The Earthlight gleams on the spines of the books. The library at Luna University is grand, arches beyond arches packed with volumes of history and ancient tomes, archaic stories too old to have been preserved as digital media. There are copies uploaded of most of them now, of course, but she prefers the actual books. When she loses herself, the books are still there.
River spends a lot of time in the library. It's quite homey, compared to so many of the places she's known. The books are marshaled rank on rank like good little soldiers. She likes to feel small in the midst of all these shelves that lie above and before her. She has spent far too long as the most important thing, the turning point, the loaded gun. The children's home was her realm, ruled by her whim, and to an extent, so was Leadworth. It's good to be somewhere that has been here before her and will be here after she is gone, with barely a murmur to mark her presence, or a mark in the dust.
She does not quite want to be River Song. She does not want to be a known entity. All her life, it seems, she's been notorious: sought, hunted, hidden, a point of contention and sorrow. River Song will not have any simpler a life. The Teselecta showed her that. But neither does she want to be Melody Pond anymore, not the little girl in the space suit or the teenager stranded in backwater Leadworth coaxing along her own destiny in unbearably slow increments. River seems by far the better option, when she's bound to cause a stir wherever she goes. She isn't the retiring type, after all.
But for now she hides herself away in the university between the pages of her books. All her life she has been told stories of the Doctor. Now she is reading them for herself. They are not the stories she was told. The Doctor is not a malignant force in most of them, toying with people's lives and hearts for his own amusement. He is a kind man, a clever man, misguided at times but largely a source of goodness and wisdom. They are fairy tales and he is the good wizard. They are stories told to keep the dark at bay.
She thinks she would rather like to write some, one day. For now, she avoids the books where she finds herself. She will tell her own story, not find herself pressed between the pages of the history books, paper-thin, black and white.
+ + + +
River keeps the diary the Doctor gave her close. It's in her bag when she goes out, and she keeps it on her bedside table as she sleeps. The TARDIS-blue leather of the cover is a reminder to be River and not Melody. She isn't certain what to write in it. The pages are so pale and lovely in their blankness, the paper heavy and expensive. It's the kind of thing that needs the right words. She hasn't found them yet.
It isn't for her archaeology notes. It isn't for the ordinary details of her day. It means something, this diary. She hasn't quite pinned it down yet. But it's a promise, she suspects. The Doctor, in his roundabout way, has given her his word that she will need it one day. One day they will have adventures together. One day she will strike the balance between cruelty and kindness. One day she will be wise and merry and just a little bit dangerous. She thinks of her favorite bit of Shakespeare that she and Rory and Amy did in school. She shall aspire to be Beatrice, if Beatrice had a habit of carrying a pistol. A touch of recklessness is charming, after all. It's the murderous glances that people tend shy away from.
She caresses the cover of the journal now and again when she's thinking about something. The covers are solid and the leather is buttery soft under her fingertips. Smoothing her palms over the pages is soothing. It's a touchstone. She will be worthy of history one day, in a way that won't get her caught in the searing glare of the Teselecta. It's a bit of comfort.
+ + + +
She knows she's a non-traditional student, but she also appears to be a non-traditional human. She doesn't need to sleep the way her fellow students do, which is fairly unremarkable until she begins taking lovers. She subsists on a few hours per night, leaving more than one person sprawled in bed to wake up lonely, or catnaps between her classes. She reads faster than they do; she understands more. Her lack of formal university training up to now doesn't seem to matter much. She is, as she understands, absurdly clever.
There seem to be no worries about money, either. The diary wasn’t the only gift the Doctor left her. There was a file with information from a bank as well; the balance listed was certainly sizeable and possibly hefty. It makes her smile to think of him bending his own rules, going back and making an investment on a sure thing to provide for her. She certainly doesn’t feel like a sure thing herself. But it’s better every day.
Archaeology is a lovely excuse to go and research all of the places she wants to visit, in addition to being an excuse to delve into the stories of the Doctor's deeds. He is written as a wizard, an angel, a force from beyond the stars. Occasionally the stories are about a dark influence, but most of them sing his praises. Now and again she can read between the lines of his clumsier moments, when it's only out of extreme cleverness and sheer dumb luck that he manages not to destroy whatever planet he's trying to save.
"Oh, Doctor," she murmurs to herself, surprised by the rush of warmth that accompanies the words. "How did you ever manage that one."
He certainly needs a keeper. At least it would be a new outlook for her, trying to keep him from being killed rather than killing him. As a measure against accidental mayhem, she carefully copies and clips out photographs of all of his faces and pastes them into the diary on the very first page. He has quite the range of them; her spotter’s guide is insurance against her own instincts. If she’s not going to kill him on purpose, she certainly doesn’t want to kill him by chance.
She can't say yet whether protecting him from himself will be quite as much fun as trying to end his life, but it will, at least, be a venture with job security.
+ + + +
She thinks about going to visit her parents, but she can't shake the look in their eyes the time in Berlin, the hope and the hopelessness, the love and the fear.
She was not what they were expecting. They expected Mels, their teenage comrade in arms, or they expected River, with some measure of kindness and dignity. They got Melody Pond, raw and angry and on a hair trigger, careless of anything aside from completing her mission. The years she'd spent with them didn't matter at that point, not when she'd gotten so close, not when she'd actually encountered the Doctor. Only a small corner of her heart minded that she was terrifying them. Only a small portion of her attention focused on the way that Rory's spine stiffened and Amy's hair swung around her tense face as they watched her. Only the fighter in her watched them, only to ensure that she could defend herself against any attempt to dissuade her. All the rest of her mind was consumed by the Doctor and her need to bring him down.
She thinks of the expression on the Doctor's face when she pressed herself against him: wary, but longing. She thinks of the brief pressure of his lips against the poisoned gloss of her lipstick, warmed into waxy softness by the heat of her mouth. She thinks of the confusion in the eyes of her parents. They were still frightened of her when she kissed the Doctor to save him. As well they might have been - she had just sealed his doom with the same lips, not so long ago. She is their little girl gone bad. She is a stranger they've known all her life.
All of that makes family reunions a bit complicated. She will go to them later, when she has filed down her sharp edges a bit. When she can be certain she is River instead of Melody, she will go.
In her head, River makes a diagram of the intersection between River and Melody, plotting out who she wants to be. It is an incredible liberation to have the freedom to choose who she wants to be, to set a course for a distant star rather than forming her character through the little daily choices that most people make. She has the power to utterly remake herself if she wants, all at once, as if she is regenerating her personality to go with this brand new body.
They’re both delightful flirts – she isn’t giving up the only bit of fun she’s had in ages. They’re both outrageously clever. She’s always had that going for her, and no wonder, given her heritage. They’re both dangerous, though Mels will threaten you just to entertain herself and River waits until it’s really necessary.
The difference, she thinks, has to be love. Mels loved nobody but herself, or very nearly nobody. It was lonely in Leadworth when she wasn’t with Amy and Rory. Mels was fond of Amy and Rory, of course, but she was using them all the same, with a ruthlessness that River hopes to keep in reserve until it’s needed. But River loves. She loves her family, her dear old very young parents. She loves living and the pleasures thereof. And she loves the Doctor and the TARDIS.
It’s slow going, rebuilding herself. She has to consciously gentle her reflexes, slowing herself down until she’s nearly on a level with the people around her. No harm in having a bit of an edge; after all, she has to be able to protect herself, and it still amuses her to intimidate her fellow students. It’s only that she’s using her wits now and not her weapons.
River thinks that if she could, she would fling out her arms and welcome the epiphany of love, letting it strike her like a lightning bolt to the chest, letting it transform her. But that isn’t the way it works. She isn’t Saul on the road to Damascus. She isn’t Ben Franklin with his kite and his key. She isn’t Joan of Arc. Her revelations will be less than divine, but divinity isn’t what she’s reaching for. Mere mortality will serve. Without the quiet way that time sifts away, she would have no reason to change. Her life is a closed system now; entropy reigns, and the best thing she can do is put her thoughts in order.
At night, when she dreams, the glories to come outweigh the horrors that were. She sighs in her sleep, clasping her pillow, as the stars whirl around her. The whorls of light spill across the black like ancient runes. She’s sure they tell a story, if only she could read them. If only she could reach them.
There is freedom in those stars. She will find it one day.
+ + + +
There are times she thinks her whole life revolves around the Doctor. Sometimes it frustrates her, but other times she hitches her shoulders up and accepts it. She could hardly help him being a major player in her life: she's destined for complication and timey-wimey wibbliness. Conceived in the TARDIS, stolen from her parents and brought up to kill the Doctor, aimed at him like a weapon - not much of a childhood, and not much of an adolescence, with Kovarian dropping in on teenage Mels to remind her, with excessive force, of her purpose. That part of her life she had very little control over. The Doctor was the thing that centered her, gave her meaning. She existed in sharp contrast to him, an equal and opposite force. She had a mission then. Now she has choices.
Given the choice, she might not have made him the lodestone of her life, the magnet that keeps drawing her back. Then again, she might have. Amy did. Others have done. She reads the stories and hears the echoes come down through the years of the songs of praise sung in his honor. Some waited the rest of their lives for the Doctor to return. Amy is lucky that she only had to wait twelve years. There are some still suffering, still waiting.
River will not be a girl who waited. She wasn't raised to be patient. She was raised to take action.
She goes out. She does other things. She goes to class. She bunks off school and tours the marketplace instead. Her favorite markets are the ones where she finds sleek, portable little weapons and other methods of causing distraction and destruction. She dates, heedless of gender or planet of origin - humans, aliens, a Nestene duplicate with swappable heads. She tries out sports and martial arts, testing the limits of this new body. There's a whole vast universe for her to explore, and she intends to relish every moment of it.
