I'm back! Um...hello!

005. Learning to fear men

A few hours after they barely make it out of the Marquis of Confusion's wedding alive, Rory comes up behind the Doctor in the console room and grabs the back of his jacket.

"Rory," the Doctor says, slow and careful. Then Rory's grip moves to his upper arm and he swings the Doctor around, and the Doctor's taller than Rory, and probably stronger (Time Lord), but it doesn't seem like that will help him. "Something wrong?"

"What happened back there, in the engine bay," Rory says. "With Amy. You can't do that again."

The Doctor is beginning to feel the pressure of Rory's strength not on his arm but on his timesense; the door has opened in Rory's head, the Doctor can feel it, can feel the weight of two thousand years of living and dying. That age is pointed at him now, balanced on a sword-point between his hearts. Menacing him, in a quiet, polite, Rory sort of way that is no less menacing for all that.

The Doctor thinks about what happened in the engine bay, when Amy went to disarm the fusion chambers. He thinks about what Rory must have felt, running up to tell them about the deaths on the ship above, arriving only to see the last glint of the engine fires on Amy's hair as she vanished down the ladder into darkness.

"She volunteered," the Doctor says quietly.

"You sent her," Rory says, just as quietly. "And she nearly died."

"Yeah, well, we do a lot of that, nearly dying," the Doctor snaps. "I can't always keep both of you safe."

"I know that. I just want you to know, Doctor – if something happens to her, it won't be just yourself you have to answer to."

The Doctor meets his gaze for a long moment, then nods.

Rory lets him go, and the Doctor can feel the door in Rory's head close, locking the Lone Centurion away again. The millenia fall from his face, leaving only shell-shock and exhaustion – and something else, something the Doctor can't place. Then Rory quietly asks "Are you hurt?", and the Doctor's hearts crack, because some part of him is already steeled to face Rory's rage and grief someday, but Rory's steadfast love will make it so much worse.

"I'm okay," he says. Rory accepts the lie with a nod and heads down to the pool to find his wife.

016. Sleeping beauty.

Late afternoon sunlight pours in through the huge windows of the British Museum's main gallery, casting the Pandorica in low fire. Rory Williams, security guard, nineteen hundred and seven years atoning and not yet forgiven, tries his best to keep out of the light as he comes through on his daily rounds; he gets uneasy with the sun in his eyes. It's something he hasn't been able to shake since Rome.

It's an ordinary Tuesday, and the gallery is empty. Rory takes advantage of the quiet to pace carefully around the Pandorica, inspecting it for cracks, as he's done at least once a day for nineteen hundred and seven years. Today, like every day, each heavy black face is implacable as ever, and he isn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. Either way, he's just considering slipping under the velvet rope to tell Amy about his day when a small group of teenagers enter the gallery, their voices echoing strangely in the high space. Rory slips unobstrusively into a side room and pretends to inspect a stone Dalek, thinking to wait until they've gone.

He can't help overhearing them, though, as they pause to gape at the Pandorica. "Look at that weird pattern," one girl says. "I wonder what it means?"

It means everything. Rory drifts over to a cluster of plaster penguins, and in the beam of sunlight from a nearby window he swears he can see the reflective glint of a mirror, and beyond that white pillars and the Venetian sky. Suddenly the air seems to reek of ash and fish and perfume. He nearly smiles.

"It's beautiful," one of the visitors says. Rory turns to look back at the Pandorica, and in its smooth side he sees the opaque black surface of the Leadworth duck pond, the night he ran out of Amy's house in a panic after Mels let his secret out – the night Amy chased after him, shouting his name, until finally she caught up to him at the duck pond with no ducks and everything changed.

Quietly, more to himself than the girl who'd spoken, he says "Oh, you've no idea."

019. The confession.

The Ponds are breakfasting on a bench in the pastry garden when the Doctor dashes in from the wardrobe, waving his hands and shouting. "Amy! There you are. Been looking everywhere. Amelia!" He stumbles to a halt in front of the bench and takes a deep breath, trying to compose himself. He stands with his fingers laced across his stomach for a moment, enduring Amy's expectant look, then announces, "I love you!"

