for in the sleep of death what dreams may come
She blamed him. For all of it, but especially the dreams.
They take turns – visits they call them, but she knows what they are. Check-ups.
"This isn't healthy." Doctor Moon says, and she glares at him until he fidgets uncomfortably on her sofa, his teacup rattling in its saucer.
"You're not an actual Doctor. I'm not a virus or an error in code – stop trying to fix me." She resents it of course, they all think they know. They have no idea what this is like for her. How long and rich her life was before this empty nothingness filled with too-bright sunshine and god damn it, she just wishes it would rain in here some days.
Then no one would make the trek to the house, and ask how she's feeling today.
Every morning starts the same. Charlotte creeps into her room, bare feet barely whispering across wooden floor boards and crawls up over the foot of the bed until she can curl her small body against River's.
River likes the weight in the bed, the dip in the mattress, the feeling like she is not alone. And though she loves all the children, some small part of her hearts loves Charlotte a little bit more, because she is real and has been here long enough to be aware. Charlotte's fingers brush against her hair softly and she smiles up at River. "It's morning." She whispers and River nods. "Maybe it will be today." She adds and River swallows because the hope rises every morning with this small girl's words. Maybe it will be today.
Time is a funny thing in the computer core. It's only been weeks for her, but she has no idea how long it has been out there. And even if she did, what would any of it mean anyway? Time has always been meaningless to them – a tool to be used. They'd lived and loved their way through practically every century known to man, and a few that man didn't even make it to.
"Maybe." She whispers back. Charlotte holds her hand and doesn't say anything else.
She sits by the water, her diary in her lap and her eyes gazing out at the ducks. The waddle and quack pleasantly, splashing, content. The water calms her and she visits it every day, usually when the others stop by to gather the children for story time.
They adventure in books, but she never joins them. It's not the same – to know the story, to know the ending. It's not the same without his hand in hers and the running.
It's just not the same.
So she comes here instead, a small wooden bench that is suitably weathered for comfort, and sits with her book in her lap – the only book she ever reads anymore.
She misses him so much; it is like somehow something was left out in the upload process. Maybe he got there too late. Maybe it wasn't done properly.
Because all she has is an empty ache where she swore she used to have hearts.
"Come with us." Anita's voice is soft and warm. "Just once, River, come along. He wouldn't want this for you."
River laughs at that, her eyes fastened on the mug of tea in front of her. It is a bright cheerful yellow, and there is a chip in the rim from the last time she washed dishes and it hit the edge of the sink too hard. Charlotte keeps reminding her that these chores aren't things that she has to do really, but she likes the menial tasks, they distract her.
"River, we're all worried about you." Anita tries once more, and River shakes her head, looking over at her friend.
"If he didn't want this for me, why else would he put me here?"
Anita has no answer for that.
Charlotte surprises her one day.
Dances up the stairs ahead of her and says she has a surprise for her. "I know you've been sad. And Doctor Moon tells us we mustn't make you dwell on it, but I think that's rubbish. I think you're sad because you don't remember enough." She pulls River by the hand, into her bedroom.
"I'm sorry, Charlotte-"
"No, don't apologize. I think you just need something more than your book, so I made you some things." River frowns as she looks around her room, before noticing the few small changes. Sneakers under the bed – black-framed glasses on the side table and her hearts are pounding as she walks over to the wardrobe and pulls it open. There, lined neatly next to her dresses are blue pin-striped suits. A choked sob escapes her throat and she falls to the floor heavily, crying for the first time since she was downloaded.
She can't seem to stop and Charlotte hugs her fiercely from behind, apologizing over and over again.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry! I'll take it away!" River reaches up and grasps the small hands around her shoulders, shaking her head.
"It's all wrong. All wrong. These aren't his."
She reads to the ducks, though they don't much care for her stories.
She reads to them about fairytales, underwater adventures, ancient history rediscovered – smudged and changed a bit. She tells them tales of thrilling adventure and love in the wrong order.
She reads just to remind herself, and then the wind changes and she swears she can smell him. A warmth wraps around her and when she looks up he is behind her, a smile and an apology clear in his eyes.
Her hearts leap and spasm with joy – she reaches out, her fingers stretch toward him and her mouth goes dry with anticipation.
This is always when she wakes up.
"I know I didn't know him yeah, but – but I know you River. And this isn't you." Other Dave is fidgeting, glancing around nervously as if waiting to be rescued at any moment. She laughs softly, because honestly, did they think Dave would be the one to convince her?
"Are you all going to stage an intervention soon?" She asks instead and he flushes, glancing over at her.
