"You said I killed you-haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe-I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!" –Wuthering Heights
She's scattered across his timeline like confetti. Since the beginning she's been a footprint in the sands of time, an echo, not quite real. He doesn't just mean Clara, he means River. She's always been around, haunting him in one form or another.
In the beginning, every encounter had been like living out the diary of a dead woman, pages brought to life through happenstance as they stand there with miles and miles of skeletons and petrified remains stretched out before them. It's a valley of death. It's a graveyard without the graves. It's-
"The Bones Meadows." She breathes and he swallows hard. For once he's glad Donna isn't around to see this. The universe is vast and beautiful, but it has its dark corners, too.
The horror of what happened here settles into his own bones as he takes in the bleak topography. Grey and lifeless and all he can think to say is,"I didn't think this place was real."
"And that," River says, scanner out and ready and wasting no time in swaggering off ahead of him, "is why I'm the one with the degree and you're just a clumsy time boy."
"Time boy?!" He gapes, purposefully not following after her. He can feel the smirk on her face as surely as she can feel the way his eyes burn into the back of her head. "It's Time Lord. The last of, actually, and I won't be spoken to like that by an archaeologist of all people." He reprimands her, not at all amused by her teasing. Then as an afterthought adds, "And I am not clumsy."
"Well," she finally turns back to face him, eyes raking over his skinny body and blue suit like he's the ghost, an outline of a man she used to know. "Maybe not this face. But the next one, definitely."
It got easier, being haunted by a ghost who wasn't yet dead. Eventually she became less like a bad omen and more like a guardian angel. Together they ran, leaving behind the trouble they fell into by whim or fancy. They were today's miracle and tomorrow's headline and yesterday's myth. And they were magnificent. They relived their own adventures by cuddling up to chuckle at history books, reminiscing the way most couples do over old photographs.
"They are modeled after you. I've seen the statues. You don't sculpt a chin like that without proper inspiration."
"Well you're one to talk. The 'Song' Dynasty. Don't tell me you didn't have a hand in that, Professor."
She was a mirage he could touch and kiss, an echo he could laugh with and run beside.
"Don't make me come over there and teach you a lesson, Doctor Song." He glances at her as she lounges in the bath.
Chuckling darkly, she responds, "I'd like to see you try."
"Is that a challenge?" He asks, and she grins deviously.
"Oh absolutely." Without warning, he leaps into the tub, fully clothed and splashing at her. She squeaks at the sudden assault, shouting, "Not the hair!"
After Darillium, she took to haunting him quite literally. She just appeared one day, unannounced and uninvited and exactly what he needed. In death exactly as she was in life. She keeps him company while he reads. It feels like the old days, when they would sit in companionable silence and he would design screwdrivers and she would doodle in her diary. He steals glances at her now in the same manner he would back then. Except back then he was always trying to catch glimpses of what she was drawing. An act that, more often than not, left himself blushing at the sight of her sketches of him and handcuffs and, well, private things. This time he can't afford the luxury of hearing her laugh should she find his eyes on her. Now he does his best to keep his eyes glued to the book he's not really reading, only occasionally peaking at her from the corner of his eye.
"You should really donate those scrolls from Alexandria, you know. How long are you going to let people think they were all destroyed?" She asks, and he bites his tongue to keep from answering, eyes burning from the effort of not watching her glide back toward him. She's so close he swears he can feel the heat of her body as she leans over to glance at what he's reading. She hums at the familiar title. "You always do come back to your favorites, don't you sweetie?" Then she sighs, nostalgia and warm smile falling from her face. He can practically feel her thoughts that go unsaid: 'why haven't you come back for me?'
