he carried her ghost through gravestone fields
Once she is gone, he refuses to let her leave.
Once the TARDIS stops humming the tune meant only for her child, he clings on. Once the hallways become empty and devoid of her laughter, he clutches at nothing and everything simultaneously. Once that old and cracked blue diary begins to gather dust on the shelf, he shuts his eyes and concentrates on remembering.
Once, there had been a woman. A woman with bright green eyes and corkscrew curly hair, who had known him better than anyone and loved him twice that. She had breezed into his life and taken hold, and despite his ardent resistance, never had the term 'fallen' in love been so appropriate. She had been so completely unexpected, and yet when she'd appeared, so had everything else.
He loved her voice and her godforsaken ability to turn the most mundane of phrases into an innuendo. He loved the wisdom of her eyes and the timeless age they shared. He loved that she was like him in a way he'd never again thought possible. He loved-
He cannot even allow himself to think in past tense, for that will mean she has slipped away forever and he will have no choice but to move on.
He doesn't want to.
They are a circle, an everlasting - if completely disorganised - thread of connection, a seamless continuation of each other. How then, could he jut out of it like a thorn from a rose while the circle continued to turn? He can't, so he hugs her diary to him, never opening it, hoping that there will be one more meeting, that there is one more time coming. He point-blank refuses to become that accursed line he hates so much.
Some days he does run and adventure and meet new people and bring them with him, catching himself back up in the whirl that is just existing across all of time and space. He tells himself it's not as if he's wandering listlessly through every available period or planet. But it always feels a little wrong without her next to him, as if her simple presence had lifted a weight he hadn't known he was carrying. Now she was gone, the heaviness shuddered down on him, ineffable mass pressing upon his hearts. There are many days where he refuses to leave his ship, despite the Old Girl's soft humming and coaxing. It isn't that he is moping; he just has neither the energy nor strength needed to leave. No, he prefers to remain alone with his memories, conserving every last scrap, painstakingly restoring and fitting them together like the shards of a mirror long smashed.
Ironically, he spends a lot of time in libraries. The TARDIS library is his favourite, and he frequently nestles himself in the big leather armchair beside the hearth rug, book in hand, immersing himself in another when without having to face the ravages of time itself. It seems he's picked up a little more love for archeology - his mouth tweaks at that, and he resolves never to tell her, even though he knows he will never even get the chance - and he occasionally drops by a few well-known sites he's read about. Never in hope of seeing her there, he tells himself, but there is always that little visceral lump of regret whenever he doesn't hear the warm, melodious 'hello, sweetie' that he pines for.
Every year, he visits The Library. On the 22nd of April, without fail, he takes a bottle of wine, suspends his beautiful ship over the planet and wishes his wife a happy anniversary. Often he wonders if she misses him, if he did the right thing by locking her in there on her own. Less often, he allows himself to consider what he knows is the answer.
Sometimes, he dreams about her. It is the epitome of pyrrhic pleasure, because he can almost feel her next to him, her warmth a reassurance of her presence, but in the back of his mind he is always well-aware that he is dreaming, that reality is relative, He denies it nonetheless, always waking to a wave of emptiness. Invariably, he will run after those cold nights, in a fruitless effort to save something, even if it only be his old, old mind.
The days bleed into the nights and the months bleed into years and the centuries bleed into the epochs. And although he never really had a home before, he has lost a sense of belonging.
Still, her diary sits unopened on the shelf.
Until one day, in a fit of pure rage at everything - because he's just lost another one, watched the light fade from their eyes and he's not sure how much more he can take before he is broken beyond any hope of repair - he goes to the shelf he filed the deep blue book into all those years ago. There is just so much anger in him and he knows she could make it better and he hates that dependence because it is slowly but surely tearing him into pieces. Furious, he pulls out the accursed blue book and hurls it across the room, watching as it arcs though the air slowly, landing with a thump in the fireplace. Immediately contrite, he leaps over to it, snatching it away from the hungry flames before it is devoured completely. Charred and flaking, it's in bad shape, the already cracked cover coming away in his hands. It is so very close to disintegrating and he knows that unless he reads it now, it may fall to pieces.
So he sits in the armchair, diary in his lap and tweezers in his hand. Slowly, reverently, he turns each page, her scrawl like the balm to a stinging burn. He is enthralled by it; watching her story unfold in front of him is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen and he curses himself for not having read this sooner.
But the other part of him is faltering, breaking, as he reads interactions he's already had. He's only filling up her side, her perspective. Nothing new is emerging, nothing to look forward to, and though he knew that would be the case, he can't stop the spreading emptiness, the torturous nostalgia.
Hours later, he finishes it, and folding it shut with a lingering caress of the burnt cover, he carefully seals it away where it will not age and where he will not see it. He knows now, he is finished. The TARDIS hums, acutely aware of his pain, attempting to comfort him. He ignores her, simply trying to exist.
The library goes dark suddenly, and he starts - he hates any creeping shadows, particularly when they are cast by bookcases.
"What did you do that for, Old Girl?" he asks crossly, voice low and a little bit broken.
There is no reply, only a darkening of light outside in the hall, like she is trying to lead him somewhere. Sighing, he carelessly complies, heavy hearts conforming to his ship's desire, hope so far away he doesn't quite know if it's real.
He trudges down the hallway, half-following the darkening light until he reaches the console room. It's brighter in here, but still darker than usual, as if all the power is being concentrated into one thing.
The scanner flickers.
He slowly walks over to it, footsteps devoid of the usual vivacity. The scanner flickers again, and he turns half an eye towards it, uncaring, before abruptly blinking and effortlessly fixating his whole attention on the little grainy screen. It is as if he has refocused everything, as if he has clunked the last piece of a puzzle into place, for although the image is distorted and blurry, it is slowly coming into sharper view and he knows exactly who it is.
There, sitting on a couch and reading a leather bound book, is undoubtedly his wife.
Tears prick his eyelids but he doesn't even notice them, too intent on studying her. She's the same as she was all those years ago when he first met her; hair wild and more ginger - lucky thing - with those tell-tale laugh lines and bright green eyes. He knows exactly where she is - that room is just as he remembers it from his tenth self's point of view. He can easily visualise Charlotte's purple-clad form blinking up at him intelligently. How the Old Girl had managed to hack The Library's system he didn't know, but nor did he care. Haltingly, he raises a hand to the screen, running a long finger reverently down the image, unsure how long it will last for. "River," he breathes, unable to express anything more.
She starts, looking up from her book and peering around curiously. He gasps, because - what if -
"River?" he tries again, and her brow furrows further before she turns towards what must be the television and sees him. Her eyes widen and she involuntarily brings a hand up to her mouth, completely shocked.
"Doctor?" her voice is disbelieving but it sounds just like he remembers and oh, it's wonderful.
"Hi honey," he says, not adding on the usual two words even though he knows they're true - he's actually, properly looking at her and it feels wholly like he is home. He can see tears forming at the side of her eyes, though he doesn't think she's noticed. She slides elegantly off the couch, book completely forgotten as she kneels before the screen.
"Hello, sweetie," she says, voice thick despite her mouth twisting up at him - he really had forgotten how she could show disapproval and love so simultaneously - and he grins at her, even though he can feel a couple of tears slowly falling down his own face, dripping off his nose. He wants nothing more than to crawl inside and wrap his arms around her, and he can see an identical want inside her own eyes.
"How is this happening?" she asks, tucking a stray curl behind her ear in an ever-familiar gesture.
"The TARDIS. I don't know how she did it, but I don't know how long we've got either," he replies, hating reality with every fibre of his being.
She nods, taking a moment to rearrange her thoughts. This chance to talk is something they've both fantasised about for so long, expecting naught but hoping all the same. Yet now that it's here, there is so much to say. She looks up at him, about to speak, before he cuts her off with the question that has been burning at his throat for all the centuries he has loved her.
"Are you happy, River?"
She looks at him, eyes shining. "Oh, honey, you will never cease to amaze me. I - yes, I'm content. There's life here - of a sort. Billions of books, billions of things to understand and learn. I have the others - my team - and the children to look after. You saved me, daft man, and I'm thankful."
He breathes out a sigh of relief, even though he knows part of her is lying because content is not the same as happy - but she always and completely hides the damage. He can see it in her face; however, he is relieved, so relieved to believe she's existing willingly.
Now it's her turn. "Doctor, are you alright?" she asks, concern evident even after all this time and his breath catches in his throat. He starts to answer 'yes' but just cannot invoke Rule One in what is perhaps the last time he will speak to her. Instead he shakes his head silently, not trusting himself. "Oh, sweetie," she breathes, and he bites his lip hard in an enormous effort to contain everything going on in his mind. "I miss you. So much."
He can tell through her voice that she longs to see him truly, to touch him reassuringly like she always did. Briefly, he wonders if talking to her again is actually a curse wrapped in a blessing. "Me too, River," he says quietly. I can't do this without you, he thinks, and the truth of acknowledging he is alone even when she is right in front of him makes him ache.
As ever, she sees straight though him, knowing exactly what is playing across his mind. "Yes, you can. You have to. The Universe needs you, my love, and as much as I want to, I cannot have you all to myself." A watery smile tweaks at her mouth as she surveys him, ever concerned. He is dumbstruck by her selflessness, because she is more wonderful than he ever expected or deserved and she thinks she's being selfish.
"River Song, you are magnificent."
Her eyes glitter, and he knows the pixels of the screen will never capture the emotion in that gaze. "I know. You're not half bad either," she teases, an eyebrow twitching. He rolls his eyes at her for the first time in a hundred years.
"You love it."
He pauses, watching her tuck another curl behind her ear. "I do."
And there it is, the grin he loves so much, raising the apples of her cheeks and making him smile effortlessly in return. When had it come to this, when was he reduced to a mess at her every word or smile? When had he stopped fighting fate and let it wash over him without so much as even resistance against the formidable current that was his River Song? But most importantly, when had he become half of a whole?
The more he stares at her here, in that domestic idealism, the more he knows she is not alright, she's not happy. She's far too like him.
