The TARDIS materializes between a dilapidated ambulance and an ancient hover craft. The
steps out of his ship and stretches. He pats the side of his ship affectionately and wanders into the Eavesdown Docks.
He sniffs, licks the tip of his index finger, holds it up. Hmm. Feels distinctly 26th century-ish. He's in...2518. 2519 at the latest.
The weather is unseasonably warm for October on the terraformed planet, but the Doctor doesn't mind. Extreme temperatures don't affect him much, which is good, because he's not taking off his tie. He whistles tunelessly, hands in his pockets, and meanders along a seemingly-endless row of broken-down vehicles. Now, where to find some thermo couplings? This is the kind of thing he'd usually send Rory out for. Of all the times for the newlyweds to visit Amy's parents back on Earth.
"Now, now, don't be rude," the Doctor reminds himself softly. At least Amy finally has parents to visit.
Nice little planet, this. Persephone's not a core planet, but it's not on the rim either. Its location makes it the perfect stopping-off point to trade, buy, or nick supplies. There was a big war in these parts some time back, between the Alliance and the independence-minded Browncoats. The Doctor glances down at his tan houndstooth jacket. Oops.
Still, he’s in a salvage yard, minding his own business. How can he possibly get into trouble? He’s safe as houses. Not likely to run into anyone here. Besides, civil unrest doesn’t come to Persephone for another six years. The Eavesdown Docks are a bit like a gigantic market; he can hear the noisy hub-bub of sellers bartering with prospective buyers on the other side of the fence. Unbidden, his mind goes to the last time he strolled through a market. He and Donna had been on Shan Shen, enjoying a tasty beverage. That was before everything went all Bad Wolfy. Before he left Rose with his replacement, before he lost Donna forever. The Doctor rubs his nose, relegates the memories to a back cupboard and kicks it closed.
He concentrates on the piles of junk stacked up in all directions instead. Ooh, there’s good stuff here! He extracts the sonic screwdriver from his pocket and ambles between the rows grinning, as if the bits of torn rubber and bobs of broken metal are the equivalent of a museum exhibition. Truth be told, they're better than a good lot of the exhibits he's seen.
The Doctor taps a loose coil of wire gently. He should really take the time to tinker a bit more. Create. Invent. His last real invention was the Timey-Wimey Detector. Messing about with wires and metal can be very relaxing. Unless you’re trying to dismantle a bomb. Then: not relaxing at all. Wearing steampunky goggles and sonicing bits of stuff together keeps one’s mind busy, and away from things better left unthought. Helps with the dexterity too. The Doctor wiggles his fingers. Not too bad for an old codger. After he’s replaced the thermo couplings on the old girl, maybe he’ll invent something. Something that goes ding! when there’s a rift or dimensional wrinkle in space. And it should make bacon. Wait, no. Bacon's rubbish. Maybe fish fingers. Or Jammie Dodgers! He clicks his fingers happily. That way he could refuel the TARDIS and have a biscuit. Excellent! He’s working on names ( Rifty-Drifty Detector? ) when the thoughts literally slam into him.
The Doctor stumbles and looks around wildly. What was--?
There it is again. It’s like hitting a wall. With his head. Whilst running. He presses both hands to his temples and blinks Time back into focus. In his mind he can see a girl, sense her mind the way she senses his. She doesn’t mean to hurt him. She can barely control her power, her thoughts are fingers, reaching out in all directions, curious, searching, exploring. Hiding.
She’s hiding. From him.
He wants to ask who she is, but there’s no time. She takes him down dark corridors, up stairs, through a space ship, the words Firefly Class stamped on its hull. He sees a young girl dancing, pirouetting for her brother, playing hide and seek. He sees a girl, the same but different, broken, put back together wrong, images of blue hands and hypodermic needles in his head. He’s horrified by the magnitude of her mistreatment. Who’s to blame? What happened? And why ?
Before he can suss it out, he sees her clinging to her brother. He's older now, his face drawn with worry. She’s mourning someone named Miranda, piloting a ship, playing with plastic dinosaurs. Two words emerge from the tangle of memories: Little Albatross.
The Doctor responds in kind, knowing he won’t be able to resist her prying--but oddly gentle--thought-fingers. He throws up doors and pulls down blinds as she walks through the dusty hallways of his mind. He shows her the TARDIS. Sarah Jane. Ace. His time on Earth with Rose, when he wore a black jacket and a harder face. Running across the Globe Theater with Martha, when he wore trainers and wild hair. Meeting Agatha Christie with Donna. He doesn't want to show her what happened to Donna, (what he did to Donna) and locks that particular door. The girl hesitates in front of the locked room. They can both hear Donna crying as her mind fractures from too much knowledge, too much Time. Abruptly, he shows the girl what Earth’s creation looked like, and then its destruction He shows her the Pandorica, Amy at his side. He shows her Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, Autons. But the door to Gallifrey ( those majestic mountains, Solace and Solitude, shining silver against the copper sky ), the Time War, and the Master is dead-locked. Sealed. Not even a sonic screwdriver can free those memories now. He offers the girl two words of his own: Time Lord.
The fingers retreat, and the Doctor turns in a slow, thoughtful circle, searching for the girl. There’s no movement. A breeze ruffles his fringe. He considers tracking her with the sonic screwdriver, but hesitates. Instead he thinks, Where are you?
Didn’t mean to pry. But you’re an open book. An open watch. Pocket watch. I couldn’t resist the shine. I can hear the tick of time. Then, What’s a Time Lord?
A race of stuffed shirts. My shirt is much less stuffed, and infinitely more cool than those who came before me. I travel through time and space. Came here looking for something.
What are you looking for?
He thinks Type 40 thermo coupler and shoves his hands deep in his pockets. She’s over...there. No. Yes. Wait. Maybe there. He starts walking.
Are you looking for chrome, nicrosil or platinum-rhodium? Rhodium is extremely rare. Its chemical symbol is Rh and atomic number is 45. Serenity's thermo couplings are made of tungsten which sounds like they're made from your tongue-- the girl makes a nnng sound as if she's sticking her tongue out-- but they're not. Five years ago Alliance factories began manufacturing thermo couplings made from the alloy alumel. That’s probably why so many ships drop outta the sky. I saw some thermo couplings over by the southwest entrance. Don't know what kind you need exactly, but I reckon there's something to get your blue box spinning.
Who are you? The Doctor wonders in admiration. I think you must be human, but I’ve never met anyone, human or otherwise, who could read minds the way you do. He straightens his bow tie. And I’ve been around longer than you think.
I’m Simon’s sister.
The Doctor stands in front of an old transit vehicle. It resembles a mechanized carriage. He pulls the back door open and a pale-faced girl blinks out at him. Waves of tangled coffee-coloured hair fall past her shoulders. She’s wearing a flowery dress and black leather boots. The Doctor smiles at her kindly.
"Hello, Simon's Sister."
The girl smiles back. There’s not a hint of fear on her face. "Hello."
"I’m the Doctor."
The girl nods, as if she already knows. She hops down from the carriage gracefully. "I’m River. "
The Doctor gapes at her. He walks around the girl slowly, scrutinizing her hair, her face, her clothes. She can't be.
She gives him a curious look, shakes her head. "River Tam."
"Another River? Blimey, how many of you are there?"
River counters with: "You sound like Badger."
The Doctor blinks, frowns. He's been called a lot of names over the years, but this is a first for that particular animal. He tugs on his fringe, grimacing. "Is it the hair?"
River laughs. "No, Badger's a businessman in these parts." She tilts her head. "Does 'businessman' mean the same as a gorram no-good, two-bit bunger? That's what Mal calls him."
The Doctor considers. "They're practically synonyms. Lucky for us, I'm not a businessman." He scratches the back of his neck, rolls his eyes. "I hate paper work. Tedious stuff. Takes forever! And when you fold King Arthur's Last Will and Testament into a paper airplane, everyone gets all testy about it. Three o'clock meetings? Boring. And rules?" He waves a hand disdainfully, offers River a sly grin. "Are made to be broken."
"Simon likes rules," River admits. "He says no dancing at the dinner table." She pouts her lower lip out. "Stupid rules."
"Stupid rules, indeed."
* * *
The Doctor darts little intrigued looks at River while they walk. He’s never met anyone like her before. For a human, she’s a genius in every sense of the word. He's pretty sure she's smarter than Adric, and blimey! That's a fair amount of brains. She keeps him on his toes. Figuratively, of course.
River, on the other hand, is literally, on her toes. She pirouettes, arms as graceful as swans, as she hums Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude beside a rusty Trans-U carrier. The Doctor claps in approval, delighted by the impromptu performance. Why won't Simon let her dance during dinner? Surely a bit of ballet makes left-overs go down easier.
He stops beside a towering pile of rubbish and plucks a broken tin snips from beneath a metal box stamped ALLIANCE .
“Look,” he says, brandishing the single blade. “I used to have a pair of tin snips just like this. And when I say ‘tin’ snips I don’t really mean tin cos these’ll cut just about anything.” The Doctor studies the blade and then carefully licks the side of it.
River stares at him, startled.
The Doctor smacks his lips and pulls a grimace. “Could use some oil. Tastes like…polycarbide. With more than a hint of iron oxide. Not one of my favourite flavours, mind you.” He rubs his chin, thinking. “I’d have to say Pistachio Cappuccino Chocolate Coconut Ripple takes that particular honour. Of course they don’t offer it until the 52nd century but it’s well worth the wait.” He knits his eyebrows and casts an extremely solemn look at the girl. “What’s your favourite flavour?”
River purses her lips, contemplative. “Bittersweet chocolate.” A pause. “And purple.”
The Doctor beams. “Ooh, those are good!” he agrees, bobbing his head. “Especially purple. Quite underrated, that one. I also recommend pink and blue as well. Especially in regard to candy floss." He points a finger at River, utterly serious. "But you can’t top blue.”
River frowns. “What’s candy floss?”
“What?” The Doctor is aghast. “Never had candy floss? How about cotton candy? Fairy floss? It looks like coloured wool but tastes loads better. Sweet fluffy stuff that comes on a stick.” Off her blank look the Doctor rubs the back of his neck. “No? Well. Tragedy, that. I don’t suppose you want to go for a quick trip?" The Doctor claps his hands together, excited. "I know just the place. St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904. Not as good as the Columbian Expo, but really, how can you top that? Electricity, indoor plumbing and the Midway! Now that was a sight! Fancy a trip?”
River tilts her head. "I can hear your ship, but I don’t see her. She sings real pretty."
The Doctor’s smile slips. “You're right, River. She sings very pretty."
River skips ahead, humming a tune he recognizes as Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf . The Doctor’s smile rights itself. Rose certainly wasn’t. He follows River as she flits down a narrow path.
Two maze-like rows later they come to the pile of thermo couplings River told him about. He picks up three of them. They're not in the best shape, but he has enough to jiggery-poke a usable part from the lot.
“What are you doing hanging about in a dodgy place like this?" he asks, eyeing a rhodium coupling critically. "Aren’t you supposed to be in school? Although avoiding education seems a popular human pursuit within your age group.” He looks up, grins cheekily. "And mine."
I’m done with school. She scuffs the ground with the toe of her boot. They broke me there. Put shadows in my head. Tried to make me into something I’m not. All the king’s horses and all the kings men couldn’t put me together again. River pauses, looks back over her shoulder at the Doctor. Out loud she says, “But Simon did a fairish facsimile. Can hardly see the cracks most days.”
“You’re not broken, River,” the Doctor says sincerely. “You’re remarkable. And I can help you, I can help erase those cracks.”
She clasps her hands behind her back and tilts her head. Her hair falls like a curtain. “You’re a doctor? Like Simon?”
“I’m a different kind of doctor. I'm the Doctor. I can help you control your thoughts." He waggles his fingers on either side of his head. "Help keep out the noise."
By now they’ve almost reached the TARDIS. River lifts her face to the sky and watches a gull fly overhead. “My head’s over-populated with folk. There are too many voices that aren’t mine. I don’t mind Simon. Or Kaylee. Or Zoe, even though her thoughts are always sorrowful lately. I don’t even mind the Captain. But I would very much like to eject Jayne from my brainpan.”
The Doctor nods in agreement. “I don’t know who those people are, but I agree with you on principle.” The Time Lord pulls the sonic screwdriver from his pocket. “I think we can send some of those voices on a lengthy holiday. What do you say?”
At the sight of the sonic device, River’s entire body stiffens. Her eyes dart from the circling birds to the empty rows of the salvage yard.
The Doctor quickly shows her the tool. “Look--it’s harmless. Really. Just a screwdriver with a bit of sonic.” He points it at himself, turns it on and off, demonstrating. "This won't hurt you." He puts a hand on her shoulder. " I won't hurt you."
River shakes her head, goes still. “No. There’s something else,” her voice is less than a whisper, scarcely more than silence. “Not purple bellies or blue hands.” She closes her eyes. “Just black hearts.”
* * *
River’s chin rises almost imperceptibly. The movement is barely noticeable, but full of defiance. Very interesting. The Doctor drops his hand, slides the sonic screwdriver back into his pocket. He can hear the footsteps of two, maybe three men approaching. Definitely three, and they're wearing boots. He can also make out the low roar of an engine nearby. Sounds like a small transport ship.
"Who are they?" the Doctor asks. "Local police force? Alliance Soldiers? The Truancy Board?" He glances down at the tin snips and thermo couplings he's this close to dropping. He thrusts the broken handle toward River. "Here. Hold this. Thank you." He frowns in annoyance. "This is ridiculous. I haven’t even stolen anything yet. And really, I'm not even stealing. I'm borrowing . Just like a library. You don't see Library Police running about, do you? Well, outside that one Stephen King story and Biblio Three.
"I borrowed my TARDIS and that turned out all right. Besides, I'll bring her back someday. Probably." He clears his throat, mutters a soft: "Not." The Doctor hurriedly stuffs couplings into his voluminous pockets. "Who else in the universe needs these manky old parts, eh? They could at least have the decency to wait until I actually commit a crime." He throws up his hands in mock outrage. "For all they know, I could be browsing. Window shopping! Well, you can’t window shop without windows, but you get the gist. Still, don't want to disappoint them. They came all the way out here and everything. Might as well give their day a bit of a lift."
"They’re not police," River murmurs, and hides the tin snip behind her back. "Not Alliance soldiers, neither. Something else."
Muffled voices draw close. This way, followed by an over here . Two men stride into view. They’re not wearing uniforms exactly, but they’re both dressed in black trousers, black boots, and long black coats. A red T-shaped badge adorns each lapel. Both men appear to be in their mid- to late-thirties. The first man is slightly taller with dark, well-coiffed hair. The shorter man has a sallow complexion, his black hair bristles in a precise military cut. Maybe they really do have black hearts. They certainly seem fond of the colour.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, River thinks.
The Doctor places the reference easily. A brilliant poem. He can’t quite keep the smile off his face. And we’re the oysters, I take it?
River looks at him, eyes wide with worry. No. You are.
"Stop right there," the taller man barks. The Doctor identifies him as Walrus.
Carpenter stomps up next. "Drop your weapons and raise your hands," he shoots the Doctor a menacing look. "Slowly."
The Doctor pats his pockets nonchalantly. "No weapons, me. Just a few thermo couplings, that's all. A bit of rubbish. Thermo couplings wouldn't hurt a fly. But they might hurt a Capissen engine." The Doctor shouts loudly through cupped hands: "If you're a mucky Capissen engine, you’d best watch out." He drops his hands. "But neither of you resemble a Capissen engine, not with the fair-to-middling hygiene and protruding arm and leg bits." The Time Lord lifts an eyebrow slightly, his expression friendly. Cooperative, even. “So how about you tell me what this is all about?”
A third man jogs up behind them, also in matching trousers and coat. He’s holding a gun large enough to hold a decent-sized Vykoid city. In keeping with the current trend, the gun is black. It’s also pointing directly at the Time Lord’s chest.
The TARDIS--that’s my ship--is directly behind you, the Doctor thinks at River, his expression unchanged. The door is unlocked. I want you to get inside. You’ll be safe. I’ll be right behind you .
“By the Authority of the Union of Allied Planets you are hereby bound by Torchwood, Division Five. Drop your weapons and raise you hands.” Walrus regards the Doctor with an air of cool detachment. An eyebrow arches. “Don’t make me ask again.”
“I see." The Doctor considers the man’s request, rejects it. "Can I ask what I’ve done?”
“All Anglo-Sino Alliance ships run on gravity drives. So do scavenger vessels, transports and med units. Our scanners picked up a heat signature in this salvage yard that does not come from a gravity drive. We have been unable to determine exactly what type of drive your ship possesses.” The Carpenter’s mouth curves into a frosty smile. “Please provide your ident card and explain your vessel, sir.”
The Doctor makes a show of looking around. “What makes you think it’s my vessel your scanners detected? I’m just a neighbourly sort out for a stroll. Well, more of an amble, really. Weather is a bit humid for a stroll, don't you think?” His own smile cools by several degrees. He’s not afraid, but he’s concerned. Not for himself of course.
He should have left the moment River warned him about the Black Heart Brigade. Now he’s put the girl in danger. Bloody Torchwood. “Okay," he says. "Hold on. Getting my identification card now.” The Doctor holds up one hand, palm out. He carefully, slowly, slides the other hand into his pocket for the psychic paper. He pulls out the wallet and flips it open.
They want your ship, want to know how it works. And they want you. They want to take you apart and see what’s inside, how your clock ticks. They’ve never seen nothing like you in the ‘verse. They scanned you, they know you have a binary vascular system. The voice in his head trembles between wonder and sorrow. Twice as many hearts to break.
Walrus reaches out for the wallet, his eyes like stone. Carpenter stands rigid, arms clasped behind his back, and the third man still has the weapon trained on the Doctor. Walrus’s fingertips brush the edge of the wallet when River screams inside the Doctor’s head. They don’t care about the ident card. Don’t matter what it says, they’re gonna take you away, nothing you can do to stop them. We gotta go!
The Doctor’s hand freezes in midair, his gaze fixed on Walrus. When he speaks, his voice is low and dangerous, each word boils with anger. “It’s a bloody shame the Independents didn’t win the Unification War. You lot with your experiments and greed and supremacy are a disgrace to Earth, then and now.” The Doctor shakes his head in disgust. He doesn’t wait for Torchwood’s reaction. Instead, he takes a hurried step backward toward the TARDIS, and then another. River already has the door open; she dashes inside.
Walrus and Carpenter pull out their own guns. The Doctor takes a deep breath, calculating distance and trajectory. He can’t remember what type of weapons 26th century Alliance uses. Not particle guns. Not laser. The Browncoats prefer bullets. But this is Torchwood, so there’s no way to know until one of them pulls the trigger. Still, he’s been lucky before. The Doctor does the only thing he can.
There’s a jumble of shouts as the Time Lord races for the door. The dirt jumps near his left boot and then he’s inside his ship, safe. Relief floods through him.
"Ha! Safe! They’ll never get in.”
River stands in front of the console, a look of wonderment on her face. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she whispers. She turns a radiant smile on the Doctor, enchanted.
“It’s a magic box. Small on the outside, big on the inside, just like me.” Her eyes go wide and her smile turns beatific. “She’s talking to me. I can hear her in my head.”
The Doctor moves to her side. His smile is melancholy. “She’s saying hello.” The saddest word in the universe . He tries to wave his fingers at River in a friendly manner, but his hand seems to be extremely heavy. His legs aren’t working quite right either. His smile falls and he leans against the console, both hands holding him up. There’s something wrong.
A voice booms from outside. “Come out of the shed immediately.” Carpenter’s using a loud hailer.
“I’m sorry,” the Doctor says, trying to focus on River, "but we need to run away now. I’m not taking you hostage, I promise. I’ll bring you right back. Lickety-split.”
River doesn’t appear to be the least bit concerned. “Can we go to the edge of the black?” she asks excitedly. “I want to touch a star. Make a wish.”
“I don’t recommend touching a star,” the Doctor manages, “but we can look all you like. Assuming we make tracks. Skedaddle. Vamoose." He rolls the last word around in his mouth, not sure if he likes the taste of it or not. He presses a blinking button, taps a few typewriter keys. He points to an old fashioned crank pencil sharpener. “Can you crank that handle 'round four times? No, five.”
River promptly steps up to the yellow handle and follows the Doctor’s instructions. When she's done, her hands slides gently over the console, exploring. She turns to the Doctor, and her face clouds. She peers at him, forehead furrowed.
He’s pretty sure "shiny” is slang for good or cool during this era. Ergo, bow ties are shiny. Although it’s hard to hear with the sudden roaring in his ears. It’s like standing in the midst of a herd of antephants. It’s possible River said he was “slimy.” But since he hasn't been swallowed by a giant space whale recently, he decides on the former.
“Thank you.” His lips are made of stone. His tongue is dust. His head is collapsing like a dying star. He struggles for rational thought in the fog of his mind and finally realizes the truth. Stupid, stupid Doctor. He didn’t escape Walrus and Carpenter as easily as he thought. He’s been shot.
“No,” River says, and plucks a thin silver dart out of his arm, just below his shoulder. It resembles a large needle. She holds it up. “See? Shiny.”
In the distance, approximately several thousand light years away, the time rotor begins to rise and fall. The Doctor wants to tell River he’s sorry. He wants to tell her not to be afraid, that everything’s going to be right as rain. He opens his mouth, but before he can concentrate on excavating the proper words, the floor rushes up to meet him and then there’s nothing at all.
* * *
He doesn’t need to sleep often. Truth be told, he avoids it. When he’s asleep there’s no clever wordplay, no problems to solve, no monsters to poke with a stick. There’s nothing but a noose of memories waiting patiently in the dark. The Doctor wants to wake up. He commands himself to open his eyes, but the drug is still in his body, and his eyelids are lead.
He can see them now. Rose, calling his name from a silent black and white TV screen. Jack Harkness kissing (another) him goodbye. Martha screaming as she’s kidnapped from the slums of New Earth. Donna lying unconscious in his arms, her grandfather looking on in horror. Amy asking what is the point of you? when Rory dies in Dreamy Time Leadworth. The Master’s eyes boring into his, Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?
