The Doctor couldn’t have explained why the thought had come. It had been the last in a long line of inexplicable leaps, unimaginable imagined notions that had landed at the forefront of his mind. Find River Song, something had said, and so he’d been begun to look.
His hands and feet moved of their own accord around the console: levers pushed and pulled, cords tugged, and a tiny rubber ball bounced, and they were off. To where and when, the Doctor didn’t know, but he trusted the TARDIS, his TARDIS to take him exactly where he needed to be.
“Take it away, old girl. Geronimo!”
The Ponds, who’d been chattering flirtatiously in their corner, had stopped their chattering some time ago. He hadn’t noticed. They landed with a shudder, but no one fell. At some point, even they’d gotten used to the touchdown.
The Doctor tweaked a few more knobs, typed in a last command, and pressed ENTER quite decisively. For some reason, he smiled. I love it when it a landing comes together.
“Okay, Ponds,” he rubbed his hands together giddily, “let’s see what the good Doctor Song has got for us today.”
He strode purposefully to the door and pulled it open to take a look outside. He found nothing. Well, not nothing, but very little of anything at all.
“I was not expecting this,” he murmured to himself, wondering whether the TARDIS had led him wrongly after all and if there was something he could rewire to fix that. I do hope she isn’t still cross with me for forgetting to hug her goodbye. He’d wanted to, oh, how he’d wanted to. It just hadn’t crossed his mind, something of a mortal failing for a consummate hugger. Hence, Sexy’s displeasure.
If only there’d been something to look at.
Amy skipped to his side with Rory in tow. She was as spectacularly disappointed as he was. “Bit drab, isn’t it?” He hummed in agreement. “And River’s supposed to be here?” He nodded. “Where?”
That, the Doctor wasn’t so certain of. It would have made sense for them to materialize within proximity to River’s last known location, rather than a significant distance away. The thing was, the Doctor could see desert sand for miles and no evidence that River would be here at all, much less voluntarily.
“I’ll do a surface scan. May take a few minutes, but it should give us something to work with.” He did his usual dance of bibs and bobs and whatnots at the console before he turned the screen towards him to see what was what in this boring place.
For the most part, first impressions had been telling. There wasn’t much on this planet, nor much potential for there to ever be. One-third of the planet’s surface was covered in sediment, an irregular combination of silt, ash, and sand, the rest was water—beautiful water with captivating tides. He could see that much from the scans alone. Aside from one great body, the water curved through the earthen land like ambitious ivy up a trellis; curling and creeping until it found itself again and tangled. It was a planet of shores and rivers. And suddenly it made so much more sense.
“Ponds, we’re going swimming,” he shouted behind him as he ran for the wardrobe room. “Mustn’t forget to pack your water wings!”
They were out in ten minutes with a picnic basket and all the sunscreen three ghosts could need not to burn. It was a bit of walk to the beach, it turned out, and the sun was hotter, even lower in the sky, than he’d anticipated. They ended up setting up shop against a steep sand dune, hunkering beneath a beach umbrella covered in childish drawings of what had to be the Raggedy Doctor. Amy seemed quite taken with it and the Doctor couldn’t help but find it rather sweet, even if all Rory found it was reluctantly amusing.
There was water over the dune, the Doctor was certain—his sonic said so, after all—but he found himself not quite willing to take a look. The same something that had summoned him here told him that the water was where he’d find his proverbial ‘bad girl.’ Danger followed wherever she went, and now, so did he.
Amy and Rory had taken to building a sandcastle right where they sat, the requisite haggling over moats, walls, and drawbridges notwithstanding. Rory was quite determined that they should build an impenetrable fortress while Amelia Pond wanted a city, a grand city and all the accoutrements that came with it. Amy got her city while Rory muttered over fortifications and impossible defences and catapults, damned to hell be catapults. There’s a bit of the Roman in him yet, the Doctor surmised, and left them to it.
He crept from their towel up the sandy incline of the dune. It was a rather intimidating thing for a beach, but that was about all that existed here: desert-like shore and rivers. And River. The sands shifted underfoot, sending him sliding irritably back to the start point. Charging right up on foot would have been easier, if a bit lacking subtlety. Thus, back onto his belly he went, coiling his way up to the crest like a desert snake.
At last, he reached the crest and peered over. It was this world’s grand ocean laid out before him, down a distance. It boasted a pristine coastline and white-golden sands. It also boasted River Song, dripping wet and laughing with a squirming child in her arms. The vision was nearly surreal in its domesticity; it left him oddly bereft.
“Mummy, mummy, I want to swim,” came crashing on the back of the wind unto his ears. Mummy, he mouthed to himself, Mummy? River Song was a mother. This completely rearranged his impression of her and he couldn’t decide why. All that time ago, you died for me and left her all alone. Why for me, River Song? Why me? He’d determined it was a daughter from her voice and the TARDIS blue skirt of her swimming costume. He hadn’t even met her yet and he was already intrigued. Hello, Little Song, we’re going to have ever so much fun together. He just hoped she hadn’t inherited ‘spoilers’ from her mother.
He about squeaked when he turned his head to scan the beach and got a view of Amy Pond’s bare skin instead. Quickly redirecting his eyes, he found her peeking over the ridge in much the same fashion he was, then discovered that he was bookended by Ponds, nosy Ponds. Nosy Doctor, Amy no doubt would have retorted, so he kept his thoughts to himself on the matter.
“Will you look at that? River’s playing mum,” Amy observed thoughtfully, and a tad wistfully. The Doctor had laid a comforting hand on her back before he consciously noted she needed it. His Amelia didn’t seem to mind at all, nor did Rory for a change.
Roranicus chipped in, “Looks to be fairly good at it as well.” And the Doctor had to agree, given the way the girl fluttered about her mother’s orbit with a permanent smile. She was lit-up, same as the Tuarullian night sky. And River? Well, River all but glowed at the lips and there was veritable light show happening underneath her skin. Never had he felt her pull so strongly as he did now. What are you?
Then, she began to sing, and he nearly started to cry, something he didn’t do.
Her low crooning flirted with his hearing, was a temptress to hearts that had been, were still, would always be breaking. Gallifreyan, a morning song. Not a mourning cry for the dead, but a greeting to the day. This one was waking to River Song’s how-do-you-do.
He could not resist her call now; he hardly even tried. The sand shuffled about beneath his boots, hindering his efforts to crawl over to the other side, to make himself known. He wanted to be so much closer, so terribly closer. Why, now that he wanted her, couldn’t he get close enough?
After crossing over, he surrendered to the planet’s lighter gravity and bounced-ambled down till he hit the more densely-packed surface of the beach itself. The sand whirled about his feet, a miniature sandstorm to his cyclone wind.
“River, River, River Song,” he sang, “so once again we meet.”
She spun quickly on the balls of her feet, a previously concealed Alpha Meson pistol suddenly aimed directly at his chest. Her alertness became awareness, became confusion, became irritation.
“What on earth are you doing here?”
Taking another rhetorical look about, the Doctor responded, “Definitely not Earth, but I’ve been there. Have you?” It couldn’t hurt to know just where in time she was from.
“This is not a game you want to play with me, Doctor.”
“Good thing I’m not here about a game, then.”
The drenched archaeologist no longer seemed to be having fun. “I didn’t call for you.”
“Is that all you can say when a friend comes to visit,” the Doctor sulked. “I do hope you’re teaching the little one better manners than that.” He bent over slightly to get a look at the child who’d gone to hide behind her mother as soon as he’d appeared. Only thin limbs and errant curls made themselves known. “Come now, love, I don’t bite.
River gave the girl a push back and took a step away. “You should not be here.”
He looked at her askance. “Why not? We are friends, aren’t we, River?” He made a move to go around her, but she followed him, keeping the child quite firmly out of sight. “Family, even?” She said nothing and made no move to lower her weapon. “Or is that a spoiler as well?” Clicking his tongue in disappointment, he came to a standstill. “Really, River Song, when will you learn that not everything can be resolved with guns?”
“When you stop giving me cause to have one on hand, Doctor. Now, tell me, why are you here?” The Alpha Meson gun was charged up, thrumming and alive. Almost as though she was expecting something like this. But how could she? Even to him, this felt like a deviation from the norm, from the set path of temporality.
“A feeling,” he answered honestly. “Something told me to find you and this where the TARDIS led me.” River swallowed with something like unease and, now, he was uneasy, too.
“You should know better by now than to entertain every passing flight of fancy, sweetie.”
“Perhaps I thought you’d be worth it.”
She inspected him silently, from his booted feet to his bare knobby knees and duck-covered swim trousers to his bow-tie shaped floaties. He’d never been gifted at dressing for the beach, but he’d tried. River appeared decidedly unsurprised by his ensemble. “You have no business meeting me now, knowing what you’re here to discover.” Lowering her weapon at last, she frowned. “This is not the way our story’s written and I should know.”
He offered, “Our story changes.”
She rebutted, “Not this soon, it doesn’t.”
“But,” he clapped, more than ready to be getting on with things, “since I’m here.”
Heaving a sigh, she began to turn away, before angling back to meet his eyes. “Doctor, have you brought your companions with you?”
Puffing up a bit at the idea he’d leave them behind, “Of course I have.”
She very nearly turned red at that, which he didn’t care for. Nor was he particularly fond of the baring of her teeth. They were very nice teeth, to be sure, and he found them particularly pleasant when exhibited in a smile, but he wasn’t enjoying them presented this way in the least.
“I shouldn’t have brought them,” he concluded hastily.
“No, Doctor, you shouldn’t have.” With a noisy exhale, she set the little one on her way. “Mummy and the Doctor need to have a chat. You can play in the water, but don’t go in too deep or I’ll call you straight back.”
“’Kay, Mummy.” The little miss turned on her lanky legs and trotted into the waves. River watched for tense seconds to make sure there’d be no immediate trouble. There wasn’t any; Little Song took to the water the way a fish would, or a mermaid. The Doctor began to wonder if that’s what they were.
“Are you part-Mermaid, River Song,” he asked as soon as she faced him again. Given her instant transformation from watchful mother to enraged conversationalist, he suspected the answer was no.
“Is it too late to retract that question, because I’d prefer to try another?” He tried it with a smile and was a bit miffed not to receive one in return. How rude.
“You’ve altered the timeline, Thete. This is no laughing matter.”
He was left momentarily speechless at her casual use of his old sobriquet. “How do you know that name?”
“How are you still asking that question? We’re back to front. I know far more than you possibly can about what’s to come. At least, I did until you went and changed it all.” She no longer sounded just angry, River Song sounded afraid. “I can’t even imagine what chain of events you’ve set into motion.”
“Perhaps it’ll be a better one.”
She snorted derisively, “It rarely ever is.”
“How do you know?” The only beings aware of deviant timelines were Time Lords, so far as the Doctor knew. Had he not heard her sing and seen her luminesce, he might have thought her only human. He knew better now. What he didn’t know was what she was.
“If you were here, you saw me. It’s too late to pretend ignorance.”
Hand raised, he vowed, “I rarely pretend.”
She fixed him with a long, searching look. He didn’t know what she sought in his eyes and, thus, he couldn’t give it to her. I’m sorry, he wanted to say, but the explanations for that were longer than time. Not a little disheartened, she dropped his gaze to study the sand.
“You change your name, Doctor. We become ours.” And he was utterly lost.
River turned to face the horizon, where the sun was finally rising high. Light that had previously only caressed, now blithely kissed their upturned faces. It cast the beach in breathtaking colours, the bioluminescence of sand unseen in the dark, sparking to life in response to its rays. The littlest Song danced and glittered along with the brightening day. Energy pulsed from her fingertips and eyes, swirled about her pirouetting toes. If he hadn’t known better – and he didn’t; he was discovering how truly little he knew well – he’d have said she was regenerating, being reborn before his very eyes. Impossible, he nearly thought, but he knew better than that.
“Is she always like this,” he asked her mother.
River smiled, mysterious and oddly sad, perhaps even more so than she’d ever been in his presence. “Only here.”
The Doctor looked curiously at the tranquil, but quite empty place. Water and sand, dirt hills and nothing, as far as the eye could see. “Where is here exactly?”
“Home,” she answered simply enough. Simply enough to be infuriating, that is. The TARDIS could tell him many things, but even Sexy could not tell him everything.
“There’s nothing here.”
“Come now, Doctor. Surely, you, of all people, can see the layers that time have stripped away.” She tossed him an unimpressed glance, tinged with affection nonetheless. “Isn’t that your specialty? Time and space, space and time-”
“—I watch you run,” he remarked out of turn. It wasn’t quite the same, the words jumbled in comparison to a memory far gone, yet the sentiment remained.
She said nothing to what must have seemed, to her, a non sequitur. River Song had an occasional gift in that, in knowing when not to speak. It wasn’t something he’d managed to appreciate before.
“This is the safest she’ll be her entire life. Long after I’m gone, she’ll have to live in fear of those who’d destroy her for simply being born. But not today, not here.”
The cool wind off the ocean blew loose curls into her eyes. She brushed them away absently, not seeming to mind that nature had no respect for the solace of the moment. But then, he thought, nothing really surprises her at all.
“‘The only water in the forest is the river.’”
She hummed quietly, her familiarity with the phrase readily apparent. “And the river runs for all time, so the forest never dies.”
“What exactly does that mean?” He’d turned the words over and over in his mind for weeks; but, all of the possibilities had been too grand, too enormous to speak. So, he hadn’t spoken them, not to anyone; not to the Ponds and not to the frustratingly silent, yet opinionated, TARDIS he called his soul kindred and home.
“In universal time, the Time Lords have been gone for thousands of years.” Another diversion, he noted immediately.
“I know, sweetie, but you’re only one man and the universe, the whole of space-time is much too big for even you to police alone.”
“So,” she exhaled, “the Song, my kind, intervened. Everything shall live and keep living for as long as a river runs through the universe.”
“A river,” he enquired. “As long as you’re there, all will be well?”
“As long as my kind exists, yes. ‘River’ is just a name and I’m just one of many.” She paused pensively and murmured, “Well, I used to be.”
“Your people are gone now, then?” That wasn’t something he’d ever wanted them to share, though he was less than absolutely certain of what all she meant.
“Nearly to the last,” she gestured toward the impish child playing in the surf. Young and so very timeless. He felt twin pangs in his hearts.
“I’d protect her with my life, you know.” He had nothing to go on other than River’s word and he was already certain of this. He wouldn’t see another end come about on his watch. It wasn’t time for the universe to shudder again. And it was a relief, he had to admit, not to bear the weight of Time alone.
“Oh, Doctor, I’ve always known that.”
The imp did an impressive cartwheel, turning toward them excitedly, “Mummy, did you see me?”
“Brilliant, sweetheart. You were absolutely brilliant!” The girl didn’t ask after him. Either she was afraid or she hadn’t a curious neuron in her delightfully alien brain. He’d be disappointed if either was the case. She skipped back to the saturated sand to begin building a sandcastle of her own.
The Doctor looked behind them to see that the Ponds had vanished the way they’d all come. He didn’t look especially hard; they shouldn’t have found any trouble on such an uninhabited world.
Shouldn’t have being the operative phrase.
He’d search for them again later.
But for now, “Look at you, River Song,” he declared in renewed wonder.
She allowed her gaze to flit back to him, inquiry in the twitch of her brow.
“You’re a mum and I didn’t bring you flowers. I haven’t even got any balloons!” Before she could protest, he drew her into his arms and kissed her soundly on the cheek. She laughed, a sound he was coming to cherish, and allowed him to ensnare her in a forest of limbs. She potently damp where he was patently dry, he adored the odd sort of intimacy that stole over their embrace.
“Theta Sigma, what ever am I going to do with you?” That name sent of an ancient ripple through him. She couldn’t know that he’d refuse her nothing so long as she called him that. He could refuse her so little as it was. A name so little spoken becomes a charm.
He pulled away and tapped her nose. “Tell me all your spoilers, then, run away with me.”
She poked playfully at his chest, “And what of the child?” The one who’d stopped her construction of what now appeared to be a facile replica of the Cruciform to watch the adults play. The Doctor brushed off the resemblance, knowing it was simply a residual yearning for things lost.
“She’ll come along, of course. Plenty of room for all of us, not that I have to tell you that.”
“No, you don’t,” she conceded, rubbing an appreciative hand down his chest. “You never hesitate to ask for the world, do you?”
