"I'm going to live a long, long time. I write this now to remember the names and faces of the people I've loved, every one of them. While this is technically my story, at the beginning and end, it is theirs. [See, Ianto? I told you I could write a decent dedication without naming names. NTS - remember to delete bracketed editing notes before publication.]
I was born on the Boeshane Peninsula in the second half of the fifty-first century. The day my parents met … " - from "Me: An Autobiography"
(reprinted from the 893rd edition)
Timelag was an utter, utter bitch. John had materialised in vacuum, and only the emergency settings on his Vortex Manipulator saved him from a quick, cold death, whisking him almost instantly to the nearest habitable planet. Gerta's VM detonated alone. John spent a day puking and another day checking out the local populace to determine where and when he was. On the third day, he'd started working a job, convincing the locals he was here from the central authority and that they ought to wine and dine him to gain a favourable report.
He was arrested a week in. Being in custody meant sleeping indoors and eating regular meals, so John was rarely upset at these short holidays, especially when no-one mentioned the death penalty. Hell, he looked forward to the frisking.
The gasp when the law officer pulled the trinket from his pocket, now that didn't sound good.
The translated voice on his VM spat out things he didn't understand as the officer held the tiny metal statue in a kind of awe. He wasn't shocked at the renewed interest in keeping him restrained and under guard. Apparently whatever the hell the thing was, someone thought it was important. Pity he hadn't thought to sell it faster.
Three days and twelve meals later, John stood in the foyer of a far-too-familiar room aboard a far-too-familiar spaceship, getting the evil eye from a gangly orange alien. "His August Personage will see you now," said the alien, with a particular sneer that translated well.
John affected not to care as he was half-pushed, half-dragged into the room. The hanging curtains he remembered were gone, replaced by shelves and shelves of books. He only recognised a third of the languages. Tentacle-head probably made his little nothings read him bedtime stories.
"I see you redecorated."
"Jarron Harper. You have not been in this room for ten thousand years."
The telepathy creeped him out. Bad enough that he heard the voice of the bloody Face in his brain, but he'd entertained plenty of fantasies about cracking the smoky fishtank just to watch the tentacled alien squirm. Thinking about that would likely get him killed sooner rather than later, so he clamped down on his shields, feeling a tickle in his mind of … amusement?
Stupid bloody Face.
"Going by Hart these days."
"Ah yes. John Hart." More amusement.
"Sir," said the orange major-domo, and again John felt a brush against his mind, this time, a slight, if affectionate, annoyance. "This piece of interstellar scum was found with a priceless artefact in his possession." Orange displayed the metal trinket. "The law officer recognised its age, although I was the one who identified the piece as part of your antique kalaya set."
Again John sensed the gentle annoyance. "Antique is another way of saying old. My kalaya set was a gift, given to me almost a million years ago by a dear friend. Please bring it here. Leave the piece."
Orange bowed, then nodded to the guards who stayed at John's sides.
John said, "I didn't take the kalaya piece. Some bird handed it to me." Not that it ever worked as a defence in any other situation, but John felt if he was being accused of Grand Theft Pawn, he ought to set the record straight.
"Does this avian have a name?" And damned if the head in the jar wasn't laughing, just a little, inside John's head.
"Alice," the mental voice repeated, and John stepped back at the force of a love that washed through him and was gone. "Your reputation precedes you, John Hart. You were a great kalaya player in your time."
John shrugged. "I do my best."
"No other remembers how to play. I have taught my acolytes, but they shy away at the strategy."
"Hard to lie when your boss is in your head," John said, as Orange came back, a heavy board in zir arms.
"Sir," said Orange tremulously. "The set. The piece is not missing."
"No," said the Face. "I thought not."
"Accept my apologies, Benign One. I would have staked my life on it."
"Then be glad you did not." Still the amusement. John had been brought up on charges before the Face of Boe plenty of times in plenty of eras, and every time, there was this tickle, almost like he was being allowed to share in a private joke. John just couldn't figure out the punch line. "John Hart, as you are not guilty of theft, this once, would you prefer to take your leave now, or would you consider remaining here for an hour or two in order to play a game?"
As the guards released his wrists, he very nearly made a run for it, but something stopped him. That something was probably the patina of age and the previously-spoken words "priceless artefact," but nevertheless, John let himself be escorted to a more comfortable chair than he'd been allowed these last few days, as Orange, clearly out of sorts, set up the board.
"You may go first," said the Face.
John began with an easy gambit, but within a few moves, they were both cheating outrageously as Orange looked on with disapproval. Just for that, John decided he'd stay for at least another game.
Besides, by the look of these pieces, they were valuable. He'd have to swipe one before he left.
He is older than she has ever known him. He has lost more than she can possibly imagine. Now that Alice has seen his end, she can imagine quite a lot. He is a fixed point, a constant, and these things mean, against all her childhood experience, "stability." Her wandering life is no place for a child.
All second chances have a price.
"I'll come visit," she promises, hearing Jack's own echo in the words. "As often as I can. Be good. Both of you."
"We will," he says, holding Steven's small hand. She knows he will never let go.
- Fan art for this story can be found at the TARDIS Big Bang website (TARDISbigbang dot com). Please go by, take a look at the pretty, and tell the artists how wonderful they are.
- "I liked this!" are my three favorite words. :)