Notes: this was written pre-Let's Kill Hitler, and is therefore an AU version of River's past, inspired by the events in A Good Man Goes To War. The title is from Vienna Teng's, "Athiest Christmas Carol." Warning for mentions of child abuse, but nothing graphic.
it's the season of grace (coming out of the void)
Breaches and bones; treble and bass.
Madame Kovarian makes one mistake, but she never learns what it was; what it will be.
There are no questions at the end, like she'd always imagined there would be; she isn't naive. She knew one day it would change, it would all come back around, the universe evening out the score. She always imagined a moment, a confrontation, and she has prepared her answers since the start.
But there are no questions, not at the end.
Not even a whisper.
The Gamma Forests are awash in blue and green and silver; sun and sky and earth, curling around the Doctor as he runs, looking for a pond that doesn't exist and a melody that can't be sung. There are no rivers here, Lorna tells him, not in these parts.
No water for miles and miles.
They start out as fairy tales:
Once upon a time, through all of space, there lived an evil man. An evil man with an evil box, destroyer of worlds; of Practice; of hope. A man so feared, the greatest warriors of history, past and future, bowed their necks and laid down their swords, their spears, their battleships. They cowered at his name and fled at the sound of the box; her keepers play the sound, the thrum of breaks and engines and she wants to cover her ears, but they never let her. "Listen," says the woman with the silver eye, "listen closely. Listen."
The box settles. The door swings open. Footsteps rise and fall. A high-pitched whirring sound. The click of a lock. Another door.
And then silence.
"Fear is always the first conditional," she'd said once, on a planet controlled by lights and ruled over by flames; the sick always died and the living always suffered and the Doctor tried to free them all with nothing more powerful than his own voice.
It was so off-handed, then, as he concentrated on everything all at once, but now it makes him pause. He watches as she stares out the open door of the TARDIS, watching the stars float by like ships.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she says, and he shouldn't be surprised that she knows; she always knows.
The Doctor shakes his head fondly - "She's always beautiful" - and crosses to the controls, fiddling with a few buttons and keys. "You can go outside."
River nods - "I know." - but doesn't move.
The TARDIS lands not far from the commotion. The sonic whirs and alarms blare, and it takes him a moment to realise they aren't for him. He finds bodies, unconscious, not so much a trail as a labyrinth, and he tracks the intruder to a lab deep beneath the complex. Footsteps pound the grating above them, and he knows by their pace and direction that time is limited.
He skitters to a halt in the doorway, surprised and confused when he spots a familiar figure hunched over a set of controls.
She whirls, gun raised and lowered in the same second. Her eyes flash with anger and something else, but it's gone too quickly and she's already refocused.
"What are you doing here? You're supposed to be with the Ponds-"
"Wrong me," she says, but not spoilers. He studies her for a moment, the curve of her back, her profile as he moves closer. There are lines around her eyes he doesn't recognise, echoes in her thoughts he's never heard before. They're out of time, again, but off; jagged.
"What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. Not this you, obviously – little you; Pond you!" He almost giggles at that. "Though this is-"
"Melody isn't here," she interrupts, and her use of the third person throws him.
"But you said-"
"You're too late."
He blanches, stricken, and she throws him a sympathetic glance. "I'm sorry."
He nods, watching her quietly for a moment. "When are we?" he asks finally.
"Out of order, as usual," she remarks absently. He can tell by the air around her, the set of her shoulders and the arch of her neck that she's older, much older. She's crossing their timeline, further ahead than he is behind; closer to the Library than the Byzantium, and the realisation cinches a string between his hearts.
The monitor she's working at sparks and rattles, breaking his concentration, and she curses in what must be at least six different languages. He's at her side in a moment, scanning the now dark machine.
"Couplings blew," he comments. She glowers at him and moves to another console. "What are you doing?"
"Virus," she snaps, "Wiping the drives." She punches a few more keys, and a red warning flashes across the screen. "They've locked me out," she huffs. "Again."
The Doctor fumbles with the switches on his screwdriver and tries again while River relocates, typing furiously and pulling wires from one monitor to next.
