They say the Ansorean Mines show you what you want, whatever you most desire in the universe, as you walk through their dusty chambers.
River and the Doctor never speak of their time there, the days spent away from sunlight, the morning they emerged, emaciated and half-awake, still full of heavy dreams and happiness. Neither of them will ever admit that they've rarely come willingly closer to death and never felt more at peace, before or since.
There was a home, a massive structure that was more library than house—and wasn't that what made it home?—and a thousand doors that opened to any beautiful place they might choose to go. They were alone there, in this home made of books and scraps of history and strands of time, all the things that mattered, all the things they loved. Sometimes there was a child's toy, just barely poking out from a door frame or a corner in the hall, and they would smile gently and move to pick it up.
She once came across a house on ψuxill eerily similar to the one that was theirs,even if theirs only existed in the hallucinogenic gasses of Ansorea. She walked through echoing corridors and wide rooms, hands trailing across jarringly wrong furniture, until she came to a small bedroom with a massive window facing the east. She sat on the small bed—this room, this real, concrete room, belonged to a child—and stared out of the window for a long time before quietly standing and leaving the house.
She bought it (though perhaps it might be more accurate to say she took it off the hands of a massively wealthy and totally useless man) but she never returned.
In the worst of her vivid, lifelike dreams, she sits beside a blue-checkered bed and strokes a small forehead. The door opens and she looks up to meet familiar smiling eyes, and she's going to die from terror or maybe happiness.
"River—" he begins, stepping jauntily out of the TARDIS with a scrap of psychic paper bearing a familiar note clutched in one hand. She's perhaps twenty meters away, her back to him, and there is a small child with beautiful blue eyes staring at him over her shoulder. The child giggles and waves its arms at the Doctor, who takes a step back. It couldn't—she wouldn't—and River, alerted by the child's excitement, begins to turn towards him. He frantically considers ducking back inside the TARDIS, but there's no way he could possibly force it to dematerialize before she saw. Perhaps if he travels back a bit and makes sure something moves to block her view…? Before he can seriously consider that second option, a woman calls out and distracts River. The woman, hair pulled tightly back by a headcloth that he recognizes as Harginian, bounds up to River and extracts the child from her arms.
"Thank you for watching him, revered traveler. I hope Alchun behaved himself," the woman says, bowing slightly before she backs away. River shrugs her shoulders wearily and finally turns to face him. For a moment he simply stares at her, caught painfully between two worlds. For a moment, just a moment, he thought—but that place was far away and frankly a hallucination, and that tiny being that he remembered and loved so well has never and will never exist.
River quirks an eyebrow, and expression that makes her look amused but that he knows all too well means she is actually trying to hide her worry, and he pastes a beautifully genuine smile on his face.
Some things are better forgotten.
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles await you when you rise,
Sleep, pretty baby, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.
Cares you know not, so go to sleep
While over you a watch I'll keep
Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby.
He wakes up to the haunting familiar tune sung in her beautiful, light singing voice, and the sharp memory of standing in the doorway as she sang. He's never wished more for the days when he slept without dreams.
"Have we… have we been to Ansorea yet?" she asks him once, her voice wavering ever so slightly. He has, and he lifts his hand to cover hers.
"River?" he asks, because it is clearly still a fresh and painful memory for her and he's had years to let it fade.
"Did it… none of it was really real? None of that ever happened?"
He removes his hand from hers only to pull her into a tight embrace.
"Oh, River," he says, and she buries her head in his shoulder. She doesn't cry—she never cries, this beautiful, brilliant woman—but she sits there, shaking, with pain and loss and the worst of all blessings: memory. It is a time he knows she will never forget. He never has.
"Can we—?" she pulls back to look up at him with wide eyes, dark with sorrow and a seed of hope. He already knows what she will ask.
He leans forward and presses his lips to the top of her head."The genetics almost never work out, my River," he whispers into her hair. She settles wearily against him.
