It was the dreams.
If not for the dreams, Simon knew he'd never lose his grip on the situation; that tenuous grasp on reality, control, and truth. But the dreams haunted him. They mocked him, in vivid colour, in all five senses, reminding him of a past that was just outside his reach.
He sat up in bed and leaned against the wall. The dreams were still there when he closed his eyes.
They would always be there because they weren't just dreams; they were memories. Times and places from his past that he couldn't revisit. Not without her. Not when she was like this.
He ached deep down to his very core. His maternal grandmother would have explained that was his soul crying out in agony. She believed in those sorts of things: souls, soulmates, and destiny.
Some days Simon wasn't at all sure what he believed anymore.
Grandmother believed that souls travelled together from one life to the next. She had explained to him that sometimes, two souls who belonged together would not meet until circumstances had driven them to others. Seeing their soulmate just out of reach could make someone sick, make them ache, deep down to their soul.
Simon wondered exactly what she would say about the situation he was in now. How she'd explain it to him. What sorts of words of support and encouragement she would have for him. God knew she'd be the only one to believe him, at any rate.
He tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. The dreams were still there.
She walked softly. She always walked softly, even when she wore the boots that Simon insisted on when they were off the ship. But in bare feet, she was practically silent. "Simon?"
He gasped softly in surprise, then smiled at her when he recovered. "Hi, River," he said. "Can't sleep?"
River shook her head, then touched one finger to her temple. "Not me. You."
"Yeah," he said. "I had a nightmare." He shifted on the bed and stretched his legs out in front of him. The one leg--the one that had been shot--still hurt.
"I know." She always did. She frowned when he made a bit of a face to register that he was in pain, hand fluttering down to touch the same spot on her own leg, even though she wasn't looking at him.
"Are you okay?" he asked, shifting again to rise from the bed.
"Shh. No getting up. Doctor's orders," she said as she moved around the room, touching things that were his.
Smiling, he moved back to lean against the wall. "I'm the doctor, River. Do you want to come sit?"
She nodded and came to sit on the bed next to him, crossing her legs. "Your thoughts were loud."
"They were? I'm sorry, River. I didn't mean to disturb you."
River shook her head. "I wasn't sleeping."
"You need your rest," he said. "Don't forget to sleep."
She looked at him and wrinkled her nose.
"Don't make faces at me," he said, gently teasing.
River stuck out the tip of her tongue at him. "Bossy. Like Daddy," she said, turning away from him and looking at the wall, fingers playing with the tips of her hair.
"Right," he said. "Bossy." He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. His leg hurt. He thought, for a moment, about taking something for it, but decided against it. He wanted the reminder.
"You won't forget. You never forget."
"No. No, I won't. I can't." How could he?
"I can't fix it." She placed her hand very gently on his leg, and looked up at him, distressed. "Can't undo it."
He took her hand. "Maybe we can. Someday."
She shook her head, tears in her eyes. "I never wanted you hurt," she whispered. "I did it."
"River, you didn't hurt me. You could never hurt me." He stroked her hair back from her face.
A tear slipped down her face. "It's backward. Backward, and all out of order, and I can't..."
"Shhh." He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "Don't cry. We're both all right."
"I'm sorry. I promised it would be okay. I promised," she whispered. "And now you're full of holes."
"Only one," Simon pointed out. "And it's healing." It only hurt when he thought about it. Or walked too fast. "No permanent damage at all."
"You can lie to Daddy, but you can't lie to me. Never could," she said, fingers tapping gently against his collarbone.
He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "I'm not lying," he lied.
"Go to hell for lying. Out to the woodshed."
"Shush, you," he said. He tugged her in close again. "I'm not going anywhere."
She closed her eyes and leaned heavily against him. "Time to go to sleep," she murmured.
"I know. I should go back to sleep. And you should get some, too."
River held onto him a little tighter.
Simon looked not a little haggard when he and River arrived in the mess. He'd had another dream; not a nightmare, but painful nonetheless. Another memory. Memories that he couldn't share with anyone else. He needed a caffeinated beverage; River needed breakfast.
"Good morning, Shepherd," he said in greeting. His voice was still sleep-rough. "Is there still some of that oatmeal left?"
"I believe there is," Book said, smiling warmly at River. "Good morning, River."
River didn't say anything, but she smiled at the Shepherd and curtsied, still clinging to Simon's shirt.
Simon gently touched her arm. "Do you want some oatmeal, River?" he asked.
She looked up at him and wrinkled her nose.
"No?" He turned, made her to let go of his shirt, and took her hand in his. "What would you like?"
"Sunshine," she said. "Light."
"I think our River might be getting tired of being on the boat," the Shepherd suggested.
Simon couldn't blame her. He squeezed her hand. "So do I, River," he said, "but first? You need to have breakfast."
She sighed, then went up on her toes, and pointed at the oatmeal.
Kaylee had appeared from the other end of the mess. "We'll be landing soon," she said. "Me 'n Shepherd Book are going to go pick up a few supplies. Why don't you two come with us?" She smiled brightly over at Simon.
He didn't quite look at her. "I don't know... maybe," he said as he found a bowl for River.
River'd left Simon and his quest for breakfast, hair falling into her eyes as she went to sit at the table and avoided looking at Kaylee too.
"C'mon, Simon," Kaylee said, "it'd be good for both of you. Sunshine and light. Right, River?"
River lifted her head and looked at Simon. "It's not mine to give away. Not my choice. Not anymore."
He set a bowl down on the table in front of her. "Eat up," he said, very softly. Her words stung, but he tried not to show it.
He'd always be hers.
Simon kissed the top of her head, then went to find himself some tea. "Can I get you anything, Kaylee?"
"Oh, no thanks," she said, "I'm good." She sat down at Book's elbow. "Aren't you eating?"
He shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
River played with her oatmeal. "Lies," she murmured, drawing patterns in the cereal.
Despite how quiet she was, the words hung in the air. Simon pushed her to eat, but didn't have any for himself--not that there was much to be had. "You're right, River," he said after a pause. "I am a little hungry." He took roughly three spoonfuls for himself and sat next to her.
And still, River waited until he took a bite before she'd eat anything.
"You sure you won't come with us?" Kaylee urged. "I think you'd both have fun."
The last time Simon and River had stretched their legs, they'd been kidnapped. Simon still didn't look convinced.
"What are we talking about in here? Who's going places?" Mal was already talking when he walked in the door, stopping to kiss Kaylee on the top of the head and ruffle her hair as he went hunting for oatmeal.
Kaylee smoothed her hair. "We're trying to talk Simon and River into coming to town with us," she said. "It'd be good for them. Right, Shepherd?"
"River did say she wanted some sunshine," the Shepherd agreed.
"So what's the problem? Can't let getting kidnapped by crazy hill people decide the rest of your life," Mal said. "You'll go. Stick with Kaylee and the Shepherd... they'll keep an eye on you."
And now it looked like Simon was soundly outvoted. He looked at River. "Do you want to go down to the planet?" he asked.
She looked over at him and smiled. "Ground under our feet, Simon."
Ground under their feet. He took a breath, let it out, and then smiled in return. "Right," he said. "Looks like we're going planetside after all."
River smiled, and went back to her oatmeal, smoothing away the marks she'd been making.
Ground under their feet.
Simon suppressed memories that tried very hard to swim to the surface. He reached for River's hand. "Look at that," he said. "Sunshine."
She laughed, took his hand, then tilted her head back, enjoying the sun on her face.
She was beautiful.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" Simon asked, giving her hand a squeeze.
"Mmm," she murmured. "Warm. Everything's been so cold."
"Yes, it has. It's been a long time since we felt sunshine." Jiangyin. Simon couldn't help feeling nervous, but he wasn't going to let River out of his sight or say anything to upset Kaylee and have her leave them behind. Not this time.
"I believe that the town is in that direction," the Shepherd said, pointing toward a well trodden path.
"Looks that way, don't it?" Kaylee grinned and swung her empty bag over her shoulder. "Come on, you two!"
"We're coming," Simon called. He kept his hold on River's hand. It felt good to have the ground beneath his feet. Not that Serenity wasn't solid, but she wasn't the same. He ached to explore, to experience, but there was just no way.
It wasn't safe.
Simon might be worried, but River was happy. She kept a tight grip on his hand, but she slowed down to look at things, then moved faster so that she could look at something else. Nothing extraordinary--trees, rocks, moss. Dirt. But it meant something to her.
Do you know where we are? he thought. Does something happen here, or was someone important born here? All the way out here--so far from everything--far away and long ago. What do you know? What's trapped in your mind and unable to escape?
Simon watched her, though, a smile on his face. She was a wonder. His own wonder.
Kaylee and Book lagged behind Simon and River--partially to keep a protective eye on them. Kaylee looked up at Book. "They look happy, don't they?"
He made a murmur of agreement. "It can't be easy for them," he said. "Having to hide all the time. Perhaps this will help a little bit."
"I hope so. But I think they could be happy. With us. Don't you?"
Book's expression didn't change, even though he wasn't sure that Simon would ever really been what he could call 'with them'. "I think time will tell." That was safe enough.
"I hope so," Kaylee said, softly.
He gave her arm a bit of a squeeze. "Have patience, Kaylee. She's doing better, and he's relaxing."
"Right." She nodded. "River is doing better." She said nothing about Simon, but Book didn't have to guess why. Simon had only seemed more relaxed until the situation with Jubal Early. And now he barely looked at Kaylee any more.
Up the path in front of them, River laughed, then twirled in a circle, trying to get Simon to dance with her. He laughed, too, and took her hands. He'd always had two left feet, but he managed a few steps with her before his toe caught a rock and he just barely managed to keep from falling. That, of course, made River laugh more, and he reached for her, too, saying something that Kaylee and Book couldn't hear.
Kaylee sighed, very quietly.
Book knew better than to say anything at all.
"A little shop! I love a little shop."
Simon glanced over his shoulder. A tall, skinny man had just entered the shop with a red-headed woman at his side. His own wild hair and brown coat, as well as her clothes and jewellery, certainly made them conspicuous, but Simon always had better things to do than gawk at strangers. He quickly turned his attention back to River and cupped his hands under hers as she picked up a delicate ceramic figurine. "Do you like it?" he asked. He had a little bit of spending money saved up. He could buy it for her if he could haggle the price down some.
"It's soft... cold, and soft, look, Simon," she said. She offered it to him, then turned and sniffed at the air, almost dropping the figurine.
Simon carefully took it from her. "River?" he said.
Across the shop, the tall man had stopped, too. He stared at River.
River stared back and tilted her head to one side, then the other. "Home," she whispered.
"Hey--how many times do I have to tell you it's rude to stare," the redheaded woman said, smacking the tall man on the arm. "Sorry--he does this."
"So does she," Simon said. "River? Do you want to go back to Serenity?" He slipped his arm around her shoulders and tried to draw her away.
River became the original immovable object, and refused to go with him, gaze still on the stranger. "Home," she said again, more firmly this time.
The tall man, ignoring his companion, approached River slowly. "Who are you?" he asked.
"She's my sister," Simon said, stiffly, once again trying to get River to come with him.
"No, she's not," said the stranger.
Simon really had no idea what to say to that, so he spluttered a little.
"Can we help you with something?" Book was suddenly just there, standing beside River and Simon and looking at the strangers, a smile on his face.
And, Simon noticed, his hand suspiciously close to his pocket.
The tall man looked at Book sharply. "What?"
"Shhh," River said, touching the Shepherd's arm, and smiling at him. "Don't be afraid. It's only a storm."
The tall man looked down at River again. "I'm the Doctor," he said.
Simon frowned up at him. "Doctor... who?"
"A doctor... how interesting," Book said. "Simon is a doctor as well."
River smiled, then laughed, eyes sparkling. "Not that kind of doctor," she whispered.
"Okay--honestly, what is going on?" the redheaded woman demanded. She looked both confused and left out, and clearly those were two things that she did not enjoy.
"Donna," said the stranger. He took her by the arm and led her away. He leaned in to have a hushed conversation with her.
"I don't like this," Simon said. "I think we should get back to Serenity."
"Maybe that isn't a bad idea," Book said, setting down the things that they hadn't yet purchased.
"She's a what?" Across the ship, Donna--the red-headed woman--looked over her shoulder to stare at River. "Oh my God!"
As the tall man--the Doctor--chastised his friend, Simon took River's hand and gave a gentle tug. "River? It's time to go home. Back to Serenity."
Kaylee approached them from the counter with her full shopping bag. "Who are they?" she asked.
"I don't know," Simon said, "and I really don't want to stick around to find out. River? Please. It's time go home now."
"No--no, I don't want to," River said, balking when Simon tried to get her to move, craning her neck around so that she could look at the Doctor.
"I'll help you," Book said, taking River's other hand and trying to hurry her along.
"River, we don't know them," Simon said, softly, leaning in to speak in her ear. "We aren't safe. We have to go back."
River whimpered and tried to reach back, even though she wasn't really fighting against Simon and the Shepherd moving her along. Even though people were staring.
For a little while, it seemed like the two people were following them. Simon's heart pounded in his ears. Then Kaylee announced that they had turned around a different corner, and were nowhere to be seen.
At one point, Simon thought he heard some sort of faint noise in the distance. Like the whirring of a particularly sick engine, but no one else commented on it.
As Serenity came into view, Simon thought he'd never seen anything more beautiful. And the Doctot and Donna were gone. Definitely, most assuredly, gone.
River stopped struggling sometime back, but she certainly wasn't doing anything much to help. She had a sullen expression on her face, and she dragged her boots in the dust as they walked.
Simon took River straight to her room and they stayed there even as the rest of Serenity's crew got the ship squared away for take off. She wouldn't speak to him, but he talked enough for the two of them. He closed the door, put his arm around her, and talked to her about the past. Their lives together before Serenity. Before the Alliance. Before everything had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
He didn't mention the Doctor. Not once.
The Doctor and Donna became the subject of choice at dinner that night. The popular theories was that they were Feds, of some sort, or bounty hunters like Early. Mal and Wash put their heads together to work out an alternate route, putting as much distance as possible between them and any potential pursuers from Newhall.
Simon sat very quietly, grateful for the work being done to keep them safe--all of them--but scared and nervous. He was probably never going to stop being scared and nervous.
River still wasn't speaking to Simon. She wasn't even sitting beside him right at that moment, choosing instead to sit beside Jayne. Proof enough that she wasn't happy with him.
