AN: This is probably a bit AU, but take it as you wish.
It was strange, River thought, that she could still be so affected by death. Between those she had caused directly and indirectly, those she had simply witnessed, and those she had failed to prevent, it seemed as though it should long ago have faded into the background of her existence. Instead, death to her was much like the ticking of a loud clock in a small room - much of the time, the sound is just a part of the landscape, noticeable if you listen for it, but not at the forefront – easily ignored. Then suddenly there comes a moment of silence and with no warning it's the loudest sound in the world, drowning out the sound of your own quiet breathing with its inevitable reverberating tick-tock. You stare at it, and it stares back at you, ticking as its hands travel inexorably across its face – a stalemate. And then, you're distracted, and it's gone until the next quiet moment.
This morning had been one of those quiet moments. There was no reason for it to have been different than any other time River had seen someone die from a simple twist of fate, but it had been. Maybe it was the hair. The girl had had hair not entirely unlike her own. And there had been a spark of mischief in her eyes. It was a bizarre coincidence that River had even seen her die, and she'd never met her before, but for some reason the room had gone silent and the ticking of the clock had become unbearable.
River had been in her cell studying the mining colonies of 32nd century Itraxis IV when she'd decided that a field trip might be more enlightening than the book she was reading. She'd used her vortex manipulator to take her to the right place during the approximate time period. Unbeknownst to her, she'd arrived in a mining town on the brink of tragedy.
Mining colonies on Itraxis IV were known and studied for their resourcefulness. Since the surface of the planet was less hospitable than the underground, the towns themselves were built in the parts of the mines which had already been exhausted. On entering this particular town through one of the main elevators, River had picked up one of the emergency masks provided by a polite greeter standing next to the elevator shaft. Stashing it in her pocket, she had been impressed by how thorough they were in their precautions – on very rare occasions an unstable pocket of poisonous gas had been known to erupt in an exhausted section of an Itraxis IV mine, but the inhabited areas were generally checked by geologists before being approved for construction, so it seemed a fairly minor risk.
Looking for a taste of local culture, she had headed into a café located along the main drag, if that's what one would call such a thing if it occupied an abandoned section of a mine. She'd set herself down at one of the establishment's five small tables and picked up an electronic menu to study the local fare, glancing around her as she did so. She'd caught the eye of the café's only other patron at the moment, a young woman with curly blond-brown hair who looked to be around 20 or 21 earth years. River recalled thinking that she had a look of spunky trendiness about her that seemed out of place in a mining town. They'd exchanged a polite smile. River had then turned her attention back to her menu.
It was the sound that had alerted her to the explosion. Without thinking or looking up, she had pushed herself to the ground and pressed the emergency mask to her face. Crawling to the door, she had been able to see the brownish smoke still curling in the air around her, but the air was breathable once passed through the high-efficiency filter contained in the mask. As she exited the building she blinked through the smoke, looking back over her shoulder.
That's when it had gone so very quiet and strangely empty inside her head, she recalled.
The café had been nearly intact, aside from the one wall which had been constructed smack up against the rock. In that wall there had appeared a gaping hole from which acrid brown gas had still been pouring. More importantly, in front of that hole lay the body of the girl with whom River had just previously shared the polite-smile-of-strangers, her mouth and lungs exposed to the gas. There had been no question that she had been killed by the fumes - she had been too close to the source of the gas to get the mask to her face in time. As the townsfolk around her had taken in the scene, River had walked silently away. Robot-like and expressionless, she had walked through the crowd back to the elevator.
Currently, she stood inside the elevator as it returned her slowly to the planet's surface. Alone in the cold metal box she took deep, gasping breathes trying to get the strange feeling of weightlessness in her limbs to go away. When the elevator came to a stop and opened its doors, she stepped out, her eyes squinting out at the barren landscape as they adjusted to the sunlight. Some isolated part of her brain observed that she should probably be back in the mine helping to clean up or giving an incident report, or something like that, but when she'd seen the girl lying on the floor of the café the press of people around her had suddenly become overwhelming. Every noise they had made had hit her senses like a tidal wave, and her legs had carried her calmly out of the storm before she'd much considered what she should be doing.
Now out in the open and very, very alone, she observed that her chest was tight, and while she would have liked to attribute it to inhalation of the gas, she knew that was not the case. Her limbs still felt strangely tingly and oddly disconnected, and though she was breathing fine, she was lightheaded. An icy, analytical part of her brain, which seemed to be the only part still functioning, chimed in with the observation that she seemed to be in shock. The same part of her brain observed that this was an odd circumstance to have caused this extent of shock. Luckily, River was not inexperienced in how her body needed to handle these situations, so she simply gave into her impulses. Her legs started to move again, acting seemingly of their own volition, and she soon found herself about 15 meters away from the elevator shaft, sitting with her back against a low rock formation. The heat of the sun-baked ground was probably slightly painful, but it didn't register as she stared out ahead. She brought her hands to rest on top of her knees, noting coldly that they were shaking. Hard. Trying to breathe calmly and slowly, she stayed there for 20 minutes, letting her mind and body absorb what had just happened.
Then, just as suddenly as she had needed to be alone, she felt an enormous need to be near someone. There was no question in her mind as to who it needed to be, it was always him - she dialed her manipulator to send her into the vortex and focused the tiny functional part of her brain on the Doctor, silently begging the TARDIS to let her aboard with an older version who had seen this before and would know what she needed, or more accurately, what she didn't need.
The Doctor was happily ensconced in his chair in the library when the TARDIS started to rumble beneath his feet. Tsking gently, he asked, "Oh, what is it? Honestly, what could you possibly need me for right now?" The rumbling increased in intensity, rather like a shove, and the Doctor responded by getting to his feet with a sigh and heading for the console room, muttering, "all right, all right, I'm coming." When he reached the console room and saw River, her hair still slightly extra-frizzy from obvious use of her vortex manipulator, he was at first even more confused by the TARDIS' urgency – this was River's home as much as his, and while in all their years together he had never managed to ascertain how exactly she got her vortex manipulator to land on the TARDIS while the TARDIS was in the vortex, he knew she would have come to find him herself if she wanted him for something. Once he got a good look at her, however, he understood. Walking calmly towards her, he thought a brief apology to Sexy and felt the rumbling fade in response.
River, like himself, was rarely affected by the things she saw, but again like himself, when it struck her to be affected, there was nothing to be done for it. He had seen her like this twice previously. The first time he had tried all the wrong things – trying and trying to get her to talk about it, then trying to distract her with an adventure, then trying to distract her with frivolous entertainment, then just trying to talk to her about anything. Eventually he had figured it out, so he knew what approach needed to be taken today.
Still, this was an unusual case. Usually when she arrived looking like this she was substantially beaten-up herself and required medical care before anything else, but this time, even at closer range, she seemed physically fine. The tell-tale behavioral signs were all there, though. Her arms were hanging limply at her sides, she hadn't bothered to fix her hair post-vortex, and her eyes had that haunted, distant look to them. She didn't look up at him as he approached, but he wasn't expecting her to. As he passed her on his way to the console, he pitched his voice to be calm and nonchalant, asking, "Tough day?" A slow nod. "Want to help me fix up the Old Girl a bit?" A slow shake no. "Want to watch?" A slow nod. He knew Sexy wouldn't mind if he fussed around with her connections a bit unnecessarily for the rest of the day. Now that he thought about it, he had been hoping to see if there was a way to achieve some sort of medium setting on the stabilizers, since he always wanted them off and River always wanted them on.
This goal in mind, he went to work. River followed behind him and then came to stand beside him. He knew to let her take it in her own time, so he worked in silence, not reaching out or trying to liven up the mood. He was, at heart, a chatterer, so at some point he started muttering to himself as he worked, at which point he caught the ghost of a smile passing across River's lips. Not long after this, she came closer and started to help him make adjustments to the TARDIS' systems. He loved watching her hands as they pulled out and reconnected wires, loved the way they instinctively cooperated. Loved how it was so much harder for him to concentrate on most normal functions when she was around, but so much easier for him to focus on a goal when she was there alongside him. They worked in companionable silence for several hours – a boy, his box, and his wife – a box, her Child, and her Thief – the River, her home, and her husband.
The Doctor's stomach eventually betrayed his desire to complete their project by growling, and he led River to the kitchen. They cooked and ate together, still in silence. They then returned to their work, finally finishing creating a 0-10 stabilizer setting dial to replace the blue boringers as the TARDIS began to dim the lights in the console room – her usual hint that her time-savvy-but-not-particularly-skilled-at-time-management inhabitants should head to bed.
He had hoped River would've spoken up by now. This was her usual pattern of behavior on the few occasions when the amount of death and destruction they saw caught up with her – and it was his personal opinion that she needed to be so quiet when the feeling struck her because she usually brushed off the experience with humor, flirting, and quips - but it was beginning to concern him that she'd been so silent for this many hours, not to mention that not knowing what had happened to her was causing him a fair amount of distress. As they climbed into bed together – he slept by choice when she did, not out of need – these thoughts chased themselves around and around his head, mixed in with the physics and paradoxes that were always in there somewhere.
When the TARDIS finally dimmed the lights in the bedroom fully, he heard River's sharp intake of breath as she began to cry. Relieved that she had finally passed through the shock phase, he immediately rolled over to face her, finding her already curled up with her hands in front of her face, sobbing softly. He silently pulled her in closer by her quaking shoulders, holding her to him while she cried. Eventually she began to speak haltingly through her tears, just loud enough so that he could hear her through her hands and his chest. She told him about the explosion and about the girl. She slowly and painstakingly recounted every detail of the girl's appearance, face, and demeanor that she could recall, sobbing all the while, and he knew that she was asking him to remember, to help her remember, to help her believe that she wasn't heartless, that she could remember the faces of the fallen. When she started to apologize and expressed her bewilderment at "why inhale this sob was inhale bothering sob her inhale so sob much," he had chuckled softly into her hair where it fanned out next to his face, answering only, "Oh, River, sometimes I almost forget how old I am. Hush, just cry, this is just how it is sometimes, and today is apparently when you learn that." He felt her nod beneath his chin, and as she pulled her hands away from her face he slid his right hand down to cup her face, his thumb slowly caressing her cheek as her tears became less panicked and more a simple flow of accumulated grief. Late into the night, lost again in his thoughts, the Doctor realized that River was finally asleep against him. He sighed against the top of her head and attempted to find sleep himself, sparing a moment to ponder the idea that when it was his turn to feel this way again it might not be a bad idea to have a certain curly-haired near-Time-Lady around. Sexy's resounding rumble of agreement nearly woke River. Chuckling in resignation, he shushed his box and fell asleep around his wife.