He covered her hand with his lest it continue in a naughtier direction. “Is there someone who’ll miss the two of you?” He stroked his thumb across the range of her knuckles. “A father, perhaps, for her? A husband for you?” She was a woman of the 51st century; conventions tended to change over 3000 years.
Ignoring him, she leaned up to kiss his chin and began to give it a soft nuzzle. It was devilishly easy to turn his mouth to hers, and so he did just that. Not nearly as awkward as his first time, in his opinion. Releasing her hand, he curled his fingers around her hips. And what wonderful hips they are. Clad in only her swimming cozzy and sarong, River Song was a bit too tempting for comfort pressed right up against him. He parted their lips much sooner than he wanted for fear that things would go farther than they naturally should. As though they haven’t already.
“So, no Mr. Song, I take it?” He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t the least bit curious of Little Song’s origins, and her name, but her mother was offering no answers.
River tutted gently, “Spoilers, love.”
He groused, “Always with spoilers.” He rather disliked the idea that there was someone he would have to share her with.
She tapped his water wings, “And with good cause. Can’t have you leaping ahead into your future just to learn all the interesting bits. You have to earn it.” Her look was a chastising one and he was duly chastised.
“Right. No peeking.”
“No more peeking, no.” She reached up to brush his fringe from his eyes, her face marred by a wistful expression. “You have to leave, now. I’ve already told you too much.”
“Maybe you told me what I was meant to learn. Perhaps it was simply time.”
“Nothing’s ever been that easy for us.”
Patting his chest, she disagreed, “Empirical fact.” She moved away from him. “Go back to wherever you’ve come from. We’ll find one another at the proper time.”
“And I’ll meet her then,” he asked, nodding toward the child who’d surrendered all pretence of play. Something about her nagged at his attention. She was darling, but somewhat serious for one so young. She might have been four or five, if human development was an adequate scale for the Song. She hadn’t smiled at him once since he’d come down and he usually found children the easiest to sway.
“Don’t you have a schedule to keep?”
“I fly a time machine,” he reminded her, a touch haughtily. The best time machine there is. He’d have proudly straightened his tweed if he’d been wearing it. He missed his bowtie to be perfectly honest, and his fez. Fezzes are cool.
“How very nice for you, sweetie, but I do have a schedule to keep.” She bent down and began to gather her beach towel and picnic basket, collapsing her umbrella and packing it away. He was a bit put out that he wouldn’t get to bury her in the sand while she bathed in the sun. He rather thought she’d make a delightful sand mermaid.
“Do you have to go right away?”
“I’m afraid so.” She glanced at his expression and her face split into a delighted grin at his pronounced displeasure. “Oh, don’t pout. She brings you where you need to be, doesn’t she?”
“Most of the time.”
She still wore a fainter version of her victorious grin when she curled manicured fingers around the base of his neck once more to bring him down for a kiss. He kissed her back, a hint more chastely, but only just.
“If you’re staying, we’ll go. Enjoy my beach, Thete.” He blindly followed her lips as she turned away, deaf to her pleased laughter. Much too tempting, that woman. “Try not to destroy anything, hmm?”
He was still pondering what exactly there was to destroy when River called her daughter in. He had to admit it felt a jot tawdry snogging in front of another’s child. The girl appeared to be less impressed by his appearance than her mother and twice as disapproving. If I’m lucky her father has access to neither an Alpha Meson arsenal nor a vortex manipulator. I’ve grown rather fond of this body. Naturally, the Doctor devised, he’ll have access to both.
“Come along, sweetie. It’s time to go. We’ll meet with daddy later on.” The girl gave her creation one last pat before hopping onto her feet and trotting to her mother’s side. “Say goodbye to the Doctor.” She waved somewhat shyly at him, tucking her face into River’s hip. He couldn’t help noticing that she seemed to be somewhat tall for her estimated age. Smiling distractedly, he waved back.
River’s lingering smiled failed to escape his attention as well. He rarely surprised her and never so pleasantly. That he could please her and make it last—he was only too proud to try it again. So focused was he on her face at this point that he noted the sudden absence of her smile before the beginning of her frown. She’d been programming her vortex manipulator for her destination and, if he was reading her expression correctly, it wasn’t going according to plan.
“Something wrong?” Distracted, she continued to enter data, her frown growing deeper each time. His feet seemed to move of their own volition, carrying him to her side, never mind that she would have preferred him not to see when she was headed.
She tilted her wrist toward him. “It won’t work. If I’ve correctly input the coordinates—and I have, I’ve triple-checked—it should be charging to teleport, but it isn’t.” The Doctor took firm hold of her wrist, making absent note of the numbers she’d entered as he snagged his sonic from the band of his left water wing.
He shrugged self-consciously at her dubious look. “Never leave home without it.” He began to scan her manipulator with a click. Then, another. Once more, with contrivance. “Your manipulator is fine, but there is something else very wrong.”
“What do you mean? Doctor, it’s clearly not working.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” he murmured. “And neither is my sonic.” He shook it, tapped it on his open palm, frowned at it and shook it again. The green light flicked on and off in rapid, pointless succession before flickering off altogether.
“Doctor.” Her voice was hushed, tight, possibly even shaking. He hardly noticed so preoccupied was he with poking at his sonic. I’ll have to have give it a look-see in the TARDIS. Can’t have it failing out here. Someone could get hurt.
“Thete,” she hissed, grabbing him by the arm and pointing toward the sky. He was quite ready to give her a piece of his considerable mind when he absently followed the line of her arm—nice arm, firm, very inviting, really—to the clouds. More beyond them, actually. Faint in the bright green sky was what could naively be called a neat gathering of ships. He would have called it a fleet, though he preferred ‘armada’ or ‘flotilla,’ both far more adventurous, descriptive terms for what could only be bad news.
“River Song,” he said with a great deal more affection than he dared explain, “I believe that’s our cue to run.”
She smiled wonderfully, filled with courage and not a little excitement. “Sweetie, I thought you’d never ask.”
They must have made a ridiculous sight, sprinting pell-mell from dots on the stratosphere in bathing costumes and not much else. Little Song was pleasantly unexcitable and quick on her feet. Used to running, he presumed and discovered that fact left him considerably less baffled than it might have. They streaked up the crest of the protective dune and down the other side, coming close to trampling the Ponds as they canoodled on their blanket.
“Ponds! This is no time for connubial bliss; we’ve got company,” he shouted behind them en route to the TARDIS. “Drop everything and run for your lives!” He imagined they’d have taken him a lot more seriously if he hadn’t cackled with something like glee. Worst timing, I’ve got. The absolute worst. He laughed again.
Nevertheless, they managed to pile into the TARDIS doors in time to avoid a storm of hovering ships and scout parties teleporting down. This was beginning to feel nastily familiar and he doubted he was the only one to feel that way.
“We can’t even go on holiday without someone chasing us across paradise.” Amy Pond dusted herself off with her bare hands as all their beach paraphernalia had been abandoned for the sake of expediency.
The Doctor charged for the console to begin to enact their escape. He highly doubted their visitors were coming for tea and biscuits. The operation was an oft-rehearsed dance, no less exciting for the repetition, but completely unconscious. That might have explained why its complete failure came as a bit of a shock. The TARDIS wheezed, the lights dimmed, and the whole thing jolted them nearly off their feet. Not good.
“They’re blocking our entry into the vortex. They shouldn’t be able to do that.” He whacked a green knob with a handy mallet, sprung a spring here and another there, threw a lever and expected some kind of result. He got nothing of the sort. “Come on, girl. Now would be a great time to be leaving.” The TARDIS engine continually attempted to engage without success. “No, no, no. This cannot happen again. We’ve done this already; many, many ugly t-shirts present and accounted for.”
River came closer to the centre console, her fingers tangled with Little Song’s. “What’s happening?”
“She won’t fly. She can’t fly, to be more precise. She’s grounded and I haven’t the faintest idea how they’ve managed it.”
“So, you’re saying we can’t leave,” Rory asked, alarmed. He and Amelia shared a silent, married look of dread. The Doctor hated when they did that, nothing he did could quite compare.
“No, I’m saying we can’t leave yet. I can fix this.” He dropped to the deck and scooted underneath the console for a closer look, muttering to himself, “Probably.” He pulled down the bundle of wires that should have controlled formation of temporal conduits and began to examine each individual connection by hand. It was a hodge-podge of all sort of jury-rigged connections, but it had lasted him centuries. They did this. They’ve sabotaged my ship. Heads are definitely going to roll for that. Nobody touches Sexy but me—and maybe River, but primarily me. He worked furiously, able to sense the TARDIS apologizing all the while. He hated to feel her so helpless.
Everything’s fine, he soothed, I’ll fix this.
He twitched madly when suddenly he was joined in the cramped space by another body and another set of hands that moved as certainly. The scent of River’s salt-damp hair made him slightly dizzy, but he persevered. She was quiet, for which he was grateful, knowing what to hand him without his asking and moving about her own inspection with practiced ease. Their fingers brushed in passing, sending fits of awareness flitting in the rear of his thoughts.
“Who are you, River Song,” he asked without averting his eyes from his current task.
She pulled carefully at entwined wire with her pruned fingertips. “I’ve already told you who I am.”
“No, you’ve told me what, not who. Why have these people come for you?”
He felt her pause at his side, her shoulder tensing against his own. “Me? What makes you think they haven’t come for you?”
“This is your homeworld. They’d have no reason to expect I’d be here.”
“They’d have no reason to come here at all if they hadn’t had you to follow. My world is, for all intents and purposes, cloaked. Someone would have to know where to look to know where to land.”
He couldn’t think of anything more to say to that. The TARDIS scans hadn’t indicated any complex cloaking mechanism to speak of, which he supposed a useless reality if it turned out he was responsible for leading them here. It was a world that didn’t appear to contain much, but it was her home.
“I’m sorry,” he replied sincerely.
The Doctor was prevented from saying anything further by an abrupt concussion from outside. The TARDIS shook as it had before, But no sparks, he thought. No sparks is good. He and River slid out simultaneously, her taking up a defensive posture and his speculative. The girl and the Ponds had retreated down the stairs to peak over the landing. He couldn’t think of a better place for them.
The concussion repeated with a rough bang, nearly throwing the Doctor to the floor and pelting River into the controls. She scowled while muttering a distracted apology to the affronted TARDIS. Food for thought, but for another time.
He staggered to her side to see the situation outside via the external monitor. He didn’t like the looks of their captors: Judoon, Sontaran, at least one Dalek, and a number of life forms with which he was entirely unfamiliar.
“I’ve never encountered them before,” he gestured toward the startlingly delicate lilac beings beside the Sycorax. “Or them,” to the shimmering, slithering black organisms draped across the shoulders of Slitheen and Sontarans both. “But, yes, those.” So very tall, he recalled, and almost immediately forgot.
River hummed noncommittally, preoccupied with her weapon, which also seemed to labour under whatever had grounded his ship and voided his sonic.
“Do you recognize them?” he turned to her.
“Spoilers,” came and went with her as she turned her back to walk away. “We need to leave.”
“Thank you for that riveting observation, Doctor Song. That’s nothing I could have figured out on my own!” The obvious made him punchy; now was not the time!
“Touchy, are we,” she needled, dropping down to the stairs to take her daughter from Rory’s arms. “Deal with them, so that we can go. I have things to do today.”
“Of course you do. Nothing like being held captive to throw one’s schedule off-balance,” he growled with what may have been more than appropriate frustration. He couldn’t stand her cavalier attitude; it didn’t charm him in moments like this. It said that she knew more than he did and if there was anything the Doctor hated, it was being less than the most informed person in the room.
“Deal. With. Them.” Her words were plain, yet he keenly felt the depths of her seriousness. Hell to pay and all that. The Rivers he’d met in his past had been masters of concealing their fear; this one, this younger woman was not so gifted. He couldn’t stand that either.
His time travelling ship was rocked by another startling blow which the Doctor began to realize wasn’t an attack, rather an overt attempt to storm the castle. They’re attempting to penetrate the doors. Genghis Khan’s army had tried and failed. But Khan didn’t have the might of a dozen galactic empires at his wrist.
The Doctor grabbed frantically for a handhold as they battering intensified. He turned over plan after plan in his head, discomfited by the knowledge that with their failing tech, they were temporarily at the mercy of the greater number. His ship began to whine, to howl; it felt ready to peel off its hull to be free of what held it. His own flesh prickled in kind.
She has to stop trying to enter the vortex. They’re going to make her tear herself apart, he surmised, with the knowledge that he couldn’t let that happen. As long as the TARDIS remained intact, he had the upper hand. He intended to keep it. She’s also a bit crucial to the fabric of the universe, but let’s not think about that.
He pulled firmly on a lever and threw a switch. She shuddered at his command, but conceded, going quiet. Hastily exchanging his beachwear for his discarded slacks and tweed, he moved to the doors to meet their audience where they still waited, a poor re-enactment of Woodstock without any of the happy regrets. A gargantuan canon lay in the arms of men, soldiers, and androids, poised before his eyes. There was still steam pouring from its mouth.
Bullies were high on the list of things he couldn’t stand, along with cabbage. Nasty stuff, cabbage. Especially boiled.
The Doctor stood at the entryway, having sharply motioned for his companions to hide out of sight, and waited for his summons. He wasn’t one to invite himself to private events without express invitation, even if others saw fit to help themselves to his TARDIS. He really didn’t care for that sort of behaviour, if he’d failed to make that clear. They said nothing, so he took that as his cue to speak:
“Aliens and gentlebeings, what brings you to this lovely planet on such a lovely day?” He recognized the assortment of enemies from his nightmares, most from the annals of his personal history. He’d thought himself quite through with the lot, given that the majority had been wiped from existence last he saw. “The beach is delightful, I assure you, but there’s plenty of sand and water for all of us. No need to fight.”
“Give us the girl, Doctor, and we will release you unharmed,” spouted a decidedly belligerent Judoon.
He lifted his chin defiantly. “Girl, what girl do you mean?” The choices which came to mind were limited; the number of which he’d willingly surrender was nil.
“We know this planet and we know who it belongs to. Give us the girl and the time lock around the planet will be released.”
“Time lock, you say? You’ve time locked this planet?” They shouldn’t have been able to do that. “Well, that wasn’t very nice and neither are you.” He put a hand in one of his bottomless pockets and began to rock on the balls of his feet. Time locks reminded him of Gallifrey; he didn’t care for the reminder. “Here’s a proposition for you to consider: Release this planet, and my TARDIS, and live to see another day. Don’t and there’s a very good chance you will limp away at best—for the fourth time, is it? I’m afraid I can no longer keep count of the number of times I’ve sent your kind fleeing to your system reeking of defeat. Shall we make it five?”
“Give us the child.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then, we will take her.”
“No, I don’t think you’ll do that either.” He may not have had his trusty ship, nor his loyal sonic, but his intellect remained wonderfully intact. A Dalek ground forward, its chains sticking in pervasive sand. The Doctor did not retreat, despite a compulsion to do so. Rather, he stepped fully from his ship to face the phalanx that awaited him. Careful steps approached his position from the TARDIS; his companions had taken lessons in ignoring his instructions once again. Always with the Amy and the Rory and the River. He could have sighed.
“We will not allow the Time Song to gain dominion over time and space. We will not allow the abomination to prevail. We will not allow the Song of Time to rise again.”
The Doctor scowled darkly at his oft-defeated foe. “What in heaven’s name are you on about? ‘Time Song’? ‘Song of Time’? I haven’t a clue what any of it means.”
One of the inky, slithering beasts of leisure coiled itself tightly around a Sontaran head, obscuring the individual’s facial feature until it was a writhing mass of something unidentifiable though alive. He found himself shifting toward his companions at the sight of it, his gut impulse to shove them to safety only shy of overpowering.
Until suddenly the Sontaran spoke. Rather the voice of a Sontaran spoke in the tongue of another. The syllables writhed off jaggedly from its tongue, wiggling tackily into the Doctor’s head. They evidently had some variant of malignant psychic ability. The texture of the language left him retching, uncomprehending, on the ground. It insinuated itself like sludge, oozing over his consciousness. He even felt them sluicing under his nails.
Only the swift intervention three sets of hands saved him being scuttled by their mayhem. River’s sure hands braced on his arms, Nurse Rory’s at his wrist, and Pond’s on his shoulders. They kept him grounded, anchoring his sanity to the loose sand.
“What do you want,” River demanded in his stead. She visibly began to gag as it answered. Its abilities are affecting her as well. The Ponds fidgeted around him, also suffering.