The Doctor wills his hands to move, his head to turn, but nothing happens. He doesn't want to think of the Master. Or the abandoned distress signal boxes back on House. There's no chance of forgiveness now. The memories of the war, of everything and everyone he's lost, are coming. Waiting . Well, he'll pass on that lot, thanks. It was bad enough living through it the first time, he's not about to play Scene It? Time Lord edition. The Doctor reaches out blindly, searching for the psychic link with his ship. His beautiful, magnificent TARDIS. Oi! Wake me up, you! Right now!
The TARDIS pitches, and the Doctor feels himself slide across the floor, and then his head connects with the base of the console. Pain blooms in his skull, sending dark tendrils down his neck and into his back. His eyes flicker open. He grins.
"Thank you, Miss Sexy," he whispers. His ship is his true companion. He’d be lost without her, in every sense of the word. He rubs at his bruised head and rolls onto his side. He stares in surprise at the pair of bare feet in front of his face.
River bends at the waist and brushes the fringe from his forehead. "Are you all right?"
"I will be," he says through lips that still feel slightly numb. "I think."
He can still hear voices, only they're no longer inside his head. He looks about cautiously.
"What is that?"
River smiles. "Oh, that’s Simon. And Captain Mal. I sent Serenity a wave. They want to say hi."
The Doctor pushes himself into a sitting position and groans. "Right. I suppose they’re worried. Of course. Let’s have a look-see then, shall we?" He pauses, his brain catching up with the girl’s words. "You contacted your ship? How did you...I mean, there’s no way..." He stares at her blankly. "You what ?"
River shrugs and helps him to his feet. "I used trilaterization to work out where Serenity would be based on our location versus Persephone. Then I did a scan for Serenity ’s signal and sent a wave."
The Doctor finds himself at a momentary loss for words, a unique situation indeed. Can everyone named River fly his ship? Eventually his brain comes up with a suitable response. "But...that’s impossible."
River shakes her head and strokes the console in an affection manner. "Wasn’t. I got stuck and the TARDIS gave me a hint."
The Doctor nods slowly. He contemplates exactly what this means. River has an inherent understanding of how the TARDIS works, more so than any human should be able to comprehend. And that? Is beautiful. He smiles.
"She did, did she? She’s taken quite a shine to you, then." The Doctor bows slightly, which turns out to be a mistake, as he nearly falls over. "Uh. And so have I," he mumbles, reaching for the console.
The Doctor comes face to face with the communication screen. Four faces stare back at him, three of which look extremely annoyed. A young man with tidy black hair and a black eye glowers at the Doctor, arms folded stiffly across his chest. An older man with unkempt brown hair and braces regards the Doctor coldly, hands hooked in his front pockets. A fresh bruise blooms pink across the man’s cheek and his lip is split. A third man wearing a chin full of stubble and a cross between a smirk and a scowl appears to be arguing with a pretty brown-haired girl. She’s wearing a long-sleeved tunic accented with a cherry blossom pattern. A smudge of dirt or grease marks the young woman’s forehead.
River points to the screen. "That’s Simon." She smiles proudly at the dark-hared man with the bruised face.
Simon’s glare is quickly replaced with a look of trepidation, then fear. "Please mei-mei ," he begs. "We’ll be there in a few hours. We’ll come get you, okay?"
River ignores her brother’s pleading and points to the remaining faces. The surly looking bloke with braces is Captain Mal Reynolds, the one resembling a thug is Jayne, the smiling girl is Kaylee.
Mal glares at Simon. "I told you Simon. Unless you’re in charge, and I think I’m safe in sayin’ that you are not , we can’t just up and–"
Simon’s face colours with fury. "We should have left Persephone the minute I told you something was wrong. I knew it. Didn’t I tell you? And now look at the gos se we’re in. She’s been captured.” Simon takes a threatening step toward the Captain. “If anything happens to her it’s on your head."
Mal’s smile is icy. "Ain’t gonna be nothing on my head but my pretty hair. You best be keeping your mouth shut unless you’re wanting a close-up view of the airlock."
Jayne looks hopeful. "If she’s been kidnapped, can’t we just let her go, Mal? Good riddance, I say." To River he adds, "No offence."
"Hullo." The Doctor wiggles his fingers and puts on his smiliest smile. "I did not kidnap your friend River. She is not a hostage. No one’s been snatched by the bogeyman." He waves an arm around the room. "One hundred percent hostage-free area, this."
River points to the Doctor. "This here’s the Captain," she beams. "He’s a Time Lord."
"What’s a Time Lord?" Mal demands. "That some fancy way of saying Alliance? We appropriated that girl from you bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro before. I have a powerful feeling we can do it again."
"I’m not a Captain," the Doctor says quickly. "I’m the Doctor."
This seems to make Simon even more agitated. "What kind of doctor?" He steps closer to the screen, eyes blazing. He jabs a finger toward the Doctor. "If you so much as touch a hair on my sister’s head, I will make you wish you had never been born."
River frowns at the Doctor. "You got a ship. You fly it. That makes you a captain. The Captain of the TARDIS."
The Time Lord gives River a quick nod. "Yes, yes, I see your point, but my name is actually the Doctor ." He turns back to Simon. "And no harm will come to River’s hair. I promise. The rest of her is safe as well."
River giggles, charmed.
Simon’s eyebrows draw together. A vein in his forehead throbs. "Are you mocking me?"
Kaylee puts a restraining arm on Simon’s shoulder. "She can take care of herself, Simon. If she can take down a whole passel of Reavers, I don’t see what one spindly doc’s gonna do to her." She shrugs. "She can go all ninjafied on him."
The Doctor rubs the back of neck. Spindly? Ninjafied? At least Amy just has Rory. River Tam seems to have an entire crew looking out for her.
"Wasn’t the Alliance," River tells Mal. "It was Torchwood. And they didn’t want me." She nods her head toward the Doctor. "They wanted the Captain."
"That would be the Doctor ," the Time Lord clarifies loudly.
Simon and Mal exchange a glance. "When I was in one of the blackout zones," Simon reveals, "there was talk about an elite underground task force of some kind. A branch of the Alliance, but completely autonomous. I’m pretty sure it was called Torchwood."
"And what exactly does this ‘Torchwood’ do?" Mal asks.
"Monitor illegal air ships, apparently. I’m not sure what else."
Mal squints at the Doctor. "You runnin’ your ship without core containment? Why’d Torchwood be interested in you?"
"I’m not entirely human," the Doctor explains. "And when I say ‘entirely,’ I mean I’m not human at all."
Jayne stares. "So what does that make you?" He scratches behind one ear. "Some kinda hologram?” He considers. “Or maybe a robot.”
The Doctor throws his hands up in frustration. "I am an alien. I am a Time Lord ." His smile grows strained and his voice echoes around the control room. "I am the Doctor, not the Captain. This is my ship. River and I were accosted by Torchwood, who, by the way, I have dealt with before. They are, as my new friend put it so aptly, black-hearted. I had the choice of leaving River there to face them on her own, or to protect her."
Simon frowns. "If you’ve seen them before then why–"
" No ," the Doctor thunders. "This is my turn to talk. I have not harmed River. I do not plan to harm her. All I want to do is fix my ship, go back to Earth, and pick up Amy and Rory. I’ll be more than happy to return your friend, as long as you all stop talking." The Doctor’s glare dwarfs Simon’s.
A tall Amazon-like black woman pokes her head in front of the screen. "It seems to me, that’s the point River was tryin’ to make before everyone went fong luh ."
Mal grimaces. "Did I ask for you opinion, Zoe?"
Zoe smiles faintly. "No, sir. But I’m not sure the Doctor’s impressed with the quality of yours." She lifts an eyebrow. "Sir."
River touches the Doctor’s arm tentatively. "But I want to stay here."
Simon’s mouth drops open. "What?"
The Doctor turns to the girl. " What? "
Jayne beams. "Finally. This here’s a turn of events I can get behind."
"You’re gonna get a compression coil up your behind if you don’t shut your gorram mouth," Kaylee hisses at Jayne.
River steps forward, hands folded as if in prayer. "Simon. He’s a reader, like me. He can help me control my abilities. And his ship." She smiles and the look on her face brings tears to her brother’s eyes. "She’s...beautiful. She sings to me, Simon. She’s gonna sing me to sleep every night. No more nightmares."
Simon blinks. "I’m...I’m glad you like it there, River. But...you don’t have anyone to take care of you." He clears his throat. "It’s my job to take care of you," he says in a near whisper.
River wipes her own eyes. "I know, Simon. And no one takes care of me better than you. But it’s time I learned to take care of myself. Just to see what it’s like. I can’t stay a child forever, Simon." She regards him tenderly. "Even if you want me to."
"Don't know why not," the Doctor mutters to himself. "I certainly intend to."
Simon shakes his head vehemently. "No. No, mei-mei . I don’t want you stay a child. I want you to grow up and be the amazing person you are. There’s no one as smart or good or kind as you in the whole ‘verse, River. No one."
River grins. "That’s where you’re wrong, Simon. Captain Doctor is smarter than me! He can teach me about things–show me things--I never knew existed. You don’t want to take that away from me, do you?"
A tear rolls down Simon’s face, unchecked. "That’s not fair, River."
Mal clears his throat. "Before we all break out the hankies and start wavin’ fare-thee-well, I’ve got a few questions for the Doctor." Captain Reynolds ticks them off on his hand. "One, you said you was goin’ to Earth. Either you’re on drops or fresh from a bughouse, because Earth-that-was is long gone. Two, what exactly do you mean by ‘alien’? You got green skin under that fancy get-up?" The Captain watches the Doctor steadily. "An’ three. River says she wants to travel with you. Now that’s fine and dandy, but you ain’t said diddly on the matter. Are you lookin’ for company? What need does a man such as yourself have for an albatross?"
The Doctor smiles, impressed by Mal’s questions. "You aren’t nearly as thick as you look, my dear Captain. Those are excellent questions! And I must say, the braces are a very nice touch. Have you ever considered wearing a bow tie? It really completes the look. In answer to your question: Yes. The Earth is most certainly still around. You humans are a hale and hardy lot, you survive that nasty plague of 2310 and rebuild. Well done, you. Earth’s going to be causing trouble for quite some time. Also, I’m a genius." He taps his head. "Plenty going on up here. No stimulants, no drugs. Unless you count tea. I do enjoy a good cuppa now and again. Although I have spent some time in an asylum. A complete mix-up, of course. Quite amusing upon retrospection. Very funny story, let me tell you. Only, I’m not going to just now. Maybe later.
"Next, aliens come in a variety of colors and shapes, I’ll have you know. I happen to resemble you lot. I am of course, far superior."
"So you keep sayin’," Mal responds dryly.
"He has two hearts," River adds.
Mal looks surprised. "Now that’s somethin’ new."
Simon blinks. "A binary vascular system? That’s incredible."
"Yes, well, it does come in handy," the Doctor agrees. "Now. As for River." He looks at the girl for a long moment without speaking. She can help him with the ship. She’s not the best conversationalist he’s ever had, but she’s brilliant, and he could help her. He would like to help her very much. He can feel the years of loneliness around her like a fog, and loneliness is something he knows a thing or ten about. It would be nice to have someone keep him company. At least until he gets back to the Ponds. Making his mind up, he nods at Mal.
"As Captains, we both know an albatross is a sign of good luck.” The Doctor directs his gaze back to River. “I would be honored to have you as my traveling companion."
"Your what ?" Simon demands, his face going red.
"You’re such a boob," River tells her brother blandly. "You know what he means."
The Doctor rubs his chin. "Ah. Yes." He chuckles nervously. "Whoops. My bad. When I say ‘companion’ my meaning is somewhat different than the current connotation."
"I should hope so," Simon mutters darkly.
The Doctor claps his hands together. "Okay. Even though River is going to travel with me, she won’t be gone long. My ship travels in space and time, so we'll be back before you know it. And we'll keep in touch. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘River.’ She can wave you whenever we’re in range."
Zoe steps into view again, her voice completely neutral. "Excuse me Doctor. Did you say time travel?"
"I did indeed." The Doctor turns from the screen. "Now, River?"
The Doctor sighs. At least it’s better than Martian Boy or Spaceman. "Do you still want to make that wish?"
River’s face shines. "I surely do."
The Doctor salutes the screen. "Nice to meet you. Talk to you soon and all that. Bless."
"Wait just a gorram minute–" Mal huffs, and the Doctor cups a hand to his ear.
"What was that? Eh? Bit of interference, here. So sorry." He pulls a white handkerchief from his pocket and waves it with a flourish. "Fare thee well, Captain." He nods at Simon. "You’ve a fantastic sister. So long!" he grins and shuts the view screen off. He turns to River and mops his brow with the cloth. "Good Lord! You have quite the entourage, don’t you?"
River nods. "They can be a bit...cumbersome." She bounces on her toes, her eyes focused on the doors. "Can we see the stars now?"
The Doctor reaches for a lever. "We’re on our way.
"Your mind is like a series of different rooms," the Doctor explains quietly. "You’ve got your kitchen, your storage cupboards, bedrooms, lounge. Not to mention your libraries, dining rooms, guest rooms, porches. Well, maybe not porches." The Doctor frowns, pulls at his lower lip. "Is a porch a room? I'm not sure. Let's just say yes, shall we? Okay, so each room holds your thoughts. Your memories. Some are easy to hear, right on the surface. Some are stored in the attic or cellar, a bit harder to access. Understand?"
River nods. She and the Doctor are sitting cross-legged on the floor, face-to-face.
"Good. Now. Telepathy is a bit like reaching into a sales bin for that last, elusive bag of crisps. Except when you read people, you rummage around the different rooms in their mind, instead of Tesco shelves." He frowns slightly. "Only when you do it, you’re a bit Judoon in the china shop. Sort of clumsy. Which is okay because I trip over my own feet all the time. And besides, you're still learning. I’m going to hide a memory, and I want you to find it. Carefully. No barging around or banging doors open and shut." The Doctor pauses, gives her a keen look. "You’re going to watch the doors and windows, respect boundaries." He lifts an eyebrow. "Ready?"
River nods. "Ready."
The Time Lord closes his eyes. It’s only a moment before he can feel River in his mind, but this time her movements are gentle. Delicate. He grins. "Yes, that's it! Smiley apples! Brilliant!" He shifts slightly. "Okay, keep going. Oops, getting cold." He pretends to shiver. "Colder. Somebody bring me a poncho! Now you're the tiniest bit warmer, no frostbite for the Doctor then. Mmm, lukewarm." He cups his chin, rests his elbow on his knee, eyes still shut. "A bit like Amy Pond’s tea, that," he says, and mouths the word rubbish . "Ooh, now we’re getting somewhere good. Definitely warmer." River moves gracefully through the rooms of his mind, cautiously trying to follow his guidelines. He opens his eyes and winks. "Warmer. Hot. Ouch. Hot potato!"
River’s eyes flick open. "It’s beautiful," she breathes. "Like a fairy tale. A jade sky and bright blue grass.” Her eyes are wide as she recalls his memory. “The buildings climb up into the clouds. Everyone has wings, like angels.” Her voice turns wistful. "I wish I was there, wish I could feel the wind on my face. Blow the bad thoughts away.”
"That was Besson," the Doctor tells her. "It was a magnificent planet once.” The Doctor rubs a hand across his forehead. “Just like Miranda.” He should have known the instant River shared her thoughts back on Persephone what she’d meant. He’d been too surprised by her ability to take in the full meaning of her words. But he knows now. This time period, this universe, what else could the name mean? When a planet dies, it’s not something that goes unnoticed. Especially by a Time Lord.
“They tried to hide their secret inside me.” River’s voice is soft, but a narrow band of steel runs through it. She focuses on her left knee, rubs a finger along the frayed hem of her dress. “But it got out. Can’t stop the signal.” She lifts her head and meets the Doctor’s gaze. “All those people dead. Thousands, all screaming in my brain. And the ones that lived? They ain’t really alive. Not even people. Not even Simon can fix ‘em.”
The Doctor tugs on his left ear lobe. “People did try and fix them over the years. Doctors and scientists came from galaxies away. Some of them insisted Reavers were simply misunderstood. Some said they were a plague that should be eradicated. Some said they belonged in a detention centre." He laughs bitterly. "The Magistrate on Ariel tried to pass a proclamation confining them to a specially-designed zoo. The argument went on so long, no one noticed when the Reavers first disappeared. They were too busy arguing amongst themselves, too busy talking about cures and treatment instead of actually providing any.”
River draws her knees up, clasps her hands around them. “Where’d they go?”
The Doctor blows out a breath. “Once you lot got the hang of exploring the universe a bit more, got over your irrational fear of everything different, there was a big travel boom." He spreads his hands, miming an explosion. " Big . Humans went everywhere once you developed light speed and faster-than-light speed. Of course, most of you went to New Earth, but there were plenty of other planets to roam about on.” He rubs the back of his neck, thinking about the last time he saw the ancestors of Miranda.
“The Reavers traveled too. Little groups of them, here and there. The largest group ended up at the endiest end of the universe, on a planet called Malcassairo. They had an extra handful of functioning brain cells, and went by the name Futurekind.” The Doctor shakes his head. “But they weren’t from the future. They were from the past. And they still wanted nothing more than to kill.” The Doctor's jaw tightens, his expression grim. Then he sighs wearily and his shoulders slump. "What a catastrophic waste. Such a tragedy. Stupid, stupid humans and their constant meddling."
“You saw them, then? Reavers?”
“What did you do?”
The Doctor laughs. "I did the only sensible thing. I ran away.”
River considers the Doctor’s answer for a moment. “I couldn’t run away. Had to kill them or Simon woulda died. They all woulda died.” She shrugs. “They said I was a big ai ya hero, but I wasn’t. I just did what I had to.”
The Doctor doesn’t need to read River's mind to know the terror from that confrontation still weighs heavily on her. He recalls a quote from a remarkable poet he had tea with back in 1871. The bloke had a rather magnificent beard and a collection of truly excellent hats.
"The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first," the Doctor recites dramatically. "Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first. Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop'd. I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” The Doctor beams warmly at River. “And you, River Tam, are a divine thing.”
River returns the smile, and the Doctor marvels. She looks like a mere child. Only her eyes hint at her true age. “And speaking of divine, have a look at this."
The Time Lord pulls her toward the doors and throws them open with a flourish
Beyond the TARDIS is a blue-green-orange burst of light. It resembles a shimmering curtain, and a field of stars dots the darkness beyond the glowing veil.
“This is the A’Thlox Nebula,” the Doctor tells her proudly. He gestures to the radiant colors. "This is all that remains of the supernova formed here over a million years ago.”
River stares, blinking back tears. “It’s…I can’t find the words to describe it. My vocabulary is…inadequate. Defective.”
The Doctor lowers himself to the floor of the TARDIS, lets his legs dangle outside the ship. He swings them back and forth within the safety of the ship’s force field.
“I rather like the word fantastic. It’s a first-class adjective, don't you think? Ooh, majestic is good too. So what happens if we play a bit of addition? We have Fanjestic.”
River seats herself beside him, grinning. “And amazeful.”
The Doctor clicks his fingers. “Brilliant!”
"Simon and me had to put on astro suits once," River says. "We hid atop our ship so we didn't get found. Simon was scared, but I wasn't. The black can kill you, but it don't lie. It don't hurt you purposeful. Not like people do." She reaches a tentative hand out of the TARDIS, wiggles her fingers, grins. “How come we ain’t dead or frozen stiff? It must be at least minus two hundred Celsius.” She presses her right index finger against her left wrist. “Normal pulse maintained. Cellular metabolic processes normal.” She moves her finger to the Doctor’s wrist. “No skin breakdown. Not even any goose bumps.” She rubs her forehead, clearly stunned. “I’m…mind-boggled.”
The Doctor gives River’s hand a comforting pat. “It’s the TARDIS." He nods toward the inside of the ship. "She keeps us safe.” He increases the pressure on her hand. “But I don’t recommend taking one giant leap for mankind. A small one, okay. Possibly even a hop. But her protection only reaches so far.” He releases River's hand and points toward a distant speck of light. “The Zethros Galaxy is just a skip and a jump past that star.”
“A star’s an immensely glowy ball of plasma,” River says, as if reading from a book. “Plasma is ionized energy. The stars crowd together to form galaxies, and galaxies make up the ‘verse. The nearest star to Earth-that-was was the Sun.” The girl looks at the Doctor expectantly, as if she’s waiting for him to grade her homework.
“River, that's excellent. You get an A+. Top marks. In fact--" he pats his pockets "I'd give you a gold start but..." he trails off and gestures expansively to the universe around them. He winks. “You already have several.”
They sit together in silence for several minutes, both swinging their legs and taking in the beauty. The Doctor’s eyes stray to her bare arms more than once. “You’re not cold, then? You can have my jacket,” he offers.
River shakes her head. “Not cold. Not enough to matter, anyhow. I'm more like Amy, floating in the black." She trails one hand languidly outside the TARDIS, as if space were nothing more than water. "Although Donna was more scared then cold. She couldn’t find the right words either. They all ran away.”
“River,” the Doctor says archly, poking her forehead with one finger, “please observe the doors and windows.”
River claps a hand to her mouth, blushes. “Sorry.”
The Doctor flashes a kind smile. “No worries, Tam. Practice makes perfect. No harm, no foul, and other platitudes that sound just a bit rubbish. It’s not something I expect you to pull off in a few short hours. No one could do that. Well, I could. But I already have a perfect touch,” the Doctor says grandly. Then he blanches, backpedaling. “I…I mean with this,” he clarifies by tapping his temple, “not with this.” He lifts a hand, drops it back in his lap. Perhaps it would be best to observe the nebula in silence. Yes. What was that saying? Silence is golden. Not really, of course, how could silence possibly be golden? Especially when referring to pale creepy-faced aliens who lurk about manipulating people, and then make you forget just how creepy-faced they are. Humans are always coming up with silly little sayings they seem to think have great intrinsic meaning. They’re fine for stitching onto samplers and hanging on a wall. But other than hiding a hole in the plaster, he doesn’t see much use for them.