If there is more to her than the weapon, there must be more to her than the Doctor. She is not just a storybook villain. She thinks of the Teselecta again. It was so calm as it caught her in the beam. Leave it to a robot to relay such personal information with such perfect icy control. It had the same expression when it set her ablaze as it did when it turned her world upside down and told her she could be more than a tool, a victim, or a figure to be burned in effigy and cursed in the streets. The Doctor's killer, she thinks, would be lucky to suffer only that much. She did not realize what she was doing then. She does now, after hearing all the tales of the good wizard, the mysterious Doctor come to save the day. It was hope she would have slaughtered that day.
Melody Pond is a villain. River Song is a superhero. She builds herself a new story, one day at a time.
+ + + +
She isn't safe.
There are holes in her memory. She starts out in the library, some nights, and wakes up in her room, slumped over her desk, or she wakes up in the library with her books in the wrong order. She knows the feel of those holes. She has known them all her life. She cannot fill them. But she had thought she was safer here, for a while. She had thought they were finished with her. For a whole year, she could remember everything about her time at university, and then, one morning, she couldn’t. For months, the universe was her plaything. Now, one by one, she drops her social activities, forgets dates, stays home of a Friday night.
Something is taking moments of her life. Something is eating her memories. Something is leaving her less than she was, and she does not seem to have any defense against it. Strange, given her freeness with her weapon and her skill at taking on all comers. River grasps at the fragments of her thoughts: foremost is a ghostly figure, a half-remembered face with a strange name. Kovarian. It’s a slippery name, and there are times River can’t come up with it at all, when she only remembers the voice, or the hardness of the eyes, or the scent of her tormentor’s perfume. It's as if Kovarian built in some sort of vulnerability in her, some way to control her when the rest of River's mind is her own. Some way to make River’s memories slippery, phantoms in her own head.
She writes the name “Kovarian” on a page in her TARDIS-blue diary, adding fragments as she remembers them. The diary is always there close at hand, even when River forgets she’s ever written in it. Flipping through the pages with their promise of stories to tell is a comfort to her, one of the few she has lately. Most days she’s startled to see her own handwriting.
It isn't really any wonder that she qualifies as a sociopath. Her mind has never been her own. She hauls a psychological manual off the shelf one day and ticks off the symptoms. Antisocial behavior, failure to conform to societal expectations, aggressiveness, lack of regard for safety of self. Well, why not. She was brought up to kill a demi-god, honed like a knife to deliver the fatal blow to a legend. It's difficult to live by a mortal moral compass when you've been raised as a weapon, assured every day of your own unique abilities and your murderous destiny. It's difficult to regard the emotions of others when you can never be certain that your own emotions and experiences are genuine. Deception: survival. Impulsiveness: survival.
She puts the manual carefully away again. It's a large library. The librarians have enough to do.
Nature and nurture, she thinks. The fierce love of her parents and the cold cruelty of Madame Kovarian. The gentle, befuddled affection of Doctor Renfrew. The desperate hope in the Doctor's eyes as he lay dying of her poison, as he called her by the name of the woman he loves. Which parts of her are her? Which parts of her were bred or beaten into her?
She will not be anyone's pawn or plaything if she can help it. The holes in her memory tell her that she may not be able to help it, for now, but she will be River Song. She will write the book of her own life. She will find the cause of the holes and stop it from taking her life.
It had better beware, when she finds it. She inherited a great deal of her parents' tenacity, and she has a measure of her own, besides. Madame Kovarian wanted a weapon? She ought to fear the thing she made. River's taking the safety off.
+ + + +
She tries to go about her days with a modicum of normality. She tries to be as human as she can, outwardly. It doesn't help that her instinct when she's bored or irritated or angry is still to find the nearest nerve cluster guaranteed to have her antagonist slumped on the floor. At least she constrains it to idle calculations. She's saving the real fury, the rage that sustains her through the bad days. She's holding it deep inside herself, waiting for the day she can put the full force of it behind her plan to revenge herself on Madame Kovarian for the shredded mess of her life.
It's slow going, the plan. It doesn't help that she's losing time. She's keeping up in her courses, but it's difficult to formulate a strategy when bits of her life keep going missing. She's interested in this, at least, and it keeps her from spiraling into the despair and loathing she once felt. She's always been clever. All those years of talking back to her teachers didn't keep her from learning, though her curriculum now is much less Earth-centric. It's fascinating. There's a wide, wild universe opening before her, with opportunities for so much more than mere assassination.
She has dreams of the spacesuit sometimes. She wakes up grabbing her throat and gasping for air. She hardly remembers anything about it but the closeness of the air and the treacle-slowness of her movements and the reek of her own sweat, but it's enough. She's read the accounts of the Doctor's death. She put the pieces together. The prison of her childhood was the spacesuit; the sins of her life will one day be revisited.
Melody Pond is the woman who killed the Doctor. The Impossible Astronaut will kill the Doctor. She does not look forward to that day, or back to it. It's another twist in time, a fixed point that wrenches at her.
She fears that day, when she can remember to. Things like that seem more likely to fall through the holes in her memory. The books relating the events of the Doctor's death are well-thumbed now and mostly stacked on her particular table, and when she goes to take notes, she finds that she has a few already, and that the pages are all marked.
It is troubling, to be so close and to have all of her thoughts slipping from her grasp.
She has one other memory of the spacesuit: peering through the glass plate and watching Amy level a gun at her. The bullet ricocheted, fortunately. Her mother didn't have the best aim at the time. River will have to go and teach her mother how to shoot one of these days, just in case. She has the feeling that Amy will be a natural.
There was a photo on her dresser at Graystark Hall, River remembers, of a radiant Amy cradling the infant Melody in her arms. River thinks sometimes that she can remember back that far. She has hazy drifts of memory. As she's falling asleep, Amy murmurs to her about her brave father who will leave no stone in the universe unturned, Rory the Centurion, a warrior from beyond time. In the space between waking and dreaming, the Doctor tells her that bow ties are cool as she gurgles in her swaddling.
She might feel strange about that if he had not outlived everyone he has ever loved. She has read about the Time Wars. She has teased the history of Gallifrey from between the lines of the stories. Not much got through the time lock, but she has gleaned enough to understand his guilt and his agony.
That is something else they share. The sins in the ledgers of their lives seem unforgivable, debts that can never be repaid.
+ + + +
River wakes up with her face in a book of old Earth poetry - kisses are a better fate than wisdom. She stretches, groaning. There are days she would agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Today isn't one of them, unfortunately. She has been too distracted for kisses of late. She is close to something secret, something cruel.
The holes in her memory are larger now, and they happen more frequently. Something is coming for her. The air around her nearly crackles with menace. She gets nervous looks from the librarians, even the virtual ones. Her fellow students skirt her.
Her mind runs in desperate circles. On good days, she can remember the name of her warden. On bad days, she can barely remember her own name, and she fumbles subtly for her gun when people speak to her. She’s had to leave off carrying it, after more than one close call. Another reason her fellows avoid her. But on the good days, she remembers: Kovarian, and the space suit, and the sweat-hot nights in Florida.
She knows Madame Kovarian is behind this somewhere, though it must be more than just Kovarian; she had a great many methods for causing suffering, but at least River can remember them, which means that this is something different. They will take her again and again and again and they will never stop until something makes them stop.
She could make them stop, if she could remember. But they take her memories, which are all she has of herself that they have not given her. They gave her ruthlessness. They gave her perfect aim and an easy trigger finger. They gave her the ability to seduce, to menace, to intimidate, to walk into a room and have the attention of every being in it. But her memories are her own, and her newfound capacity for mercy.
River sighs and brushes the page of the book with her palm before closing the cover tenderly. Kisses are indeed a better fate than wisdom, in this case. She tries very hard to resist this urge. Today, though, she needs a holiday.
He isn't difficult to find, especially since she's read all the lore. It isn't difficult to come across a Time Agent willing to take her where she wants to go, either. Speak with a certain amount of urgency, show enough cleavage, and grease the right palms and you can get anywhere in the universe - no century is that enlightened, for better or worse. In the blink of an eye she's in Paris, 1924, in front of Les Deux Magots, where the Doctor – her Doctor, although they’re all fond of this place - is brooding cheerfully over a hot chocolate. She’ll never know how he manages that particular expression.
"Doctor," she says, sitting down across from him.
"River," he says affably. "Or is it Melody, still?"
"River will do," she tells him with a shrug. "I made a choice in Berlin. It seems foolish to go back on it now."
"Much easier for me when you're not trying to kill me," he agrees.
"I'd imagine it is," she says pointedly. He smiles at her and she smiles back, a little disgruntled by the way her heart leaps at the light in his eyes.
"So what can I do for you?" he asks in a voice that shouldn't be nearly so seductive. She wonders if he has any inkling of the effect he has on her. She rather hopes he doesn't. He's smiling at her with that same air of daft wisdom that he usually has, or so she's gathered in the rather brief span of their acquaintance. Then again, he's usually a few steps ahead of most people. But she isn't most people. She's hardly even people, though she's been working on it.
"Tell me a story," she says.
"River Song," she says.
"Ah," he says, settling back in his chair. "I might need a piece of pie to fortify me."
She waits patiently as he orders his sweet, and she gets a café crème for herself. She nibbles at the biscuit that comes with it as the Doctor eats his strawberry tart with enthusiasm.
"That's the stuff," he says. "Like nowhere else ever." He smiles and River stirs sugar into her coffee, tapping the spoon on the side of her cup.
"Something's happening, Doctor," she says.
"Oh, River," he says affectionately, and she tries not to smile at him. "Innumerable things are happening throughout the universe and you are one of them. That should make you feel either extremely important or immensely lonely, depending."
