note: for mycaptainraydor on tumblr, from her prompt "river/adelle, epitaph-based." title and quote from "spectrum" by florence + the machine.
no colours in our skin
when we first came here
we were cold and we were clear
with no colours in our skin
we were light and paper thin
It ends on the pavement surrounded by bodies and silence and the smell of gunpowder; a ringing in her ears that cannot be explained by the blast.
There are tears in her eyes that she ignores, too busy wiping away dust and blood from the faces of almost-children.
It ends when they lay the first ground stone, plant the first seed, complete the first road. It's a long time ending, years and years, while her hair turns grey and her hands grow frail, but it ends with a start and that's all they could have hoped for after a while.
All they dared to crave.
It ends with a little house and a little garden full of yellow flowers.
It begins with Rule Nine:
She slaps her across the face, hard. Angry tears cling to her lashes and her hands shake violently. River touches her cheek gingerly; a red handprint with the outline of a ring.
"Was that for something I've done or something I will do?" she asks, somehow irritated and sympathetic all at once. It makes Adelle's chest tighten and her throat catch.
"You could have told me."
"Langton. Rossum. The end of the world."
River sighs. "Definitely not."
"You knew," she accuses. "This could have been prevented-"
"It doesn't work like that."
"Why the hell not?" she demands, her voice rising and her hands trembling and River doesn't move, doesn't reach for her, doesn't console her or lie to her or pity her. "You're a time traveller for god's sake! You could have done something! You should have-"
"Done what, Adi?" she asks, and her voice is too soft, too understanding. The nickname makes Adelle recoil. "What would have had me do?"
"Anything!" she shouts, waving a hand toward the broken-down house. Priya's at the kitchen window, washing broken plates and glasses. In the city miles and miles away, the people dying. It isn't anything River hasn't seen before, seen a hundred times, been the cause of, but it still breaks her hearts.
"There's nothing I could have done to stop this," she says quietly. "Not in the way you want. Not with the outcome you want. The universe always corrects itself, always. Spare a life here, it'll take a life there. A butterfly in China doesn't cause an earthquake in New York; it causes a million quakes across all of time and space." She shakes her head sadly. "Time can be rewritten, Adi. That doesn't always mean it should. Some things happen because they have to happen…because the alternatives are worse."
Adelle closes her eyes, her voice failing as she asks, "What could possibly be worse than this?" and River doesn't have the heart to tell her, anything.
The church bells ring at exactly twelve.
Her first instinct is to move right, but toneless words echo like static and she swerves left instead, pushing the child next to her to the ground just as the shots are fired. Bullets ricochet and people scream and she covers the child's body with her own.
Topher brings her the article from the front page of a local newspaper. " 'Anonymous female saves nine year-old boy during robbery.' " He teases her about it for weeks; the good deeds of the Mistress of Ice. Ballard looks at her differently, not quite through rose-colored glasses, but shadowy enough to make her pause.
She's named a hero, but it sits tightly in her chest, a knot she can't untangle.
Later, she takes a bottle of scotch and the two papers - two versions, two realities - and stares at them until her eyes blur.
"Time can be rewritten," a voice says suddenly, answering none and all of her unasked questions. A familiar face steps from the shadows. "Rule nine."
Adelle doesn't bother with pretence. "How is this possible?"
"Nothing's impossible," she returns. "Rule 32."
"What about Rule 76?"
River smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes. "Rule one."
"Who are you?"
"River Song," the woman says, her tone a proffered hand.
Adelle stares up at her for a long moment, then tips her glass and smiles thinly.
"Pleased to meet you."
It begins with a handwritten note stuck to her keyboard. There's no one in sight, no one on camera, no signs of movement. Just a slip of yellow paper:
Put her in the attic.
The bright light and sparks of gunfire blind her for a moment too long.
Everything is oddly still, but over too quickly. He's got a semi-automatic aimed at her head, finger depressing the trigger, and she doesn't have time to close her eyes before the impact.
Except there's no blood and she isn't falling; she's pushed, shoulder colliding painfully with the ground and rusty debris. In her place is a shadow, sharp and quick, returning fire with long bursts of light and the smell of heated oil.
She'd know that sound anywhere.
The woman whirls, weapon aimed at her head. Adelle sits still, hands raised, dust in her mouth. The world gives them a few blissful moments of silence.
"You know me," Adelle says quickly, "Or you will, in the future. Your future."
River eyes her warily.
"I'm a friend," Adelle persists, nodding to the gun. 'You can put that down now."
River's lips curve up darkly. "I never do."
She's younger, Adelle realises; younger and harder, she wears her scars like badges instead of white tattoos. She carries herself differently, with more weight and suspicion. River told her once to be careful, cautious; but the world is crumbling around them and there isn't time.
There's never enough time.