"Go lay in the course, Wash," Mal said from his spot at the head of the table. As Wash got up, so did Mal, but instead of following Wash to the bridge, he started to clear the empty dishes from the table. Conversation was dying down.
That was probably why, at the same time Simon heard it, Mal said, "The hell's that noise?"
After a pause as everyone fell quiet to try to hear whatever the captain heard, Kaylee said, "That ain't the engine."
"No, it surely ain't," Mal agreed.
River lifted her head and smiled. "Storm's coming," she murmured.
Jayne gave her a look, then got up, pushed his chair back, and reached for one of his weapons. "I thought you said they didn't follow you."
"They didn't," Book said. "I'm sure of it."
"It's coming from the cargo bay," said Mal. "Jayne, you wait for me and Zoe before going down there." Mal and Zoe did not wear weapons at the dinner table. Unlike Jayne.
Probably had something to do with that incident with the butcher's knife.
"What about the rest of us?" Simon asked.
"You stay safe," Mal called over his shoulder. Captain-code for 'hide'.
"We have to go," River said. She stood up and started to follow them.
"River, no!" Simon cried as he jumped up to grab her. He knew Kaylee was right behind him.
"Simon, we... please, we have to go," River protested, struggling in his arms.
"Please, River, please listen to me." He turned her around. "It's not safe. Let the captain deal with this."
"Simon," River said, looking dead into his eyes, focused for once. "Simon, it's him."
"Him? Who?" Simon asked. His own expression started to look frightened.
She smiled like he was very, very silly, and she leaned in to whisper to him, only loud enough for him to hear: "The Oncoming Storm, Simon."
Mal, Zoe, and Jayne converged in the cargo bay. The noise was joined a good stiff breeze that seemed to come out of nowhere. And then the three of them all took a step back as something materialised right smack-dab in the middle of the cargo bay.
It that was blue. And tall. And box-like. With a funny light on top. The noise stopped.
Mal looked at Zoe, then at Jayne. He, of course, looked only at the blue box, eyes--and weapon--trained right in on it.
River's footsteps were light on the stairs as she ran after them. Only the soft sound of her dress brushing the metal announced her presence, which they almost noticed too late.
"River!" Zoe reached for her just as the doors of the blue box swung open, pulling her in and holding on tightly.
There stood a man just as he was described by Simon, Kaylee, and Book. Right next to him was the redheaded woman. The Doctor and Donna. Mal trained his weapon on them.
"Oh, hello," said the Doctor. After a moment, he put his hands in the air in what looked to be a delayed sort of acknowledgement of the three people pointing guns at him. "Sorry to show up uninvited."
"Doctor, that's an awful lot of guns," Donna observed, although her attention seemed distracted by Jayne. She kept looking at his arms.
Mal had to question her taste.
"Yes, it is," the Doctor agreed, "and it's really not necessary."
"I think we'll be the judge of what's necessary," Jayne said, eyes narrowing as he moved his finger toward the trigger.
And somehow, River slipped out of Zoe's grip and moved in front of Mal, Zoe, and Jayne; in front of the guns. She walked right up to the Doctor.
"Hello, there." The Doctor lowered his hands and smiled down at River. "We didn't get to finish our conversation."
"River!" The shout came from above. Simon ran so fast down the stairs it was a wonder he didn't fall flat on his face and hurt himself in horrible ways.
River smiled when she heard Simon coming, as though he was walking to her and not in danger of hurtling to his death. "That's Simon," she informed the Doctor.
"Hello, Simon!" the Doctor called cheerfully. "We weren't properly introduced earlier. I'm the Doctor, and this is Donna." He looked down at River. "And who are your tall, burly friends?" As if Mal, Zoe, and Jayne still didn't have a bead on him.
River smiled at him, rose up onto her toes (she was barefoot again), then back down. "This is Serenity. She's very pleased to meet you."
"Serenity," the Doctor echoed with a nod, looking around. "She's a beautiful ship. Now, who's her capt--"
As the Doctor was spoke, Simon skidded to a halt right beside River. And he stared, wide-eyed, mouth open--but not at the Doctor or Donna. No, he stared behind them, at the blue box and its open doors and into the space beyond. "That--" he said, "that's a TARDIS. You have a TARDIS."
"Why yes," said the Doctor. "I certainly do."
Donna poked the Doctor in the arm. "How does he know what a TARDIS is?" she asked. "You certainly do get yourself around, don't you? I'm just surprised he's not a blond."
"It's nothing like that, Donna," said the Doctor.
"You're a Time Lord." Simon looked up at the Doctor in wonder. "I'm sorry I got scared before. I thought you were..." He trailed off, then looked at Mal. "They're not here to hurt us," he said.
"Really." Mal was still highly suspicious. Actually, he was entirely dumbfounded and he didn't like that. It annoyed him. There were strangers from a blue box in the middle of his cargo hold, and they seemed entirely unconcerned about the fact that Mal and his people still had weapons pointed at them. Simon was saying things that made no sense--though Mal had to concede silently and only to himself that perhaps that wasn't entirely unusual.
And River--well, River was River.
"Mal," River spoke up, as though Simon hadn't interrupted at all, and Mal started. He wasn't used to hearing her say anyone's name but Simon's and perhaps Kaylee's on occasion.
River had her head tilted slightly to the side, and she was focused on the blue box, but her voice was perfectly clear and composed as she recited the list of the crew, flicking a finger in the direction of each person she named. "Mal Reynolds is our Captain. Zoe Washburne is his first mate. That's Jayne. Jayne and Vera. He shoots things. Wash flies Serenity, Kaylee keeps her in the sky. Inara's a Companion, Shepherd Book..." River trailed off, smiled, and turned to look up at the catwalk.
Mal didn't have to follow her gaze to know that Wash, Kaylee, Inara, and Book were there and watching the scene below.
"This is Simon. He's a doctor." River didn't introduce herself.
Mal had just about run out of patience for surprises. He would have run out of patience for surprises a few minutes ago--about the time Simon didn't hurtle to his death--except that he was far too busy being surprised.
"I'm the Doctor," said the Doctor, looking around at everyone else, "and this is Donna Noble."
"The Doctor," Mal echoed, flatly. "Doctor...?" He waited for more information.
"Just the Doctor," said the Doctor, smiling brilliantly. "We're travellers. And we ran into Simon and River on Newhall. Do you mind if we come in?" He and Donna stepped further away from the blue box, and he closed the door behind them. "Look at this ship, Donna! I told you how beautiful she'd be. Look at all this space!"
"I ask to go to some place with a beach, he brings me to a desert planet, and a cargo hold," Donna said, all loudly confidential, and aimed in Simon's direction.
"Sounds vaguely familiar, actually," Simon murmured. "Where are you from? Or rather--when?"
"Hang on--Mal, what the hell are they on about anyway?" Jayne demanded. "There's a blue box in the cargo hold, and that guy don't seem to have a name."
Before Mal could answer, Simon peered back at Jayne and said, "It's not a box, Jayne. It just looks like one. It's a space ship. And a time machine. Perhaps we can take the Doctor and Donna back upstairs. I think..." He looked at River a moment before he locked eyes with Mal. "I think we have a lot to talk about. Again."
"A time machine?" Jayne swore in Chinese, making an uncomplimentary reference to Simon's parentage.
"Now that was entirely uncalled for," the Doctor said. "It is, in fact, a time machine. Now, please, if I have to keep staring at guns, I'm going to be very cross." He looked pointedly at Vera.
Jayne narrowed his eyes, and lifted Vera up a little more.
"No touching guns," River said, waving her finger at Jayne, who looked as though the top of his head might just blow off.
"Cap'n?" Kaylee called. "I really don't think they're gonna hurt anybody. Why not bring them up? I'll make tea."
"Ah, there we go!" The Doctor looked up at Kaylee. "A good cup of tea's just what we could all use right now."
Mal suddenly had a headache. He grudgingly agreed with a curt nod of his head. "Go," he said to Simon, "but you owe me an explanation."
"You'll get it," Simon promised.
River went to stand in front of Jayne, blocking his aim and standing there, playing with her hair.
Jayne still looked pissed off.
Mal shoved at Jayne to get him moving upstairs. The Doctor put his hand on River's back, and together they climbed the stairs, followed by Zoe. Simon fell in step with Donna. "When and where are you from?" he asked.
"Earth, twenty-first century," Donna said, giving him a bright smile, and staying just a little too close as they walked.
Ever minding his manners, Simon smiled back. "I'm from what you would consider the fifty-fourth," he told her, very quietly. "I was born on a planet called Trethos Three."
"That sounds familiar to me," Donna mused. "I don't think we've been there, but I'm sure he's yammered on about it at some point. They don't know, do they?"
"No. I imagine you're going to find out why very shortly." He let Donna step down into the mess first, and looked across to the Doctor and River before he went to join them.
"Well, Simon?" Mal still looked grumpy, having resumed the spot he vacated after dinner. "You wanna kindly tell us what the hell is going on?"
River sat next to the Doctor, legs tugged up against her chest, arms wrapped around them. "He tells me stories," she told the Doctor. "Keeps away the monsters."
"What sorts of stories?" the Doctor asked, curiously.
"The childhood we didn't have together," Simon said. "I've been passing her off as my sister since... since we got here. And the accident."
"I'm confused, and you've only just started talking," Wash said slowly. "Passing her off as your sister? Does that mean she's not?"
"No," said Simon. He peered down the table at Wash. "She's really not. She's..."
"A Time Lady," said the Doctor. "She's like me--well, except for the lady part. Obviously. We're both from long ago and far away--a planet called Gallifrey. That was an unfortunate rhyme, and I do apologise. Well, not really. I rather liked the way it came out."
"Wait. A planet called what?" Mal demanded. "If someone doesn't start making some sense I'm going to get cranky."
"Crankier, I'd say," said the Doctor, voicing a thought Simon wasn't nearly brave enough to say. "Simon, I think you need to start at the beginning."
"What's a Gallifrey?" Jayne asked. "No such planet as that, not in the 'verse."
"It's not in your 'verse," the Doctor said.
"The Alliance has been lying to you for a very long time," Simon said. "Kept you cut off from so much out there."
"What do you mean, lying to us?" Kaylee asked. "You say that like you're not one of us."
"I'm not, Kaylee," Simon said, gently as he could.
Jayne snorted. "Right, you're an alien."
"So am I," said the Doctor. "And River."
There was a long, silent pause.
"Aliens aren't real," Wash said, very slowly, like he was talking to a lot of crazy people.
Donna snorted. Loudly. "Oh, that's cute. That's really so cute. Do they not know?" she asked, looking at the Doctor. "That's adorable!"
"Their government has been lying to them for a very long time," the Doctor explained to them. "This is a particular offshoot of humanity that's hidden itself away since they left Earth, apart from the rest of the universe, even other humans, to keep themselves pure and free of alien influence." He looked at Simon again. "What year were you born?"
"Fifty-three sixty-eight," Simon replied without a pause, without thought, in a heartbeat. It actually felt good to say that out loud. "On Trethos Three."
"Ah, a Trethosian!" the Doctor crowed. "You'd love the Trethosian system, Donna, I'll have to take you there someday. On Trethos Three, there are beaches where--"
"The sand is red," said Simon. "Combine that with a binary sunset and it's like the oceans are on fire."
"I do love a beach," Donna said. She looked at everyone else, and Simon found himself following suit. They all looked either stunned or confused. "Not sure they believe you boys."
"If someone doesn't start making some sense," Mal said, slowly, "I'm going to shoot one of you."
Simon thought this was a not-unexpected amendment to Mal's earlier statement. "Right," he said. He looked at River, at the table, then over at Mal. "I'll start from the beginning."
Simon looked around the crowded yard of his parents' estate and contemplated making a break for it. He never really liked parties and he liked them even less now because his parents were so eager to marry him off that it bordered on a horrifying sort of desperation. There was a gleam in the eyes of many of the young women there. He really wanted to avoid said gleam. It made him feel like a piece of meat.
He was a young, handsome doctor--even Simon had to grudgingly admit it made him so very eligible. But bachelorhood suited him and he was in no rush to get married.
Music sounded from speakers mounted high on poles; the band was almost entirely obscured by the partygoers. Simon sighed, picked up a glass of champagne from a passing server, and started to wind his way through the crowd. He nodded to some people, smiled, paused every now and then. If his mother looked for him, it might even appear that he was socialising.
He found his way to an unoccupied bench at one far corner of the garden and sat down, sipping his champagne. His eyes lit on a beautiful young woman with long, flowing dark hair, who danced just at the edge of the crowd. She seemed to be alone and had caught rather a lot of attention. Simon watched her with a smile. After a moment, he realised that he very much hoped that perhaps he could catch her eye when the song ended.
Now wasn't that something?
There was applause when the music ended, and the dancer laughed, holding her skirt out to the side and curtseying low. She moved away from the dance floor, breathing hard and fanning at her face. She made her way to the refreshments table.
Simon got up, wiped a sweaty palm on his trousers, and approached her. "Hi," he said, "I'm Simon Tam. Can I... get you anything?"
"Simon... I believe this is your party, isn't it?" She said, smiling at him and offering her hand. "Call me River. I was just looking for a drink."
He took her hand, just long enough to be a gentleman. "Yeah, the party's for me. The refreshment table's just this way." He guided her the rest of the way. "My parents are hoping I'll fall in love and get married.
"All in one night? That's a lot to expect from one party," River said, letting Simon lead the way.
"That's what I tried to explain." Simon glanced over his shoulder, just to make sure neither of his parents were nearby, or any aunts, uncles, or cousins, then added, "I have been trying to plot my daring escape."
"What have you come up with so far?" she asked, grinning at him.
"Well, I was thinking about creating some sort of diversion and then disappearing through the crowd," Simon said. "Or sneaking back in through the house and out the front door to find a hovercab. Or maybe just walking out the garden gates and going for a long walk."
"I like the third option," River said. "A long walk in the fresh air. It would do you good, before you find your true love and get married in one night."
"That one was actually my favourite," Simon said. "There's some amazing plant life around here that I never get tired of looking at."
"Excellent," she said, offering him her arm. "Shall we?"
He laughed. "I think we shall." He deposited his champagne glass on a small table, then waltzed all the way out of the yard with River on his arm. There was a part of him that thought he really ought to be more careful; he didn't know her. People could make a rather large ransom off of someone like Simon and his family.
