Chance Meetings by DameRuth



Summary: DW/Firefly crossover.
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Tenth Doctor
Characters: Jack Harkness, Other Character(s), Rose Tyler, The Doctor (10th), The TARDIS
Genres: Action/Adventure, Crossover, General
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: Tales from the Findersverse
Published: 2007.03.03
Updated: 2007.03.30


Index

Chapter 1: In The Junkyard
Chapter 2: In The Galley I
Chapter 3: In The Galley II
Chapter 4: In the Infirmary I
Chapter 5: In The Infirmary II
Chapter 6: In The TARDIS
Chapter 7: In Your Dreams I
Chapter 8: In Your Dreams II


Chapter 1: In The Junkyard

Author's Notes: So, I went and did it to myself again -- I mentioned to a friend that I'd been seeing some DW/Firefly crossovers, and she was suddenly all over me to do one. I laughed it off, since I have three unfinished stories going as it is, but once that seed was planted in my brain, it just started *growing* . . . I'm using Ten, Rose and Jack from my own little personal AU setting here (post "Finders Keepers" and "Promises To Keep"); the Firefly characters are post-"Serenity." I do have to thank River for giving me Jack's "nickname"; I'd been thinking if I had the Wolf and the Storm, just plain old "Jack" was a little bland for the third member of the team -- but the part of my brain playing River remembered Abbadon, and gave me the perfect sobriquet.


Kaylee kicked at the coil condenser, wrinkling her nose. It really was a piece of junk, beyond resurrection. Her foot scuffed the ground in the process and raised a puff of dust. Dry as a bone -- midsummer here in Davesport, with the sun high and beating down on her back. A trickle of sweat ran down between her shoulderblades, and she tucked a wisp of hair back up under the brim of her battered straw hat.

Well, best keep looking. She raised her eyes to cast around the junkyard speculatively. She was getting to be a downright expert on junkyards, what with the Captain always sending her out for parts. Still, she knew that meant he trusted her judgment, which took a lot of the gripe out of her.

She wound around piles of engine parts, hull scraps, and God-only-knew-what, with dry weeds and tufts of sagebrush sticking up through, keeping an eye out for the glint of brighter metal -- newer parts, things likely to be in more fit condition.

Half an hour later, she'd found two only-sort-of-trashed condensers; if she ripped them apart and added in some bits from _Serenity's_ own half-dead condenser, she just might end up with a single functioning unit. She tagged the condensers, and wondered if she should keep looking, or if she should head back to the ship while she still had a square inch of skin that wasn't covered in dust and sweat.

A rattle from the other side of the current junk pile caught her attention. Curious, she walked around it, and was surprised to see someone else there, digging away -- not just someone else, another girl, even. Girls didn't tend to care for mussing their pretty selves in junkyards, and Kaylee felt an automatic sense of kinship with this new person.

She was young -- maybe even a mite younger than Kaylee herself -- pretty, brown-haired, slender, with her hair caught up in a messy knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a pink t-shirt and a pair of faded jeans, along with an unfeminine but practical pair of work gloves. Those gloves made Kaylee like her even more.

"Howdy," she called out.

Surprised, the other girl looked up, then took in Kaylee's friendly smile and smiled back.

"Hello," she said, "I didn't know there was anyone else here."

Boy, that accent was different -- Kaylee found she couldn't place it. It sounded kind of like some of the accents from the Core, but not quite. That made her curious.

"Just lookin' for some parts," Kaylee said. "Cap’n' s got us sprucing up while we have a break. What're you lookin' for?"

The other girl sighed. "Parts, like you. I've got a list, but I'm not havin' much luck." She pulled off a glove and fished in a pocket, retrieving a rather sweaty and rumpled piece of paper.

"Well," Kaylee said, holding out a hand. "I've been over what feels like three-quarters of this godforsaken mess, maybe I've seen something you're after."

The other girl hesitated, and then handed over the list. "Thanks. My name's Rose, by the way."

"Kaylee." Dang, that was an odd mix of parts. Still, she'd seen a power-step module that might still have some life in it, back a ways. "I think you might be interested in this over here . . ."

The power-step turned out to be just what Rose was after, so she tagged it, and the two of them continued their treasure-hunt through the junk. Kaylee was so happy to have found a kindred soul, she forgot all about the dust. The two of them hit it right off, and they were chattering along like old friends in no time.

"Actually, I'm not an expert on this," Rose told Kaylee after they'd tagged most of the parts on her list. "I'm still learning. Jack and the Doctor are the ones who really know what they're doing."

"I dunno, you seem pretty up on things to me," Kaylee told her, honestly.

"Yeah, well you haven't heard them going on together -- in fact, speak of the Devil . . ."

Kaylee looked in the direction Rose pointed, and saw two men weaving towards them through the junk. The tall, skinny one in the suit and tie (carrying his jacket slung over his shoulder in this heat) must be the Doctor, from what Rose had said, and that meant the other, in a white t-shirt (now the worse for dust) and jeans, must be Jack.

Kaylee raised her eyebrows in appreciation. Jack was just about the prettiest human being she'd seen, outside of Simon -- which was saying something.

"How's that list coming along?" the Doctor called out, at almost the same time Jack called, "'Lo Rose -- who's your friend?"

"Got most of it," Rose told the Doctor as he reached them, handing over the list with each found part marked off on it, and to answer Jack, she said, "Jack, Doctor, this is Kaylee, she's a ship's engineer out looking for parts, like us. She's been a big help."

"Pleased to meet you, Kaylee," the Doctor said, taking her hand with a pleasant smile, His grip was firm, dry and cool, and Kaylee was impressed he wasn't running hot like everyone else on a day like today.

""Same here," Jack said, shaking her hand in turn, and giving her a dazzling smile. "I should hang out in junkyards more often."

Kaylee blushed a little, but in a happy way. Jack really was a fine-looking man.

Next to her, Rose rolled her eyes. "Pay no attention to him. Flirting's a spinal reflex for Jack."

"Thanks, Rose, love you, too," Jack said, amused and unoffended. The Doctor had the same accent Rose did, but Jack's accent was pure, polished Core. He didn't look like a soft Core-dweller, though. He had a gun holstered at his side, Kaylee noticed, and he wore the weapon comfortably, like someone used to it.

The Doctor she couldn't place -- didn't look like a doctor-Doctor, not like Simon, maybe a University Doctor. Come to that, Rose was hard to figure, too. She wondered what the three of them were doing out here on the Rim, but it was bad manners to ask, so she held her tongue.

The Doctor was running down the list, Jack looking over his shoulder.

"That's almost everything, really," the Doctor said. "Jack and I found most of what we were looking for, so we're in good shape."

"Might as well knock off for the day," Jack added. "We'll be retrofitting this stuff into the wee hours as it is. We can go looking again tomorrow -- maybe it'll be cooler . . ."

Retrofitting. That made Kaylee's ears prick up. She was still trying to figure what kind of ship these folks might have, what with the parts list and all. Sounded interesting, that was for sure. Too bad she'd probably never find out more, but it was fun to puzzle over.

The four of them headed back to the junkyard's main office, to pay for their tagged items and arrange delivery. Kaylee wished she could spend some more time with Rose, since they got on so well, but she had other errands to do, and was realizing she'd taken more time in the junkyard than she'd planned.

So, she said her farewells and was off to arrange for refueling, and a crate of new air filters.

Once that was done, it was well into the afternoon, and getting even hotter, if that was possible. It was that last burst of heat, before things started cooling down for the evening. Kaylee's mouth and throat were dry, and she felt like she’d turn into dust herself any moment.

On the strip heading back down to the docks proper, a sign caught her eye. "Cold drinks - Beer - Juice" it pronounced. Once she'd seen that, she just couldn't help herself. She had a little spending money tucked into a pocket, and cold juice sounded like pure heaven right about now. She could spare a few more minutes . . .

She ducked through the door. It was a seedy little place, more concerned with booze for crews on shore leave than anything else, and it looked like it could be rough. The place was nearly deserted now, though, it being too early for the serious drinkers, so Kaylee wasn't worried.

After the barest glance around, she headed straight for the bar, slapped down her money, and within a minute was savoring a tall, cool glass of pineapple juice -- the real thing. Well, made out of concentrate, she was sure, but it had come out of an actual plant at some point, which put it miles over and above the fake stuff.

She closed her eyes and sighed as she plunked the empty glass down on the bar. Yessir, purest heaven . . .

The impact of a body hitting the stool next to her startled her, an instant before a heavy hand landed on her shoulder. Kaylee's eyes snapped open, and she found herself looking at a total stranger. A very large, very rough stranger, who was smiling at her in a way that was not at all kindly.

Oh, shit, was all she could think, I'm in trouble now.

"So, sweetheart," the stranger said, smiling at her more broadly as he picked up on her discomfort. "What brings you here? Lookin' for a little company?"

Dammit, the Cap'n would skin her alive for being so stupid, and he'd be right; just 'cause a seedy dive looks empty doesn't mean it's safe for a girl on her own, not in a place like Davesport.

She managed a smile back. "Just meetin' up with some friends of mine," she said, starting to bluff. "In fact, they should be along any minute, here . . ." Her eyes darted around, while she tried not to be obvious. The bartender was down at the far end of the bar, pointedly ignoring them. No help there.

The hand on her shoulder tightened. "Well, now, I betcha' I can show you a better time than those friends of yours. Why'n'cha come along with me?" He started to shift his weight.

Kaylee clung to her stool, "Thanks kindly for the offer, but I'll just stay where I am," she said, keeping her voice desperately pleasant and cheerful, trying to plan out her next moves. She knew a few things the Cap'n had taught her for situations like this, but she was never very good at them, and knew if she got it wrong and didn't incapacitate the man, she'd be in far worse trouble once he was angry . . .

"The lady said she's not interested," a new voice said, and Kaylee turned her head to find herself looking at Rose's friend, Jack. He wasn't smiling at all, now, and he looked very different. "So take a hike, why don't you?" His cold eyes were fixed on the man holding Kaylee, and the stranger had gone very, very still. He kept his hand on Kaylee's shoulder, though.

"This here's a private conversation," he snarled at Jack.

Just then, the Doctor and Rose arrived, flanking Jack, and Kaylee was surprised at how different they looked, too. There was something about Rose that reminded Kaylee of Zoe -- all focused and confident, ready for a fight. And the Doctor . . . he had a set, fierce look on his face that Kaylee would never want directed at her.

"Not anymore," the Doctor said, his eyes dark and blank. Scary, Kaylee thought -- she'd seen hired killers who looked friendlier than he did right then.

"C'mon, Kaylee," Jack said. "We'll walk you back to your ship." He held out a hand, and Kaylee grabbed it gratefully. She stood up, and the stranger let his hand slide off her shoulder. Obviously, he'd decided he didn't like the odds, what with facing three people, and one of them visibly armed.

They made it out the door, in dead silence, and Kaylee huffed a relieved breath.

"This way," she said pointing, and took off. No sense in hanging around and waiting for any further trouble. "Thank you," she said next, as they walked, meaning it. "I should never have been so stupid . . ."

"For wanting a glass of juice on a day like this?" the Doctor asked her, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Seems reasonable enough to me." He smiled, and she felt better knowing he wasn't going to make fun of her.

"That's what we were planning," Rose said from the other side of her. "Changed our minds when we walked in the door and saw you, though."

