Beyond him, in the lands of the Gamma Forests, there are endless battles, and they stretch for miles.
(Within him, there is another battle.)
He couldn't (can't) stop them. The Doctor is no pacifist – he's killed, will kill, is killing. He's seen entire species take their last breaths, been the hand to cause the downfall of a planet, but this is different. This is senseless. This is bloody and pointless and nobody can win, now or ever. Nobody will ever win again.
And maybe this is the way it's always been. Wars are never won. The daleks always escape, the pain always continues and someone always lives on. The Doctor is quite sure of it now – wars are never won, and fighting is stupid, senseless, mean. No matter if the purpose holds true here today; this isn't going to help anybody.
(She is a blood soaked ballerina.)
There are dead and dying around him, human and otherwise.
(She is a gorgeous nightmare, beautifully dangerous.)
He can do nothing to help the dead and the dying. HE can do nothing but fight a senseless war he'd thought he'd stopped, and there are lives being taken by his hand. Good, innocent lives turned sour and angry by wars that have been going too long.
(She lied to him. She does that. She lies, but this lie… she is fighting for him. She's fighting to save him. But he can't forgive this one.)
He will never forget their cries. He's got a good memory, him. Each only becomes personal.
The Spaceman is coming for her, and so she runs. She runs until it's all she knows, and she doesn't stop. Not now – not ever. River Song runs for her life, and from her life.
River's hand strokes the barrel of the gun, as though it was a lover. A wicked smile curves her lips, and the irony of everything isn't lost on her as she steps forward, closer to the woman who is trying to back her way out of the forests.
"You can't win this time." She speaks, and watches as Kavorian comes to the edge of the battlefield. "Your armies couldn't save you." There is delight in her words. Sick, cruel delight that she knows she won't catalogue until later. She can't allow herself the moment to think of what she's about to do.
She's killed before.
And this one – this one should be easy.
She's been waiting for this entire lifetimes.
"I should have known." Kavorian's voice is not as fearful as River would have liked. Something in her wants to see that fear – fear the other woman had hoped would be forced upon the Doctor. "I created the perfect weapon. And it's come to destroy me."
She laughs – actually laughs – the dark red of her lipstick a stark contrast to her skin.
"I've told you this so many times." River begins. "You've created nothing."
"Oh, my dear, dear girl. I've created everything."
Breath hisses in her throat, and she encroaches further into the woman's space, if she could even be considered a woman. In her mind, River calls her a monster, a word from her childhood she can't shake. No matter the monsters that haunt her life, none are as frightening as the one who is entirely human.
"Did you really think you could ever win against me, child?" Kavorian's painted mouth twists into a smirk, her voice as ugly as River remembers. "You've tried so many times. Always were a stubborn child. But you're still my little weapon. Look at you. I taught you how to hold that gun, girl."
She presses its barrel against the monsters chest.
"That was your first mistake. Your second was teaching me to hate him." A smirk crosses her own mouth, and she unclicks the safety. "Because hate can turn to love just as easily as the other way around."
Kavorian laughs. "You'll never find me. And you'll certainly never win. You'll always be under my control, Melody Pond. I created you. So pull that trigger. Go on, girl. You'll do it. I taught you to."
River swallows. "My name is River Song." Her finger tightens on the trigger. "Melody Pond is the name of a girl whose childhood you murdered."
"Melody Pond. The world's greatest war criminal, come to kill her own creator."
"When will you learn? I create myself."
She squeezes the trigger-
And watches the fourth Madame Kavorian in as many months explode into a pile of flesh.
And then the battles are done, dying like too many souls, and dust is settling into fire. This planet is going to burn, and it is too familiar. The screams aren't live. They're imagined, in his head, all the lives taken by his hand. The bodies of countless armies she'd collected are strewn around them. They're endless.
He will fall farther than ever before.
And true love lies.
Hearts twist in anger, but his eyes can't help but roam to find her.
She emerges from the depths of the battle, from the spot where he'd feared seeing Kavorian exit instead. For the first time that day, when he sees her, she isn't that terrifying warrior he'd watched in awe. Her lips are parted and she's breathing heavy. Where armor has failed, her clothes are torn, bloody. Blood runs down her cheek from a gash on her temple. She looks so very fragile, even with her eyes straight ahead and unwavering, step after step through ashen piles. The ash coats her skin. For just a moment, he forgets what she's done, and how he's supposed to be angry.
Because River – and she's not his River yet, he knows that – looks so utterly broken.
No. What she looks is like a ghost of herself.
And then she falters.
She can't do this alone. Not after the last four turned out to be flesh. River is tired. She feels it in her bones. Shell break soon, and then the battle will be lost. Kavorian will catch up with her.
She can't let that happen.
There's nothing she wants more than Kavorian's death at her hands – nothing more than an end. Oh, God, she needs an end.
And so her eyes turn to psychic paper, with an ache in her throat.
Because she knows what this will do to him. Because he trusts her. He loves her, this Doctor. She's seen it. She's heard it. This impossible man she's traveled with trusts her, and she's going to have to break him with this lie.
She needs another soldier for her war.
I need your help, Doctor. The Gamma Forests. Come as soon as you can. Kavorian. Be prepared.
She knows this will be more than a fight. This will be a war.
His arms come around her in an instant, but it's too late and she's already fallen, armor digging into her body. The Doctor releases it with a wave of the sonic, not realizing he's holding his breath until he hears her sigh of relief.
"Oh, River." He murmurs, bending close enough to smell the death in her hair, mingling with ash and dust and sweat. Gentle fingers brush at the curls that cling to the blood on her cheek.
"I had to." She says, voice hoarse. "You wouldn't have come any other way." She's mistaking his words for anger, for betrayal, and he shakes his head.
"River, River, River." He cradles her in his lap, fingers still stroking at her hair. "After all we've been through, you still don't trust me. Doesn't matter, don't worry about it. I've got to earn it still. That's new." He chuckles and presses his lips against her forehead in what he hopes is reassurance.
"Okay, so maybe you're right." The Doctor says when she stares at him, eyes clouded with pain and mistrust. "I wouldn't have done what you asked. But oh, River, I would have come. We always make the best of plans together. Or will. Yes, we will. And I will always catch you, River, always. But you need to trust me. Because this wasn't the way to go about it. This was dangerous, even for you." Especially for her – for River Song, who gave up her regenerations to save him.
The face he knows so well doesn't trust him as she should. The familiar waves of guilt claim his hearts. Every time she's ever asked him to trust her, and every time he'd ever denied her – is this what she'd been feeling?
He can taste the ash of this burning world coating his tongue.
"I'm sorry, Doctor."
And it means something, it does – but this world is burning and they can't stay. Only, they're stranded, because she's tricked him. (She just might be the only woman clever enough to do it.) But she did it, and they're here. She's led him too far from the TARDIS for them to get back, with her like this. He closes his hand around hers the very same moment he hears it, somewhere off in the distance.
It's the familiar sound of his ship. Hearts pounding, the Doctor turns in time to see blue materializing, the door opening –
He's blinded by orange flames, but not before he sees and understands.
River Song, his River Song, disappears in a flash of dust in front of the TARDIS doors.
"Stay still." The Doctor bites out, ripping the cloth with his teeth in order to keep her still with his other hand. "You are the singular most infuriating woman I have ever traveled with."
"You're not doing so bad on my list your- god! You mind?" She squirms underneath the hand pressing a bandage to the gash over her ribcage.
"Not too much, no."
"You're still cross with me."
The Doctor huffs. "You'll return the favor one day."
His eyes are angrier than she's ever seen them, but his thumb is stroking along her collarbone where he's holding her still. It's infuriatingly calming, and she doesn't want to be calm. The last surges of adrenaline are wearing off in her system, but not nearly enough. She can still see Kavorian's uncovered eye going blank. She can still hear fires crackling around them, battles fought by soldiers now dead.
She knows she's hurt him, and maybe she deserves pain, but it doesn't matter because she needed him.
He'll never forget this. He'll never forgive her.
And she only hopes it was worth it.
His hands hover by the gash on her temple, and she glares because she can and that's just their relationship. She glares, he quips, but this is different. It feels like an end.
"Can I trust you to keep still while I do this/" His head dips, ridiculous hair flopping over quizzical eyes.
"If you like." She purrs. "But where's the fun in that?"
His eyes are downcast for the quickest of seconds before he rolls them, stroking his finger along the bridge of her nose so fondly it nearly makes her gasp.
The Doctor makes quick work of it, and she's certainly had worse medics. Even cross with her, he's kind, brushing cool fingers across her cheek whenever she flinches.
He is the kindest, most brilliant man she's ever known, despite all she's been taught, and now she's dragged him into this. Another war. More death she knows he hates.
Because he would have found another way.
But she didn't want one.
River Song wanted to see Kavorian die at her own hands, and she needed the Doctor's help.
"You won't even have a scar," he promises, voice soft. "Not here, at least." His fingers ghost above the stitches. "Can't do much about your side, but you know what they say. Scars add character." But his voice is tight when he says it, and she instantly knows this isn't the character he'd have chosen to add.
"We're going to talk about this, now." He says, sitting on the edge of the cot.
River's eyes flicker to the ceiling of the TARDIS; she can feel her humming underneath her own thoughts. Despite only having traveled with him for the smallest amounts of times – and never fully, as her mother and father did – the TARDIS in her mind feels like home. It feels like the part of her that's been missing all her life.
(River can sense that he's jealous of her, even if he's too stubborn to admit it. The TARDIS can communicate with her more deeply than she can with the Doctor – but it doesn't matter, even though River might be the only one who understands that. Because long after she's gone, (and long before she was ever there), it was always the Doctor and the TARDIS, off to see galaxies. River is no threat to that.)
