It's a bit chilly, and looks like it might storm; but it's a beach, with a proper boardwalk and everything, and the slate-gray waves crash in an ever-changing rhythm against the sand. Rose thinks it's glorious, in an almost-home-but-not-quite sort of way. Familiar enough to feel completely at ease, but different enough to be a wonder.
"Eastern Seaboard, United States of America, 2004," the Doctor announces with a wide grin. "Sometime in April, I believe."
Jack follows them out of the TARDIS, looking distinctly skeptical. "New Jersey," he says flatly. "We can go anywhere in time or space, and you brought us to New Jersey."
"Atlantic City, New Jersey, to be specific."
Jack's face brightens at once. "Well, that's another matter entirely."
The new voice makes Rose jump — which is rather embarrassing, really, when all she sees is an ordinary human girl, about her own age or maybe a little younger, dark hair streaming in the wind off the ocean.
"What's that?" the Doctor asks sharply.
"Wrong decade," the girl repeats with a shrug. "Wrong mental image. Turn of the century, ladies in white bathing dresses, vaudeville, gambling and grime and girls." She cocks her head, looking Jack over with an odd intensity. "Or boys."
After a moment, Jack laughs, tossing his head back. "Oh, I like this one!" he says delightedly. "Who're you, then, darling?"
The girl grins, like a switch suddenly turned on. "Who'd you like me to be, handsome?" she teases, in a fair imitation of Jack's own manner. It's a little eerie, actually.
"Leave her be, Jack," Rose says with a laugh. "Early twenty-first century America's a bit prudish. She's probably not even legal."
Jack sticks his tongue out at her.
"Now then, his name is Jack, and he's trouble," she tells the girl. "That's the Doctor over there, and I'm Rose."
She sticks out her hand. The girl examines it, much as the Doctor might study a particularly bizarre alien life form, then shakes it stiffly. "River."
Something's a bit off about this one, Rose thinks. "River, that's a lovely name," she says. "You're here on your own, then?"
"Waiting for Simon," River says, leaning against the rail and closing her eyes. "He's got people to talk to, but I don't like hospitals. White walls and sterile smells and things that poke and jab. The sea smells cleaner."
The Doctor takes a step forward, eyes bright with curiosity. Rose shakes her head at him — don't pester the poor girl — but he just brushes her shoulder lightly and ignores the warning. "Not from around here, then?"
"We're just visiting," River says airily. "Like you."
The Doctor gives her a hard look. "Yes," he murmurs. "You are, aren't you?"
The girl smiles, small and strange.
"Okay," Jack finally says, apparently deciding River isn't a favorable candidate for seduction. "Now that we've sorted that out, can we please go off and behave like proper tourists now? By which I mean booze and slots."
Rose breathes deeply of the salt air. It smells...clean, like River said. Nothing wrong with booze or slots, but right now, she's just not in the mood. "You go on," she tells Jack. "Think I'll hang about out here for a bit."
There's the solid warmth of a hand on her arm, and she smiles up into the Doctor's sharp blue eyes. "Thought you wanted a bit of a holiday," he remarks. "Changed your mind?"
"Not at all," she reassures him. "This is perfect just as it is, Doctor. Got a fancy to try building a sand castle, actually." She grins. "You better keep an eye on Jack, though. Don't forget what happened last time he found a casino."
The Doctor grimaces. "Maxitrimegalon-beta, and the errant deck of whitejack cards. I've never seen a bloke turn quite that shade of mauve before."
"Well, then," Rose says encouragingly, over Jack's indignant protests. "I'll be fine."
After a moment's consideration, the Doctor nods. "Keep an eye out," he murmurs, leaning in just a touch. She can feel his breath on her ear, and shivers. "The girl's a bit of an anachronism. Can't be too careful."
River's watching them with an odd gleam in her eye, like she can hear every word. Rose isn't entirely sure what the Doctor means, calling her an anachronism, but before she has the chance to ask, he's off, walking briskly.
Jack winks back at her. "We'll fetch you for dinner!" he calls over his shoulder as he jogs after the Doctor, heading toward the nearest casino, where brightly colored lights twinkle out invitingly.
So Rose is left alone on the boardwalk, with the strange-eyed dark-haired girl. They regard each other for a few moments. Then Rose smiles, and River grins back. "Race you," River says.
They both immediately break into a run off the boardwalk and over the beach. Rose stumbles into the sand, curses, and yanks off her shoes. The sand feels cool and soft between her toes, catching her feet, tripping her up. River laughs, already barefoot, putting a meter or so of distance between them. Somehow she makes running over the beach look elegant, as though she's dancing across the sand.
River reaches the water's edge first. "I win!" she shouts, triumphant. "No power in the 'verse can stop me!"
"Oh, you think so, do you?" Rose inquires, and promptly shoves River into an incoming wave.
River shrieks and yanks Rose in with her. They both tumble down to their knees, sinking into the wet sand, as another wave catches them. The sea isn't particularly violent, and they're only just at the waterline, so it's not too bad — still, the seawater is bitingly cold, and after a few seconds' scuffle, they help each other up and run back up the beach, soaked to their waists and shivering.
