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Something Worth Living For

Chapter Text

On the outskirts of Gallifrey lived a young man named John. Gangly, and too intelligent and eccentric for most people's tastes, he spent the majority of his time on his own reading on as many topics as he could find, and taking his horse to explore the countryside and pretend he was going off on grand adventures.

The only person other than his parents that John had any significant amount of interaction with was the farm girl, whose head of outrageously curly hair never ceased to fascinate him.

Her name was River, and he found no greater enjoyment than in tormenting her. The look of exasperation in her eyes when he asked her a silly question, or for her to complete an inane task, was so satisfying that he was sure to do it on a daily basis.

There was only one problem. No matter what he said, or asked, she only ever replied with, "As you wish."

At first, it had been spoken with reluctance and maybe just a bit of amusement. But as the exasperation in her faded over the years - much to his initial disappointment and confusion - it was replaced by a strange softness that didn't quite fit her otherwise headstrong personality and physicality.

Now, when she said those three words, it was quietly. Her low voice caressed the words in a way that did things to his brain (and if he was being honest, other places) and made his heart skip a beat.

The way her eyes held his as she spoke, warm and sharp, and maybe just a little wistful, started freezing him where he stood and plaguing his dreams come nighttime.

He wondered if when she said that, she meant to say I love you. He wondered if maybe he loved her too.

"River," he said one day. He winced at what he might have already given away by not calling her 'farm girl', if the surprise on her face was anything to go by.

She paused in the doorway, and looked at him expectantly.

"Er," was all that came out of his mouth as he floundered for something that would serve as a reason to detain her. "Fetch me that pitcher?"

River crossed the room slowly, before reaching up to grab the pitcher in question. John definitely did not notice how her shirt rode up just enough to bear a slither of smooth skin above her waistline.

"As you wish," she murmured as she handed him the pitcher.

He took it from her hands, hyper aware of the contact when his fingers brushed hers. But then her hands were back at her sides, and he was just standing there holding the pitcher like the idiot that he was, unable to do anything but stare at her.

She was so beautiful. How had it taken him so long to notice?

"I, er, don't actually need this," he said lamely, awkwardly setting it aside on the nearest table.

River laughed, a throaty laugh that suited her immensely and warmed every inch of his body, including a few places a little more south than he would like. "You don't say."

John blinked at her, more thrown than he should have been by her breaking her pattern. "Oh, so you do actually have more than three words in your vocabulary."

She shook her head at him, a grin curling her lips as she came closer. "With all due respect, do shut up."

He grinned back, helping her close the gap between them. "As you wish," he said right before her lips were on his and all thoughts of cleverness disappeared from his mind for a long time.

Since John's family had no notable money to their name, just their farm, and John was busy preparing to enter the university in the capital, it became apparent that River was going to have to be the one to go forth and seek fortune if they wanted a proper life together.

"That look on your face, with that chin, is truly unfortunate," she told him on the day they had to say goodbye. Despite the weight in his heart, he had to laugh a little.

"What if something happens to you?" He asked. "I should be coming with you, to protect you-"

"We all know that I'd be the one doing the protecting, John," she said, patting his tunic fondly, "You have an incredible brain, my love, but a tendency to panic in bad situations. And I'm not entirely sure you know which end of a sword to hold."

John made a face. "Fair point."

"Try not to worry," River whispered, leaning in to kiss him. "I'm not so easy to get rid of, you know. And this is true love. Someone important up there must be rooting for us if we were lucky enough to find each other in the first place."


"Now, say goodbye like you know I'm going to come back."

John took her in; she was gorgeous even when dressed in plain travel clothes with a bag on her shoulder, hair confined into a ponytail with loose curls escaping everywhere. He did his best to give her a genuine smile.

"I'll see you soon, River Song."

"Until then, my love," she said, kissing him one last time before turning around and walking away.

In those moments, she had inspired hope and belief in him. And when he got the news that her ship had been attacked by the Dread Pirate Pond, who never left prisoners alive, he swore to never be so naive again.

Five years later, and John's life had markedly changed. He had finished his degree at the capital university, and in the last year of his studies caught the eye of the Queen of Gallifrey, who was an academic herself and frequented the large university library often.

Queen Melissa was beautiful, in a cold and angular sort of way, and a little older than him, but had immediately been attracted to his intelligence and less conventional social tendencies. With the right to choose her husband from anyone in the land, when she proposed to him, he could do little but say yes.

Marrying Missy - as she asked him to call her - seemed as sensible a thing to do as any. He was never going to marry for love when his heart still belonged to a woman at the bottom of the sea, and marrying the queen would give him access to any resources he might want for the scientific experiments he was constantly getting ideas for.

Not to mention, Missy also struck him as a woman who could be extremely pleasant to one's face but would turn nasty the moment she was told no. One did not simply say no to the Queen of Gallifrey.

(If he was being honest, Missy could be quite good company, if only because she was in some ways as eccentric as him. No one else had been able to make him laugh in five years.)

So that was how he became Duke John of the Gallifreyan court, betrothed of the queen.

John's greatest pleasure still came from his daily ride. When the wind was streaming through his hair and he was galloping through the woods, he could for a few seconds pretend that he would soon be returning to his farm, to River's smile, and that teasing, loving, 'as you wish'.

Sometimes he dreamed about one day never turning around, about just riding on and on and never looking back.

A month before John was due to marry Missy, his ride brought him across a group of three strangers in the woods, all a similar age to him. The two women were beautiful opposites (one blonde with a spark in her eye and the other dark-skinned with a sense of controlled serenity about her). The man they stood either side of had sandy hair and a smile that John found a little unnerving.

"Sorry, sir, but we're circus performers," he told John, stepping forward and spreading his hands. "Is there a village nearby? We seem to have taken a wrong turn."

"Just a bit," John said, eyebrow up, "there's nothing nearby, not for miles."

The unnerving smile grew wider. "Excellent. Then there will be no one to hear you scream."

The last thing John registered was being ungraciously pulled from his horse by the dark skinned woman, and then a dull pain to his head, before his world went black within seconds.

"What're you doing?" Rose Tyler asked Harry Saxon, who was busy ripping something and attaching it to the future prince's saddle. "Is that the Skaro coat of arms?"