Rory drops his cheese Danish into the grass, feeling a flush of heat rise to his face. "What?"

"Rory! Roranicus Pondicus! I love you as well!" The Doctor's beaming, very pleased with himself. He glances back and forth between them. "Are we all clear, then?"

"I, I don't –" Rory begins, but he's saved from having to continue by Amy's indignant interruption.

"Well, that's all well and good, Doctor, but you couldn't have told us last night, when we were about to get chomped on by a huge alligator beast?"

"That's the thing, see, I don't always say it when I should," the Doctor says. "There've been mix-ups, with humans, so I thought it'd be good to have it all covered, for emergencies. It seems to be quite important that I say it out loud, so I have. That's new." He's got that distracted, inward smile on again, the one he usually saves for repairing the TARDIS. "I should have done it ages ago. It's quite fun, this caring lark."

026. Her only trick

"Wait," the Doctor says, spinning around in mid-run, nearly causing the young woman following him to fall as she tries to avoid a crash. He narrows his eyes at her as she stops to catch a breath, brushing her curls impatiently out of her face. "You really are Melody Pond - River Song?" he asks.

"Yes, of course I am," she pants. "You know perfectly well it's me!"

"And you work here," the Doctor says.

"Yes! That's my department over there, look." She points down a dark side hallway. "I'm a lecturer in archaeology. That's why I called you, these artifact acquistions are shady, I think the Neptune Congress is involved -"

"An archeological mystery? That's all? No tricks, no surprises, no… secrets?" the Doctor asks, his eyebrows vanishing skeptically into the cloudbank of his hair.

"What are you babbling about, Doctor?" River asks. She's young, almost as young as he's ever seen her, and incredulity makes her eyes shine. "Why would I keep secrets from you, of all people?"

"Right," the Doctor sighs, and turns, straightening his coat. "Of course. Silly me. It's just difficult to recognize you when you aren't being…mysterious."

035. Wise through experience.

After their narrow escape from the Plutonian bat-gargoyles, they go to an intergalactic funfair on Sirius IV. Amy has a marvelous time for about an hour, then looks up from a game of laser croquet to notice that Rory has vanished.

She leaves the Doctor in the petting zoo and walks out of the cluster of carousels and game-booths, up through the rising hills of reddish grass towards the TARDIS. Rory is sitting there, his back to the wondrous time machine, his head buried in his hands, a picture of perfect misery.

Amy sighs and flops down next to him, stretching her legs out in the grass. He doesn't even twitch. She tries to wait him out, but after a minute or two of despairing silence she gets bored and gives up. "You've snogged the Doctor, haven't you?"

That makes him jump. He looks up at her with panic in his eyes. "I – I didn't mean to, I swear, it just –sort of happened –"

"And now you're sulking, because it was amazing but also kind of bizarre, and he's brilliant and wonderful but you're not sure if he's really real, not the way that other things are real. And he's not human, so you don't know if it meant anything to him, or the same as it meant to you – if you even knew what it meant to you. Which you don't. And you're a bloke, and so's he, so I expect you feel your manhood's threatened, or something. And you sort of think it'll never happen again, but you want it to. A lot. And him being a beautiful bloody idiot all the time isn't helping."

Rory gapes at her. "I'm not – I'm not threatened," he chokes out.

"Well, the rest of it's true then, yeah? And you're all hot and bothered because of it."

"How did you know?" he asks, looking genuinely amazed.

"How d'you think?" Amy smirks at the cascade of emotions that cross his face – befuddlement, realization, dismay, resignation. She leans over and pecks him on the cheek. "Don't worry," she says, "it'll get better. Well, not really, but you'll get used to it. And in the meantime… you're not exactly out of options, are you?"

She lets that sink in for a minute, then stands and stretches and heads into the TARDIS, leaving him alone with his (no doubt very interesting) thoughts.

