So many choices.
So many regrets.
He wonders what would've happened if he'd stayed back on Messaline for a few more hours. Or if he'd agreed with River when she asked him to come with her the first time they went on a date. If he'd had a proper romance in a proper world with a timeline that was all linear and straight.
Well, he reminds himself that a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points but it is by no means the most interesting.
He tells River he'll stay the night. Just the night, because he can't stay for very long. He probably could, but every moment he stays with her is another moment he inches them towards the time with the Library and he's not ready to give her up yet.
He changes into a pair of jim-jams River has hung up in her closet. Their closet, he supposes, as one side is very obviously his and one side is very obviously hers. Hers has two dresses he's never seen her wear, a few jeans, a few work shirts, a few suits for when she gives conferences about her discoveries. His has the jim-jams, two suits, and a torn-up tuxedo. He doesn't leave a lot of himself behind, he thinks.
In the same sense, there's nothing of his in the bathroom. He washes up using her soap. He keeps a toothbrush with Venusian spearmint paste in a pocket at all times (because oral hygiene is very important). The soap smells clean and makes his face feel slick and the toothpaste has a pleasant bite to it. He wonders if he lived that straight-line life, if he and River would be doing these everyday hygenical things together, rather than him doing them alone hours and hours after she's gone to sleep. He wonders if he could be that domestic man that he imagines River must sometimes long for.
He runs his hands over his face and stares at the small vanity mirror. When he first regenerated, he used to smile at the mirror in the TARDIS; run his tongue along his teeth, count his freckles, and generally make sure his face was the same as it was the morning before. As he's gotten older, he just glances at himself for a moment or two, wondering how much longer he'll look like this. He fretted dreadfully over the white wing-tips in his hair and sideburns when they started growing in, but he's grown accustomed to them now. They're just another thing he carries with him.
In 4562 RE, there was a law passed called the "Leave No Trace" act that outlawed Time Lords leaving evidence of their presence in history. No technology, no alien biology, no used gum wrappers. Leave history the way one found it, that was the idea. From how the Doctor instinctually leaves so little of himself behind, he's beginning to think that it was probably implanted into the DNA of new Time Lords to keep everyone on the same page.
Which would also explain why there's never any trace of Jenny here when he arrives. Nothing but used teacups and stories from River. Jenny keeps herself impossibly tidy. No forgotten jackets, no souvenirs, nothing. It's not that he doubts River's word that Jenny visits her, it's more that he would love to see something, anything that is part of his daughter's life now.
His bare feet make very little sound against the stone tiling of the hallway. He peers in River's bedroom. She's always had very simple tastes; she's very need-oriented, like him. A simple dresser, stand, lamp, and double bed. The double-bed is normally covered with a large, airy, white quilt that feels cold until one lies under it. He's never asked where she got it, but he likes to imagine that it was an heirloom and she had to dig to find out where it originated. He can almost imagine a young River deciding the gift was only the best once she'd worked to figure out where it came from. The image is so adorable in his mind he doesn't ask her so that she can't disappoint him with a story of buying it at the Ikea Planet.
But River isn't in her bed, of course. He doubts she sleeps there often when he isn't around; the room always feels cold and smells empty, while River's couch is warm and soft and smells like her hair. A few steps into the main room and he finds her (as he often does) asleep at her desk, a few new fragments of some dead civilization in her fingertips. He steps up behind her quietly and runs a hand along one of the pieces. There's a palm-sized bit of stone carved to have twisted, spiraled grooves along the outside. A medicine bowl from Greteria, he knows, but he won't spoil her by telling her. He runs a finger through one of the spirals, the dirt from the groove pinching him beneath his nail. He doesn't understand her fascination with archeology, he'd much rather see things alive, watch them grow, watch the bowl used rather than imagine its life.
But that's sort of what he's doing with River's blanket, actually. Inventing the past instead of seeing it for himself. Maybe she's rubbed off on him more than he thinks. He unconsciously begins to toy with a lock of her unruly hair. It's dry and coarse, though he's had enough companions obsessed with their hair to know that it could be silky and soft if she cared about things like her hair.
He steps back, prepared to lift River from her chair to the bed, when he sees, poking out of the shade of the desk lamp, a red brochure. He recognizes the logo and plucks it neatly out of the crease. The Greatest Show In the Galaxy ("the Psychic Circus, under new management and better than ever!", it promises). A circus. Far from River's sort of traveling destination, he remembers how much convincing it took just to get her to put on a pair of trainers and go to a country fair with him. And this certainly wasn't here when he was a few weeks prior. No, this was something left behind.