"Got it in one, blondie," he said without looking up. They had been working together for over a year, and he virtually never called her by her real name, unless he was angry with her or mocking her. "When the horse reaches the castle, the queen will see this and think the Daleki people have stolen her love. When she finds his body dead on the Skaro frontier, her suspicions will be confirmed."

Martha frowned at him. "Hold on, you never said anything about killing anyone."

"I've hired you to help me start a war, Jones, did you think it was going to be all flowers and rainbows?" Saxon mocked, rolling his eyes at her as he hit the horse on the rump and sent it on its way. "It's a prestigious line of work, with a long and glorious tradition."

"I just think we could kill someone a bit more deserving of it," Martha said, glancing at the unconscious form of the young man she had knocked out and dragged aboard. "He's an innocent in this, surely."

"Am I hearing things, or did the word think just come out of you?" Saxon snapped, getting in her face and making her swallow. "You were hired for your freakish strength, not your insignificant little brain. If for some outlandish reason I ever want - or god forbid, need - your opinion, I'll ask for it, otherwise shut up and do as I say."

Rose pushed down the anger that rose in her at seeing her best friend spoken to like that, and did her best to keep her voice even when she spoke. "I agree with her."

"Oh, the little girl has spoken," Saxon said, rolling his eyes. "What happens to him is none of your concern, since I'll be the one killing him. And don't forget, never forget: when I found you, you were so penniless and drunk that you couldn't buy rum! And you!" He turned back to Martha. "An orphan just like her, helpless, hopeless, brainless. Do you want me to send you back to where you were? Unemployed, in Japan?"

Martha stared resolutely at the floor and did not respond. As Saxon stormed off, Rose went to her friend's side and put an arm around her shoulders, hugging her.

"One day, he'll realise how wrong he was to think you aren't one of the smartest people in this whole kingdom," she said, kissing the side of her head for good measure. "No, this whole world."

"The longer he thinks it, the more I'll enjoy the look on his face when that day comes," Martha muttered.

"You and me both."

"At this rate, we'll reach the cliffs by dawn."

Martha saw no need to reply to Saxon's remark, and simply nodded when he glanced at her. Rose, however, wasn't looking at either of them. She was sitting at the back of the boat and kept peering over her shoulder.

"Why are you doing that?" Saxon asked her shortly.

"Making sure no one's following us."

"It would be practically inconceivable."

The future prince, who was called John, if Martha remembered correctly from Saxon's earlier brief, was surprisingly calm as he eyed them all. His eyes were intelligent and a little too old for his face.

"You won't get away with this, you know," he said quietly, holding Saxon's gaze, "The queen will see you all hanged for this. Or beheaded. I hear she's fond of both."

"I'd worry about your own neck, Johnny boy, and not ours," the other man said with a smirk, before noticing Rose looking over her shoulder yet again and bristling. "Stop that, blondie, before I fix your neck in place there."

"Are you sure nobody's following us?" Rose asked slowly.

"Of course I am," he said, rolling his eyes. "Nobody from Gallifrey could have gotten here so fast, and nobody in Skaro has any idea what we've done." When Rose gave him an unconvinced look, he frowned at her. "Why?"

"Because, well… there is someone following us."

"There can't be," Saxon snapped, but moved to the back of the boat to look all the same, and he tensed when he saw that Rose was right. "...they might not be following us, they might have their own reason for being out here."

"Right, because eel infested waters at midnight are where I like to go for a pleasure cruise," Martha said sarcastically.

In the midst of their distraction, John hopped to his feet and tried to dive overboard, but Martha's hand whipped out and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, yanking him back into the body of the boat and eliciting a yell of pain when his back collided with the corner of a step.

"You don't want to do that," she said without looking at him. "You wouldn't get twenty metres without becoming eel food."

Wincing, John sat up and gave her a wry smile. "I suppose I owe you a thank you, then."

Surprised, Martha's eyebrows lifted and her mouth curled with a hint of a smile. "You're welcome. But I'm still taking you to your death."

"Ah, yes," he said, sighing. "There is that."

"Stop getting chatty with the prisoner," Saxon told Martha darkly, before turning to John. "I suppose you think you're brave, trying that stunt."

John's eyes were cool and his eyebrows up. "Only compared to some."

Saxon's fingers twitched at his sides as he narrowed his eyes at the other man, and Martha knew that to be a sign of him wanting to strike the person he was talking to (having been the recipient of such assaults a few times).

"He's not worth it," Rose said quickly. "He'll be dead soon. Save your energy, Harry."

"Yeah," Saxon muttered, dropping back down to his seat. "Wake me up when we're almost there, or when the sun starts to rise, whichever comes first."

As their leader dozed off, Martha moved to sit near Rose at the end of the boat, but not before fixing John with a look that warned him not to try anything. Wordlessly, Rose's hand sought out hers and gave it a squeeze.

"You should get some rest," Rose said to John, and he regarded her for a moment, before nodding once and shutting his eyes. Then she looked at Martha, eyes softer. "You too."

"Wake me up in a few hours and I'll take over."

Rose nodded, and so Martha conceded and laid her head on Rose's shoulder, letting the comforting smell of her friend's hair and the sound of her breathing lull her to sleep.

Chapter Text

When they reached the Cliffs of Insanity that morning, the other ship was far too close for comfort, even as the criminal trio and their prisoner disembarked from their own.

"He's practically on top of us," Rose said to Saxon, who scoffed.

"Doesn't matter now," he said, a manic grin on his face. "We have Jones, only she's freakish enough to be able to climb this thing. Whoever's on that boat will have to go around and find a harbour, and by then we'll be long gone."

Rose resisted the urge to punch Saxon in the face for calling Martha freakish, and only succeeded because she had had a lot of practice. The other woman paid him and his comments no mind, but that didn't stop Rose getting furious on her behalf.

Saxon had hired someone in Skaro to pay a visit to the top of the cliff and secure a rope for them there, and sure enough, there it was waiting for them to climb. After giving it a quick tug to be sure it was secure, Martha busied herself with getting in the harness that would allow her to carry the others up the cliff.

"Are you really strong enough to carry the three of us up that rope?" John asked, watching her dubiously.

