The Doctor walked to the edge of the rocky precipice they had materialized on and stood looking out at the vista below. He’d bragged often enough about keeping amazing ‘out there’, beyond the doors of the Tardis, thrilling and chilling his various companions by surprising them with the wonders of outer space.
At this moment he was quite impressed with inner space. For some reason River had transported them to the American Southwest. They stood on a high butte overlooking a valley peopled with natural stone towers. A soft warm wind wrapped around them, stirring the tail ends of his jacket and playing with her hair. “Blimey,” he breathed. “They don’t call it the ‘Painted Desert’ for nothing.” The waves of sands ranging for miles before him were a heliotrope wash of purple, gold, and crimson against a brilliant blue sky set ablaze by the waning sun. It was the end of an ordinary Earth day and at the moment he thought he had never seen anything so marvelous and so rare.
River was standing some five or six feet away from him. He turned to look at her. She had let her hair down and more closely resembled the woman he recollected. As he watched she caught a stray curl and tucked it behind her ear. She had a faraway look on her face and he wondered, for just a moment, if she even remembered he was there. As usual, sensing his thought, she turned and smiled at him.
“River,” he asked, “why are we here?”
She shrugged. “I like the view?”
“There has to be more to it than that. All of space and time, and you come here. There has to be something special about this place –”
Her look stopped him. In it were mixed joy and pain, hope, and a healthy dose of caution. “Spoilers.”
“Ah.” He looked again at the sky and wondered if it would ever happen the other way ‘round – if the day would come when he knew who and what they were and she did not. “We’ve been bad, you know?
“We should have phoned home before we left.”
“Like you ever use the phone,” she countered playfully. She held up the manipulator “We’ll be back before we left. Time travel, remember?” River stared at him a moment and then crossed over to a low flat stone and sat on it. She patted the spot beside her, indicating he should join her. Casting one last look at the sun, which was now a bare sliver of crimson on the horizon, he did as requested. For several minutes they sat in silence.
Several minutes of silence being, of course, way past his limit, he was the first to speak. “So, River, how are you here, or, were you there, rather?”
“We’ve done the Byzantium, haven’t we? And the Pandorica?” she asked.
“Well, yes. Not sure if ‘done’ is quite the word…”
“And you remember Father Octavian? How he got me out of Stormcage on an assignment, and mentioned that the Byzantium was not the first?”
How could he forget? “Of course.”
She turned her face toward the horizon. The sun was down now and dark shadows advanced toward them across the desert floor. “One of the first times I assisted him…I failed, and with dire consequences.”
“Is that why you were returned to Stormcage?”
Her jaw tightened. For a moment she said nothing. As she turned back, she replied, “In part. I was recruited and sent back in time to Boonesborough, Kentucky in order to prevent you from creating an alliance between the Rutan and Sontaran races. A ship limped into Earth orbit one day, charred nearly beyond recognition, with a data recorder that indicated a man known as Kerr Murray, Lord Dunsmore’s son, had somehow influenced you to make the choice to unite them. Oh, it sounds like a good idea even now, but I assure you it was not. In your…pardon me, dear…naiveté you failed to consider the possibility that, once united in flesh, the Rutans and the Sontarans would then use every ounce of their combined intelligence and might to take over their former battlefields. The Sontarans military code evaporated once merged with the Rutans’ unscrupulousness. The Rutaran Wars rivaled the Time Wars, and you know how those stacked up against Armageddon.”
The Doctor felt a chill. The kind one did when someone walked over their grave. “Where was I in all of this?”
“Absent. Roaming all of time and space in the Tardis, occupied with whatever took your fancy. Your mind….” She reached out and brushed a lock of dark brown hair back from his cheek. “That magnificent, splendid and glorious mind was never the same. Oh, you were still the Doctor, but in that timestream you simply did not care anymore. It was something like a self-defense against what you had done.” River dropped her hand. “I could not. I would not let that stand.”
