All of the dreariness is real
She couldn't leave. Not tonight. No, she would certainly stay; perhaps even break their rule and stay tomorrow as well. It wasn't as if they adhered to the rule book anyway, for they were both the authors and the editors. And really, the Doctor was the little child who refused to read the board game instructions before playing, meaning he had no idea what on earth he was supposed to do as soon as they began, but that didn't matter because how was anyone supposed to win anything, let alone a board game, without a little bit of creative license? Creative license was cool.
Yes, she would unquestionably stay tonight, to make sure he remained sane. Because she needed to take care of him. Because she needed someone else near her. Because he was the only one left now.
Because she owed it to her mother.
She could still feel Amy's warm hand clinging tightly to her own, tethering them together despite the inescapable parting. And River knew that, wherever she was, Amy could still feel her daughter's gentle kiss on her hand, that she would feel its warmth for the rest of her life.
Look after him.
She supposed it was a final request. It was certainly the last order Amelia Pond would ever give her daughter. For a fleeting, shining moment, River's mouth flickered into a smile as she remembered Amy trying to order her around as Mels.
"Mels, what are you doing? Pick up the game board or mum'll get me in trouble!" A young Amy shrieked, brandishing a shaking finger at her best friend, who grinned cheekily before suddenly turning and running out the living room door and into the kitchen. Rory, who was standing in the door, looked bewildered and – once again – slightly out of his depth as Mels barreled past him, quickly followed by a scampering Amy who was screeching at her best friend's back, her cross Scottish cadence filling the house with shrill shouts as she chased after the laughing girl. The ever-reliable Rory turned to clean up the hectic game of Monopoly on his own, ignoring the loud shouts and pounding feet that now echoed loudly throughout the house.
The sudden smile that had come so extemporaneously with the memory, the natural twitch of her lips at the thought of her young parents, vanished as quickly as it had come; like kindling curling black in a fire, it left only grey, dead ashes behind. That horrible clawing feeling she'd only felt once or twice in her life before clutched at her hearts, holding them in a terrible, vice-like grip that she was unable to escape from.
In her room in the TARDIS, the room she shared with the Doctor, River Song crumpled onto the bed, fully clothed. She refused to let the tears fall, though; they remained behind her eyelids, burning as hot as stars. In all honesty, she yearned to leave, to cry, to run. But the Doctor would be back any moment now, back from reading Amy's last letter to him; he would walk though that beautiful blue door that they had so often run or jumped or fallen into, but now he would have that dead and haunted look in his eyes and instead of swaggering around like a twelve year old, he would walk dejectedly, a broken man who had watched a thousand years and thousands of lives pass before him.
And she must not let him see the damage.
So, instead of falling to pieces, River Song stood up and walked over to her dresser. She sat down mechanically and began to remove her hairpins, taking time to fish each one out of her curls.
She put it at two minutes before the Doctor would walk back into the TARDIS, Amy's letter in hand. She would know immediately of course, because the Old Girl would begin to hum soothingly at her Thief in exactly the same way she was currently humming to her Child, trying to alleviate that pressing weight in her chest.
She couldn't stop replaying those final moments over in her head; even when she was thinking about other things they were there, as if she'd just turned her head away from a screen that was now constantly flickering at the corner of her eye. That was the curse of grief though, that constant and overwhelming revisiting of final interactions, final moments, final memories. Her father vanishing, her mother calling out to her and reaching back her hand, her own voice telling Amy this was the only possible way to see Rory again, the Doctor's yells of NO, Amy vanishing forever.
Still, she would stand by her decision to tell Amy to take the Angel's hand, even though it had ripped at her – physically torn at her – to see her Doctor pleading with Amy to stay, to come along, Pond.
River had told her mother to go, to take the chance, because she knew exactly what it felt like to lose the man she loved. If there was any possible way of seeing him again, anything at all, there was no second option. There was no choice in the matter: she'd torn the very fabric of time apart to save the Doctor; her mother had torn up her life and left half her family behind to see Rory again.
Because it was together or not at all.
Suddenly, all around her, the TARDIS' humming increased in volume, causing River to jerk back to reality. She knew that the Doctor had just returned from retrieving Amy's letter and she guessed he would come up here. Not necessarily because he was seeking company, but because he would be wandering aimlessly, entirely subject to his racing thoughts, watching as they spun themselves around and around his mind, showing him terrible possibilities and things he could have done. She had already decided she would not ask what was in the letter; that was between him and Amy and the incredible companionship that had lasted over 300 years for him.
