The TARDIS ground to a halt, complaining all the while.
“I know,” the Doctor said aloud. “I’m trying. But I’m not ready yet. When you’ve lived as long as I have…I should be more ready to face this. But I’m not. I just need…wait. Where are we?”
The Doctor opened the door to the TARDIS cautiously. Randomly stopping her shouldn’t have brought them to any actual place. But somehow it had.
There, behind a shining wooden counter, stood a woman polishing a drinking glass. Behind her was a mirrored wall, covered in shelves holding liquid-filled bottles of various sizes. On the other side of the counter sat several humanoids. Customers, the Doctor realized.
“What can I get for you?” the woman asked without looking up.
“I’m not sure,” the Doctor said.
“That’s alright. It will come to you.”
Was the bartender old or young? Her hair was gray and cut very short, but her face was smooth. Perhaps her species were all gray-haired.
“What is this place?”
“This is A Stop Along The Way. Perhaps you think you’ve wandered in by accident? Trust me when I tell you this is where you’re meant to be. Tell me what troubles you, and I’ll see if I can’t help.”
“That’s very kind. But, I don’t think there’s anything you can do.”
The bartender shrugged. “You’re welcome to stay awhile and listen to me ramble.” She nodded slightly at one of the other patrons. “See that woman there? She comes in every few weeks. Tells me it’s only when she feels heavy. Says my mixes cheer her. Today I made her a Jazz Nostalgia. Equal parts old jazz and 2D animation, with a dash of innocent psychedelics- just for flavor mind you, the kind one might mix into a late 1900’s children’s television program. A properly mixed Jazz Nostalgia tastes of friendly bittersweet and no-wrong-notes. It takes you back to the bright poppy colors of childhood and celebrates the modicum of weirdness every culture feeds its children. See how it’s fixed her up?”
Indeed the woman was nodding slowly, a smile spreading across her face. She turned to face them and to the bartender she said, “My god that’s fine.” She set down the nearly-empty glass she’d been drinking from. It smelt of- no! There was a distinct smell coming from the glass which seemed somehow to be soft strains of mild jazz. The Doctor moved closer and the music grew more fragrant, loud enough that a melody was almost discernible. The woman leaned her head on one hand, her elbow bearing its weight. She regarded the Doctor through half-closed eyelids. The bartender wandered away to settle with another customer. “What are you having?” the woman murmured.
“I haven’t decided if I am,” the Doctor replied.
“Oh do!” she said, perking up. “If you’ve never tried one you should. This woman’s mixes are so very beyond.”
“Taking music by drinking it…”
“Has no one liquified music where you come from? Having music this way is so much more personal, more intimate than simply listening. It gets at your very core.”
Pausing thoughtfully, the Doctor said, “A drink that IS music! Is it physical or psychic? Is it nutrient-based or hormonal? How can I have lived long enough if things like this are still out there? On the other hand, perhaps I should be comforted. The world is meant to outlast me. There will be new things, and I leave without knowing all of them.” The Doctor sighed.
The bartender came back over to them and the woman paid her tab and got up to leave. Before she did however, she gave a gentle squeeze on the Doctor’s shoulder. “Try one,” she said. After she left, it was just the Doctor and the bartender left in the bar.
“Let me mix you something. It’ll be the best you ever had. I get all kinds in here. I help them all: lovesick dreamers trying to find their perfect match, the ones who have lived and only want a rest, teenagers trying to become who they must, business folk whose shops go under, seekers, trailblazers, mourners- tell me your story and I’ll make you a drink to restore what was lost and right what’s wrong.”
“So would you say you make improvements for people?”
“I afford them a little caring. A little healing.”
“Like a doctor?”
“Something like,” the bartender admitted sheepishly.
“And you never miss? Your mixes always hit the mark?”
“I can see a simple drink won’t satisfy you. Alright. A drink and a story. No I can’t always help. Far as I can tell I’ve never caused outright harm, but sometimes I fail to do any good. Take this one fella. Comes in here first time, heartbroken over a girl who’s left him. Way he tells it, he had it coming. Doesn’t make the pain less real. So I give him some blues. He says very little, leaves. A week goes by. Then he returns. Still just the same. I try Rock’n’Roll; free-spirited soaring stuff, but it doesn’t lift him. I try meditative chants, I try Motown, I try pop-fauxmercials, whale opera with icicle music of the Hilberne, but nothing gets this guy where he needs to be.”
“So, what happened? How did you solve it?”
“I didn’t! He always leaves looking just as low as he came in. There’s something I’m missing. So far all I’ve done for him is distract.”
“I know the system he comes from. The health groups are well established. He’ll already be getting anything he requires. This is something else.”
“Perhaps he’s interested in you.”
“I’m flattered, but that isn’t the vibe I get. Can’t think why the guy won’t move on.”
“Does he want to?”
“Does he want to move on?”
“Course he does! I mean he has to. What does he return for?”
“Maybe he’s waiting for you to change him. Problem is you can’t.”
“Huh!” The bartender looked stunned. Then she laughed.
“I think you solved the mystery for me! Most people who come here are looking for something. He isn’t looking for anything. That’s why he hasn’t found anything. Ah, but it’s only half solved. The real trick will be getting him to start the journey.”
