the lines of life that life repair with time's pencil
The first thing she notices is the cold. It is freezing.
It's odd - a virtual reality shouldn't have a noticeable temperature at all, let alone an uncontrollable one. Still, River can't ignore the chill that settled deep in her bones when she materialised in that field goodness knows how long ago.
The world is picturesque, almost disturbingly so. The manor house is grand and spacious, hundreds of rooms furnished with the finest items. The lawn is wide and rich with colour, the plants thriving in rich textures and shades. Her team – Anita, Proper Dave, Other Dave and Miss Evangelista – all adjust quickly, laughing with one another. They don't feel the cold at all; they're just happy to be alive.
No, not alive. Happy to exist.
There will not be any living any longer.
The shards of ice in her skeleton never fade or disappear or melt. No, they simply join up through her veins, pumping her pixelated body with a horrible frost that she knows will haunt her forever.
Time is disgusting in here.
She can't feel it properly; it's cloudy and murky - it congeals within the folds of her mind, curling on every neuron. Even so, she keeps a tally of exactly how many days pass on the Outside. It was the 28th of January when she materialised. So far, it has been both many long, fuzzy years and forty-eight earth days since she died in the Library.
She is yet to leave the house. She just doesn't want to. The children are lovely and bright and something she hadn't even known she'd wanted until they arrived and nestled themselves comfortably inside her hearts. She adores looking after them and seeing innocent, sweet smiles grace their grateful faces. None of them ever age and nor does she; it makes her feels stagnant, like she's been set in concrete.
The children love the stories – the possibility of history's books, pages spread out before them, never fails to bring a light to each child's eye. Charlotte's sparkle particularly bright. Most recently, they have taken to immersing themselves in Peter Pan as often as they can, and while River laughs at their love of the Lost Boys and soothes their fear of Captain Hook, she is yet to enter the book's world with them. Somehow, living out the story of a boy who never wants to grow up and yet is so beyond his age tugs at her heartsstrings.
She is, in fact, yet to enter any book. Far safer, she assures herself, to concentrate on one story rather than hundreds. She is and always has been an innately selfish person and she sees no reason to change that - even if she is made of technology and data rather than flesh and bone.
After all, there is only one story that matters to her now and its last chapter was finished, the final lines typed out brutally, solidifying their irreversible circle.
To their credit, they never stop trying to help her. She couldn't have picked a better team. It doesn't take an idiot to see her change in spirit and no one in their little virtual reality could be described as stupid. She is different, she can tell – the flirtatious edge has gone from her voice; there are lines of sorrow around her eyes; she smiles rarely, if at all.
The light has vanished from her. That is all there is to it.
She often curls up near a window for hours at a time, staring at nothing and thinking of everything. Charlotte tries to persuade her with promises of every single written book in the universe – official or not. One day, she tells her about a cat with a grin, a Queen's stolen tarts and a grumpy old caterpillar. Another time, it's a princess with a glass shoe, and another is about a woman with impossibly long hair who is trapped at the top of a tower. As always, she begs River to come and see, to fold herself into the pages of text and let the old syllables wash over her mind, clearing it. Charlotte can see straight past River's façade, right through to the ice in her hearts; her big eyes look imploringly up at River, trying their hardest to help free her from something she would never mention.
River always refuses. She has lost interest in the stories of other people; it is as simple as that. It's too difficult – especially with the love stories. And although she cares deeply about the children, she knows they will be safe and don't truly need her.
The others try too. They tell her all about seeing Gatsby's parties first hand, bumping into Winston Smith and trying not to be noticed and muttering about Anna Karenina at a sweeping ball in the twilight of the Russian Empire. She listens to all their tales willingly, offering them tea and a smile that unsurprisingly never reaches her eyes.
They try, they really do, and River appreciates them all the more for it. Nonetheless, every time they leave, she breathes out heavily, wearily feeling age settle into her brow even if there will be no physical tell.
There is another reason she does not want to enter any cherished pages. She does not want to be reminded of him. It is paradoxical, she knows, because all she does is try to remember their story and their story alone. But that is their beautiful tragedy – their time is over, yet it ties her to him.
She is too like him, too willing to let the wound fester and putrefy. There could never be anything as simple as a cure for an eternal half-life, so she gives up, too tired and old to try.
