A/N: Well, I can't believe we're here. The last chapter. There will be an epilogue, but it's relatively short and sweet. I want to say thank you to everyone who has been following this story, especially those who have been commenting. You're the reason I bothered posting this in the first place, and I really cherish all of the feedback you've taken the time to give me.
I'm sorry that this last chapter took me so long. This one is un-beta'ed because I couldn't justify making people wait any longer than this, even though my beta readers have been nothing but wonderful! I underestimated the combined power of my responsibilities at work and my procrastination at home. I hope it was worth the wait!
Some of the dialogue in this chapter comes directly from the movie Serenity, which follows the series finale of Firefly. I've kept it to a bare minimum, but it's there.
The Doctor detected a single beacon of power on Miranda aimed the TARDIS at it. A few clangs of the mallet later, and they were in flight.
He relished in the familiar sounds of his beautiful ship as they spun into the Vortex and back out again. The mechanical wheezing, gears that roared like prehistoric beasts, and the loud thumping rotor, keeping time like a tympani; it was all music to his ears. Serenity's crew hastily grabbed hold of whatever they could in the tumult, but the Doctor and Rose rode it out like cowboys at a rodeo, whooping for joy. When they landed, they were the only two still on their feet.
There were faint groans as the rest of the crew stood and shook off aftereffects of the turbulence.
"Where the hell did you learn to fly this thing?" Jayne growled as he stood.
"Completely self-taught!" the Doctor proudly announced.
"There's a surprise," Zoe muttered.
Still, when the Doctor extended his hand to help her up, she begrudgingly took it.
"You said we were going to Miranda? Is that a planet?" Simon asked, straightening his vest.
"Yup," the Doctor replied, popping the 'P.' He spun the monitor around to the younger man and pointed at the furthest sphere on the screen.
"See? There she is—Well, there we are, now," he corrected. "Right at the far edge of the Burnham Quadrant."
"We can't be in the Burnham Quadrant. It's impossible," Inara said as Mal helped her to her feet.
"It's improbable. From your point of view. For me and Rose it's quite expected, actually."
Rose flashed him a smile.
"We walked into a blue box a couple of minutes ago. We can't've traveled millions of miles across the 'Verse, through Reaver territory no less," Mal informed him.
The Doctor would normally milk the disbelief of newcomers for his own personal enjoyment, but they had important things to do, so he spoke hastily as he moved to the door.
"Your confusion is understandable, so allow me to explain a few things: This blue box is my ship; she's called the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space; and, as her name implies, she can hop across galaxies through eras with the greatest of ease. Rose, have I left anything out?" he said, throwing his companion an inquiring glance.
Rose paused for a moment before remarking, "Well, there's the pool."
"Ah, of course. And she has an Olympic sized swimming pool," he added. "Any questions?"
His words were met with blank stares all around. It was Wash who broke the silence.
"Just a couple," he said faintly.
Simon's shout startled everyone. He raced across the room to stand between River and the exit that she had been aiming for.
"I remember now," Simon blurted out, taking his sister gently by the hands. "I've heard of Miranda before. It's a black rock. Something like ten years ago, terraforming failed here."
"So, are we actually accepting that the magical blue box brought us here?" Wash asked, incredulous. "Is this just a thing that we believe now?"
"Psychic paper, sonic screwdriver, two hearts," the Rose listed off. "Is it really that much of a leap?"
Wash fell silent. Shepherd Book had been frowning, but suddenly his eyes widened.
"Simon is right. I remember something a while back about Miranda. Thirty million people died. It's not safe," he said.
"It wasn't terraforming that failed," the Doctor said solemnly. "Go ahead, River. Let's show them."
"Now, hold up just a minute!" Mal shouted.
The Doctor turned to him, wordlessly asking what was wrong.
"We don't know if the O-2 levels can sustain life. We don't know if grav's earth norm. We don't even know if the temperature's hospitable," the captain listed off.
"The TARDIS wouldn't take us here if it wasn't safe," Rose assured him.
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry if I don't take your word for it, but I'd like to see some readings that confirm that's the case before I let my crew stroll on out there and we all suffocate to death," Mal snapped.
Rose looked ready with a retort, and the Doctor thought it best to step in. He tilted the monitor towards the captain and pulled up the necessary files.
"All environmental readouts," he said, gesturing at the monitor.
Mal stepped forward and his eyes skimmed over the screen's contents.
"Sir?" Zoe asked.
"Looks normal," Mal admitted. "But you keep your Le Mat ready, Zoe. Don't know who might've taken up on this rock if it's a haven away from Alliance control."