"I can prove it to you," Adelle says, getting to her feet, aware of the gun, making her movements as deliberate as possible while still being quick; she's aware of the shouting and the screaming as she reaches under her shirt at the neck and pulls out a long chain with a flat, yellow pendant. She removes it carefully, reluctantly, and extends it to River. "You gave this to me."
River takes the charm in one hand, gun still raised, and looks it over. It's small, barely the size of a thimble, but embodied with hundreds of shades of colour, none of them found on Earth.
"You never said why this would help," Adelle admits, brushing a strand of hair out of her face and leaving soot in its wake. "But you told me to show it to you. That it would convince you." She pauses; the firefight is getting closer. "Does it?" she presses.
River turns the stone over in her palm, studies it for a long moment, then hands it back and lowers her gun.
"Come on," she says stiffly, "we haven't got much time."
" 'You can't stage a revolution if you're slaughtered.' Rule 76."
Adelle jerks toward the sound of the voice, barely catching a glimpse of the figure leaning against the wall before the lights come on and she winces, her head pounding at the sudden brightness.
"How did you get in here?" she demands, rising from her desk somewhat shakily.
The woman smirks - "That would be your first question." - and pushes off the wall, moving to the centre of the room casually, as if invited.
"Who are you?" Adelle asks instead, her mind and her body attempting to catch up with the scenario before her. She reaches behind her subtly, groping for the call button under the lip of her desk.
"That won't do any good," the woman informs her, far too amused. "Your security guards are…how shall we say….indisposed." She smiles, bright red lips and fiery eyes and hint of danger.
"Will I be needing to replace them?" Adelle inquires, feigning disinterest.
"Not this time," she says, throwing a coy glance over her shoulder as she surveys the office curiously. "So this is where the great Adelle DeWitt spends her - somewhat inebriated - days." River turns, looks Adelle up and down, then smirks. "And her nights, too, I take it." She picks up a magazine and flips through it briefly. "Ah! 2010. Good, I got the date right."
Adelle straightens primly and tries to embody a fearless nonchalance - "You'd drink more if you were in my position," she says, but the woman only smiles.
"Oh, I have no doubt of that." She drops the magazine back on the end table and moves to the bar, turning glasses and reading labels. "Lagavulin. A woman after my own heart."
She says it lightly, a throw-away line, but there's something in her tone, her posture, the press of her fingertips against an empty tumbler that makes Adelle pause.
"Do I know you?"
The woman looks up with something akin to pride in her eyes. "Oh, you are good," she acknowledges, finally turning to face her directly. "Yes, you do. Or you will do, at any rate. Quite well, in fact." There's a suggestive lilt to her tone that sends a shudder down Adelle's spine. (She blames it on the alcohol.)
"Most of our clients use the front door," Adelle comments, picking up her glass and moving across the office to the bar. River steps to the side, arching an eyebrow at the inherent inaccuracies in her statement. "Metaphorically speaking," Adelle amends.
"I'm not a client. My mother was a doll once, though," she muses.
Adelle looks up and frowns, bothered by her own curiosity. "In my house?"
River smirks. "A cupboard, actually. Long story."
"So you're not a client, and you're obviously not with Rossum," Adelle guesses, leaning against the bar, one arm folded across her chest as she cradles her glass close to her chest.
"How do you know?"
"Over-exposure," she deadpans.
River concedes with a tilt of her head. "I operate outside their jurisdiction, yes."
Adelle's eyes widen with sudden clarity. " 'Put her in the attic'," she quotes.
River smiles. "You catch up quick. I've always liked that about you."
"You've been watching me."
"In a manner of speaking."
There's a pause. Adelle narrows her eyes. "How did you get in without being detected?"
River grins. "Clever trick, isn't it?"
"I'm not here to hurt you," she says suddenly, staring at her fingers tracing a faded ring of condensation on the bar. "Or any of your actives."
"Why are you here?"
"Foreshadowing," she replies. "You'll see me again soon, and it's important you recognise me when you do."
"Recognition isn't the same as trust."
"I wouldn't expect that, not this early on. But I'll prove it to you anyway." River reaches into the inside pocket of her coat and pulls out a folded section of newspaper. "Keep this handy," she instructs, handing over the paper.
Adelle takes it, cautiously averting her eyes and glancing at the headline. It's dated three days in the future.
"'Nine year old killed in bank robbery'?"
"I bought that last month, for me. I'll buy it for you in three days."
Adelle glares. "That makes absolutely no sense."
"I don't always meet people in the right order. Mildly irritating side-effect of time travel."
"Time travel," Adelle repeats flatly.
"Three days," River reminds her, moving away to the centre of the room.
"You can fake a headline," Adelle intones, unimpressed.
River merely smirks. "Can't fake a robbery."