"Nothing like rescuing a pretty lady to round out the day," Jack agreed. "Better than juice, anytime." He grinned and winked at Kaylee, and she didn't mind that sort of thing at all, coming from him. She grinned back.

Rose and the Doctor both gave Jack a long-suffering look, and Kaylee couldn't help laughing. They were clearly such good friends with each other, and they gave off a pleasant, friendly vibe now they were away from the bar. It made her feel easy to be around them, even though they'd just met.

"Anyway, Kaylee, this is our first visit to Davesport. If you'd like to point out the sights along the way, that would be a great help to us," the Doctor told her with an encouraging smile. It seemed the least she could do as a repayment, so Kaylee happily complied.

--

Mal leaned against the doorway of _Serenity's_ open hold, and enjoyed a rare moment of thinking about nothing much. Zoe, next to him, was technically on guard duty -- sitting in an old folding chair at the top of the ramp, in the shade, and reading an old-style paper book -- but Mal had found himself drawn down to the hold by the prospect of fresh air and a bit of company.

They kept a friendly silence, while she turned pages and Mal watched the world go by. Zoe'd always had a fondness for what she called "real" books -- said she couldn't hardly concentrate without pages to turn -- but she'd taken to reading a lot, after Wash's death. Mal was glad she had something to keep her mind occupied.

Relaxed as he was, it was hard to go completely Zen, but for once the thoughts going through his mind were pleasant. A few good jobs done, a few payments finally received without entertaining complications, and they had enough cash to spend on some much-needed improvements. Most of the crew was out on errands to that end. Results were starting to show; the junkyard had already delivered Kaylee's secondhand parts. The pile looked decidedly unpromising to Mal, but he'd seen Kaylee work miracles with less.

He was expecting everyone back soon, but for now, all he had to do was let some clean air circulate through the hold (always a welcome benefit of being back in atmo, especially after a run using those gorram cheap air filters they'd gotten last time), and relax.

'Course, the 'Verse rarely left well enough alone, and things were bound to change . . .

Mal picked out Kaylee's voice over the general hubub of the docks, going a mile a minute, and approaching at a good clip. That girl was hard to miss, once she got going. Without moving his head to look for her, he wondered, idly, which of the crew she'd hooked up with on her way back, assuming that was who she was talking to. Then:

"There's _Serenity_!" he heard her chirp. "Isn't she shiny?"

"I'll say!" an appreciative male voice answered, and it wasn't one Mal recognized. He straightened up a bit, and felt himself getting a little less mellow. Who was Kaylee talking to?

He craned his neck, looking, and there was Kaylee, pushing through the crowd, with three strangers in tow. She was talking with them like they were old friends -- though with Kaylee, that could mean she'd known them anywhere from ten years to ten minutes.

"She's got beautiful lines," one of the strangers continued, the same voice Mal had already heard.

Two men and one woman; Mal looked at them narrowly. The man who’d been speaking was dark-haired and muscular, with a holstered gun prominently displayed on his hip; Mal was willing to bet he had a few other weapons hidden on his person, even though his clothing didn't allow too much room for that. The second man was more lightly built, wearing a suit that was fancy for here, but scruffy for the Core; he had a scholarly look to him, but that suit coat left a lot of room for un-scholarly surprises. The woman was young -- younger than the men, who weren't old to begin with -- pretty, nice figure. She didn't seem to be armed, though again, appearances could be deceptive.

They didn't look threatening, but Mal had learned the hard way to take no chances, and to accept nobody at face value.

Kaylee reached up to pat _Serenity's_ hull, and the dark-haired man followed suit. Predictably, Kaylee was glowing. Anyone who liked the ship had her total approval.

The scholarly man surveyed _Serenity_ with his hands in his pockets, relaxed. "I bet she could strip the wind, once she gets up to speed. How do you have your power source configured?" he asked, in a tone of relaxed but genuine interest.

Mal raised an eyebrow at an accent he couldn't identify, asking questions about his ship. He straightened completely, so he was no longer leaning in the doorway. Zoe was still seated, but alert now, closing her book. She'd picked up on Mal's change in mood without the need for words to pass between them -- after so long, they didn't need any chatter to exchange information.

Kaylee started in on the technical details, practically bouncing with delight. The strange girl grinned at her, and slipped around the dark-haired man to pat the ship. "I like her," she told Kaylee, when the latter stopped for breath, "She reminds me a little of our ship. There's a good feel to her."

Mal decided it was time to join in. He coughed. Kaylee and her friends all looked in his direction, Kaylee shading her eyes to see into the hold entrance. Mal and Zoe were in deep shadow from the perspective of those outside, which had kept them from being noticed before.

Kaylee spotted Mal and gave him a grin and a wave. "Hello, Cap'n!" she called out, heading up the ramp. After an exchanged glance, the strangers followed. "I found those parts at the junkyard, and got us a pile of filters ordered -- the good charcoal ones, no more having _Serenity_ smell like someone's armpit . . ."

"Parts’re already here," Mal told her, waving towards the pile to one side of the hull.

"Oh, good, I paid extra to deliver 'em fast . . .Anyway, Cap'n, Zoe, this here's the Doctor," the scholarly one, "Rose," the girl, "and Captain Jack Harkness."

Mal shook hands all around, willing to be neighborly at the moment. He was a little surprised the dark-haired man had the title of "Captain" -- he'd pegged the scholarly one, the Doctor, to be the man in charge, judging from the body language of the others.

"What's your ship's name?" he asked the Captain with a smile, "Maybe I know her."

"I doubt that; we aren't from around here," Captain Jack answered, easily, "and she's not really mine -- the Doctor's the man in charge." He nodded at the Doctor, who smiled.

Interesting -- a smooth deflection and redirection. Mal considered. He'd had the Doctor pegged as the brains, this "Captain" Jack as the muscle, and Rose as the main squeeze.

Now, though, he wasn't so sure about that. Jack's polished charm screamed "conman!" to Mal, holstered gun aside, and the measuring look Rose had given Mal during their handshake had him convinced she was more than a pretty face along for the ride.

They didn't quite add up, and that was enough to put Mal on edge.

Then the Doctor surprised him again. "Our ship's called the TARDIS," he said -- such an oddball name, Mal was willing to bet it was real. Not the sort of thing someone normally made up to lie with, anyway.

"And Jack's right, we're a long way from home," he continued, all light and breezy. Up close, Mal revised his estimate of the man's age upwards. There were a lot of fine lines at the corners of the Doctor's eyes, and glints of silver in his sideburns. Older meant trickier, in Mal's book. "Fortunately, Kaylee's been kind enough to help out a few poor, wandering souls, for which we're grateful . . ."

"Me help you!" Kaylee burst in, laughing. "You saved my hide, all I did was show you around a little."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, what's this, Kaylee? There been trouble?" Mal asked, concerned.

"Nothing major," Jack cut in, "Just a little misunderstanding in a bar. We didn't even have to break any furniture." He grinned again, oozing cocky charm. Mal wasn’t sure if he liked the man or wanted to pop him one.

Just then, though, there was the bang of a boot hitting the ramp, which made them all jump, followed by the steady thump of running feet.

Mal was treated to the sight of Jayne, looking all hot and bothered, running for the hold while hiking up his pants one-handed. Almost by reflex, Mal put out an arm and stopped him.

“Jayne, I’ve got a feelin’ there’s an explanation I need to hear,” Mal said without preamble.

Jayne considered, but was obviously in a hurry, so he confessed, “I was with a girl, and she took my belt.”

“You mean, you were with a whore, she waited till you had your pants off, and then she robbed you?” Mal translated, his tone the model of reasonableness.

Jayne grimaced, but obviously saw no point in denying it. “Got my money and my belt and my gun. She almost got my pants, but I got ‘em away from her afore she took off running.” He moved to go past Mal, but Mal kept his arm where it was.

“And where are you goin’ now?” he asked, voice still reasonable, but a little firmer.

“I’m gonna go get a bigger gun and go get my gorram stuff back’s what I’m gonna do,” Jayne told him, sounding like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Mal sighed. He glanced up again, and saw that Kaylee, Rose, and Jack were all trying not to laugh; the Doctor was watching with a distant, but still amused, smile. Just what he needed, an audience. He should be charging admission of these folks, if they thought the show was so fine.

“No, Jayne,” Mal told him, sounding like Sweet Reason herself. “You’re going to go get something to hold your pants up, and you’re gonna forget this.”

“But Mal, they took my gun . . .!”

“And you have plenty more where that came from. But your girlfriend’s long gone by now, and I don’t care to wait around twiddling my thumbs while you try’n find her. Also, fair’s fair — you fell for it, y’know.”

Jayne looked like he was thinking over a response, but kept silent.

“Meanwhile, Jayne, you were supposed to be on a job for me, not shopping for female companionship, d’you recall?” Mal let his voice drop about twenty degrees, and Jayne stiffened, looking suddenly caught out.

“Wouldn’t’a slowed me down any, if she hadn’t ripped me off,” Jayne started to protest. “Leastwise, hasn’t before.”

“Before? You’re in a regular habit of taking side trips while you’re on ship’s business?” Mal’s voice dropped another twenty degrees, and started oozing sarcasm.

Jayne, realizing his error, mumbled something and then hurriedly moved to push past Mal into the ship. This time, Mal let him go.

From behind him, Mal heard the faintest snicker. Zoe, of all people. He sighed again.

“I swear, one of these days I’m gonna get you to rivet those pants on him, Kaylee,” Mal started, momentarily forgetting his visitors, but cut off short as he heard yet another couple of familiar voices approaching.

Simon and River — with River the loudest.

Suddenly, that had all Mal’s attention.

River’d been doing vastly better since Miranda, but she still had her bad times, and given what he knew the girl could do, those bad times made a man mighty nervous.

He turned, and saw something that didn’t help his mood any. The Doctor suddenly straightened, and his head whipped around to face River. Jack and Rose followed his motion a split second later, in perfect unison. Mal had never seen anything quite like that; there was something downright creepy about it.

“It’s the Storm,” River cried, as Simon called to shush her, “And the Wolf and the Giant-Killer . . .”

“Honey,” Simon said desperately as he steered her towards the ship, “I don’t understand, just slow down . . .”

“They’re here, and it’s wrong, and it all burned, golden fire everywhere, and they can see me -- I can see them!” River wailed, with her face in her hands.

Simon got her up the ramp, while everyone else stood frozen -- _Serenity’s_ crew because, well, it was River, and one couldn’t help be a little cautious there, and the strangers, well, because the sight of a girl having a breakdown would startle anyone, right?

Except, it seemed like more than that with the Doctor, he seemed . . . transfixed, utterly focused on River, lips parted, face blank.

Simon had River just to the top of the ramp, his arm around her shoulder, guiding her, when she dropped her hands from her face — and ended up looking right at the Doctor. She stared at him in horror for a moment, and screamed.

Everyone jumped and shifted, but nobody seemed to know what was happening in this little drama but River and the Doctor. Mal flicked a glance at Rose and Jack, and, after their one moment of uncanny connection, they seemed to have broken back apart into two regular people, just as confused as anyone.

“River!” it was the Doctor’s voice, and it gave Mal a shock. The lightweight tone was gone, replaced with calm command. “You’ve nothing to fear. Look!” He stepped towards her, and held up his hands, palms facing her, rotating them so she could see the backs as well. “Not blue, not two. Three.”

