As I am a professional writer and have work to do to get paid, I have decided to deal with these thudding plot bunnies in the traditional manner - I will inflict them on others. Please see my Profile for the Challenges of the Month. Brand new August challenges have been added for your entertainment, education, and inspiration. If you'd rather do July's, instead, I'm accepting July II Challenges until the end of August or until I can't keep up, whichever. Thanks to all those who have participated thus far - I've REALLY enjoyed all the results. The new challenges will run through the end of August. Please let me know when you respond to a Challenge so I can read and review.

IsistheSphinx gifted me this little gem for July II:

1.Make the Doctor face something metaphysical, and don't let him wittle it away with scientific explainations. I want him totally baffled.

2.There must be someone on the street(Doctor just passing by)they must be singing "Carry On My Wayward Son" By Kansas He's got to notice that they're singing that song!

3. Incarnation 8, 9, or 10, but 9 is preferred.

4. Some mention of Jack. Please?

Once the song and the Doctor were established, the rest of the fic, including our bit of metaphysics, manifested rather well. Just a note to anyone keeping score, this is compatible to ALH 'verse.

Wayward Son

"Where did Jack wander off to?" Rose asked calmly.

"Dunno," the Doctor said and shrugged. He was holding her hand as they walked along, watching her smile out of the corner of his eye. "Don't care, either, tell the truth," he admitted. "Long's he's not offending half the world and expecting me to bail him out, he's a big boy and can look after himself."

"You didn't say that on Urtis," she answered with a smirk.

"On Urtis, we both coulda got in trouble without you along, so he was going to stay where you put him." He shook his head, chuckling ruefully at the memory of the female dominated society where one of Jack's old mates had been kidnapped into someone's harem. As a favor, they'd stopped by, rescued the bloke, and all legged it. Then Jack chucked his "friend" - Charlie something, the Doctor thought - out on the next low-tech planet they came to, mumbling about time wasters, borrowers who never ever paid you back, and someone called Captain John.

"Why'd he want to come here?" she wondered aloud.

Dystaria was beautiful. It was soft and quiet and peaceful. There were no menaces, no despots, no invaders. Rose and the Doctor were currently wandering hand in hand through a part of the city that had been made to resemble the more picturesque little hamlets of Earth, which the Dystarians had come from, oh, six hundred years ago, give or take a thousand years. "Dunno," he shrugged, utterly incurious. Jack and his motives were sometimes a mystery to the Doctor, even if he was pretty sure most of them had to do with new and interesting ways to end up naked. "Reminds me a bit of Ireland, though," he added, glancing around at the quaint little cottages and the rolling hillsides that stretched up into a nearly purple sky. "All green and rocks."

"Any snakes?" Rose asked.

"Doubt they imported them," he said, "but I've never heard of any, no."

"Ireland then," she agreed cheerfully, and leaned into his side. "Definitely."

They walked on toward the small "town faire", a bazaar of sorts where the resident artisans sold their wares to tourists from all over the local group. The Doctor thought he might pick up some new paints. It had been awhile, and he didn't even know if this body - unlike the very fancy job he'd endured last time - had the coordination to do his ideas any justice. Still, he observed, easy enough to find out.

"...there'll be peace when you are done. Lay your weary head to rest..."

"I know that song."

"Humm?" Rose asked. She'd apparently been in a thoughtful daze herself, because it took a few blinks for her to come back to the here and now. She smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, I was a million light years away, what was that?"

He could have watched her like that for years, as long as it was him she was thinking about with that silly little smile on her perfect face. Since he couldn't know that and didn't particularly expect that it was, he decided to draw her attention back to him by the simple means of discussing something utterly irrelevant. "Just saying I knew that song." He tilted his head toward the fading strains of a song that was very familiar - couldn't place it - but he knew he'd heard it somewhere before. Seemed to remember he liked it.

Rose listened attentively, her eyes closed, and then hummed softly. He leaned closer, just to hear her. He loved her voice. Well, that was a bit of an understatement, or at least not covering the entire subject, but he did love her voice. "You will always remember," she sang softly. "Nothing equals the splendor. Now your life's no longer empty. Surely heaven waits for you..."

Oh, but that did suit. His life, his own, no longer empty, because there, holding his hand, still and serene under alien skies, was his Rose, his precious girl. "There's me," she had said, and she would never know how many ways she'd saved him with those two, tentative, honestly offered words. He shook himself, mere inches from her lips. No possible good could come from that. "What is it called?" he asked.

"Carry On Wayward Son," she said, her dark eyes looking haunted and strangely far away. "I'll show you the lyrics later. You'll like it."