He wants to tell her that that's exactly what he's doing. She's why he keeps holed up in his ship. He's clinging to her in the only form he has left. Oh, he wants to tell her so many things. But there's a ball of guilt swelling in his throat and it keeps his selfish tongue silent. What could he say to her anyway? This woman who died for him, who clings to life for love of one thing: him. She only wants one thing, a thing he just can't do, words he cannot find. He wants to let her find peace, but he's just not strong enough to let her go. So he does the selfish thing, just like he always does. He hides from her and hopes that she stays. He ignores her and isolates himself away with only her apparition for comfort.
It made the long nights easier. She made it easy to ignore the reality that she was gone. Because she wasn't gone, was she? She was beside him, joking, teasing, telling him things he should have figured out five minutes ago. The center of the TARDIS is a dangerous place, especially if she's in disarray. And poor Clara is down here all alone and now he's dragged three unhelpful salvagers into the mix, the youngest of which he's pretty sure isn't really an android, and he really hopes that detonator was just for show, but he'll worry about all that later. Right now he's trying to ignore his wife, her apparition and her time distortions. Long ago moments are around every corner, his memories being played out like old movies. Down one corridor they're playing strip chess, a game in which she has a sizable advantage. The next they're arguing over a reckless thing he'd done, and off to his right she's dragging him behind closed doors by his bow tie and, oh look, there are crispy zombies from a potential future roaming about and it's all very distracting and he has to save Clara!
They've made it back to the console room, except it isn't the console room. "It's an echo." He tells the not android.
Beside him River gives a hollow laugh, "That seems to be the trend these days."
"The console room is the safest place on the ship. It can replicate itself any number of times." The Doctor announces to distract himself. "She's trying to protect us."
"Yess," River coos in his ear with a sultry smile and knowing tone. "Think about it, sweetie. Why would she bring you here instead of just taking you directly to Clara?"
It's hard enough trying to focus with unhelpfuls two and three running around stealing bits of his ship. He doesn't need his ghost wife giving her two cents on every little- hang on, "There's more than one echo room." The epiphany hits him like a brick wall because of course! It's the same space existing in two different planes, and if he can get the frequency right, he can pull Clara through to his.
Beside him, River gives a crooked smile. "Now there's my dashing husband. Knew you'd get there eventually."
Then came Trenzalore, and it might be his last chance to say it and she's so close and she's always been breathtaking when she's angry and he just couldn't resist. He touched her and spoke to her, and everything changed. He gave her what she wanted because how could he not? How could he resist her when she was standing there in front of him, beautiful and brave and if you ever loved me…
He hates that word. It claws at him, opening old wounds that never healed properly in the first place. How could she doubt his love for her? However selfish he may have been, it was only because he couldn't stand the thought of giving her up. And now she's gone and did she really not know she was everything to him?
She made him say goodbye like he was coming back, but she made no such promise, fading away like the apparition she was, 'sweetie' on her lips and sadness in her eyes. Her goodbye that didn't feel like goodbye at all, shredding the patchwork and scar tissue that so tentatively held him together. Then he was jumping into his own time stream without any time to grieve. Clara needed him and River was gone. It all felt a bit like a bad dream. A nightmare he couldn't wake up from.
How could she just be gone? The woman who popped in and out of his life, who rewrote time and made Daleks beg. The woman who followed him into the abyss and led him into trouble and danced with him at the very edges of the universe, who integrated herself so thoroughly he forgot she was a pendulum, smoke slipping through his fingers, a fleeting presence he couldn't keep.
He had quite forgotten what it was to be truly alone. River knew. Together they knew what it was to be the only one of your kind. They knew what it was to hide things from those you love most. They knew what it was to keep secrets and make the tough decisions, to have blood on their hands and hurt behind their eyes. They were alone together. It took him a while to figure that out, that he shouldn't have run from her ghost any more than his younger self should have run from everything she represented. But he did because he thought it would be easier, that it would hurt less in the long run.
If he thought being haunted by her was painful, the absence of her is unbearable.
