Word Count: 4,064
Characters: Doctor/River, original characters
Notes: This story came about as a desire to tell the story of the Doctor properly falling in love with River, which you can see starting at the end of "A Good Man Goes to War" and culminating with his fierce drive to protect her in "Let's Kill Hitler." Something happened between those two in the 3-month gap for the Ponds. It was also spawned by seeing gorgeous pictures on Tumblr of cities created out of trees and the tale of Jim the Fish that's in the diary excerpts of "The Eternity Clock." When I saw the tree cities, I knew that there was a story that needed to be told.
Summary: Oh, but it all made sense now. River Song was Melody Pond, and Melody Pond was River Song. And River couldn’t tell them that she was Melody because with one single misstep, she could have easily wiped herself out of existence. That, the Doctor knew, would be a very bad thing - a story of the three months between "A Good Man Goes to War" and "Let's Kill Hitler."
Ityicha was dying.
King Tricopa IV folded his massive hands together, bending his head until his forehead touched the tips of his fingers. The buzz of the council swarmed around his head like purple-striped ligams gathered around a flower. He tuned them out. Oh, there were suggestions, lamentations, demands and fear -- so much fear. He could smell it, the ripe tang of it as his council sweated, paced and shouted.
He closed his eyes and allowed his connection to the planet to flow. He tuned out the noise and reached for that weakening link that passed from generation to generation. It was the sole sign of lineage on Ityicha, and the one thing that kept usurpers off the throne. A single man or woman inherited the ability to link with the planet. That link kept the trees fertile, the economy going strong. His arm pulsed, and he fought the urge to roll back the elaborate sleeve of the robe he wore. It would only send everyone into a panic. It most certainly had sent him into one when he glimpsed the black, deadened skin in the mirror just days earlier.
“I want to speak with the person who gave you the diagnosis,” he told his chief counselor.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, sire.”
“We sentenced her to burn.”
The counselor swallowed hard and gestured toward the window. With a groan, Tricopa pushed himself off the throne and wandered to the window. He almost reached for his throbbing arm and forced his hand to twitch the curtains aside instead.
Far below, in the palace courtyard, soldiers ringed around a pile of kindling with a single shaft of wood protruding from it. He could see the consultant they’d sent for lashed to it, awaiting his order for the sentence to be carried out.
“What crime did she commit?” he barked to the counselor.
“Well … she did told us the planet is dying.”
Tricopa gave him a measured look. “Is that a crime?”
The counselor wrung his hands nervously, swallowing several times before eking out, “Well, it is distressing news, sire. Your father didn’t care for such things. We were always told to burn those with distressing news at the stake.”
“Maybe, if my father had actually listened to the distressing news, we wouldn’t be here to begin with.” Tricopa sighed and let the curtain drop. “Let her go and bring her here.”
“But, sire …”
“I am not my father. You’d do well to remember that.” He turned away and allowed himself one good scratch at the arm before stalking back to his throne. He sank onto it and fought the urge to bury his head in his hands. His father was dead, and he had the very strong suspicion that if things were as dire as the state of his arm was telling him, then he didn’t have long to live either.
Trees towered over the Doctor, soaring so far into the air that he couldn’t begin to see the tips in the inky black sky. Shapes were woven into them, and … he squinted, then a small squeak escaped his lips. No, not shapes. Buildings. There were buildings artfully woven into the trees, like patterns on an intricate tapestry. Walkways and ramps ran like spiderwebs among the branches, connecting the structures to each other. He could just make out small shapes, which mean it had to be inhabited by creatures of some sort. The primary atmosphere was oxygen, which meant most likely humans or humanoids.
“Well, now.” He rocked back on his heels, a small knot of anticipation and excitement curling in his gut as the breathtaking first impression gave way to a sheer sense of wonder. His sense of responsibility urged him to get back on the TARDIS, to redirect to Stormcage, start the process of getting little Melody back where she belonged with her parents.
But everything in his gut told him that he needed be here, on this planet he’d never been, in a world of magnificent trees and stars and mystery. The TARDIS brought him here for a reason, and she always took him where he needed to go. He pulled the door shut behind him. “Let’s have a look.”