"I work out," Martha said, smirking at him.

"I don't doubt that," he said, eyeing the impressive biceps that tended to distract Rose on a daily basis, "but even so."

"Well, maybe it has more to do with a genetic anomaly," the black woman said, shrugging, "but almost no one knows what that means, so-"

John's practically non-existent eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline. "I know what that means," he replied, "but I'm a top student at the university of Gallifrey, where does someone like you learn about genetics when only the top natural philosophers barely understand the concept?"

"Someone like me?" Martha repeated, putting her hands on her hips.

"You know, someone working for someone like Saxon," John clarified, with a sort of confused innocence that made Rose think he genuinely had meant that and nothing else.

"Stop gabbing and get ready to climb," Saxon told them as he marched up to them.

Saxon, Rose and John hooked themselves into the harness, and Martha gripped the rope and began to climb. It didn't look easy, but the anomalous woman didn't falter and their ascent was steady, if a little slow.

Which would have been fine, if not for the other boat docking right next to theirs. A figure in black leapt out of it, hurried to their rope, and began to climb after them.

"They're climbing the rope," Rose said, staring down. "And gaining on us."

"Inconceivable!" Saxon shouted. "Jones, faster!"

"I am going faster," Martha replied tightly.

"You were supposed to be this incredible thing, this miraculous freak of nature that could scare a horde of grown men with her power, and yet, he gains," her boss said venomously, spitting the words at her.

"Actually, I think it's a she," Rose commented vaguely.

"Don't call me a thing," Martha told Saxon, voice flat.

"I'll call you whatever I like," he said, "because if you fail me, I'll have to find myself a new piece of muscle, and you'll be at the bottom of the ocean where you can't breathe a word of this plot to a single living soul."

"Harry!" Rose said with horror.

"Your life is at stake, Jones," Saxon said in a sing-song voice, despite the anger still bubbling under his skin. "I'd hurry it up if I were you."

Martha began heaving even harder, speeding up their climb by a small margin. The strain on her face made Rose worry, and Saxon's threat made her want to gut him from navel to nose.

John, after a quick look down at the woman following them, had squeezed his eyes shut and resolutely said nothing.

Once they reached the top, Saxon hurried to cut the rope. The weight of it pulled it off the side of the cliff within moments, but when Rose and Martha moved to the edge, expecting to see the woman in black's body sprawled on the beach, they instead saw their pursuer clinging to the rocks about halfway up.

"She's got impressive arms," Martha commented.

Saxon rushed to stand next to them. "She didn't fall? Inconceivable!"

Martha looked at him curiously. "I don't think that word means what you think it means, sir, so maybe stop using it in this context."

"Oh, like you'd know," he sneered.

"Oh my god, she's climbing," Rose said, eyes widening. "That's...really something."

"Whoever she is, she's seen us with the Duke and therefore needs to die." Saxon turned to Martha. "You, carry him. Blondie, we're headed for the Skaro frontier, catch us up when she's dead. If she falls, fine, if not then the sword."

"I'll have to duel her left handed," Rose said, smiling.

"We're in a hurry!" Saxon said with great exasperation.

Rose shrugged. "It's the only way it won't feel like an easy win. I have to try and challenge myself at least a little, Saxon. Or else I'm gonna get slack, and then I won't be any good to anyone."

"Oh, do what you must," Saxon muttered, "Come on, Jones, we're going."

"Be careful," Martha said to Rose as she slung a protesting John over her shoulder and ignored him. "People in masks can't be trusted."

Rose laughed. "That a fact, is it?"

"Well, they're hiding something, aren't they?" her friend said, shrugging uncomfortably. "Besides, you should be scared of any woman with arms that can even remotely rival mine."

"Why would I be, when I have you to protect me?" Rose joked, and they shared a grin. "Besides, no woman's arms rival yours."

"Is this important flirting?" John asked incredulously, making them both jump and Rose turn scarlet.

"We weren't flirting," Martha said, looking affronted at the very thought, while Rose had to pretend not to find her reaction quite disappointing.

"Jones, now!" Saxon barked, and Martha swore under her breath and hurried to run after him, with John bouncing on her shoulders.

Rose watched them go, and then stretched her limbs to prepare herself for the duel. It didn't take too long, and impatience nagged at her when she still couldn't hear the woman in black scrambling near the top. Crossing to the edge again, she saw her soon-to-be opponent in more or less the same place she had been before.

"Hiya," Rose called down. "Slow going?"

There was a pause. Then, the woman said, rather irritably, "Look, I don't want to be rude, but this isn't actually as easy as I might be making it look, so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't distract me."

"Sorry," Rose said, with a sheepish grin.

"Thank you."

Rose turned away and tried the patience thing, but once again came up short. She wanted to fight now, not in half an hour or a few hours or whenever this damned woman finally got to the top, if she didn't fall to her death first.

"I don't suppose you could speed things up a bit?" She asked, leaning over the edge again.

The woman snorted. "Look, Goldilocks, if you're really in such a hurry, why don't you lower a branch, or a rope, or find something useful to do."

"Oh, right," Rose said, glancing at the length of severed rope that remained around the rock from where Saxon had cut it. "I mean, I do have some rope up here that you could use."


"But since I'm only waiting around to kill ya, I feel like you probably wouldn't want my help."

To her surprise, the other woman laughed, before pulling a face. "That does put a bit of dampener on our relationship. A shame, too."

"But I promise not to kill you til you reach the top," Rose offered, with her trademark charming smile that she so often used to dazzle people.

The woman in black grinned through another snort. "That's very comforting, dear, but I'm afraid you'll just have to wait."

Rose sighed. "I hate waiting," she cursed under her breath as she walked away, only to turn back a few moments later as she got another idea. "I could give you my word as a Londoner?"

"No good," came the strained reply through clenched teeth, as the woman hauled herself up to the next ledge, "I've been double crossed by no less than six Londoners."

"Shit," Rose muttered. "So there's no way I can get you to trust me?"

"Nothing comes to mind…"

New inspiration came to her, and Rose's expression became calm and even as she locked eyes with the ones shining through the holes in the mask. "I swear on the soul and sword of my father, Peter Alan Tyler, you'll reach the top alive," she said gravely.