"It's been tabled a time or two." He admits sheepishly and she takes his hand in hers, squeezing it. "We just want you to stop waiting."
"If I don't wait for him, he'll never come." She confesses in a softer tone. Damn them for sending Other Dave anyway – he's always had a special place in her hearts with his youth and his dry sense of humour.
"How can you be so sure he is coming?" Dave's question holds only honest curiosity.
She smiles, "Because he's the Doctor. And he wouldn't leave me alone here. Not forever. Not my Doctor."
Charlotte replaces the clothes. One day she goes to bed and there are tweed coats and ridiculous shirts hanging in her wardrobe.
Bowties on tables and braces hanging over a chair and even a fez – a completely ridiculous red fez on the window sill.
She's glad Charlotte didn't show her it all this time, because she cries even harder than when it was all wrong. Slips her arms into his shirt and folds a tweed coat in her arms and curls up on the bed and sobs.
It's been so long.
All of time and space and why is he taking so long to get here?
The children change, and her hearts ache with each new feature.
Ella's hair seems curlier and Joshua's longer, more floppy and unruly. His eyes are lightening to a warmer hazel and Ella's nose seems sharper. She watches them, standing on stools at the counter, hands full of flour as they lick spoons covered in cookie dough.
Charlotte is beside them, her long dark hair tied back and giggling loudly. River knows – Charlotte is changing them, bit by bit. To look more like her. To look more like him.
"Mummy," Ella jumps off her stool and prances in front of her with a grin. "May we have one cookie before supper? Joshua, Charlotte and me? Please?"
"Please Mummy?" Joshua pouts, looking over at her with a beguiling smile and for a moment she sees so much of the Doctor in him it takes her breath away. "They're bestest warm."
"Best, darling, not bestest, and of course you can. Just one each though." She moves over to get the milk, and Ella runs back over to kneel with Joshua in front of the oven, watching the cookies bake. Charlotte comes over to her side, dragging her stool and using it to get glasses down from the cupboard.
"River?" She questions gently, and River glances down at her with a smile.
"Yes, sweetie?" She pours the milk and leans a hip against the counter, giving Charlotte her full attention.
"Do you think, I mean, would you mind very much if I- if I- can I," her voice falters and stutters and River runs a hand over her hair gently, waiting for her to finish patiently. "If I call you Mummy too – like Joshua and Ella?"
Her hearts ache and she drops to her knees, hugging the young girl before her. "Of course you can, sweetie. Of course you can."
Charlotte hugs her tightly and Ella and Joshua look over, both jumping up to join in. "She is your Mummy too, silly." Ella speaks in a matter of fact tone and River and Charlotte share a look, because they both know.
"How about I come with you all tomorrow? Just the four of us – we'll go on a story adventure?" River's throat is tight as she speaks, because it will be the first day she hasn't gone to the river, the first day she'll leave her diary behind. Charlotte's hand squeezes hers as Ella and Joshua jump up and down in excitement.
"Are you sure?" She whispers, and River can only hug her tighter in response.
That night she is tucking them into bed and he is reading the bedtime story.
He does voices, and makes ridiculous noises and the children laugh and kiss him on the cheek as he tucks them in a second time, tickling them so hard they make a wrinkled mess of their bed sheets and have to be tucked in just once more, by Mummy again.
His hand is in hers as she shuts the lights off.
And then they are in their room, and a bowtie is undone, hands slide under her shirt, his tweed coat is pushed to the floor-
She wakes up to Charlotte's even breathing and not the sound of a double heart beat under her head and she has to blink the tears away before Charlotte wakes.
"You look better." Miss Evangelista's voice is soft, comforting even and River nods politely. "You've been spending more time with the children, that's good."
"I love the children." River feels somehow defensive and the younger woman makes a shushing noise, squeezing her hand quickly before pulling back.
"Of course you do. They're yours." Silence falls and River sighs, because they're not hers – not really. But she's been in here long enough that she is questioning her own memories – everything feels so real in here, so real and yet so achingly lonely.
She wonders how long it's been. If he ever comes back to the Library, just to make sure she is in here, and okay.
She misses him, but it less the sharp, painful ache it was before and more a dull, constant throb.
She almost misses the sharpness of the pain.
She just doesn't want to forget.
"Read us a story from your book, Mummy. You haven't done that in ages." Ella asks one night as they are all tucked into bed. "A real story. Not the pretend ones like we play in. Tell us a real story." All three of them watch her expectantly and she nods.