"Are we?" She questions when she can still feel his eyes on her.
"Yes. I don't hate you, you know."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I don't. And I'm not going to throw you off this ship, Miss Song. Yes, I can see you're thinking it. For one, Sexy would never let me back on. She likes you, you know." There's a smile curving the edge of his mouth.
"But you're still cross."
"No. Well, yes. You lied to me. Now normally-"
"You like a bad girl."
She can feel the smile in her eyes.
"I've said that before?"
"Oh, yes." She says, and watches him scratch at his cheek. He's done that before, too. Some kind of awkward, nervous tick. In the beginning, when he first started showing up, he'd always been confident. Like he'd known everything – because he had known everything. He'd known every last thing about her, things that she hadn't yet known herself.
Things that she'd had to figure out for years afterward. Decisions he let her make, things that he didn't choose for her but he knew anyway.
It did something, to a girl.
But he's become more awkward with time. One of these days, he'll start to know less about her. One of these days she'll start to see the knowledge slip from his eyes.
Today is not that day.
And for that, she is thankful.
(But it doesn't change anything, because despite what he's said, she's sure she's lost that trust he always seemed to hold in her from the first second. Has she failed him now?)
Her eyes flash to his face. "If you're worried, don't be. I've killed before. You know that as well as anyone, my love."
"So have I," He says, his words thick.
"I'm glad we're on the same page, then." River moves to leave, hoping that he'll let her, but his hand comes up to rest on her shoulder.
"This is so much different, River. That was a planet. An entire planet, and it's burning. That whole world."
Her eyes skate over him – his tired, dirty frame, hands covered with her blood, face coated in ash – and understands as she always has, because how could she not? They were her people, too, and this was what she feared when bringing him here.
This is what she knew she'd be doing to him.
(Because she couldn't leave a person alive back there, not a single one. They'd come back after her, and everything would be lost again. And she'd made him take part in that.)
"It weighs on a person." He continues, looking so much older than he usually does. "Weighs until they can hardly breathe and suddenly there's no one else like you. And you're alone, so alone. Don't you see, River? I never wanted that for you."
"There wasn't another way. I tried, believe me. She got away. I had to end it. Do you think she'd have given up?" Her voice is incredulous.
"Oh, River, there is always another way. There's always a way out."
She bows her head, shaking it. The stitches pull. "Maybe not always."
He touches her chin, raising her head back up to meet his eyes. His eyes hold all the age that his body doesn't show. "Maybe. But we could have found out together. I could have helped."
"You did." She goes to move, but the ache in her side flares and her eyes flutter closed. From behind closed lids, she hears him sigh, feels him move closer to press a kiss to her forehead again.
"Get some rest. We'll see about going somewhere quiet tomorrow. You're staying with me for awhile. Right now's not the time to lose you."
She wants to protest – to tell him that she's alright, that he doesn't have to worry over her, that she can handle knowing what she did because she was resolved in doing it – but saying any of that would only make it so that she'd leave the TARDIS that much sooner, and what if tomorrow's the day he doesn't recognize her?
So she smiles, instead, eyes still closed, TARDIS still humming in the back of her mind.
"It doesn't mean you're forgiven." The Doctor continues, voice somewhere between a reminder and a warning. "Remember that. But maybe we've all got something to learn, hey? We'll go somewhere nice tomorrow. Somewhere calm. Have you ever seen Asgard during the winter?"
River Song strokes a wall of the TARDIs, listening to the hum of the ship in response. After all these years, this ship still feels like home. The Doctor told her once that the ship loved her.
She loves her back.
"Come along now, honey." River speaks, flipping switches as natural as breathing. "The Gamma Forests, one last time."
She scribbles her note on an old piece of paper and tapes it to the screen. Her own reflection stares back, wild curls and her father's nose. She's been the same face for awhile now, even though she nearly died this very night she's returning to.
But he saved her, like he's always doing.
It's time to return the favor, once again.
She smoothes a hand over the note as they spin into the Vortex.
He returns to the Matrix, fingers stroking absently along his ship, and she hums in response. A playful smirk crosses his mouth.
"You're pleased with me, aren't you, old girl? You didn't really think I'd throw her out, did you? Oh, no. She made a mistake. Or maybe not. I don't know."
He can swear the ship chuckles.
'You find that funny, don't you? Well, I don't. She killed a planet, Sexy. A whole planet. But she's alive and if she hadn't…" He trails off. "She'll need someone. Always has, really. We all do, in the end. Get lonely and need someone who understands. But you understand, don't you?"
He circles the matrix, coming to the screen and the note taped on it.
'Take her to Asgard in the winter. She'll love it. X'.
She always suspected he'd seen something that night, far off in the distance.
She just never suspected it was her.
River steps from the TARDIS and sees him. She's cradled in her lap, same face as today. Blood seeps from wounds she'll know he'll tend.
She shouldn't, but she supposes she already had, and so she blows him a kiss.
"You taught me well, sweetie."
River disappears into the vortex .