"Can we try?" she asks, and he is torn for a horrible moment, because he has already felt the pain that such hope, lost, can cause. He is not certain he can bear to feel it again, and this… this can only end in pain, someday, some far off day.
"I'm not sure I can, River," he answers honestly, and he can feel her eyelashes brush against his neck as she closes her eyes in despair. Her breath sweeps across his throat and he doesn't cry so often in this body but he desperately, desperately wants to.
It's a thought too terrifying to bear, so he only holds her until she falls asleep, and he carries her to his bed in the TARDIS. When she wakes, they carefully don't speak about it.
His third thesis as a student on Gallifrey dealt with relative realities. Beyond even the different universes, the idea that reality was only perception, that what you could see-hear-feel-touch was real regardless of how others perceived it. He thinks about it too often now, almost a millennium later, and it makes him sick as much as it fills him with hope to know what somewhere, sometime (he knows exactly what time and place), those memories are still real. They are taking place. That it is happening, it happened, it existed, even if it never did to any of the people in this vast universe around him. Except the one.
"River." He smiles the quiet smile that he reserves for her and she walks over to join him with a matching smile.
"Have we been to Ansorea yet?" he asks, and he knows the answer by the way her face falls and her eyes go blank. She can't bear to think on it.
"River… do you want to go back?" he asks, and she starts and stares at him.
"You can't mean—" she begins, but she can't quite finish that sentence. He shrugs, more than a bit self-conscious. She boxes his ear.
"Don't you even think about it!" she hisses. "I know you miss that place—I dream of it, every night, I know how it feels—but don't you dare go back there. It would be a death sentence. It wasn't even real!" She's half-shouting by the time she finishes, and his retorts choke in his throat. (It was real, what's reality anyway but that which is real to us, and wouldn't it be worth death to live out that life? Come back with me, River, before I lose myself and go alone.)
He loved the way she looked in white, like one of the angels humans still liked to hope existed. It belied her cunning, wit and dash of devilishness fantastically. She always did love contradictions, even when she was a child playing with puzzles and inventing stories and scheming to get her friends to kindly offer her the new hover bike they'd been given for their birthday. He loved the way her golden hair flew in a halo around her head when she aimed a gun, death and beauty and life wrapped up into one magnificent woman.
And that alone, the knowledge that she is real and present and loves him, is enough.
They've just exterminated a nest of particularly nasty Gorgonian fungi from Ragghor-Dihk, and she is sitting on the beach beside Lake Sarserre. The water reflects sparkles of pink light onto her face, and she seems mesmerized by its shine as he settles onto the black sand beside her.
"I was wrong to say we should go back," he says, quietly. She didn't stir.
The silence that falls is strangely comfortable.
"Do you remember Christmas?" she asks, finally.
"You made us celebrate that silly earth holiday," he agrees fondly, "Every single year. Tell me, where'd you pick it up?"
"I did spend years in a church-sponsored prison," she says, drily. "Besides, don't try to pretend you didn't enjoy it."
"I did," he says, and she seems a bit surprised by his amiability.
"What are you thinking?" she asks, leaning over to rest her head on his shoulder. She doesn't do it often in this body—claims it's too bony, terribly uncomfortable—so he savors the feel of her hair brushing his neck and tries not to giggle when it tickles.
"We can't go back," he says, slowly and carefully because he still rather likes that option, "but maybe… do you want to try and build that life here, River?"
She looks up at him with eyes that are still terribly young—it hasn't been so long since it happened, for her—and so very full of hope. She doesn't have to answer with words.
They leap across the stars, thread their way daintily through time and land in the middle of war and famine and plague, but there is one place they never revisit. Instead they build a home aboard the TARDIS (after all, it too has a billion books and doors that lead to a thousand thousand worlds) and even if not every one of their dreams comes true, they are happy. What more could they ask for, when they have the universe at their fingertips, waiting, beckoning them, come and see.