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11 November 2012 @ 12:07 pm
Fic: Anchorhold (Doctor Who)  
Title: Anchorhold
Author: anactoria
Characters/pairing: River Song/Liz X
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: None
Summary: When you've lived as long as Liz has, and remembered so little, you cling to anything that gives you particularity.
Notes: Written for shopfront for the dw_femslash ficathon. Thanks to livii for the speedy beta!



They call her Eliza the witch, because surely only a pact with the Devil or the fairies could have let her live so preternaturally long. They call her a witch because she knows things that people like them just don’t know—her letters, and the names of the stars—and because she knows things that nobody ought to know. The way she knew that the old queen would die, and that the new one—the one with whom she shares a name, and who is no longer new—would reign long, and be much loved.

She knows all these things in the same way, though. Not consciously. She could rake the depths of her mind for an age for them, and never find them if they were unwilling. But they are in her bones.

The children comment on the colour of her skin, sometimes, before they are old enough for her to have become part of the landscape. She has a vague sense that it would have bothered her, once, but when you’ve lived as long as she has, and remembered so little—even now, hours, days, conversations, so often fade into the mist—you cling to anything that gives you particularity. It means she had a mother and a father, once, and maybe they came from far away, and maybe there’s a story there. And whether it’s high adventure or tragedy, romance or farce, it’s hers.

 

***

 



She knows plants, too. She has small, fragmented memories of the woman she learned from: old and kind, with blackberry-bright eyes. Long afternoons in the woods and on the hills. The woman said that she had a talent for doctoring, and she remembers swallowing a laugh at the statement, though not why it amused her.

One afternoon, they passed the anchorhold at East Raynham. She didn’t know what it was, then, and she peered in at the window, fingered the rough stone of the walls. They must’ve been two feet thick.

“There’s nothing in there,” the old woman told here. “Since before my time, even.”

Eliza put her head to one side. “Who lived here?”

“A holy woman. Dead to the world, to be closer to the Lord.”

She tried to imagine it: a life so circumscribed, bounded by four walls and the frame of a tiny window. She couldn’t. It seemed unbearable, to see so little, know so little of the world. She wanted to know everything, cling to it, as though concentrating hard enough might keep some of it from slipping through the cracks in her memory.

The old woman took her by the elbow. (And she felt a flicker of something—indignation?—at being so unceremoniously touched, though even then she couldn’t remember why.) “Let’s get on.”

Eliza dreamed of the anchorhold, that night. She looked through the window, into the gloom of it, and at the heart of the blackness there was a point of light. Bright enough that it hurt her eyes, startled her awake.

 

***

 



There is a shooting star.

There is a stranger, found limping through the long grass outside the village. A woman in outlandish garb, with a mass of wild blonde curls, a gash in her thigh, and a fever. They bring her to Eliza.

The woman’s breathing is heavy. She is trying not to wince as she walks.

When she passes through the door of Eliza’s cottage, her eyes widen and her hand flies to her mouth. She turns a shade paler; quite an achievement, under the circumstances.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“I searched for you,” she says.

“I’m so sorry.”

 

***

 



The woman calls herself River. Her wound heals quickly, but her expression stays troubled, and she asks questions constantly. “What happened to you?” and “Don’t you know me?” and “How long?” All Eliza can do is shake her head and decide that she’s mad, or under a curse.

Her gaze is always steady, though; she never raves. And Eliza wonders.

 

***

 



“Mind if I try something?” River asks.

“Please,” says Eliza, “do.” When River’s not asking questions, she paces the cottage with enough nervous energy and impatience for a dozen caged beasts, limp notwithstanding; prods at the mangled metal device she had with her when she came (vortex manipulator—and hang on, where did that come from?); stares at the sky. It’s driving Eliza spare.

River steps into her space. The corners of her mouth curl up in something that is wicked, but not quite a smile.

And then River kisses her.

The press of River’s lips is unexpectedly gentle, inviting and warm, and want sings down her spine, sudden enough to leave her gasping. She closes her eyes, lets herself get lost in it for long minutes.