On the other hand? Simon never took risks. And maybe it was the birthday--technically tomorrow--which spurred him into the risk-taking. Or maybe it was her smile, or her eyes, or her hair, or just having watched her dance.
They walked for nearly two hours, arm-in-arm, and talked about everything and nothing. She was sweet, and funny, and smart--able to keep up with him on any subject he wanted to discuss.
They paused, after a time. It was getting dark. They sat together, in their finery, on the cool grass. Simon thrust his hands out behind him to support himself as he looked up at the stars. "I always wanted to travel," he said. "I know what's out there, but I've seen so little of it. The furthest I've ever been is Trethos Four."
"Why don't you?" River asked. "You're so young. You should travel. See the stars."
"Work. Commitments," Simon said, with a little sigh. "It's hard to get away."
"Not really," she said. And she smiled. "I could take you with me right now."
He looked at her. "You have a spaceship?" There was a hodgeberry bush right behind him. His fingers were itching. Just for a few. Oh, what the hell--he'd already run away from his own birthday party. He reached back and plucked the berries from the bush and popped a few into his mouth.
She smiled again. "Uh huh."
"Really? You're not joking?" He offered her some of the berries.
She took the berries from him, ate them, then shook her head. "I'm a traveller, Simon. That's what I do."
"That's--what you do? You just travel?" He looked delighted by this proposition.
"In space," she said, then leaned in closer to whisper. "And time."
He blinked, then started laughing. "You're making fun of me!"
"Oh, Simon Tam, I really am not," she said, shaking her head. "Ask me where I'm from."
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Gallifrey," she whispered.
"Gallifrey..." He frowned. He'd heard that name, somewhere. Somehow. Maybe? He couldn't be sure, honestly. He was about to ask for clarification when there was a sudden shout.
It was Tom, the Cambersons' groundskeeper. Simon laughed and got to his feet, reaching for River's hand. "We'd better get moving," he said. "I don't think the groundskeeper would hesitate to thrash me even if I am taller than him now."
"Come on, then--that way," River said, pointing with one hand as she took his in the other.
"Where are we going?" he asked, even as he started a brisk walk in the direction she pointed.
She laughed and tugged his hand. "Come on--faster!"
"River, where are we going?" Simon asked, again, just a brief moment later.
"My ship, of course," she said. "Hurry--you don't want a thrashing, do you? That'd be embarrassing at your age."
"What ship?" Simon asked as he looked around eagerly. "I don't see any ships!"
"Well of course you don't," River said, very reasonable for someone who was jogging away from an old man with a garden implement. "You don't know how to look yet."
"I... have no idea what you're talking about." He started losing faith in his initial assessment of her. Maybe she was mad.
She looked over her shoulder one more time, then stopped all of a sudden and tugged a key from around her neck. "Come on!"
"Maybe it's time for me to go back to my party," he said.
"Maybe it is," she said. "But first, come with me. Then if you want to go back? I'll take you back," she promised. And then she turned and unlocked the door to the tiny garden shed that was in the middle of the lawn, pushed the door open, and stepped inside. "Coming?"
He stared at her. Blinked a few times. Then looked just beyond her shoulder--wait. Something wasn't right here. He took a tentative step into the shed. Then immediately stepped back out. "What. I don't. What..."
And back inside he went. "This is... this isn't possible," he said.
River's laughter came from deep inside the little shed. "Isn't it?"
"It's huge," he said. "It was just a shed--but it's got all of this inside it. River--this is a different dimension, isn't it? All of this, done up to look like a little shed?" He finally closed the door behind him. He could hear the groundskeeper shouting again.
"Something like that, yes," River said, looking very pleased. "You're very clever, Simon. I don't meet many people like you."
"I read a lot." That tended to be Simon's answer to a lot of things. How did you know that? Why don't you have more friends? When was the last time you got some sun?
"Don't you want to see some things for yourself, instead of just reading about it?" River leaned against a piece of piping then twirled herself around it. "I can show you. I can take you anywhere. Anywhen."
"Anywhere." Simon took a few tentative steps toward the round console in the middle of the room. His eyes went past it. There were doors. So many doors. His brain told him they were on the bridge. In through the wooden shed doors, and right onto the bridge. All light blue-grey. His fingers itched to pull a lever on the console. He looked at River again. "Anywhen."
"And when you're ready to come home, I bring you back right here, right now, with the gardener outside shouting at us for eating his berries. So. What do you think?" she asked, smiling at Simon. "Can I show you the universe, Simon Tam?"
He didn't have any of his things. Not even an extra pair of socks. He looked at her for a moment, then nodded slowly.
Show him the universe. Bring him right back to his twenty-fourth birthday. Back to his parents, back to the girls who wanted to marry Dr Tam--one of the top surgeons in Capital City. Back to his life.
"Show me the universe," he said.
Simon fell quiet. He looked only at the Doctor. He could feel everyone else's eyes on him and couldn't make himself look at them. He knew they must all think he was absolutely insane.
"Okay. So. Let me see if I've got this right," Wash said after the silence became nearly unbearable. He held up a finger for each point. "You're from another solar system. You're an alien. And River's not actually your sister." He turned to look at Zoe. "Actually, that last one explains a whoooooole lot."
"That it surely does," Zoe agreed, looking down the table at Simon.
For his part, Simon managed to blush just a little. "That's right. I'm from another solar system. In the future. And I'm an alien. River and I travelled in her space ship for... a long time. Days turned into weeks, turned into months, turned into years. I left everything I owned behind."
"It's not as mad as it sounds," Donna said. "'Course, I suppose it depends on what you've got to leave behind," she admitted. "Wow. Anyone else feeling a little awkward here, or is it just me?"
"More than a little awkward," said Kaylee, quietly.
No one said anything else for another few agonisingly long moments.
"Well, Simon." The Doctor had lowered his voice, too. "Finish telling us your story."
Simon and River stepped out the TARDIS doors and onto a broad, green field. Beyond a little rise in the land was a forest. When Simon glanced over his shoulder, he smiled upon seeing that the TARDIS now looked like a rickety old shed--so run-down in appearance that it looked like a stiff breeze might knock her over.
"Looks like we've landed pretty far from civilisation," Simon commented.
"What gave it away?" she said wryly, reaching for his hand. "Come on. Exploring to be done."
"Yes, ma'am." Simon grinned at her. "Maybe there's a quaint little village just beyond that ridge."
"Would I take you to a deserted planet with nothing exciting to do or see?"
"Only that one time, and that was because that ionic storm threw us off-course."
"Right... the planet of bugger all," she said, sighing loudly. "That was disappointing."
"There was that bird's nest we found, though," Simon pointed out.
"How many do you have now?"
"Last I checked the lab," Simon said with a grin, "there's seventeen."
"Did you put the one back that turned out to be sentient?"
"Yeah. It kept trying to eat my fingers."
"I once brought home a beautiful rock, and it turned out to be a dinosaur," River told him.
Simon stopped dead in his tracks. "A dinosaur? An honest-to-God dinosaur?"
"A raptor, as it turned out."
"Did you end up putting it back where you found it?"
"No, I kept it. It watches over you in the library. Just make sure that you don't eat red meat right before bed," River said, trudging up the hill.
"How did I never notice that there's a raptor in the library?"
"You're always reading," she said. "You lose your shoes in there, I hardly think you'd notice a raptor."
"Maybe the raptor is taking my shoes, then putting them back when I return to look for them."
"No, that'd be the pixies."
"I knew it!" he exclaimed. "I knew there were pixies, and you kept denying it. One of these days, Time Lady or no... I'll get you back for the way you tease me."
"Okay," River said, patting his hand. "You do that."
He gave her a mock-glare, then picked up the pace a bit to make it over the ridge and to the forest. When he passed between the first two trees, he stopped again.
"River?" he said, in a soft whisper. "Is it just me or--is the forest singing?"
"It's not just you," she murmured back. A few moments of listening, and she smiled, looking delighted. "Come on," she said, tugging his hand. "Come, we need to get closer."
Simon followed along and marvelled. It was wonderful that there were still things in all of time and space that could make him marvel. But he had only been travelling with River for a few years, and surely hadn't seen even a tiny fraction of what all of time and space had to offer.
The forest was singing. Simon looked around, to make absolutely certain that there weren't creatures sitting up in the trees making that sweet, lovely music. He spotted a few animals darting about, but he was certain it wasn't them. It was the forest itself; every tree that formed the vibrant green canopy overhead.
Another few moments, and he reached out with his free hand, tentative and a little afraid to break the spell, and he laid his palm against the trunk of the nearest tree. It vibrated, just a little, the same way a human's--or humanoid's--throat might if you touched it while he or she (or other) spoke.
"River." Simon looked at her, wide-eyed in wonder, but he didn't know what to say.
She smiled at him, and touched her index finger to her lips. She tugged on his hand again, led him to a clearing in the middle of a grove of trees, and sat down on the ground. She placed one hand against the forest floor, then the other, and waited for him to do the same.
He sat facing her, looked down, and put his hands on the forest floor. If at all possible, his eyes grew even wider. The very earth beneath them vibrated, just as the tree had. Finally, he looked at River.
He'd thought he had purpose in his life. He was a surgeon; he saved lives. He'd re-attached a girl's leg. He'd kept patients alive who, under other hands, would never have survived. He was medical elite; he'd been given so much recognition and reward for his work. Never had he thought how small his life really was.
She had shown him so much. So many amazing things. So many terrifying things. But each and very one of them was a wonder. She held his hand, guided him, protected him--his Time Lady, the one person in all the stars he loved the most.
She'd never know. She was so far beyond him.
River's eyes were closed the entire time, an expression of pure joy on her face as the music moved right through her. She was The Dancer, after all.
Simon's throat felt tight. He closed his eyes, listened, felt. He wasn't even aware of the fact that there were tears slipping down his cheeks.
After awhile, she couldn't sit still any longer, so she stood up and started to move, letting the music guide her. She slipped off her boots and danced barefoot, face toward the sky, hair streaming.
He looked up and watched her, still either entirely oblivious or uncaring about his silent crying. She was beautiful. He'd never seen anyone quite so perfect. He resolved--not for the first time--that he was never going to leave her. They'd travel together forever.
He knew she could have danced forever. She likely wasn't sure how long it was before she finally dropped back down again, panting for breath.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the words died on his tongue. He looked in her eyes for a moment, then darted his gaze away. She reached out for his hand and gave it a squeeze.
Maybe it was okay that there were no words. Maybe they didn't need them. Ducking his head, Simon closed his eyes again. But he did squeeze her hand in return.
The TARDIS' chameleon circuit had disguised it as a bright red tent. They had landed about a mile from the edge of the beach. Simon began walking faster as soon as it came into sight. He hurried inside, and leaned against the door. He was sure River knew he'd snuck out in the middle of the night. They'd intended to stay for a few days.
Simon had wanted to have a good time. People more or less his own age, young, enjoying life, music, dancing. Sex.
And he couldn't. All he could think about was River. He let his head thunk back against the TARDIS door, eyes closed.
He jumped, guiltily, and then opened his eyes to look at her. "Hi," he said.
"Sorry... you were thinking loudly," she said.
"I--" He blushed furiously. "You're not that telepathic," he said, defensively.
"No," she said. "But I can tell when you're thinking hard."
"Oh," he said. "Right."
"You left," she said. "But you came back."
"I was gone for a while," he admitted. "I went... I went dancing."
"I like when you dance," she said. "Did you have fun?"
He nodded. "Yeah. I did, for a while."
"But you came back."
Another nod. "Yeah. I did. I'd wanted--I'd wanted--but I couldn't."
She frowned. "Do you want to go?" she said softly.
"Go where?" he asked.
"Is this the part where you leave?"
"I don't want to leave," he said. "I can't leave--that's why I came back."
She frowned even more. "You left, because you don't want to leave, and that's why you came back?"
"Yes," he said. He knew how insane that sounded. He really didn't care.
"I want you to stay. You know that, right? I... I really want you to stay."
"I told you I'd be with you forever. I'll always be here. You're... everything."
"Do you mean it? Really mean it?"
"Yes, River." He finally stepped away from the door. "I mean it. I could never leave you, the TARDIS, and our life."
She moved quickly and wrapped around him in a big hug. Almost too tight.
He put his arms around her, one hand on the back of her head and the other on the small of her back. "I love you," he whispered. "I know you can't--you don't--but I love you so much."
She closed her eyes and held on. "I need you to stay," she whispered, and Simon knew.
It wasn't just him. It was never just him. She just didn't know what to do about it any more than he did.
Simon took a deep breath. "I lived with River on her TARDIS for years. The two of us, a miniature velociprator named Chip who thought I was his mother, and some pixies who would steal my shoes.
"She showed me all of time and space that I wanted to see, and parts of both she thought I'd like to see. And sometimes we just stayed on the TARDIS. I never wanted for anything.
"Until--" Simon frowned, paused, looked down at the table for a moment before continuing. "I'm still young. I'd been with River for about six years, give or take. Things like years sort of lost all meaning after a while. Trethosians have an expected lifespan of about two centuries. I suddenly realised that I wasn't exactly a hundred and fifty. I was--am--young. I should have been having fun with people my own age. I'd gone on a grand total of six dates before I met River and I hardly had any friends.
He was quiet a moment longer. The entire table seemed to have been put on pause. No one--no one at all--said anything, and Simon was painfully aware of everyone watching them. He could imagine impatience on Mal and Jayne's faces; skepticism on Wash and Zoe's; patience mixed with that skepticism from Inara and Book; hurt on Kaylee's.
He never wanted to hurt Kaylee.
"We'd fallen in love. Time Lords--Gallifreyans--don't reproduce sexually, but that doesn't preclude... but everything was so complicated. I'd live for at least another hundred and fifty years, barring accident or illness. But River--she was as good as immortal. Nothing really changed between us, but maybe we'd hold hands longer. Or she'd curl up with me on the chaise in the library while I read. We knew that everything had changed, and yet so little actually had. She was still my dancer. My forever.
"When you've seen all of time and space, when you've seen stars born and die or a planet in stages of development from a stone age to space travel, when you've seen beauty so profound it makes your heart ache, when you've suddenly found yourself in the middle of a revolution and rubbed elbows with artists and scientists and generals from dozens or hundreds of worlds--" Simon shook his head. Time to end that sentence. "When you've seen all of those things, there's no going back."
"You never went back, did you?" It was Inara who spoke up, her voice very soft, carefully neutral, as it usually was. Her voice betrayed nothing. Her eyes, focused on Simon, said everything. "Never went home."