River closes her eyes and speaks in a sing-song voice. “Then the traveler in the dark, thanks you for your tiny spark. He could not see which way to go, if you did not twinkle so. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. “
The Doctor blinks. “I think we previously established stars are made of plasma and plasma rarely, if ever, twinkles.” He frowns. Wait, there’s something familiar about River’s words. “Oh! Blimely, I'm such a numbskull." He raps on the side of his head. "See? Numb-- ouch! Never mind. You were quoting a nursery rhyme!" He rubs his hands together. "Do you know the one about the cat and the fiddle? Always liked that one.”
“Simon used to read to me when I was little. I could already read when I was three, but it didn’t matter. Simon still had to read me bedtime stories. He always did the voices just right.”
The Time Lord grins appreciatively. “I love a good story, especially when there's voices.” He nudges her shoulder with his elbow. “And you’re right, by the way. Which isn’t something I say to other people all that often. The stars are definitely the lanterns that light our way. Great big lovely lanterns. Ooh, that’s quite poetic, isn't it?" the Doctor says excitedly. "I could stitch that onto a pillow! Too bad I don’t sew.” He runs a hand through his hair distractedly. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did you make your wish?”
River nods, gets to her feet, dusts off her dress. “Sure did. I’m hopeful we can help.”
The Doctor frowns up at her. “Help? Help who?”
She looks at the Doctor like he's daft. "The Silver City."
The Doctor leaps to his feet. "Silver City, Silver City," he mutters, trying to place the name. He pulls the psychic paper from his jacket pocket and flips it open. There's a set of coordinates and two short words: Please come.
The Doctor taps the wallet against his thigh and regards River thoughtfully. "How do you feel about taking a detour on the way to Earth-that-was?"
* * *
The library’s colossal. River's never seen so many books in one place before, not even in Capital City. She stands in the centre of the room marvelling at the stone fireplace. She can’t work out exactly where the chimney vents to. After spending a minute trying to solve the problem, she stops caring and runs her fingertips along the rough stone instead.
A variety of worn chairs and faded foot stools surround the fireplace. Colourful cushions and pillows litter the floor, reminding River of Inara’s shuttle. The furniture don’t match exactly, but the longer she studies the chairs and cushions, the more they belong together. Sort of like the crew on Serenity.
The walls are lined with books; shelves reach from floor to ceiling. Ladders lean precariously against the walls. A small red wagon emblazoned with the words Radio Flyer rests behind a pink stool shaped like a mushroom. The back of the library is filled with more shelves and a number of tables littered with bits of paper and open books. On one table there’s a faded newspaper with a photograph of a gorram big ship called Titanic. There’s an origami flower that reminds her of the pretty blossoms on Jiangyin. There’s a thick leather-bound book labelled A Diary: My First 500 Years . Incongruously, there's a hand-lettered sign on one wall that reads No Running by the Pool. River walks among the tables and shelves, pulling the wagon. More than anything, she wants to run along the shelves and play hide and seek with Simon. Or Kaylee.
Only now she’d be the one to count and they could hide. She doesn’t need to hide any longer, especially not on this ship. The TARDIS understands her in a way that Serenity never can, never will. It don’t mean the firefly’s a bad ship. It just means the ship’s sleeping. I slept for so long…I didn’t think you’d come for me. The TARDIS is wide awake, and finally, so is River. And she plans to stay that way. River wonders what Kaylee would say if she could see the console room. She leans against a chair and concentrates on her brother and Kaylee, sends her mind out as far as she can, searching. She can’t reach them. Knew she couldn’t. She’s alone, except for the ghosts.
Not real ghosts of course. No spooks. It don’t feel melancholy or gloomish. These ghosts are just old memories, lost, left behind. She can feel heaps of the Cap’n here. He looks different on the outside, but he’s the same inside. River wonders how he does it, how he can change his face like he’s changing his clothes. She’s not sure she’d do it if she was able. She’s a good deal more interested in changing her inside than her out. It’s her insides that got broke, after all.
River walks along the shelves, a finger trailing over countless book spines. Within fifteen minutes the wagon is stacked high, dozens of volumes teetering like nervous skyscrapers. She curls herself on a pile of cushions like a cat. There’s a cup of tea and a bowl of hodgeberries waiting for her on top of a dictionary big enough to be a table. Thank you she tells the TARDIS and tries to figure which book to read first.
On impulse she leans forward, rests her forehead on the nearest stack of books and inhales mightily. The smell of paper and dust and ink and dreams fills her nostrils. She wants to bury herself in words, take apart the little blocks of print and build herself a shelter, a home, a refuge. She wishes Simon was here to read to her.
She’s got her choices narrowed down to three when she hears the Captain’s thoughts, then his voice. “Tam? Are you in here?”
She peers over the arm of a chair. “Hello, Cap’n.”
He grimaces like he just swallowed a bug. River sympathizes. She gulped a bug on Lilac, once. Shock to the digestive tract. A buzzing in the guts. The Captain sighs and River realizes there’s something just behind his annoyance. Something intangible and dark, like smoke. Grief. She can’t tell who it's meant for. He frowns at her and River retreats hastily.
“I’m trying to decide what to read first,” she blurts.
His eyebrows unknot and he nods approval at the wagon. He taps a fat hardcover about a boy with a lightning-bolt scar and his plentiful adventures. “This one here is brilliant . Made me cry like a baby.”
River points to the next book. “This looks just as fine.”
The Captain rubs his chin thoughtfully. “ Thermodynamic Entropy A through S, hmm? I don’t expect they’ll make that into a film anytime soon. It might make a decent mini-series though. Still, I highly recommend it if you’re not in the mood for wizards. Anything else?”
River runs a hand over the book on her lap and the Captain’s face lights up. “Ooh, lovely! Dr. Seuss is fantastic. Theodore Seuss Geisel. You would be amazed at the number of Hydrafoxian words the good doctor jotted into his books. Always thought he took a holiday or two to Hydrafox." The Cap'n lowers his voice, grimaces. "Although the whole planet’s very hush-hush about visitors. Bit of a mystery, really." He shakes his head in admiration. "Still, he was a master of anapestic tetrameter.”
River flips the book open and points to a drawing of a strange, cheerful looking creature on narrow legs wearing extremely large shoes. “How can he walk? His shoes are…problematic.”
“He can manage.” The Captain reaches for her hand. “And you’re barefoot and my boots are perfectly fine--dashing in fact. So come on. Off we go, time to sally forth and all that." He rocks back on his heels, beaming. "We’re here, Tam. That’s why I was looking for you.”
River drops the book. “Here? The Silver City?” She cranes her head toward the door, as if it's waiting in the hall.
“The one and only." He grins. "Excited?"
She nods, unable to speak. A whole 'nother planet! A whole different 'verse!
The Cap'n offers his arm and River takes it. She's ready to see the City. She's been waiting her whole life.
* * *
Only Silver City isn't a city at all. It's a ship. River stares in amazement at the crowds of people flowing by. People ain't even the right word. There are men- and women-folk of every nationality who look plenty human, but there are other things as well. Things with white fur and black scales and blue skin or four legs or--or wings! There are creatures with three eyes and no nose, and wormish things who maneuver personal hover crafts with stubby little arms. There are school groups of yellow-haired children in uniforms and green-skinned children with webbed hands and bald, ridged heads.
The TARDIS is parked unobtrusively next to a gift shop called The Crown and there are vendors every few feet. The employees wear crisp white shirts and grey trousers, each shirt emblazoned with Welcome to Silver City . Most of the vendors look humanoid and have a light coat of fur on their skin. More than anything, River wants to pet the woman behind the Crown's cash register.
The Captain takes her hand and guides her to a large poster on the wall. It shows a map of a round building. It has a hole in the middle like the sweet doughs Shepherd used to make. But the top of the building ain't smooth, it's all up and downy with towers. Like the cloud scrapers on Ariel. Beneath the circle are the words Silver City . There's a second drawing of a tall rectangle beside it that says Capa Station One .
The Cap'n taps the circle. "This is where we are," he says, beaming. "The Silver City. The Silver City! " He pumps his fist in the air like he just won a race. "I can't believe I forgot about this place. I'm becoming terribly forgetful in my old age, better start doing those crosswords again." He turns River back toward the wide corridor of people. "Okay, quick history lesson. Ready? The Silver City is a sort of...entertainment type ship thingy. Like Disney World, only in space. Except you have no idea what Disney World is, so forget I said that. Not the part about it being an entertainment ship, just the bit about Disney."
He smacks his forehead impatiently with the palm of his hand. "Think, think. Oh, let's try this. It's like a fair. Yes!" He clicks his fingers in triumph. "A big city fair with rides and food and people and shops and more people and more food and stuff like that. Only this fair is so big, it sets down at different stations for a few months until everybody gets a chance to visit, then it moves on to another planet."
He does a little jump. "I've been wanting to come here for ages! Remember when I mentioned the St. Louis World's Fair and the Colombian Exposition? It's like that." He points across the way. "And look! A shop! Are we in luck, or what?" The Captain works his way through the crowd and over to the shop. He waves impatiently for River. "Come along, Tam!"
River follows and stares around the shop with interest. There are glasses, T-shirts, dishes, and decks of cards, all decorated with the words Silver City and a little picture of a crown. There are chocolate bars and balloons and do-it-yourself tattoo kits and sandals and countless other items with the same logo. The back of the store contains a display of various hats--including a row of delicate silver crowns. They sparkle in the light like gemstones. River leans forward to get a better look. The Captain promptly drops one onto her head, one onto his.
"Look at that," he grins. "We're royalty." He adjusts the crown and gives River a slightly concerned look. He points to his head. "Does it look cool?"
"It looks shiny," River says.
"Shiny cool or shiny shiny?"
She considers. "Both, I reckon."
Cap'n looks upward, as if he can see the top of his head, nods in approval. "So do I."
The Doctor reaches into his pocket and pulls out a rectangular plastic card. "I'm not sure this is still considered legal tender. But it's either this, a clock work mouse, a handful of sea shells, or half a bag of petrified Jelly Babies. Just in case things head south, would you say you're a sprinter, or more of a long distance runner?"
River stares at the Doctor in confusion.
"Not a problem, we can find out together." The Captain hands the cashier his card.
She takes it, slides it through a slot on the cash register. There are no alarms, no accusing looks. The Doctor relaxes visibly.
River studies the cashier's delicately pointed ears, her furry face. "I like your skin," she says.
The Captain's eyebrows leap up to his hairline and he tries to frown and smile at the same time. The smile eventually wins. "That's very nice, River. I like her skin too. And yours is looking marvelous as well. Do you moisturize? No? Well, hooray for skin! We're all very cutaneous today, aren't we?"
The cashier wears a name tag that reads. Treessa. She gives the Doctor and River a look of professional indifference despite the Doctor's babbling. "Welcome to the Silver City," she says in a monotone. "Have a nice day."
"Thank you! We will! At least...I think we will. We plan to, at any rate. You do the same. Enjoy your skin!" The Cap'n steers River back out of the store.
They stare at each other for a moment, admiring each other's crown.
"Bless," the Doctor says. "You look brilliant."
"You look like you're playing dress-up."
The Doctor's smile falls. "That's...somewhat less brilliant, but thanks. I think."
They link arms and continue down the hallway. The Doctor nods genially to vendors while River admires the large photo displays that show women in long fancy dresses and men in black hats back on Earth-that-was.
Ahead of them the wide corridor turns right. A bright red and yellow sign hangs above the turn. Swirly script proclaims: THIS WAY TO THE SILVER CITY. SEE THE GRAND FERRIS WHEEL! THE MIDWAY! THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES!
The Doctor hesitates beneath the sign, speaks softly into River's ear. "You all right, Tam?" he asks, concerned. "Are there too many voices?"
River ponders the question. There are more thoughts than she can count, and she can count very high. But none of them are threatening, none of them hurt. Which is fairly excellent, in River's opinion. She's keeping her hands--and her mind--to herself without too much trouble. So far.
"Just the right amount," she replies.
Cap'n pats her arm. "I'm glad."
River inspects the Captain from the corner of her eye. She can tell he's telling the truth. Not just because she takes a quick peek into his mind now and again, but because she just...knows. Simon don't lie. Jayne does. Kaylee don't lie. Mal does. River ain't sure if the Doctor lies or not, but he don't lie to her , and that's the important part. She likes to look at the Cap'n. He's almost as odd as she is.
He wears funny clothes. His hair is too long. He's all loose-limbed and bandy-legged. Like a rag-doll that done too much horse riding. River can't help smiling.
The Doctor notices. Can't get nothin' by this one.
"What are you smiling at, Tam?"
River mimics the Captain's walk. "You're kinda limp puppety-like. Like you been taken apart and put back together just a little bit wrong."
She thinks the Doctor might be mad--or worse, sad--but he just laughs at her description. "You're more right than you know. I've been taken apart at least ten times."
Best of all, half of what the Doctor says don't make any sense. River knows her own words tend to confuse people, so meeting the Doctor is like meeting a kindred spirit. River don't mean to make folks nervous, it's just the broke bits of her brain make her excitable at times. She can still remember standing in front of her Mid-School classmates when she was 12. She was class president and gave the year-end speech. She wasn't just the best student in her class, she was the best in the school, broke all kinds of academic records. Won awards. Made students--and teachers--jealous. But it's like the needles they put in her head pulled out her ability to communicate. To make sense. To talk in anything but a code only she--and sometimes Simon--can understand.
The Doctor pulls her closer. "There'll be none of that, River Tam. You make plenty of sense and you haven't lost the ability to communicate. I think most people just forget how to listen. Why make it easy on them? Give them a bit of a challenge, I always say! Well, I say it sometimes." He shrugs. "I said it just now. Besides, we're having fun. We're wearing crowns at jaunty angles, and we're about to get candy floss." He points to the vendor up ahead.
* * *
River peers into the empty bag of candy floss and wrinkles her nose in annoyance. “It's already gone.” She flashes the Doctor an indignant look. “It melts like air.”
“Strictly speaking, air doesn’t melt. Unless you dropped in on one of the 5-B level caves on New Atlantis.” The Doctor reaches into his pocket, then pauses. He peers at River. “You haven’t nipped by New Atlantis when I wasn't looking, have you?”
She smooths the empty bag flat against her skirt, hides her smile. “Not so far.”
“Good." He wags a finger at her. "Because there’s a knack to breathing melted air. Easier said than done. Then again, most things are.” The Doctor pulls another bag of fairy floss from his jacket and hands it to River with a wink. “Reinforcements have arrived.”
River beams. “Shiny! You got me blue!” She plants a hasty kiss on his cheek and tears open the bag. She stuffs a great fluffy bit into her mouth, chews, swallows. Then she sticks her tongue out triumphantly, showing off its brilliant hue.
Impressed, but not willing to be outdone, the Doctor sticks his own out. "Wha coluh is it?" he asks.
River peers at it closely. "Nice and purply," she declares admiringly.
They reach what resembles a wide city square. There's an ornate gate directly ahead where a a group of T-shirted employees take tickets as tourists pass through.
“You ready to step back in time?" The Doctor asks. "Figuratively speaking of course. But we can do it for real later if you want."
River stares raptly at a young man whose lip, nose, and eyebrow are pierced with green blinking hoops. It takes a moment for the Captain's words to penetrate. She nods, popping the last of the fairly floss into her mouth.
“I’m okay. So many doors and windows open, but I’m not eavesdropping.” Her face reddens. “Not purposeful.”
The Doctor clasps his hands behind his back. “That's brilliant. But listen,” he turns to River, gives her a hard look that slowly transforms into a gentle smile. “If you have a hard time, if you ever feel overwhelmed by our surroundings, by me--which, I admit is doubtful--or by the TARDIS, say the word. In fact, to make things a bit easier, you can just say ‘word.’ I’ll do my best to replicate the drugs Simon gave you. Or we can ring Simon.”
River folds the empty packet into a small square and drops it into a nearby bin. “Don’t require meds lately. Not so much after Miranda. I still get scared, but not as bad.” She mirrors the Doctor and clasps her own hands behind her back. “Was like I forgot how to be a girl. I could walk and talk and breathe and sleep and eat but that wasn’t really living.” A smile lights her face. “But now I remember how to be a girl.” Her smile grows wider. “I’m almost real.”
The Doctor’s hearts clench. He grabs her hand impulsively. “Oh, you’re real,” he says, “don’t you doubt it for a minute. Or a second. Not even a nanosecond. Got it?"
"Good." He pulls out his psychic paper and nods toward the gate. "We've got a city to see."
* * *
The psychic paper appears as a free visitor's pass (up to two tourists!) and then they're through. River stares, stunned, as tourists pass by on either side, oblivious to the thin girl holding hands with a man who appears to be an eccentric professorial type. The Doctor stares with her.
They've entered late nineteenth century Chicago. There are cobblestones beneath their feet. Beautiful art nouveau buildings line the wide street before them. There's a grand fountain, complete with a two-story tall replica of the Statue of the Republic . Beyond the fountain is a large canal, complete with gondolas full of tourists. The buildings, all a pale bluish silver, stretch up into the distant sky.
"Are we--are we outside?" River asks breathlessly.
The Doctor squints at the top of the buildings. He points the sonic screwdriver upwards, clicks it on and off. "Nope. The ceiling's been covered with holographic paint." He grins in delight. "Look, the clouds are moving."
People file in and out of exact replicas of the Palace of Fine Arts , the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building , and the Electricity Building. Each building holds a museum's worth of Earth antiques and nineteenth century memorabilia. Silver City employees are dressed in period costumes despite their race. A willowy frog-like creature in a blue dress waves a nineteenth-century bonnet in greeting as the Doctor and River pass by.
The Doctor waves back. River nods regally, holding her crown in place.
There are little stands everywhere, filled with bouquets of fresh flowers, bags of popcorn, apples, oranges. There are barrels full of giant pickles. There are hamburger stands, roasted ears of corn, little glass bottles of carbonated soda, and myriad other world-fairish delicacies.
A cat-like woman resembling the one from the shop hands River a rose. She curtsies. "Welcome to the Silver City, Miss."
River takes the flower, presses it to her nose, inhales. "Thank you."
The woman drifts back into the crowd.
"Who are the fuzzy people?" River asks the Doctor, tucking the flower carefully behind one ear.
The Doctor gives her a reproachful look. "They're not fuzzy , River. They're not velvet paintings or little yellow ducklings, are they? They're just a bit...furry. They're called Kroatans. Nice blokes, humanoid, look a bit like a cross between Legolas and Novice Hame." He sends River a mental picture of a girlish blond-haired man and a lady with a cat face and gigantic white hat. "They live on Kroatan, nice planet, great lemon meringue pie if you go in for that sort of thing. The winters get a bit brutal and that's why they have the fur."
"Is this a Kroatan ship, then?"
"Very good question. Since we've seen so many, I think so. Gosh, I haven't seen this many Kroatans in one place since the three-hundredth revival of Cats . Blimey. I never realized the Crown was theirs."
River touches the circlet on her head. "Crown?"
"No, no, the Crown ." The Doctor throws his arms wide, nearly clipping a passing Jixen on his turtley head. "Remember how the ship is round? Never mind the corners, those aren't real. Well, they're real corners, but the ship is still curved." He joins his fingertips together, makes a circle. "They need to hide all the modern machiney bits so the 'ooh, look, you're in the past' illusion lasts. But since the ship is circular, its earned the nickname 'the crown.' That's why all the souvenirs are decorated with them. You didn't happen to notice if there were any snow globes in the shop, did you? I forgot to check." He sighs, a bit wistful. "I could really use a new snow globe."
The Doctor rubs the back of his neck, frowning slightly. "Although I'm not sure why the the Kroatans would build a tourist attraction based on the 500th anniversary of Columbus bumping into America. It seems a little odd. Or maybe a lot odd. I haven't decided which."
They work their way through each of the large buildings. River studies the people and exhibits with equal interest. Beyond the Palace of Fine Art is the towering Ferris wheel . The Doctor elbows his friend, nods toward the towering attraction.
"Fancy a ride?"
A male Kroatan in a pair of tan trousers, white shirt, and dark bowler belts them into one of the cars, and up they go. Each car is approximately the size of a city bus. Everyone oohs and aahs at the magnificent view. Next to the Doctor, a blue Balhoon child holding a silver balloon claps in delight.
"My thoughts exactly, young man," the Doctor says softly, and claps along.
The small boy beams.
The Doctor winks at him.
River pulls at the Doctor's sleeve, directs his attention back to the window. "Look!"
As the Ferris Wheel arcs high into the air, they can just glimpse a beautiful park before the curve of the ship cuts it off. There's also a large pyramid painted with the words This Way to Little Egypt . From this height, they can also see the bottom of the canal is covered with a huge panorama of the original Columbian Exposition.
The Doctor points to the shimmering, palatial buildings beneath the water. "See how they're all white? They used to call this place the 'The White City.' Okay, I don't mean this place, but the original. This one is definitely silver." He rests his arms on the wide window ledge, drops his chin onto his arms. "Spent a grand afternoon on the Midway with Mark Twain back in July of 1893. Gosh, it was a scorcher. ."
The Doctor buys River and himself a bag of popcorn after their ride. They slowly make their way toward Little Egypt.
River tosses a white kernel into the air, catches it in her mouth. "What's Egypt?"
"A country on Earth-that-was. Or Earth-that-is. Like I said, it's really the same place. Egypt has nifty pyramids, loads of hieroglyphics, and more sand than you can shake a stick at. Although I guess it depends on the size of the stick." His face lights up. "And fezzes!"
The Midway consists of two large corridors that cross the center of the ship like a tremendous plus sign. When the ship is in orbit they fold and retract into the base of the ship. When the Silver City is docked, the reinforced glass corridors provide one of the most popular areas of the Silver City attraction, as well as a short cut from one side of the ship to the other. The glass walls and ceiling are covered with vaguely translucent scenes from the original Midway Plaisance providing a kind of stained-glass window effect.
"Oi, it's the world's first Epcott!" The Doctor chuckles. "Although some of the impact is lost when you see Kroatans wearing kilts or a Vinvocci belly dancing."
On a stage to their left, a green female humanoid with a tiny spikes across her head dances to lively flute music. She's wearing a skirt made of several gauzy veils and a top that seems to be made entirely of brass coins. The red velvet curtains behind her sparkle with gold thread and tiny bells. A banner draped along the top of the curtain reads See Fatima do the Hoochie-Coochie Dance!