“We want the Time Song.”
“No.” Her grip tightened, belying her calm, if nauseated, countenance. Incredibly strong, he gathered, stowing the data away for later contemplation.
“You will give us the child.”
“Then, we will take her.”
She snarled, “Not while I’m breathing.
“That is a condition which can be rectified.”
The Doctor sprung from under his companions’ care spryly, staggering a bit and swaggering to hide it. “Not while I’m breathing.” He waved a grandiose hand about and spun to take in the count. “You will not touch a hair on her head, or I will pursue you to the start of the next universe. It won’t be as enjoyable as I’m sure you’d like to think.”
“We did not ask your permission,” said the inky, black, slithering something-or-other. The Doctor felt his skin crawl once more but ignored it in favour or sending the creature a withering glare. He had no tolerance for psychic warfare, or warfare at all for that matter.
“You cannot have her. Now, leave.”
“You cannot stop us.”
“I can certainly try.”
“You will fail.”
A high-pitched whine began in the air above them and they weren’t ready. High and awful, it came screaming at that those on the ground with tangible weight. The Doctor could see in his mind’s eye the tidal waves that it would send rippling across the surface, ruthlessly draining rivers and expanding the ocean at will. Had there been more than their lives to lose, they might have devastated the planet, wiped out the population. Now, the only ones who stood to be lost were them.
But the sound was more than a hindrance or an obstacle, more than a bloody-minded good morning. It had a purpose, one that ruptured the Doctor’s hearts like the popping of cork. Previously sealed, safe, secure—as much as she could be, right here, right now, right ever—his TARDIS flew open, her intricate, masterful modesty maintained by the merest of bulkheads and interfaces. Alloys and synthetic Plasticine equivalents were mere membranes and could hardly be expected to hold up under the scalpel of intruders. Metaphors, metaphors, too many metaphors. His mind chose the oddest of moments to wander.
His wandering ceased once he recalled—thick, thick, I’m so unbearably thick—that they cared not at all for the ship, his box, his fantastic, barmy box, but the song hidden inside her. The whine became notes, became measures, became light, became awful and terrible and he couldn’t look away. Why not?
Then, there was her body, small and still damp, clinging to a beach towel her mum hadn’t packed. And she was howling fit to raise the dearly departed, fit to raise ghosts. River Song’s daughter screamed under the force of the beam. Her petite form twisted and contorted attempting to evade its reach. It was no use, the attempts were in vain. So, she screamed when nothing else would do.
River lunged for her as only a mother could while the Doctor, Amy, and Rory pulled her back as best they could while trying to guard their hearing. The noise hadn’t halted its anthem to carry out its mayhem. The beam was corrosive and, he’d wager, keyed to Little Song’s DNA. The field was tormenting the child it was meant for, there was little doubt that it would maim an intruder.
“Let me go,” River ordered, at first in Standard, and switching next with their continued defiance.
He’d wanted to see her rattled once, he remembered; he’d had no desire to see her heart break. The Doctor couldn’t reach her daughter, neither could he risk exposing his companions to their opponents’ retribution were he to erroneously make the attempt. They’d have to let her be taken, and then get her back.
River named him a disgrace to Rassilon’s legacy, a betrayer of his own blood, accused him of being ready to drown her planet, the way he had left Gallifrey to boil. These cutting words in the language of his forebears, yet he wouldn’t release her. He could have released her to charge to her death had he not already been present for it. He recited to himself patiently, Needs must, and held her fast.
When the girl fell still, suspended in her photon prison, River called out to her. The words were neither Standard nor Gallifreyan. Whatever they were, the TARDIS was either unable or unwilling to translate for him. Given time, he could have worked it out for himself, but time was something they dearly lacked and no one knew better than the child. Or her mother.
She begged. She peered at him with trusting eyes and begged for the entire universe to hear. She asked for the one thing he could not provide. More of their years would be squandered in apology than could ever be spent in love, and he resolved that this was where that path would begin.
He dragged her back into the TARDIS with Rory’s aid. She was piss and vinegar, however crude the comparison might have been. He was certain she would have torn him limb from limb if he wore their faces. He wasn’t yet convinced she wouldn’t do it anyway. Every breath of hers verged on a scream, but she kept them all in, roiling together into a hardened ball of bleak motive. He was coming to the clear understanding that the Song were more than arbiters of Time. They were a force that lived in secret but avenged on stage. He pitied the Alliance as much as he pitied himself.
Leaving River fuming in Rory and Amelia’s care, he went to the monitor to get a view of the grounds outside. The girl had vanished into their ranks to the score of a victorious cry. He stared in horror at his foes and, oh, what a gathering it was. I’ve done this very thing before, except it was me they’d come for.
“What are they going to do with her?” River asked.
He thought it terrible to say the words but worse to say nothing, and as it was, he could only guess. “I think they’re going to imprison her in the Pandorica.” It seemed unfitting that they could pull the same trick twice and, yet, perhaps that was the genius of it.
“The Pandorica’s a myth,” which told him more than it ought about where she stood in time. He sent the Ponds pointed looks to keep them from objecting as well. Wibbly-wobbly, time-wimey.
“No, River, it isn’t. And that’s where they’re going to put your daughter. What I don’t understand is why.”
Bound in a pained laugh, “Why not?”
He whirled to stare at her. She was in agony and rightfully so, but the pieces of this scenario weren’t quite adding up to his mind. He wandered to her side, close enough that she had to lean back to look at him.
“Why would they target a child Song when they could have a fully grown one instead? It begs the question why they should want to imprison one at all.”
In between blinks, her manic pessimism slid away; off of shoulders and down hips, unburdening the spine. She sat straighter and taller, the countenance and bearing of a soldier, not some benevolent lady of Time.
“Tell me, what exactly was the nature of the Song?” His mouth bent in growing understanding and not a little irritation. “If you’re an exemplar of your kind, I highly doubt you were all as harmless as you first led me to believe.”
She met his accusation, unfazed, “I didn’t lead you anywhere. What you heard, you wanted to hear and what you believed had nothing to do with me.”
“I bet you say that to all the nine hundred year-old Time Lords you meet,” he jibed with a flourish. There were civilizations to save and historic figures to meet. If River Song was convinced that she could mount a rescue without his help, he had no other recourse than to leave her to it. After all, they have what they want. He turned his back on her and meaningfully tucked away his sonic screwdriver as he approached his beloved console. “Keep your secrets, Doctor Song. I wish you well in the recovery of your daughter. She seems,” he smirked mirthlessly over his shoulder, “sweet.”
Her eyes flashed, he noted, almost literally as she rose to her feet. “You’re leaving? Just like that?”
“Without more information, I haven’t good enough cause to stay involved. You said it yourself, I’ve already corrupted this timeline. The best I can hope to do at this point is limit the damage.” The Ponds were still and silent and appalled. He had read the horror in their gaze before; he was not stranger to it and, yet, no friend.
“Now, you’re just being spiteful.”
“And you aren’t?” He leaned against console, where it was free of controls, to watch her watch him with such defiance. She blinked first.
“To you, she shouldn’t even exist yet. To me, she is already everything.”
“Why do they want her? Why did you consider it so important that no attention be drawn to her before now?” River flipped back her hair, a gesture he had interpreted as nervous during their previous encounters.
“The same reason I snuck her away from the hospital when she was only hours old. What’s greater and more terrible than a Time Lord, or even half a Time Lord?”
He took in her pale face, her complete devastation, and forced himself to cease focusing with such ardent intensity. The answer would come to him, not he to it. He allowed the words to fall through his mind: They could have come for me but focused on the girl. They could have come for River but dismissed her. What’s greater and more terrible than either of us? The answer came in a staggering flash of black and white. He’d known it from the first moment, but hadn’t dared to hope. What’s more fearsome than the either us?
Both of us. Both of us in one being, the might of the Time Lords and the mythical gifts of the Song encompassed in a child. Gifts he hardly understood, though that was neither here nor there.
He stepped toward her. “You call me Thete.”
She said nothing and allowed it.
“You know Gallifreyan.”
Nothing, still, but she began to back away.
“You sang our morning song. You sang it and she danced.” Old High Gallifreyan songs tended to overwhelm the senses of most non-Time Lord species. Never before had he seen anyone else dance to them. “You know my name, don’t you?” He knew she one day would.
Flinching, “Don’t ask me that.”
“Then, don’t ask me to endanger my life on your daughter’s behalf! I’m important, you know.”
“So is she!”
“Yet you won’t give voice to that reality and tell me how. She can’t mean much to the proper order of the universe if her own mother can’t define her purpose.”
“You’re a petty son of a bitch,” she scowled.
“And you’re a liar,” he returned, equally as furious. “I don’t like liars, River. You ought to know that. That girl is my daughter, will be my daughter. Don’t lie to me. I’m right, aren’t I? Aren’t I?”
At last, she conceded her defence, conceded the idiotic rules he’d someday bind her to, perhaps for the better, or not. She nodded and the Doctor found he could take the breath he’d forgotten, respiratory bypass notwithstanding.
“I’ll absolutely save her life.”
“Good.” She rubbed her hands together and nibbled unhappily at her lower lip. He could see the retaliatory storm brewing and could only brace himself for it. “You should have taken care,” she said, first thing.
“I didn’t know there was a need.” Wrong answer, he concluded quickly when she turned around to glare fiercely in his direction. He gulped, completely unconsciously. The Ponds retreated from them both.
“If you’d been more careful, it would have been obvious.” She paced desperately on hastily-booted feet. She’d had her usual adventure wear on hand when he found her at the beach. He wasn’t the only one who’d found her there. Nor her daughter. He’d been overcome and overawed at her existence. It had gone beyond love in the first five minutes and never come back. He’d always had the worst timing. “The Judoon have her, the Daleks as well. Your worst enemies have joined forces for some nefarious cause and they have her. My daughter, Doctor.”
“Our daughter.” It would take him some time to acclimate himself to that.
“You never wanted to be a father again,” she snapped with malice setting her eyes alight.
He balked, “I never thought I’d have the chance!” There was a great deal going unsaid here, he realized, but this wasn’t the time for that. He’d failed at earlier opportunities; he didn’t intend to repeat those same mistakes.
“Well, you won’t if we don’t find her. Neither will I.”
“I’ll find her.”
“And what’ll you do, then?”
“I don’t know,” he bit back.
“I’m bathed in confidence, honey. Really.” It was a statement intended to wound, and it did.
“My life for hers, I swear.”
River ceased pacing to close her eyes. “I don’t want that either.” She curled her arms around her middle, self-protective and shutting him out. “I want this to have never happened.” She paused. “Well, I suppose my wish is as good as granted. You’re a part of this timeline, now. Even if I never get her back and I never see you, my you, again, it won’t have mattered.” She turned to him with a wide, vicious smile. “I have nothing left to lose.”
If he never found his River, this would all never be. He couldn’t imagine a worse fate now. “Don’t think like that.”
“How else am I to think, Doctor, hmm? Nothing good can come of this—nothing good has!”
“We can change that. We will change that.”
“More of your promises,” she scoffed at him. “Save them.”
Unsure what domestic land mines he’d triggered, the Doctor retreated into silence. He wanted his daughter returned to him so that he could get to know her. He wanted his River— lover, wife, match, equal?— and child at once. This morning, a relative term at best, he’d had his companions for family. He’d have liked to consider this an improvement, if only it could have lasted.
“We’re going to follow them wherever they go.” He leapt up from his slouch to begin his navigational dance anew. “If they think we’re simply going to stop because they’ve won this round, they’ve never heard of either of us.” He spun to gaze at her expectantly. “Doctor Song, care to assist?”
She smiled, tight and tense, but went right along, gliding where he’d trot and dialling where he’d twist. Sexy had already taken it upon herself to chart their course as past-parallel to their quarry. They should arrive within seconds of Little Song and in a proximate area of space. Tough old Sexy, what would I do without you? He felt a hum that may have been the Gallifreyan equivalent of ‘die quickly often,’ but it lost something in the translation.
“How are we going to get her back, Doctor,” Amelia Pond inquired suddenly from his side. He hadn’t heard her approach, or noticed Rory edging worriedly in River’s direction. Sneaky Ponds. I knew I made the right decision bringing them along.
“Properly. We’re going to get her back properly.”
“And what do you call the proper way?”
He went to budge his tie only to remember he hadn’t replaced it, nor his shirt. In fact, he was all out of sorts, clothing-wise. He felt the need to put himself to rights before making any more plans. The mind’s clearer with a sharp bow-tie.
“Hold that thought, Pond. I’m not dressed for company.” Ably dodging her protestations, he escaped up the stairs into the winding corridors of his home, intent on the wardrobe. Maybe there’ll be a fez or two, he projected hopefully toward the walls. He received a long-suffering groan—which was as a good as a spoken affirmation.
This was what he needed, his full suit of armour, his silhouette and colours mended. They were to his sonic as a knight’s shield was to its sword: altogether mighty. There was even a chance, if he layered with care, that they might protect him when he told River that the only plan he had thus far concocted to retrieve their girl consisted of saying ‘please.’
His TARDIS whined. She accomplished highly improbable tasks as a matter of practice; she hadn’t managed impossible yet.
He supposed there was a first time for everything.
He tried to tell River that violence was not the only way to get her daughter back. She told him, very kindly, where he could shove his pacifism.
“Either come along or get out of my way. There is no in-between.”
Scowling at her dismissive attitude, he retreated to the level below to examine the TARDIS engine for damage from the time lock. She had a low tolerance for temporal anomalies; they gave her the TARDIS equivalent of an upset stomach, but they couldn’t have her burping now; too much was depending on her sound digestion.
“All right, girl, let’s have a look, then, shall we?” He whipped out his handy screwdriver and, happy that it was back in working order, set to re-calibrating just about everything. They had a bit of a wait until they reached their destination, he intended to see it filled nicely.
Things nipped and fixed and tightened; systems faster, lighter, smarter; this was his machine, his third heart and she would emerge victorious, TARDIS Victorious. He would see to it.
His fourth heart—in-training, in secret, in consideration—strode down the stairs, a rolling thunder. He tried not to falter at the sight of her, trim to necessity in Church fatigues, smile all but vicious. Vicious and cunning and terrifying, yet trying to hide it for his sake. I never learn to love that part of you. Or I never did. I didn’t before, but...
He attempted to suppress his imminent, eminent flush. The more he saw of her, the more he wanted the whole of her; brilliant, flirtatious, secretive, and, yes, vicious.
Coming to his side, she looked him over thoughtfully. He in his goggles, strapped into his swing, he felt a bit helpless under that inspection. She dragged a single nail along the line of his jaw, lacquered hard the colour of lightning. The effect was psychosomatic, he knew, but the shock that charged through him was telling, to him and of him. The kiss she poured onto his lips said more. Anger, love, please...
Against his skin, she murmured, clever River, “We’re almost there.”
And, guiltily, terribly selfishly, he almost wished that weren’t true.
They arrived the way they arrived anywhere and anywhen: in style.
He checked for cloaks this time, thoroughly checked, and he felt the TARDIS doing quick work of her own. She’d been made party to a travesty; she’d be sensitive for days or decades yet. He thought kindly to her, was positive that River had already begun from her steady, meditative contact with the wall. Her stance was armed and weaponized, yet she sought to give his ship, friend, and thief—for they had stolen each other quite mutually—peace.
She will be the death of me, he thought, and was no longer sure which heart he meant.
"We’re here,” he announced as the TARDIS spun to a steady stop.
Rory and Amy came to stand beside him and River at the monitor. “Where’s here?”
“A very brown, very not-boring planet by the name of Thalladia. It’s the academic equivalent of a tourist trap. Mount Thall, its most well-known landmark, is renowned for a series of tunnels allegedly constructed centuries before the development of tools by sentient life forms on the surface.”
“So there are non-surface dwellers here, then?” Rory asked, ever the studious one.
“There may have been at one point, but years of revolution, warfare, and commercial mining operations have decimated any semblance of a possible habitat below ground. They aren’t there anymore, no one is for the most part.”
River took over from there. “The planet is a constant state of legal flux with regard to ownership and dominion. Due in part to the regularity of coups that occur in this system, the planet is currently without a sitting government.”
“Which leave the people at the mercy of anyone with an interest, and the resources, to occupy the planet for the foreseeable future.”
“So, the bad guys have come here.” Amy frowned at River. “They brought your daughter here? Why?” At this, the Doctor exhaled slowly.