What she was saying was astounding. If true, River had rewritten time in such a way that he was unaware of it. And she had interfered in her own timeline – and survived.
More than ever, he wondered just who she was.
“It took years, obviously, as I am a bit older than the last time we met, and a great deal of research, but I finally found the moment I was looking for. The one event that could change everything and turn that disastrous mission for Octavian into a rousing success.” River brushed the vortex manipulator with a finger. “I used this, and I came back and changed history.”
Such a thing would never have been possible before the Time Wars, but now with the Time Lords gone, there were no rules. Countless timelines spun out from a single action or inaction altering the face of everything in existence, and there was no one to stop or control them. It was a wonder it didn’t all just blow up in their faces.
Of course, it almost had.
His tone was disapproving. “River, what you did was dangerous. Very, very dangerous.”
She met his stare and then rose and walked quickly to the edge of the cliff. The night was nearly fallen and he could only just see her slender figure lit by the light of a fingernail moon. For a moment she said nothing. Then softly, she admitted, “It was my fault. I had to set it right.”
He followed her. “How was it your fault?” he asked gently as he came to her side.
“How?” She turned toward him. There were tears streaming down her cheeks. “Father Octavian gave me a choice – the safety of the universes, or you.” Her hand reached out toward him. “I chose you.”
For a moment he had nothing to say. He should have been angry – very, very angry – but he wasn’t. He was just immensely sad. “So how did you do it?”
“Set right what had gone wrong.”
“Oh,” she laughed softly, “it was easy. I started an argument. I went to Boonesborough and suggested to Jenny Martin’s mother that she would have been better off if she had never moved to Kentucky. And I hinted,” she added with a wink, “that there just might have been a reason other than the land that brought her husband out west in the first place.”
“Jenny Martin?” For a moment he was puzzled. Then it clicked. “Jemima’s friend. The one whose parents’ arguing drove her from their cabin and sent her running home where she…met…me. “
“As she did not do the first time around.”
Like a clockwork gear the moment before it strikes, everything fell into place with one resounding click.
“So that means Jemima….”
River nodded. “Saved us all.”
“Blimey.” As he fell into silence, River shifted. She hesitated and then moved closer and began to run her fingers through his hair. “What are you –?”
“Be still! You’re like a little boy getting his first haircut.” She continued to probe and he let her – once he realized she was not about to take hold of him and initiate their first, well, for him anyway, snog. “Ah! There it is.”
She gave him that ‘exasperated mother’ look she did so well and then brought her finger down on the top of his skull.
“There’s your definition of why you are an idiot,” she sighed. “What did you think I was looking for, intergalactic nits?”
“Ooh. Yuck,” he replied.
“They’ve hidden it very well. There’s a bit of circuitry in there that needs to be removed.” River released him and stepped back. “You’re going to need some TLC. Maybe I had better come with you in the Tardis.”
“I have Amy,” he said quickly. “She’s very good at T…L…C….”
River pursed her lips and cocked her head. “Really?”
“No. Not, well, not that kind of TLC. You know, plasters and iodine and all that.” He swallowed. “Well, no, she’s not really all that good at that either. Hit me over the head with a cricket bat once, did you know that?”
“I must remember to commend her.”
“Yes.” He scowled. “What? Well, anyhow, we don’t have time for anything tender…or loving or…” he pulled at his collar as he backed away, “careful….” This was not coming out as he meant. “How ‘bout we just pop ‘round to the medical planet at Sigma Alpha Five Five Nine O and have one of the drones remove it?”
“Waste of time and energy. I can remove it. It’s barely under your skin.” She moved a step closer. “Anyhow, it’s what comes after that you need me for. We need to make sure no trace of the Sontaran programming remains. Anywhere. That’s where the TLC comes in.”
His heels were dangling off the edge of the cliff now. He wondered if he should just jump off and get it over. “Oh?”