Her hand subconsciously caresses the cover of a worn blue book and tears clutter her eyelashes, never falling. Then, she shakes herself and returns to the windowsill.
The coldness gets worse. It is inexplicable. She stays in bed more often, staring at the repulsive green of the lawn through clear, bright windows.
She does not think of him.
One day, she wakes up and blinks, shocked.
It is raining.
The patter of droplets on the window and roof invades her mind like something long-dead. Sighing, River screws her eyes shut once more, ignoring the ever-vertiginous lawn. The thin white fabric of her gown rustles as she turns over, pulling the blankets closer in an effort to feel warmth again.
Today marks one of so many years to have passed in a blur. She lost track of the decades a long time ago. Even so, she knows it's been exactly eighty-four days since she died in the Library.
Which makes today the 22nd of April.
Today is her anniversary.
Her mouth twists itself into a humourless line – her situation now is so disturbingly similar to what it had been standing atop that pyramid with time collapsing around her. This virtual reality is a construct and time here is broken, fractured like a smashed mirror. Time atop the pyramid was disintegrating, turning every moment into one. And both events had the same man at their nexus.
There was just once difference. The pyramid – her wedding – had certainly been made from time's anomaly, and yet it had felt infinite, full of possibilities and days to come. This existence feels cold and clinical in its unavoidable linear containment.
She screws her eyes shut further, refusing to listen to the rustle of a bowtie or feel his warm lips on hers. But the memories come anyway, crashing pitilessly, violently over her. She wonders, as she thinks of miniaturisation rays and every living thing in the universe, how she ever thought she was strong enough to keep this at bay.
The rain shoots like bullets as River Song cries.
After that, Charlotte brings her books. River protests, at first, until she realises they're not fiction. No stories, no mythology, no fables. Instead, she's given cold recounts, facts and figures.
Grudgingly, to both appease Charlotte and take her mind off him, River agrees to enter one book and one book only. When she picks An Abbreviated History of Sentex VI, Charlotte smiles quietly, happy to see River surrounded by desert and artefacts. River herself is not happy – she's not quite sure how to be - but covered in artificial dirt and searching for the Tomb of Sekalex, she finds contentment.
After her initial foray into the world of non-fiction, River returns, hesitantly jumping from book to book. There is no interaction within non-fiction works – she is completely invisible to anyone written in the book - due to their dedication to accuracy.
She is alone with the collective knowledge of the universe. It soothes her ever-raging mind.
It is in Churchill's third volume of Second World War that she first spots him. He's standing in the corner of a war room, frowning at the maps spread out in front of him, his silhouette illuminated by the twisting cigar smoke that stifles the room.
River forgets immediately about the Blitz raging right above her and destroying London, freezing where she stands in the opposite corner. She should have known, should have predicted, should have thought that this would happen. He exists across most of human history and then some. Of course he wouldn't let her exist without him.
His head jerks up, like he can suddenly sense her, and she swallows air she doesn't need in an effort to feel as though she could breathe again. He looks straight through her and that is too familiar, too acute, too similar to a cluttered Library desk and different face. His eyes narrow and River feels as though he has fired an arrow that has shot straight through her and out again, tearing a vicious hole through her middle.
Then in the blink of an eye, he is gone again, Churchill whisking him up to an office and away from his paralysed wife. River leans heavily on the wall, willing herself away before the ice inside her shatters and she scatters into a million pieces.
After that, she is more careful. Charlotte continues to give her books and she continues to immerse herself in them in every way possible, but she is vigilant. She cannot run into him again. She just can't.
The immersions are good for her. She is losing the tightness around her mouth and while the frost hasn't – and won't ever, she suspects – disappeared, she is beginning to exist again. Every so often she will misjudge something and run into a him hidden within the pages, but she always runs as far and as fast as she can, unwilling to fall into a gaze that couldn't see her.
She had such a long, rich life, filled with adventure, joy and so much love it's nigh on impossible to explain. She begins to try though, reading the children short stories from her precious journal. They are enthralled by the snapshots of her life, because even though River never tells them the names – both for their sake and her own – they look at her with the burning belief that her faerietales are real.
