The clack of her heels on the metal floor seemed to hammer in her ears.
The world felt too quiet; too cold; too big.
That was the thing no one ever seemed to mention about loss; how big the world felt afterwards. Suddenly there was so much extra space which they used to have filled. Like moving a sofa out of the sitting room.
Except sofas could be replaced.
River lost track of time as she walked down the hallway. She intended, eventually, to reach her bedroom, but at the moment she felt in too much of a daze to care how quickly she got there. It didn’t even particularly matter if she got there. She’d just needed to get out of the console room, away from the Doctor. She just needed a moment to breathe, a moment to compose herself. Perhaps a moment to cry.
The Doctor would not handle this loss well. He would need her and more importantly he would need her strength. She could not let him see her crumble, and if she stayed in that room any longer she wasn’t sure she could have prevented it.
Never let him see the damage. That was the most important rule after hiding spoilers. Never let him see what this life cost her. Never remind him that she was more human than Time Lord. Never let him see her weak.
She had perhaps ten minutes at most. He would eventually come looking for her, and her defenses had to be in place by the time he did. For now, though, the Doctor would be somewhere else in the TARDIS, reading and rereading her mother’s afterword, finding comfort in that small final token of his Amelia’s affection.
If she closed her eyes and focused she could almost feel her mother’s hand gripping hers. Mum always had such soft hands. Right now, many years ago, she’d be holding Dad’s hands, pulling him close as they set out on a new life. Together, as they always had done.
She had always envied them that.
And one day, many years later, they would each wrap a hand around a tiny one of her own and lead her home.
She didn’t realize she had entered her room until she met her own eyes in the vanity mirror. She knew it didn’t make sense, regeneration and all, but she’d always liked to think she had her father’s eyes anyway.
River turned away from the mirror. There was no time for thoughts like that now. It was the Doctor’s grief that mattered now, she told herself, not hers.
She hadn’t even gotten to tell her father goodbye.
Her corset suddenly felt far, far too tight. River gasped and the boning constricted painfully around her ribs. She blinked away the wetness at the corner of her eyes and forced herself to focus on the moment. Her hands shook as she unhooked the eyes and posts on the front of her corset and the second she was free she tossed the garment away, breathing deeply and slowly until the urge to cry left her.
It wasn’t working.
She doubled over, hand braced on the corner of her vanity, and would have broken down right then had the door not opened behind her. She straightened up, instincts kicking in, walls up, mask on, emotions under control.
“Are you alright?” The Doctor asked as he entered the room. River nodded, not looking at him.
“I’m fine. Just…desperate to be in something more comfortable.” He saw straight through her, but blessedly didn’t comment, merely frowned at her. River ignored the crease between his eyes and reached behind her to fumble with the zipper of her dress. “Find what you were looking for?”
“They were happy in the end.”
“Of course they were.” River huffed as her zipper suddenly refused to move. She faced the Doctor. “Help me with this, will you?” She turned her back to him and avoided his gaze in the mirror as he approached her and pinched the zipper in his fingers. He paused, glancing over her shoulder and stepping far closer than really was necessary.
“You know, I never got around to mentioning,” he said quietly, “But you looked rather beautiful today.
River managed a half smile and a soft, “Thank you.”
“Of course,” he said, voice even softer now, “I’ve never known you not to look beautiful.” He leaned forward and placed a warm kiss at the base of her neck, on that last jutting vertebra of her spine. River closed her eyes and sighed but drew her shoulder in as he tried to move to the side of her neck.
“Doctor,” she said, quiet but firm. “That’s not why I asked you to unzip me.”
He stopped, his face falling. He cleared his throat as he straightened up, disappointment thinly masked as he mumbled an apology. River cast her eyes to the ceiling as the Doctor yanked on her zipper, but she didn’t feel it move.
“I think the zip’s caught on the fabric,” he said, tugging gently. His brow furrowed and he tugged harder. “Oops.” River shot his reflection a questioning look and he replied with a sheepish smile. “I broke it. Hold on.” He pulled out his screwdriver, and there was a brief buzz and the zipper came unstuck. River might have made a joke about “sonicking her” if she’d been feeling better. Amy used to make that joke at every opportunity in the days before she knew she was talking about her own daughter. River glanced at her vanity mirror and noticed the Doctor give her a strange look; she never missed the opportunity for innuendo.
She put on the closest thing to a genuine smile she could muster at the moment. “Are you going to stand there all day? Or are you going to unzip me?” A utilitarian response. Not enough to assuage his worries. If she wasn’t careful soon he’d be asking her what was wrong.
He finished unzipping her dress and she stepped away before he could help her out of it. Goodness knows they could both have used the comfort, but she was already too close to breaking down and if she didn’t get away from him as soon as possible she didn’t know what she’d do. “I need a shower.”
He followed her to the bathroom door. “Mind if I join you?” She could hear the hesitance behind the playful tone.
She didn’t look at him as she grabbed a luxurious robe from the corner of her closet. “I need a proper shower. Paradoxes, time distortions, it all wrecks havoc on my hair.” The Doctor caught the door as she closed it.
“River…” She stared stonily at him as he frowned at her, “I know you’re trying to put up a brave face for my sake, but you don’t have to. River, they were your--”
“I know who they were,” she snapped, and the Doctor blinked at her, looking much like a kicked puppy, “But for most of my life they didn’t. They were more friends than parents, and honestly, Doctor, I’m fine.” And she slammed the door in his face.
He didn’t deserve how harsh she was being, especially not now, but she just needed a moment. One moment to not worry about him and deal with her own grief privately before she undertook the massive task of helping him through his.
Maybe then she’d even tell him the truth.
Because the truth was that they weren’t more friends than parents. Her whole life her mother and father had been her mother and father, even when they didn’t know it. Whether at the time it had been as a daughter or a friend or an ally, they had always loved and protected her.
They were her parents, of course it mattered. They had raised her, more than once even, but letting go of them so that they could find her again was no easier now than it had been after they’d died in the nineties. And oh, how unfair that was. No child should have to say goodbye to her parents twice. She needed to tell the Doctor, she knew she did, but right now the thought of her happy childhood in New York brought her more pain than it would bring him comfort. He would find comfort elsewhere.
She shook her head to clear it and slipped out of her dress. The tub had begun filling automatically when she stepped into the room and it was full in less than a minute. It was amazing how the body seemed to hide just how much tension it carried until the moment it was allowed to let it all out. She felt aches and bruises she didn’t know she had being soothed away as she lowered herself into the bath. River closed her eyes and for a very short moment, felt very relaxed and very peaceful and very content. And then it all came up.
They were gone. Finally, truly, completely gone. She’d always known the day would come. She always knew they were young when they arrived in New York, had always known that they spent the majority of their lives there. They’d told her as much. Still, they had never told her exactly how they ended up there. Spoilers, she supposed. There was so much they never could tell her.
They were her parents, and as much as she didn’t want to admit the damage even to herself, it hurt. Oh, how it hurt.
The sob surprised her, and she clapped a hand to her mouth and bit the next one back. She didn’t feel ready to cry for them yet. Once she started she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop, and she couldn’t curl up for a week and cry just yet.
Another sob escaped, but before her resolve could fail there was a knock at the door.
“What?” she snapped, more harshly than she’d intended.
There was a heavy silent moment before the Doctor answered softly, “I, I was going to make some tea. I was just…I was just wondering if you wanted any.”
River swallowed back her tears and cleared her throat. “No,” she said firmly, trying to sound gentler but failing. But really, she asked herself, was it so hard for him to give her a few minutes of privacy?
