River raked her fingers through the hair of the quiet man whose head rested against her chest. His sobs had subsided long ago, but he still remained silent as she held him. Their heartbeats and breaths had fallen into synchronized rhythms, their chests rising and falling together. A strange peacefulness settled around them. However, even though the blitzkrieg had passed over, River knew that the battle was far from won or lost. Never had she contemplated having to reveal this part of her life to the man who had unknowingly helped create it…not even in the three weeks that he had searched out her face for answers to questions he didn't know to ask.
How had he not known? How could he look into the little boy's eyes every day and not see a reflection of himself staring back? The Doctor was all River could see in Gus' face. His curious hazel eyes and mischievous grin were perpetual reminders of the man that had left her this gift. The way Gus' hair would fall into his eyes when he was concentrating on some monumental task or the way his ears jutted out just so…his clumsiness, his fidgets, his words, and his gestures…all of it. Yet, nothing was more telling than the quiet strength the boy possessed, as well as his peaceful loneliness. If the Doctor had recognized nothing else familiar about the child, these traits should have told the tale.
"What did he mean when he said that he has raised him twice?"
His voice called her back to their small world. He was asking her to start in the middle.
But the middle was no place to start.
River inhaled deeply and held onto the breath as long as she could before slowly letting it escape. The Doctor made no move to change his position, so she continued to stroke his hair as she spoke.
"I was so angry with you for leaving me that night. I woke up and saw the TARDIS fade away, and I wanted to yell for you…at you…I needed to tell you goodbye. I never know if the last time I see you will be the last time I'll ever see you. It's a dreadfully painful life to live, Sweetie. No fault of our own…just how the universe has aligned for us.
"I certainly hadn't expected to get pregnant…and, well, neither had the guards at the containment facility. That was quite an awkward conversation, actually…" River paused to allow for commentary but was met with silence.
"Knowing what they knew of my story, they saw the need to hide me and my child in an unremarkable time and place. So, the clerics decided to arrange for outside housing and care throughout the pregnancy. With the help of the Time Agency, Father Octavian found this little world and sent me here along with one of their doctors. Of course the morals of the Order made it necessary for Amos and me to pose as husband and wife. And it helped with the locals too, I suppose."
River's voice became hushed as she thought back on those days. She had been afraid…a different fear. Not a fear for herself, but afraid for the child growing inside her. She knew what happened to children like the one she was carrying. River knew all too well what others would do to have that kind of power in their possession and knew how they would use it.
"So, for eight months, Amos and I lived here in our little house in this little town in a timeline not our own. The closer the time came, the more I feared what would happen to us – both me and the baby. And as we grew closer, Amos admitted that the child would be taken into the custody of the clerics and raised as an orphan. We argued about it for weeks, but there was nothing to be done. Running would only have curtailed any chance I had for pardon, and I knew that I would have been located eventually anyway. Over time I accepted that perhaps the best thing for the child would be to be brought up in obscurity amongst my jailers. And regardless of my disdain for them, the Order does truly work for the good of humanity. And if our child couldn't be raised by parents who fought on the side of right, the clerics were an acceptable alternative.
"A couple of weeks before my due date, Amos and I drove into the city for dinner, and he stopped at a baby store…which confused me since we had already purchased everything we would need for the few weeks he would be in our care after his birth. He parked the truck and explained that he had spoken at length with Father Octavian and had been given permission to take leave of the Order to raise the baby in our home in the alternate timeline – "
"Why an alternate timeline?"
River had been a bit startled by his voice, yet surprised that he had listened for so long without questioning. "It was just another precaution the Order took to hide the pregnancy from whoever might seek to take our baby for purposes not exactly beneficial to the human race. You and I are rather remarkable people in our own right. They were afraid that any child of ours would pose a certain threat to the unstable order of things.
"See, they knew my story…well, parts of it, at least. And I had filled in Amos with the rest of it as we waited out our time. I think he saw that the River Song of legend was not entirely what she had been portrayed to be, and he felt that the world owed me one helluva favor," River chuckled at the truth in her words and moved on quickly to eliminate any room for questioning. "He reasoned that if he raised the child in the alternate timeline, if I were to ever be pardoned, I could return and take the baby back to my time and place…return him to you."
"That's not what happened," he interrupted, his voice sad and quiet.
"No, it's not," River agreed as he sat up and crossed his legs under him, watching his hands fidget with his sock. "The hardest thing I've ever had to do – and I have made some difficult choices in my life, mind you – was leaving our child behind when I went back to the containment facility. But I knew Amos would take care of him. I had watched him with Gus for weeks, and it is amazing what a baby will do to a grown man."
River reached out and steadied his fidgeting hand and searched out his eyes with her own. "Doctor, if you never trust in another thing I ever say to you, know that that man you have decided to hate protected your child. He left his world behind…everything he had ever known and believed in…and cared for our baby. And he did it alone," she explained, her voice becoming unsteady with emotion. "And he did it knowing that one day I would be coming back for Gus and leaving with this child that he had adored and loved as his own."