“Anything?” River asks, at last.

And Eliza feels something, for the first time in who knows how long—something mischievous and more fundamental than memory—and so she allows herself a little smirk and says, “Depends what you mean.”

River’s good at masking disappointment; Eliza will give her that. She drops her head, this time, and presses a kiss to the back of Eliza’s hand. Then she steps away, leaving Eliza with the vague sense that something is—was—might have been—about to break loose inside her.

 

***

 



Later that night, she cleans and wraps the gash on River’s thigh. Her fingers linger on the skin. River’s smile is faint, but her eyes fix and narrow on a distance. Eliza wonders what she is deciding.

“Fix me,” River says, “and then I’ll fix you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well. First, we’ll need to go to London.”


 

***

 



Eliza sits up late that night, watching firelight and shadow play over the contours of River’s face.

And in the morning, they leave.

They have no money, but it takes River a matter of minutes to convince a carter headed down the road toward London that she’s a wealthy merchant’s wife in dire straits, and there’ll be a substantial reward waiting for him in the next town. After that they are pilgrims, wise women, holy women, noblewomen. River works in cantrips and half-truths; disguises them with fine clothes (Eliza doesn’t ask where she gets them) and finely-woven words, and gold talked or swindled out of the wealthy and unwary.

Eliza watches her, and sees the edges of a wickedness peek out from behind her worry—a wickedness that seems to grow in strength and joy as day follows night follows day, and they trundle steadily on toward London. It makes her shake her head and pronounce, “You’re the bloody witch”; makes her lie wide-eyed and aching in the nights, and curl toward River’s warmth hoping to catch her with her eyes open, her mouth curved into a knowing smile.

She wonders what this woman saw in her, once, that she doesn’t see now. What she was.

It’s been a long time since she cared. Curiosity feels alien to her, at first—or, rather, rusty with long disuse—but she doesn’t bother trying to shake it.

 

***

 



In London, River whispers into the ear of a playwright in a tavern, and what she says elicits a gust of laughter, a conspiratorial twinkle. She touches his arm as she speaks, and for a moment Eliza feels something throb inside of her. Somehow, though, it isn’t jealousy.

Of course, this is London, and this is River, so things don’t stop there. River returns to her side and loops her arm through Eliza’s, saying, decisively, “Come on.”

“Come on where?”

“We’re going to see the crown jewels.”

Not entirely legitimately, as it turns out, and the afternoon ends with a headlong chase through the streets of London, ducking and diving hand-in-hand through alleys and backstreets until River tugs her through a hidden door in one of the capital’s seedier neighbourhoods and they collapse back against it, breathing hard.

The thrill it brings races though Eliza’s blood like a drug, sets her heart pounding, but for all that, it lacks novelty.

It feels like coming home.

She looks at River’s face; finds a searching look there, a well-hidden hope. Their eyes meet and their hands part.

“Do you ever have any ideas that don’t end with us getting into trouble?” Eliza asks, to cover her disappointment.

River looks unrepentant. “We have to keep ourselves occupied somehow until he gets here. Might as well have fun.”

“Until who gets here?”

“My husband.”

 

***

 



“Is that who I am?”

“What?”

“Someone who kisses married people.”

“It’s not exactly a traditional marriage. He doesn’t mind.” Pause. “And, no. You’re a lot more than that.”

It’s hard to argue, or to agree.

 

***

 



TARDIS. Eliza rolls the word around her mind and finds its alien edges blunted. Handled; familiar, though long-neglected. It happens with other words, too. Space station. Neurosurgery. Technological advances.

She sits in the console room with pursed lips, and puzzles and puzzles and comes to no conclusion.

The space station is light and bright white plastic. Its windows look out on the gulf of space and it seems to be swallowing the stars. Trying to encompass them. Eliza can’t stop looking. Names come to mind, unbidden. Names of stars she couldn’t see from her cottage, from the surface of Earth, but she knows them. Has always known.

