She is dead. She is also alive. Often, at the same time.
River Song is just that kind of woman.
The Doctor tries not to think about it too much.
She sits on the jump seat that, when alive, she liked to throw a jacket onto while on her way to the console. Dressed in an ethereal white gown and without any physiological reaction to temperature, she has no jacket to throw. The Doctor tosses his tweed coat over the edge of the seat instead. They both know it was her habit, not his. He prefers the coat stand or over a coral arch if in a hurry. Still, it needs to be done for them both to feel more comfortable. He tries not to think about why.
She sees but makes no comment. They both like to pretend. It's hard to tell who is better at it, the hologram of what is essentially a dead woman or the Time Lord talking to what is essentially an empty room.
"Long day?" she asks.
The Doctor's shoulders go even more tense, like he's ready to snap or give in. He makes a sound in the back of his throat for agreement. He pretends that it is incredibly important that he twists a few dials and pushes a lever on the other side of the console from her. In his distraction, the Doctor forgets that River knows how to fly the TARDIS and so also knows that he has the safety engaged and everything else is for show.
"I've been reading." She leans back in the jump seat and crosses her ankles on the edge of the console. He huffs at her feet but doesn't ask her to stop. "The Firefalls of the Celestial Calamity. You remember, it was at the beginning of the end of the Third Great and Bountiful Human Empire."
"Of course," he says, glancing up and almost making eye contact. His eyes hop from her feet to her hands, to her clavicles, to her mouth, to the top of her head. He looks up at the ceiling as if in thought. River rolls her eyes that he'd pretend not to know all the details immediately. "Scientific Fundamentalists take over the largest spaceport in the center of the empire, lower the climate shields around the luxury planet below, and expose it to the elements of its T-radiation producing sun. Just to see what it would do."
"They say the sky was like fire without heat and it moved like an ocean of oil in the air. Every color imaginable. Even more unimaginable. The survivors said it was the most beautiful thing they ever saw."
"It also killed half the planet within the first three months. Most of them never saw anything again."
"I always wanted to see it myself." She frowns. "You refused to take me."
"Quite right too!" He finally is in enough of a dudgeon to look her in the eye. "River, ten million people die on Senmurv II of radiation poisoning before Earth retakes the climate controls! Ten million! That's not an occasion for sight-seeing. That's slaughter! That's-that's just brutal."
"Yes, but they hardly noticed amongst the beauty."
The Doctor looks bewildered and slightly sickened. She's not surprised by this. He's still very young and doesn't understand everything she is yet. He doesn't know. He is always running from death. River never had that luxury even in life. At the best of times and when he is an older man, he cannot always empathize with her. This was something they never saw eye-to-eye on and never will.
He looks at her like she hurts him. In some ways, she does. He doesn't hide it as well as he thinks he does. She knows this face's tricks. Because he is a genius, he suspects as much and doesn't try as hard as he otherwise might.
"You've traveled in time without me," he finally says. He squints as if in deep thought. "You had a vortex manipulator at least once. Why didn't you go yourself?"
She smiles and flutters her eyelashes at him. He always told her he hated that. But sometimes it makes him blush. She loves that. He doesn't blush now but shifts his too-long limbs into new angles with unease. River's forced to answer seriously.
"It is a fixed point in time, sweetie. You know that. The Time Agency has rules about visiting fixed points."
"Aha," the Doctor laughs, making himself so handsome that River smiles with soft feeling. She doesn't mind the not-so-gentle tease in his voice. "And I'm to take it that you always follow everybody else's rules. Or were you part of the Time Agency? Were you a Time Agent, River?"
Her smile turns hard. "That'd be telling." She continues on before he can think of another way to ask. "Vortex manipulators are programed to be unable to jump into fixed points."
"River." Now he grins slow but with honesty. "We both know you're brilliant enough to rewire a vortex manipulator to your needs. You're able to work the TARDIS, a frankly unparalleled piece of time-traveling genius. A vortex manipulator is child's play. Come now. Tell me."
He studies her face from a distance. Then he begins to walk around the console toward her without breaking eye contact. When River was alive, that used to make her heart rate hammer. Now, in death, she can still feel it inside, the rush. She knows this Doctor isn't even aware of it. He doesn't realize yet all the little ways she loves him because he doesn't love her. To know that feels a little bit like dying. And she knows.
"What's the real reason you didn't go to Senmurv II on your own? And ah-ah-ah!" He wags a finger when she opens her mouth. "Don't say spoilers. I already know that you won't go. I'm spoilered. Truth now. What was going on in that little, oh-so-human head of yours? Wait, you are human, aren't you? I haven't got around to checking. Well, I mean the real you. I mean, the live you. I mean-." He realizes he just can't say that sort of thing correctly and so stops, pressing his lips into a thin line.
She stares at him with a fixed smile. He stares back with a better one. She sighs.
"You made me promise."
