The Doctor leaned heavily against the inside of the TARDIS door, his shoulders sagging with disappointment. He wasn't sure why he had been so absolutely positive that River would be with Amy and Rory. True, it was Christmas, and they were family, but maybe she had no way to get there. No, that didn't make sense. Surely her older self, the one with the vortex manipulator, would know that her younger self wouldn't be there and would've been there herself. That would've been nice too, having his River for Christmas, the one he first met. She had that sensual mysterious feel that always intrigued him, and even now that he knew so much more about her, he was sure it would still be there.
He paused before entering the coordinates, rolling the idea over in his head that a later River would be fun to visit. But no, he promised that every Christmas he would visit her, and he couldn't miss her first after being placed in Stormcage. She'd never forgive him. Just as he was about to enter the appropriate coordinates, there was a flash behind him. He spun around to see River standing at the head of the stairs to the console platform.
"Hello! I was just going to see you," he beamed, his eyes flicking to the vortex manipulator on her wrist. "Well, an earlier you, I suppose."
"I know, my love," she replied, an urgent quality shot through her typically smooth voice, "but there's something you must know you before you go." She stepped close to him, studying his face seriously. "I forgive you. You are always and completely forgiven. No matter what I said then. I just needed time. That's the best gift you could have given me."
"Shh," River interrupted, pressing a finger against his lips. "You'll find out soon enough. And please know that I am sorry."
She smiled sadly at him then fidgeted with the cuff on her wrist. In a flash, she was gone. The Doctor continued to stare at the empty space she just occupied. He frowned, wondering exactly what would be waiting for him that River felt it was so important to come warn him beforehand. He absently finished entering the coordinates then sent the ship hurtling through time and space to find out.
As the Doctor exited the TARDIS, River was sitting on her bunk gazing up at the small barred window. Without turning to look at him, she mumbled, "You're late."
"Oh, am I?" he asked casually, ignorant of the dangerously cold tone of her voice. Retrieving his sonic from his coat pocket, he opened her cell and stepped inside. "Listen, I—"
"No, you listen!" River practically shouted, jumping from the bunk and rounding on the Doctor. "All this time, all alone, I've been thinking. I realized something. I'm here because of you. Because I killed you except for that teeny tiny minor detail that I didn't! How can I be locked up for a murder when the one I am supposed to have murdered is standing here in my cell? You promised me that I wouldn't be stuck in here, we would be together, have adventures. You promised Christmases and birthdays and glorious nights full of romance on fantastic planets. You promised you would love me. You came once. Once! And that's it. Do you know how long ago that was? Do you even care? Does it even matter to you that I was stuck in here all alone for my first Christmas?"
"But you lie, don't you? You've admitted as much yourself. Rule one." The anger in River's eyes faded only to be replaced by disappointment, a look which the Doctor found to be even more painful to bear. "I suppose it's my fault for believing you like a bloody idiot. Tell me, what else have you lied about? Am I really your wife? You certainly don't act like it. What kind of husband leaves their wife in a hell hole like this while he is off gallivanting across all time and space without a care? What about Berlin, what you whispered to me? Did you lie then just to fool me into giving you my regenerations? You've taken everything from me and what did I get? The world's shortest wedding to a robot in a timeline that doesn't even exist and a trail of broken promises in the timeline that does."
"River, I'm sor—"
"No!" she snapped, the rage returning instantly, engulfing her with a blaze of anger. "Don't you dare say those words to me. Just...no. I will not forgive you. Not now, not ever." She flopped down on the bunk and rolled over to face the wall. "Just go."
He opened and closed his mouth several times, wringing his hands nervously before he finally turned his back and started to leave. Just as he reached the door of her cell, River's words shot after him, slicing painfully between his ribs like a razor-sharp dart, "Don't come back."
The Doctor grabbed a bar of her cell, steadying himself while straining to focus his mind on what older River told him in the TARDIS instead of the painful words younger River just said. She didn't mean that, he tried to assure himself. But that really didn't help much. With all the strength he could muster, he returned silently to the TARDIS.
Without giving himself a chance to think about where he was going or what he was doing, the Doctor sent the TARDIS into the vortex and slumped down in the jump seat next to the console. He sat there staring at the ceiling until the seconds stretched into hours, trying his hardest to not think about anything. When he allowed thoughts to creep in, all he heard were River's last words to him as he left her cell.
"Come now, Doctor," he mumbled to himself. "She came here to warn you so you wouldn't be doing this to yourself." He paused, thinking it over before reasoning, "No, she came here so you would know you have to go back. But how much time is enough? If I go back too soon, will it make everything worse?"