There was silence on the other end of the door for so long that she began to wonder if he was still there. Then, barely audible, “…sorry. Just thought I’d ask.” And she heard him walk away.
River sighed and slumped into the water. The suffocating lump of emotion building up in her chest had ebbed below the surface for now, and she didn’t feel up to letting it out if she didn’t have to. She was just too tired. Physically, mentally, emotionally, tired. She would face it all, she would, just not now. After a while she started to feel sleepy and decided perhaps she should get out. When she exited the bathroom wrapped in her plush robe the room was empty.
She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting. The Doctor had probably taken his tea to her parents’ room and set about sulking there.
Still feeling drowsy she laid down on the bed; just for a moment, she thought. Heat led to lethargy, and after a few minutes she’d cool off and go find her husband. And it had been so long since she’d had a moment to just sit down and rest her eyes.
The room was dark when she awoke. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, but it had been long enough for her hair to dry completely. She rubbed at her eyes and sat up slowly. She didn’t remember pulling the blankets over herself. Through the gloom she spotted a mug of tea on the bedside table with a small note attached to it. She picked up the note and blinked at it, letting her eyes adjust.
Just in case. x
River sighed. Of course. The Doctor had come back and found her after she’d nodded off, and tucked her in and dimmed the lights. The tea had long since gone cold, but the little gesture almost made her want to smile anyway. The sentimental old fool. He had his own grief to deal with and instead here he was puttering about taking care of her.
She stretched and stood. There was work to do. She got as far as pulling on underwear and a camisole before deciding she was too tired to care about being anything other than comfortable and threw her dressing gown back on. When in mourning one deserved to be cozy.
She tried her parents’ room first, though she didn’t dare to look more closely than was necessary to make sure the Doctor wasn’t there. If she dwelled there too long she’d fall apart. She checked the console room and his study and finally found him in the kitchen, sitting at the table and staring at about a dozen cups of tea.
He didn’t look up when she entered. She wasn’t sure if he even noticed she’d arrived.
He looked up, eyes empty, and blinked at her a few times. “Sorry.” He looked back at the cups of tea and frowned. “I kept thinking it’d help to have a cuppa. And then I’d take a sip and just sort of forget about it. So then I’d make another and well…” he trailed off. “The cycle continues.” He took a deep breath, shaking himself out of his reverie and gave her a small smile. “It’s about time to make another. Maybe I’ll actually drink it this time.” He jumped up, far too casual and far too okay. “Could make you some too if you like.” He was hiding things from her. Or else he was in denial. He opened a cabinet and River sighed. She supposed the most she could do at a time like this was be there for him when he cracked. But God. She could not sit here and watch him make another few dozen cups of tea for the next week.
“I could use something a little stronger than tea, to be honest,” she said, trying and failing to sound nonchalant.
The Doctor was turned away from her but she saw the way his shoulders sagged. “You know what; actually so could I.”
River stood up a little straighter and crossed her arms over her chest. She watched him, teeth worrying at her lip as he dug through a different cabinet. The Doctor didn’t drink much, but she could always tell exactly what he was feeling depending on what he did drink. Brandy was for merry times with old friends. Champagne was for celebrating or dates or River I am over a thousand years old, I am not incapable of choking down some form of wine! Whiskey was for taking the edge off when things got to be a little too much. Given the circumstances, she wasn’t surprised he was reaching for alcohol, and they’d be fine just as long as he didn’t go for—
“Scotch alright?” He asked, head in a cabinet, and River closed her eyes and inwardly groaned. Scotch was for when he just didn’t want to be sober anymore. “Or, I think I’ve got a cabernet from the 1600’s in here somewhere if you’d rather--”
“Scotch is fine,” she answered quickly. If the Doctor was going to get drunk, she was going to have to be fairly drunk to deal with him. While he poured them both glasses River busied herself pouring out his cold tea mugs and sitting them in the automatic sink. She wasn’t surprised when she took her seat to see he’d already downed half his glass. He stared straight ahead, frowning.
“Bet it’s hard to find good tea in America. It’s not a part of their culture like it is in Britain.” River frowned and sipped at her own glass. “We should send a care package,” he added, nodding to her as if this clarified. When he was met with a raised eyebrow he cleared his throat and explained, “When you send the manuscript. We could send a collection of tea.” River dropped her gaze.
Of course. It all came back to her parents.
River didn’t trust herself to answer, so she merely gave him a noncommittal hum and took a drink. She glanced up again to see the Doctor refilling his glass.
“How are you feeling?” he asked after he’d taken a drink.
“You know what,” he said, a hint of an edge in his voice.
River shifted in her seat and took another drink. “I’m fine.”
“River,” he began, but she cut him off.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“River,” he tried again, more firmly this time.
She fixed him with a fierce stare. “I said it doesn’t matter.”
The Doctor’s face hardened into something almost like a glare, and for a moment he looked like he was going to say something, but in the end he huffed a sigh and downed the rest of his drink in one go.
“Don’t you think you should slow down?” River asked as he reached for the bottle again.
He ignored her.
And if he drank the whole next glass in one gulp, she was sure he did it out of spite.
The Doctor got one of two things when drunk: silly, or belligerent. Three guesses which one she’d get to deal with tonight. Well, it was either beat him or join him, and she didn’t have it in her for a fight, so River knocked back the rest of her drink and held out her glass for seconds.
She’d yet to even begin to feel a buzz, but the Doctor was clearly beginning to lose sobriety. She had to shake her glass directly in front of his face before he even noticed it, and even then he didn’t make the connection. He blinked at the empty glass in her hand and then turned back to glaring at the ceiling.
“I need to redecorate,” he said as River poured her own glass. “I don’t like it in here. Never have.” He bounced up and down in his seat. “These chairs are rubbish.” He stood suddenly, his movements slightly more grandiose than usual, swiped the scotch bottle from the table and swaggered towards the door.
River frowned. “Where are you going?” she called after him. He stopped and turned, wobbling a bit, and rolled his eyes at her.
“To find better chairs!” he said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. “Come on, River, keep up, you’re smarter than this!” And he waltzed out the door. River rolled her eyes and headed after him.
This was going to be a fun night.
He finally arrived, stumbling somewhat, into the library and plopped down on a plush sofa, at which point he discarded his glass completely and took a swig straight from the bottle. “Comfy chairs!” he announced, patting a place beside him for River to sit. She did so hesitantly; the Doctor’s behavior was starting to approach worrisome.
She was startled by his sudden bark of bitter laughter. She stared at his curled lip as he glared into space. “I made him say comfy chairs.”
River raised an eyebrow as the Doctor tipped the bottle to his lips again. She considered confiscating it. “What?”
The Doctor rolled his eyes dramatically. “Angel Bob!” he griped, head swaying as he looked at her. “Come on, River, you were there! Angel Bob! I made him say comfy chairs!” River didn’t reply, and he kept looking at her with that same snarl, his voice a low growl when he continued. “And what about poor Bob? It killed him. They killed those boys and Octavian and then they took my friends, my family from me, and what did I do?” River kept her expression very carefully blank in response to the growing hatred on the Doctor’s face. Whether it was directed at the Angels or at himself she couldn’t say. “I made him say comfy chairs.” He turned his attention back to his bottle. They sat in silence for a few minutes, River idly twirling the ice in her empty glass while the Doctor stared at the wall.
“Whadi-di-mm.” The Doctor stopped, squeezed his eyes closed, and tried again, though his words were still slurred. “Why did d’you, ‘Fessor Song, lemme think that you were engaged t’Octavian, hmm?” River rolled her eyes before settling them on her now significantly inebriated husband. Well. It was bound to happen. He’d ingested enough scotch quickly enough to knock a human out cold. It was only his superior physiology that was keeping him conscious. He leaned in, invading her personal space and nearly crashing his head into hers. “Wasn’t very polite.”
