no song to sing
He never answers his phone.
It used to be because he was busy or tired or mapping the precise trajectory of his ship and calculating temporal isometry. Used to be that he couldn't get to it, or the TARDIS hid the phone (he could swear it was right there last week), one time he'd tripped over wires pulled out from under the console and it had stopped ringing just as he'd righted himself.
He used to answer it, a long time ago.
And that is how he divides his life now. Before River and after River, and there was that so long but too painfully brief period of during River. That period makes his chest ache and his eyes burn while his hearts flutter and he smiles for no reason whenever he thinks of it. He goes through stretches now, hours when he does not think of her. Only to feel terrible and sit in their bedroom, her dresses on the bed as he fights to never forget.
He'd told Amy once that they were all he remembered, but River – River is different. Wibbly wobbly and he has no concrete way of knowing if that last time for him – he'd cried as he kissed her goodbye and she had to have known – was literally the last time.
I've got pictures of all your faces.
Somewhere tucked behind his left heart, in the very bottom ventricle, secreted where no one could ever see it – burned that hope. The hope that one day she would just appear. And he would feel whole again. His wife.
During River he couldn't answer his phone. Because the TARDIS would cross timelines and wires, and laugh as he struggled to figure out when they were. Far easier to just let her leave a message. And really, despite how he'd scold her – he always loved those messages. Sometimes they were on his answer phone. They still remained, written into the TARDIS' matrix, saved forever. Because sometimes he needed to hear her voice, telling him that she could really use his help right now, sure Cybermen weren't that fast but she was trapped in a dungeon with them, and their feet were slow but god damn if their laser canons weren't perfectly fast enough. And has he seen those blow darts? She wouldn't doubt if the indigenous tribes of Hestiva had been assimilated a while back, thus giving them those skills, but the point was, sweetie, get that sweet arse there. Now.
Sometimes she forewent the answer phone (I hate you. And a sigh. Also saved, because he likes to play that and lay on his glass floor and say 'no you don't' like she is right there with him.) and left him messages across space and time instead. Carved cliff faces and wrote in gallifreyan on the Rosetta stone. Signed the back of the Shadow proclamation and once had even sent a message in a bottle. In space. He'd definitely kept that one.
After River he just kept on not answering his phone. That way he could get messages, and then go when he was ready. Some days he didn't feel like adventuring at all. Some days were worse than others and he was no fit company for anyone.
Which was why, halfway under his console and rewiring the environmental controls, he didn't even twitch when it rang.
Right – okay I'm going to try this again. See I'm not here. Or well I could be here but I'm likely knee deep in wiring or have just heated up fish fingers or I could be in the library reading a particularly good book or off trying to find the swimming pool, which I've lost. Again. Point is I clearly cannot possibly answer the phone in any of the above circumstances and besides which, time machine – who knows when you're trying to call, might not be me at all. Well this me, well – I mean to say it could be earlier or later me and time machines tend to make answer phones a bit diffi- *beep*
"Have you changed your message again? Good lord sweetie, I have told you a thousand times – well maybe not from your perspective but allow me a little bit of exaggeration, 'you've reached the TARDIS leave a message' would suffice perfectly. Daft idiot." River's voice rings through the console room and he sits up so fast he hits his head on the bottom edge of the console, slapping a hand to his forehead and hissing.
"Really though, no matter. Listen – this is important my love, the TARDIS rerouted a call to me," he is up and racing for the phone, hand outstretched, his hearts hammering in his chest. River River River River. He knew it – he knew it hadn't been the last time, he knew he'd been waiting for a reason – he knew – he knew- "Churchill," River continues and he skids to a halt, hand on the receiver, "something about a painting. And of course you're not answering your phone, and I suppose I'll have to leave you another message. But first I have to go to the Starship UK and try to get the painting. Do you ever answer your phone sweetie? I feel we've somehow missed a prime opportunity here, but bless, you're probably so young you've no earthly idea what I'm saying anyway. You do keep getting so young, darling." Her voice is softer, lower and sadder now. His eyes close and his head drops as all that hope, all that burning brightness bubbling in his chest moments ago splutters and dies.
