River was curled on her bunk in her cell, flipping the pages of her diary. It was the one luxury they allowed her; a solitary spot of color in a sea of grey. Not that they didn't try to take it; they did. But two guards had been knocked out, one curled on the floor wheezing in pain, and several life terms had been added to her sentence before they finally conceded and let her keep it. Even with that display, it still took some of the guards some time to realize she wasn't a curiosity or a source of entertainment. Now it well known that it was better to give her a wide berth. She could always tell the new guards because they didn't automatically move closer to the opposite wall when passing her cell.
Voices echoed from down the curved corridor, growing in volume and clarity as they moved closer. Two guards came into view, hugging the wall across from her cell, chatting as they made their rounds.
"Really? They have quakes every day on Cassolum?"
"Nearly all the time. Can't be much worse than the constant storms."
"I don't know, at least the storms don't affect us inside. You can't hide from a quake. Everything would have to be nailed down."
"Eh, wouldn't be so bad. Least my wife couldn't have those bloody figurines she loves so much. Awful things, they are."
As they continued out of view, River lowered her diary. A planet with earthquakes all the time. That would be different. Maybe even exciting. Besides, they had just installed a new lock on her cell and she was itching to try to crack it. This seemed like as good an excuse as any.
After she laid her diary on her bunk and moved silently to the bars, she made sure that the guards were out of sight and earshot. She knelt so that the black metal box was at eye level, capturing her tongue between her teeth as she examined it from every possible angle. It seemed fairly plain and unremarkable except for a small black roller on the front. As an experiment, she ran her finger across it and was greeted by a red light glowing from an inset screen she couldn't see from her perspective.
What she needed was a mirror, but the only one she had was attached securely to the wall. Glancing around her cell, her eyes came to rest on her diary. She grabbed it, opened it to a blank page, and held it close in front of the black box. After scanning her finger again, she could just make out the words shining backwards on the page, "Invalid Specimen." Specimen? What kind of—ah, a DNA lock! She'd figured they'd be getting around to a DNA lock sooner or later, so she retrieved a couple hairs with the roots still attached that she had obtained from the last guard overstepped his boundaries. She slid the hairs across the scanner and this time the light glowed green and the tumblers fell open with a musical clink.
"You boys are going to have to try harder than that if you want to hold River Song," she whispered smugly as she pushed the door to her cell open.
River edged down the hall, her back against the cold wall. She liked her walks, an activity that could hardly be accomplished properly in her cell, so trial and error had been her teachers when it came to the guard's patterns and the blind spots in the security monitors. She made it to the station well before the guards were due back around. Peeping in, she saw she was in luck. It was a young guard on duty. He had the latest true-sound nanospeakers in his ears—against regulation—and his nose in a holozine—also against regulation. As distracted as he was, it was almost too easy to slip in and sneak up behind him, tweaking that specific nerve in his neck that sent him into a slumber. She deftly lifted the guard's ID and teleport card as his head lolled against his chest as his reading material slipped to the floor. All that training may have been painful, but at least it was paying off.
Unfamiliar territory awaited her as she waved her newly obtained ID over the card reader on the door opposite the curved prison hall. She vaguely knew the way to the teleport room based on fragments of conversations and glimpses of emergency escape route maps. What she didn't know was the level of security that led up to it. Her muscles tensed and she was on high alert, moving stealthily and scanning the walls for the tiniest pin prick that could indicate a hidden camera or motion sensor. She turned left, right, then left again and found herself at the teleport room without meeting the slightest opposition.
It really had been too easy, she decided as she entered the empty teleport room. She adored a challenge and they had presented her with absolutely none. True, no one ever actually broke out of Stormcage, so she really had no reason to expect too many obstacles. But they really were going to have to try harder to keep her entertained for the next however many life sentences she had accumulated. Maybe she should start sending them memos with suggestions. She pondered that as she waved the teleport card over the sensor and entered her destination of Cassolum when the alarms finally shattered the otherwise relative silence. She snatched a homing bracelet off the console then jumped on to the pad. The last thing she saw before her vision faded into teleportation static were guards piling in the door, shocked looks upon their faces as she blew them a quick kiss.