Instead, she continued to scrabble for the last few hairpins that had so far evaded her nimble fingers' capture and remained nestled within her formidably curly hair. She heard soft footsteps on the landing and listened to the door creak open slowly. Looking up into the mirror, she watched the reflection of her husband enter the room, his gaze swiveling towards her automatically.
"Hello sweetie," she said tenderly, eyes softening around the edges at his appearance.
In that one word she heard everything. Heard exactly what she was afraid of but had known was coming anyway; his voice was empty. Hollow.
The air in the room was suddenly pressing down on both of them, not with awkwardness or anger, but with a dull ache. River knew instantly that the pain in her own heart was met identically within his, but instead of filling the pressurised air with questions or statements, she remained silent, still fiddling with her hair. She had encountered a particularly stubborn pin and was tugging at it impatiently, still keeping an eye on the Doctor. He had not moved from the doorway; honestly, given the way she could see his thoughts racing behind his darting eyes, she didn't think he was in conscious control of his body. He met her eyes again through the mirror and she held his gaze, still fiddling with the pin, waiting for him.
With a silent, sweeping motion, he strode over to her. She watched him approach in the mirror, wondering how long she could fight off tears while he looked so broken; he reached her and stood behind her chair, still silent. Suddenly, she felt warm hands being placed gently over her own as he carefully tugged the stubborn pin out. Breathing a tiny sigh, River relaxed her head into his touch, closing her eyes, thankful for his physical presence. His hands played lightly with her hair, slowly untangling every knotted strand and drawing out the final few pins.
Abruptly, she felt something drip onto the top of her head. And again. And again.
Opening her eyes, she looked up and saw the Doctor, silent tears running down his face, falling off his long nose and into her hair. Another stab wrenched at her hearts, even as she stood up instantly.
Her arms were around him instantly, trying to ward off the pain that was raging inside both of them. He wrapped his arms around her in return, burying his head by her neck as she stepped even closer to him. One hand ran smoothly up and down his scratchy tweed jacket, soothing him quietly as he cried – really, properly cried – into her shoulder. River said nothing, letting her hand continue to circle his back softly as finally those infernal tears ran down her own cheeks. She did not know how long they stood there, the mad man and his wife who, although she was the one holding him, needed him equally as much.
When he had quieted a little, she finally spoke, her voice cracked yet softened by sadness.
"You know, someone important told me something once. She'd been told it by an old, old friend and it remained with her for the rest of her life." River's right hand continued to stroke up and down the Doctor's back, the other resting lightly on the back of his head. She had stopped crying; the thought that had occurred to her was undoubtedly part of that. This thought was added to her own little pile of good things, talismans next to her heart, softening the blow of departure. She continued speaking, revealing the idea to her husband quietly, knowing he would understand. "Life is, essentially, a pile of good things and a pile of bad things. The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vise-versa, the bad things can't spoil the good things or make them unimportant," she said, hearts lightening a fraction when she felt the Doctor's minuscule smile on her shoulder. "And my parents had not so much a pile as a mountain of good things."
With that sentence, she pulled him up by the shoulders, looking him dead in the eye. She pressed on, bringing one hand up to his cheek and wiping away a lone tear with her thumb. The tears behind her eyes now were not solely borne of grief; rather, they came as a corollary of the truth she acknowledged. "That mountain. That was wholly and completely your doing, Raggedy Man."
The use of that particular term of endearment, coupled with the truth of her words, caused the Doctor's mouth to curve into a watery smile. He vividly remembered so very long ago, when he had hugged his Amelia Pond as they stood quietly beside one of the most famous paintings in all of history. Like mother, like daughter, unsurprisingly.
River's own eyes were still dancing with unshed tears that she stubbornly refused to let fall once more. The Doctor sighed.
"Melody Pond, you are remarkable."
River almost flinched at the mention of her birth name. Almost. But then sudden and unexpected warmth spread out from the very base of her ribs at his use of the word Pond, at the reminder.
She quietly walked over to their bed, motioning for the Doctor to sit down beside her. He did so, taking her hand in his own as she rested her head against his shoulder, her hair tickling his neck.