"It's not a haven for anyone. There's no need for guns," the Doctor said firmly.
Jayne cocked his rifle.
"There's always a need for guns," the mercenary said.
"I wouldn't have even allowed them onboard if I'd thought of it ahead of time—"
"Oi, look at that! Something you didn't think of," Rose gasped in mock-awe.
"—But now they stay here. You won't need them," the Doctor said, giving Rose a sharp look for her interruption. She stuck her tongue out at him in response.
Zoe looked to her captain for orders. His jaw was set; he eyed the Doctor appraisingly. Finally, he gave his first mate a curt nod, and she set her weapon down. He did the same, then turned to Jayne.
"You too, Jayne."
The mercenary clutched his gun like a child being told to put his toys away.
"Gorram it, Mal, you just gonna let the Doctor lead you like a pig to slaughter?" he snapped.
"I'll tell you what I'm not gonna do," Mal said dangerously. "I'm not gonna let a member of my crew disobey a direct order."
With one last look of contempt at both the Doctor and Mal, Jayne dropped his weapon. While he knew that Jayne was probably in a bad mood (after all, the large man had already been forced to drop his gun once that day), it didn't really concern the Doctor. There were bigger issues to contend with now.
He saw the worry in the faces of the crew, but Simon reluctantly released his sister, and no one stopped her as she approached the doors this time. He saw Kaylee hold her breath when River pushed on the wooden doors.
It's so bright.
That was the Doctor's overriding thought as he exited the TARDIS. The harsh sunlight bounced off angular white buildings in a way that created a haze of sterile light. Somehow the light was intense without providing warmth or comfort; it merely emphasized the bleakness of the urban landscape.
They were in the middle of a large city. There was an office park to their left and a shopping center with pedestrian walkways to their right. And all around them was absolute silence.
"Ain't there anythin' alive here? Some furry critter? Birds?" Kaylee asked, biting her lip.
"Oh god. Doctor, there's a body," Rose called out.
The crew turned to see Rose staring through the windshield of a small hovercraft. It's pilot reclined in the cockpit, a corpse. The pilot had been there long enough that no skin remained on his skeletal body.
"He's just sittin' there," Jayne said, peering inside. "He didn't crash or nothin'. Why's he just sittin'?"
"Here's another one," Zoe called out.
The body was lying across the cement sidewalk, flesh withered away to nothing.
"No entry wounds, fractures," she continued, eyes roaming over the skeleton.
"Poison?" Mal guessed.
Only the Doctor and River knew the truth, and they said nothing, yet. This wasn't something they could explain in so many words. It had to be discovered for oneself.
Tentatively, the group branched out from the TARDIS, examining just the surrounding structures. Every footstep echoed against the walls of the lifeless buildings. The Doctor felt Rose slip her hand in his, and he allowed her to tug him along behind her for comfort. He consulted his sonic with his free hand and saw that the only beacon of power was a few meters to the north. Just as he was about to announce this to the group, a blaring noise started up.
Rose gasped and spun around, and when the Doctor followed her lead he saw that the underside of a pedestrian highway was now lit up like a billboard in Times Square. Mal had tripped some sort of motion sensor, and now a male announcer was espousing the benefits of a particular brand of toothpaste.
He turned and saw Kaylee sink back against the glass windows of the office park in relief, only to trip another sort of sensor. The lights in the office buzzed to life one by one, and as they did, more and more horrific images came into view through the windows.
Directly behind the glass that Kaylee leaned her back against was the corpse of a man, but this one wasn't merely a skeleton. Flesh still clung to his decomposing face. Only his eyelids had rotted completely away, leaving his eyeballs with a gruesome bulging appearance. Simon noticed as well, and tried to save her from a nasty surprise.
"Kaylee," Simon said warily. "Don't—"
But it was too late. At his cautious words, she spun around and screamed when her eyes landed on the body. Her scream drew everyone else's attention, and soon they were all peering in through the windows. Corpses. Dozens of them, sitting at desks with hands still poised over their keyboards, leaning against copy machines mid-project, curled up on the floor, all very slowly rotting away.
"Why're they preserved? They're like mummies or something," Rose murmured.
"Place must've gone hermetic when the power blew. Sealed 'em," Mal said.
"What're they doing? What's everybody doing?" Kaylee asked hysterically.
"There's no unusual discoloration. Nobody's doubled over or showing signs of pain," he noted.
"Well, there's gasses that kill painless, right?" Mal asked.
"They didn't fall," Inara observed, dismayed. "None of them. They just… lay down."