"Alright, just let me get my book." She moves down the hall quickly, and returns to sit on the edge of Charlotte's bed, her diary in her lap. "Once upon a time, a long, long time ago – or maybe right now – there was a man. Some people thought he was mad, and others thought he was magic. Some people thought he was very very good, and others thought he was very very bad."
"Which was he?" Joshua sits up, turning toward her. "Good or bad?"
"He was all those things, Joshua. Mad and magic, good and bad, but very very kind. He was just a man – even though some people thought he was a wizard. He travelled all through time and space in his magic box, for ages and ages, until he was very old but still very young." She opens her diary in her lap to a special page, and turns it so they can see. "He even had different faces."
"How do you change your face?" Ella asks, moving from her bed to Charlotte's so she can peer at the pictures. "He's had some very silly faces, Mummy."
River laughs and moves to the foot of the bed to make room for Joshua, who also came over to Charlotte's bed. "He has indeed, Ella. But to those who knew him – really really knew him – the face didn't matter. Everyone loved the Doctor."
"Why's he called the Doctor? Is he a doctor like Doctor Moon?" Joshua asks, and River shakes her head.
"No, not exactly. He doesn't know why people call him the Doctor – but they called him that enough that he started calling himself that too. But I know why they called him Doctor. It was a word for wise man – for someone who could heal hurts, and that's what the Doctor did, when he could. He would heal worlds, and save them."
"How did you meet him?" Charlotte's gaze is curious and River looks down at the closed diary in her lap, running her hands over the faded blue cover.
"I knew him before I met him. Bad people wanted me to hurt him, but I knew in my hearts that he was like me. I knew that we were the same, and you can't hurt someone like that. You can only love them." The children listen raptly, squashed together in Charlotte's tiny bed.
"Did he love you back?" Ella yawns sleepily.
"Oh yes, very much. He rescued me, and took me to see stars and planets – whole worlds. He knew I was just like him, and it made him love me too, you see." They were blinking slowly now, their eyes growing heavier as she spoke. "He was unlike anyone I'd ever known. We ran, and lived and loved and laughed – he held my hand when I was hurt, and waited for me to get better. And I did the same for him, and loved him no matter how many times his face changed."
"Does your face change too then?" Charlotte's voice is slow with sleep and River smoothed the sheets over the three almost asleep children. "If you're the same?"
"It used to – not anymore though. It's alright, I quite like this one." She mentally thinks this would be easier with one big bed, and then suddenly the three small beds merge into one, with a small tangle of children at its center. She pauses, because she hadn't known she had any control over these things.
"I do too, it looks like mine." Ella mumbles sleepily. "Is he our Daddy?"
"Maybe," River hesitates, standing quietly and pressing a kiss to each of their small heads. "Maybe someday."
"Aren't you going to finish?" Joshua's voice is barely understandable and she laughs softly.
"Tomorrow night. It's far too long of a story to tell all at once." She walks over to the doorway, diary in hand and wishes them goodnight before turning out the light and moving down the hall to her room.
She picks up his shirt from where it was left on the bed and wonders if Charlotte made these things for her at all, or if she made them for herself. She closes her eyes and remembers very carefully – just how he would smell when he held her close.
She lifts the shirt to her face and inhales, and tears well at the familiarity of it.
"Please hurry, my love. Please."
She still goes down to the river some mornings.
It is something she needs to do, she thinks. She needs to flip through the pages of her life and re-read everything, so she can remember it all, always. Sometimes she thinks she likes re-reading the painful bits best – because it is easier to remember the look in his eyes when he didn't know her, didn't trust her. It's easier to remember the hurt.
These are the stories she can't read to the children.
The ones where he doesn't know her name. The ones where he asks who she is over and over again. The ones where he trusts her mother instead of her. Peers at her with resentful eyes and scoffs at the idea of trusting her.
They are more recent for her, less hazy than the beginning memories. Clearer. Sharper. More tangible and she hates that this is what she is left with. Crystal clear memories of all the times he's not loved her and hazy warm dream-like memories of when he did.
The ducks quack understandingly, and she stares at the sky above her.
Her hands trace the picture of his face over and over again, as she tries to remember what it felt like.
"Look, I don't wanna be here." Proper Dave looks at her, a pragmatic frown on his face and she laughs dryly.
"Clearly." She points out obviously.
"But it's been ages. And don't get me wrong – I liked your Doctor. He tried to save us all, and seemed like a nice enough bloke. Hair was a bit funny, but you can't have everything." He hedges and she laughs more genuinely this time.
"Oh if you think his hair was funny then," she giggles softly and he looks over at with a serious expression.