Now she tortures him with all the things she let behind: lipstick hidden at the back of a drawer, that chipped mug she always insisted on using, books and sketches and little notes scattered about his ship. Memories that refuse to fade: dinner dates gone wrong and Jim the fish and if you like it so much, you can just stay with the otters!
He finds casual reminders aren't enough to sustain him. He'd give anything to have her following him around the ship again, chatting, nagging, flirting with thin air. Maybe that's how he's found himself outside their bedroom door, heart thundering in his chest, trying to find the courage to open it. He hasn't been in there since before Clara, since before the clouds and Vastra and Jenny and Strax and the snowmen with the sharp teeth. He hasn't been in there since Darillium, too afraid of the memories that dwell there: her throaty laugh, mischievous smile, and wicked little gleam in her eye. He is haunted by things that once brought him joy.
"I don't see why I have to make the tea."
"Because I'm the wife." He snorts, so she adds, "and if you're lucky maybe there will be a surprise waiting for you when you get back."
"Well in that case." He springs up from the bed, dropping a quick kiss to her forehead. "What the wife wants, the wife gets."
"Bring me back something to eat, would you?" She calls after him. "And no, Jammie Dodgers don't count as breakfast."
Maybe he'll open the door and find her waiting for him, lounging on the bed the way she's done a thousand times before. Spread across the bed are enough weapons to supply a small army and in the middle of the pile River's polishing her gun and it looks like she's used his fez as a waste bin, but he's having a lot of trouble caring about that right now. Her hair is down, wild and stunning, and she's wearing nothing but one of his old buttonups. It sits distractingly high on her thighs, and god, she is the perfect combination of domestic and dangerous. He shouldn't like that; so naturally, he does.
The handle sits heavy in his palm, weighed down by all the memories locked behind closed doors. The polished wood is the only barrier between himself and the realization of his fear that he'll never see her again. He fears he'll find an empty space where her things used to be, that there will be silence where once there was bickering and laughter and confessions whispered into skin.
But surely she will know that he needs this, needs to see her again. He needs to run his thumbs over the apples of her cheeks and brush his lips against hers. He needs to see her one more time, without an audience or ticking clocks. He needs more than a decaying tomb and a tentative kiss and a rushed farewell. He needs an infinite moment he can cling to, remember her by, sustain himself with. Surely she knows. River always knows.
His grip on the handle tightens, anxiety morphing into that familiar rush of excitement that precedes any meeting with River Song. He turns the handle slowly, the threshold between them closing with ever centimeter, every subtle twist of the wrist. Eager anticipation pumps through his veins, because of course she'll be there. She knows he needs to see her one last time. River always knows. There's a click and then he's pushing open the door, being pulled inside, an event horizon and there's no turning back now. He steps into the room, eyes scanning desperately and-
She isn't there.
Dreadful thing, hope.
For a moment, he just stares, eyes blinking and chest tight. It's suddenly very hard to swallow and breathe because someone's put a lump in his throat and forced all the air from his lungs and how could she not be there? River's always been one step ahead, always had the answers, always helped him, even when he didn't know how to ask. So where is she now, his guardian angel?
The room is exactly the same apart from the sheen of despair that's settled over the furniture and floors like a fine layer of dust. Everything's a little grayer, a little more bland in the absence of her. This room is too big and empty without her. And yet he feels suffocated, memories of her bouncing off the walls like a scream in a hollow cave. Even the silence in the room sounds like the quiet before she speaks. The walls feel taut, patiently waiting to exhale at the sound of her laugh. His skin itches in all the places that long for her touch, nerve endings tingling at the memory of her hands on his chest, running over his shoulders, and straightening his bow tie. His hearts feel like kick drums and his hands are shaking and his eyes are glossing and he can't stay here. He's suddenly overcome with the need to run, to distance himself from everything as much as possible, this room, this ship, this body. She's too much a part of all of it. He wants to run from the memories, the pain, the emptiness.