“I think the Pandorica is here.”
“Amy,” he interrupted quickly, “she can’t know about that yet.” He looked back to River, who was watching warily.
“It’s real, then?”
He licked his lips, quelling the impulse to flatten his lapels. “Yes.”
“I suppose that adventure will be one for the diary.” She tried to form a grin; he imagined it was as painful to execute as it was to observe.
His fingers found her shoulders, her safe, firm shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze. “You have no idea.”
“I will one day.”
He tapped her nose. “One day.” His first chance to threaten ‘spoilers,’ yet he hadn’t dared. It was a sour note to his discerning palate. He preferred the taste on her. “We’ll get her back, River.”
Her countenance was cool and unbothered, unfailing in its confidence. Her latent dread ran alive within the marrow of her bones; it sang as she did to marrow of his.
“We will,” she affirmed. “We have to.”
Because she was theirs, the Doctor thought. The girl who had looked to him as though he was a stranger had seen a stranger with her father’s face. No wonder she stayed away. She was half-Time Lord, all redemption. She was curly-haired hope, dazzling hope, just out of reach. Not for long.
They materialized on what were ostensibly the battle lines. The Doctor couldn’t think of a more fitting place to make a stand.
He spun to his companions, both adorned in expressions as suitable for warfare as for a rainy day. They aren’t soldiers. Well, Amelia’s no soldier and Rory’s wrought conquest enough. He couldn’t ask them to fight for him. More Children of Time turned conqueror in his name. Caan was right.
“Ponds, stay. River, dazzle me.” He was well aware that his lady fair had hatched a plan. Now, he wanted to see it.
“I thought you’d never ask.” She caught him by his braces and pulled him close to murmur strategy into his ear, her index fingers ambidextrously scripting field tactics on his chest. Were her eyes less than stultifyingly chill, he may have forgotten himself. Thankfully, she never forgot.
“They’re going to be very sorry they took our daughter, Doctor.” Our, it was the first time she’d said it; he tried not to feel unduly elated. “Their fear is going to start with you,” she caressed a button, “and end with me.”
Oddly enough, she was exactly where his fear began.
The Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS amid a sparse campground at the foot of the immense Mount Thall. There were gatherings of enemy species here and there, arranged as though they’d been waiting for him. Perhaps they had been. All the better to speak to them , he comforted himself.
“Leave here,” said an impossible, nay unlikely Nestene duplicate.
The Doctor pointed his sonic at his throat to project his voice on high. “No.” It rolled through the air like thunder. No one shuddered bar him.
“Leave here or face certain death.”
“The only thing certain about life is death. I am not afraid.” For my daughter, always, but never for me.
“Then prepare to die.”
The Doctor scoffed, “You are in no position to be making threats. You have made me very angry.” And her mother, angrier.
“We will not surrender the abomination.”
He thought of the girl with River’s eyes and laugh and he snarled, “How dare you!” With marked difficulty, he reined in his temper. “This is a child, one as worthy of life as any other. You will return her to me or you will suffer the consequences.”
“We will contain the abomination.” The meagre forces before him began to fill out; line by line they marched, whirred, and slithered out of the mountain deep. He felt no fear.
“She is not an abomination. She is a child and she is my daughter and, if you will not release her, you give me no choice but to retrieve her by force.” He had no army, but he had his wits. Considerable things, those.
“Any attempt to unleash the abomination will result in termination.” A Dalek. Isn’t it always?
“I’ve heard that one before,” he sneered nastily. “Try again!”
“The abomination will be contained.” Those Cybermen and J’slau arranged in a phalanx before him readied their arms. A lesser man might have quailed. Were the ransom any other than blood, he too would have demurred. But not this time.
He beamed at his enemies’ impressive show of force. He’d brought down greater movements with words alone. On this night, he had more than words to show his work.
“Why don’t you tell that to her mother?”
From where she’d idled out of sight, River stepped to his side, smiling. “Utwollez and Ixuinheef, pleasure to see you again.” Old adversaries, he supposed, nonplussed. “Maybe you’d like to step aside lest I do to you what I’ve done to your kin?” The Doctor knew better than to ask.
“We do not fear you, River of Song. We have your offspring,” declared one Judoon warrior.
River stretched her empty arms out to her sides. “You haven’t done your research, boys. You have my daughter, you should know to fear me all the more. I don’t respond favourably to blackmail.”
The Doctor piped up merrily, “I’d listen to her. She’s a convicted murderer.”
River peered at him, her eyes narrowed in curiosity. “I am?”
He swore silently and shrugged. “Spoilers.”
She turned back to their adversaries reluctantly, muttering, “Not the sort of career change I had in mind, but all right.” She returned to the subject at hand, “As the Doctor has so kindly noted, I am not to be trifled with. I will ask you again: return my child and walk away with your lives.”
“We will not.”
River smirked and replied with deceptive couth, “Very well.” Then, she crossed the fingers of one hand, as in a magic trick, until a small covered touchpad slipped into her palm. “Rest well, gentleman.” She singlehandedly flipped back the clear lid and pressed the bright red button inside.
The resulting explosion jarred the continent and gave the Doctor the inspiration for a very nasty headache. Covering his ears did little to assuage it.
There was probably a more diplomatic way to go about that.
In River’s defence, they went quickly, though it did turn out to be a bit of a mess, and they were covered with it.
Looking down at himself, he groused, “Brilliant, I’ll never get the stains out of this shirt.” And it’s my favourite shirt!
“Oh, hush.” His wife, the woman he supposed would someday be his wife, that is, grabbed him by his braces and hauled him toward the face of Mount Thall. Somewhere within, their daughter was being held and he didn’t believe for a second they’d be lucky enough to find her alone. He yet clung to the idea that they might still find her alive. If they didn’t, well...
Let the battle begin. Any other time he would have been somewhat shamefaced to admit he was looking forward to it. Not today. His enemies had made his future daughter a casualty of their war against them; they had to learn now the danger of such a mistake. If they failed to learn from him, he little doubted that River could teach them ably in his stead.
She was remarkable, River was. Clever and fierce and lovely besides, had their lives and that of their child not hung in the balance, he would have all too gladly sat in awe. Those teleported shape charges were a master stroke. Anyone would have called him arrogant for the thought, but this one, this River Song was worthy of him. A vengeful mistress for his Lonely God, he had always been waiting for her.
A lifetime ago, he had seen her burned to a cinder. Today, he watched her burn an army—and they hadn’t yet arrived at their proper battleground. It frightened him, and little did that, that she should be set upon an unsuspecting scourge. May she be their scourge instead. She was no ordinary creature. Fortunately, he wasn’t either. Weren’t they a pair?
As though reading his mind:
“Don’t build me up in your head, Doctor. I’ll only disappoint you. I’m insignificant, just another blip in the time stream.” He wondered if she truly believed that, how she could be this outstanding and truly believe that. The brightest of stars may never bask in their own light. Donna had been that way, and Sarah Jane. It was almost fitting that River Song should be the same. The Doctor had never much suffered a braggart. Well, other than himself.
“River Song, I find it hard to believe you could ever be ‘just’ anything.”
With a shake of her brilliant head, she chuckled drily. “Charmer.”
She ducked low to pass discreetly through the large arch which heralded their entrance into the subterranean tunnel system of the mountain. He kept pace with her easily, no more than a meter behind her at any time. Passages veered off in sharp right angles on either side of them, gaping in wait and ominous in their seemingly unoccupied state. The ceiling rose, vanishing infinitely above their heads; it ended where the mountain peaked. The sensitive hairs rose at the back of the Doctor’s neck and his eyes dilated in the creeping dark. This was entirely too silent a place for an army. The Doctor dared think he might have been afraid.
Before him, River’s weapon was held steady in the most white-knuckled of grips. He hadn’t seen her hands shake since they’d landed on Thalladia. In retrospect, he wasn’t completely certain he’d seen her take a breath. She was a one-woman armed force, her heart—was it hearts? He hadn’t thought to check—the war drum. She was armed and set on violence, yet all he wanted was for her breathe. There needn’t be anymore death today, not if I can prevent it. There needn’t be anymore fear.
He could only hope.
“The Song aren’t what I expected,” he mentioned off-hand. Though there was no one to follow them, he observed the passage behind them closely. He was glad he’d left the Ponds in the TARDIS; Rory might very well have found another way to die, which had becoming boring ages ago to his mind. Having to deal with a vat of dull and duller life and death in the middle of something that was sure to be fun would have made for an incredibly unhappy Time Lord. One might even call it ‘grumpy’—not that he would.
River’s Alpha Meson gun remained poised for the next shot as she led the way. “What were you expecting, temples and laurel wreaths? We’re neither Greek, nor Roman, Doctor.”
“Perish the thought,” he tutted indulgently. “You were greater than them.” It was only half-guesswork; the rest, intuition.
“Until you, many of us were.” Coming upon a new junction in the passage, she silenced him with a firm look. They swiftly rounded the corner and found it desolate as the grave. The Doctor wasn’t comforted by that. One never knew if all the inhabitants had simply evacuated or if they’d vanished. Given his luck, he knew better than to assume.
River carried on as though it was of no concern. “This isn’t a universe for gods and goddesses anymore. Emperors, dictators, and queens, perhaps, but the age of the goddess is through. We expanded our skill set accordingly and we became…more.” Generality disguises a multitude of sins. He was an expert on the matter.
“So, tell me, where did your kind come from?”
She smirked, all taunting obfuscation. “Legend has it that we took our first forms from an eternal song. Maybe you’ve heard of it.” She hummed a few bars that caused the Doctor to stagger off-course. She caught his wrist in a cool hand; they carried on.
“How can you know that song?”
“You ask that question a great deal for a man who’s supposed to know everything.”
“I’m not a man.” He hastened to clarify at her levied brow, “Not in the traditional sense. But that’s beside the point.” He released an unsteady breath, struggling to give voice to the curiosity which demanded recompense. “You can hear Ood Song? Can you understand it?”
“I was born listening to it. I wouldn’t say I understand completely, but I do know it and what it symbolizes.” She halted in the deserted passageway, seeming to hesitate a moment before she spun to face him. He’d only just recovered from nearly colliding with her backside and, thus, was unprepared to be quite literally stunned stationary by her uncertain expression. She doesn’t do this often.
“Is something wrong,” he inquired, peering this way and that in search of hostile infiltrators.
She waved off his query like so many buzzing insects. “I’ve never been able to say this when I thought it would matter, but I want to take this opportunity to tell how sorry I am. I’m sorry you lost your best mate and I’m sorry she lost you.” He glanced from one eye to the other; they never wavered. River Song was a whole host of conflicting characters in one bag of skin; she was even a liar. What she wasn’t, was lying now.
“Thank you.” It was all he could do not to think of Donna and her standing side by side: both imminently lost and unaware.
“My pleasure.” With a brisk nod, she executed a smart about-face and took up arms again. They weren’t far from the inner sanctum and the Doctor had no doubt that the mother-soldier was soon to usurp this woman who’d been kind enough console him for a loss that took place when her people were yet a bubble in the primordial goop. Nevertheless, he would remember her and be grateful that of all those at whose side he might have fought, he would be fighting at hers.
He raised his sonic and willingly followed in her wake. All doubts he might have had as to her veracity would be hushed, just for today. They continued on a ways, conquering a logical path in illogical fashion. My favourite way to travel.
The archaeologist appeared undaunted by the mountain’s labyrinthine innards while the Doctor would admit, only to himself, to being somewhat unsettled by the handmade emptiness that contained the Pandorica.
“Why are you the last,” he asked out of the blue, his formidable mind stumbling on the way to his redoubtable tongue. He couldn’t do with the silence in these halls. The shadows made him anxious; there was something lurking, creeping, watching but unseen. He cast his sonic about, finding the expected, undesired nothing at all. Surely, the Silence aren’t here as well. He couldn’t remember.
“Why are you asking?”
“Because everyone isn’t a Time Lord, nor has a Time Lord’s ending. What happened to the Song?” After all, what were spoilers in a timeline so thoroughly derailed?
Nevertheless, she answered with obvious reluctance. “You leave catastrophe even where you leave peace. Someone has to pay the price for that. Where there are no Time Lords, a Song will do.” The words were horrifically casual for the re-telling of a catastrophe. Systematic, voluntary genocide—and he’d been at it all the while. ‘Guilt’ wasn’t a grand enough idea for what grew inside him.
“Your kind died for me?”
River scoffed, “Don’t flatter yourself, Doctor. We’ve died for everything, but, yes, we’ve also died for you.” He remembered, then, her last smile. How very sad she’d been as she prepared to leave him behind, so wounded that this was the end, and how. She had lived her purpose to the last, had gone the way of the Song. He’d have liked to be with her then as he was now.
He grabbed her suddenly by her shoulders and turned her to face him. He met her expressive eyes squarely, wanting to leave no doubts as to his sincerity. “I want to say that I am going to love you very much, River Song, and I won’t regret that at all. You’re marvellous.”
Despite his effort, he knew immediately that he’d failed to reach her. Her disbelief was stronger than his promise. Between their kisses and his mistake, despite their kisses, she had ceased to believe.
“Spare me the needless platitudes. Others have died for worthier causes.” She drew away and continued down the dank corridor, giving him no indication that she had any reason to care.
“More than my own life, River.” He brought his sonic to his breast, dead centre between his hearts, though she wasn’t watching. A vow to himself, then.
“You’ve never been the biggest fan of your own life.” The beam of her torch was growing dimmer the further she got from him. He raced to catch-up, mind speeding along at a velocity light could hardly fathom. How to make her believe?
His sonic screwdriver held aloft in case of approaching danger, “More than existence.”
She hummed, eyes fixed on her handheld. “Don’t be melodramatic.”
“I never lie.”
River at him laughed outright. “Only when you breathe, sweetie; first rule.”
“You love me.”
She huffed, “Oh, shut up.”
He did, because he knew he was right. The pain and the bother, it would all be his. He could hardly wait.
Only he would long for train wreck.
When they came upon the entrance to the central chamber, the Doctor ended his cajoling attempt to convince River to travel with them. It had been partially a desire to distract her from her concern, and partially authentic. There was a learning curve to be overcome and he was eager to begin. Another time, then.
They fell back to the corner of the corridor to observe the forces that were assembled four-deep against them. If she thought the extent of their opposition odd, she didn’t mention it. There was much she didn’t mention, he was annoyed to recall.
There were a multitude of foot soldiers standing at their respective variations of attention directly within the entrance of the chamber. They were lightly armed but heavily muscled, most lacking in any discernible personality from what the Doctor could see. Species of pride, domination, and absolute war. He didn’t like them gathered against him, he hadn’t liked it before.
No matter now; I have to beat them, have to win. His daughter’s very life depended on it. He had to shake his frazzled head again at the thought. He had effectively killed his children, left his Susan to rot, and held his Jenny unto her death only hours after being born. He was no father of note, yet here he had a second chance. Or rather, an umpteenth chance to do it all right. He had hardly been ever been this afraid to fail.
“The Guardian has arrived,” spoke the slithering thing, rumbling them where they crouched. He sought River’s eyes, but she didn’t turn her attention from their opponents.
It said a word, then, that unaccountably raised the Doctor’s hackles. It was in the tongue from before, the one which could not or would not be translated. River hissed at its utterance, pain in her eyes and moral offense written in her very posture. That was not a word for all ears, anymore than his name was.
If his name was sacred and their people were in any way alike, he could imagine that such a thing might hold true for them as well. Her true name had been profaned by their casual use of it. The Doctor scowled. Not on, that. Not on in the least.
“Shall we, my love,” she asked, so bold, rising to stand. He kept his sonic poised, feeling underarmed for this battle though the spirit be willing.
“As you wish, wife. As you wish.” She didn’t deny it.
“You’re enjoying this entirely too much.”
He grinned like the madcap explorer he was and leapt into the fray beside her. “Never more than with you.”
“J’Slau Inhabiters, I should have known.” Her weapon hung at her side, her fingers danced on air; he could read the lines, the Xs and Ox; oh, the strategy. She’d have made a prize footie coach, he thought while he kept as many of collective in sight as possible. They hissed or snarled or did nothing to him. He was nothing to them. That they should pale before a child and disregard him said much as to why she should be feared.
“We have succeeded as no other.”
“You can never succeed so long as the river runs through the universe. The Song are eternal.”
“You bleed and die as any other.”