He looked at her, then shook his head. "Not once. It's not as though I never thought about it, but I just couldn't."
Inara nodded, just once. "Please... go on," she said.
"And then River got a message from Gallifrey." Simon clasped his hands together on the table; so tight they hurt. "She sat me down and told me that she'd worked hard, as hard as she could, to keep me away from the Daleks. She said that I should never have had to know what a Dalek was." He looked at the Doctor again; he wondered if the haunted look he saw in the Doctor's eyes was reflected in his own. "But she taught me about them the way she'd taught me about things I never could have really learned in school, and she told me that the Time Lords were going to war with the Daleks.
"River had been recalled to fight in the war. That meant returning me to my life. The monotony of work and home and attempted socialisation. I always failed more or less miserably at that part. But then she gave me another option. The TARDIS' Chameleon Arch."
The Doctor was absolutely still and absolutely quiet. His gaze shifted from Simon to River; to Donna; back to Simon. They watched each other once again.
"A Chameleon Arch," Simon said, for the benefit of Serenity's crew, "can change every cell in someone's body. The TARDIS' databanks would provide all of the physical and historical information to change River into a Trethosian. Her Gallifreyan self would be stored. But she'd be Trethosian. She'd be able to hide. I'd know the truth, enough of it, but we'd be together."
"Bigger on the inside," River whispered, hands fluttering over her chest. "So, so much bigger on the inside."
Simon looked at her and reached for her hand. "So much bigger," he echoed in a whisper.
"Are you sure it's safe?" Simon looked entirely unconvinced. "Couldn't we just--run?" He hovered over River, worried, concerned, and possibly feeling just a little sick to the stomach.
"There's nowhere to run," she said. "Nowhere in space or time that they won't find me. I've been recalled, Simon. All of us, every one. The only way they won't find me is if I'm no longer one of them."
He reached for her, turned her around to face him, and took hold of her hands. "You promise me. You have to promise me you'll be all right. That you'll still be my dancer."
"I promise," River whispered, looking up into his eyes. "I promise, Simon. This is our chance. This is our freedom."
He looked back down at her for a long, long moment, then leaned in and kissed her.
Even after all this time, he'd never kissed her, and it surprised even him that he did it. When he looked back, his own eyes were very wide.
River's fingers came up, and she touched her lips, then smiled at him. "If we do this, we can have everything," she told him. "I'll be like you. We'll be the same. Simon, it's worth it."
He nodded. "Yes," he said, "you're right. You're always right. I love you."
She smiled again. "The next time you kiss me, I'll be able to love you, like you love me. Please, Simon. It's time."
"I'm still afraid," he said, though he nodded.
"I know," she said. "Trust me?"
"But it went wrong," Simon said. He spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, but he still held River's hand and he watched her. "It wasn't completed properly. Something found her TARDIS. I didn't recognise it--it opened fire--I was never very good at flying the TARDIS, but I got us away.
"The only problem was, I got us here, and too close to an Alliance cruiser. They had no idea what the TARDIS was, and they gave chase. I don't know how I managed it, but I landed the TARDIS on a planet, where I was able to hide my key. If we went back to the planet, I could find it." It made him feel sick to add, "But the Alliance has River's TARDIS."
"But she can change back, Simon," the Doctor said. "All you need is the watch."
Simon swallowed hard. "It's on the TARDIS."
"Ah," said the Doctor, sitting back in his chair.
Jayne stood up abruptly, swearing in grammatically incomprehensible Chinese. "I'm sorry, but are you really buying this?" he demanded, looking at Mal. "He's a liar. I've always said he was a liar, back when he told us that big sob story about his sister, and now he's lying again. Toss them both off, let me shove that box out the airlock, and let's just go on our way."
The Doctor got to his feet. "Jayne? Come with me."
Jayne managed to take two big steps back and still look imposing.
"You've got a great big gun, and I'm unarmed. Come with me. Just for a few minutes."
He looked very, very suspicious, but he nodded.
Even if he did flip the safety off Vera.
The Doctor smiled. "Everyone else, just stay put." He gave Donna a pointed look.
The Doctor flung open the doors to his TARDIS. "After you."
Jayne balked. "I'm not climbing in your box so you can lock me up in there and throw me off the ship. That's what I was gonna do to you, so it's no fair stealing my plan."
The Doctor smiled. "I'm not going to lock you in there and throw you off the ship." And then, with a little bit of a spring in his step, the Doctor stepped into the TARDIS.
Jayne narrowed his eyes, and followed the Doctor inside the box. Then scrambled straight back out again, swearing loudly.
The Doctor walked up to the console, turned around, and watched Jayne. "The words you string together make no true grammatical sense. You do know that, don't you?"
Jayne slowly walked back in again, gun in his hands. "This ain't possible," he said, ignoring the Doctor's commentary on his language.
"Well, clearly it is," the Doctor said, mildly. "It's right here in front of you. It's all right, Jayne. Come in."
He walked in, still moving slowly, then up to the console, reaching out to touch a blinking light.
The doors closed behind him. The Doctor turned to the console and began pulling levers and pressing buttons. There was that same noise as before. "I'd like very much to show you something," said the Doctor.
"Hey--hey!" Jayne yelled. He turned around and headed for the door, banging hard on it. "What are you doing? Where are you--Mal!"
"I'll have you back on Serenity soon enough. I just think I ought to prove to you that Simon's telling you the truth. You seem like you'd respond better to a little 'show' rather than just 'tell'."
Jayne banged on the door a few more times. "MAL!"
The door opened. Right into space. It was a nebula that Jayne had never seen before. The Doctor turned and leaned against the console again.
Jayne almost fell out, scrambled back a few steps, and stared. "What... where are we?" he gasped.
"This is the Horsehead Nebula. It's approximately fifteen hundred lightyears from the planet Earth. Oh, and--wait--" The door closed right in Jayne's face and the Doctor turned again to the console. When the door swung open for a second time, Jayne stared down at a little blue-green planet. "That's Earth."
"There is no Earth," Jayne said. "Earth's gone. It's what once was."
"And isn't that remarkable," the Doctor commented.
"How are you doing this?" Jayne demanded. "How are you showing me things that aren't real?"
"It is real, Jayne," the Doctor said. "This ship travels in space and time."
Jayne stared for a few moments, then turned back to look at the Doctor. "So... just how much is a ship like this worth?" he asked, ever-so-casually.
The Doctor stared at him for a long, long moment, then started laughing. He turned around, left Jayne to scowl behind him, and flipped a few more switches. The TARDIS door closed and when it opened again, it was onto Serenity's cargo bay. "Home sweet home," said the Doctor. He bounded down to the doors and clapped Jayne on the shoulder. "Back we go."
"You're not right. You know that, don't you?" Jayne said.
"So I've been told," the Doctor said, ushering Jayne back into the cargo hold and closing the TARDIS doors firmly behind them.
"About time," Donna said, standing at the top of the stairs waiting for him. "I don't like it when you leave me behind, you know. Have you seen what they eat in this place?"
"Moulded protein, I imagine," the Doctor called up to her. "Were we gone that long? We should have only been a minute or two."
"Long enough," Donna muttered.
Simon took River to bed. Captain Reynolds took his crew for a chat. The Doctor sprawled out in one of the comfy chairs in the corner of the mess with a cup of tea cradled in his hands. He hadn't taken a single sip. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
Donna came and sat next to him, not waiting for an invitation. "So. Pretty weird, all this. Even for you."
"More than pretty, I'd say," said the Doctor, not opening his eyes.
"You told me you were the last," Donna said, poking him with her finger.
"I was." He opened his eyes and stared at the offending finger.
"And yet... here she is," Donna said, poking him again. "Is she what she said she is? Is it all true?"
The Doctor rubbed at his face. "There's still something of the Time Lady in her," he said. "She isn't entirely the same species as Simon. And he knows... enough."
"If they'd done it right, you'd have never known, would you?" Donna said.
"Never," the Doctor said. "I... there was someone else. A while back. I should have told you about the Master by now, I suppose."
She shook her head. "Who's the Master?" she asked.
The Doctor leaned forward. He looked at the floor, but he told her. He told Donna everything. About the end of the universe; Utopia; the year on Earth that never was. The Master's regeneration and death. And then he fell absolutely silent, still looking at the floor.
Donna stayed quiet for a long time after that. Instead of poking, this time, she reached for his hand. "And then you were alone again," she murmured. "And now you're not... but you still are, because she isn't right."
He looked at her, finally, and gave her a very sad smile as he squeezed her hand. "I can help her," he said.
"Are you sure you can put her right again?" Donna said.
"Yes," said the Doctor, "very sure. I need the watch and I need her TARDIS."
"Well, the... Alliance, wasn't it? The Alliance has the TARDIS, so the Alliance has the watch too," Donna said.
"Yes. We can just hope that they haven't been able to get inside."
"Do you know her?" Donna asked. "Simon's River, do you know her?"
"He called her the Dancer, when he was telling his story. I'm not even sure he was aware that she did it. River's not exactly her true name." Then, finally, the Doctor smiled. "I haven't seen her in, oh, eight hundred-some-odd years."
"Quite the separation," Donna said. "An old flame, perhaps?"
"Nothing like that," the Doctor said.
"What was she like?" Donna asked. "The Dancer, not the broken girl who needs our help."
"Remarkable," the Doctor said. "Brilliant, eccentric, always ready to buck the system. Never quite fit in. Loved art and music, other races--the human-like ones. Travelled, explored. We would have been great friends, but our lives took different paths."
She nodded, still holding on to his hand. "Did no one wonder what happened to her, when she didn't come when she was called? When the war happened?"
"Of course we did. We thought perhaps something had happened to her. There was never any confirmation that she even received the call."
"And during a war, it's not as though you can send people looking," she said. "It doesn't seem like that much time has passed for them. I don't know how you track it, honestly... makes my head ache."
"I really don't think it has been that long for them at all," the Doctor agreed. "Wibbly wobbly and all that." He gave her a sad smile. "I'm not alone, Donna."
And it hurt a little to hear that, because he had her. He wasn't alone. But she knew, somehow, that it just wasn't the same. "You're not, no," she said. "So what's next? How do we fix her? Bring the Dancer back?"
"We get my the fob watch and her TARDIS," said the Doctor. "I think it would be easier if we had a few extra helping hands, but if Captain Reynolds and his crew are unwilling to help, well. It'll just be the four of us--if you want to help. I can take you home first, if you prefer. It's going to be dangerous, I imagine."
Donna gave him a look, then punched him in the arm.
"Is that a 'don't be stupid, I'm coming with you, stupid' punch?" asked the Doctor.
"If you can't recognise it by now, clearly I'm not hitting you hard enough."
"I don't need you to hit me harder."
"Then stop trying to send me home, dumbo!"
It had been a long, long day, and Inara still couldn't sleep. Too many things to think about. She got out of bed and slipped into her robe, starting the water so she could make tea.
There was a knock once she sat down with her cup. At least he knocked--but it was only once, and it was when the door was already open. Mal stepped into the shuttle, deep enough to find her seated on the couch. He looked at her without a word.
"I suppose it's a bit late to say you can come in, isn't it?" Inara said. She gestured at the couch. "Please, sit."
He sat, clasping his hands in front of him. "Jayne says the Doctor took him to Earth-That-Was."
"Jayne's not exactly the hardest person to fool," Inara said, sipping at her tea. "Still, somehow, I don't think the Doctor would do that."
Mal looked down at his hands for a moment. "Simon and River are aliens, Inara. So help me, I believe all of this. That blue box just materialised outta nowhere."
She nodded. "I know. They're telling the truth." She tucked her feet up underneath herself a little more securely. "I listen, a lot. And I've heard things that make hearing this not so hard to believe."
Mal lifted his head again and looked at her. "You have? Like what?"
"Whispers... hints of truth, murmured in one's ear," Inara said. "A lot of things we're told don't make sense."
"Well that was cryptic."
"I can't help that," Inara said. "None of it's specific enough. I just don't find this impossible to believe."
He leaned back heavily. "They're gonna ask for help in... fixing her."
"I imagine," Inara said. "What are you going to tell them?"
"Inara, how can I put my people on the line for them when they lied to me? If Zoe, Wash, Jayne, and Kaylee don't want to help, I'm not going to make them."
"If he'd told you the truth, would you have believed him?"
"Then how could he have done anything but lie? If he'd told you two days ago, without the Doctor and Donna here to confirm his story... would you have believed him then?"
Mal sighed. "No, I wouldn't've."
"Then you can't blame him for not telling you the truth."
Mal rubbed at his eyes. He looked exhausted.
"So... when they ask you for help, Mal... what are you going to tell them?"
He was quiet for a long, long moment. Then he said, "I'll help. Leave Serenity in Zoe's hands."
"Zoe won't let you go without her," Inara said.
"I ain't leavin' Jayne in charge!"
Inara almost smiled. "Something tells me that your crew is going to back you up, Mal. They follow where you lead."
That gave Mal pause. Then he said, "They're idiots," without any conviction whatsoever.
"They're your idiots."
"That they are." Mal stood. "I'm going to try to talk the Shepherd into staying here with you, and I'm hoping the Doctor can convince Donna to stay behind. I'd also rather leave River and Simon here."
Inara stood as well. "I can help, Mal. You should take me with you."
He had no idea whatsoever to say to that. He stared at her.
"You lead, and do it right, and we follow," she murmured. "You should go to bed. Tomorrow's going to be a big day."
"I never said we were gonna leave tomorrow," Mal said.
"Of course not. Whenever you decide," Inara said. And this time, she was teasing him.
Mal stared at her a moment longer, then turned on his heel and stalked out, muttering under his breath.
"Aliens," said Kaylee.
"Kind of hard to believe," Wash said.
"'Kind of'?" Zoe echoed, raising her eyebrows at Wash. "Bit of an understatement."
"There's a lot of black out here, and a lot of strange things in it," Wash said. "I don't know... maybe my suspension of disbelief has increased."
"Still," Zoe said, leaning more comfortably against Wash's chair. "Explains a lot, if she ain't his sister."
"A whole lot," Wash said fervently, right before he looked sheepish and peeked over at Kaylee.
Kaylee pulled her feet up onto the co-pilot's chair in front of her and looked out at the black.
Zoe sighed softly. "Sorry, Kaylee." It was inadequate, and she knew that, but what else was she supposed to say? And gorram it all, it looked like Kaylee was going to cry, and Zoe was in absolutely no position to help her with that.
