He doesn’t cry when he leaves her. After the Towers, he doesn’t cry again for a long time. Crying doesn’t solve anything. He runs faster than he ever has – from grief, from loneliness, from facing what he has lost. He doesn’t keep his companions for long anymore, dropping them off before something terrible can befall them and picking up someone new to replace them. While he does not shut the world out, he lives like a hermit all the same, touching no one, forming no attachments, looking past people and stars and cities and whole planets, not really seeing anything, not really living.
And then one ordinary, sunny day in the middle of 18th century London, a woman who looks nothing like River but wears the same French perfume stops him in his tracks. He stands on the pavement long after she has passed in a rustle of silk skirts and petticoats, letting others walk around him as he stares at absolutely nothing and remembers – that scent clinging to their bed sheets, the way she always spritzed a bit on her wrists and the hollow of her throat before he took her somewhere special. Loss washes over him like a tidal wave, his knees buckling under the cruel, unrelenting force of it.
He lost his wife.
It steals the breath from his lungs and suddenly, he feels exactly what he is – an old man who has lost everything and is so tired of running.
So he stops.
As the grief settles over him like an eternal shroud, he is no longer fit for polite or impolite company and he shuts himself away, suspended among the stars, where no one can hear as he finally cries. He calls it a permanent retirement and there is no one to point out that he has just stopped caring. He no longer cares what happens to the universe or himself, and he hasn’t for a long time. It had just taken him a while to realize it. He has lost her, and it is the end of everything.
He feels time passing, feels the universe spinning on without her, as if she hadn’t mattered at all. Out there, people are walking their dogs and going to their jobs. They are raising their children and going to the pub. They are laughing and crying, dancing and sleeping – selfish and unconcerned with the grief of the last Time Lord. All the worlds in all the universes keep turning but here, inside the solitude of his ship, none of that matters.
The TARDIS is a universe unto itself and contains plenty to keep him occupied in the months and years since his last bit of deliberate human contact (the soft brush of his lips against her temple, her sleepy and satisfied smile as she looked up at him) but he doesn’t do much. He haunts the halls of his time machine like a ghost, not really existing or seeing anything. He eats when he has to and just enough to keep himself alive – though he is slowly losing the will to even do that anymore. He sleeps often because sometimes he dreams of her laughter, of the scent of her curls, of the way her cold hands always slipped beneath the hem of his shirt in her sleep in an effort to warm them. He’d always yelp loudly enough to wake her and scowl down at her but now he wakes with the memory fresh in his mind and in a way, it’s almost worse than any nightmare because he’d do anything to warm those cold hands now – kiss them and rub them between his own until they radiated heat.
Except he can’t now, can he? He squandered every moment with his wife; not realizing how precious each and every second was until their time had run out. He should have been better, more. But he hadn’t and now there is nothing for him to do but sit outside their bedroom, choking on regret as he stares into the space they’d once lived and loved in together, a bowtie wrapped so tightly around his hand that it cuts off the blood circulation but he welcomes the numbness. He has kept it perfectly preserved since the moment she last left it, making another room on the TARDIS for himself. Covered in a layer of dust, the room long ago lost the scent of River’s perfume but sometimes, if he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine it still lingers – a tangible presence so powerful that it brings tears to his eyes.
It’s where he sits now and in his current apathy – some days are worse than others and today is a bad day – he’s quite happy to haunt this hallway until he rots. What is there to get up and live for? Another companion he’ll lose? A universe that doesn’t care – that has the audacity to continue on when the most beloved creature to ever enter into his life has been snatched cruelly from him? The universe does not concern itself with his grief and the Doctor is quite happy to return the favor.
So he sits, staring fixedly at a pair of River’s heels at the foot of the bed they used to share. Under the layer of dust, he can still just make out the color red. And while he sits, he waits – for his mood to change and the will to go on to overtake him, for some fearsome monster who has been hiding in the depths of the TARDIS to crawl out and put him out of his misery, for this body to reach old age so he can regenerate and repeat this sitting and staring process until he runs out of bodies to regenerate into and it can all finally end. Whichever comes first – the Doctor is well past being picky about his end, so long as it comes.
In the middle of contemplating River’s shoes – memories tug at him and pull him under of her dancing her way across a ballroom in those shoes, of hanging those shoes on the monitor just to drive him mad, of her wearing them with lacy lingerie to drive him mad in an entirely more pleasurable way – it takes the Doctor a long moment to realize that the TARDIS has suddenly jolted into flight. She hurtles through the vortex, deliberately leaving the stabilizers off to send him sprawling. With a yelp, he tumbles down a set of stairs that definitely hadn’t been there a moment ago and finds himself lying flat on his back in the middle of the control room. The Old Girl has been remarkably understanding about his refusal to go anywhere, so patient that he had been sure she was in her own state of mourning for the loss of her child.
But now, as he stares up at the time rotor, watching bleakly as it moves up and down, he wonders if she might have just been biding her time. “Wherever you’re going,” he says, his voice raspy and weak from disuse, “I’m not getting out.” He pauses. “…Unless you’re leading me to my death. Is that it, Sexy? I step out those doors and some native of Clom is going to spear me through the hearts?”
He already feels like that anyway, all things considered.
The Old Girl hums in a manner that sounds suspiciously like scorn, as if to say, Idiot.
Frowning as the ship lands with another jolt – she’s doing it on purpose, just to jostle him about, he can tell – the Doctor stares up at the ceiling and says glumly, “I can’t even remember the last time I left this ship. And I’m not leaving it now either.”
She hums again, this time in disapproval and he has this unnerving feeling that if she were in her human form, she’d be standing over him and kicking him right now.
“She’s gone, Sexy,” he says, and he thought he was out of tears but he’d been wrong because they’re burning at his eyes and the back of his throat now, choking him. “We’ve lost her and you can’t expect me to just get up and have an adventure like it doesn’t hurt every day to just breathe.”
He tried that already and it hadn’t made him feel any better.
The humming vibrates through the floors now, speaking of the same loss he feels, and the lights above grow warmer, as if to encourage him. Get up, she says. Trust me.
The Doctor blinks hurriedly, forcing back the tears, and clears his throat. If there is one being left in this universe he trusts, it’s her. It takes him a moment to stand, reaching out for the edge of the console to slowly pull himself to his feet. He aches everywhere, and he feels exactly the age he is, his old bones creaking under the weight of all the lives he has lived and all the people he has lost. He has always been able to push back the tears, square his shoulders and move on, find someone else to make his hearts lighter again. But this time is different, this time he has lost the one woman dearer to him than the universe itself, and moving on from that is not as easy as finding a pretty new companion to keep him company – he tried that too.
Straightening, he curls his fist around the bowtie still wrapped around his hand and moves to the scanner to see where the Old Girl has taken him and what exactly is important enough to disrupt… months? years? of uninterrupted mourning. As he peers at the screen through weary eyes, his hearts stutter in his chest and he staggers back from the monitor until his back hits the railing so hard his teeth rattle.
Gasping, he looks away and scrubs at his eyes, sure that the years upon years of grief must have driven him mad to the point of hallucination. Because he can’t be here. He can’t be in the Library, parked right in the little shop, darkened and vacant, for the time being. He blinks hard, clenches his fists until his nails bite into the skin of his palms, and looks again.
It’s still there.
Nearly tripping as he creeps slowly closer to the screen once more, the Doctor scrutinizes the picture before him and knows without a doubt that it is the Library. He’ll never forget one part of that wretched place, the little shop included. He hates the little shop. Little shops are rubbish.
“Why have you brought me here?” He murmurs, staring intently at the screen.
The TARDIS says nothing.
He is on the verge of getting angry, hurt beyond words that she would take him here now, when he is quite possibly at the lowest point he has ever been since he lost River only to show him the reason why she is gone in the first place. It’s cruel and unnecessary and entirely unlike his Old Girl. And then, a team of people in blindingly white spacesuits strolls by, looking around curiously and flashing their torches over the room, peering into the shadows. The Doctor’s breath catches painfully in his chest and he shuts his eyes, rubbing at his sternum and willing the lump in his throat away.
River. His River is there, leading her team excitedly through the halls, Jack’s squareness gun at her hip, probably waiting for him to receive her message and show up to hold her hand through another adventure together. But he can’t. He’ll never hold her hand again.
