Note: Thank you so much, Sam! I'm so glad you've been enjoying this, and I hope you like the last installment. Thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate it. 3
it's the season of grace (coming out of the void)
Even when she's young she has nightmares.
Grey faces, white walls, the smell of leather. The hum of the TARDIS is like a trigger, and it takes her months to get used to it; months before she can touch the walls, before she ventures into rooms on her own.
It's an arch sometimes, their timeline, the end echoing the beginning and the beginning repeating the end. The first time she told him about the dreams was the last time he ever held her though the night. There are days in the middle where he doesn't know, isn't sure where they stand, but back at the beginning he can't stay away, can't even try. It's a long time before she lets him in; before she tells him about the things she can't remember, the words she can't forget.
So many nights she doesn't sleep, wandering the halls. He knows that someday she'll grow to love the TARDIS, that she'll talk to her and touch her and treat her sometimes better than he does.
"She's a part of you," the Doctor tells her one night, coaxing her to place a hand on the console. She does so tentatively, warily, and the TARIDS quiets, almost as if holding her breath. "We spoke once, the old girl and I. She told us about you. The only water in the forest." He smiles at the memory. "I've travelled with a lot of people over the centuries, but there's only one I've ever taught to fly my TARDIS."
He crooks a finger across her cheek briefly and smiles. "You."
She takes five lives before the end.
Two out of necessity - the scientist and the colonel; the mastermind and the keeper. Two because they're strong, because they're smart, because even if it all unravels, they'll remember, and maybe Time will change; because she can't leave the threads so frayed.
The third she takes out of mercy. He's too old, too tired, too far gone to remember his name or his life or his purpose. They held him captive, a small, timid man with a bowtie and warm hands and writing on his arms: Get out. Go now. But he never did. He never left, even when he remembered; he read her fairy tales and kissed her forehead and tucked her in at night and told her not to fear the Silence or the thunder or the darkness. So she held his hand and watched him go and regrets only that it took her so long to free him; to understand.
The fourth life she takes because she can. Because she has no words. Because even if time rewrites it all, she'll still be there, still haunting – the woman with the silver eye; her nightmares in a single glance.
She swore to him, so many memories ago, that she'd never kill for this, never take because she could or because she wanted to or because it seemed appropriate.
"We aren't judges," he told her once, back when her skin was still fair and her hands still unsteady. "We don't get to bring life, or end it."
She remembers the words, the sorrow in his eyes, even as she leaves in a whif of smoke, the treble pulsing in her bones long after the static has faded.
Contradictory lessons, fables and stories, rush behind her eyelids, accounts of God and men, clerics and thieves. The last life she takes isn't planned or voluntary; like a dusty photograph, she remembers the motions, the scene, but the expressions are blurred out by time and guilt, his apology tearing at her hearts.
She takes five lives, passes five judgements, so that after the end, she can give just one back.
He can tell by the style that something's wrong. No museums. No decorated cliffs. No urgent phone calls or flying stunts. Just a psychic paper, no address: come when you can and a date.
She's curled up on the sofa, a forgotten cup of tea on the table. No books. No disguises. Her face is clear of makeup; clear of the brightness and sound and spark.
He gropes for something to say, some wit or ramble that will make her smile. All he manages is her name.
She tries. She tries so hard, so bravely, to keep up appearances. He can tell she wants to tease him, wants to spare him whatever pain she's come across. But she can't, not this time, and he crouches in front her without hesitation. "River," he says. A question. A plea. He takes her hands and she grips his fingers tightly.
If there's one thing he can do, one thing he's good at, he can catch her when she falls.
"Where are we?" she asks.
He shakes his head. "It doesn't matter-"
"Where are we?"
He sighs. "We've just done the waterfalls on Pylea IV."
Her face crumples, and she looks away. "We're too early," she whispers. "I can't-"
"It's not your fault. The TARDIS…" She inhales shakily. "She brought this you for a reason."
He nods, but doesn't quite believe it. She needs him, another him, an older him, someone who knows and understands. "I could go and come back," he offers gently, but she shakes her head frantically and grabs his hand and he moves quickly, sliding up onto the couch and pulling her into his shoulder.
"Talk to me," he begs, running a hand up and down her arm.
"Spoilers," she murmurs; the sound reverberates under his skin, and he tightens his grip on her hand.
"You're clever, River," he urges, "Talk to me."