Rose dropped the Doctor's hand, and he edged away from her to check on River. The girl wasn't peering through the windows with the others. She was making a slow circle in the center of the sidewalk, clutching at her hair.
"Run-tse duh shang-dee, ching dai-wuhtzo... make them stop!" she moaned.
The Doctor was at her side in an instant, and Simon joined him a split second after that.
"River, it's all right. There's nothing to be afraid of here anymore," the Doctor murmured, wrapping his arms around her in a protective embrace.
"They're everywhere. Every city, every house, every room; they're all inside me! I can hear them all and they're saying... NOTHING! GET UP!" she screamed.
Simon stood by helplessly, watching his sister devolve into the familiar frightened girl of the past. The Doctor tightened his hold on her.
"They're gone, River. They can't get up," the Doctor whispered.
"Please, get up," River whimpered to no one. "Wuo-shang mayer, maysheen byen shr-to. Please God, make me a stone."
Everyone fell silent. The Doctor closed his eyes against River's hair, wishing fervently that he could take away her torment.
He knew exactly what she was feeling. He didn't strictly believe in souls, as a rule, but there was something left behind in this tomb of a city. The potential energy of all the millions of the dead still peppered the air. Their spirits infused the space as if they floated on the wind, omnipresent and inescapable. They didn't scream in fear or pain. They didn't say a word. They were just there, wasting away. He felt it too.
"Sure would feel better with my gun," Jayne said pointedly.
"Jayne," Zoe warned.
"Well, River's right!" Jayne snapped. "Everybody's dead. This whole world's dead for no reason."
"Not for no reason," the Doctor said.
Jayne whirled on him.
"If you know what happened here, then why ain't you sayin' anythin'?" he demanded.
He could tell that the rest of the crewmembers were staring at him, wordlessly asking the same question.
"Let's get to the beacon," he said, marching due north.
"Beacon?" Wash prompted.
"There's a single electrical impulse still transmitting on the whole of this planet, and it's in there," the Doctor said.
He stopped in front of a shuttle. The cockpit was obscured from view due to the fact that it had apparently crash-landed headfirst into the side of the building. Along the craft's side was painted the label "Research and Rescue" in bold red letters.
The Doctor entered through the rear door without waiting to see if the others followed. It was dark inside, but he illuminated his path with the sonic screwdriver. When he stepped into the main control room, he fiddled with some switches, and gradually, the power in the ship blinked on. The rest of the crew and Rose piled in behind him, glancing warily around.
"This ship's banged up all to hell," Jayne grunted.
The Doctor found River staring at a clear plastic memory cylinder.
"Is that it?" he asked her.
"Is it what?" Simon asked.
When the Doctor responded, he spoke to the room at large.
"River shared something with me this morning. Her most terrifying memory. This."
He held the cylinder up.
"A video wave?" Mal asked.
"She didn't view it directly. Someone in the Alliance saw this, and River accidentally picked it up when she was at the Academy," the Doctor explained.
No one asked how exactly River had picked up the memory. They knew.
"What's it show?" Kaylee asked.
The Doctor hesitated. His hand hovered over the chip port as he wrestled with his conscience. But he knew what had to be done.
"You need to see it for yourself," he replied.
River shuddered violently then, and the Doctor put a hand on her shoulder.
"We aren't going to watch it again, River," he told her. "We'll wait outside. Rose," he continued, turning towards his companion. "You don't need to see it either."
But Rose shook her head.
"You can't shield me from all the dark things in the universe, Doctor."
He wanted to argue with her. They would be leaving this universe soon, and it would do her no good to have the memory of this terrible mistake. But, of course, she was Rose, and she felt connected to the people of every planet they visited.
So instead of trying to convince her otherwise, he simply nodded and whispered, "Okay."
He dropped the cylinder into place, and the anguished woman in the jumpsuit appeared before them as a hologram.
"These are just a few of the images we've recorded," the woman began. "And you can see. It isn't what we thought."
The Doctor slipped his hand from Rivers shoulder to her hand, and gently led her out of the room.
"There's been no war here. And no terraforming event. The environment is stable," they heard as they exited the craft.
There was a slight breeze in the air, and he sat them down a few meters from the shuttle so that they could enjoy it.
"How do you feel?" he asked her.
River paused to consider the question, staring intently at her shoes. When she finally replied, she spoke slowly and deliberately.
"Like there was a vice around my skull, pushing and squeezing to keep it all inside, and now, you've turned the screw the other way. And for the first time, there's space in there for me."