The chaos that obscured her vision cleared and she found herself in an enormous room with an infinite deep blue dome arcing overhead. She blinked a couple times at the brilliant golden disc hanging almost directly above before she realized; she was outside. Had it really been that long that she forgot what it was like to not be surrounded by walls?
River shook her head and turned her attention to the homing bracelet. The guards were slow, but they would realize soon enough they could use it to track her. She used a fingernail to pry apart the halves then carefully studied the silicon nanowires and micro-circuitry within. The wires were so miniscule that they were really nothing more than a texture on the inside surface, so she knew she'd need a delicate touch to not strand herself. After she was sure which led to which, she was able to short out the landing coordinates while maintaining its homing abilities. Once she was satisfied she would not be receiving any unwelcome visitors, she reassembled the bracelet then took in her surroundings properly.
The landscape was barren, a flat expanse of rock broken only by jutting boulders, yawning chasms, and a road cutting through to a cluster of domed structures. To her right, towering translucent rocks jutted from the ground like rigid curtains, extruded by the pressure of the colliding plates. A line of several strange vehicles stood to her left, their wheels locked down by giant clamps anchored in a massive metal plate. Each was about the size of a large moving truck from Earth, but instead of an enclosed space at the back, it had an open metal frame housing complex machinery. As she moved around the side of the nearest vehicle, she saw a thick hose led from a large tank on a crossbar to a nozzle on rails, situated to allow it to move in any direction. The lower beams were spattered with two different materials; one that resembled concrete except for being slightly flexible, along with an opalescent polymer.
"Hmmm, mobile 3D printers," River mused, poking at the amalgamation coating the frame. "Efficient."
She returned to the road, noticing the slight give of its surface as she set foot on it, and followed it toward the nearby village. It was made up of all igloo-like structures, pearlescent in the noonday sun. Every single one was locked up; the doors closed, shades drawn, not a living soul in sight. But worst of all was the silence. She hated silence. Anything to break it, anything at all. Even fingernails on a chalkboard would be an improvement.
Frustration swelled within her. She picked up one of the many clear stones strewn across the ground and threw it with all her might. It bounced up the road in the distance, creating the most motion she'd seen since she got here. How could everything be so still when there were supposed to be quakes all the time? Not a stone had even wiggled. There hadn't even been a breeze! The guards were probably lying just to trick her into escaping so she'd be in trouble. Again. Or still, whichever. It didn't really matter anymore, really. With a muttered curse, she was just about to activate her return homing bracelet when a voice broke the stillness.
River spun around. Standing there looking very smug as he leaned against his big blue box, was the one man she probably shouldn't be as surprised to see as she was. "Doctor? What are you doing here?"
"I intercepted a communication about a high security prisoner who escaped from Stormcage. Well, I say I intercepted it, but the TARDIS actually intercepted it. I just listened in."
"But there are other high security prisoners there, how could you know I was the one who escaped?"
"Well, you're the only one who ever escapes, aren't you?" he asked, pushing away from the TARDIS and sauntering toward her, the smirk still lingering. "Although they did seem a bit overly alarmed considering how often you do so, my bad, bad girl." He lifted his hand to touch her face she tensed involuntarily, as if he was about to hit her. Frowning slightly, he reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a small blue diary, its cover stained and worn. "Er, so where exactly are we? Have we done Jim the Fish?"
"Who is—Wait, is that my diary? What have you done to it?"
"This is mine, where's yours?"
"No, but you always have—oh." His eyes widened and he looked at her like he just noticed her standing there. "This… this is early for you, isn't it? Very early. Have we done Bon? Sharalwa?"
She shook her head.
"Er—how about Periastron day?"
"Yes, just a couple weeks ago."
He stepped close to her and examined her eyes. "Look at you, how young you are." His hand hovered over her cheek for the briefest moment before he turned away. "So why this planet? Why today?"