She shrank back against Simon, who was glaring at the Doctor with all his might, trying to figure out what was upsetting his sister, obviously torn between supporting her and moving to defend her.

“Not blue?” she said, making it a question.

“Never blue,” he told her, dropping his hands, his tone warming, turning reassuring.

“It burned, the monsters came and it burned,” she said, her voice going small.

The Doctor’s eyes were dark, but his tone stayed warm. “It did, but long ago. It’s not here, it’s not now.” He smiled at her. “You can see, you know it’s true.”

River was silent, but began to relax, to stand upright and away from Simon’s support. “True,” she echoed in agreement, still in a small voice. She looked past the Doctor, at Rose and Jack. “The Wolf and the Giant-Killer, bright and dark . . .” she started to say, and trailed off.

“Friends of mine,” the Doctor told her, still reassuring.

River considered. The hysteria was gone, and she was nearly calm again.

“I’ve been dreaming,” she told the Doctor, deathly serious.

That wiped the smile from his face. “So have I,” he told her, voice soft and equally serious.

“The Storm dreams,” River said, sounding surprised. Then, startlingly, she smiled. “I’m not alone,” she said, with a little laugh, and broke away from Simon to dart into the ship.

Dead, total silence for a moment.

Simon broke it, with an anger born of concern and confusion. “What was that?” he yelled, “Who are these people?” He glared at the Doctor, who was staring after River, into the ship. “What was River talking about, how did she know who you were . . .?” he started forward, as did Mal.

Rose and Jack pulled in closer to the Doctor, looking suddenly defensive.

Mal heard Zoe stand up behind him, with a scuff of chair legs.

Kaylee looked completely lost.

Simon reached out to grab the Doctor’s shoulder, but Jack caught his wrist with a warning look on his face, and said something to Rose in a language Mal didn’t recognize.

That was just about the last straw for Mal. He prided himself on knowing at least how to cuss a man out in most languages of the ‘Verse, and he could still put a name to the ones he didn’t speak — but he couldn’t place this one.

“All right, you, I want to know what this is about,” he yelled, by way of an opener. Then the Doctor turned to look at him, and Mal forgot what he’d been about to say next.

Mal had rarely seen such a look of pure and perfect rage on any man’s face — with something else mixed in that made him think twice about getting any closer.

“Who did that to her?” the Doctor asked, not loudly, but with tremendous force.

It wasn’t what Mal was expecting. “What?” he asked, still angry, and more confused than ever.

“Someone ripped apart that young woman’s brain,” the Doctor told him, clipped and level. “Who was it?”

“What do you know about it?” Simon asked, pulling his hand free from Jack. Jack let him go, but kept a cold eye on him.

Vaguely, Mal was aware that Zoe and Rose were facing each other, wary and watchful. This could get very interesting, very quickly.

“Nothing,” the Doctor said, turning to focus on Simon, and freezing the younger man in his place. “Except that it suddenly explains a lot of things I’d been wondering about.” He turned to look at Mal again, and his face eased somewhat. “Is there somewhere we can go and talk? I think it would be mutually beneficial if we did.”

“I’m starting to think that myself,” Mal said, still wary, but wanting whatever information he could get.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Doctor brightened. “Any chance for a cup of tea?” he asked, sounding now as if nothing had happened and he was just on a social call. “I could really use a cuppa about now.” He grinned, and Mal couldn’t think of a damn thing to say for a moment.

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Chapter 2: In The Galley I

Author's Notes: A little bit of character interaction I simply could not resist. Hopefully it will make a nice interlude before the next chapter (and it gives me some time to think!).


Tea wasn’t a ready commodity on Serenity proper. Inara had a supply on her shuttle, for use in her Companion duties, but most everyone in the crew favored coffee — or what passed for it out on the Rim — over the artificial tea-substitutes usually available.

However, there was a dusty crate of the stuff up on a top shelf in the galley. Mal’d found it for cheap, and it was real tea, so he’d picked it up on a whim, thinking to present it to Inara for her use. Just as a strictly business gift between two people engaged in mutually profitable activities, of course.

Unfortunately, real tea or not, turned out there’d been a reason it was so cheap. Inara’d taken one sip of the first batch they brewed to test it, and her eyes had started watering. With a cough she’d managed to keep dainty and ladylike, she informed Mal that, while she greatly appreciated his kind regard of her as a business partner, it would be against her Companion’s ethical codes to accept such a gift.

Nobody else had taken a shine to the stuff either — except for, of all people, Wash, who had loved it. He’d gotten through half a crate of it, one cup at a time, until Miranda.

Since then, it’d been gathering dust up on the top shelf.

Mal was surprised when Zoe, without saying anything, got the crate down and started preparing a pot of tea for their, ah, guests. She’d learned to do the best possible job of it for Wash’s sake, and Wash had always raved over her tea skills, so she was the acknowledged expert — but Mal had figured he’d be the one doing the job this time.

He'd figured wrong, though.

Zoe went through the familiar motions smoothly, precisely, her face calm — maybe a little too calm. Mal hurt all over again for her — hurt himself, since he half expected to turn around and see a familiar blond-haired pilot sitting at the table, waiting expectantly for his tea. Not a sight for this lifetime anymore, though.

Instead, what he had at his table were three strangers who made his skin crawl. They’d yielded up their weapons politely enough — or, at least, the “Captain” had done so, giving over a boot knife balanced for throwing and a tiny but effective pistol, in addition to the holstered gun on his hip. Rose and the Doctor had declared themselves unarmed, and glory be, but a polite search had proven that to be the case.

In the interest of returning things to a neighborly level, Mal had declined to move on to an impolite search, though he was keeping that as an option.

Even more annoying, the three strangers didn’t seem worried in the slightest, even with Mal and Jayne there, openly and unrepentantly armed. Jayne’s trousers were currently held up with a length of rope, from which he'd managed to suspend a respectable number of holsters. The thin rope had to be digging in, what with all that weight hanging off of it, but Mal was willing to bet having no guns at his waist would’ve been harder on Jayne.

Kaylee had appointed herself hostess, apparently for lack of anything better to do, and was back to chatting with their guests about nothing much. They were playing along pleasantly enough, while Mal watched. She certainly seemed to get along with them like a house afire, which to Mal was significant. Kaylee might be a little, well, enthusiastic, at times, but she wasn’t dumb, and she had a good natural ability to judge people.

As did River — and she’d gone from being scared out of her wits to apparently okay with the newcomers in under five minutes. River was due to join in this little tea party, as soon as Simon had retrieved her from wherever she’d gone in the ship. River wasn’t prone to hide from her brother, but she sometimes forgot to let anyone know where she was, even if they walked past her calling her name.

A vibration and nearly subliminal clank signaled that Inara had returned and reattached her shuttle. All three of the strangers noticed, but politely kept their peace.

Kaylee, ever helpful, announced, “Inara’s back,” about thirty seconds before the woman herself came strolling into the galley, unaware of the little gathering there — Mal hadn’t expected her back so soon, and so hadn’t given her a 'wave about the situation. Frankly, he’d forgotten, come to that.

Inara was still dressed to the nines, obviously coming in from business. She stopped dead in the doorway, seeing the strangers, but kicked back into gear with admirable speed, going into full Companion mode without a hitch. It was part of the way she worked in Serenity’s crew; if she was around when clients or other folk were present, she would grace the company with her presence, adding an air of charm, elegance, respectability, and — if at all possible — distraction to the proceedings. Nothing like the full attention of a Companion to make a businessman a little fuzzy about some of the finer points of the contract that’d been placed before him.

And she was in good form today, Mal had to admit, as she wafted into the galley like a summer’s breeze, all feminine grace and charm and high-class seduction.

Kaylee, who adored Inara, was quick to introduce her — first to the Doctor, who responded politely with a handshake, but with a disappointing lack of visible distraction. Same with Rose. Mal was watching with real interest when it was the “Captain’s” turn though. He’d seen Jack perk up the minute Inara walked into the room. This might just be a valuable weak point about to be revealed.

Just as Kaylee said, “And this here’s Captain Jack,” gesturing at him over the table, Jack stood up, and rather than just shaking Inara’s hand, he cupped it in his own, and moved to stand closer to her.

Suddenly, things went strange again.

Jack’s whole manner shifted -- and then he was projecting masculinity every bit as brilliantly as Inara radiated femininity. His tiniest movement was confident, graceful, powerful . . . seductive. Their joined hands became a riveting focus, pivot point for perfect yin and perfect yang to circle one another in balance.

Jack’s eyes were locked with Inara’s; he looked positively predatory, she returned the full force of his gaze, unafraid, teasing.

All around the room, breathing was deepening, and eye pupils were dilating, taking in the show.

Even their respective states of dress — Jack dusty, casual, disheveled, Inara perfect, cool, and decorated — added to the magnificent polarity of the scene. Jack raised Inara’s hand to his lips, and brushed a kiss along the back of it, never once breaking eye contact.

Breaths caught, in the audience.

Jack lowered Inara’s hand, slowly . . . and finally, she broke eye contact, glancing downwards for a moment, her cheeks flushing elegantly — then she looked up at him again through her lashes, and her gaze was positively molten, her eyes dark and unfathomable.

Jack blinked — and then began to laugh, shaking his head. The seduction drained out of him, and he turned his grip on Inara’s hand into a firm, friendly handshake, which she returned.

Still laughing, he managed to say, “My hat’s off to you, ma’am,” in a nearly perfect Rim accent, releasing her hand to tip an imaginary hat in her direction. “I’ve rarely been beaten at that game,” he added, back to his more normal Core-type accent.

Inara smiled at him, and Mal was startled to see it was her real smile, not her Companion’s smile. She looked smug. “You gave me a good run,” she told him, graceful winner. “It’s surprising you never went into formal training.”

Jack shrugged, looking pleased, and said, “Let’s say I prefer to stay a talented amateur,” winking at her as he took back his seat.

All around the room, the stunned silence was broken by a great deal of foot-shuffling and throat clearing, as everyone else remembered to look as if they hadn’t been staring.

Inara winked back at Jack.

Just then, Simon and River arrived at the galley. Simon took in the gathering with a confused expression.

“Sorry,” he asked, “Did we miss something?”

Back to index


Chapter 3: In The Galley II

Author's Notes: Expostion time! And some character funnies along the way . . . :)


Without a word, Kaylee got up from the table, walked over to Simon, cupped his face in her hands, and pulled him down for an extended, passionate kiss. Simon, caught completely off-guard, waved his hands helplessly in the air for a moment before gripping Kaylee’s shoulders and reciprocating. When they finally broke apart, he frowned down at her.

“Not that I’m complaining, but what was that for?” he asked a little plaintively.

“Oh,” Kaylee said in a small voice, “no partic’lar reason. Just glad to see you.” She sat back down at the table, looking a little dazed.

Simon shot a narrow-eyed glance at the smothered grins around the table, clearly wondering what new “let’s mess with the Doc” game was up, but Zoe chose that moment to begin offering tea around, so he didn’t speak up. He and River took their seats.

Mal took a cup of tea, since it wouldn’t hardly look right if he didn’t drink what was being served to guests at his own table. Kaylee took some, too — partly, Mal thought, to have a cup to hide behind. The rest of the crew, though, avoided the proffered refreshment with a certain determination.