Occasionally, Charlotte choses a book and comes with her. So far, they have only been factual recounts, though River can tell the girl is itching to throw her into a juicy narrative. And she will agree – some day, when it doesn't hurt to think of possibilities and words and days that never came but could under an author's infinite touch. For now though, she is satisfied by simple events, places and facts.
Currently, she is working her way through The Natural Wonders of the 51st Century. Despite the fact that she's seen most of the places in the flesh, she doesn't read ahead, each new wonder a pleasant surprise. She's pleased to find visiting their digital echoes is not painful. These are captured as the author saw them, not her, so it isn't hard to push away the thoughts of dancing on the Impossible Shard of Pyloxor or running through the reverse-waterfalls of Hallar VIII or standing atop the Fifth Sphinx (even though she knows exactly how the nose was broken). No, she appreciates the wonders for what they are to the universe, not what they are to her.
That is until she closes her eyes, leaving the Great Mosaic of Kings with a simple thought. Arriving at the next destination, she's eager to take in the next wonder and slot another piece of the universe back into her mind.
Her eyes flutter open and instantly her hearts close themselves off, arteries freezing over.
Before her is a perfect, peaceful copy of the Singing Towers of Darillium.
She breathes quietly, unaware of the tears immediately tracking serenely down her cheeks. It is exactly as she remembers; the Towers stretch up to the purple and blue sky emblazoned with impossibly bright stars that seem to dance seamlessly with the symphony they sing. They are captured faultlessly, showing precisely what the author saw. In the back of her mind she is aware of the automatic briefing the book gives her, clerical voice reading the brief summary.
The Singing Towers of Darillium. Discovered in the 39th century by archaeologists searching for the Temple of Darilli, this extraordinary natural phenomenon has attracted thousands of visitors over the millennia, from all corners of the inhabited universe.
The summary trundles on in the back of her brain, pushed to the side by uncontrollable sentimentality. She's not really paying much attention to it, too taken up with the wonder and pain that dances inside her chest.
Her eyes turn skywards, because she can't help it. She remembers exactly where she'd been standing that night – right on top of the tallest tower. According to him, it had the best view and the best sound and the best everything, River, now come along. She'd sighed and allowed him to lead her forward.
The Towers themselves sing in two vastly different ways. The first and most common is through their 'natural rhythm,' a permanent state that dictates the collective melody. The second is through a rare but involuntary psychic link; the tallest Tower can sense the emotions of a being if he/she/it is standing atop it. These raw feelings will influence the Towers' music, projecting and transforming the individual's immediate emotion into music, thereby overriding the natural rhythm. However, activation of the link is shrouded in mystery, so much so that many think it is a myth. In recent years, the Towers have sung for nobody – unless the legend of the Lonely Soul is to be believed.
River sighs, letting the melody invade her mind and run all over her senses. It isn't as strong as it had been when she'd been there, but it is enough to send her spine tingling, as though tiny ice shards are being pressed into it. The song is not the same as she remembers and she is surprised - the natural rhythm is not playing in this recount, no had it played when she had visited with the Doctor.
Her melody had been slow but full of deep, ineffable love. It had sung like nostalgia's embrace, wrapping around her ribcage and settling between the bones.
This one is different. It is mournful, painful, acute stabs of loss hidden among quietly hopeless notes. It invades the mind and presses on hearts in beautifully soft cruelty.
Yet there is similarity, she thinks. Something in the rise of the swirling notes sounds familiar, a motif running through the rich tune. It's affecting her, winding its way around herself and binding her there.
The myths surrounding the Singing Towers are almost as mysterious as the wonders themselves. Over the centuries, countless stories have sprung up, some trivial and inconsequential, some extreme. However, no legend is as well known as that of the Lonely Soul.
According to countless stories and recounts, there is a revenant who haunts the tallest Tower, remembering his lost lover. It is said that he alone has grief enough to call out to the Towers themselves. Those who have bared witness to the 'Haunted Song' of the Towers have said it is the most sorrowfully breath-taking music, echoing the infinite heartache of the Lonely Soul.
The author had obviously visited on a quiet day, because there are a few people milling around the base of the Towers, their expressions of second-hand grief a product of the sombre tones that echo around them. River finds herself walking forward without her consent, brushing past whispering people.
He's here. The Soul is singing.
