River was on the front porch with Anita when Cal came to visit. The girl skipped up the garden path and took a seat next to them.
“We're getting a visitor,” she said without preamble.
River felt something inside her freeze. There were few people who would disregard the warning to stay away from the Library, fewer who would actually brave the Vashta Nerada to pay a visit to those left inside the computer system. She glanced at Anita, to see if she too had made the obvious connection. The other woman looked calm,which River took to mean that she hadn't. Well, Anita didn't know him.
River placed her wineglass on the table. “I assume it's the Doctor,” she said.
Cal nodded. “Not the Doctor I knew, but he's the same. He says he's older and a little less wise.”
River shook her head. “He can't come here. It's completely impossible, for a start.”
Cal looked unconcerned. “He'll be here in a moment. I'm letting down the firewall for him now.”
A vague and flickering image appeared at the garden gate, rapidly solidifying until the Doctor - her Doctor — was stepping towards them. River stood and went to meet him as he approached.
“Hi, Honey. Sorry I'm late.”
River slapped him. It was a satisfyingly solid sensation. “If you're dead because you wanted to see me, I'll never speak to you again.”
The Doctor rubbed his cheek. “Not the welcome I was expecting, I have to admit.” He touched River's arm. “It's okay, it's just a visit. I'm in the TARDIS, or at least my body is. I should have at least a week before that starts dying, and I won't be here that long.”
River stayed angry. “And what if the TARDIS picks up an extra shadow?”
“She's on the moon. I had to get Cal to help me get into the system. Don't worry, I thought everything through.”
She felt her anger start to dissipate. “Why do you have to be so difficult?”
He smiled. “I'm here to rescue you. All of you, hopefully. You can thank me later."
They retreated into the house to hear the Doctor's plan. River sat on the sofa next to Anita, leaving the Doctor to take an armchair. Cal stood, occasionally nodding while he explained the technical details of his visit.
“I have a plan,” said the Doctor, sitting forwards with his elbows on his knees.
“Don't you always,” said River a little bitterly.
The Doctor frowned at her and went on, “I can store your data-ghosts one at a time in the TARDIS while I grow you new bodies. All I need is a real-world DNA sample from each of you, and I'm sure you've dropped a bit somewhere at some point.”
“It could take years to find something from all of us,” River pointed out. “You might not even be able to-”
“However long it takes, I'll keep looking,” the Doctor insisted. He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small transparent envelope. He handed it to River. “This is yours, dear.”
River examined the package. Inside was a single blonde hair. She looked up questioningly.
“I found that on your hairbrush,” he said. “After you... when I was...”
“Moping?” she asked.
His fingers brushed hers as he took the envelope back. “The point is, I have a bit of River Song. A seed, you might say.”
“Cal,” said Anita, speaking up. “Cal can't leave, she is the system and her real body was dying.”
The Doctor nodded and looked at the girl. “I can't save you, Cal. I'm sorry.”
The girl didn't seem upset. “I like it here. I'd still have all my books.”
“So that's settled,” said the Doctor apparently satisfied.
“It isn't,” River objected. “You can't just turn up out of thin air and tell us that you're going to bring us back from the dead. What if we like it here? Did you ever think of that?”
“You want to stay in an illusion?”
“It's only an illusion to you,” she insisted. “Not to me. It looks real, it feels real, I may as well accept that it is real.” She put a hand on Anita's knee. “Could you take Cal for a walk? The Doctor and I need to talk alone for a bit.”
Anita nodded and stood. “Come on, Cal, I'll get you some ice-cream.”
As they left the Doctor moved to sit next to River on the sofa. “I'm glad you like it here, but I think you're being ridiculous.”
“Am I really? Did it occur to you that we might have settled in here? That we might have moved on?”
The Doctor let out an exasperated sigh and tugged on his own hair. “Why do you always have to be so contrary? You're worse than your mother! I go to all this trouble to work out how to get you back and you're just... content to daydream forever.”
River shook her head. “It's not just that.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don't know if I should tell you,” she said quietly. She rubbed her palms together. “It's been a long time since the Vashta Nerada. You might say it's been a lifetime.”