"Told you he wasn't good enough for you." Jayne, of course. Not that he was being that much more helpful.
"Shut up, Jayne," Kaylee snapped, wiping furiously at her eyes.
"Well he--" Jayne started to argue, then frowned and went quiet as the Shepherd touched his shoulder and shook his head.
Kaylee got up from the co-pilot's chair and dashed from the bridge.
"Good job, Jayne," Zoe said sarcastically.
"Hey--this is not my fault," Jayne said. "I'm not the one who lied to her and led her on while I was in love with my alien sister."
"No, you weren't, but we don't need to make any of this worse on her."
Jayne huffed loudly. "I still think we should just leave them on the next rock we pass," he muttered.
"Captain's not gonna do that, and you know it."
"Well, then, it's a good thing he doesn't listen to you."
Jayne's scowl got impressive.
"Moving on," the Shepherd said.
"If the Captain's really gonna help Simon and the Doctor, then I'm with him," Zoe said.
"The Alliance can't be allowed to keep a TARDIS," the Shepherd said. "The potential for misuse is catastrophic."
Silence descended on the cockpit. They all stared at the Shepherd.
"I'm sure the Doctor said something about that earlier when we were speaking," he said mildly.
"Uh huh," said Zoe.
"Riiiight," Wash said. "So... anyway. I'm in."
That? Got a smile out of Zoe. "That's my man," she said.
"Where you go, I go," Wash said firmly. "Except when you or the Captain tell me I have to stay behind. Then I listen to you or the Captain, because you're both in charge of me."
It was quiet when River got up. Simon didn't hear her. No one ever did, not unless she wanted them to. She padded barefoot out of her room, always touching the walls as she headed for the cargo bay, and smiled when she saw the Doctor's TARDIS. She lifted herself up on her toes, murmured softly as she walked around it, dragged her fingers against the wood, almost caressing the sides.
The door swung open for her. Invitation.
She smiled, whispered a 'thank you' to the TARDIS, and slipped inside.
The Doctor sat in the chair against the railing, his long legs up and trainer-covered feet on the console. "Hello," he said.
She held on to each side of the door and swayed back, as though she was blowing in the breeze. "Hello, Storm."
"Come in, Dancer."
She laughed and twirled around in a circle, nightdress fanning out around her.
"Do you remember me? At all? Even with this daft old face?"
She went right up to him, skipping more than walking, and touched his face. "Old inside," she whispered. "Old face with a young soul becomes young face with an old soul."
He nodded. "I'm a very grumpy old man sometimes," he admitted.
"Shh. Are not," River whispered. "I won't tell."
He smiled at her, a crooked, sad little smile. "They're gone," he said. "All of them. All the Time Lords, all the Daleks. I destroyed them to end the war."
Her smile faltered. She gave her head a shake and turned away. "Run. Just run. Why can't we just run? They'll find us... wherever we run, they'll find us. We have to hide. Hide in plain sight. It's the only way... the only way."
"I'm sure you don't really understand," the Doctor said. "But... I just want..." He trailed off and got to his feet. "I'm sorry."
"I promised him," River said, not looking at the Doctor. "I promised."
"I know you did. And we're going to get you better, I promise."
She turned back around to face the Doctor, searching his face, then finally smiled. "I like her," she said, ever so confidentially.
The Doctor tilted his head curiously, frowned a little, then suddenly smiled down at River. "She's a lovely old girl, isn't she?"
She closed her eyes, swaying very gently back and forth. "She sings," she whispered. "Can you hear her?"
The Doctor's chest suddenly felt a little tight. "I... no. No, I can't. Unless you mean Donna--she sings in the shower."
River laughed, opening her eyes again. "Her too. She's good for you," she said, for once sounding like she might have some age behind her, instead of looking like a teenager.
"Yes," the Doctor agreed, "she really is. I've needed a friend like her, I think, for a very, very long time."
She nodded firmly. "She takes care of you. Let her," she said, just as firmly. And then the moment of lucidity was gone, and River turned back to look at the TARDIS console, a wistful look in her eyes. "Lost," she murmured.
"Simon knows where your TARDIS is," the Doctor told her.
It was as though she didn't hear him. She stroked the side of the console and looked sad.
The Doctor reached out, gently, took hold of her shoulders, and turned her to face him. "River?" he said. "Simon knows where your TARDIS is."
"Left her behind," River said sadly. "Let them take her. Touch her."
"But I really don't think they would be able to get inside."
"She's all alone."
"She is. But you're not."
River looked up at the Doctor again. "Neither are you," she whispered. She brushed a fast kiss across his cheek, and then she turned and ran out of the TARDIS, hair flying behind her.
"Where did you go?" Simon reached for River and drew her close. "I was worried."
"I had to see her," River said, tucking in against Simon. "I could hear her singing."
"Is her voice as lovely as your TARDIS?" Simon rested his cheek against her hair.
"Different," River said. "He's so lonely."
"Can we help him?" Simon asked. "Like he's helping us?"
River thought about it, and then shook her head. "I don't think so, Simon," she murmured. Like so many things, she couldn't explain it, but she had a feeling that for the Doctor, who was more than a little broken, they were only going to make things worse.
Simon sighed softly and kissed her forehead. "Okay."
"You're tired," River said. "You should be sleeping." Of course, Simon would always want to help. To heal. She touched his face.
"So should you," said Simon. "Please. It would make me feel better."
"Will you let it all be quiet?" River asked, touching his temple. "Just for tonight?"
He smiled. "I'll try my best."
She nodded, accepting that. It would do, for now. "Tired," she murmured.
Simon settled them down on the bed, snuggled together under the blanket. He stroked her hair. "We'll sleep," he said. "We'll probably have a big day ahead of us tomorrow."
"Daddy will help, don't worry," she murmured.
Simon frowned. "Mal? You think so?"
She smiled. "He will."
It was late. Donna assumed it was late, anyway. That was the problem with being in space--one could never be entirely sure what time it was supposed to be, even when you were somewhere that remotely observed time the way humans on Earth did. Either way, she was wide awake and bored, which was as good a reason as any to get dressed and get up to go exploring.
It was nobody's business why she'd actually bothered to put on a proper bra and make her hair look respectable.
"Can't sleep?" The Doctor was underneath the console, working on something, but he always knew when Donna was there.
She gasped, then turned and gave him a look. "No, actually. Don't you ever?"
"Sometimes. If the mood strikes."
"Nice for some," Donna says. "I thought I'd stretch my legs a little... take a walk."
"And yet you're heading for the door. There are plenty of places on the TARDIS to take a walk, Donna." He raised his eyebrows at her.
"Oh, you know," she said airily. "Change of scenery."
He regarded her a moment, then said, "He's dangerous, Donna."
She looked in a reflective surface and primped her hair. "Who?" she said innocently.
"You will at least watch for concealed weapons, won't you?"
"Ooh, I certainly hope so," Donna said, smirking wickedly at the Doctor. "Don't wait up," she added over her shoulder.
"You behave yourself, young lady!" he called out.
Donna's laughter followed her out the door. Once she closed it, lest she have to listen to any other helpful advice from the Doctor, she started her wander through the ship.
It was almost easy to miss at first. But the closer Donna came to the engine room, it became unmistakable: someone was in there, and someone was crying.
Donna frowned, changed direction, and followed the sound of crying instead. She wasn't really all that surprised when she saw Kaylee in tears. "Hey... so sorry to interrupt," she said, hoping she wouldn't startle Kaylee too badly. "Would you mind if I came and sat with you?"
Kaylee's head came up quickly, and then she wiped her face on her sleeves. She sniffled miserably, but nodded. "Sure," she said.
She sat down next to Kaylee, and dug in her pocket for a handkerchief. The Doctor always had a few around. "Here... it'll make you feel better," she offered.
Kaylee took it gratefully, then shifted a little. Just enough that she turned away from Donna, but still gave her room to sit.
"Pretty blokey, this ship," Donna said. "Has to be hard sometimes."
Kaylee managed a laugh. "Jayne, Mal, and Zoe ain't too helpful sometimes when I need to sit down and have a good cry. 'Course, I don't do that to them all that often anyhow."
"And he seems like a good fellow, but I can't imagine sniffling all over the Shepherd either," Donna admitted.
Kaylee shook her head. "I'd rather sniffle all over Inara, but I don't wanna wake her."
"I know you don't know me, but I've got pretty good shoulders for that sort of thing," Donna said, giving Kaylee a gentle bump to the side of her arm. "If you like."
That brought the tears welling up in Kaylee's eyes again. She covered her face.
"Hey... it's all right," Donna murmured, slipping an arm around her. "I'm sorry--I didn't mean to make it worse."
Kaylee shook her head again and mumbled something completely incoherent when she turned to hide her face against Donna's shoulder.
Donna felt very badly, quite concerned that she had, in fact, made things worse, so she just decided to stay put and pet Kaylee's hair.
"I thought he wanted--that he--but he's not--"
Donna made a few soothing sounds, still petting Kaylee's hair. "Men are idiots, sweetheart. It doesn't matter what time or planet you're from, that's always going to be true."
"He's an alien," Kaylee said, brokenly.
"He's still a man. Alien doesn't change that. Look," Donna said, rubbing Kaylee's back, "he's a man, and like I said, men are idiots, true... but I don't think he truly meant to hurt you. He doesn't really seem the type, does he?"
Kaylee shook her head. "No... no, he doesn't."
"Doesn't make it feel much better right now, of course, but at least he's an idiot, rather than an arse," Donna said, tilting her head from side to side, as she weighed and balanced that one out.
Kaylee made a funny little noise. She hugged Donna tighter. "It's not really helping, no."
"Ah, that's all right... it doesn't have to help right now," Donna said. "You know what else? I bet he's making himself just sick over it," she said, very confidentially. "I saw the look on his face."
Kaylee lifted her head. "I hadn't thought about that."
"Now, I don't know him, but he seems like a fairly sweet fellow to me... kind, gentle, all of that. And he's hurt you. He didn't mean to, but he has. From what I saw? He's just sick about it."
Kaylee sniffled and wiped her face with the handkerchief. "But what good's all that when nothin' can come of it?"
"Well... maybe a relationship won't come of it," Donna admitted. "But you might end up with one hell of a friend, if you can see past it." She shifted so she could see Kaylee a bit better. "I've travelled with a Time Lord, like Simon did. There aren't words to describe it. It's bigger than everything. Time, and space, and life itself. They don't see things like we do... and sometimes, those of us who travel, we forget. What it's like to be a human. An ordinary, wonderful human being. We make mistakes."
"Or they might just... leave."
"They might," Donna admitted. She didn't know, after all. "But it sounded to me like they were looking for a place to belong."
Kaylee wiped her face again. "Yeah. Maybe they are."
"Plus... no matter what, he's going to owe you for life," Donna pointed out, smiling and bumping against Kaylee's arm. "Just think what you'll be able to get off him."
That got a little laugh out of Kaylee.
"Sweets for life." Donna paused. "Oh God, tell me you still have sweets in this galaxy."
Mal looked absolutely haggard.
Simon knew he hadn't slept. Of course, Simon hadn't had the most restful night ever.
Really, everyone looked pretty tired. Everyone but the Doctor and River, that was.
Mal looked around the table. "So here's the deal," he said. "I've made up my mind. I'm gonna help Simon and the Doctor. Not a one of you's bound to help us. I won't make you."
Simon was surprised, but that settled into a profound sort of appreciation. "Thank you, Captain," he said as he reached out for River's hand.
"I'm in," Zoe said. "You know I'm in."
"That's Zoe." Mal gave her a very tired-looking smile.
"I told Zoe last night--I'll do whatever you need," Wash said. "Whether that's staying here, or coming along to help."
River peeked over at Wash and waved just the tips of her fingers at him.
"Anything I can do to help, Cap'n," Kaylee said. She smiled across the table at Donna.
"And you know that Donna and I are going to help you, Simon," the Doctor said.
"Thank you," Simon murmured.
"I'll help in any way I can," the Shepherd said, smiling at River.
"It looks like I was right, Mal," Inara said. "They're all your idiots."
Mal quirked a bit of a smile at her, but it disappeared very quickly. "Ain't heard from Jayne yet."
"This is an incredibly stupid idea," Jayne said, from his position slouched back in his chair. "It's dumb, it's reckless, and you're probably all gonna get yourselves blown up."
"More than like."
"So, does that mean you're not coming?" the Shepherd said.
"Who said anything about not coming?" Jayne said. "You're taking the fight to the Alliance. That's just my kind of stupid--I wouldn't miss it. I'm just saying--you're all idiots."
"Brilliant," said the Doctor, clapping his hands. "One happy band of idiots. Now, first thing to do is go retrieve that TARDIS key."
"I have exact co-ordinates," Simon said. "It won't be a problem."
"Good, good." The Doctor nodded slowly. "So we have two options. One: I take Simon in the TARDIS straight there and we fetch it. We're back in a few minutes. Option two," he said, quickly, before anyone could interrupt him, "Captain Reynolds takes a nice long nap first, and he comes with us."
Zoe looked at Mal, and said, "I say we go with option two. Agreed?" She looked around the table.
"Now wait a minute here," Mal objected.
And yet, Mal's protest was drowned out by the entire rest of the table agreeing with Zoe and the Doctor.
"Circles... black and purple, not in fashion for the season," River informed him, drawing a half-circle under one eye.
Mal looked at her, then made a bit of a face. "Fine. I'll go sleep. Wake me in three hours," he told Zoe. He got, wearily, to his feet.
When he was out of earshot, Zoe said, "I'll wake him in eight. Agreed?"
Again, the room chorused in agreement.
When faced with dealing with grumpy-because-he-slept-too-late Mal, and grumpy-because-he's-too-tired Mal, the former was always a better idea. Which was what Zoe'd informed him--politely, of course--when she woke him up after eight hours. Still, he was grumpy as he followed after the Doctor, who talked a lot, and Simon, who lied a lot.
Simon wandered around the TARDIS' console. His hand fluttered once or twice as if he wanted to touch. He seemed more comfortable here than Mal had ever seen him on board Serenity.
The Doctor moved with a kind of exhausting, frenetic energy. He moved swiftly around Mal and Simon and kept himself somehow between them at all times.