Adelle frowns, reaching for another question when River interrupts, her voice low and firm. It lacks her earlier flirtation, lacks all traces of jest or deceit. "When you hear the bells, move left."
"Left?" she echoes.
River presses at a watch on her wrist. "Bells, Adi," she says, and the nickname takes Adelle by more surprise than the sudden flash of light and whiff of smoke. "Don't hesitate."
Adelle breaks Rules 12, 39, 104, and 392 all in the same breath.
River doesn't seem to mind at all.
"Do you ever show up at the right time?"
"Never," she grins, "But always on time."
Adelle shakes her head and purses her lips. "Innuendos at a time like this?"
River brushes past her, sure to let as much skin touch skin as possible as she reaches for a glass. "Rule 408."
Adelle fills her tumbler, brushing her fingers against River's. "Any word?" she inquires.
"Met up with him for a party and ended up a hostage." She pauses, then shrugs. "So, nothing new. Did you know there's a planet in the Mestophelix Galaxy made entirely of soy beans?"
"Honestly, with all your adventures I can hardly be surprised."
River smirks and takes a drink before asking, "So. Where are we?"
"Echo got the information from the Attic," Adelle informs her, sitting down on the sofa. River follows, abandoning her glass on the table in favour of brushing a hand down Adelle's spine fleetingly.
Adelle looks away and drains the rest of her glass.
"No need. He's of more use to us inside than out. He'll understand that."
"Eventually, yes he will," she agrees softly.
Adelle doesn't reply, and River doesn't bother with platitudes. Instead she leans back into the cushions, an encouraging hand on Adelle's hip. "Adi."
"Why are the years so long?" she asks on a long breath, turning her body into River's, head against her shoulder.
River chuckles quietly and brushes her fingers through Adelle's hair, fingernails light against her scalp. "They aren't."
"Maybe not for you."
"Not for any of us," she murmurs sadly. "There's never enough time."
Adelle cranes her neck and stares up at her questioningly. "Is that a portent?"
"No," she murmurs. "Just fact."
Adelle smirks ruefully. "No rules to override it?"
River smiles. "Wouldn't if I could."
Rule 211: Violence begets violence.
She wakes up to empty lungs and fading shadows and a hand on her shoulder that she pulls away from. The gun in her hand is small and light and aimed shakily at the flashes of silver - water and glass and a sinister smile, all greyscale, merging into the darkness and walls.
"I don't think I want to know where you keep that," Adelle murmurs, her voice hushed and gentle, a spark of amusement giving it lift and calm.
"Probably not," River agrees, stiff and unfocused. She drops her legs over the edge of the bed and sets the weapon down on the nightstand, her fingers lingering over it a touch too long.
Adelle hesitates, studying the lines and gradients the pale light casts on River's frame. Their nightmares are not uncommon, not unexpected, but she's finding it harder to deal with River's pain - the tight set to her shoulders, the haunted look so hides behind a flirtatious smile - than with her own, and she knows she's partly to blame; River sleeps because she sleeps, because the nights are long, because their moments together are so scattered and infrequent.
She wants to tell her she understands, or that she could. That just maybe they're more alike than different; but River's drawn a line in the sand and in the sky and in the air between them, a line Adelle hasn't dared to cross, for her own sake.
Because she knows, now. She can finally read it in the way River moves, the way she speaks; echoes of her own past claw at her skin and sink into her bones and though she doesn't understand why or what from, she knows the line is there for her - to protect her. To keep her safe.
She wants to help her, heal her, but she still hasn't found a way to fix herself.
She hasn't tried.
"River," she starts, light and low; but River moves away, pulling on a discarded sweater and jeans and disappearing into the hall, just as she always does, as she always has; always will.
This time, Adelle follows, wrapping the sheet around her frame as she pads through the house, checking on Priya and T, asleep on a mattress in one corner, Topher in another. She pauses, bending down to brush a hand through his hair and sooth his shaking, if just for a moment.
She finds River in the kitchen, staring out the window.
"You should go back to sleep," River says softly, unmoving.
Adelle shrugs. "I'll have plenty of time for that when I'm dead."
River quirks her lips, amused, and Adelle takes that as an invitation to move closer. She rests a hand on River's shoulder, relieved when she leans back into the touch.
"If you want to talk about it…" she hedges.
River shakes her head. "It's…complicated."
"Aren't all past sins?"
"Yes," she agrees, then adds humorlessly: "But most don't run the risk of tearing a hole in the universe."
Adelle leans forward and rests her chin on River's shoulder, wrapping her arms around her waist loosely. If she stands still enough, she can almost feel the steady drumming of River's hearts, a constant sound, no pause, always a rhythm. It worries her, some, how reassuring that is.
"I've always thought the universe was overrated. I say we take our chances."
River laughs softly, covering Adelle's hands with her own. "I know a few galaxies would have something to say about that."