“Yes.” River smiled as she took hold of the placard of his shirt. “After all, there’s more than just one little chip needs to be removed.”
The Doctor looked at her, and then at the desert floor seemingly a mile below.
As he told Kazran Sardick, he had absolutely no experience with woman, well, practically no experience, well, what experience he did have was way, way, way in the past and seemed more like one of those dreams you wake from thinking they were real until you find out they weren’t and then it just stinks because it was really nice and a bit simple and in a way, what he really wanted though, of course, he would never let on.
Not even to himself.
River, naturally, had been having him on. Again. She’d laughed at his expression and then taken his hand and placed it on top of the vortex manipulator, and they had materialized somewhere inside a rather ordinary looking house where she had located some peroxide, a pair of tweezers, and a really big, really soft wad of cotton and got down to business. He couldn’t make a sound as she removed the chip, of course, because he had very nearly conquered all of time and space and to shout out ‘mummy’ in front of the woman who might, well, just might end up being something close to mummy or…worse…was just not done. So instead he drove his booted foot into the plush carpet and curled his fingers up into fists and bit down on his lip and waited. After several moments, he asked, “Well?”
“Well what?” River replied.
“Are you going to get to it or not?”
She placed a hand on his shoulder, leaned over and held the tweezers before his face. Caught in their ends was an almost microscopic chip. “Done.”
“Oh, all very well and good for you!” he remarked, feeling the need to say something. “It may look small but, well….” River dropped it onto his open palm. “It is small. Really small. In fact, it’s….”
“But infinitely harmful and really…big on….harmfulness.”
She snorted and then ran her fingers through his hair again.
“What are you doing that for? Is there something else there?”
River leaned in close. “I like it.”
He popped up and moved away, placing the chair between them. “I thought we agreed you weren’t going to…well, do that anymore. For goodness sake, you’re a professor now! Professors are…dignified. Even….”
He pulled on his bowtie and then struck a noble pose. “Lofty.”
She shrugged. “Boring.” River tossed the bloodied wad of cotton in the sink. “Sit back down. I need to sterilize it. Whoever made that chip was a genius. Whoever tried to give you a haircut – roots and all – was little more than a butcher. No wonder it bled so much.”
He had told her a little of his adventures. He wondered now what awaited him back in Kentucky. Had time reset itself yet again? Would the Rutans and the Sontarans still be there? Would…River? And what about Amy? He was responsible for Amy, and besides, if he tried to go back without Amy he’d have to tell Rory that he had lost her again and – well – Rory had a mean right hook.
“Baby.” River applied another swab soaked in peroxide. “If you’re a very good boy, I might make you a blond.”
He looked up at her, hopeful. “Can you do ginger?”
River glanced at the swab in her hand, which was coated with his blood. “I think we have had quite enough red for one night.” She used her fingers to comb his hair back into place, taking care to go lightly in the area of the wound. “There. Now you look presentable again. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes.” He stood up. “Jemima and Mingo are waiting.”
“You promise you will have the Tardis run a full scan of your system? She knows you better than anyone and should be able to tell if there are any lingering effects from Blundell’s tampering.”
“And you’ll get some rest? You know, dear, you really do look terrible.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and nodded. “Yes.”
“And don’t forget to take your vitamins.”
“Yes.” He started. “What?”
She smiled. “Just making sure you were listening.” River paused to look at him. “I wish I was coming with you.”
“You can’t. You’re already there.”
“I know.” The smile grew rueful. “I remember.”
“Do you? How?” It was his turn to stare. “You can’t since you haven’t been yet…. No. No. I recognize that look. Spoilers.”
Without warning, she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Then, she whispered in his ear.
“Everyone knows a man loves a woman of mystery.”
Jemima Boone had never been so happy in her life as when the Tardis doors opened suddenly and John walked in. She had thought maybe she was going to be trapped forever between Joppa and Nineveh. There was a flash of light behind him, and then the doors closed and he advanced to where she was standing. He looked tired, but then she was sure she did too.