"Promise?" He looks both surprised and proud of his future self's tactic. "I made you promise that you wouldn't go?" She nods. "And that was it? You wouldn't go because you promised?" She shrugs and tries to look annoyed with him. "So River Song keeps her promises. Good to know." He turns away.
"No," she says. "I only keep my promises to you. Only . . . Only ever for you."
He pauses with his back turned. She wonders if he'll admit he heard her. That would require him to face what that means. It would force him to acknowledge there's something between them. As if the fact that he saved her forever in the memory space of the largest hard-drive in history and sometimes orbits around The Library in order to link with her program for a bit of conversation means nothing. No, that means nothing.
The Doctor never really could keep his actions from talking, even when he avoids the subject.
"Stabilizers!" he announces and gallops around the console to the blue switches. He pulls out his sonic screwdriver. She notes that it's not the version he gave her or will give her. She wonders when he'll add the red settings. When he does, that will be admitting defeat. "These have to go! What use is having stabilizers when the entire point is to experience life to the fullest with all its bumps and jumps and curves and swerves? It's to be lived side-to-side and up-and-down and every which way! Who wants to ride the sofa when you can ride the roller-coaster? Eh, River?" He glances up to her and his eyes plead for her to agree, not to his question but his avoidance of her answer.
"Of course, sweetie," she says.
He's not brave enough to hear the truth yet. That's the real reason she doesn't tell him. 'Spoilers!' was always his word and excuse in the beginning of their relationship. Not this him but a future him that was and will be in her past. The first time she used it was in tease. He laughed and looked a bit haunted. Then, one time, he didn't get that joke anymore and she was afraid to tell him.
She tries not to think about it.
He pulls off a metal cover and slides beneath the console. She hears him sonic some wiring before her image flickers.
"Doctor!" she warns and he glances up. When he sees her flicker again, he jumps back, hitting his head on the underside of the console in his hurry. He clutches his head and hisses. "Doctor, are you all right?"
"Fine. Fine." He waves her off. The Doctor glances between her and the Time Rotor. "Now why'd you go and do that?" he asks. It's hard to tell whether he's accusing her or his ship. It only takes a little bit of thinking on River's part until she believes she has his answer. After all, she knows what it feels like to have him ignore her gestures.
"The TARDIS added the stabilizers when she last redecorated, yes?"
"Yes." His face tells her that he has no idea how that has to do with anything.
"If I remember correctly, she had to put in a lot of hard work after the radiation damage from your last regeneration."
"Yes, well," he pouts at the mention of it, "she wouldn't let me in to help."
"Right." River tries not to sound patronizing. She really does. But the Doctor young is a hell of a lot of work. "But she thought up to add those stabilizers herself. They also happen to be internal stabilizers. They do nothing to help her side of traveling."
"Exactly!" the Doctor crows and points a finger. "There's no point to them at all!" The background noise of the TARDIS changes as if there is external pressure on a metal hull she doesn't possess. He looks at the Time Rotor as if she called him a bad name.
"Doctor, she added those for you!" River shakes her head at his shocked face. "Probably thought at the rate you're going through regenerations, you don't need to risk breaking your neck while piloting! But instead of praising her, you're insulting her and trying to take it apart! I bet you didn't even say thank you."
He looks properly chastised for all of ten seconds before another thought clouds his face. "Is she suggesting I'm getting old?"
River really wishes her hologram had the capability for touch because she'd throw something at him.
"Just leave the damn switches alone, dear."
He presses his lips together over what his instinctual reply might have been. "Fine," he decides to say, throwing up a hand. He replaces the metal cover on the wiring. "I'll find something else to tinker with."
"Why? Are you avoiding me?" she asks.
"I'm not!" he replies so quickly that it really confirms that he is. "This is just simply as good a place as anywhere to stop for repairs. I'm . . . multi-tasking." He throws her a tight smile and when he sees that she isn't buying it, he practically flees down the staircase to the underbelly of the room.
"And you didn't have to connect to The Library's hard drive just because you were here." River jumps down from her seat and walks around the console to a spot where she can see him through the glass floor.
"No. But it'd be rude not to say hello if I'm circling your planet. And unfortunately, this regeneration, I am neither ginger nor rude. Well, mostly. I mean, I try. I can't help it if the truth is rude. They should blame the truth and not me." He glances up at her with a cheeky smile, blushes, and quickly searches for some piece of wiring to molest.
"When are you?" she finally asks. Really, perhaps she should have asked that at the beginning. But there's something about dying that made her nostalgic for the days of the simple, 'hello,' and, 'how are you?'
"You know, here and there," he doesn't answer. "It's really very relative." He glances up again and then quickly back to his wiring. He sonics the ones insulated in mauve. She hopes he won't cause another fire.
"You know what I mean, Doctor. When are we? Last time we spoke, you just dealt with psychic pollen."
"Yes, and how did that get in here?" He looks around at all the far edges of the floor as if there might be a hole somewhere. "I should look into the TARDIS's environmental filters. If that got in, who knows what else did? Even if it's just pollen, do you have any idea how dangerous pollen can be? There's pollen on Poosh that can make you . . . do things."