"Oh, River," he whispers to the empty console room. He remembers – centuries ago for him but he can still remember the smell of the damp earth, the sounds of soldiers marching in soft mud, the smell of incense in her tent. Her face, calm and serene as she'd greeted him in full costume. Hello, sweetie.
He swallows, hating his younger self for a moment. He didn't know – didn't understand anything. He didn't appreciate that every moment, every second spent with River Song was a gift. It was limited and precious and should be treated as such. Oh he'd been an idiot back then.
"No matter. I'll try again once I have the painting, sweetie. I... I'll try again." She hangs up and he blinks, finding himself kneeling on the glass floor by the phone, tears in his eyes and what feels like a gaping wound in his chest. She was right there. She had been right there. Her voice, her words, she could have talked to him – and she was so far along then. So damn far along and they could have laid and spoken about adventures. He could have made her laugh again, he could have sat and listened to her breathe, closed his eyes and imagined her right next to him. He could have told her he loved her over and over again, enough times to make up for his younger self's idiocy.
Instead he sags against the console, his chest aching as he wonders if the environmental controls have gone haywire, because it feels like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. It hurts to breathe.
He sits for a while, just trying to move as his ship hums sympathetically. He tries to move, but cannot. So he is right there when the phone rings again, scaring the hell out of him and he falls to the floor, landing on his ass. River would have laughed. River would have – he lies out all the way, pressing his hands to his forehead and closing his eyes as it rings and rings and rings.
His message kicks in and he waits it out, holding his breath. It won't be her again. It won't be – the TARDIS is not this cruel-
"And again. Honestly my love, I'm changing your message the instant I'm in the TARDIS. I've got the painting. And met the queen – that went rather well. You do have the most interesting friends darling. She carries her gun quite well, I must say – maybe there's hope for the monarchy yet. I've not got a lot of time – the clerics were here, looking for me. No matter, I'm about to hop a transport to the Maldovarium, Dorium's got me a deal on a Vortex Manipulator. You fried my last one – I should make you pay for this one, honestly, sweetie. Well, that is to say if I were going to pay for it. But enough of that – the last thing I need is another lecture. And really it's not like he made or paid for it himself, you know damn well Dorium will more likely have ripped it off the wrist of a dead agent anyway." She sighs softly and he presses his lips together until his teeth are biting into the soft flesh there and he can taste blood. This is torture. This is – it is the worst kind of torture. He whimpers, rolling to his side so he can draw his knees to his chest. He wraps arms around his legs, holding his own hands so tightly it stings, but he cannot let go. If he lets go he will go pick up that phone.
"No more, please."
The TARDIS whirs in indignation and River's voice continues with a heavy sigh. "Fine. If it looks like he purchased it, I'll pay for it. Honestly how are you even capable of guilting me across time and space and through a telephone line? I looked at the painting and the coordinates-" she pauses and he can hear the static blare of an announcement in the background, soft and crackling like a bird beating its wings. "I've got to go sweetie. I'll call you from Dorium's, alright?" She hangs up quickly and he sniffles, remaining in his position as the console room lights glare brightly overhead.
Far too brightly actually. The glass floor is warm under his back when it is usually cool and he frowns. "Oh what now?" The glass under his side grows so hot that he shifts to escape and hits the metal joint flinching as it burns into his skin. He sits up, rolling onto his feet with a glare. "Fine, fine, fine. I'm up. Happy now? What is wrong with you?"
The TARDIS shakes and lurches and he grips the console. "First you torture me with phone calls and now you're making everything all wonky – I don't feel like fixing you right now. I'll just go to the pool and you can bloody well fix yourself!" He shouts at the time rotor and sparks fly from the console in a shower. He is panting, his chest heaving and his face is sweating – it is sweat, it is from the heat, it is not tears – and he blinks, feeling his anger deflate. "I'm sorry – it's not your fault but I just... I miss her, old girl." He places a palm on the time rotor and the lights dim as she hums in sympathy. "I know, you do too."
The phone rings.
"No, no, please, I can't listen to another message. I can't-"
The phone keeps ringing. Once, twice, three times. Four, five six. "No, no no no no you answer it. Answer it so she can leave a message – it might be the last – she goes to Rome after Planet One and there are no phones. Answer it, please. Please." He finds himself begging his TARDIS, because he does not want to have a ringing unanswered call be his last tangible memory of her. He doesn't. He doesn't want to have to listen and not speak to her, but he doesn't want her to think he didn't care to just pick up.
