"Doctor!" Amy yelled over the anguished sound of the TARDIS.
"What's going on?" Rory hollered as the shaking of the railing nearly threw him across the console.
"What part of busy was unclear?" The Doctor lifted his head for an instant and glared at them. It took all his strength to stay upright, but that was his part to play.
They stopped talking and he went back to trying to stabilize their wild flight, a parting gift from a Sontaran cruiser they'd been busy sabotaging. The TARDIS had taken too many hits and was deeply upset. He could feel her in the back of his mind and he tried to calm her and figure out what she was doing.
Suddenly, readings started to look familiar. "What? Can we?" He stared at the console and stopped trying to impede her actions. "I thought..."
The shaking slowed and the noises softened. "You thought what?" Amy asked finally.
He looked at her, too surprised to be enigmatic. "I thought the message I received was from River Song. And I thought it was impossible to go to this universe again."
"What universe?" Rory asked at the same time Amy said "What message?"
He ignored Amy. "It's...where I went after Gallifrey was destroyed." He turned abruptly and stalked out of the room, leaving his two startled companions. This required some time to think.
The TARDIS, as always knowing him better than he knew himself, put a zero grav room in his path, and he launched himself into the middle of the room, floating in lotus position and thinking.
When he'd gotten a third-hand report that "River's in trouble" and coordinates, he'd assumed--understandably, he thought with some annoyance--that it was River Song. But it rather looked as if the TARDIS had manipulated them into this position in order to get the boost she needed to exit this universe.
And he wasn't at all sure he wanted to go.
He hadn't tried to go back at first, knowing that he'd be too tempted to stay in a universe that had no reminders of what he'd lost. And then he'd thought it was too late to go back and visit Zoë and her crew. Besides, he'd been busy.
And he wasn't that man anymore. Literally, as well as figuratively. He wasn't the man who'd been so full of rage, so sure he didn't care anymore.
Returning was a reminder of that man and everything he'd done and that was an uncomfortable thought.
He floated and thought about why the TARDIS thought he needed to be here.
Half an hour later, he stalked back into the console room and right past his astonished companions. As soon as the TARDIS was done materializing in the other universe, he'd been able feel River. He could practically see her mind shining ahead of him. By Rassilon, she'd gotten stronger since he was last here. Stronger and clearer.
And it was only moments before her mind touched his, giving him directions. Not as precise as coordinates, they were nonetheless comprehensible. He'd certainly found his way with less in his time. Whirling around the console, determined to get this over with, he ignored Amy and Rory's questions.
Until Amy stood herself squarely in his path. "What is going on?"
"Going to visit an old friend. Well, I hope she's not old yet, but a friend." He frowned. There was something in River's mental voice that didn't bode well. "They're calling me."
"They who?" Amy asked, stamping her foot.
"The crew I met when I was here before. They were in a spot of trouble with a provincial government and I removed them from it."
"Is the government still standing?" Rory asked from the other side of the console.
"I expect not." He shrugged. "Although it wasn't me this time."
Neither Rory nor Amy looked convinced.
When he burst through the TARDIS doors, happy faces immediately went dark and guns were out and pointed. "Oh dear," the Doctor said as Amy and Rory bumped into his back.
River ignored the guns, dancing forward to throw herself into his arms. "They don't recognize you," she said, laughing.
"Oh. Oh! Yes. Yes, it's me, the good ol' Doctor. Just with a new face." He looked around at the crew, Zoë and River's crew. But they weren't all there. He opened his mouth, but a thought from River silenced him.
"A new face," Captain Reynolds said.
"That's it. A little bodily rearranging my people do from time to time. Nothing to be concerned about." He ignored the guns as well, walking toward Zoë. "You know me."
Her eyes were colder than he remembered. "What vegetable?"
"Turnips, of course. And the guard who wondered why he never stopped the trucks with beautiful women."
"Doctor." She smiled, but it was barely there. He wanted to ask what had happened, find whoever had done this to her, but River was telling him not yet.
"Yes yes, he's the Doctor," Amy said. "Now will someone tell me what's going on?"
It took a little while for everything to get sorted out, but eventually Rory convinced the TARDIS to make them some lunch (or maybe dinner) and everybody told the story of meeting the Doctor and he told some ridiculous stories, and it got loud and boisterous.
But the Doctor couldn't help noticing the way everyone treated Zoë as if she might explode at any minute. River was in communion with the TARDIS, which left him to figure out what was going on.