The Doctor watches the dancer, arms folded, lips pursed. "I've met the real Fatima and she was considerably less green." He flashes River a mischievous grin. "But she was just as prickly if you took too long offering a compliment."
They pass a Kroatan playing a lively version of the Maple Leaf Rag on an extremely battered upright piano. Two humans perform a scene from Romeo and Juliet dressed in Victorian finery. A blue-skinned Crespallion sings Ave Maria accompanied by a Graske string quartet.
River stands in front the singing alien, eyes closed tight, trembling. One tear rolls down her cheek. Then two. The Doctor puts his hands on her shoulders.
"Tam? Are you all right?" This is all too much. He shouldn't have brought her.
"I'm more than all right," River says softly. She opens her eyes, smiles through her tears. "This is the best day I've ever had. My very favorite day. I never dreamed I'd be able to feel--" she stops, unable to finish.
"Happy?" The Doctor prods gently.
She nods, both hands pressed to her mouth.
He can still see the smile through her fingers. "And that scares you?"
She nods again.
The Time Lord pulls her into a hug. "You had better get used to the feeling, Tam, because you're going to have tons more days just like this one."
A loudspeaker announcement blares above the music. "Attention. Attention. Silver City will be closing in 45 standard minutes. Please schedule your time accordingly. We invite you to come back and see us again tomorrow. Don't forget to stop by the gift shop on your way out, and thank you for visiting the Silver City."
River wipes her face with the back of one hand. "We only have 45 minutes to find out who messaged you. What do we do?'
The Doctor makes a derisive noise. "Tsk. I'm a Time Lord, River. I say when it's time to go. We've still got the Cabinet of Curiosities to get through." He waggles his eyebrows. "Good thing we're not cats."
They walk through a large entranceway designed to look like a cabinet door. A sprawling courtyard stretches before them, containing six glass windows, three on each side of the courtyard. Each window stretches from floor to ceiling, and is about as wide as a decent flat. Four of the six windows contain occupants, the remaining two are empty except for placards stating Waiting for New Guest .
The middle of the court is landscaped, a copse of maple trees looms upward like a leafy umbrella. Rows of colorful flowers ring the trees. Six benches surround the little garden, arranged so anyone sitting on a bench has a comfortable view of the windows and vice versa.
Each of the occupied windows looks into a fully-furnished room. Each room contains a doorway or hall leading to a private area. River is already at the first window, staring in fascination. The Doctor stands back, trying to make sense of what he's seeing.
The first window holds a brown-skinned woman sitting at a harpsichord. Instead of hair, twigs, bark, and flowers grow from the back of her head. She plays the keyboard slowly with her left hand. Her right arm is missing just below the elbow; green shoots curl from the stump of her arm.
The second window reveals a blue-skinned insectoid woman working on a beautiful mural. She stands before a forest of towering red mushrooms and leaves the color of sunshine, paintbrush in hand.
The third window contains two more of the prickly, green-skinned aliens they saw in Little Egypt. A male and female sit together on an oversized sofa. They're both reading. They look relaxed, and occasionally sip from mugs bearing the Silver City logo.
The fourth window reveals a bearded man in oldey-worldy Earth style clothes. His shoes and hat are both accented with large pewter buckles. A young woman sits on a braided oval rug, a toddler in her lap. She's reading to the child while the old man looks on, contentedly smoking a pipe. A dog lies sleeping near the man's feet.
There is a silver nameplate at the bottom of each window. The first one reads:
Name: Cade Jaf Jaf Cale
Species: Forest of Cheem
Planet of Origin: Panjassic Asteroid Field
The Doctor swallows, his mouth very dry. "What is this?" He asks to no one in particular. The tourists ignore him. He reaches up, pulls off his crown, stuffs it into his jacket pocket. He tries again, louder. "What is this?"
Crowds drifts by the windows, snapping pictures with a variety of technological gadgets. A family of Adipose look through the fourth window. An Adiposian child waves his small white hand cheerfully.
"Hi!" he calls. "I see you!"
The mother looks up from the book she's reading. She smiles and waves back. "Hello dear. I see you too."
The Doctor glances around wildly. How can they understand each other? Obviously the Window People can hear and respond to questions, but it's not like the TARDIS can translate this far away, or for this many people. He spots the Gemini 2.0 logo in the lower corner of each window. Okay. That explains that then. But it doesn't explain why these species are behind glass.
"People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," River informs the Doctor, back at his side. "Mal said that once. But I don't think they have stones," she says, trying to see behind the green couple on the sofa, "so we're probably safe." She looks at the Doctor. "I wanted God to make me a stone once," she admits. "He didn't listen."
"I'm glad. I'd rather travel with a live River than a pet rock. My friend Amy was almost turned into a stone angel once. I thought that was fairly creepy." He looks around the large room, frowning impressively. "But right now, this seems even creepier. I don't like the look of this at all. This has Henry Van Stratten written all over it. Not literally, thank goodness, because that man had terrible penmanship."
The Doctor walks past each of the windows slowly, tracing a finger along each nameplate. He stops in front of the last occupied window, observes the humans with a calm he does not feel.
"I like your hat," the Doctor says quietly.
The bearded man smiles faintly. "Thank you, sir. And what planet are you from?"
The Doctor closes his eyes. Opens them. "I have a better question: What planet are you from?" He taps the silver nameplate. "Because this says you're from Earth."
The man stands, sets his pipe on a small table. He walks toward the Doctor. The dog stirs, but doesn't wake.
"Yes, sir. We are from Earth."
The Doctor steps closer to the glass. "Three things. One, don't call me sir. Two, I can help you. And three, tell me why you're being held prisoner."
The man looks surprised. "Held prisoner? No one here is in captivity, sir."
"My name is 'The Doctor,'" the Doctor snaps. "Not 'sir.' If you're not prisoners, then why are you here?"
The man spreads his hands, as if the answer is obvious. "That we may live."
A second announcement echoes from loudspeakers high above them. "Attention. Attention. Silver City will be closing in 15 standard minutes. Please schedule your time accordingly."
The crowds begin to thin.
The Doctor shakes his head. "What does that mean ?"
"It means we were given a choice between starving in the snow or eating our full aboard this fine Crown. We chose the latter."
"Do you know what this little sign says, Mr. Fancy Hat? It says you are human. It says you are from Earth. It says," The Doctor glares, "that you're the lost Colony of Roanoke, Virginia."
The man says nothing.
The Doctor pushes the hair off his forehead, agitated. "Is that true? Are you from the lost Colony?"
"If you found us, we are not lost," the man says implacably. "We have been aboard the Kroatan ship for many months."
"Many months," the Doctor echoes. "Many months ? You've got that right. Let's see, it's 2519. 2519 minus what? Let's say 1589. That's a difference of 930 years multiplied by 12 months." He counts rapidly on his fingers. "Which equals 11,160 months. Yes, I'd say that's a few months all right."
"I don't understand you sir--Doctor. We've only been here 10 months."
"Who are they, Captain?" River asks softly.
"Who are they?" the Doctor shouts back, incensed. "I'll tell you who they are." He stalks to the first window and stabs a finger at the glass. "Forest of Cheem." He moves on to the next two windows. "Malmooth. Vinvocci." He's back at the last window. "And Humans. From Earth-that-was. Earth-that-was-was- was ."
The Doctor's voice has grown progressively louder. The remaining tourists make a hasty exit until only River and the Doctor remain. The occupants of the windows watch the Doctor warily, music and painting forgotten.
The Doctor stares hard at the bearded man. "Are you John White, then?" the Doctor demands.
"I am his brother, David." He slips an arm around the young woman. "This is my niece Eleanor and her daughter--"
"Virginia Dare," the Doctor interrupts.
David takes a step backward, clearly surprised. "How did you know?"
"Because Virginia Dare was the first child born in the New World." He glances at River. "I mean the Old World." He smacks his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Never mind! You lot settled on Roanoke Island in 1587. Extremely hard hardships ensued. John White went back to England to get help. When he returned in 1590 you were gone." He throws up his hands. " Poof . Big mystery ensues. Did you starve? Join the local Native American tribes? Just wander off?"
"But I left a message for my brother," David insists. "I carved it myself, the word 'Croatoan.'" He looks embarrassed. "I started to carve the word 'crown,' but I didn't have time to finish."
"Well mate, your spelling's rubbish, because the C-R-O-A-T-A-N-S were an Indian tribe and the K-R-O-A-T-A-N-S are furry aliens with a ginormous crowny-shaped ship! You managed to spell a word that doesn't describe either one. Historians have been trying to figure out where you went for centuries . I know you didn't have spell check, but maybe you could have asked the Kroatans for the proper spelling. Or found a bigger tree and carved 'went with the fuzzy aliens, don't wait up' and been done with it."
River frowns. "Doctor, I thought yous said they weren't--"
"Please. Shut. Up," the Doctor says. "I'm thinking ."
David and Eleanor exchange glances. "My dear Doctor," Eleanor says softly, rubbing her daughter's back, "my uncle is right. We have been gone for less than a year. Why do you say we have been gone centuries? Your words make no sense."
The Doctor leans his head against the glass and smiles grimly. "Because the Kroatans are involved with something very timey-wimey and spacey-wacey. Something they should not be involved in. Either they went back in time to get you, or they've had you in some kind of cryogenic stasis for the past hundred centuries."
David shakes his head quickly. "I don't---I don't know what a cryogenic stasis is, Doctor, but Greyssa did nothing to harm us."
"She saved our lives," Eleanor adds, resting her cheek protectively against the top of Virginia's head.
The Doctor steps back from the glass, gazes around the room.
"David here says he's not a prisoner. What about the rest of you?" He raps loudly on the Malmooth's window. "Because this doesn't look like freedom to me. This looks like the opposite. This feels a bit too Billy Pilgrim for comfort."
"Chan, please," the insectoid woman says, "David is right, ra. Chan, we are not prisoners, ra, Chan, we have come here of our own volition, ra."
"Oh really?" the Doctor asks sarcastically. "You like being gawped at all day? Enjoy a bit of voyeurism, do you?"
The Vinvocci couple glower at the doctor. "Lay off Chanra, why don't you. She's done nothing to you," the female says angrily. "We're all fine here. You're the one with a problem."
The Doctor nods. "Yes, you're right. I do have a problem. I have a great big problem with putting people into cells so they can be used for--for entertainment." He glances back toward the Midway. "What is this, some kind of Freak Show?"
"Hey," the male Vinvocci says, his green face taking on a dangerous red cast. "Watch your mouth."
The Time Lord spreads his hands in apology. "I don't mean that you're freaks--you're not. I just meant this feels a bit exhibitiony. Like you're on display as part of the Midway entertainment. The original White City had a freak show, you know, 'look at the tattooed bloke and the lady with a beard.' What's to stop the Kroatans from being a bit too authentic?"
"Chan, I do not have a beard, ra," Chanra says reproachfully.
"I know, I know. And even if you did, who cares. Beards are lovely. I had a beard once. It was itchy, but gave me an intriguing new look." He rubs his chin at the memory. "Besides, David here looks delightful."
David lifts his bushy white eyebrows, slightly nonplussed.
"So who are you?" The Doctor asks the Vinvocci. He squints at the nameplate. He points to the female, then the male. "Robbin and Leelan?"
"I'm Robbin," the man snaps, glaring. He takes the woman's hand. "She's Leelan."
The Doctor rubs his face roughly. "So we've got Cade, Chanra, Leelan, Robbin, David, Eleanor, and little Virginia." He drops his hands. "I'm the Doctor and my friend here is River."
River exhales onto Chanra's window, fogging the glass. She draws a smiley face, looks up at Chanro for approval.
Chanro offers a nervous smile.
"You can tell me you're not prisoners until the cows come home," the Doctors says, folding his arms. "But according to a certain nursery rhyme, I happen to know the cows are out jumping over the moon. They're going to be busy for quite some time, so talk. " He pulls out his psychic paper. "I know one of you asked for my help, so 'fess up."
"Doctor, we did not ask for your help. We don't know you. How would we even contact you?" David asks. He looks across the room at Cade. "Do you need help, my dear?"
"I require no help. And if I did, I would ask Greyssa, not this...this intruder."
The Doctor frowns, sinking onto an empty bench. "You're saying none of you asked for my help?"
Robbin stares at the Doctor. "That's what we're saying."
The Doctor goes silent. River moves over to Davd's window and makes a face at the baby. Virginia grins happily, claps her chubby hands.
The silence grows heavy. Uncomfortable.
"Look, Doctor," Leelan finally says, "it's almost closing time. Why don't you--"
The Doctor springs back to his feet and begins pacing. "So...what?" he asks David White. "The Kroatans landed in Virginia and forced you aboard their big shiny ship like some kind of--" he fumbles for the right word. "Prize?"
"They offered us a home where our children could learn. Where we could be safe. Where we had enough to eat," David says.
Eleanor pats her uncle's arm and continues. "Where we could learn about new machines and see the stars. We thought we were going to a new world, Doctor, but this is the new world. Greyssa offered us a chance to live."
The Doctor stops pacing, meets Eleanor's gaze. "And what did you give this 'Greyssa' in return?"
"Our trust," she says simply.
The Doctor shakes his head, muttering. He pulls out his sonic screwdriver, aims it through the glass. "What did they do to you?" he asks, absently chewing the corner of his mouth.
Eleanor rests Virginia on her hip. "I speak truth, sir. The Kroatans have treated us well, and kindly. Not one of us have died since coming aboard the Silver City . Of course, some of us have adapted better than others. But Greyssa provides us with miraculous medicines, machinery, and more clothing that we could possibly need," she says. "At first we thought the Kroatans must be gods, but now we know better." Her expression brooks no room for argument. "They are our friends. "
"Your friends," the Doctor repeats dully.
The soothing voice returns to the loudspeaker. "Attention. Attention. Silver City is closing in five minutes. Please head to the main exit. Thank you and please visit us again."
A Kroatan security guard wanders into the room, whistling. He's dressed in a navy blue uniform that says M. Flynn, Silver City Security across his upper right chest. He stops whistling when he sees River and the Doctor.
"Sorry folks, you'll have to leave now. We're closing for the day."
The Doctor ignores the guard's instructions and asks: "Take me to whoever's in charge of this ship."
The guard looks uncertain. "I'm sorry, sir. I can't just take you to---"
"If you don't take me to your Museum Director/Captain/Leader right this minute I'll use my sonic screwdriver to shatter the glass of every single one of these cells. And then you'll spend the rest of your evening chasing down the prisoners I helped escape. Your choice."
The guard's hand moves to a device on his belt that looks a little too tasery for the Doctor's liking. "There are no prisoners here, Mister." The guard blinks, lifts tan furry eyebrows. "Did you say sonic screwdriver?"
The guard immediately taps a communication link on his shoulder. "Ms. Valnar? He's here." The guard listens to something in his ear piece, then nods.
"Ms. Valnar is waiting for you, Doctor."
The Doctor tenses, but keeps his shoulders relaxed, fingers loose. He puts on his best air of easy-peasy and grins.
"And how do you know who I am?"
The guard smiles back. "Because Ms. Valnar's been waiting for you."
* * *
Mattro Flynn escorts River and the Doctor from the Cabinet of Curiosities and into a corridor marked Silver City Personnel Only . They pass what look like dorms, a cafeteria, an infirmary, ship control room, and finally, arrive at a bank of offices.
Greyssa Valnar's office is spacious. The walls are covered with what appear to be original posters for the World's Columbian Exposition, carefully sealed behind protective glass. She sits behind an old-fashioned oak desk, where several monitors display video feeds from different parts of the ship. Curiously, none of the feeds are from the Cabinet of Curiosities.
Flynn leans against the doorjamb, effectively blocking the Doctor and River from leaving the office. River heads straight for the burgundy velvet sofa that takes up one wall. She sits with one leg tucked beneath her, her large dark eyes scanning the room. The Doctor slides one of the monitors out of the way and casually seats himself on the edge of Greyssa's desk.
Greyssa's face is covered in ivory fur, but her lips and nose are pale pink skin. Her hair is the same color as her fur, and is pulled back in an elaborate plat tied with a curl of silver ribbon. Her elegant pantsuit, the earrings in her pointed ears, and her eyes are all the exact same shade of blue. It's not the same blue as the TARDIS, but close. The Doctor grudgingly approves.
"Doctor, it's wonderful to meet you." She smiles warmly and extends her hand to the Time Lord.
He shakes it, nods toward one of the posters. "At least people aren't the only things you put behind glass."
"Let me allay your fears, the humans are not prisoners." Her voice is as strong as her handshake. "Neither are the Vinvocci, Malmooth, or Forest of Cheem." She offers a tiny smile. "And neither are my posters."
The Doctor tilts his head. "You expect me to believe you offered these people a home out of the goodness of your heart?"
Greyssa smiles faintly. "Partially. It's an equal split between the goodness of my heart and the desire to increase business. Original humans from Renaissance and post-Renaissance Earth bring in a lot of tourists, Doctor. We've nearly doubled our daily gross since adding the Roanoke Colony. I have requests from outer rim planets, not to mention two other solar systems that want us to visit for extended periods."
"So you're telling me you have 114 humans stuffed into some kind of enclosure like you're flying a--a bloody zoo?" The Doctor sputters furiously.
The Kroatan's wide blue eyes grow wider. "No. Of course not! When we got to Virginia, Doctor, only 70 of the original colonists were still alive. And only 43 of them chose to go with us. As you can imagine, my ship--as well as our appearance--was a bit...off-putting for some of the colonists to accept."
"I would imagine."
"Please understand, Doctor, these people were starving. When we arrived many had already died from disease, harsh weather, and Secotan tribe attacks. And we left food for those who wished to stay behind. We advised them to ask the friendly Croatan natives for help." She gives the Doctor a reproving look. "We didn't just leave them to die."
The Doctor sniffs doubtfully. "That's a very nice story, Ms. Valnar. But I'm curious what happens to the 43 humans on board when they decide they no longer wish to sit in your window? What happens when they stop attracting tourists?"
Greyssa looks shocked. "Nothing happens, Doctor. They stay as long as they want. It's up to them, not me. They signed a three month contract to stay with us. Then they signed a six-month contract when that one was up. And they signed another one last month. If they're still happy five months from now they can sign again. And, for your information, not all of them chose to stay in the Cabinet. Several members of the colony work in the cafeteria, or in maintenance, or even in the infirmary. Our clients are very happy here, Doctor."
The Doctor snorts at the use of the word client .
Ms. Valnar ignores him. "In fact, the only client we've had sign on for less than three months was the Face of Boe."
The Doctor's mouth drops open. "The Face of Boe?"
"He only came for a little R and R," Greyssa admits. She chuckles at the memory. "Busiest four weeks of my life."
The Doctor draws himself up to his full height. "First of all, the Face of Boe is--was--free to come and go as he pleases. Pleased. Whatever. But I'm quite certain your current guests don't have access to their own ship, do they? Second, you obviously have some kind of vortex manipulator tied into your engines," the Doctor wags a finger at Greyssa. "Which is very, very naughty. Where did you get it?"
Greyssa rubs her hands together nervously. "In the spirit of complete honesty, my business partner used to work for Torchwood-Alliance. And...he appropriated the technology before he left."
The Doctor immediately slides off the desk. He strides over to River, hands pulling furiously at his hair. "Oh, that's just brilliant! My opinion of Torchwood is even lower than my opinion of you ," he says through clenched teeth.
"I promise you Doctor, we're not experimenting on anyone, we're not inserting nanochips into our clients. Everyone on Cade's barkship died when it crashed. She chose to stay with us rather than return to her people and be constantly reminded of her loss. Chanra is an artist. She wanted to travel, but didn't have the funds to do so on her own. Robbin and Leelan are on their honeymoon. They have all chosen to stay here of their own accord. We pay them a daily stipend, as well as a signing bonus every time they sign a contract. They have free food, free room and board, free medical care and education. The only thing we ask of them is four hours in the window during operating hours. They're free to spend the rest of their time in their own quarters, or wandering the ship, or riding the damn Ferris Wheel.
"I have no ulterior motive," Greyssa continues, leaning back in her chair. She holds her hands palm-up in a placatory gesture. "The simple truth is, I have ancestors on my mother's side who built the original White City in Chicago, Illinois." She glances up at one of the posters on the wall, offers the Doctor a sad smile. "Can you imagine it, Doctor? The white plaster that shone like marble? The first street lamps? The smell of sawdust on the Midway? The view from George Ferris' mighty wheel? I built this city out of respect for Human Kind's ingenuity, and to honour my past."
The Doctor's eyebrow's knit. "You have a vortex manipulator. Why not just go and smell the sawdust yourself? Why kidnap a bunch of pilgrims?"
Greyssa's fur takes on a pinkish tint. "I did not kidnap them," she says angrily. "And the manipulator is unreliable. We've only used it three times." She lowers her voice, avoids the Doctor's gaze. "It puts too much strain on the ship. It's not worth using if we kill my crew and everyone on board, now is it? The last time we used the manipulator was when we picked up the colony. I won't risk using it again."
The Doctor throws up a hand in relief. "Now that's the first sensible thing you've said since we arrived."
There's a knock on Ms. Valnar's door, and Mattro Flynn steps aside. Another human enters, dressed in a better-tailored uniform than Flynn's. Flynn salutes the man with deference. The human's impeccable posture, closely-cropped hair, and rather impressive physique speak of past military experience.
The Doctor has a brief glimpse of a red T-shaped tattoo on the side of the man's neck. The Doctor grimaces. T for Torchwood. He instinctively positions himself between the tall stranger and River.
"Hello," the Doctor says, with a slightly too-wide smile, "You must be Greyssa's Chief of Security. Funny, I thought the only way people left Torchwood was in a body bag."
"Funny," the man says, offering an identical smile, "you thought wrong. I'm Devon Sands." He offers the Doctor his hand.
The Doctor shakes it, betraying none of the reluctance he feels. "I know something's going on here you're not telling me," he says, looking from Greyssa to Devon. "I received a distress call from Silver City this morning. If it's not from someone in one of your little glass cages, then who sent it?"
"Ah," Greyssa says, slightly abashed. "I'm afraid that was me."
