Calm waters laved the grainy shores, hushed like whispers across the sand. A native bird cawed from a nearby tree, it's leaves sashaying in the soothing wind. The breeze felt like a balm against the effects of chapped cheeks. A man groaned, a low, deep sound from the back of his throat. His eyes squinted; the light from the sun felt too bright, too sterile, too burning. He'd had enough of burning, yet he was constantly plagued with more. The pads of his fingers felt raw as he scoured them across the sandpaper sands.
Slowly shifting himself onto his elbows, he felt the cool water lap at him, caress him intimately as it cooled his heated body. That was a new feeling. He felt too warm in his own skin. His body was usually so much colder, but now he felt like he was burning; the sun had overheated him. Disgruntled noises fell from his lips as he shucked off his large trench coat, sand falling with it from where it pooled in his collar.
The waves were both relentless and gentle, coaxing him with little pushes and pulls. They wanted him to wake up, to open his eyes, but something in him refused and it seemed they understood that. The moon seemed to soften and the pulls grew softer until he was ready to become vulnerable again. After a moment of slow adjusting, his eyes opened. It was a gradual process. He saw the world through slits, narrowed and unfocused until it all became wider and clearer. He looked around, his joints protesting but his mind encouraging.
Off in the distance the waters ravaged a lonely rock outcropping, and west of where he sat waves cornered a cliff that jutted too far into the ocean's grip, but here it was tranquil. A few yards away he could hear the splash of a small pool, a tiny dip between a few circled boulders where he a school of small fish dove. A couple meters up the shore and he would hit the thick vegetation of a jungle.
If he looked into the trees, he might be able to find the bird that crooned. Deeper in and he could feel the vines pull at his trousers and leaves that would touch him with furtive fingers. They would brush against his cheek, bring him closer, and whisper until he threw himself into their damp embrace. But it was the sight of the cave that got him standing. Running a hand through his hair and releasing the trapped grains of salt, he stood by pulled strings and tramped off to the cave, leaving the sand and sun behind him. The waves covered his absence with an even hand, filling the cavity his body had left.
The temperature dropped as he jogged into the yawning maw of the cave. It was much cooler, moisture condensed where his hand gripped the slick stone. It had rained recently and he nearly lost his footing. Regaining it, he began to slowly enter until blackness was all he saw. He sensed what he had been hoping for two meters ahead.
Finding a relatively dry rock, he began peeling off his clothes. Sand crusted his silhouette, his fingers prying what he could off. He pulled down his trousers and undid the buttons of his many shirts. He placed each item in a polite pile, to be shaken off later. He thought to take his pants off, but knew better. He could gauge the depths of the water from here, but he had no idea what lurked in its depths. Sighing, he padded his way over in nothing but his briefs, a plain color lighter than navy like the sky, and sank into the icy water.
He exhaled roughly as the water swallowed him up to his abdomen, his arms allowing him to descend and shivering from the exertion of the task and the freezing temperature. Inch by inch he managed to slide himself further into the hungry maw of the cave pool, sheathing himself up to his shoulders in its icy grip. His breaths puffed in clouds before his quivering lips. His body was taken in slight tremors that eased as he adjusted. He raised his arms and let himself sink, pushing up again and running a hair through the wet fringe of his hair.
Finally, his body acclimated enough that it only became a brisk chill. His elbows rested against the lip of the pool, hoisting himself up like a buoy in the water. His body was still so as no predator or other creature would think him prey or foe. He marveled at how on one plane, it had been simmering – marking the time on the beach around noon, no, no, it was exactly noon when he had woken – and now it was cold as winter on the Oods home planet.
His brow furrowed sharply. Yes…yes it was coming back now, bit by bit and as slow as he had sunk into the pool. Things began coming back to him. He saw snow through blurry eyes. He saw faces flutter past, blinking too quickly for him to catch. He saw anguish, he saw betrayal, he saw the end. He saw fire. Not the fire on Gallifrey that smoked through the plains and swept across the mountains with the ash of the innocent. No, for once it wasn't that. This fire burned through him, consumed him. Lit his soul aflame until he combusted from its might.
His legs flailed around him, the trauma of his thoughts stealing the air from him. He couldn't breathe. He began pounding on his chest, his legs treading water wildly. He had died, had died, was dying, will die; he was dead. The fact struck him and air came back as mighty as a punch. He gasped and sucked, pulling as much oxygen as he could around him deep into his parched lungs. His hand rose and fell with the rapid motion of his chest. He pawed at it for a moment, fingers scrambling across the light patch of hair, flattening his palm against the center of his chest.