"Business as usual, I should think," she suggests.
He twinkles at her. "That's my girl."
"Is it?" she asks, toying with her spoon.
"You know better than that," he says, quietly reproachful as she drinks her coffee. "You don't need me to tell you who you are, whoever you are."
"Indulge me," she says, keeping her voice light. "Aren't I the woman who marries you?"
"And they lived happily ever after," he tells her. "Or so the stories say."
"The stories always say that," she says. "Even the ones where I'm the woman who murders you. That doesn't mean it's the truth."
"That sort of day, is it?" he asks. "I know those days." He studies her with warm old sad eyes. "All right, dear. A story."
He takes a deep breath. River orders another coffee and a tart of her own.
"Once upon a time," he begins, "there was a woman named River Song. She was clever, far more clever than she had a right to be, really. In all the universe there was hardly anybody as clever as she was. She had two parents who loved her dearly, though their family life was more than a little confusing. She could accomplish anything she set her mind to, and one thing she enjoyed a great deal was keeping an old man out of trouble." He winked at her. "Then again, she also enjoyed creating a great deal of trouble for him."
"This story lacks narrative tension," she tells him, "and really any plot at all." She sighs. “I had hopes for something a little more clear-cut, with possibly a happily-ever-after.”
"It's still being written," he tells her. "Keep your diary. It'll all be clear eventually, River. As clear as it can be, anyway. I honestly don't know much more of it than you do, at this point."
She gazes at him. His eyes are troubled, though he's trying to keep his face smooth and calm. "Rule one. The Doctor lies."
He ducks his head, smiling. "So do you, dear."
She plays with the crumbs on her plate. "So am I the woman who marries you or the woman who murders you? Or shall I be both? I've nearly done the killing bit, and then there was that kiss."
"It remains to be seen," he tells her. "If it helps, I asked you once if you were married. You said yes."
She sighs. "I ought to fall in love with someone less roundabout if I know what's good for me."
He laughs. "It would be better for your health, I imagine. Perhaps somewhat worse for mine. Believe me, I've been just as frustrated as you are now."
"Spoilers," she says.
"Exactly," he tells her. "Can I drop you somewhere? Sometime?"
"I'd like that," she says.
They leave the café and walk down one of the narrow Paris alleyways. The TARDIS is there, more familiar than home, with a couple of posters stuck to it already. The Doctor snaps his fingers and the door of the TARDIS swings open. River walks in, a little cautiously. She did shoot it, the last time. It allowed her to fly it, but she wasn't certain if she was forgiven. But the TARDIS hums at her, warm and sweet, and River relaxes. The Doctor spins around the console, showing off, making all sorts of unnecessary overcorrections. River can see how the things he does are wrong, somehow, or she can sense them. She goes along behind him, fixing this gadget and tweaking that one until the TARDIS is nearly purring.
"There," the Doctor says with satisfaction.
"Very impressive, sweetie," River tells him.
"You're fiddling with things," he accuses.
"I'll always be fiddling with things," she says airily.
"Well," he says, and his eyes are full of mischief and affection. "That's a promise."
She leans against one of his comfy chairs and contemplates her life. She is not whole - she can never forget that her memory is full of holes, and that she will have to solve this mystery - but she is happier than she can remember being. He is leaping about in his manic way, endlessly energetic, the youngest old man she's known.
He leaves her in front of the block of flats. She thinks about kissing him, to make up for the last time, but he startles her by leaning in and kissing her cheek before she can do anything. His lips are warm and dry against her cheek and his ridiculous forelock brushes her skin and for a blissful, blessed moment, her mind is perfectly still and everything is in balance.
"I'll be seeing you," he says.
"Let a girl know when you're dropping by," she says airily. "I'll make sure I'm decent."
"Then how will I know you?" the Doctor teases, and before she has time to retort, he's gone.
+ + + +
When she finds the time, she tries to remember her childhood. It's troubling how few memories she has, considering the clarity of the moments she can recall. If she can remember Amy soothing her, which must have been very soon after she was born given the timeline she's pieced together, why can't she remember her first steps, or her first book, or her first anything?
She wishes again that she could go and see her parents, except that what she wants most is to curl up next to Amy on the sofa and have Amy put her arm around her and tell her everything will be all right. River wants a kiss on the forehead and a cozy snuggle with her mum. She wants to watch bad telly with Rory and have him explain all the jokes unnecessarily. Every girl wants her mother sometimes, she thinks, regardless of history and situation. But she still looks older than Amy (and she probably feels older than Amy does as well, given everything that's happened) and she still isn't certain how she'd be received.
One day they'll be friends again. One day they'll be family. One day she'll be able to drop in for a hug and a cuppa.
She wishes she weren't always promising herself one day, but she's in stasis now, trapped in her own head. She can't move forward when she's not sure she'll remember tomorrow. She's still doing fine in her classes; it's her free time she can't seem to keep hold of.
Every day she's inching closer to a crisis point. She can feel it in her bones. There's something they can't take from her: the instincts they gave her. She flings herself into her studies. The less she seems to care about them, the sooner they'll come for her, she hopes.
River spends a great deal of time in the library. It's where she seems the least safe. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but it's past time to move things along. In the back of her head, alarm bells are ringing. Every time she wakes up, she's not sure where she's been. She doesn't remember getting home. She doesn't remember pulling out that book, much less falling asleep with her face pressed into the pages. Waking up to e.e. cummings wasn't so bad, but lately it's been William Blake: "He who desires but acts not breeds Pestilence" and "The cut worm forgives the plow".
She will not forgive the plow.
She flings herself into her studies. She has her thesis to write, after all: compiling stories of the Doctor, unraveling the myth of the man and trying to find her place in history. She works feverishly, long into the night. She turned off her phone long ago. She hasn't been on a date in ages. She tired of being told she was too much for people, too intense and too wrapped up in her work. She hasn't had the patience to tone herself down to a level people can bear and besides, how would she explain it if she disappeared in the middle of a tryst. She's certain that whoever is taking her wouldn't hesitate to steal her away from any situation. They'd probably laugh if she were in flagrante delicto.
River Song will not surrender those moments to anyone else. She won’t surrender any moment. Time is a wibbly-wobbly, twisty-turny precious thing and she has given up enough of it already.
+ + + +
The more of her thesis she writes, the deeper in love she falls with the Doctor. It isn’t that she’s trying to; she can’t help herself. He has his own unique and very strange charms. She must have been a little bit in love with him all her life, she thinks: the child dreaming of rescue, the girl dreaming of vengeance, and now the woman dreaming of freedom. She remembers the light in Amy’s eyes when she spoke of the raggedy Doctor who’d just shown up in her garden one night and eaten fish fingers and custard. How could she not love a man who ate fish fingers and custard? The mad, impossible Doctor: no wonder he and her mother got along so well.
She watched a movie once where the scorned woman lightly told the ingénue that there was nothing more attractive to a man than a woman who was in love with him. The reverse is just as true. The Doctor was in love with her in Berlin: she can read him easily, having studied him all her life. At least, he was in love with River. It worked to her advantage at the time: her brand new body was probably the one in all the universe he would most easily accept a kiss from, even if the woman inside it didn’t quite match his expectations. It really was quite charming, the way he called her name. It pulled at the strings of a heart she’d tried to forget.
River and the Doctor: a fairytale with no happily ever after, only once upon a time. But she was never made for happily ever afters. She lives in the moment. She flings her arms around danger the way she flung her arms around him and gave him all her lives. She imagines that he understands to some extent, stumbling through the universe the way he does. It isn't always easy to find your footing when you're hell in high heels
She can’t not love the Doctor, not after giving him her last breath. He gave her her future. He gave her her lost hope. She gave him her heart along with her lives. She thinks it’s a fair trade. And oh, that kiss.
Every so often she puts down the book and dreams of Berlin and the Doctor. She has had so little time with him, but she relives it in her mind as if it were an eternity. She makes a list of the things she likes about him. She likes flummoxing him. She likes the look in his eyes when he looks at her. She likes the way his body turns toward hers and his posture softens. And he's attractive, of course, in his lanky way. But it was his courage that turned her tentative admiration into the seed of love, and his deceitfulness. "No one can save me," he'd said, but River could, if she wanted.
She didn't want to, at first. Terminating him was her primary mission, her life's work, and however alluring she found him, the loss of one potential partner hardly mattered in a whole universe of possibilities. But he loved her. And she liked that. He lied to her with a straight face when he was dying and of everything he might have done - begged, bargained, given up - she liked that the most about him, that he gave her the space to think it through and decide. She liked that he lied to her.
She knows that isn't normal. One is supposed to expect truth from one's potential partner, or so the books have told her. Then again, she enjoys living dangerously, and it wouldn't be much fun at all if her counterpart didn't challenge her intellectually. For some, that means crossword puzzles in bed of a Sunday morning. For the duplicate, it was putting on a new face. For her, it means these elaborate mind games, the long con, the one-upmanship of the excessively clever.
If the Doctor didn't respect her wits, he wouldn't have lied. If the Doctor didn't expect her to figure it out, he wouldn't have lied. It gives her a warm feeling under her ribs, thinking of how highly he must regard her, to have tried to deceive her. The faith he must have had in her, to lie there dying, knowing that his salvation was a million to one chance and could only come at her hands. The faith he must have had that Melody would choose River, that she would choose him after spending her whole life to date trying to end his.
Yes, it definitely makes the long nights bearable, that knowledge, as she feverishly researches and writes and waits to be taken against her will to parts unknown to do god only knows what dark deeds. She will be who she wants to be. He’s as good as told her so.
River and the Doctor: they’re a destiny and a destination. When she dreams, she’s in the TARDIS, drifting through the stars, the Doctor warm and wry beside her.