"The thunderstorms get a bit dull after a while," she shrugged. "They're supposed to have quakes every day here. I thought it'd be exciting."
"Every day but one," the Doctor corrected, finally turning to face her. "You hit it on that one day."
She rolled her eyes. "Of course."
"It's Sahlutdeild. Roughly translated; Meditation day," he explained motioning for her to walk with him. "Legend says that the meditation of everyone on this one day actually prevents the quakes. Now, of course, they know that it's the position of the planet and the moons. But they still observe it as a quiet day at home with loved ones."
"What are they made of? These igloo things?" River asked, watching a subtle rainbow of colors glimmer across the surface of one of the domes as they passed.
"Plastic. Well, not really plastic, but a plasticy like material which really isn't very much plastic at all so don't think of it that way. Along with diamond dust."
"Diamonds? Isn't that expensive?"
"Oh, they're quite common here. Like quartz on Earth. Maybe even more so. Supply and demand works everywhere." He picked up a large clear stone and held it up to the light causing it to glitter wildly. "The whole planet was once covered in diamond sand, but it was swallowed up long ago by the chasms as the quakes got more violent. They still process the diamonds into dust, though, and it binds with the polymer to make an incredibly strong material." He smiled and handed the uncut diamond to River.
"I'm not really a jewelry sort of girl."
"Oh, I know," he said, gingerly taking her hand and placing the stone in her palm. "But you may find some use for that."
"Spoilers," he replied with a wink. "Ah, here we are! Perfect spot!" With a clap, the Doctor skipped down stone steps into a natural amphitheater carved into the stone. River hovered with uncertainty at the precipice until he got to the bottom and waved her down with a grin.
By the time she reached him, the Doctor was sitting on the ground, his hands resting on his knees palms up. "Sit in front of me, but don't let your knees or feet touch mine. Your fingertips should brush mine, but only just."
River did as she was told, but her mind was overrun. Here was a Doctor who clearly had spent much more time with her than she had with him. Of course, it had always been that way for her. But she'd never come across him this late in his timeline. What have they done together? What would they have done today if she had been a River he was more familiar with? How long did they have together?
"Clear your mind." The Doctor's voice snapped her from her thoughts but did nothing to halt them.
"Easier said than done, sweetie."
She felt him tense ever so slightly at the acidity of the word. Something nagged at her, telling her it wasn't his fault, she shouldn't be short with him because someday she may be in his position. But the next words tumbled out before she could censor them. "This is a waste of time."
There was a long pause, then he said in a quiet, almost sad voice, "Time with you is never a waste."
The honesty his words held sent a calming pulse through her body followed immediately by a wave of guilt. "No, I didn't—I'm—"
"Shh," he whispered. "Close your eyes, clear your mind."
River's eyes slid shut and darkness enveloped her. A dim light flickered to life at the edge of her vision. As it grew, it drowned her thoughts, nearly blinding her. Physically, her eyes were still closed but in her mind, they opened. Blurred waves of gold flowed beneath her, as if she were a bird gliding over an alien sea. No, not flying, she was walking with her head down. The sea came into sharper focus, and though it still had an undulating texture, it lost some of its golden light and became more sandy beige.
Then the forward movement stopped, the image turned and her gaze lifted to see an astronaut.
A NASA astronaut on a beach. No, that's wrong. He wouldn't.
Her mouth moved, but it was the Doctor's voice she heard. "Hello. It's okay, I know it's you."
She didn't want to look. It would just confirm her fears, and no. It couldn't be. He wouldn't do that to her. But no matter how hard she willed it, her eyes wouldn't close. She was forced to helplessly watch as the astronaut's visor rose to reveal her terrified face staring back at her. It may as well have been a mirror, because she was sure it's how she must look outside this memory.
No! No, no, no, she screamed over and over again until it resonated through her entire body. But all that came out, again in his excruciatingly calm voice, "Well then."
It was like being taken again, only worse because there was no relief, no tranquilizer to deaden the pain and the fear. The panic took over then. She was still ahold of herself enough that the blood pounding in her head obscured her sight and hearing to the point where it was all a blur until the first green flash of light.