She traces the outline of the tallest Tower with her eyes, white gown whispering over the ground. Almost subconsciously, she breezes past the people crowding around the Towers - she is a phantom to them and they are unaffected by her.
As is the way with these forays into books, she thinks of a location and suddenly finds herself there, so it is unsurprising when she discovers she's no longer on the ground, but standing atop the tallest Tower, the dark sky stretching out above her and the grief-stricken melody ten times stronger.
There's a figure hunched over in the corner. She knows instinctively who it is, she would know with her eyes shut. He's alone and she can tell from the stoop of his shoulders that he's been so for far too long. His long purple coat hangs off his thinning frame and even with his back to her she can see the bowed line of his shoulders, heavy with the weight of all those years.
Her breath has caught in her throat, trapping her. He hasn't turned around and she's not sure he should because she wants nothing more than to reach out and touch him, to ease the burden of time that he carries on his own. And she can't.
They had visited Darillium before anyone else in existence – for some reason he'd insisted on being the first and when she'd asked him why he'd just muttered something about there not being enough beginnings in the universe. She'd decided not to push him, because he'd looked more haunted than she'd seen him for a while.
But now, he looks like haunted's shadow. She wants to do nothing more than stretch out her hand and comfort him, but she can't. He will feel nothing - she doesn't exist to him. She almost laughs at the cruelty; he is the Lonely Soul and she is a ghost to him. The universe has drawn them yet another circle and River almost screams from the limitless confinement.
She draws closer to him until she's standing close enough to reach out and touch the rough fabric of his coat. He is shaking, she realises, and her brow creases in concern. The Towers continue their song, rising louder and louder as River realises the Doctor is crying in front of her eyes.
She draws back from him as though she's been stung. She can't look at him like this, knowing she is the cause. Not when he's sitting in the very spot they'd been in all those years ago, and he's crying the same tears. There had been a difference then – she'd been there to dry them. Now he is alone again and she shakes her head, feeling her insides turn so cold she's sure the organs have been sliced by shards of frost.
Quietly, she draws back, cursing the author for preserving this particular day in such terrifying clarity, cursing herself for being foolish enough to stumble across this and cursing him for caring so much because clearly their love has destroyed them both.
The image of the haunted Doctor stays with her. She hates that it's the clearest one she has.
Eventually, she goes into her diary, needing something, anything to combat the thought of the shattered man who left his hearts with her. She relives little moments – Christmas with her parents, ice-skating on the Thames, the Bone Meadows – hoping they will galvanise the wounds.
They don't, but she falls in anyway. She watches their love unfold again and she drowns herself in their words and moments and lives. She watches the whole story from his perspective and loves him all the more for it. She just watches while tears fall into the curve of her smile.
During the days, she goes into a story with the children. She has rectified her fear of potential by watching her own story again and now she is only too happy to have tea with the Mad Hatter or teach a class at Hogwarts, much to the children's joy.
During the nights, she alternates between her diary and more books. Her focus is slimmer now though – she reads about transference of complex, sentient data and neurological/technological compatibility. Huge volumes on the subject take up much of her time, but buried among the wires and theories, she freezes her resolve.
She will find him again.
Charlotte's worried about her, she can tell. Even though she comes along for adventures and laughs and takes them all on picnics now, she knows Charlotte can see right through her.
One day, Charlotte is fiddling with the hem on her purple skirt, refusing to look anyone in the eye. River's brow furrows and she asks what's wrong, immediately worried. Charlotte bites her lip, looking as though she might cry, and River does her best to comfort the little girl.
But when she sniffs that a data transfer is impossible, River goes still for a moment. Through her tears, Charlotte explains that she knows what River's planning, but she can't support a full relocation - saving 4022 people had damaged her hard drive beyond repair. She supports all the people inside the data core, but she cannot make a transfer to the outside world without damaging her own files.
River only holds the girl closer, promising everything will be okay and not believing a syllable.
She takes to reading about The Library after that. There is a plethora of literature on its construction – it has an important place in universal history, after all. She thinks that if she knows as much as she possibly can, perhaps she'll find a loophole - if there's one thing River Song is good at, it's escaping.
Sometimes, she devotes hours to understanding the most basic functions of the Library. Other times, she just wanders the corridors aimlessly.