"Okay, now--see here's the part I don't get," Mal said, turning on Simon as he continued on with a conversation he'd only been having in his head up until that point. "If you'd told me that you were an alien, and she was an alien, and you were both a couple of time travelling aliens from a different time than ours, okay. Yes. I would have thought you were both crazy--not just River--and I'd have tossed you out the back of my boat before you had a chance to bring down all the trouble you've brought down on me and mine. You had to lie about that, and I ain't disputing it."
Simon stiffened, and turned to him. "Fair enough," he said. "What is it you're going to tell me you don't understand, Captain?"
"You lied about her," Mal said. "About you and her, this whole brother-sister act you put together. That's what's hurt people. That's the lie that didn't have to happen. If this whole love story that you told us about is really true, then why isn't that the story you told us?"
Simon took a breath. "Have you ever looked at her, really looked, Captain?" he asked. "She's a teenager. The woman that I travelled with--the Time Lady--looked to be my own age. How was I supposed to pass a sixteen-year-old girl as my wife?"
Mal opened his mouth to argue back, then stopped to think about that, closed his mouth again, and frowned. "Suppose you have a point there," he admitted, very slowly.
The Doctor looked between them. "Well. All right then," he said. "Are you done, Captain?"
He thought about it for a few more moments, then nodded. "Suppose I am," he said. He looked over at Simon. "You lie to me again, I'll let Jayne throw you out the airlock."
Simon lifted his head. "Understood."
"All right then," Mal said. "Now I'm done."
The Doctor looked between them, then shook his head before bounding down the walkway to the TARDIS doors. "Now that we all have that out of our system," he said, "Simon, let's go get your key."
As the only person on the landing party who was both able and willing to carry a gun, Mal insisted on going first, checking the area before he'd let the Doctor and Simon leave the TARDIS.
They were quiet a while after they started walking. The Doctor fell into step with Simon. He didn't watch him in any overt sort of fashion, but Simon wasn't entirely fooled. The Doctor was waiting.
The grass under their feet became lush and vibrant. Trees began to spring up around them. Simon could hear water ahead.
"The TARDIS--our TARDIS--landed just over there." Simon pointed. The Doctor's gaze followed, but he said nothing. Just waited.
"We ran, but River wasn't lucid. It was hard to keep her quiet. We were pursued here, into this forest. She was scared and fell quiet soon enough. It was dark, but I had a few items on me. This."
Simon lifted what Mal and Serenity's crew had always assumed was his encyclopedia; it was close enough, but there was a reason he kept it safe in his room.
"I buried my TARDIS key. I could hear the Feds and I knew it was only a matter of time before they found us. I wish--" Simon sighed. "I wish I knew how they'd followed us so closely, right from the time we arrived in this time. In this solar system."
"The powers that be here have spent a very long time, and a rather impressive amount of effort, keeping the presence of aliens a secret," said the Doctor. "Would you honestly be surprised to know they have safeguards in place against what they might consider an alien incursion?"
"No," said Simon, "I suppose not."
Mal muttered something rude and incoherent under his breath. "Just something else that I'm gonna have to put up with Jayne bitching about. If it's not the Reavers, it's gonna be aliens."
There was a short pause, then the Doctor said, "You won't have to worry. You'll both be dead by the time the Alliance can no longer keep aliens a secret."
Mal paused. "I can't tell you how comforting that's not."
The Doctor pushed his hands in his pockets. "I'm here to help," he said with a grin.
Simon led them deeper into the forest, consulting his not-an-encyclopedia every now and then and adjusting the path he took after he tripped over a large tree root.
The Doctor helped him to his feet. "Thanks," he mumbled, embarrassed. He stepped over the tree root this time. He fell silent again, then suddenly stopped walking.
"How did you manage to do this?" Mal asked. "Being chased by the Alliance with your crazy not-sister?"
"Do you mean, hiding the key?" Simon looked up at him. "She was very quiet for a moment, like I said. I had time. Just enough time. They found us as soon as we started running again. But I figured--I thought, if they couldn't find my key on me, they wouldn't be able to get inside. All I can hope is that they still haven't managed to get inside."
Mal didn't look all that confident that a key would have kept the Alliance out of, well, anything.
The Doctor glanced sidelong at him. "All we can do is hope, Captain."
"I'm not big on hope and faith, Doctor," Mal said, leaning against a tree. He looked casual, but he was on alert... watching for anyone, or anything, that might be coming.
"Really? Love them myself," the Doctor said, rocking back on his heels as Simon pressed some buttons on the not-an-encyclopedia.
"This way," Simon said, turning and leading them off again. "No... wait." He stopped, frowned, and pressed a few buttons again.
The Doctor reached out and plucked it from Simon's fingers. "This is an interesting piece of technology, Simon," he commented, pulling something from his pocket. One end of it glowed blue when he pointed it at the device.
"It was River's," Simon explained. "We ran into a Gallifreyan scientist at some point and he modified it for me. River was never really a scientist herself. She didn't have the passion for it. Not like art, culture, music, dancing..."
"Swinging knives at people..." Mal said in an undertone.
They ignored him.
"She was certainly brilliant in her own right. But didn't quite have the drive for it. Ah, see, here's your problem," the Doctor said, his voice tinged with sadness. "It needs her TARDIS, and her TARDIS is going to sleep."
"Oh," said Simon. "But that's... that's a good sign, isn't it? If it's going to sleep, it means that the Alliance hasn't done anything to it, doesn't it?"
"More than likely," the Doctor agreed. "There. I've linked it in to my TARDIS for now."
"Thank you, Doctor," Simon said. "I wish we'd been able to get someone else to modify the Chameleon Arch for River, too. But she--we couldn't risk it. We were getting messages almost constantly, demanding that she return to Gallifrey."
"What sorts of modifications?" the Doctor asked. He sounded ever-so-cool, but when he looked at Simon, his eyes were sharp.
"The idea was for us to hide the Time Lady, not remove her completely," Simon said. "We didn't want to lose River's memories of me. That would defeat the purpose. We wanted her to know who I was--to love me. I'd be her husband. Then everything went so wrong. I think--we'll never know for sure, but I wonder if we were attacked by Daleks. I tried--I couldn't get us away, I--"
The Doctor put a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right. I understand. But listen to me, Simon. The war is over. You won't have to hide anymore."
Simon looked up at him. "Of course," he said, softly. "Thank you, Doctor."
The Doctor grinned. "You're welcome." He handed Simon's device back, tossed his... blue-glowy... thing in the air, and caught it again. He watched as Simon turned away from both him and Mal to read the screen on his not-an-encyclopedia.
"She's not a scientist. Not a soldier," Mal said. "Why would they even want her to return?" He didn't wait for an answer as something else distracted him. "Okay, what the hell is that?" he asked, pointing at the... whatever it was that the Doctor was flipping around.
The Doctor pretended not to have heard Mal's first question. "This? It's a sonic screwdriver," he said.
Mal gave him a look. "A sonic screwdriver?"
The Doctor leaned in the doorway to River's room. "Hello, Dancer," he said.
She didn't look at him, but she smiled and swayed from one side to the other, light on her feet.
"Where's Simon?" the Doctor asked.
River looked over at him, and placed her hand over her heart. "Here. Always."
He smiled. "Just where he belongs. "We're almost ready out here. Zoe's going to come with us. The captain and Jayne will provide some distraction. We're going to get your TARDIS."
"She's calling us," River said, going over to the Doctor and taking his hand. "We have to go."
The Doctor squeezed her hand, just a little. "The war's over," he said. "You don't have to hide anymore."
River tilted her head to one side and looked up at him, deep into his eyes. She held his focus for a few long moments, and then just...went back into herself. She was still looking at him, but she really didn't see him.
"I'm sorry," he said, immediately. "It gets lonely out there sometimes." He took her arm in his as he led her off to meet the others. "It's a very big playground just for me."
It was awhile before River spoke again. "So fragile," she said. "Like tissue paper. So easily torn away, torn apart."
"It can all be gone in an instant," the Doctor agreed.
She looked at him and smiled, and for a moment--just a moment--she was the Dancer. "And isn't that what makes them so beautiful?"
"It's what makes them all so very worth it." He smiled back.
"Time to go," River said, tugging on his hand. "She's calling us."
Donna and Serenity's crew were waiting for them in the mess. The Doctor made sure River was settled next to Simon, then stood behind them, a hand on the back of each of their chairs. "So we're agreed?" he said. "We're doing this?" He looked across at Mal.
"Pretty sure we already decided that," Mal said.
"Just wanted to give an out to anyone who has changed their minds," the Doctor said. This time his gaze fell on Jayne.
"Why's he looking at me for?" Jayne asked Mal, scowling at the Doctor.
"Can't think of a single reason," Mal deadpanned. "Okay--we done? Let's go." He moved to get up.
"Now, wait a minute, Captain," said the Doctor. "We still have to work out what, exactly, we're going to do once we arrive at the Alliance facility."
"No we don't," Mal said. He reached for his cup once he stood, finished his water, then set it down.
The Doctor blinked a few times. "You and Jayne will be left on your own," he pointed out, "and I'd like to make sure we all make it back."
"Uh huh." Mal straightened up and looked at the Doctor. "You located River's ship. It's on the moon of a core planet, inside an Alliance controlled research facility," he said. "Have you ever been inside an Alliance facility?"
"Well, no," the Doctor admitted, "but it can't be all that different from other places I've been."
"But... you haven't," Mal said. "We have. Which means we make the plan. And since we've already done that," he clapped Zoe on the shoulder, "we're done. Let's load up."
"But," said the Doctor, "I had a plan."
Donna looked wildly, wildly amused. And she didn't hide it at all well. It was entirely likely she wasn't even trying.
"Oh, I'm sure it was a really good one," Mal said. "But we're gonna go with mine. Jayne? Go load up, be in the cargo bay in five minutes."
"On it," Jayne said, grinned at the Doctor, then got up and headed out.
"It was a good plan," said the Doctor. He looked a bit crushed.
Simon patted his hand. "Maybe next time," he said.
"Was it going to involve running?" Donna asked. "I bet it was going to involve running."
"Loads of running," said the Doctor. "You wouldn't believe the amount of running."
"I'm really sorry that I'm going to miss that part of your plan," Donna said. "Unless you were going to have Mal and Jayne running in front of us, in which case...."
"We might still be able to do some running," the Doctor said. "That'll be fun, won't it?"
"Of course it will," Donna said, looking amused. "You notice that they didn't actually tell you what their plan was, right?"
He opened his mouth to respond, closed it immediately, looked horribly concerned, and took off quickly for the cargo bay, shouting for Mal.
Simon watched him go, then turned to Donna. "Does he actually have a plan?" he asked. "Because I have a feeling he doesn't at all."
"Yeeeeah, the Doctor really doesn't do plans," Donna admitted. "Don't worry--it'll all go just fine," she said, patting his hand and getting up to follow after everyone else.
Simon watched her go, too, then turned to River. He ran his fingertips down her cheek. "Are you ready?"
She leaned into the touch and smiled at him. "I can hear singing."
The main part of Mal's plan:
Stand back and watch the feds try to figure out where all of Jayne's weapons were. He kept setting off the security sensors.
The other part of Mal's plan involved stealing as much stuff as possible before the Doctor and his big blue box arrived to retrieve them.
Once River was inside the Doctor's TARDIS, she couldn't stay still. She didn't touch anything, not quite. She ran her hand just over the controls; murmured softly as she moved about the space.
Whereas the Doctor moved at what Simon could only describe as a manic sort of pace. Simon felt like he needed a nap just from watching him move about, pulling levers, pressing buttons, asking Simon to hold down the inversion regulator--which he sort of figured the Doctor made up just to give him something to do so that he didn't watch him with such a concerned sort of expression.
"So... tell the truth." Donna alternated between watching River and leaning against the TARDIS wall, relaxed as though the Doctor weren't moving like an air molecule after an espresso. "Are you going to land us somewhere farther just to make us have to run, because you didn't get to use your plan?"
"I would do no such thing," the Doctor said with a look of indignation. And then he grinned like a madman.
With Mal and Jayne off creating a diversion to keep the Alliance security forces busy, the next step was to retrieve River's TARDIS while, hopefully, said security forces were entirely busy trying to deal with Mal and Jayne. At least, that's what Simon thought the plan was. He still wasn't entirely certain that the Doctor had any idea what he was doing and rather thought he was, in fact, flying by the seat of his pants.
The Doctor bounded down to the doors. "All right, now, when we step through, I expect we'll have to move quickly, so Zoe, if you don't mind, please, I would like you with me. Not that the two of us are sacrificial lambs, but I'd rather keep Simon, River, and Donna out of the line of fire."
Zoe nodded, cocking her shotgun and moving to stand next to the Doctor. "I'd feel a lot better if you were armed," she told him, holding out a pistol to the Doctor.
Donna snorted. "Good luck," she muttered under her breath. "Although, if you don't mind, maybe I'll just--"
"No," said the Doctor, sharply. "Only one person here gets to be armed, and she's the one who knows what the hell she's doing." He took a breath and said in a gentler tone, "Please, Donna. Just... stay with Simon and River. Please."
Donna rolled her eyes at him. "I can't decide if you're being patronising or chivalrous, so I'll do what you're asking, until I decide if I'm mad at you or not."
"We'll argue later, I promise." The Doctor gave her a quick grin, then looked at Zoe. "Ready?"
She nodded, game face on. "Ready." She raised her shotgun and flipped the safety off.
The Doctor pushed open the doors. He was ready for anything that the Alliance might throw at them, whether that meant he ran and dove for cover or took a stray bullet or actually was able to talk them out of--
There was one (rather charmingly cute) young lieutenant sitting in the middle of the room. He seemed to be playing mahjongg. The room held rather a number of computers and one (also rather charmingly cute) pale yellow garden shed.
"Hello there." The Doctor pulled something from his pocket and flashed it at the lieutenant, who had jumped to his feet. "At ease. Mysterious technology inspectors. We're here to inspect your mysterious technology."
The lieutenant looked baffled, staring at the group of them. "I... there's no such things as mysterious technology inspectors," he managed, after a few moments of stammering.
"And how would you know that, hmm?" Donna asked. "We're very mysterious," she added.
His mouth opened, then closed again. He didn't really have an answer for that.
River wasn't paying attention to any of them. Not the Doctor, not the young lieutenant, not even Simon. At that moment, the only thing that she had eyes for was the little yellow garden shed.
