A wind blows where a moment ago the night had been still and River Song pauses, waiting. Whale-song bellows fill the air and she turns, watching the familiar blue box do a reverse fade into reality. Her smile dies on her lips as a different man staggers from the Doctor’s ship. He’s incredibly tall and impossibly thin as he approaches her; there is no scent of oranges, rather one of lightning, and it fills her nose as she takes an involuntary step backwards.
River nods. She is too unnerved by this wild-eyed man to consider not answering. Her eyes dart left and right, searching for an escape route where there is none. The alley butts against University property and the fence is too high and he’d likely reach the other side before she reached the top anyway, with those legs. He has landed the TARDIS at the front of the alley and River regrets the decision to break from her thesis-writing tonight, no matter how the moon had reflected its eerie blue light off of the freshly fallen snow. Her breath steams out in front of her in rapid little puffs and she fights back the panic she hadn’t known was rising.
“How’d you get the TARDIS, then?”
“So you do know me, I wasn’t sure,” his voice trails off as he looks about, still wild-eyed.
“I know that ship, and I know the man that flies her. He isn’t you.” River’s voice is much calmer than she feels. Fear of this man fights her for control of her emotions.
“No, she’s mine, the TARDIS, and I’m him or rather will be, obviously, since I’ve only met you the once,” he replies.
The Doctor closes his eyes against the image of their last meeting, him in handcuffs and her about to commit suicide; for him, always for him. He stares at the girl in front of him; he can see the timelines waver and stretch out from her in all directions. Yes, this girl is River Song, student of archaeology and, at the very least, part-time companion to his future self. He winces, remembering Ood Sigma and that snowy London Street of a few moments ago. He knows all too well how very soon that future will arrive but as he stares at the girl in front of him, taking in her familiar wild curls (though they are cut shorter, styled darker than when he had seen her last) in spite of all his fore-knowledge, he cannot imagine himself in love with her. She is far too young, too easily frightened. He can smell the scent of human fear coming off of her in waves; can hear it in the angry edge to her voice. He can also hear Davros in his mind naming him “Destroyer of Worlds” and he shivers. Time is thin, stretched taught and losing its elasticity. He has done this and the knowledge darkens his eyes. The Cloister Bell echoes, though whether in time or memory he cannot discern. Why has he come here?
“Why are you here?”
She echoes the question as if she has plucked it from his mind and he stares at her, something like appreciation dawning in his eyes.
“River, I’m the Doctor, just earlier than you know me,” he starts, knowing now that he will have to prove it to her, something he hadn’t expected at first, something she has only just taught him, “I can prove it to you, if you like.”
As he speaks, he takes a step forward, his hand reaching toward her brow. She doesn’t back away and he smiles though she does not return the expression.
“It’s quicker this way, easier,” he states by way of both explanation and apology and then he touches her; first with cool fingertips gently pressing against her temple and then with his mind gently pressing against her own and she gasps as his thoughts explode into hers.
There is a sigh of sorrow, a whisper of agony on the edge his mind and River bends her own mind in that direction; he is younger than her Doctor, in spite of his older appearance, and his youth lends his pain a raw and panicky quality she knows from her own secret sadnesses. Then he is inside those small sorrows. He sees her as a young girl weeping over her dead cat; how she loved that cat, she thinks, and she feels his thoughts acknowledge her own. He sees her standing on the edge of a cliff, saying goodbye to a father long since lost to her. He sees her as a teen, ostracised by her peers and an image of his own lonely childhood flashes before her, almost too quickly to be seen. The grass is red and wild, a cold wind driving it to dance against the legs of gangly young blond. She knows instinctively that this is him; she knows this is him and he is hers, though by his own admission not yet and the intimacy is somehow both right and terribly wrong. There is something terribly wrong about this man standing before her, joining with her in a dark alley behind the University and River attempts to recoil, but his grip on her mind is too strong and suddenly she is riding inside his thoughts as he walks across an empty red planet. Mars, he thinks and it is her turn to acknowledge him and she does so; now all the more unnerved by this stranger who is no stranger at all.
He can feel her thoughts twisting and turning in the grasp of his mind but he doesn’t allow them the freedom they seek. Instead he pulls her with him through his experience on Mars. Making her witness to the bravery the team of Bowie Base One had displayed, forces upon her the horror they felt as the water closed in from all sides. Shares with her his decision to turn back, his decision to save his heroes from their tragic fate, their rightful fate; he pulls her ever faster through his memories. She sees the pale blue flash against a dark pane of glass and knows, as he knows, that Adelaide Brooke has died. She sees Ood Sigma and he allows her, this woman he does not yet know, to see inside him; allows her to see the fear, the grief, the horror and the desperate, crushing sense of helplessness he feels and then he pulls away and like that the connection is broken. River Song is alone in her mind and the Doctor, this hers-but-not-hers man, is alone in his.
Her hands shake and her face is wet with tears she had shed unaware. Her feeling of violation is complete and terrible but so is what she has just seen. This man, this hers-but-not-hers Doctor, has broken more than just some ancient holy code, more than just the Laws of Time; he has broken himself, shattered his very being and has, perhaps, lost his mind and she has seen that inside his thoughts; can see it still upon his personage. It is evident in the slope of his once straight back and it is alive in his dark and wild eyes, it is the lightning smell and it is everything and nothing and River Song cannot tell whether it is his pain or her own that shakes her hands and wets her face with tears.