One day, she is preparing to immerse herself in The Library: The Felman Lux Corporation's Greatest Achievement when she notices Charlotte. The little girl – still so young after all this time – is smiling wider than she's ever seen her before. When River asks what her toothy grin is for, Charlotte only smiles wider, eyes twinkling, and promises she'll understand very soon, now. River worries that the child is becoming too like her before kissing her on the head and assuring her she'll be back in time for tea.
The Library in this book is in its later days. The author had visited just two weeks before the Vashta Nerada had struck, so everything is just as River remembers it. She's been here so often she could navigate the corridors with her eyes shut. However, her in-depth knowledge of the Library hasn't proved useful beyond that.
The only thing she wants is to find a way to wipe that awful, lost expression off her husband's face. And if she can't do that herself, she needs to make sure that he can - that he can move on, be happy again. Then she will find a way to delete her files.
She wanders the hallways aimlessly, absorbing this specific book's information. This text isn't particularly helpful – nor is it accurate because Charlotte's existence is still a secret – but she stays anyway, pondering Charlotte's curious behaviour this morning as she passes Biographies. There's a long corridor here, Grecian-inspired architecture rearing up to the sky; the Library really is breathtakingly grand. Watching the bustling of humanoid life forms as they search for any book ever published is never dull. Sometimes it strikes her as strange, the fact that she's walking among people that never see her or acknowledge her. She is an observer in the most pure sense of the word – if indeed, pure could be used to describe her at all – and she watches lives flit by, exactly as they were when the author described them. It is especially strange being in a place that, strictly speaking, she's already inside - but this is an echo of the real Library, an author's detailed description, not the real thing.
Eventually she reaches the end of one of the corridors, where it splits off into three more. To her left is a door leading to one of the smallest of the Grand Reading Rooms. Straight ahead of her is another corridor nearly identical to the one she just passed through. But it is to her right she turns, towards one of her favourite places in the entire Library.
It is a balcony looking over a slice of the autobiographical section, and it is incredible to see. Comparatively, it is a tiny balcony – there are millions more and they are a million times more impressive – but it's her favourite for that precise reason. Visitors so often overlook it; even now, she is the only one walking down its steps, white hem of her dress flowing over the smooth marble without a sound.
She rests her arms on the railing, leaning over and letting her eyes sweep across the horizon. Being in a projection of her final resting place is soothing in a bizarre way and she closes her eyes, letting the last of the day's light bloom across her face. She will find a way to talk to him one more time, she is sure. She just needs to tell him to open his eyes, to keep running and adventuring because the universe is full of so very many mysteries and he cannot miss them for her sake. She needs to tell him that she doesn't blame him for anything and she needs to tell him how sorry she is that he carried her death with him for all the time they were together.
Above all though, she needs to tell him she loves him. Just once more.
That will be enough. Then, she can delete herself and cease this half-existence. He just has to hear her say it once more.
"River Song, are you brooding?"
She starts, jolting up immediately. Her hair bounces erratically as she whips around, curls obscuring her vision for a split-second before they waywardly fall back around her head. The white dress and cardigan she wears flares out when she spins, following the line of her body as she faces the sweeping staircase lined with old books.
Impossible. It can't be.
The Doctor is standing halfway up the stairs, hands in his pockets as he bounds down the remaining marble steps. She doesn't understand how he could be here, because there is no way her Doctor would come anywhere near any library – something she'd always found odd but had never pushed him on – yet there he is.
He had to be a part of the book. But if that is the case, the author has spent an inordinate amount of time on him - his features and mannerisms are perfectly desribed and in such detail even River couldn't fault them and she knew him better than she knew herself.
But the most unnerving part of all was that he is looking straight at her. Not through her or around her or over her – right at her. That isn't right, that isn't how these books work. The visitor is an apparition, invisible to the described. They couldn't see her, for goodness' sake.
Perhaps there is a data malfunction and a few of the apparitions have gained temporary sentience. That makes sense.
Of course a deluded version of her husband would appear to torture her. Of course. She is suddenly unsure whether she wants to laugh or cry, because it feels as though yet another hole has been punched through her chest and she doesn't know what to do.