"Rule seven." A quiet voice nearly makes him jump out of his skin and he spins around to find her leaning against the door frame. She's only a few feet away, but it feels like lightyears, like a gaping chasm between them and he's frozen in place, pinned to the floor by the heavy air between them. Wide, disbelieving eyes wash over her, ethereal and glowing and, god, the universe could be collapsing in on itself this very second and he wouldn't give a damn. She's really here, arms folded and eyes knowing, looking at him like she's reading his mind. But they've known each other so long now she really doesn't have to.
He swallows hard, a different kind of tear stinging his eyes as he says, "Who's scared?"
"Certainly not my husband." She quips, and their banter is so familiar. If he could count on nothing else in the universe, he could count on this. "He's fearless."
"He'd have to be with all the trouble you get him in."
She hums wickedly, a smirk curling her lips. "He's the jealous type, too."
His own smirk tugs gently at the corners of his mouth, and he can't help the way his voice drops when he asks, "Is he now?"
"Oh yes." She purrs, "And he'll be home any minute. So if you want to do something about unmaking that bed, you'll have to be quick."
It's all the invitation he needs, his legs moving to close the distance between them before his mind has even remembered how. In the blink of an eye he's scooping her up and spinning her around the room until he's breathless and she's giggling in a way she would never admit to. When he finally lowers her feet to the floor, it's slow, her body dragging against his until they're nose to nose. "Hello." He breathes.
"Hello." She smiles back.
"How?" Is all he can say, breathy and desperate and so very grateful. It should be impossible, her being here, touching her. It's all simply contrary to reason. But between River and the TARDIS, the laws of physics have always been a suggestion at best.
She shrugs, "Psychic link to the interface." It's good enough for him. He doesn't care how or why, only that she's here, warm and solid in his arms. For once, he won't poke holes or ask too many questions. For once, he'll believe in miracles.
"Have I ever told you how magnificent you are?"
"Only constantly." She smirks. "Say it again."
A grin spreads across his face and not a moment later he's tossing her on the bed. She squeaks as he follows after, peppering kisses on her face and chest and arms and hands and anything he can find. She wiggles in protest, hands resting on his chest. But she doesn't push him away, which is good because he doesn't think he could stop if he tried. He has years of missed kisses to give, apologies to press into her skin, and lost time to make up for. "You're magnificent." A kiss. "And stunning." A kiss. "And brilliant." He stills, looking deep into her eyes. "And I've missed you."
Her eyes say that she never left, that's she's always been here, that he's the one who always runs. But her lips smile softy and say, "I've missed you, too."
She looks different, an odd sort of peace shinning in her eyes, but lingering sadness too. Try as they might, their story has always been laced with sorrow. Every joyous moment accompanied with an air of longing for more, trying to live forever within their numbered days. It makes him all the more grateful for this stolen moment, this time with her and happiness he doesn't deserve.
He settles next to her so they're lying face to face. It's a little dizzying being so close to her after all this time. It makes him ache in the best way possible, body so full of joy it seeps out him in the form of glassy eyes and goofy grins. He's not sure where to look first, eyes skating over her face, her neck, her hair. Her hair, god he missed her hair. It's as beautiful and impossible as her and he can't help the way his fingers gravitate toward it, tugging on a single curl just to watch the way it bounces and coils. Next his hand glides to her shoulder, running over the soft, flowing fabric, remembering guns and poison lipstick and tight dresses and corsets and catsuits. "You don't look like yourself." He observes.
"What would you prefer?"
"If you're going for ethereal, I was always a fan of that Cleopatra outfit."
She laughs, a throaty sound he knows so very well. How can one woman look so different and somehow be exactly the same? "Had I known you could see me, I would have been naked."
"Had I known I could touch you," his hands begin to wander, fingers dancing over the swell of her breast and stroking down her abdomen. "I would have said something sooner."
She hums her approval. "It's not nice to tease a girl."