He glances up at his name, blushes some more, and refocuses on his wiring.
"You're avoiding my question."
He huffs and pushes his hair out of his face. "Can you please stand somewhere else?"
"Because you're wearing a dress while standing on a glass floor above my head. And it's distracting."
"Can you see my knickers?" she laughs.
"It's nothing you haven't seen before."
"Well, yes, now!"
"You're so cute when you're flustered," she says and takes a few steps to the side until she's sure the angle is more comfortable for him. She smiles to see his shoulders relax. This version of him was always so easy to scandalize. Probably due to the combination of being so old and so young at the same time. "Isn't Amy the companion of yours who has the predilection for mini-skirts?"
"Does she?" He pauses before sonicing away. "I hadn't noticed."
"Liar." River laughs. "Where is she now?"
"With her husband. Doing married people things."
"So we're after the Pandorica," she says, picking up their former thread of conversation. Even from this new distance, she can see him cringe. "I'm not going to tell you who I am. Or slip and give you too many hints. You have to wait and see. It can't be long now."
He looks up at her sidelong through the glass floor and smiles like he thinks himself very smart. No doubt, he does. "What makes you think I don't already know?"
"Because you wouldn't smile at me like that if you did." She pauses and considers how much she can afford to tell. The smile falls off the Doctor's face and is replaced with wariness. In the end, River can't keep quiet because this will likely be the last visit she has from him for a very long time. He won't want to see her for a while after he finds out. "There's a world of difference between knowing and understanding. You're going to know soon. I'm not sure how long it takes you to understand."
The Doctor takes that with more grace than she might have expected. He nods and asks, "What are you afraid of, River?"
"Losing you," she answers without reserve because the only thing she has never been able to hide from him in life or death is the extent of her love for him. It is also the one truth about who she is that he would always understand the least. He offers her a sad smile but she can see he has no like words to offer. Not yet. She gives him an out. "And that you're going to start a fire if you keep sonicing mauve wires without prejudice. Really, are you trying to get electrocuted? The TARDIS would be completely within her rights."
"I know what I'm doing!" The Doctor scoffed. "A fair bit better than you, I'm sure. No matter how good of a teacher I am going to be. Nothing is a substitute for sheer experience and I have been taking care of my TARDIS for over 700 years, linear time!"
"Whatever you say, dear."
"Right! And if you keep questioning how I treat my TARDIS," he shook the bundle of wires at her for emphasis, "I might just reconsider teaching you how to fly her at all. Then where will you be?" He turns the sonic screwdriver to a setting in the 600's and points it at the wires. His eyes focus on her to better milk his point. "Ha! I'll tell you where. You'll be stuck with a vortex manipulator that can't even visit fixed points in time. All the cool kids will point and laugh."
She smiles down at him. "Sweetie, your sleeve is on fire." He swears under his breath and she just laughs and laughs.
Amy Pond enters the console room personality-first. "I leave you alone for two hours and you go stir-crazy, eh Doctor?"
"What's that, Pond?" he asks. He notices she's wearing another skirt and so quickly abandons the area beneath the floor. She crosses her arms and meets him at the top of the stairs.
"I heard you talking. Do you always talk to yourself when Rory and I are sleeping? Because I know a name of a psychiatrist." She pulls a face. "Or two or three."
"Yes, and I'm sure they all remember yours. Or at least still have the teeth marks." He jumps away from her swat at his arm and circles the console to put the Time Rotor between them. "However, I wasn't talking to myself."
Amy lets out a long-suffering sigh. "Don't tell me. You were talking to the TARDIS."
"And if I were?" He sounds offended. Good, Amy doesn't ask questions when he sounds offended.
"Then I don't want to know what kind of things you're doing down there with your ship that leave you grinning like that."
"I'm not grinning."
"No, not now." Amy bounces on the balls of her feet. "But you were when I first came in. Ear-to-Ear. Like Rory does when I - well, let's just say, when we're busy doing married things."
"Thank you, Amy, but that's something I'd rather not think about."
"Aww, come on, Doctor. Aren't you going to tell me?" She's pouting. He can't see her but he can hear it in her voice. It's been a long time since he's had a pouter for a companion. Unfortunately, Amy's a very good pouter and knows how to make it work.
"Tell you what?"
"I don't know. Maybe . . ." Amy peeks around the Time Rotor to catch his eyes. "Why I heard River laughing?" Her eyes light up at his expression. She points. "Ha! I did, didn't I? So, Doctor, did you pick her up for a midnight rendezvous? What else do you do when Rory and I aren't here?"
"Shouldn't you be dressing your husband or something."
"Me-ow," Amy replies but takes the hint and heads for the doorway. He stares hard at the blue switches. She can't help giving a passing remark from the hallway. "Like I said, grinning like a man caught doing married things."
Amy throws him a smile and leaves him with a frown. Her laughter echoes. It reminds him of someone else.
The Doctor tries hard not to think about it. River Song is dead. The problem is that she is also alive.