"Even when one is dead and gone
It still takes two to make a house a home
Well I'm as lonesome as the catacombs
I hear you call my name but no one is there
Except a feeling in the air
You and I both know that the house is haunted
Yeah you and I both know that the ghost is you."
- Dearly Departed by Shakey Graves
Time exists in much the same way her journal does. Slices of history pressed tightly together, page numbers just days you can flip to and visit in any order you choose. But it doesn't unfold in quite the same way. Time isn't linear. There is no page one.
The human concept of 'now' is a relative thing. River is just as tangible in this moment as she was yesterday or the day before that or decades before that. Decisions she makes now are happening simultaneously with things she said yesterday and places she'll go tomorrow.
All at once and never.
River sees time for what it is, not a line or a clock or a collection of data, but a fluxing ever changing mass. Her memories are different, too. They aren't like normal, human memories that are subject to change or distortion. No, River remembers everything, which is a blessing and a curse. Locked away in her subconscious is the fundamental turn of the universe. She recalls her memories the way a grain of sand remembers the swirling of ash and dust as planets form or how a drop of water knows the boiling and burning of the sun. She remembers the day she died, the first time: cold, damp, and utterly alone. She can still feel the burn in her lungs as she drew her last breath, the crisp night air biting her cheeks, and golden sparks as they overtook her flesh.
She remembers the look in his eyes the first time he told her he loved her. The feel of his lips on hers and his scent, like fire and time and something sweet she can never quite place, are still fresh in her mind. She remembers the day she met him and murdered him and saved him. She remembers every birthday and Christmas and fond farewell, every second stored away in the recesses of her mind like a file she can take out and examine any time she chooses.
But the vibrant memory of how they were does little to pacify the building ache of how they are now.
She knew these days would come, when he'd look right at her and not see her, when he'd know her but know nothing about her, when her hand in his wouldn't be any more significant than any other stranger in need. She always knew one day she'd go searching for her husband only to find an impostor had answered the call, when every meeting would feel like pieces of her hearts were being chipped away.
"This is exactly why I should drive."
"This isn't my fault, River."
"Oh, so the TARDIS shut the gravity off all by herself, did she?"
"Yes!" He flails, nearly sending himself spiraling away from the console again. River sighs, bracing him with her free hand. Last time he floated away it took her twenty minutes to reel back him in. "It wouldn't be unheard of you know. She is sentient. She does things of her own accord all the time."
River bites back her rebuttal that the TARDIS would have nothing to gain from them floating aimlessly around the console room. It's a shame he's so young, really. She almost wishes she'd worn one of her dresses rather than her jodhpurs. Watching him stutter and blush profusely would have been endlessly more fun than this exhausting battle of whose fault it was. After all, she could think of better ways to exhaust him in zero gravity.
But alas, she's stuck watching him clamber around the console, no doubt doing more harm than good.
"Did you check the couplings?"
"Of course." The Doctor answers, flinging himself past her in a mass of flailing limbs. Honestly, the man can't even float gracefully.
"And the grav stabilizers?"
"Obviously." He scoffs. "Honestly River. You act like I don't know my way around my own ship." As if on cue, a rather alarming spark erupts from where he's working. River rolls her eyes, gliding toward him just as his head pops out from under the console, cheeks covered in soot and hair standing on end. He looks absolutely delicious.
"We can use the jacuzzi!" He blurts and River arches a brow, intrigued.
"A hot tub in zero gravity?" She grins, eyes sparkling with mischief. "How exciting."
He flushes. "Not like that!"
"Mmm," she hums, suddenly disappointed. "Then what did you mean sweetie?"
A slow grin spreads across his face and it makes her hearts hammer. She knows that smile. He's just had an idea of unparalleled brilliance and oh, doesn't he just know it. She should hate that smug little twitch in the corner of his mouth, but god help her, she doesn't.
"I could reroute the temporal heating circuit, siphoning some power from the aquatic conductors into the main density gradient modules."
"Is that even possible?"
"In theory? No. In reality?" He shrugs, "Almost definitely not."
"Business as usual then."
He's so handsome in that moment she can't help but let her features soften in response. Of course, he doesn't catch it, and if he does he blows right past it, not thinking anything of it. He grins, ducking back under the console and setting to work. He's too young now and he doesn't understand the depths of her affection for him or how she catches every subtle facial twitch, every seemingly meaningless inflection. She knows him. Her love for him is perhaps the only thing she's consistently honest about; and, ironically, it's the hardest thing for him to believe.
She fights against her natural instincts to reach out and grab him, to shove him against the nearest flat surface and drive him to distraction. She wants to kiss him, touch him, grope him. But she does none of those things.
She stares at him -the man that would love her, did love her, had loved her- and sighs.
These days, seeing him is always accompanied by a painful satisfaction, the kind one gets when reading their favorite book. She knows every page brings her closer to the end, but she just can't bring herself to stop.
"Where are we?" River doesn't really need to ask, but it's a habit. She can tell by the little things, the way he stares just a little too long and how he sways toward her then quickly away again like he's fighting some invisible current.
"Ottoman Empire." The Doctor answers, pulling out his diary. "You?" One look at that book and River can place him in his timeline as easily as looking at his face. So long ago she had looked upon it and thought it tattered and used, that simply staring at it too long might make the pages crumble. Seeing it now, it looks almost untouched, the cover still vivid and blue and pages growing emptier by the day. She glances down at her own journal, noting the pliable spine, the discolored pages, and smudged writing on her favorite entries. "River?" He asks, and her eyes snap up to his.
"Sorry, just a little distracted today." She answers, offering a smile that doesn't reach her eyes.
He doesn't notice. Why would he? He hardly knows her yet. Instead, he sits a little straighter, adjusting his bow tie, "Yes, well, I can have that effect." That tone usually makes her want to roll her eyes or snog him senseless, sometimes both. But today it just makes her hearts swell with fondness because one day very soon she won't see it at all. And she'll miss it more than she could ever imagine.
He lashes out like a wounded animal when he's angry. He always has. There was a time when she would have run a reassuring hand over his cheek and lied and told him there was nothing he could have done to change it. In days long past, he would have forced a smile that wasn't fooling anyone and together they would run and run and run and try to forget. But those simple intimacies don't belong to her anymore. Something she had taken for granted a million times before would now feel stolen, tainted, like it would somehow diminish all the times before because he didn't even know her yet. She's been brainwashed and tossed in spacesuits and thrown in Stormcage, but none of that felt more like a prison than this, all the things she can't do, words of comfort she can't say, confessions that would be lost and unappreciated. She thinks it hurts her more to bite them back than it does for him not to hear them.
She understands now, the first time she sees this him, with his brown suit and spiky hair. Finally she knows why he spoke to her so harshly on that pyramid, why he begged her to understand, to be older, wiser. She wants to beg him now, to plead for him to hurry up and trust her, love her, know her. She understands why seeing her at university had always put a shadow on his face, why a sadness lurked behind his eyes all those years ago. She knows because she feels it now. It leaves a void in her hearts to see him, someone who means the world to her, only for him to stare back with something so much worse than indifference. He looks at her like she is some terrible obligation, a chore, a life, a future he wants to avoid.
It makes her ache to go back to the beginning, back to when she was young and incomplete and wipe away the worry from his brow, kiss away the longing in his soul, and say 'Never fear, my love, I'm here. And I'm yours.'
She wishes with every fiber in her being that he would do that now.
"Maybe I already know who you are." He says from behind her. It seems he's always following behind these days, struggling to keep up with her. It's not as much fun as she always thought it would be.
"You don't." She responds easily.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because." She sighs in spite of herself. "If you did, you wouldn't be looking at me like that." He assumes she means the lack of love in his eyes, and yes that gives him away, but it's more than that. His other self, the one with the bow tie and messy hair eternally falling into his eyes, always looked at her with a sense of wonder. Even before he knew who she was, he felt the pull of her. But knowing who she was also came with a side of guilt he could never quite shake. No matter how much he loved her, he would always feel like he had let down Amy and Rory, always feeling deep inside that he had somehow failed her.