Another involuntary step backwards lands her against the fence and she exhales a breathy little scream of surprise that embarrasses her more than she will ever admit. Defiantly, she brushes an unruly curl from her brow and she shivers as her fingers briefly touch the temple his corpse-cool fingers have so recently released. For a moment time stands still and she stares at him in the blue light of the moon. His haunted eyes return her steady gaze until, at last, he steps forward closing the distance between them and shattering the frozen moment.
“What year is it?” He practically barks the question and she blinks, taken aback by this sudden change.
“5090. What’s the Valeyard?” she answers him and counters with a question of her own. This time his are the legs moving backward of their own volition.
“How do you know about the Valeyard, did he tell you?”
River blinks, at first confused by bitterness with which he has uttered the pronoun. She realises then that he means her Doctor, the Proper Doctor, and her face hardens into a defensive mask. Hadn’t the Proper Doctor already warned her of the danger of spoilers? Still, she answers his question with absolute honestly.
“No, you told me. In your thoughts, it was there, I…” River pauses, searching for the right words, she resumes in a faltering pace, still unsure of her description. “The…word...the thought-no, no the idea was weaving through everything I saw when we-when you…”she falls silent unable to articulate what he has done in his violation of her mind.
The Doctor sees the accusation in her eyes and part of him shrinks away from it, the part of him that isn’t Time Lord Victorious; the same part of him that recoils in shock and horror, aghast at what he has done to Time. When he listens, he can hear the mad laughter of the most recent Master reaching across a gaping wound in time, a wound he himself created, perhaps this is just his over active imagination, this incarnation has always been prone to wild flights of fancy, after all. Perhaps it is neither a wound in time nor a flight of fancy, perhaps it is a newly discovered sensitivity toward time; perhaps he is bending Time with his very thoughts. He thinks this and he sees the accusation in the young woman’s eyes, the young woman to whom he will one day entrust his name but that day is not today and the Doctor smiles.
“Slightly psychic, I see, neat trick, I’ve a pad of paper does the same thing. Never fancied myself the kind of chap falls in love with a psychic, too burlesque. Still, 5090, that makes you, what? Nineteen, maybe twenty, and he’s been inside your mind, I saw him there. I thought I rather liked them young and that beats my record, hands down. You were older when I saw you last, not that I was in love with you then, I had only just met you, hadn’t I? But you knew me already; said you’d never seen me so young and I s’pose you hadn’t, I’m so much older now.”
His voice and his cocksure demeanour crack as he finishes speaking and River takes a wary step forward, easing her back from off the fence and rubbing a crick out of her shoulder as she does so.
“Doctor, I don’t know how to help you,” she confesses with eyes full of unshed tears. His words have stung her and her voice is weaker then she’d like. What he said about the Doctor, her Doctor, the Proper Doctor having been inside her mind leaves her feeling violated all over again, as if he were some time-travelling Peeping Tom. That this man is also her Doctor haunts her, leaves her feeling vulnerable and surreal.
“This back and forth, this in and out of time bit, is it always like this for you? Did he, do I settle down?”
He does not ask her the only thing he cares to know, "Will I be alright?" He wants so badly to know, he craves the answer so deeply it cannot be spoken; the question hangs between them and he silently begs her to hear him thinking it and for a moment he thinks she does. Her brow crinkles and her eyes fill with sorrow then she blinks her face again an impassive mask.
“Spoilers,” River replies, hoping he understands she is answering both the question he has asked and one left poisoning the air around him. That she cannot tell him; that she knows that she cannot tell him must mean he has told her not to tell him his future which can only mean he recovers.
The Doctor nods and turns his back to her. She realises he means to leave before he reaches the TARDIS and she runs after him wanting him to answer the question he has ignored.
“Doctor? What is the Valeyard?” she calls and he stops and she is grateful he has stopped, it means there is more of her Doctor in him then she has yet seen.
“A man you stopped me becoming. He’s here, hiding in the dark corners of my psyche. He’s always waiting, River, but now he’ll wait a while longer. I have to go - I’ve a meeting with an Ood and I’m a bit over-due, I’m afraid,” he turns to face her, a sad smile dances on his lips that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and he speaks, “Thank you, River Song.”
River watches as the hers-but-but-not-hers Doctor disappears into his ship and waits until his ship disappears into time, taking him along for the journey. She sinks to her knees lost in the grief and horror they have both experienced. And when whale-song bellows again fill the air she does not look up until she feels a hand not much warmer than air around her touch her shoulder.
“Doctor,” she begins but quickly lapses into silence, unable to find words to express what she needs to say.
“I’m sorry, River, I wanted to warn you, but…”
“Spoilers,” she finishes for him matter-of-factly and he has the compassion to turn away from her.
“No,” he answers in a resigned tone, “I didn’t want to risk losing you by changing my past. Can you blame me? Can you forgive me?”
She stares up at him over her shoulder, the Proper Doctor, her Doctor, and she remembers the first time she met him. She thinks of his awkward walk that seems he is too lost in his thoughts to pay a speck of attention to where he is going and she thinks of that other him, all feline grace and smug self-assurance on the outer-side. In her memory she can still feel the terror and helplessness of the hers-but-not-hers Doctor and she shudders, at last releasing the sob she has been struggling to hold back and her Doctor is by her side in a flash.
“Can you forgive me?” he asks again, more insistent this time, and briefly River Song considers his question then she nods as he knew she would (she must, after all, as the memory of her future death was still a part of his timeline) and the guilt that rises in him then is well-earned he thinks. River clings to her Doctor, this man she loves, this alien she barely knows, and weeps both for herself and for brittle haunted expression that hides insides his eyes, the grief inside him that she is only just beginning to understand. She weeps, safe inside his embrace; holding back her horror at the knowledge that inside him the Valeyard must also lurk.
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