As Mal sipped from his cup, he reflected that he hardly blamed ‘em — he wished he could have declined, but that was part of being Captain, doing the dirty jobs that needed doing.

Rose sipped her tea, blinked, and managed to set the cup down on the table without being too quick about it. Jack made the slightest grimace after this first taste, and then knocked back the whole thing in one go, clicking the empty cup back to the table -- guest’s duty done.

The Doctor took a sip, raised his eyebrows, and looked appreciative.

“Thank you,” he told Zoe, without irony. “You’re very talented. I don’t think anyone could possibly have made this taste better.”

Mal almost laughed, and had to remind himself he wasn’t in the mood to like this no-name Doctor.

He managed another sip himself, and then it was time to get down to business.

He set his cup down carefully. “So, Doctor . . .” he began, and both the Doctor and Simon turned to look at him. Oh, this was gonna’ be annoying.

“Not you, Simon,” he said, “I mean No-Name over here.”

“Oh, I have a name,” the Doctor said. “Several of them. Some more flattering than others, I admit . . . But ‘The Doctor’ does well enough for everyday.” He gave a sunny smile, and then sipped his tea again, absently, his eyes considering as he watched Mal over the rim of his cup.

Sore point, there, Mal thought, interested. He catalogued that for later reference, but played the gracious host for now and didn't push it.

“So tell me, Doctor,” out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rose and Jack take note of his spin on that name, though there wasn’t a flicker from the man himself — they cared how he was spoken to, they were loyal; they were no mere hired hands. “How again did you make Kaylee’s acquaintance?”

“Rose met up with her in the junkyard,” the Doctor said, slipping right into the role of spokesman, with Rose and Jack letting him do it as if it was the most natural thing in the ‘Verse. “She helped find some parts for us — thank you again for that, Kaylee,” he added, smiling across the table at her, his eyes crinkling up in a right genuine way. Good actor, if he was acting . . . “We parted company and met up again later, in an establishment selling excellent juice, but with a poor clientele.” Mal glanced at Kaylee, who looked embarrassed. She certainly wasn’t protesting any of this. “We offered to walk with her to her ship, aaaaaand,” he shrugged, “here we are, enjoying your hospitality.”

Another glance at Kaylee, who gave a near-invisible nod.

“No particular reason you picked a member of my crew to meet up with?” Mal asked, casual-like.

The Doctor set his cup down on the table, and leaned forward on his elbows. His pretty-boy face settled into serious lines, and he fixed Mal with a steady intensity. “Look, Captain, as entertaining as this little fencing match may be, I think we’re both plain’ talkin’ men,” he shifted into a broader accent for a second, and then back out just as quickly, “and what we’re really here to discuss is River’s reaction to me, mine to her, and what it means for both our ships.”

Mal leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re right enough there,” he admitted. “So shoot.” He was curious to hear this, yes indeed.

“Right, where to begin . . . Well, first of all, Rose and Jack and I are travelers; we’re here at Davesport — I do wonder who Dave was, but that’s beside the point — because of a problem with our ship’s navigational equipment. At first, I thought there was some natural explanation — gravitational anomaly, rogue pocket Universe, what have you — but more and more it was starting to look as if someone was . . . experimenting, with the fabric of space and Time. But that was utterly daft, I thought — who’d want to do something as insane as mucking about with the fabric of reality in such a . . . petty little way? Such a dangerous petty little way, at that.

“We were in the junkyard, finding parts to repair the damage caused by our, ah, emergency landing here — and, I assure you, our meeting with Kaylee was entirely fortuitous. Possibly serendipitious, but Time will tell . . . Anyway, meeting River here was very informative.” He smiled at River, and she smiled back, shyly.

“As I’m sure you all know, someone has operated on River’s brain with a very specific intent — sorry to go on about you like you aren’t here, River, but it’s hard to talk to you and the Captain at the same time . . .”

“S’alright,” she told him, “I’m not always here.”

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “So you aren’t. You’re a very perceptive young woman,” he gave her a quick smile, and turned back to Mal. “Anyway, it was obvious none of you was responsible for what had been done to River . . .”

“How do you figure that?” Mal asked, partly just to say something, since he was feeling a little overwhelmed by the spate of chatter the Doctor was putting out.

The Doctor blinked at him. “Really, Captain, it’s obvious. You all care about her. The way you closed ranks when you thought I was a threat to her was a positive delight to see, I must say. No, people don’t experiment,” and the word was bitter as alkali, “like this on people they love.

“Ergo, someone else did it — someone with access to some very specialized equipment, and an appalling lack of morality. In my experience, that sort of experiment is conducted by shockingly self-deluded individuals who believe they are somehow serving The Greater Good — exactly the sort of people who can convince themselves that insanely dangerous experiments with spacetime might be worth looking into.”

Mal drew a breath, but the Doctor held up a finger, stopping him.

“Almost done. Now, I have a vested self-interest — and a general, overall interest, come to that -- in both investigating and stopping these spacetime experiments; since you clearly have some knowledge of the people doing the experimenting, thanks to your assiciation with River, I’m hoping to pick your brains for information about them.

“In return, I am guessing from your immediate reactions that River is still under some sort of threat from these people. I’d guess she went, ah, missing from their experimental program a while ago? Yes, I’d thought so. Anyway, I have a very strong feeling that I can give them something to focus on that will distract any attention from River for quite a while.” His eyes darkened, and his voice got momentarily colder. “For a very long while indeed, I hope.”

Then he brightened and grinned again. “There, all done. Over to you, Captain.”

Back to index


Chapter 4: In the Infirmary I

Author's Notes: River makes an offer, and Mal holds his peace. . .


Mal looked around the table. Most of his people were looking a mite shell-shocked. The Doctor looked expectant, as did Rose and Jack — he got the feeling the Doctor ran on like this a lot, and they were used to it. No wonder they let him do all the talking . . .

River was sitting with one of her bare feet twisted up into her lap, apparently absorbed in counting her toes over and over again, ignoring the rest of the room.

“So, lil’ Albatross,” Mal asked her, “Is he tellin’ the truth?”

“Everything he says is true,” River replied, calm as could be, without looking up.

Mal snorted. He knew River meant that exactly. “What isn’t he telling us?”

“Nothing you want to hear,” River said, finishing with her toes. She dropped her foot to the floor and smiled at the Doctor through the curtain of hair that had fallen in front of her face.

The Doctor grinned at her and winked like they were the best of pals.

“’Scuse me,” Mal said, distracted for a moment, “Weren’t you just scared to death of him?”

River looked at Mal with her wide, guileless eyes. “Storms can be scary,” she said in the tone of someone stating the obvious, “even if they aren’t going to hurt you.”

“A little mistaken identity didn’t help, either,” the Doctor observed, just as matter-of-fact.

Right about then, Simon — who’d been doing an impressive slow burn all this while — finally blew his stack.

“You know what was done to her!” he said, leaning forward, practically looking fit to climb over the table and grab the Doctor by the throat. “You have to tell me!”

He had a certain edge of wit’s end about him, and as the Doctor gave Simon his attention, his expression went sad.

“You’re the ship’s doctor, aren’t you? Not an imposter like me,” the Doctor shot a dry glance at Mal as he spoke. Mal did his best to keep his face blank, since he’d been thinking exactly that. “And you’re River’s . . . “

“Brother,” Simon snapped.

“Ah.”

“Please,” Simon continued, his anger breaking apart into quieter desperation. “I need to know how to help her; I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time . . .”

The Doctor glanced back and forth between River and Simon, still looking sad. River was watching her brother, face solemn. “I . . . don’t know exactly what was done to her, in terms of step by step procedures, but I have an idea about the process. Should I . . .?” He waved a hand around to indicate the audience.

“Crew can hear,” Mal answered for Simon. That earned him a narrow-eyed, sidelong look from the Doctor, as if he’d spoken out of turn, but Simon nodded.

“All right then.” The Doctor laced his fingers together on the tabletop and looked at them for a moment, suddenly and uncharacteristically quiet. When he spoke again, he had everyone’s attention captured.

“You know how the brain and nervous system can compensate, in case of injury?” he began, in a voice halfway between a storyteller’s and a lecturer’s. “Undamaged regions take on new functions, new activities, to make up for what was lost.

“Sometimes, in the process of taking on new functions, certain areas of the brain can be . . . woken up, as it were. Brand new functions can be activated. It’s something that happens naturally, in cases of injury or disease. In fact, I once knew very nice young man who was in a vehicle accident, and suddenly became able to predict future probabilities with exceptional accuracy . . . but that’s another story.

“River is, of course, a functional telepath, as a result of the damage that was deliberately inflicted on her brain. Dreadful thought, that. You see, the only way to predict how the brain will compensate is to systematically take lots of brains, damage them, and monitor the results. It is an unpredictable, empirical process. I fear River is the endpoint in a long, long progression.”

Dead silence. Mal noticed that Rose and Jack were staring at the Doctor, completely horrified, like this was all news to them. His own crew wasn’t looking any happier, but seemed less surprised, since this wasn’t too far off of what had been figured before.

“The damage seemed to be concentrated in the amygdala,” Simon told him, voice soft.

“Hm. That would be . . . logical, now that I think about it.” The Doctor sighed unhappily.

“What can be done?” Simon asked, still speaking softly, as if in a hospital room. River watched him with a thin line of worry between her eyebrows — not for herself, or out of care for any possible treatment, Mal realized, but out of sympathy for Simon’s hurt.

The Doctor looked even sadder. “Realistically, nothing. Even if the damaged portions of the brain could be regenerated — with stem cells, say — the neural routing will never return to normal. The best possible treatments are Time, and love — which you have been administering already.” River smiled up at Simon, obviously agreeing. “I’m sorry.”

“I think there are some medications that could help,” Simon replied, doggedly. “But I just need to better understand the nature of the damage. Is there any way . . .?”

Unexpectedly, River spoke up. “You could look inside,” she told the Doctor, sounding perfectly reasonable.

Startled, Simon looked at his sister.

The Doctor seemed taken aback. “Well, I suppose I could — I’m not sure what I could tell from that, though.”

“Never hurts to try,” River responded.

“Actually, depending on what one is doing, it can hurt quite a lot . . . but in this case, no, I guess it wouldn’t."

Exasperated, Simon looked from River to the Doctor. “What are you two talking about?”

“River is offering to open her mind to me, telepathically, so I can have a look inside her head,” the Doctor replied.

“Whoa!” Mal sat bolt upright. “Are you sayin’ you’re a Reader, like River?” The thought of what a sane Reader — or even one only as sane as the Doctor appeared to be, which wasn’t one hundred percent — could do scared the hell out of Mal.

“Not like River, no.” A half-smile then, as if the Doctor could read Mal’s mind . . . “Never fear, Captain — I’d have to be touching you to read your thoughts, and you’d have to let me in. Don’t give me that look, no telepathy needed just now — it was plain on your face.”

Disconcerted, Mal tried to blank out his features more effectively. Jayne scooted his chair back a ways, so he was further from the Doctor, trying and failing to be inconspicuous. The Doctor ignored him, but Mal saw Jack smirk.

“When?” Simon asked, avidly.

“Oh, anytime, I guess. Now, if that works for you two . . .”

