A/N: Sorry this chapter has taken so long. Life intervened, and may continue to do so. I'm done with school, but now I have to find an actual job. Have no fear - unless I die suddenly, I will not leave this story unfinished.
That said, I could really use someone to bounce ideas off and to tell me if my plans for this fic are too crazy. If you'd be willing to help me out (or know someone who would), please drop me a private message. Thanks!
He heard a soft shuffle from just beyond the door and suddenly he was blinking in the bright light. The woman herself stood across the room from him, mild surprise on her face.
"Lover," she murmured with a toss of her hair. "Didn't I tell you to call before you drop in?"
Time Agency training took control. All those years living relatively linearly, and the barest hint of a paradox brought back that mindset so quickly he almost felt the mental whiplash.
He forced a little half-smile onto his face. "Sorry about that," he murmured, shifting closer to her so he could stroke his knuckles across her cheek and look into her eyes. He didn't dare try any hand signals if they really were being watched - he'd have to do his best with words alone - but he did need to physically play the part River had forced him into. Focused so intently on him, her eyes told him that this was an act, that he hadn't mysteriously wound up in the wrong part of her timeline. He relaxed minutely and let his hands drop to his sides. "I was afraid you wouldn't answer; you were still angry with me when you left."
She looked away, her playful expression vanishing. "I suppose I should apologize, myself. It wasn't your fault, and you've done so much good to outweigh that incident." Though her words were conciliatory, her tone hinted at something darker. Behind his own pleasant mask, Jack cursed the need for deception even though it might be the only reason River had bothered to speak with him.
His smile widened for a bit, but it wasn't quite happy. "I'm glad you aren't still upset with me, love, but I'm not quite ready to let this go. Even if this specific incident wasn't my fault, there have been plenty of others that were."
How? he wanted to ask, but it was irrelevant, and possibly dangerous for her to answer. "Most of those things are in the past. I can't change them or make up for them. But what happened tonight... I don't want to let that slide. I want to be the kind of man you could be proud of." Well, he hoped River would be proud, if she cared enough to feel one way or the other, but the woman he was thinking of was Rose. She'd always believed in him when no one else had.
He took a deep breath. "River, let me make this up to you - with more just an apology."
"Trying to atone for things that aren't your responsibility is a short road to madness."
He thought of the Doctor and guessed she had, too. "I know. I don't want that. But seeing something wrong and trying to make it right, just because you're there and you can - "
"It's a slippery slope," she said, and he could tell that she was relenting. "Be careful."
He smiled, feeling a great weight lift off him. This was the first step out of his own personal darkness. "What can I do?"
The corner of her mouth quirked up, a wistful look in her eyes. "This," she told him, reaching into the pocket of her dressing gown and pulling out a small blue book, "is an accounting of the time I've spent with our mutual friend Johnny. We have a habit of meeting out of order."
"And you use the notebooks to keep track of where you are in relation to each other," he finished. "The T - one of the places I used to work had its employees do something similar."
"Just so. Only these are unique." She flipped the journal open to the end, where only a page and a half of blank space remained. "Mine is almost full, which means I'm almost to the end of our causality loop. After that, I'm free."
His stomach sank again. "This is where I come in?"
She smiled. "Exactly. The job you have now - you can build me an identity and handle all the necessary paperwork. I want to go home."
To twenty-first century Earth. To Amy and Rory. To her family.
"I can do that," he lied. She would never make it there, but he was careful not to let that show on his face. The least he could do was make her last days happy.
"Then consider us even." She stopped him when he reached for his Vortex Manipulator. "Stay with me. I don't want to sleep in an empty bed tonight."
"Just sleep?" he asked. Not that he didn't want more with a woman as attractive as River, but it would feel like taking advantage of this deception.
"Just sleep," she confirmed, taking his hand. "Come along, sweetie."
Rose blinked groggily at the pillow under her cheek that definitely hadn't been there when she went to sleep for the second time last night. Though come to think of it, she didn't remember going back to sleep. She must have nodded off while talking to the Doctor. And then maybe he carried her to bed? Because she certainly hadn't gotten here under her own power.
With a deep breath, she sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The bed wasn't hers; the duvet was a patchwork of bright colors rather than the faded midnight blue one she had shared with her husband. Looking around at the rest of the room, she saw piles of discarded books and heaps of machine parts and trinkets and souvenirs from thousands of planets in hundreds of galaxies. It was haphazard, chaotic, but somehow it all seemed to fit.
Yawning, Rose tossed back the duvet and set her bare feet on the floor, careful to avoid the wires and washers that had migrated there. She was still wearing her clothes from yesterday - minus her jumper and socks which had been left in the library - and she needed a shower.
She wandered out of the Doctor's bedroom and headed for the control room, where her TARDIS was still tucked into a corner. She should probably move it. Later, she promised herself as she walked down the ramp and toward the console.
The old girl snagged at her mind, and she glanced down at the console to see lights blinking insistently at her. "Can it wait?" she asked. "I'd like to freshen up, and maybe get some breakfast."
The Doctor's TARDIS replied with a mental flounce that gave Rose the impression of a sulking girl and a whiny fiiine.
She laughed. Like Doctor, like TARDIS? Sometimes they could be so childish.
Before she could get drawn into a longer conversation, she slipped through the doors of her own ship and sought out her room. She showered quickly and pulled on fresh clothes while telling her TARDIS about the details of River's visit.
Jack slid into wakefulness as the bed shifted beside him, and he opened his eyes to River leaning down for a quick peck. "Good morning, sweetie," she said, too syrupy to be completely real, but the happy curve of her lips was true.
Seeing her smile was like seeing the sun coming up - suddenly his past didn't loom so large and heavy. This woman, who'd hated him and feared him, had slept beside him, held him close, and greeted him with a kiss. It felt a lot like forgiveness, and he was willing to squint and pretend.
He grinned up at her and then pulled her back down to nuzzle her hair while she laughed and grabbed his wrists. It was a completely - okay, mostly - platonic gesture. He'd been skin-hungry so long that he'd forgotten what it was like to share friendly touches without the expectation of more. The feel of another person next to you, sharing your life for a few precious minutes, was... incomparable.
"Let me go, you great puppy," she teased at last, but she shifted his arms before he had a chance to obey. "I'm not having you make me late for work."
With that she began rummaging through her closet. As old-fashioned as the mattress, he noted, with only a few minor technological improvements. Her personal sensibilities (and the blaster she wore at her hip) screamed fifty-first century, but her bedroom could have come from the twenty-first.
The light, airy joy hardened in his chest as he pondered that. Was it to remind her of her parents? He recalled his office at Torchwood, the way he filched alien knickknacks from the archives and scattered them around the room so he could imagine that he was back in his own time or on the TARDIS again. Maybe she liked to pretend, too.
Instead of voicing those painful thoughts, he asked the other question that had been bouncing around his brain while she dressed. "How long do you want me to stay?"
River finished pulling her jacket on and sat down at the foot of the bed, but she didn't look at him. "I'm leaving on an expedition in a few weeks," she told him, selecting and pronouncing her words with careful precision. "I'd hoped you could stay until then." After a long pause, she added, "I'd love for you to stick around until the next time I bump into our dear friend Johnny, but I never know how long that will be."
Jack thought about reminding her, or explaining if she hadn't figured it out yet, that he had nothing but time. He could keep her company for decades or centuries and pick up the rest of his life right where he'd left off. He didn't say any of that.
Instead he reached out to squeeze her shoulder. "I'll stay as long as you need me," he promised. A muscle jumped under his hand and he soothed it with his thumb.
"Won't your sister and her husband be expecting you back?" Her tone was unconvincingly light. "You were going to be staying with them, weren't you?"
He tried to keep his own words casual. "You need me here. They'll understand." When she didn't reply, he scooted down the bed till he was able to knead the tense muscles of her back and neck. "What's got you so worried about running into Johnny again?"
River pulled away from him and grabbed her left boot from its place on the floor, but instead of tugging it on she glared at it. "That man must think I'm an idiot," she hissed, "if he expects I won't put the pieces together."
"You know it, too, don't you? That's why you came."
"River," he said slowly, "you know I can't-"
"I'm not asking you to tell me!" she snapped, rising to her feet and tossing the boot away. She stared at him with red-rimmed eyes, but no tears spilled over. "I don't want to know what happens because I can already guess the most important thing: I am never going home."
"I'm sorry." It was useless, but it was all he had to offer. The words brought back a flood of memories, other times when he'd have given anything to change a person's fate, times he'd done nothing.
River's eyes hardened. "Don't be sorry, make it up to me. The way you said you would last night."
Wariness swept through him, replacing the sensation of drowning. "How? I can't change it."
"Did I ask you to?" she demanded, one brow raised. "Listen to what I'm saying. My remains - my body, if there is one - you will make sure it gets back to my parents. You will make sure they burn it. That's what you can do."
"What, that's all? No message for them?"
"Tell them..." Her lips trembled. "Tell them I love them and I'm-"
The comm unit at her desk chirped insistently, silencing them for a moment. River crossed the room to shut it up before stuffing it into a pocket. Then she snatched her boots and pulled them on. When her attention finally came back to him, her composure had returned.
"I've got to be going. I'm locking up on my way out, but there's a spare datakey hanging in the kitchen. You're free to wander about as you please, if you still want to stay."
Jack noted how her eyes followed him and even though she'd said that she couldn't let him make her late, she was standing perfectly still in the doorway waiting for his response. He wondered, if he stayed silent, how long she'd wait.
He gave her his best reassuring smile, slow and sweet and just a tiny bit lopsided, as he said, "I'll see you when you get home."
He waited till she was gone before he sighed and flipped open his Vortex Manipulator. Time to let Rose know that he wouldn't be back as quick as he'd thought.
As soon as she was presentable, and with an apple and some toast in her stomach, Rose made her way back out to the other TARDIS. She closed the door and almost immediately a hologram popped up, flickering in the orange-gold light.
It was Jack.
There was a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Jack, what did you do?" she muttered. But she waited until he'd given his message, promised to be back before she knew it, and flickered out.
She was unable to yell at Jack, so she eyed the time rotor suspiciously. "You helped him, didn't you?" The console emitted an innocent little trill that she didn't believe one bit. "Is it because he flirts with you?"
Before she could really get going, the TARDIS gave a very distinctive ding! that sounded like a message being delivered. She heaved a put-upon sigh. "Is it Jack again?"
The ship's reply was affirmative. But rather than playing this one out via hologram, the TARDIS reached for her mind.
Amy wanted to go home.
She'd lived through plenty of terrible things, traveling with the Doctor. It wasn't his fault, but that didn't change the fact that she'd seen wars and monsters and madmen, a life without Rory and a sky without stars. But none of it seemed to compare with losing her daughter.
The first time was bad enough, but she'd been able to lean on him then. She thought, in a way, that the comfort he offered them was a way of dealing with his own grief at River's passing.
Now he felt indescribably distant, like he might crack and shatter if she leaned on him. She wasn't sure why she felt differently now, but underneath the pain and the sorrow she was just tired. And for once, she and Rory both agreed that they needed to take a break from traveling. So when she woke this morning with swollen eyes and a nose still stuffed from crying herself to sleep in Rory's arms, she decided to tell the Doctor.
She checked the control room first, of course, hoping he might be puttering around preparing for their next trip. Instead she found Rose standing at the console staring vacantly ahead with eyes that shone with the tiniest hint of gold. Then Amy noticed that her mouth was moving, too, spitting out low-volume nonsense like "can't believe that idiot" and "screwing the timelines".
That probably wasn't good. It didn't look good. "Rose?"
The glow dimmed. "Sorry, Amy," Rose murmured in that eerie monotone. "Give me a minute to finish this up."
When the light had faded completely, Amy studied her. "What was all that about?"
Rose let her head fall into her hands for a brief moment. "Jack," she muttered, "stubborn idiot that he is, decided he needed to talk to River. So he went gallivanting off to her time. And now he's telling me that she's asked him to stay there for several weeks."
Amy felt tears fill her eyes - it was an automatic reaction at hearing her daughter's name - and fiercely resented of her body. She bit the inside of her cheek, hard, and very carefully blinked the tears away.
But it was too late; Rose had seen them. She reached out in her own automatic reaction to offer comfort, then stopped herself halfway, arms suspended awkwardly in midair, as she silently sought permission. Amy leaned forward just enough to close the distance between them, her head going to rest on Rose's shoulder.
Without meaning to, she found herself repeating the words she'd spoken to Rory the night before. "She's my baby. She shouldn't be dying before I do. This isn't the way it's supposed to work." Rose simply rubbed her palms in circles and smoothed back Amy's long red hair.
By the time Rory stumbled his way out of bed and into the kitchen, his wife was long gone. Though she'd cried herself to sleep in his arms, he'd been unable to quiet his brain and untangle his knotted stomach enough to follow her into sleep until much later.
Without stopping to think, he set about making a pot of coffee - the strong kind he'd started drinking while working long shifts at the hospital. Once the grounds were poured and the coffeemaker percolating, he picked the first clean mug he could find.
It wasn't until halfway through the first cup that he noticed he'd grabbed the pyrotechnic one that said "Galaxy's Best Dad" in gold holographic glitter. It had been a gift from River, one of those outrageous theme park souvenirs that she occasionally picked up between visits. He'd accepted it with a smile and a hug, but deep down he hated it. He hated the reminder that, in all honesty, he was probably one of the galaxy's worst dads, letting his baby girl be kidnapped, brainwashed, manipulated, and then abandoned to grow up on her own. He only used it when River was visitng, to show that he appreciated her gift.
Today it was like a punch to the gut. He very nearly dumped the rest of his coffee into the sink - he would have, except he didn't think he'd make it through the day without that caffeine. As it was, he tried to force the guilt down and chalk it up to Sod's Law.
It wasn't until he was pouring his third cup that he realized he was wrong about the mug. This wasn't his mug, though it was a damn near perfect replica - it must've come from the same place. It had the same exploding firework design, only its holographic glitter spelled out "Bad Wolf."
Perversely upset, he set it down and opened up the cupboard again. He didn't want this werewolf or fairy tale mug; he wanted the present from his daughter, one of the few physical reminders of her existence. He felt a need to be reminded.
But after removing and replacing every mug in the cupboard twice over, he had the sinking feeling that the wolf mug was, in fact, the missing souvenir.
"'The Silence is an apocryphal sect of the Church supposedly originating in the 50th century,'" he read aloud. Hearing the sound of his own voice in the empty nook prevented his mind from wandering. It wasn't a trick he often needed.
"'Though its existence has never been confirmed by the Church, rumor indicates that the members of this movement were responsible for dealing with sensitive information and the security of the Papal Mainframe herself.'" The rest of the chapter delved into the other security measures taken to protect the Mainframe during the era of the Church militant - in other words, it was useless.
Fighting down the urge to scream his frustration, he snapped the book shut and threw it at the nearest wall. The resounding thud made him pause for several deep breaths. Maybe his attempts at self-control weren't so successful after all.
Still, better this struggle to find the Silence and face them than the endless currents of memories both true and altered that continued to beat against his mind. If he allowed himself to wander, he would easily be swept away by thoughts of the War, the raw and stinging silence of the aftermath. And now he had no Rose to fight the memories away...
No! He had to concentrate. Thoughts on his lifetimes of mistakes could wait till he had made some progress in this stupid game or life and death. He forced himself to pick up another book from the stack.
He'd made it through the next three books and gained only the fascinating tidbit about the Silence possibly having access to time travel when he found himself abruptly standing and breathing heavily. His hands were shaking and the most recent book was on the floor, but at least he'd managed to avoid throwing this one.
"I could have told you that, you pedantic imbecile!" he shouted at the hapless book.
He began to pace. He really ought to have a word with the historians of this era. Had they slept through the last five centuries? Had they buried their heads in the ground and wrote only the muffled murmurs of passers-by? These accounts were lacking so much knowledge - not just of the Silence, but of the rest of era - that calling them histories seemed dishonest.
And how could there be so little information on the Silence, anyway? They tried to keep themselves hidden, and they'd done a decent job of it in his case, but he hadn't exactly gone looking for them with the sole exception of Demons Run. Nobody else had the excuse of being absent from this era most of the time.
For all their attempts to keep secret, the Silence had practically been walking around in jackboots. Somebody should have been able to keep track of them. They'd bought a whole planet, for Rassilon's sake! And then mustered the resources to terraform it and construct an underground base, and the materials to build machines necessary to draw a TARDIS out of the Vortex mid-flight.
And the military forces to cut him off from his ship, from his friends, from reality. Without warning, all that pain and rage and despair came flooding back, and it was as if he were still there, trapped in his own mind. It was only with great effort that he managed to thrust the visions back.
He glanced at the ceiling suspiciously. "You're not just keeping the real information from me, are you, old girl?"
She didn't bother to acknowledge him, not with the slightest flicker or trill.
Feeling sullky, he scuffed his boot angrily against the wall. Not that it mattered, really. If she was keeping things from him, it was only because the timelines were at stake and he was supposed to figure it out on his own.
Hot tears stung his eyes for no good reason. He reached for the next book, wanting to pummel it into giving up the answers he sought. Maybe, if he focused hard enough, he could shed these violent emotions for a bit.
There was a quiet beep on the other side of the room. When he turned toward it, he found the TARDIS had left a blanket and a pillow spread across the settee, just waiting for him.
"I don't. Want. To sleep," he ground out, but it was only half the truth. The other half was that he looked at that blanket and imagined curling up next to Rose. Her human warmth tucked up next to his chest and his arms around her.
He couldn't. She didn't deserve to have him bothering her now, after she'd spent the whole night cycle keeping his demons at bay. She needed this time to rest, and he would let her have it. Closing his eyes and reinforcing his mental shields, he reached for the next book.