River padded softly down the corridor, her bare feet noiseless on the plush carpet. In the absolute silence she was acutely aware of the sound of her breath, her heartbeats, even the blood coursing through her veins. She didn't know where she was or how she got there. All she knew was when she went to sleep she was in her bunk in Stormcage and when she woke, she was in this place. It was a maze of identical door-lined corridors with red and gold carpet and yellowed floral-patterned wallpaper. She didn't know what the doors concealed and she had no desire to look. They seemed somehow private, like they were meant for someone else. So she continued traversing the endless labyrinth, wondering if the hallways were shifting and looping around on themselves or if it was really just that big.
A door with a black placard bearing the number 52 suddenly caught River's eye. She stopped and glanced up and down the hallway before hesitantly stepping closer. None of the other doors had caught her attention like this. She studied the polished sign, catching a glimpse of herself reflected in it. The polished brass knob drew her hand in like a magnet. She stood there, her fingers wrapped around the cool metal for a moment before she turned it and pushed the door open slowly. She glimpsed a pair of single beds with light flowery spreads that clashed badly with the dark floral-patterned wallpaper. A figure stood at the foot of the far bed.
It was the Doctor—her Doctor—with his tweed coat and bow tie. A wave of relief washed away the fear and doubt that had cast a shadow over River's mind. She said, "Oh, Doctor! Thank goodness, I thought I was alone here! Did you bring me here? Wait…" She smiled slyly, a mischievous twinkle flittering in her eyes. "Is this some sort of kinky game of hide and seek? This is later for you then, yeah?"
His expression changed as a haze of bewilderment crossed his eyes. "Who are you?"
With a laugh, River said, "Oh, pretending it's early days for you? I can do that, too." She moved closer to him and said with a low throaty voice, "Doctor River Song, archaeologist. I specialize in things…" Her eyes skated up and down his body before she continued, "of an intriguingly ancient variety."
He frowned and took a step back then said, "I don't know anyone named River Song."
River tilted her head uncertainly. The Doctor seemed different, colder. "Doctor, what is going on?"
"Well," he began in a voice entirely too calm for his words. "It seems I'm being assaulted by a highly questionable stranger."
"This isn't funny anymore," she said with great trepidation. "Please, just tell me you know who I am."
"No, I don't," he replied simply. "And I really don't think I'd want to."
"Wh—what do you mean?" she asked as she tried in vain to keep her voice steady.
"You are not a good person," the Doctor began, almost mechanically. "You are an aberration of time and space. You should not exist. But you do. Why is that? Because you lie and cheat. Never have you been completely honest. Not to yourself, not to anyone. You cannot be trusted. The gifts of companionship and love are not given, they're earned. And you deserve neither."
"But… I love you," she said, her voice pleading. "You love me."
He laughed then fell silent with an expression of deadly seriousness. "I could never love a murderer."
Pain flooded River's entire body, as if her blood turned into billions of miniscule needles and her nerves burned like fuses. Suddenly, she laughed for no apparent reason and immediately slapped a hand over her mouth. She stumbled backwards out of the room while the Doctor watched with painful indifference.
In the hall, she retreated until her back met the door across the way. She slid down the cream-painted wood, hugged her knees to her chest, and buried her face in her arms. She could both hear and feel the heavy footfalls of death skulking up on her, but she didn't look. What did it matter? The Doctor didn't know who she was. Time must've changed. But when? And why? Did the Doctor change it? None of that really mattered though, she supposed. It was over now. She always knew it would come to an end, and she always knew that in the end it would kill her. But she never pictured it quite like this, alone and fearful with the Doctor despising her very existence. At least death would take the pain away. As the menacing shadow grew ever closer, she involuntarily whispered, "Praise him." As soon as the words left her lips, all movement stopped. She could feel the massive form just feet from her, hovering but hesitating.
A new sound swirled around River, enveloping her like a blanket. She thought it was almost like the TARDIS materializing, but that was impossible. Surely it was just her imagination. Then she heard a familiar voice.
"No! No, no, no! Come on, old girl, why aren't you listening to me? I mean even less than usual! I didn't want to leave yet! I only popped back in here for—" The Doctor came bounding around the console but stopped short as he noticed River on the floor by the TARDIS doors. "River? What are you doing here? What's wrong?" He rushed over and dropped to his knees by her and ran his hand over her hunched back.
River looked up at the contact. "Doctor?" she asked. "You… you know me?"
"What? Me? Of course I know you! Why wouldn't I know you? You're Doctor Song. Clever, great hair, a little naughty."
"No, but I—"
"All right, a lot naughty sometimes. But I kind of like that," he said, winking at her.
"No, I mean…" She turned her gaze to the floor then explained, "Where I was, you were there, but it wasn't you. You didn't know me. At all. You said you didn't— that you could never love a—someone like me."
"Oh, River," he said soothingly as he hugged her, cradling her in his arms. "That must have been some nightmare." He ran his hand over her hair and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
"No, it wasn't," River insisted as she fought back tears burning at the corners of her eyes. "I mean, yes it was a nightmare, but it was real. A real place. I don't know how I got there, but I was there and it was real."
The Doctor cupped her cheek in his hand and gently turned her face toward him. There in her eyes he found everything he never associated with River; fear, vulnerability, the tearful look of a lost child. He wanted to take those emotions from her, grasp them as if they were physical things and extract them from her. Transfer them to himself if he had to, just so he didn't have to see her hurting. Wherever they were, whoever did this to her, they needed to be shown exactly what happened to those who hurt the people he loved. His jaw set, he rose and reached to open the door.
"No! Don't go out there," River said, grabbing his ankle. "Please, Doctor. I don't know what that place is but we shouldn't be there. No one should. All that is there is…" she paused, searching for the words to describe it. "I don't know, there's something; an emptiness. Like there's nothing left. Let's leave. Anywhere but here. Please."
The Doctor stared at the door with a fierce intensity, the fury burning in him threatening to explode with all the force of a supernova. He turned his gaze toward River as he felt her squeeze his ankle. Immediately, his features softened at the pleading look in her eyes. The rage subsided only to be replaced by a raw ache in his hearts at the thought of her suffering. He nodded and extended his hand to her. Relief swept across River's face as she placed her hand in his and he helped her to her feet. She slid her hands under his coat and around his waist, resting her head against his shoulder. In turn, he folded his arms around her, drawing her even closer, and reveled in the way her body fit so perfectly against his.
Absently, the Doctor ran a hand up her back to her hair, allowing his fingers to mingle and dance among the wild curls. He brushed his hand around her neck, traced a finger along her jawline to her chin then ever so slightly tilted her head so he could gaze intently into her eyes. "She and I," he said, gesturing around the room. "We love you. Always will. And we'll always be there to catch you when you fall, whether you jump or you're pushed over the edge."
"I know," River said, returning her head to his shoulder, "I have faith in you."