The Doctor blinks. "You? Why?" He narrows his eyes at the Kroatan. "You sent out a fake distress call?"
"It wasn't fake, Doctor. Not at all. I am in distress." She clears her throat. "About you."
The Doctor stares at her. Hard. "What about me?"
Greyssa pushes her chair out from behind her desk, stands. She folds her arms, meets the Doctor's gaze. "I want you on my ship."
The Doctor smiles affably. "I'm already on your ship." He spins in a little circle, does jazz hands. "Problem solved."
"Yes," Greyssa nods, "but I mean as one of our...guests."
The Doctor's smile turns cold. "You mean prisoner."
" No ." Greyssa slaps the top of her desk in exasperation. "That's not what I mean and you know it."
"Please," Devon says, "at least hear her out."
The Doctor drops down onto the sofa beside River. He crosses his legs, folds his hands primly on his knee. He inclines his head toward Greyssa with exaggerated politeness. "I'm listening."
"I'm not threatening you, Doctor. I've never threatened anyone in my life. I'm simply asking you to stay. I'm asking . Just for a week. A month at the most. People would come from light years away knowing we had the last Time Lord on board."
The Doctor flicks an imaginary piece of lint off his sleeve. "And how do you know I'm the last?" he asks in a very measured tone of voice.
"I was told."
River slips off the couch. She puts herself between Greyssa and the Doctor, mimicking the Time Lord's earlier protection.
The Doctor gently pushes River out of the way. "I see. By whom?"
Greyssa and Devon exchange another look. "All in due time."
"I think now would be a very due time. Unless you want me to walk out the door."
"Silver City isn't what you think," Greyssa says desperately. "I'm not a bad person. I don't take prisoners. And I'm not asking you to stay here alone." At the Doctor's expression, Greyssa takes a step backward. "And I would never ask your friend to stay. I'm not trying to trick you in any way." She takes a deep breath. "I--I believe you will genuinely want to stay with us."
The Doctor laughs condescendingly. "And why would you think that?"
"Because your daughter told us."
The Doctor goes very still. When he speaks, he aims the words at his cuticles. His voice is deceptively soft. "What do you mean--" he looks up, his eyes very dark "--my daughter?"
Devon crosses the room, knocks twice on a door behind Greyssa's desk.
The door opens. A young woman walks in, her smart blonde ponytail bobbing from side to side. She's wearing a khaki shirt with the Silver City logo and camouflage trousers. Her smile is bright and infectious.
The Doctor sags back against the cushions, shocked. He stares stupidly at Jenny.
Jenny stares back, her expression rapidly shifting from joy, to confusion, and finally, to anger. She turns on Greyssa, accusingly. "You said my father was here."
Greyssa brushes a pale strand of hair from her face. "This is your father."
The Doctor pulls out his sonic screwdriver and jumps to his feet. He shakes his head in astonishment. "Jenny?" He clicks the sonic on, scanning furiously. "You're alive? How did you get here? How--" he trails off, waving the sonic in Jenny's face. " How ?"
Jenny stares at the sonic in surprise. "That's supposed to be blue!"
"And you're supposed to be dead!" The Doctor checks the readings. "But don't feel bad. I don't stay dead either." He gives Jenny a thumbs up, then points to himself. "New me. New face." He jiggles the sonic. "New sonic. Like it? I find the green soothing and there's this nifty clampy bit at the end." He extends the screwdriver, demonstrating.
Jenny looks at the sonic doubtfully, then back at the Doctor's narrow face. "But you're still you? Inside?"
"Of course I am! Who else would I be? Wait. I'll show you." The Doctor pulls out his psychic paper and hands it to Jenny. "Take a look."
Jenny flips the wallet open. Her eyebrows knit, and she glances from the wallet to the Doctor and back again.
The Doctor bounces on his toes. "Well? What's it say?"
"It shows a picture of how you used to look with the caption 'fairly rubbish dad.' Beneath that is a second photo of an older white-haired man that says 'even worse granddad.'"
The Doctor grabs the wallet back, delighted. "See? What did I tell you?" He taps the side of his head. "I'm always me in here. But how are you you ?" He pulls at his lower lip, then clicks his fingers excitedly. "Of course!" He slaps his forehead. "You've got Time Lord DNA. You're all regeneratey and stuff! Well, not as regeneratey as me, but enough to come back to life after being--" he stops abruptly, his face clouding over.
He regards Jenny solemnly, sniffs. He clears his throat, wipes his eyes. "Seems a bit dusty in here," he mumbles in Greyssa's direction. "You might want to look into a new air filter." He puts a tentative hand on Jenny's shoulder. "You were shot. I saw you die," he says quietly. "Okay, I didn't, but I did, if you know what I mean."
The Doctor and Jenny stare at each other for a long moment. She reaches out, touches his face gently. "It really is you," she whispers, and kisses the Doctor's cheek. She leans in to whisper in his ear: "I like the bow tie."
"Ha!" the Doctor says, clapping his hands in triumph. "She likes the bow tie. She's a chip off the old Time Lord! Literally ! BTW, I'm going to need you to repeat that bit about liking bow ties to a girl called Amy. Ta.
"Here's what I'm thinking," the Time Lord says, tossing the sonic screwdriver into the air and catching it smartly. "If you can come back to life, I can still be your fairly rubbish dad. I know this is weird. But it's a good weird." He grins at Jenny. "Very very good weird." The Doctor pulls his daughter into a tight embrace.
She hugs him back just as tightly.
When the Doctor finally lets her go, he gives her cheek a pinch. "Just look at you!"
"Ow!" Jenny frowns and rubs her face. "What was that for?"
"Oi," the Doctor says, "dads are supposed to do that kind of thing."
Jenny rolls her eyes and laughs.
The Doctor pulls proudly on his braces and turns to River. "I have a daughter," he tells her, beaming. "Just wait until Amy and Rory hear about this!" He gestures Jenny toward the sofa. "I'd have you sit on my knee, but that seems more than a little creepy, so we'll just skip that, shall we?" Jenny sits beside River and the Doctor perches on the armrest.
"I'm sorry I was a bit stand-off-y back on Messaline. I was a little more emo back then. And by 'little,' I mean 'massively.' We're talking epic amounts of emo." He drops his voice. "Too close to the Time War and other...stuff." Then, louder: "I've never been a good Dad, always too busy meddling with the TARDIS." He grins mischievously. "But now you can meddle with me!"
"That's brilliant!" Jenny looks past Dev and Greyssa. "Wait a second. Where's Donna?"
The Doctor's smile fades. "She's...gone."
Jenny's face goes pale and she puts a hand to her mouth.
"No, no, not that kind of gone," the Doctor assures her. "She's alive. She's okay. She's the Queen of Okay." He makes a disgusted face. "Never mind that, that's just as rubbish as the King of Okay. Donna is back on Earth. She's married to a decent bloke, travelling the world." Just not travelling with me. The Doctor swallows the lump in his throat. Maybe he's still a bit emo after all. "I travel with Amy and Rory now," he babbles, "only I'm not travelling with them right now because they're off doing boring family things." The Doctor's eyes go wide. "Not that family things are boring because they're the opposite of boring. They're fantastic! Marvellous fun!" He points at River. "And this is my friend River Tam. She's just like Wile E. Coyote." The Doctor fiddles with the sonic, slips it back into his pocket. "Because she's, uh, a super genius, not because she's a coyote." There's a long pause. "She's not a coyote," he adds lamely, "which you probably worked out yourself."
River hides her face behind the velvet pillow she's been holding. The Doctor's not sure if it's because she's shy, or just embarrassed by his prattling. Maybe she's not a fan of Chuck Jones, but that just seems ridiculous.
"I don't know who that is," Jenny says uncertainly, "but I'm guessing you means she's smart."
"Almost as smart as me!" The Doctor announces, his tone indicating what a truly amazing feat this is.
"Humble as ever," Jenny comments, laughter in her eyes.
The Doctor nods, grinning. "Always."
Static spurts from Devon's shoulder comm. "Chief Sands? Jennings here."
Sands touches the comm. "Chief Sands here. Report, Jennings."
Jennings' voice is tinny but clear. "I just got word something hit the ship in Section C. Maybe a piece of the Capa Station satellite fell off again. I'm going to take a look."
Greyssa taps a key on her computer and checks the monitors. "Why don't we give you a chance to talk in private? I'm going to check the monitors in the control room."
"And I'll check on Jennings," Sands says. He nods at Mattro. "Come on, Flynn."
And just like that, Jenny, River, and the Doctor are alone.
* * *
River clutches the pillow to her chest and delicately sniffs Jenny's hair. "You smell nice," she tells Jenny shyly.
Jenny's smile is too big for her face. River knows the look. She's been on the receiving end of false smiles since before she got to The Academy.
The Doctor's smile is regular. "What does she smell like?" he asks, curious.
"Oranges." River considers. "And truth. Mostly truth."
"That's a good smell," Cap'n says, winking at her. "Even better than fairy floss."
That might be true, but fairy floss surely tastes better. Sometimes truth is hard to swallow.
It's strange the Captain has a daughter, especially since Cap'n and Jenny look the same age. Except for their eyes. The Captain's eyes are old and full of sad. But not as much sad as the man he used to be. The face he used to wear had a smile bigger than the whole 'verse. But his eyes held twice as much sorrow. River doesn't want to think about that face. It gives her throat a hot lumpy feeling. She peeks at Cap'n and Jenny out of the corner of her eye. Jenny didn't start out as a baby, so maybe it don't matter she looks as old as Cap'n. After all, looks are deceiving.
The Doctor speaks softly, urgently to Jenny. "Did Greyssa lure you here?"
Jenny looks flabbergasted at the question. " What ? No! I just came for a look around. After I woke up on Messaline I.. sort of borrowed a ship and took off to see the sights."
The Cap'n grins. "Borrowing ships runs in the family."
" Silver City scans everyone to make sure no weapons are brought on board, to make sure no one's carrying a nasty parasite around or anything." Jenny shrugs. "Or maybe it's just to keep everyone from bringing their own bag of crisps." She lifts an eyebrow. "Didn't the two of you get scanned when you bought your tickets?"
"We sort of skipped that step," the Doctor admits.
Jenny looks amused. "Well, Greyssa said my DNA was Gallifreyan and asked me if was a Time Lord. I told her I wasn't, but my dad was. We got to chatting and she suggested giving you, um, a ring. And here you are."
Cap'n nods. "Here I am." He adjusts his bow tie, even though it's already straight. "And you really want to stay here? Are Greyssa or Devon threatening you?"
"Not at all," Jenny assures him. "I'd love to stay here with you. Free room and board, free food, and hundreds of amazing species to see every day. Plus a big cheque when we leave. What's not to like?"
"I'm not sure yet," the Doctor says, sounding peevish, "but give me time."
Jenny sighs. "Don't be such a grouch."
"I'm not a grouch. Merely suspicious. A bit of suspicion now and then can save your life." He smiles at Jenny fondly. "I'm glad you're alive."
Jenny puts her hand on the Captain's. "Me too."
"Can I stay?" River asks. She'd love to ride the Ferris Wheel a million more times. And Chanra's not done with her mural. It just seems rude to leave without seeing the finished picture.
"I think your brother would have something to say about that. Something...not good."
River rolls her eyes at the Captain's concern. "Simon worries too much. Besides, I ain't done seeing the world."
The Doctor grins at her. "Neither am I."
River looks down at the pillow in her lap. She runs her fingers across the soft fabric. There's something wrong here. She can feel it. A heart of black, he's coming back.
He looks over the top of Jenny's head. "Yes?"
"I read a story in the Shepherd's religious book. Shepherd's dead now, but his book's still alive. His Bible said Noah saved 5,000 animals on his ark. That's illogical. Inaccurate. Metaphorical. Why save animals but not people? If he'd had a ship like yours, maybe he coulda saved 5,000. Or 5,003 cos that's a prime number and prime numbers are better." She traces the number 11 onto her pillow because that's the best prime number of all. "Do you think that ark was bigger on the inside?"
The Doctor's eyebrows make a V. "I...don't know."
It probably wasn't. But the Bible don't say. Not enough information. File not found. Maybe Shepherd had an abridged version of his God book. She asks the last part of her question in her head. How many people have you saved?
The Doctor's answer comes right back. Not enough.
The door bangs open abruptly and Greyssa stands in the doorway, one hand still on the knob, the other at her throat.
River looks up sharply. The word Reaver hangs above Greyssa's head like a black veil. The Kroatan's fear beats like a drum inside River's head.
"We have a problem," Greyssa says.
When River was a little girl, she dropped a glass on the kitchen floor. The glass cracked, but didn't break. When she studied the glass, she found it full of fine spider webs. Instead of one solid piece of glass, it had become a hundred tiny ones. Those same spider webs wrap around Greyssa's words now.
"A satellite didn't hit the ship. We're being attacked by Reavers."
The Doctor stands. "What? Now ?"
River looks from Greyssa to the Doctor. She licks her lips, pushes a strand of hair out of her face. "I can win this." She's won before. She escaped The Academy. She beat Jubal. She killed the Reavers on Miranda. She can do it again. Greyssa's fear fills the room like a dark cloud. River's stomach twists painfully. She can kill them, but that don't mean she wants to.
The Captain's face goes pale. He looks at River and says one word: "No."
River looks back. Killed them before. I can do it again. I'm not done protectin'.
It's my turn, Cap'n thinks and I get very cross if anyone cuts in line.
Jenny looks confused, her head all full of question marks. "What's a Reaver?"
River closes her eyes. A Reaver is scars and peeled skin and jagged metal. A Reaver is guttural screams and bloodshot eyes. A Reaver is sweat and teeth filed sharp.
"It's something you don't want to meet," Cap'n says quickly. "We have to leave right now." He turns to Greyssa. "Are all the tourists gone?"
She nods. "Everyone's off the ship but the core crew. And--"
"Your so-called clients," the Doctor interrupts. "We need to get this ship into orbit immediately, close down the Midway. Where's the control room?"
River can hear the TARDIS whisper. She opens her eyes and grabs the Doctor's hand. "This way."
* * *
The control room is huge. It's half flight deck, half observation area, all sleek chrome, ergonomic chairs, and keyboards. The Doctor whistles through his teeth. "Ooh, this is Christmas!" He rubs his hands together gleefully. "It's all shiny! With comfy chairs!"
He drops into the chair in front of the communication console. Several wide-eyed Kroatans sit behind the flight controls, awaiting Greyssa's orders. The Doctor's fingers fly over a keyboard. He squints at the multiple screens.
"Why is your security so rubbish? Where are your shields?"
"We're not in space," Greyssa retorts. "We're docked. We're an entertainment facility. People aren't supposed to attack us!"
"People aren't supposed to do lots of things," the Doctor mutters, tapping more keys, "and yet they do." He toggles between views of the mostly-empty dorms, the empty cafeteria, an equipment storeroom, the Cabinet of Curiosities, deserted Silver City buildings, the medical bay, and the little shop by the main entrance.
River leans over the Doctor's shoulder and starts typing in commands. The screens switch to closed walkways, empty staff rooms, and what looks like a library. David White reads at a small table, a large stack of books by his side. She keys in a few more commands and the docking bay appears just in time to show metal piping burst through the closed bay door.
"They're almost in," River whispers.
Devon strides into the room. Several security officers follow, most of them out of breath.
Jenny's eyes flick to the gun Devon has holstered. "Do you have more weapons?"
"We don't need weapons," the Doctor snaps. "Guns are bad, or did you forget the part where you died?"
Greyssa glares at the Doctor. "Do you know what Reavers are ?"
"Cannibalistic killers," he says shortly, watching the screen.
River looks up from the keyboard, fingers poised over the keys. "They still die."
Greyssa rolls her eyes. "I'm sure they do, but I don't want them to kill us first."
"What happens if they get on board?" the Doctor demands. "Are Roanoke and the rest of your collection safe? All they need to do is smash those windows and they've got a Christmas feast."
Greyssa shakes her head. "It's unbreakable glass."
"Nothing is unbreakable," the Doctor says through clenched teeth.
Flynn arrives, leading a second group of guards into the room. "What's happening?"
Several of the men pale visibly. One pulls his gun and puts it to his head.
The Doctor moves the barrel firmly away. "Let's not be hasty. We're okay. They're not even on board yet. Maybe they won't come aboard." He smiles awkwardly. "Maybe they're just sleep walking. Er, sleep flying."
"The docking bay outer wall is breached," River announces. "The ship is inside."
"What hit Section C?" Jenny asks. "Is it another Reaver ship?"
"Yes," Devon admits, "but it's not doing anything. It's just...hovering there."
The Doctor pulls at his lip. "That doesn't seem very Reavery."
"Captain." River taps the Doctor's shoulder, points to the screen.
Devon, Greyssa, Jenny, River and the Doctor watch as a team of guards enter the docking bay, guns drawn.
The Doctor puts his hands to his head, squeezes in frustration. "Why? Why would you do that? Get those men out of there now ."
"They're doing their job," Devon responds angrily. "We're security. We secure things."
"I don't see you in there," the Doctor says bitterly, reaching for the intercom button.
"And they don't follow your orders," Devon retorts, blocking the intercom with his hand. "They follow mine. They're well-armed, Doctor. We're professionals. Most of us are ex-military and law enforcement. That ship is small, it can't hold more than five or six Reavers."
"That's more than enough," the Doctor says. "Are you really this thick? Get those men out of there or they'll die. Worse, they'll end up Reavers themselves. It's too late for Silver City to escape, but I've got my ship. I'll get everyone out of here." He meets Devon's belligerent gaze. "But you need to get your men out of there."
They glare at each for an endless moment. Finally, Devon slaps at his comms. "Jennings, this is the Chief," he growls. "Evacuate now. I repeat, evacuate the docking bay now ."
The Doctor watches the screen anxiously. None of the guards move. They remain a perimeter around the ship, weapons drawn, waiting.
"Why aren't they moving ?" the Doctor asks, shoving his fringe off his face. He leans closer to the screen, willing them to move.
Devon tries again, shakes his head. "Something's interfering with the comms."
"I'll get them," River says and moves toward the door.
The Doctor instantly spins in the chair and grabs her wrist. "No. Wait."
The lights flicker in the docking bay. They blink off, then back on.
The Time Lord stares at the screen, his hearts beating wildly. The ship's hatch opens slowly. A Reaver appears briefly in the opening. There's a glimpse of snarled, oily hair, a livid line of stitches around a metal blade in the Reaver's nose. Greyssa gasps. Jenny grips the Doctor's shoulder. The Reaver passes beneath the hatch door, momentarily in shadow.
And a bundle of bones and cloth drops to the floor below.
They all stare at the skeleton.
"What is that?" Devon asks, squinting at the bundle.
"Oh, this is bad." the Doctor whispers. He wrings his hands. "Very, very bad."
"Since when are Reavers good?" Greyssa demands shrilly, perilously close to hysteria.
The Time Lord taps the keyboard, enlarging their view of the docking bay and Reaver ship. "We're not talking about Reavers," the Doctor says. "All the Reavers are dead."
River frowns. "How do you know?"
"We just saw one throw a skeleton off the ship," Devon protests. "Like some kind of demented warning."
The Doctor laughs mirthlessly. "Reavers don't warn people, Mr. Sands. And that Reaver didn't throw anything off the ship. That skeleton is the Reaver." He rubs his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry about your men. I told you they shouldn't be in there."
Devon and Greyssa stare at the screen, uncomprehendingly. "What?"
The Doctor redirects the camera. "Your men are gone." He points to another bundle on the floor. And then another. And another. Six bundles surround the ship. Beside each one lays a discarded gun.
Flynn moves closer, tries to see the screen over his superior's shoulder. "I don't understand."
The Doctor scrubs furiously at his forehead. "There was something on that Reaver ship, something that hitched a ride. Something that killed everyone on board. It used the Reavers to travel here, and now that it's on this ship, it no longer needs that last pathetic Reaver." He swivels the chair so that he's facing Greyssa. "That's why the second ship is just floating around out there. There's no one left to pilot it."
"You're saying the Reavers are all...dead?" Greyssa asks slowly. She smiles shakily, hope lighting her face. "That's--that's good, right?"
The Doctor laughs again. The sound drives Devon, Flynn and Greyssa backwards. He points to the monitor with a thin, shaking finger. As they watch, the ship's shadow changes shape. It seems to stretch outward, like a dark, grasping hand.
"No. It's not good," the Doctor says quietly. "Because the Vashta Nerada are here."
* * *
The Doctor springs to his feet and grips River's elbow. "I already lost one River to the Vashta Nerada," he says, "I'm not losing you." He turns to the others. "Everyone needs to listen to me right now. The Vashta will kill you all. We have to leave immediately. " He puts his free arm around Jenny and steers his daughter and River toward the exit.
Jenny pulls free and steps out of the Doctor's reach. "But what are they?"
The Doctor releases River's elbow, checks his watch. "There's no time to explain."
Jenny lifts an eyebrow. "You're a Time Lord, Dad. Can't you, you know, make some?"
"Ha ha," the Doctor huffs, "very funny." He sighs. "The Vashta Nerada are the size of teeny-tiny dust particles that float around in the air." He presses his thumb and index finger together to indicate just how small they are. "Except they're not the kind of dust that covers your favourite knick-knacks, they're the kind of dust that consists of little piranhas with very big teeth. They eat whomever gets in their way, and I expect that means us. You just saw them eat an entire person in less than a second."
"Dear God," Greyssa breathes.
"So now we're fighiting microscopic cannibals instead of human sized ones?" Jenny asks. "How do you shoot specs of dust?"
"That's easy," the Doctor says, narrowing his eyes, "you don't."
River tugs on the Doctor's sleeve. "Don't hide your light under a bushel. Shepherd's book said so."
The Time Lord smiles thinly. "Oh, I won't," he says. "I'm feeling very lighty at the moment." He points to the frightened Kroatans at the flight controls. "We need to get this ship away from the station, away from the planet. Because once the Vastha Nerada are through with Silver City , they'll just keep going."
Devon shrugs. "The planet is mostly unpopulated."