"Think so," he agreed, feeling a bit dazed and bemused himself. Then, because everything was starting to feel a little risky, he changed the subject. "Fancy some chips?" he asked, and gestured at a little shop on the upcoming corner.

She grinned at him, her tongue poking through her teeth as she nodded. He clenched his jaw briefly, then grinned back. "Fantastic," he said.

She laughed and they broke into an easy run.

The little cafe was an open air affair with wrought iron tables and chairs that had been painted a British Racing green to keep off the weather. The Doctor draped his lanky frame into one of the chairs, taking the opportunity to admire Rose from a safe distance as she leaned at the counter to place their order. It was getting a bit warm so he opened the leather jacket and let the Dystarian breeze curl around his jumper.

"I've always liked her, really," said a voice off to his left. "She was and remains an excellent choice."

The Doctor blinked in astonishment. He knew that voice, though he hadn't heard it in ages, and couldn't possibly be hearing it now. He turned his head, slowly, hoping against hope that he wasn't imagining this, that there was some possible explanation that didn't involve him going stark raving mad on such a nice day.

He decided he'd blame the distinct lack of caffeine because there, sitting in the chair next to him, was an elegant man who could not possibly be there. He decided to ignore the hallucination.

"I know they told you if you ignore someone, they'll go away, but it isn't always true." The impossible person smiled at him, the expression utterly out of place on a face that the Doctor had only ever seen carved or painted or otherwise artistically rendered in a haughty, prideful stare. He had seen this face smile once that he remembered, but he had never been sure he believed it, even then.

"You can't possibly be here," the Doctor answered firmly. "I am dreaming or hallucinating, or I've finally lost what little bit was left of me mind."

"You always were melodramatic, you know? Even when you were a small child. It was quite alarming, really."

"Stop it. This isn't funny." The Doctor ran a shaking hand over his face, trying to convince himself to wake up or snap out of it or whatever it took. "Maybe you're a psychic projection. Someone tampering with me, or trying to do." He grinned disdainfully. "That'll hurt."

"Always the scientist, and everything has to be facts to you," answered his utterly unwanted guest.

"You started it," he answered, because that was one thing that was absolutely incontrovertible.

"Now Doctor, be realistic. You know how myths get started. You've seen quite a few of them, made more than your share. One person says something, like 'wash your hands before you eat', and three generations later, they're all ceremonially dipping into the holy water and otherwise utterly disregarding the purpose of the entire original message."

"Our memories were perfect, even if our records weren't," the Doctor answered coldly. "And just because you're a myth doesn't mean you're really sitting next to me in a chip shop, so stop it."

"Oral history is often distorted and your memories were never perfect."

"Mine specifically, no."

"Tampered with at least once too often," agreed the myth. "But you've found her again, and that's a vast improvement on the situation."

"I've no idea what you're talking about. I shouldn't even be listening to you. You're obviously a product of a deranged mind and a lack of caffeine. Never been exactly stable, me, and talking to a figment of my own warped imagination is not a sign of any sort of improvement."

"Calm down, Doctor. You're not imagining me. You were thinking about me, so I turned up. If you want me to go..."

"Of course I want you to go," the Doctor shot back. He was almost one hundred percent certain he meant it, too. "And I wasn't thinking about you at all."

His visitor hummed a few bars of the song he'd heard earlier, the one Rose had sung for him. The Doctor drummed his fingers on the table in annoyance and deliberately turned away, ignoring everything. Just because he'd been thinking about Gallifrey - and he had, because "nothing equals the splendor" really was an accurate description of the place - it didn't mean he wanted to see beings who were theoretically long dead before his eyes had ever beheld that orange sky.

A chilly hand came up to touch his face and the Doctor flinched, then looked up at Rose in relief. He hadn't even seen her returning - he'd been focused on trying to forget. "Are you all right, Doctor?" she asked. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."

"There's no such thing as ghosts," he assured her.

"Oh, really?" muttered his guest.

"Yes, really," he answered, before he could stop himself.

Rose's eyes widened. "Who are you talking to?" she asked.

"Having an argument in me head is all, Rose," he said soothingly. "Don't mind me."

"You're mad, you know," she teased.

"Certified in twelve galaxies, thirty-two star systems, and at least twenty separate time zones," he agreed amiably. "And on Earth, more times than I care to count," he added as an after-thought. He snagged one of the fizzy drinks and took a long pull.

He grinned in relief to see the not-a-ghost vanish.

They were back out in the shops of the bazaar when the apparition reappeared, startling the hell out of him this time. He'd picked up a pair of earrings that someone had made and was thinking of offering them to Rose, if he could just get around the conviction that it wouldn't be right, when that voice spoke next to his ear. "I wouldn't," it cautioned.

Taking a deep breath to calm the racing of his hearts, he turned to Rose and held out the earrings. No ghost, even a figment, even an hallucination of a lesser god, was going to tell him what to do. "D'you fancy these?" he asked.

"No," she said and reached up to finger the large hoop in her right ear. "No, I don't think so."

He sighed and put them back down, ignoring the smugness radiating off his new imaginary friend in waves.

"Sorry Doctor," Rose said comfortingly, "it's just I don't take these off. Unless I have to do."

He looked at them and considered and something walked over his grave. "Yeah, definitely don't," he agreed, possibly more firmly than he meant to do, because her eyes widened. He reached up and pushed that errant lock out of her face. "Why don't you go ahead? I'm going over there for a bit." He gestured at the nearest clear hillside, deciding if he was going to hallucinate, he might as well do it in private. "I won't be far."

"Yeah, all right," she said. "Knew you'd get bored soon enough. Try not to get into trouble without me, yeah?"

"Wouldn't dream of it," he promised. "After all, who'd rescue me if I did?"

She walked away with a contented little grin. He admired her for a minute, then turned to the person, who was absolutely not a ghost, following him. Richly styled dark robes, salt-and-pepper hair, and an indulgent expression of one humoring a beloved but silly child, the man stood there, obviously intent on not being ignored this time. The Doctor jerked his head and started out of the bazaar, toward the hill.

"I have always wanted one of these," his antagonist chimed after a moment.

The Doctor looked around in shock. The hallucination was now speaking in Old High Gallifreyan which, as far as the Doctor knew, very, very few of his people, even ones as old as this one presumed to be, ever knew well enough to actually speak. It wasn't the preferred language, being less mathematically perfect than the eventual successor (the final version, as treacherously cold and bitter fact reminded him).

"Leave it," he muttered in the same language, the words managing to sound a bit of a dirge from his lips.

He left the bazaar and scrambled up the nearest rocky hillside, rough skin, jeans, and boots perfectly suited for this sort of adventure. If his unreal companion wanted to follow him, he'd have to muss up those perfectly manicured hands and the studied elegance of his artful day robes.

Or not.

"You never wear them anymore," the not-a-ghost commented, standing on the hillside above him. "So you've no idea the tragedy of trying to get grass-stains out of even ethereal ones."

"I realize this is completely out of line and, I s'pose, if you really are who you seem to be, you might just blast me out of existence, but what the hell do you want?"

"I could ask you the same question."

The Doctor slumped down in the grass and, because he really didn't want to continue to live if his mind really had stepped out on him permanently, began to swear, fluently.

The apparition laughed. "Really, Doctor, over five billion languages in that vast skull of yours and you use them to paint the air blue on an afternoon when you finally get a wish come true." He settled down on a stone out-cropping next to the Doctor's sprawled form and sighed when the Doctor finally fell silent. He turned his gaze, blue eyes dark with despair to rival the Doctor's own, onto the hunched shoulders and clenched fists. In a voice as gentle as an early spring rain, he said, "Could you not just accept it as an untainted gift, my son?"

The Doctor sat up and buried his face in his hands. When at last he spoke, it was in the chiming, resonating, musical language he hardly ever used. "You're all dead, all of you. Even you, Lord Rassilon." He raised his face and blue met blue, sorrow for sorrow, regret for regret. "I killed you all, and even you couldn't have survived the cataclysm. I turned your Key and ripped two absolute time-streams out of eternity." His head dropped back into his hands, and he finished in a voice like a heart-broken child, "I didn't know I wasn't part of them."

They were silent for some moments and then Rassilon spoke, a quiet word, a powerful word, a word only one living person could possibly know. The Doctor looked up again, compelled by that word, since it was his word, his name, the thing unknown and unspoken.

"That's impossible," the Doctor protested softly.

"You are over-fond of that word. You forget that, for a being whose will is reality, there is very little that is impossible. Only what is unimaginable will fail to be accomplished."

"But you can't be a ghost. You just can't."

"Fine, then," Rassilon replied, somewhat snippily, "call me a metaphysical manifestation of your subconscious desire for clarity."

"Is that what you are?" the Doctor asked, perking up a bit.

"No," said the ghost, and chuckled. "But if it makes you feel better."

"There's no such thing as ghosts," the Doctor insisted. "And I've seen too much to just up and go mad on a Thursday morning like I've nothing better to do. There's a lot that I s'pose someone's got to take care of, and I'm really too tired to try to do it all with my mind broken."

Rassilon shook his head. "There will be peace, you know. When you're finished, when things are as they're meant to be. You will have what you've waited for - that's been seen to. The sacrifices, even those you can't remember... everything will come back to you."

The Doctor sighed. "If you were a ghost, I can't understand how you'd want to talk to me like this. Shouldn't you be angry or full of wrath, or at least really disapproving?"

"I have only ever disapproved of one thing you have ever done in your entire life, my child. And you were right, in the end, though I saw no reason for your mercy."

"Vengeful little tin-pot godling, weren't you?"

Rassilon fell off his rock laughing at this.

The Doctor jumped and careened down the hillside, having just spotted Jack. "There you are," he snapped.

"Miss me?" Jack asked, his usual fetching, flirtatious expression serving only to make the Doctor want to put his fist through it. Good thing for Jack the Doctor generally didn't do violence. Well, this body was perfect for a bar brawl, but he'd have to get the boy drunk first, which was a risky prospect at the best of times.

"What'd you pick this planet for?" the Doctor demanded.

"Well, you know," Jack said and babbled about art and culture and a type of gin you could only get in this particular corner of this galaxy. The Doctor glowered him into silence. "No?" Jack squeaked.

"No," the Doctor agreed, arms folded over his chest.

"Right," Jack said, looking sheepish. "Ithoughtitwasromantic," Jack confessed.

"Excuse me??" the Doctor exclaimed.

"Why else do you think I disappeared the minute we got here?" Jack asked, sounding utterly exasperated. "Where is she, anyway?

"Right here," said Rose, cheerily, sauntering up the street with a dancing little sashay to her light, happy steps.

The Doctor caught his jaw before it escaped, but Jack wasn't so lucky, so he prodded the boy firmly. "Stop that," he ordered quietly. "Did you find anything nice?" the Doctor asked.

"Yeah, look at this." She reached into one of her bags and pulled out something soft looking and sort of a pale blue. Then, she quirked a finger at him. He stepped toward her tentatively and she held out what turned out to be a new jumper, checking the sizing by holding it up to his chest. "Whaddya think, Jack?"

"Brings out his eyes," Jack said flirtatiously. "Perfect."

"Thought so," Rose agreed. "Here, feel this, they said it was made of teckin wool, whatever that is."

The Doctor's eyes widened and he took the jumper in reverent hands, his throat tight from emotion he could scarcely control. "You didn't have to sell 'em your soul or anything did you?" he asked.

"No," she answered. "I got it for a song. Literally. Didn't have anything I could think to trade, but the old bloke running the booth said he collected old Earth songs. I only found out because someone offered to trade him one for something else." She shrugged. "Sang him a couple of my favorites on that recording thing of his and he gave me the jumper."

"Quite an appropriately princely gift," said Rassilon who had, once again, reappeared to watch the proceedings with an amused expression.

The Doctor nodded. And she didn't even know. "Thank you," he said, at last, breathing slowly. Hell with it. He snatched her up and hugged her tight, laughing as he spun her around. "It's fantastic, thank you."

When he'd calmed down, he turned back to Jack. "Tell me what you know about this place. Does it tend to have psychic effects, or other inhabitants no one knows about, anything like that?"

Jack looked confused and shrugged. "Nothing like that, but the Trader's Guild tend to avoid the place. And the Time Agents never come here."

"Why not?" the Doctor asked, taking Rose's hand and walking off down the street toward the TARDIS.

"They claim the walls are thin."

The Doctor snorted. "What walls?" he asked. "'The walls' seems a bit vague."

"Tell me about it," Jack said. "Legend has it the walls between realities are thin here. Some people claim it's haunted." Jack shrugged. "Knew a guy who came here to trade with the instrument makers. Swore every single time he did that he ran into his old man. Problem is, his father had been dead for years."

The Doctor blinked. "Haunted," he mused.

"Yeah," said Jack, deprecatingly. "Never seen it myself, but I'd love to know one thing."

"What's that?" Rose asked.

"Who's this old guy and why's he following us?"

"'Old guy?'" Rassilon demanded. He snorted disdainfully. "Presumptuous puppy."

"Like the robes," Jack said. "Don't think much of the hat, though."

The Doctor couldn't decide if he wanted to laugh or run screaming. "Right. You can see him?"

"See who?" asked Rose.

"'Course I can see him," Jack said. "He's standing right next to you."

"Who?" Rose demanded.

"The guy, Rosie. He's got the Doctor's eyes, but doesn't seem to have the leather fetish."

"You can't possibly see him," the Doctor insisted.

Rassilon shook his head, looking fondly from one man to the other. "Some times, I absolutely despair of you," he announced.

"Let's get back to the TARDIS," the Doctor said tersely. "Now."

"Give her my love," Rassilon said. Then, like a wisp of mist in the summer sun, he vanished.

"Not freaking out," Jack said. He might have been lying, though, because his green eyes were huge.

"TARDIS," the Doctor repeated. "Now."

Jack snatched Rose's other hand, and they ran for it.