River has many reasons for hating fairy tales: the wizard always turns out to be the Doctor; she was never an innocent child, and while you can kill some monsters, other monsters can be saved and some aren’t monsters at all but Time and Fate and Consequence knotted around your wrists, binding your choices with silver threads.
When she first meets the Doctor, he delights her. He’s not supposed to. She’s supposed to hate him and not talk to him, but there’s something marvellously compelling about his voice, about the way he plays, flowing easily from one moment to the next as if time is freedom and freedom is forever.
She allows herself to be distracted because doesn’t want to be rude, and he intrigues her: he does it deliberately and he knows that she knows that he’s doing it deliberately and it doesn’t matter. There are secrets in his eyes. Not the cold, hard steel of all the things Kovarian refused to ever tell her, but silent promises that shine bright and precious as gold.
He agrees to marry her and then she kills him and that should have been that.
But he comes back. He doesn’t give up, he dresses up. He offers her another round of cards and, oh, she likes this. It’s the best game she’s ever played and she wants more, more than he can possibly give her because time is cruel, steady, unstoppable, and any moment now he’s going to die, and her parents are going to die and then…and then…
She’s fairly sure she doesn’t want him to die, and she’s definitely sure she doesn’t want her parents to die.
And if she isn’t going to kill the Doctor, then she must save him.
It’s a strange thing, learning how to make your own choice. Strange and wonderful and thrilling.
She wants to do it again.
She doesn’t know what she is or who she is, but she’s going to find out.
She feels like star dust, able to dance untamed from one corner of the universe to another, time racing under her skin, its siren song glowing with possibilities, with unexplored roads. She dreams wildly, soars out into the universe, and lands in a university, brimming with confidence and questions. The Doctor showed her the shadow of her future self, a woman he’d love. She wonders if she’d like that, to be loved by him.
She spends a lot of her time in the university’s library, sometimes searching for stories about him, sometimes for stories about herself. She doesn’t look for facts: she knows how easy it is to get those wrong.
“It’s a dangerous thing, knowing your own future.” She’s never heard his voice before, but he’s a familiar stranger so she greets him with a smile.
“You shouldn’t be in here, the library’s closed to non-students,” she says. She thinks she sees him flinch - a strange, slight movement — but then he shrugs.
“What makes you think I’m not a student, River?”
Her eyes narrow as he slips out of the shadows. He’s wearing a different body, and a different suit. Pinstripes. “That’s not my name,” she says.
“Oh.” He looks distinctly uncomfortable. “It must be earlier than I thought. Still, can’t be helped. So, what is your name?”
It’s a question she’s been asking herself for months now. The student register says it’s Jane Smith, but that’s not a moniker she plans on keeping. “I’m not sure, not yet.”
The Doctor glances at the stack of books on the table. “That selection looks a lot like you’re trying to check up on someone. Should he be flattered, or worried?”
“I want to know if I can trust what he… what you said.”
“What did he say?”
She opens her mouth, but the words stick in her throat. Instead she asks, “Why do you keep talking about yourself in the third person?”
“I’m in denial. A lot of denial. I’m dying.”
“I don’t want to.”
He offers her a thin smile. “And I’m scared.” He looks at the books again. “So, what do they say, about him…me?”
“There are a lot of contradictions. I’d hate to be your biographer.”
The Doctor laughs, a harsh choking sound that turns into a splutter, then a rasping cough as he doubles over. She grabs him under his arms, and guides him into a chair. She crouches down next to him, looks into his eyes. “You really are dying, aren’t you?”
His eyes are dark, sharp with pain. “Tell me what he’s like, this future me.”
“Tell me what she’s like.”
“I didn’t know her that well.
“Did you trust her?”
Another smile. “I tried not to.”
She runs a finger over the back of his hand and she can feel it, the rush of gold-bright energy ready to consume and remake him. It’s so near the surface of his skin, all that power, strong enough to both cure and kill, held back by sheer force of will. The pain must be excruciating.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” she says. “You should be back in the TARDIS, she can help you.”
He stares at her, his eyes widening fractionally, as though on the cusp of understanding. “How do you know that?”
Because just before I killed you, I regenerated and she helped me. “Spoilers,” she says, her voice as gentle as sunlight.
She helps him stand, this dying madman, this silly old fool who insists on making death wait for him. She can feel the spark of centuries through his skin, sense the glimmer of herself in his past, and the fierce glow in his future. For an instant, her whole timeline unravels beneath her eyelids and she sees her life and his wrapped around each other, beginning and ending, over and over again. She understands how everything is and how everything could be. Eternity beats through her veins and she can feel the turn of the earth beneath her feet.
The moment passes, and she’s still in the library with the Doctor dying in her arms. “Come on,” she urges as they stumble back to the TARDIS. “Come on.”
River has been told stories all her life, stories about the Doctor and why he must die, about her duty, her responsibility to protect the universe by killing him. She’s been told stories made up by Amy and stories Amy promises are true, about cracks in the universe, and metal monsters, and dead gods. She’s been told stories about people, so many people, who lived because the Doctor didn’t give up or know when to shut up.
There have been so many stories and, at some point, River’s believed them all.
She is convinced nothing is impossible, and so she does monstrous things because she can, because she wants to, because she’s in love and stories have taught her what love means.
She thinks it means this: her pain is true and real and cuts deeper than the reality she believes she has the right to remake. And she isn’t sorry about it, isn’t sorry at all. She has destroyed and created, killed and given birth to a whole new universe. She’s done it for love and it’s a good thing.
“No,” says the Doctor, in other words. Harsher, perhaps, or kinder. She isn’t sure yet, she’s still so new and thinking and learning. “This is wrong,” he tells her. “It’s cruel and terrible. I love you. Stop this. Trust me. I trust you.”