River reached for the bottle still held loosely in his hand. “I think you’ve had enough.” He held it out of her reach.
“Oi! ’m fine.”
She shook her head. “You’re drunk.”
He waggled a finger at her. “I am not drunk,” he insisted, the constant bobbing of his head begging to differ, “I aaam a Time Lord, River, I d’ not get drunk. You’re drunk.” He nodded sagely, if a bit exaggeratedly. “So drunk, that you can’t tell tha you’re drunk, and y’think I’m drunk. Y’see?” It took all River’s self control not to punch that condescending smile off his face.
“Yes dear, I’ve only had two glasses and you’ve downed over half a bottle of 85 percent alcohol scotch in half an hour, but I’m the one who’s drunk,” she said drily, though there was far too much alcohol in the Doctor’s system at that point to recognize the sarcasm.
“’zactly darling, wish’is why ‘m not giving you bottle.” River pursed her lips and grabbed at the scotch bottle, but the Doctor held it out of her reach. She huffed and stood, but her husband managed to scamper out of his seat and stumbled away from her.
“Rivaaah! No! S’mine!”
River found herself growing more and more agitated as she tried to wrestle the bottle out of the Doctor’s hands. She may have been trained in combat and he may have been very, very drunk, but physically the Doctor was still stronger than she was, and she was too tired and sore to fight him, so her attempts to get the scotch away from him proved mostly fruitless once he started holding it at arm’s reach high above his head. She clung to him, half trying to climb up his body as he tried to get away. She let go to regroup and he staggered away from her. When he saw her about to charge again the Doctor brought the bottle down to his lips and River pulled ineffectually at his arm as he downed the remaining fourth in one go. It was clear from the way his face scrunched up when he finished that he immediately regretted it. He shuddered and stuck the empty bottle out to a point slightly to her left and growled, “There! Take it!”
River grabbed the bottle before he dropped it and watched, speechless, as he lumbered back to the sofa.
She had half a mind to smash the bottle over his head. The day she’d had and he was acting like this. His grief, she could have handled. It was one thing to hold him as he cried and help him to rebuild his life in the wake of such a devastating blow. She’d expected him to wade through his own sorrow with only passing attention given to her own. She could have coped with that. But him acting like this, like a stubborn, petulant child, while she was mourning the loss of two of the only three people who had ever really loved her…she would not stand for it.
He blinked at her as she glared at him. She wasn’t sure if she was going to cry, scream, or punch him. In the end, she settled for hurling the bottle at the ground and letting it shatter against the floor. The Doctor jumped and stared at her with wide red eyes. She turned on her heel, intent on storming out and locking herself in her parents’ room for a good long cry, when there was a force on her hand that nearly pulled her to the ground. “River,” the Doctor managed to mumble as she stumbled backwards into his chest, and they both toppled into the sofa again.
“Get off me!” River swatted at his arms as he tried to hold on to her, but in the end he held too tight and she slumped in his embrace. “Doctor, let go, this is really not very comfortable,” she said firmly, and with a wordless grumble he released her. She clambered out of his lap and settled in the seat next to him and let her head fall into her hands. This was not how she’d envisioned this day; or at least its aftermath. She couldn’t even storm away from him properly. She couldn’t grieve, she couldn’t get drunk, she couldn’t get him through his grief, and now she couldn’t even rage. God, she wanted to sleep.
Beside her the Doctor had gone very quiet. No doubt he was starting to feel the full effect of his binge, but at least he’d stopped being such a pest. River sighed into her hands. She needed to collect herself, put her idiot of a husband to bed, and then go to sleep and hope he didn’t wake her up until she’d gotten enough rest to handle everything else to come. She lifted her face from her hands as she felt her dressing gown being pulled off her shoulder and replaced by the warmth of sloppy kisses.
Oh, for the love of god.
“Doctor,” she said flatly as he moved from her shoulder up her neck. He hummed in reply and she rolled her eyes as one of his hands lighted on her waist while the other crept into her camisole. “Doctor, not now.”
“W’not?” he managed to mumble, tugging her closer.
River huffed and tried to push him away. “Because you’re drunk.” She pulled out of his grasp and stood, but he clung to her arm.
“River, nooo,” he whined, pulling her back into the sofa. She was about to rebuke him again when she met his eyes and saw the sadness there. “Don’go,” he said, very quietly and very brokenly. His head lolled into her shoulder and he mumbled half-coherently into her skin, “Not y’too. Nah my River. Can’t, River, can’t.” And there was such pain in his voice that her hearts softened despite herself. She gathered him in her arms as he started to sob softly into her chest. He fell asleep quickly enough, and she left him stretched out on the sofa while she swept up the broken glass and collapsed again into their bed. When he awoke he likely wouldn’t remember, and if he minded waking up without her then that was too damn bad. She needed a break from him. She only prayed the rest of his grief would take less irritating and self-destructing forms. She knew him too well to hope it wouldn’t.
She jettisoned the liquor cabinets just in case.
When she awoke a few hours later she found the Doctor still passed out cold in the library where she’d left him. She expected he’d be out for a good long while. In the mean time she sat down and tried to write the book that she’d already penned.
She got half a page in before deciding the pain was far too fresh. She contemplated cracking open the copy they already had and copying it word for word. That wasn’t necessarily cheating, was it?
Okay, yes it was, and she knew it. But time was not the boss of her.
In the end, her instincts got the better of her. She knew she shouldn’t, and anyway, it would still mean reliving her parents’ loss, and she wasn’t quite ready for that either.
After checking on her husband, placing a cold compress on his head to help with the throbbing headache he was bound to have when he woke up, and changing into more practical clothes, River put on some music and settled into the swing beneath the TARDIS console to begin making repairs. Poor old girl had been through hell and back with all the paradoxes and time distortions. Her circuits were in shambles.
“I know, dear,” she muttered to the cables as she connected them. “But I don’t think he’s meant to neglect you.” There was a comforting hum from around her. The TARDIS was long overdue a tune-up. The more River worked, however, the more she discovered that the opposite seemed to be the case. If anything, it seemed the TARDIS was suffering from over-tuning. The Doctor clearly had spent too much time wiring and rewiring to the point that he’d hopelessly muddled things up. River shook her head, wiped the sweat from her brow, and started disconnecting things.
What would that man do without her?
She imagined that was part of the problem. Her parents had given up traveling with him full-time, and the extra time to himself had clearly become an issue he’d decided to solve by messing with his ship until everything only worked in a roundabout way.
She passed several hours in mindless work in which she found herself quite free of her worries about her husband or her grief for her parents. (Well, ‘free’ was perhaps not quite the right word in regards to her parents. She was a long way from free, but she was determined not to think about it until she’d dealt with the Doctor.)
“Ohhhww, why is it so bright?”
Speak of the devil.
She looked up to see the Doctor standing in the doorway with his hands pressed into his eyes. River rolled her eyes and fiddled with some wires until the music cut out and the lights dimmed.
“Thanks, dear,” he said, dropping his hands. She felt a pang of not-quite sympathy. His face was pale and there were bags under his eyes. His hair was a floppy mess and his bowtie hung loosely from his unbuttoned collar. He frowned at her. “Did you break a bottle over my head?”
River raised her eyebrows. “No! What gave you that idea?” Okay, so she’d thought about it, but she’d never actually have gone through with it.
He took a few slow, stilted steps towards her, hand rubbing his head. “Because I remember you being cross, and a bottle getting broken, and I feel like my head’s been caved in, and I don’t remember anything else. So I put two and two together.”