“We will always be here.” River’s voice dropped from its roaring confidence to a haughty, susurrus declaration. “Waiting for you and waiting to defeat you.”
“They will not rise again!” it hissed malevolently.
“We already have! You cannot stop us.”
Spinning, the Doctor stared between the parasite-bound Sontaran leader and River as they stood toe to boot in the centre of the chamber. He didn’t understand the politics of this stand-off, hadn’t understood the true purpose of the original abduction. There was too much about the future coming untwined with every word. Rule one, River lies as well as I do.
“You will never combine, never grow. Your numbers will always be three—three, three, four, three.” For a moment, roiling ink...thing sounded perplexed. Binary, binary, binary. The Doctor flinched. “Three?”
“Our numbers are more than you know.”
“Three, two, one; three, four,” he stuttered. “All dead.”
“No.” It was not a plea.
“You have failed.”
“No.” It was not an argument.
“She will die.”
“No.” It was a warning.
The Doctor threw himself bodily into a band of mercenaries approaching in River’s blind spot. He was not a fighter, he had no stomach for the sport, but he was an optimist and all was not yet lost.
River hoisted her blaster at her fellow conversationalist and calmly blew the head from his nearest cohort. The wound was so neat it seemed to need provocation to bleed. The inky beast shrieked; they all wailed in kind—what horror this?
She ordered him, steady as she went, “Leave here.”
“No,” it was not plaintive for he was not afraid. That made him all the more fearsome. “You are all that remains. You, I can destroy.” The Doctor saw now, if he’d had any need to doubt, this creature was the ringleader. He had set this course of events into motion, not the Doctor. The dominoes were falling in the Doctor's mind and he thought he might know where they led.
“I’d like to see you try,” came a voice that was at once all too human while half-lacking in the stuff humanity was made of. The Doctor chanced a look from his decidedly successful tussle with a number of Terileptil androids to see Rory the Roman sporting a Gladius and a familiar squareness blaster. The formerly Lone, currently Last, Centurion had come to render aid, completely contrary to the Doctor’s order to stay put.
The Doctor could have kissed him, anyway. Instead, he shouted, “Disable the Uvodni!”
The soldier needed no further prompting, lunging lightning-quick at the insectoid guardsmen with swinging blade and singing barrel. Amelia was at his side, impressively, if incredibly, wielding a 17th century Scottish broadsword at any and all comers. He knew she’d enjoyed their recent high seas adventure entirely too much.
Trusting the Ponds to safeguard one another, he returned his attention to his own circumstances. His River Song had vanished.
“River!” he shouted into the melee, ducking an unexpected laser beam and swaying past a tendril of most oppressing black. He wouldn’t fall for that again, he wouldn’t even listen. “River, where are you?” He sought out the enormous cube that sat in the centre of the cavern, guarded on all sides by his enemies. Enemies he had faced before and defeated, enemies he would defeat again for this mysterious woman and his someday child. “Out of my way!”
Some were cowards who cowered from him, others were misguided warriors in search of glory. Those who moved in either direction too slowly fell. The Doctor shoved their numbers in the ledger of his lifetime. It was all doused in red.
He shoved the cavalry and guardsmen with his bony shoulders and swept at vulnerable knees with a stolen blade. Apparently, it’s Swashbuckle Like a Pirate Day across time-space. Always the last to know, he tsked while separating a Slitheen from its overfed gut in mercenary fashion. I was finished with these braces anyway. Braces are cool, braces drenched in Slitheen insides are in no way cool.
River was singing when he found her. Inglorious notes made menace where her gun failed to affect; the Doctor’s blood sang back. Little Song was perilous fingers, knobby knees, and ragged nails on hardened skin. They were mad, they were his. Gods help anyone to harm them. Hmm, no, I don’t think I will.
He let his rhapsodizing lead him astray. A fist the size of his head knocked him one and down he went for the count. Six-winged birds neighed. Neighed instead of chirped, you see, because they neigh on Pesta Cilleen, and the cows don’t moo as they aren’t indigenous, but the Cilleenese sandworms do a passable bull bray. Well, the Doctor was impressed and—Is this, was it, will this be important daydreaming, thief?
The Doctor’s brain coalesced out of the sauce it had been mashed into. What, what, what? No, who? Who? TARDIS, Sexy thing, is that you? No answer. He writhed in the dust, ignored by any and all. Sexy, a little help. He worked over on to his stomach, his vision lurching. She wouldn’t be coming, perhaps couldn’t come; there was always a reason for that. Didn’t mean he had to like it.
He cast about the fray for their adversary and saw him straight away. He, or rather the body the bloody bugger had infested, had his River by the throat. She was well above the ground and strangling by inches, gasping.
The Doctor scrabbled for his broadsword and his equilibrium.
She was struggling in the monster’s hands. He held her throat so she couldn’t sing.
The Doctor charged.
He whacked through the possessed Judoon’s threatening arm in a ruthless arc. River landed on all fours and skittered hence from reach. Well, his reach, for the personal guard of the ringleader snatched her fast, and the child who had come to her aid. My mad woman, my mad girl. They both bared their great white teeth.
The J’Slau hissed. The Doctor wondered who would be the first to loose a note. The slim, sharp blade pressed under River’s tender jaw assured she would not be the one.
“You will thank us someday, Doctor, for sparing you grief.”
“I don’t think I will.”
“The Guardians, the usurpers, don’t you wish they would simply disappear?”
“No, I think I like them right where they are.” It was a gamble, a guess. The Song were guardians of something or other; of Time, most certainly, of other things, perhaps. His hearts, undoubtedly.
“Then, you make yourself our enemy.”
“Imagine my surprise.” The Doctor had his enemies, leagues and leagues for a start. What was another coalition out for his destruction? There was room. “Now, unhand my wife and child before I forget my better nature.” These epithets came easier now, for he had begun to feel it: the Songs were his to love and safeguard. He would.
“You have no better nature. It is your nature that has brought us here and your nature we seek to end.”
The Doctor keyed up his sonic and flipped his bleak sword. “Coming after my family, you’ve got a funny idea of what’ll to disarm me.”
“We need not disarm you, Doctor. Only the future.”
That, that stopped him cold.
“What’s that mean? What are you saying?”
The serpentine abomination that it was let out a creak of what it may have thought laughter, “The end is already beginning.”
Behind him, the Doctor overheard the wettest of hissing slides alongside the thud of a body meeting the cavern floor. He didn’t turn, mind racing, travailing timelines wound about his consciousness like luminescent vines. Where do we go, where does this end?
“I am the warrior,” said his beloved wife, “I am the warrior, the scholar, and the sacrifice. You will never win.” A sudden rumble shook the mountain; a thousand small explosions that had downed the waiting army were set to drown the living fairy tale in rubble.
As the grand cavern containing the Pandorica began to collapse in their wake and bring the mountain with it, the Doctor heard the slurring J’Slau’s final crow: “We have already emerged victorious, and we shall again.”
“Run!” He was not sure who shouted. Not that it mattered, because they all listened.
Fleeing the great rock fall was taking up the banner against Mother Nature. She was not pleased. Plumes of dust gave chase and murderers or the would-be types ran in step. The Doctor had not meant to take their lives; Rory was not so contrite. The first one to grab at Amelia’s wrist did not blink again.
Little Song heaved and panted, unseen injuries exacerbating such a steady heart—hearts? He didn’t know. River would have swooped her off the ground had not a looming being howled at her out of sight. She whirled to dispatch it—no, no, not them. Not now. Beams of lightning arced to fill the brown sky. Somewhere in the distance, the natives screamed in terror. I’m sorry. The Doctor never wanted for an apology to tender.
The Silent, the apparent lone survivor was not long for Thalladia.
Rory swept Little Song up, not a stride lost, Amelia rushing to the foreground with torch tied to sword to light their grimy path. River and the Doctor took up the hind end, marching unsteadily and straining to see. There were bodies to stumble over, the work of only hours ago. Minutes? He had never struggled so thoroughly to be sure. River had finally outdone him in mystery.
“How is it that you’ve become an even greater mystery now that I know who you are?”
“How is it that you’ve become an even greater disappointment,” she spit and he reared back in alarm.
She’d gotten angrier with him with every moment that passed. The fight had been horrific and those moments where the two of them had been out of his sight were worse. She was bleeding her from her nose, bruising was developing at her throat and she might have been limping if she’d been willing to show him any kind of weakness. Their girl was in Rory’s arms, silent and unrecognizable. He carried his borrowed weapon in one hand while the other was occupied keeping her secure. He was a natural father. The Doctor was uncharacteristically overcome with envy. He had never found that ease.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“What’s the matter with me? I don’t know if it’s escaped your attention, but we’ve just escaped a collapsing mountain!” They were trekking the battleground back to the TARDIS; she could be seen, bluest of blue, amid the smoking brown. This was a most literal kind of dead zone.
“It wouldn’t have collapsed at all if somebody hadn’t seen fit to blow it up with us inside.” He couldn’t bear her tone. He got right in her face; she got right in his. The Ponds kept walking, talking, singing even to hush them up for the little one. That’s what she deserves, not this.
“I took a risk to save her,” River pointed at their daughter’s streaky hair fluttering up over Rory’s shoulder. “Because if she’d been killed, survival would have been the last thing on my mind.”
The Doctor was struck with competing emotions: dread and duty. “You can’t just do that, River.”
She squared her stance for a fight. “I can do whatever I like.”
He thought of this newborn universe and the Library and 4,023 lives, 4,022 that mattered. “You know there are Fixed Points—”
“Stuff your fixed points. I could have lost my daughter.”
He growled. “Not this again. She’s my daughter, too. Haven’t I proved that just now,” he retorted hotly. “How many people died to ensure her life?”
“Exactly as many as required.” Her eyes were bright as stones and deadly sincere. Vicious hadn’t been the killing; it had been her utter lack of regret. No, I don’t like vicious at all. He’d rather not have known.
“She isn’t worth—”
“She is worth anything. Don’t you tell me she isn’t.”
“Then, why won’t you say her name? Why won’t you tell me her name? I’m her father!” He was close to tearing out his hair by now. River continued to resist him at every turn and she wouldn’t tell him why, as though he couldn’t guess. I did this. I will do this. I am a bastard who should be thrown into the heart of a sun.
“There’s power in a name,” she shouted in return. “You know that and I’ll not give you that power again. You don’t know what to do with it when it isn’t your life. You’re reckless.”
“That’s rich coming from you.” He had kissed her, she had kissed him; hadn’t that made them friends?
“I’m her mother, I’m the only one it’ll be coming from!” She stalked away from him, pistol gripped twitchily in hand. He thought grace must have been all that prevented her from wielding it at him. They were coming to the TARDIS, where Amelia was waiting alone outside, a worried expression fixed on her sooty face.
“Why did this happen, River? What the hell was all this?”
“This? This was you, every bit of it, all you.”
“I don’t understand.” He’d since discarded his distaste at how often he’d repeated this phrase of late.
“They were afraid we’d bring Gallifrey to life again. They were afraid that once more the Time Lords would reign supreme. Mortal fear can make villains out of the best of men, and they got all that from you.” Her volley landed as it was meant; he flinched away, back toward their daughter, back toward to the safety of Amelia’s hand on his wrist. She may not have understood any better than he did, but she recognized the danger, physical and emotional, which River posed. He was grateful.
“They’re terrified of us. Between the power of the Song and the intellect of the Time Lords, they live in fear of what will happen if there are more of us.”
“Should they be afraid, River?”
She held his gaze. “You tell me.”
The ever-gregarious Doctor found himself gulping without a word to say.
The littlest Song sat snug in her mother’s arms the throughout trip from Thalladia into the vortex. The entire time, River Song never said a word to the Doctor, never said a word to any of them. He didn’t know where she wanted to go next; he only knew that she had no intention of staying. This was not the woman who happily invaded his space and ensnared his senses. This was River Song: mother, scholar, warrior, and she was ever so cross with him. He hadn’t the slightest clue as to why. We’ve saved her. Isn’t that enough?
There wasn’t a moment when she wasn’t scowling into the distance. It was such that they’d been drifting for hours before he realized she’d been crying. Her normally vivid eyes were red and the hold she had on her child was desperate. As though she’s afraid our girl will slip away. She positively resonated her fear, all mixed in with suppressed rage that wasn’t so suppressed at all.
The Doctor nearly evacuated his skin with a start. So focused had he been on River he hadn’t noticed Rory’s careful approach. River’s jaw clenched in time with her grasp on the girl.
“Rory.” An acknowledgment and no more. Not exactly inviting, the Doctor noted, wary on the other man’s behalf. Beware, you’re not plastic anymore, Nose. And quite destructible, he recalled unhappily.
The former Centurion rubbed at his neck in nervous fashion, but stood his ground. That didn’t mean he wasn’t terrified. “I-I noticed that you have some bruising…and the girl. The both of you seem a bit worse for wear and I was-I was wondering if you wanted me to have a look.” The words were out and he looked relieved to have made it that far. Bravo, Rory the Roman.
It was a kind gesture, no doubt. Or so the Doctor thought at any rate. River, for her part, slid her distant gaze across the interior of the console room, passing it directly across the Doctor’s face without pause, until it came to rest right above Rory William’s distinctive nose.
There was a vague hesitance in her glance before she blinked it away, a brisk, “We’ll be fine” spilling from her lips. The easy lie, River, he tutted, always with the easy lie. Still, he was wise enough to heed her rage and keep his place across the room. He was in no hurry feel her fury as a sonic blast to his chest. He only had so many regenerations left.
And Rory has none, despite what experience would seem to indicate. If anyone thought he didn’t feel a little bit guilty about that they simply weren’t watching closely enough.
“She’s not breathing properly,” Rory tried again in that low, comforting voice he occasionally employed to appeal to those weak and afraid. Half right, then. His hands raised in front of him in a gesture of complete surrender to show he was no threat in the least. The Doctor didn’t doubt that he was terrified, but he knew Rory wouldn’t show it now, not when it mattered.
Swinging his eyes between River’s sudden, clear and present fear, and Rory’s gentle competence, he knew things could only get better from here. Finally better.
Rory came down to his knees at her side, seeming to silently implore her to trust him. It was a look that the Doctor didn’t doubt had soothed many a prospective enemy in his nonexistent 2,000 years. It soothed even River. She incrementally loosened her clutch, her eyes never straying from Rory’s own, her suffering appearing to increase with every bit she let go. Her fingers creaked loudly in the deathly silent TARDIS and she closed her eyes against it as though she couldn’t bear another moment. Neither could the Doctor.
Amy Pond’s husband, who had faced all manner of mayhem and peril, grasped River Song’s hand as though it was no danger at all and gave it a squeeze. Then, he gently tugged Little Song out from her tight cuddle in order to check her vital signs. The girl did little more than sigh and whimper, one tiny hand going to her stomach while the other went to her mouth. Her face was bruised the colour of a curse, same as her mother’s throat and limbs. It didn’t take a doctor to know that they’d barely survived, it didn’t take a nurse.
“I’m going to check her for internal bleeding. I’ll try not to wake her,” Rory informed softly, discreetly lifting the tunic shirt the girl wore that had been a most auspicious blue once, he thought, but that was dark with dirt and other disheartening things now. River said nothing, merely nodded with more trust than she’d openly shown the Doctor himself since they’d met on the beach. This was not merely her life she was entrusting to Rory Williams-Pond, this was her child. And isn’t that a so much more precious thing? The Doctor had lost that before he’d had it for long.
The nurse carefully palpated the girl’s abdomen, wearing a look of intense concentration. No insecurity now, not this Rory. Little Song hissed herself awake, small body instinctively retreating to the safety of her mother’s embrace to escape an unpleasant prod. She very nearly began to cry and would have, were it not for Rory’s funny face and a dozen of her mother’s affectionate kisses. She was scared, the Doctor read in her dull eyes, but she was Song and she would not show fear.
Too brave, he thought, and wondered where had gone the rampant imp who’d danced with the tide. Had he sent her away with his untimely intervention? He had rewritten the story of his life with River Song already, had he also rewritten Little Song’s existence? To do so much damage, and not even know her name.
Rory carried on his tender examination, checking limbs for aches and broken bones, taking stock of reflex action and nodding. As far as the Doctor was concerned, Rory would have made a tiptop physician. He hoped he’d have that chance someday, outside of cruel half-dreams.
“You’re very brave, sweetheart. I know you hurt all over and can’t wait to have lie-down, but I need to check a couple more things, all right?” He was cradling her hand in his and looking directly into her eyes. It was quite possible there was no one else in his universe right then. A tall order with Amelia Pond in the room.