The phone continues ringing and more sparks shower around him as the lights flash. "It's as if you want me to answer-" he stops and breathes out, "oh." She does want him to answer – perhaps that is what this has all been about from the beginning. "I can't. Timestreams, old girl you know that." The lights flicker and he sighs. "Of course you know that so I must – I must have to answer to preserve them!" He grins, wiping his face with a hand that is shaking violently. He reaches for the phone. Lifting it carefully and sighing in relief as the incessant ringing ceases. "Hello?"
"Oh thank god, finally. Have you been tied up somewhere by some other version of me?" She is teasing and he chokes back a sob, hoping she doesn't hear. "Sweetie, what's wrong?" Her voice is all warmth and concern and he makes an inarticulate noise in the back of his throat. "Doctor, you're scaring me, what is it?"
"Sorry," he finally chokes out the word in a strangled voice. "I'm sorry River. Wrong me, you see, but she wouldn't let me just not answer..."
"Oh. When are we for you?" She asks and he laughs.
"Oh quite far. Very far."
"Alright so we've done Utah?"
"Twice." He confirms and he hears her warm hum in his ear and closes his eyes as he sinks against the console. The sound makes his skin tingle just the same as if she were there next to him, and he feels a warmth somewhere in the middle of the yawning empty cavity that used to be his chest.
"Easter Island?" She asks and he giggles.
"Well what's the last thing we did for you?" She asks and the image of her, wrapped around him as towers sang –
"Spoilers." He whispers and she sighs.
"You can't know its spoilers, I might have done it." She points out. "Fine what about Delphon, have we done that?"
"Yes, yes of course we've – hang on did you say Delphon?" He sits up in shock. "Delphon, eighth planet of the Vehnga system?"
"Yes, Delphon, exactly. So you've not done that yet – pity, it was a fantastic one. Okay, so I suppose I have to call you again in order to get younger you-" His hearts are pounding in his chest and he doesn't really hear her, though he absorbs everything she is saying. She's discussing the coordinates the painting and he hums when he feels he needs to while his mind is reeling.
He has never gone to the Library to retrieve her diary.
He'd always considered it, but never had. It was too soon. Too close. Too close to her grave, to her spirit, to her limitless prison he'd placed her in alone. Tears sting his eyes and he swallows. He'd never been ready. Not even once in the last hundred years. "You're too quiet. And you were so upset earlier. Doctor, when was the last time you saw me?"
"I told you, spoilers-"
"No, not where, when. How long ago for you?" He chokes on air, unable to answer. He should have known better – she is so far along in her timeline for this adventure. She knows him so well, she can read him so well- "Oh, sweetie." She breathes out and he swallows, letting out the breath he'd been holding.
"River," his voice is a whisper and he hears her sigh. "I love you."
"Oh honey!" Her own voice is tight, and he knows – it has been a long time since she's heard him say that as well. "I wish I was there, right now. I wish I could be. I love you too, Doctor. More than anything in the whole universe."
"I don't know if I can-" he stops himself, his voice thick with tears and he hears her gasp and hum soothingly. It helps ease the ache in his chest, and he holds tight to Delphon. An adventure he hasn't had yet.
"Of course you can sweetie. You've still got more to come, my love. Are you not – do you not have someone to keep you company?" She frets down the line at him and he feels a smile tilt the corner of his mouth.
"No – no I don't at the moment. I fear I seem to be in one of those stretches when I simply... can't. I can't have someone here right now, River. Not yet." He sighs and she makes a soothing noise. If she were here, he knows she would be smoothing a hand through his hair, and pressing a soft kiss to his temple.
"You need someone Doctor."
"I need you, River."
"Oh, sweetie." Her voice is low and she sighs.
"Did you get your manipulator?" He asks in a ridiculous attempt to change the subject and she sighs, as if she knows.
"Of course I did, you know that."
"Did you pay for it?" he asks in a sterner voice and her laughter rings down the line, lightening the pressure in his chest.
"It was still on the Time Agent's wrist, my love." He sighs in disappointment and she laughs once more. "I gave Dorium micro explosives. And bought it for the price of the disarming device." She giggles and he sighs again, smiling against his will.