“And came up with five,” River assured him. “A bottle got broken, but not over your head.”
He groaned and sat down at the bottom of the staircase. “River,” he asked, rubbing his temples, “Tell me honestly: am I dying?”
River rolled her eyes and stood before him, hands on her hips. “No, you intergalactic idiot; you are not dying. Just hungover.”
“Hungover?” He looked positively appalled at the very notion. “I was drunk?”
“Drunk is an understatement. I think the technical term is ‘completely hammered’. You drank nearly a whole bottle of scotch in less than an hour. I’ve seen first year frat boys with more sobriety.”
The Doctor continued to frown up at her, before blinking and shaking his head. After a silent moment of his confused frowning into air, he asked, “So I got drunk and broke a bottle?”
“Yes and no. You got drunk.” She dropped her gaze. “I broke the bottle.” She didn’t have to look up to know he was staring at her.
“You broke—were you drunk too? How come you haven’t got a hangover from hell?”
She glared at him. “Because I didn’t get drunk. You got drunk, I got cross, and I broke the bottle after you were stupid enough to chug a fourth a bottle of scotch in one go rather than let me take it away from you!” Her voice rose as she spoke, and by the end the Doctor was clamping his hands over his ears and groaning.
“Not so loud, River, not so loud,” he implored. River sighed and forced herself to calm down. His behavior had been horrible, but he’d been out of his mind and he was suffering enough for it now.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment, his voice low. “For being a pest last night. And for whatever else I did.” He glanced up at her and shrugged. “I’d be more specific but to be honest I don’t remember a thing.”
River sighed. “It’s fine. I never expected all of this to be easy.” It wasn’t fine, not really, but nothing was going to be for a very long time, which was almost the same thing.
“Do you want to do something?” the Doctor asked. She frowned at him.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. We could go somewhere. Do something. Doesn’t have to be big. Not really feeling up to any large crowds or loud noises or bright lights,” he said, giving her a self-depreciating smile and rubbing at his temple, “But we could do something small. Peaceful. Brunch at a café. Trip to an art museum. Or a local gallery; less chance of running into something timey-wimey.” He shrugged again. “I don’t know. Just something unlikely to turn into a big adventure.”
River looked at her feet. If she was honest she really didn’t want to go anywhere. But if the Doctor wanted to get out and go places then she wasn’t going to stop him. “Sure. Why not?”
The Doctor brightened up. “Alright, where do you want to go?”
“I don’t care. You choose.”
His smile faded somewhat. “No, no, you pick. I don’t care.”
River crossed her arms and gave him a forced smile, trying to hide her growing annoyance. “I don’t care, Sweetie, really, I don’t. It’s up to you.”
She watched the Doctor’s smile disappear. “You don’t want to go anywhere.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you don’t though.” He wasn’t smiling now. He looked at her seriously, and River dropped her smile as well.
“I don’t particularly want to, no, but if you do then I am fine with it. Wherever and whenever sweetie, I meant it.”
“But you’d much rather just stay here.” It wasn’t a question. River’s lips tightened.
“Doctor, if you want to go somewhere--”
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” he interrupted, his voice gentle but firm.
River huffed and threw up her arms. “Then why did you keep bringing it up?”
“Because I thought you might want to go somewhere; get out of the house, get away from…” he trailed off, dropping his gaze, “Everything.” He looked back at her, expression unreadable. “Truth is I’m not feeling up to doing much of anything myself.”
River sighed deeply and rolled her eyes. “Well in that case, yes, I’d much rather just stay here.”
“Then why didn’t you just say so?” the Doctor asked, frowning.
“Because it doesn’t matter.”
His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly and his jaw tightened.
There it was again. That same strange, hard, expression he’d given her at the kitchen table last night that she couldn’t quite decode. The air between them felt suddenly thick, and there was a noticeable tension between them. River didn’t like it. She knew the Doctor better than anyone; the Doctor giving her a look she couldn’t read made her uneasy.
“River,” he said, his voice low and gravelly. “You can’t just--” He dropped his head, pursing his lips and squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them again he’d composed himself, though the tension between them was still palpable. “Never mind,” he said quietly. He looked up at her. “What do you want to do, then?”
River pushed away the myriad of worries and emotions and shrugged casually. “Well I should probably get back to what I was doing. Fixing your idea of DIY home improvement.” She tried to say it teasingly, expecting a retort about how he knew what he was doing, and all his improvements were exactly that, but he just nodded.
“I’ll let you carry on then,” he said. River gave him a curt nod in reply and returned to her seat under the console, pulling his goggles back over her eyes as she went. For a while they sat in silence, her working, him watching, and after a time the tension began to diffuse. She kept a watchful eye on him, though. It wasn’t like the Doctor to be still; but he just sat there, blank expression. No, she thought, empty expression.
Anyone who didn’t know better would assume he was taking the loss rather well. Beyond his breakdown in the graveyard and his drunken ramblings last night, he hadn’t shed a tear. He’d barely mentioned it. To all appearances, he seemed to be coping. But River wasn’t just anyone.
The worst of his grieving was yet to come, she knew. He was still in shock; the grief shallow and superficial. It sat like water on the surface of his skin, and would soon seep into his bones and his soul and soak him through with sorrow.
After a while she saw him take his diary out of a pocket of his jacket and begin writing in it. River’s heart ached at the sight of that familiar blue book, aged and cracked and weathered, just like hers. How long had it been since she’d seen a version of her husband who knew her? A version nearly as far along in their relationship as she was? The last several times she’d seen the Doctor he hadn’t even had his diary yet; hadn’t even known her. And here they were, finally on the same page, or near enough at least, and they’d spent most of the last couple of days either avoiding one another or snapping at each other. River pulled off her goggles, gloves, and tool belt and sat them on the floor by the swing, and made her way over to the Doctor.
He looked up and closed the book as she sat down close by his side, thigh to thigh. He raised an eyebrow as she looked at him silently, and then he shot a curious glance down at the hand that had lighted on his knee. He gave her a questioning look, which she answered by leaning in and kissing him softly. When she pulled back his expression was still unsure. “River?” he murmured, but she only kissed him again, more deeply this time.
When his hand lighted on top of the one she had on his knee and he wove his fingers through hers, she assumed he’d found his answer.
They lay silently; the Doctor staring at the ceiling, and River on her side, turned away from him, staring at the far wall.
They’d gotten there eventually, but not without far more fumbling than usual.
Knees and hands and noses kept bumping into each other. They kept finding themselves tangled up, and not in a poetic way. Everything had felt so forced. River couldn’t remember them ever being so out of sync.
She felt like everything was falling apart. They couldn’t seem to grieve properly, or fight properly, or even make love properly. Everything was all wrong. She felt that bubble of grief she’d been suppressing rise up, and before she could stuff it back down a sharp gasp escaped her throat. She stifled the rest of it quickly, but not before the Doctor had noticed and turned towards her.
“River?” he asked, obvious concern in his voice. “Are you alright?”
She took a deep breath and sat up, away from his reaching arms. “Fine, fine,” she lied, “Just got a chill, that’s all.” She stood and began dressing. She needed to get away from him. She couldn’t let him see her crack, and when she was around him she felt so much more vulnerable. She didn’t look at the Doctor as she dressed, but a moment later she heard his quiet, bitter laugh.
“Of course.” She turned around and watched as he climbed out of bed and pulled on his trousers.
“Excuse me?” She frowned at him, and the Doctor shot her a sharp look as he picked up his shirt and began pulling it back on.