She wonders, on the bad days, if he longs to see her the way she longs to see him. It was so peaceful together in Paris. She yearns for that peace, yearns for it in her bones. It is worst when she’s weary, and she is always weary these days, waiting for the sword of Damocles over her head to sever its slim thread and drop.
+ + + +
One night he is waiting for her in the park outside her flat, lounging on a bench, watching people mingle and part. He jumps up when he sees her hauling her load of books home. He’s her Doctor and she’s desperately glad about it. She knows all his faces by now, of course, but this is the one that makes her heart stutter in her chest.
“Hallo, River,” he says, a little bit nervously. “You, ah, don’t want to kill me, do you?”
“No,” she says, warm relief flooding through her.
“I thought I’d drop by,” he tells her. “See how you’re getting on with your archaeology. It isn’t a bad time, is it?”
“Not especially,” she says.
He wrings his hands together. “I didn’t quite mean to come now. Much earlier than I meant to be, actually. It was the TARDIS, you see. Every now and again she has to have her way and there’s no talking her around. Not a frightful lot of TARDIS mechanics around these days either, and I’ve had a bit of a falling out with the chap that used to work on her. But nevermind. How are you?”
“Exhausted,” she says frankly. The books in her arms are very heavy, but she feels much lighter herself, as if a weight has been lifted from her. He cares.
“Sit down, sit down!” he tells her, gesturing at the bench.
“Bad things are happening,” she tells him.
“Bad things always do,” he says, gazing at her with a worried expression. “I hesitate to say it, but it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, River. And by likely, I really mean assuredly. It’s absolutely certain to get worse.”
“I know,” she says. She remembers, suddenly, the reek of the spacesuit juxtaposed over the prophecy. The Impossible Astronaut will rise from the lake. She chops off the thought before it can finish. The Doctor is sitting hale and hearty next to her. She will cherish that while it lasts.
He hesitates. “I hate to mess about with history….”
“Since when?” she asks, closing her eyes.
“Well, I try to hate it,” he tells her. “But it will get better, River. You’ll get through this. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but there are bright days ahead.”
“It’s always darkest before the dawn, eh?” she murmurs, opening her eyes again.
“Something like that,” he says, “although that’s a stupid saying and not at all true. It’s quite light before dawn. Coldest, maybe, but certainly not darkest.”
“You’ll just have to figure out who said it first and go and find them and tell them they’re wrong,” she says.
“A worthy occupation for a Thursday afternoon,” he muses. “Nothing good ever happens on a Thursday afternoon.”
“It’s Thursday today,” she points out.
“Is it?” The Doctor looks around and sniffs the air. “So it is. Surely the moon has its own week.”
“We keep Earth time for convenience,” she tells him. “Some of the students commute. So there’s one good thing that’s ever happened on a Thursday afternoon.”
His eyes are soft as he looks at her, soft and worried and very old. She reaches out for his hand and he meets her halfway, lacing his fingers through hers.
“Where are we?” he asks.
“In limbo, I think,” she says. “Living one day at a time. I’ve only seen you once since Berlin. It was lovely. We ate strawberry tarts in Paris.”
“I hate waiting,” he says. “It’s awful.”
“Yes,” she agrees.
“River, I…” he begins to say and trails off, gazing at her, and the unhappiness in his voice is more than she can stand. She can nearly hear the words he wants to say pushing against the silence they know he has to keep. It is a complicated matter, being in love with a traveler of time.
“Shhh, sweetie,” she says. She lets go of his hand in order to push her books aside so that she can move closer to him. He puts his arm around her; she fits as neatly against his body as if she was made to be there. They watch the sunlight spill over the curve of the Earth.
She’s always loved this park. She’ll love it even more for the memory of this moment, if she can remember it, even if it doesn’t feel like new love they’re sharing, more like the pain of former lovers who had to leave but love each other still. She can feel how out of joint their timing is. She wishes it weren’t this way. It would be a great comfort to take his hand again and lead him back to her bedroom and kiss him until all of her troubles melt away, but instinctively she knows how dangerous that would be. Even this is dangerous, sitting here with him, the two of them united in unhappy longing for a time that hasn’t come or may not come again.
It is a gorgeous moment, a poignant moment. It ought to hang in the Musée d’Orsay, she thinks: only the Impressionists could capture how much it means that the two of them, River and her Doctor, are sitting on a bench in the Earthlight, saying nothing so intently that their edges seem to blur together. Or a Surrealist, perhaps; her heart is melted and stretched by his nearness.
“There’s a storm coming,” he says, pointing out the distinctive shape of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Yes,” she says, charmed by his efforts to warn her of what the future holds without really saying it. “It seems there’s always a storm somewhere.”
He takes a breath as if he’s about to speak and then lets it all out again. River takes his hand.
“It’s all right, my love,” she says, the endearment rolling comfortably off her tongue. “I’ve lived through worse.”
“We could go,” he offers. “You could come away with me. The TARDIS misses you, I think. I keep walking into your room.”
She gazes into his eyes. His face, his beautiful dear Doctor face, is creased with worry. “They call it a fixed point for a reason. It wouldn’t help. And I have work to do. I can only hope I won’t remember the rest of it, when the time comes, if things go as I suspect they will.”
“You’re much too clever for your own good,” he says, his mouth twisted unhappily. “It runs in the family, I suppose.”
“I suppose it does,” she tells him. “At least my enemy is kind enough to offer me the mercy of forgetting, though I do wish they’d hold off for a while.” She pauses. “I’m not even certain I’ll remember this tomorrow.”
He tightens his arm around her. She lays her head on his shoulder. He has given her enough morsels of her future that she could be sustained through the darkness, if she could be certain of holding onto the knowledge of them. She has a room in the TARDIS. He has come to her from the wrong side of the event horizon. Eventually, all manner of things shall be well.
“It’s all right,” she says after a bit. “I’m happy now. Surely that ought to count for something, in the scheme of things.”
“Not enough,” he says fiercely.
“I’ll let you take it up with whoever’s causing us all this misery,” she tells him. “It’s slipped my grasp for the moment.”
“And so I shall,” he says, his voice ominous.
They sit for a while just breathing together, being together, taking comfort in the presence of each other.
“I’ll come round again sometime,” he promises. “Just shout or something, any time you need.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” she says, already knowing that in her hour of need, he’ll be just beyond her reach.
+ + + +
She writes it down in her diary, the time the Doctor came to see her and they basked in the Earthlight. She draws a little sketch of the scene – the bench, the tension in his face. It isn’t much, but it’s all she has. Under it, she writes a quotation from Much Ado About Nothing: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?” She wonders how it will read, later, if the sentiment will come through correctly, soft and wondering. She wonders who will read it.
A few days layer, she walks past the bench and smiles and doesn’t know why. It’s the same as any of the other benches. There’s no reason it should make her smile. There’s really no reason she should be smiling at all; she has an awful headache again, and the words pressed into her forehead were Yeats this time. “The centre cannot hold.” Whoever it is has a fondness for 18th and 19th century British and Irish poets, but she can’t fault them for that. That was her favorite bit of school in Leadworth. Her English teacher was the only one who liked Mels, really, and even she got a bit puzzled over Mels’ affection for the more gruesome bits of poetry.
River sighs. Things are falling apart. Like the falcon, she cannot hear the falconer and mere anarchy inches closer every moment. She cannot bear it, and yet, she will. One day they will take her and then she will have her chance to live by her sword or die on it like the weapon she is.
Even a bespoke psychopath isn’t tailored quite to fit the Doctor’s narrow frame, as it turns out. She couldn’t get past his hearts.
+ + + +
So they take her, of course. She’s in the library on her graduation day, everything done but nowhere else to go, and suddenly Madame Kovarian is there, and the Silence. River knows them; she has always known them; and the second she looks away, she forgets they were ever there. She blinks and the woman’s name escapes her. The face is familiar, but she can’t place it, can’t find the words.
She wants to fight them, but as soon as she turns, she forgets why she’s fighting. She’s overwrought already, happiness and sadness all mixed up because she graduated today, she’s a proper doctor and all, but she still didn’t have the courage to invite her family, and the Doctor didn’t come either. She thought he might, thought it might be some sort of milestone in their lives together, but it turned out to be the same as any other day, only with a little more pomp and circumstance, and now a little more mortal peril.
River would run. River would fight. The woman she wants to be would take a stand. But she looks at Madame Kovarian (ah, that’s the name) and she is that helpless little girl again, not a woman of substance and courage but a child who only knows fear and violence. She is not strong enough to resist them, like the bull who still thinks the farmer can lift him the way he did when the bull was a calf. She is hobbled by her own mind and her own memories of darkness and despair. No child ought to be treated that way. No child ought to be put into training fourteen hours a day, only to fall into bed and have nightmares and wake up to the hollow-eyed creatures of her nightmares looming over her. No adult ought to have to face it either, but they surround her, and she is paralyzed by old fears.
Silence falls. There is only the buzzing in her ears.
When she comes back to her own mind, she is somewhere else. It takes her a moment, one endless panicked moment, to realize that she is in the space suit. She is under water. The water presses down on her, but the suit holds. She can hear her own frantic breathing and her pulse thuds in her ears. Slowly she calms herself, taking deep breaths and holding them. The suit smells the same as it always has, plastic and metal and the rancid reek of fearful sweat. She hates it, hates everything about it, but she will not let her own fear defeat her.
So. The prophecy holds. The Impossible Astronaut rises to strike down the Doctor. Lake Silencio. Utah, United States of America, Earth, the solar system, Milky Way Galaxy. The 22nd of April, 2011. At least she knows where and when she is. It’s a start.
