This is a love story.
This is a fairy tale.
This is the song of Song, the legend of the Doctor. This is the story of two irresistible forces and an immovable universe.
The universe never stood a chance.
+ + + +
Who else could River fall in love with but the Doctor? Who else could capture her attention?
The difficulty with being a singular individual: one is alone in the universe.
Not even swappable heads could alleviate that after a while.
+ + + +
On April 22nd, Amy's assistant Donna has to ask three times if Amy wants the minutes from the morning's meeting.
"Nothing," Amy says. "My little girl got married today."
"Oh!" Donna says. "I didn't even know you had a daughter." She pauses, confused. "Aren't you a bit young for...?"
"Nevermind," Amy says quickly. "Ignore me. I'll have the minutes, thanks, Donna."
"No problem," Donna says. "I'll bring them right in." She throws Amy a quick smile and pops back out. Amy writes a reminder to herself to send a thank you note to the temp agency that sent Donna around in the first place. She's invaluable, that woman.
Amy tries to get back to work, but she can't stop staring out the window. "Today," she whispers to herself. "Today my little girl got married, and my best friend died, except that he never did, and she's never been my little girl."
The scent of Petrichor drifts through the room, enchanting and just a bit wistful. Amy sniffs hard and dabs at her eyes with a tissue. She has to focus. The company won't run itself, after all.
Delight, she thinks. She will bottle delight next.
+ + + +
River goes back to the children's house later to fetch the photographs. The vortex manipulator has been reconfigured to warn her if she's about to cross her own timeline - a small improvement, but a useful one. Young Melody is already elsewhere. Even the poor mad caretaker has gone. River doesn't need to think about navigating the house. Her feet know the way even after all this time. The photographs are all in their frames and she sweeps them into a bag. Back in her cell, she sticks them one by one into an album and captions them as best she can. Melody, age 5. A little later, Melody's first bicycle. Perhaps she'll leave out Melody's first semi-automatic. She will take them to her young, fresh-faced mother and they will bend their heads close together and admire the infant Melody Pond with her downy hair and her curious eyes and her surprisingly strong grip in the one photograph they have of the two of them together. Amy looks so happy in that snapshot, cradling her newborn daughter. It makes River feel odd. She wishes she could remember that.
She will not tell her mother the things she suffered. She will not tell her mother she remembers the terror of the space suit and the smell of sweat. They will share a moment and a cup of tea, and then her father will come home reeking slightly of hospital and they will all eat takeaway, and for a little while, they will feel like real true family without the inconvenience of timelines.
+ + + +
River and the Doctor, the Doctor and River. It is a timey-wimey mess of a romance, an utter travesty of a narrative.
It was foolish of Kovarian, River thinks, to underestimate the Doctor's charm. She watches him sleep, a rare moment of exhausted abandon. He almost never sleeps, and the smoothness of his face is unutterably enchanting. Her Doctor, whose entire existence has been predicated on talking people into doing things they don't want to do, or at least wittering until they give up, and they thought he wouldn't win her over.
He makes a noise of slight distress, dreaming, and she brushes his hair off his forehead and watches his brow relax. He curls into the covers and she leans against him and writes in her diary, her expansive penmanship alternating with the swirls and curves of Gallifreyan and her diagrams of this and that.
There was no other way this story could be written.
+ + + +
Still, the path of true love never did run smooth. There are still moments she wants to kill him, or at least hit him over the head with something heavy. He is bull-headed, insufferable, and arrogant. She has top-notch assassin training and carries sedative darts that could stop a Judoon in its tracks. The combination is nearly irresistible at times, but there's nothing River Song loves more than a challenge.
Except, perhaps, the Doctor.
+ + + +
Sometimes the Doctor misses Gallifrey so badly it is an ache in his old bones. He hobbles around the TARDIS, alternately snappish and maudlin. His planet. His family. His people. All that history, gone. All that guilt, square on his thin shoulders. Sometimes he just misses the scent of the breeze in the great domed city.
He wishes he could take River there. They would have loved her on Gallifrey. She is, after all, a child of Time, and she has such a marvelous flair for living.
She would have destroyed the universe for him. He smiles to himself sometimes thinking of it, when he's alone with the TARDIS. It runs in the family, that measure of devotion. Her father said the same thing in Roman Britain; her mother said the same thing stranded in the wrong timestream in the clinic facility on what ought to have been a pleasure planet.
Remarkable, the Ponds.
+ + + +
I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me, says a page in River's diary. A killer, a savior, a lover, a partner, a mixed-up wibbly-wobbly back-to-front love of my life.
River Song is the woman who murdered the Doctor and the woman who married him, both several times over.
Well. Love is complicated.
+ + + +
River doesn't give half a damn what anybody thinks about her. She's heard the whispers. Brainwashed by the Doctor, they say. Playing out the happy role of the little wife centuries out of fashion. Gave up her whole identity for the man she loves. A caricature of a twentieth-century woman, much less a fifty-first-century one.
Generally she ignores all of it. If she's not feeling charitable, she might shoot someone, but not anywhere terribly important.
Not a one of them knows what a terrible struggle it was for her, reaching out for humanity. Not a one of them has been raised a weapon instead of a person.
She knows who she's been. She's glimpsed who she'll be. Certainly she loves the Doctor with her whole heart - she's never done anything by halves in her life. But she isn't his plaything or his little woman. When she was gone, beyond the black, very nearly exactly the killing machine Kovarian dreamed of, the Doctor and her parents brought her back. They found a part of her she thought was lost forever. They showed her who else she could be. And the Doctor, dying of her kiss, gave her a chance to live that dream instead, to write her own life and break the bonds of the Silence.
She spends her days in prison for the most part, but when she's beyond the bars, she isn't always at his side. She's too proud for that. She wants her own name in the story books, rumors of a force of nature who knew more secrets than any mere mortal. She won't stand in his shadow. She's not a Companion, to be led by the hand. She's his wife. She's his counterpart, his partner, as near his equal as he'll find any longer in the universe.
She went through dark times before she ended up at University. The Silence found her more than once, she thinks. There are holes in her memories. She rebuilt herself from the ground up but they still put her in that space suit, just as if she were that same terrified child learning to despise all human sentiment. She still can't be sure that writing about the Doctor, hunting him down through all of history, wasn't their idea, their next-to-last commission from their bespoke psychopath. She was always hunting the Doctor. At least this felt more like her own terms. Besides, somebody had to write the spotter's guide at last.
Even Amy's eyebrows quirk when River hands her a copy of her dissertation. "Goodness. All of this, all for the Doctor?"
"All about the Doctor," River corrects. "I certainly wouldn't trust anyone else to tell his story. The things they'd let him get away with! His head is big enough already."
"All right," Amy says dubiously. River knows that Amy doesn't quite believe her, doesn't believe that her daughter isn't a bit of a hopeless case when it comes to the madman in the blue box, as if anyone could be sane about him. But she sees the respect in Amy's eyes too, knows that somewhere in Amy's past are spoilers for her own future where she stands on her own two feet, out of the Doctor's shadow. Well, someone ought to keep him to heel.
Among the things she'll never tell Amy about are the bleak years knocking around the universe, one step ahead of the authorities, trying to riddle through the mystery of Melody Pond and River Song. She had to reach the limits of herself, had to know how far she would go. For good or ill, she had to know.
In the end, all she discovered was that she is limitless. Beyond. She stared down creatures in cold blood and shot them between the eyes. She granted mercy to the undeserving. She will not be trifled with. She is capable of great deeds. She is capable of remarkable indifference. She will never tell Amy what a wrench it was to devote herself to justice instead of chaos. She could have bent time to her will: absolute power corrupts absolutely, except that it ran into love. Love for her perplexed parents, having lost their best mate and gained a daughter. Love for the man she'd grown up loathing and then pretending to love, though somewhere along the way, her playacting turned to truth. Mels did love the Doctor. That didn't mean she didn't want to destroy him. She took her chance, but the horror in the eyes of her parents brought her an entirely new feeling: regret.
Faced down by the sight of her future, she chose a new path. She would rewrite herself instead of time. She would save the Doctor and in so doing save millions of lives, and all for the sake of the agony on her mother's face, and for the anguish pouring from the wooden spaceship that contained multitudes.
Playthings were so much more entertaining when they were alive anyway, she told herself, assuaging the killer's conscience inside her that ground its teeth at her failure.
It took ages to figure out what was herself and what was programmed into her. She hid away in small dirty rooms on rough planets and tried to determine where her joy lay. Was it the cold reassurance of a gun in her hand, or the warm worn paper of a book that pleased her more? Was it fear or love in the eyes of those who watched her? She hated Kovarian most for taking her certainty.
It was simple enough to skip back to the right time, to apply to university. One day, she knew, she would let them take her away to the Stormcage. She could go quietly, knowing that the choice was hers. Her life might be a crusade or a massacre, but she would decide.
She will never, ever let anyone take that choice from her. Not even the Doctor.
+ + + +
Rory Williams goes to work. Rory Williams comes home to his wife. Rory Williams goes about the business of living, and all the time, inside his head, he is a plastic Roman centurion guarding a legendary box containing the greatest treasure in the universe. It causes more than a little cognitive dissonance, sometimes - he nearly took off somebody's head with an IV stand once when he was startled - but it does help him deal with the patients bleeding out on the battlefields of their own lives.
He will grant this to the Doctor: he never would have known, otherwise, just how much steel was in him. He can't help thinking their lives would have been easier if the Doctor hadn't crashlanded in Amy's garden, but then again, they might not have been. There are more monsters around than just the ones with laser guns and stone wings.
In the end, it was probably worth it. No Doctor would have meant no sword, no stars, no River. No Melody. No Mels. No hours lost playing Raggedy Doctor. A marriage marred by uncertainty and frustration, no trial by fire to unite them. But Rory will never be devoted to the Doctor, after all that's happened.
A man like that always has a hand in creating his greatest enemy, one way or another. So the Doctor didn't deserve to be murdered. He'd done plenty to deserve the rest of it. Rory and Amy didn't deserve to have their infant daughter stolen from their arms. River didn't deserve to be tortured and warped, though honestly, with that manic glint in her eye, Rory isn't certain she wouldn't have been a bit of a wild child anyway.
Rory wishes that he could believe that things happen for a reason. He wishes he had faith. But what he's got is two steady hands and a steady heart. He's got to make that work. He lives in the world now, even if his wife and his daughter still have stars in their eyes.
+ + + +
River Song is a professional conundrum. The worst of it all is that she knows his name. The Doctor remembers the Library, the hot thrill of River's whisper at his ear and the way the word unfurled from her lips. It had been so very long since he had heard his name. He had all but forgotten it himself. River gave it back to him.
Merlin and Nimue, they are. Caesar and Cleopatra. He thinks he should fret more about this, that she chooses great lovers destroyed by their passions for their games. But she handed him a piece of himself that day, and it was a promise and an omen.
There is only one time he would give his name. It is the last piece he has of Gallifrey, aside from the TARDIS. He never told any of the others, not even his long-ago wife (not so long-ago, in the vast span of his own life, but long enough that his family's forgotten him, a small mercy to them all). He guarded it so jealously for himself, afraid of the power it might give his enemies, but he gave it freely to River, who exhales danger with each breath.
In return, he supposes, he gave her her name. She was Melody Pond when he expected her to be River Song. They are all wrapped up in each other, tangled in timelines. He couldn't save her from Demon's Run, but he could keep the promise he made her in the Library. These times will not be rewritten.
She could never have been anything other than amazing, but she could have been someone else than River Song. They have shaped each other. They have sharpened their wits on each other's edges, struck sparks with flirtation. He realizes they argue like married people, talking back and forth in their own abbreviated code, broaching old hurts completely off the subject.
Strange how quickly he came to rely on her. But after the Library, what else could he do? He owed her his life, and Donna's, and those of the souls trapped there. She knew everything about him and he knew nothing but her name. He mourned her barely knowing why, and then she fell into his arms and commanded him to follow a dying ship. It was so easy to stand shoulder to shoulder with her, to have a mind nearly as quick and wise as his own to riddle through the options with. He had forgotten what that was like, a like mind. He has been explaining himself for such a long time.
River Song is a riddle herself. Well then, cats aren't the only creatures who suffer from curiosity. They've got nine lives and he's on his eleventh. He is too old to fall in love, and yet. And yet Rose. And yet River. And yet, in one way or another, every one he's ever traveled with, and he was nameless to all of them before now.
He supposes he shouldn't be so flabbergasted that he has a wife he hasn't married yet (well, he has and he hasn't; as always, timey-wimeyness interferes with courtship and he really ought to see his way toward marrying her in this timeline, just to make things a bit less confusing). There are consequences to his actions, some of which he hasn't even done yet, and some he did by accident. For one thing, he has a daughter somewhere out there as well, a bud off the old DNA. But it has been an age since he had an actual family. It makes him seem ruthless, he knows, the way he swoops into humans' lives and then drops them home with a wave and a smile and finds somebody else. It isn't that he isn't fond of them. He's developed the callus over his hearts that a time traveler needs to survive on a fairly linear, short-lived world. No one has been able to keep up with him for long, and now there's River, in it for the long haul.
"What did I do to merit this all of this?" he asked her once, frustrated and longing for her and delighted and irritated all at once.
"Everything," she breathed, her expression as beautiful and unreadable as the calm gaze of the Sphinx. She might be penance for his crimes or a boon for his good deeds. She does have a charm about her: he can't help loving a woman who could destroy him and the whole of everything and who chooses instead to be his champion and wear his favor on her sleeve.