Sighing heavily, he considered the options. Maybe he should go back on a holiday just to prove he can hit a proper date. Periastron day? No, that was only observed in certain binary star systems and came with too many expectations. Best stick with Earth holidays since she seemed to still be observing that calendar. Valentine's day, then? Definitely not, that was too soon and also came with too many expectations. Maybe Easter? He sat up straight so quickly, he nearly fell off the seat. Easter was perfect, actually. It had chocolate and mysteriously appearing eggs and rabbits. What could be better than that? With a jovial clap, he leapt to his feet and set about putting his newly formed plan into action.
After arriving silently and invisibly back at Stormcage, the Doctor checked the scanner. It seemed to be the right date, and River looked like she was asleep. He tiptoed down the steps and out the door carrying a small basket containing a chocolate rabbit, creme eggs, jelly babies, and a note. Once he deposited the parcel just inside her cell, he returned to the TARDIS and waited for her to wake. For a brief moment, he toyed with the idea of using the TARDIS to nudge ahead a few hours but he decided he didn't want to risk missing her reaction.
The Doctor had lost track how long his eyes had been glued to the monitor when River finally sat up in her bunk. She stretched briefly then hunched over and held her head in her hands. He reached up to the monitor, running a finger along the weary slouch of her back, his hearts aching for her. He wanted to dash out of the TARDIS and scoop her up in his arms, never to let anything happen to her again. He clenched his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms. She was right—her whole life was his fault. Every ounce of pain she ever endured was because of him. She deserved so much better, but it was way too late for that.
Movement on the scanner brought him out of his guilt-ridden thoughts. River stirred, looking first up toward the narrow barred window in her cell then back toward the small basket sitting on the floor. Rising cautiously, she approached the object. She lifted it by its handle then poked through the contents before removing the note. As she turned her back, the Doctor grabbed the monitor, rotating it as if that would allow him to see her reaction. Once she sat on the bed so he could see her in profile, the rivulets of tears flowing down her cheeks were quite evident.
His hand fell from the monitor as heavily as his hearts dropped in his chest. All these years and he still didn't understand women. He never quite figured out what to do when they were crying. Sometimes it was good, sometimes bad. It was so hard to tell the difference. Based on the way she was clenching the note with such force, he figured it must be one of the bad times.
"Too soon, I guess," the Doctor sighed. Just as he was about to turn off the monitor, he saw her reach under her mattress and retrieve a small blue object. He yanked the screen closer, trying to get a better look and knocked himself in his forehead in the process. He stumbled backwards a couple steps, rubbing at the sore spot, when River placed the object in her lap and turned it just enough so he could see it was her diary. His hearts soared at the sight of it and suddenly the pain vanished. River smoothed the note then pressed the paper against her lips before slipping it between the pages of her book.
The Doctor dashed down the stairs of the console platform, throwing open the door before he remembered he hadn't made the TARDIS visible again. River jumped from her bunk in surprise at his sudden appearance. They were in each other's arms before the Doctor even realized he opened the cell door.
"I thought I'd never see you again." River pressed her face into his shoulder, tears burning at the corner of her eyes. "I—I thought I had ruined everything."
"What?" He pulled back to look at her. "No! 'Course not! Haven't I told you? My middle name's Bad Penny. I'll keep turning up whether you want me to or not."
The slightest tug at her cheek suggested a smile threatened to spread for the briefest moment before she fell serious again. "Doctor, I'm sor—"
"Shh, no," he interrupted, pulling her close again and running a soothing hand over her curls. "You don't need to say it, you already did."
"Well, spoilers, I suppose. But just know that you don't need to say it. I know you are. And I'm sorry too."
Suddenly, she was no longer aware of the rough cement and cold bars that had suffocated her for so long, only the warm healing solace of his arms. He held her tightly until time no longer mattered and every bit of tension from sadness drained from her body. It was a hug that permanently imprinted on her, something she would be able to close her eyes and feel forever more, no matter how happy or sad she was, or how fast she was running.
It was the Doctor who broke the hug first, smiling at her with a look of adoration and a deep-rooted love. "So!" He clapped his hands then rubbed them together. "I need to make up for some time. How about one of those fantastic planets promised? I know one where Christmas trees grow naturally. Which I suppose wouldn't be very impressive except that these produce delicious little fruits that look like ornaments. Shiny, sparkly ornaments, in all different shapes and colors and flavors! It'll make up for Christmas, too. How about that? You'd like that, I'd bet!"
"My love," she smiled through the tears, "as long as I'm with you, I'll be right at home."