She'd thought it was bad looking at a man who didn't know her or who couldn't see her. She'd been wrong. Nothing, nothing, could be worse than this version of her husband. He looks at her like he knows every page and description and word and syllable and letter in her life. And he can't be real.
So when he reaches the bottom of the stairs and holds his arms out towards her, a mixed expression of tenderness and joy written all over his face, she doesn't fall into them. She hugs herself instead, arms winding around her middle in an effort to keep it bound together.
His brow furrows and he steps closer. "River?" he asks tentatively and she turns her head away, unable to look at him for one more second. "River, what's wrong?" He sounds so genuinely concerned and worried that she has to take her proverbial hat off to her fate for not only stabbing her but also twisting the knife.
Staring out over the balcony, she speaks. "I don't care what you are or what you're doing. I have nothing I can give you. Leave me alone." Her words are acidic and lethal, hardened by the throbbing frost that seems to follow her all the time. She refuses to look at whatever the thing is beside her, so when she feels a warm hand lay hesitantly on her arm she jumps violently.
"River, it – it really is me," he says and she wants nothing more in the whole universe than to believe him. "I'm really here," he says softly, hand warm as his thumb rubs her arm soothingly.
Still refusing to look at him, River speaks. "You can't be him." She can hear her own voice thickening rapidly and curses it. "You can't be him because I'm a data ghost and I can't be seen by anyone. I'm dead."
His hand tightens on her arm. "River, please look at me." It is a gentle request and despite herself, River finds her head turning. Immediately she is met with bright intelligent eyes that have seen so much and for so long. They are perfect replicas, but to her surprise they're wet with unshed tears. "River, I'm here, I'm real, I promise," he says, a hand reaching up to tentatively brush a curl from over her eyes.
She freezes as his fingers brushes her cheek, the skin tingling just as it always had.
"Doctor?" she asks, voice hoarse and unsure.
"You bet," he grins back, hand still brushing across her cheek reverently.
"H-How?" she stutters, still not believing him.
He sighs, a mixture of pained and pleased with himself. "I finished, reached the end of my regeneration cycle. Bound to happen soon. So really it was either this or death," he grimaces before looking at her and transforming his scowl into a smile so bright she is thrown off guard. "Forgive me, but I chose to spend eternity with you instead."
The reality crashes over her. She knows it can't be a data malfunction, has known that since she first spotted him. The only plausible explanation is the one he's giving her and yet it seems for far from possible she feels as though gravity has been tugged out from underneath her. His earnest expression doesn't help – he's looking at her like she is the only thing in the universe that matters to him and after all this time, after all these years, it is too much.
"It's been decades for me, Doctor," she says, voice faint and eyes avoiding his. His hand falls from her face. "Decades and I've heard nothing from you. I'm not- I'm not the same-" she cuts herself off, unable to continue. Her arms are still locked around her middle.
"River, do you really think that matters to me?" he asks honestly, nothing but love reflected in his eyes. It is all too much for her – she can't seem to process any emotion fast enough. She's still not sure she knows what's going on or whether she trusts her own eyes.
"Of course it matters – I waited for you for so long-" she curses in her head as a lump forms in her throat. "I waited and my memories didn't – they faded away instead." Her voice is painful even to her own ears, despite its quietness. She's wanted to see him again for so long but now he's standing in front of her she can feel the frost seeping up and seizing her tongue.
He reaches for her again and she jerks back. Everything is spinning incessantly around her head and she can't make sense of it. "Doctor – no!"
She breaks away from him and runs up the stairs, not caring about where she goes so long as it is as far away as possible. She runs away not because she's afraid – even this old she can't shake his ridiculous rules. No, she tears away because she's learnt from the best; run when she has no idea what to say. She sprints down corridor after corridor, past hundreds of shelves, nodes and people who can't even see her. He's right behind her, she can hear him yelling, and she speeds up, hating herself because she could leave this book's reality anytime she wanted to – but she won't because she is selfish and can't bear to truly part with her husband again, be he apparition or reality.
Turning a corner, she barrels down another corridor until she reaches a set of heavy wooden doors. Smashing them open, she runs inside and now she's sure the universe must have it in for her because this is the same room. This is the room she found him in when she arrived at the Library.
This is the room where he first met her.