There was a pause, and then -

"Throw me the rope."

Chapter Text

"Throw me the rope."

Rose nodded, and fetched the rope, so that the woman in black could use it to climb to the top. Rose gave her a helping hand over the precipice.

"Thank you," the woman said gratefully, and began to draw her sword.

"Nah, wait til you're ready," Rose was quick to say, sitting down on a nearby rock.

Her future adversary, even with half of her face obscured by the black mask, looked quite surprised. "Alright, if you're sure," she said, a sort of amusement in her tone. She sat down on a rock opposite Rose's perch.

Rose watched her intently. "I don't suppose you happen to know any men with six fingers on their right hand? Encountered any on your travels or adventures, or...something?"

The woman paused in emptying her boot of stones to tilt her head at Rose curiously. "Do you always begin conversations this way?" When Rose turned scarlet, the woman smirked and asked, "Why the need for six fingers? I can assure you, honey, two is more than enough if they know what they're doing, or else there's this marvelous new French invention that-"

"Oh god, no," Rose stammered, her cheeks burning, before she lifted her eyes to stare at her incredulously. "Is that just where your brain goes when people start mentioning men's fingers?!"

The woman chuckled, low and filthy. "Well. That or chopping them off, yeah."

An odd laugh escaped Rose's mouth, before she remembered her original reason for asking the question and bit her lip. "No, um, my dad. He was killed by a six fingered man."

"Oh," the woman in black said, wincing. "I'm sorry."

"S'alright," Rose murmured. "He, um, was a swordmaker, my dad, one of the best in the world. When the six fingered man turned up and requested this special sword, my dad took the job. He slaved away, day and night, and it was still a year before it was done."

She drew the sword from her scabbard, the embellished hilt glinting in the sun. She held it out for the woman to take and examine herself.

"Oh, hello," the stranger breathed as she weighed it on her fingertips. "Look at you." Her eyes flicked up to Rose, filled with awe and respect. "I've never seen its equal."

She handed it back, and Rose nodded in acknowledgement of the praise as she returned it to the scabbard.

"Yeah," Rose said softly. "Well, anyway, the six fingered man came back and demanded it, but for only a tenth of the original price. Dad refused, of course. And without even a second's hesitation, the six fingered man just...slashed him through the heart." She swallowed hard, hand gripping the hilt of her sword with white knuckles. "I loved my dad. He was all I had, cos Mum died having me. So, I challenged his murderer to a duel. Didn't win, of course, little idiot I was. The six fingered man left me alive, but gave me these."

Rose tilted her head, and pointed to the long white scars that marred both of her cheeks but weren't immediately visible depending on the light.

"How old were you?" The woman in black asked quietly.

"I was ten," Rose said, laughing a little and shaking her head, "young, and stupid, and lucky to not die where I stood. But as I got older, I've spent my life learning everything I could about fencing so when I find him, I won't lose again." She lifted her chin. "I'm gonna look him in the eye and say: Hello. My name is Rose Tyler. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

"You've done nothing but study swordplay?" It was hard to tell whether the woman in the mask was sceptical or impressed.

"I mean, my study's been pretty comprehensive," Rose said, making a face. "At this point it's more of a pursuit. I just can't fucking find the guy. It's been fifteen years and I'm still looking. Not the most encouraging, you know. I just work for Saxon to pay the bills." She grinned, tongue between her teeth. "Not a whole lot of money in revenge."

"Not always, no," the woman agreed as she got to her feet. "Well, I hope you find him someday."

"Thanks," Rose said. "You ready, then?"

"Whether I am or not, you've been more than fair," she said with a smile.

Rose smiled back, a little apologetically. "You seem sort of decent. I hate to kill you, but I have to or Saxon'll have my neck."

"You seem more than decent yourself. I hate to die," the woman said, grinning as they drew their swords.

The duel began, the two women slashing out with their blades experimentally, to size the other up. Slowly they found a more consistent rhythm and built in intensity, requiring more concentration to match their opponent.

"You're using Bonetti's defense against me?" Rose asked, grinning.

"Given the rocky terrain, it seemed appropriate."

"You expect me to attack with Capo Ferro."

"Naturally," the woman in black said, chuckling, "but then, I've also found that Thibault tends to cancel out Capo Ferro, haven't you?" She leapt from the rock onto the dusty ground below.

"Unless the enemy knows their Agrippa," Rose retorted, jumping after her, "which I do." Their blades clashed again, over and over until the sound of the metal almost became musical. "God, you're amazing."

"Thank you, I've worked hard to become so," her opponent said smugly.

"Gotta admit, you're better than me," Rose panted as she was driven back towards the edge of the cliff. Her grin never wavered.

"So why are you smiling?"

"Because I'm guilty of a bit of a fib," the young blonde said. "Well, not exactly since I never outright lied, but-"

"Get to the point-"

Rose grinned. "I'm not left-handed."

She passed her sword to her other hand, and felt the familiar rush of power that came with holding her father's sword, her sword - the extension of her right arm.

Immediately, she could feel the duel shift in her favour as she pushed forward and forced the woman in black up the steps, noticing how her impressed her opponent looked at her true skill level.

"You're incredible," she said to Rose, her tone conveying how genuine the words were.

"I better be after fifteen years," Rose replied as they got to the top of the steps, and she forced her to the small stone balcony, imposing her sword on hers until the woman's body began to knock off the rocks and put her in danger of falling off the edge.

"You know, there is something I really ought to tell you," the woman in black said.

"And what's that?"

The woman grinned. "I'm not left handed either." She kicked Rose back, and tossed her sword to her right hand. When Rose leapt forward, she was dismayed to realise that they were now, at the very least, evenly matched.

Rose's sword was flung from her hand, and she stared at where it had landed in the dirt some way off. She leapt for the beam that ran between two run down pillars, and used it to land near her sword and pick it up.

The woman in black smirked, threw her sword so that it landed perfectly upright in the dirt, and grabbed the beam to flip around it, before landing with a perfect flourish and picking up her sword.

Rose tried to not gape, and failed. "Oh come on, that's just showing off," she breathed, eyes wide.