039. Bargain not to become angry.

The Quard Empire has decimated three populated moons and is set to launch a fleet of black hole generators at the mother planet, which will undoubtedly kill billions of people across three species and send intelligent life in this star system back to the Dark Ages. But that isn't why the Doctor almost destroys them.

No, the Doctor nearly destroys them because halfway through an exhausting argument the Quard High Warlord suddenly says "Your friends, Doctor," and motions to the doors of the control room, where a pair of guards are dragging Amy and Rory in. For a long moment all the Doctor can see is his Amy and Rory, his Ponds, his friends, being dragged in chains across the floor, fresh from the prison cells no doubt. One of Amy's eyes is swollen, and a dark bruise is beginning to spread across her face. When the guards haul them to their feet, the Doctor can see that Rory's limping. And for one black second, the world-ending rage flares up in him like the first flash of a supernova, ready to incinerate these insects for daring to hurt the people he loves.

Then he looks into their faces, Amy's hopeful, Rory's patient and weary, and he sees himself in them as he should be – sees that they're waiting for him to save everyone and pull a happy ending out of nowhere so they can all go home. So he does.

Lately he's been wondering whether Amy and Rory are really risking their lives to save others, or if they're doing it to save him, so that in exchange he'll save (or not destroy) everyone else. Whether they know that he uses their love to keep himself on a leash, that this is how it always has to be; that he keeps and risks companions, gambling with the lives of friends, so that he won't go mad and cold the way the old Time Lords did.

He wonders if they'd stay, if they really understood. He wonders whether he's a risk they'd be willing to take.

048. Sunlight carried into the windowless house

"Good," the Doctor says, to no one in particular, although he feels about as far from good as it's possible to feel. The hot white lights of the cargo deck are beating down on him; the floor and his hands and the knees of his trousers are sticky with blood – Amy's blood. That's worse than extremely very not good.

But she'll be all right now, he's almost certain. The wound is closed, the skin regenerated, and all that's left now is to get her back home, safe to the TARDIS, and then do something about the awful deathly white color of her skin, because she shouldn't ever be this waxy and still, not his bright burning Amy, blood loss or no.

She's tall, almost as tall as he is (has he not noticed that before? That's criminal, not noticing something like that), but he's strong for a skinny bloke and he carries her easily, through corridors full of startled space marines to a broom cupboard. The TARDIS is waiting, cold and dark, with no light in the windows; her engines are cut to conserve power, after the radiation belt wounded her on the way in.

But he can feel the telepathic field still active, can feel it reach out to him, playing over his surface thoughts and nudging anxiously at the lifeless girl in his arms. The doors spring open on their own, and light blooms on the console grate as the Doctor steps over the threshold; warm golden light, relief and welcome, the untameable vortex-driven matrix taking heart from the return of her fragile human and idiotic Time Lord.

"Oi," the Doctor murmurs, but the engines are already grinding to life, taking them somewhere – somewhere warm, probably, and near the sea. Exactly where they need to go.

054. How wide the world is.

It's not even that Leadworth is small (though it is), and it's not even really that it's ordinary (though it is that, too), because everywhere is ordinary – everywhere in England, at least. Maybe Amy's childhood would have been more interesting if she had been able to persuade Aunt Sharon to move to New York City, or Bombay, or Tokyo, somewhere with colors that didn't exist in the English countryside and where no one made fun of anyone's accent because everyone spoke different languages that sounded like the sea, or the harsh calls of some outlandish bird. But the only place Aunt Sharon ever took her was to the school building, which was built of concrete blocks and bright plastic, and always smelled faintly of spinach and ammonia.

There's not a lot of sky in Leadworth, or any hidden passageways or caves, or even any gnarled, dark woods where a young girl wandering on her own in the forbidden twilight might reasonably expect to encounter fairies, or trolls, or mysterious blue boxes. And after Aunt Sharon, encouraged by the second psychiatrist, finally works up the nerve and cunning to take away her books, there's nothing interesting left in Amelia's world outside her dreams.