She looks into his eyes and liquid joy runs through her body as she sees his trick, his way out , because he’s a liar and a cheat, and behind the smoke and mirrors there’s just an old man who can’t drive rattling around the universe in a battered blue box.
“You’ve told this story,” his eyes say. “Will you let me tell one now?”
She consents, because he’s the wisest fool in the universe and she loves him for it.
She will admit them to no-one save her parents, but there are things that River is afraid of: being alone, forgetting, being forgotten.
The last is inevitable. She knows this and sometimes she goes hunting for earlier incarnations of the Doctor, curious about him and needing to know how it looks and feels for him to see her and not to know her.
It’s as terrible as she imagines. All those blunt glances that cut deep and startle out of her a fear that maybe she isn’t real at all. Maybe all those stories she’s read are just lies after all.
River never stays for long, and the Doctor’s memories fade as she leaves. Time can protect some of its secrets, even from people like her.
Her life will always dance in and out, around and amongst the lives of those she loves. The memories come and go, restless as stormy waves, as relative timelines snap together at uncanny angles. Sometimes she’s nearly a stranger to her love. Sometimes her mother and father don’t know who she is. Sometimes she remembers herself trapped in a spacesuit and she’s afraid, so afraid that one day she’ll wake up and all of this will have been the tale of a lonely, frightened child trying comfort herself.
She sits in the garden of her parents’ house with her mother, sharing a bottle of sweet white wine. It’s a clear night. River nods up at the sky. “I can name them all, you know.”
Her mother smiles, gentle pride in the corners of her lips. Once that gentleness would have fooled River, but she knows her mother better now. Amy Pond is the woman who never forgot the stars and who knew enough stories to breathe life back into a dying universe.
Amy Pond also learned patience when she was seven years old, and that’s something that River will never understand. Her stillness is an illusion that exists only in Stormcage. Once River ran because she saw her captors in every shadow, hunting her, now she runs because she can, because she’s free and when she’s moving she knows she’s alive.
“Why did you stop?” River asks. “Why did you and father come back to Earth?” Amy looks at her and for a moment River’s afraid her answer’s going to be “because I grew up.”
“Because people change,” Amy says. There’s no sadness in her voice, no regret, only a steady warmth and the patience of a woman who understands who she is. “Sometimes they come home.”
River thinks of her home, and it’s all the places she’s ever been and all the places she’s going.
River has many reasons for carrying a gun: ease of communication (she’s met few species that don’t understand that language of violence); she too was once a weapon, so there’s a certain sympathy there, and, in fairy tales, guns do not exist.
Her gun reminds her of what she was, of what she could have been, of what she’s chosen not to be.
Her father understands guns better than anyone else she knows. He was man of plastic with a gun in his hand for two thousand years; the Lone Centurion, a mad ageless warrior, who spent lifetime after lifetime with a mysterious box as his only companion.
The stories about Rory don’t often remember that he was a nurse first, and that when he became human again he devoted his life to the care and comfort of the sick.
Mercy is difficult for River to learn. It’s easy to be kind to those she loves, but showing compassion towards those she despises never comes easily. In those moments, she thinks of her father, of what he’d say and what he’d want and she finds her strength.
Some pages of her diary are full of lies. Once, River loses the diary on a starliner and when - after managing to panic the crew and half the passengers with a story about unstable blue matter that can’t possibly be contained without her notes - she finally gets the diary back, she finds that someone has annotated her fabrications:
Stop this! You’re only confusing yourself!
It’s written in Gallifreyan and in her handwriting, so after penning a snarky response to herself she decides to leave the lies for any passing historians who might be interested in her views on the Doctor. The truth is too easy and too precious. She prefers meaningless hints, ridiculous anecdata and circular riddles. Nonsense talk all through space time to amuse herself and to protect him.
“I forgive you, always and forever,” he told her once.
River’s never sought redemption; she doesn’t want it, doesn’t need it, but she remembers the Doctor’s words and never wants to give him cause to regret them.
She trusts him enough to take mad gambles with her life - falling out of spaceships and off buildings, giving herself to gravity and to the vacuum of space and knowing that she cannot fly, but believing he’ll catch her when she falls.
Her love is fierce and fearless, reckless and wild.
I killed you. I saved you. I trust you. Catch me.
And he does.
It hurts to look in the Doctor’s eyes and see them grow more distant, but she takes delight in her secrets. He’s had so many and teased her so often and now there are times when she meets him and he’s young and so frustrated as she navigates the console of his TARDIS with practised ease.
She smiles and he says nothing, but a thousand questions dance in his eyes, questions that he won’t ask because he won’t admit how much he doesn’t know, or how much he wants to know. She only has one answer anyway, and when he does slip up on his curiosity, she says it with delight.
It’s a warning and a promise, because she knows so many of his stories now: the true and false, the light and dark, those where he brings down vengeful gods with a handful of words, others where he rises up vicious and righteous to unmake time and space and life as he sees fit.
River’s a part of those stories, a remarkable thread in his life’s tapestry that winds in and out and around as it pleases. In the legend of himself, the Doctor plays many parts, but River doesn’t believe in gods or wizards or heroes; she believes that people can change, nothing is forever, and that she always, always has a choice.
I’m not a fairy tale. I am myself, becoming myself.
She is a puppet who’s cut her strings, and dances now for her own pleasure. She’s a storyteller who knows nothing begins at the beginning or ends at the end and that the best sort of journey is never a straight line. She’s a prisoner who can tumble from one end of the galaxy to the other, breathless and free, her feet never touching the ground.
She has no regrets.
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