Her hearts beat in tandem to his own. Her hair smells like coconut and wildflowers and dust and there's a ring on her left hand that's digging into his own. She says nothing for a long, long time, regulating her breathing to the rise and fall of his chest, focusing on the softness of his skin and the clasp on his braces digging into her collarbone.
I remember, she wants to tell him. I remember everything. And I'm sorry.
"It's just difficult sometimes," she says instead. "All of Time at our fingertips….and nothing we can change."
"Time isn't meant to be controlled," he murmurs, though he knows the feeling, the ache. She doesn't say anything else. "We can go to Zakis," he offers suddenly. "Or New New York." River looks up at him, craning her neck to meet his gaze. "Brachton has a lovely harvest festival this time of year - well, any time of year, really," he amends, gesturing to the TARDIS.
She never hesitates.
"We can stay here, too," he offers. "I can stay."
She lowers her head back against his chest, fingers of her free hand curling over his shoulder, one leg over his. "Thank you," she whispers. He kisses the top of her head.
She's half in the shadows, staring out the wide window and watching the black around them as it swirls and curves. He knows she can see it; can feel it the way he does, or at least close. He can tell by her posture, the curve of her neck and the arc of her spine that she hears the whispers and echoes the Universe leaves behind as it shifts, too fast and too slow to be seen with the human eye. The blackness dances and sings and the Doctor watches her watch its performance in the silence. Framed against the light from the TARDIS, the light of space, she's beautiful; she looks softer, somehow; less cold. But her voice - when it shatters the air around them, drawing him back into the room, into the moment, into one time in one place; her voice, like fire in a crowded room, breaks his hearts.
"Madame Kovarian is dead."
Flat. Emotionless. She says it without remorse and without pride and dares him silently to rebuke her, to torment her with the morality she chose - just this once - to lack.
The Doctor nods. He doesn't agree, but he can't find it in himself to blame her, not this time, not after everything. Instead he turns, following her gaze out into the sky. The stars seem dimmer, the blackness paler, like the joy has faded from its reverie; like it knows.
He can tell she's waiting. Waiting for the fall-out, for the punishment. She's waiting for him to cut her down as he so easily could, with a word or a gesture or a look. He could end her, he knows; not the woman - the brilliant, fierce, tormented woman before him, her he could never touch, but River, his River - all he'd have to do is throw it away. (Sometimes he thinks he should. Maybe it would be better that way, for the both of them.)
But all she's ever asked of him - through all of time and all of space and every scar - all she's ever asked is that he let her stay.
"No questions?" she asks finally, terse and defensive. She waits. He catches her glance.
"Will you sleep now?"
Barely a whisper. Soft and gentle like a breeze.
Under its spell, she silently breaks.
He's barely out of the TARDIS before he starts, rage and fire in every gesture, every word, a storm of guilt and fear and she weathers it as she always has, static in the centre, inhaling the dust until her lungs are full and she can barely speak. It's been hours for her, probably minutes for him. She went somewhere she knew he'd find her – their apartment, small and barely lived in, but a fixed point for them; a sanctuary.
His words and his anger feel like anything but, and she tightens her grip on the sink, her ring loose on her finger and tinkering against the porcelain.
"Where?" he demands. "Where did you come from? Where did you go?"
River inhales deeply and turns to face him, leaning back against the sink. Her legs are still shaky, her blood cold. Time is holding its breath, waiting for her answer; the Doctor is waiting.
"Los Angeles. 3034."
The Doctor blanches slightly. "That's right in the middle of Reconstruction."
"I'll be fine."
His eyes narrow. "Kovarian-" he starts, but she shakes her head.
"Whatever happens, happens. Just…" She exhales sharply. "Just get me there before I regenerate, or we'll all be in a world of trouble."
He points a finger at her accusingly. "I'm coming right back," he snaps, already backing into the TARDIS. "Don't you dare leave."
The door snaps closed, and the box disappears, and River exhales sharply. Memories are refolding themselves, some fading, some growing brighter; two sets of lives with points intersecting, purple and gold and hot. She needs time, time to think, time to adjust, time to reconsile it all in her head; but she barely has time to gather herself before he returns.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he demands, nearly a shout, and River braces herself with nonchalance.