There's guilt behind these eyes, too. She can't place why, but there is undeniable self loathing burning behind these brown eyes. He regards her like something volatile. He is closed off, angry, and centuries away from being hers.
She looks ridiculous in orange, especially this shapeless, atrocity of an outfit. But she'd rather be the one to brave the arsenic hills than have him stumble his way into trouble.
"How do I look?" She purrs as if she's just stepped out in one of her daring gowns.
He gives her a quick once over before going back to prepping the scanner. "Fine." He shrugs, missing the joke entirely and looking at her like he barely even registers she has a pulse. With a heavy heart, she puts on the helmet to her radiation suit and reminds herself that he doesn't love her now, but one day he will. It's only a small comfort though. It doesn't matter how young he is or that he doesn't know her. She loves him and will always be his. He had claim on her even if he didn't acknowledge it.
But he wasn't hers, he didn't love her yet. River steps out onto the scorching surface of the volcanic planet, pretending it's the fumes that are making her eyes water and her chest tight.
"Never met a Time Lord that didn't love a good flirt." River teases, and he scoffs.
"I'm the only Time Lord you've ever met."
"Says who?" His eyes snap back to hers to find her grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "Spoilers."
"Oh, stop it." He chides, but it lacks its usual joviality.
She knows what her next line should be. It skirts across the tip of her tongue on impulse, but she bites it back, swallows it along with everything else that goes unsaid. Those words aren't for him. It doesn't feel right. He wouldn't understand anyway.
"Try one." She offers, shaking the plate of fish fingers at him encouragingly. "This face might like them, too." He scrunches his face and even in a different case she recognizes that look: doubt, disgust. She smiles like it doesn't hurt, like her hearts aren't breaking into smaller and smaller pieces each time she sees him. She knew it would be tough, that he would know her less and less. But she never imagined this, that he would regard her with such dread. He looks at her like she's something toxic he doesn't want to touch, some bad omen or vulture circling over head. Her thoughts fall back to all those years ago in Berlin. She hadn't trusted him then, and he'd been oh so patient with her. "It's alright." She says, lowering the plate in surrender. "I wouldn't trust me either."
He came when she called. He showed up and said hello and saved the day and did all the things she expected him to do. But he hardly looks at her, and when he does it's from the corner of his eye. And not in the way his next self will, vibrating with eager, nervous energy because he can't help himself. This face watches her like he's waiting for her to detonate, to strike at any moment like a snake in the grass. She wonders what she does to him in her future that makes him so very scared of her.
She's sprinting through the forest, angry tribesmen hot on her heals when she suddenly finds herself colliding with a tall, lanky form. They collapse into a heap of limbs and he looks up at her, wide eyed and frozen in place.
"You." He gasps in horror.
"Doctor." She breathes like a blessing, smile bright and warm as she pulls him to his feet. Her hand in his, her favorite way to run.
"Hello sweetie." She smiles.
She always knew this day would kill her. And so, it seems, did he.
Computers don't dream. But River does. She dreams of bow ties and blue and the way he'd bop her nose.
She wants to hate him for putting her here. She died saving him, but it wasn't just for him. It was for herself, for everything they built. She chose death to preserve their timelines, because the alternative, a life without him, is unthinkable.
He went and saved her in the only way he could. But he didn't do it for her. He did it for himself, to ease the conscience of a younger man, and because the real him, the future him, couldn't stand the thought of a universe where a piece of her wasn't still alive. She made him watch her die, and in turn, he refused to let her.
How dare he have judged her for what she did on that pyramid, for saving him the only way she could. She destroyed time to keep him. And to keep her, he gave her all of it, keeping her forever like a book on a shelf.
Love disguises itself in grand gestures and pretty words. But at its core, love is selfish. And so are they.
For everyone else, time runs differently here. But not for River. She feels every second tick by in much the same way she always has. The only difference being that it's not ticking towards anything, just the monotonous passing of seconds. No one else seems to notice, slowly slipping into the codes of the library and leaving behind the lives they had before, forgetting them the way a lucid dream fades over time. For River this is still the dream, a quiet, peaceful purgatory, a constant reminder that the time for running is over.