Without thinking, the Doctor stretches out his hand and touches the figure of his wife on the screen, greedily drinking in the sight of her once again. She is exactly how he remembers, so vibrant and alive he wonders how the screen can even contain her. “Hello dear,” he breathes out, stroking his fingers reverently along her form and staring until the tears blur his eyes and he can no longer make her out. With a sob threatening to claw its way up his throat, the Doctor averts his eyes with a pained intake of breath and lurches for the controls. If he doesn’t leave now, there will be no stopping him from spiriting her away and saving her from her damnable fate, years upon years of drifting endlessly in space without her making him just desperate enough to rip the universe apart if he has to.
But he promised her – not one line. And he wouldn’t change it either, wouldn’t forfeit even one moment with his wife, not for anything, not even for one more kiss. Hands trembling as he reaches for the lever that will take him away from here against his will, despite what he wants. He clings to that small part of him that still knows the right thing to do, that still knows the safety of the universe is more important than what he wants. That part of him is rapidly deteriorating but still hanging on by a thread, whispering to him to pull the lever.
Violently trembling, he shuts his eyes tightly and whispers, “I’m sorry, my love.”
He pulls the lever.
There is no noise to indicate that the TARDIS is in flight, no reassuring hum, no wibbling and no wobbling. Nothing.
Scowling, the Doctor flicks another switch, slightly panicked now as he feels that one thread left of his concern for the universe fraying rapidly. His wife is out there and he can save her. He can take her away from all this and the universe can bloody well hang.
Still, the TARDIS refuses to budge.
“This is not funny,” he hisses, jerking a lever back and forth agitatedly. “Get us out of here now before I cross my own timeline.”
Letting out an anguished howl of frustration, the Doctor kicks at the console in desperation. “I am seconds from ripping this world and every other one apart to save her! Is that what you want?!”
The TARDIS does not respond, though he definitely feels a hurt, wounded aura coming from her at the abuse. Taking a deep, steadying breath that rattles in his chest, the Doctor lays an apologetic hand on the console and closes his eyes painfully.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I know you must think you’re helping somehow, by bringing me here. But this is not healing, Old Girl. This hurts.” He squeezes his eyes shut tighter but the tears still leak through anyway. “Please. Let’s go.”
Another hum, this time a little warmer, like a reassuring embrace. I take you where you need to go.
On the monitor, River and her team stride through the opening she has just made in the wall with her gun, and he realizes this is it. This is the moment he first laid eyes on her. Hearts thumping madly in his chest, he scrambles to turn off the monitor before he is forced to see that look on her face again. To his relief, the screen goes dark. He breathes out a sigh of relief and shakes his head, frustrated as the Old Girl continues to nudge insistently, in her own loving way.
Go to her.
He clenches his teeth so tightly his jaw aches, the urge to run to his wife growing stronger with every passing moment. “This isn’t how it happens.”
He’d taken her to the Towers and danced with her in the long grass as they sang, a beautiful, melancholy tune that still rings in his ears, years later. It’ll be another few decades before it leaves him. He’d held her close and tried his best to hide his tears from her but he’d known all the while that he wasn’t fooling River for a moment. He’d taken her back to her home and made love to her in the bedroom she’d just finished decorating to her satisfaction – her first home out of Stormcage. In the morning, he’d given her his sonic and kissed her goodbye, forcing himself to let go.
And now it’s supposed to be over.
He isn’t supposed to ever lay eyes on River Song again. But she’s right outside, dealing with his dense younger self and he could walk out right now, touch her again. Hold her again. Feel her warm and tender mouth against his again. Suddenly, the universe for a kiss doesn’t seem quite so high a price. He shakes his head quickly to dislodge the thought but the TARDIS still does not move, stubborn as ever.
“Why?” He asks, gripping the edge of the console and bowing his head. “Why are you doing this?”
The humming of the TARDIS swells and envelops him like a warm blanket.
Oh my silly, beautiful thief. Time can be rewritten.
The Doctor raises his eyes quickly, a strange feeling swelling inside his chest and a new light in his eyes, erasing years of grief in seconds. He hasn’t had this feeling in so long that he has all but forgotten what it’s called – that feeling when he’s scrambling in the dark with a Cyberman at his heels and his fingers suddenly close around his sonic, that feeling when he sees a little boy handing his ice cream cone to a homeless person on a street corner, that feeling when the dust settles and everybody lives.
Oh, those were the days.
Hope. He feels hope.
She would never have brought him here unless she had a plan.
“Oh,” he breathes. “You sexy thing.”
The Old Girl hums in a manner decidedly smug.
He whoops, grinning widely and leaping forward, throwing his arms around the time rotor and kissing it soundly. “I don’t know what you’re doing but you are brilliant. You are so brilliant.”
In response, there is a chiding beep and the Doctor clambers off the console to investigate. The monitor is no longer off but nor is it showing him what’s happening inside the Library – it shows him his own reflection and he winces at the sight, struck by the way grief has ravaged him. As much as he has been wandering the TARDIS like a ghost, he hadn’t realized how much he has actually started to look like one.
“Right,” he mutters. “Clean up first. Can’t have the wife seeing me like this.”
He grins so hard his cheeks ache as he skips from the console room and down the hall in search of a razor. The wife. He has a wife and she isn’t gone, not nearly. After a quick shower and a shave, he trims his hair and dons a bowtie for the first time in a very long while. Inspecting himself closely in the mirror, he tugs at his coat lapels and sighs. The coat hangs a bit more loosely on his frame than it had before and he still looks gaunt but there isn’t much to be done about that. Maybe with all the shadows, River won’t notice.
Now, time to save their girl.
Another beep at the console stops him just before he runs for the doors and he skids to a stop, frowning down at the slender offering waiting for him to pick up. His mind buzzing with hurry hurry hurry, he snatches it up with a shrug and slips it into his coat pocket, trusting the TARDIS to make everything clear when the time comes. She plays things close to the vest, his Old Girl. Far too busy to concern himself with it now, he leaps down the stairs and toward the doors, flinging them open wide and stepping out into the Library.
He doesn’t know her.
She’d known the day was coming, ever since Demon’s Run – the second time – she has been marching slowly but inevitably toward this day. And she’d known she wasn’t ready for it, would never be ready for it. But she hadn’t quite realized how very much it would hurt to look into his eyes and see absolutely nothing reflected back – not anger, not love, not amusement or even a detached, fond affection. There is nothing in his eyes but confusion.
River has known the Doctor all her life, she has never ever had to live a day where he didn’t at least know her name and suddenly he doesn’t even know that. He feels nothing for her. She is just another stranger to him and he looks right through her. For a moment, she sees the rest of her long life stretching out in front of her, full of the adventure she makes on her own time, but bare of the Doctor, her Doctor. Her husband. A future without him is not a future she wants any part of.
And maybe that’s stupid and backwards and weak but River spends a lot of time without the Doctor and the thing she looks forward to most is seeing him again. Without that promise to carry her, she doesn’t know how long she’ll last without going mad. But she’ll have to worry about that later, because now there is running and carnivorous shadows and the Doctor just lost his dearest friend. Temporarily, at least. This isn’t how the Doctor loses Donna and she knows that, but she also knows that nothing is set in stone.
She holds his hand as they run through darkened corridors lined with books and can’t help but feel grateful that at least it isn’t her Doctor’s face looking back at her with no emotion but irritation. If it had been her Doctor’s face - that floppy hair and the wide nose, those soft, wise eyes in such a young face – River isn’t sure she would have had the strength to pretend every step didn’t hurt, that every intake of breath didn’t catch in her chest. She takes comfort in that as the hand holding hers lets go mid-run. At least it’s not her Doctor. Her Doctor never lets go.
He argues with her in the frustrated way of a child and while part of her doesn’t blame him at all – she can’t help but remember Melody Pond standing in a hall in Berlin, scared to death and staring at the body of a man who’d loved River Song – another part of her, the old, tired and angry part of her that shouts how unfair this all is, wants to slap him and tell him to stop being so dramatic, for God’s sake.
Their dynamic came so easily before, when he knew her. But now he doesn’t trust a word that comes out of her mouth and he spends more time throwing her mistrustful glances than trying to work out a solution. He’s not as quick as he is when he’s older, the way her Doctor’s mind runs a mile a minute and he only catches snatches of his own thoughts as they run quickly across his brain. He always talks faster than he can think. River feels tears sting her eyes as she thinks of him and his mad babbling and blinks them away hurriedly, snapping at the Doctor, “Dear God, you’re hard work young!”