River can’t move much, and it’s more than just the water pressure. It’s the weight of the prophecy, she thinks: they’ve overridden the controls and frozen the joints of the suit, leaving nothing to chance. Automatically she checks the systems. She didn’t know she knew how to do that anymore, but the child Melody remembers. All systems are normal. Plenty of air in her tanks. No leaks in the suit. She has weapons, good ones, but she won’t discharge them yet. She’ll wait. She’s been waiting a long time.
Except for the smell, it’s almost peaceful in the suit, in the way that prison might be peaceful. The water washes back and forth across the faceplate. The hiss of the air recycling system is sinister, but it’s a little bit comforting as well, just because it’s a sound she knows so well. The framework supports her much better than it did when she was younger. The suit fits her now. She’s grown into it.
It’s an unpleasant thought.
So they’ve been cultivating her for this moment. This is it: this must be the reason they took pregnant Amy from her home, stole the infant Melody from her mother’s arms, and raised her in isolation. The poison of the Judas tree was a ruse. It was just another way to test the boundaries of the Doctor’s boundless cleverness, and, she supposes, to test her own loyalty. The Impossible Astronaut is a fixed point, and her defection makes it all the more poignant. She can almost hear Kovarian smirking.
She’ll be damned if she’ll play along with their games. There’s got to be something she can do. She’s breathing faster again, distracted from her calming routine, but there’s anger along with the fear and sadness. Anger she can work with. She lets it build inside her until she’s crying, hot furious tears that they would have her do this, that they would have her take the hope of billions out of spite and misery. After all of her work to remake herself, they want to put her back into their mold.
She isn’t little Melody Pond anymore. She’s something much, much more dangerous than Melody Pond.
Something releases in the suit with a little clicking noise and suddenly she can move. She takes slow heavy steps toward where the water is lighter; it’s hard to see the slope of the bottom, but she can tell by the way the sun filters down where the water is shallower. Every thudding footfall feels like destiny in the making. As the helmet breaches the water she can see her family through the faceplate, lying on the beach enjoying themselves with no inkling of what is to come. She can see herself. She flexes her fingers in the gloves and grits her teeth. She tastes the salt of her tears.
She has been waiting for this her whole life. She isn’t waiting now.
+ + + +
Her family turns and stares at her in horror. They stand up. Wine spills scarlet on the sand, bright as blood. It’s amazing what she can see through the tinted glass of the helmet. She can see Amy’s mouth move, but she can’t hear a word.
The Doctor touches his forelock in salute and sways down the beach toward her. He stands in front of her, dying again, brave again, and it breaks her heart.
The suit engages. Her arm rises toward him as she begs for anything to happen, anything else. She begs him to be cleverer than this.
The Doctor forgives her and closes his eyes.
No one can save her but herself. No one can save him but her.
World without end, amen.
+ + + +
And so, after all, she is the woman who murders the Doctor.
Except that she isn’t.
She takes a fixed point and she changes it. River Song, child of the TARDIS, flexing her muscle. She looks the Doctor in the eyes and doesn’t kill him. His cleverness has failed; hers hasn’t.
Time comes undone.
+ + + +
She’s in the suit and not in the suit all at once.
In one universe, she kills the Doctor and walks back into the water and the Silence take her. They take her memories. They leave her in the library. She wakes up shaking and shivering and crying and doesn’t know why.
In another, the one she chooses, happening at the same time, River walks into the TARDIS instead, avoiding her other self, and finds a vortex manipulator in a room that feels like her. She wants to stay; her heart aches at the hominess of the place, but it’s too dangerous. She’s a hazard. If she touches the Doctor, it will undo everything she’s tried to accomplish today. River takes a deep breath and presses a button on the vortex manipulator just as the Doctor starts calling for her. She’s gone. She’s free. She rips her way out of the suit in a back alley of a black market and buys herself a fresh outfit and a trip to the local bathhouse.
River checks her watch. It’s 5:02 p.m. It was 5:02 p.m. last time she checked it. It’s 5:02 p.m. on a planet with a four hour day. She shakes her wrist to see if that will help, even though she knows it’s not the battery that’s gone dead. It’s time itself.
The Doctor’s alive and that’s worth every lost minute, she tells herself fiercely. The universe has hope still, and that’s a better prize than watching time slide away. Take that, physicists: she’s still running and walking and living and so is everything else. It’s a plausible impossibility that she’s able to pull air into her lungs and push it out again, but then again, it’s a big universe, and she’s more than accustomed to the impossible by now.
Everything’s perfect, except that time isn’t moving. She can feel the drag of it in her bones. There should be momentum, and there’s nothing. There should be change, and there’s nothing. It feels like years are stacked up like water behind a dam. She hasn’t been to this planet before. She doesn’t have much of a reference point – it was programmed into the vortex manipulator, so perhaps she’ll have been there at some point in her life, but for now, this is the first time. She can’t tell which bits of history are piled up on top of each other, only that there are layers that there shouldn’t be.
There’s a little street stand at the corner serving up bowls of hot noodles. River takes a seat and orders. She doesn’t remember the last time she ate properly: with her research and her captivity in the space suit and the fluctuation calibration of the vortex manipulator and time piling up on itself, it might have been a thousand years ago. The noodles are good, floating in spicy, salty broth, twining around chunks of what must pass for vegetables and seafood on this planet. She finishes her bowl and orders another, then sits back with a sigh.
There’s a clock over the counter. As she watches it, one of the hands moves. This world isn’t the problem, then. It’s Earth, her planet, her home. Wherever she goes, Earth is always her home. It’s Earth that’s suffering.
If the Earth is in a time bubble, River will be able to get in, but she won’t be able to get out a second time. The first was likely a fluke – she was time-displaced already, and so the bubble allowed her to be expelled. She eats her second bowl of noodles slowly, thinking things through. There isn’t any way around it: she needs to be there. She needs weapons. She needs intelligence.
She needs her parents.
She’s certain that there are others from the Doctor’s past who could be of help. Martha Jones and Mickey Smith, just for a start – she ran across them a number of times in her research, and they’re still in the right timeline, on the right planet, not as far as she knows suffering from any debilitating brain fevers at the mention of the Doctor’s name. They might have started out civilians, but they’re soldiers now, true to the bone and fighting the good fight. But she doesn’t know them, even if she feels she has the measure of them from the accounts she’s read. They might not be amenable to her request. River isn’t exactly a known entity, or possibly she’s too well-known. Unpredictable at best, treacherous at worst. The memory of the Teselecta’s scorching gaze sears across her skin and she tenses. No, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith are out. They won’t want to ally themselves with her. Perhaps by now they feel they’ve done enough. River would blame them.
The Doctor’s other Companions don’t seem to suit her purposes, for one reason or the other. She knows her parents, even if they might feel they don’t know her, caught in that liminality between selves as she is, not Melody and not Mels and not quite the River she wants to be, though she’s trying. Better to run the risk with them than with strangers. Surely family will forgive her.
The vortex manipulator is comfortingly heavy on her wrist. River puts in the coordinates for London. London is where everything always happens; London is where the Ponds will be. She drinks down the last of her broth, drops a few coins on the counter, and activates the vortex manipulator, and the noodle stand disappears.
+ + + +
London is full of sights and sounds and civilization and history. All of history at once, it seems. There is the Gherkin and the London Eye, but there are steam trains and balloon cars and dirigibles and Roman chariots in the street. The War of the Roses is in the headlines of all the papers. Charles Dickens is on the telly discussing his new book. Winston Churchhill wears a toga in every press conference and the press address him as Caesar. It’s as if someone commissioned Jules Verne to shape the city and he went a bit mad and threw in some of everything. It’s Steampunk Extreme, complete with pterodactyls in the parks.
It’s too much, which is absolutely the world that River wants to live in. It’s a world where archaeology doesn’t matter a bit, because nothing ever ended. River itches to skip down to Mohenjo-Daro, as if she couldn’t have gotten her questions answered any time she wanted. But she reminds herself that she’s here to find the Ponds and the Doctor. River smiles and heads straight for the loudest noises she can find. Eventually that will lead her to the people she’s seeking.
It takes much less time than she expected. Loud noises always attract the attention of peacekeeping and security forces, which turns out to include Rory, looking very professional in his black uniform, and where Rory is, Amy’s always around. River walks right up to her father and says, “Take me to your leader.”
“Seriously?” he asks. There’s not a flicker of recognition in his face; she’ll have to hope for better with Amy when she finds her, but at least here’s an in.
“Seriously,” she assures him. “I want to enlist. Join up. Whatever it’s called.”
Rory sighs. “You’re not going to be trouble, are you?”
“Absolutely not,” River tells him, crossing her fingers behind her back.
It doesn’t take much more talking to have him take her straight to his superior, who is, unsurprisingly and conveniently, Amy. She’s head of Rory’s security force: big desk, fancy office, the whole shebang. Once again, the universe lines itself up in River’s favor, or maybe it’s just that they’re all so hopelessly tangled up in each other’s lives that there’s no timeline where they won’t find each other.
“This is the volunteer, marm,” Rory says, standing back respectfully.
Amy looks her up and down. “Leave us, please.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, marm,” Rory says.
“Just outside the door please, Captain Williams,” Amy says, and it’s clearly not a request. Rory retreats. Amy squints across her desk, ignoring the muted buzzing and hushed murmurs coming from the communication devices scattered across her desk. “Do I know you?”
“A bit,” River says, biting her lip. “This is going to sound very strange, I’m afraid, but I’m your daughter.”
Amy laughs in delight and leaps out of her chair. “River!”
“Amy!” River says back in relief. They have a hug, nearly crushing each other in delight. “What do you remember?”