"This is a good place now." Charlotte comforts her.
"I know, sweetheart." River says, reassuring the young girl with the ancient soul.
"Then why are you so sad?"
River sighs quietly, the words on her tongue heavy and hollow. "I don't like endings."
Sitting by the shore is her favorite pass time. Anita sits with her some days, but she thinks it's more out of pity than anything else. On days like today, the water is almost black, swirling with dark blues, and when the sun catches it just right, it sparkles like the distant stars she used to visit. It reminds her of time and space and the man she used to run with.
"Do you think he'll visit? Your Doctor friend?"
"I shouldn't think so."
Anita considers her for a moment, "At least you got to say goodbye, though. Right?"
River offers her a wobbly smile, forcing her lips to stretch for the other woman's benefit. He was with her at her end, like she always figured he would be. But it wasn't her husband. He wasn't the man she married or the man that loved her. She may as well of said goodbye to a photograph.
She looks down at the imagined copy of her beloved diary, fingers tracing over the worn blue cover. It feels real against the pads of her fingers, just like it used to. But she knows it isn't. It's a mirage, a shadow, a footprint that should be so much more. And somewhere the real copy sits unfinished, their last adventure unrecorded. Goodbye waits, unwritten on the last page and it feels incomplete. River feels incomplete too, trapped here in a world of endless literature. She could live any story ever written, be anyone, go anywhere, lead any life she pleases. But she finds playing with history isn't as much fun when you know how it ends. Running isn't as thrilling when he's not beside her. A prison is still a prison no matter its size.
For a while she waits. She hopes. She thinks that maybe, just maybe, he'll come, that he has a plan. He's the Doctor, he always has a plan. Any day now he'll swagger in, her dashing husband, wearing a grin and his nicest suit. You're only dead, why wouldn't I stop to change? and Am I really that late? Sorry dear, must have got the timing a bit off.
But he never does. And that's fine. She can save herself, just as she always has. If she wants an ending, she'll write it herself.
It's easiest to appear inside the TARDIS, a mother bending the laws of physics for her child. The psychic interface is enough to sustain her consciousness outside the library. River almost feels real standing in the console room, leaning over the balcony the way she's done a thousand times before. But she won't delude herself, won't fall into the trap. She isn't here, not her body. But her mind and memory are perfect, so when she feels the hum of the ship in her mind and the coolness of the metal on her skin, it feels real, addictingly real. But she knows it's just an illusion, an echo of all the times before.
She can hear her own voice floating through the air, teasing him with 'next time's and 'later's as he all but begs her not to go. She remembers the night well. The night the towers sang. Finally, it all makes sense: the liquid despair in his eyes, the thickness of the air, melancholy practically palpable on his tongue. She watches as his lips meet hers, soft moans muffled by his mouth as he presses her into the TARDIS doors and kisses her like his life depends on it. She can still feel the electricity that crackled between them, sparking in every fiber of their beings. What a kiss that was, just thinking about it had brought a simmering heat to her abdomen. Now it brings a swelling feeling to her hearts and a mist to her eyes.
River watches her past self leave, all smiles and sparkling eyes and 'you'll see me soon,' making promises she can't keep. The sudden silence as he closes the door cuts through her like icy wind on a winter day. He doesn't move. He simply stands there, forehead pressed to the wood because if he steps away, sends the TARDIS into the vortex, then she's really gone, it's over. No more spoilers.
It's not until he turns around that she sees his tears are back, silently threatening to carve paths down his cheeks. "Oh sweetie," she coos, wanting nothing more than to wrap her arms around him and hold him close. His face is stone apart from the slight quiver of his bottom lip. His fists are clenched in anger or grief or both, and his eyes are fixed on the console, blinking back everything that threatens to spill over. Had she beating hearts, she's sure the sight of it would shatter them. "I'm here." She whispers. "Can you hear me?"