And then Mr. Lux unintentionally spills half of her secret, calling them a bickering old married couple and River sees the exact moment it hits the Doctor. They stare at each other in silence; River gathering her courage and the Doctor looking like he’s in the midst of losing all his.
Apologetic but desperate to get him to trust her considering their lives depend on it, River leans in close and breathes his name into his ear, like the very precious secret it is. She feels him stiffen against her in shock and pulls away, looking at him sadly. It’s quite a bit different than the way he’d confessed it to her, so long ago, holding her close in a long forgotten field and whispering the name into her hair. He’d made love to her that night and she’d whispered it back to him in the dark.
Now, the Doctor stares at her, pale and speechless, like she’d just wrenched all the breath from his lungs and left him bleeding out and defenseless. “Doctor?” She asks quietly, desperately. “Are we good?”
After a tense moment that he spends gaping at her, he nods once, slowly.
“Good,” she sighs, and takes back her screwdriver.
After a heavy moment of silence, his five-second rebound rate kicks in and he’s back to bouncing about and talking like nothing had happened at all. Well that part hasn’t changed at least. She thinks it must be a special Doctor talent – sweeping things under the rug to brood about when no one’s life is on the line.
“Come on, what’s new, what’s different?” He waves about his sonic and strolls around them, forehead creased as he thinks.
“I dunno,” Other Dave ventures, looking nervous. “It’s getting dark?”
The Doctor opens his mouth to respond with scorn but he doesn’t get the chance. A new voice joins them from the other end of the room near the doorway, cheerful and so achingly wonderfully familiar that tears spring to River’s eyes and her hearts nearly stop.
“Actually, a screwdriver’ll work most anywhere. In the dark, covered in whale sick, and in the stomach of a flying shark. And underwater – which comes in handy when you’re trying to rebuild a dam, let me tell you. Come to think of it, actually, it’s practically built for aquatic life, isn’t it?”
River turns so quickly her vision swims and she blinks hard, staring across the room. He looks thinner, almost ill, and his tweed jacket hangs oddly on his frame, like a child dressed up in daddy’s clothes but he’s here – lounging against the doorway, hands in his pockets and fringe falling into his eyes, grinning ridiculously at her. Her Doctor.
“Hi honey,” he says loftily, eyes meeting hers. “I’m home.”
Everyone around them gapes at this new intruder – including his younger self – but River pays them no mind. She doesn’t even stop to think, sprinting across the room and throwing herself into his waiting arms. He catches her around the waist, barely even stumbling from her sudden weight. He holds her close as she grips him tightly around the neck and buries her face there, tears stinging her eyes.
“And what sort of time do you call this?” She chokes out, and his arms tighten around her until the embrace is almost painful but she doesn’t let go. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to let go again.
“Precisely the right time, River Song,” he murmurs into her hair fondly. “As always.”
River is just beginning to contemplate stepping away and letting the Doctor breathe properly again – he’s here, she thought she’d never see him again but he’s here – when someone clears their throat from behind them. Startled to realize they aren’t actually alone and in their own little universe, she releases the Doctor instantly and turns to find herself staring at…well, the Doctor.
Eyes widening, she reaches behind her and grasps a fistful of tweed, asking from the corner of her mouth, “How is this possible?”
“Don’t know yet,” her Doctor says cheerfully. “Working on it.”
“Enjoying it, more like,” she accuses, and he tugs on a curl in retaliation, like a little boy on the playground.
“Same thing,” he says.
“Only to you.”
“Excuse me,” the other, younger, Doctor cuts in crossly. “I hate to interrupt but perhaps we could save the flirting for after we deal with the flesh-eating shadows?”
River smiles. “Who says you can’t do both?”
“Such a multi-tasker,” her Doctor comments, proud.
She elbows him, still smiling at the younger version in front of her. “What’s the plan then?”
From behind her, her Doctor is eager to reply, “Well obviously we’ll need to -”
“Sweetie, that’s cheating.”
Of course he knows what they need to do – he’s already done it. He makes a disgruntled, petulant noise and River wonders if he’s about to stamp his foot as well when the younger Doctor frowns.
“Sweetie? He’s sweetie too?”
River glances behind her and sees the Doctor straightening his bowtie. “I’m always ‘sweetie’.”
“And you are?”
“Professor Pond.” He practically leaps forward, holding out his hand for his younger self to shake. Giggling when their hands touch, he pumps his younger self’s hand up and down enthusiastically. “Part of Professor Song’s expedition. Bit late to the party, I’m afraid. What have I missed?”
He looks inordinately pleased with himself, glancing back at River and raising his eyebrows as if to say, ‘Look how quickly I thought of that, River! Aren’t I terribly clever?’ River only rolls her eyes again, forcing back the grin that wants to emerge at just the sight of him because she knows he’ll only be encouraged.
His younger self raises his eyebrows skeptically. “A River and a Pond? Am I going to meet someone called Puddle next?”
“Not that I know of,” the Doctor looks at River questioningly.
“Maybe someday,” she says, winking. “Now what next, Doctor?” She steps lightly on her Doctor’s foot to keep him from answering and smothers a grin when he pouts.
Still frowning at them, the younger Doctor turns on his heel and strides back toward River’s team. They’re all still gaping at her Doctor, eyeing him warily and entirely aware that there is no such man as Professor Pond in their expedition. River is just grateful they know enough to keep their mouths shut. She shakes her head at them silently, and tries to communicate with her eyes that she’ll explain later.
She and the Doctor follow behind his younger self, and her Doctor looks entirely too excited about the complicated mess they’ve found themselves in. As his younger self begins to question Mr. Lux about the Doctor Moon, River snags her husband’s hand and yanks him back from joining the group.
“Not that I’m not pleased to see you, sweetie,” she whispers, “But what the hell are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” he hisses, grasping her elbow and looking over her shoulder to the group behind her. “I don’t even remember it happening like this! The TARDIS brought me here.”
River breathes out steadily and tries to let go of any negative thoughts about crossing his own timestream – paradoxes and erasing a thread of their tangled timelines only the tip of the iceberg – because if the TARDIS is behind this, then she must have a reason. River just wishes the Old Girl would occasionally let someone in on her plans instead of watching them all scramble about and panic while she remains giddy and smug in her foreknowledge.
“Right,” she sighs. “She must have a plan, then.”
He nods. “Before we go, his memory of me must be erased. He can’t remember it happening this way.”
“I’ll take care of it,” she assures him, glancing quickly behind her before looking back at him again urgently. “Where are we?”
He hesitates, his eyes pained. “I just did the Singing Towers.”
Her eyes light up. “My Doctor.”
“Always, River.” He tweaks her nose and she swats him away with a smile.
“You look different.” She studies the shadows beneath his eyes, the lines in his face that certainly hadn’t been there the last time she’d seen him and he squirms beneath her scrutiny. “How long ago were the Towers for you?”
“It’s been…” He trails off, shrugging evasively. “A while.”
Her eyes narrow. “Doctor -”
They both look up, startled, at the sound of the younger Doctor’s elated voice. A hologram of Donna Noble from the Doctor’s sonic stands in front of them for a brief moment and River feels her Doctor tense, eyes fixed on the image until it flickers and fades. “Doctor,” she says, squeezing her own Doctor’s hand in support. “Can you get her back? What was that?”
He doesn’t answer, fumbling with his screwdriver frantically and muttering to himself.
“You won’t get anywhere with that,” her Doctor says calmly, and when the younger Doctor looks up in annoyance, he tilts his head and smiles sadly. “Anita, however, might like to have your attention.”
The younger Doctor and River turn quickly to look at the young woman, her eyes wide and frightened. “What’s the matter?”
“Two shadows,” Anita and the Doctor say at once.
River scrambles for Anita’s helmet, ordering everyone else to put theirs on as well, and while he knows it won’t do any of them a bit of good, he can’t bring himself to say it – at least not in front of Anita, who is already scared and crying. His eyes follow his wife as she moves, unable to stop staring at her since she threw herself into his arms. It has been so very long and she is just as he remembers. If possible, she is better than he remembers.
She remains absolutely calm in the face of danger and it’s only because he knows her so well that he can see the fear in her eyes – not for herself, never for herself, but for the people she is responsible for. Her team and him. Always him. Her eyes meet his briefly, looking for some kind of reassurance and he can only offer her a small smile before she puts on her own helmet and his breath catches painfully at the sight. How she is able to put that thing on without having a panic attack, he’ll never understand. Just the sight of her in it is enough to give him flashbacks, but his River has always been so much braver than he’s ever been.