He's about to demand more information when she cuts him off abruptly. "You should get back to the TARDIS - they'll be here soon and it isn't going to be pretty."
"Breaking and entering rarely is."
She ignores him, eyes glued to her work. He peers over her shoulder, much closer than necessary, and points the sonic at an icon in the corner. "88-alpha burst routed through the primary breaker should give you access."
"Doctor," she warns.
"I'm helping!" he protests.
The screen turns green and demands access codes; she types them in without hesitation, then turns to him gravely. "Trust me, Doctor, you don't want to be a part of this."
She doesn't answer. The computer blinks, the firewall collapsed, and she slides a disc from her pocket to insert into the core; he grabs her wrist before she manages.
"Why not?" he repeats, slow and firm.
"I don't have time to explain. We've got about thirty seconds before this place is flooded with soldiers and I, for one, would like to get out of here alive."
He doesn't move. His eyes hold hers and he searches her face, her thoughts, trying to break in; it's a steal trap, deadlocked, and he fails.
He refocuses, looking for something - anything - in her expression that will help him decide.
"Let go of my hand," she says lowly. He has no doubt she could get away if she wanted to; he's stronger, but she's a fighter, and he knows he wouldn't stand a chance.
He also knows she isn't trying.
Slowly, reluctantly, he releases her, and she slams the disc into the machine. Another set of alarms blare, footsteps redirect themselves, and she grabs his hand. "Run."
They run, dodging sentries and robots at every turn. River's blaster is set to stun, much to his relief, but he still winces as the bodies hit the ground. He makes a sharp turn, the TARDIS in sight before realizing she isn't behind him. He calls her name, doubling back and tracing her signal, finding her again in another lab, the central science lab, wiring a small, black box to the main console.
"What are you doing?"
"Shutting it down."
"They're right behind us."
"You should go."
He huffs indignantly. "I'm not leaving you."
"I've got a vortex manipulator, I'll be fine."
"That's not what I meant."
He grabs her suddenly, stopping her frantic motions.
"Doctor, we don't have time-"
"I know. The virus was to get you control here. You're setting up the mainframe to encounter a firewall that'll send residual power surges through the entire complex, effectively wiping every file and reading ever stored, but you haven't got enough power. The back-up circuits will override and save as much information as they can to the secondary source, which, judging by the fancy-schmancy of this operation, is probably off planet and probably even more guarded than this one."
"I know. That's why I'm changing the adapters to interact with and spread another virus when it reaches the back-up drives."
"A virus within a virus," he muses. "Clever. But you still haven't got time."
"If you'd stop talking and let me work-"
"Let me help."
She freezes momentarily, hands stilling over the wires. "I can't."
She shakes her head and reconnects the circuit, denying him an answer.
"So I'm just supposed to stand here?" he demands angrily.
"You're supposed to get back to the TARDIS and get out of-"
"I'm not leaving you-"
She's scared. He missed it before, somehow, but the tone of her voice is begging, pleading with him to go, not to intervene. Whether it's for her own safety or his he doesn't know, though he can guess; but he's never been very good at either and before she can protest he's disconnecting cables and replicating her actions on the other side of the machine. She tries to argue, but the shouting is closer and the lights are brighter and they've barely connected the last wire when the room is stormed.
They shoot first and she dives, pushing the Doctor out of the way and under cover.
"Stay down!" she orders, turning and firing shots over the desk.
The Doctor sonics the floor panels, trying to find a way out and River keeps up a steady stream of cover fire, never letting more than two guards fully enter the room at a time.
There's a lucky shot, a spark, and she cries out suddenly, dropping back behind the console. The Doctor looks up; her hand is covered in blood and her blaster is smoking. "River, are you-"
She pulls a pistol from the holster at her back. The four soldiers who entered the room fall quickly; she aims for hands and arms and legs and feet, trying to keep her shots steady with her injured hand. Blood smears and the bodies fall and the Doctor feels sick, the smell so close and harsh.