He wasn’t quite near the bottom of the trees, but he was close enough to where the noxious fumes was quite offensive to his sense of smell. “What do they do, just toss all the rubbish over the side?” he murmured. Instinct had him looking up and sidestepping what appeared to be a stream of assorted trash as it cascaded by in a multi-colored waterfall that would be oddly compelling if it didn’t reek. Yes, apparently, they did. Great for fertilizing said trees, bad for Time Lords who took pride in keeping their bow ties neat.
“That’s a really bad place to park that,” a voice spoke from his left, and the Doctor peered over his shoulder at a really beautiful specimen of human. It was a woman, about Amy’s height, with skin the color of mahogany and russet-colored hair tied into intricate braids tumbling to her waist. A blue jumpsuit was cinched at the waist with a toolbelt, and she gave him a tired smile. “Never know what they’ll toss from up there next.”
“Yes, well, apparently it’s more expedient to toss things over the side than to invent plumbing.” The Doctor edged his way to the woman’s side.
“Oh, we’ve plumbing alright.” She flashed a smile. “It has to end somewhere.” She waved a small twig she carried, and a door slid open in the tree trunk next to them. “Not sure who gave you the coordinates. We’ve a proper landing platform a couple branches up. Though, that’s one of the oddest ships I’ve ever seen. Want to re-park? I can give you directions.”
“Maybe later.” The Doctor followed the woman into what appeared to be an elevator. He slowly turned in a circle. What natural light there was spilled into the a wooden box the size of a real police box. The woman fitted two fingers into a groove in the wall, and the box began to move.
“Suit yourself. Besides, not like they’ll ticket you. Pretty much everyone’s watching the burning today.”
“Oh, yeah.” The woman tilted her head to one side. “Aren’t you here for that? They’ve come from three planets away for this. Hadn’t had a good stake burning in centuries, but we’ve never had a criminal like this one either.”
“What did she do?”
“You mean you haven’t heard?”
“Well, as you so aptly put, I didn’t even know where to park.” The Doctor rocked back on his heels and studied the streaming light. “I’m a bit behind on interplanetary news. Had a busy couple of weeks.”
The box door slid open, and the Doctor followed the woman onto a wide platform. They were higher up in one of the trees now, lattice railing made of thin white stripes criss-crossing in an intricate pattern in a circle that encircled the area. Hundreds of people gathered, all but stepping on each others’ toes as they clamored for a look at the poor soul who’d gotten caught in the king’s palace, trying to open a door that not even a king could enter. It looked to be some kind of market place, but all the stands, tables and chairs were pushed back against the buildings that ringed the circle. In the center stood an elaborate display of a single shaft of wood protruding from piled up kindling. Surrounding the kindling were armed guards wearing tall shako hats and looking like they’d just stepped out of The Nutcracker Suite.
And lashed to that stake, serene and looking almost bored, was River Song.
The giddy feeling that filled him when River revealed her identity just an hour earlier return. Really? An hour? Two at the most. He couldn’t stop the grin spreading from ear to ear, pointing and clapping his hands. There was River and she was Melody and she was a Pond and she was magnificent and she was scant minutes from getting burned at the stake. Really, he wouldn’t take her any other way. He clapped his hands a bit and pointed at her, and there might have been a bit of a giggle.
The woman slanted a glance at him. “You get that excited now, I wonder how you’ll react when they burn her.”
“Oh, they’re not going to burn her,” the Doctor said confidentially.
“Yes, they are!” The woman gestured to the excessive show of military force. “She’s tied to a stake and surrounded by an army. How would anyone escape that?”
“Because she’s River Song,” he replied and began to work his way through the crowd.
“What’re you doing? Don’t get closer, they’re going to arrest you! Are you crazy? You’ll end up where she is!” The woman started after him, then threw up her hands. “Not my problem. Hey, I tried.”
He was halfway through the crowd when River’s gaze landed on him. He gave her a little wave, and she smirked. She mouthed something to him, but he could already guess what it was. Hello, sweetie. Strange how that no longer annoyed him. Instead, he puffed up his chest and approached the barrier.