“Where’s River?” she asked.
“River’s taking another…route.”
“Oh. So there’s more than one Tardis?”
“Yes. Well, sort of.” He frowned. “How’s Mingo?”
“Sleeping. He doesn’t remember much. He said he was a little fuzzy from before when Amy hit him. And then with the bullet….”
“Ah. For the best, I imagine.” John pursed his lips and then tilted his head and looked at her intently. “What are we going to do with you, Jemima Boone?”
It was her turn to frown. “What do you mean?”
He took her by the hand and led her over to one of the time machine’s stairs and had her sit down. Sitting beside her, he asked, “Tell me, Jemima, what are you doing to do with the rest of your life?”
“I don’t know.”
“Get married? Have a bunch of babies?”
“You don’t sound so sure.”
“It’s just, well, after all of this,” she indicated the Tardis, “I mean, how can I just go back to being ordinary?”
He reached out and took her hand. “Tell me, Jemima, before you met me, what did you want? A life of excitement and danger?”
“I already got that,” she replied. “Hardly a day goes by when we aren’t under attack by Indians or the British or some other bad men.”
“You don’t sound like you like it.”
“It’s all right, I guess. But….”
“Well, my ma told me about the big cities, where ladies walk on the street without having to be afraid, where you spend your time thinking about books or maybe even shows, and not about whether or not you’ll wake up at all in the morning. I think I’d like that better.”
He nodded and then waited a moment. “Did you consider what I asked you?”
She looked down, embarrassed. “You mean, about traveling with you?”
“Yes. You are my brave, brave Indian scout. My brave Jemima Boone. I’d be proud to have you at my side. But….”
“But every day would be like that, wouldn’t it? Running and fighting and fearing for your life? Worrying that someone you…cared about would get hurt, or maybe die?”
“I think,” she drew a deep breath, “I think it’s kind of like when we went to Salem. It was nice visiting, but it wasn’t….”
Tears filled her eyes. “I want to go home.”
John patted her hand. “That’s where you belong, which is why I asked you to come with me.”
“Huh? Oh.” Jemima smiled. “So I knew I could have but chose not to, you mean. So I wouldn’t wonder and be unhappy.” He continued to stare at her without saying anything for so long she finally asked, “What is it?”
“How many hearts do I have?”
It still made her shiver a little. “Two.”
“And what are you going to do with that information in Boonesborough in the 18th century?”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“I know that.” His words were gentle. “And you’ll tell yourself each time you remember that it doesn’t matter. But it does matter, Jemima. It does. Such knowledge will set you apart from every other person you know. You will never be the same, never fit in, and never again be able to pretend you don’t know.” He hesitated. “Unless you don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, feeling a little frightened.
John squeezed her fingers. “You remember how I looked into your mind?” When she nodded, he went on, “Well, I can plant thoughts there too. I can make you forget that you ever knew me.”
“But I don’t want to do that!”
“Or…. Or I can make it so that when you wake up, you will think this was all a dream.”
Tears had begun to flow down her face. “But it wasn’t!” she sniffed. “I want to remember you, and that I knew you. Isn’t there some way you can make me remember it as true?”
John considered it a moment. “Do you trust me, Jemima Boone?”
She sniffed again and forced a smile. “You’re not gonna make me promise to be brave again, are you?”
There were tears in his eyes too. “I couldn’t do that, not if all of time and space were at my beck and call. Which, by the way, they are.” John smiled sadly. “You can’t make someone something that they already are. You are the bravest, the best, Jemima Boone. And don’t you ever let anyone tell you otherwise!”
Impulsively, she leaned forward and caught him in an embrace. Leaning against him, she felt his two hearts beating, strongly and in tune. No matter what, she told herself, no matter what he said or did she would never forget him. Never.
He took her arms and moved her away. “Are you ready?”
Jemima looked at him, memorizing every inch of his face. Then she nodded.