It sat there, seemingly untouched. According to the Doctor, when he spoke after poking at a computer terminal, it was indeed virtually untouched. No one had ever got inside it. Not a single scientist--the ones with appropriate security clearance, anyway--had been able to work out how to get inside or been able to understand the diminishing power signature. They had no idea what it truly was.
Simon could barely breathe.
"I don't like this," Zoe said, looking around, still holding her gun at the ready. "One guard? Why aren't there more of them? Is there any way they could be expecting us to come for it?"
"I don't think so," said the Doctor. "They've about given up on ever getting inside it without moving it to a Core facility. Though there is a proposal under committee review just to attempt to destroy it. The door there--" he pointed, "remains locked at all times, and there are more guards at the end of the hall, isn't that right, Lieutenant?"
"Yes... they only unlock it when we switch shifts," he said, nodding. "Are you really mysterious technology inspectors?"
Donna rolled her eyes so hard it looked like it hurt.
"Yes, of course," said the Doctor. "Why else would we be here? On my word, we'll decide what we're going to do with this... that." He gestured at the shed.
"It's in committee right now," the lieutenant said. "They're having meetings, but they keep being tabled."
"Alliance bureaucracy in inaction, what a shock," Zoe murmured.
"Yes, I know," said the Doctor, very patiently, to the lieutenant. "That's why I'm here. We can't keep wasting resources if it's completely unnecessary. Hence--inspection." He glanced at Simon.
Simon took that as good enough confirmation as any. The Doctor seemed to have the lieutenant's attention. He gave River's hand a squeeze.
"She's calling," River whispered, looking up at Simon, then starting to move toward the TARDIS.
He went with her, pushing his hand into his vest pocket. His fingers closed around the key; it was very warm to the touch. It knew. He was sure the TARDIS knew. And River--his Dancer--knew, too. They were almost there. Almost home.
He fumbled with the key, hands shaking terribly as he tried to unlock the door.
Zoe shadowed them while Donna helped the Doctor snow the lieutenant, always keeping her eye on the (supposedly) locked door.
River placed her hands against the door of the TARDIS and smiled, just the very tips of her fingers touching the wood. She closed her eyes then, without opening them, reached out and took the key from Simon's hand and unlocked the door. Her smile got bigger as she pushed the doors aside, stepped into the TARDIS, opened her eyes, and looked at Simon over her shoulder. "Home," she whispered.
The TARDIS came to life all at once. It recognised River. Lights came on and Simon was certain, absolutely certain, that he could hear it singing inside his head. Welcoming them home. He closed his eyes for a moment, then peeked his head out the door. "Zoe!" he called.
"Hey! What do you think you're--oh my GOD!" Even the Doctor wasn't able to keep the lieutenant distracted from the sound of River's TARDIS opening up and welcoming them back, particularly once he saw the doors open for the first time ever. He tugged his arm away--Donna'd been holding him, and she was very distracting, what with her... red hair, and all--and started to go for his weapon or his radio, one or the other.
He didn't make it very far once the butt of Zoe's shotgun impacted against his jaw. Just as far as the floor.
"Now that wasn't at all called for!" the Doctor exclaimed, but he didn't get a response. Zoe hurried for River's TARDIS, and Donna had his arm.
"Go--we'll see you back on Serenity!" Donna called back to Zoe, who just nodded and followed after River and Simon without another word.
The Doctor made noises of protest, but let Donna drag him back to his TARDIS anyway. He stared at the closed doors for a moment, then turned, all manic energy and business again. "Right! Off to collect the captain and Jayne." He reached the console in a few long strides.
"You're sure they'll be able to fly River's shed?" Donna asked. "She's still pretty... you know." She said made the universal sign for crazy.
"Simon knows how to get from point A to point B, if nothing else. I gave him the exact co-ordinates to use. He's a clever young man." He paused a moment, and looked at Donna. "She doesn't have to hide anymore," he said. "Maybe they'll come with us. Won't that be brilliant? All four of us, time and space, everywhere, everywhen we want to go. You could see Simon's homeworld. Those beaches, Donna. You'll love it."
Donna frowned and looked like she was about to say something, then changed her mind. "You know... you keep promising me beaches, and not delivering on them," she said lightly, watching the Doctor very, very carefully. "Just because you'd look rubbish in a bathing suit isn't a reason to keep denying me."
"I don't keep denying you," the Doctor said, grinning as he punched in a command to track down Mal and Jayne in the facility. They certainly moved fast. "She's one of the good ones, Donna. The Dancer. You'll just adore her once you meet her--properly meet her, I mean. At least, you should. I never met her in this regeneration--it's been centuries, but someone like her doesn't ever change. Not really. She's brilliant, just brilliant."
"I'm sure she is," Donna said. Still watching him. Still not letting herself say what she really wanted to say. Not very 'Donna' of her, but somehow... somehow she just knew that he wouldn't hear her. Not even if she tried.
"What--what is--what did you--" The Doctor was stunned. He stared at Mal and Jayne, wide-eyed, disbelieving.
Jayne shouldered past the Doctor, complaining the whole way. "Why'd you come back so soon?" he bitched, dropping things across the floor as he walked.
"You were supposed to create a diversion, not rob them blind!" the Doctor exclaimed.
"Yeah, well, my boat doesn't fly on good deeds, Doctor, and we've had a couple extra mouths to feed for a few days now," Mal said, unloading his armful of goods into the Doctor's arms, then clapping him on the shoulder.
Kaylee emerged, beaming, from the little yellow garden shed. There was a lizard-like creature cradled in her arms. "Cap'n! You're back. Did you see River's TARDIS? It's so pretty inside."
Mal was a little bit focused on the-- "What the hell is that thing, and why is it on my boat?"
"What, this?" Kaylee raised her bundle. "His name's Chip. He's a miniature velociraptor. He seems to think Simon's his daddy, but Simon's awfully busy right now." She peered over her shoulder, then looked up at Mal again. "There are pixies. They were takin' care of Chip this whole time, them and River's TARDIS. Kept him fed and everything. Simon says Chip likes tea, so I'm gonna take him up and make him some tea. Isn't he cute?"
"No," Mal said. "He looks like what I imagine Jayne looked like as a baby."
"Cap'n!" Kaylee admonished. She looked down at Chip. "You just ignore the mean old man. Let's go get you some tea." She stalked off to the stairs.
The entire time, the weird little creature peered over her shoulder and appeared to be glaring at Mal.
Mal just shook his head, and went back to unloading stolen merchandise from the Doctor's TARDIS. "That's just wrong," he muttered.
The Doctor stepped into River's TARDIS, arms loaded down with various tools and wires and bits of equipment. "Should have everything I need now," he announced. He moved at a swift pace, grinning broadly all the while. "We'll be ready to proceed in just a few moments. I have to make sure I get everything interfaced correctly so that we don't cause more harm when we get your Time Lady back, Simon."
Simon reached for River's hand. "I trust you, Doctor," he said.
River took Simon's hand, swinging it back and forth between them. She couldn't stop smiling. And she hadn't stepped out of her TARDIS since they'd landed back on Serenity.
The Doctor had explained to Simon, roughly six times, just how to get River's TARDIS back on Serenity. Yet it hadn't really been necessary; not that he'd ever been all that great about flying it on his own, but she'd had a moment of absolute clarity. That wall in her mind seemed to crack, just enough, just long enough, that she'd urged him out of the way and flew the TARDIS on her own.
Simon had just stepped back and watched, but it was the last time he'd left her side.
Donna wasn't much further away from the Doctor than Simon was from River. And unusually for Donna, she was being pretty quiet.
River looked at Simon and smiled. "She missed us," she whispered.
Simon slipped his arm around River's shoulders and kissed her temple. "She absolutely did. And I missed her. A lot."
The Doctor clapped his hands together and looked over at Simon and River. "I'm ready as soon as you are."
River squeezed Simon's hand, then let go and held her hands out to the Doctor. "Blow out the candles," she said. "Make a wish."
"Happy birthday," said the Doctor. He took her hands and guided her over to the console, then gave her a beautiful gold fob watch. "You should open your present now."
River smiled at the Doctor, looking at Simon one more time. "Coming home," she whispered, closed her eyes, and opened the watch.
Simon couldn't breathe. His hands were clenched tight at his sides; what if she was too broken? What if these two separated sides of her couldn't be whole again? What if this just made everything worse?
As what appeared to be gold dust spread from the face of the watch, Simon closed his eyes. His heart hammered against his ribs; echoed loud in his own ears. He was certain that everyone--here on the TARDIS and there on Serenity--must be able to hear it, too.
He waited for it all to end. Or maybe to begin. He couldn't know for sure.
He couldn't breathe.
River's eyes stayed closed for a long time, then they flashed open as she gasped, hands holding tightly onto the pocket watch.
The Doctor reached out to steady her, hands on her shoulders. "Hello," he said, a moment later.
She looked at him and blinked a few times, as though she was waking up. "I know you," she whispered, staring. "I... I know that I know you."
"Yes, you do," he said. "I'm the Doctor."
"The Doctor," she repeated, still staring back at him. And then she smiled, lifted one hand and touched his cheek. "Of course... there you are." River was still herself, in appearance, and yet... she'd changed. She looked older, more curves, less angles. But still very much River.
The Doctor regarded her with a gentle smile, then looked away. First, at Donna, still unusually quiet. She stared, jaw slack, but she was quiet. Then: Simon, just as still as Donna and he still had his eyes closed.
"It's good to see you," said the Doctor when he looked down at River again. "But I think there's someone else who wants to see you even more than I do," He nodding toward Simon.
As soon as River saw him, she gasped again. "Simon," she whispered. She pushed the watch into the Doctor's hands and rushed over to Simon.
Simon gasped, too, when she was there. He took in a breath, then another, and opened his eyes. He reached out with a trembling hand to touch her face, lost for words.
"Simon... my Simon," she said, leaning against his hand, eyes bright.
"I missed you," he whispered.
"I'm sorry. Simon, I'm so, so sorry. What you had to go through, what you had to..." She trailed off, trying to keep in control. "That wasn't supposed to happen. I promised you that it would be okay."
"It's not your fault." Simon's voice was hoarse. "It wasn't your fault. We... we made it. We're here now. You and me."
She tucked in against his chest, closing her eyes. "It shouldn't have happened."
He wrapped his arms around her and rested his cheek against her hair. "No. But it did. And we're going to be okay."
River nodded against his chest, pressed in as close as she could get. "I'll make it right. I promise," she whispered.
"I know you will," he whispered back.
She stayed where she was for a long time, before finally lifting her head. She reached for Simon's hand, and turned to look at the Doctor. "I owe you," she said.
"Not a thing," the Doctor said, shaking his head and smiling.
"I disagree," River said. "But that's all right. It's been a long time, Doctor."
"So... it worked then?" Donna said. "All back to normal?"
"All back to normal," said the Doctor. He went to Donna's side and draped an arm around her shoulders. "There she is. The Dancer."
"Pleased to meet you," Donna said, smiling at River.
"Donna Noble," River said, nodding at Donna, still holding Simon's hand. "It's a pleasure."
The Doctor sat on the steps next to River. "It's been a very long time," he said, softly.
"Longer for you than it has been for me, I think," she murmured.
"That is entirely possible. It's always so hard to tell.". He rested his knees on his elbows and looked ahead. "It's all gone."
"All of it," she murmured, trying to take that in. "How can all of that--all of us--be gone?" River shook her head. Even though she'd left--chosen to leave--it still didn't feel real. Gallifrey, their people... they were everywhere. Always. Eternal. And no more. She sighed, and sat up a bit straighter. "You didn't have a choice."
He looked at her for a moment, then away again. "No," he said, "perhaps I didn't."
"There hasn't been anyone to tell you that... has there? Of course not," River said, looking forward, not at the Doctor. "No one who understood. No one who knew what was happening. I ran, Doctor. I fled. And I was never sure why no one came after me."
"We couldn't spare anyone," the Doctor said. He was quiet a moment, then seemed to give himself a bit of a shake before he turned to her, beaming. "But here you are. Here I am."
"Here we are," River repeated. "Of all..." she frowned. "How did that one go?"
"Of all the little shops in all of time and space, how'd we walk into the same one? No. Of all the little shops in all of time and space, we walked into the same one. No. Each other's? Yes. That's about right."
"It'll do," River agreed, smiling at that. "I can't repay you for what you've done for us."
"There's no need," the Doctor said. "You don't have to hide anymore. I'm not alone. And that's repayment enough."
Which just made what River was going to ask him that much harder. "I need one more favour from you," she said softly. "I need you to fix it."
He blinked a few times. "Fix what?"
"The chameleon arch," River said, still very calm, and very quiet. "I need you to do what I couldn't do. I need you to fix it so that I can keep my promise to Simon."
"But there's no need now."
"It wasn't because of the Time War," she said. "That was just the moment I realised what I had to do."
"Because you're in love with him," he said. He closed his eyes. He felt old. Very, very old.
"Yes. I am. As much as I can be, given who and what I am," she said. "It's not enough. He deserves more. He deserves so, so much more." She was quiet for a few moments. "And so do I."
He rubbed at his face. "I just found you. And you're going to be gone again."
"I'm sorry," River said. "I am. Truly sorry. If there was anyone else I could ask, I would." But there was no one else. No one in the universe. No one left but the two of them.
He was quiet again for a moment longer, then asked, "When?"
She reached down and took his hand in hers, squeezing gently. "The day after tomorrow," she said. "There are some things that will have to be taken care of. My TARDIS... I want her safe, away from those who would harm her." Her hand squeezed his again. "And I want to talk to you. I want you to tell me about your adventures... I want you to tell me what you've seen, what you've done. The good stories... with all the details that only we would understand. And then, the Dancer will say goodbye, and River will have her beautiful Simon. Then, finally, I can love him the way he deserves."
He covered their hands with his free one, and looked at her, and nodded. His eyes were bright but he nodded. "We can do all of that. And I think I know just the place for your TARDIS." His voice cracked, just a little bit, on the last few words.
River smiled, her eyes as bright as his were. "Please... tell me?"
"Donna's grandfather. Wonderful man, brilliant, named Wilf. He has a hill where he likes to stargaze. I think it could use a little something, and if we keep her as that adorable little yellow shed..." He had to stop a moment. He took a breath, then continued, "He'd take very good care of her as she went to sleep. And I'll take Chip and the pixies. If we can get Chip away from Kaylee."