“Hello!” he yanked out the psychic paper and flashed it at the tallest, burliest man there. “I’m from the government stake-inspecting office, here to make sure you’re following regulations when it comes to your ritual sacrifice. Or is it corporal punishment today? In any case, first stake-burning in centuries, got to follow the rules.”
The soldier gave the Doctor the beady eye. “That office was closed 478 years ago,” he growled.
“Well, it’s been reinstated as of 10 minutes ago.” The Doctor flashed the paper again, and the soldier caught the Doctor’s wrist. He frowned at the psychic paper. “This says you’re from the sanitation unit!”
“Sanitation unit? Ah, yes … yes … we’re a sub-department of the main department that’s under the tertiary head of … Run!” With that, the Doctor yanked the sonic out of his coat pocket with his free hand and aimed it the ropes securing River. The sonic rays whirled out just as he was knocked back … and promptly set the kindling on fire.
“Great!” The Doctor yelped, shaking the sonic. “Now you decide to work on wood!”
River rolled her eyes as the Doctor and the soldiers gaped at the quickly growing flames.
“Put that out!” the soldier yelled. “The king isn’t here yet!” He jerked the Doctor up by the lapels. “You ought to join her on the stake.”
The soldier suddenly froze, then swallowed hard when he felt the cool barrel of a gun press into his neck.
“Hello, sweetie,” River said calmly as she held the soldier at gunpoint with one hand and kept a second gun aimed at the other soldiers.
“Hello, dear,” the Doctor choked out, then flushed. Dear? Dear? When did he start calling River ‘dear’? Apparently now. Now he was calling her ‘dear’ and it must be a thing and he must be OK with that thing because he was doing it now. “I thought you were tied to the stake?”
“Well, I had mostly sliced through the ropes before your fire took care of the rest of it.”
“Are you hurt?”
“My boots got scorched.” He peered down to see the leather was scuffed up and a couple of burn holes had made their way through the toes, exposing neatly painted red toenails. Somehow, those toes against that burned leather was doing things to him, and he shifted the hand still holding the psychic paper so it was, well … keeping him from being very embarrassed. It really was mortifying to have those kind of thoughts while being held up by your coat lapels.
“I’ll replace them.”
“You better. And that wasn’t wood you soniced, sweetie.”
“It wasn’t?” The Doctor’s face fell. “I thought I finally got it to work on wood.”
“It was all soaked in gasoline. Sonic rays are very effective on gas.”
“Oh. Well. Where’d you get those guns?”
“I keep them here and there.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Care to do a full-body search?”
And he thought of being kissed by her in Stormcage, of how he had nearly plunged his fingers into all of that glorious hair, and his hand on her shoulder and her lips on his, and the power of speech completely deserted him. He swallowed and wondered if he was blushing. The way River was smirking at him told him that, yes, he was probably redder than Mars.
As sturdy as tweed was, his coat had been abused quite a bit in the past few days. But it was still rather a shock when the lapels suddenly gave with a loud rip, and he found himself on his back at the feet of his captors. He sat up, pulled off the jacket, and stared mournfully at it. “I like this coat!” He shook it at the soldier. “You ruined a perfectly good coat!”
“You set free a perfectly good prisoner!” The soldier looked mournful. “I was looking forward to the stake burning.”
The Doctor rolled to his feet and wrapped an arm around the soldier’s shoulders in a gesture of comfort. “I really hate to break it to you, but she’d have broken out with or without my help.”
The soldier’s face fell even further. “Really?”
“She does that.” He patted his shoulder.
“What?” He peered over the soldier at River, who was giving him that sort of long-suffering look she’d given him on several other occasions.
“Pardon me! Pardon me!” A thin, high voice cut through the crowd, and a small man with a thin shock of neon yellow hair tied back in a queue wormed his way through the men. He waggled a ring-covered finger at River. “Dr. Song! You’re supposed to be getting burned at the stake!”
“I’ve a habit of not doing as I’m told,” River replied, and the Doctor rolled his eyes skyward.
The man placed his hands on his hips and tapped his foot. “Well, it’s really a sign of disrespect!”