She looked up at him now, and the Doctor was taken aback by what he saw. Even when she seemed happy, he could always see a sort of restrained terror in River's eyes. Not anymore. She no longer had the look of a girl who was afraid of her own mind.
"You can have yourself back, River," he told her eagerly. "You are so strong, and so brilliant, that you can be your own woman again. Starting now."
She gave him a soft smile.
"I know," she said, with an air of wonderment.
The moment was broken when the sound of screams floated out from the shuttle. The Doctor recognized those screams.
"They're at the end of the recording," he said.
River nodded, and the screams stopped seconds after they began. Someone had wisely decided to disengage the video chip at that point.
The pair turned to watch the crew file out of the shuttle. Mal emerged first, clutching the video cylinder in his right hand. His jaw was clenched so tightly that the veins in his forehead stood out, and he strode right past them and stood alone, staring out over the silent city. Zoe and Wash followed together. Unable to meet each other's eyes, they simply stood beside the shuttle and looked down at their joined hands. Then came Simon, who immediately scanned the area for his sister. Seeing River straight ahead, he went to her.
As he approached, he said, "It's going to be okay."
She nodded solemnly and replied, "I know."
She slipped her arms around his back, and he held her tightly. The Doctor couldn't tell who was comforting whom, but then he realized it didn't matter.
Shepherd Book exited next, holding Inara's arm. The Companion had her face buried in the preacher's shoulder, and he was murmuring something to her that the Doctor couldn't hear. He saw Kaylee emerge immediately after them, and he was positive that without Jayne and Rose on either side of her, she would have collapsed. The young woman was shaking violently, and her face had gone deathly pale. Once they had her seated on a cement bench, Rose carefully unwound her arm from the mechanic's and gave Jayne a questioning look. He nodded his assent, he could take it from here, and stayed with Kaylee while Rose got up and made her way straight for the Doctor.
When she was still several feet away, he opened his arms to her, and she nearly fell into his embrace. He heard her sniffle into his suit, which only made him hold her tighter.
"I didn't even know what Reavers were before now," she sobbed softly into his sleeve.
"Now you do," the Doctor murmured.
She pulled back to look at his face with teary eyes.
"How could they do that? How could the government pump chemicals into the air to control people?" she demanded.
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders.
"Does it really surprise you?" he asked quietly.
She made a pained face.
"Yeah," she said honestly.
That was his Rose, always seeing the best in people; even nasty little twerps like Adam or killing machines like the Daleks. He shook his head.
"You just haven't seen enough of humanity yet," he told her. "Propaganda, illegal wiretapping, CCTV, RFID chips in your library books, the list goes on. In your time and in all times, leaders try to make their population more… leadable. To make them 'better,' in their own vision of the ideal world."
Without warning, The Engineer's words were ringing in his head. "You shape the universe as you see fit," she had said.
"That's not you," Rose said suddenly.
She frowned up at him.
"What?" he asked.
She glanced around at the crew, and then gestured for him to follow her. She moved just out of view, around the corner of the office park, before continuing.
"I know you're thinking about what The Engineer said. But that's not you, yeah? She didn't know you, Doctor."
He was momentarily stunned. His first thought, quickly dismissed, was that she'd read his mind. His second was that he'd accidentally spoken his thoughts aloud. But finally he realized that the answer was simple: This was Rose, and she had a knack for knowing just the right thing to say to a person when he or she was feeling down.
Still, she wasn't entirely correct.
"The Engineer may not have known me, but she knew of me."
"It's not the same thing," Rose said, shaking her head.
"It's my legend. It's how I'll be remembered. The Oncoming Storm," he said glumly.
She placed a hand on his forearm.
"No, that's only what the Daleks called you. That's not what you are to all people," she said.
But he was hardly listening.
"Maybe River was right in the beginning. Maybe I'm not a man. I'm a gun."
His people had strict rules about intervening in the affairs of other species; namely that it wasn't done. Time Lords understood the cost of intervention. How often had his attempts at saving people actually led to a worse outcome? Satellite Five sprung to mind immediately, but there were so many times that he'd left too quickly to see the results of his actions, and then moved on without a backward glance.
"You're not a weapon; you're the Doctor," Rose said.
He felt the pressure of her fingertips as they traveled across the top of his hand. When her fingers curled themselves around his palm, he allowed it, but not without comment.
"Look at the source. I gave myself that name," he said.
"And I called myself Bad Wolf," she replied with a shrug.
"Right, and you're not bad or wolf-like, so let's not put too much stock in either name, all right?" he snapped.
For a moment, she was silent, and he instantly regretted his words.
"I'm only trying to help," she said quietly.
"I know," he sighed.
She gave his hand a squeeze.
"And how do you know I'm not wolf-like? I like a rare steak now and again."
He sighed again.
"Rose, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but—"
"Oi, you're a good person!" she said over him. "You are. You have to stop blaming yourself for everything bad that happens in the universe."
If this was one human saying those words to another human, they might be effective. It would be a hyperbolic statement meant to point out the absurdity of human guilt. But the Doctor was a Time Lord, and he could easily list off no less than a dozen times when he was individually responsible for the direction of the whole universe. And there was no one left to come up with a statement appropriately hyperbolic for a Time Lord.
"There's no one who understands," he muttered, more to himself than to her.
"That's not true. Someone does," she insisted.
The Doctor peeked around the corner of the building, his eyes landing once again on River. She and Simon were standing side-by-side, engaged in whispered conversation.
"As incredible as she is, River is not a Time Lord," he replied.
"I wasn't talking about River."
The Doctor turned to look at his companion.
"Then who?" he asked.
She arched an eyebrow.
"I remember now. I remember what it was like to have every possibility of every moment in time racing through my brain," she revealed.
The Doctor shook his head.
"Rose it's not—"
"I know it was only for a few minutes—" she continued.
"—and I know I'm not a Time Lord, but—"
"That's just it!" he shouted. Rose's mouth snapped shut, and she stared at him, eyes wide, but he pressed on. "You did something that I never would—you obliterated the Daleks to save my life. I would never wipe out an entire race for one person."
He was almost afraid to look at her, but when he finally risked a glance down, there was no censure in her expression. Neither was there anger, or sadness, or anything else he would have expected. She was giving him a soft smile, and the very gentleness of her reaction startled him more than the sharpest rebuke.
"But you almost did exactly that. Remember?" she asked.
He gave her a questioning look, and she went on.
"Back with the Slitheen. When you could save the world, but lose me, and you hesitated?"
How could he have forgotten? He almost started World War III because he couldn't bear the thought that Rose might die.
"But I didn't let it happen, did I? And I'll never let it happen, Doctor," she added.
He wasn't sure who started the hug, but before he could figure it out, his face was buried in her hair. Her arms came up around him and she started to trace her fingertips across his back in lazy circles.
"We're better together, yeah?" she murmured into his shirt.
Better with two. The words echoed in his mind.
"I really don't deserve you," he sighed.
She pulled back to look at him.
"You're a good person. What am I gonna have to do to get you to start believing that?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow.
There was really no appropriate answer, but the Doctor was saved from making a reply when River appeared.
"Mal says everyone back in the TARDIS," she said abruptly. Then she looked back and forth between the Doctor and Rose, and added, "Sorry to interrupt," before disappearing back around the corner.
"Did she seem more… lucid to you?" Rose asked, staring after the teenager.
The Doctor smiled and held out his hand to her.
"Let's go," he said.
They all congregated on one side of the time rotor, silent. The Doctor and Mal stood apart from the rest, the latter still holding the video cylinder. The Doctor spoke first.
"Twelve years ago, the Alliance sent a Search and Rescue unit to Miranda. They'd received reports of a disturbance. They were worried that terraforming had failed. The truth was more horrifying than any of them could have imagined. But worst of all, it was their fault, and the possibility of being caught horrified Parliament most of all."
He paused to shake his head. Sometimes he wondered why he hadn't given up on the human race altogether by now.
"When this wave reached Parliament, they buried it," he went on. "Miranda lies beyond the realm of Alliance control, surrounded by Reavers. They assumed that their secret was safe. Who could possibly make it to this planet to access the original video? Who would even know to look there? The only other place the information existed was in the minds of the few high-ranking officials who viewed the first transmission."
"That's where River comes in," Mal interjected, nodding at the teenaged girl. "They've been tryin' to track her down because of this. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, 'cause there's a universe of folk that are gonna know it too."
Mal paused to hold the cylinder up. "They're gonna see it. Inara was right. When we destroyed the bugs, we also destroyed the evidence," he continued. "What we need is to build a case against the Alliance, one that forces people to take sides. 'Cause as sure as I know anything I know this—"
He paused, and his eyes swept over the crew.
"They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. Whether it's cutting open the brains of our children or setting loose a plague of tiny spies, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. I ain't gonna let somebody tell me how to live. So no more running. I aim to misbehave."
The Doctor realized once again why he'd never give up on the human race: They'd never give up on each other.
"It's like Shepherd Book told me on Paquin. 'If you can't do somethin' smart, do somethin' right,'" Jayne said.