“He’s got to find the thing he doesn’t know to look for. There’s a path he needs to follow, and he hasn’t yet realized even that much. I have to find a way to get him to take a step.”
The door to the bar opened and someone pushed inside. Under her breath the bartender said, “Well look who it is.”
The bartender greeted the newcomer. “T’sol. Been a week hasn’t it? How are you today?”
“I dunno. I just don’t.”
“What can I get you?”
“You can’t make everything suck less, so how about something to make me care less?”
“You sure? Maybe what you need is to care more. Well I’ve got something for you to try. Here.” The bartender quickly and expertly mixed clear liquids together until they became like a gray fog swirling in the glass.
T’sol picked it up and eyed it suspiciously. “Not much to it,” he said finally.
“It’s a shot. If you’re drinking it, knock it back,” the bartender suggested.
T’sol took the shot and downed it with some difficultly, as one unaccustomed to shots. “What the hell!” he exclaimed after a breath. “What in the, holy, ever loving- what IS this??”
“How does it feel?” the bartender asked.
“Discordant! I can’t make sense of the sound. Is it even music??” He looked at the bartender’s intense stare and suddenly said accusingly, “You meant for it to be awful like that, didn’t you?”
“I’ve mixed it properly. If you let it sit with you, through the discord, you’ll be able to sift out the flavors and harmonies. It’s like a puzzle. Waiting to be solved.”
“I didn’t come here for puzzles. Not sure why I came at all!” T’sol snapped.
“You came because you know something is amiss with you. But you’ve been relinquishing control and making it my fault you aren’t ok. My fault, her fault, anyone’s but yours. You told me you messed up, but you haven’t told me how you’re going to fix it. It’s time to stop clinging to feeling helpless and go do something.”
“I had my chance at that relationship and I flubbed it. There isn’t anything to fix! Now you decide I need to feel worse?”
“Sometimes feeling worse has to come before feeling better. And I don’t mean you get the relationship back. I mean fix whatever’s going on with you.”
“And exactly how should I do that?”
“I can’t tell you that. I can tell you how others found their way. And I can offer guidance on the path you choose. There are many who have-”
“I don’t need this,” T’sol said abruptly. He got to his feet, hesitated just one moment, as though waiting to be stopped, then rushed out the door without paying.
“Well now I’ve done it,” the bartender sighed, almost to herself. She stretched her arms out on the bar in front of her and let her head drop between them in defeat.
“What *have* you done? What was in the drink you gave him?” the Doctor asked.
The bartenders voice was muffled by her arms. “I discomforted him. I gave him a mixture of this really unnerving ancient religious piece… was that it? I went too heavy? Uh, mixed with a backwards piece of music, something by The Beatles, so it would taste tantalizingly familiar but also so very wrong. It will play inside him most of today. He might figure it out. He adores Beatles drinks. I’d hoped the solution to one mystery might tempt him to solve another. Whatever the story is with his situation, he hasn’t learned it himself. He still needs to. But what have I done to aid him? Nothing. I’ve failed.”
“Could I get one of your mixes?” the Doctor asked suddenly.
The bartender straightened up. “Now you want one? Now?? Why?”
“Because you tried. And because you don’t know that you have failed. Perhaps that man will accept your nudge and start down his path. Perhaps others will push him in the same direction. Eventually the advice may stack up and he’ll feel compelled to try something. You did the only thing you could. You stopped him being complacent.”
“You sure it’s you who needs help from me?”
“I think I need it more than anything,” the Doctor replied. “My species lords over time, and it makes us arrogant. But time is coming for me. I see that now. I can’t run. I must face it. But I’m just not ready.”
“To see destruction ahead and advance. Something special. Epic! I know what I’m making you.”
The bartender made her selections and poured them together. Music from six different flasks combined into one. Then she took a stir and beat the liquid rhythmically before handing it to the Doctor.
“Have you ever consumed music before?”
“Then, drink it slowly. And while you do, allow me to tell you about what I made.” The bartender paused and allowed the Doctor a sip. She was careful to speak only when the Doctor held the glass or set it down, never while the Doctor was drinking from it.
“What I made for you is a very old recipe. It’s been in my family for generations. It was created in music first as a true auditory mix and later converted to recipe form. It grapples with love and sadness, destiny and humanity. What it is to be like others, and what it is to be different. How we cling to life when it is hard, yet face death when we have to. It’s about the things we risk for others. And the lingering notes, the last taste on your tongue and surging through your bloodstream is perhaps the most unique. The music itself is a fusion of strangeness. Old music pretending to be older music, and so spanning time. As though rethinking earth music of the past as music of an entirely different period. Written as the backdrop to a dramatic scene from a movie involving space travel, and beating impossible odds. It calls to seeking and finding, bravery and compassion, and never giving up.”
“I taste it all. Nonconformity, reaching out to make a bridge from one person to another, love, death, war, hope… I, thank you. I believe I’m ready now. But! I’ve nothing to pay you.”
The bartender held up a hand in protest, “It’s on the house. Anyway, you gave me something earlier. And when you accepted a mix after seeing me fail. Whatever happens I will remember you. Tell me your name.”
“I’m the Doctor,” the Doctor said, turning to rush through the door.
Whistling to herself the bartender said, “How about that! The Doctor is what they call me too.”