River shot him an incredulous look. “It’s a sign of disrespect that you’re wanting to burn me at the stake for simply telling the truth.”
The little man sighed, shaking his head. “Sadly, the king agrees with me. He wants to speak with you.” He wrinkled his nose at the Doctor. “Who is that?”
“The Doctor. He’s my assistant.”
“Your assistant?” The Doctor squeaked.
River didn’t acknowledge him. “Come along, sweetie. We’ve work to do before you go back and do the laundry.”
“I am certainly not doing your laundry!” The Doctor retorted as he followed River and the little man toward the large tree that marked the palace. “You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?”
River merely winked, and he glowered at her. Just like with Octavian and the Weeping Angels, the Doctor was walking into a situation where River was clearly the one more experienced about what was going on.
This time, he didn’t really mind. Much.
They walked into an elaborate entry hall, the walls carved from the trunk of the massive tree. The ceiling was formed by gigantic branches that criss-crossed each other, green leaves providing a decorative and sweet-smelling ceiling. The gleaming brown wood was married with spots, the Doctor noticed. Big, splotchy black spots with patches of white ringing the edges. He meandered over to one and ran a finger over the spot. It was fuzzy and … he licked his finger and scowled. Bitter. He rubbed his index finger and thumb together. Bitter and sick.
“It’s a good thing that this disease isn’t one that affects Time Lords,” River muttered, and the Doctor noticed she was giving him that long-suffering look again. She rolled her eyes as they walked into the throne room.
Once upon a time, the room had been elaborate -- the crown jewel of a magnificent empire. Pictures showing events from the kingdom’s glorious past were carved into the wooden walls with such care that it seemed like a maple version of the Bayeux Tapestry. The black spots were here too, gathered into patches that climbed up the walls, eradicating entire swaths of history. An air of sickness and death hung over the room, even though it was meticulously neat and the anachronistic rushes lining the walls were fresh.
A massive man on a massive throne on a massive platform sat at the end of the room. Dark hair tumbled over his shoulders, and his skin was a shade lighter than the walls surrounding him. He gazed down at the Doctor and River, assessing them with eyes that seemed to hold far less bloodthirst than the soldiers under his command. This, the Doctor thought, was a very good thing.
“Dr. Song, I apologize for the way my court has treated you to now,” he said. “I understand you were hired to sort out the problems going on with this planet, and I have heard the unfortunate reception your diagnosis caused. Please, you have nothing to fear from me.” He quirked an eyebrow. “You might want to put the gun away.”
“I’m more comfortable holding it,” River said casually, and the Doctor saw she held her blaster in her hands. Not aiming it, but she was still ready to if need be.
“Sweetie, you’ve got your security blanket. I have mine.”
He had a quick mental flash of baby River cuddling a gun like a teddy bear and nearly laughed.
“This is the Doctor,” River told the king. “He’ll be assisting me on this matter.”
The king glanced briefly at the Doctor, then waved at the assembled members of the court. “Leave us now.”
The little man promptly turned an interesting shade of purple. “But … but … but … sire!”
“Leave!” he barked.
“She has a gun!”
“That I do,” River said with a flirty wink at the little man. She twirled it before smoothly reholstering it. “There. Does that make me less threatening now?”
The man’s voice rose two octaves. “No!”
“You have to give him points for honesty,” the Doctor said, and River rolled her eyes.
But the king was the king, and in short order no one except for the three of them remained in the throne room. The king locked the doors himself, sliding a massive wooden bar into place to keep everyone out. The Doctor really hoped the king wasn’t going to try to murder them. Blood would be particularly nasty to get out of those elaborate wooden panels, and he was quite sure it wouldn’t be his own or River’s either.
“I’m King Tricopa IV,” the king introduced himself. He rolled up the sleeve on his robe to reveal blackened, dead skin crawling up his arm. It was halfway between his elbow and shoulder. Fuzzy patches, much like the ones on the throne room walls, covered his palms. “My planet is dying. Please. Please, help me.”