She staggered backwards, trying to stay on her feet until the next flash knocked her to her knees. She rose, unable to tear her gaze from the golden tendrils flowing from overly large hands. She looked up the beach, and saw her older self holding Amy back along with Rory.
The energy exploded within her, golden and intense. A green stain shot through the bright tendrils, and a shockwave knocked her to the ground, a vast dome of sky stretched out above her before her eyelids slid shut. The darkness brought glorious relief; an end to the torturous memory. But vibrations pounded against her back and panicked shouts dragged her back for more.
"River! River!" She wondered briefly if Amy knew yet that the woman she was pleading with to save her friend was actually her daughter.
Gunshots finally freed her mind from its meditative state. Her eyes flew open to see the Doctor sitting across from her, looking entirely too calm if a bit sad. She scrambled back away from him, still on the ground, not trusting her shaky legs to hold her weight. "Those were your memories! You made me do it, you'll make me watch it, and now you've made live it. How—how could you?"
"River," he started gently, reaching timidly out to her. "You have to—"
"I have to what?" She shot back, ignoring the tears at the corners of her eyes and hugging her knees to her chest. "And don't give me that line about you forgiving me. I don't care about that. It doesn't help."
"This isn't about me forgiving you, there's nothing more for me to forgive." His voice was stronger, more urgent. "This is about you forgiving yourself."
She stared at him. Whatever she was expecting him to say, of all the possible off-the-wall excuses, it wasn't that.
"I didn't make you come," he continued. "The future you, I mean. I invited you. You may not realize what that particular invitation means right off. In fact, I'd say you most likely probably almost definitely don't remember at first. But the choice to accept any invitation of mine was—will be—yours."
"Of course it isn't my choice," she objected. "It wasn't my choice. It never will be my choice. I was there, I saw it."
"Time can be rewritten. Some of it, anyway. I had to be there and the younger you had to be there, but the older you…" He shook his head.
River looked away from him. She hadn't realized how much she blamed herself until just then. It was like he ripped the cloth off the monster lurking in the corner and now she didn't know how to conquer it. True, she didn't kill him. He's living proof of that. But going through the motions, just the appearance of killing a loved one, was more agony than she could've ever expected.
A warm hand brushed a cool tear from her cheek and she turned to find him beside her. He draped his arm around her and ran a soothing hand over her hair and down her back. "There's one more thing, if you want to see it. I think—I think it may help. Might be a bit of a spoiler, but you know how I can be with rules. Plus, like I said, it could always change."
He held out his hand to her and she hesitated only a moment before she took it. Clearing her mind was easier, and soon she was draped in darkness, voices echoing as if far away but coming closer.
"Someone should say a few words," said a rough voice she didn't recognize.
There were some choked sobs that caused her chest to clench. Amy, probably.
"What can we say?" Rory's voice asked. "I mean, he's a time traveler. I suppose he could turn up again any moment ready to take us to some crazy planet made of yoghurt. But he can't do any more than he's done now, in his timeline. Can't help any more people. The universe, all of time will be a darker place without him."
Another choked sob from Amy, then a new voice—her voice—only more confident and stronger than she felt she currently sounded, especially given the circumstances. "I—May I have a moment?"
"Oh, of course."
Her older self brushed his hair off his forehead and placed a kiss there, her curls brushing against his face.
River felt her mouth—no, the Doctor's mouth, or the Teselecta's mouth really—move to silently form the words I love you.
Another kiss, then a whisper, "I love you too, my husband." Her hand ran over his bow tie before she rose.
Her eyes fluttered open and she looked toward the Doctor, who was watching her carefully.
"There may come a point where you ask me not to change a thing," he began. "I'm a selfish old fool and I want to ask the same of you. But ultimately, it is up to you. No matter what you choose, I want you to know that to me, you will always be my wife. And I will always be there to catch you when you fall." He hesitantly brushed her cheek, but this time she leaned into the contact and he brightened considerably in just that instant.