“All right, now, remember, this is my boat,” Mal broke in. Everyone looked at him. “And while this is all positively fascinatin’, we’ve got business to look to. Kaylee, you need to start working on the engines, now you’ve got your parts. Zoe, Jayne, those filters ain’t gonna’ change themselves. And if anyone’s gonna’ be looking into anyone else’s brain, it’s ‘cause I say so, clear?”

“Yes, Cap’n.”

“Yessir.”

“Yeah, okay, Mal. Gorram filters.”

“Hey, I got us the good ones this time . . !”

Kaylee, Zoe, and Jayne all got up and filed out of the galley. Kaylee cast disconsolate glances over her shoulder, obviously dying to see what happened next. Zoe was unreadable, no surprise, and Jayne looked torn between being annoyed about having to change filters, and delighted to be the hell away from whatever telepathic weird shit might ensue.

Mal watched them go. “Inara,” he began.

She rose from the table, smooth and graceful. “I have things to see to in my shuttle,” she told him, sounding perfectly regretful. “I’m very pleased to have made your acquaintance, Doctor, Rose . . . Jack.” Her smoothness cracked open for just a second, as she and Jack exchanged amused grins. Then she was gone as gracefully as if it was her own idea.

Jack’s respect for Inara’s professonal skills didn’t stop him from watching her exit with a certain appreciation, Mal noted. Jack was the last of the remaining folks to turn his attention back to Mal.

Mal looked to River, who was tracing invisible patterns on the tabletop with a finger.

“You’re sure about this . . . telepathy thing, River?” Mal asked.

She nodded, tracing away.

“Well, then, I guess now’s the time.”

Everyone looked surprised, except for River and the Doctor. Figured.

“I’d . . . like to move to the infirmary, if we can,” Simon said.

“Excellent idea,” the Doctor told him, slapping the tabletop. He stood and extended a hand to River. “Shall we?”

She took his hand with no reservations whatsoever.

Mal noted that, and wished he felt half so confident as they followed after Simon. He made sure he was following up the rear, just to be sure. Best keep their three new “friends” all together, where he could keep an eye on them.

Sometimes, keeping an eye out was the best thing to do while waiting for further developments.

Sometimes it meant a man didn’t know what to do next, and was just fooling himself.

Hard to tell, ‘till after the fact, unfortunately.

--

Under the Doctor’s direction, Simon arranged two chairs facing one another, one for the Doctor, one for River. Rose and Simon took chairs off to the side. Jack stayed standing, leaning against one wall. Mal leaned in the doorway of the infirmary. Jack gave him a thin smile, making sure Mal knew he’d read the situation just fine, thanks. Didn’t stop Jack from looking infuriatingly confident.

Mal decided ignoring the man (at least visibly) was the best revenge. That type couldn’t hardly stomach it when people refused to pay attention to them.

“I’ll have to touch you,” the Doctor told River. “Is that all right?” She nodded.

He reached out to press his fingertips lightly to River’s temples. The touch was measured and careful -- looked like it was actually doing something, Mal noted.

The Doctor and River closed their eyes in perfect unison, then, which was a little creepy. But, creepy wasn’t a reason to draw down, so Mal held still.

“All right,” the Doctor said, sounding light and professional, almost like, well, a doctor. “Now, to let me in, you’ll want to visualize a door that you can open . . . oh, very quick! You’ve done this sort of thing before, I can tell . . . Now, the visualizations I’m used to involve doors and rooms and pathways, but I don’t know what you’re used to; if you could just show me the sorts of images you’re familiar with, it can make this easier . . .”

Suddenly the Doctor broke off cold, jerking his hands out and away from River’s head. His eyes flew open and he stumbled to his feet, nearly getting hung up in his chair as he recoiled, gasping.

Mal kicked away from the wall and had his hand on his gun before he even knew what he was doing. His peripheral vision told him Jack had come forward, too, and Rose and Simon had started to stand, but all of them stopped as the Doctor came to a halt.

River, still seated, had opened her eyes, and was looking at the Doctor in surprise. He was staring at her with eyebrows drawn down and teeth bared in a horrified, unbelieving expression. After a moment, he visibly controlled himself, and slowed his breathing.

“I . . . yes, well, I won’t be using . . . that . . . imagery,” he said, his voice shaky. He straightened and sat back down in his chair, scooting it back to be within touching range of River again. However, he kept his hands in his lap.

“I think it would be best if we used doors and rooms, as if your mind was a house — or a ship, would you prefer a ship, like Serenity . . .?" he asked, obviously working back to pleasant professionalism with an effort.

River, still looking a little confused, considered. “Ship,” she told him.

“All right, then. Now, you’ll let me in the lock, and I’ll take a look through the rooms and corridors. Anything you don’t want me to look at, you just visualize it being in a room with a sealed hatch, all right?”

River, seeming surprised, told him “Yes. What don’t I want you to look at?”

“You have to decide that yourself,” the Doctor said gently. “You can do that, you know, it’s your mind.”

River blinked, and smiled, suddenly a dazzlingly pretty young woman.

The Doctor smiled back, and, somewhat gingerly, Mal thought, placed his fingertips back at her temples. Their eyes closed again.

“Oh, there’s the lock already, well done . . . now, just relax . . .” The Doctor fell silent, though his lips moved as if he was subvocalizing. Once he laughed, and River smiled at the same time, but for the most part, they looked calm and serious.

Mal hooked his thumbs though his belt and sweated, hoping to hell he knew what he was doing.

--

River was surprised. The Doctor was very polite. It was like meeting the biggest, scariest monster you could think of, and having it sit you down in a soft chair and offer you tea and dumplings instead of ripping you limb from limb. She hardly would have known he was in her mind at all, if he hadn’t kept up a running stream of chatter, to let her know where he was.

He cared about her, and he didn’t even know her. It was an amazing thing.

He was like Mal, who would have been smartest if he’d tossed her and Simon off his ship ages ago, but who instead kept them around and called her his lil’ Albatross. Not that Mal hadn’t moved in a tossing-away direction once or twice, but he’d never quite finished the cast, so to speak, because something in him wouldn’t allow it.

Unlike Mal, though, the Doctor could hear her, all the things she said without her mouth and her lungs. That was a surprise, too. And he listened. And he understood -- which was the flat-out biggest surprise of all.

The Doctor finished his tour of her mind-ship, taking in the artificial image structure one last time, and giving her wordless approval, like he was nodding his head as he looked ‘round. He moved to the lock, and just before he exited, he whispered, Tonight, when you dream, look for me — I think there are things we should see together. Then he was gone, and it didn’t even hurt.

Back to index


Chapter 5: In The Infirmary II

Author's Notes: A little more getting to know one another, in various ways, for our two sets of characters. Mal decides to sleep on the Doctor's offer.


The Doctor dropped his hands from River’s temples and smiled at her.

“Done?” she asked.

“Uh-huh. I need to talk to your brother now.”

The Doctor rose, and was nearly pounced on by Simon, who drug him off to one side. Mal accidentally-on-purpose drifted in that direction, on the pretext of heading towards River.

“Y’all right, Albatross?”

She smiled and nodded, looking downright normal for a moment — whatever the Doctor‘d done, it clearly hadn’t upset her any.

“It’s difficult to diagnose physical injuries this way,” the Doctor was telling Simon off to the side. “Although one can extrapolate from the internal structures the mind generates . . .” he rubbed an earlobe and looked thoughtful.

“Can you think of anything that could help her?” Simon asked.

The Doctor switched to rubbing the bridge of his nose. “There are some anti-psychotics and anti-depressants that might help ease some symptoms of trauma. I can’t tell you trade names, but I can give you chemical formulas, and, if need be, structures . . .”

Simon hauled him over to the infirmary computer console before he could finish his sentence, the two of them switching over to medical lingo that could as well be Greek for all Mal could follow.

He noticed River was gone from her chair, and looked for her. She was eyeing the Doctor’s friends. Rose was still sitting where she’d been the whole time, but Jack had joined her, leaning one-armed on her chair backrest in a familiar way. They were both watching River with amused expressions as she circled them with slow, wary grace, like a feral cat.

Bet you wouldn’t be looking at her like that if you’d seen her standing in a pile of dead Reavers, Mal thought wryly.

River leaned in for a closer look at Rose’s face. Rose smiled at her, bright and open. She was surely pretty when she smiled -- and awfully young to be out traveling on her own with two older men, though one saw things like that on the Rim . . .

“Hello,” Rose said, friendly. River didn’t answer, and pulled back a little.

“Oh, c’mon,” Rose said, going to a full grin. “I don’t bite!”

River looked at her with an expression of flat-out, irritated disbelief, like a youngster who knows an adult is being patronizing.

“Yes, you do,” she said bluntly.

Rose’s grin slipped a little at that, and Mal had the interesting experience of watching her age at least ten years -- quick as that. Something about her expression, and her eyes.

Still, she stayed sounding friendly. “Only if I have to,” she told River.

River considered, and nodded, seeming to like that answer.

River kept circling, and turned her attention to Jack, moving around behind him. Jack raised his eyebrows, and turned his head slightly to follow her, but he didn’t turn all the way around to follow her. Instead, he turned his head back around the other direction, to catch sight of River as she came around his opposite side.

He met her intense eyes with a broad grin. “See anything you like?” he asked, more teasing than really flirting.

River cocked her head to one side. “Kiss or kill,” she commented.

Jack snorted, and then gave her a pouty look. “Not fair!“ he told her. “I’ve got more than just two speeds.”

River looked unconvinced.

“Dunno, Jack, some days . . .” Rose began, flipping him grief the way old friends do to one another.

“What, ganging up on me already? Women!” Jack straightened, and River skipped back — not frightened, but like she was avoiding something. Jack, surprised, shifted, and River moved again, graceful as dancing. She was keeping away from Jack’s shadow, Mal realized.

Jack exchanged a glance with Rose, and Mal could see that meant something to them.

“I wouldn’t worry about that, hon,” Jack told River, serious as you please.

She considered a second, then turned and was gone from the infirmary, cat-quick. River considered good-byes unnecessary, more often than not.

Neither Jack nor Rose seemed especially put out.

Mal reflected it was a sorry state of affairs when River seemed normal, and he was the one who felt off-kilter.

--

It turned out Simon had already tried several of the medications on the Doctor’s list, with varying degrees of success. He carefully noted down the ones that were new.

He was shutting off the computer when he asked, without looking up from what he was doing, “What images did you see in River’s mind, the first time?”

The Doctor had been dreading that question. He hesitated.

Simon looked up from what he was doing and glared at him.

“I’m her physician," he pointed out, with calm precision.

You’re also her brother, the Doctor thought unhappily.

“Let’s just say the people who . . . experimented on her were more concerned with extracting information quickly and without resistance than they were with the comfort of their subjects,” he hedged.

Simon looked back down at the now blank computer screen for a moment.

“Rape, then,” he said, perfectly calmly. The Doctor could definitely see the resemblance between Simon and his sister. Both of them had that astonishing core of self-control.

“In the sense of deliberately violating another individual’s privacy and integrity, yes,” the Doctor told him, equally calmly. He sighed. “More specifically, since River was being made into a weapon, there was a concentration on . . . imagery of combat and violence, intended, I’m sure, to enhance aggression towards others at the same time it encouraged, ah, swift cooperation with her interrogators.” Best to leave out the details, definitely . . .

Simon’s hands were balled into fists, knuckles white. He remained still, face blank.