In the crushing silence, River feels like vapor, unseen and unheard. She is no more real than the wind that rustles fallen leaves. But maybe, like the wind, she can still be felt, a silent force to caress and sooth and remind him that he's not alone. Her hand raises to stroke his cheek. But before she gets a chance, he rips his head to the side, burring his face in his palms. He gasps, sucking in air like a drowning man, breathing for the first time since he closed the door. "Doctor?" She half questions half begs. "Please see me." He can't, of course he can't. She can bring him no comfort like this. She is only as present as the stars on a cloudy night or the distant sound of thunder long after the storm has passed.
He lets out a quiet sob. She can't be sure, but it sounds like her name.
He spends a great deal of time in his room now, tucked up under sheets that have never seen much sleeping. It looks wrong to see him all alone in a bed made for two, so she sits with him, keeps him company in the darkness. She knows she can't help him, but she can't bring herself to leave him like this, so broken and alone.
"Do you remember that time you took me to dinner on Epula Minor?" River asks, unable to bare the silence any longer. "How before that we ended up on Auqua Deus and almost got sacrificed by the locals? You kept saying over and over that you had a plan. You didn't, did you?"
She pauses out of habit, waiting for a response that never comes.
"I know you didn't." She continues anyway. "You have a tell. You flex your jaw in a rather delicious way when you're lying. Maybe that's why I always let you get away with things." She chuckles like it doesn't hurt, her eyes falling back to his too still form. "I never mentioned it before. Couldn't have you knowing how I knew what you were up to, could I?" He shifts, restless, and she sighs. "I enjoyed that night, no matter what I may have said at the time. I liked not knowing where I was going to end up. The destination never really mattered, just as long as I was with you."
She inches closer to him, unable to help herself. More than anything she wants to reach out and grab his hand or plant a light kiss to his temple. But she isn't that brave. She fears the realness of her own memories, the warmth of his skin on her palm or the taste of his sweetness on her lips. But worse is the thought that she might not feel him at all, might pass right through him. It's a truth she can't bare, so she resists temptation, stroking her fingers along the familiar bed sheets instead. "I know this is hard, believe me, I know. But you promised me once that you wouldn't travel alone, Doctor. You have to keep that promise."
He lets out a long, tired sound. River closes her eyes, remembering all the times his breath has stirred her curls. And in the darkness, it's easier to pretend neither of them are alone.
He's moved on from sulking in the bedroom. But he still broods. He goes out in public but he shuts himself off. He doesn't speak much and when he does, the words bite at the air. They sizzle and hiss like water in a hot frying pan. He sustains himself on dim lit rooms, the comfort of clouds, and the poison of his own thoughts. It's after the Time War all over again, isolation his only pass time as he nurses his wounds and tells himself he's better off alone.
Even if he could see her, he's not her Doctor. She's dead but he's the ghost, an outline of the man she married, the husband she loves. He's grown distant and detached and she longs for the sight of her gangly Doctor, the fidgety, clumsy man who was barely aware of what his limbs were doing half the time.
His contagious energy and enigmatic smile have been replaced by hardened, empty eyes and shoulders hunched beneath the great weight of all his losses. His silence is deafening. Her husband had always been animated and lively. This quiet impostor is unnatural.
She's not sure what's worse, having a man she knew everything about to treat her as if she were a stranger, for blank eyes to look at her and ask, "who are you?" Or this, the face that knew every inch of her to not see her even though she's right in front of him.
She's not sure what hurts more, the look in his eyes as the man who would be her husband watched her die, or seeing the man she married become a shadow of himself.
He doesn't talk about her or revisit places they would go together. He's remodeled the console, metallic and cold. It seems detached after seeing the bright, open, ridiculous model he had before. The bed is smaller because he sleeps alone, and the closet seems duller since dresses and shoes no longer mingle with jackets and bow ties. He's moving on, properly, purging the TARDIS of bunk beds and dartboards and all things Pond.
She knew a day would come when he wouldn't know her, when he would be clueless and ignorant and it wouldn't be his fault. But she never knew this day would come, when she'd look into his eyes and realize she'd been forgotten like all the rest.
