1917


Dear Mrs. Song,

We regret to inform you that your husband, Doctor John Smith of the XVIII Corps, has been classified as 'missing in action' after the Battle of Langemarck on the 17th August, 1917.

Yours sincerely,
Captain Jack Harkness, XVIII Corps.

The letter had arrived over a month ago.

On that terrible morning, River had - as per the normal routine -woken up and dressed briskly, preparing for work at the Museum.

When John had departed to Belgium, River had acquired a job as a way of passing the long hours that were no longer filled with her impossible husband. Like countless other organisations, the Museum had lost hundreds of employees with the onset of the war; she'd stepped in to take care of the national treasures that, if left unattended, would deteriorate and crumble away. It was painstaking work, restoring and fiddling with such ancient artifacts, but she adored it. The cavernous restoration room, with its huge circular marble floor and walls of books stretching all the way to the domed ceiling, was one of her favourite locations in the city.

Her two other colleagues were also a pleasure; both women, they too had taken the places of men whom had departed for the battlefield. Anita was a sharp, amusing woman, dedicated to her restoration work and while Evangelista had at first seemed a little dense, she proved kind and gifted; she had an incredibly steady hand that became so renowned with the other two that they would hand her the smaller artifacts without a second thought. They were both lovely people and often the three of them would have dinner together, joking about their employer, the senior Lux, debating the finer points of ancient mythology and relieving some of the stress the war had brought. These dinners weren't much, but they helped fill the space River felt since John had left, even if it was only temporary.

But the thing River loved most of all about her work was the history she immersed herself in. The artifacts that depicted days already gone and stories of civilisations that would never again walk the earth struck a profound chord within her. To her, there was nothing better than piecing the puzzle of the ages back together, slotting all the shards of mirror back into place until they formed a fragile picture of the past.

But now, she hadn't been to work in over six weeks.

Instead, she'd stayed at home, on her own. She had no desire to face the others, for as welcome as their company might have been, their pity was not. She didn't want to look into their faces and be reminded of everything she had lost.

"You'll be careful, won't you?" she asked him, staring into his face, trying to memorize all the angles and lines before he boarded the boat and vanished into the throes of war.

"Of course I will, dear. Don't worry about me," he replied, grinning that cheeky grin she loved so much it made her heart ache at the thought of it disappearing.

"Of course I'll worry about you, honey. I love you," she said, bringing one hand up to his face to cup it lightly.

"Of course you do," he laughed at her, taking her hand from his face and kissing the knuckles gently before leaning forward and whispering in her ear. "I love you, too."

She smiled up at him even as her eyes filled with tears that she refused to let fall. This was the last time she would see him for weeks, months … perhaps even-

No. She wouldn't allow herself to think like that. He would return to her.

But a trace of her thoughts must have shown briefly in her face, for he suddenly scooped her up in his arms, holding her tightly and breathing in her scent.

"Hey, I always come back," he reminded her, one hand rubbing lightly up and down her back. "Always," he promised softly, murmuring into her curly hair.

"You better," she said, pulling back once more, her voice an odd mix of serious, teasing and sensitive.

"I will. Trust me, I'm the Doctor."

She smiled at that as from the ship's deck, a whistle sounded, shrill note blasting though the crisp morning air. He shouldered his bag and gave her one light, lingering kiss on the cheek before turning and walking towards the boarding area. She watched his uniformed back move further and further away from her, his long gangly legs transporting him briskly towards the boat, and a rapid twang shot right through her chest. Suddenly, she could stand it no longer.

"John!"

He turned quickly, surprised by his wife, who was rapidly running towards him, skirt and coat flying out behind her as she wove her way through the few people who had come between them. Then she reached him and seized him a final time, pressing her lips to his in one last, loving kiss. He responded in kind, hands wrapping tightly around her waist as her own arms folded around his neck, locking him into place, refusing to let him go.

They broke apart after what felt like both years and seconds later; he almost looked bewildered. "What was that for?"

River looked at him, knowing he already knew the answer, that both of them knew it. That neither of them wanted to say it. So instead she opted for a lighter approach. "Sucker for a man in uniform." He laughed at her wink, even though a tear threatened to fall at the side.

By now, almost every man was on board the boat; reluctantly, John Smith extracted himself from his wife's arms and hoisted his bag higher on his back, squaring his shoulders. Then, with one final wave, he turned and boarded, vanishing into the crowd of soldiers already thronging around on the deck, leaving her standing alone on the shore.

"Goodbye, sweetie."

There were two epochs in River's head now; before the letter and after the letter. Even if she'd wanted to, she couldn't meld the two together again.

Before the letter, she'd been in a constant, unchanging state of worry, the lines on her forehead deepening with every passing day. But there had always been a deep-seated, unshakable faith sitting right next to her heart, lessening – though by no means dissipating - the incorrigible fear. She knew that her Doctor would stop at nothing, nothing, to return to her.

Or so she'd thought, until the day that skinny man with the large nose had walked up her front lawn and knocked on her door, carrying that awful brown slip of paper and the weight of the world with him.

As soon as she'd opened the door, she'd known. Something in the man's face had told her. She didn't even have to open the letter to know, but she did so anyway, tearing the paper, refusing to believe what she already knew was the truth until she saw it.

The spiky black handwriting had stared out at her, each pointed letter stabbing like a blade, twisting deeper and deeper. She'd had to lean on the doorframe for support, clutching the brown paper in her hand, her eyes burning at it even though she could no longer see the words through tears.

That began the post-letter term.

The letter-deliverer – Captain Rory Williams - was like a benevolent old soldier, despite his young age. Apparently, Rory had been pronounced dead one evening during a battle; arrangements had been made to send his body back to England as soon as possible, so it could be with his grieving widow and family. One of the other men had gotten a terrible shock the next day when he'd entered the morgue to find one Captain Williams sitting up and loudly requesting a large cup of tea. Given he had actually sustained quite serious injuries, coupled with the extremely strange circumstances, Rory had been granted leave from the Army. It was upon his return that he'd heard about John's fate.

He'd fought with John and had known him well, right down to the bowtie the mad man had insisted on wearing, to the notorious spouting of useless scientific facts at critical moments. It was Captain Williams who had asked to deliver the letter personally to River, as he had known John best and felt a duty towards his friend's wife. Rory's own wife, Amelia, had also been extraordinarily caring towards River after the news had been delivered; a naturally feisty and loyal person, she had gone to great lengths to ensure River was alright.

She wasn't, of course. She doubted she ever would be.

It was as if a gaping hole had been gouged through her chest, the edges raw and ragged, far too painful to touch. And while the occasional visit from Amy and Rory, and sometimes Anita and Evangelista, helped to gild the wound briefly, it was ubiquitous. And she knew it would never disappear.

Every morning it was there. When she woke up in the guest room (she no longer slept in their room, not wanting to wake and expect to find him there when he would never return) it stabbed anew, reminding her of its presence. In the evening, it did the same thing, not allowing her to sleep due to the intermittent jolts of pain. It was usually late at night when she remembered an event, or had a thought about him, or wanted to tell him something, and she vehemently hated the fact that she couldn't.

Sometimes she caught herself hoping he'd come back, not quite believing he was really dead. Those moments were always the worst, because invariable, unshakable reality would always come thundering down, pounding heavier on her heart every time.

So she threw herself into chores and housework, promising herself that eventually she would go back to the Museum, but only when she was ready to. Until then, she would clean and bake and attempt to bury the pain with so many distractions that it could never escape.

One morning she was hanging out the washing, corkscrew hair pinned into a bun (true to their nature, a few fickle curls still sprang out around her face) and a deep blue apron tied around her waist. The front lawn was big, giving her plenty of room to hang out the copious amounts of laundry in the rare summer sun. She was pinning up the washing with wooden pegs, obscuring the road from her view; the bed sheets were particularly large and could only fit on the line horizontally, meaning she couldn't see a thing apart from her house on the left and the neighbor's fence on her right. She made no noise while she worked; once, she would have sung or hummed quietly, but all the vivacity had gone from her voice, and it would have sounded dead and hollow even if she tried. Eventually, she reached the final sheet, which was pressed snugly into the bottom of the basket. Sighing, she bent to peel it from its sticking-place, careful not to catch it on the wicker, before straightening up tiredly.

Something flickered at the corner of her eye and she turned, expecting Amy to come careening around the corner, as was the red-head's custom. Instead, a sheet flapped back into place and River shook her head; she was getting jumpy. She reached out her arms, attepting to pin the crumpled sheet a second time, but again she could have sworn she saw another flutter, this time certainly not with the wind. On edge now, she called out. "Hello?"

Out of nowhere, all the sheets suddenly came crashing down around her, tugged off their places and fluttering to the ground like huge over-sized butterflies.

And there, in the middle of the vast sea of her once-clean washing, stood her husband, whole and completely alive.

"Hi honey, I'm home."

Stunned into total shock, she stared, absolutely silent.
She blinked once. Twice.

Then, she was running towards him, trampling the laundry under her feet as she threw herself at him, hardly believing anything, let alone the strong arms that came around her waist and lifted her into the air, spinning her around.

When he put her down, she eyed him up and down; he looked the same, he smelled the same, he felt the same and she'd missed everything for so long.

So when he smiled that cheeky smile at her, the one she'd missed so much more than she thought (and that was saying something), she rasied her hand and slapped him across the face. Hard.

"Ouch! River, what was that for!?" he yelped, but she never got the chance to answer because she'd already tugged him into her and kissed him hard on the mouth. For a moment, he flailed his arms around, unsure of exactly what was going on, but then they settled on her waist again and she sighed into him, pulling him as close as she physically could.

When they finally separated, she felt something cold on her face and with a start she realised she was crying. He looked at her, immediately worried, but she cut him off.

"Don't you ever, ever do that to me again," she said, eyes blazing. "I thought you were dead."

He looked sheepishly at her, still with his arms wound around her waist, before opening his mouth. "Sorry," he said earnestly.

"Sorry? I thought I'd seen you for the last time ten months ago, that I would never get to talk to you again, never get to see you again, and I get a 'sorry?'" she said, a dangerous mixture of furious and felicific. "Ooh, I hate you!" she exclaimed.

"No, you don't," he reminded her, grinning again as he looked down into his wife's face.

"No, I don't, and you're damn lucky about that," she said, a smile cracking the edges of her own mouth. Even as she looked at him she could feel that terrible hole inside her shrinking down and down, until it vanished and she could feel nothing but elation lifting her from her toes to the very top curl on her head.

"I certainly am; not many wives assault, kiss and yell at their husbands when they unexpectedly return from the dead," he said, eyes dancing at her, thrilled simply by her physical presence.

"Well, you must have gotten lucky, then."

"I rather think I did," he said, bopping her on the nose. "You're quite nice, too."

"Oh, shut up."

"Make me."

So she did, tugging him closer and kissing him again, lighter than she'd ever been in her life and sure he felt exactly the same.