There is no universe in which he deserves her, neither a marriage nor a murder. She hasn't given him a choice about it, though, just waltzed into his life and declared herself a part of it. He can't trust her, knowing her past, and he can't not trust her, knowing his future. Aside from that, the TARDIS loves her in all times. Aside from that, there's the issue of the fact that he's been wondering what her skin might feel like pressed against his, after that kiss that never happened.
"Love," he mutters to no one in particular, "is wretched."
The TARDIS whooshes in what might be comfort or laughter.
+ + + +
Even a love note carved into a diamond cliff will eventually be erased.
Universes begin and end and begin again and no story is ever really finished.
River takes comfort in that. The Doctor takes comfort in that.
+ + + +
Her Doctor, looking at her as if she's a stranger.
Her Doctor, looking at her as if she's the only beautiful thing in the universe.
Her Doctor, soothing babies and staring down fleets of his enemies.
No indeed, whom else could she love but this charming, brave, noble, selfish idiot. Whose story could she tell at first, when she was remaking herself in the image she'd seen in her parents' loving and confused eyes? Her own was a tale of horror and misery, but at least she could set the record straight. She could paint him with all his virtues and his flaws, reveal his role in the old legends. She could prepare to write her own story, looking for a good man, learning what made good. Learning how to be a legend.
The story of her, the story of the Doctor, the story of her parents: it's as tangled as a Celtic knot, twined around and around on itself until each thread connects, with no proper beginning or end and symbolism woven into every strand.
If. If a Raggedy Man hadn't crashed in her mother's garden. If a boy hadn't fallen out of the sky. If a girl hadn't sent up a plea about the crack in her wall. If the Silence hadn't dreaded the Question. If a child hadn't been stolen. If two fairytale kisses hadn't been shared, the poisoned and the pure. If, to begin it all, a TARDIS hadn't stolen herself a Time Lord and gone off to see the universe.
River learned long ago that she couldn't make a life on if. It isn't enough to just have choices. She has to make choices.
She chooses life. She chooses the day that everybody lives, or at least, as many as possible. She's tasted the dark temptations of the other kind of glory. It's a heady draught, but the bad wizards fade away into a morass of obscurity, every-villains. The good wizards are the ones who are remembered.
She chooses the Doctor, but that doesn't mean she doesn't choose herself. There's a freedom in trusting that much, in giving that much. They hold each other accountable in their guardianship of Time - there's no one else to take up the mantle, after all. Still, one can have a little fun. Or a lot, come to think of it. A life is a terrible thing to waste.
+ + + +
She still doesn't believe in happily-ever-after. Nothing is ever that simple. But the Doctor believes in it, nearly, and most days that's enough. He keeps the faith and holds out his hands in peace and she's his gun-arm for all the times his plans don't quite work out the way he hoped.
+ + + +
On one page in River's diary, there is a short list of names and a number of symbols copied off the side of a cot. The Doctor sees it once, after Amy and Rory's wedding, as he's flipping through to make sure time is restored, and he closes the book and smooths the cover with trembling fingertips.
He tells her he didn't read it. Rule One.
She acts as if she believes him. Rule One again.
He can never let it go, though.
"Are you married, River?"
He's read encyclopedias that contain less than her "yes". And then she's gone again, leaving him with another scant handful of clues. He can't help smiling. She does lead him a merry chase.
Time and space, he thinks. You watch us run.
+ + + +
River sits in her cell and writes in her diary. She plans her next visit to her parents. She takes notes on her next project - contrary to Amy's worried skepticism, she did spend much of her time at university thinking about things that weren't the Doctor, and she still does. There's too much to see, too much to do. She won't waste time. Each day, she feels it seeping from her pores, effervescing back into the Vortex. Time slips away but love remains, defying entropy by growing stronger as the chaos around her increases.
"Love as hard as you can," she writes, in a maudlin moment after visiting her parents' wedding. "At the eleventh hour, it is always love that saves the day."
Love and the Doctor and his marvelous blue box: with those and a good backup plan, she can go anywhere. They've carried her farther than anger ever did. Love is expedient. People will do impossible things for love. She ought to know.
+ + + +
Once upon a time, there was a very old, very young man in a magic box. Once, or twice, or many times, the man fell in love. Once upon a time, he gave his name away.
Once upon a time, there was a timeless woman who could change her face. Once upon a time, she gave her heart away to save the universe.
Once upon a time, two people stood up against the cosmos and said, "Here we are. You watch us run."
This is a fairy story, full of dark magic and bright hope. This is a love story. This is a tale of things that go bump in the night, and the light that drives them off.