaking of, here’s his ship at last as they round the bend in the road.
She helps him haul the apples right up to the doors. “I still say it’s weird, them giving you apples after all that,” she says as they set them down. She straightens up and flexes her fingers now that they’re free of the weight.
“Us,” he corrects, for the sake of accuracy and also because he likes the sound of it. “They gave them to both of us.”
“Right,” she laughs, sliding her pack off her shoulder and unfastening it. “Well, I’d have some trouble taking them with me. How about I just give you my share of apples that may or may not have weird, alien neurotoxins secreted on them.”
He picks up one of the maligned fruits off the top of the pile. “Nah, nothing wrong with these apples.” He bounces it off his arm and catches it, showing off.
She’s smiling. “You sure? Maybe you should try one, just to be safe.”
He shakes his head just a bit. “You and this strange preoccupation with watching me put things in my mouth.”
Okay, that sounded slightly more suggestive than he’d intended. To cover for it, he gives the apple a quick swipe across his velvet sleeve and takes a bite.
As his teeth close down, there’s a bright red flash just behind his eyelids. When he opens them, he sees her hand sliding back out of her pack.
“What was that?” he demands around the bite of apple, but before she can answer, he feels it. Memories shifting, sliding into some dusty, preordained corner of his mind. Where exactly, he can’t say, but they aren’t disappearing, just hiding via some sort of mechanism that…oh. Well, of course. He doesn’t remember building that particular device, but he’d recognize his own handiwork anywhere.
He swallows, looks at her. “I could have blocked them out.”
“I know.” Her eyes are sorrowful. “It’s just easier this way. S’what you told me to do.”
“But I’ll give them back,” she says quickly. “Soon as I’ve found you in the proper time, I’ll give them back.”
He sighs, the reproach disappearing from his voice because she looks like she feels so horribly guilty. “I understand. It’s alright.”
Some of the tension leaves her face. “Thanks.”
“You have to admit, though, it was a bit cliché,” he sniffs. “With the apple and all.”
She laughs in relief, shrugs a little. “Seemed appropriate. Listen, I’ve got to go now, before the memory block is complete. But I just wanted to say…” Leaning in close, she presses a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you for the help. With the apples, I mean.”
Before she can pull away, he stops her, his hand on her jaw. He’s not going to remember this, but that’s no matter–she will. In fact, he’ll make sure of it. Catching her lower lip with his teeth, he gives her a long, lingering kiss. Keeps it up until her cheeks go pink and she’s vibrating just a bit. “You’re welcome.”
She grins, runs her tongue over her well-kissed mouth. “You uh…” She gives another one of those happy half-laughs. (Yes, he thinks, pleased with himself. She’ll remember.) “You want to see a magic trick?”
When he raises his eyebrows, she pulls another device out of her pack, presses a button. “I just thought I’d show you the point of all that efficient dressing. The specifics of the matter transfer subprograms are really finicky–believe me, I learned the hard way not to make a habit of changing out of my original clothes. Especially in case they activate the emergency recall.”
He’s about to ask her what on Ariel she’s going on about when she grabs his hands and places them firmly on her waist.
“It’s a nice dress,” she says, which is apparently meant as an explanation but really isn’t one at all.
The device in her hand chimes twice, and for one last moment, she smiles up at him. “Bye, Doctor.” Then, in a soft rush of air, she disappears into thin air, and he has to clutch at the dress to keep it from falling to the ground.
He stares at it and has a moment to laugh as he realizes what she meant–efficient dressing indeed. Nothing like arriving at your intended destination completely starkers to teach you a thing or two about the realities of transmat technology. Then, the last pieces of the day’s memory slip away, and he’s…he was…
He shakes his head, trying to clear the fog. Blinking, he glances around to see the TARDIS, his surroundings, and finally the object in his hands. This regeneration is certainly prone to odd lapses in memory, but he can’t help but wonder what in the world he’s doing out here in the forest, alone, holding a dress that’s still warm and smelling faintly of roses.