River laughed, wiping at her eyes, unashamed of her tears. "I think that sounds perfect. I just don't want her to be entirely alone... I need to know that she's safe. That someone will love her." She had to pause too and smiled after a few moments. "I think Chip would like it with you. Although I'm not sure how much luck you'll have getting Chip away from Kaylee. She seems quite smitten with him."
"Mal would have a nervous breakdown if he stayed, though." The Doctor looked thoughtful. "I think before I leave I really ought to have a look at that engine. See if I can't make it purr like a kitten for Kaylee."
"If you did it with her, and let her talk to you while you do it, I bet she'd be glad for the help," River said. She went quiet again, for a few moments. "She was so good to me," she said softly. "Even when I scared her."
"That shouldn't happen anymore," said the Doctor. "The scaring her, I mean. I think she'll always be good to you." He bumped his shoulder against River's. "She's a romantic."
River smiled, bumping her shoulder against the Doctor's. "I'll have to talk to Simon," she said. "He doesn't know I'm talking to you about this."
"Does he think that you'll go back to your lives from before?"
"I don't know," River said. "We haven't had much time to talk about it. I think he's afraid. He doesn't want me to get hurt again. He won't ask."
"I'm certain I can fix the Chameleon Arch," said the Doctor. "You should talk to Simon."
"I had to talk to you first," she said. And she leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she said softly.
"You're welcome," he said. "Go to him. I won't be far."
One more squeeze of his hand, and River got up, moving gracefully, no matter how simple the action or gesture. She waved at the Doctor, then ran off to find Simon, hair streaming behind her.
The Doctor watched her go, then closed his eyes. And, wordlessly, held out his hand.
He knew Donna was there.
She sat down next to him and took his hand, holding it firmly.
"Wilf won't mind, will he?" he asked. "If we put her TARDIS on his hill?"
"He won't mind at all," Donna said. "He'll take good care of it for her. There'll be flowers planted around it and everything, and in a year, it'll look like it's always been there."
"Good." The Doctor's eyes were still closed. He leaned against Donna, then rested his head on her shoulder. "Simon told me the pixies steal shoes," he said.
"Well, they'll learn very quickly not to do that to me," Donna said.
He laughed softly. "Now that will be something to see."
"You just want to see me yelling at pixies like a madwoman. That's what this is all about, isn't it?"
She didn't bother to go and check their rooms on Serenity. Even if she weren't a Time Lady, she knew where Simon would be. She ran inside her TARDIS, paused for a moment, then walked instead of running.
No running in the library.
Simon had taken off his shoes, but they hadn't gone missing yet. Maybe the pixies were angry with him and didn't want to play. He didn't hear River coming, but he knew that she was there, and he looked up from his book. "Hi."
"Hello," she said, coming to stand next to him. "I'm not disturbing you, am I?"
"Of course not." He looked up at her, smiling. Actually, one could even say that was an adoring sort of gaze.
She smiled at him and reached for his hand. "I missed it here. I missed the library."
"I did, too. The pixies don't seem to be here, though." He gestured to his shoes.
"They're around... they're just taking their time," she said. "Or they could be annoyed that Chip isn't here, since Kaylee's still showing him off," she added. She gave his hand another squeeze, then turned to face him a bit more. "I haven't said thank you yet. For everything you did for me."
He squeezed her hand back. "I love you," he said. "I'd do it again."
It was as good of an opening as she was going to get. "Simon, I want to try again," she said. "It won't be the same as what happened this time," she added, speaking quickly so he couldn't cut her off. "The Doctor... he can fix it so that it works properly--I know he can. He's agreed to do it. The war is over, I know, but that wasn't the real reason why I wanted to do this. That hasn't changed. You went through so much, and none of it was fair, but I swear to you that this time will be different, if you'll just--"
"I love you," he repeated. "I know that the last time--when you tried before--it wasn't your fault."
"Well, I didn't figure on us getting attacked, no," she admitted. "And even if it hadn't, I wasn't the most capable person to be making the adjustments, but we didn't really have a choice." She kept her grip on Simon's hand. "I want this so badly," she said, voice very soft. "For both of us. We both deserve this."
"Yes, we do," Simon said. "It's what I want. You are what I want." He lifted her hand to his mouth.
She watched Simon kiss her hand, then slid in closer and rested her head on his shoulder. "The day after tomorrow," she murmured. "That'll give us enough time to do what we need to do... say goodbye. I'll miss her... I know you will too. Are you sure you can give all of this up? The library?"
He pointed at a box. "I've grabbed my favourites and at this point I might need Jayne to carry that for me." He wrapped his arm around her and rested his cheek against her hair. "I'm going to miss this. I will. But you're more important to me than anything else. And I would stay with you no matter what you chose to do."
She smiled at the box of books, then shifted a little so she could look at Simon again. "There are times where I'm not entirely sure I deserve you, Simon," she said, looking right in his eyes. "I'm hoping that starting the day after tomorrow, I'll be able to truly make that up to you."
The Dancer had her day. Once she and Simon had worked everything out, things got very busy, very quickly. There were things in the TARDIS that she and Simon would want and need... things from the time they'd spent travelling together. Things from her life before that. She kept very little for herself, sharing her treasures with the crew of Serenity, and with the Doctor and Donna.
The Doctor gathered the pixies himself. Somehow, she knew they'd be happy living with him. Chip too, once Kaylee accepted that Mal was never going to let him stay aboard Serenity and let the Doctor and Donna take him with them.
She spent some time with the entire crew. She remembered her time as Simon's little sister River, but most of it felt like a dream. Something she knew she'd seen, experienced, lived, but it was something that still didn't feel truly real.
She visited Kaylee in the engine room; had her laughing and smiling--for real--before she left.
She brought the Shepherd an undamaged copy of the Bible that she'd found in her library, bowed her head to accept the blessing he gave her, and closed her eyes and listened as he prayed.
She visited with Zoe and Wash on the bridge, and told Wash about the time she'd gone back and actually seen dinosaurs--for real. He was less interested in trying to talk her into going to see them one more time after she told him how much they smelled, up close and in person.
With Inara, it was tea, naturally. The Dancer even let Inara brush and braid her hair up into a crown, and they gossiped and giggled over everyone and every thing. She never told anyone, even Simon, what they talked about in the hour they spent together.
She did not brush or braid Jayne's hair, and they didn't drink tea. They also never told anyone about the conversation they had while River was still the Dancer. And if some of Kaylee's engine wine seemed to be missing afterward, no one said a word about it.
The Dancer had so much she wanted to say to Mal... so many things to talk about, so much to explain, so much to ask. And yet, when she found him up on the bridge later, she just looked at him for awhile, took his hand, and said thank you. And then she asked him to teach her to fly the ship. It took him awhile, but once he got into the lesson, he relaxed in a way that he only did when he was flying Serenity. She loved seeing him like that.
She didn't really know Donna, but she already loved her. She loved the way she teased the Doctor; the way that she took absolutely no shit from him. She wasn't afraid of him, in awe of him, or in love with him. She cared about him. She liked him. And she did love him. She wondered if the Doctor knew how badly he'd been lacking someone to give him those things. She hoped that he'd have his Donna for a long, long time. She was glad, secretly, that she couldn't go to the future and find out the truth. She didn't want to know.
When the time came for the Doctor and the Dancer to have their talk, she took his hand and led him inside her TARDIS. Together, they wandered her halls, hand in hand, sharing stories and memories, tragedies and triumphs. The Doctor and the Dancer. The last of the Time Lords.
The Dancer felt the pulse of the TARDIS as they talked, heard her singing. Her TARDIS knew. She was sad, but she wouldn't be alone this time... wouldn't be held by profane hands. She would sleep, and she would dream, and she would remember everything, long after River and Simon were no more.
It was late, impossibly late, when the Dancer and the Doctor stopped talking, later still when they went looking for Simon and Donna. The Dancer wanted to spend one last night in her TARDIS with Simon. She wanted to be able to remember the smell of her library whenever she closed her eyes. One last night, to make sure that he had no regrets.
She'd never been more sure of what she wanted.
The hill was perfect, and Wilf was lovely. Some people might have said that lovely wasn't the right word for an old man, but the Dancer wasn't some people. She knew that he'd take good care of her TARDIS... that she'd be safe here. Loved.
She'd asked for a moment alone, just to say goodbye. Everyone waited outside, talked to Wilf, tried to ignore Donna's mother (which admittedly, wasn't easy). The Dancer was barefoot, steps silent as she walked up to the controls, fingers sliding over the consoles.
"I will miss you," she said, very softly. "Don't ever think I won't. I know, better than almost anyone, what I'm giving up." She rested her hand against a wall, then leaned in closer, cheek against a column. "This is worth it. The risk is worth it, it's all worth it. He's worth it." She opened her eyes and lifted her head. "You understand, don't you?"
There was silence for a few moments, and then the song began again. The Dancer smiled, tears shining in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered. She brushed a kiss against the column, rested her cheek against it a moment, then wiped her eyes, and walked toward the door. She was ready.
She'd forgotten how much it hurt... or maybe she'd thought it was because she'd done something wrong. But it hurt, so, so badly. She could hear them, distantly. She could hear Kaylee protesting, hear the Doctor insisting that this was exactly what was supposed to be happening and not to touch anything because the last thing they wanted was to have to start all over again, or to hurt her worse by interrupting the process. She could feel the tension in the room, hear Mal's loud, pacing boot steps over her own screams of pain.
She could taste the fear in the room, most of it coming from Simon. She could hear the quiet murmur of the Shepherd as he prayed.
And then everything went black, and she couldn't sense anything any more.
When she came to, she was lying on the floor of her TARDIS, the Doctor beside her, Simon's fingers pressed against her wrist, checking her pulse. She tried to sit up, and was coaxed back down again without protest. Her head was still spinning.
And it was quiet. So quiet. The only thoughts in her mind were her own. She started to smile, then lifted her hand, placing it against one side of her chest, then the other.
One heartbeat. One heart.
River's smile got wider, and she looked at the Doctor, hoping that he could see how grateful she was. Then Simon moved back into her line of sight again, and she forgot to say it out loud. She forgot about anyone, anything except him. She reached out and took Simon's hand, squeezing it tightly, bringing his hand up to rest against her chest, over her single heartbeat.
"I love you," River whispered.
And for the first time in her very, very long life, it was true.
The Doctor put his hand on Book's elbow; a light warning as he slipped around him to put his cup down, then moved past one more time. They weren't many, but the mess suddenly felt quite loud. Possibly crowded. He sat in one of the chairs in the corner and leaned back, long legs stretched out in front of him. There was a little smile on his face as he tilted his head back, but kept on watching. Continued to listen.
No matter what form she was in, River still walked nearly silently. "Hey," she murmured, settling in next to him, reaching down to touch his arm.
He looked at her, still smiling. "Hello."
Most people would ask if he was all right. River didn't. She didn't need to. She knew the answer; the the lie he'd tell... and the truth behind it all. He wasn't okay. Part of him would never be okay. But he'd be all right. "I have something for you. A present. Come with me?"
"A present for me? Whenever did you have time to go shopping?" he asked, gently teasing.
"Silly Doctor," she said, offering him her hand. "Come along."
He took her hand and got to his feet. "Lead on."
No one stopped them. There was food, and drink--they'd seen to that, stocking up on Earth before their return from dropping off River's TARDIS--and everyone was smiling. Even Mal. River weaved around everyone and led the Doctor down to the cargo bay, all the way to his TARDIS.
"I've been here before," the Doctor said with a little grin.
"It felt appropriate," River said, smiling too. And she reached into her pocket, then held her hand out to the Doctor.
He offered her his hand in return, then looked more than a little surprised when she gave him the fob watch. "You don't want to hold on to this?"
She shook her head. "No. I want you to keep it. I know you'll keep it safe. You'll protect it for me."
"Of course I will," he said. He curled his fingers around the watch. "I promise."
"Thank you," River said, smiling at him, then impulsively going in for a hug. "Thank you so much," she whispered.
The hug got one of his big smiles. He hugged her back. "You're welcome. It's been my absolute pleasure."
She smiled, and hugged him a little tighter. "You promise you won't forget me?"
"How could I, if I haven't after all these years?"
"I suppose that's true," she said, finally pulling back. "Clever Doctor. I just want someone to remember me. All the things that I was, once upon a time."
He was the only one who could, really. "And you're sure you won't want this back?" he asked.
River shook her head, reached down and closed her hand over the Doctor's so he was holding the watch more tightly, then removed her hand and smiled at him again. "No. I won't."
"He'd best be good to you," the Doctor said, his voice a bit tight. "You make sure that young man is good to you."
This time, River's smile was like the sun coming out. "He will be," she promised. "He loves me." Her eyes met the Doctor's. "And I love him." It was the first time she'd been able to say it and feel it the way she really wanted to. It was worth it. He was worth it. Worth living a mortal lifespan for. Worth everything.
Rory nudged Amy. "He's doing it again."
She lifted her head and looked over. "Ooh, you're right," she said, standing up and going over to the Doctor. "So... what've you got there?" she asked, peering over the Doctor's shoulder.
He started. It wasn't often that either of them caught the Doctor off-guard like that, and Rory was up in an instant so he could go to stand on the Doctor's other side.
"It's a watch," Rory said, before the Doctor could get around to responding.
The Doctor looked between the two of them. "You're both very nosy," he accused.
"Mmm... that's a very obvious statement, don't you think?" Amy said, trying to get a better look. "It's quite nice, actually. I'm not sure it's your style, but then, it never stopped you from bow ties."
"The bow ties are most definitely my style," said the Doctor. He looked down at the watch in his hand.
Rory leaned in to get a better look. "It's rather... I don't want to say 'girly', but..."
"You just said girly," said the Doctor, and he slipped the watch into his pocket.
"Well, it is a bit--or I think it was," Amy said, sliding around the Doctor and trying to pick his pocket. She wanted a better look.
He swatted at her hand. "Never mind."
"Oh, come on," Amy said, in her very best 'please, Doctor, I'll be ever so adorable, and it'll make you want to get me a pony' voice. "Let's have a look, then."
"That's really not necessary."
"But maybe it is," said Rory.
"You were looking at it," Amy said, eternally stubborn. "But you weren't checking the time--you didn't open it. You just looked at it, and you've done it before."
"Very, very nosy," said the Doctor. He looked between them and knew they'd set their minds to this one. He shook his head. "All right, children. Gather 'round." Which they already were. Fair enough. He put his hand in his pocket, curled his fingers around the watch, and then gave Amy and Rory a little smile. "Let me tell you a story. It's about the Dancer."