The Doctor pulled his hand from under hers and folded it together with its partner in his lap. "But you didn't, River. You didn't leave. You didn't look for me."
The devastation that choked his words caused her gut to twist into a knot. She stood to her feet and staggered to the nearest steady surface, sitting down and resting her elbows on her knees as she bent towards him. "What have you done since the Byzantium?"
"What do you mean?" He looked up at her for the first time since Amos had crippled him with the truth.
"Exactly what I said, Doctor. What have you done?"
"Since the Byzantium?"
"Since the Byzantium."
"Well, we lost Rory a couple of times…but we found him, of course. Or rather, he found us, I suppose. That was a nasty business, those Silurians. And...umm…we – Amy and I, because Rory was still lost – "
"Dead, you mean. Rory was dead."
"Tomato, tomahto. Regardless, Amy and I met Vincent van Gough…brilliant man. It's a shame, really. And we saved Venice from a family of faux vampires. You know, I get a bit disgusted with myself when I realize how long it takes me to flesh out a perception filter. I mean, how many times will that get by me?" The distraction of her question had returned the Doctor to himself a bit. He had found his voice again, and he felt the despair began to fade and be replaced with a bubbling anger. He rose and began pacing in short strides, up and down the foyer hallway.
"And where does a child fit into all that saving and knocking about? Not to mention having to be careful to avoid running into myself, because…just in case you've forgotten…I would be going backward to take him forward. What then, yeah?"
"We could have made it work, River. Like you have apparently done for years. You could have made it work." His tone was stern and louder, and he was visibly angered.
"Made it work how? 'Oh, sorry, Sweetie. We must be leaving now. The world is about the fade under the stress of disappearing time…and oh yeah, the TARDIS explodes. Be back for dinner.' Is that how it works, Doctor?"
He took a step in her direction with an outstretched arm, pointing at her in frustration. "Do not put this on me! I am who I am, River. And if I were not, none of this would even be here now! None of us would exist. I cannot stop doing what is my responsibility alone to do."
"Exactly, Sweetie." Her voice was soft and meant to calm.
"What? That's it? I can't know my child for the simple fact of being who I am? That's bullshit, River, and you know it."
"I'm not saying that I made the best choice for you…or for me, actually…but I made the choice that was best for Gus. You haven't let me finish, Doctor."
He walked over to a wall and leaned against it, waiting for her to continue.
"When they finally released me after the Byzantium, Gus had been with Amos for seven years. And he was brilliant and funny and charming…all the things I love about you, he was threefold. I was granted occasional visits for two or three weeks at a time, and I couldn't get enough of how you he was," River smiled at the memory and sighed before continuing. "And until Gus, I thought it impossible for anyone to love you more than me, but that little boy talked about you from the time he woke until he closed his tired little eyes at night. Got a bit irritating at times."
"So, you told him stories about me then, as well. Did you tell them as incorrectly as you do now?" River could see him fighting a smile.
"Actually, Amos told him many of the stories," she confessed quietly.
"Doctor, he never claimed to be anything other than his caregiver. Of course, he loved him like any father does, but even when he could have pretended to be that, he didn't. Amos has never denied or tried to take away from the fact that Gus is completely ours."
"But why go to the trouble of telling him about me if you were going to come back for him?"
"Because he is a good man, Doctor. There was always the possibility that I wouldn't return for him. I had no guarantee of being pardoned. The Order could have easily used me covertly for the rest of my life, for all we knew. Amos didn't just sacrifice a few years – he was prepared to care for Gus for the rest of his life. It was his choice to tell Gus about his superhero father who lived in a place that he couldn't leave easily. Amos tried in every way possible to make Gus understand that if we could be with him, both of us, we would have moved the heavens and every planet to make it happen. And when I was with them, I told him the same thing."
Twinges of guilt caused him to look away from her. He had taken every opportunity to goad Amos and to remind him that River belonged only with him. He felt a bit nauseous remembering how he had accused him of being a neglectful parent. However, the story was still incomplete. "Not to repeat myself, but you didn't return with him, River."
She twisted her hands together and spoke to the floor. "I had a long time to think in that cell. I thought about what it means to travel with you and the danger that is seemingly unavoidable. I know what is ahead for you, and it is equal parts amazing and terrifying. In some ways, you are only beginning to live your life in this incarnation, Sweetie. Even if I could tell you, I wouldn't know where to start.
"But most importantly, it just wasn't safe for Gus. Though you will soon know, you have no idea of the resourcefulness of your enemies and how they use the people you love to get to you. Nobody knows this better than me. Gus was actually raised in the 1950s by Amos, but we came to this time so that I could help Melody. Doctor, the Silence will do whatever is necessary to see you destroyed. They stole me right out from under you. And I couldn't take the chance that they would come after our child."
"But we took care of the Silence."
River had realized her mistake after letting the words slip, and she hated nothing more than what she had no choice but to say in that moment. "Spoilers, Sweetie."