As things were in full swing, he saw Zoë slip out of the Serenity's mess, and he followed. She stopped halfway down the hall, not turning around. "Hello," she said.
"Hello." He didn't quite know what to do now. He'd never been very good at this bit. "Um...how is your husband?"
"Ah. That's, uh, not good."
"No, it isn't particularly." She was still staring at the bulkhead.
"It's not your fault. It's not anyone's fault."
Unable to stay still any longer, he maneuvered around to get a better look at her face. "Is that so?"
"It was an accident, of sorts. Just a gorram harpoon that could have hit anywhere. But it killed my man." And she stalked away, leaving the Doctor staring helplessly after her. And he hated feeling helpless more than just about anything.
River found him a few minutes later, leaning against the bulkhead and staring out a porthole at the stars. She ducked right under his arm and tucked herself under his chin. He froze for a moment, unsure, but she simply leaned against him and was...there.
"What happened?" she asked eventually.
"I might ask you that question, young lady." He looked down at her, quirking an eyebrow. "You're a great deal more centered than you were last time we met."
"I learned who I was."
He got a flash from her of fighting and death and a message about the truth. "That's a powerful thing to learn."
They stood for a while longer, but he started to fidget, then began to pace, and she waited. "I was tricked," he burst out. "I thought...well, I thought some of my people were alive."
She looked at him sadly. "They're all gone."
"I know that. I know! But there was a message from the Corsair. A trick." He whirled around. "To find another--"
"There was another."
The Doctor froze for an instant before whirling around and walking away. "He...he's different."
With a little of her former mercurial self, she called out. "Your ship is both happy and sad."
"I know how she feels." Stopping again, he leaned against a wall and looked at her. "She brought me here for a reason, she always has a reason."
"Maybe she thought you needed to remember what you learned here last time."
"And what was that?"
"I don't know." River cartwheeled toward him, paused long enough to hug him, then continued on.
"D'you know, I'm beginning to understand how Amy and Rory feel."
The ship wasn't very big, so it didn't take all that long for him to find the bright flame that was Zoë's mind.
"Hullo," he said, ducking under a beam in the hold and sliding down to sit beside her overlooking the hold full of crates. "My ship thinks I need to talk to you. Or else that you need to talk to me. Possibly both. She's not always clear on these things."
Zoë huffed out a small laugh. "Uh-huh."
They sat for a little while, the Doctor gently swinging his feet and looking around. "You talked to me about moving on last time I was here. And I did. Well, I thought I did. A lot of things happened in the meantime, saved the universe a few times, you know how it is."
"I even thought I'd forgiven myself. For killing my people to save everyone else. And then..." He paused, the anger he'd felt on that junkyard rising, knowing it was strong enough to destroy worlds. "Then someone gave me hope, for just a short while, that some of them were alive. And then took it away."
Zoë turned toward him. "Did you kill him?"
"My ship did. With my help. Of course, he'd tried to kill us first."
"At least you had someone to hate." Zoë looked surprised at her own words.
"Yes. But my people are still gone."
Zoë stared at the crates below them. "So is Wash."
"My wacky ridiculous mustache-loving husband. He's gone."
"I thought it might be easier if I could hate someone, like the Alliance. Or myself."
Gently he patted her shoulder and she shook herself once all over. "No, it's not."
"You told me that the only thing to do is to move on."
"It's harder than I remember."
"I think my ship was trying to remind me that it's easier to do with the help of your friends."
"Your ship is pretty smart, Doctor."
He closed his eyes. "Yes, she is."
They sat for a while longer, listening to the random twangs and hums of a ship in space, and Zoë took a deep breath. "I guess I need to go talk to some people."
"Live well. Isn't that what he would have wanted?"
She nodded, her eyes bright. "I think he might have said it different. Maybe involving dinosaurs."
"I'll tell you later." She paused. "You'll be here a little while?"
"A little while. I have some people to talk to as well."
He watched her march off, a purpose in her step that hadn't been there before. Reaching out his mind, he looked for River. A few minutes passed and she slid down to sit next to him.
"How much of this visit was the TARDIS' idea and how much was yours?" He tried to glare at her, but wasn't particularly successful, given her grin.
"I'll never tell."
"Did you remember what you learned?"
"I think I did. Never trust a telepath, wasn't it?"
Her laugh rang out through the hold, echoing back to them until he couldn't help but laugh too.