The energy suddenly vanishes from her legs and she slows in her path, clutching at her chest because it hurts. The cavernous space is cluttered with books and in the edges of the room there are a few people lurking. Of course they don't notice the half-hysterical woman who has just burst into their midst, nor do they look at the man chasing her.
She reaches the middle of the room just as he catches her arm and spins her around. They are standing on the grand marble circle, the little shop just behind them and the open sky of the Library above.
She is frozen completely; he cautiously repeats the same action from before, gently pushing a curl back from her eyes. As his hand ghosts over her cheek, she shuts her eyes, tears suddenly and silently falling thick and fast.
"Hey," the Doctor says, voice hushed, "Don't cry River, don't cry." He pulls her into an embrace and his hands ghost over her back. "I'm not going anywhere, I promise," he says again and she bites her lip, keeping a sob locked inside her mouth. He is so warm against her and it has been so long. She clutches at his back, finally accepting the truth.
He's here. He's actually here. He's real and he's here.
"Yes, I'm here, River," he says, chuckling and she didn't even realise she was speaking out loud. "Like I said, an eternity with you and every book in the universe. Couldn't really refuse, could I?"
Suddenly a smile brighter than the sun bursts across her face, illuminating every corner. She pulls back from his embrace, wiping her tears away quckly and then resting her hand on his cheek, thumb smoothing over the angle of his cheekbone and fingers twirling into his hairline.
The next thing she knows he is kissing her with all he's worth. She pulls him even closer, hand winding around to the base of his neck as his own tighten around her waist. Her mouth opens under his and he tastes like something more glorious and wonderful than time or custard – he tastes like home.
He kisses her as though he can take away all the things that have ever upset her, as though he's missed her more than life itself. The horrible, incorrigible cold that she has felt with her ever since she materialised in the manor garden is vanishing, melting away. She can feel the ice rolling off her in sheets, replaced by a dual yearning and contentment that she never thought she would feel again. He twists his tongue and she moans involuntarily, hearts beating against his in their lost rhythm.
The universe has drawn them yet another circle – here she stands, upon the very spot he met her, entwined in his embrace and promised an eternity. She hums happily and he pulls her even closer.
Eventually, they have to breathe and they break apart to do so, foreheads still resting together. River sighs. "Doctor, I'm sorry I didn't-"
He cuts her off by bringing a finger to her mouth and holding it there, refusing to let her finish. "Not a problem, River Song. It was a shock, I know. But on the plus side, I can finally say I've surprised the living daylights out of you now, so I can cross that off the bucket list. That is, if you can still have a bucket list when you're dead. Can y-". She cuts him off this time, because although she missed his ridiculous babbling, she's gone far too long without his kisses.
She laughs when they separate. This happiness is something she never thought she'd feel again; it is all-encompassing and it infuses her veins with irresistible warmth.
"How did you do it, you great big sentimental idiot?" she asks lovingly.
"Oh, we're back to insulting; that was a speedy recovery," he teases, bopping her on the nose. She attempts to look cross with him and fails miserably.
"Tell me," she insists, poking him in the middle with a finger.
"I spoke to Charlotte. She did the rest – I was quite happy to just materialise in your bedroom-" River rolled her eyes "-but she insisted I surprise you. She thought this would have the most shock factor."
Well, that certainly explains Charlotte's attitude – no wonder she'd been so happy. "Remind me to thank her," River says, winding her arms around her Timelord and resting her head on his shoulder.
"You'd better apologise too, because I don't think she thought you'd go psychotic on me," he teases and she gasps and slaps his chest.
She does so without complaint.
It is remarkable, how quickly he fits in to her life in the data core. His clothes are lined up next to hers again and he makes her tea in the morning just as he used to. They spend their days running and dancing and loving between the pages of books and their nights between the deep blue sheets.
He is wonderful with the children – unsurprising, seeing as he still is one – and he gets along extremely well with the others. He just fits perfectly – she tells him this one day and he smirks suggestively and kisses her through her laughter.
He takes her on the most fantastic dates he can think of, through pages and pages of stories. She loves him absolutely and utterly, especially in the quiet moments where they relax and reminisce without the worry of spoilers ever again.
He has turned her existence into something she'd thought was completely impossible. Not only is it a life; it is a life with him.
She could ask for nothing more in the whole universe.