They wouldn’t tell him anything over the phone, only that his wife had been found wandering a desert planet, barefoot and confused. They’d brought her to the hospital to treat her for dehydration and as her husband and emergency contact, he needed to come fetch her. That’s it. A thousand years since he saw her last and all he knows is that she’s a bit parched. Fucking hospital.
A nurse glances over the desk and glares at him.
“Doctor,” Clara hisses.
Talking out loud again then. He straightens from his slouch and crosses his arms over his chest, glowering right back at the nurse. “It’s been hours -”
“It’s been fifteen minutes,” Clara sighs. “Be patient.”
He isn’t sure who to glare at now – Clara or the nurse who still hasn’t blinked. He doesn’t know where in their timeline River is from, how long he has before she’s gone again, he doesn’t even know how she managed to get lost in the first place. River never gets lost. That was always him. He knows absolutely nothing and they want him to be patient? The Doctor narrows his eyes at the nurse, triumphant when she finally looks away with a grumble. “Five minutes. If no one explains what the bloody hell is happening in five minutes I’m going to -”
“What?” Clara teases, watching him with a fond smile. “Threaten them with your sonic? Use your psychic paper to impersonate a doctor and commandeer a pair of scrubs to sneak into your wife’s room?” She grimaces when he stubbornly avoids her gaze. “Oh god, please don’t do any of those things.”
He clenches his jaw. “Five minutes.”
She sighs, biting her lip as she studies him. He refuses to look at her, glaring at the floor instead. “Doctor, how can she be here? She’s dead. Like, actually, properly dead.”
“For you and I, yes. She’s been dead a very long while.” He fidgets, reluctant to explain. He couldn’t even speak her name after he lost her, referred to her as the mysterious Professor Song instead. Now, he can spout stories of their bickering for hours without blinking an eye but this is different. The intimate details of their time-tangled relationship still seem precious and fragile, like something to protect. “From her perspective, she could still yet be hundreds of years from her fate.”
Clara nods slowly and concludes, “Time travel.”
“Something like that,” he answers, distracted. River is somewhere in this godforsaken hospital. He’s certain five minutes has passed by now so he reaches into the pocket of his coat for his psychic paper, ignoring Clara’s pleading groan. “Stay here. I’ll be -”
“Are you Mr. Song?”
He looks up, blinking at the man towering over him in an irritatingly stereotypical lab coat. “Yes. Are you playing dress up or am I finally allowed to see my wife?”
The man hesitates. “Of course you can see her. But there’s something you should be aware of first.” He glances down at his data pad like he has all the bloody time in the world and the Doctor bites his tongue to keep from snapping at him. “We treated Mrs. Song for dehydration but our primary concern is her memory loss. She doesn’t seem to remember anything about her life – where she lives, what she does for a living, even her own name.”
The Doctor stares at him, keenly aware of the bottom dropping out of his world. His hearts sink into his stomach and his mouth is suddenly so dry he can’t even swallow. The physician keeps talking – he must because his lips are moving – but he doesn’t hear a bloody word of it. He’s standing at the end of a dark, narrow tunnel, peering at everyone on the other side. He only comes back to himself when Clara lays a hand on his arm. He blinks down at it, his mind still troublingly blank, and hears her ask the question he’s too much of a coward to ask for himself.
“Does she remember him? Does she remember that she’s married?”
“I’m afraid she didn’t mention a husband,” the physician admits. “We thought it best not to alarm her with any new information just yet.”
Staring into space, the Doctor listens with a lump in his throat. Clara, his wee minder, keeps asking questions for him. “Does she remember anything at all?”
“She retains basic information about the world and the universe around her. She can remember history as accurately as if she’d been there herself. Mrs. Song remains a highly intelligent, clever individual. Her personal history, on the other hand, seems to elude her.” The physician glances down at his notes again and purses his lips. “One of my nurses said she mentioned being in a library -”
The Doctor shoots to his feet so quickly his head spins but he’s found his way to the other side of that dark tunnel and there’ll be no stopping him now. Gripping River’s startled physician by the collar of his stark white coat, he leans in until they’re nose to nose and growls thickly, “Take me to her.”
Outside the door of River’s private room, the Doctor prepares himself for the inevitable heartache on the other side. He’s never done this before – met a River who didn’t know at least something about him. He isn’t sure he’s ready to face the blank look in her eyes. He thought he’d managed to escape that particular torment because somehow, in some way or another and no matter the form she took, River always knew him. River always knew everything.