Evidence that she'd been there. That Jenny came to this place and left a circus brochure. He wonders why she left it. Was it for River? Was it just a mistake? Had she offered to take River with her next time? Did she have a dozen stories about it?
He runs his hands along the slick red material of the brochure. It had been folded in half, he imagined it was shoved into her pocket or handbag---he had lots of companions with silly handbags, would Jenny carry a handbag?---as she wandered around, wide eyed and smiling at the lights and the strange creatures and people.
He only knew his daughter for a few hours. Sometimes, especially when River talks about her, he tries to conjure up memories of her manner of speech, her laughter, her voice. It's all gone, now, the years took those memories away. But he remembers her smile. Just like his, but a little brighter.
Since he's naturally curious, he lifts the brochure to his nose and inhales. It smells like cheap paper, a little like River's room, and caramel. There's definitely caramel in the smell of the brochure, and when he opens it up he sees that it's difficult to separate a few of the pages due to the sticky substance. It crackles and squeaks when he tries very hard to open the pages.
Normal fathers with straight timelines take their daughters to the circus. They buy them candy floss and caramel apples and then murmur apologies when the sweets make them hyper as all hell by the time they get home. His imagination does come up with a fairly amusing image of Jenny bouncing around a circus ground, experiencing a sugar high for the first time. He smiles for a moment, then gets a little sad. Jenny's living out this life without him and he's missing out on all of her firsts. First sugar high, first carnival…
He turns the brochure over and sees some boy named "D'Iniro" has scribbled out his inter-space number on the very bottom. There's a smudge of caramel over it, so Jenny obviously didn't notice the gesture. But one day she will. She'll have her first love, her first relationship, and he'll be sitting in River's living room, trying to piece together Jenny's life like he's at one of River's digs.
"Go on, sweetie. They say if you lick it you get really into the whole archeological experience."
He looks up from the brochure to see River sitting there, her eyes red and sleepy. But she's not mad, not remotely. If anything, the little smile on her face is understanding. And maybe just a tiny bit smug.
It takes him a moment to compose himself, then he picks up the brochure where he'd dropped it out of surprise.
"I wasn't going to lick it."
"Of course not." Yeah, that smile is most certainly smug. She rolls her head back and stretches, her robe moving with the stretch to reveal the strong muscles of her forearms. Lots of repetitious digging and heavy lifting, he imagines. He doesn't have the patience to do what she does, so he has strong leg muscles for running instead.
"If I admit that you're right about Jenny, will you not be smug about it?" he asks.
"You always get to be smug at the most inappropriate moments, why do I get denied my moment?" she replies, but there's no malice in her voice. That's one of the reasons he loves her. She spars with him, but it's never vicious. The competition between them is nothing but completely friendly.
She gets to her feet on her own, taking his offered hand only once her feet are firmly on the ground. She starts to lead the way to the bedroom, but he stops at the couch. She gives him a tiny, exasperated sigh and lays down with him. It's plush and wide, but both of them lying on it makes it seem ridiculously narrow and short.
"You're all legs and arms," she grumbles, pulling the quilt down from where it had been draped on the top of the couch. She grumbles, but his arms are long enough to wrap around her shoulders as she rests her head above his left heart. They'll both wake up with some limb numb and sore backs, but for right now it feels good to lie like this.
"If you could ask your future self about one future thing, what would it be?" she asks him (because the moment before he's about to fall asleep is obviously the best time for her to ask questions like this).
His reply is immediate. "When do I get to see you in that red dress in your closet?"
She slaps his shoulder and he grins smugly. He knows what he'd really ask, of course. He'd ask himself how he copes. How he manages to go on knowing that he'll lose everything. Especially in moments like this that are full of hope and promises of the future.
River's hand is warm and calloused against his cheek. The quilt is cold but it will be warm within moments. He thinks about the quilt and almost asks her where she got it from. Returning to the man he was, the man who has to know the way things are, instead of the man he's becoming, who imagines the way things might be.
"I wouldn't ask," he says. "I don't like spoiling myself."
Muse: The Doctor (Ten)
Fandom: Doctor Who
Word Count: 1,967
Special thanks to everybody_lives and morethananecho for reading and especially for their brilliant ideas. This follows Jenny's storyline archived here. Jenny at the circus is an upcoming storyline of hers!