"Aha!" he cries suddenly, scrambling for a panel near the corner. "I think I've got-"
He's on the floor suddenly, his screwdriver rolling away under the desk several meters away. He looks up just in time to see River standing where he was, where he should have been, red spreading out from a point on her shirt. He looks up just in time to see her fire, no hesitation, no mercy, at the man who shot at him. He's human, or looks human, wearing a lab coat and a badge, and he doesn't have time to cry out; the bullet hits the man squarely between the eyes, and he falls. River drops just as quickly, snatching the screwdriver and throwing it back to him as she keeps firing. The metal is covered in blood, her blood. He's about to ask if she's all right when her gun clicks, empty, and he quickly sonics open the panel. She shoves him down into the hatch and they hit the floor in a tumble, the long drop straining their knees.
She grabs his hand a second later and they're running, sonicing their way though doors and windows and hatches. She disarms more than a few men, human and not, so fast and so deadly, and she's a lot more graceful than he'd expected, fighting. It's all turns and tosses and everything is so precise, so perfect; they never lay a hand on her.
They dive into the TARDIS just as another unit rounds the corner, and he scrambles for the controls. The box shakes as the blast hits the door, but they dematerialise quickly enough, calming their spiral once inside the Vortex.
The silence is deafening.
He breathes in deeply, stroking his hands over the controls to calm himself.
River's breathing heavily, leaning against the wall near the door, her hair framing her face. He approaches her slowly, tentatively.
She tries to straighten up, to reassure him, but her good hand flies to her side and she winces. "I'll be fine," she tries, but it's through gritted teeth and closed eyes, and the Doctor smirks fondly.
Slowly, gently, he places a hand on her elbow and urges her to lean on him, wrapping his arm around her shoulder; the questions can wait for now.
They run from the Silence. From the footsteps of the Anglican Guard, marching surely behind them. He grabs her hand - tear-stained and dirty - and pulls her through the underbrush, away from the camp and away from the barriers; away from the nightless sky she's used to. They run, and Lorna barely feels her feet against the ground, never feels a branch break or a leaf crackle, as the Doctor holds her hand tight enough to bruise.
They run, and run, and run, and run, and run…
Her lessons are all the same: a wicked man with a wicked box, hurdling through space and time. All powerful and all knowing, everywhere and nowhere all at once. There are pictures on her walls, menacing faces that haunt her nightmares and paralyse her dreams. He doesn't have a name, just a title. A word. A feared word she grows to hate. Pictures of dead bodies and ashen planets. "He killed your race," they all say, "every last one. He tried to kill you. Out of fear. He fears you, as others will grow to fear you, anyone who sides with him."
She studies the texts and stares at the pictures and only cries when she's positive no one is watching. "You must defeat him. You will save us," the woman says, wrapping little fingers around heavy metal. "You will destroy him."
"I don't understand," the child says, and the woman with the silver eye purses her lips in anger.
"In time," she says, and leaves the girl to a room of white, barren walls, the sound of engines echoing through the night.
She always imagined it would be him.
Standing crooked and tall, staring down at her from his pedestal, eyes bright with past weeping and sorrow, she always assumed he would bring the rain down and the flood; all those tales of fire and ice, a hero in the body of a criminal. It sank into her, like it sank into all God's soldiers, until she saw no other way for it to end.
When it does end - a sharp crack in time, a seam, a powder keg - it isn't how Kovarian projected.
It's so, so much worse.
The Silence fall, and she remembers.
One at a time, each clearer than the last - memories, each like their own little brand, searing her skin. Metal boxes and grey faces; silver lights echoing off white-washed walls; the sound of engines; pin pricks and dust and her reflection in the concave glass.
River doesn't ask for them, sometimes doesn't even want them, but the Silence grow weaker and she grows stronger and slowly they merge, each image and thought and feeling, fusing together to complete the picture. She always knew there were gaps - objects in the corner of her eye, reactions that never made sense, photographs so familiar and yet so misunderstood.
It takes years for everything to fall into place, years of research, years of questions, years of dead-ends and confusion and a cold, empty anger that she can't explain. It curls in her chest, hearts strangled and lungs filled and the Doctor tries to quell her guilt, but he can't - he can't do anything, not this time. He can't save her, she knows.
Not from this.