Book smiled at Jayne, and the mercenary nodded brusquely.
"Do we have a plan?" Simon asked, ever practical.
Mal turned to the Doctor.
"Doctor, can your blue box take us to Mr. Universe?" he asked.
The Doctor smiled.
"What are the coordinates?"
Two minutes later, the crew of Serenity was picking themselves up from the console room floor while the Doctor and Rose made their way towards the exit. When they swung the door open, they were met by a blonde woman in a prom dress. The image was so jarring that it took the Doctor a moment to remember that this was Mr. Universe's 'fiancée.'
She stiltedly ushered them all into the complex, a cavernous space full of electronic equipment. One whole side of the room was filled with monitors, each screen displaying something different. The Doctor turned and noticed Mr. Universe, sprawled out on a long sofa. He looked, contrary to the Doctor's expectations, neither frightened nor confused. When the Doctor's eyes landed on him, he gave the man a knowing smirk.
"So you're that Doctor," he said.
The Doctor felt his eyebrows twitch upwards.
"Oh, you've heard of me?" he replied.
Mr. Universe leapt up from the couch and gave the Doctor a smug look.
"I hear everything," he replied.
Mal marched forward suddenly, holding the video cylinder aloft, and a few seconds later Mr. Universe was watching the wave for himself. No one was keen on seeing the report again, but they maintained a solemn silence for its duration. When the first screams echoed through the complex, Mal twisted the cylinder free of the video port, cutting the stream short.
"We don't have the equipment to broadwave this code," the captain said.
Mr. Universe's smirk was gone. He had grown pale and still.
"It'll be on every screen in the 'Verse by the end of the day," he replied soberly. His eyes were still fixed on his now-blank monitor. The Doctor had only known of the young man for a few days, but he still got the impression that this was the most serious he'd ever been.
Mr. Universe blinked suddenly, and seemed to come to himself. He reached out and grasped the hand of his 'fiancée.' Her gears whirred, allowing her metallic fingertips to close around his. Only then did the computer genius turn back to Mal.
"You have Manuel and Hugo's card?" he asked.
"I think we can all expect to be in touch with them soon," the younger man concluded.
The two men shook hands, and Mal turned back to the group. Wordlessly, they took their cue and filed back into the TARDIS. The Doctor planted himself in the control seat and spun to face Inara.
"Well, I think the next logical step is to get you all back on your ship. Unless Ms. Serra would like us to drop her off on Sihnon first?"
Inara's eyes darted up to the Doctor in surprise, and then she glanced hastily over at Mal.
Mal gave her a pointed look. The Doctor knew it was rare for a Companion to stumble over her words, and evidently so did Mal.
"I think that maybe I'll stay on with the crew a bit longer," she recovered. "Provided that the captain is all right with that, of course."
She arched an eyebrow at Mal, who failed to hide his surprise. His eyes were wide, and for a moment he said nothing at all. Then he coughed and sputtered out, "No, that's—that won't be a problem."
"It's just that I'm starting to think maybe an Alliance-sponsored job isn't the most stable career path anymore," she explained, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
"Is that so?" Mal asked, trying to fight a smile of his own.
"It is," she nodded, fairly grinning now.
The Doctor felt something tug at his sleep and turned. Rose came up beside him and slipped her arm through his. She leaned her cheek against his sleeve and stared openly at the captain and the Companion. When the Doctor peeked down at her, he saw that she was hiding her own grin in the crook of his arm.
"Sounds like the cap'n might have someone to misbehave with," Jayne snorted.
Kaylee promptly smacked him in the arm.
"Ow!" he grunted.
"Jayne Cobb, you mind your own business," she commanded.
The mercenary muttered something unintelligible under his breath, but didn't speak up again.
"Serenity it is, then!" the Doctor announced.
The crew faired much better during this trip. Only Simon lost his footing, blushing feverishly when Kaylee giggled at his less-than-graceful fall. When she offered him a hand up, however, he seemed to forget his embarrassment.
The Doctor parked the TARDIS directly inside Serenity's cargo bay. He and Kaylee headed up to the engine room and set to work righting the G-line. It was quick and easy work, and all too soon, they found themselves crowded around the kitchen table with the rest of the crew.
Rose was back in her emerald dress from the very start of their adventure, although her hair fell in loose waves to her shoulders rather than a fancy updo. The Doctor couldn't help thinking that he liked this look very much, and found himself blushing over the very un-Time-Lord-like thought. She stood off to the side while everyone else crowded around a large map of the 'Verse that had been spread out over the table. Mal and Zoe were stooped over it, deep in conversation. They seemed to be leading a strategy session, as the rest of the crew was calling out suggestions regarding things like tactical objectives and security measures.