Turning away from her quickly, he whips out his sonic without even thinking and uses it to tint Anita’s visor. The moment the sound of it echoes through the room, he grimaces and mentally curses his own inability to think about anything but River. He can practically hear his younger self internally screaming and feel River’s eyes roll behind her visor. Wincing a bit, he turns with the sonic still in hand. “Right, so -”
Younger Him is right in front of him, gaping at the newer sonic.
“Excuse me, personal space.” He attempts to step around him but his younger self steps with him.
“Either you’re me,” he says slowly, raising wide eyes to meet his gaze. “Or in the future, I’m just giving the bloody things away.”
“Well. Yes.” He waves sheepishly. “Hello.”
“No. What? No.” His younger self gapes at him and remembering how utterly melodramatic he used to be, the Doctor mentally prepares himself for quite the hissy fit before he remembers something very important.
He smirks as Younger Him visibly flinches. “You said there were five people in this room still alive. Six, if you include lovely ol’ me.”
“I definitely do.”
Her flirtatious tone only makes his grin widen and Younger Him pales. “So. Why are there seven?”
Her eyes widen in realization just before they hear it.
“Hey, who turned out the lights?”
They all whirl to look at the figure in the doorway, Other Dave stumbling back with a gasp at the sight of the skeletal figure beneath the suit. At the same time, the Doctor and his younger self shout, “Run!” The Doctor winks at his gaping past self and lunges for River’s hand, pulling her along with him as they all flee from the room. For a swarm in a suit, it certainly gets around rather well. River’s fingers curl around his and the Doctor can’t help the exhilarated grin that stretches across his face. It’s been such a long time since he felt this – the thrill of running with his hand in hers. He didn’t think he would ever have this again and despite the danger – or perhaps, because of it – he cannot resist glancing at River, who winks back at him.
They reach a long hallway and the Vashta Nerada catch up. He knows what happens next but he still lets River pull him to a stop as she turns and looks at Younger Him, standing there in front of a space suit and trying to negotiate with it. “What are you doing?” She hisses, and though she is looking at his younger self, she is definitely talking to him. She never uses that exasperated I am seconds from killing you myself - again tone with anyone else.
“Professor Song, other me, go find a safe spot.” The Doctor rolls his eyes at his younger self as everyone else inches for the door.
River turns to glare at him like his younger self’s stupidity is somehow his fault and he shrugs helplessly. Shouting back at the skinny bloke in the pinstriped suit – honestly, what had he been thinking? Bowties are so much cooler – River very nearly growls in irritation. “You idiot, it’s a carnivorous swarm in a suit! You can’t reason with it!”
The spacesuit advances on them and the Doctor pulls River further away from it. “He’ll be fine,” he says. “Other Dave’ll stay with him.” By this point, he’s pretty sure Other Dave has already been consumed by the shadows but River doesn’t need to know that yet. “Let’s go. Now.”
Something in his tone keeps River from arguing and she tightens her grip on his hand just before he begins to run again, away from the corridor and the shadows and his past. Other Dave is gone, Anita is either gone or very close to it by now but the Doctor has only one priority – keeping River safe. He isn’t naïve enough anymore to believe he can change everything and get River’s whole team out of here alive but the TARDIS brought him here for a reason and he will change River’s fate if it’s the last thing he ever does.
He pulls her into a room he recognizes from the last time he was here. Lux collapses in a chair, red-faced and wheezing, obviously unused to running for his life. Shame, the Doctor thinks. The running is really the best part of having a life at all. He doesn’t wait to catch his breath, panting as he asks, “Are you going to tell us who the hell this is now? This is highly unprofessional Professor Song, he hasn’t even signed the waiver!”
“Neither did I,” River mutters, breezing past him and kneeling in front of the gravity platform to examine it. The Doctor flinches away from the sight of it, thinking of gripping a sonic screwdriver in his hand and a green light slowly fading away. Sorry River, shortcut.
Not this time.
“But who is he?” Lux blusters, glaring at the back of River’s head. “You lied to the Doctor and I want to know why.”
“He is the man who is going to get us out of here alive,” River snaps without turning to look at him. “So shut up.”
Lux frowns at her. “That’s what you said about the Doctor.”
River sighs. “He is the Doctor.”
“What? How can there be two of them -”
By the tense line of River’s shoulders, the Doctor determines she is seconds from snapping and though she is usually quite a bit more patient at this point in her timestream, he decides that dealing with two versions of her husband and watching everyone on her team die has probably shredded that patience rather thin. Stepping in before she does or says something she’ll regret, he beams at Lux and lays a hand on River’s shoulder. “Same man, different points in my timestream. And a different face.” He pats his own cheek. “This one is better though, right?” He rubs a hand over his chin, feeling a little self-conscious when no one replies. “Right? River?”
“Yes, sweetie,” she says, though she sounds like she isn’t even listening.
He takes it anyway, straightening his bowtie and looking down at Lux. “I’m the one she called for. Signals got a bit mixed up, younger me came too. You know how it is, wibbly wobbly, spacey wacey.”
Lux stares at him and the Doctor can practically see incomprehension bleeding out of his eyes. Giving it up as a lost cause, he turns to his wife. She is still staring at the gravity platform but on closer inspection, he finds that she isn’t looking at it so much as looking through it, her expression far away. He used to know what to do when she got that look on her face but for the life of him, he can’t remember anymore. He settles for resting a hand on her shoulder again and squeezing, hoping she understands what he can’t quite remember how to say.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispers suddenly, but that lost look in her eyes hasn’t fled.
“Of course I’m here,” he says, hand leaving her shoulder to fiddle with her ponytail. He hates it when she pulls it back but it’s a nice distraction now against the sudden pain in his chest. “Where else would I be?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. I always thought the first time you met me would be the last time I met you. But you’re here.”
She does not clarify with my Doctor, my husband but he hears it anyway.
“So what does that mean?” She finally looks up at him now, green eyes pained.
The Doctor smiles and wonders if she can see the pain around the edges he can’t quite mask. “Why would you think that? We’re not strictly back to front, you know.” He runs one finger down the bridge of her nose and bops the end of it, the cracks in his smile mending just a little more when she wrinkles it. “You think too much, Professor Song.”
She shakes her head once, turning back to stare at the gravity platform.
“Like now.” He frowns at her. “Talk to me, River.”
“It’s nothing,” she says, pursing her lips. “It’s just… you hate me.”
Horrified, he gapes at her for a long moment and waits for it all to make sense. When it doesn’t, he sputters, “What? No I don’t!”
“Not this you,” River sighs. “Younger you.”
“Again, no I don’t!”
“Don’t patronize me, Doctor. It’s so obvious.” She shuts her eyes and he wants to shake her, make her stop talking such nonsense. He never hated her. She scared the hell out of him but never once had it occurred to him to hate the woman who smiled so brazenly, touched him so freely, and looked at him like he was a memory. “I’ve wondered before but now I really can’t help but think-”
Frustrated with her uncharacteristic rambling, the Doctor snaps, “River,” and instantly regrets it.
“Did you ever really want to be with me?” She blurts, finally looking at him. “Or was I just a bit of predestiny you couldn’t avoid?”
“Predestiny?” He gapes at her. “Pre -” Snapping his mouth shut, he holds out a hand to her instead, meeting her unwavering gaze and waiting for her to take it. When she does, he pulls her up and into him, ignoring Lux and Anita, ignoring the danger they’re in because right now, nothing is more important than getting her to understand this. “If it was preordained then I never really had much say in our relationship, did I? I was dragged along like an unwilling chess piece.”
River purses her lips and refuses to meet his eyes.
“Just like you.”
Her eyes fly up to meet his, enraged. “That isn’t -”
“True?” He smiles. “You always had a choice, River. And so did I.”
“I chose you, River,” he says, hands tight around her own. “Over and over again. Not because it was destined, not because I felt like I was supposed to, not to prevent a paradox from ripping the universe apart. I fell in love.”
River finally looks up at him, breath hitching and green eyes suspiciously wet. His River letting him see her cry? It’s a day of miracles, it seems. Afraid to say anything else and scare her back behind her usual impenetrable mask of strength, he merely tugs her closer and wraps her in his arms. Surprisingly, River lets him.
He glances at Anita standing as far from everyone else as she can get while still staying in the light and his chest tightens. He wonders how much of her is still in there, how much of her has already been devoured by the shadows.
“When we first met you – younger you – you didn’t trust Professor Song. And then she whispered a word in your ear, and you did.”
He swallows tightly, nodding once. River keeps her face pressed into his chest, her nose brushing his bowtie.
“What did she say?”
The word does not come from him or from River, who quickly tears herself away from him and turns, wiping hurriedly under her eyes. Younger Him stands at the top of the stairs, gazing down at them with an unreadable expression. Watching him closely as he takes the stairs two at a time and leaps to the bottom, his trainers squeaking as they hit the floor, the Doctor can see the exact moment his younger self decides that actually addressing what he just witnessed is more terrifying than even carnivorous shadows.
He ignores it entirely instead, avoiding looking at River at all as he asks, “So you’ve been here before, then. What happens? How do I fix it?”
The Doctor smiles enigmatically. “Sorry, can’t say. Spoilers.”
Younger Him shakes his head, smiling tightly, eyes strained. “See, there’s that word again.”
“Get used to it,” the Doctor mumbles, glancing at River sullenly.
“Fine,” Younger Him snaps, clearly fed up with his cryptic responses. “What about Donna? Do I save Donna?”
Pursing his lips in sympathy, the Doctor’s eyes flick to River again, silently asking for permission – after all this time, after what he’s willing to do now to change everything, he can no longer trust his own judgment. When she nods once, eyes soft, the Doctor looks into his own eyes, darker and infinitely less broken than they are now, no matter what his younger self thinks he has been through. “She’ll be fine.”
For now goes unspoken between them.
Quickly covering the way the simple exchange has left him rattled once again, Younger Him swiftly changes the subject, glancing his future self over with evident disdain. “Well, I suppose I’ve had worse,” he says. “I mean, you look like a gangly baby and blimey, that chin.”
Insulted, his hand flies to his chin as he turns to look at River, silently demanding she defend his honor, only to find her biting her lip to contain an amused grin. He scowls. So much for those vows he made her take on their 415th wedding anniversary, about always honoring his bowtie.
“But even all that wouldn’t be half so bad if it weren’t for the trousers and my god, the bowtie.” On the verge of whinging, his younger self looks at him imploringly. “Why the bowtie?”
One hand covering his chin and the other now clutching his beloved – and newly reinstated – bowtie, the Doctor snaps, “Oi! Bowties are cool!”
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” River finally steps up to his defense with a leer. “I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Of course, his River would never miss an opportunity to make two Doctors blush at the same time. Well, perhaps he’s the only one blushing. Younger Him is too busy gaping like a fish.
Her smirk widens dangerously. “Besides, you know what they say about lanky men.” She pauses, head tilted. “Or was it big feet? Either way, I’m sure you’ll be very pleased when you regenerate.” She winks at Younger Him. “I know I am.”
The Doctor can’t help but beam, tugging at the lapels of his coat and feeling inordinately smug. “Frequently.”
Younger Him chokes on air.
River turns on him like a bird circling its prey, sizing up just how many mouthfuls it will take to gobble him whole. “Well, I don’t know about you yet, honey – haven’t had the pleasure. But we could always find a nice empty room and compare.” She looks between them, eyebrow raised, and sighs. “Two of you. The mind races.”
If it were possible to look dumbfounded, terrified and ill all at once, his Younger Self manages it admirably. The Doctor fares a little better, flailing and blushing for only a moment before huffing with an exasperatedly fond smirk – by Rassilon, he has missed her. “You bad girl, River. You’ve already had that birthday present.”
Her eyes sparkle, delighted that he’s playing her game with her. “Ah, but a girl can never have too many surprises like that, my love.”
Younger Him clears his throat loudly, startling them into looking at him. “Right.” Looking like he wants to forget everything he just heard, he claps his hands together, leaping away from them and over to where Anita stands. “How are you?”
The Doctor catches the eye of Mr. Lux, who watches him curiously. He’s quite used to being stared at – and he’s not being vain, people usually are staring at him but mostly because he’s doing something incredibly stupid like taking down an entire Sontaran empire with a banana and a paper clip or trying to fit eleven fish fingers in his mouth at once – but there is something in Lux’s eyes that makes it a bit unnerving. The Doctor offers him a tiny, self-conscious wave and the man quickly glances away again.
“Hang on,” River says, glancing around frantically. “Where’s Other Dave?”
Shining the light of his sonic into the visor of Anita’s helmet, Younger Him says, “Not coming. Sorry.”
Mr. Lux bows his head.
Visibly shaken at the loss of yet another member of her team, a friend, someone she’d worked with and trusted, River glances at the Doctor. For once, her gaze is unguarded and the raw emotion – the uncharacteristic fear – he sees there makes his chest tighten. He reaches for her hand, squeezing her fingers as he draws her nearer to him. Her eyes flick nervously to his younger self, who still isn’t looking at them, and then she relaxes, allowing herself to briefly lean into the comfort of his arm around her waist, sighing quietly when his lips brush her temple.
“Well if they’ve taken him, why haven’t they gotten me yet?”
“Don’t know,” Younger Him says thoughtfully, studying Anita’s shadows. “Maybe tinting your visor is making a difference.”
“It’s making a difference, alright. No one’s ever going to see my face again.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“An old age would be nice. Anything you can do?”
Younger Him glances at him, eyeing the way River instantly shies away from his touch under the gaze of his younger self. “I’m all over it.”
“Yes, no worries,” the Doctor smiles reassuringly at her, his eyes sliding over to his younger self and locking gazes meaningfully. “While we’re in the light, we’re safe as houses.”
Younger Him stops in his tracks, brown eyes widening.
River tenses, glancing between the two of them in confusion. “Doctor?”
“Safe?” He mumbles, eyes narrowing as he snatches up his future self’s clue like a hungry dog with a scrap of food. “Safe. You don’t say saved, nobody says saved. You say safe.”
The Doctor can see the exact moment his younger self’s brain goes into overdrive and he smiles even as his stomach knots. This is it – there is no going back. His fingers twitch to grasp River’s hand again but he restrains himself, knowing she’ll bristle under the watchful gaze of his tenth regeneration.
Younger Him turns on Mr. Lux, who looks startled at seeing all that intensity directed at him. “The data fractal, what did it say?”
To his credit, Mr. Lux does not stutter, his voice shaking only slightly as he replies, “4022 people saved. No survivors.”
Usually always one step behind him – and sometimes a few steps ahead – River still looks puzzled, but the Doctor supposes after the day she’s had, he doesn’t blame her for being a little off. “Doctor? What -”
“Nobody says saved. You say safe.” Younger Him begins pacing, waving his arms wildly as he mutters to himself. “You see, it didn’t mean safe. It meant – it literally meant -” He whirls on them, arms thrown wide and expression triumphant “ – saved!”
As the Doctor – not her Doctor, her Doctor is hovering over her shoulder as if loath to let her out of his sight and the uncharacteristic clinginess he has been exhibiting since the moment he showed up is not lost on her – scrolls frantically through the Library’s archived files, River stands at his side and tries to relieve a bit of the tension between them. Glancing over her shoulder, she whispers in a purr, “I like the glasses, sweetie. Very sexy librarian.”
“Really?” He asks, leaning over her shoulder and studying the black-framed glasses on his younger self’s face. “Looking back, they were a bit pretentious, don’t you think?”
River grins, eyeing his younger self appreciatively. “Pretentious looks good on you, honey.”
Her Doctor preens, tweaking his bowtie.
“Oh for god’s sake,” the younger Doctor snaps, glancing back at them and visibly flustered. “Could you not? I’m right here!”
“Sorry,” her Doctor mumbles, like an abashed child even as he winks at her.
Never sorry for flirting, River wisely says nothing.
“See? There it is, right there!” At the younger Doctor’s triumphant murmur, River crowds closer to the computer screen, leaving her Doctor lounging against a table, content in his foreknowledge. “A hundred years ago, massive power surge. All the teleports going at once. As soon as the Vashta Nerada hit their hatching cycle, they attacked. Someone hits the alarm. The computer tries to teleport everyone out.”
River frowns at the screen. “It tried to teleport 4022 people?”