“Fine, you like being dead. I'll just rescue the others and forget all about you, shall I? I'll just leave my wife in a computer and never give her another thought.”
“I thought you had,” she snapped, regretting it immediately.
The Doctor shook his head. “You know it wasn't like that.”
“Then what was it like? Tell me. And how long have you been crying over my hairbrush?”
“It hurt, River. I'm sure you know what pain is like.”
River took pity on him then. “I haven't been entirely honest with you.” She stood and held out her hand to him. “Come with me.”
The Doctor followed her up the stairs into a room painted a light blue. He stepped towards the crib and looked down at the sleeping child. “River,” he said, quietly, “you're the last person I'd expect to fantasise yourself a baby.”
River shook her head. “I didn't.”
“I know, this all seems real to you, but -”
“Listen to me!” She pressed his hand between hers. “The data ghost came with a record of my body as it was when I died. Exactly as it was when I died.”
The Doctor looked at her, obviously nonplussed.
“I had no idea when I came to the Library, I promise.”
The Doctor opened his mouth to say something and closed it again. He swallowed. “River, tell me you're not saying what I think you're saying.”
She couldn't. “He's your son.”
“I'll stay,” he said finally.
“Don't be absurd.”
“River, he can't leave the system. He was never born, he has no body to regrow.”
“I know that, but if you stay you'll die, and I won't let you kill yourself.”
The Doctor ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Stop being impossible!” He started to pace back and forth. “There's nothing. Even in another body he wouldn't be him. He can't leave.” He stopped in front of her. “I'm staying,” he repeated.
“Toby,” she said.
The Doctor blinked. “What?”
“That's his name. You didn't even ask.”
“Well... that's a nice name?”
“You didn't ask because you know you can't stay.”
“I have a week,” the Doctor insisted. “Let me stay for that and then see how you feel.”
“I'm not going to change my mind,” said River.
“Neither am I.” He reached out and stroked her cheek. “I haven't even said hello properly yet.”
River smiled despite her misgivings. “Hello.”
He took her in his arms and kissed her, slowly and deliberately. River pressed herself against him, moved her hands across familiar planes.
“I missed you,” she said when they parted. “Almost every time I saw you it was too early. You didn't know me yet.”
“I was falling for you all the time.”
“Backwards,” she said. “From my perspective I was watching my husband fall out of love with me.”
“I was scared. I knew I'd lose you and I didn't want to go through that, so I kept away until I couldn't help myself. I'm sorry.”
“Shush,” she said, touching his hair. “We're all young once.”
“I can put things right,” he said. “We can be a family.”
“Aren't you forgetting your other commitments?”
He looked at her blankly.
“The TARDIS will take her home,” he said, waving a hand as though this were some trivial detail.
“I thought you were sleeping with her,” said River.
The Doctor looked scandalised. “I am not!”
River shrugged. “I wouldn't be upset if you were. I'd rather you weren't alone.” She touched his chest. “You can't just abandon her.”
“Fine, we'll call her. Let her know what's happened.”
The sound of the front door opening came from downstairs. “Later,” said River, heading out of the nursery.
“Did you tell him?” asked Anita when they got downstairs.
“There wasn't much alternative.”
Anita nodded. “Cal's gone to tell the others about the Doctor's idea.” She looked between them. “I should probably go with her.”
River gestured for the Doctor to stay in the sitting-room and walked Anita to the door. In the hallway she stopped. “I don't know how to ask this, but -”
“You want me out of the way,” said Anita.
“No! I mean, yes, but... You always knew there was someone else.”
“I also knew that he wasn't going to show up and get between us. We're dead, you know, that's kind of final. Usually.”
“He's only here for a few days.”
“Is he?” asked Anita. “I'm not stupid, I know Toby can't leave with us.” She looked betrayed. “So much for us being a family.”
“I'll make this up to you, I promise.” She pressed a kiss to Anita's lips, but the other woman didn't react. River pulled away from her sadly with a small sigh. “He's my husband.”
“I'm your wife.”
“And I don't want to have to choose between you.” She squeezed Anita's hand. “I just want to know that you'll still be here when he's gone.”
Anita opened the door. “I'm not your consolation prize.” She stepped out into the afternoon air. “I'm not a safety-net to catch you when your other relationship ends.”
River returned to find the Doctor browsing her bookshelves.
“Well,” she said, “that's one marriage ruined.”
“You and Anita? I'm sorry.”
“Yes, and no, you're not. You're never sorry about things that are actually your fault.”
The Doctor turned from the books. “Do you want me to apologise for trying to rescue you?”
“It's called an afterlife because people go on living. They don't just stop. They don't wait around for you to decide you want them after all.”
“I'm an agnostic,” said the Doctor mildly.
“You know there's a god, and you know that it's you.”
“I didn't come here to argue with you.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “I'll think of something. I've got a week, that's practically forever.”
River let herself relax under his touch. She closed her eyes. “It's fine. Everything's fine.”
He kissed her forehead. “I used to have fantasises along these lines. You, me, baby makes three. A nice little house with a garden and a mortgage.”
River laughed without joy. “You tell the most wonderful lies, my love.”
“I mean it.” His hands slid to her waist.
“You'd have hated it,” she said, clasping her hands behind his neck.
“I won't,” he said, breath hot against her ear.
River didn't want to argue.
They fell onto her bed half-undressed. The Doctor kissed her neck as she tugged his braces from his shoulders, moving away only for long enough to pull her shirt over her head.
As the years had passed for River, her Doctor had known her less and less. She'd grown used to nervous touches, questioning kisses, mumbled uncertainties. This time, though, he had the confidence of his years. They made love passionately, moving in a perfect harmony that she had tried to make herself forget.
They finally fell asleep wrapped around each other. River dreamed of Egypt.
It was still night when she woke, alone. She pulled on a nightdress, following the sound of an old Gallifreyan lullaby to the nursery.
“Did I wake you?” He stood in the middle of the room, holding a half-asleep Toby against his chest.
River felt her resolve begin to crumble. “I've never heard you sing.”
The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “Haven't I serenaded you before?”
She shook her head, smiling. “You must be thinking of someone else.”
“Hmm.” The Doctor laid Toby in his cot, crossing the room to greet River with a kiss.
“I'm not letting you stay,” she said, more to remind herself than to convince the Doctor.
“I'm still thinking,” he told her. “Shall we go back to bed?”
“For sleep or for sex?”
“Whatever you want.”
“I don't know what I want any more,” she sighed. “You know, sometimes I hate you.”
“No, you don't,” said the Doctor.
She really didn't.
The next morning they called the TARDIS. This for some reason involved connecting the toaster to the television, but River didn't want to complain about anything that kept the Doctor occupied.
“Oh thank God,” said Clara when she appeared on the screen. “What's happened? Has something gone wrong?”
The Doctor glanced at River. “We've hit a few complications.”
“But you're coming back, yeah?” Clara looked slightly terrified.
“Is there something wrong at your end?” asked River.
“No, apart from how bloody creepy it is having an empty body sat in the console room.”
“Sorry about that,” said the Doctor, as though he meant it.
“And the TARDIS keeps turning the heating off.”
“They don't get on,” the Doctor told River. “Still haven't worked out why. Put on a cardigan,” he told Clara.
“I can see why people call you a genius,” she said sarcastically. “Don't worry about me, you have fun in the Matrix or whatever it is.”
“I didn't come here to have fun!” the Doctor protested.
“I don't see why you couldn't just text her. No, you had to upload yourself and leave me here with your half-dead body and a bitchy spaceship.” She fixed the Doctor with a glare. “Have you been cybershagging your late wife instead of rescuing people?”
The Doctor blushed and River laughed. “Clara,” she said, “how are his vitals?”
“I haven't looked at that,” said Clara quickly.
“I mean his vital signs.”
“Oh, yeah, those are fine. I think. As far as I can tell.”
“Don't worry,” said the Doctor. “Just keep an eye out in case anything changes colour or falls off.”
“Okay,” said Clara.
“I'll call you back as soon as I can get things sorted out here,” said the Doctor. “See you,” he said, flashing her a quick grin and cutting the connection.
“You didn't say you were thinking of staying,” observed River.
“Didn't want to worry her.”
“Are you sure you're not sleeping with her?”
“Quite sure, yes.”
“She's very pretty,” said River. “And I'm dead. I wouldn't mind, you know.”
“Noted,” said the Doctor, standing up.
“I'm going to speak to Cal,” said River.
“About the fact that she's going to be lonely,” she said, and the Doctor had the grace to look just the slightest bit ashamed.
“I'll still have my books,” said Cal.
River held the girl's hand as they walked alongside the stream. “That's what you said before.”
“Because it's true.”
“Cal, you don't need to pretend you're not upset about all this. I know I would be.”
The girl nodded. “It would be selfish of me if I made you stay. Dr Moon says it's not good to be selfish.”
“Believe me, if there was any way we could take you out of the system with us...”
“I know.” She squeezed River's hand. “You're very kind.”
“Actually,” said River, “I might not be going anywhere.”
Cal tilted her head. “Because you couldn't take Toby with you?”
“Yes,” said River.
“Does that mean the Doctor's staying?”
“I hope not.”
Cal frowned. “I thought you loved him.”
“Oh, I do. Ever so much.”
“But if you loved him you wouldn't want him to go away.”
River stopped walking and crouched down until she was at Cal's eye-level. “You said it's not good to be selfish. It would be horribly selfish of me to keep the Doctor here. There are so many people that he has to help.”
Cal nodded her understanding. “I suppose that's true.”
River smiled. “So that's why I need you to help me.”
“Bored yet?” asked River as they settled on the sofa after dinner.
“I won't get bored,” protested the Doctor. “Not even if you keep asking me every five minutes.”
River leaned against him. “Did you really fantasise about living like this?”
“Don't say it like that's weird!”
“Hmm, I'm not. But people fantasise about all sorts of things without wanting it to actually happen. Tentacle-rape, for example.”
“You never thought about it?” he asked, putting an arm round her.
“Tentacle-rape? No, never.”
“I mean you and me and all the domestics.”
“Of course I did,” she said. “Once or twice, in idle moments.”
“I thought humans were very into this sort of thing.”
River closed her eyes. “There was one time... but it doesn't really matter now.”
She shrugged against him. “I thought I was pregnant. I wasn't.”
“When was that?” he asked quietly.
“Early on. I hadn't quite worked out contraceptive pills while time-travelling.”
“You never said anything.”
“Well,” she said, “there wasn't anything to say. Nothing happened.”
“You think I wouldn't give up the TARDIS for you,” he said, “and I'm not saying it won't be hard but this is important to me. You're important to me.”
“Oh, but she can give you all of time and space,” said River. “And she looks good for her age.”
“She does,” the Doctor agreed, “but you're not tricking me into saying I don't want to stay here with you.”
“Damn,” said River, unable to avoid a smile.
“This is what I want,” said the Doctor. “You and me, and a little bit of time and space.”
River almost believed him.
By the end of the week she was getting used to his presence. She steeled herself and started thinking of ways to get Anita back. The Doctor couldn't stay. He absolutely could not stay.
He rigged the sonic to the kettle and what remained of the toaster. “I have to say goodbye in person,” he said as he worked. “It wouldn't be... right, otherwise.”
River nodded. “I know.”
The Doctor peered at her. “Are you okay? You're not worried I'll run off, are you?”
“Of course not,” she said, “I'm just a bit tired, that's all.”
She held a sleeping Toby in her arms as she watched the Doctor fade from the room. She sat down in front of the television and waited.
After a while the screen flickered into life. “River,” said the Doctor, “Cal's forgotten to take the firewall offline. Can you get her to -”
“What?” he asked, taken aback.
“She won't take it down. I spoke to her and we came to an agreement.”
The Doctor stared at her from the screen. “River, think about what you're doing.”
“I'm sorry, my love,” she said, blinking back rebellious tears.
“I can't lose another family. I couldn't bear it.”
“You're stronger than you realise,” she told him. “I know you're going to be okay.”
“River, please -”
“Goodbye, Sweetie,” she said, cutting the connection.
Toby woke then, and started to cry. River sang the Doctor's lullaby until he drifted back to sleep.