"I know I'm fairly remarkable, dear, but I'd shut your mouth if your intention isn't to catch flies in it," her opponent said, chuckling.

"Who are you?"

She smirked. "No one of consequence."

"I have to know," Rose insisted.

"I'm afraid you'll just have to get used to disappointment."

"...okay, then," Rose muttered as their duel started up once more. They moved all over the terrain, and adrenaline coursed through Rose's whole body as she realised that probably never would she be in a battle this intense, a battle of two experts of their craft.

A battle, she was quickly realising, it was all too likely she might lose.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the woman in black knocked Rose's sword from her hand and pointed her sword at Rose's now exposed chest. The numbing sensation of defeat, so foreign to her, coursed through Rose's body. She had failed. She would never avenge her father's murder.

Rose dropped to her knees as the woman in black circled around behind her. "Make it quick," she asked quietly, shutting her eyes.

A hand stroked across Rose's hair. "Oh, Miss Tyler, I'd sooner destroy an exquisite stained glass window than a beautiful artist such as yourself." Rose let out the breath she had been holding, daring to hope that she might yet make it out of this alive. "Of course, I can't have you following me either, so I'm sorry in advance."

"For what?"

"The headache."

A blunt edge - probably the hilt of the sword - hit the back of Rose's head, and everything went black as she fell into the dirt.

Chapter Text

When Martha saw the figure of the woman in black in the distance, her heart skipped a beat. Where was Rose? How had Rose lost? Was Rose dead? The mere thought caused pain to slice through her very being.

As much as the logical part of her brain tried to tell her that it was unlikely that this highly suspicious person had left her best friend alive, the optimist in her refused to let go of hope.

Rose Tyler was a force of nature, and wasn't dead until Martha saw the body. She had to believe she was okay.

"Inconceivable!" Saxon cursed in the meantime, furious, and making Martha roll her eyes at his continuous misuse of the word. "Give the Duke to me, catch us up as soon as you can."

"You want me to kill her?" Martha assumed.

"No, I want you to throw her a tea party with all the friends you don't have," Saxon snarled sarcastically. "Yes, I want you to kill her!"

Martha, with greatly practiced calm, nodded instead of answering or slamming his head into a nearby boulder or tree. As he scurried away with the Duke, she picked up two large rocks and weighed them in her hands. It would be easy to wait until the woman in black came into view, and then kill her with sheer force by hitting her over the head with one of them. But that would require the element of surprise, and Martha had to know what happened to Rose.

Instead, when the stranger came into her line of sight, Martha threw the first rock and let it crash into a boulder just behind the woman's shoulder.

"That was a warning," Martha said as she stepped out into plain sight, and the woman in black nodded. "You're here, which means you defeated Rose. Did you kill her?"

"I never kill people who are both beautiful and talented if I don't have to," the woman replied. "She'll have a headache when she wakes up, but nothing more."

The tension that had coiled in Martha's body began to ease. She let out a tiny laugh of relief. "Thank you," she said genuinely.

The woman smiled, and tilted her head, a funny little sparkle in her eyes. "I don't suppose it means we could skip this, and you could go to her, while I could go after the Duke and Saxon?"

It was tempting, for a moment. But then Martha shook her head. "If I fail, Saxon will kill me."

"Mm," the woman in black said, frowning. "Well, not if I kill him first. If I come out of this on top, I promise I will."


"Really. Why don't you just let me pass, and I'll kill him for you, and you could can go find Miss Tyler?"

"Saxon might be an idiot, but he's still a genius," Martha said, hating the words coming out of her mouth. "I can't be sure you'd beat him. He'll have a plan for if you get past me. And for all I know, you killed Rose and are just lying to get me to trust you."

"Fair point. But why would I bother to kill one and convince the other? Wouldn't it make more sense to spare both of you, or kill both of you? Your theory doesn't exactly scream consistency."

"No idea. I don't know you. But you're wearing a mask, which doesn't exactly make me think you've got an honest nature."

"How do you know I'm not just wearing it because masks are terribly comfortable?" The woman asked, a cheeky grin forming on her lips.

Martha rolled her eyes. "Can we fight now? No swords, no rocks, just hand to hand."

"I know that gives you the advantage, I saw you climbing up that rope," the woman in black said, sighing, "but sure, why not. I'll put down my sword, and you put down your rock, and we can try to kill each other like civilised people."

"Sarcasm doesn't suit you," Martha told her.

They began to circle each other, the woman in black poised and ready to strike while Martha didn't bother. Despite this, neither of them tried to attack, both waiting for the other.

Martha grew impatient, and decided to take the initiative. But when she made a grab for the woman in black, she dodged out of the way with surprising speed. The next time she was ready, and slammed the masked stranger into a boulder with a sound crack. The woman groaned in pain.

"You're really quite remarkable, has anyone ever told you that?"

"You'd be the second to say so," Martha said, frowning. She took hold of her shoulders before she could recover, and pressed her arm again the woman's throat until she could see the pain on her face. "Now, tell me honestly. Is Rose Tyler dead?"

"No," the woman in black said through clenched teeth. "I told you, killing talented beautiful people - at least ones who aren't absolutely set on killing me - is against my... personal code. Which is why I'll leave you alive, too."

Martha blinked at her, wondering if she'd just been paid a compliment, or if against all sanity this woman was trying to flirt while her windpipe was in danger of being crushed. Martha released her, letting her stumble and gasp for air.

To Martha's surprise, her adversary recovered almost instantly and leapt onto her, legs around her neck and yanking her to the ground, which was hard and unforgiving as Martha crashed into it with a yelp. The woman in black wasted no time in adjusting her position, clearly aiming for Martha's neck, but Martha was easily able to push her off, sending her flying through the air once she broke her grip.

"Fucking hell," the woman moaned. "You're a bloody force of nature."

"Well, Saxon didn't hire me for my looks," Martha told her with a smirk.

"He could have."

"Do you flirt with everyone you try to kill?"

"No, just the ones I've decided not to," the woman in black said, chuckling as she got back onto her feet. Martha rolled her eyes. She still wasn't convinced of the other woman's claim. She wanted to believe her, but that wasn't enough.

Their dance began again, Martha trying to make grabs only for the woman to dodge, or the woman trying to get Martha only to be kept back by the woman's strength.