"I'm really sorry," she sighed. "I shouldn't—"
"Shh, no. You came here expecting quakes and got nothing. It'd be like running for the ice cream truck to find there's no ice cream. Anyone would be a bit cross. Especially if the truck was supposed to have frozen fish custard. That's happened to me more than once, you know. Horrible thing, being deprived of frozen fish custard." He shook his head, looking at her with a sad puppy dog expression.
She had to laugh at that, swatting his arm. "You are a ridiculous man. You really are."
"Ah, there's my River," he said, smiling back at her.
"I'm not really though, am I?" she asked, dropping her gaze and fiddling with her homing bracelet. "You're used to an older me, and I'm not her. Not yet."
He spoke softly in reply, turning her head to face him so he could study her eyes. "'Course you are. You'll always be my River. Always."
"You'll always be my Doctor."
He pressed his lips together just a fraction and a brief wave of sadness crossed his eyes. "Well, we'll see about that." After a pause, he clapped and leapt to his feet. "So, how about a lift back? I'll drop you right at your doorstep. Cellstep? I know it won't be as fun as sneaking back on your own."
River took his hand as he offered it to her and he helped her up. "I think I'd like that," she replied, lacing her fingers through his and they strolled back to the TARDIS together, hand in hand.
After seeing her safely to her cell, the Doctor leaned one arm against the bars, grinning, and said, "You know, you can always call if you'd like an adventure. I'll take you anywhere you'd like. All of time and space, your choice."
"Hmm, will you actually answer your phone?" she asked, smirking slightly in return.
He grinned sheepishly and ran his fingers through his hair. "Ah, sometimes maybe probably."
The question had been running around in her head all afternoon. She knew what the answer would be, of course, but she decided to ask it anyway. "Did you ever come across me in my timeline when I knew you so much better than you knew me?"
"Of course. All part and parcel of our timey wimeyness."
"What was it like?"
He took a deep breath and answered, "Spoilers, I'm sorry."
River turned the response over in her head then asked, "Are you sorry for the spoilers, or sorry for what happens?"
She searched his eyes foolishly expecting a better answer but found only the briefest flicker of sadness and regret before the smile returned.
"Hey, don't look so worried. You'll see a me you're more familiar with right now soon enough. And trust me, you have a great time." He started to leave but she couldn't let him go, not yet.
Before she allowed herself to think about it, she strode to him, slid her hand around the back of his neck, and drew him into a kiss. He was hesitant at first, flailing briefly, but then his hands dropped automatically to her waist and he pulled her into him. His hands bit into her, pinching slightly, but oh that felt good. Her mouth opened under his as she moaned lightly and he did the same in turn. As the kiss deepened, one of his hands slid from her waist up into her hair, fingers mingling in her curls, a thumb brushing against the shell of her ear. It felt like decades, maybe centuries, of kisses all in one and she hoped that was exactly what it was.
As they parted, she felt flushed and threw all caution to the wind. "Would…" she glanced over her shoulder at her bunk, "you like to stay?"
"I'd love to. Can't, though, not yet." He raised his hand, "Selfish old man here, remember? I won't risk changing a thing if I can help it."
"How do you know we don't?" she asked, still hopeful.
"Just do," he said with a regretful grin. "I probably should go now. You'll see me again soon."
Damn that man for being so selfish. "Where do we go?"
"Spoilers!" he replied with a wink as he moved back to the TARDIS. "You'll see. Make sure you have an appetite!"
"Spoilers again!" He ducked into the blue box, closing the door behind him and in moments it dematerialized from the corridor.
River stared at the spot the TARDIS disappeared from. She wondered where he was off to. Probably to find an older version of herself and shag her senseless. At least it was something to look forward to. Hopefully she had many things to look forward to with him yet. She took the diamond from her pocket and pressed it to her chest before she tucked it away in one of her hidden alcoves the guards didn't know about. Then she did what was rapidly becoming habit; she settled herself on her bunk, opened her diary and wrote.