"Well, as you seem to have things well in hand here, I guess it's time for Rose and I to be moving on," the Doctor announced.
The din immediately dissipated and all heads swiveled to face him.
"Do you hafta?" asked a stricken Kaylee.
Rose glanced at the Doctor, and then gave the mechanic a regretful smile.
"That's what we do. Can't stay in one place too long," she said softly.
The crew moved to the cargo bay, Kaylee shuffling sadly beside Rose, and River climbing awkwardly along on the metal handrails of the stairs. This was the part the Doctor hated. Goodbye. He was never good at these.
Hugs and handshakes were coming fast and furious before he had a chance to think too much about it. Jayne gave him a firm handshake, but bent down to give Rose a long hug. He could hear her whisper something in his ear, but wasn't close enough, even with his superior Time Lord senses, to pick up the words.
"Hey, uh, I thought I should probably leave you with something to remember us by."
The voice startled the Doctor. He looked up to see Wash sheepishly extending his hand. On his palm was a tiny plastic dinosaur.
"Fluffy?" the Doctor asked, touched and amused all at once.
"I'm really glad to have met you," the pilot said earnestly.
The Doctor knew he would never be able to express to Wash how much their conversation in the cockpit meant to him. So he didn't try. Instead, he smiled and accepted the small toy.
"I am too," he said. It was enough.
When Wash moved over to Rose, who was now being embraced by a tearful Kaylee, he revealed River. The teenager approached the Doctor tentatively, her dark hair half-hiding her face.
"River," the Doctor said, smiling broadly.
He opened his arms to her and she moved forward in a sudden flurry of movement that almost knocked him off his feet. He managed to stabilize the both of them, and brought his arms up to her back.
"Thank you," she said in a tiny voice.
He almost couldn't hear her, as her face was now buried in his long overcoat, so he gently pulled back so that he could see her.
"No, thank you, River," he whispered. "Do me a favor, will you?"
River stared at him, waiting. His smile grew.
"Have a fantastic life. You deserve it, more than anyone."
She fell into his arms again, and he held her tightly.
"The man is not a gun," she whispered into his coat. Then, even more softly, she added, "I'm going to miss you."
The Doctor ran a hand down her long hair.
"Me too," he murmured.
When he pulled back, River's eyes were glassy, but she did not let any tears fall. The Doctor gave her one last squeeze before drawing back and meeting Rose in front of the TARDIS. He pulled open the blue door, but Zoe's voice stopped him.
"Before you go, can you answer one question for me, Doctor?" the first mate asked.
"I can certainly try," the Doctor replied.
"Who exactly are you?"
The Doctor looked to Rose, who smiled.
"I'm a mad man with a box," he replied.
He heard Rose let out a little laugh and glanced down at her.
"Modesty doesn't suit you," his companion said with an eye roll. She turned back to Zoe. "He's spent centuries helping people. He's humanity's greatest defender."
There was a brief pause, and then Wash spoke up.
"Yeah, well I fixed the toaster last week."
Zoe patted him on the cheek.
"You did, baby. And it was very impressive," she said.
Wash nodded proudly.
"So, if he's a centuries-old space alien who saves the universe, then who are you?" Simon asked, gesturing at Rose.
Rose opened her mouth to reply, but it was River who spoke up first.
"She's the Bad Wolf. She saves the Doctor," the teenager said.
The Doctor beamed. "Quite right, too."
Rose slipped her hand into his, and pushed the door the rest of the way open.
"We'll be back to visit," she called over her shoulder.
"You'd better!" Kaylee shouted back.
And then the two of them were back inside the TARDIS, the doors closed behind them. The Doctor moved swiftly over to the controls, set Fluffy down beside some of his favorite dials, and began preparing his ship for a new journey. He glanced up and saw Rose staring at the monitor, watching the crew of Serenity mill about the cargo bay.
"Are you sure we should leave them so soon?" she asked. There was a slight tremor in her voice. "The rebellion's just begun. What if the Alliance finds them?" she added.
The Doctor abandoned the controls and came up beside her. He slipped his arm around her waist and joined her in watching the monitor. His eyes landed on Mal, who appeared to be giving orders to the crew.
"Do you know anything about the Battle of Serenity Valley?" the Doctor asked quietly.
Rose looked at him.
"Just that Mal was in it. Inara told me. I meant to ask you about that, actually," she replied.
The Doctor nodded.