“Not everything,” Amy tells her. “I remember you, a bit – not all of why this is the way it is, why my daughter is older than I am, or looks it, but I know you’re my little Melody, all grown up. And I know the Doctor’s out there somewhere, and I know that time not going anywhere has something to do with him.”
“Yes, it’s usually something to do with him,” River sighs.
“Nearly always,” Amy corrects, and they laugh. “So what are we going to do?” She looks at River expectantly.
“Well,” River says. “The first thing to do is find Madame Kovarian. I think the rest will follow from there. I have a plan.”
“I knew you did,” Amy says in satisfaction. “Good old River. You never let us down.”
“Don’t I?” River asks, suddenly shy and a little sad.
“Never,” Amy assures her with another one-armed hug.
“What else do you remember?” River asks.
Amy tosses her hair behind her shoulder, an old familiar gesture. “Well, I’ve got a husband out there somewhere. Rory, he’s called. Your dad. I can’t remember what he looks like, though. I’ve got a few drawings.” She rifles through her desk drawers and unlocks a secret compartment. She thrusts a collection of papers at River. “Here. I think that’s him.”
River struggles not to laugh at the sketch of someone much blonder and bulkier and easier-going than Rory. “It’s an excellent likeness, I’m sure.” She flips through the rest of the drawings. There’s the TARDIS and a Dalek – nasty things, she’s heard – and a whole array of other ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the long night of space. She comes to a picture of Amy’s raggedy Doctor and just stares at it fondly.
“River,” Amy says quietly in that intense Amy voice. “We’re going to find him, aren’t we? We’re going to fix this.”
“Oh, Amy,” River breathes, still gazing at the rough drawing, “we’re going to do so much more than that.”
+ + + +
When Amy leaves, her boys and girls come with her. It’s as simple as that. River wears black to blend in, but she isn’t really a recruit. She needs more freedom than the regulars have. She’ll never find Kovarian as part of a squad. There’s more to it than Kovarian, but she can’t quite find words to fit. There’s always some horror on the tip of her tongue when she tells Amy where she’s been and what she’s doing, but in the end, she always falls silent.
Rory is extremely suspicious of her until she proves herself at the firing range. After that, he doesn’t quite give her the cold shoulder, but neither does he really accept her until she takes out three thugs sneaking up behind him.
“Thanks,” he says, just a hint of grudging in his voice.
“Don’t mention it, Captain Williams,” she says, checking her gun.
“So where are you leading us?” he asks. “I know you’re assigned to some kind of secret mission. I assume I’ll need to know at some point?”
“At some point, surely,” River says. “Just follow my lead, Captain. I have a vested interest in keeping you alive.”
“Oh?” Rory says, in a tone that clearly says, “tell me more”.
“Sorry, Captain,” River says, because it’s just too easy. “That’s classified.”
Rory just nods and looks so stoic and serious that River wants to throw her arms around him and tell him everything. This is her old dad, this brave man. Half the steel in her comes from him. She’ll fix this, she’ll fix all of this, if it means she has the chance of being part of a family. This will be her redemption song. It will make her worthy of being among these kind, generous, strong, loving people. She will see it through to the bitter end. Even if it means the Doctor dies. She will keep his memory alive. She will sing his praises and speak truly of his faults.
+ + + +
She hopes, she hopes that the Doctor is too clever for all of this. If anyone can see a way out, surely he can. But the only way she knows to fix this is to go back to the fixed point. She has to let the Doctor die. She has to let him meet his fate. The Impossible Astronaut must rise. The Doctor must fall.
River looks at her watch reflexively. It is 5:02 p.m. It is always 5:02 p.m. Somewhere deep in her bones, she feels the universe creaking at the seams. They will all die if the Doctor doesn’t die. Time can’t stay this way. Already there are cracks and faults and things falling through them, so that Romans live alongside Churchill downloading music onto their phones and dirigibles swerve to avoid the sharp-edged skyscrapers of twenty-first century London.
She knew this would happen and she made her choice anyway, and she’d do it again just the same. She’s too desperately, hopelessly in love not to give him this chance, not to have the time to tell him what’s she’s realized while she’s been reforging herself. She has faith in him. He’s too clever to let this opportunity slip.
The woman who marries the Doctor. The woman who murders him. She hopes her destinies aren’t necessarily consecutive. She’d hate to miss the honeymoon.
+ + + +
Despite River’s expert knowledge, it still takes some time to find Kovarian and the Doctor. Fortunately, Amy’s spent the interval leveraging her cleverness and getting them some really good contacts. Apparently there’s a group of Americans very keen on establishing extraterrestrial contact. At least Amy could promise them that, even if it likely won’t be quite what they’re expecting. The Doctor is never quite what anyone expects.
River helps with the negotiations, when she’s stalled on where to find her half-forgotten nemesis. Cleopatra is quite the handful; River quite enjoys that particular discussion. She gets to use her gun and everything. Cleopatra’s a tempestuous flirt with a keen eye for politics, but River wins her over. In the end, Cleopatra subsides, fanning herself.
“You’re a hard one,” she says with affectionate contempt. “You’ll need more than luck.”
“Believe me when I say I’ve got much more than luck on my side,” River says, putting a little extra wickedness in her voice.
Cleopatra looks her over with sleepy eyes that see a great deal. “Yes,” she says at last, languorously. “That I would believe.”
If the negotiation concludes a little later than River foresaw, well, she is, after all, only human. Given the Doctor’s checkered past of breaking hearts and stealing kisses, purposeful or not, she thinks he’ll forgive her that one.
With their site secured, the search continues. River writes down what fragments of information she can remember. She holds onto Kovarian’s name like a totem, shaping her memories around it. Slowly, slowly, things begin to come together.
There is a delicious irony in the way she takes Kovarian at last: River finds her alone in her headquarters, asleep, and has Kovarian out and in their secured facility before the guards can even wake up. She always knew the hypernarcotics would come in handy. River arranges to have a few verses of William Blake left by Kovarian’s bedside. She takes Kovarian’s eye covering before she leaves, curious. The guards were all wearing them as well. The thing must be important, whatever it is. Waiting for Amy in Amy’s temporary office in their new headquarters, River disinfects the thing and fits it over her own eye.
The Silence. Every memory comes flooding back, every hollow-eyed nightmare of her childhood and every worse reality. She hears the hissing of their voices and smells the crackling ozone of electricity. River’s body jerks as if she’s hit the water too hard and knocked the breath out of herself. She rips the thing away again, gasping.
“River?” Amy asks, closing the door behind her. Her expression is concerned and she walks quickly over.
“It’s this,” River pants. “This is the answer. This is how we find the Doctor. They’ll be looking for him. Now we know how to look for them.”
“For who?” Amy asks, taking the thing from River. She weighs it in her hand. “What is this?”
“I’m not sure,” River admits. “It fits in your eye – some kind of filter, maybe, or a memory device wired into your mind to help you remember.”
“Creatures,” River says. “Aliens. They take your memories – as soon as you look away you can’t remember. It’s slipping away from me even now. But we have her. Kovarian. She won’t get away. We can ask her all about it later, and all about the Silence.” Even as she says the word, she can’t quite remember what they look like, or the exact pitch of their hissing whispers. She clenches her fists in frustration.
“The Silence,” Amy says thoughtfully. “They don’t sound half bad after some I’ve seen.”
River shudders. “You have no idea.”
Amy goes to the door. “Captain Williams.”
“Marm,” Rory says immediately, clearing waiting just outside for any sign that Amy might need him. It’s really rather adorable, watching her parents fumble towards love all over again. River would be charmed if time weren’t running out faster and faster.
Amy hands him the thing. “Take this down to the lab. We need to know what it is and what it does.”
“We’ll need copies,” River calls.
“How many?” Amy asks.
“For everyone,” River says firmly. “Every single one of our people, or we’ll be completely helpless. And that’s the only one we’ve got, so tell them to be careful with it.”
“Marm,” Rory says and heads off.
“Is that his favorite word?” River asks with amusement. She has a pounding headache now.
“I think it might be,” Amy says, looking thoughtfully after him. “He’s extremely dedicated.”
“You could say that,” River murmurs.
“What?” Amy asks.
“Nothing,” River says. “Have you got anything for a headache?”
“Drink some water,” Amy advises her, looking for painkillers in a cabinet. “It’s a little bit warmer in Egypt than it was in London. Dries you out.”
“You really are my mother,” River mutters.
Amy turns, startled, and then laughs. She passes River a couple of tablets. “Yeah,” she says. “I suppose I am.”
They smile at each other.
+ + + +
The lab has surprisingly little trouble duplicating what Kovarian calls an eye-drive. Soon their whole force is outfitted with them. The troops have to be broken in slowly; everybody panics the first time they put on the drive and all their memories of the Silence come flooding back. Everyone has to wear them all the time or else they get blistering headaches in addition to forgetting every detail of their targets. River’s head aches all the time, but that’s the universe going to pieces; she can feel the incredible, unbearable pressure of it, but she won’t stop.
They still haven’t found the Doctor and River’s time is running out. All of time is running out.
Amy’s unit concentrates on the Silence. Her soldiers can see them now, and the pyramid is the perfect place to keep the ones they capture. It amuses River endlessly that they’re headquartered in an American pyramid outside of Cairo, that Amy has an office on the Orient Express, and that the codename for their little camp is Area 52. She and Amy laugh about it sometimes in the evenings over a bottle of wine, but there’s more and more often a desperate edge to their laughter.
The troops build cells, which slowly fill up with the Silence. It’s a religious order, Kovarian tells them, not a species, but still, their specimens are all tall, with oval heads and sunken oval eyes and grayish skin, all capable of pulling the very life out of someone and draining electricity from the air. Eventually there’s hardly a corridor she can walk down in the entire pyramid without the eerie gaze of the Silence following her.
It’s all too easy, but River isn’t paying attention. She’s going half-mad, trying to find the Doctor, enlisting every bit of help she can get. She spends her days scouring the news and her nights building a radio big enough to flummox every gadget on the planet. The broadcasts complain of sunspot activity, but she knows better. Their difficulties mean that her tests are successful. She flips it on and hopes. Help, says the beacon, the Doctor is dying. Please, please help. It’s only hours after she sends out her first message that the first reply comes. Everyone is grieving. No one can help. They are locked away on the prison of their planet, in the time bubble she created by refusing her destiny.
The only thing she has left is love. Love has saved her before. Love will save her again.
River’s distress beacon broadcasts day and night. Madame Kovarian smirks in the main chamber of the pyramid while the cells fill up with monsters. River can’t sleep at night, and there are circles under Amy’s eyes too. Rory surreptitiously stands a little closer to his once and future wife, which lightens River’s load a bit, but not enough.
Nothing is enough.
And then, one day, news: there is a man in the Tower of London, and the only name anyone calls him is The Soothsayer.
+ + + +
Amy is the best one to go and get him, they all agree. Amy remembers him, as well as anybody remembers anything in this fragment of time. River blesses the crack in her mother’s wall that she heard about so often when she was Mels; what might have harmed then has helped now. Amy has the eyes to see whether the Soothsayer is the man they seek. River must stay in Egypt. It’s too dangerous.
“Don’t you want to come?” Amy asks as she’s checking her stun gun. “I would have thought you’d’ve jumped at the chance.”
“I can’t,” River tells her. “The Doctor and I, we’re the center of this. It’s my fault. I wouldn’t kill him. So I killed time instead. But I can’t be near him, I can’t fix this yet. You mustn’t let him touch me. Not until he knows. Not until I’ve set things right.”
Amy nods. “I remember, almost.” She looks at River with something close to pity. “I wouldn’t have been able to kill him either. I mean, obviously it’s different, but still. I would have done the same, if I could.” River smiles tremulously. There are tears in her eyes that she’s struggling to hold back; the worst bit of finding her humanity was realizing that it meant she would feel things, that she would cry and shout and grieve like any other person. Amy steps forward and kisses River quickly on the forehead.
“We’ll bring him back,” she promises as River sniffles. “We’ll fix this. And I’ll find Rory again, and we’ll be a proper family.”
“That sounds lovely,” River says, dabbing at her eyes.
“If anyone can make it happen, it’s the Pond girls, eh?” Amy says proudly.
“Absolutely,” River tells her, and believes it unconditionally.
+ + + +
Amy brings him, Amy and Rory and the squad, all the way from London. He’s thin and grumpy and he badly needs a haircut, but it’s her Doctor, hale and whole.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” he says in that voice, and River’s heart leaps into her throat.
He’s rude to her, of course, because he’s used to being so much cleverer than anybody, but it doesn’t bother her. He’s worried, and why wouldn’t he be? For all he knows, there’s no hope at all. She has so many things to show him. She has so many things to tell him. She knows who she is now. She knows why. Soon enough she’ll take his hand and let this strange half-existence go the way of all things, but not yet, not yet.
In her chair, Kovarian laughs. In their tanks, the Silence move. It all begins to fall to pieces. River is left again with nothing but love. It would be funny if it weren’t such a desperate situation: the bespoke psychopath, the girl who was a weapon, and the most powerful thing in her box of tricks is a heart clenched with love.
Up the stairs she pelts, out into the free air. The Doctor follows, sullen in his handcuffs. The light of her beacon glows on his face as she explains. Nothing he says can hurt her now; she knows he’s only being cruel so that she’ll end this, but she won’t, not yet, not until he sees the point of it all. She sees the respect in his eyes as the words spill out of her. Respect and confusion and frustration and exasperation and love, behind all the rest of it.
She believes, with the fervor of a zealot, that she loves him more than any living thing. He sees the truth of it in her. She can sense the change in him. And yes, oh yes, she knows it’s foolish and she knows it can’t be true, but at the same time, it is true, and it’s the greatest thing she’s done to date. She loved him enough to keep him alive, through hell and high water. She gave the universe back its good wizard, for a little while. River knows she has to undo it all, but it matters that he knows: he matters. He matters desperately, and the world will never be ready for him to say goodbye.
Her beacon is a love song and it’s a eulogy. They sing his praises and they mourn his passing. It is the least she could do for the man she loves. It is the very last thing she could do, in this finite timeline. He will not go gentle into that good night, unrecognized and unsung. All their lives are on the line, and all River has left is love.
He speaks her name and history starts to come undone. Time is shredding around them, time is dying, and they will all die, and this time she can’t save him.
“I don’t want to marry you!” he tells her.
“I don’t want to murder you!” she retorts, exhausted and miserable and so in love she can hardly breathe without sobbing.
Destiny takes over, as destiny tends to do.
+ + + +
The Doctor has one last clever plan, which begins, oddly enough, with his bow tie. He moves toward River, his face intent. She stands her ground. If this is the price of faith, she will pay it. She’s done what she came to do.
Her parents look on, finally in step with each other but utterly baffled by the scene before them. River can’t blame them. Even she’s not certain what the Doctor is up to this time. They wrap their hands in the scrap of fabric – for once, a bow tie is useful, if not necessarily cool – and face each other. In a flash, she understands; after all of that studying ancient tradition, she ought to. She is, all at once, happier than she’s ever been and in more agony than ever before.
She will be the woman who marries the Doctor. She will be the woman who murders the Doctor. She will live with those two things in her heart like shards of glass, and he will forgive her.
“Look into my eye,” he whispers, and bless him, he’s only gone and done it again. Clever Doctor, to escape death once again. Clever Doctor, to rewrite a fixed point. At least he got something good out of the misery in Berlin and the misery at the lake. She should have known he’d be enchanted by the notion of miniaturized people.
“Wife,” he says, and through the cloth that binds their hands she can feel the thrill that runs through his body at the word, same as the one that runs through hers. “I have a request.”
She kisses him, not their first kiss and hopefully their last only in this timeline. She kisses him and once again gives him back the world the way it ought to be.
+ + + +
She is the woman who married the Doctor.
She is the woman who is kissing the Doctor on top of a pyramid, next to the biggest answerphone in history, millions and billions of messages pouring out love for him, and from the thudding of her heart and the sweetness of his touch, she would still swear that she loves him the most, more than any other being in the history of time.
The Teselecta feels like he ought to feel. It kisses the way he ought to kiss. River is certain that it’s his will guiding the whole process. She’s sure it’s his love for her driving this wholly unnecessary embrace that feels like everything she ever needed out of life.
She feels time come unstuck. The relief is palpable, distinct from the treacle-sweetness of kissing him; the ache in her bones and the constant buzz in her skull ease instantly. River holds on to her end of the bow tie and kisses the Doctor even more fervently. If the universe is ending, there’s no way she’s letting him go. He kisses her back with the same passion, as if he might never get the chance again, as if he has to prove himself to her.
She is loved, she is loved, and she belongs. Time goes to pieces around them.
+ + + +
She is the woman who murdered the Doctor.
Knowing that his body, his beautiful lean miracle of a body, is a construct that he’s wearing the way he wears his tweed doesn’t help even a bit. She sobs as the suit’s weapons discharge. The pulses of green light are worse somehow than bullets would be.
The Doctor falls.
The suit walks back into the water.
+ + + +
River wakes up in the library with the worst headache of her life. She has the sense that something grand and gruesome has happened, but she can’t remember a bit of it. She feels relieved and desperately sad and ridiculously weak all at once. River scrubs her fist into her aching eyes and tries to put the pieces together. Last she knew, she was at graduation. Now here she is slumped over a book of Shakespeare. “All’s well that ends well” tops the page. She isn’t certain about that. At least she’s lost the crashing sense of anxiety of the last few months.
She makes her way back to her flat and cooks something, hoping that food will ease the shakiness she feels. As she’s eating, there’s a knock on the door. There are people outside, a group of mostly men. From their uniforms, they’re guards or security of some kind.
“Melody Pond?” one of them asks.
“Sometimes,” she says.
“Come with us,” he tells her. “You’ve been charged with the murder of the Doctor.” She tenses and the guard eyes her up and down. “I wouldn’t advise resisting, marm. We’d like things to go smoothly.”
She could reduce them to a pile of corpses if she wanted, or, as she’s trying to kick that particular habit, perhaps just a heap of groaning half-conscious bodies. Maybe she’s feeling generous today. Maybe she’s just weary. She holds out her wrists and lets them handcuff her.
They let her take one personal item. She takes the blue diary.
+ + + +
They put her in prison, of course, on some very solid evidence. They show her the spacesuit. They play the Teselecta’s records. She has seen that suit before, she thinks, long ago and far away. April 22nd, 2011, they say, and her mind is full of pyramids and a kiss, oh, a kiss to end all kisses. All of that is much more real than the spacesuit. She has to shake her head to clear her thoughts.
They sentence her to life, to more lives than even the Doctor could live out. She has the feeling she could contradict it all. When they ask her what she has to say, all she can repeat is that she doesn’t remember. But if the Doctor’s dead, then it’s likely she deserves to be in prison. If he’s not, and she hopes in her very heart of hearts that he is not, then he’ll come for her. No matter how far he has to travel or how long it takes, the Doctor will come for her. She believes it somehow.
+ + + +
The very first night, she wakes to the squeal of the TARDIS and clutches at the bars of her cell, overcome with delighted disbelief. The blue box is salvation. It’s redemption. It’s forgiveness. And most of all, it’s love.