The smallest companion the TARDIS had ever known gave a resolute nod, her mouth pursed into the tiniest of grownup pouts. She wasn’t just a child, but a girl with a much bigger destiny than she should have had to wear on her back. Somehow, I did this, the Doctor was certain of it. I damned her to this when she shouldn’t be damned.
Rory turned to him slowly. “Doctor, I need something I can check her breathing with. A stethoscope would be ideal, but in the absence of that, something that can do a like job. I’ll also need a scanner. I need to do a more thorough check for internal haemorrhaging to ensure that there aren’t any slow bleeds that may surprise us later on. Can you help me?” It may have been the lengthiest statement Rory had ever made to him that didn’t end in an unfriendly punch.
“Absolutely,” he leapt up. “Rory the Roman, I am at your service. And yours, Songs.” He bowed solicitously before starting a systematic search of the surrounding area. A scanner was rather easy; he had loads of scanners, scores of them. Some scanned planets, some dogs, and other daisies; but, he had dozens that could scan humans. Which presented a bit of a problem with regard to the present: he wasn’t sure he had a single instrument that could reliably scan a Time Lord-Song hybrid. Not exactly a booming market for those. Or for Time Lords.
He was not going to think about that.
“At least a stethoscope, then,” he charged himself. He could be that useful, he hoped. Nervous seconds of searching became nervous minutes and he very nearly shouted at the discreet clearing of Rory’s throat. “Just a minute. Sure I saw one around here somewhere.”
“Perhaps in the med bay, Doctor.” It was River, the first thing she’d deigned to address to him since their less than faultless rescue mission to Thalladia. He thought it might have almost been better if she’d said nothing.
“Yes. Quite right, the medical bay. Perhaps it’s best we relocate there, hmm? Come along, Songs. Ponds and Songs,” he amended, sing-song. He dared not turn back to see her face, began leading the way immediately and hoping they had the sense of direction to keep up. He couldn’t face her disappointment again so soon, her blatant disdain. Where had gone the River Song who adored him boundlessly? He was starting to yearn for her unbridled, if stultifying, affection.
He arrived via a circuitous path, ahead of the others by a nerve-wracking quarter-hour. Rory was already listening to the little one’s chest with a stethoscope he’d found somewhere unnamed when they came in, lumped together in an intimate triad. How he’d been left out and the Ponds let in, he couldn’t understand.
“We need to clean her up,” the nurse directed while River settled the girl on the examination table.
“I’ll get some warm water,” Amelia piped up quickly, breaking off to fill newly-present surgical bowl from a newly-appeared tap. Thank you, old girl, for making this easier on all of us.
“I’ll need some sterile gauze as well for her forehead.” River volunteered wordlessly, going straight for the cupboard behind the Doctor’s head. Quite certain he’d become a casualty if he remained in place, he stepped aside. Not a word passed between them.
Amy and she arrived simultaneously at Little Song’s side, easily readjusting when they nearly collided. The Ponds populated one side of cot while River took the other. Both women held the little girl’s hands as Rory cleansed her face of grime and blood. The dried tears went unacknowledged, though felt by all. Under the mess, she was an entirely new girl.
The Doctor felt compelled to draw closer to see. Murky hair that had been rose-golden in the sun, peach cheeks and River’s mouth. All the skies of all the worlds he’d ever seen paled in comparison to her eyes. The brightest blue and green, an indistinct amalgamation of the two; entirely River’s like in that. This was a face he knew.
He knew it too well. He’d seen it before. In a dark warehouse years and galaxies from where and when they all stood, the littlest Song would reach out to them for help and become a target instead. It was difficult to determine whether Amy had made the connection, but she held on doggedly regardless, smiling tremulously.
She was brave, his Amelia Pond, and carried with her a heart that could shelter galaxies of life. If she recognized the girl, she would not say, yet neither would she forget. That knowledge of what she’d done would sit there, untouched, until there was time enough for regrets. He didn’t know when that time would come.
This isn’t over, he was forced to admit. Somehow, his daughter was going to fall into the hands of the Silence. Somehow, she already had. The event was a mortal lock, sewn irreversibly into his personal timeline. It had to happen, but the very idea of her being stolen again tore at him. She was so afraid. The father in him didn’t want to see that happen; the Time Lord that he was irrespective of the parent had already stepped aside to allow the events to play out. My burden to bear.
When both of their wounds had been seen to, River perched on the cot at the girl’s side. She combed her fingers through her daughter’s hair until she teetered on the cusp of peaceful sleep. Then, she sent a dagger through his hearts, because she began to sing. Worse than the greeting song, this healing song was. The individual notes were stories, each with its own legend and name. In this anthem, she resurrected precious, ancient souls. He could have lain his head down at her feet to listen forevermore.
Some of the words were in his native tongue and others were sounds he was sure he must have known in a former life, would someday recognize with joy once more. A hybrid of Gallifreyan and Song, a soothing metonymic symbol of a broken child.
“R-r…” He couldn’t say her name, he wanted so very much to say it, but the word dammed up at his throat. Gallifrey shining flickered in his mind and faded. For a moment, it was almost whole, whole and grand and home as he recalled from his childhood. The moments were all that remained. For the chance to dwell within it once more, he fell quiet and listened.
She crooned onward, filling the chilly room to warmth that settled his soul. This woman who could break his heart. This woman who was good and bad and precious. She was meant to be with him, to know his name and fight his battles at his side. He couldn't fathom that there was a time he hadn't adored her.
Little Song was still though not asleep. Her breathing remained laboured if eased by Rory's careful bandaging and the application of the TARDIS's store of nanogenes. Her eyes were slitted, peering up at them from her sandy lashes. How do you see the world, little one? Is it is gold and red? Do you see Time twined about your hands? He had so many questions and so little time.
“What’s your name, Little Song? What shall I call you?”
River’s hand shot up in objection, her song forgotten. “I’ve already told you: nothing. You’ll call her nothing.” She was still visibly fuming. The girl tensed beside her; River relaxed her combative stance in response, going lax where she'd been poised.
“River, you’re angry, I understand that.” He didn’t, actually, but that seemed like the thing to say.
“Do you? Do you really?” She stood up and away from the cot, sidling like a predator toward him. He wished he'd had the TARDIS disarm her. The violence her tone threatened was far from idle.
He held his hands before him in what he hoped was a placating and in no way condescending fashion. “It’s perfectly logical for you to want to take it out on me.”
“‘Take it out on you’? As though you aren’t to blame, is that what you’re saying?” Little Song was clutching her blanket, golden tears leaking out of her eyes. She hiccupped regeneration energy. He fell that much more in love.
“I suppose it is, yes.”
River didn’t blink, merely indicated the door with the tilt of her head. “You should leave now.”
“I haven’t examined the girl yet.”
“‘The girl,’” she snapped, “will be just fine, I’ll see to that. You, however, won’t be if you don’t leave here right this instant.”
“You have no right-”
“Only every right!”
The TARDIS walls flared around them, an unexpected din spearing his already aching temples. River grabbed her head as he did. The girl, his girl, their girl did nothing of the sort. She merely watched. That told him clearly that his ship hadn’t targeted her, as she wasn’t part of the problem. If anything, she was the one the old girl sought to protect.
“Perhaps we should take this discussion elsewhere.”
“Perhaps we should,” she grudgingly agreed.
Before either could take a step toward the door, River’s eyes rolled back into her head and she fainted dead on the floor.
It was safe to say he hadn’t been expecting that.
He thought rest would have curbed her anger. He learned better quickly.
“You really are angry with me.” He sounded puzzled, because he was.
“In a word: yes. I asked you to do one thing, Thete. Only one.” River stood beside the controls with fisted hands on her hips. They seemed to itch for her gun, the one she’d relinquished at some point he was sure she didn’t recall. She’d been falling unconscious, then, too exhausted to act as safeguard for her slumbering child for another moment and he’d relieved her of it and her other weapons while she recovered. He’d come to believe that dying quietly while others watched was a Song trait. He didn’t care for it.
He tossed his hands up in aggravation, ignoring his niggling confusion. She’d been on like this hours, protracted silence and half-spoken accusation taking turns to drive him mad. He’d naively hoped they were beyond this. “There you go again! River, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know about our daughter. I don’t even know where I picked the two of you up from. I am completely in the dark as to any promises I’ve made – will make to you. They haven’t happened for me yet! You, of all people, should understand.”
She smiled at him like something beautiful and cracked, cracked wide open. He had done this and he didn’t know why. He could have railed at his future self, positively railed. You were supposed to give her everything and you settled for this?
“I have always understood, Doctor. I know our limitations, the limitations of you and me. I’ve known them since the day I discovered I was going to be a mother. I’ve known them since I accepted that we were never going to be ordinary or linear, or anything nearly so ‘boring’ as that. When I couldn’t run with you, I lost you, and that was fine.”
He objected, hearts vying for room in his throat, “River-”
“No, my love-” It slipped, he saw it slip on her tongue; her heart, that is. It was so much more honest than she. “No,” she finished firmly, casting him a look so that he understood what she was referring to. He did, it cut unexpectedly deep for something that had never been, would never be. “I accepted that we were through. I didn’t expect you to become my man about the house. You would never have been happy that way and I have always wanted you happy, my Doctor.”
She wouldn’t cry though her eyes showed tears. She was Song and she wouldn’t show fear, neither would she show sorrow. He saw all that she wouldn’t show.
“Please…” He couldn’t think of words to follow that, to spell out the misplaced grief that was filling him up to the brim. It was so much sadder and more complicated than ‘alive.’ It was ‘goodbye.’
“All I asked was that you come for her should she need you. I didn’t expect birthdays or first steps or first words with you. I didn’t expect her graduation from secondary school or even university. Just that you save her life when it needed saving.”
“She’s alive,” he interjected, desperate. Why was he so desperate? So desperate to re-tie the tethers he felt coming undone? Time and space, him and River; there was something more for them to do, but not if they came apart before they ever were. “She’s alive and you’re alive and you’re both here. Everybody lives again and everybody’s safe—together.”
He was at a loss, the sense of imminent heartache bearing down with such speed the TARDIS would have struggled to gauge its time of arrival. I don’t know her, I’ve never known her, but I’ve loved her since she danced beneath the Sungian sun. My daughter.
“I didn’t mean it,” he whispered for her ears only. “I didn’t mean to break it all.”
Sighing, she whispered in return, “It’s never what you mean, Doctor, and yet you do it all the time.” She came to him and cradled his face in her remarkable hands. “Did you ever stop to think that the ‘feeling’ you had was more than feeling?”
“Someone sent you to disrupt the timeline. It wasn’t random happenstance.”
“And I fell into their trap.”
She touched her forehead to his. “Directly.”
“I’m so very sorry, River.”
“You always are.”
He’d known from the start that they would be tragic. What he hadn’t known was that they would be this.
“You said the Song were our successors, but that’s not completely true, is it?”
“Nothing is completely true, Doctor.”
“Then, tell me the almost-truth. Don’t we owe each other that?” It was a risky undertaking to imply some debt between them, but life was nothing without its risks. “Tell me about your people, about your world, about why they hate us.”
She moved nearer to the low-slung sofa to gather her thoughts.
“The J’Slau was right. We are the Guardian Race. Guardian of the Time Lords’ Legacy and, when they fell, Guardians of Time in our own right.”
“But we fell, too.” River rubbed her hands on her thighs, bare in the sleepwear the TARDIS had provided for her. He would not have been distracted, save for all of the ways it was inevitable. “The sands of my world are all that’s left of our civilization. Our forests, our monoliths, all reduced to dust and ash. All because they thought we were the last of the Time Lords.” She laid a hand upon her chest, light over the bruises that had already begun to fade away.
How many hearts, he still wondered.
“It was a logical conclusion and they weren’t entirely wrong,” she continued, unmoved by his pelting contemplations, though he knew she sensed them. “My ancestors lived on Gallifrey in the years prior to the laying of Pythia’s Curse, but they were unhappy with the way society was developing under the influence Rassilon, Omega, and the others.” She smiled, wistful. “Your goals were never our goals.”
Unashamedly eager, he drew close to her, again. She subtly withdrew. “What did you do, then?”
“We left. Built a society of our own with our ends in mind: scholarship, discovery, and a respectful appreciation for the earth and stars.”
“You called yourself a warrior. You wield a weapon like one, strategize as a general might, and fight like it’s your life at stake.” So many questions for one remarkable woman. The rest of his life wouldn’t be enough.
“Even scholars need protection. I’m the daughter of warrior-scholars and I’ve raised one.” As though sensing the trend of his thoughts, she went on, “We are all scholars and sacrifices; we don’t shirk our duty because others might consider it distasteful. Dying is what we do, but living and learning is what we do well.” She cleared her throat. “What we did, I mean.
“Anyway, we left Gallifrey, and centuries later, everything was gone; everyone. Like you, we’d experienced limited exposure to the Schism at some point during our evolution. Someone unaware of fine biological distinctions would have struggled to distinguish our kind from yours. Someone who didn’t care to see the distinctions wouldn’t have tried.”
He tried to be stoic but failed miserably. All gone. “They destroyed everything.”
She inclined her head in assent. “Those that survived had no choice save to flee. You must understand, Doctor, the Song are—were a sentimental people. Though we eventually gained the ability travel to any point in time and space, we would always prefer our relative present and that place. Consequently, a machine was devised with the purpose of concealing our planet from intruders seeking entry. It was nothing as complex as a time lock, but a working knowledge of our spatial and temporal placement would have been required to overcome it.”
The Doctor let out a guilt-ridden breath. He had indeed led Reza’s pursuers right to her. The last of my kind, truly.
She carried valiantly onward and he quieted, intuiting her need to finish her story. So that at least one other person will remember they lived. The sentiment was echoed inside him.
“When we were attacked, the device was deadlocked by the last of our kind to fall. It could never be deactivated.”
“But it could be circumvented.”
She grimaced, pained, but nodded. “There’s only one person alive who could have done it and—would you believe it?—he did.”
The apology he longed to proffer seemed a paltry offering for such a monumental loss. He ought to know. So, instead, he said nothing at all.
“I know you didn’t know, Doctor, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s been broken.”
He caught sight of her resolute expression, quickly interpreted the confident set of her shoulders. He didn’t care for his conclusion. “You’re going to leave.”
“Yes, we are.”
“Because that’s how we survive: we run. Not together, not really but for all time. We are the Song and you are the Chronarch. We run from you.” The natural order, her expression seemed to say.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
She slipped into his arms, foregoing theatrics for a tender kiss.
“It can’t be any other way.” He rubbed his nose against her own, breathing her sigh as his next breath. “Maybe in another life,” she dared, and then she spoke his name, robbing him of all rational thought.
The TARDIS might have vanished around them for the air had gone out of the room. He laced his arms around her form to pull her up tight against him, where his mouth could reach hers without undue strain. Her lips teased at his own, retreating from his caress in spite of her captivity. He could see time shining her eyes, taste the travel of it with each swipe of his tongue. He’d thirsted for this, a hungry man only half-aware of what he lacked. She was his equal, his wife; she was flesh and blood and mad, brilliantly mad.
“Mine,” he whispered in her reverence as he slid his hands into her hair.
“Mine,” she challenged indignantly as she dragged his braces from his shoulders.
They battled for dominance a kiss at a time, each article of clothing vanishing as they grappled. Neither would surrender, pride the consolation prize in this competition with no grand prize, only sad second bests. They found a convenient corner, a timely nook to claim as their own. But he wanted to claim her.
River whimpered at his utterance of her Sungian name. It was an oath, a sacred vow that made her brighten, alive, beneath his touch. He drew Gallifreyan bond symbols from down her body with his tongue, lingering tauntingly at her breasts, at her navel, at the apex of thighs. Breathlessly, she read them aloud, fingers buried in his hair and scraping at his shoulders. Both actions left him aching, hurriedly tracing his slick handiwork up her flesh again.
He hissed at the sharp bite of her nails on his skin, growled dangerously at the throaty vocalization of his name in his ear. The sound made him weak yet feel young. She was his one, his match. She was planning to leave; he was determined to show her cause to stay. With her bare legs around his naked waist, he touched their temples together and buried himself inside her.
She grabbed him fast, hips lurching to meet his and mouth seeking his to drown the wave of his thoughts, all of them, flowing from her lips. She curled her arms around his neck and pulled herself higher and closer. And tighter and tighter. There was no longer a question of who was in control anymore. He hardly cared.