“She’s healing, you know,” the Doctor told him, as gently as possible. “Remarkably well. She’s very strong. And she has your help. That means a great deal to her.”

Simon took a deep breath, and loosened his fists with obvious, conscious effort. “If only I’d gotten to her sooner . . .” The voice of old pain, old regrets.

The Doctor snorted, and Simon glared at him again, ready to be angry. “I’d say it’s bloody amazing you got to her at all, based on what River remembers of her rescue. She wanted to show me that, by the way, made a point of putting it where I’d see it — she’s very proud of the memory, and of you.”

Simon met his eyes for a moment, and then glanced away, disconcerted. It was a common reaction for humans who weren’t used to Time Lords.

The Doctor continued.

“Y’know, every time I see what I think is the worst -- the final -- abomination that will make me give up all hope in the human race, I see something that counterbalances it, something so rare and wonderful, it defies description. What was done to River is appalling, but what you’ve done for her is amazing. Remember that.”

Simon looked stricken, at a loss for words.

The Doctor rested a friendly hand on his shoulder for a second, and gave him a reassuring smile before slipping past him to head back to the others.

--

Rose and Jack looked after River for a moment, and then the Doctor rejoined them. Rose stood and moved to put her arms around him. He hugged her back, tightly, and that was the first thing Mal had seen since that initial recoil to tell him how rattled the Doctor had been by the inside of River’s head.

Jack moved to the side of them, as they embraced, and rested a hand on each of their backs — extra reassurance, and an eye-opener for Mal. Yessir, these folks were darn close with one another.

Jack saw him looking and smirked . . . but it was a warning, too. Mal took it completely — the three of them would defend each other to the death, he was sure of it, and were unlikely to take kindly to any casual threats, either.

Not that he was planning on offering any, but it was always good to know where people stood on these things.

“You and the doctor — Simon — conjure there’s a way to help her?” Mal asked, as Rose released the Doctor.

“I recommended some medications to ease her symptoms,” the Doctor told him, which was a pretty a not-answer as you please. Still, it matched what he’d said earlier.

The Doctor stuck his hands in his pockets and considered Mal. “So, Captain, any decision on my proposal?”

“Well, now, I do appreciate your offering help with River’s condition, you realize . . .”

The Doctor raised his eyebrows, waiting for Mal to continue.

“. . . But like I said, I’ve got a boat to run, here, and crew to look after. We’re in the middle of refitting, and this here’s taken fair amount of time. I’ll be better able to sit down to a powwow with you tomorrow, if that suits . . .”

They’d have the refuel and the hydraulic fluid change taken care of bright tomorrow morning, Davesport time. After that, there was little enough holding them here unless Jayne managed to keep his pants on long enough to catch word of a job. In between, there was enough time to sleep on the matter, conjure if he wanted to get any more involved with these folks. He’d been willing to see if he could get help for River, her bein’ at least partly his responsibility, but for the rest of it . . .

Rose was looking hurt, and Jack annoyed, like they figured they were owed something. The Doctor just stood there with his hands in his pockets, and a half-smile on his face.

“Fair enough,” he said. “I hope you’ll sleep on it, though.” He gave Mal a sunny smile, and what he'd said was close enough to what Mal’d been thinking he wondered again if this Doctor No-Name was a better Reader than he’d let on. He deliberately shot a mean thought in the man’s direction.

No reaction. Not a distance-Reader, then, or else good at hiding reactions. One way or another, Mal was pretty sure he’d never want to play poker with the man.

Which was something to consider in and of itself.

Back to index


Chapter 6: In The TARDIS

Author's Notes: As further proof of The Power of Reviews, I've decided to add a new AU character to the mix -- Junior. He got a lot of positive feedback, and I'm seeing all kinds of potential for him . . . for those who have not yet read it, my story "Junior" introduces him, but reading that shouldn't be necessary for following along.


Evening was settling on Davesport as the three of them headed back to the TARDIS. Rougher elements were starting to come out of the woodwork, invigorated by the cooler temperatures, but three people together weren't a favored target, especially along the main thoroughfares, so they encountered no problems.

"So now what?" Jack asked. "D'you think we'll hear much more from Cap'n Mal and company?"

"Difficult to say," the Doctor told him, eyes narrowed in thought. "He can see a benefit to working with us, but he's been burned before, and badly. His first concern is for his ship -- his ‘boat’ -- and crew. But he's a man of principle, and he's been inspired to fight for greater causes before . . ."

"I wouldn't say he's too deeply principled," Jack said, dryly. "That whole ship is rigged for smuggling, if you didn't notice."

"I did, but how did you know what to look for?" the Doctor asked with a raised eyebrow. "I wouldn't go throwing stones, Jack. There's principled and principled, and Captain Reynolds might not pay much attention to Alliance laws, but he's got a good heart overall." He paused, and said thoughtfully, "River certainly thinks so."

Rose shivered a little, and not just with the growing chill. "Did they really damage her brain, just to make her telepathic?" she asked. The tone of her voice said she was hoping to hear otherwise, but didn't really expect to.

The Doctor sighed. "Worse than that -- they damaged her brain to make her a weapon. She's been conditioned for combat, with or without weapons, for killing without thought or remorse once her conditioning is activated. The telepathy is only part of that, to make her more effective. She can read her opponents' moves in advance, and react with impossible speed. The perfect killing machine, really. She would also double as a wonderful spy or assassin, for the same reasons." His tone was neutral, as were his features -- which told Rose exactly what his feelings were.

"Wonderful," Rose said.

"Oh it gets better -- or worse, I guess would be more accurate. This same government has, among other things, sponsored an experiment in drug-induced behavioral control that resulted in either death or insanity for the entire population of a planet. The insane ones are these 'Reavers' we've been hearing rumors about."

"So they are real?" Jack asked. "All the official channels say they're just a myth, but that's not the impression I've gotten of the rest of the 'Net -- 'Cortex', I mean . . ."

"Oh, very real. River and her friends have encountered them more than once. The last time, Serenity's pilot -- Zoe's husband -- was killed, and everyone else nearly so. River's conditioning came in useful, that time . . ."

"Are the Reavers as bad as they say?" Jack asked, looking somewhat queasy.

"Oh, yes," the Doctor told him, lightly. He didn't say more, and didn't need to. After a moment, he continued, "That touches on the matter of Captain Reynold's relationship with the Alliance and its Parliament, in fact -- he and Serenity's crew were involved in ‘outing’ the whole behavioral-control fiasco; we'll want to set the TARDIS looking through the Cortex for information on a planet called 'Miranda” . . ."

Rose cocked her head at him. “Sounds like River was . . . talkative,” she commented.

“Weeeellll, not as such, but she did make sure several things were in obvious ‘places.’ She made it less urgent for us to ‘powwow’ with Reynolds and his crew, but her viewpoint is . . . unique. Talking to someone less unique would be a help. Not to mention the benefits of having a starship Captain on our side, at the moment.”

Rose and Jack were both silent at that, remembering their current situation.

They arrived at the warehouse where the TARDIS was hidden, and the Doctor keyed the palm-pad on the door. The proprietor had assured them the security was top-notch when he’d set the lock for them. Nobody had quite believed it, but the TARDIS had a knack for looking after herself, and this way she was at least off the streets.

Things seemed undisturbed when they reached the metal cargo crate and the Doctor unlocked it. Inside, the familiar blue box hummed at them, and all three reached up unconsciously to stroke the weathered wood. The TARDIS was uncomfortable here, and needed a little extra reassurance.

Next to the crate was a pallet of spare parts from the junkyard, delivered as promised.

“I’ll get the hand truck,” Jack said, and disappeared into the depths of the TARDIS; Rose and the Doctor followed, and were laying out tools and supplies by the time he returned.

The next several hours were spent checking, disassembling, reassembling, and retrofitting the mismatched spare parts. They made good time, working together with practiced ease, mostly silent except for occasional necessary exchanges. Despite Jack’s earlier prediction, they were close to being done by local midnight.

The Doctor tightened the last bolt of the new power step module into place, down under the decking below the central column, and ran a worried-affectionate hand along the column’s housing. “There, girl,” murmured. “Nearly fixed up.”

Rose sat on the edge of the intact deck grating and dangled her legs down, watching. Jack stood next to her and stretched, hands on his lower back, arching till his spine popped.

The Doctor reached up to take Rose’s hand gratefully as he vaulted back up to the main level of decking, his usual bounce distinctly muted. It had been a long couple of days.

“How’s it . . . feeling?” Rose asked anxiously.

The Doctor plopped down next to her on the edge of the grating, and bowed his head.

“Still uncertain,” he told her, honestly. “The Vortex in this Universe is different enough, the TARDIS is having trouble adjusting.” He frowned. “So am I, for that matter. It’s disconcerting.”

“Once we get the repairs done, do you think the TARDIS will be able to navigate the Vortex here?” Rose voiced the concern that had been haunting all of them.

Uncharacteristically, the Doctor didn’t answer.

“You know what I think . . .” Jack began, still standing behind them.

“And you know what I think,” the Doctor replied, without turning to look up at him. “I’m still not sure Junior is ready for that sort of thing.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Jack said, wheedling. “He’s taken his first interface implants really well, and we were thinking of starting Vortex training with him . . .”

“In our own Universe, yes,” the Doctor told him, half turning. “I’m worried about accidentally imprinting him permanently on this Vortex . . .”

“Hey, you said yourself, he’s still young enough to be really flexible — the way a human kid can learn all kinds of languages when he’s young. I know he can handle this!”

Jack — not entirely without reason — was inclined to believe his young charge was capable of almost anything . . . and without a stable Vortex connection, they would still be grounded no matter how many repairs they made . . .

The Doctor sighed, and looked over at Rose.

“I dunno,” she said, thoughtfully. “I don’t think I know enough to decide. I think Junior’s fantastic, and he could probably handle it. But he’s so valuable, I’d be scared to hurt him by accident . . .” She shrugged. “You’re the TARDIS expert.”

“So I am.” The Doctor considered, rubbing an earlobe thoughtfully. “Speaking of our wunderkind,” he said, “he’d probably like a visit, and we’re due for a break . . .”

Rose bounced to her feet, and offered him a hand; Jack caught the Doctor’s other hand, and he practically flew to his feet with their help. Definitely time for a break . . . ! the Doctor thought, amused in spite of himself.

--

Deep in the “center” of the TARDIS’s maze of rooms and corridors was a particularly special room, wrapped in the deepest layers of the ship, as a parent will wrap protectively around a child. Of course, that was what Junior was, if one looked at it from the right angle.

Through the door, one encountered an open area at least half the size of the warehouse outside. The entire space was filled with an intricate white coral-branching structure — the physical component of Junior, Jack’s baby TARDIS. Junior was still quite young — he hadn’t yet encapsulated, or developed the ability to warp space and time so he could transcend dimensions within himself, nor had he been fitted with most of the intricate prosthetic machinery necessary for a fully-fledged timeship. But he’d come a long, long way from the small clump of branches Jack had brought onto the TARDIS in a shoulder bag.

Junior was happy to see them, and sent out a subliminal hum — already a little deeper and more masculine in tone than the TARDIS’s feminine “voice” — in greeting.