"Mostly doesn't count," the Doctor says sharply. "And once the Vashta get there it will definitely be unpopulated." He turns to Greyssa, runs his hand frantically through his hair. "You wouldn't happen to have a little girl named Charlotte Lux tucked away in your Cabinet of Curiosities, would you?"
Greyssa gives him a blank look. "Who?"
The Doctor sighs. "Never mind. It was worth a try. Okay, time to get this ship moving. The Vashta are great at hitching rides, but they can't traipse about in space all on their own. They still need a ship." He gestures toward the flight controls. "Is there fuel? All systems go and things like that?"
Greyssa nods to the female Kroatan. "Shaara? Get this ship moving. That's an order."
Shaara promptly slides behind the controls. "Order acknowledged, ma'am. I'll have us in the black in under five minutes."
Greyssa's hand drifts back to her neck, her fingers trembling. "I can't believe this is happening." She looks up at the Doctor. "What are we supposed to do? Just float around in space until the Vashta Nerada eat us?"
The Doctor snorts derisively. "What kind of rubbish plan is that ? My plan involves less floating and considerably more running." He points at Devon. "Chief Devon is going to round everyone up from their glass houses. My friend Matty Flynn here, is going to make sure the rest of the crew is evacuated. Get everyone to the gift shop. My ship is there and I'll load everyone on board, safe and sound. I'll get us out of here and we'll alert the proper authorities." He scratches his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder if the Judoon have exterminators." He sticks his tongue out, makes a horrific face. "Bleah, ugh, sorry, didn't mean to use that word." He shudders. "It's a bit too Daleky for my taste." He fumbles in his pocket, pulls out a Jammie Dodger only half covered in lint, and pops it into his mouth. "Much better," he says, through a mouth full of biscuit.
Devon stares at the Doctor suspiciously. "Just how big is your ship? And why should we believe you about this--this Vastha Nerada? I've heard of Reavers, but I have no idea who these Vashta Nerada things are."
The Doctor brushes crumbs off his jacket. "My ship is big enough," he says evasively. "And you don't have to believe me about the Vashta." He looks at Devon coldly. "But you should at least believe your men. I'm referring to the ones who are currently piles of bones in the docking bay." He steps closer to the security officer. "Do you think I'm lying? That I'm playing some kind of game? Believe me, Mr. Sands. I don't play games."
The Doctor starts for the door, stops, turns. "On second thought, River? Please unlock every door on this ship, except for the docking bay. Lock those, and make sure the bulkhead is down. Lock the doors with a dead bolt. Seal them up with duct tape, if necessary. I've fled from the Vashta before and a very annoying number of locked doors blocked our progress. Not this time. Greyssa, make sure the Midway is closed and secure and get the rest of your staff to the gift shop."
Devon scowls at the Doctor. "I don't recall you being in charge of the ship."
"Shut up, Devon," Greyssa says. "Do what he says."
The Doctor offers Greyssa a slight smile. "Smart girl."
"What about me?" Jenny asks. "Can I help?"
The Doctor shakes his head. "You already died once. Just get to the TARDIS."
Jenny takes the Doctor's hand. "But I just found you! I'm not leaving you again."
"I could use some help," Devon says, still glaring at the Doctor. He pulls his gaze from the Time Lord to Jenny. "I understand you were a soldier." He manages a weak smile. "It would be nice to have another military presence to keep Greyssa's clients calm. You'll be back with your dad in no time."
Jenny looks to her father. He nods almost imperceptibly and kisses Jenny's forehead. "Be careful. I mean it."
She nods. "I will. Cross my hearts," she says with a smile. She hurries after Devon and a group of security guards.
River's voice flashes in the Doctor's head. Jenny's got two red hearts. Devon's got one, and it's black. Aloud, River says, "Doors are unlocked 'cept the docking bay."
Greyssa, Flynn, and the remaining guards exit the control room, following the Doctor's instructions. Only the Kroatans piloting the ship remain.
"What do you mean?" The Doctor asks River quietly.
She puts a finger to her lips. I think Jenny's safe, but you're still an oyster. He has a secret.
"Do you know what it is?"
Greyssa wants you. Devon wants your ship.
The Doctor slumps against the wall and tries to think. He is tired of people and planets trying to steal his beautiful T-40. If only he had more time. He checks the monitor. The Reaver ship still has an extra shadow. He can't worry about the TARDIS right now. He has too many lives to save, his own included. He's just gotten the hang of this body, he'd rather not give it up just yet.
"First things first, Tam." He winks at her. "Let's try not to die."
"What should I do?"
He holds out his hand. She takes it. "What do you know about ultraviolet light? Aside from not keeping it under a bushel, I mean? Also, what is a bushel? Is it a basket or a bowl? And, on a related note, exactly how much is a bushel and a peck?"
"A bushel is 35 litres, or 8 dry gallons. And a bushel and a peck is an old Earth-that-was measurement of 44.04884 litres," she recites promptly. "As for ultraviolet light, do you mean short or long wavelength?"
The Doctor gives her a thumbs up. "Exactly."
* * *
"Why don't we just leave the bulkhead open and let the Vashta get sucked out into space?" River asks as they run down the corridor. "Zip and chkkkk ." She clamps one hand to her throat, crosses her eyes, and pretends to choke.
"Because as lovely as this ship is, it has all the strength of a sardine tin. The vacuum won't just suck the Vashta into space, it'll tear a great gaping hole in the ship and suck out quite a few important bits. Who's going to ride a Ferris Wheel in the middle of space?"
"You don't want to just save the people. You want to save the ship too," River says matter-of-factly.
The Captain nods. "There's a lot of history here, Tam. It would be a shame to lose it."
"I thought we were gonna run away."
"We are going to run away. I just have a little extra running I need to do first. Really should have joined the track team back in early days," the Doctor pants, slowing.
River considers their other options. "What about sticking the Vashta in the TARDIS? Give 'em a lift someplace else without us getting ate?"
The Doctor beams, squeezes her hand. "Now you've got it."
"Then how come we're goin' to the infirmary?"
The Doctor's face turns grim. "Because they might not want a lift from me." They slow their pace to a fast walk and River pulls her hand free. Best to have both hands ready in case Devon turns up acting Walrusy. Or panicked folks descend on them. You never know when you might have to punch a fella in the face.
"Eleanor said there were medical miracles here," Cap'n says. "When I was checking the view screens, I got a good look at the onboard clinic. They've got an Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation unit to kill bacteria in there."
He sends her a picture of a series of flat, round lights attached to a rectangular metal housing. River bares her teeth. She saw similar UV lights in the labs beneath The Academy.
"Are Vashta Nerada bacteria?"
"Mm." The Doctor waggles his hand back and forth. "More like parasites, but i'm grasping at straws. Giant UVG machine shaped straws. I can use the sonic to fiddle with the wotsit and thingamajig settings to strengthen the wavelength. We don't want to give them a sunburn, we want to break down their cellular structure." The Doctor shrugs. "If nothing else, maybe I can make them all blinky like after you have a photo taken. Make them stumble around a bit." He puts his hands to his eyes and staggers around like he just found Jayne's stash of Blue Sun alcohol.
The Doctor pulls his hands away from his face and points. "Aha! We're here." He runs into the clinic, boots skidding on the tile floor.
River stops in doorway. There's too much white. White's a bad color, the color of lies. And pain. Her stomach feels fluttery. Sweat breaks out on her forehead. Her hands feel clammy.
"I don't like it," she says thickly. "Too bright. Too white. The men in white coats lie. They--they always hurt me."
Capn's voice is gentle. "What about Simon? He's a doctor. Does he wear a white coat?"
"He used to."
"Does he hurt you?"
River bites her lower lip. "Not on purpose." She takes a deep breath and tells the truth. "Never on purpose."
"Good. Okay then. And I'm the Doctor. Would I hurt you?"
Her answer is automatic. "No."
Cap'n smiles at her. "Then trust me, River Tam. This isn't a hospital. You're not staying here. No one's going to hurt you. We're just getting some equipment, all right?"
River studies the row of empty beds, the silent machines. "All right."
She walks into the clinic slowly, points at a tray beside an examination table. "I hate needles. Needles are stupid."
"I don't like them either," the Doctor agrees, and sweeps the tray to the ground with a wave of his arm. The tray sounds like thunder when it hits the floor. A bottle of some kind of antibiotic rolls under a desk. He kicks the needle after it and grins. "Better?"
River grins back. "Better."
The Captain strides over to the examination table and climbs on top of it. Kneeling, he pulls an arc lamp from its metal arm on the ceiling. He hands it to River.
Next, he jumps off the table and sonics the light fixture above the sink. It's about four feet long. He struggles with it, then pulls the base free of the cabinet with a grunt. Screws ping off the tile like chimes. The Doctor carefully lowers the UVG unit onto a rolling supply cart. He piles half a dozen trailing wires on top of it.
"Okay," he says, "and away we go."
They hurry back to the control room, River carrying the arc lamp, the Doctor pushing the cart. "Thank goodness it doesn't have a dodgy wheel," the Cap'n gasps as they run.
"Put the lamp on top," he says, pointing to the cart once they're back inside. "And check the docking bay. Are the Vashta still inside?"
River runs to the control panel and checks the screens. "Still inside," she calls back. "But there are more shadow things at the door."
"How about Greyssa and the crew? Do you see them anywhere?"
"Inside the gift shop."
The Captain pulls a red telephone receiver from the wall and presses a button. "Greyssa? You don't have any fission lamps on board do you? I found an arc lamp in the medical bay, but--" Cap'n nods his head, listens. Then: "Xenon or krypton gas?"
Ah. That means the Captain's talking about flash tubes or strobe beacons. Serenity don't have any. Maybe one day. Kaylee'd prob'ly do a cartwheel if Mal gave her the funds.
The Doctor hangs up and turns back to River. "Greyssa said there are beacons in the equipment room. I'm going to get them, then head to the docking bay."
River's already moving toward him. "I'm coming with you."
Cap'n shakes his head. "No. Monitor the docking bay. I'll need you to open the doors very soonish." He pauses, then adds: "Please."
River clasps her hands. "What happens if your plan don't work?" She sees a brief image of swirling gold light. "Will you...will you get a new face?"
Cap'n laughs, but he don't look happy. "I doubt it. Not sure I can regenerate from inside a thousand tiny Vashta Nerada stomachs."
Don't be afraid the Doctor says inside her head. The TARDIS will take you home if I can't. And then he flashes a series of pictures into her mind.
* * *
The equipment room is on the other side of the offices, next to the docking bay. After the docking bay are several storage rooms, a conference room, another storage room full of Silver City merchandise, and then the gift shop. The Doctor will have nearly gone in a complete circle by the time he reaches the main equipment room. He runs all the way there, pushing the cart in front of him, muttering words the TARDIS would not approve of, much less translate.
One Kroatan and one human are waiting inside the equipment room. The room is filled with tools and machines to keep the ship running smoothly. A glance around the room reveals several generators, another communication panel, three large work benches, and a half-finished replica of the Sphinx.
The Kroatan steps forward, a tidy black fringe over his furry forehead. "I'm Neelo Kalis, head of ship maintenance. This is my second in command, Jim Donnal." Jim waves. "Greyssa sent us over," Neelo says. "How can we help?"
Jim nods at the large light fixture and tangle of wires on the Doctor's cart. "What's this at home, then?"
"This would be an Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation unit. If you want to sound sexy, you can call it a UVG. Ultraviolet light is invisible to our eyes, and has higher energy than visible light. Short ultraviolet waves have enough energy to damage DNA molecules." The Doctor clamps the sonic between his teeth and untangles two wires. "UV sterilization is used to destroy bacteria in aquariums, hospitals, and laboratories," he explains, talking around the screwdriver. He looks up at the men. "Did Greyssa tell you what's going on?"
Neelo nods. "Vaska Nervada."
The Doctor smiles faintly, spits the sonic into his palm. "Close enough. Greyssa said you have strobe beacons here."
"Yeah. We were supposed to replace the beacons in Section D-5 but we...we never got around to it."
"Procrastination," the Doctor says. "Bless." He unplugs a long extension cord from a ludicrously large drill and connects it to the arc light. He tugs the cord, makes sure it's still connected to a power outlet.
"So you're going to try and use the UVG to destroy the Vaska...whatever?"
The Doctor nods in approval. "Exactly. Gold star for you, Neelo." He wipes his forehead with his sleeve, pulls off his jacket and throws it over the back of a chair. "Do you know where the strobe beacons are?" He holds his hands out, pretending to measure invisible tubes. "They look like great tubey lighty things."
Neelo looks amused. "Yes. They're in the storage closet between the docking bay and this room."
The Doctor unspools the extension cord, makes sure it's long enough. He turns the arc light on and all three men grimace, shut their eyes against the blinding light.
"Damn," Jim groans, "turn it off."
The Doctor does. He hands the arc light to Jim. "Take this with you. Count the shadows. If you see more than the usual amount, use the light. And while you're in there, look for safety goggles and ear plugs. In and out. No dawdling."
"And what'll you be doing?" Neelo asks.
"Trying to save this ship and everyone on it."
"Okey doke, then," Jim says with a grimace. "That seems harder than retrieving a couple of lights."
"In and out," the Doctor yells after them. He sniffs, scratches his neck, and continues working on making adjustments to the innards of the UVG panel. He makes a final modification, then notices the red phone on the nearest desk. He picks up the receiver, dials the control room.
"How are the not-a-zoo-after-all people?"
"Still inside their not-cages," River says.
The Doctor rests his forehead against the desk's smooth wooden surface. "What about Jenny?"
"Don't see her or Devon. Flynn just brought another passel of folks to the gift shop."
"Bloody hell," the Doctor seethes. He shouldn't have let Jenny go with Devon. "What about the docking bay? How soon until I'm a pile of Time Lordy bones?"
" Captain! "
"Gotcha," the Doctor says, tapping the desk with his fingers. "Just kidding." He realizes he's tapping one two three four, one two three four against the desk. He stops drumming his fingers abruptly, flattens his hand against the wood.
"There are shadows around the door, but nothing's got through so far."
"How about the ship? Are we in orbit?"
"We're in the black," River confirms.
Good. At least the planet and Capa Station are safe. "I have to finish up here, Tam. I'll ring you back shortly."
Neelo and Jim return safely, carrying three strobe lights between them. "I could only find one set of ear plugs and safety goggles," Neelo says apologetically.
"That's loads better than none," the Doctor says, studying the men closely. "Are you all right? No extra shadows?"
Neelo grins. "No extra shadows, Doc."
"Ixnay on the Ocday," the Doctor says, sliding the goggles on.
"Don't call me Doc," the Time Lord says, adjusting the tinted goggles. "The only one who's allowed to call me Doc is Bugs Bunny, and he's a fictional animated rabbit, so I would be extremely shocked if that actually happened." The Doctor smiles to himself. "That's two Looney Tunes references in one day," he announces, proud of himself. "Brilliant!" He grabs Neelo by the arm, then notices the red T-shirt beneath the Kroatan's work coveralls. "A red shirt?" He pokes Neelo's chest accusingly. "You'd best head back to the shop." He winks at Jim. "Jimmy, my boy, you're with me. We're going to save this ship and everyone on it."
Neelo and Jim load the strobes onto the UVG, and the Doctor proceeds to push the cart into the hall and over the to the docking bay doors.
"Good luck," Neelo calls, slowly jogging backwards down the hall. He offers a quick salute, then turns and runs, disappearing around the curve of the corridor.
"Luck?" the Doctor scoffs. "Who needs luck?" He taps the plastic around his head. "I've got tinty goggles."
Jim swallows, his face pale. But he smiles gamely as he inserts the ear plugs into his ears. "Now what, Doctor?"
The Doctor points down the hall. "Go down there, just past the doors. Okay...okay, a little farther. Good. When the doors, open, you're going to fire off the strobes. The light will be intense, don't fall down, understand? As soon as you've got one strobe lit, drop it to the ground and light the next one. One of those strobes produces five times the lumens a fission lamp does. The light will send the Vashta Nerada toward me and--" he indicates the UVG "--blammo."
Blammo. The Doctor mutters the word under his breath a second time. He's not sure if he likes it. He wishes Amy were here. She'd tell him if it was rubbish or not. Not that she's an expert on what's rubbish. He gives his bow tie a comforting pat.
The Doctor plugs the UVG into an outlet in the corridor, sonics an intricate series of wires to the cord, and tips the light fixture on it's side. He rubs his hands together and checks his watch. He tilts his head this way and that, stretching the stiff muscles in his neck. He pulls a red receiver off the wall and dials River.
"Unlock the doors, Tam."
"Are you sure, Captain?"
"Of course I'm not sure," the Doctor says crossly. "But I was responsible for River Song's death and I won't be responsible for River Tam's. I let the Vashta Nerada have the Library. They don't get this ship as well." A moment of silence stretches between them. The Doctor can hear River's soft, steady breathing. "If you don't hear from me in ten minutes, you know what to do." He smiles grimly. "And if you do hear from me--"
River cuts him off. "I know what to do," she says calmly, and the connection goes dead.
The Doctor and Jim both hear the tell-tale click as the lock mechanism slides out of place. The doors are unlocked, but remain closed. Jim watches the Doctor, a glass tube clutched tightly in his hands. His smile is gone. The man looks ill.
The Doctor doesn't blame him. He's not feeling his best either. Here goes, he thinks, and then:. Geranimo!
* * *
The Doctor points the sonic at the back of the light fixture and a familiar zzzzz fills the air. A faint bluish tint emanates from each of the UVG's round lamps.
The Doctor pulls out his stethoscope and presses it to one of the thick, metal doors. He can't hear anything. "Oi!" he calls loudly. "Vashta Nerada! I'm telling you to leave. Go back to your forests."
A faint whisper drifts through the door. "This is our new home."
The Doctor stands and peers through the reinforced circular window. A swirling shadow, roughly the shape of a man stands on the other side of the window. "We let you escape once, Doctor. We won't do it again." The voice is the sound of dry leaves.
"Fine," the Doctor says, returning the stethoscope to his pocket. "I'll let you escape then. Get back in the Reaver ship. I'll put your ship in my TARDIS and drop you off with plenty of trees. You can hunt in the forests again. Better yet, become vegetarians! Leafy greens--yum! They're chock full of vitamins!"
The sound of rustling leaves comes again. "We want...meat."
"And I'm telling you, being vegetarian is better for your health. I used to be one. Tell you what, I'll go back to it if you do."
"You are one man, Doctor. We are many."
"Shows what you know!" the Doctor shouts back. "There are two of us out here and I've got a giant lighty thing."
"This is your one chance," the Doctor continues. "Let me take you someplace else. You and the ship outside. Someplace where you can hunt animals the way you used to." He squeezes his eyes shut, waits for the answer. Just this once, let them agree. Just this once.
"We are content to stay."
The Doctor opens his eyes. "Even if I evacuate everyone from this ship? You'll be floating in space for years all by yourself." He raises his voice. "You'll get lonely, believe me. That other ship out there? They're going to get so bored."
The leaves rustle. The Doctor is certain he can hear a smile in the dry, hollow voice. "Someone will come eventually, Doctor. We can wait. We are very patient."
The Doctor can still see Donna's face on the node, he can still hear Miss Evangelista's voice: Sorry, where am I? Excuse me? He can still see River Song connect herself to the computer core while his previous self looks on, handcuffed and helpless. No. No . There will be no more waiting.
The Doctor steps forward and yanks one of the double doors open. He springs back to the UVG. The blue light flickers.
A long shadow emerges from the doorway, spills into the corridor like ink. The shadow splits in two, one half moving slowly toward Jim, the other toward the Doctor.
"No, no, no," the Doctor whispers, jiggling the UVG. The light flickers again.
The first of Jim's strobe beacons flash. The light is like looking into the sun. Standing inside the sun.
The shadow stops moving toward Jim, drifts back the way it came.
Jim picks up the second beacon--and drops it. He curses, bends to pick it up, but the Vashta are already swarming.
"Stop it!" The Doctor screams, spittle flying from his mouth. "Stop it!"
When Jim's hand touches the beacon, his skin is already gone. His skeleton clatters to the ground. One of his earplugs bounces once, twice, rolls to the wall, lays still.
"No!" the Doctor shrieks, and the UVG stops flickering. He walks toward the shadows, holding the UVG steady. He aims the blue light at the ground, sweeping the barely perceivable light from side to side. The machine hums. His eyes ache, like he's been awake forever. Has he? He can't remember. His hands tingle.
The Doctor grinds his teeth as he directs the light. "I gave you a chance!" he screams. "Why didn't you listen? Why don't you ever listen?"
As he watches, the shadows shrink and dissipate, like smoke from a dying fire. Above the hum of the UVG is the sound of countless autumn leaves. The Doctor imagines it's the sound of the forests where the Vashta once lived. The Time Lord's hands begin to burn. His eyes tear. Tiny grey particles coat the floor like ash. Like dust. The high-pitched rustling is not the sound of leaves. It is the sound of the Vashta Nerada dying.
The blue light destroys them all.
When the screaming stops, the Doctor drops to his knees. He looks down at his red, painful hands, then at the remains of the Vashta Nerada. Jim lies where he fell. His skull smiles maniacally at the Doctor.
The Doctor pulls the cord from the wall and throws it at the now-silent UVG machine. "Dammit!" He takes a deep breath, tries to calm himself, but his hearts slam against his ribs hard enough to make him dizzy. He bows his head. "I'm sorry, Jim," he whispers. "I'm really very sorry."
He kneels in the hallway, head bowed. Alone. He has a sudden urge to wheel the UVG into the TARDIS and go back to the Library. To destroy the Vashta there so he could have more time. More time to save River. He hadn't understood just how important she would be to him. And if he could save River, why not Donna? Why couldn't he have her back? Her big voice and bigger heart? Isn't that why'd he'd been drawn to Amy? Because she has the same ginger hair, the same temper, the same sharp tongue? Jenny was right. If he's a Time Lord, why can't he make time? Why does he never have enough?
He puts his hands to his face, sighs deeply. No. He can't go there. The last time he'd tried to rewrite time, to bend it to his will, had been on Mars. Shame floods through him at the memory. Maybe time can be rewritten. But it's not his to rewrite. Not now.