Amy Pond sat with her elbows on her knees, pouting. She was about as unhappy a bunny as a bunny could be. There was nothing like being captured, cloned, drugged, viewing what looked to be your crisped corpse, and then tossed out of the Tardis and left to rot in the Kentucky wilderness – and all for nothing! The Rutans and the Sontarans were gone. Even the clone of River had disappeared. The blonde woman was being tight-mouthed as an Ipswich clam about all of it. It was obvious she knew more than she was telling, but it was just as obvious that she was not going to share. The only thing Amy was certain of was that River was hugely relieved.
Or well, had been, until the wait for the Doctor had run into minutes, and then hours, and now into something approaching half a day.
Amy wanted to go back to Boonesborough, or on to Salem, or halfway ‘round the 18th century planet to her home. She thought Leadworth existed in seventeen-seventy-whatever-it-was. As a plus, maybe there’d be ducks in the duck pond.
“River,” she whined, “I’m cold and I’m hungry, and I want to get out of this silver goonie.”
The older woman turned toward her, puzzled. “What?”
“This!” She pulled at the flimsy metallic fabric that covered her which, after everything she had been through, was tattered and torn and less than sufficient to keep her covered or warm. “How come you get the shirt and boots and I get the nightie?”
“Because I have the gun.”
“Oh, right. Go ahead and shoot me!” Amy yelled. “I couldn’t be any more numb than I am now. I can’t feel the tip of my nose.”
“It’s still there.”
“Right. Thanks.” Amy stood up and began to move about, stamping her feet and rubbing her arms. “Anyone ever tell you that you are just a barrel of laughs?”
“They never really stop.”
River’s answers were flat, without the emotion of her usual playful tone. “You’re worried about him, aren’t you? The Doctor, I mean?”
“I am always worried about that man,” River sighed as she walked to her side.
“But he always comes out on top, right? I mean, he’s defeated Daleks and Weeping Angels, and stopped the crack in my wall from eating everything in creation.” Amy swallowed hard. “Literally. From what I’ve seen it would take something really big and really, really impossible to stop him.”
The older woman nodded. “Or something really, really small.”
Amy shivered so hard some of the torn fabric flew off of her gown. “The Doctor can find us anywhere. Why do we have to wait here? It’s not the Ritz, but Cincinnatus’ tavern is looking really good about now. You know, fire, food – not freezing!”
“I can’t let you go back by yourself, Amy. The wilderness is too dangerous. And I am not leaving this place. This is the last spot the Tardis stood and I am not going anywhere until I hear that dreadful sound and watch that ridiculous man step out of his….” River stopped. Her eyes lit with excitement. “Amy. Listen!”
She heard it, the wheezing grinding noise that River had said was caused by the Doctor leaving the Tardis’ parking brakes on. A second later a strong wind caught her nightie and nearly blew it up around her chin. Amy took hold of the thin fabric and pushed it down just as the big blue box materialized not six feet away from them.
River shot her a glance. “One down.”
Odds were the Doctor was all right. No one else – well, no one but River – could pilot the Tardis other than the Time Lord. Still, Amy had seen what the Sontarans had done to him. Even if it was the Doctor, would he be all right? Would he be the same as he had been? She’d heard he sometimes changed faces like other men changed shirts.
Would he be her Doctor?”
A second later the Tardis door opened and a familiar figure topped by a ridiculous crop of dark brown hair appeared. “Going my way?” he asked with a grin.
“Oh, I am so going your way!” Amy said. Before the Doctor could move she shoved past him, nearly knocking him down. “Hot tub here I come!”
“I’m pleased to see you too,” the Doctor murmured quietly as Amy’s tall figure vanished into the Tardis’ interior.
“You look pale. Are you all right?” River asked, drawing his attention. “And what about your passengers – Jemima, and Lord Dunsmore’s son?”
“I dropped Jemima off at her home on the way. She’s sleeping.”