Adelle tightens her grip and presses in closer, dropping kisses slowly from the shell of her ear to the base of her neck. "Your Doctor too, I'd imagine."
River turns, then, forcing Adelle to meet her gaze. "I'm not thinking about him," she says, too sincere and too perceptive and Adelle tries to laugh, but the hitch in her breathing aborts the effort.
"I never said you were."
"But you thought it," she murmurs. It isn't accusatory or bitter, just open and soft and Adelle kisses her before she can say anything else; before she can bring any more fears to light. River responds instantly, pulling her in and dragging her down and Adelle wonders if she could stay lost in this - her hands in River's hair and their bodies close and everything dark and warm and safe.
"You don't have to protect me," she says breathlessly, dragging her lips and tongue over soft skin and bones, using her wrists to catch River's sweater and drag it over her head. River's hands move to the sheet, pulling it loose, her fingers stuttering against Adelle's spine as she arches into her touch.
It's a protest and a plea all at once. Adelle shakes her head, muffling her words against River's mouth. "I don't care," she says, hands wandering, becoming frantic. She pushes slightly and River moves back until she hits the counter; the cold counter stings her skin and she hisses and Adelle swallows the sound with teeth and tongue and her own murmurs, reiterating, "I don't care about your ghosts. I'm no saint myself," she reminds her.
River stills, her breathing labored. "You don't understand," she says quietly, tracing patterns on Adelle's cheek, her other hand falling to her hip.
"Every heart has horrors, River," she murmurs. "You've got two." She pauses, then meets her gaze. "And I don't care."
There are words, Adelle knows. Words that need to be said. Words River needs to hear about redemption and forgiveness and letting go, but she suspects they're not her words, not from her lips, not now. Now there's only heated skin and closed eyes and River's voice soft in her ear, reciting passages that mean nothing in a language she doesn't speak; words and more words that are meaningless save the shiver they send down her spine;
Save the echoes she'll keep when River is gone in the morning.
Somewhere in the middle, she abandons Rule 42.
When the world ends for the first time, River takes her away to a planet with blue trees and silver skies, where the wind tastes like candied apples and people drive spaceships instead of cars.
"I can't believe it," Adelle whispers, running her fingers over the bark of a lavender tree. She smiles, a real smile, unhindered by reality and chaos and defeat. "It's marvellous. What's it called?" she asks, "This planet?"
Adelle stares at her blankly. "You're kidding."
She shakes her head, squeezing Adelle's hand as they stare up at the buildings and the people and the sky. "It's not over, Adi," River promises. "Look how far you'll come."
Rule three: there is always - always - hope.
It begins with a yellow stone, carved from the rock of a distant planet in a distant past by long dead race, discovered by girl with silence in her eyes and dust in her throat.
"Promethium stone," River says, slipping the chain over Adelle's head and smoothing it out along her chest. "First thing I ever found; the result of the first mystery I ever solved."
"What mystery is that?"
But River shakes her head and smiles gently. "That's not important. There will come a day when I won't know you, like you didn't know me. Show me this, and I'll know you're someone I can trust."
River smirks tauntingly. "Spoilers."
They fall like dominos.
Men and dolls alike, falling and dying and Adelle can't help but wonder out of all the people and all the pain, why she's still left standing when the ash clears the air and the rain starts to fall.
"It should have been me," she says, though she still can't cry. "Why wasn't it me?"
When she does finally break, River holds her hand and presses a kiss to the crown of her head, but nothing more. She doesn't have the words or caresses that Adelle craves; doesn't know her like her River knows her, hasn't been through it all.
"Is this how you live?" Adelle asks finally, throat hoarse and eyes burning and a coldness under her skin that makes her shake. "What it's like, with him? Never knowing who you'll get; never getting who you need."
River flinches, her words tearing off the scab of a never-healing wound.
"Yes," she admits quietly.
Adelle laughs bitterly. "You're a stronger woman than I."
"It's not about strength," she replies, voice barely audible under the silence, ringing in Adelle's ears.
It begins with an unbelievable story and irrefutable proof; with two hearts and distant worlds and a mad man with a box and a mad woman with all of time in her eyes.
"What's Rule 42?"
"What's Rule 42."
" 'Head over heart.'"
"That's…" she struggles for the word. "rubbish."
River chuckles weakly.
"You have too many rules."
She shakes her head. "I don't have nearly enough."
"Then I'm adding one," Adelle declares.
River arches an eyebrow curiously. "Oh, really?"
"Yes." She tugs River closer, arms looping around her back as she presses in close, chest to chest, skin to skin, cheek to cheek.
"And what might this rule be?" River breathes, losing focus at the brush of lips against hers.
Adelle doesn't answer her with words, but River thinks she understands regardless.
It begins with a garden of bright yellow flowers, her forehead damp with sweat, a smile, and a shadow in place of the sun.