The Doctor drags himself to the wall, uses it to push himself upright. He waves the sonic around the hallway, checks the readings carefully. He is the only life form in the hallway. He staggers into the docking bay and takes another reading. The Doctor gets the same result: he is the only life form. He looks at the remains of the fallen security guards, the dead Reaver. He pulls off the goggles, lets them hang loosely from his right hand. Lets them fall.
He clenches his fists, lifts his chin defiantly. "I told you to leave," he whispers angrily to the empty room. "I told you." The Doctor exhales slowly. He brushes the hair from his face, tucks it behind his ears. He straightens his braces, then his tie. He sniffs, wipes his eyes. And then he reaches for the red phone on the wall.
* * *
The Doctor detours back through the Cabinet of Curiosities before reuniting with Greyssa. Just as he expected, Greyssa's clients are still here. They're all gathered in David's window, so at least they really are free to come and go. Several other humans--apparently additional members of the Roanoke Colony--are huddled around David White, talking urgently.
The Doctor knocks loudly on the glass. "You all right in there?"
David and Robbin immediately meet the Doctor at the window. "What's going on? We heard the alarm, but no one's come by to tell us what's happening."
Eleanor steps forward, incongruous in pink flannel pajamas. "Is Greyssa all right?"
The Doctor rolls his eyes. "I don't know how Greyssa is. I want to know how you are."
"We're fine," David says. "Just confused."
"Join the club," the Doctor says. "I'll get us T-shirts." He scans the room. "Where's Virginia?"
"Sleeping," Eleanor says, holding an Agatha Christie book to her chest. "She's in her crib."
The Doctor nods, thinking. "And you didn't see Chief Sands come through here? He didn't talk to any of you?"
Robbin shakes his head. "Leelan? Have you seen Sands?" His wife shakes her head also.
White frowns, absently pulling at his beard. "Has anyone see him?" After several endless seconds of debate, the consensus is no.
"What about a human girl who looks a bit Army with a blonde ponytail?"
More head shakes.
"Doctor," David asks, "what's going on? Is there a problem with the ship?" He and Eleanor exchange a worried look.
The Doctor raises his hands. "Nothing's wrong. Everything's fine. There was a...thing, but it's gone now. We're thing-free." He offers David a quick salute. "You're safe and sound. And peachy-keen. You can't get better than that." He turns to leave.
"Wait! Where are you going?" Eleanor calls after him.
"To find Chief Sands and Ms. Valnar," he replies. He waves a hand at the young brunette. "I'll be back," he promises. "In the meantime, take a nap. Or color a picture. I'm partial to dinosaurs," he adds helpfully. He pulls back his arms and claws his hands like a Tyranysraurs Rex. "Or read your book. Murder on the Orient Express is a real corker. You could always whip up some fish fingers and custard while you wait." He gives Eleanor a thumbs up. "It's much better than it sounds. So long!"
The Doctor runs all the way to the gift shop. He slides around the final corner, arms out, like he's back on one of Sardicktown's ice-covered streets. Greyssa Valnar paces in and out of The Crown , her arms folded tightly around herself. Loose ivory strands fall from her plated hair. She stops when she spots the Doctor, her eyes wide.
"Doctor! What took you so long? Are you all right? What about the Vashta Nerada?"
The Doctor ignores her and peers into the shop. He spots Neelo and Matty among the anxious faces, but there's no sign of Devon or Jenny.
"Doctor? Doctor, please ."
The Doctor puts a comforting arm around Greyssa's shoulders. "The Vashta Nerada are gone. Your ship is safe and everything will be fine after you give the docking bay a thorough sweep." He avoids Greyssa's large blue eyes. "I'm sorry...but Jim Donnal is dead."
Greyssa puts a fist to her mouth and nods weakly. She makes a low, pained noise. "Jim was a good man."
"The best," the Doctor agrees.
She looks at the Doctor solemnly, her blue eyes shine with tears. "Are we really safe?"
The Doctor nods.
Ms. Valnar literally sags with relief.
"The Vashta Nerada are gone," the Doctor repeats quietly. He glances around the shop again. "This can't be everyone. Where's the rest of the crew?"
"Shaara, Takkro, and a few others are flying the ship. I don't know where Devon, his guards, or the clients are," Greyssa says, worrying at a pale blue thumbnail.
"Your clients are fine. I just came from a little visit. What about Jenny? Do you know where she is?"
"I--I don't know." She stands on her tip-toes, scanning the small crowd. "Where's your friend, Ms. Tam?"
The Doctor's forehead creases. "I think a better question would be, where is my ship?"
Devon strides up, his dark hair mussed, one hand on his weapon. "What did it look like?"
Greyssa reaches for her friend's arm. "Dear God, Dev! Where have you been ? I was so worried!"
Devon gives the Kroatan a withering look, shakes her off. "I've been here for at least 10 minutes."
Greyssa blinks in surprise. "What? I--"
The Doctor talks over Greyssa, watching Devon carefully. "Ten minutes? In that case, you can manipulate time even better than I can." He lowers his voice. "I bet you're almost as upset as I am to see she's missing."
Devon glares at the Doctor. "I don't know what you're talking about. Do you ever make sense?"
"Only on very special occasions." The Doctor turns in a slow circle and calls loudly to the crowd: "Has anyone seen a big blue box around here?" The Doctor points to the spot where the TARDIS last stood. "Bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a shed?"
There are a few murmurs, but no definitive answer either way.
"Anyone? Anyone?" The Doctor sighs. "Bueller?"
"I think I saw something blue when we first arrived, but I now I'm not sure." Greyssa says slowly. She glances up and down the corridor in confusion. "I don't understand. How can I not remember?"
"Perception filter," the Doctor replies shortly. He turns to Devon. "Where did you take it?"
"I don't have your ship," Devon says, his voice dangerous.
"Oh really? So you're not trying to steal the TARDIS? You haven't contacted the Alliance Torchwood Division?" The Doctor advances on Devon, eyes blazing. "My friend heard you, Devon." The Doctor pauses, reconsiders his words. "Well, she didn't hear you so much as look through a window at your thoughts." He wags a finger. "Which I generally don't approve of. Nobody likes a Peeping River." He smiles coldly. "But I'll let it go just this once."
Devon smirks. "I know who your friend is. We've been after River Tam almost as long as we've been after you, Doctor ." He says the Doctor's name like it's the most disgusting word in existence. Which is just plain rude, because the Doctor's heard far, far worse. It's not like Raxacoricofallapatorius is all that groovy.
Greyssa looks from the Doctor to Devon, stunned. "What are you talking about, Devon? You're--you're out of Torchwood."
Devon sneers at Greyssa. "Oh please, Greyssa. Just how stupid are you? The Doctor was right. The only way you leave Torchwood is in a body bag. I've been waiting years for you to collect something that's actually useful, you stupid cow. And finally, finally , you have." He turns his sneer on the Doctor. "Do you have any idea how much Torchwood wants you? Can you imagine the promotion I'll get for bringing in the last Time Lord and his rickety T-40? Not to mention the fugitive River Tam, and whatever the hell Jenny is."
The Doctor's first impulse is to reach out and throw Devon Sands into the wall. Repeatedly. Instead, he tilts his head very slightly to the right. "And where is Jenny?"
"Somewhere safe." Devon's dark eyebrows lift. "And River?"
Devon's smile is cruel. "Too bad you're not."
Greyssa touches Devon's shoulder tentatively. "Devon, please. I don't understand what you're doing. You're scaring me."
"Shut up," Devon hisses, his voice a slap.
The Kroatan stumbles backwards, shocked. She blinks rapidly, fighting tears. "Why--why are you acting this way?"
The Doctor addresses the crowd a second time. "Attention, attention, I'm the Doctor. Ms. Valnar would like you to go back to your stations or bunks or wherever you usually go. There are no Reavers and no meat-eating shadows. This has all been a test to see how well you handle yourself in an emergency. Guess what? You all get a first in not panicking!" He flashes a double thumbs up to the crowd. "Good on you!"
Kroatans and humans look at each other uncertainly. A few take tentative steps to leave, then stop. A security guard next to Mattro Flynn opens his mouth.
The Doctor claps his hands loudly. "No buts, no ifs, no ands." He points down the corridor. "Well done you lot, now off you go," he says, making a general shooing motion.
Several employees look to Greyssa for confirmation. She nods. "I apologize for--for scaring you. Please go back to your quarters immediately."
The Doctor watches as most of the group walks off, muttering. Greyssa, Devon and Flynn remain in the hallway. Treessa, the cashier, and Neelo stand together in the shop doorway. The Time Lord tips an imaginary hat to Greyssa, offers Devon a slight bow, and turns on his heel. He follows the retreating Silver City crew, hands clasped behind his back.
"And where are you going, Doctor?" Devon calls.
The Time Lord doesn't bother to turn around. "To find my ship."
Devon raises his voice. "I wouldn't if I were you."
The Doctor looks back, already knowing what he'll see. Devon's gun is pointed at the Doctor's chest. How déjà vu.
Greyssa puts her hands to her mouth, presses her back against the wall. "Devon, what are you doing ?"
Flynn's hand hovers over his own weapon. "Chief?"
Sands turns toward his fellow guard. "Flynn, there's something I've been wanting to tell you for quite some time."
Flynn swallows, eyes darting to the Doctor, then back to Devon. "What's that, sir?"
"You're bloody useless," Devon says, and pulls the trigger. A bolt of white light envelopes Flynn and the young guard falls to the floor.
Greyssa and Treessa both scream. Neelo's mouth drops open in shock and he pushes the cashier behind him.
The Doctor rushes back to Flynn, squats beside the fallen Kroatan. He checks for a pulse. He glares at Devon, his mouth a tight, angry line. "You didn't have to do that."
Greyssa puts a hand on the Doctor's shoulder, speaks in a low, choked voice. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I'm so sorry. I never should have called you here. This is all my fault."
"I don't think so," the Doctor says, giving her hand a cursory pat. "You're not the one who pulled the trigger just now. I don't blame you." He stares at Devon, his face thunderous. "Why did you kill him?"
Devon points the gun back toward the Doctor. "I didn't kill him." He lifts the weapon slightly. "My M-285 is set to incapacitate, not kill. Of course, Flynn will wish he was dead when he wakes up paralyzed." Devon studies the gun thoughtfully. "This thing's a bitch on the nervous system," he says, chuckling. "You think he can find a job rolling up and down the Midway?"
The Doctor's fingers check for a pulse again. He presses hard against the soft fur of Flynn's neck. There . It's faint, but it's there. He stands, fists clenched. "Where is my ship?"
Sands rolls his eyes in annoyance. "Don't bother playing games with me, Time Lord. I don't have your ship." Devon's smile is bright as a razor. "But give me time. And now that I think about it, Torchwood doesn't need you to be mobile." Devon pulls the trigger a second time.
The Doctor drops to the ground.
* * *
The door creaks open and River pokes her head out of the TARDIS. She blinks at her surroundings, then grins. Jing zi, she did it! She laughs in delight. No, they did it. Together. River closes her eyes, listens to the ship whisper. She spins madly, arms above her head, eyes closed. She can still hear the song of the Time Vortex, see the colours of time spinning around her. She never imagined she would hear such glorious music, see such beauty, or feel this kind of peace again. She skips back to the TARDIS console and kisses her fingertips. She presses the kiss against the shining glass column in the middle of the console. Thank you, sexy, sexy Time and Relative Dimension in Space.
River pulls off her boots, kicks them beneath the jump seat. She flexes her bare toes against the transparent floor, cracks her knuckles. She flips a series of levers on the console, blows the hair out of her face. River gives the console a final affectionate pat and heads for the door.
"Okay, jie-jie," she whispers to the TARDIS, "it's time to save the Doctor."
* * *
The Doctor groans. He turns his head weakly. Pain flares through him. He feels feverish, like his limbs are too heavy for his body. He coughs and fresh agony rolls up his legs. He moves one foot gingerly, then the other, clenches his teeth against the grinding pain. His muscles protest loudly against the movement, sending a fresh paroxysm of hurt up his spine and into his shoulders. Oh, not good. Not good at all. He's sweating, his breathing comes in whistling gasps. He fights to stay conscious, tries desperately to ignore the pain.
"That...wasn't very fun," he croaks feebly. He cracks one eye, then the other. Greyssa is by his side. He blinks up at her frightened face.
"You shouldn't be awake yet," Devon complains, looming over them. He taps the Doctor's head with his boot. "And you're supposed to be paralyzed."
Greyssa moves her arms protectively over the Doctor's head. "Leave him alone."
Devon opens his eyes wide, all innocence. "What's your problem Greyssa? You wanted the Doctor to stay with you, right?" He spreads his arms, smiles broadly. "Looks like you got your wish." He chuckles. " For now."
The Doctor tries to move his legs. The result feels like an infinity of needles jammed through his muscles. He clenches his jaw, inhales sharply through his nose. He tries again and a scream rips from his throat. No wonder River thinks needles are stupid. They are so. Very. Stupid. It takes a fair amount of concentration, but he gets the words out.
"You...shouldn't be...shooting people."
"You're not really in a position to tell me what to do, Doctor." The steel toe of Sands' boot connects with the Doctor's chest. Greyssa shrieks, scrambling out of the way.
The Doctor slides across the floor and slams into the wall. A new wave of pain swallows him. There's also a troubling snapping noise from the vicinity of his ribs. His hearts stutter. He struggles to pull air into his lungs. He curls onto his side and tries not to retch.
The Doctor opens his eyes, stares blankly at the wall. He's disorientated, he has no idea where he is. Is he inside a Star Whale? Is he regenerating? Did he lose another bet to Dorium Maldovar? Because, if so, he has got to stop playing Canisian Poker.
Slowly, the Doctor becomes aware of sounds. Someone screaming. He hopes it's not him, because whoever it is sounds very cross. A woman sobs nearby. Amy. No, not Amy. Rory? Now, that was just mean. No, Rory and Amy are still on Earth. Then he thinks, stupidly: Rose. Is he back on Dårlig Ulv-Stranden? He grimaces, shakes his head. Wrong girl, wrong place, wrong him. He recognizes the sound now. It's Greyssa. She's holding his hand.
"I'm sorry, Doctor," she weeps. "I'm sorry."
The Doctor rolls onto his back, which proves to be a rather large mistake. He groans, makes some trying-hard-to-breathe noises. The world around him turns grey, wavers, shrinks. He puts a hand to his cheek and slaps himself. Hard. Colour floods back.
"Better than an alarm clock," he wheezes, and tries to give Greyssa a reassuring smile. His face, apparently put off at being slapped, refuses to cooperate. In the end, he just winks. Or blinks. He's not sure which.
"This is not my favourite day," the Doctor admits hoarsely. He listens to Devon's boots clump along the corridor while he practices breathing. Turns out breathing is quite a bit harder than he remembered. He turns his head further, spots a pair of shoes lying on the floor. He squints. The shoes are connected to legs. Bloody hell.
He looks up at Greyssa through tear-blurred eyes and points in what he hopes is the direction of the prone legs. "Who...is that?"
Greyssa bows her head and a tear falls onto the Doctor's wrist. "Neelo." Her voice breaks.
The Doctor squeezes Greyssa's hand. "But...why?"
"He got annoyingly self-righteous when I shot you," Devon says. "Thought he was going to be a hero." He looks down at the Doctor. "He thought wrong."
The Doctor wipes his face with the back of his hand. He stares up at the ceiling. "I used to give out warnings," he says quietly. "I've given loads of warnings to the Nestene Consciousness over the years. And to the Cybermen. And the Daleks." His voice is almost gentle. "But then I got old, Devon. When I met the Krillitane I was very old. I only gave them one warning. And now I'm older still. I'm the oldest." His voice turns to granite. "And I'm all out of warnings."
With extreme effort, the Doctor pushes himself into a sitting position. The corridor spins around him, but he closes his eyes against the vertigo, forces himself to keep going.
"I've seen humans do wonderful things. Amazing things." He smiles wistfully. "I've met humans who actually made me wish I was one of them." He opens his eyes and stares at the security guard, his expression full of disgust. "And then there are men like you. Weak, little, power-mad men who give the human race a bad name. Men who make me ashamed I look on Earth as my adopted home.
"But then I think about those brave souls who protect the Earth, not just from aliens, but from the likes of you. Defenders of the Earth. People like Rose Tyler and Martha Jones and Donna Noble and Amy and Rory Pond. I think about Sarah Jane Smith and Wilfred Mott and River Tam. They are at one end of the spectrum."
The Doctor stands, leaning heavily against the wall for support. He is dark conviction and incandescent rage. "You, Devon Sands, are at the other."
Greyssa pushes herself to her feet, stands at the Time Lord's side. She is shaking, but her eyes are dry, her expression resolute.
Devon returns the Doctor's glare. "My God, you talk a lot."
"And you don't listen enough." The Doctor's voice is a hammer. It echoes off the walls. "So no more warnings. Instead, you get a choice. I gave the Vashta Nerada a choice. And, against my better judgment, you get one as well." The Doctor steps away from the wall. He grinds his teeth to keep from falling. His legs tremble, but he wills himself to stay upright. Greyssa instantly slides a supportive arm around his waist.
"Stop this," the Doctor pleads. "Right now. Drop your gun and say you're sorry. I'll forgive you. Greyssa will forgive you. We'll get Neelo and Matty the help they need." The Doctor takes another unsteady step. "You don't need my ship. You don't need Torchwood." The Doctor's voice softens. "Be a better man, Devon. A better human."
Devon gives the Doctor a smug smile. "And if I don't? What then, Doctor?"
The Doctor's face goes expressionless. "You don't want to know."
Devon's lip curls. "You don't scare me, Time Lord. You think I haven't heard the stories about you? Well I have. And that's all they are, stories. Rumours. Superstitions. I don't need your bloody forgiveness and I certainly don't want it." Devon closes the gap between himself and the Doctor, presses the barrel of his gun hard against the Doctor's chest. "The only one of us begging for anything will be you, Doctor." Sands twists the barrel, digs it into the Doctor's bruised chest. "When you beg for your life."
The Doctor's ribs howl at this fresh insult and he staggers. But he never takes his eyes from Devon's face. "Wrong choice," he says through gritted teeth.
Feedback blasts through the hallway speakers. Devon flinches, spins away from the Doctor and aims his weapon toward the ceiling. "What's that?"
An ethereal female voice drifts from the speakers. "I am the TARDIS. I belong to nobody but the Doctor. He stole me and I stole him. There's only one Thief. Ain't no one else gonna take me, Mr. Sands."
There's a loud clunk and a thick steel partition slides out of the wall, sealing off one end of the hallway. A moment letter a second partition slides into place 40 feet away, effectively closing them in.
"What is this?" Devon demands, incensed. He turns in a circle, eyes darting from Greyssa and the Doctor, to Treessa quietly weeping inside the store, to the new steel walls. "You think activating a few safety protocols is going to save you?"
The Doctor pulls himself up to his full height despite the pain in his legs and chest. "Listen!" he commands.
"I sent a wave to the Judoon, Mr. Sands," the voice from the speaker continues. "And guess what, Devon? They're coming to get you."
Sands laughs scornfully. "For what?"
"For your part in covering up what happened on Miranda. For shooting an unarmed civilian on Arial. Not to mention shooting that guard and the maintenance man." The female voice turns into a loud whisper. "But your worst mistake was hurting my Thief. I might be doolally, but that don't mean I don't get angry."
Devon stares at the Doctor, his face pale, all smugness gone. A muscle in his jaw twitches. "I don't know how you're doing this, but you're lying." He gestures to a speaker with his gun. "She's lying."
"I'm not human," the TARDIS declares. "I don't lie. Can't stop the truth."
"Then let them come." Devon lifts one shoulder, trying to maintain his veneer of unconcern. "Torchwood will get here first. They'll force the safety gates open and carry you off in chains." He lifts an eyebrow, his mouth twists into a half smile. "Or a body bag."
"You think those Black Hearts'll be able to take on the Judoon?" Girlish laughter fills the hallway. "Lay hoe chun ah, you're even dumber than I thought."
"Hey old girl," the Docotor calls. "You okay? Is everyone else on board safe? How is Ms. Valnar's collection?"
"I'm fine," the TARDIS says. "Life signs are shiny. No extra shadows in the docking bay. No movement from the Reaver ship outside. Collected folks are fine." There's a pause, then: "What about you, Doctor? You don't look so good."
"I've had better days," the Doctor admits. "Much, much better days, but I'll be all right." He winks at the surveillance camera beside the speaker.
"This is some kind of trick," Devon screams, his face shining with sweat. "Your ship isn't alive."
"That's where you're wrong," the Doctor says in a soft, deadly voice. "She's very much alive. And no one steals her but me."
"Your ship might be alive," Devon says, his voice ratcheting up an octave, "but youwon't be." He turns his weapon back on the Doctor and fires.
Greyssa propels her body in front of the Time Lord, and she's immersed in a brief, brilliant light. She collapses at the Doctor's feet.
The Doctor screams, his face twisting in horror. "No!"
"I am sentient, Devon. More so than you," the TARDIS booms through the speakers. "The Alliance might be on the way, but they ain't here now. I have one word for you:run."
The southern safety door slides open. The hallway stretches before him, empty. Inviting.
Devon takes a hesitant step toward it. He looks back at the Doctor, apprehensive. "Was that you? Did you open the door?"
The Doctor ignores Devon. He kneels at Greyssa's side, ignores the pain in his legs as best he can. He presses one hand to Greyssa's cheek, checks her pulse with the other. "It's going to be okay," he whispers urgently, "just hold on. Hold on, Greyssa." He lifts his head and his eyes burn.
"My ship opened the door. And if you've made her cross, you have no idea what you've made me. This isn't the first time someone's tried to steal the TARDIS. This isn't the first time someone has sacrificed their life for mine." He locks his hands together, places them over the center of Greyssa's chest.
He shouts in time with the first four compressions: "And. I. Am. Furious!" He continues chest compressions, counting down in his head. His stomach is full of lead. His mouth is very dry. Finally, he lowers his face to Greyssa's, blows into her mouth. Her chest rises, falls. He blows again. Her chest rises, falls. And then nothing. He starts over again, wishing Rory were here, or Martha. Someone who could save Greyssa, because too many people die around him, too many, and Greyssa can't be one of them, she can't.