He saw her world, complete, in his mind. Heard its name and its history, witnessed its death. Her sorrow and anger and regret wrapped around him, tinged with fervour for release. She became all teeth and mute demand while her memories poured into him. Make me forget.
He pinned her arms beside her head and showed her the births of stars instead.
Her entire body tensed, muscles quivering chord-taut under his onslaught. He hadn’t enough hands to reach all the parts of her he longed to savour, or enough restraint to resist as she shuddered above and around him, her promise on her tongue.
This was how they became one. This was the day she became his wife.
For him, it was the first time.
The world that populated his dreams was a world of majestic ocean views and silver-tipped trees. It was theirs. It didn’t exist.
That should have been a sign.
The side of his body she’d made her pillow remained his warmer side, but her sudden departure left him cold on both. She slipped away while he slept a great, uncommon sleep, her retreat leaving an imprint on his mind that woke him in the minutes that followed. Once he came awake, he damned propriety to hell and gave chase without shoes or braces, without his bow-tie, draped in a wrinkled button-up.
Their psychic signatures had entangled with their bodies and rendered their secrets moot. His had been one that vitally needed keeping. He had accomplished the opposite of his goal, he had driven her away.
He found her outside the TARDIS, lit by an uninspiring sun on this deserted world. She was in full bloom while half-dressed. Dry wind blew her hair into her eyes. She didn’t seem to notice; he couldn’t see anything else. He couldn’t let her leave like this.
“There’s a reason they call me the Oncoming Storm, River.” They were words, such unnecessary words, but they spewed forth like a demanding event horizon or a stroke of the poison pen. He never knew the right thing to say.
His adventurer, his archaeologist, this woman he was coming to love as she was going to leave didn’t scoff at his declaration, merely clutched her child, their child tighter. His Time Song herself said nothing, watching him with no fear. Too brave, he repeated to himself, entirely too brave.
“Meaning what? You’ll steal her from my arms, Doctor? You’ll steal her and disappear into the vastness of time and space so that I never see her again? Is that what you’ll do, Thete, so that you can win?”
He scowled at her, mad enough to bark. She knew better, she had to know better. Today, on this day, on this whatever day it was, she knew him better than he knew her. She must have known that what he longed for was not to rip her daughter away, but to pull them both into his arms and never let go. He wanted what his future idiot self had declined: to do domestic right beside her, in any and all time streams. If he didn’t yet, he would someday love her that much.
He reached out his hand to her. “Please, don’t go.”
She backed away from the offering, clutching her charge firmly. “Don’t.”
“I love you both, don’t do this.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re a child compared to the man you’ll be.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t know my own mind, River! I know my hearts. Stay and let me prove their worth. Stay and I’ll keep you both safe.” Don’t let history make itself. He knew that face, he knew the fate of their Time Song. He knew where she was headed next, but River hadn’t seen her.
“We keep ourselves perfectly safe enough without you.” Oh, River. He had already compromised too much. Look at the cost.
“And when they come again?” He noted her abrupt flinch, her repressed panic. “When they come again, how can you be sure I’ll reach you in time with all of existence to search through? Stay with me and I’ll make sure they never hurt her.”
“You can’t promise that.” She was right, he couldn’t.
“I can promise my life.” A promise he would always make.
“And it will never be enough.”
“I know.” It ached; just the sight of them preparing to go wounded him to his core. They had been his future, his wondrous gifts to come. “I don’t want to lose her.”
“Oh, sweetie, she’s already lost.” A child of Time herself, River knew the shape of the future if not the path it would take. They should have been exchanging hellos, not goodbyes. Here it was, all gone wrong. “Goodbye, Doctor.”
He found that, for once, he had nothing to say to her in return. He was left standing alone, a mad man with his box and nothing else, not for the first time.
On a planet far away, in an age he couldn’t quite discern, the Silence came upon his family and stole his child while she slept. He heard her mother’s fury in the roaring of the TARDIS and felt many somethings, many somewheres burn to ashes millennia before their time.
He set the Ponds down in Leadworth and said quick goodbyes with kisses, hugs, and promises to return. He would before long, but there was much to arrange before then. The universe had shivered again.
River Song, the elder, was busily scribbling in her diary when he arrived. He had all the time there was and no time at all, though he needed only a moment. Her hair was somewhat wild from idle, wandering hands and riotously fleeing thoughts. She’s trying to outrun herself, out-write the guilt. He was well aware how futile her efforts were, having tried them all ad nauseam.
“You knew,” he remarked in lieu of a greeting. She didn’t appear shocked to see him.
“Hello, sweetie. What brings you to my humble abode this evening?” She flipped through her journal, dutifully ignoring the honking, glaring, tramping elephant in the Stormcage. “I haven’t got us down for anything tonight.”
He curled his fingers around the bars. He could have ripped them from their soldering. “Don’t be clever. You knew.”
Her eyes were bright when she looked up, bright and cracked wide open. “I haven’t the foggiest idea what you mean.”
“You stood right beside me and said nothing. You picked the suit apart and spouted off all manner of rubbish, knowing who she was all along.” He pulled, tugged, and shook at the bars, unconsciously glad there was this barrier to keep him from reaching her, to keep her alive. She hardly looked as grateful.
“I never saw her face,” she answered in a shaking voice. “I couldn’t be sure.”
“Just how many children did you think the Silence took? How many would they have fitted with Apollo 11 spacesuits and left in the United States?” He growled at her lack of response. “Give us a number, Doctor Song. How prolific were the Silence in your day?” He pressed his face against the bars. “I’m dying to hear this.”
“Don’t do this.”
He shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, the doctor says I shouldn’t ask her about the future. Whatever will I do?” He grinned in a menacing display of victory. “I know. I’ll ask again. River Song, why didn’t you tell me the girl was mine? Why didn’t you simply say it? I’d have denied you nothing and we’d both have her back.”
Fingers curled protectively and urgently about the edges of her diary, her response was concise and elegant in its deceptive tranquillity:
“She was never meant to come back.”
He did believe she meant it, but he didn’t believe it didn’t hurt.
He left without another word. He didn’t plan to see this River Song again. Next time, she might not survive him.
He found River, the younger, a second time where he’d found her before. The waters of the Song home world were still and tepid. They had lost their beauty, their verve. Like the people themselves, the planet was falling to the rigors of Time. It was poetic, in a way, not that anyone remained alive to appreciate the rhyme.
“You’re a danger,” River told the shore to tell him when he came to stand at her back. He didn’t object. “You’ve been a danger since before she was born and that will never change. Not unless I change it.”
“We’re a fixed point.”
She acknowledged his remark with an incline of her head but carried on. She knew all his beguiling lies by heart. “She’s proof that we will come to fruition in every life, isn’t she? No. No,” she amended, “she’s the fixed point and we’re the events that surround her. The child of two powerful races of Time, maybe the very last.”
“She doesn’t have to be.” He didn’t think it too much to hope.
“You don’t even love me,” she declared plainly, and then, she had the audacity to laugh. All of his restraint was required not scream at this temporal injustice. How could she not know? Hadn’t she known once? What have I changed? He’d all but raged at her elder self, but he would have held her if he could have. My wife, of course I would have.
“Every time you walk away, something inside of me cracks. Every single time. When you cry, my world shatters.” She needn’t know how recent a development that was, how not long ago he’d sighed in relief as soon as he saw the back of her. It was their daughter and her, that ferocity he witnessed; it had woke him up.
“You’re bigger than a single world. You’ll survive.” She wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t cry. He heard it as clearly as she vowed it to herself.
Why could he never miss that sound? It tore him apart.
“Will I?” He came closer. “Without you and Little Song—whose name I still don’t know, mind—who will I be? Who will I become?”
She ignored his digression to say, “The man you’re meant to be.” A lonely fool he already despised.
“And if that man isn’t good enough? What if he’s nothing compared to what your love would grow me into?”
“I made you into this, Thet—Doctor. I’m responsible for enough.”
“You can’t change this, River. I won’t let you.” Happiness and causality, the too frequently divergent streams of his life.
“Then, we walk two different paths now, sweetie. You to fix what you’ve broken and me to keep you from breaking it any further.” That their daughter could still be found, neither dared to hope; he could see now that wouldn’t be a road they travelled together. He’d already seen the roads they’d take apart.
Giving her back to the sun, she began to fiddle with the vortex manipulator on her wrist. Sheer panic saw him attempt sonic it from functioning. The beam hit an impermeable energy shield instead. She met his stare grimly, not for a moment ceasing her input.
“They don’t fear me only for what I do, Doctor. They fear me for what I choose not to do.” A warning. She skimmed his face with her eyes and he could see her memorizing every feature by a factor of a lifetime. “Don’t cross my path again and you’ll live.” It was noticeably something she wanted beyond words and more than either of them could say for their girl. He knew too much of what the Silence had done, would do, was doing as they spoke.
Don’t make me end your life. Please. Why could he hear that? He’d only been granted glimpses of her thoughts before. Because I want to give you one last chance to change the way this ends.
“How can I avoid you when I plan to spend the rest of my life chasing you?”
Silence. He couldn’t hear her anymore.
“My silly Doctor,” she lamented, “spoilers.”
Then, she was gone and all that was left was the acrid scent of ozone and the dying recollection of a first, and a last, kiss.
The future Doctor looks back on what he's lost as he reaches the end of his and River's story.
The setup of this chapter is based on my presumption was that River and the Doctor’s relationship is only generally back to front with occasional out-of-order encounters between them.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It happened as he had known it would. One day, River and their daughter, Reza, failed to meet him when they should have. He’d stood on the beach of River’s dormant world and known that all he’d lived for had been truly lost.
Reza’s fourth birthday had come to call and they’d agreed to come together for the occasion. Given his antipathy for enduring linear time and River’s unreliable dig schedule, their daughter could frequently be found safely ensconced in the custody of a friend of a friend. They saw her often, admittedly River more so than he, but it was hardly sufficient for a family, if they could be called that with any accuracy. Since the day she was born, Reza had been her mother’s daughter. Oh, she’d had great fondness for her Doctor, but her mum made the world go ‘round.
River had called it the Unity of the Song, a thing she’d fobbed off explaining to any depth. In any case, the Doctor thought differently: Reza knew what was to come and she knew who was to blame. A Time Lord always knows. His daughter had certainly known, half-Lord or not.
He wanted to tell the rivers to tell his Reza that he would find her, wherever the Silence had hidden her. He daren’t though. Those rivers were sacred; he wouldn’t sully them with a lie, however hopeful. He left that world to wait on Jupiter. River would find him there someday, as he’d found her.
The Doctor smiled at Reza’s face beaming at him on the monitor. She had a marvellous grin when she could be bothered to share it with him. She was sitting, snug and safe, in her swimming cozzy on Jack Harkness’s lap. It had been an odd decision to leave her with the functionally immortal man, but River had never doubted it and the Doctor had long ago learned not to resist when his wife was certain. In a way, he believed guardianship of Reza Song, the Time Song, had saved Jack as much as it had protected his daughter in her early years. He wished the choice could have protected her longer.
He moulded his waning smirk in place for her sake. “My girl, how are you?”
“Great, great, great.” She had a love of repetition, and of dancing. She had turned the repetition of favourite steps into an art form. Her father was hardly surprised; she had her mother’s rhythm.
“Are you coming to the beach, Daddy?” He fought a vicious pain in some unspecified, but no doubt useless, organ. She’d never called him that before. My firsts are your lasts.
“Cybermen couldn’t keep me away, sweetheart.”
There was a flash off-screen that made them both start. Jack sent him a consoling nod, telling him not to be concerned. It was only her, his wife, his Song when she was still his.
Her light brown curls bounced as she squeezed into the camera view, garnering a rakish bump from Jack, which she reciprocated. The Doctor had never learned their history, yet he envied what they shared, the ease of it which wouldn’t be lost.
And then, River’s eyes found his.
“Hello, sweetie.” His pain was all but alive now.
Their lives would never be the same after this day and there was nothing he could say to warn her.
“I can’t wait to see you,” she confessed with the warmth of months—years?—of longing in her voice. To him, the distance felt farther still.
“And I, you.”
She watched him sceptically, the awesome focus of an admirably vast mind directed solely at him. Had he not long ago learned to play his part, he might have squirmed beneath her scrutiny. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yes, absolutely. Just eager to see the loves of my life again.”
Her suspicion visibly grew. While he had never eschewed proclamations of affection, he rarely gushed. Well, rarely in her hearing. He pitied his most recent companions; most had tired quickly of his constant babble regarding his love and child. They They were hardly seen but always, vocally, vociferously loved.
“I’ve missed you.”
Her fingers twitched as though she might have touched the screen to gain a more tangible connection to him. His had twitched in answer.
“You’ll see me soon.”
He smile failed him despite his efforts. “Yes, I will. Until then.” He blew his family a kiss goodbye. They would not be a family again in this lifetime.
River was waiting for him when he arrived. Nineteen seconds after he’d finally materialized on Jupiter’s surface, he heard her key in the TARDIS door. He stood back and waited, resisting the romantic impulse that told him she needed him, that she was hurt, to run to her. He knew all that, and he should have. After all, it was his doing.
The first thing she said to him, the very first was, “It was you.”
Despite her utterly human-like hearts, his wife had never been human enough to be his fool.
She held her clasped hands to her face as though in prayer, as though there was someone for either of them to pray to, as though they might actually give an answer.
He wished he could give her even that much solace.
“If he is you from the past and he knows what becomes of Reza…” She swallowed, but whether it was from revulsion or pain, he couldn’t tell. “…then, you must know. You must have known all along who would take her.” Her understanding now explained her anger from all those years before. She’s always been quick.
“I never wanted to keep this from you-”
She raised a sharp hand against his protestations. “You did. You see, if you had wanted to change this, you would have. You’ve been known to intervene in events before. You can when you’re sufficiently motivated.” Her hands found her hips and she was all warrior, and not at all his wife. “So, tell me, Thete, why is it that our daughter’s wellbeing wasn’t motivating enough?”
“I was young and arrogant and careless. I destroyed what was, changed everything. This is normal now; this is the way things are meant to be. It’s always been my duty to protect that, even at cost.”
“Well, it’s cost us both. It’s cost us everything.” She left his reach, prepared to leave his home—their home. It was always supposed to be theirs. The lights within the TARDIS brightened and she hissed an ungodly sound. She doesn’t want River to leave. Neither did he.
“Please, don’t go.”
“You’ve said that to me before.” That it struck twice as painfully he could hardly miss. He hated to see her in pain, he had always hated that. When his love for her was less than any kind of spark, her pain had run him through.
“I’ll say it as many times as necessary.”
“There aren’t enough words in the whole of time.” Each vow that lay shattered in the gulf between them hinged on time, same as every vow taken.
But the moment had not yet arrived for regrets, rather damage control. He came to her and stood closer than common sense would dictate. Not that the years had seen him put much stock in that.
“I’m going to come for you at home in a little while. I’m going to ask your forgiveness-”
“You won’t get it.”
“No, but I’m going to ask anyway. I love you enough to ask regardless of your answer.”
“He doesn’t know me yet.” His younger self had run too much on heart when reason should have reigned. But then, he was all heart now.
“He doesn’t care. I didn’t.”
“I won’t go.”
“You have to.”
“The timeline has already been re-written.”
“Yes, it has. It’s unstable. It’s up to you and me to ensure that it retains some coherency.” He found her shoulders with his hands and met her scalding stare. “This is who we are, River. Hate me for the rest of our lives, but this is who we are, who we swore to be. Don’t make me carry the burden alone. Please.”
Resistance was written on her face, inked in tense lines and fading bruises. He would have soothed them with his fingers if he’d have been allowed. He was most certain he’d never be allowed again.
“I won’t ever forgive you.”
He dared drop a featherweight kiss to the furrowed space between her brows. “Rest assured this will be the last time I ask.”
River wasn’t entirely wrong when she said that he never wanted to be a father again. He adored children, was often—sometimes favourably—compared to them. A boy with his box . He wasn’t afraid of that title or of fatherhood. What he feared there was the same as he feared in any role: failure. He didn’t want to fail another child as he had failed his entire world. He didn’t want to fail River Song’s child, knowing all the girl yet stood to lose. He didn’t want to fail himself, knowing that he’d be losing as well.
Her birth was a terrifying milestone in their backwards dance, but, perhaps, one of the greatest days of his life.