"I'm not teasing. It was hard enough to keep my hands off you as it was. Imaginary or not, you're still the sexiest woman in the universe."
"Oh, stop it." She swats at him playfully, and he grins.
There's a pause, her eyes on his, soft and warm as she breathes, "Never."
A smile finds his lips, warm and genuine, unlike so many times lately where he felt like he was dragging it up from his toes, forcing his mouth to stretch his tight, brittle lips. No, this smile blooms across his mouth, cheeks, entire body. It spreads through his veins like ecstasy, sparkling and tingling and lighting him up from within. He wants to kiss her, but he fears that if he does he'll never ever stop. He'll lose himself in her lips and tongue and the way her skin feels pressed against his own. And he doesn't want to lose himself in her. He wants to savor her and keep her and stare at her until her image is burned into his retinas. He wants to make her smile and breathe her in and simply lay with her in the most innocent way possible.
His hand finds hers, entwining their fingers and bringing their enclosed hands to his lips. He loves the way their hands fit together, like a puzzle made of flesh and bone and love and trust.
"Have you ever been to Petram IX?" He asks, lips brushing her knuckles.
"Afraid not. Why do you ask?"
"There's a queen, or a goddess depending on how you translate it, who rules the entire planet and it's surrounding moons. Supposedly that entire region of space fears her. She's said to be fierce and funny and unfathomably beautiful."
"You sound like you fancy her." River teases.
"Oh definitely." He admits, fighting a smirk. "Never met her though. To be honest, I always thought she was you."
She smiles back, humming. "Maybe it is. Take me there sometime and we'll find out."
It's an odd kind of hurt that swells in his chest. He knows, she knows, that he can't. That this is it, their last night, a final stolen hour. But they've always been good at pretending they have more time than they actually do. Rule 27:always waste time when you don't have any. So he swallows the pain and focuses instead on the joy and lighthearted banter their inability to say goodbye always brings. He indulges the whimsical flight of fancy. He pretends the Library has no claim on her and that Trenzalore doesn't wait ominously in his future. He smirks, voice dripping with double entendre as he says, "Oh, I'd take you anywhere."
She chuckles, throaty and pleased, and it ghosts across his skin, sending a shiver down his spin. "That was cheeky. I'm supposed to be the one with the innuendo." River says, arching a brow and walking her fingers up his chest suggestively.
"What can I say?" He taps her nose. "You've ruined me."
"I prefer to think of it as calculated improvements." Her fingers stall on his bow tie, affectionately tracing the silky fabric.
Their eyes meet, and there's no doubt in his mind that she made him a better man. Before her, time was meaningless. In the grand scheme of things, the date and the time were fickle things he could change or relive. Every moment was at his fingertips and everything was his and nothing was special. And then she came along, and suddenly time felt dangerous, something that could expire or detonate at any second. With her, time wasn't limitless, it could run out, would run out, did run out. Time was a countdown he couldn't control or pause or reverse. It was a finite number of days, hours, seconds. With her, every moment was precious. She put him at the mercy of his namesake, making The Lord of time feel like he had so very little.
It's fitting that their final moments are stolen, proving once again that time is not the boss of them.
A gentle hand settles lightly on her cheek. His barely there touch cupping her like she is mist he doesn't want to disturb, and if he holds too tightly she will slip away. There lips brush, tender and chaste and more meaningful than any passionate embrace. It's not electricity he feels, not the volt of hunger and need that generally shoot through him when he kisses her. But it isn't the bitter tang of goodbye either. Instead, what he feels is understanding, acceptance, and the shared knowledge that what they have is real and timeless and nothing can take it away or lessen it. Not even death.
"You should sleep, sweetie." She whispers, fingertips running through his hair and stroking away the creases in his brow. "You look tired." What she means is, he looks weary, overrun and under rested, that he has spread himself too thin and filled himself too full and closed himself off for far too long. Knowing she's right, he sighs, curling into her and making a home out of the warmth and safety of her chest. His arms fold around her and hers around him. From where he's resting he can hear her heartbeat, and if he heard nothing else for all his days, he would die a happy man.
