She wasn't always like this: hard, closed, hurt. At least, she didn't imagine she was always like this. Psychopaths weren't just born, were they? No; she likes to imagine she was a fairly normal baby, aside from the whole part-Time Lord-thing. She likes to imagine that if what happened to her hadn't happened to her she would have gurgled and sucked her thumb, cute as the next kid. Maybe she would have grown up in the suburbs, had crushes on normal boys and girls, ridden her bike down the cul-de-sac without training wheels for the very first time as her father chased behind her close enough to catch her if she fell.
The dreams in her childhood were always of someone catching her when she fell; she dreamt of safe, loving arms that wouldn't hurt her, she dreamt of soft lips pressing tender kisses to her forehead, of loving hands sweeping her hair out of her face as she drifted off to sleep in a warm room where she felt safe enough to dream of wild adventures, far-off lands, and fantastical creatures.
But she's never even ridden a bike.
She always wonders how she would have been—who she would have been—if the hands that touched her in her childhood had done so with love. If she hadn't been a prisoner in a dark house, too cold no matter what time of year it was, even when the sun beat hard and heavy outside and the air was so thick it felt like it could choke somebody. If she'd had unlocked windows instead of doors that she couldn't open, if she could have felt the wind move through her hair without fear for what was coming behind it.
But she hadn't grown up like that, and she'd never been touched with love; there were days back then she was sure she never would be—after all, she wasn't read fairy tales or nursery rhymes at bedtime, no one sang her lullabies that would get stuck in her head for days until she was humming them on the playground at school. The only songs she ever sang as a girl were reminders to fulfill a prophecy, reminders that she was little more than a pawn in a war game she never asked to be a part of and though she forgot so many things from her childhood, memories pulling like an abandoned kite tied to a fence post at the back of her mind – there, but tattered and never fully formed—she could never quite forget that.
She spent most of her childhood cold and feeling sick to her stomach, convinced she'd forgotten something incredibly important, something always burning at the edge of her memory just out of reach. When she was very little, she would cry sometimes; she cried for herself, and for the mother that held her in the black and white photograph on the broken-down dresser. River—not River, not back then, not yet—stared at that picture for hours until she knew the plane of her mother's face by heart and she tried to remember that for at least a moment in time, she had been loved. For a long time, her mother's face in that photograph was the only way she even knew what love looked like, the only way she even knew how to long for it. Even if she couldn't remember how it felt, even if all she knew how to sing now were songs about murder.
When she escaped, the first time she heard the radio was a revelation. She had lain down on the floor of an abandoned warehouse and just let the music wash over her; no agenda, no prophecy, no thought to what she might someday become.
But she did become it, even still.
Depending on where he is in his timeline, how much of her story he knows, he'll apologize to her for his inability to save her back then.
"Oh, sweetie," she says, every time, because it will never not be true: "You couldn't have saved me, we both know that."
And, depending on the when, something flickers behind his eyes that steals her breath. It seems to get deeper as he ages, what she sees in his eyes, and it coils a knot of dread low and tight in her belly that she struggles to untie, because enough of their lives together have been wrought with tension and sadness and heartache, and she's had quite enough of that. They both have.
But he can't hide it, and she can't read what she sees in his eyes. Spoilers.
"Besides," She always says, her hand cupping his face tenderly, "I wouldn't want you to, my love. Not if it would lead me anywhere but right here, right now, with you."
Because she loves him. Despite what she was trained to be, or perhaps because of it, she loves him.
She remembers the first time she ever told him that; it, too, was a revelation. More for her, she thinks, than for him. He's known her longer when she says it, but the words fall from her lips into the air and she's surprised to see them hanging there because if you'd asked her just the day before, she would have told you love just wasn't in the cards she was dealt, it wasn't a weapon she'd ever learned to assimilate into her arsenal (now, she'll tell you she knows it's not a weapon):
He's just caught her as she's fallen out of another spaceship somewhere, somewhen; it's relatively new for her, only a few times in, but catching her is old hat for him by now, she can tell. And when he stretches his arms out to steady her so she doesn't fall over, she looks into his eyes and it hits her all at once. It floods through her, her veins carrying it to every cell in her body so that every single part of her knows this one truth. It happens so fast that she can't stop the words from floating out; they push past her tongue, past her teeth, past every barrier someone else ever built inside of her, until they sail to his ears.
He can't say the words back, and she doesn't ask him to. She just watches as the emotions play over his expressive face—she could name them one by one if she looks hard enough, but the one that slips under her skin to make itself a very painful home is the one she doesn't understand but knows that she someday will: sadness.
And that's just it: he looks at her so sad sometimes when she loves him, like she's fragile; like she's made of porcelain, and his hand is a pick-axe. Like he will break her. He won't tell her why—he can't tell her why, but she has her theories. She's given up multiple lives and hundreds of years for him, and she still can't convince him that he deserves it, that she's not sorry, that he is worth any burn that might lick at her flesh. And if he doesn't know by now that she would die a thousand times over for just one single hour with him, well there's nothing that would convince him of it, anyway.
Things are always frantic and heated between them, a mess of bodies and limbs and soft moans of oh yes, sweeties, and Please, don't stops. This time is no different. They have hundreds of years together, but each time they meet it feels like they only have moments, it feels like it's not enough. Of course, it isn't. Centuries will not be nearly time enough for their hot mouths to tell the flesh of these bodies their secrets, to make enough promises with tongues and touches and yes, yes, yes. Their bodies tangle fast and hard until only their rapid breaths fill whatever air happens to be around them, until their skin hums with the aftershocks of pleasure and secrets shared.
River doesn't know how to go slow, and she's not sure she would even if she did-it would feel like too much. She would feel too much. It would remind her of everything she wants, but knows she can never have: him, wholly hers, in love with no one and nothing but her. It is selfish of her to even want that, she knows, but what did she survive her childhood for if not the right to be a little selfish?
She slips her dress back on over her head and then fastens her vortex manipulator over her wrist. She fluffs her hair, then types the coordinates home. It's never lost on her that, for now, again, her home is a prison—and strangely enough, she prefers this one to the one of her childhood; even with its bars and guns it's warmer than where she grew up.
Still, how much of her life would she spend captive, she wonders?
She considers the Doctor as he fiddles with a setting on the console of the TARDIS that certainly doesn't do whatever he thinks it does.
Oh, she is captive, alright. And yet.
She smiles at him, her finger hovering over the vortex manipulator as she sidles up to him and presses a soft kiss to his cheek; she watches him blush and smiles, "What's it like?" She asks without malice, suddenly curious as she tugs on his bowtie, straightening it with a hum, "Having someone so very much in love with you?"
The Doctor stares at her then, a sort of abject horror playing on his features because how does she not know? But he looks at her, her bright eyes glistening in the dim light of the TARDIS, and he knows instantly that she doesn't—she doesn't know that his hands on her body have only ever been love. Like so many things between them, it's his fault that she doesn't.
She has a strange look about her, like she's both proud and ashamed of herself for asking, like the two emotions are waging a war inside of her and she's not sure which she'd prefer to win. She doesn't wait for him to answer, though, not sure she can bear it. Instead, she winks and brings her finger down over her wrist, activating the gadget strapped to it.
And then she is gone, back to Stormcage, back to a life he cursed her to live until the day she won't live it at all anymore. And this, too, because of him.
Emotion swells within him and he feels a specific type of shame—of all the things he's done to River Song, of all the things he will ever do to River Song, perhaps making her think she even has to ask that question is the worst. "I'll show you next time, River." He murmurs quietly to himself as the shame sinks deeper, and as he taps in his coordinates, he swears he hears his TARDIS hum in approval.
They're near equidistant in their time streams – each one knows almost as much as the other, and it feels like a perfect symmetry. Like something that can never happen again, like something that never will. Like them, it feels like something that should probably never have even happened in the first place, but now that it has, what a gift.
They walk across the Bifrost twice before they head back to the TARDIS, because of course they do. It's her favorite part, the bridge between here and there. And in that moment, as she jumps up and down watching the rainbow colors shift and move with her weight, River looks more childlike than he has ever seen her in all their adventures together, even at her youngest. And he allows himself a moment of happiness, that after all she'd done for him in his past and in his future, he could do this for her now.
The Bifrost casts a rainbow glow over her curls, and he takes her hand, interlocking their fingers together before regarding her with a smile. She looks at him questioningly for only a moment before she squeezes his hand and tucks her head on his shoulder as they walk back in the direction of the TARDIS, the Bifrost warping momentarily under their feet, charting their path, reminding them of where they've been, illuminating exactly where they're going.
The long-empty picnic basket swings by his left side, River's soft curls tickling the right side of his jaw, and he smiles.
"Where to next?" River's voice is bright, and the Doctor doesn't think he's ever heard her sound quite so carefree, "Jotunheim?"
He can hear the smirk in her voice even without seeing her, "Ah, frost giants. Can't. Their leader fancies me." He smiles again at her scoff, "Bit cold for what I've got in mind next, anyway." He leers at her, his eyebrows suggestively raised, and her quiet chuckle lets him know that she can tell even though she can't see his face.
The minute they're back inside the TARDIS her hands are all over him; skimming one hand under his tweed jacket, she rakes the fingers of her other through his hair, pressing his mouth to hers roughly as she slips her tongue inside his mouth, tasting their picnic on his tongue. He kisses her back fervently, matching her pace, but when she lets out a moan and moves to push his jacket from his shoulders, he pulls back, steadies her by her biceps, his fingers curling gently against her warm flesh.
"Wait," He breathes against her mouth, then moves away from her to his console, trying not to look back at her, afraid that if he sees her lips looking as thoroughly kissed as they must look right now, he will forget again. River always makes him forget in all the right ways. But he has a plan, damn it.
When she feels the jerk of movement, she eyes him suspiciously, "Where are we going?" She's breathless, her chest heaving as she presses her back against the wall of the TARDIS.
"Spoilers." He grins at her wickedly until they finally land with a gentle crash; he's getting better at this whole landing thing.
It's a planet of stars, somewhere it's always night, and they are tucked away in a small corner of it, a plaid blanket underneath them as they gaze up, the stars infinite from where they lie. They are alone on this planet, save for the star fire casting a soft near-candlelit glow over everything; it is quiet, so vastly quiet that they can only hear the thrum of their hearts beating wildly in their chests.
The Doctor turns to River, watching the starlight dance across her face, and there's an all-encompassing word for beautiful that has long since burnt out, that can't be found in any dictionary in any galaxy in the universe anymore. But it's all he can think when he looks at her. She is looking at the stars, her eyes shining brightly, and he still thinks the word isn't enough for what she is; there is nothing in this past, present, or future that will ever be enough for what she is.
She turns her head to find him watching her, and she furrows her brow in question. In answer, he leans forward, gently brushing his lips against hers. Her eyes flutter closed, and she opens her mouth under his, leaning into him. She tries to increase the pace, but every time she does, he slows her down, licking at the inside of her mouth tenderly until she matches his unhurried pace. Until they're kissing so slowly and sweetly, their tongues languidly searching and exploring, pulling back only to breathe before delving into each other again.
He can tell she's confused—it's not like this between them, never has been, but it's the most lucid he's ever been. He drags his hand up her bare leg until it slides under her dress and he brushes his fingers against her. Finding her bare, he smiles against her mouth, then kisses a line down her jaw to her neck. He licks at her skin there, sucking gently as she arches her back against him. He nips his teeth against her collarbone and hums in delight when she makes a noise of pleasure in the back of her throat.
He lifts her dress up over her head, and strips her until she is naked before him, bathed in starlight, and oh what a sight.
"River," Her name escapes his lips on an awestruck sigh. He has traveled the universe for centuries upon centuries and never seen something that moved him quite like this before; any other time, it would unnerve him, he would pull back. But River Song deserves this truth, and he's so very tired of not giving it to her.
He plants open-mouthed kisses on her breasts, pausing to swirl his tongue around a nipple as her hands snake into his hair, holding him against her as she gasps, his name a broken cry from her sweet mouth. He explores her body, and when she urges him to go faster, he slows down. He wants her slow and sweet, exploding like starlight under his tender touch until she knows the truth, until it is the only thing she knows.
He wants to make sure she never has to ask the question again, because he is. So very much.
This night, his tongue shows her, his hands tell her, his eyes when they look at her speak for themselves—speak of thousands of centuries lived, but never quite like this before, and never quite like this again, he knows. All things because of her.
There are stars suspended in the air and they're in the middle of a galaxy somewhere on the outer edge of the universe when the Doctor finally shows River Song what it means to be loved. When he shows her, finally, after all these years that he loves her.
And so, with a galaxy swirling around them, the bright colors in the night sky of this planet painting their naked bodies with soft hues as they lie wrapped up in one another spent and glowing not just for the starlight that engulfs them—and though she will forget sometimes because the chasm of her past is so deep and wide and it whispers in her ear so loudly that no one does, least of all him—for the first time, she believes it.
She wasn't always like this: soft, open, loved. But, she thinks, maybe she could be, for him.