"You've been better. Happier. But you're still waiting River, and we're worried."
"Why does it worry you? All of you? So what if I'm waiting?" She waves her hands and glares at him shortly as his calm face stares back at her.
"Because you're wasting your life away, waiting for him. He may never come. He may never get here and you're just gonna spend every moment you have left sitting on this damn bench, wishing your life away." He looks offended by the thought and she looks over at him with pity.
"Dave," she takes his hand in hers and looks at him with a frown. "This isn't a life. Not for me. This is a... purgatory. Some calm serene unadventurous place I have to wait and wait and wait in."
"You shouldn't be waiting River." He says again, his voice lower and his hand squeezes hers tightly. He peers out over the water and swallows. "You should move on."
Her hearts sink, because Anita and Other Dave have naturally moved toward each other, and she was hoping the same would occur with Dave and Miss Evangelista. It seemed so perfect – and no one should spend the hereafter – or whatever this was – alone. "Dave," she speaks in a soft tone, as if she is afraid she will scare him, "I'm never going to move on. I know you don't understand that, none of you do." She sighs and pulls her hand from his, looking out over the water. "I'm not human. I'm not like you or Other Dave, or Anita. I've loved him for hundreds of years, before I even met him; I decided that I would love him. A few years in here isn't going to change that."
"Hundreds?" His voice is faint and she can feel his gaze upon her, but she doesn't turn toward him.
"He'll come. He always comes when I need him." She doesn't watch him stand and leave her alone with the water and the sunshine and the wind once again.
They are all sitting on the bank of the river; their feet dangling in the water as the children toss bread to the ducks that swim so close the feathers tickle their toes.
He leans over them, showing them how to drop the bread progressively closer and closer until a duck is nibbling out of his open hand and he is proclaiming that ducks in rivers just doesn't seem right. They need a good pond.
She laughs at the irony of that and he glances over at her with a goofy grin. The children protest because they like the river and there aren't any ponds in town anyway.
He laughs, and says sometimes ponds are really rivers anyway – just in disguise. Charlotte denies this and he insists, tugging her long hair when she refuses to agree. His other hand is firmly laced in hers and she smiles brightly down at them all, thinking that everything is perfect now that he is here.
A duck climbs into her lap.
And she wakes up.
"Do you never wonder?"
"Wonder about what darling?" Charlotte is curled up next to her on the lawn, and they are counting the stars in the sky above. Ella and Joshua are playing with the other adults, who are still gathered round the campfire Ella had insisted on having. Even Doctor Moon had put in an appearance, but he'd left long before anyone else.
"Wonder what happens if he doesn't come? What would you do?" Charlotte's hands are tight around her wrists and she glances down at the small girl tucked into her side.
"What do you mean Charlotte?" River frowns and Charlotte blinks up at the sky resolutely.
"It's been a long time. Since he gave you to me." Her voice is so soft River has to lean closer just to hear her over the chatter of the others. "You've been waiting, but you've been sad. I know. Sad the way I was for the longest time at first. I missed my Mum and my Daddy. Eventually I got all those people – saved them. And I just... made a new Daddy up and I didn't feel so alone then." River wraps her arm around Charlotte's shoulders and pulls her in tighter.
"And then you came, and he saved them all, but he gave me you." Charlotte's clear brown eyes meet hers and River feels tears well in her own eyes. "But you've been waiting and waiting, and you're content here but you're not happy. What if he doesn't come? Would you ever ask me to – ask me to delete you? So you didn't have to wait anymore?" She is crying now and River pulls her into a hug, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
"No. No, not at all darling. I miss him. I do, every minute of every day but I love you too Charlotte. I wouldn't leave you all alone like that." Charlotte's tiny arms wrap around her waist as she soothes her, and she cries into her shoulder.
"Really? Do you promise?" Her voice hiccups and River smoothes her hair and presses a kiss to her forehead.
"I promise, Charlotte. And I don't even break my promises. Mummy isn't going anywhere." Charlotte's face is pressed into her neck and she can feel her little shoulders shaking against her and for the first time since she's been put in here, she realizes that maybe this is a type of life too.
It's one worth living at any rate. And though she misses what she had, she shouldn't miss what she has because of it. "I love you Charlotte." She whispers the words into the small girl's hair, and hugs her tighter.
"I love you too."
They are in the middle of tea time – crowded around the blanket they have spread out under the fort they just made, jostling for cakes and sandwiches. Ella and Joshua compete loudly, attempting to retell their adventure of the day. They'd been to Wonderland and there was a rabbit that they were supposed to follow but instead they stayed at the mad hatters and had tea and bread with jam.