He breathed out a sarcastic laugh and shook his head in disbelief. "Of course…"
"So, when I was released, I told Amos that I planned to return to my timeline and raise Gus as he had done…just a few years later. And when he questioned me about it, I told him what I needed and wanted to do. Amos and I had become very close, and I relied on him more than I should have, I suppose. Perhaps that's why he chose to follow us and help as much as he could – dividing his time between his duties as a cleric and his obligations here, which is why he's not here regularly. Becoming a group home happened accidentally, and it necessitated another story to explain Amos. So, he became my husband, once again, who was away for work most of the time. And to protect Gus, we made the choice to raise him as a foster child alongside the other children. Doctor, I cannot tell you how painful it is to have a son whom you love more than anything in this world and not hear him call you 'Mum'. This hasn't been easy for anyone."
"Probably as painful as finding out you have a son and never having heard him call you 'Dad'." The Doctor resumed pacing and nervously stroked his chin while he walked. "I don't think I want to hear anymore just now, River."
"I'm sorry, but you wanted to know the truth, Doctor. You can't choose how much of it you get."
"Why not? Shouldn't I have some choice in this? None of the other decisions have been mine thus far," he snapped.
The Doctor stopped and cast his gaze downward. "I know he's sick, River."
"But you don't know how – "
"It's because of me. Gus is dying because of me." He turned away from her and blinked back threatening tears.
River stood and walked towards him, gently placing a hand on his back. "No, not just you, Sweetie. You aren't the only one with the Time Lord genes, remember?"
He spun around to face her, eyes still welled. One blink sent a single trail of tears down his cheeks. "So, what does it mean, exactly?"
River reached up and brushed away the dampness from his face. Grabbing his hand, she walked them both over to the couch and sat down. "As Gus got a bit older and his heart settled into a regular human rhythm, Amos began to notice some signs of distress. After some testing, the doctors decided that he has something called cardiomyopathy. The muscles of his heart are getting thicker. It's not common in children, and of course, Gus doesn't have just any form of it."
"So, he does have only one heart?"
"Yes. And that's the problem."
"But you have only one heart, right?"
"Right, but I have two human parents. My time lord DNA is quite by accident and doesn't contain the same purity as does yours. But see, Gus is a remarkable creation of the both of us. And as far as Amos can tell, his anatomy is a fated gift from his grandparents. Gus is, by what we can tell, physically human with the blood of Time Lords coursing through his little veins."
"That makes none of the sense and all of the sense at the same time. Which in itself makes no sense." The Doctor exhaled loudly and ran a hand through his hair, scratching as he went, as if to dig up some answers.
"Gus regenerates when his body senses fatal endangerment just as you. Except, being human, he doesn't regenerate a new body. He more or less reboots, if that makes any sense. And each time, his heart becomes a bit more damaged…the walls get more vulnerable to collapse. His little heart can't hold up against the power of his DNA and of the regenerations. Maybe one without the other, but definitely not both," she explained sadly.
"So, what is to be done? Surely, there is a cure or a procedure or something that could save him," he said, the pleading in his voice heartbreaking.
"His doctors in the city keep pushing for a heart transplant, but it's out of the question."
"Why? Seems to me that he needs a new heart. Let's get him one. What's the problem?"
"Doctor, you know that's impossible. They open him up and remove his heart, he explodes. And what are the doctors going to think, much less do, after that? Having the surgery is simply planning for a more specific time of de…" River couldn't say it. To say the word aloud meant to acknowledge its inevitability. And like any mother, she had yet to accept that her son would die.
The Doctor knew she was right.
He was still angry and hurt, as well as emotions he couldn't even name. But River had truly done what was in the best interest of their son.
But River wasn't making the decisions alone anymore.
"He's coming with me."
"We're taking him to the Sisters of the Infinite Schism. If there is something to be done, they'll know," he explained frantically. "You can come with us or you can stay here – it makes no difference to me - but we're going."
"Sweetie, there's nothing – "
"He's my son too, and we're going! No discussion!" He yelled before snatching open the front door and letting it slam behind him.
River didn't follow him. She knew him well enough to know that he needed to talk it out, though she also knew that no amount of reasoning and talking would remedy the despair and anguish over the unavoidable loss of a child. She wanted to contact Amos and apologize for being so harsh with him. In telling their story, her frustration had melted into gratitude once again. But climbing the stairs made her realize how exhausted she was and how badly she needed to sleep. Apologies would keep until tomorrow, she decided.
River walked quietly towards Gus' room to tuck him in when she heard soft humming. As she got nearer, she heard a little voice singing in his bedroom.
When you try your best but you don't succeed…To get what you want not but what you need…
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep...
Stuck in reverse…
When the tears come streaming down your face…
When you lose something you can't replace…
When you love someone but it goes to waste…
Could it be worse?
Lights will guide you home…
And ignite your bones…
And I will try…
To fix you.
River leaned back against the wall outside his bedroom, and her legs gave way, causing her to slide to the floor. And for one brief and rare moment, she allowed herself to cry…for what she had already lost and what she had left to lose.
Song is Fix You by Coldplay