Rose took a few half-running steps forward, and leapt to catch a horizontal branch well over her head. She pulled herself up gracefully — her gymnastics training in action; working with Junior helped keep her in shape with it — and clambered through the branches to her particular spot in Junior’s network. As she settled onto “her” branch, it molded itself perfectly to her body, providing a marvelously comfortable “chair” for her to lounge in, a good fifteen feet above the floor of the room. Junior was beginning to be noticeably responsive to his family’s needs — exceptionally so, the Doctor had said. He’d gone on to speculate that Junior, being raised at least partially by affectionate humans, rather than coolly-distant Time Lords, might be developing an emotional depth and perception unusual for TARDISes.

“Sorta’ like being raised by wolves, huh?” Rose had asked him, teasing.

“Given your particular case, that may be truer than you think,” he’d shot back, making her laugh.

“Showoff,” Jack yelled up at Rose, referring to her ascent. He chose the route of a series of ladderlike branches off by one wall, himself, and began climbing.

“Jealous!” she yelled back, and settled more comfortably into Junior’s embrace. The purr running through the branch against her back and backside felt suspiciously like shared amusement.

The Doctor followed Jack with easy agility, and Rose smothered a grin. She’d never quite been able to get the Doctor to admit to any primate ancestry, but he was amazingly at home in climbing situations, and she had her distinct suspicions that the Time Lords might not have come from such high-and-mighty evolutionary stock as he liked to imply.

The two of them went to the first prosthetic implant site, about five feet above Rose, and ten yards to her right. Jack and the Doctor had just installed the first panels that would later become the central control interface around the core column Junior would eventually begin to grow.

She watched, as best she could, from her vantage point, while they ran through their usual diagnostic checks.

“See?” Jack said to the Doctor. “He’s adjusting perfectly. That’s my boy!” he told Junior, patting the control panel, and a faint, delighted tremor ran through the whole network of branches.

Rose couldn’t see the Doctor’s face, since he was turned away from her, but she felt his hesitation. “I’ll . . . think about it,” he said. Then, in a brighter tone, “That reminds me — it’s time to get some sleep.”

“We’ve still got some work to do on the replacement parts,” Jack said, meaningfully.

“Oh, you and Rose can handle that,” the Doctor told him with airy certainly. “In the meantime, I have a date with a young lady . . .” he tapped his temple meaningfully.

“Oi!” Rose called from her branch. “Should I be jealous?”

The Doctor turned and smiled down at her. “Should you? You realize that’s not the same question as ‘will you,’ or ‘need you,’ or any number of similar things?”

“I realize you’re ducking the question,” she told him, mock-offended. Then, more seriously, “River?”

“The same. I want to get her perspective on these odd dreams, and what better time and place to do it than while we’re having them?”

The Doctor swung gracefully down to a lower level (Rose bit her tongue), and settled onto his own special branch. “I think this is as good a spot as any. Carry on, why don’t you.” He beamed first at Rose, then at Jack, before he settled beck and folded his hands over his stomach.

“C’mon, Rose,” Jack called, “Let’s leave him to his beauty sleep.”

Rose ducked down through the branches, and then dropped the last bit to land neatly on her feet beside Jack, who had taken a less adventurous way down.

“After all,” he continued to her in an undertone, “A thousand years old, he probably needs it.”

From high above them, the Doctor called down, “I’m not asleep yet, thanks!”

Rose laughed, and pulled Jack back in the direction of the control room and the last of the needed repairs.

Back to index


Chapter 7: In Your Dreams I

Author's Notes: River and the Doctor go for a bit of a walk and see the sights.


River walked through her awake-dream aimlessly, wondering how best to find the Doctor. She’d called up a bright star flare that followed her, scintillating with brilliant rainbow colors, hovering high above her dream-self’s head. She didn’t know if he’d be able to see that beacon or not, but it was a start.

The dream-stuff around her was vague and nebulous, waiting for her to shape it. Most people always shaped it, since their minds couldn’t wrap around anything else. River had to admit, she was like that too when she was dreaming asleep-dreams. But in her awake-dreams — “lucid” dreams, Simon called them, when she’d tried to describe them to him — she usually didn’t bother shaping dream-stuff unless she had a particular reason for it. So now, as she walked, she formed a path — interestingly curve-y and paved with fine white quartz gravel — and her beacon star, and let the rest of it be.

She felt a faint, distant acknowledgement, and the dream stuff began to shift so it vaguely resembled a blank open plain, reaching to infinity, and a low, grey sky. The path took on a life of its own, and snaked rapidly off in front of her, unspooling into the distance. The horizon darkened, as if with storm clouds, and she knew the Doctor had found her.

Even though distance was irrelevant in a dream, she kept walking to have something to do, until, with a flickering shift in perception, the Doctor was suddenly visible, walking along the path towards her. The dream world immediately shaped and focused itself, so her white path wound across a wide rocky plain that looked like a lot of the Rim worlds, only without sagebrush, under a dim and cloudy sky.

River studied the Doctor’s dream-form with interest. Most people just looked like themselves in dreams, sometimes a little off-kilter depending on their personal perceptions of themselves, but the Doctor . . . changed, flowing from one form to another like quicksilver, now young, now old, changing faces and bodies effortlessly. He wore his waking appearance more often than any of the others, but he was never still. Around him flickered interesting shadows — memory-people, accompanying him as he walked, there for a ghostly few seconds and then gone again. A disturbance, like a faint whirlpool, rippled through the clouds above him as he moved.

“Hello again, River” he greeted her, smiling, momentarily silver-haired and wearing a dandified coat and cape. He tilted his head back to look up at her beacon-star, and when he turned back to her, still smiling, he was young and blond, with a mild, kindly face, before shifting to the brown-haired, brown-eyed form she’d met before. “That’s quite the beacon.”

River shrugged, secretly pleased. “It’s a dream,” she said, meaning she could have however bright a beacon as she wanted, here.

He tossed back his head, a mass of red-brown curls, and laughed, showing an impressive array of white teeth. “So it is. Very practical of you.” Then he sobered, and his eyes were brown again.

“I think you’ve been dreaming about the disturbances to the Time Vortex here, just as I have,” he told her, “but I’m not from here, and I can’t see clearly. I’m hoping, if you’re with me, I’ll be able to use your perceptions to help me see. Like wearing reading glasses,” he added, and fished an example pair from his pocket with a smile. He tucked the glasses back into his pocket, and shifted again.

Leaning on his umbrella, he gazed speculatively over the rocky terrain. “I don’t suppose you know the best way to those dreams from here . . .?” he asked hopefully. “I don’t dreamwalk much.”

“They’re here,” River told him, surprised that the Storm wasn’t as familiar with awake-dreams as she would have thought. “They’re always here. Dreams are malleable. You just have to reach the frequency. But you’ll have to be quiet. I can’t change the frequencies if you’re telling everything what to be.”

“Am I? I didn’t realize,” he told her, rubbing his earlobe thoughtfully. He slipped his hands in his pockets and was still for a moment. At first nothing happened, then the dream-plain dissolved into raw dream stuff. The path and the sky remained, however. The Doctor tapped his cane on the ground, pleased, and smiled over his shoulder at River.

She remained unmoved and gave him a frown in return. “All of it,” she said. “The sky is particularly relevant.” She added, as an afterthought, “Leave the path, though, or we’ll fall.”

“You’re a harsh taskmistress,” he told her grouchily. But he refocused, and the sky faded as well, leaving only the path. He grinned over his shoulder at her again, back to being his waking self, and she gave him a curt nod.

Then the dream world exploded into a new reality as she changed frequencies without warning.

Now the white gravel path wound through the vast star-sprinkled emptiness of the Black. “Above” and to their right, a planet hung suspended like a cloud-marbled balloon, rich with water, green and inviting. Just “below” them was a moon, looking larger than the planet because it was closer. It was terraformed, but only just, with thin, wispy clouds and an orangey color that didn’t promise much moisture, or much plant life beyond the ever-present sagebrush the first colonists had been so fond of.

The view was less interesting, however, than the faint shimmer that surrounded them — rather like heat-haze, if there had been any air to support such a thing. It was a disturbing effect, in a subtle way, as a misproportioned room or uneven floor can be disconcerting.

“Oh, now, that shouldn’t be there. That isn’t right at all,” the Doctor breathed, running a distracted hand through his hair. He glanced at River, face grim. “I’ll need to change this just a little. Will that be all right?”

River nodded, curious.

Things shifted, and there were subtle currents of . . . something running through the dream that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t really a substance, or a light, or a sound, or a feeling, but it was there, rippling and turning and flowing, somehow both random and orderly.

With a spark of interest and pleasure, River asked, “Is that time?”

“Yes it is,” the Doctor told her absently, back to being young and blond for the moment.

Really, this was turning into quite an interesting dream. Back at the Academy, they’d given River some shots that had made her think she could see time, or feel it as a physical presence, or hear it as a strange, dry rustling sound, but that was just drugs working on her brain chemistry. She had a feeling this was the real thing. She hoped she’d remember what it was like when she woke up,

Time rippled along in cadence with the more visible shimmer, twisted and knotted itself through the disturbance.

The Doctor sucked in his breath and blew it out.

“That,” he said conversationally, “is even worse than I thought. These people haven’t a clue as to what they’re doing, but of course that isn’t stopping them.” He looked around at the planet, the moon, and the distant Sun. “I’ll bet they even think they’re clever for coming out here to try it.”

River brushed a few strands of hair back behind her ears and cocked her head to one side.

Responding as easily as if she’d spoken, the Doctor told her, “The best thing they could hope for if they keep this up is to open a black hole when the fabric of spacetime finally ruptures irreparably. The worst, well, it makes the black hole look like a fabulous all-expenses paid trip to a really nice resort. With free drinks, the kind that have little umbrellas in them, and fruit on straws . . .” he trailed off, but River could tell his light tone covered tension. Among other things, he’d nearly stopped shifting form at all, as if he were concentrating harder on being where he was.

“I don’t suppose they’d even listen to me if I tried to warn them,” he continued. “I’m sure one of their own has already tried to. You’d have to be an idiot not to figure where this was going, if you understand enough to try it at all.”

“These people made the Academy, too?” River asked.

“Maybe not the same exact individuals, but more or less, yes.”

“Then they won’t listen because they won’t care,” River said, stating the simple facts as she saw them. “Serenity can help you?”

“Yes,” the Doctor said, all his attention on her now.

“You can stop them?”

He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head at her, considering. “Yes,” he told her.

“Wait,” she said, and was gone.

Back to index


Chapter 8: In Your Dreams II

Author's Notes: River decides to help set things in motion, and arranges a meeting between Mal and the Doctor.


While she was gone, the Doctor alternated between playing the recorder and the spoons to pass the time. He was working on a particularly complex spoon rhythm and chatting with the memory of Sarah Jane about nothing much when River returned.

She cocked her head at him and he refocused on the present. Sarah Jane evaporated into nothingness as he put his hands in his pockets and waited expectantly for River to speak.

“This way,” she said, and led him off down a branch in the pathway that hadn’t been there before.

A few steps along, and their surroundings changed. It was late evening and they were at the mouth of a stony valley, all jagged rocks and sage, like a million other places around the system. It would have been ordinary except for the carnage scattered on all sides — crashed and burning transport vehicles, dead bodies (most of them wearing brown uniforms, though there were some in blue), sandbagged positions (now abandoned), scattered weapons, ruptured steel barrels, unidentifiable debris and detritus. It looked as if a battle had been fought there . . . because one had.