He stopped buttoning and threw up his hands, that hard look back on his face. “You know I really don’t understand you sometimes, River.” His mouth turned into a thin line. “You keep running away from me. Every time I try to bring this up, you keep running from me. It’s like you’re not even aware of what’s happened.” River felt anger flare inside her. Not even aware? She was very aware, very very aware. “They’re gone, River. Gone,” he snapped. “We will never see them again, and you’re acting as if it’s nothing.” He shook his head and resumed buttoning his shirt, but barely a moment later he stopped and glared at her again. “I mean do you even understand what’s happened? Do you even get it? Because it’s like you don’t even know what’s happened, which I know is impossible, since you’re the one who bloody told her to go!”
He may as well have slapped her. River’s breath caught in her throat and she stared at him, tears stinging the corners of her eyes. So that’s what this was all about.
He blamed her. Of course he blamed her. He needed someone to blame, and while the angels could take most of the fault, there was still the obvious problem of Amy’s choice in the matter, and he couldn’t blame Amy.
He couldn’t blame his precious Amelia Pond, but he could damn well blame her. Amy was his best friend. She was only his wife. She was supposed to be the superhero, the one who always knew, who always had a way out. She should have been able to prevent the angel from taking Rory from the graveyard in the first place. She should have been able to think of another way to save him. She should have told Amy not to go. But of course she hadn’t done any of those things, and he would not forgive her for that. She failed to show him that time could be rewritten, that the future could be changed.
She had failed him. She had shown him that weak, imperfect, vulnerable, human side of herself, and it had ruined everything. The River Song he loved was not weak. The River Song he loved could do anything. The River Song he loved could not fail him.
The River Song he loved was not really her.
She stalked towards him, blinking furiously, and slapped him hard across the face. He grit his teeth and glared, but didn’t look surprised. When he looked back at her she stepped close until she was in his face and hissed, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you ever dare.” And she stormed out of the room before she could fall apart.
River Song had a complicated relationship with large bodies of water.
As a child she had loved swimming. She had imagined it was the closest thing there was to flying. She had found it freeing. People compared moving in nightmares to pushing through water; the fight for every step forward like the resistance of water against one’s limbs. She’d always seen it the other way around. In air you could move and move and flail and never really get anywhere. In water, each successful stroke propelled you forward further than it would on land. She felt powerful in water. Water resisted, yes, but you could still cut through it; you could push through it, push out of it. Water pulled on you if you tried to walk through it or run through it, yes, but you weren’t supposed to walk or run; you were supposed to swim, you were supposed to soar. It flowed around you and over you and couldn’t hold you back. She could pretend that every swell of water that surged behind her outstretched arms as she pushed herself forward was everything she wanted to run from and overcome.
In water, she felt in control.
Until the day they shut her in a suit and left her powerless at the bottom of a lake.
It was the first time she’d understood the idea of moving too slow in nightmares being like water. Except it wasn’t even the water she was fighting. She had no control of any motion in that dreadful suit. As a child it had felt like being suspended in midair like a puppet while someone else pulled the strings. The suit was so much bigger than her tiny body that every movement felt exaggerated and out of sync.
As an adult, the suit nearly fit, and the feeling of her limbs moving against her will was nearly as horrific as what she’d known she was walking towards. Somehow worse though, was how surreal it felt being beneath the water and able to breathe. Her motions were out of her control and so was her breathing. She wanted to open her lungs and let the water rush in and drown her before she could reach the surface and complete her task. But of course she only gulped down air.
Somehow that simple ability to control her own breathing was what had saved swimming for her in the years since. Water still felt like release. She liked feeling it flow and swirl around her and over her instead of buffeting against her or pulling at her limbs or holding her back. Above all, she liked holding her breath and diving as far down as she could go and holding the air in until it hurt. She liked breathing out and watching the bubbles float towards the surface, and she never felt so alive as she did when she emerged above the water, chest burning, to fill her starving lungs with air.
She liked to remember that she couldn’t breathe under water, and that no one could force her to.
River didn’t bother even thinking about a bathing suit as she stomped through the doors into the TARDIS swimming pool. Tears were blurring her vision and a lump was pushing its way up her throat and threatening to strangle her if she didn’t let it out. Her hands were shaking as she pulled off her shirt and jeans and tossed them to the side. She took a deep breath, as deep as she could, closed her eyes, and dived in.
When she felt the bottom of the pool she opened her eyes and started swimming. The burn in her lungs overcame the pressure pushing up from her chest into her throat, and the water all around her wicked the moisture from her eyes. That was the other thing she liked about swimming: you couldn’t cry under water.
She swam and swam and swam until her lungs screamed and her head went cloudy, and by the time she broke the surface she no longer felt like sobbing. She spread out to float on her back while she regained her breath. She amused herself for a moment wondering what Freud would say about how nearly drowning made her feel so in control.
She’d tried scuba diving once, a long time ago. The Doctor had taken her and the Ponds to a resort in the Caribbean after they’d demanded a real, normal, non-life-threatening vacation. It had seemed like fun, and for about thirty seconds it had been. One moment she’d been looking around at the colorful fish and bright reefs and the sun streaming in the blue-green water around her; the next, her head had been reeling and she’d been hyperventilating. She didn’t remember being dragged out of the water by the Doctor and Rory or having the scuba gear taken off; only Amy holding her face in her hands and whispering soothing words while Rory checked her pulse and asked a lot of questions while the Doctor fluttered around looking utterly helpless.
Rory had finally declared it a case of faulty scuba gear giving her too much oxygen, and the Doctor, in his frantic state, defaulted to this opinion and focused instead on clinging to her and yelling at the diving instructor. It wasn’t until much later that Rory caught her alone and pointed out that she’d shown all the signs of a panic attack and asked her if there was any particular reason for that. She hadn’t wanted to tell him, but it was Rory, and he’d always been able to read her so well and he’d ask as if he already knew, so she broke down and told him everything. Rory had always had such empathy for her. He always seemed to know what she was feeling and when she needed to talk. As Mels his ability to see behind her walls had driven her mad; she didn’t like feeling that vulnerable around anyone. As River, it had been a mercy to have someone around whom she could drop all her pretenses; he’d always been able to see through them anyway. That was more than could be said about the Doctor. Rory never pushed, never judged, never really scolded. He was just always there waiting when she needed someone to listen.
The urge to cry suddenly grew so strong her chest ached and she had to dive under the water for another few moments before she could compose herself and push it all back. There wasn’t time for this now. If she cracked she would crumble, so she must remain solid.
The Invincible River Song may not have been the one she was, but that was the one the Doctor needed, so she’d have to go on pretending at least until he was stable. But oh, it was getting so hard.
She felt like all she had been doing lately was showering and sleeping. She didn’t even need that much sleep, but the routine almost made it feel like time was passing more quickly than it was, and if she was putting more time between herself and what had happened then she could convince herself she was getting past it.
River didn’t have to go far to determine where the Doctor had gotten too. She heard a bang accompanied by shouting coming from the console room, and suddenly the whole ship lurched sideways with an angry buzz. River swore under her breath as the TARDIS righted herself and she heard more shouting. What the hell was he doing now?
This question was no more answered once she entered the control room. She heard a shout of “Extractor fans on!” from somewhere within the smoke, and slowly the room began to clear.
“What in the name of sanity are you doing?!” she yelled as soon as her husband came into view. There were so many wires and cables running out of the central console into the ceiling and down over the floor into the pillar below that she could hardly see the actual controls. The Doctor ran his hand through his hair as he wove through his cable jungle and pointed at the item wired into the navigation controls.
“I’m trying to save them!” he snapped, and started pulling cables out and rearranging them. “Or at least get to them. If they want to stay or have to stay, then fine.” He looked at her, jaw set and brows narrowed. “But I won’t let this be goodbye.”
River sighed. “How exactly do you propose to do that? There’s no way you could get the TARDIS back to 1938 and you know it.”
He grinned suddenly, manic. “Ah, but I’m not aiming for 1938.” He punched in something on the item wired into the console, which she recognized as her vortex manipulator. “I’m aiming for later, or earlier, whichever ends up working.” He threw a few levers and the TARDIS jerked and swayed, before giving him the same angry grinding and falling silent and still. The Doctor growled and kicked the console. “Provided, of course, that anything works at all!” River took a tentative step forward as the Doctor glared at the time rotor.
“Doctor, it isn’t going work.”
He turned his glare on her. “Of course it is. I may not be able to visit New York in 1938, but I can still visit New York in 1937, or 1939, or at least,” he kicked the console again, “I SHOULD BE ABLE TO!”
“Doctor, it isn’t that simple and you know it!” she pleaded, following him around the console as he rewired and tried again, fruitlessly, at piloting the TARDIS to his intended destination. “You can’t go any earlier and wait because then you risk crossing your own timeline in 1938, or else scrambling the ones already there that were reversed by the paradox. It could set everything we tried to prevent back into motion again.”
“So I’ll go to 1939. Or 1940. Or later.”
River grabbed at his arm but he pulled it away, determinedly not looking at her. “Except that won’t work either. Even if you could land in New York after 1938, you’d still be landing in the middle of a mess of timelines. If you got the TARDIS there, you’d never be able to get her out. The timelines were so tangled they’d trap her like a fly in a spider web. You wouldn’t be able to leave until my parents died.” The Doctor stopped and stared down at the console, still not looking at her.
“Then I’d meet them somewhere else. Somewhere other than New York.” His voice was softer this time, but she could still hear the edge.
River placed a hand on his arm and this time he didn’t shove her away. “You saw the same thing I did when you looked at that gravestone, Doctor. The end of a long line of very tangled timestreams. They didn’t end up just sitting in a nest of aborted and changed timelines and paradoxes, Doctor, they would have been ensnared by it. Every movement and turn their lives take will pull at those timelines, and make every second of their lives incredibly fragile for the fabric of time and space around them. Those lines intersecting with you or the TARDIS again, or even me for that matter, could rip that fabric apart.” The Doctor’s head was sinking lower and lower, his shoulders drooping and the space between his hands growing wider as his grip on the console grew looser. “My love, you know the best case scenario still involves those timelines tangling around you and the TARDIS and trapping you all.”
“I’d be with them,” he said, very softly.
“Watching them age and die,” River replied, just as softly. “You wouldn’t be preventing their loss, sweetie, just putting it off.”
“There has to be something,” the Doctor whispered. “Anything.” He lifted his head slightly. “There’s always a way out.” He looked at her, expression unreadable. “That’s what you always say. There’s always a way out.” His lip curled. “So what is it?” River braced herself as irritation overtook the Doctor’s features. “If there’s always a way out, then what’s the way out of this?”
River didn’t flinch as his voice rose. She kept her face carefully blank as she replied, “The way out is you accept that they lived long, happy, prosperous lives and move forward with your own.”
His scowl grew. “That’s not a way out.” River watched his fingers tapping restlessly against the console. There it was again: that anger or aggravation or whatever-it-was that he’d been holding back the last few days.
“It’s the only way there is.”
He stood and stepped towards her, crowding her personal space. “That’s not good enough.”
“Why not?” River glared up at him. “They lived, Doctor. Isn’t that what you always hoped for? That they would live? That they’d be happy, and together, and alive?”
“Yes what?” River snapped, her voice rising. “What was the alternative? We couldn’t save Rory, we knew that. What were they supposed to do? What did you expect Amy to do? Come back into the TARDIS with you and go off on another adventure and never see her husband again?” The Doctor dropped his gaze, but River was unrelenting. “And what about Rory, then? He was just supposed to live out the rest of his life in an unfamiliar time completely alone? Is that what you would rather have done?”
“But what? Sweetie, those are the options. They’re together, they’re alive, they’re happy. No, they’ll never see you again, but believe it or not, there are worse fates in the universe than a life without you.”
He jerked his head up, suddenly glaring at her again. “Says the woman who would rather have destroyed the universe than let me die.”
Her hand rose to smack him but he caught her by the wrist and held her there. “That was low,” she said, her voice soft but dangerous.
“It’s true, though,” the Doctor replied, his grip on her wrist tightening as she made to jerk it away.
River felt the ghost of fear bubble in her stomach as she glanced from the Doctor’s angry expression to his hand. He had never consciously harmed her before, but every attempt to free herself was met with a tighter hold.
“Let go,” she said, the slightest tremble in her voice.
“Why? Hmm?” The Doctor asked, his eyes wide and glinting. That maniacal look was back and it scared her. She raised her other hand but he caught that one too, and held her tightly as she tried more desperately to pull from his grasp. “Am I hurting you?”
“Doctor!” She wasn’t even trying to hide the panic in her voice now.
“No, honestly, am I?” he demanded, glaring. “Because, really, River, I’m curious. If I were to break your wrists right now would you even let me know I’d done it?” River’s eyes went wide. He’d lost it. He’d really lost it. The grief had finally pulled him under. “Or would you laugh it off, tell me it was just a bruise, tell me it was nothing, hide the pain, hide the damage,” he growled through gritted teeth, and when River next tried to pull away he let her. She stumbled backwards, massaging her wrists. The Doctor turned back to the console and leaned heavily against it. “You don’t make a damn bit of sense sometimes, you know that?” he whispered bitterly.
River watched his back, utterly lost for words. Anger was part of grief, she told herself. This was just something he had to work through. But damned if she was going to keep standing around to hear his abuse.
She turned on her heel and began marching up the stairs.
“Where are you going?” she stopped at the landing, not at his words, but at his tone. Soft, fearful, broken. Not angry or demanding, just afraid.
She took a deep breath and looked back down at him, still hunched over the controls. “Bed,” she told him, all her strength focused on keeping her voice from shaking. “I understand you’re in pain but I won’t put up with this. Maybe when I wake up you’ll be a little more reasonable.”
She made to turn away when his voice called out to her again.
“Do you even want to be here?”
River closed her eyes and breathed evenly out through her nose before looking back at him. “Am I not welcome here?”
He glanced in her direction but wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Of course you’re welcome here. It’s as much your home as it is mine.” The corner of his lip twitched in what could have been the attempt at a smile. “You’re my wife, after all.”
And for some reason, that did it.
River’s nostrils flared and she marched down the stairs towards him. “Am I?” she asked, her voice rising. “Really? Because lately I feel more like your sounding board.”
He turned to face her fully now, looking considerably calmer than he had moments earlier. He sighed and said evenly, “I know I’ve been difficult lately—“
“Lately?!” River all but shrieked, making the Doctor jump. “This is more than just ‘lately’, sweetie. How many times have I heard the words, ‘That wedding didn’t really count’? How many times have you corrected my parents when they called themselves your in-laws?” The Doctor was already shaking his head and starting to open his mouth to voice his denial but she pushed on. “Why is it that you never call me your wife except when we’re alone?! Is this all some elaborate ruse and I wasn’t let in on the joke?” River blinked back tears. How many years had she held this in? How many times had she pushed the thoughts back? If her whole world was going to fall apart, then it might as well all fall apart at once. Let the whole sky come crashing down. She was done trying to hold it up. “How many times, in the whole long time we’ve been together, have you actually told me you loved me?” The Doctor’s head stopped shaking and he dropped his gaze. “How long did it take you to finally, finally tell me your name? I gave up everything for you. I gave up my future, my freedom, all hope of a normal life! Hell, sweetie, I wanted children!” That made him look up.