He shrugs. “It succeeded. Pulled them all out. But then what? Nowhere to send them, nowhere safe in the whole library. Vashta Nerada growing in every shadow. 4022 people all beamed up and nowhere to go.” He gestures with his hands as he talks, the way her Doctor still does, and it’s oddly comforting that some things stay the same. “They’re stuck in the system, waiting to be sent. Like emails. So what’s a computer to do?” He raises his eyebrows at her, obviously anticipating her participation and her hearts swell at the expectation in those unfamiliar eyes. “What does a computer always do?”
She beams at him, giving him what her Doctor calls her ‘he’s hot when he’s clever’ smile. From across the room, she can already feel her Doctor bristling at the sight of it being directed elsewhere. “It saved them.”
This younger Doctor nods, lips twitching as he looks at her – he isn’t looking through her, not anymore and oh god, maybe she might just survive this first meeting after all. “Right to the hard drive.”
It’s a brief moment of peace and understanding between them, broken by the sound of alarms and red flashing lights overhead, throwing them into turmoil once more. “Auto Destruct enabled in twenty minutes.”
Instantly anxious, Lux asks, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
River looks to her Doctor for answers but finds him watching Lux, eyes narrowed. His younger self, still glued to the computer screen, mutters, “Maximum erasure.”
She whirls. “What?”
He swallows. “In twenty minutes, this planet’s going to crack like an egg.”
“No, it’s alright,” Lux interrupts, not sounding like he even believes himself. “The Doctor Moon’ll stop it. It’s programmed to protect CAL.”
The computer screen goes black.
“No, no, no,” the younger Doctor groans, smacking the side of the computer angrily. The abuse doesn’t work so he climbs onto it and tries to sonic it, mouth set in determination. By the patient look on her Doctor’s face as he crosses his arms over his chest and watches, River knows nothing will work.
“All library systems are permanently offline. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Lux is positively panicked now. “We need to stop this. We’ve got to save CAL!”
Hopping down from the computer in defeat, the Doctor snaps, “What is CAL?”
Her Doctor speaks up for the first time in several minutes, those wise hazel eyes still firmly on Lux as he says, “Are you going to tell them now? Or would you like me to?”
Resigned, Lux swallows and nods. “We need to get to the main computer. I’ll show you.”
River and the younger Doctor glance at each other in confusion. It isn’t unusual for the Doctor to keep certain information close to the vest when it suits him or his purpose but hiding something when the shadows are picking them off one by one seems a bit much, even for him.
“Keeping secrets from myself?” The younger Doctor snarks, glaring at his future.
Her Doctor shrugs. “Wasn’t my secret to spill.”
“Is it the core of the planet?”
“Yes,” Lux answers with a sigh, interrupting before the Doctor can start arguing with himself. “And so much more. CAL – Charlotte Abigail Lux. The little girl we saw before, in the computer. In a way, she is the computer. The main command node.”
Oh god. The truth of this expedition settles heavily over River’s shoulders and she feels ill with the knowledge. All this time. CAL isn’t just a computer –
“CAL is a child?!” Jaw dropping, the younger Doctor looks seconds from a fit on par with the Oncoming Storm, outraged and appalled. “Why didn’t you tell me this?” He glares at his future self. “I needed to know this!”
Her Doctor looks unimpressed by the display, pushing away from the table he’s been leaning against and uncrossing his arms. “Breathe. Blimey, we had such a temper then.”
River raises an eyebrow. “Then?”
“Hush, Song,” he orders, winking at her.
“She’s family,” Mr. Lux continues softly. “The only family I have left. My grandfather stored her living mind in the mainframe when she became ill – he gave her all of human history to live in. In peace and free of pain.”
The younger Doctor deflates at that, all his righteous anger puddling at his feet.
“She saved them all,” her Doctor says, reaching over and squeezing Mr. Lux’s shoulder, smiling that sad, proud smile that always makes River’s hearts swell with love. “4022 people kept safe because of that clever girl.”
“Then why didn’t she tell us that?” The sound of Anita’s voice makes them all jump. She has been so quiet River had forgotten she was there in all the excitement and she instantly feels terrible, knowing the girl must be terrified, isolated behind her darkened visor.
“Because she’s forgotten,” Mr. Lux answers, shrugging.
The younger Doctor nods slowly. “Four thousand living minds chatting away inside her head. It must be like being, well -” He glances at his future self. “Us.”
“Well then.” River smiles at both her Doctors, the rush of impending danger making her hearts lighter and her own personal worries fade. “Shall we help her remember?”
Her Doctor beams at her. “Allons-y!”
“That’s my line!”
“Boys, don’t make me separate you,” she warns, strolling to the gravity platform and enabling it with her sonic. “Shall we?”
The younger Doctor smiles reluctantly, strolling with his future self onto the platform, Mr. Lux and Anita shuffling on behind them. “I bet we like her.”
“Oh,” her Doctor glances at her with a smitten grin. “We do.”
As the platform descends to the mainframe at rapid speed, her Doctor reaches for her hand and grips it tightly. River glances at him worriedly but says nothing, sensing that for some reason, he needs the comfort of her touch right now. He lets go when the platform jolts to a stop, offering her a smile meant to reassure and succeeding only in arousing her suspicions further.
“Auto destruct in fifteen minutes.”
And there it is – the data core. It sparks above them, orange light swirling and crackling with barely contained energy. River stares, strangely drawn to its light. There is something about it, something ominous. It reminds her of Stormcage and for the life of her, she cannot understand why.
“Four thousand living minds trapped inside it,” the younger Doctor murmurs quietly.
Yes, that’s why.
“They won’t be living much longer, we’re running out of time.” She forces her eyes from the raw power of the data core and memories of thunder, turning to her Doctor. “What do we do?”
But it isn’t her Doctor who answers.
“Easy!” The younger Doctor says, rushing to one of the computers around the corner and leaving everyone to hurry after him. “We beam all the people out of the data core. The computer will reset and stop the countdown.”
Her Doctor watches his younger self type frantically and shakes his head, old eyes pained. “Except Charlotte doesn’t have enough memory space to make the transfer.”
His younger self doesn’t miss a beat, mind working rapidly. “Easy!” He twirls away from the computer in a move oddly reminiscent of his future self and flings open a panel to the mainframe, revealing a mess of wires. “I’ll hook myself up to the computer. She can borrow my memory space.”
River’s hearts stop in her chest, horror turning her blood to ice in her veins. Staggering forward, she jerks him away from the wires he’s fiddling with by the collar of his blue suit jacket, snapping, “Easy? It’ll kill you stone dead!” God, he is an idiot and she is going to kill him herself – and actually enjoy it this time.
“Oh, it’s easy to criticize,” he says flippantly, hands still clutching the wires and trying to connect them despite her grip on him.
Panic seizes her hearts, frustrated, frightened tears burning at the back of her eyes as she shakes him. “It’ll burn up both your hearts and don’t think you’ll regenerate!”
He hums as if her words aren’t even registering. “I’ll try my hardest not to die, honestly. It’s my main thing.”
River turns to her husband, who watches her quietly, sadly. “Stop it! Stop it right now, you stupid, stubborn Time Lord before I wring your stupid scrawny neck myself!”
Her Doctor pulls her away, glancing briefly at his younger self. “River, I need you to go back up to the main library with Mr. Lux.”
“What? No -”
“It’s going to be fine,” he promises, voice quiet and solemn, that tone that brooks no argument. “I need you to trust me.”
She nods once, reluctantly.
He smiles. “Now, you know what to do once you get up there?”
“Data cells for maximum download?”
“That’s my girl.” His voice shakes, his smile full of pride as he brushes his lips across her forehead. “Now go. I’ve got things under control.”
She glances between her Doctor and his younger self once more, that ominous feeling from earlier returning tenfold now. But she does as she’s told for the time being, walking with Mr. Lux back to the gravity platform, her mind racing. As the platform ascends once more, she thinks of her husband’s eyes, that tight-lipped smile as he assured her everything would be just fine.
The Doctor lies.
The moment River is out of sight, the Doctor snatches the wires from his younger self and begins pulling them out, working quickly. Younger Him offers no protest, letting him take over and watching him connect wires and cables silently but the Doctor hears all the words he does not say, all the confusion he does not express, the judgment he does not utter. “You know I have to do this.”
“You really don’t,” he says, kneeling on the floor next to him and helping him work. They both ignore Anita standing in the corner, knowing she’s no longer in there. She is a shell now, nothing but shadows. “You think I can’t sense time being rewritten just as well as you can? What were you thinking, coming here?”
“The TARDIS brought me here,” he mutters, frowning at a green wire. He hates green wires – they never cooperate.