Treessa kneels beside him. She puts her hand on his arm. "Let me," she says, tears streaming down her face. "She's my sister."
The Doctor stares at her. "You're the one with nice skin," the Doctor blurts, still pushing on Greyssa's chest.
Treessa nods. Her lips tremble. "Please, Doctor. She's my sister," she says again, as if this explains everything. As if her very presence is enough to save Greyssa's life. Maybe it is. The Doctor doesn't know.
He nods woodenly and lets Treessa take over CPR. The Doctor drags himself back to his feet. He is very tired. He regards Devon with bitter contempt.
"You left all those people in Greyssa's collection to die," he says, running his hands through his hair. "And the funny thing is, the truly hilarious thing is, if I hadn't stopped the Vashta Nerada, you'd be lying on the floor right now, nothing but bones and a bit of cloth." He slides his hands casually into his pockets, advances on Devon. "You shot Flynn, you shot Neelo, you shot Greyssa. You shot me. You threaten to hand me, my ship, and the people I love over to Torchwood." He steps closer to Sands, his face impassive.
"You can threaten me all you want, Chief Sands. Most people do. But you must never, ever threaten my family."
Devon lifts his gun, but the Doctor is faster. The sonic screwdriver glows in his outstretched hand.
Devon's weapon sparks and he drops it, cursing.
The Doctor's lips curve in the semblance of a smile. His face is devoid of warmth. Of mercy. "You heard my ship, Devon." He points down the hallway. Run."
* * *
The Doctor watches Devon run. He runs past the shop and into the open corridor. He approaches a set of decorative pillars, one on each side of the hall and looks back. The Doctor doesn't follow.
Jenny steps out from behind the left pillar and punches Devon in the face. He reels backwards, blood spraying from his nose.
"That's for knocking me out," Jenny says, punching him again.
Devon spins into the wall, stunned.
"That's for tying me up," she grunts, pulling her fist back a third time. Devon slides down the wall, slumps to the floor. She aims a spinning back heel kick at Devon's head and he drops onto his side, unconscious. "And that's for shooting my dad."
She runs to the Doctor, throws her arms around him. He presses his face into her shoulder, breathes in the citrusy scent of her hair.
The second safety door slides open to reveal a group of waiting Kroatans with stretchers and first aid equipment. Behind the medical technicians, are five security guards. Jenny clicks her fingers and points to Devon's still form.
"Take him away."
The Doctor recognizes the young man in charge. He's the security guard who'd threatened suicide at the mention of Reavers. He looks considerably more competent now. He leads the guards over to Sands, pulls zip cuffs from his belt.
The Doctor's knees give way and he leans hard against Jenny, trying not to pull her down with him.
"Dad? Are you okay?" Jenny props her father against the wall, one hand on his shoulder.
"I will be," he says. He gently touches the bruise on her cheekbone. "Are you?"
Jenny smiles. "I am now."
* * *
River's sitting cross-legged on the floor playing with plastic dinosaurs when the TARDIS doors open. The Doctor stops in front of her, smiling.
"You? Were brilliant, River Tam." He bends down, kisses the top of her head. "And you were brilliant." The Doctor purses his lips, kisses the TARDIS view screen.
The Doctor offers River his hand. She takes it, moving gracefully to her feet.
"Thank you," the Doctor says simply.
River smiles broadly. "Welcome." She holds the toy dinosaurs near the Doctor's face. "They helped."
He grins at the Stegosaurus and Allosaurus in turn, taps their green plastic heads.
"Then thank you and you."
River balances the dinosaurs carefully on the typewriter keys, then moves to sit on the edge of the jump seat.
The TARDIS door opens again. Greyssa appears in a wheelchair, Jenny behind her. Both women gape in astonishment at the interior of the TARDIS.
"Oh my God," Greyssa whispers, amazed.
The Doctor beams, pleased. "A bit bigger on the inside, isn't she?"
"A bit?" Jenny asks, incredulous. "It's beautiful! Look at this place! It just keeps on going! Dad, this is the best ship ever!"
The Doctor leans against the railing. "Don't I know it."
Jenny pushes Greyssa forward and the Doctor moves to meet them. He takes Greyssa's hand, looks into her eyes. "How are you feeling?"
Greyssa looks away, her gaze focused on the Doctor's hand. "Like a fool," she says softly. "Like I've been betrayed by my closest friend. Like I put the lives of countless people in danger because I wanted to meet a Time Lord."
"Don't feel bad," the Doctor says, hooking his free hand behind one of his braces. "We're generally worth meeting." He lowers himself to her eye level. "But what I meant was, how are you feeling?" He scrunches his fingers open and close a few times. "All the squishy bits where they're still supposed to be and stuff?"
Greyssa smiles weakly. "Everything's still where it's supposed to be. Dr. Thomas says I might even be able to walk again. Flynn too." The smile slips away. "But not Neelo."
"He was very brave," the Doctor says honestly. "And so were you. I'm proud to call you my friend, Ms. Greyssa Valnar."
"Thank you very much," Greyssa says, her voice thick with emotion. She sniffs, glances back toward the TARDIS entrance nervously. "But we have to leave. The Judoon will be here any minute. They'll destroy my ship. And the Alliance will probably kill us." She grips the arms of her wheelchair tightly. "Who knows what they'll do to you, Doctor."
River gathers up her hair and pulls it in front of her face. "Judoon ain't coming," she says, squinting through her hair. "I just said that to scare Devon."
Greyssa frowns. "You did? Are you sure?"
River swings one leg back and forth. "Unless you called 'em."
The Kroatan shakes her head quickly. "No. I didn't call them."
The Doctor pulls out his sonic, taps it thoughtfully against his chin. "As for the Alliance, I'll do a bit of pokery-jiggery--which, by the way, is much more complicated than your regular old jiggery-pokery--on your vortex manipulator. We'll be gone long before they arrive."
* * *
Two security guards flank Devon Sands as he is led off the Silver City. Mattro Flynn follows directly behind them. His face pale and gaunt, he has a white-knuckled grip on his crutches. He moves slowly, but the remaining guards keep a respectful distance, matching his pace. The guards are silent. Devon is not.
"You can't do this," Devon bellows, struggling to tear free of his zip cuffs.
The Doctor watches the grim procession, arms folded. He don't say nothing, but his head is full of thoughts. River stands a few feet away, careful not to eavesdrop. She's holding the broken tin snip from the salvage yard.
Jenny and Greyssa are in the infirmary with Neelo. Greyssa didn't want to come. River don't blame her. She ain't exactly excited to be here neither, but it's important to say goodbye. The Captain hasn't said it out loud, but River can tell he's glad Jenny's not here.
"You can't do this!" Devon shrieks, as the guards drag him off the ramp and onto the dusty macadam of the planet. They are on the outskirts of a ruined city. Crumbling buildings line empty streets. Blinding sunlight bounces off dirty windows.
The Doctor gives River a penetrating look. "Do you want to go back inside the ship?"
"No." She tilts her head, listening. "I can hear them. They're at peace." She can't tell what they're saying anymore, the voices are calm. Far away. It's like listening to a conch shell. Their secret's out. That's all they wanted, to be remembered. Seems that's what most folks want when they die. These ghostly voices are all that's left of Miranda.
And the Reavers.
Cap'n steps closer to the Black Heart. "I've deactivated the satellites," the Doctor announces. He squints in the afternoon sunlight. "There is no outgoing communication left on Miranda. There are no working ships. The machines are as dead as the people. But don't worry, I'm sure there's still plenty of food. They say Twinkies last forever."
"You can't do this," Devon whispers, his eyes haunted, his voice pleading.
"I'm giving you a chance to see firsthand what your cover-up did," the Doctor replies. "The Alliance could have helped these people. But you left them here to die. You refused to confirm the existence of Reavers for how long? At least a decade. How many deaths are you responsible for, Mr. Sands? I've lost count."
"I'm sorry," Devon cries. "I was just following orders!"
"Don't use that defence on me," the Doctor says coldly.
"At least leave me a hover ship," Devon begs. "What if there are Reavers here? They'll kill me."
"Build your own," the Doctor says, his face stone.
"Then leave me a weapon." He stares desperately at Flynn's gun.
"No guns," Cap'n says. He nods once at River.
She skips forward, closes her eyes, and throws the broken tin snip like a spear. It arcs high above Devon's head and lands in the dirt a few yards away.
Flynn hobbles forward, a tanto knife in one hand. He cuts through the zip cuff and Devon stumbles backwards, eyeing the makeshift weapon stuck in the ground. Half a dozen M-285s target Sands' head.
The Doctor turns and walks back up the ramp.
"Please!" Devon calls after him. "Don't do this!"
The Doctor keeps walking, shoulders stiff, head high.
The Doctor doesn't look back.
* * *
The Doctor leans his forehead against the TARDIS door, watching the black hole swirl in the distance. The impossible planet of Krop Tor hung suspended here once, forever ago. This is where he destroyed the Beast. And the Ood. This is where he met the magnificent Ida Scott. He had been prepared to die to save Rose. It's funny how he's always prepared to die for some reason or other. But he's never prepared when others die for him.
Because of him.
His chest aches. He's not sure if the pain is from his injured rib, because he's staring into the churning void of a black hole, or because he just left Devon Sands on Miranda. The black hole is a pink and gold pinwheel. Its centre is a roiling red and orange. It looks like space itself is burning. The second Reaver ship drifts slowly toward the hole.
River's back in the jump seat, frowning at the back of his head.
He can't see her, but her thoughts buzz with worry.
The Doctor pulls back from the window, just enough to see River's reflection watching him. "I should take you home."
"You should stop looking out the window. It's not good for your head."
"I'm not human, you know. I look human, but I'm not."
"You think I got stupid all of a sudden?"
The Doctor smiles in spite of himself. "No. I don't."
"Then don't talk like I am. Just cos you don't got two heads or green skin don't mean you're human. You're alien. Trying to understand you is like waiting for a star to sing. It ain't probable, but it ain't impossible either."
The star fields of Asia/Mountain-Minor sing every 500 years. Ships come from miles around to hear their eerie melody echo through the galaxy. The Doctor doesn't share this detail.
"I'm too dangerous. Travelling with me isn't fun, River, not really. It isn't a game. Sometimes I pretend it is--I want it to be--but it's not." He shakes his head sadly. "It's not."
River folds her arms, regards the Doctor critically. "I thought you said you weren't the emo Doctor, Cap'n."
Reluctant laughter bursts from the Time Lord. He turns slowly to meet River's reproachful gaze, still chuckling. "Quite right, Tam. Quite right. Have I mentioned lately how much I like you?"
River shrugs. "I'm likable. Everybody thinks so, 'cept for Jayne. And the ticks on Jayne's behind got more sense than he does."
The Doctor claps a hand to his mouth, scandalized. "River!"
"Well it's true. Jayne's meddlesome. Everybody on Serenity is meddlesome, me included. Humans are meddlesome by nature. We broke Miranda. We made Torchwood. That's why you like us, and that's why you hate us. Cos Time Lords are meddlesome too."
The Doctor cringes slightly. "That's a bit of an understatement, really. But I'm not supposed to be meddlesome. That's kind of a Time Lord no-no." He leans against the console railing, crosses his ankles. "I just want to help. But I invariably make everything worse."
"Not yesterday. Not today."
The Doctor huffs in annoyance. "Tell that to Jimmy Donnal and Neelo Kalis and Matty Flynn and Greyssa Valnar. Tell that to Devon Sands." He glances back to the window, eyes on the drifting Vashta Nerada. Quietly: "Tell it to them."
"If you hadn't been there, everyone on Silver City would be dead. We'd all be shadow food."
The Doctor's forehead furrows, he studies the floor intently.
River slides off the chair and walks to the Doctor. She taps a finger against his forehead. You saved us. You saved me. And just cos Greyssa can't do a cartwheel just now, don't mean she ain't grateful.
The Doctor stares at River, his eyes wide.
This is the part where I say thank you.
River takes his hand. "Thank you."
The Doctor stares at her some more.
And this is the part where you say you're welcome.
"You're welcome, Little Albatross," the Doctor whispers. The words are nearly too big for his throat. He blinks rapidly, checks to make sure his jacket is still draped across the console. Oh look, it's still there. Brilliant.
River grins, pulls something from behind her back. "And this is the part where you wear your new hat." She hands him a smart red fez, complete with the swingy tassel bit.
The Doctor promptly puts it on his head, beaming. "Ooh," he says, pulling River into a hug, "this is my favourite part so far!"
* * *
The Doctor sips his tea with just the right amount of Victorian decorum. He hadn't been knighted for nothing, after all. He's sitting at a lovely redwood table inside David and Eleanor White's kitchen. The Doctor fakes a rather elaborate stretch and cranes his neck for a better view down the narrow hallway. There's not a sign of the window room. He casts a quick look at Greyssa.
She's watching him with an amused smile. "I told you."
The Doctor, ever mature, sticks out his tongue.
"In fact," Greyssa says, "all the windows slide down into the floor. My friends can come and go whenever they like while we're travelling. Did I forget to mention that?"
The Doctor remains silent and wisely sips his tea.
Greyssa is still in her wheelchair. She sits across from the Doctor, David on her left, Eleanor on her right. River and Jenny are on the sofa, and from the way they keep giggling and looking over at the Doctor, he has a sinking feeling they're talking about him.
The Doctor sets his cup down and smiles at Eleanor, impressed. "Blimey, this is a good cuppa."
Eleanor bounces Virginia on her knee and bows her head, blushing. "Thank you."
The soft strains of music float through the room. The Doctor looks around, eyebrows raised. "What's that?"
David pulls out his pipe and nods in satisfaction. "I believe Cade is providing us with a private concert."
The Doctor settles back into his chair to listen. The music is simple, but lovely. He watches David light his pipe, grins as as the man blows an impressive smoke ring toward the ceiling. With his white beard, twinkling eyes, and buckled hat, the Doctor can almost imagine David is his old friend Wilf dressed for Panto.
The Doctor takes a contemplative sip of tea and watches David over the rim of his cup. "Are you sure you're happy here?"
David reaches across the table and touches the tip of his great-niece's nose. She breaks into a wide, chortling grin.
The Doctor leans closer to the old man so Greyssa can't hear him. "Are you sure you haven't been forced to live here against your will?"
David exhales smoke in the Doctor's direction.
The Doctor coughs theatrically, waves it away.
"Doctor," David finally says, "I believe you to be a very strange little man."
The Time Lord laughs, delighted. "I try my best." He deposits his tea cup on its saucer and turns to Greyssa. "Ms. Valnar? You are a truly special woman. Your ship is lovely and your friends lovelier."
Greyssa presses a hand to her chest, pleased. "Thank you, Doctor."
Eleanor takes Greyssa's hand and kisses the Kroatan's cheek. "I told you he'd come around."
The Doctor's eyebrows jump. "Cheeky." He winks at Eleanor. "I like it."
Greyssa fidgets with her empty tea cup. "I don't suppose there's anything I can do to convince you to extend your stay a little longer?"
The Doctor shakes his head, sniffs loudly. "Afraid not. Officially worn out my welcome, me." He leans forward. "But maybe I'll stop by for a visit sometime. Check up to make sure you're treating the contents of your cabinet like people and not your auntie's old dishes."
"She would never do such a thing!" Eleanor exclaims, shocked.
The Doctor looks relieved. "I was hoping you'd say that."
River appears at the Time Lord's side, whispers into his ear. "Oh, right, yes." He rubs the back of his neck, glances awkwardly at Greyssa. "I don't suppose there's a chance we could have a final go on the Ferris Wheel, is there?"
* * *
"What do you say?" The Doctor asks Jenny nervously. "Any chance you want to travel with me?"
Jenny beams at her father. "I thought you'd never ask."
"And you, Tam? Ready to go home I suppose?"
River crosses her eyes and makes a gagging sound.
"Is that Riverese for 'not quite yet?'"
River nods, weaving her long hair into two plats. "It is."
The three of them lean casually against the TARDIS railing.
"Look at this," the Doctor says happily. "Me and my girls." He does an awkward little soft shoe around the console. "Amy can stuff it with that 'my boys,' business." He claps his hands, suddenly all business. "Okay then. Where shall we go?" He looks at River. "Still want to see Earth-that-was?" He elbows Jenny. "Feeling peckish? Want to eat some of Marie Antoinette's cake?" He pulls at his left earlobe. "Visit the temple ruins on Arcos 5? See the glass City of Pelthor?"
Jenny bites at her lower lip, thinking. "Can we just let the TARDIS decide?"
"She usually does," the Doctor says fondly. He turns a crank, presses a large green button. "Okay old girl. Take us wherever you want to go."
River glances toward the console, then around the interior of the ship, confused. "Cap'n? Who exactly is 'the pretty one?'"
The Doctor wags a finger at the console, glaring. "I'm telling Amy."
* * *
The Doctor yanks the door open and the three of them stumble out of the TARDIS and into a small back garden. The grass is thick. Birds sing. The air smells of lilac and peonies.
River jumps up and down, clapping her hands. "Earth-that-was!" she cries triumphantly, and immediately flops onto her back in the soft grass.
The back door of a little cottage swings open. Mr. and Mrs. Pond run down the steps, hand-in-hand, faces bright with anticipation.
"Doc--" Rory stops mid-word when he spots the two strange women on his patch of lawn.
"--tor?" Amy finishes lamely, her eyebrows hovering up around her hair line. "What's this then?" She folds her arms in what the Doctor considers a very judgy manner. "Got yourself a harem, did you?"
The Doctor waves her disapproval away. "Rory and Amy Pond," he shouts in his best quiz show announcer voice, "this is my daughter, Jenny." He gestures to his daughter like they're in the middle of an advert for brilliant blonde girls.
Amy boggles. "Your what?" She advances on the Doctor, eyes narrowed. "Whathave you been up to?"
"No no no," the Doctor says quickly, backing away. "It's not like that."
Rory looks suspicious. "What is it like?"
The Time Lord ignores Rory and points at the girl lying on the ground. "And this is my friend River."
Amy's mouth drops open. "Another one?"
The Doctor grabs Amy's shoulders and shakes her, grinning maniacally. "That's what I thought!"
Jenny hooks her arm through the Doctor's. She nods at Rory. "He's cute."
Amy glares daggers. "Oi. That's my husband."
The Doctor whispers loudly behind his hand. "They're married. No flirting."
Jenny shrugs. "I was just saying." She gives Amy an appreciative look. "She's cute too."
Amy's jealousy is instantly forgotten. She twirls a strand of hair around her finger, grinning. "Really? Thanks!"
Rory sighs wearily.
The Doctor scratches his nose. "This isn't going the way I expected," he says to no one in particular. "I expected this to go another way. A less weirdy and awkward way."
River sits up and picks bits of grass out of her hair. "He did think that," she confirms. "Silly old Captain."
Amy grabs Rory's arm and drags him toward the TARDIS. "Come on, Rory. Are we travelling or not?"
The Doctor pulls Rory away from Amy and stands behind him. "Yes, Rory. Come stand next to me." He lowers his voice. "I think there might be too many ladies..." he spreads his hands vaguely, "in this immediate area."
Rory shakes his head and stares at the Doctor. "I can't tell if you're brave or stupid." He walks into the TARDIS. "Probably both."
The Doctor follows, still half-heartedly trying to hide behind the nurse. "Was that a compliment?"
Rory glowers. "What do you think?"
The Doctor considers. Then he grins and slaps his thigh. "It's good to have you back, Roranicus."
Rory's shoulders sag. "It wasn't a compliment."
"Oh, I know." The Doctor pats Rory's cheek affectionately. "But it's still good to have you back."
River wanders into the ship next. She turns a knob on the console. "Which 'verse next?"
Rory points at River. "She's driving?"
Amy slaps the Doctor's arm. "What? Do all Rivers know how to drive this thing?"
The Doctor grabs Amy's shoulders again, unable to contain himself. "That's what I thought!"
Amy pats the Doctor's head in a there, there, you magnificent lunatic kind of way and inserts herself between River and Jenny. She holds her hand out to the Doctor's daughter.
"Nice to meet you," Amy says cheerfully.
"Your name's Jenny, yeah?" Rory asks. "Jenny what?"
Jenny and the Doctor exchange an uncertain look.
"Um," the Doctor says, somewhat flummoxed. He brightens, clicks his fingers. "Jenny Time Lordy...Person." He looks to Jenny for approval, then on to Amy and the others. "Well? What do you think?"
"I think it needs a bit of work," Amy admits, grimacing.
The Doctor's face falls.
"But only a little," Amy adds quickly.
Amy grins at Jenny and jerks a thumb toward the Doctor. "So is he your dad or was it one of his other faces? The speccy bloke with silly hair, or Mr. Grumpy in the leather jacket?"
"Oi," the Doctor says, pouting. "My hair wasn't silly. And that was a very cool jacket. You mustn't mock the jacket." He looks down at his current outfit. "I'm just feeling a bit more traditional now. Nothing wrong with tradition."
"It was Speccy," Jenny confirms. She nods toward her dad, trying to hide a smile. "But it looks to me like he's still Mr. Grumpy."
The Doctor stalks away from his fellow travelers, grumbling. "This is all your fault," he mutters furiously to the TARDIS. "You and your pretty boy."
The TARDIS ignores him.
A hand on the Doctor's shoulder distracts him from just how rude his ship has become.
"Guess what?" Amy whispers in his ear.
The Doctor turns back to Amy and the two friends embrace.
"What?" has asks the top of her head.
They grin stupidly at each other.
Rory waves at Amy and she runs back to her husband. She laughs at something he says, kisses his cheek.
The Doctor sits on a step, listening to the bustle inside his ship. He's one River away from having enough people to fly the T-40 properly again. He smiles at the thought. He cups his chin in one hand, watching Rory surreptitiously inspect River's Stegosaurus.
Amy's boys and the Doctor's girls. Together in the TARDIS.
River activates the time rotor and the ship rumbles its familiar vworp vworp as it dematerializes into the Time Vortex. She looks up, spots the Doctor, and grins mischievously.
"Hold on," she calls to her fellow passengers. "We're a leaf on the wind." And to the Doctor: Time to soar.
And they do.