"And proper Dave said we had to finish the story-" Ella starts as she takes another biscuit and puts it on her plate.
"But Miss Evangelista told him to stop being such a stick in the mud –" Joshua continues, only to be interrupted by his sister.
"Mummy, what's a stick in the mud anyway?" Ella asks around a mouthful of cookie while Charlotte sips her tea and elbows Joshua away from the last biscuit currently sitting on her plate.
"Someone who's no fun at all. Boring and doesn't like to do things like get dirty or make pies or have noisy teas on the floor under brilliant tents, like your Mum."
She is so startled she jumps as she attempts to crawl backward out of the fort, and the kids scramble over her anyway, because they are faster and quicker than she is. She winces as Joshua steps on her calf and cringes because she is fairly certain four cups of tea just got up ended all over her floor. She finally manages to exit the fort to find all three kids bouncing around him with excitement.
"You've come home!"
"Finally, it took you forever." That one is Ella, small hands on her hips as she glares up at him reproachfully.
"Are you staying?"
"For good? Mummy always said one day you'd be here."
"And be our Daddy." Ella again, and she tugs on the sleeve of his tweed coat until he bends down closer to her. "Are you my Daddy?"
He looks bewildered and overwhelmed until she steps out into the sitting room, her steps tentative. She will wake up at any moment now, she knows. "Go run upstairs and wash your hands and brush your teeth." She instructs the children and Charlotte takes Ella's and Joshua's hands in hers.
"Come on, you heard Mummy. I'll read us a story after and then we can play dinosaurs." Joshua shouts at this and Ella pouts. "And horses, come on Ella. Mummy needs to speak to the Doctor." She pulls them both upstairs with her and River watches them disappear in a thunder of too-heavy footfalls on the stairs. She hasn't moved from her spot, because she knows that this isn't real. Cannot possibly be real.
"River." He breathes her name and she closes her eyes because she remembers, oh she remembers how he used to roll and stretch it out and she thought she'd forgotten that.
She shakes her head, and hears him move closer.
"Open your eyes River." His breath brushes against the skin of her cheek and when she opens her eyes he is barely half a foot in front of her. "Hello." He grins and she feels herself smiling back slowly.
"Hello." She says the word hesitantly, and reaches a hand between them. Her hearts are pounding because she is waiting for that moment – when she wakes up, when she realizes she is alone, in her bed, wrapped in a shirt that smells like him.
His skin is cool under her palm, and he turns his face into her hand until he can press a soft kiss against the skin there. "You're really here." She whispers the words and he reaches for her, his hands at her waist, pulling her forward insistently.
"Of course I'm here. You knew I'd come." He scoffs and looks down at her smugly, but the look fades when he sees the tears. "Oh, River. Did you not think I was coming? That I just left you here? Alone?" His hand brushes the tears away and she sniffles, cursing her own weakness.
"It's been a long time." She points out and he pulls her into a hug, and she buries her face in his shirt – his bow tie is poking her in the eye and she can smell him with every breath she takes.
"I know, I know. I'm so sorry River. This face though eh? Always knew it was your favourite." He pulls back and his eyes are teasing her but she simply brushes a hand through his hair.
"It's the one that goes with mine." She admits softly and his eyes soften as he looks down at her. "Are you here... for good?"
"I am. All done out there. Used it all up – it was a good run though. Long. Some parts weren't long enough, though." He looks at her meaningfully and she nods her agreement. "But now... now we have time."
"Are you sure, sweetie? This isn't adventures and running and saving people and planets." She sounds unsure and he swallows and shakes his head, his fingers reaching up to tangle in her curls.
"No, this is you and me finally getting to love each other properly – same amount, all at once. That's an adventure I can't wait to have, River. And books! Millions and millions of books! So we run from imaginary things and have fictional adventures. Doesn't make them any less real." He is staring at her intently as he speaks, and she feels her hearts growing lighter with each word.
He is here.
She hasn't woken up yet.
"It's not a dream." He whispers, and she realizes she said that out loud. "I missed you so much River. After you were gone – it got a little, I mean I got – it was awful."
"I missed you too my love, oh my – so much. I always knew you'd be here eventually though. My Doctor." She smiles brightly and the tears keep coming, but they are happier and he seems to know this.
He brushes his mouth against hers then, and nobody speaks for a good long while, but when he does, it's a whisper against her lips.
She forgave him. For all of the waiting and dreaming.
Because he'd waited too.