There were no heartbeats – not even one. Why would there be one, that man would live on in happy bliss, but not him. It was never him. Oh. Memories of another beach came back to him. It seemed his life always ended on a beach. His eyes clouded over. No, no, it wasn't a beach that ended him; it had been many things, oh so many things with oh so many colors and the two to stick out were yellow, and pink. His empty hearts crushed in pain. He remembered her. And it hurt. He choked back on a sob, his head resting on his fist as he cringed at the onslaught of memory. The good now seemed so terrible, and the bad seemed infinitely worse. He remembered everything in a blur of motion and running. He remembered everyone, all the things, in every life – and he remembered how his had ended.
"Rose…" he choked. He had died with her smile emblazoned in his mind, burning just as bright as his own regenerative flames, if trying so hard to fight for dominance. She had almost won, too.
"No, sweetie," another voice called from above. "That isn't my name. But I know yours, even if you can't remember it just yet."
He whirled around, his eyes wide, so wide they took in a form squatting just by the edge of the pool near where he was. He squinted and opened his eyes to adjust. The first thing he saw was hair like a halo, golden ringlets that gave off their own light. The next was a smile.
"You – you're -!" he swam closer to the wall of the pool, his body pressed right against it as he tried peering closer at the figure. "You're Professor River Song!" her name was a rush of breath from his lips, his eyes bouncing about as light reflected off of her and gave way to a better image.
"Professor, Doctor – anything you like, really. Melody, too, though I don't think you've met her yet," she studied him, every line of his manic features. He had begun shivering again. "Suppose you never will." She smiled sadly. Tutting, she rose quickly and looked down at him. "I think you should think of me more as an interface than anything, Doctor."
That name, with it flooded even more memories.
"OH!" he exclaimed, his arm thrusting out. "Yes of course! I'm the Doctor! I'm…" his face puckered in confusion. He swirled in the water and stared up at her, a beacon of light in this cave. "I'm dead," he announced.
River nodded. "I know. That's what I'm here for. Now come on."
"No, but I'm dead, River."
"Yes, and yet here you are."
He was completely and unabashedly, at this point, befuddled. "But River," he stressed. "I'm dead. I've dead. Gone. I shouldn't – there shouldn't be –"
"Sweetie, I will explain what I can if you will just," she rolled her hand at the wrist exasperatedly. "Get out of the water."
"Ehm," the Doctor glanced down at himself then back up at her. "I'm a bit…underdressed at the moment."
The glint in her eye was practically malicious. The Doctor suddenly felt he should be more frightened of the predators outside the pool rather than in.
"Oh, come now, Doctor, it's not like it's something I haven't seen before," she winked and immediately shrunk back. "Unless we really haven't?"
His lips pressed together, rolling into themselves as he shook his head no. Was she implying…but, that couldn't be? Rolling himself aground, he noted there were a lot of things that couldn't be in this place. River helped him up and tossed him his clothes.
The Doctor sniffed them, wrinkling his nose. "Are these pressed?"
"In time, sweetie, in time," she replied in answer, turning on her heel and strutting off. "And we have plenty of it."
The Doctor caught up to River, who stood curled against the rough bark of a palm tree, her loose curls blowing gently in the breeze. He managed to wrestle his arm into the proper sleeves of his long flowing trench and appraised her.
"Right then," he said, clapping his hands to his side expectantly. "Where to?"
A beautiful grin grew on her features as she began to walk away. Aggravated, he followed nonetheless. Just as he opened his mouth, River filled the silence.
"Yes, you are in fact, dead, my love."
Flabbergasted, he gulped for words, speechlessness a foreign feeling. He grappled for a moment before settling on a very broad, "How!"
"You regenerated." She peered back at him.
He tsked and waved her off. "Not that, I know that – this!" he gestured to all around him. "How is this possible if I'm dead?"
River smirked at an inward joke. "What, don't believe in a heaven, Doctor?"
He snorted. What a ludicrous thing. Of course there wasn't, he'd had no evidence to believe there was. It was true that the Doctor often believed in the impossible – like human strength and compassion, or planets in orbit round places they shouldn't be – but this, the thought of heaven was far from it. If the impossible were a circle, the thought of heaven was a rectangle – for whatever sense that made.
River sniffed in approval. "Good, because there isn't," the Doctor's eyes shifted to meet hers in a sidelong glance. She continued, "You aren't in heaven, at least not the type romanticized about. You are simply a subconscious being turned sentient in this place. It's the gift of the TARDIS. She loves you all so dearly and couldn't bear to see any of your ends met by nothing. She was lonely before she met you, and this is her way of reciprocating."