"You're welcome," she drawls, but she doesn't turn, can't. She keeps her eyes focused on the sink in front of her, head down, avoiding her reflection. The Doctor doesn't notice, deep into a tirade that she only catches pieces of; her mind is still echoing, still seething, time altering itself in her memories and skin.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" he snaps, pacing the floor behind her. "She could have died! You could have-"
Sharply: "I'm well aware of the ramifications, Doctor."
"I don't think you are! You created a paradox! A tear in space-time. Do you have any idea how dangerous-"
She whirls on him fiercely, her promise to be calm giving way to a flurry of emotions - fear, guilt, anger, regret - but above all, relief, a barely constrained joy that he's here, over a thousand years old, still here and safe and the words bubble over without her consent: "I didn't have a choice!"
He whirls, gesticulating sharply. "You think Kovarian's just going to let this go? Do you have any idea how much danger you're in? If they find out you failed-"
"Let them come."
"River," he warns, a deadly edge to his voice but she doesn't care.
"I'm a weapon, Doctor," she reminds him sharply. "I'm the most powerful weapon the universe has ever known, and that includes you. And it includes Kovarian. I can't change how I was bred, but by god I can change what I choose to destroy."
"You just rewrote history. Your history - my history!" the Doctor shouts, stalking away and then stopping, his fists tight against his sides. "I taught you better," he murmurs, harsh and guttural. "I told you never, ever to interfere with my time line and you promised – you promised me and I trusted you, River, I trusted you and I have never once regretted that until-"
"You knew," she interrupts, partly to stop him and partly to save herself; she can't hear those words from him, that tone, that disappointment.
The Doctor freezes as River moves closer, anger bubbling up the more she concentrates, the more she remembers. She intends the words to be strong and full of indignation, but they come out cracked and quivering. "You knew it was me and you made me watch." She pushes against him suddenly, sending him stumbling backwards. "You bastard."
He shakes his head, a trace of his anger dissipating, and reaches for her. "River-" he tries, but she pushes him again, harder, his back bumping the TARDIS softly.
"Everybody dies, River," he snaps, righting himself and moving into the open space of her kitchen. "You of all people know that."
Her eyes widen in pain and disbelief. "And you thought I could just let that go?" she whispers fiercely, her lungs tight and breathing shallow and the world is spinning slightly, gravity changing, molecules shifting. She stares at him nakedly, brokenly, and he looks away, lips tight and eyes shadowed. "Did you?" she demands, a little stronger. He remains silent, furious and yet humbled, trapped between black and white and her voice, shaking as she nearly screams: "Answer me!"
"I needed you there," he says flatly, unable to settle on a feeling or thought. "Needed to trust you-"
"So I could destroy you later?" she gasps out, holding a hand to her chest like she can barely breathe.
"It was my time, River!" he shouts, but her voice covers his, frantic and shrill:
"Not by my hand!"
He stills. The room is suddenly too quiet, too empty, and he drops his head and sighs. When he glances back, expecting understanding or commiseration or at the least respect, all he sees is pain. Like he's destroyed everything she holds dear in a single line. The realisation - her words, his anger, the shots across the beach, everything unfolding and refolding in his mind, hundreds of years and moments and places and here, now, the look on her face - hits him with enough force that he stumbles, disciplined by the obviousness of it.
"River…" he tries softly, but she shakes her head.
He moves closer but she flinches away and he stops, stunned, and for the first time he looks, really looks at her - pale skin and damp eyes and marks on her skin he's never seen before; she's resting her weight against the table, one hand flat on its surface and the other arm curled around her stomach. She looks so dull, so grey, so improper, and it starts to make sense, to settle in his bones that which he refused to admit. She moves jerkily to the side, bracing herself over the counter, hands against the wood, her back to him, hair shielding her face. She doesn't turn, and it terrifies him so, her stillness.
"River," he whispers. His shoulders drop and his fists relax and she inhales shakily but her throat catches on a sob and he's by her side, trying to turn her, trying desperately to see her face. "River, look at me," he begs when she tries to pull away. She's shaking, barely upright, a hand pressed to her lips and her eyes closed and he doesn't know what he was thinking, coming here like this. His voice breaks on her name and he folds his arms around her without a second thought. She bends into him effortlessly, bones aligning, hands reaching out to curl into his collar, her face pressed tightly against his chest. "It's all right," he soothes. One hand tangles in her hair, the other runs up and down her spine, pressing her impossibly closer. "It's okay, it's okay," he promises, just above her broken admission,
The Doctor closes his eyes, exhaling, her words reverberating along his skin.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I couldn't… I can't-"
He presses his lips to her hair and shakes his head. "It's okay, it'll be okay." Softer, on a prayer: "I'm still here."