None of it helps her remember her.

In the medical bay, a woman in dark blue scrubs looks at the inside of her head on a monitor and talks about repairing damage to the hippocampus. River and her husband exchange worried looks behind her back. Eliza watches their reflections in the window and rolls her eyes. “Stop it, will you?” she says to them. “You’re driving me mad.”

“If this doesn’t work—”

“Then I’ve lost nothing.”

River looks as though she might be about to disagree, and Eliza glares at her. It’s surprisingly effective.

But when River reaches down for her hand, Eliza doesn’t stop her.

 

***

 



River is there all the time, it seems, and sometimes the doubt and hope that she’s no longer bothering to cover with bravado make Eliza want to shake her. Eliza ought to be able to banish them, she thinks, and then doesn’t know why.

Still. In other ways, her presence reassures. It’s constant, Eliza thinks, as the anaesthetic takes her. An anchor.

 

***

 



In darkness, she dreams of the anchorhold again.

She looks through the window and the light she sees there is blinding. She presses her eyes closed, and behind them, for brief instants, sees the after-image of a sun grown heavy and murderous with age. And then nothing.

 

***

 



She wakes to a world no longer strange.

She knows that this is the thirty-seventh century; that the operation she’s just had sought to repair cumulative minor brain damage in order to restore memory. She knows the names of the stars, the planets that surround them, the species who live there. She has always known. For so long, she’s been living dislocated in time, in memory, in her own mind. And now she’s torn herself out of it. She can’t go back to the sixteenth century, now; that much she’s sure of.

But when River looks at her, a mute question in the softness of her gaze, Eliza has to shake her head.

She still does not know who she is.

 

***

 



River stalks up and down the hospital room and talks savagely about what she’s going to do to whoever did this.

Her husband, with his bow tie and pale, misassembled face shakes his head and says, “You know who did this. Erasing memories—it’s voluntary brain damage. And the number of times—”

“No. No, we fixed that. It’s trauma. Somebody made her forget. Somebody—”

“And how are you going to help her when you find them, exactly?”

Eliza raises her head. It feels heavy, and when she speaks, pushing the words out is an effort. “I’m in the room, you know.”

River stops and sinks down into the chair beside Eliza’s bed. She’s smiling, but it’s weary. “Sorry. What do you want to do?”

“Take me back. To the village. I at least want to say goodbye.”

“But not stay?”

“Don’t think I can. Do you?”

“I’m—”

“Don’t. I’ll find something to keep me occupied.” Eliza pauses, raises an eyebrow like she’s flirting, but feels as though she’s asking permission. “You could occupy me.”

“I’ll show you the best bits of everything,” River promises her. “Make it up to you.”

“After we go back.”

 

***

 



They return to smoke and unearthly fire.

The TARDIS materialises in the East Raynham churchyard, and the building is alight. Fire licks at the stones; twists and dances wildly in the windows of the anchorhold. And that’s not even the most arresting thing about the scene before them.

Beings of living flame tumble and tear through the countryside, consuming grass, woodland, all that stands in their path. Somewhere in the distance Eliza hears the screaming of cattle.

The creatures are making for the village. Soon, her cottage will be aflame.

She hears a shot close on her right. River has hit one of the creatures dead on, but the bullet does nothing to stop its progress. It whips its head around, glaring at them with flat, coal-black eyes, and whirls away on the wind.

Eliza turns to face the Doctor. “Do you know who they are?”

“Their home planet was destroyed. They’re voracious. They haven’t found one with the resources to support them since, though they’ve investigated a few. If there’s indigenous life, it usually doesn’t end well.”

River nods. “They’re an invasion force.”

“No.” Eliza holds up a hand to stop her. The gesture feels surprisingly natural, and she doesn’t miss the widening of River’s eyes, the pleasure somewhere beneath the protest. “No. They’re refugees.”

Storm clouds roil on the horizon. Eliza watches them for a moment, feels the wind on her face. Then she steps forward.