In the wake of all she's seen, all his younger selves, with their skeptical eyes and their hurtful words, and now this cold, detached shell of her husband, it's hard to remember that he ever loved her.
He has a new companion, his impossible girl. He's almost back to his usual self, the giddy, ageless, eternal child. Clara makes him happy. He looks at her like she's frustrating and fascinating, and it's exactly how he used to look at her.
Don't get her wrong, it's good to see him living again. It's what she wanted. But River can't bring herself to visit on Wednesdays anymore. A girl doesn't like to share.
"You can't just go charging in there without a plan." She knows he can't hear her, but she can't help herself. He's being an idiot and someone needs to tell him. "You're going to get yourself killed!" The urge to slap him makes her wrist twitch. She wishes she could talk some sense into him. But even if he could hear her, she doubts he would listen.
He doesn't even pause as he sets the coordinates, mind already made up, and she's never been so furious with him. If he would just think for a moment, she's sure he would come up with a logical solution to all this. But no, he has to barrel in and make a scene and be the hero and -
"I hate you sometimes!" She shouts like a reflex, hating herself the moment it leaves her lips. It fills the air like smog, thickening and polluting the oxygen in her very lungs. Seconds tick by in silence, every moment the words hang in the air feels like a knife in her hearts. It's killing her again and again with every breath his response goes unsaid. It eats her from the inside out, the thought of such an awful, untrue sentiment hanging between them. "No, I don't." She admits quietly, delivering his line for him because he can't or won't and never will again.
"The Doctor might have mentioned me?"
"Yeah. Yeah, of course he has. Professor Song. Sorry, I just never realized you were a woman."
River's first thought is that she wants to kill him. Again. Properly this time. But as the initial irritation fades, she's left with another feeling settling in her core. It festers and grows until it feels like someone has taken to scooping out her chest, relieving her of organs and muscles and bones. She is hollow apart from the nagging thought that maybe he never loved her. Maybe he was only ever bound by foreknowledge. Maybe every dance was penance for what he put her through. Maybe every good day was only given because he knew how she would spend her last.
For the first time, River feels like a ghost.
A living, breathing man stands inside his tomb and, beside him, lingers a dead woman without a grave. She clings too tight to memories that she died for and he forgets forgets forgets because it's the only way to keep on living. It's all very poetic. But there really isn't time for poetry with the Great Intelligence jumping into his timestream, shredding the Doctor piece by piece, rewriting his life little by little. River's helpless but to watch. Watch as the stars go out, watch as Jenny and Strax disappear, watch as another innocent throws her life at his feet for the sake of the greater good. But when he gets that look in his eye, raw determination that says he doesn't care that it's impossible or dangerous, he's going to do the unthinkable, she can't just watch anymore. He hasn't thought it through and He's going to get himself killed and What if he doesn't come back? and she just can't take it anymore.
River's hand flies of its own accord, and when he catches her wrist, the nerve endings nearly burst from stimuli. It feels like fire in her veins, anger and shock and overwhelming passion. So long she refrained from touching him because she feared she would go right through him, that the memory of his skin on hers wouldn't be enough when confronted with the real thing. She didn't think it possible, and by all rights, it shouldn't be. But oh, she's never been more glad to be proven wrong.
She tells him she's not really here, but his hands on her feel more real than anything she could ever dream up in a library.
He tells her it hurts to look at her after all these years of looking through her. It hurts that she's here and not and alive and dead. It hurts that he said hello the day she said goodbye, that he started their story on the last page. It hurts to speak to her and hear her voice and feel her skin. It just hurts, but there is more fire in his eyes in that moment than she's seen in decades.
Their lips meet and he kisses like her Doctor, with all the passion and patience of an ageless god. It tastes like longing and it feels like being whole, and maybe she wasn't an obligation after all. Maybe she was a choice to love in spite of loss. If he had the strength to cling so tightly to something he knew he would lose, maybe, just maybe she has the strength to let go. With him so close and his eyes swirling with all the words they never say, it's clear that this isn't the end. This is the epilogue, a stolen bit of time where she sees him and he sees her; and in these few precious moments, there are no ghosts.