The Doctor is wearing a tuxedo and he might be the most glorious thing she’s seen in her life.
“I promise you,” he says when he drops her off again. “I’ll come for you, as often as you want.”
“Then I promise that I’ll be here for you to find,” she says lightly. “I might as well serve my time.”
“That’s my River,” he says, and the warmth in his voice is enough to soothe the chill of a thousand rainy days in her concrete cell.
+ + + +
“When I said I didn’t want to marry you,” the Doctor says, the second night he picks her up from the Stormcage, “I only meant in a timeline that was about to end. Not the rest of it. And also, frankly, I was trying to make you angry, as I’m certain you figured out.”
“Ah, so in this timeline, you’re fine with it?” she asks lightly.
“If you are,” he says, toying with his sonic. “I mean, we don’t have to go the whole pyramid route, if you’d rather not. Seems like overkill, frankly.”
“I wonder what the law says on the subject of marrying the same person in alternate timelines,” she muses, leaning quite close to him. “Would we be polygamists? Or serial monogamists, perhaps? Do you think the timeline ending counts as an annulment? We certainly didn’t have the chance to consummate the thing.”
“River Song,” he says, gazing fondly down at her, “since when have you ever let the law tell you what to do?”
“Fair point,” she tells him, batting her lashes. “I wouldn’t wager on me letting you tell me what to do either, except potentially in the case of the fate of the Earth being in the balance. I admit I’m not much for weddings, but I could have done with a bit more romance than that, and a bit less grumpy-face. It would have been nicer if you hadn’t been inside a robot at the time.”
“At the time, you had also nearly spoiled my exceedingly clever plan to save the planet and everyone on it,” he reminded her.
“With some exceedingly clever scheming and gadgetry of my own,” she said back. “I altered a fixed point in time, as it turned out, to write you the universe’s most epic love letter.”
He looks at her with a rather dopey smile. “Yes, you did, didn’t you.”
“Yes, I did,” she says proudly. He gazes at her for a long breath and then leans down and kisses her very gently. She kisses him back just as softly, a kiss for moments of peace.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
“Forgiven?” she asks.
“Always,” he says, taking her hand and pressing it to his hearts. His expression is sweet and rueful, old pain crooked into the corner of his mouth. She longs to kiss it away. “And me? Do you forgive me, wife?”
“Completely,” she says.
“I don’t deserve that,” he tells her. There’s a touch of bitterness is his voice. She reaches up and brushes his forelock out of his eyes, letting her fingers caress his cheek.
“It isn’t about deserving,” she says. “But if it were, we’d still be standing here. I believe our debts are settled, sweetie.”
His face lights up. “And thus unburdened, we shall go adventuring! Now!” He rubs his hands together. “Where shall we go tonight, dear? We can go anywhere, you know. Anywhere but April 22nd, 2011 – I’m a bit tired of it, even if it is, in a manner of speaking, our anniversary. Name a time, a date, a place – the universe is yours.”
“The stars last night were quite pretty,” she says. “An excellent start. But if you’re planning an assignation for tonight, perhaps somewhere with a little less light and a few million fewer tourists. I’d rather break you in gently.”
He blushes but winks at her, leaning against the console. “It isn’t as if we’ve had a proper wedding night. I mean, I felt that kiss, even inside the Teselecta, but I’d say I owe you another. Have I told you I love you, by the by? I do, in case you weren’t certain.”
“I had an inkling,” she tells him.
“That’s good then,” he says. “I expect I’ll have to tell you a few more times, but never mind. Where shall we go, eh? I’m sure we can find somewhere sparsely populated and not too noisy.”
“We could stay right here,” she suggests, hooking a finger behind his braces. “A night in.” She makes certain that her tone lets him know exactly what sort of night she’s planning. “After all, we have the rest of our lives to tour the universe.”
“Yes, we have,” he murmurs in that absolutely sexy voice. “However shall we fill the time?”
She reaches for him and he meets her halfway, the way he always will. This time she’s kissing him, and no robots or disasters or wobbles in time will come between them. If anything tries, well, she still has her gun and her wits about her.
It really is astounding how long one night can last when you have a time machine. When he leaves her in the corridor of the Stormcage with a lingering kiss, she has no doubts whatsoever about the solidity or the reality of their marriage.
“So I’ll see you tonight?” he asks, his hands sliding down her shoulders. She shivers happily.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she says.
“Nor I,” he tells her. “Not for the end of the world.”
“I’ll stop time if you don’t come,” she says, leaning against him.
“I thought you stopped time last night,” he teases, kissing her lightly. “Is this going to be a habit with you?”
“Oooh, my love,” she says happily, “you have absolutely no idea.”
+ + + +
Amy and Rory are delighted to see her now, every time she drops by. Whether the Doctor is there or not, they’re delighted, and River is astounded by how much she loves them. Her brave and plucky mum, making a go of it in the perfume business. Her steady, loyal dad, quietly going about the business of saving lives. She is proud of them. Astonishingly, they are proud of her.
“And why shouldn’t we be?” Amy demands when River mentions it. “It’s not everyone’s daughter who’s all Time-Lordy, crusading through the universe.”
“What she means to say is that we’d be proud of you no matter who you’d grown up to be,” Rory says, putting an arm around Amy. But as it is, you’re extra-special, and we’re extraordinarily proud.”
“She’d be extra-special anyway,” Amy tells him, snuggling into his side. “She’s a Pond, isn’t she?”
“And half a Williams,” Rory reminds her in mock defensiveness. “Surely I get credit for a bit of this whole parenting business.”
“Welll, a bit,” Amy concedes.
River watches her parents bicker fondly, sipping at a glass of wine. It’s a lovely night to be in the garden. The warm sweet air is a pleasant chance from the damp of her cell.
“Typically generous,” Rory says lovingly. “Technically, I did contribute. I mean, genetically if not much else. Sorry, River.”
“It’s all right,” River assures him. “You did the best you could. It’s not everyone who has to deal with a Flesh decoy wife and child. Really, no one can fault you.”
“That’s true enough,” Amy says. “You’re an excellent husband and quite a good nurse, and just to add to it, very handsome in your Centurion getup.”
“I think that’s far enough,” Rory says. “The point is, River, we’re always happy to have you around.”
“Come any time,” Amy says. “As often as you like. You should move in next door and get the Doctor to settle down and have a passel of Time Babies. I’d like grandchildren, I think, even if everyone will mistake them for my just-children.”
“Amy,” Rory chides. “You can’t just go around telling people to have babies.”
“She’s my daughter!” Amy says in mock outrage. “Of course I can. It’s practically my duty.”
“River?” Rory appeals, but River’s too busy laughing. How her life has changed. How her heart has grown. Her parents laugh too, filling the whole garden with the sound of merriment. It’s enough to banish any silence.
+ + + +
So. She is a terror and a marvel. She is a daughter and a wife. She is merry and fey, wickedly witty and wise. She reads stories and writes them too. She is River Song, and no book could possibly contain all of her. She is a force to be reckoned with. A cautionary tale, some might say. She is happy, despite it all.
The Stormcage isn’t all bad. She has the guards wrapped around her finger, and the hallucinogenic lipstick she picked up in a bazaar during her time at university helps. It rains fairly constantly, but somehow her things stay mostly dry. The food arrives at reasonable intervals, good if not splendid. She’s allowed two hours a day for exercise, and the water for her bath is always hot. Her days are bearable. But it’s the nights she waits for.
Most nights, the Doctor whisks her out of her prison. Some nights, she whisks herself. She is bound to him, but not tethered.
Most of all, she is free. She’s still a weapon. But she wields herself now, in the service of whom she chooses. She owns her own mind. She makes her own destiny.
There is freedom written across the rainy sky outside her cell. She can feel the stars beyond the bars and the promise of them.
River smiles and smoothes the pages of her diary.
+ + + +
She serves her time. She does good deeds when the mood strikes her. And one day, they release her.
+ + + +
She and the Doctor stand on the gallery of the Pharos of Alexandria, breathing in the salt air. The wind whips past them at this height, making the extra fabric of her skirt rattles with the force of it. The Doctor is wearing his tweed, completely out of place; inconspicuous isn't his game. She, on the other hand, likes to play dress-up. She likes the feeling of fitting in. The archaeologist in her is delighted to see how far she can carry the charade of belonging to any particular time. The one-shouldered dress does wonders for her collarbones, besides.
"So where are we?" he asks, tipping his head to one side to look at her. His eyes are weary, but his expression is soft.
"We're right here," she says.
"I meant in all the wibbly-wobbliness," he says, gesturing with one lean hand. "You and me. Time and space."
"I know," she says.
"Ah," he says. "Okay. Excellent."
She twines her fingers through his and he leans closer. They look out over the bay. The light is gold on the water and on the wood of the boats.
He pulls her closer and wraps his arms around her. She tucks his head against his shoulder. They make their own timeless moments, she and her Doctor do, stealing precious seconds from the Vortex. It is never enough time, but it has to be enough. His two hearts beat against her one in a comfortable synchronicity. He sighs into her hair and presses his lips to her curls. She settles closer against him, as close as she can.
There are glories to come, she's certain, and heartaches beyond imagining; he won't tell her, but she can read the lines of his face as easily as she can read the Gallifreyan on the console of the TARDIS. So she does what she can do: she holds onto him, each of them taking comfort in the living, breathing solid shape of the loved one in their arms. This is where she wants to be.
The wind tugs at her curls and River breathes deep. The Doctor holds her close; she tightens her arms around him. They stand there on a wonder of the world, in a wonder of a moment, balanced on the fine edge between bliss and misery, making the most of history.
"River," he says and there's an ache in his words that reverberates in her bones, somewhere between ecstasy and misery.
"I know," she says simply.