"My bad, bad girl."
"Always, Doctor." She purrs and he lets the sound slide down his spine, making him shiver.
"River, you can't call. You won't get me. I mean then me, not this me, you may get this me. The TARDIS is being particularly tricky." He hedges and she laughs softly.
"So a message then?"
"Did you ever hear about the cliffs of pure diamond on Planet One?" He asks conversationally and she snorts.
"Of course I have, you idiot. Oldest planet in the universe, said to hold a message carved into the cliff face – no one has ever translated it though," she pauses and laughs drily, "oh of course."
"Eye catching, I'd think."
"Fifty foot letters on a cliff face? I'd say so. Do you know how long that's going to take me?"
"I have the utmost faith in you, dear," he teases and she sighs.
"You are so lucky I love you."
"And I you, River. More than anything. More than anyone. Remember that, please?" He swallows and his voice is low with strain.
"Doctor, I would think – I mean I know you don't want anyone travelling with you, but I think you need someone. I don't want you alone my love; it hurts me to think of it. Promise me – sweetie please – if you love me, don't be alone."
"River..." he sighs and she makes a noise of protest.
"No, promise me."
"River I can't-"
"You can and will. Promise me you'll go find someone. Maybe try... Vienna. Maybe in the 1860s?" It's not a suggestion, and he knows it. His hearts speed up and he bites his lip. Would he meet a friend there? The friend he has with him for Delphon?
"Okay, I promise."
"You're not lying?" she asks suspiciously and he laughs.
"I swear, as soon as I hang up. I'll go to Vienna." She hums in satisfaction and he grins. "Is Delphon very long after Vienna, River?" His voice is wistful and she sighs softly.
"It was forever and not ever long enough. And you know I can't tell you exactly how long, sweetie." She breathes out softly.
"I know, I know. Oh and River, if you're going to 105 AD, there's bound to be Romans." He points out and she laughs lightly.
"Oh excellent, love a Roman."
"You are so your mother's child at times it frightens me." He sighs and she laughs, low in his ear.
"And yet so not in other ways, hmm my love?" Her tone is suggestive and he flushes, shifting against the console.
"Romans, you know, might respond well to Cleopatra." He suggests mildly and she giggles.
"Cleopatra's dead in 105 AD, sweetie," she points out and he lets his breath out in a huff.
"Yes, well I liked the dress." He responds and she makes a noise of disbelief. "Besides which, they'll believe you easily enough with some... assistance."
"You are really a rather dirty old man, my love."
"It's how you like me best, don't lie." He shoots back and she chuckles.
"Fine. Cleopatra. After a little recreational carving. And you'll go to Vienna. For a surprise." She insists in a firm tone and he grins and nods even though she can't see him.
"I love you River."
"I love you too, you daft man. Now, off we pop then yeah? Quickly, otherwise we won't say goodbye. Besides which I'm fairly certain four clerics just entered the bar. Good luck, sweetie."
"You too River. And River- don't forget."
"Don't forget what?"
"Me." He answers her promptly and she laughs lightly.
"Oh, sweetie. As if I could ever forget you." She blows a kiss down the line and he hears the unmistakable sizzle of a vortex manipulator. He is smiling softly as he hangs up, straightening his clothes and tweaking his bowtie before he smoothes his hair and turns to the controls.
"Well then, sexy – not finished are we?" He claps and laughs out loud, twirling once before slipping and sliding over to input coordinates. "We'll land just when we need won't we? I hope Delphon is soon – do you think, old girl? One more run?" The smile on his face makes his cheeks ache. "One more hello," he whispers to himself as he pulls the levers.
They materialize with her usual noise and he all but flies down the steps. A new companion, he wonders to himself what they'll be like. Will he meet them mid-adventure? A man? A woman? He wants to get the meeting over with, just so he can find them ending up on Delphon all that much sooner. He flings open the doors and trips out into the warm Vienna night. He stops, taking a deep lungful of air and scanning with his sonic to be sure he's in the right place and time.
He peers at his sonic with a grin before a noise to his left causes him to look up. The light spilling out of the TARDIS casts a warm glow into the street and he sees someone move into the light, in a rustle of silk.