The fatal moment came when Martha lost focus for one second. That was all it took for the woman in black to get behind her and get her arm around her neck, pulling and driving Martha to the ground as she gasped for breath. She instantly knew she was beaten.

"You'd better kill that bastard Saxon," Martha wheezed. "Even if it means he'll never learn I'm far from the idiot he thinks I am."

"I'll see if I can let him know," the woman assured her, as she felt her consciousness slipping away and her strength wavering,

Martha felt the sting of failure prick at her as she slumped. The woman in black left her with a final whisper.

"I hope you find your friend."

Queen Melissa of Gallifrey was, for reasons unfathomable to her guards, in a wonderful mood.

By all logic, her fiance's capture should have been more alarming. But she had dismounted from her horse with a smile and was eagerly tracing the footsteps left in the dirt at the clifftop.

"A mighty duel," she remarked, softly, and then again at a higher volume. "A mighty duel!" She hurried up the stone steps and then jumped off, moving back and forth as she imagined the swordplay with the eye and mind of a master, from what she could make out of the markings on the terrain. "All over this place. Two masters, certainly."

"How did it end? Who won?" her closest friend and advisor, Count Thascalos, asked. He was a striking man of Spanish and French descent, and although not more than a few years older than her, in many ways her mentor in regards to some of her...darker pursuits.

Missy examined the dirt around her more closely, tilting her head to the side as she analysed all the details.

"The loser ran off, that way," she said, pointing, "And the winner..." Her finger snapped in the opposite direction, where the terrain turned to rocky green hills. "Followed these footsteps towards Skaro."

"Shall we track them both? I could-"

Missy cut the Count off before he could finish the pointless sentence, cocking an eyebrow. "Why would I care what the loser's doing? They're nothing. Only my dear John matters."

"This was obviously planned by warriors of Skaro," Count Thascalos said to her.

"Obviously," Missy said with annoyance, "we must be ready for anything."

"This could be a trap."

"I always think everything is a trap, Emil," she said, smirking at him as she mounted her horse, "that's why I'm still alive."

He chuckled and they rode on after the duel's victor.

Chapter Text

Saxon had set up a small table with wine and food with which to wait for either Martha's return or the approach of the woman in black.

"Seriously?" John asked him.

"I always prepare for any occasion," Saxon replied as he sat down, keeping his knife to John's throat as he forced him down with him. His free hand reached for a grape.

"Whether it's the woman in black or the queen, you're going to end up dead," John told him calmly.

"Oh, the 'you'll never get away with this' speech, how original," Saxon drawled. "I'd honestly hoped that the fiancé of a queen like Melissa would be a little more interesting. But the only interesting thing about you is your lack of eyebrows."

"They're just delicate!" John said hotly.

Saxon snorted. "Right. Not sure what she sees in you. I'm assuming you must make up for your lack of eyebrows in… other areas."

John's cheeks burned and he didn't bother giving him the satisfaction of an answer.

Saxon's free hand grabbed his chin and turned it so John was forced to look at him. "Hm. I suppose I can see why she might find you appealing. Your face might be a mixed bag of features thrown together, but it somehow works, doesn't it?"

His gaze had gone from malicious to vaguely predatory, and John swallowed with a whole new kind of fear. It had nothing to do with Saxon being a man - John had indulged in several trysts with the stable boys who had come before River - and everything to do with his despicable nature.

John didn't want anyone looking at him like that. Not now that River was gone. Not to mention, she had only ever looked at him with anything but underlying respect, even in their most primal or dissonant moments.

(He ignored the part of him that whispered that Missy often looked at him like he was a pretty trophy or an amusing pet, or occasionally in a way not very far from Saxon’s current gaze.)

Thankfully, before Saxon could do anything else, John spotted a figure in the distance, and had never been so glad to see a suspicious masked figure in his entire life.

"Your muscle lost," John said, swallowing.

Saxon's head whipped around. "Inconceivable!" he cursed. "I always knew she wasn't good for anything."

"You're quite possibly the most horrid person I've ever met, you know that?" John told him, frowning. "She stopped me from jumping into the water and becoming eel food. Did you even notice that? What else did she do for you that you never bothered to pay attention to, let alone thank her for?"

"I didn't need to thank her for doing her job ."

"Maybe not, if you weren't hurling abuse at her every other minute."

"What business is it of yours?" Saxon snarled. "You're our prisoner, not the worker's union. How I treat my employees is none of your business."

"Is this a bad time?" the woman in black called as she came closer. "Since you two are clearly in the middle of something."

"Not at all," Saxon said smoothly, his fury evaporating in an instant as he turned to face her. "You know how it is with prisoners these days. Never can keep their nose out of their captor's affairs."

She chuckled. "I understand completely."  

When she tried to step closer, Saxon pressed his knife a little harder against John's neck. "By all means, if you want him dead, keep coming closer."

The mysterious woman halted, her sharp eyes lingering on John before moving to Saxon.

"Look, it's quite simple-" she started to say.

"Yes, it is," Saxon agreed, narrowing his eyes at her. "You're trying to kidnap what I've rightfully stolen."

She smiled at him coyly. "I'm sure we can come to some kind of arrangement."

He laughed at her, blatantly mocking. "Some kind of arrangement? What do you think this is, the royal court? A black market?" He dug the knife into John's skin to draw blood when she tried to step forward again. "You're killing him, I'd stop if I were you."

"Then we're at an impasse, it seems," she said, putting her hands on her hips.

"Yes, it does." Saxon eyed her critically. "I'm no shabby swordsman, but you've beaten Tyler and Jones, so I'm not stupid enough to engage you physically, not that I have any reason to do so to begin with when I'm the one that has the Duke."

"Not stupid enough, or not brave enough?" The woman in black asked, smirking.

"Don't," Saxon seethed. "I was going to spare you having to match my brains, but now-"

"Please, don't spare anything on my behalf," she said in a low, smooth tone that, when paired with a smug smile, tugged at John's memory. A kind of familiarity, fleeting and immediately forgotten.

"Do you know what you're getting into?"

She shrugged. "I'm afraid of no man's brain. Your gender has an incredible tendency to overestimate their own intelligence."