"Will you stay?" He asks, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
"And then what, my love? Stay cooped up in here forever like hermits?"
"I could do that."
She snorts. "You get restless waiting for the kettle to boil."
"I could learn."
"Oh my love," she smiles, sad and sweet. "We both know forever could never be enough." She's right. Nothing could ever be enough. He could never have enough time or kisses or spoilers. Never enough of her. He can travel the universe but he can't make water boil any faster. He can bend the fabric of reality but he can't make her stay. He can mourn and pout and run, but be can't change time, not always. This is farewell. There are no more memories to be made. There's no hope of seeing a younger version of her one last time. This is it, the last time he'll hold her in his arms. His lover, his friend, his wife, his River. He exhales hope and loss and happiness and regret with every breath until he is empty inside and the absence of her hangs in the air like heavy fog. He breathes in her spicy scent of time and trouble, not caring if it's real or imagined. It fills up his empty spaces, the gaping holes she left in her wake. He swallows it greedily in hopes it will sustain him after she's gone.
He honestly doesn't know what he'll do with himself. This face has never seen a day that didn't hold the possibility of her. Always on the lookout for a cryptic message from her, invitations for adventure wrapped up like Easter eggs and scattered throughout the cosmos. Always itching for the nights, waiting for the moment when Amelia would drag her roman off to bed so he could swan off in secret with his favorite criminal. It's hard to remember what life was like before her. They've been through so much together, even death. Twice in his case, and both times saved by her lips. He doesn't know what he'll do without them, those deadly, divine lips.
"It was brilliant, though, wasn't it River?"
She smiles, and in it he can see a million moments.
"I'm all yours sweetie."
"Two of you? The mind races!"
"It's a good thing you're pretty."
"The best." She promises. "Now shut your eyes. I bet it's been ages since you've slept."
He snuggles into her, grumbling, "Were you always so pushy?"
"Were you always so stubborn?" She rebuttals.
"Then yes." She kisses the top of his head and he holds her just a little tighter, hearts full of everything he's not quite ready to give up. All the things he wanted to say to her and he suddenly finds he doesn't need to say anything at all. Every inspired moment in literature swirls unspoken between them as pure and as vital as the air they breathe. The silence between them speaks louder and more beautifully and more poignant than any poetry or declaration of love ever could. 'For poems are like rainbows; they escape you quickly' and 'all this time is just circles in my mind,' 'a river flowing with no regrets as it moves on.' 'We never said what we were dreaming of, but you turned me into somebody loved.' And 'the half life of love is forever.' It 'is the strongest thing in the world. Nothing can touch it. Nothing comes close.' Because 'once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering;' and 'The only heaven I'll be sent to is when I'm alone with you' and 'the curves of your lips rewrite history' and 'It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.' 'I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine.' 'Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.' 'The pieces I am, she gathered them and gave them back to me in all the right order' and 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt' 'and nothing can be sad, no one can be lost or dead or far away. Right now we are here and nothing can mar our perfection or steal the joy of this perfect moment.'
He wants to stay awake forever, eyes fixed on her, making sure she never leaves again. But she's right, as always. It's been ages since he slept and the feel of her beside him, warm and soft and sweet, courses through his veins like a sedative. He falls asleep with the knowledge that when he wakes, he'll be alone.
But maybe, just maybe, she'll leave him a note.
Authors Note: This work is part of a series. The first three parts are rated MA so I couldn't post them here. But if anyone is interested, you can find them on archiveofourown series/ 183683
Also, for anyone who's interested, the quotes from the second to last paragraph are credited as follows:
Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
The Head and the Heart, Let's Be Still
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, There is a Time
The Weepies, Somebody Loved
Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her
David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Hozier, Take Me to Church
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife