nonelvis: (DW blue TARDIS)
[personal profile] nonelvis
Title: Tangrams
Characters/Pairing(s): duplicate Doctor/Rose, duplicate Doctor/Rose/River
Rating: Teen for chapters 1 & 2; Adult for chapter 3
Word count: 5,800 (this chapter)
Spoilers: none
Warnings: none
Beta: [ profile] platypus
Summary: River Song unexpectedly arrives on Pete's World. What could possibly go wrong?
Disclaimer: Not mine, obviously.

Author's Notes: The third story in my Across the Universe series, but as with the other stories in that series, this one stands alone, and there's no need to read the others to follow along. Huge thanks to [ profile] platypus for helping the story make any sense at all outside of my head.

::xposted to [community profile] dwfiction, [ profile] time_and_chips, [ profile] spoiler_song, and archived at Teaspoon and AO3

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

River wasn't usually a light sleeper, but the steady, high-pitched beeping by her side finally roused her. She was lying under a stiff blanket on a similarly stiff bed in a room with artificial lights and nearly bare walls, and somewhere nearby there was a machine that very much needed to be blasted into tiny little pieces.

Twice now in twenty-four hours she'd been knocked unconscious. A new record, even by her dangerous living standards, but at least someone had brought her to hospital this time. She wiggled her toes and fingers, cautiously moved her neck from side to side; good, everything in working order, albeit somewhat sore.

She'd managed to save herself and Rose from complete disaster, she remembered that much. Diving towards the Thames; pulling back on the throttle to both slow the ship and bring up its nose; skittering across the water's surface until they'd slid onto the gritty bank of the river. The rubber scent of the airbag deploying from her seat restraints and cushioning her at first impact; the groaning of the ship as it wedged its way onshore. Small wonder her biceps and calves ached from effort and impact, but not so much that she couldn't reach for the monitor cable and yank it out of the wall so hard the plug shot up and smacked her on the back of her hand.

But the beeping stopped. That was something.

A minute later, a nurse with a Torchwood logo on her breast pocket tore into the room, pulled the monitor aside, shook her head, and reached for the cable.

"If you plug that back in," River said, "I'm afraid I'll have to strangle you with the cord."

Suspicion and confusion clouded the nurse's face. River had seen that so many times before: people trying to assess if this sweet-voiced, attractive woman were capable of fulfilling her threats, and usually discovering the hard way that she could. The nurse, however, began moving plug towards socket.

"Really," River continued, her hand now on the nurse's bicep, "I knew three ways to kill a man silently before I was six years old. Imagine how many ways I know how to do it now."

She smiled, sweet and sincere. The nurse dropped the cable, muttered "Fine, bitch," under her breath, and departed.

Blessed silence at last. River ripped the monitor leads off her chest, tossed them to the floor, and settled back in to sleep.

* * *

This time when she woke, the Doctor was sitting beside her.

"Nice of you to join us again," he said.

"As if I could keep away from you – especially when you did such a marvellous job fixing my vortex manipulator."

"I can only fix what I've got. Replicating accidents is something else entirely. And by the way, was it really necessary to threaten that nurse?"

"She was going to make that thing start beeping at me again," River said, inclining her head towards the monitor. "You'd have done it too if you'd heard it."

"Maybe so."

"How's Rose? Is she okay?"

The Doctor blinked at her. "Yes – yes, she's fine, being kept overnight for observation, just like you. It's standard Torchwood procedure."

"Don't act so surprised. We were starting to make friends, you know."

"Friends? You and Rose?"

"I always get along terrifically well with your companions. Rose and I had a few bumps, but I think we've established the necessary ground rules. I can see why you like her. She's full of fire, that one."

"Yes. Fire. Among other things." He got out of his chair. "Anyway, I wanted to thank you for bringing her back in one piece."

"It was the least I could do. Besides, we had a nice little chat about you on the way back, you naughty boy."

"I ... what? What did Rose say –"

The door creaked. "That's between us girls," Rose said, entering the room. "How are you doing, River?"

"Very well, considering I just crash-landed a spacecraft." River shifted to sit up in bed, and gingerly swung her legs over the side. "The Doctor tells me you're all right, too."

"The Doctor," he said, "is wondering what on earth you're doing out of bed, Rose."

"I told you, I'm perfectly fine. River's one hell of a pilot, and I have to hand it to the Chula – they know how to build their safety equipment." Rose draped herself on the Doctor's arm and looked up at him. "Are you ready to go? I am. And can we pick up a pizza or fish and chips on the way home? I'm starving."

"Rose Tyler, are you suggesting that we ignore Torchwood hospitalisation protocols? I love it when you break the rules."

"If she isn't, I am," River said. She stood up, stalked over to a narrow cabinet near the door, and opened it, looking for her clothes and possessions and pleased to discover that everything was there, including the squareness gun and vortex manipulator. "Just give me a moment to change out of this hospital gown."

The Doctor reddened and turned his back to her. "River," he said, "I suppose we need to find you somewhere to stay while we work on getting you back home."

"No need. I can take care of myself."

"Come with us," Rose said. "You can stay in the guest room."

Even without being able to see the Doctor's face, River knew his expression: jaw slack, eyes round. His head twitched towards Rose.

"That all right with you, Doctor?" Rose asked.

"Um. Yes, yes, of course."

"Good, that's sorted. You ready to go, River?"

River settled the vortex manipulator on her wrist. It blinked the current space-time coordinates at her, blithely persisting to function as if it hadn't been the source of a massive dimensional rip barely a day and a half before. Well, she'd show it. Somehow.

"Ready," River said. "And in case you're wondering, I like mushrooms on my pizza."

* * *

Parallel London, 23 March 2011
Will I ever share this entry with you, Doctor? I'm here in your home, with its clean sheets and rooms that stay exactly in one place, and I wonder how you survive. It must be the human in you, because I know you, my love, and you'd never have lasted a year and a half in one place and one time. Not even with Rose. Not even with me.

I must find my way back to you somehow, because your metacrisis knew me, and I knew that look in his eye: why he didn't want me to meet Rose. We must have quite an encounter, me and your tenth self. What on earth do we do together?

I have the usual ideas, of course, but who knows if we'll have the time.

You do, I suppose.

* * *

The aroma of fresh tea and toast lured River to the kitchen the next morning. The Doctor and Rose were seated across from each other at a butcher's block table, Rose calmly chewing on wheat toast with chocolate spread, the Doctor sipping tea while scrolling through an article on his tablet.

"Good, you're up," he said. "Plenty of tea left in the pot if you'd like some. Help yourself to toast as well."

Pepper and loam scents wafted from the teapot. Ceylon, if River wasn't mistaken; a solid, normal breakfast blend for what looked like a solid, normal young couple, if one weren't a human from another dimension and the other a half-Time Lord sprouted from a hand. Then again, River supposed that to anyone who didn't know her and the Doctor, they probably seemed like an ordinary couple as well, at least until he opened his mouth.

River seated herself at the end of the table and spread her toast with marmalade. If her hosts were going to play domestic, so could she.

"So," the Doctor said, "we still have to sort out how to get you home. I want you to tell me everything about the accident that brought you here."

"I was trying to get to New York City," River began. "In my universe ... it's blocked to time travellers between 1938-1995. I can't tell you why; just trust me that it's very hard to get in, although I've done it before. This time, the vortex manipulator wouldn't let me through from a distance, so I thought if I got closer, I might make it. My friend Tarryk flew me nearby, I tried the jump ... and then I wound up here."

"And your manipulator was leaking chronon particles when you arrived."

"Apparently. I'd no idea until you told me."

He pushed his chair out from the table, leaned back in it, and stared straight up. "And you ended up here – because I was here, and your fail-safe was looking for any one of me – but your friend and her ship crash-landed outside New York."


"It's almost like you both bounced off New York – like you'd hit a force field, but only one of you had a string pulling you back in our direction."

River swallowed her tea. Tarryk had hated the stuff, said it smelled of leaf rot. "Why not just chew on a log?" she'd always said. "You'd get more fibre that way anyway."

"Only one of us, yes," River replied. "Unfortunately."

"I think," said the Doctor, still staring at the ceiling, "I think, I think, I think ..." Abruptly, his head jerked forward, and he switched his focus to River. "Imagine the leak from your vortex manipulator was a bit of gravel. And imagine that what's surrounding your New York is a car windscreen. The gravel hits the screen at normal speed" – he tapped River's nose, and both she and Rose smiled – "and nothing. The glass goes on protecting your car. But when the gravel hits when you're going 125 kilometres an hour –"

This time, his finger flew so fast towards River's face that if she'd been anyone else, she might have been left with a bruise on her cheek. But she was River Song, and she grabbed the Doctor's wrist in mid-air with his finger a centimetre away from her nose.

"Nice," said Rose.

"Thank you, dear." River let go of the Doctor's wrist.

"As I was saying," he continued, "when a piece of gravel hits you at top speed, you end up with a nick in your windscreen, and eventually a cobweb fracture, and finally, the whole screen goes if you're not careful. And what I think, River Song, is that your tiny piece of gravel hit something already fractured, by you or some other time traveller trying to break in, and opened up a dimensional rift. Maybe just a temporary one, but enough to send you and your friend through to us."

A million-to-one accident; of course it had been, because everything about her was always a million-to-one. But at least she could usually beat those odds, or go down fighting. River wrapped her hands around her cup of tea. It stopped them from shaking.

"So to get me home, we need a windscreen like New York," she said. "Somewhere with overlapping timelines. There can't be many of them here – if they exist, surely you must know where they are."

"They don't exist, River. Not in this world. I'd know about them. Up here." He tapped the side of his head. "Half a Time Lord brain is more than enough to sense that kind of chaos."

"All right," said Rose, "can we make them instead? River's got the vortex manipulator – maybe take it apart long enough to make the timelines, then put it back together?"

"It's not that simple, Rose. Even if we could, we'd need to amplify it somehow. We might not need something as big as New York, but at best, the vortex manipulator would give us ... I don't know, a village pub in the middle of the Cotswolds."

"So we need something much bigger than what River's got on her wrist."

"That's what I just said."

"Something that could punch through time and dimensions on its own."

"Yes." He sighed. "I'll have to build something. I just hope I can find the parts. It could take weeks. Months, even."

"Yeah, it could," Rose said with a shrug and a smile, "or I could just go get the dimension cannon out of Mum's attic."

"You could what?"

"I might have sort of kept it ... in case I needed it ..." Her next words stumbled over each other in a rush. "He just left us here, and everything was so weird with us at first, and I swear, I forgot all about it until now –"

River considered how much better her tea and toast would taste in another room, preferably one on the opposite side of the house from the kitchen. "I think the two of you should negotiate the details here, so if you don't mind ..."

The kitchen was silent when she left it, but she was certain it wouldn't be for long.

* * *

By the time the Doctor knocked on River's door, breakfast was long gone, and River was deep into a world history book's chapter on mid-century advances in zeppelin safety. "Come in," she said. The emergence of literal social stratification could wait.

"I thought you should know Rose has gone to get the cannon. I'll know more once I can examine it for myself, but I believe if we can disrupt its containment fields, assuming whoever built it was intelligent enough to contain something as dangerous as that cannon, though mind you if they'd had the intelligence God gave a mouldy cabbage they'd have never have built something that unbelievably dangerous in the first place, anyway, all we have to do is bombard it with your leaky chronon stream, and that ought to open a nice little rift in time and space that with any luck will seal itself shut after you instead of developing into a full-bore black hole and swallowing England, Great Britain, and the rest of the Earth. Do you mind if I sit down? No? Good."

He slumped next to River on the edge of the futon couch and cradled his chin in his hands. He let out a small and weary sigh, barely a puff of breath, but River had heard that same sigh from his other selves many times, usually just before a short and bewildered rant about the mysteries of human nature.

"You know," the Doctor continued, "I was so happy she found me on Earth I never told her how angry I was she'd tried. She'd never have got through at all if Davros hadn't weakened things, but she risked exploding two universes. And now I find out she'd have done it again to get back to the other me, if she and I hadn't sorted out our differences."

"It's a good thing you did, then. For all of our sakes."

"Yes, except now I have a new problem to sort out. Which is whether there's a way for more than one person to get through that little dimensional accident of yours."

"Rose can't still want to go back. She loves you. Believe me, she made that perfectly clear to me."

A wry smile flashed across his face. "I'm sure she did. And you two seem to have come to an understanding."

"I'd like to think she trusts me now. After all, she left me here alone with you."

"Or me here alone with you," he said, turning to look at her, calm and focussed.

But it didn't escape River that his eyes flicked towards her lips, and stayed there for more than a moment.

Carefully, River lay her hand across the Doctor's. He'd touched her reluctantly in his office, only enough to pass the vortex manipulator back to her, but now he wove his fingers between hers.

"Would you go back, then, if you could? You and Rose?" River said.

"I don't know. Everything I want is here now."

"For a man who's been lying as long as you have, sometimes you're really rubbish at it. You, in one place and time for the rest of your life? And the TARDIS in another universe?"

"I can't very well steal her from him, River, and travelling with him ... I don't think that's a good idea."

"But you haven't given up on her, have you?" she said softly.

"It's a dangerous hope, River. And I'm usually all in favour of hope, best thing there is, but not when it keeps wearing at me like this."

His hand trembled beneath hers, and River leaned over, stroked the side of his neck with curled fingers. When she kissed his cheek, he stiffened at first, then relaxed with another one of those nearly nonexistent sighs.

She drew him close and spoke softly. "If I've learned one thing from travelling with you, my love, it's that you never give up hope, not even when it wears at you. Because someday, somehow, you always find a way to make it come true."

* * *

The dimension cannon was more of a snubnosed titanium cylinder bristling with bodged-together wiring and circuitry and less of anything that could be plausibly called a cannon unless one was a scientist trying to justify a Torchwood research budget. Rose had set the cannon up on its tripod in the lounge, where the Doctor fussed over the machine, muttering as he ran his fingers along its breadboards, and dissolving into sputters when he found wires joined to a board with duct tape instead of solder.

"I think he's going to need some time alone with that," Rose said to River. "Fancy a shopping trip? You can't wear those clothes forever."

"What a lovely idea," River said, noting the Doctor's slow blink and slack jaw. "A nice, long trip, don't you think?"

As they slipped through the front door, Rose's hand pressing lightly at River's back, an anguished howl wafted along behind them.

"That'll be the short fuse for the dimensional phase regulator," Rose said, and indeed, as they closed the door, the last wail River heard was "Who shorts a fuse for a dimensional phase regulator? Imbeciles. Idiotic, suicidal, colossal imbeciles."

"Or him," said River.

Rose shushed her with a giggle, and motioned her to the car.

* * *

Parallel London, 28 March 2011
With any luck, this is my last entry in Parallel London. The Doctor says he's nearly sorted out the dimension cannon. He's even figured out how to re-create my vortex manipulator's chronon leak on demand. You always were so clever, my love.

But he hasn't been clever enough to find a way through for himself and Rose. If he had other vortex manipulators, he could do it, but the elements he needs to build them don't exist on Earth.

I wish you could see him. Maybe you could blast open a little hole to this universe, just a tiny one no one but him would ever notice, and send him the parts he needs. Because half-human or not, he's still got your eyes, and I can see the sadness when he talks about the life he used to have.

* * *

It was nearly midnight. The dust sheet beneath the dimension cannon was littered with oil spills, de-threaded screws, and jagged copper wire, but the cannon itself gleamed. The Doctor carefully slotted the last circuit board in place, flipping plastic brackets on either side to hold it steady.

"There we go! All cleaned up and ready to blast you into another dimension, River."

River peered inside the open cylinder. Each wire was neatly coiled, each capacitor properly wrapped, each fuse safely seated. The interior workings made a convincing masquerade of a machine lovingly and carefully built to precision engineering standards, rather than the rickety and desperate mechanics the Doctor was now holding together with materials only slightly more reliable than the duct tape originally linking the patchwork electrics.

"You've never built something this tidy in all your life," River said. "Are you sure you're the Doctor?"

"Donna's habit, not mine. Well, mine now, I suppose. It's for the best. Now I can actually find things when I look for them."

It almost seemed a pity to destroy something they'd just spent days restoring, but River's skin itched with the need to for her own universe. It wasn't even that this one was so different, zeppelins and American prime ministers aside; it was the maddening open-ended reliance on others for clean clothes, a bed to sleep in, her morning tea. If there had been no way back, or no way of knowing there was a way back, she could have parked herself at the nearest university or museum and begged for a job, or even simply hired herself out as security. She could have found her own way, eventually, as she always had, with or without the man she'd learned to love.

Dependency had always been always difficult for her to accept. She'd been forced into it as a child and spent years escaping it; even in Stormcage, waiting for guards to deliver her meals and messages, she'd taken her leave whenever she pleased, just to remind them she could.

Yet here in this house in London, she'd accepted their offers of help, certain that if anyone could return her to where she belonged, it would be the Doctor, and the woman who'd risked two universes herself to find him again. River had landed in this world unkindly, and lost a friend. But she'd gained two more.

Rose, slouched on the sofa, yawned and stretched. "Are we all set for tomorrow?" she asked.

"We've got the proving grounds all day, but we shouldn't need more than one shot," the Doctor replied. "We'd better not, anyway. We've only got the one."

"Good. In that case, I'm going up to bed, and you're coming with me." She rose and wiggled her fingers towards the Doctor's hand, and he let her tug him to her. "Did you want to ..." Shy, a light blush, head tilted as she spoke to him.

"Did I want to ... oh! Yes. That. I thought you might – I suppose it might be better if I ..."

"One of us is going to have to."

"If you don't start using some nouns," River said, "I'm going to have to develop my own theories about what you're talking about." She paused, tapping her fingers on the cannon. "Oh, my. Those are some very nice theories."

Rose laughed, blush deepening, and laid her head on the Doctor's shoulder. "Funny you should say that," she said.

"See, we're about to go to bed," the Doctor said. "And we've been wondering whether you'd like to join us."

"And I thought you weren't going to give me a going-away gift," River said. "I do love a surprise."

The Doctor extended his other hand to her. "Come along, then, and let's find out what it is."

* * *

It was hard to know where to start: a Doctor River had never had before, or the companion she was equally drawn to. This Doctor was uncharacteristically warm against her body, a woollen blanket instead of a cotton sheet, but his hands were as skilled as those of every other incarnation, wrapping themselves to her curves, drawing her chin up for a kiss.

Rose nestled beside her, lightly stroking River's breast, nipping gently at her neck. When River turned to kiss her, she bent into the embrace, letting River shift alongside and above her. Rose's mouth opened: a sighing breath as River's lips skimmed along Rose's jawbone, lingering at her throat. River's tongue twirled around one of Rose's nipples, sealed her lips over it, Rose's quickening heartbeat thudding in her ears. Rose first, she decided, even if the Doctor was steadily hardening behind her, rubbing himself against River's arse while his nimble hands explored the rest of her body.

She brushed her fingers along Rose's parted thighs, back and forth, edging ever closer to the apex while Rose wriggled beside her, short pants of breath evolving into chuckles as River kept up the teasing. "I should have known," Rose said. "You're as bad as he is."

That sparked laughter from behind River, and she curled into it, enjoying the way the Doctor gradually kissed his way up the arc of her neck. "You're lucky there's nothing to handcuff you to," she murmured, her hand still dancing across Rose's thighs. "You'd be amazed how long I can keep this up."

"I'd better not be." Rose sighed, arching into River's touch.

The Doctor shifted, and River heard the sound of a drawer opening. His arm dropped back over her, palm extended to reveal a small blue silicone egg. "Try this," he said. "She makes the most astonishing noises when I use it."

River rolled the egg in her hand, thumbing a depression on one side of it. The egg buzzed and skittered across her skin. "How promising," she said. "Let's take it for a test drive."

She let the egg rest between Rose's legs, and Rose gasped for air.

"Very promising," River said, and pressed harder.

Rose's lower body jerked upwards, and she grabbed tight to River's shoulder. River rocked the egg forwards, slipping a finger inside Rose while the heel of her hand kept pressure on the egg. Earlier, she'd heard Rose's heart; now, kissing Rose's breastbone, the tender skin that swelled beside it, Rose's moans vibrated on River's lips, stronger as River bent her finger within.

Behind River, the Doctor's thrusts became more urgent, the nips at her neck now more like bites. She sighed and groaned when he drew his tongue across a bite she knew would show in the morning, and as his cock slipped from the crack of her arse to between her legs.

"River," he murmured.

The head of his cock nudged her clit, and she trembled. "Yes," she said. "Now. Please."

He drew her leg over his, adjusted his position, and pushed inside her, breath stuttering as he started to move.

It was harder to maintain a rhythm now. Rose, rapidly coming undone beneath silicone and River's fingers. The Doctor's own motions, set to a different beat building slowly within River. His hand, pinned to her breast, thumb and forefinger pinching a nipple; his lips warming her throat; Rose's voice rising as she clutched River's waist.

And beneath, the knowledge that this was one more experience out of time for River, a stream unique to this universe, and one she might not ever be able to share with her own Doctor. Who was to say he'd never make it here on his own someday, and if he did, would it be before she'd arrived? Millennia after, when this Doctor and Rose were nothing but dust?

She'd long since learned to enjoy life in the moment with him, because for her every moment – well, most moments, in any case – occurred just once, no different than for any other human, even if she was slightly more than that.

She suspected Rose and this Doctor had learned that lesson as well.

This moment, now, it belonged to the three of them, and no one else; a moment with the Doctor that River's Doctor could never know. She would seal it away in her diary, and in her mind, and perhaps on a lonely night, revisit it herself.

Especially this: Rose's sharp cries, her eyes squeezed shut, her head drawn back against the pillow in a puff of blonde hair. The Doctor's fingers wrapping around Rose's hand on River's waist, his thumb brushing both women as Rose shuddered through her orgasm. The warmth that steadily rose within River as the Doctor continued to move.

She couldn't capture all of this in her diary. But her memory would be more than enough.

Rose, calming, took River's hand from between her legs, raised it to her lips to take the still-vibrating egg and kiss River's fingertips. "Close your eyes," she said.

River obeyed. And the egg fluttered down her body: buzzing at the hollow of her throat, across her nipples, tracing the soft underside of her breasts, circling her navel; lines of electricity jolting at the crease where thighs met torso, and finally, finally caressing the sensitive point between her legs. River's cry mirrored Rose's own from minutes before. The warmth that had been inching through her suddenly spiked heat throughout her body, a burst of energy rippling through her like waves.

Rose left the egg in place at first, driving the rumble of aftershocks, then slid the egg farther down, where River could just feel it at the point where the Doctor's cock slipped in and out of her. Her back was slick with sweat from his exertion; his single heart beat rapidly against her skin.

His hand shook, but was still strong enough to tilt her head towards him so that he could kiss her. And as she opened her mouth to him, her tongue teasing his lips, he moaned and shivered and pulsed within her.

Rose withdrew the egg and thumbed it off. She snuggled closer to River, reaching over her to kiss the Doctor herself, then dropping back beside her, arm slung across them both.

The vibrations in River's body had slowed by now. Instead there was just one lover behind her, and another in front of her, and the tingle in her skin wherever they touched. She wondered if they expected her to get up, go to the guest room, tuck herself into her futon, leaving the two of them to their bed and their life.

But instead they lay their heads upon her, and she left her eyelids closed, and drifted to sleep between them.

* * *

The dimension cannon and its tripod loomed spike-legged above the beige rocks and dust at the centre of the quarry. The Doctor had set up a remote detonation system he could trigger from within the concrete blast bunker so that they wouldn't be hit by shrapnel or the pressure wave when the cannon finally blew. "We'll still catch the timestream bubble, of course," he'd said. "But that's less likely to put an eye out. Well, except maybe for you, River, but let's hope it doesn't come to that."

River sat on the edge of the seismograph table and double-checked the vortex manipulator's destination. The Doctor had twitched when she'd sat there; she'd raised an eyebrow at him, but he'd looked away, pretending not to notice her.

June 26, 1958. Twenty years since her parents had been zapped back in time; their wedding anniversary, assuming the vortex manipulator's bit of gravel could burrow its way through the dimension cannon's windscreen. Enough of a cushion that if she missed the date by a few days, or even a few years, her parents would be alive and well in New York.

She still made sure her fail-safe was set. Just in case.

Rose was pacing near the door, opening and closing the logbook, shuffling about looking for something to do while the Doctor sonicked minute, invisible adjustments on the remote control. "You're sure this is safe?" she asked.

"As safe as a controlled spatio-temporal explosion bombarded with stray chronon particles can be," he said. "Which is to say: everything's going to be perfectly fine."

"Liar," River said.

"Yes, but I do it with style." He flipped the remote in midair, caught it, then placed it on the desk, patting it. "All set with that. Now, for your vortex manipulator."

River dutifully held out her wrist, and the Doctor pointed the sonic at it. He frowned, then activated the sonic again. "That's done it. Ready whenever you are, River."

"I need a moment," she said, and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him down for a hard kiss. He caught on quickly, hands burying themselves in her hair, lips parting for her tongue.

She let him go several breathless seconds later, and he stumbled backwards, dazed and blinking.

"Your turn, Rose," River said, and Rose joined her at the table, leaning in for her own kiss, moaning softly into River's mouth.

Only after Rose withdrew did River wink at them and say, "Okay. Now I'm ready."

"Here we go, then," said the Doctor, pressing a button on the remote and eyeing a tiny digital display on the device. "Timestream explosion in thirty-four seconds, give or take."

River hopped off the table and placed her finger beside the manipulator's activation button. One touch, and she'd either be flying home or flying into tiny pieces. "You're sure you can't come with me?"

"We're sure," the Doctor said. "But ... you never know, do you? I hear a Chula shuttlecraft crash-landed in London the other day. Might be able to repair it. See the stars again someday. Maybe even your stars."

"You," she said, smiling. "You amazing man."

"Don't thank me. Thank the amazing woman who suggested it." He stretched out his hand, and Rose took it without even looking.

River laughed. "Of course."

"Seven seconds now, River," the Doctor said. "Get ready. Five. Four. Three. Two –"

"I know how it ends, sweetie," River said, and activated the vortex manipulator.

* * *

The nice thing about popping into existence two feet off the ground in broad daylight in Manhattan was that it was New York City, and as long as River's appearance didn't block progress on the sidewalk, the natives wouldn't notice or care. She landed with a thump on an elephant-ear hosta, which at least provided more of a cushion than the thorny barberry ringing the shade garden in front of a narrow brownstone.

"I should have asked him to fix the altitude meter," River grumbled, rubbing her backside. But wonky calibration aside, the manipulator had done its job: June 26, 1958, 3:18pm, Greenwich Village, a three-story home with a broad terra-cotta pot of scarlet begonias by the front door and windows flanked by turquoise paisley curtains.

River stumbled out of the hosta, rearranging its bruised leaves as best she could, and checked the nameplate by the garden entrance to the house. A. & R. Williams. Good.

She knelt by the begonias, sliding her fingers along the upturned rim of the planter's saucer. At the very back, a magnet and a key, the occupants' own fail-safe for poor memory or unexpected visitors familiar with the owners' security habits.

The lock to the house stuck for a moment, then gave way after River took a deep breath and tried again, worn wood creaking as the door swung open.

"Mother? Father?" River called. "I'm home."

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3


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