“Your planet is dying because it’s been infected. Literally,” River said for the Doctor’s benefit. “About two weeks ago for me, I saw a posting on the Ydraxil space station looking for someone, anyone who knew what was going on with this planet. I’m not a tree doctor, but I am an archaeologist … and don’t roll your eyes at me,” she said as the Doctor was doing just that. “I’ve seen this before, studied it on other planets similar to this one.”
“What happened?” Tricopa asked.
“I think you already know the answer to that. Partly. The water on Ityicha is tainted. Not the water brought to you personally, but what’s consumed by your people. They’re drinking the water and the waste that results from it is being dumped at the bottom of the trees like fertilizer. Normally, human waste is an excellent source of nutrition for plants, but not in this case.”
“Someone got sick,” the Doctor murmured, thinking about the area of cascading waste where the TARDIS had landed.
“Someone got sick,” River confirmed. “Most likely brought on planet from one of the dying ones. They brought a parasite that tainted the planet’s water. It’s accelerated by Ityicha going through its version of the Industrial Revolution. As technology got more advance on Earth,” she explained more for Tricopa’s benefit. “The atmosphere was damaged because of coal, oil and other gasses. The same thing’s happening here.”
“But, in this case, it’s the water that goes into keeping the trees alive,” the Doctor added.
“Exactly. I’d have to get a sample in a lab to confirm, and no, my love, licking it doesn’t count. But, I’m fairly sure it’s a variation of a known tree-rotting disease called heart rot. The disease eats away at tree trunks and branches from the inside, making them prone to break.” She gave Tricopa a measured look. “You already knew that.”
“The monarchs of this planet are linked to its heart. We inherit the ability when our predecessor dies, and my father passed away two months ago. The doctors said he was wasting away, and they literally meant that. It took years, but it started just like this.” Tricopa gave his arm a rueful look. “I honestly thought I had more time to figure out exactly what it is, but I had a guess. Something was literally eating our trees. My father didn’t want to listen to anyone about it really. He did something that abused the link to the planet. Everytime I try connecting with it, all I feel is pain and suffering. Then this,” he gestured to his arm, “gets worse.”
The Doctor pulled out his sonic and ran it over Tricopa’s arm. He flicked it and checked the reading. “Same tree rot,” he told River.
“That’s what I figured.” She had her tablet out and was keying in some data. “You’re linked, and the planet is dying. I’m not sure how long any of you have got, but if the trees start to collapse …”
The Doctor thought of the weight of the trees and the people. River didn’t have to say it. The heart rot had the same effect that a swarm of termites raiding the planet would. The trees would cave in on themselves, bringing everyone living among its branches down with it.
“The only thing that’s been known to stop this is this medicine.” River dipped back into her belt pouch and took out a test tube. “I picked this up in the Drai system. A couple drops added to a source of pure water, and it has amazing healing properties. I just need a cup. If you drank that,” she said to Tricopa, “you can use your link with the planet to heal it.”
River paced to the wall and ran a fingertip over one of the uncorrupted panels. “Sometimes, the most tragic thing you ever see as an archaeologist is a crumbled civilization where it could have saved itself. Every building on this planet is a work of art.” She looked at the Doctor over her shoulder. “You haven’t even begun to see what this planet is, sweetie. It’s a marvel of man and nature, and I came here because there’s nothing else like it in the universe.” Her gaze was serious as she turned back to Tricopa. “Once I succeed, you’ll have a choice whether to throw it all away.”
“We succeed,” The Doctor spoke up, and how could he not help her? She would do it whether he was there or not and knowing that made his gut clench. There was something in her words that reminded him of himself, and he didn’t know if he should be flattered or frightened.
She smiled. “We succeed,” she agreed.
“There is one place you can try,” Tricopa suggested. Robes billowing around him, he strode back to the throne and to papers spread out on a table before it. He jabbed a thick finger on the paper. The Doctor leaned over and saw that it was a map of their particular location in the solar system. “We have an alliance with the Hydropi. They supply whatever water we can’t get naturally. Talk with them. If they can’t do it, no one can.”
“We’ll start there,” River agreed.
“Thank you, Dr. Song. Doctor.” Tricopa extended his non-diseased hand. “My father made a lot of mistakes with this planet. I want to at least try to save it.”