"Ta very much for that," Rose says ruefully, trying to brush the wet sand off her legs. Her skirt's a mess now, but it'll hold. "Don't suppose you've got a towel or sommat?"
River shrugs, plopping down into the sand. "It's immaterial," she says breezily. "Evaporation is inevitable if eventual, even at these temperatures."
"So we'll dry off soon enough on our own, you mean," Rose says wryly. "Somehow I guessed."
The other girl smiles brightly. "Sand castle?"
"Sand castle," Rose agrees, and they set to work.
Once, only once, when she was eight, her mum scraped up enough money to take them both on holiday to Bournemouth. That first day at the beach, Rose had spent hours attempting to create a castle out of the sand, armed with only a toy shovel and tin bucket. She'd been very proud of the end result, though Jackie had just looked it over and remarked that she supposed architect oughtn't be too high on Rose's list of career aspirations. Where shopgirl fit in there, Rose had never asked.
This time, they've nothing but their own hands and the damp sand, but that's enough. Rose isn't much use, but River gets a solid foundation going and manages to give Rose simple, coherent directions in shaping the towers. It's rather like listening to the Doctor, whenever he bothers condescending to her level and actually explains how some alien culture or bit of the TARDIS works in terms she can understand.
"Time and relative dimensions in space," River remarks dreamily, smoothing out a turret. "All that is and was and will ever be."
Rose glances up from her work sharply. "What'd you just say?"
"Spatial relativity is simple," River tells her. "Faster than light travel, world after world. Basic technology. Time is different. Old dogs learning new tricks, firefly traversing through centuries. Wrong direction. Improbable."
"Firefly?" Rose asks, trying to make sense of this new muddle.
"Serenity," River confirms. For some reason, Rose hears it in her head as a proper noun; all capitalized, maybe, like the TARDIS. Or something like that. Serenity.
She thinks maybe she's starting to understand. "Your ship?"
"Serene. Tranquil. Calm. Not really, though. All a false front, put new paint on the hull and pretend she's sparkling inside when there are still pieces missing. Torn out chunks, ripped away, gaping wounds. Abandoned bibles. Reaching out in the night to the empty side of the bed." River looks up from the nearly-finished castle, her eyes meeting Rose's, dark and fathomless. "Always reaching for someone who's not there."
Rose blinks first, looking away. "Sometimes it's worse when he is."
"There but not there," River says, shaping the final tower. "Distant. Impersonal. The perfect doctor."
"He's not like that at all," Rose argues. "You only met him for a minute, what d'you know about it?" And since when did the conversation become about the Doctor, anyway? Weren't they talking about River's spaceship a second ago? And — wait, this is Earth, early twenty-first century, Rose's own time, they shouldn't have space travel yet! Not proper space travel, anyway. "Who are you?" Rose demands.
"Who are you?" River counters. "Companion. Not like our Companions, all of her body and none of her heart. Switched around. All of your heart and none of your body."
"What d'you know about it?" Rose asks again, her throat constricting. She clasps her hands together to keep them from shaking.
"You want to touch him," River says, running her hand lightly over the sand castle. "Want to feel his hearts beat under your fingertips, prove he's just like you, human and whole and alive. But he's not."
Rose tosses her head, resisting the urge to reach out and feel the coolness of the sand. "Course he's not human. He's an alien."
"No, not that." River caresses her creation like a lover. "Not whole. He's broken."
The castle crumbles beneath her hands.
"And all the king's horses and all the king's men..."
Rose bites her lip. "Couldn't put the Doctor together again."
She blinks back tears, and pretends it's just the salty air.
"At least, not with that daft old face," River remarks thoughtfully. Rose wonders what that's supposed to mean, but doesn't ask. She has the feeling she'd only be confused by the answer. It really is like talking to the Doctor.
"He never talks about it, not really," she says instead, tracing patterns in the sand. "I just know that there was some sort of war, and he's the only one of his kind left."
"Exterminate," River says, and there's a metallic sort of emptiness in her voice that makes Rose shiver. "Complete extermination. Bad wolf. Thousands of ghosts in your head and no more screaming, just nothing." Tears roll down the girl's pale cheeks. "I've heard that nothing, too." River hugs herself, knees drawn up to her chest. There's wet sand sticking to her bare legs. She looks very young.
Right, Rose decides, that's enough of that. She gets to her feet and kicks away the remains of the ruined sand castle. Over the sounds of the crashing waves, she can hear music coming from the boardwalk, notes drifting faintly along with the wind. It's an old-fashioned tune, jazz or ragtime or something like that, and Rose laughs. "I know this song."
River tilts her head to one side, listening. "Jazz and cocktails and dancing on an invisible spaceship," she sighs. "Beautiful."
"That's right, it is," Rose says, spinning around herself once, twice. The salt-soaked breezes catch her up, and if she closes her eyes, she might be all alone in the universe, with nothing but sea and sky and music. But what fun would that be? She waltzes herself over to River, curtsies, and holds out her hand.
River looks up uncertainly, but she's not clutching herself quite so tightly anymore.
"Dance with me," Rose says with a smile, and River laughs and reaches up to take her hand.
And when the Doctor and Jack return to the shore a few minutes later, that's what they find: two young women, barefoot and wild-haired, humming half-remembered melodies as they twirl each other across the sand.