The thought of spending time without her, of traipsing across the Universe with only one heart for company while the other is tucked away eternally with a woman in a computer, is not pleasant one, not in the slightest. A burning resolve settles where his other heart used to be, and his eyes flash determinedly. "River, I swear I'll fix this. One day."
For half an instant, her face twists into an unfathomable expression - was it hope, regret, bitterness? All three? - before she exhales lightly. "No, my love. You can't." Honestly, he doesn't know how she can tell him this, how she can hide the pain, how he even remotely deserved someone this incredible. "Don't focus on me; let go, see the Universe and all its wonders, take someone with you. Fall in love again."
That last sentence cements it - he is so sure she's got his heart with her now that if you checked his chest there would be one beat under his ribcage while she would have three. She's asking him to move on, to love other people even when she so obviously still loves him. He doesn't understand - that's new - how she can even so much as think of him either being able to move on or wanting to. "I can't."
"Yes, you can, Doctor. I had my time, and it was the most wonderful thing I could ever have hoped for. But yours isn't over yet and I'll not have you lock yourself away over me."
"River, I'm sorry. For everything that ever hurt you and everything I screwed up and for loving you so much it made me even more selfish than I already was." She shakes her head, suddenly a little angry, and he knows she'd have slapped him if it weren't for the impossibility of it.
"Shut up, you idiot. I loved every moment of it, and if you can't see that there's no hope for you."
They fall silent again, and he wonders if she knows that really there's not a lot of hope anyway. His hand comes back up to the screen and he presses it there, willing it to go right through and shatter those pixels until they are reality.
The TARDIS beeps suddenly, and he knows that there's only seconds left before the connection fizzles out and she fades back into that infernal computer. So he does something new and tells her exactly what he is thinking, no loopholes. "Wife, I am not going to stop until either you're out of there or I'm in there with you."
Her voice catches breathlessly. "Doctor, don't you dare do anything stupid for the sake of saving me."
"River, I -"
"No. You're not allowed. I didn't work so hard to keep you safe only to have you botch the whole operation, sweetie. This is the deal."
He nods, "... Alright." He watches her exhale, relieved.
"I'll give you the only thing I have - time," she breathes, trusting him completely. "I'm waiting."
Of course she is.
Her hand comes up to where his is still resting, and he is almost sure there's skin there, not a cold screen. "I love you, River Song. Always and completely," he says quietly and she blinks; one single tear falls out of her eye, tracking a glistening trail down her face, and he is instantly reminded of a twisted metal crown and blinding light.
"I love you too. Endlessly." She smiles before her image vanishes and he is left staring at the dark reflection of a man with broken but determined eyes.
"Well then, Old Girl, where to this time?" he asks, a little more joy creeping into his expression then he would've thought possible. There's a thing inside him, not his heart, but a warmer sensation where it ought to be.
His ship hums in response, and he hears her child's melody faintly ring out once more.
It's more painful than he thought it would be. But this body is so old and so ready that he really ought not to be surprised at all.
The Silence has finally fallen, finally vanished somewhere not even memory will find them. Yet they were not the only ones to fall. His mouth works its way into a wry grin at another of time's circles that seem to follow him so doggedly.
But there is another, far more important circle he wants to seal himself inside.
And so he staggers off to his beautiful ship, somehow containing the regeneration energy that bounces impatiently around his skull. He doesn't have long until a new man fills his shoes, and wonders idly what will happen to the bowtie and the chin and the taste buds. Staggering inside, he slumps onto the jumpseat while the TARDIS flies off of her own accord, utterly conscious of her destination.
There is a scrape and a clunk and that beautiful sound - there's no way he'd turn the brakes off, not even for her - fills his ears for one more time. Almost as if he's in another body already, he staggers out into the darkness, to the damned chair he'd watched her vanish in. But it's his turn now, and so he wires himself in quickly, sonicing everything until it is ready.
Suddenly, he can contain it no longer, and a golden light brighter than a million suns bursts forth from his body. This time, however, it is mixed with a blinding white flash, and he feels himself split apart.
There is brightness everywhere. A tall manor house rises up in front of him, lawn stretching out grandly in front. He is dimly aware that, far away, a new man is stepping into their blue box and flying away from the biggest Library in the Universe forever, but the thought flies out of his mind as soon as he sees two figures on the grass.
They are picnicking, a red and white checked rug spread out underneath them and a basket filled with sandwiches and jam and custard and - he swears he can see fishfingers. The little girl is facing him, but she hasn't noticed him yet, far too focused on the woman in front of her. And he can't blame her, really, because even from behind River Song is fantastically beautiful.
He tugs the lapels of his jacket - white and bowtie-less; he'd have to do something about that immediately - and walks forward, lighter than he's been in centuries. Charlotte still doesn't look up, even though he must have seen him by now, and he realises that she knows, that she knew the instant he uploaded himself. She's letting him surprise River completely, and he loves this little girl already.
So he walks quietly up the hill, grass springing back to shape as his feet ghost over it. He waits until he is just behind his wife and can see every one of her curls sparking in the bright sunlight, dancing as she moves her head.
He grins – he honestly can't help it - as he says those words that are finally, finally true again.
"Hi honey, I'm home."