"I had an inkling that he named his ship for that reason."
"Was it bad?" Rose asked curiously.
The Doctor fell silent for a moment. He thought of all the battles in all of human history; bodies with only the faintest semblance of life left that still somehow manage to emit desperate cries for help, cries that slowly descended into ragged sobs that echoed across barren fields. Multiplied by thousands of bodies and millions of wars and billions of years, it became all too much to think about.
"There aren't really words, Rose," he murmured.
Her eyes fluttered down to their feet with a whispered, "Oh."
He felt contrite immediately. She was asking a reasonable question.
"Most would say it was the last stand of the Independents," he started, and she looked up, surprised but attentive. "About six weeks in, the rebels were still fighting, even though the Alliance had superior numbers and firepower. But the Independent High Command surrendered."
His voice trailed off.
"What happened next?" Rose prompted.
"No one came for a week. The wounded lay stranded on the battlefield, screaming for help with their last breath. Thousands starved to death. It was hell on earth."
"Oh my god," she muttered, her voice cracking.
"About a hundred years from now, scholars will compare it to Gettysburg, but it was worse. People who survived it have a saying. 'No one leaves Serenity. You just learn to live there.'"
"Mal survived. And Zoe," Rose said. The statement was unnecessary, but he appreciated it all the same. It was a reminder that something good survived those terrible weeks.
"If anyone is equipped to lead this rebellion, it's Mal. Any person who can keep the will to fight, even after that, will never lose it," the Doctor concluded.
Rose looked at him and nodded. He wondered if she was thinking of the Time War, as he was.
"Okay," she said.
"Okay?" he repeated, questioning.
She gave him a humorless smile, reassuring him that at least she was all right with the decision to leave.
"So, where to next? You're back in your dress. Should we try for the Flupani Centennial Ball again?" he asked.
She shook her head resolutely, prompting him to try again. He could tell that she was feeling a bit down and adrift. That always seemed to happen after a long string of trips. Suddenly, he knew just what to do.
"We could go see Jackie," he suggested.
Rose pinned him with a deeply skeptical look.
"What?" he asked innocently.
"Do I look so upset that you're willing to go see Mum?" Rose asked.
The Doctor felt his cheeks color. He started to ramble, as he always did when he was even the slightest bit flustered.
"No, it's only… Don't you want to see her? And, come to think of it, don't you still have that Bazoolium bottle to give her? Funny little metal? Predicts the weather? I'm sure she'll love it. Imagine all the things she'll be able to do that she couldn't before. 'Shall I putter on down to the mall today in my very fashionable tracksuit? Better consult my Bazoolium. Oi, it's far too cold! I'll just watch telly instead.' See it's…"
He trailed off again when he saw her still-skeptical look.
"No?" he ventured.
"No," she confirmed, her expression unreadable.
"Satellite Five," she said decisively.
He felt his eyebrows jump but make a valiant effort to keep his jaw from dropping.
"Satellite…" he muttered uselessly.
Rose brushed past him and over to the controls, as if she knew how to set the coordinates.
"We're going back for Jack," she informed him. Seeming to realize that she did not, in fact, know how to fly the TARDIS, she looked up at him expectantly, gesturing towards the controls.
The Doctor was still frozen to the spot. Jack was wrong. He just was. To put him in the TARDIS could cause any number of cataclysmic events. Rose just couldn't understand—But wasn't this why he loved the human race? They would never give up on each other.
He nodded decisively.
"Satellite Five, it is."
He was rewarded with a brief peck on the lips and a brilliant Rose Tyler grin.
"And after that, we'll go see Mum," she concluded.
The Doctor might have felt a good pout coming on, if Time Lord's pouted, which they didn't, so it must have been something else. But in any case, before he could not pout about having to see Jackie Tyler after all, Rose swooped in again and captured his lips in a much more substantial kiss. He closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around her back. His fingers traced their way up the satin fabric of the gown until they were tangled in her hair.
She pulled away before he could maneuver her back against the rotor, an image that had been floating around his brain lately. He didn't have a chance to register his disapproval, because there was that grin of hers again, the one that he couldn't resist returning.
"You know, Jack's going to be insufferable about this," he groused, still smiling.
"Stop stalling," Rose said pointedly, although she was smiling too.
Admitting defeat, the Doctor pushed forward on the large lever to his right, and set to work navigating his ship.
Run-tse duh shang-dee, ching dai-wuhtzo = Merciful God, please take me away.
Wuo-shang mayer, maysheen byen shr-to = I will close my ears and my heart and I will be a stone
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