“Who brought you here?” she demands, and hears her voice ring out glass-clear, steel-strong. “Who’s your leader?”

The torrent of living flame stills. For a moment there’s no other reaction, no movement. And then, in front of her, a pillar of flame rears up. The black eyes that bore into her own are light-swallowing, holes punched in the wall of the universe. She doesn’t look away. The heat on her skin is fierce, close to unbearable. (And for a moment it puts her in mind of the heat before her own fire, weeks ago; of watching River sleep in its light and wondering about the texture of her skin, and of other feelings that were close to unbearable—but, no. Not now. You save the world, then you enjoy it.)

“This isn’t going to work,” she tells those void-eyes. “It doesn’t. I know it doesn’t. This world doesn’t have the resources to sustain you, and you know it. All you’ll do is destroy it, and it won’t even do you any good. Move. On.

Nothing.

“I know,” she goes on, slowly, and she feels as though she is speaking from some recess deep within herself. Peering out onto a world long-lost. “I know what it is you’re feeling. That you have to put them first. They’re your responsibility. If someone’s got to do terrible things for them to survive, you’ll do them. But it changes you, that. It changes them. Twists what you are. If you build your society on destruction, it destroys itself. Trust me.”

She breathes in deep. And something within her mind cracks apart with a flare of pain and light.

Behind her, the old church is burning, the anchorhold crumbling to ruin.

“Trust me,” says Liz. “I know.”

There is a moment of silence. Then a soft, unearthly susurration, like the rustling of dry leaves. It’s coming from the column of flame in front of her. It’s laughter, she realizes.

So her words haven’t worked. Well, that’s okay.

She glances up at the sky, and—Christ, as though she’s summoned it herself just by looking—the rain begins to pour.

It soaks them all, clothes and hair. Runs into the cracks of her. The tide of living flame collapses into sizzling embers. Beside her, River is laughing. Liz turns her face and grins back, wider than she has in years, because it’s not all there yet but she knows who she is, and—

—and suddenly, she’s aware that her head hurts like hell.

She squeezes her eyes shut. Opens them, and phosphenes dance in her field of vision. Stumbles. River catches her arm before she can fall to her knees.

“Oh,” she manages. “Oh, bloody hell.”

Then she passes out.

 

***

 



Liz checks security herself before she turns in. Normally, she’d leave that to somebody else, but at the moment she reckons she can’t be too careful. She’s done a little research on River Song, and finding out that there likely isn’t a security system in the galaxy that could stop her, she feels a little better. (And more than a little impressed, she has to admit. That smile, than body, and a holy terror to boot? It’s probably a good thing River’s visit was fleeting. Liz might have been tempted to keep her.)

Still. If one person can do it, the odds are it’s not just one. And the next visitor might not be quite so personable. She’ll have to do something about that.

She waits for the system to run a final check, lets herself out, and heads for her suite, looking forward to a bath and a glass of wine before bed. Thinking about River Song might have its compensations, but it’s not exactly stress-free, and she’s probably done enough of it for one day. Her doctor keeps telling her she should get more sleep. She’s getting forgetful, lately. Does things and then doesn’t remember them.

When the door opens to admit her, Liz finds her rooms quiet. The light in the hallway is off. She frowns.

“Hello?” she calls out. “Richards?”

There’s no answer. None of her staff seem to be around, and she doesn’t remember giving them the evening off (though she might not put it past herself, at the moment, and that’s a worry.) Instinctively, she moves into the shadow of the wall, reaching for the gun tucked into her waistband.

Then she hears a noise from the master bedroom. A kind of popping noise, not loud enough for a gunshot. Sticking close to the wall, she heads over to investigate.

In the doorway, she’s stopped short. River is lounging on her bed, wrapped in Liz’s favourite robe, brandishing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in one hand, and two champagne glasses in the other. Her eyes twinkle when she catches sight of Liz’s stunned expression.

“I hear 1863 was a good year,” she says. “Though if you’d prefer something else…”

“What,” says Liz. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

A shrug. “Apologising.” River leans forward. Liz can feel River’s eyes on her mouth, her body. “If you’re lucky, I might even attempt to get into credit later.”