He kissed his Time Song’s downy ginger hair as she suckled sleepily at her mother’s breast. “You were wonderful, sweetheart.”
“Oi,” River protested, equally tired, though positively radiant in his eyes, “just who do you think did all the work here?”
Chuckling, he leaned over to kiss her warmly in thanks. “Don’t mind me, love, I was saving the best for last.”
“Of course you were,” she hummed once he’d pulled away. “Charmer.”
“You love it.”
Pointedly ignoring him, she began to gently rock their child in her arms. “Your daddy’s so right, honey. You were fantastic.”
He settled down on the bed beside them, wrapping his arm around River’s shoulder to guide her closer. There was no such thing as close enough. The future had arrived, his and hers; he thought she couldn’t have been more fantastic if they’d loomed her by hand.
“What shall we call her,” River asked in the quietest of voices.
He thought of River’s anger all those years ago, of her forceful stoicism in the face of his prying. She’d always kept her secrets on his order, he couldn’t think why this should be any different.
“You decide. I’m certain you’ll come up with something perfect.”
She considered that for a bit, tracing the baby’s delicate features with a light touch. “I have one.” She looked so excited that that it pained him to stop her telling him.
“Don’t tell me.”
Her face fell, more in annoyance than upset. “Why not?”
“Power in a name, River Song. You know that.”
“You’re her father, shouldn’t you know?”
“No need for that.” He slipped a hand under his daughter to tilt her up so that he could better see her face. A glorious face after her splendid mother. “Give me a name to call her, but her true name should remain between her, the universe, and you.”
She reflexively hugged the newborn to her chest. Always gifted at reading between the lines, my River. “She’s going to be important, isn’t she?”
“Was there any chance she wouldn’t be?” He freed her of her mother’s arms and unwrapped her with care, wanting to count and recount her fingers and toes. Ten and ten and two: fingers, toes, and hearts. In whatever way events would find her, they would always find her his daughter. He stroked her baby cheek, telepathically impressing with all due tender might, I will always love you, whenever and wherever you are.
River trembled at his side of something more lasting than exhaustion. “I’m going to lose her, aren’t I? Somehow, she’ll be taken from me.” Parallel universes had already begun to quiver in preparation for what was to come. How could either of them do any less? For you, she’s just arrived, but, for me, she’s already gone.
He kissed his wife’s untamed curls and drew her closer still. Then, he spoke words which would confirm her deepest fears, “Shh, spoilers.”
I’m sorry, my love.
There were years and years between their meetings after their child was taken. Some at which she could hardly stand to look at him and others when she couldn’t stay away. Oh, she never forgave him his foreknowledge, his appalling mistruths, but she loved him violently, as he loved her. He was able to survive her cooling hatred with the knowledge that someday she’d be the guilty one. She would be the one who stood aside while Reza became the casualty of an unearthly crime. She would be the one and he’d be left to rage, if only for a little while.
But, of course, the universe was not content unless it had stolen from him a bit more. Though their time together was winding down and his encounters with her were becoming increasingly interspersed with encounters of a girl who had never borne his child, been his wife, or become his lover, he’d forgotten that there was one more secret she still held.
The greatest man River ever knew died when the universe came near to exploding again. You’d think that would get to be a tedious affair, saving existence from the next hungry thing which yearned to rule. Well, yes, it did become somewhat tedious, but it never stayed boring for long.
So much running , the Doctor remembered with a lingering fondness for having his wife at his side once again. Life might have etched disappointment in her eyes and on her skin, but she’d taken his breath away on sight. Her expression had been assessing, guarded as she tried to decide where he stood with regard to their respective timelines. He’d hefted his diary slightly and she’d smiled, relieved in a way she hadn’t been when they last kissed. Neither of them asked after Reza; she was never an event they compared.
They were of a set after all: he wore his grief under his bowtie, a veritable noose for a dead man walking; she wore hers around her wrist and at her waist, vortex manipulator and pistol leading her inexorably downward. They’d been spiralling into each other since they last, first, met. Now, their orbit was deteriorating.
The end of Time centred where it always seemed to – on his companions. A quick, discreet pop to Chiswick found Donna Temple-Noble a mother of two grown sons, leading a happy life as a wealthy philanthropist. The hair was shot through with grey while the rest remained enviably ginger. Although her eyes still carried a spot of hollowness, they were otherwise so filled with contentment that the Doctor could only wish her well as he slipped away. Martha Smith-Jones remained wonderful, brilliant, and only too glad to help with Torchwood in tow. There was Sarah Jane’s Luke—whom he could only think of that way. It caused a sharp soreness in the cockles of his hearts to think of one without the other, though it had been ages since she’d gone—who led his own group of hellions, always prepared to assist if they could. Last but far from least, were the Ponds.
Amy Pond, who might have had the greatest imagination Time had seen, had disappeared inside that wonderful mind to escape whatever she had seen. None of his pleas and none that River could muster could rouse her from that living death. It had been many years since she had travelled with him, but he didn’t miss his flame-haired Amelia any less.
Her equally ginger daughter lay with her head on her mother’s lap and talked to her until she was voiceless. When she became too tired to stay awake, yet too afraid to sleep, River sang to her as she had to Reza. This song wasn’t Gallifreyan at all, only Song; nevertheless, what images flickered through his mind were more than the sum of either. Whole solar systems erupted in his memory, decimated by good and evil intent. Everything was lost. To the ear, it was a moving piece, but to the heart, it was a crime. Idris Pond slept fitfully, unaware of either meaning.
He should have concluded something from that, he realized later on.
Rory the Roman, Rory Pond, Roranicus Pondicus, or, as his beloved ship personified had so basked in calling him, Pretty had been taken. Snatched out of his Leadworth home in the middle of supper, he hadn’t gone quietly. He’d fought tooth and nail to protect his family from whatever had grabbed him and paid the price in blood. River would be the one to pay sweat and tears.
“Better you locked away and someday free than dead.”
“Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare put a target on your back behind me. They’d just as happily kill you as take you the way they took Reza all those years ago.” He peered at the Doctor with eyes that were as ancient, if not more so, than his own, then looked back to River. “You gave him everything. You can still give him that.”
“I don’t have anything left to give him.” The Doctor thought of the things he seemed to keep losing, love was high among them; she was the highest.
“You have all of Time. The rest of it, till the end and back.” He smiled. Plastic or flesh and blood, the Doctor knew how she adored that smile. “You have to teach him to value things when we aren’t there to do it. You have to remind him of his humanity. You have to make sure he lives to keep saving the important things.
“They’ll blame you, because they can. I know enough about how the universe works to know that. Better alive and able than dead.”
“I’ll be in prison. How can I possibly help?”
Rory Pond, the greatest man the Doctor ever knew, laughed and grinned a grim grin. “Spoilers. I’ve always wanted to say that to you.”
She kisses his cheek. “I’m sorry, Rory.”
He laid his head on her shoulder and said, “Not as sorry as I am.”
How could they have known that the Doctor was the most regretful of the three?
Rory Pond—no, Rory Williams died that day. Not because River Song killed him, but because she saved his memory. She refused to allow him to be remembered for the monster he’d been transformed into and she destroyed his physical body, so that no one could ever try again. The nestene duplicate invaders fell for the very last time, as did a good man.
Amelia Pond became a widow at a young age. Little Idris lost her father and River lost her freedom. For a while anyway.
The Doctor felt he may have lost the most of the lot. He’d lost time. This had been the middle; their end was starting.
Some years later, or rather before, the Doctor met his destiny on a visit to Jupiter.
He’d spent months hearing tell of a mysterious girl who could put the fear of gods into others with a single glance. Too quick by leaps and bound, mentally and physically, she’d easily gotten her way whenever she desired. Yet, what she’d become most known for was her wild hair and beguiling smile. Every being who met her was left stunned and confused by the fewest of words. He hadn’t known his daughter for long—even the Ponds might have recognized her by sight before him—but that sounded dearly like a child of his and a child of River Song, a consummate, mischievous scion of Time.
Arriving to discover that he hadn’t met his quarry after all had felt a great deal like death, untimely and utterly unforgiving. Realizing, instead, that he’d met the woman who would be, had been, ever was his wife inspired different feelings entirely. He swore from hello—and what a hello it was—that he wouldn’t fail her this time, though the damage had been irrevocable since the start of time. The lies were the least he could do, the most infinitesimal peace he could provide in the perilous life they’d share. Rule one, sweetie, as she would one day say.
He imagined it might have amused her more experienced self, were she still alive, to know that she’d always had his number. She’d been right about him and he’d been so very wrong. Well, farther from correct, at any rate. In a fair turnabout, he found that it was he who had her number in her impetuous youth; he who sang, “Spoilers” in a tenor of loving cruelty; and, he who kissed her often before she could quite catch her breath.
Seventy years he’d chased her in a dizzy arc across time and space. Back and forth and around in a moebius road of learning one another and forgetting, gaining everything and losing it by backwards leaps. Thirty-five years until he kissed her beneath a dazzling meteor shower on Kaibus and asked her to be his wife for the first, last time. Though he’d asked previously, she had always demurred. This time, he’d been certain, was their time. She’d finally been certain, too.
And so they’d begun and ended, all at once.
River Song’s greatest crime was the Doctor’s final destruction. Seeing her cruelly barred, the Doctor ceased to live much before he breathed his last. Wonderful, valiant, Roman Rory, at whom the universe had long marvelled had been her victim, had been her hero, her friend. Old things are powerful, he recalled, and they are never quite forgotten. None of them would be; they had all survived far too long for that.
River and he would dance for years and years yet, but their respective songs were beginning to fade as vibrant colours woven amid the fabric of Time. He would choose his ending and she would willingly choose no other one, when the moment arrived. It would be lovely and honourable and near meaningless to the man he’d be then. The man he was now, the man who’d be waiting on the wings to say goodbye would call it outstanding. River Song had never been less than that. That was why he loved her.
His life was a graveyard of best laid plans gone awry. Where she was concerned, it was also a dead world of things gone undone. He could name their adventures and their tribulations. He could name every planet, star, and sundry astral body on which they’d made love. Chances were he could pinpoint the moment and place their only child had been conceived. He wasn’t as sentimental as that, but he could have been. What he was, was sentimental enough to recognize the selfish fool he’d been two hundred years ago when he’d left River Song to grieve alone in Stormcage. She’d needed him then and he’d been too focused on his own pain to see it. She deserved a grander, kinder send-off than that.
The TARDIS materialized within Stormcage Containment Facility with nary a sound. He’d used the boringers because it would have pleased her. On this night, he’d have done anything for that. He stepped out into the blue night to see her watching. For once, she didn’t have her diary in hand. She was dressed for bed without a hint of sleep in her eyes. She, like him, had lain awake remembering. They always remembered.
She came to the cage door on silent feet and took the bars into her hands. For hands that had laid waste to armies, they were unimaginably delicate. “You’re too emotional for a god.”
He overlaid her fingers with his. “Good job I’m no god, then.”
“If only we could convince everyone else.”
“But how boring would it be if they weren’t so afraid?”
“You’re a dangerous thing,” she tutted, glowing.
“Says the woman in the cage.”
Ignoring that, “What do you need from me?”
“I need you to come with out me.” She met his gaze speculatively. Fear was an estranged mutual friend; curiosity might have been a shared cousin. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to show you and you’ve always wanted to see.”
“All right.” She freed her hands from his grasp, flicking hair from her face as she turned. “How should I dress? Formal, casual? Will there be running?” said with fondness enough that he knew she still loved him. Off and on, there were days when he wondered if they’d broken what bound them but were too afraid of letting go. He wouldn’t wonder again.
“No running.” He stuck his face between the bars and wiggled his brows, “But maybe a bit of dancing. Dress to dance.”
He watched rapturously as she undressed and dressed unabashedly before him. Faint scars and bruises he didn’t recall scored the form he secretly worshipped. He would have liked to write sonnets to every inch of skin he’d kissed. It would give them more time, time which marched blithely on, whatever his desire.
His wife had a gift for doing much with little. She styled her hair simply but elegantly, and donned an indigo dress, so dark as to fool the eye into perceiving it as anything but blue. Her shoes were impossibly high and, he knew now, equipped with concealed gravity stabilizers for improved balance. Even her clothes deceived. He soniced the cell door and pulled her into his arms the instant she was free. He loved her; seductress, murderer, liar, and thief.
Hand-in-hand, they strolled back to the TARDIS without regard for time. For one night, it would look the other way and call them strangers.
The Darillium night reminded him of the Sungian day, green and writhing with unheard notes. Given how she avoided viewing it directly, he presumed River felt the same. He cursed his choice, knowing there’d been no other recourse. She had told him this story, this was their final parting.
“I’ve never said I’m sorry.” There wasn’t a need to be more specific.
Her smile was nearly normal under the circumstances. “You can be exceedingly cruel when you presume it’s beneath you to care.”
“I don’t mean to be.”
“No, you always do, but I’m accustomed to that now.”
He brushed the back of her fingers with his. It seemed more intimate, this touching of hands, more so than any of their lovemaking had been.
“He told me to kill him, you know.” She was haunted by his last request, would be unto her death.
“I know, I was there.” He steeled himself and took her hand, exhaling in relief when she moved to entangle their fingers rather than pull away. He was never sure with her. “He needed someone to stop him, too.”
“Rory Williams was the most human of extraordinary men. None of us are so human after travelling with you.”
He tapped her nose. “Some of you weren’t exactly human to begin with.”
He busied himself with searing her image in his mind, tracing the lines and curves of her profile to never be forgotten. His mind was immeasurable and precious memories could be misplaced; he could not lose her twice, both body and recollection.
“I know you’re going to be released tomorrow.”
She pinched him punitively, “Spoilers!”
He hummed with deliberate softness. Better that than visible grief. “Yes, but there’s something you’ll need before you go.”
“What makes you think I’m going anywhere?” Her cheeky grin, he loved her cheeky grin.
“Experience, love. I know you too well.”
She didn’t deny that. “What is it, then?”
He pulled his modified screwdriver out of his bottomless pocket and presented it to her with a polite bow. “For you, m’lady.”
She stared at it, incredulous. “You haven’t given anyone a sonic since Sarah Jane. Why me? Why now?”
“Because you’re equal to her by now, and equal to me.”
Hesitating, she took the tool in hand. “You aren’t doing this out of guilt, are you?”
He fiddled with his tie. “Who, me? I never feel guilty, you know that.”
She grabbed his hand, forcing him to meet her eyes. “Try again.” His diversionary tactics hadn’t worked on her for decades, not since they’d first bonded. He felt her knocking at his psychic shields and very nearly let her inside, paradox be hung. She broke away before he was forced to decide.
“It’s something you want that I can give you. I couldn’t give you Reza or your freedom, but I can give you this.” He gazed at his—no, her—sonic reproachfully. It would be with her when he could not, would be her salvation when he could not. He could only ensure, with its presence, the continuation of a small part of her essence.
Not enough. Nothing could ever be.
At that, she kissed him. “You’re brilliant.” Kiss. “And wonderful.” Another. “And mad,” one last, “but you’re an atrocious liar.” She affectionately squeezed his fingers, bringing them to rest against her chest, against the beating of her fantastic hearts. He would have liked to feel that for the rest of time. “I suppose I’ll discover your secret tomorrow.”
He wound an arm about her waist. “You will.” He kissed her wondrous, ginger curls. She smelt of books and ink, and not of Stormcage. She’s already been out.
“Will I do well,” she asked slyly. She was a sneaky one, his wife, wanting spoilers that were not quite enough to alter the future but that might assuage her insatiable need to know. Innumerable possibilities but only one end.
He kissed her again. “Professor Song, you’ll do beautifully.”
She stepped back, staring at him in shock. “How’d you know?”
“That I made professor. I was going to surprise you with it.”
He stuck his chest out, warming to the opportunity to shock her one last time. “I know everything.”
She rolled her eyes, turning back to the view in a huff. “Keep telling yourself that.”
“I shall.” He kissed the side of her neck and pulled her back to his chest. “I love you.”
“And I you, my love. Now, shush. The Towers are singing.”
They stood in silence as Singing Towers of Darillium crooned poignantly in the distance. It might have sounded a birth song to River’s ear, but to him it was a dirge. To him, the universe seemed to be bidding farewell to his one, saying to her what he could not.
Their story would have 4022 survivors, but after this, the Doctor was sure that he could never be saved.
Only the epilogue left to go.