“Did you make her forget?”
Why should it surprise him that River would know he could do that? “No. She didn’t want to forget.”
“Doctor! That’s extremely dangerous. Daniel Boone’s daughter, aware of time travel and time –”
“Oh, she won’t remember the Time Lord or his time machine,” he said as he left the Tardis and moved to her side. “Only John Smith, a ragged stranger whom her mother helped, who died after being shot by a redcoat. She’ll mourn, and she’ll move on.”
“Shows how much you understand women,” River muttered.
“Never mind.” The blonde woman marched right up to him and looked straight into his eyes. “You know I know what happened. For a moment I thought. Well…” She drew a sharp breath. “I thought I had failed, that I had not managed to abort a future never meant to happen. That you…. That if you returned, you wouldn’t be yourself.”
“I’m fine, River. Really.” He reached out and touched her arm briefly. “Thanks to Mingo and Jemima, everything turned out all right.”
“I was sent to kill him, you know – or you. Really, you.”
He nodded. “The fact that we’re both still alive makes me like you a lot better.”
“Really. I’ll be sure to remind you of that the next time we meet.” A series of beeps and a sharp click drew her attention to her wrist. The skin was glowing red. “Subcutaneous receiver. Sort of a 54th century ankle bracelet. Octavian’s men have found me. I signaled them earlier that I had accomplished my mission.”
“So everything went back to the way it was?” he asked. “No Sontarans, no Rutan Host?”
“The only ones aware that anything transpired out of the ordinary are you, Amy and me, Mingo and Jemima, and the girl’s father. Daniel Boone was on the edge of the effect. I imagine he feels like he ordinarily does after one too many glasses of Cincinnatus’ Blue Thunder. He won’t remember much in the morning.”
“Mingo either. I left him in Galunadi’s healing tent. He’ll think it was all just a fever dream.”
“You’re tired,” she pronounced. “You need to rest. And while you’re at it, why don’t you hook yourself up to the Tardis’ scanners and make certain there are no traces of Sontaran programming left.”
He laughed. “Good old River. Same as ever.”
She smiled that enigmatic smile that both irritated and intrigued him even as Octavian’s transporter began to take effect.
“Don’t you wish?”
The Doctor stood staring at the spot where River had vanished for some time and, even though he hated repeats, mentally walked through every word she had ever said to him. He had contemplated every single identity for her he could imagine from a future incarnation of himself, to a manifestation of the Tardis, to a regeneration of his mother, and lastly, a wife. None of them were the proper fit. It was like when you borrowed someone’s coat, even though you were the same size there were always little places where something was simply wrong.
“Oh, well,” he sighed, “I’ll find out one day.”
“Oi! Elbow Patches! Are you coming or not?”
He spun on his heel to find Amy Pond leaning out the door of the Tardis. She had donned a thick red bathrobe but was still very obviously dry.
“I thought you were heading for the hot tub.”
“I was, but on my way my stomach started growling like a hungry Krafayis and I made a detour into the kitchen. You know what I found there?”
Her tone puzzled him. “Food?”
Amy thrust her hand out. In it was a brown bag. “Onion rings. And do you know where these onion rings came from?”
He did, but of course said he didn’t. “No. Should I?”
“JOE’S! Where Rory is! Waiting. Like, forever.” Amy paused. She opened the bag and peered in. Wrinkling her nose, she looked at him. “How old are these anyway? You and I didn’t pick any up before we were, you know, captured by potato heads and threatened by green goo.”
“Must have been on one of my other visits.”
“With River?” Amy waggled her eyebrows.
If it had been, he didn’t remember it – yet.
The Doctor walked slowly toward the Tardis. When he got there, Amy shoved the bag under his nose. “You know,” she said before vanishing back into the time ship’s interior, “you really do need a wife.”
He didn’t know about that, but one thing he knew for sure.
No matter what, it was definitely the last time he would eat at JOE’S.