 


 





It's been weeks, and when River tumbles in through her bedroom window, Liz's heart skips like a teenager's--even while she's laughing, telling River that she's bloody ridiculous and what kind of a cheesy holo does she think they're in?

It's relief as much as anything. She's lost hours, this week.

There's something freeing in this, though. In the way River looks her over with a gaze that doesn't say, 'wow, you're the Queen,' just 'wow, you're gorgeous.' In River's mouth on her neck, her breast, the inside of her thigh. The smell of her hair. The press of taut limbs. Fingers that trail heat down Liz’s spine, make her stomach muscles tremble.

So she shuts her eyes, and forgets, for a while, about forgetting.


 


 




"You know, for someone who claims not to be a thief by trade, you do an awful lot of breaking in here."

"It's good to see you, too."

"You know, you could just call."

"No fun."

Liz grins, and leans in to steal a kiss. River lets it linger for a moment, leaning in, then straightens. "Okay," she says. "Where's the statue?"

"Which one?"

"Stone angel. Unexpected delivery, yesterday?"

Liz frowns at her. "How did you know about that?"

"I keep an ear out. Where is it?"

"Lower level, I should think. Looked in need of restoration. Why?"

"It's not a statue. It's one of the most dangerous entities you've ever seen." Instinctively, Liz reaches for her gun. "And that won't help. just--keep it in your line of sight. Don't look away. Don't even blink."

She nods in understanding.

That's when the lights begin to flicker.

She can hear River's breathing beside her in the dark, rapid, betraying fear even though her voice is steady: "Keep your ears open. Was there anybody downstairs?"

"I'd think they'd be having lunch about now. Stephanie was fascinated by it, though. She's new. Clever. She might've stayed behind."

River sighs. "I'm sorry," she says, and Liz opens her mouth to ask why.

And feels the touch of something cold in the darkness.

She opens her eyes to daylight. To grass beneath her feet. To a sky she never thought she'd see again.



 

***

 




When she wakes, there's a faint, pulsing thrum in the walls around her. Although the room isn't one she recognizes, she knows immediately where she is: aboard the TARDIS.

River is sitting beside her. When Liz turns to face her, she looks back clear-eyed, not worried, and Liz relaxes a little.

"So," River says to her, "know who you are yet?"

Liz grins at her. "Do you really need me to say it?"



 

***

 




"It's funny. I never let myself forget, before. Even when the short-term stuff started going. I needed it, I think. You've got to remember what it can make you into, being the person to take all the bloody horrible decisions. When I started to realize I was stuck, though..."

River nods. "You didn't need it the same way any more."

"No point clinging to what hurts you when you don't even know what the bloody hell to do with it. Defence mechanism, I guess. You lock yourself away."

A quick, sideways look; a brief quirk of River's lips. "There was a time," she says, "when I was enough to take your mind off everything. For a little while, at least."

Liz smiles back at her. "I should go home," she says.

"Mmm. But not yet."

"No," Liz agrees, and Christ, she feels alive with it. With a certainty strong in her bones; with having a home again.

Doesn't mean she needs to run back to duty just yet, though. She reckons she's earned a reward.

"No, we've got a little while. At least."

 
 
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Worrals: River wishes you a fond adieu!livii on November 14th, 2012 06:20 am (UTC)
Just wanted to comment publicly about how much I enjoyed this - absolutely beautifully written, with terrific characterization and a great plot. Really a wonderful story. Thanks so much for participating in the ficathon!

By the way, I was wondering if you'd be willing to post this at the Teaspoon (whofic.com) - I'm doing recs at the LJ community Calufrax next week, which is for stories on the Teaspoon. If you put it up, it would immediately be on my list!
tiamaria: riveranactoria on November 14th, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
Hey! Thanks so much for your kind comment; I'm really glad you liked this. :)

And, sure! It's here on Teaspoon. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )