|Doctor Who, Torchwood, and the characters of Emma, Diane, the Doctor and Romana are owned by the BBC. This is amateur fiction for entertainment purposes only, and I make no money from this story.|
No Return and No Deposit
"Couldn't we have gone to All Bar One?" she says. "I quite liked it in there."
"Don't be boring," says Katy. "This place is cool! I mean, it's a dive, but it's still cool. It's ironic, innit? Anyway, I thought you might want to try something different."
"Everything's different," says Emma, vaguely. She thinks that the woman singing on the little stage to the left of the bar might be miming to a record. And that's definitely not her real hair.
"What's up, anyway?" asks Katy. "God, you didn't half have a face on you when you came in this evening."
"Oh, nothing really..." Emma picks at a beer-mat, peeling little bits of the paper away. "Only, well, there was this awful woman at work. I didn't say she had fat arms, honestly I didn't! It's just -- well, I really thought she'd be more comfortable in something with sleeves. Something decent, you know? And then I was late getting away, and I somehow managed to drop my Oyster card down a drain. And it was raining."
"Aw, babe," says Katy, sounding completely unconcerned. "How's about another drink, then?"
"Yes, all right."
"Your round, I believe, so cough up. Same again?"
Emma considers. "Actually, no. I think... do you think I could have a banana daiquiri? I've always thought they sounded nice."
Katy eyes the barman uncertainly. "Well... no harm in asking, I suppose. Dunno whether he'll know how to make one, though, he looks a bit simple. Pretty, but simple. Just how I like 'em. Tell you what, if not I'll get you a Bacardi Breezer." She grins and is suddenly gone.
"I am what I am," sings the woman on the stage. "I am my own special creation." She winks at Emma, who smiles hesitantly and looks away. How silly this is -- she could be at home and in her warm bed now. She straightens her back and crosses her ankles under the chair. It's only that she hasn't quite settled in yet. Hasn't found her feet. London's a big place, after all.
The interior of the bar is gloriously dark and cool after the intense midday heat. Diane closes her eyes for a second before she pushes aside the fringed silk curtain hanging across the entrance and walks in. The place is set in a natural cave right inside the mountain, and its clientele consists mainly of traders, wanderers, passers-through. People like her, she supposes. The walls glitter very slightly and the air is full of a heavy, sweetish smoke. She breathes it in and smiles.
The barman is the same deep violet colour as all the other people she's seen here. Rather pretty, actually. Like them, he's vaguely humanoid, too, which she can't help but find something of a relief. Not that she minds, it's just that it makes everything easier. She had to leave the last place because she just could not, for the life of her, work out how to communicate with a race of what seemed to be cardboard boxes. You couldn't even tell whether they were smiling, or annoyed, or what.
This pretty barman doesn't smile either, but she's fairly sure that's just because he's a bit of a miserable bugger. Oh well. One can't have everything.
"Yes, I'd like, er..." She glances at the drink belonging to the person sitting next to her at the bar. It looks all right. A bit like whisky, in fact. She points at it discreetly. "One of those, please."
The barman nods and silently pours out the amber liquid from an earthenware jug into a tall glass. He pushes it towards her and, as seems to be the custom here, attempts to charge her a ridiculously inflated price for it. She reacts (as also seems to be the custom) by looking deeply wounded and hurt, and firmly slamming down a very small quantity of coinage on the bar. He responds by looking shocked and offended, and the transaction is eventually completed with much wringing of hands and waving about of arms and rolling of eyes to the heavens. She feels quite drained when it's all over.
"Oh, that was brilliant!" says the person next to her, applauding. "It's like you've been doing it all your life! Honestly, I'm not just saying that, I'm really impressed!"
"Thanks," she says. "Bit of a tiring way to do business, though."
The stranger grins at her. He is wearing a slightly rumpled brown pinstripe suit with running shoes, and he looks perfectly ordinary apart from the fact that he quite obviously isn't. She finds his extreme cheerfulness a little disconcerting.
"I saw your plane outside," he says. "Well, I'm assuming she's yours. She's a beauty, isn't she?"
Perhaps she ought to be surprised. This is hardly the sort of conversation one would expect to be having in a place like this (wherever this is). But Diane's more or less given up on concepts like expectation or surprise. She takes life as it comes. So she just dips her head, acknowledging the compliment.
"Thank you. Certainly wouldn't be without the old girl."
He nods and smiles in a way that makes her wonder.
"You fly?" she asks.
"Yeah... Well, sort of." He takes a big gulp of his drink and changes the subject. "You really should try this, you know. It's good stuff."
She has a sip of her own. It's not very much like whisky, after all.
"Mm. It's sort of... is that banana?"
"Yep, that's the one. Imported, of course, but not bad. Not bad at all..." He turns to face her. "You'd be surprised just how many banana-based drinks there are in the universe."
For some reason, his gaze makes her feel a bit uncomfortable, so she avoids it and looks at her drink instead. "Yes, I expect so."
"You're a bit out of your way here, aren't you?" he says casually.
She laughs. "I suppose you could say that. Why do you ask?"
"No reason." He shrugs. "Just curious, really. When a person like you, with a plane like yours, walks into a bar like this... Sorry. I'm being rude, aren't I? I'm the Doctor, nice to meet you."
He sticks out a hand and, half-amused, half-wary, she shakes it.
He grins at her again. "Hello, Diane Holmes. So tell me -- how exactly did you get to the notoriously far-flung Desert Mountains of Skoon in a 1930s De Havilland Dragon Rapide?"
Emma has progressed from feeling slightly self-conscious to actually being quite cross. Katy's been ages with the drinks, and Emma's beginning to suspect her of having found someone more interesting to talk to. She breathes an exasperated sigh and looks disconsolately around the room. Perhaps she should just go home. She could always ring Katy and let her know. But that would mean another attempt to find her way around the mobile phone. Blasted thing.
She catches the eye of another woman sitting alone at a table, and smiles ruefully at her. The woman smiles back and raises her glass, but Emma has no glass to raise, so she does a hopeless little mime in an attempt to explain as much. The woman crinkles her eyebrows sympathetically and comes over.
"Hello," she says. "Are you all right? You look a bit lost."
Pathetic, thinks Emma. I am pathetic.
"Sorry," she says. "I didn't mean to -- My friend's gone to get some drinks, supposedly, and... well, it's just been one of those days."
"Oh," says the woman. "Yes, I know them. Look, why don't you have my drink? I don't think I really want it, and you look as though you could do with one. Don't worry, it's not germy or anything -- I hadn't started drinking it."
"Oh, no, I couldn't!" But the woman waves away her protests, and the drink does look nice. It has a little umbrella in it. Emma takes a sip.
"Is this a--"
"Banana daiquiri," says the woman. "I had a friend once who was very fond of them. Bit sweet for me though. I'd rather have whisky, really."
"Good." The woman smiles at her.
"Why did you order it, though, if you don't like them? I mean, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Oh..." The woman shrugs. "Old times' sake. Anniversaries and so on. It's always the anniversary of something, isn't it?"
Emma isn't sure quite what to say. "Your friend..."
"Is no longer around. Probably. I mean, I always assumed I'd know if he was... Well, if anybody was. But perhaps that's a bit arrogant of me. What do you think?"
"I'm sorry," Emma says. "I'm afraid you've lost me."
The woman just smiles. It's a kind smile, but Emma feels strangely as though she's being seen through and into. Examined from the inside. She looks away.
"Honestly, I don't know where Katy's got to," she says with a laugh.
"She's having a argument with the barman," says the woman. "About Beyonce, I think. She might be a while."
"I see." Emma tries vaguely to remember what Beyonce is. She can feel herself blushing, for some reason. "Well, I suppose I should have known. She's always doing this. I mean, not that I know her that well, really. We just share a flat."
"I shouldn't worry," says the woman. "The barman's gay."
"And that woman on stage isn't technically a woman. No, I didn't think you'd realised."
You're not going to cry, Emma tells herself firmly. You're not, you're not, you're not.
"I know." The woman reaches over and gives Emma's arm a friendly pat. "There's a lot to get used to, isn't there?"
"Have you got any idea how dangerous that is? That is so dangerous, that is--" The Doctor breaks off. His voice is grave, but she doesn't think she's imagining the undercurrent of delight. Of admiration, almost. "You're basically surfing the waters of the Rift in a tin can. No offence, she's a lovely tin can, but she is a tin can."
Diane shrugs. She has been called willful in the past, amongst other things. It's a trait that seen her through wars and across oceans. It's what got her where she is today. But sometimes she can feel it, that obstinacy, building up inside her and setting like cement.
"We've been all right so far," she says.
"Yeah..." He's looking at her, biting his lip.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Nothing, you just... reminded me of someone for a moment. Happens all the time, bound to. Listen, I don't suppose--"
He takes a pair of glasses out of his breast pocket, breathes on the lenses and rubs at them with his sleeve. Then he puts them back. "Well. If you're at a loose end... You could always go around with me for a bit, if you felt like it."
She looks at him. "Look, I don't mean to be rude, but... why would I do that? I don't even know who you are."
"Oh, you know. I am what I am, as the song says. I'm the Doctor." There's the cheery grin again. She smiles back, in spite of herself.
"And what about that 'tin can' of mine?"
"Oh, she's invited too. I've got a fair bit of space."
Diane does not reply straight away. She swallows the last of her drink, savouring the odd, stinging aftertaste.
"I'm sorry," she says in the end, and doesn't look at him. "I really prefer to travel alone."
"Fair enough," he says, cheerfully. "No skin off my nose, just thought I'd ask."
"So... do you do this a lot?" she says. "Just go up to complete strangers in bars and ask them to run off with you?"
"Oh, no, not really. I usually wait till they've narrowly escaped a horrific fiery death or something. Get them when they're vulnerable, that's my motto."
"Ah. I see."
Strangely intriguing as this conversation is, Diane thinks that it's probably time she was off. Too long on the ground and she starts getting itchy, like a smoker gasping for a cigarette. Not that she wouldn't mind one of those, either, but some addictions are easier to ignore than others.
"Where are you going next?" she asks him, abruptly.
"Why, changed your mind?"
He shrugs. "Don't know," he says. "Haven't decided yet. You?"
They smile at each other, as though some great secret truth has been shared.
Emma fishes a hankie out of her bag and blows her nose.
"Sorry," she says indistinctly. "So silly... getting upset about nothing."
"By my calculations, you've been thrown about fifty years out of your natural timestream," says the woman (whose name, apparently, is Romana). "That's not exactly nothing. At the very least, it's jet-lag on a massive scale."
"Everything's gone. Everyone..." Emma's eyes are prickling again. She's embarrassing herself, she knows... but it's too hard. It's just too hard.
"Look," says Romana quietly. She reaches over and gently presses her thumb under Emma's chin, making her raise her head. "Just look."
Romana smiles. "Well... what do you see?"
Emma, staring out across the half-empty room, sees... an unfamiliar place. A place where men put on wigs and dresses, like pantomime dames, only not. Where tiny coloured lights move across the little dance-floor, flicking over uncovered skin and glitter and hairstyles. Girls with tattoos and boys with rings in their noses. A man in tight jeans hunched over a slot machine that blinks and jangles at him. A place made of bright colours and plastic, where everything has a computer in it, and everything has a screen. Where nobody cares if you stay the night. Where everybody watches television all the time -- even on buses -- and telephones sing to you, and cars are everywhere, and you can buy anything you want, whenever you want.
When she turns back, Romana is looking at her. "It's your home," she says, softly. "And it's still here. Make the most of it, won't you?"
For a moment, Emma sees something underneath Romana's light, kind smile -- a hard and painful thing -- and she feels unaccountably afraid. She opens her mouth, but she doesn't know what to ask. She's not even sure she wants to know the answer. Looking at Romana makes her think of deep wells, of black holes. Of the endless ocean and the wide, lonely sky. Then Romana shakes her head, and the thing, whatever it was, is gone.
"Sometimes," she says, "you've just got to look at things from a different angle."
The Doctor is stroking her plane and grinning. He's been doing it for some time now.
"Amazing..." he says. "Really amazing."
"She's a decent old thing," Diane says, modestly. "Gets one from A to B." But she can't help smiling.
"Yes..." The Doctor folds his arms and glares intensely at an obscure point somewhere beyond her left shoulder. "Even if A and B are in entirely different corners of the universe, apparently." He turns abruptly back to the plane and glares at it, too. Then he looks up and smiles at her.
"Right, then. Take care, won't you?"
It's such an ordinary thing to say that she bursts out laughing. "Sorry," she says. "I mean -- you too."
"Oh," he says. "I always take care. Incredibly careful, me. I'm known for it." But a glint in his eye suggests otherwise. And for a moment, Diane wonders whether she's doing the right thing. She could always change her mind and go with him. What's to stop her? But she's stubborn, Diane, always has been. She is what she is. "You must plough your own furrow, I suppose," her mother would say, and then she'd sigh.
And besides, Diane doesn't want to wait any more. She wants to go now, under her own steam and in her own way. She wants to fly. So she doesn't change her mind. She just winds her scarf around her neck and settles into her seat.
The Doctor does not step back straight away. He stands, instead, leaning against the edge of the cockpit. He rests his chin on his folded hands and looks thoughtfully at her.
"When I said take care," he says, "I did actually mean it. People who do what you're doing -- well, it's very easy to get lost. One way or another."
Looking at him, she wonders how she could ever have thought of him as ordinary. There is a lump in her throat, and she isn't sure why.
"Thank you," she says. "I... I do hope we meet again one day."
The Doctor smiles, but does not reply. Then he turns and begins to walk away. She sits and watches for a long time, until the small figure has disappeared into the red dust of the desert.
"Who was that you were talking to?"
"Oh, no one. Just someone I met."
"Where's she gone, anyway? She was here a minute ago." Katy, a bottle in each hand, looks briefly around the small room, then shakes her head. "Weird, I didn't see her go out. I suppose she's in the loo. Sorry, I forgot what you asked for, so I got you a Smirnoff Ice."
"Thanks," says Emma.
"So, you going to introduce me when she comes back?" Katy grins slyly at Emma. "When I said 'try something new', I didn't think you were going to take it quite that literally."
"I don't think she is coming back, actually... What do you mean?"
"Well... chatting up strange women in bars."
"Katy!" Emma feels her face heat. "It wasn't like that."
"All right, keep your tits on! I was only joking."
Emma folds her arms and looks over at Katy's barman, who is taking advantage of a lull to send a text message. He leans aesthetically against the counter, jabbing away at the phone with his thumb.
"Mind you," says Emma, awkwardly, "I'm not sure that it would be any of your business, even if I did. Which I didn't. But if I did... well. I suppose that would be all right now, wouldn't it? If I wanted to."
Katy just laughs and fiddles with her sleek red hair, twirling it round her finger. "I'm only winding you up, don't worry about it! Don't matter to me, anyway, I don't care! Just leaves more for the rest of us, that's what I say." She follows the direction of Emma's gaze, and sighs. "Not that he's bothered, bless him. Such a shame..."
Emma rolls her eyes and laughs. Katy's nice, but she has a tendency to see the world as being Katy-shaped.
"You seem to have cheered up a bit, anyway," she says now, looking sideways at Emma.
"Yes, I suppose I have. Look, thanks for getting me out of the flat. You were right about that."
"I'm always right. You'll learn that one day." Katy grins and takes a swig of Bacardi. "Anyway, sorry if I pissed you off earlier. About that woman. You don't want to take any notice of me, you know."
"Oh, no. No, it's all right."
Katy picks at the varnish on the tabletop. "But I mean -- you are all right, yeah? You can talk to me if you want. I know I go on a bit, but..."
"Thank you." Emma smiles. "But, I'm fine, actually. Really, I am! You see, it's just occurred to me that -- well, that I can do whatever I want now. Can't I?"
Katy shrugs. "Well, yeah, I suppose. I mean... within reason. I'm not stopping you."
"I don't know what I'll do. It might be anything, it might be -- something I'd never even have thought of before. Who knows?"
"You're being a bit weird, actually," says Katy. "No offence."
But Emma can't stop smiling, all of a sudden.
It's amazing, the difference you feel the first time you go up on your own. There's nothing like it. You're there, alone, in the middle of nothing at all -- and you can't believe your luck. You can't really believe you're getting away with it.
It stays with you, that wild joy at being (finally, finally) on your own. To have escaped them all at last. It's addictive. And after a while, you find you're always escaping, always restless to move on. You never stay anywhere for very long.
But then, slowly, something creeps up on you; a vague feeling of dissatisfaction you can't even put a name to. And you find yourself making hurried plans for an emergency landing, suddenly hungry for company, for evidence of life. And every time, there's that same cold panicky feeling at the back of your throat. The fear that this time, after all, you'll be too late. That there will be nobody left.
And then you'll really be alone.
"There's a sort of sliding scale of aloneness," Romana told the blonde girl. "And every time you move up a notch, you think, 'Ah... now I know what it means to be alone'. You believe you've finally realised the true horror of it. That's how it is when you move to a new place, and you've left all your friends behind, and everything around you is strange. It's how you felt when you were lost in the woods, and you thought you'd never see home again. How you'll feel when they've burnt all the villages and bombed all the towns, and you can no longer recognise the land of your birth. It's how you feel when someone you love dies. Oh, you thought you'd been alone before, but that was nothing, was it? Not compared to this."
The blonde girl was silent. Romana thought, watching her, how very young she was.
"But it's never really nothing, is it?" she went on. "It's not nothing when you're a child and you've lost your mother in the supermarket. And it's not nothing when everyone you've ever known, ever hated or loved or felt indifferent to, is suddenly gone. Gone, just like that." She snapped her fingers. "As though they never were and never will be."
Romana folded her arms neatly on the table, and looked across at the girl. "It's not nothing. But it doesn't have to be everything, either. Not always. Not forever."
"Where there's life, there's hope, you mean?" The girl gave her a watery smile.
"Yes! Yes, that and all the other cliches." Romana laughed. "These old phrases don't appear out of nowhere, after all. There's a reason they exist. But, I'm really just saying... well, that it doesn't always do to assume anything. Because you never know."
"You never know," the blonde girl repeated.
"You never know," said Romana, and smiled.