Younger Him growls, “Why would she take you back here? Have you both gone completely barmy in your old age?!”
“Don’t,” he hisses, glancing up at his younger self and stopping the rest of his scolding with a glare. “You have no idea how much she’s going to mean to us but I do. And I won’t let her die here, not when I can take her place and still keep our timelines intact. I’ve lived without her before, thinking I’d never see her again. I won’t do it again.”
Staring in stunned silence at the blatant loss and desperation bleeding out of his future self’s eyes, Younger Him says nothing for a long moment, speechless. “Look,” he says finally, in what the Doctor recognizes as his placating voice.
Odd, that he would think that voice would work on himself.
“I know it seems hopeless now but what about Rose? We thought we’d never recover when she was taken but we did. We found Donna.” He smiles at the thought of his ginger friend and the Doctor does too, hearts aching as he thinks of the friend he’ll never get back. “You can move on again. You always do.”
“Not this time,” he whispers, closing his eyes briefly as he thinks of lonely years shut away in the TARDIS, the memory of his wife haunting his every waking moment. “River is -”
Half Time Lord, his beloved Pond’s little girl, his wife for over five centuries, the only reason this tired old man finds the will to go on. But he can’t say any of that. Spoilers.
“Special,” he finishes weakly instead.
His younger self shakes his head, baffled. “Who is she? To us.”
He smiles enigmatically. “Spoilers.”
Younger Him rolls his eyes. “Oh come on, not you too with that rubbish.”
“You know who she is,” he says softly, watching his other face sober with the weight of possibilities. “Deep down, you’ve known it from the moment you met her.”
He swallows hard. “How?”
“You’ll find out.” He laughs softly. “It’s a helluva ride.”
Younger Him nods once, acceptance smoothing out his features.
“And I’m sorry but you know I can’t let you remember any of this.” Without waiting for a response, he drops the wires in his grip and hauls his younger self up by the lapels of his jacket. Balling his hand into a fist, he rears back and takes a swing; wincing as his younger self stumbles back and cracks his head against the metal pole behind him. Younger Him slumps to the floor, unconscious, and the Doctor flexes his hand, shaking it with a grimace. Not quite as impressive as River but it certainly got the job done.
It only takes a moment to implant new memories in place of the old ones, making sure his younger self will not remember seeing him. Instead, he’ll remember River and her bravery. Her tearful goodbye. He will save a data ghost that doesn’t exist for his own peace of mind. He will open the doors of his TARDIS with a snap of his fingers and smile because in his future, there will be River. For a moment, the Doctor can’t help but feel envious of his younger self. He would give anything to live it all over again.
After making sure he won’t be waking up any time soon, the Doctor finally glances up, giving his attention to the empty husk masquerading as brave, clever Anita and just barely manages to contain his rage. “Twenty four hours to get everyone out. That’s all I’m asking.”
The shadows grow longer, stretching across the floor toward him.
His jaw tightens. “You let me save my wife or I will burn this planet and your food source to ash.” His eyes narrow as the shadows waver, hesitating. “I’m the Doctor. Don’t think I won’t.”
After a long, tense moment, the shadows slowly begin to shrink once more. “You have one day.” As the green light of Anita’s neural relay begins to fade, the suit collapses to the ground, leaving nothing but a skeleton inside. He turns from the sight of it, hearing River’s hurried footsteps as he turns back to the job at hand.
“I’m sorry, River,” he says softly. “She’s been gone for a while now.”
Kneeling next to her friend, teary-eyed, she glances at him and sees his younger self sprawled unconscious on the floor, her eyes widening in alarm. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you stupid man!”
Ignoring her, he types quickly, setting the timer for when there’s a blip in the command flow, just like River had done – will never do. “You should be with Lux.”
She leaps to her feet and he savors the anger in her eyes for the last time. She is never more lovely than when she is furious with him. “Lux can manage on his own. You, on the other hand, are a liar who won’t survive five minutes without me.”
He would argue but he doubts he can call what he’s been doing since he lost her surviving. “Lucky for me, I won’t have to.”
There is only one wire left to connect and minutes to spare.
Just enough time for a goodbye.
His River, of course, isn’t going to make this easy. “Doctor, give me the cables.”
He tightens his hold on them like a stingy child. “No.”
Not one to be outdone, she stamps her foot and glares at him, daring him to laugh at her. “That is my job, you idiot!”
“And I’m not allowed to have a career?” He snips. “I’m not a trophy husband, River!” Her eyes fill with tears and he deflates, knowing the time for laughing in the face of death is over. “I can't you let you do this, honey. I won’t.”
“I already have done,” she snaps tearfully. “You think I don’t know by now what you’re doing here? How long did you wait before coming back and trying to change everything?”
He growls, silently damning his wonderful, clever wife. “The TARDIS brought me here. We’re saving you, whether you like it or not.”
“The TARDIS would never condone you sacrificing yourself!” She shakes her head, ponytail bouncing as she lowers her voice, soft and soothing – the same tone she used – will never use – as she put that twisted crown on her head and whispered it’s okay, it’s not over for you. The Doctor steels his resolve, his teeth grinding together. She will never talk him out of this. “This is how I die, sweetie. You’ve always known it and I’m sorry that you had to live with that knowledge the whole time we were together but I won’t let you change one second of our life together. I won’t let you do something you’ll wind up regretting – tearing the universe apart for one person. I won’t let you become that!”
“I don’t care,” he snaps, and the moment he says it, he knows it’s true. “I don’t care about the universe, River! Only you.”
She shakes her head, green eyes bright with tears as she purses her lips against a sob. “Oh my love. How long have you been alone?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “What matters is that I keep you from sacrificing yourself in my name again. Your whole life, River. I’ve ruined it. I won’t be the cause of your death too.”
“I don’t regret it.”
He stares at her.
River sets her jaw stubbornly but her chin quivers with the tears she tries valiantly to hide. He feels the distance between them like a physical ache, wanting nothing but to close it and gather her into his arms, to never let go again. But one of them has to die today and it isn’t going to be her.
“Given the choice between you or myself, I would protect you every single time Doctor, and don’t you dare lie to me and tell me you wouldn’t do the same. You’re doing it right now.” She gives him a wobbly smile. “I love you far more than I will ever love myself and that will never change.” The tears in her eyes finally spill over as he stares at her and her voice shakes with emotion even in her anger. “It’s called marriage, sweetie.”
Damn her and these humany emotions.
He wipes ineffectively at his cheeks, knowing that she is just as determined not to back down as he is. The countdown is dangerously low and he cannot waste any more time arguing with her. So he drops the cables and moves fast, closing the distance between him and his wife in two quick strides, gathering her small, struggling frame into his arms and crushing her to him. As his lips close over hers in a furious, biting kiss, she stops fighting him. She sighs into his mouth, clutching his hair in her hands and pressing herself against him, her warm, perfect curves slotting against the flat planes of his body in the most achingly familiar way.
Tears stream down his face as he kisses her – the first time in oh so long and he had forgotten how good it felt, to feel her mouth against his, to hold her in his arms. It is the perfect goodbye and he clings to her desperately, memorizing the feel of her, the way her curls wind around his fingers, the way she whimpers against his lips, the way she tastes of time and dust and raspberry chapstick. He savors every bit of it, determined to die still feeling River wrapped all around him.
With his other hand, he reaches into the pocket of his jacket, his fingers closing around the syringe in his pocket – the TARDIS’ final gift to him. He didn’t understand it then, too caught up in running out the door to save his wife but now he knows with painful clarity. His Old Girl has given him what he wanted most – peace at last and the knowledge of his River safe and free from any cage. She belongs among the stars, not pressed into the pages of musty books and he will gladly die a thousand times over, knowing she will go on, traveling with his ship.
The Child of the TARDIS, running through time and space, adventure nipping at her high heels – just as it should be.
River slumps in his arms almost instantly and he pulls the needle from her neck, tossing the syringe aside and carefully scooping her up. He places her far enough away that his younger self will not stumble across her upon waking, knowing the Old Girl will guide River to her when she wakes. Pressing his lips to her forehead, the Doctor shuts his eyes to the sight of his wife’s sleeping face and breathes her in one last time, tears blurring his eyes. “Goodbye, my love.”
He doesn’t look back as he walks away, knowing the sight of what he’s leaving behind will only make what he has to do all the more painful. He has just enough time to put the crown on his head and connect the wires – no tearful farewells, no parting last words – only a rushed, adrenaline-filled death. He is grateful for that small mercy.