You can do a lot of dreaming in fourteen years.

060. Staying with a friend in rainy weather.

The TARDIS lands with a thump, and the Doctor sighs in relief. Then he opens the doors. On the other side of them is a clifftop overlooking a harbor, with a sea the silver color of mercury washing against black stone jetties under a foggy green sky. A dirt path runs right past the TARDIS, leading up to a lighthouse built from lavender stone. Its windows are all ablaze, and the beacon darts out like a great silver needle into the gathering darkness of twilight.

The Doctor doesn't see the dim figure coming down from the lighthouse until she calls out to him, "Temporofluxation storm in the delta quantum waveform? Need to ground the TARDIS for a few hours of objective time to wait it out?"

"Oh dear," the Doctor says softly.

River moves into the soft glow of the TARDIS lights. "I bet you say that to all the girls," she says, grinning.

The Doctor glares at her. "I was set for Earth," he says accusingly. "Thirtieth Century, when they clone Cleopatra and get mammoths to fly."

"Yes, you were, but Sexy and I had a chat and decided you'd better come here instead."

"Sexy! You don't – you can't call her – my TARDIS-!" the Doctor splutters.

"Oh, don't fuss, Doctor, she doesn't mind. Are you coming in? I've got everything laid out for dinner. It's a bit of a backwater planet, but they make a wonderful wine." The Doctor stands in stubborn silence for a minute, until finally River rolls her eyes and sighs "Oh, come on now, I'm not going to ravish you. Although - remember that quantum storm excuse, it comes in handy later. Now, are you coming?"

"Why should I?" the Doctor asks.

River's expression softens a bit. "You're grounded for a little while, and you could spend it with someone who cares about you, instead of moping about on your own. Don't you think that's worthwhile?"

"I don't mope," the Doctor grumbles, but he steps out of the TARDIS. The doors swing shut behind him on their own.

"Just a few hours," River coaxes, beginning to smile again. "Care to make them interesting?"

The Doctor doesn't answer, but when she offers her arm, he takes it and walks with her up the cliff into the gathering night.

090. Another matter.

Jenny arranges sparrows' hearts daintily on a tray, piles another tray with treats for the human gentry, and carries both into the small party in the drawing room. As soon as she enters, she looks for Vastra, and sees that lantern-jawed captain leaning far too close, all but stroking the scales on the back of her lady's green hand.

Jenny sets the human tray aside and bears the larks' hearts directly over to the Silurian, presenting them with a little courtesy. "Beggin' your pardon, sir, ma'am," she says, and is pleased to see the captain pull back to a proper distance, his smile fading as his creeping hand drops back to his side. "If it isn't too much trouble, a matter urgently requiring milady's attention has arisen in the kitchen," she continues.

Vastra tilts her head, curious. Not for the first time, Jenny silently thanks the Lord for the Silurian's difficulty with human expressions. "Very well," Vastra says at last. "Do excuse me, Captain."

She follows Jenny to the door. As soon as they're out of the sight of the guests, Vastra's long tongue flicks out over Jenny's shoulder, snapping a lark's heart off the tray. She swallows it in a single gulp. "Is something wrong? Has there been word from the Yard?" she asks, as they head into the kitchen.

"No word," Jenny says, setting the tray down on the counter.

"It isn't the Doctor again, is it? I swear, that man can't stay out of trouble –"

"Actually, ma'am, it's another matter entirely," Jenny says, reaching out to take Vastra's hand. The tiny scales are rough and radiate heat against her palm, like a pebbled shore warmed by the summer sun. "I didn't like how close that man was standing to you," Jenny says, her eyes downcast.

"Oh, he's a man, is he?" Vastra asks, feigning surprise. Jenny scowls, and she laughs. "Only joking, my dear. There's no mistaking that one. But," she places one claw under Jenny's chin and lifts her head. "I'll be sure to keep away from him in future if it upsets you. Mammals! You're so territorial!"

"It's a failing in us, m'lady," Jenny agrees, and smiles.