Overhead, armed shuttles and atmosphere-rated warships hovered like grim carrion crows.

River led the Doctor to where Captain Reynolds sat on a rock, legs drawn up and arms around his knees. He was gazing off into the distance, his expression calm, if grim. He seemed unmoved by the appalling scene around him, as if it was something so familiar he hardly saw it anymore.

“Here he is,” River said, without it being clear to whom she was speaking.

Mal turned to look at them, and his expression had the detachment of a man who is dreaming and knows it, at least subliminally.

He raised an eyebrow at the Doctor. “I had you pegged for a shifty sort,” he commented. “Looks as if I was right.”

The Doctor shrugged. “It’s my nature,” he said.

Mal snorted, accepting the comment with a dreamer’s borderline-indifference.

“I thought you should see,” River told the Doctor.

“And what am I looking at?” he asked River and Mal equally.

“Serenity Valley,” Mal told him, turning to look away, down the valley. His profile was partially silhouetted against the orange light of a burning land-truck. “We were to hold our positions, keep the Alliance from coming through. And we did.” His tone was dispassionate, but old sorrow moved beneath the words. “Oh, we did. Just me and Zoe left, all my people gone. And then we were abandoned.”

His jaw clenched and he finished, “All that, for nothing.”

The Doctor looked at the ground for a moment, considering. When he raised his head, the landscape changed.

The setting was still semi-desert, but different, gravelly and mostly flat, with rolling hummocks. It too had been a battlefield, but the scattered remnants were far greater — huge crashed ships, near and in the distance, vast swathes of the ground burnt black or melted to shiny, bubbled glass. Great gouges had been cut through the earth, with fire still glowing at the bottom of them. Scattered everywhere were bodies, and odd metal casings, the same strange design repeated over and over. It looked as if gods had clashed with each other, leaving this terrible result.

“Arcadia. The pride of my people and the main defense of my homeworld,” the Doctor said, quietly. “I was at the front lines. It was our final hope, our last stand. We were fighting for our lives, and the Universe. Somehow I lived.”

A long pause, and he sighed, as calm and sad as Mal had been. “We lost.”

“Damn,” Mal commented, with feeling, and then was silent. Not much else to say to that.

“This is one of the things I fear for your Universe — this, or something like it,” the Doctor continued. “I’ve been with River to have a look at the dreams we’ve had, and someone — I’d lay long odds on it being this Alliance of yours . . .”

“Not mine,” Mal said firmly.

“True. My apologies. Anyway, this Alliance has been experimenting with localized timewarps.” The Doctor changed things so the sky went to black and displayed the shifting anomaly as if on a gigantic projection screen.

“I say! How very effective. I must try and explain these things while in a shared dream state more often . . . anyway, Time is being run back and forth, repeatedly, in a small region of spacetime. I can guess at the motivations, dimly. How handy, they’re thinking, to be able to reset time, to re-fight a lost battle, to stop a successful assassination . . . but the Universe — any Universe — doesn’t have a ‘reset’ button. It’s absurdly na´ve to think such a thing would work.

“At best, the fabric of spacetime will become too stressed, and rupture.” Above them, the twisted portion of space ripped open, and became a ravenous mouth, swallowing in all the matter around it, planets and moons suddenly as fragile and ephemeral as soap bubbles.

Mal gaped at the image, appalled.

That would be the least of your problems,” the Doctor continued almost cheerfully. “It would take a while for the black hole to completely destroy this system, and you might be able to resurrect the generation starship technology that brought you here in time to send out at least a few lifeboats, as it were. Also, if I understand local history at all, based on what your Cortex has to offer, ships left Earth-That-Was heading in all directions. So it’s at least possible the human race would survive elsewhere.

“Another possibility is that this portion of spacetime would become so corrupted, the Universe’s compensation mechanisms would kick in, and, ah, excise the damaged material.”

The sky-dome reset itself, and this time, the damaged fabric of spacetime yielded up a vast cloud of black, winged shapes that put Mal in mind of a mass of blackjack hornets. They swarmed over everything in their path, devouring, in their way more terrible and thorough than the black hole had been.

“Reapers — your Universe’s version of them, anyway. And, so far as I can tell from the nature of the Time Vortex here, there is nobody to stop them, no equivalent to my own people,” the Doctor continued — speaking near gibberish, as far as Mal was concerned, but he still didn’t like the gist of it.

The Doctor paused thoughtfully. “Not that my people might have stopped this in any case — one of those ‘Reap what ye sow’ situations . . . But we’ll never know, will we? Anyway . . .”

The sky-image reset again.

“Finally, one of the side effects of weakening spacetime is opening pathways to other Universes — breaching the Void and crossing over into other realities, even to the extent of allowing matter to pass across the gap.”

He paused. “You are familiar with the concept of parallel Universes . . . ?” he asked.

“B’lieve I’ve heard the gist of it, yes,” Mal told him dryly. “I’ve cracked a book or two in my time -- not just a pretty face, y’know.”

“Never said you were,” the Doctor replied, so blandly that Mal, even caught up in the general detachment of dreaming, shot him a narrow-eyed glare. The Doctor ignored it. “That makes this explanation easier, at any rate . . .

“The Alliance has found that they have the ability to reach out across the gap between Universes and pull things through. Mostly, they’d just get junk, useless debris, natural in origin, and not terribly useful. But they’re curious, and they’ve been casting their nets with a will. That’s how they caught my ship.” He glanced at Mal with an edge of humor. “’Boat,’ in your idiom.” He winked, and then continued.

“We’re not from around here — not from this Universe. We come from a parallel reality, pulled through by the Alliance. At first I thought it was accidental, or some natural disruption, but it was quite deliberate. We managed to slip their grasp, and end up here, in Davesport, but our ship was damaged in transit, and this Universe . . . is subtly different from ours. We went to the local junkyard to find parts for repairs, and to try and adjust for local conditions — we met up with your Kaylee in the process, and you know the end of that story . . .

“My concern is that the Alliance is purposefully reaching out and trying to bring objects — specifically, technological objects — through the Void to this Universe. This time, they caught me and my ‘boat.’ Next time, they might net something far less friendly. The Daleks, for example — the race that destroyed Arcadia . . .” Above him, the dream-sky blossomed with sinister ships of unfamiliar design.

Mal shivered, but kept his head. “But that was a war. How can a war be worse than a black hole? Wars only shoot up the local real estate. Black holes, and those wasp-things . . .”

“Reapers.”

“ . . . Reapers, they eat everything.”

“Only in a localized area. Among other charming traits, the Daleks actively seek to destroy any and all life they encounter — and their ability to travel through space and time is quite well-developed. They would hunt the human race to extinction, anywhere and everywhere it might exist. Black holes and Reapers will only affect this small corner of the Universe. The Daleks would slice through the whole like a scythe — especially without opposition. My own race died trying to stop them, and your Universe has nothing of the sort.”

Mal bowed his head, thinking. “You’re sure this’ll happen?”

“One of the three possibilities is inevitable, unless this experimentation stops. The black hole, at the very least.”

“D’you know how to stop it?” Mal asked, with more intensity than he’d yet shown in his dream state.

“Oh, I have a few ideas . . .” the Doctor began, but before he could say more, Mal vanished like a snuffed candle flame.

The Doctor turned to River, questioning.

She shrugged. “He woke up. People do that.”

“True. Will he come back?”

“Don’t know. Things change. It’s never the same river twice.” River traced delicate pattern on the ground with one bare toe.

“No, it isn’t. I think . . . I will take my leave and go see how my own crew is doing. Thank you, though, you’ve been a tremendous help . . .” Now looking like some sort of old-Core poet with flowing hair and a long velvet coat, he swept her a bow, and then, for good measure, caught her hand and kissed the knuckles.

River let him, intrigued. And then he was gone, and she was left with just her path and the roiling mass of unshaped dream-stuff around it. Looking up, she could see her beacon was still bright. She killed it, and then began wandering.

Mal was awake and distressed — no surprise. Zoe was still awake, trying not to think about Wash. Jayne’s dreams caught River’s attention and held her as an observer for longer than she’d like to admit, but his coarseness eventually drove her on. Kaylee was dreaming a happy dream about smoothly engineered parts meshing together perfectly, and sleeping next to her was Simon . . .

As she ‘approached’, River could hear her bother’s voice crying out, “River! River? Where are you?” It was a dream he had often, River knew, searching for her, desperate to find her. Even though he'd succeeded in awake-life, his dream self didn’t seem to have taken the news to heart.

River sighed, and went to him.

He was dreaming a park, one that looked a lot like a park where they’d played as children. His dream self, looking younger than his awake-self, wandered through the scene, calling desperately for his sister. River walked up to him, and he brightened when he saw her. He grabbed her in a hug — it felt a little like being wrapped in cobwebs, to River — nearly sobbing with relief.

“There you are! Where were you?”

“Seeding clouds,” River told him with a smile, for her own amusement, knowing he wouldn’t understand.

As predicted, his dream self ignored her words, skipping over them completely. He took her hand and tugged her along. “Come on, Mom and Dad will have been so worried . . .”

But they weren’t, were they? River thought, sadly. She made a dream-copy of herself, and let Simon pull it further into his dream.

She turned away from him, found her path again, and resumed wandering.

--

Rose and Jack were sitting in the jump seat, resting, leaning their shoulders together. Neither needed sleep, but it felt good to sit down for a bit and wait for the Doctor.

At just before local dawn, he came striding into the control room, hands in his pockets and wearing a more relaxed and cheerful expression than he'd had since they crossed the Void.

“I see you’ve gotten the last of the new parts settled,” he told them. “That’s good, since I think it’s high time we went back to the junkyard.”

They did need some more parts still, but there seemed to be more to it than that, and his companions watched him, waiting. “Why right now? It’s still early, they may not be open yet,” Rose prompted.

“Ah, but Kaylee knew we were planning to go back there, didn’t she? So I think an early visit would be a good thing.” He volunteered no more information than that, but headed for the door, trusting them to follow.

Rose traded a wry glance with Jack, and they complied.

--

As hot as the previous day had been, the early morning was bitter cold, as was common in the desert. A thin layer of frost coated most surfaces. The Doctor wore his long coat, Jack had his leather jacket, and Rose had one of her old hoodies — though she was thinking regretfully she might have chosen something heavier. She blew on her hands to warm them as she walked.

Davesport was just beginning to rustle with daylight activity. The junkyard gate was indeed still closed, but there was someone else there already. The man was wearing a long, brown coat against the chill, and had the look of waiting for someone or something -- shoulders leaned back against the high wall surrounding the junkyard, arms crossed, one booted foot kicked back against the wall for additional support.

The Doctor made a small, pleased sound in the back of his throat, and Rose recognized the man as Captain Mal.

Mal had been moodily studying the ground, but looked up as they approached and kicked away from the wall, walking forward to meet them. There was an angry tension in his shoulders and his face. Rose had no idea what could have caused it, since he’d seemed to be in a relatively good — if standoffish — mood when they’d parted the other day.

As he got closer, she could see his eyes were bloodshot, and he was unshaven — the look of a man who hadn’t gotten much rest the night before, and had other things to think about than his appearance.

When he reached the edge of speaking distance, he called out, “Doctor, you’re a gorram liar, and whatn’th’hell did you mean, you’ve got ‘a few ideas’?”

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