She breaks, then. Body heaving with silent cries, hands running frantically over his chest and shoulders and face. Her hands are cold and damp, from her tears or his he doesn't know, and he brushes her hair back repeatedly. She meets his gaze finally, staring up at him with wet, red-rimmed eyes and he stops breathing, stops thinking. Open and unguarded, he can feel it, everything, all her love and pain and guilt, everything she's ever felt for him unshadowed, her mind clear and full and her hearts beating hastily, an echo in the room so loud and so wrought: Forgive me. She stares at him, eyes wide, hands clinging to his shoulders as if she'd otherwise fall.
There's a new scar across her eye from her temple to her cheek, burn marks on her neck and a lilt to her posture, all new, all rewrites. His hearts break again and again and this, this sacrifice - he cups her cheeks in his palms and breathes her name and kisses her with everything - a thousand years of time and space pouring past his lips, tears for planets and stars and skies and she kisses him back as if its the last thing she'll ever do and all the while she's pleading with him, begging him to understand.
"I couldn't," she whispers, over and over against his mouth. He kisses her cheeks, her nose, her forehead, every bit of skin he can reach. "I'm sorry. I couldn't, I had to do something. I had to. I had to."
"You just rewrote your own history," he murmurs, unable to keep the fear and awe from his voice. Then, finally, what propelled him here and sparked his anger and left him cold: "I could have lost you."
It's barely a whisper, more of a prayer, and the words echo around them, attaching themselves to particles and sound. "I could have lost you," he breathes, a desperate edge to his tone, and she cups his cheek in her palm.
"Some things are fixed, my love."
Time is still rewriting itself, still weaving; he can feel the strings of it wrapping and fraying in his mind; new stories added, old stories missing, but through it all she's still there, still clinging to his hand as they run. He doesn't believe in gods or demons or tricksters, but he thanks them all regardless; her body warm and soft and close and safe.
"River," he murmurs, drawing out her name, rocking just slightly on his heels, his mind whispering songs and lullabies to hers. "How did this happen?" he asks, though it isn't really a question; he knows the answer - it stares at him every time she does, so plain it nearly hurts. River pulls back just slightly, still leaning into his touch. He brushes his thumbs back and forth across her skin, over the red and white line, soft and warm. "My most fearsome enemy…" She shudders, just slightly, and he shakes his head. "My greatest protector."
She closes her eyes and exhales and he can't help it; he kisses her, a barely-there brush of skin to skin; a tinge of salt. I love you, she says, though the words don't pass her lips.
Every year, the people of the Gamma Forests leave a ring of flowers around the Bone Meadows. They celebrate and offer prayers to the stars, and sing the songs of children, lost and found. Every year, a woman watches them from a distance, caressed in shadows and slivers of light. They never see her, never hear her, but she owns the forests here, the waters. The pebbles shaped like stars and the stars shaped like moons and she owns them all, holds them in her hand with a whisper of a tune long since forgotten by the rest of them.
She never stays too long; the electricity barely dissipates before it sparks again; she's the Forests' best keep secret, save to one.
The Doctor steps beside her, looking down at the canyon - flowers in all colours and shapes, transforming the ugly, barren land into a garden, a sanctuary. Children skip over the buried bones, laughter decorating the air. They'll all die, he knows - the flowers. Flatted into dust. She knows it, too, and without a word he grips her hand tightly, his ring pressing into their skins. She turns and smiles, her mind open and her thoughts calm and he kisses her forehead tenderly.
"Ready?" he asks. She nods, but doesn't move, just presses herself tighter against his side, head on his shoulder. "Where to next?" she asks, and he smiles; whispers:
They start out as fairy tales:
Once upon a time, through all of space, a doctor ran. He ran from the Silence, and from the echoes, and from Time itself. He ran until the day he died, the day he didn't die, the day that never should have been.
She doesn't believe in fairy tales anymore, and knows without a shadow of a doubt that there's a far simpler truth: that deep within the Forests and deep within Space, the Doctor will always run.
The Doctor runs, and the songs run, and the trees run, and the River stays calm and cool and deep.