"River?" he tried tentatively, an unknown amount of time later.
"Yes, honey?" she answered, exhausted and pale.
"Are you alright? Please don't hide from me," he said earnestly, turning his head to look at her.
Something in his voice compelled her to answer. "Yes."
She paused before adding, "Well, no. But I will be, because I know they were," she said, eyes flashing as she spoke, underscoring the certainty of her conviction.
He marveled at her bravery, at her ability to carry on despite all that had happened, at the way she was able to sacrifice everything, everything, for him, without a second thought.
"River, you have so much faith in them," he said, believing her to be referring to the idea that if Amy and Rory had only each other, they would manage perfectly.
"Of course I have faith in them; they're my parents. But, that's not what I mean," she said and she was almost smiling at him now; he could see a light shining behind her eyes, as if she had hidden the sun within her mind.
Rubbing his thumb lightly across the back of her hand, his brow creased as he contemplated their future again. "River, how do you know they were happy?" he asked, almost demanding her secret.
"Have you not made the connection, sweetie?" she asked, and despite the raw sting of grief, her eyes were amused. She knew something he didn't – again – and somehow it was alleviating the pain she was feeling. He could almost see it happening; this thought, warding off the darkness that was still raging around them.
He frowned at her, a mixture of confused, angry and curious. "No. No, I haven't. Care to explain?"
"Would it help if I told you that they were transported to New York in 1968?" she said and now her whole her face, despite the drying tear tracks, was definitely smiling.
"No, it wouldn't help?! Who on earth was in New Yo-" he fell silent abruptly and she watched the beatific realisation spread across his face. Suddenly, he transformed once more into the excited and impossible man she fell in love with. Her smile became a fully-fledged grin.
Then he was unexpectedly leaping off the bed, picking her up and holding onto her waist as he spun her around and up into the air, laughing incredulously. His expression reminded her of Demons Run, when he had found out who she really was; that same kind of elation that, out of something so dark and horrible, had sprung a good thing, an unbelievable thing. "Are you really telling me they found you? They found little Melody and raised her?"
River nodded at him, now smiling so much that the tears that had lurked behind her eyes were rolling down her cheeks, falling into the laugh lines along her mouth. "How else do you think I got to Leadworth by 1994?"
Still holding her in his arms, he smiled at her, really and truly smiled because, despite the loss of his best friends in the universe, he still had his wife and she was telling him something wonderful, something beautiful. One of the great unsolvable problems the Ponds had presented him with – robbing Melody of her childhood and parents - had been disentangled. He now had no doubt that they would have been happy, for this way they had gained one of the things they had wanted most in the world.
River watched him think over all the details, slot the remaining pieces into place easily, even as her tears continued to slowly roll down her cheeks. She knew that she would probably never see her parents again in her lifetime; however, she also knew that they really had lived a long and full life, had been happy. After all, she had been there to see it. As she watched the Doctor figuring out all the final puzzle pieces, he looked up into her face. She could see he was still aching from their departure, but what she had told him had changed him; the knowledge had settled - a talisman of his own - against his hearts.
"River Song, you should have told me that," he reprimanded, but before she had a chance to throw back spoilers imperviously, he was kissing her. Taken by surprise for one instant, she relaxed when she felt his warm hands on her waist, circling the tops of her hips lightly. Sighing quietly, she tugged him closer to her by his lapels, wanting to be closer to the warmth radiating from him. When, at last, she breathlessly parted from him, one or two of the tears on her face transferred across to his, the little pebbles of water splitting apart, resting in identical places on each of their cheeks.
She looked at him, at her Doctor and the tears that had shifted across to his face, and realised even though this was one of the darkest times in both their lives, they were not alone. He had taken some of her grief and transformed it into hope; how, she had no idea, but she supposed that was exactly what love existed to do. She could see him playing the Ponds' life out in his mind, watching them live out the world he imagined for them, now so much brighter for the presence of their daughter. She was glad she had been able to make him smile through the loss, glad that she too could transform grief into hope.
He hugged her close again and she pressed herself into him, inhaling deeply, happy that she was not alone. Neither of them was alone; like the tears that had split between them, their grief and hope and love and sadness was shared, flowing seamlessly from one mind to another.
Her mother had been right. Again.
Together, or not at all.