Saxon rolled his eyes. "Right."

"So, a battle of wits, then?" she asked brightly.

His eyebrows went up. "For the Duke?" She nodded. "To the death?" Another nod, and he snorted. "Very well, I accept."

Her lips stretched into a wide smile. "Lovely. In that case, pour the wine." She moved to sit opposite as he did so. Now that she was closer, she eyed John with a sort of guarded interest. It shouldn't have affected John at all, but something about her gaze made his skin tingle.

Was it fear? Or something else? John had no idea if he wanted this woman to win or not. On one hand, she could have much better intentions than Saxon, who was sure to kill him. But if her intentions were similar - or god forbid, worse - and she won this battle of wits, then she was certainly a much more formidable captor than his current one. Saxon, at least, John still believed he might have a chance of escaping from at some point.

The woman in black finally tore her eyes from him and reached into a pouch at her waist to pull out a small vial. She uncorked it and offered it to Saxon.

"Sniff, but don't touch if you value your life."

Saxon lifted an eyebrow and took it, inhaling. Whatever he smelled, it had to have been underwhelming, because his expression didn't shift an inch.

"I don't smell anything," he said flatly.

"It's iocane powder," the woman told him as she took it back, "Odourless, tasteless, instantly dissolves in liquid, and-"

"One of the deadliest poisons known to man," Saxon finished, to the woman's slight surprise. "Yes, I'm familiar with it. Get to the point."

She smiled and took the two cups of wine from the table and turned away, hiding them with her body, presumably as she put the poison in one of them. It was the only logical course of action as far as John could see.

The cups were returned to the table a few moments later.

"The battle of wits is simple, as any great test of intelligence should be," she said calmly, "Where's the poison? You choose, we drink, only one of us walks away. With the Duke, of course."

Much to John's surprise, and possibly the strange woman's as well, Saxon started laughing.

"But it is simple," he said, smugness and confidence radiating from his every pore. "All I have to do is work out what kind of person you are, and what you think of me. Whether you're the kind of person who would put the poison in their own goblet or their enemy's. Now, a clever person would put the poison into their own goblet, because they would know that only an idiot would reach for the cup he had been given. I'm far from a fool, so I obviously can't choose the wine in front of you. But you knew I wasn't a fool, you have to be counting on it, so I obviously can't choose the wine in front of me."

The woman in black just smiled. "You've decided, then?"

"Of course not!" Saxon shouted, a manic grin lighting up his face that wasn't half frightening. "You knew I knew the powder, and therefore likely its origin, which is Stormcage. And Stormcage is a land of criminals, who aren't used to people trusting them, just as we don't trust each other, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you."

"The way your mind works is… dizzying," she said, and although they were obscured by her mask, it looked like her eyebrows were up. She couldn't entirely hide her amusement.

Saxon was so riled up that he didn't notice. “ Wait until I get going! " he exclaimed. "Because, since you knew I knew the powder's origin, I can't choose the wine in front of me."

The woman crossed her arms, looking unimpressed. "Look, I know when someone is stalling. Is it so hard to admit you don't know?"

"Oh, you'd like to think I don't know, wouldn't you?!" Saxon retorted, sneering at her. "You've beaten my freak, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could've put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can't choose the wine in front of you. But, you've also bested my swordswoman, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that people are mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me."

She stared at him evenly. "You're trying to trick me into giving something away. It's not going to work."

"It's already worked, you've given everything away," Saxon sneered. "I know where the poison is."

"Then choose."

"I will, I choose - great scot, what is that?!"

"What? Where?" The woman in black glanced over her shoulder, and Saxon switched the glasses while she wasn't looking. By the time she turned back, he was shrugging innocently 

"I swear I saw something," he said, "But ah well. Back to business. Let's drink. Me from my glass and you from yours."

"Very well," she replied, smiling and picking up her glass as he did his. John wondered if he should warn her about the switch somehow, but he was still unsure of her intentions. Then again, since Saxon wanted to kill him, how much worse could hers be?

Almost as if she could read his mind (or more likely, the uncertainty in his face), the woman in black shot him a wink as she and Saxon took long gulps from their glasses.

"You guessed wrong," she said smoothly to Saxon, once she had put her cup back down. “It’s a shame you don’t have Jones’ brains. I told you that your arrogance would be your downfall.”

Saxon laughed in her face. " Jones’ brains?! What a joke. You only think I guessed wrong. I switched the glasses when you looked away, you fell for the oldest trick in the book! The biggest mistake you could ever make is getting involved in a land war in Sontar, but the next worst is to go up against someone from Oakdown when the stakes are your life!"

The woman didn't reply, she simply held his gaze, a tiny smirk on her lips. He continued to laugh, madly, becoming more unhinged with every second.

Until he dropped dead a few moments later.

John stared, wide eyed. "All that time, it was your cup that was poisoned.”

The woman chuckled as she helped him to his feet but made no move to untie his wrists. "They were both poisoned. I have an immunity to iocane powder."


"Isn't it?" She smiled at him. "Now, your grace, we'd best be going."

Chapter Text

Back at the boulders, the queen eyed the unconscious form of the young black woman who was sprawled across the ground. Her advisor was, as always, at her side.

"What do you think, my queen? The victor of the duel, or the victor's next victim?"

"Impossible to say," Missy said, frowning.

Count Thascalos didn't look too convinced, and chuckled. "Surely, my queen, you don't believe that this girl could be the-"

"Finish that sentence, Emil," Missy said quietly, in the voice they all knew was her dangerous one, "go on." He remained silent, somewhat sheepishly. "That's what I thought. Anyone is capable of being anything. And anyone who presumes otherwise, will inevitably underestimate the wrong person, and be exposed for the fool they are."

"Of course," the Count replied.

"We must keep on," she told him and the guards. "There will be immense suffering in Skaro if the duke dies."

Further along, they came across a makeshift table, with two half empty cups on opposite sides, and a tiny vial on the ground nearby. Missy sniffed the vial, and made a face, before handing it to Thascalos. He also inhaled deeply.

"Thoughts?" she asked him.


She nodded. "My verdict exactly. And over there, footprints. They're the Duke's size. He's alive, or was not long ago."