“I lied,” she spat, glaring at him. “And you pretended not to notice.” She watched him deflate, protests dying on his lips as he reached for her, but she backed away, shaking her head. “I gave up so much for you; for a marriage you’re afraid to be in.” She turned away, intent on storming away and maybe finally letting herself have a good cry, when the Doctor’s harsh reply took her by surprise.
“I’m afraid to be in this marriage?” When she turned back to him he looked positively livid. “Oh, that is rich coming from you, River.”
“Yes, you!” He took a step towards her and she backed away, still not entirely convinced he wouldn’t harm her, whether he meant to or not. “I know what you’ve given up for me, don’t think I don’t, and don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But there is still so much you refuse to give me.”
River scoffed. “Like what?”
“How many times have I asked you to come with me and you’ve said no? How many nights have I woken up to find you already gone?” It was River’s turn to drop her eyes. “You never let me see what you’re feeling, you never let me in. You don’t let me help you; you don’t even ever let me see what’s wrong. You hide from me.” He shook his head. “I know I’m not perfect, but I have my reasons for the things I do. I don’t call you my wife in public because I’d rather not make you any more of a target to my enemies than you already are. I deny it in front of your parents because they’re my friends and frankly it’s still weird, and besides that I don’t really like reminding them of the fact that I’m screwing their daughter. I call you my wife in private because as far as I’m concerned, you’re the only person it really matters knows it! Now I know I’m a rubbish husband. I know I don’t always tell you what you need to hear or when you need to hear it, but ever since I married you I have never run from you the way you run from me. You’re right; someone’s afraid to be in this marriage, River, but I don’t think it’s me!”
River looked up at him, at the hard line of his mouth and his furrowed brow and narrowed eyes. She had nothing to say in her defense and she knew it. As much as she hated to admit it, he had a point. Then, to her surprise, his anger faded into something like sadness. He shook his head, eyes squeezed shut and said softly, “Dearest, I don’t think you understand how much you scare me sometimes.”
“I scare you?!” River asked, suddenly indignant again.
“Yes,” The Doctor replied flatly, not looking at her.
“You hurt me!” she shouted, holding up her wrists, where light bruises were already forming.
“AND YOU LET ME!”
River was taken aback. Not by the yelling; but by his face.
He didn’t look angry. On the contrary, he looked saddened, he looked tired. He looked scared. There were tears shining in the corners of his eyes as he watched her. “You never used to put up with this sort of thing. You’ve always been patient with me, but you’ve never,” he shook his head, “you’ve never let me get away with this sort of shit before.” He took a shaky breath and blinked away the wetness in his eyes. “You’ve never pulled this sort of shit before.” He threw up his hands, laughing. “Or, god knows, maybe you have. I don’t even know anymore,” he said, voice thick and eyes watering again. “You broke your own wrist and lied to me about it. River, darling, do you have any idea how much that scares me? What else have you hid from me?” She knew now he wouldn’t hurt her, but as he took a step forward she took one back, the old instinct to run rearing its head. “How many other times have you been hurt, or afraid, or injured, and lied to me about it? How many times have you hurt alone for the sake of sparing my feelings, for the sake of hiding the damage?” He spat the final words out, obviously disgusted by the whole notion. River took another step back. This had all gotten very real, very quickly. She didn’t want to do this. He was trying to push her until she snapped, just like he’d always done.
“River, for god’s sake your parents are gone--”
River balled her hands into fists. “How many times do I have to tell you? It. Doesn’t. Matter!”
“YOU ARE NOT INVINCIBLE!” River jumped at the Doctor’s sudden outburst. He shook his head desperately. “Your parents are gone, River, and you’ve acted like it doesn’t matter. You’re hurting, and you’re pretending like you don’t care at all so you can take care of me. Hell, River, all I’ve been doing the last few days is trying to get you to talk about it, but you stubbornly refuse to let me in for even one second!”
And there it was again, that same aggravated look he’d been giving her over and over again ever since her parents had left, only this time it made sense. He’d been trying to coax her into showing her grief, and it had frustrated him endlessly that she continually pushed him away when all he wanted to do was help her.
She’d had it all wrong. Oh, god, she’d had it all wrong.
“You’re not invulnerable, River, and I never expected you to be.” He covered his face with his hands. He no longer sounded angry, just defeated. “I mean, fucking hell, River, you’re already a professor and we’re just now having this conversation.” She wondered briefly at his choice of words—‘already’. What did he mean by ‘already’?—but then he dropped his hands and she could see that he was crying openly now. “What I want from you,” he began, his voice rising with every word. “Is to stop pretending to be perfect. Stop pretending you’re alright! I don’t want you to be a superhero!” His voice cracked just as River’s back hit the railing. “You are vulnerable, and broken, and hurt, and screwed up, and I know that. River, darling, I have always known that.” River flinched as he reached out a hand and brushed a knuckle across the line of her jaw. “River,” he said, more softly, “Don’t you see? You are allowed to be broken, and hurt, and damaged, and weak, and I will never, never, for one second, think any less of you for it.” River’s eyes squeezed shut as his hand cupped her cheek and his thumb brushed away tears she didn’t realize she’d allowed to fall. “I don’t want you to hide from me.” And oh, how loving his voice was just then. Her hands gripped the bars behind her. She’d been so strong for such a long time; she wasn’t sure what would happen if she let her guard down around him now.
“River…” She shook her head. “River, my dearest darling, look at me.” She opened her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat as she met his eyes. He gave her a small, brief smile. “River, I am so tired of pretending.” His free hand rose and he cradled her face in his hands. “I’m tired of pretending this isn’t killing both of us.”
River didn’t trust herself to speak, so she opened her mind just a fraction and allowed the thought to slip into his fingertips. What is?
“This whole relationship. This whole, stupid, out of order thing.” He twisted a curl around his finger. “It’s not easy on either one of us, you know. Not getting to see each other, never knowing what version we’re getting.” He shook his head. “And this whole ridiculous thing where we hide how we’re feeling in order to keep from hurting each other.” River dropped her gaze but the Doctor tilted her head up, forcing her to look at him. “What’s the point, dearest?” he asked, his voice nothing more than a broken whisper. “We hide to keep from hurting each other, and where does it get us? We still hurt each other, and we hurt ourselves more trying to hide it.” He took a shaky breath and kissed the corner of her eye before pressing his forehead to hers. “If we’re going to hurt anyway, why don’t we hurt together?”
River’s bottom lip quivered and she felt her hold on the bars behind her growing as weak as her knees. But the Doctor’s arms were there at her waist, and she gripped his shoulders as he whispered so tenderly in her ear, “Do you remember what I told you that first night under the stars?” She could feel his tears catching in her hair and falling onto her neck as together they sank to the floor. “I will still love you when the stars burn out. I will still love you when your strength deserts you. I will love you when time runs out around me and there is nothing left of either of us. And oh, my darling, my River, if the universe itself could not stop me loving you, what makes you think there is anything you could do that would…”
And finally, finally, River Song let herself cry.
It occurred to her a long while later, as he laid her down on their bed, cheeks still wet and chest still aching, that they had never cried together before. She had comforted him in the past; those dark days when old guilt and long-buried grief resurfaced to haunt him, and she’d pillowed his head on her breast as he told her of everything he had loved and lost. There had been nights where her old demons woke her and she hadn’t thought twice about letting him see her cry. He used to rock her gently until her childhood nightmares faded and she fell back asleep in his arms. Sometimes he’d even sing to her. He had a lovely voice when he tried, and she realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard him sing. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d let him see her cry, either.
But they had never, in her memory, cried together.
They cried for her parents, for the loss of the only family either of them really had. They cried for themselves, for each other, for everything they had endured and lost and given up for the sake of their love. They cried for the days they couldn’t be together; for the normal, linear life they would never have. For the lonely nights, for the unborn children, for the secrets kept. For the yearning and missing and longing. They cried for the pain they had caused, the pain they had inflicted, and the pain they had hidden.
They cried for all the things they had never allowed themselves to cry for before.
When their sobs had quieted he had scooped her up and carried her to their room, to their bed, where he hovered over her now as they pulled at each other, both seeking contact and comfort in the warmth of each other’s skin.
She wondered if he’d read her mind when he started singing. She’d already opened her mind to him. It was nice, this once, to be able to be so open with him. They were nearly on the same page now; there were so many fewer boundaries and closed doors in their minds. Still, though, in the back of his mind there was something, some dark corner he had always kept locked away from her, and she wondered again at his words from earlier—already a professor. They were so back to front, and she had already met one version of him who knew her only as Professor Song rather than Doctor Song. He had been so young that day, and her mother hadn’t even met her… If ‘Professor’ was so close to his beginning…
She’d let her worries slip into his mind without realizing, and he hushed her now, reminding her that today was not the day for such thoughts. So instead River closed her eyes and focused on his voice, soft and low in her ear, and then strong and steady in her mind when his breath grew too ragged to keep going.
They clung to each other for dear life; two lonely gods thrown from Olympus with nothing but each other left to them in all of creation. They held too tight and this time the marks they left on each other were free of anger. They moved together; bodies, minds, and emotions completely in sync. The purple fingerprints on River’s hip didn’t worry her, and she tried not to notice when his lips glowed gold against the bruises on her wrists.
She didn’t feel worth it, and she could feel his hearts breaking as he watched the thought tumble across her mind. You are to me, was his reply; circular Gallifreyan traced into the sweat on her bare back. She was losing her hold on coherent thought but through the haze she felt a familiar symbol on the small of her back, wife, lover, and his lips at her temple telling her that she’d never quite fully understood. Her world dissolved into color but in that moment of light, of shared consciousness, she felt him open his mind, his memory, his understanding, to show her the full connotation inherent in a word she had only ever comprehended through translation.
One in two. Half of me, part of me, two who are one. Other half. Not wasting energy on someone else. Healing part of me. Healing my other half. We live as one, we breathe as one, we hurt as one…
It felt like hours had passed when they finally collapsed. River buried her face in the Doctor’s neck and listened to the pounding of his double pulse. She had never understood, not really, not until just now, the absolute depth of his love for her. It wasn’t the infallible River Song he loved; it was just her, as she was, however she was. However amazing or infuriating; whether she was the River Song who made Daleks beg for mercy or scared little Melody Pond running from the monsters in the corner of her eye. He wanted it all, and she hated that it had taken her so long to figure it out. She had never felt closer to him, never felt this level of intimacy before. God, they had wasted so many years. They could have had this centuries ago. They could have had this all along.
She searched through her mind, sifting through the tidal wave of information and context and etymology he’d poured into her mind in his attempt to make her understand. She’d seen it somewhere, a footnote in his explanation, the comparable symbol, the counterpart to the word he’d written on her… She wanted to show him she understood, that he’d made his point, that she knew.
The Doctor stilled when her finger traced the shape onto his shoulder blade. He lifted his head and looked down at her, that impossible dichotomy of young and old, happy and sad. He swept the damp curls from her forehead and kissed her tenderly. “Oh, my River, I know…”
“I still don’t like it.”
The Doctor huffed and blew his fringe out of his eyes. “What’s wrong with it? I put a lot of work into this, you know, I think it’s some of my best work. And you’re lucky. You could have ended up with a regeneration who wasn’t any good at painting. Last go-round I couldn’t draw a decent stick figure.”
River rolled her eyes. “It’s a very nice painting, sweetie, it just doesn’t look anything like me.”
“Doesn’t look—River, for one thing it’s supposed to be vague, your face is all hidden by the fedora anyway. But you’ve got the curls, you’ve got the gun, you’ve got the hat and coat. What more do you want?”
River glared at the easel holding up what would not be the cover art for her debut novel, if she had anything to say about it. “It’s not so much what I want more of as it is what I wish there was less of.”
The Doctor idly twirled a paintbrush. “Meaning?”
She pursed her lips. “Doctor, the cover is 90 percent my breasts!”
“In that dress dear, so were you!”
“Oh shut up!” The Doctor grinned as River swatted at him, pouting.
“That’s not a bad thing!”
“Look, like it or not, this is the cover it had when I found it, this is the cover that made me pick it up--”
“I wonder why.”
“—and this therefore is the cover it is predestined to have. You’re stuck with it.”
River sighed in resignation and returned to her desk. “I really hate you sometimes.”
“No, you don’t.”
River glanced back at him and frowned as he bent over the painting again. “What are you doing, I thought you said you were done?”
“Oh, just applying some more shading to the cleavage.”
“Don’t you dare!”
He shot her a cheeky grin. “I’m kidding, sweetheart, I’m just putting on a coat of clear varnish.”
“Good. As is, I’m already considering changing the title from ‘Melody Malone’ to ‘Melody Melons’.”
“Well if you ever wanted to write a less-than-family-friendly spin-off you’ve got the title. I don’t hear any typing over there.”
River threw her hands in the air. “I’m stuck!”
“You’ve been stuck all morning, just write something. It doesn’t have to be good, just start writing. You’ll get through the block eventually.”
“I can’t just write something. This is the introduction; it’s the most important part. I’ve got to make you fall in love with me in book form, it’s got to be perfect.” River shot her manuscript a smile. “And not to sound vain, but it nearly is.” Her frown returned. “Except for this one line. I rather like it, I just feel like it needs something.”
“What have you got so far?” The Doctor called from across the room.
“’She’s got ice in her heart and a kiss on her lips.’” To her surprise she heard a chuckle from the other side of the room and turned to glare at her husband. “What?”
The Doctor shook his head, still focused on his painting. “And a vulnerable side she keeps well-hidden.”
He turned and smiled at her. “The line. That’s what it needs. ‘She’s got ice in her heart and a kiss on her lips and a vulnerable side she keeps well-hidden.’ There you go.”
The Doctor frowned. “What do you mean, ‘hm’?”
River shrugged, her nose wrinkled and upper lip curled. “Melody Malone is supposed to be sexy, and amazing, and, and, kickass.”
The Doctor suppressed a grin. “She’s supposed to be you.”
“And I, or, she, or whatever, is supposed to be sexy and kickass.”
River turned back to her typewriter and tapped her fingers idly on the keys. She heard the Doctor walking towards her. “I know.”
“Which means this line needs to be a list of things that make her sexy and kickass.”
The Doctor laughed, right behind her now. He placed his hands on her shoulders and she smiled as he kissed her ear and whispered, “I know.”
River gave up on suppressing her grin. “You sentimental idiot. Stop it!” She giggled as the Doctor placed messy kisses on her cheekbone. “Oh, go back to your dirty painting,” she said, swatting him away. He laughed, pecked her on the top of her heard, and returned to his easel.
“I’m just saying, I think it would make a wonderful line, dearest.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. But she typed the line out anyway.
Sexy, dangerous, and secretly vulnerable, but only for the right people. She liked it.
River glanced at her husband’s back. He liked it too.