"Yes, all. You aren't the only one in your line, as you are more than aware of at this point. I've only ever met this regeneration of you and the next. That regeneration was sure one hell of a ride!" she winked and laughed merrily, her curls tossed jovially across one shoulder.
They continued their trek. He was at a loss for words.
"But, but, River, you've met me so surely you know what happens when you…"
She looked at him, her expression blank, a mask above her emotions, if she even felt any at the mention of her death.
"Oh, I'm well aware," she said.
"So, then how can you be here?" he argued, trying so hard to piece logic to this madness.
"How can you?" she countered. They walked on with the calm of quiet as company. "I'm not actually Professor, Doctor – what have you! – River Song. I'm merely an interface."
This puzzled him. He peered at her, attempting to zero in on any pixel malfunction or hazy outline, but nothing. "An interface?"
She hummed happily. "Yes. It would seem the TARDIS chose me as your…I guess you could say, guide, to help you through. She knew I was the only one strong enough to tame you – or beat you down, at least."
He wished he could swat away her flirtatious undertone.
"Yes, but help me through what?"
A hut was spotted just ten meters away, their destination perhaps?
River turned around sharply, nearly causing him to bump right into her. "This, this is a sanctuary. Right now you are inside the TARDIS matrix, sealed away in a hub that only the TARDIS is aware of – and well aware of it too. You are one with the mainframe currently, but you are restricted only to this section. The twelve others of you also share the same hub only located in different planes so as not to collide."
The Doctor balked. "Twelve? But there's only been –"
"Time is relevant and neither exists, co-exists, or is non-existent within the TARDIS. She operates on different planes. Right now she's dealing with one of you playing the recorder, another entering a war, and you inside her like this all simultaneously. She can handle future you's, as well."
"But how could she have done this? Not that I'm not, grateful, perhaps." Though I had hoped to be over and done with, to live and to have died. I have just lived for so…long.
River's lips were soft as she smiled. "She was giving you another chance."
"A chance for what?" he bit out much more bitterly than he had intended. He apologized and tried again, "Why give me another chance – for what purpose?"
"Your reward is bigger than you know. It won't come easy, though. You'll have to work for it. The TARDIS saw how you treated and acted around certain people, and wasn't too keen on it. She wants to give you all you deserve, but first, you must earn it," River peered up at the sky thoughtfully. "Or so she's directing me to say."
"What does that mean?" he implored, all these riddles, who was too done with them all.
"You want to know how you got here? It's all very simple, really. You know of the Rassilon Imprimatur?"
He cast her a shrewd look. "Of course."
"And you know of the symbiotic nuclei, of course."
"Well, och, of course."
"Time Lords are a telepathic race, as you well know. The TARDISes are really no different, Doctor. You've grown and shared more with the TARDIS than you will any other being in the universe. More than Rose," he glanced down, the pang of regret like a barb through his heart. "And even more than me." His eyes shot to hers but she simply raised a hand. "Later," she explained.
"What you and the TARDIS have is sacred. More potent than love, and more meaningful than any silly old vow. And she feels it, with every thrum in her body. She never wanted to let that go, so when each of you had regenerated, she took the last vestiges of your consciousness and stored it into the mainframe. That's why you wash up or turn up with very little memory. She allows you to gain it back, of course."
It clicked, and the Doctor had a new burst of love for his machine. His borrowed gift.
"Alright. So I'll get to the root of my true reward by passing…some sort of a test?"
River hmmed in affirmation, distracted by the hut in front of her.
"Alright then," the Doctor felt cheerier, felt more relaxed and at ease. He felt he could conquer and persevere through it all. "Let's do this, then! When do we start?"
He was ready to face these challenges, to face any! He was renewed, a reborn-reborn man! A new new Doctor to the new new Doctor. And after all, what could the old girl concoct?
More than he was able to chew, apparently.
"You start," River pulled back the flap to the tent, the Doctor ushering himself in with a swagger of a champion. The flap closed with River on the opposite side. "Now."
The Doctor swiveled and noticed the shadows of her silhouette had gone. He turned and saw a woman knelt by the hearth of the fire place. A plain woman in normal enough attire, odd in the tropical environment. She heard him enter and turned to face the new comer with a face all too familiar and all too breath-catching.
"D-Donna," he choked.
And then the Doctor realized just how challenging these tests might be.