Missy frowned. "If he is otherwise when I find him, I'll be… well, I'll be very put out, to say the least. Do you know how hard it is to find an interesting and intelligent person who doesn't have a beard for days?" She glanced at Thascalos and his impeccably groomed silver-streaked beard. "No offense intended to present company, of course."

"Of course," Thascalos replied, rolling his eyes. "Onwards?"


Further along the hilltop, the woman in black finally gave John the chance to stop for breath. Throwing him towards a rock wasn't the most gracious way she could have done so, but he wasn't about to get picky.

"You'll get whatever you want for ransom if you ask," John said to her, "you can pretend your intention all along was to bring me back to the queen." When she just eyed him with amusement, he asked, "I don't suppose that is your intention?"

She chuckled, low and in a way that tugged at his memory. That unplaceable familiarity again. "No."

"I'm serious about the ransom, I promise-"

"And what is that worth?" she asked, more sharply than he had expected. "The promise of a man? You're not as funny as you think yourself, your grace."

"I'm trying to give you a chance!" he retorted. "You saved me from Saxon, I'm not ungrateful. But Missy - the queen - will find you no matter where you go, she is meticulous, and fearless, and the greatest strategist and hunter I've ever seen."

"You think your dearest love will save you?" There was an odd tone of bitterness to her voice.

"I didn't say anything about her being my dearest love," he muttered, "but yes, she will save me."

The woman in black paused, eyeing him curiously. "You don't love your fiance? And you admit it, freely? I've heard many stories of Queen Melissa, most wouldn't be so brave."

"She knows I don't love her," John said, shrugging.

"That you're not capable of love, you mean," the woman in black said coldly.

The certainty in her voice, as she uttered the completely untrue words, were the last straw for John. Anger and indignation flared in him like a wildfire and he jumped to his feet, eyes flashing.

"I have loved more deeply and more fiercely than a cold killer like yourself could ever conceive," he spat, "And you know what? I've had a terrible day. I've been kidnapped, threatened with death, and won like a prize. The last thing I need is some… pretentious outlaw acting like she knows anything about what I've lost-"

The unforgiving slap she dealt him rang out in the air and left a faint burning on his cheek. He stared at her with disbelief, surprised at the fury in her eyes.

"That was a warning. Where I come from, there are penalties for lying," she told him flatly.

Without another word, her hand grabbed his arm and she continued to yank him along. As they made their way along the hilltop, John put the pieces together, taking all he knew about his captor into consideration.

By the time they stopped again, he had drawn his conclusion.

"I know who you are," he said after she cast him down onto another large flat rock, his voice filling with loathing and disgust, "it's obvious from your cruelty. You're the Dread Pirate Pond, admit it."

She laughed and gave a flourishing bow. "With pride. What can I do for you?"

He clenched his fists to contain the fury bubbling under his skin. Violence wasn't generally in his nature, but he had long suspected that meeting River's killer might make him capable of it.

"You can die, slowly and painfully and knowing you will always be alone," he said darkly.

The Dread Pirate Pond made a 'tsk' noise and shook her head. "Not very complimentary. What issue do you take with me? I hardly think my treatment of you has been so terrible."

"You killed the woman I loved."

She pursed her lips. "It's very possible, given the number of people I kill. Who was she, this love of yours? Another royal? Rich and pompous?"

"A farm girl," John snapped. "Poor. Poor and gloriously imperfect, with hair that couldn't be tamed and the brightest eyes you'd have ever seen." She said nothing, just watched him with an unfathomable expression. "On the high seas, your ship attacked. And the Dread Pirate Pond never takes prisoners."

The pirate shrugged. "I can hardly afford to make exceptions. Someone like me only has their reputation - people learn I've let someone go, words gets out I've gone soft, and people start disobeying me, and then it's just work, work, work-"

"Mock my pain at your own risk," John said, his voice dangerously low.

"Life is pain, your grace," she replied simply, "and I'm sorry, but if anyone's told you otherwise, they were selling you something." She regarded him for a moment, before beginning to walk thoughtfully. "I think I might remember this farm girl of yours. It would have been, what, five years ago? Does it bother you to hear?"

John refused to look at her. "Nothing you say can hurt me more than your actions already have."

"She died well, if that's any consolation."

"It isn't."

"She didn't blubber, or try to bribe me - although I think that's only because she didn't have anything to bribe me with. She'd put up a rather good fight, all things considered. I can see why you liked her; a fiercer woman I've never seen. But when defeated, she stilled. And all she said was 'please'. Please, I need to live. That's why I remember her, the please."

It was probably the only time she ever said please in her whole life, John thought idly.

"Anyway," the Dread Pirate Pond said, "I asked her why living was so important to her. True love, that's what she said. She spoke of a young man; idiotic and a genius at the same time, gangly yet handsome in his own way, so in love with her it prevented him from so much as looking at anyone else. I can only assume she meant you. You're lucky I destroyed her before she could learn the truth about you."

John lifted his chin defiantly. "And what truth is that?"

"So in love you were giddy, she said," Pond sneered. "Unable to look at anyone else. But look at you now. Tell me, when you found out she was dead, did you get engaged to your queen the next day, or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?"

"Don't you dare talk about things you know nothing about!" John shouted, on his feet in an instant. "I died the day that she did!" He took her in, this horrific person who had killed River, and now did nothing but antagonise him and mock him. Disgust consumed him. "You can join us, it's what you deserve."

He pushed her hard, sending her tumbling down the sprawling hill dozens of feet high. For a moment he felt a sense of satisfaction. And then he heard her call something out.

"As... you... wish!"

John stared, wondering if his ears were playing tricks on him, but as he watched, the fabric that had been covering her hair snagged on a branch and was left behind. The curls that had haunted his dreams, confined in a tight bun but loosening with every tumble, spoke the real truth.

"River," he breathed, awestruck. An ache in his chest - one that had been there for years - grew hotter and hotter until he couldn't bear it. He looked for a way to get down to where she was going to end up, but could see nothing. "Oh, bother it. Geronimo!"

Without a better plan, he threw himself down the hill after her. With his long limbs, it was a horrific mess of tumbling down the grass and yelping at being jostled and prodded by the flora on the way down.

Worst. Idea. Ever.