He doesn’t like the prospect of being the one with all the answers in their relationship. It was a part he played while she was in University and it hadn’t suited then. He feels certain it won’t suit this body either. This body is too impatient, too old, too damned skittish. Glancing around the empty corridor and back through the doors where Clara stands at the front desk, filling out all the forms they’ll need in order to take River home, he swallows and scrubs a hand over his face. He can do this. She’d done it. So will he.
He knocks once and pushes open the door.
Sitting on her hospital bed, surrounded by pillows and looking bored, River glances up when he steps into the room. Their eyes meet instantly, drawn together like magnets, and sod it all, he might have prepared for her lack of recognition but nothing could have prepared him for seeing her again. It’s been so long all he can do is stare at her, frozen in place with his hand tight and white-knuckled around the doorknob.
River tilts her head, offering him a wary but polite smile. “Are you a doctor?”
Forcing himself to look away, he blinks hard at his shoes and finds the strength to release the doorknob, letting the door shut behind him. His throat feels dry and constricted, like no words could possibly make their way up and out but somehow, he manages a soft, “Yes. Just not yours.”
Her brow furrows but he can see that brilliant mind struggling to make sense of him, this stranger standing in the middle of her room and undoubtedly looking at her like some sort of long lost deity. He’s not doing a very good job of appearing normal and non-threatening, gaping at her like an idiot, and when he takes a step toward her, her eyes flash with an emotion it takes him a moment to decipher. Fear. She hasn’t been properly frightened of him since she was a little girl and the thought of her reverting back to that now makes his chest ache.
He stops in his tracks, holding up his hands and watching her carefully. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” he promises. “I won’t hurt you.”
She has no reason to believe him but her shoulders relax and he wonders if she knows she’d been preparing to fight him, that it is her automatic response around any potential threat. Everything about her past has been wiped away but not that, never that. Kovarian was thorough. “Do I know you?”
Hiding his flinch behind a tight-lipped smile, he asks, “What do you think?”
“I don’t know your face.” Green, cat-like eyes that always see everything study him from head to toe. It takes more willpower than he’d known this body possessed not to make some sort of innuendo about her scrutiny. He hadn’t even known this body was capable of making innuendos. Trust River to bring that out in him within five minutes. Her gaze lingers at his throat for a moment too long, like she’s searching for something but doesn’t know what. “But you’re still… familiar. How is that?”
He ignores her curiosity for now, not sure how to even begin explaining that he’s familiar because he’s her husband but he doesn’t look familiar because every so often, he changes his face. Instead, he leans against the wall next to her bed and says, “Spoilers.”
It’s been an age since he had the opportunity to say it but it still feels wrong, like it doesn’t fit inside his mouth as snugly as it always seemed to in hers. That word always belonged to her, no matter how she insisted it was his word first. It suited her, the keeper of their secrets.
“Spoilers? What’s spoilers?”
“It means I know something you don’t know.” He crosses his arms over his chest and ignores the pang of loss that settles between his hearts. He isn’t ready to be the keeper of their secrets. “What do you remember?”
She turns her head to stare out the hospital window, her eyes scanning the setting suns on the horizon. He takes advantage of her inattention, hungrily drinking in the sight of her. She looks exactly the same as the day he lost her, right down to her unlined face and her ginger curls. Beautiful. “The very last thing I can recall is being in a library. A big one.” She pauses, licking her lips, and he watches her with his hearts in his throat. “It felt… ominous. Like I wasn’t welcome. So I rigged one of the transporters to take me somewhere else.”
“You rigged a transporter? How? You can’t even remember your own name!”
“I don’t know.” Her brow furrows, like she hadn’t thought of that before. “I just sort of… understood how it worked.” So that quack of a physician had been right. She might not remember River Song but she certainly remembers how to be her. “The desert seemed familiar so that’s where I went but once I got there, it didn’t feel right at all. I wandered around until someone found me. I don’t suppose you know what happened?”
Well, no sense hiding it from her and this body certainly isn’t one to sugarcoat. “You died.”
Turning from the window, River blinks at him. “Pardon?”
“The Library,” he explains, looking anywhere but at her. “You died there.”
“I died in a library?”
He suppresses a snort at the derision in her voice. “The Library. Wouldn’t listen to a bloody thing I said. You saved everyone – including my sorry arse – from flesh-eating shadows.”
Relaxing back against her pillows again, River looks satisfied. “That sounds more like it. Still doesn’t explain what I’m doing here.”
He still can’t quite manage to meet her eyes. He stares over her shoulder out the window at the setting suns, and struggles to keep the guilt from leaking into his voice. “That I’m afraid I can’t answer. I saved your consciousness to the planet’s data core. There was nothing else I could do -”
“It’s alright, you know.” The sound of her voice startles him into looking directly at her and he’s surprised to find a soft, familiar smile of forgiveness curling her lips. “I can’t even remember it so it wouldn’t be right to blame you.”