Ten, nine, eight
Stumbling around the corner at rapid speed, the Doctor trips and catches himself just before he hits the floor, gaping at the sight in front of him. He stares in horror at Mr. Lux, crown on his head and cables in hand. “No,” he breathes, blood draining from his face. “What are you doing?”
Lux, red-faced and tearful, looks calmer than the Doctor has ever seen him – like a man who knows he has made the right decision. “I’m going to join Charlotte in the data core, so she won’t be alone.”
Seven, six, five
He shakes his head frantically, inching forward slowly. “I can’t let you do that, Mr. Lux. Please, just, let me have that. It’s all right. I’m ready.”
“You’re not,” he says fiercely, a passionate objection that freezes the Doctor in his place. “It’s my job to protect Charlotte, not yours. She’s the only family I have left. But you, Doctor. And Professor Song. You still have so much.”
Four, three, two
The Doctor’s eyes widen. “Mr. Lux, please -”
“Thank you, Doctor.” He smiles, blue eyes serene. “And goodbye.”
He picks her up, carries her into the TARDIS – who has cleaned up and rid their bedroom of layers of dust in his absence – and strips of her of that awful spacesuit, takes her hair out of the ponytail he detests. He lays her in their bed, reclines beside her and waits for her to wake up and yell at him. And all the while, his eyes never leave her face.
He drinks her in, memorizing her anew. He counts the rise and fall of her chest as she breathes, counts the spirally curls against her pillow, the freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose. He tries to count her eyelashes but her eyes flutter open before he finishes, staring up at him in drowsy confusion – a momentary effect of the injection he’d given her but she’ll shake it off in a moment.
She glances behind him and frowns. “The TARDIS… We were in the Library.”
As she trails off, he knows the memories are flooding back to her rapidly and he waits patiently for the ringing slap she will no doubt deliver – he’s almost looking forward to it. It’s been a very long time since his wife slapped some sense into him and he can’t help feeling it might do him good. A sharp intake of breath draws his focus back to her, watching realization dawn.
“Oh, you idiot,” she breathes, angry tears filling her eyes. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” he whispers back. “I didn’t have to. Mr. Lux, he wanted to be with Charlotte. He -” A lump forms in his throat and he swallows hard. “River, I’m so sorry.”
She shakes her head, pulling him down to her and pressing her forehead to his. “You didn’t force him, my love. Don’t blame yourself.” She wraps her arms around him, fingers bunching the material of his jacket in her fists as she tenses beneath him. “You tried to die for me.”
“So did you,” he counters easily.
“It’s not the same and you know it.”
He sighs painfully, looking down at her with sadness in his eyes. “How do you think it makes me feel when you say things like that? Do you think your love means more than mine?” Her eyes widen and he brushes his thumb tenderly across her cheekbone. “You’re allowed to make big, grand gestures and be constantly, recklessly, willing to die for me but god forbid I so much as try to heal your broken wrist with my own regeneration energy.” By the end of his tirade, his voice has grown louder, bitter, against his will, and he glances away from her face, feeling strangely vulnerable.
“I gave that regeneration energy to you,” she says, voice shaking. “Not for you to squander it on me -”
“It’s not squandering, damn it, River!” He sighs, jerking his hand away from her cheek and running it agitatedly through his hair. “And yes, you gave it to me but now it’s mine and I’ll use it how I see fit. I will heal your papercuts with it if I bloody well feel like it and I’ll be damned if I ever feel sorry for it!”
For a long moment, silence reigns as he avoids River’s gaze, trying valiantly to stop the angry shaking of his hands and blink the tears from his eyes. River doesn’t speak and she doesn’t slap him either but he still flinches when he feels her sit up in bed, reaching for him. She climbs into his lap and takes his face in her hands tenderly, not waiting for him to meet her eyes before brushing her lips softly over his cheeks, his chin, his forehead and nose, the soft skin of his eyelids. She handles him like she might one of her ancient, crumbling artifacts and he holds his breath until his lungs burn, afraid he might turn to dust beneath her touch.
When she kisses the corner of his mouth, he turns his head and captures her lips with his, a soft, urgent meeting of slick, hungry mouths. As River’s hands thread through his hair, the sudden exhilaration of being alive overwhelms him and he grips her to him tightly. His wife is alive, she’s safe. And she’s never leaving him again.
“Shh,” she silences him with another kiss. “Just hold me, sweetie.”
It’s all he’s wanted for years.
They undress one another in a hurried flurry of movements, River’s hands trembling as she pushes his coat from his shoulders and undoes the buttons of his shirt and his own fumbling fingers reaching around to unclasp her cotton bra. Bare skin presses against bare skin as they twine together in the sheets, a frantic, adrenaline filled coupling that slowly morphs into something else entirely, something life-affirming as they cling to one another, two lost lovers afraid to ever let go again. They trade reassuring whispers as they do kisses and caresses – a murmured never leave me as he trails his mouth down her stomach, a faint I’m alright, my love, I promise as her fingertips dance across the bumps of his spine.
When he finally presses inside the welcoming heat of her body, his forehead against hers and their thoughts intermingling, tears spring to his eyes. One thought reverberates through both of their minds at once, the same feeling they always have when they are together like this. Home.
Hi honey, I’m home. And it was always true, whenever and wherever they were – in an alien prison, on a desert planet, hunting a Slitheen through a tropical rain forest, on a crowded street in the middle of the night in 21st century London. And here, right now. Anywhere and everywhere is home as long as River is there with him. She is his home and he has been so lost without her.
They make love with all the desperate eagerness of the last time but with none of the sadness of goodbye, sweat clinging to their skin and hips rocking in a steady, undulating rhythm that leaves them both breathless and gasping, clutching at slick bare skin. But this time, he doesn’t have to leave and neither does she. This time it is all the happiness of existing, of being safe and together. It is never do that again and we’re alive.
River comes first, curls spilling across her pillow as she throws her head back, tears on her cheeks and his name – his real name when he never thought he’d hear it again – on her lips like a benediction, an absolution for all his sins. He buries his face in her neck and when he follows her into the aching bliss of release, he doesn’t see stars. He sees her – smiling, dancing, pouting, running, and always alive, so very alive – and he sobs gratefully into her hair.
They don’t speak as the sweat dries on their skin and their breathing evens out once more, choosing instead to curl around each other and inhale the calm after the storm. The Doctor studies her profile like a dedicated student, starved too long of his education.
With her eyes shut, River finally asks softly, “How long ago since the last time you saw me before today?”
He glances away, his throat suddenly tight. Thinking about the time of his life he calls After River makes his throat close up and his hands shake. He has no intention of ever being without her again. She will not be happy with his answer but he cannot lie to her – not about this, not at the start of this new era he plans to call out loud Post-After River and in his head Happily Ever After. “A long, long time ago.”
“As I suspected,” she sighs; eyes fluttering open to fall on his pale face. “Oh, sweetie -” He shakes his head wordlessly, pulling her naked body into his and clinging to her like a weak swimmer to a life raft. She wraps her arms around him and hums soothingly into his hair, her gentle hand stroking his back. “That was stupid and reckless and -”
“I’m not sorry,” he says adamantly, his lips pressed to the soft, supple skin above her breast.
She traces her fingers over his face, careful fingertips smoothing the lines of his brow, her smile indulgent and her eyes bright. “Of course you’re not.”
“I missed you,” he confesses in a whisper, tears blurring his eyes once more.
River’s face crumples at the sight of them and she exhales on a shaky sigh, her breath warm against his forehead as she presses soft, tiny kisses to the crown of his head. “Oh, my love. You can’t rewrite time just because you miss me.”
He snorts softly, lifting his head to press a teasing kiss to her nose. It’s been a long time since he teased anyone but he’s sure he can get the hang of it again quickly. “I’m the lord of time, River Song. I can do anything.”
“No you can’t,” she says, sounding so matter of fact that he knows he needs her. She is the only thing keeping this darkness inside him at bay, the only thing keeping him from truly believing the lofty praise of his own power.
“No,” he agrees, lips gliding over the bridge of her nose. “I can’t.”
River nips at his chin. “But you did.”
“Just this once,” he promises.
She laughs softly, smiling up at him and wrapped in his arms – alive, alive, so very alive as she presses a warm hand to his cheek. “Let’s hope once is enough, sweetie.”