She’s trying to make him feel better so he manages a tight smile for her sake but benediction from her right now might as well be forgiveness from a stranger. “How you managed to escape with a new body is beyond even me but you did it.” The smug gleam in her eyes is so familiar and so very River he feels a genuine, fond smile tugging at his lips. “Clever lass.”
It’s actually happened. Every single daydream for years after he lost her has become a reality. Somehow, in some mad, wonderful way, River escaped the Library. She found a way back to him like Bowtie had always hoped she would. Except she hadn’t come back, not really. This woman isn’t River. She looks like River, talks like River, but she is a blank slate. She has none of the trauma, none of the emotional scars.
His last regeneration probably would have seen this as a way to give her a second chance at a normal life. He would have set up an account and a house for her somewhere. He would have let her go without ever telling her who he was and just looked out for her from afar. It would have killed him but he would have done it. He would have told himself it was a kindness, one last selfless act to make up for all he did to ruin her life. It would have been far more selfish than that – self-flagellation of the highest form. River would never have chosen it. And he won’t choose it either. Not now. Not this body.
“Well now what?” River asks suddenly, biting her lip. “I’ve been dead for god knows how long… I don’t suppose they kept my job for me. Where am I supposed to go? Do you know where I live? Is that why you’re -”
“I’ll look after you.”
The words are out of his mouth before he has time to think about them but of course, there was nothing else he could say. Even if there was another option, he wouldn’t want it. He’ll take care of her now just as he’s always taken care of her, even when she didn’t want his help, even when she tried to push him away. Or at least, he’ll try. He isn’t so sure this body remembers how to care for anything, let alone a wife. He let all that slip away so long ago. He doesn’t know if he can get it back. He’ll try though, for her.
“You’ll come with me.”
“Why would you-” She looks at him with wide, curious green eyes. “Who are you to me?”
He blinks away the sting in his eyes and the echo in his ears of another voice saying the very same thing an age ago. He clears his throat gruffly. “Unfortunately for you, I’m your husband.”
To her credit, she hides her surprise rather well. Her fingers twitch briefly around her scratchy hospital blanket and her eyelashes flutter – little things he’d never have noticed if he didn’t know her so well. He thought he’d forgotten how to read her. It’s been so long. It seems he’d only tucked away the file in his head marked Infuriating Wife’s Idiosyncrasies and Quirks. It’s a tad dusty but nothing a bit of time around her can’t fix. And suddenly he has all the time in the world.
Her eyes narrow and she sucks on her front teeth. The dusty little file in his head helpfully supplies him with she doesn’t believe a bloody word you’re saying and he ducks his head to hide his smirk. “What’s my favorite ice cream?”
“If we’re married, you should know.” She crosses her arms over her chest, waiting.
She blinks at him. “Is it?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not really, no.”
He huffs. “Fat lot of good that did you then.”
“Oh, shut up.” She scowls at him. “Where’s my ring?”
She makes an impatient noise and buggering hell he’s missed that irritating little sound. “Married women tend to wear rings.”
“Not every married woman.”
“I like accessories.”
His lips quirk. “Yes. You do.”
“So?” She raises an eyebrow. “Where is it?”
For a moment, he contemplates just taking off one of the rings currently on his finger and handing it over. She’d never know the difference. He would though. Sighing, he resigns himself to being labeled an incurable sap and reaches into his pocket, wiggling his fingers around. He feels the pack of gum, the box of matches, the photograph of her he always keeps handy, and finally, what he’s looking for.
River stares dubiously at the bowtie when he holds it up triumphantly, her eyebrow lifting again. “What is that supposed to be?”
“Your wedding ring. We weren’t the traditional sort.”
He drops it into her lap and watches her slowly tip her head down to stare at the puddle of black fabric spilled across her thighs. For all her earlier skepticism, he can see the very moment it sparks something in her. It feels familiar. He can see it in the way her eyes widen and mist over, in the way she reaches out a hand and touches reverent fingertips to the fabric – the gentle touch of an archaeologist.
She swallows, picking up the bowtie and wrapping it slowly, methodically around her hand. He looks away, his head filled with every single time in their pasts that she did exactly that – every time she undressed him and they fell into bed, when she was sick and wanted comfort, when she slept, when she grieved, even when she was angry with him. It was never just a symbol of their wedding. It was her security blanket.
“Well then, husband.” He risks a wary glance at her, forcing away memories of a woman who doesn’t even exist any more. River watches him with a small, watery smile. “Take me home.”