summary: The TARDIS is more than just a time machine. River gets to know her.
characters: River/Eleven, River/future!Doctor
warnings: au. spoilers all series.
disclaimer: fic•tion [fíksh'n]: literary works of imagination
author's notes: thank you to my lovely betas persiflage_1 and themirrorofsin
YOU WATCH US RUN
it's gonna take a time machine to get it right;;
The TARDIS is more than just a time machine; its name alone implies a multitude of other functions River is determined to discover the moment she sets foot inside the little blue box. The Doctor treats it like 21st century blokes used to treat their cars; he talks to it, sometimes until early dawn, after all, Time Lords need little sleep and she, well, let's just say she likes her beauty sleep. He touches it too, only he thinks she doesn't know, so she doesn't ask him about it. In some very strange way, it's sort of adorable.
Every now and then the Doctor will tell her something about the TARDIS, but only when necessary. She likes how protective he is of his blue box, how he'll never have it insulted or even glared at, and therefore keeps its secrets very close to both his hearts. One day he's telling her about how it's supposed to be piloted by several Time Lords, only then his eyes glaze over and she can't bring herself to ask him anything more. However, the Doctor is the Doctor (much like she'll repeat to Amy many years in the future) and he's not one to linger on the past too much. Instead he tells her, with the same sad tone now laced into his words, how a TARDIS can chose to die, by flying into a sun or hurtling itself into the Time Vortex.
"It can do that?" River asks wide-eyed, but stares up at the central glass column with a certain sadness now too. She might not ever know the ship like the Doctor does, but she's already grown attached to the idea of it being forever, like her Doctor. That idea makes her sad too.
The second – actually it's already the third time – the Doctor finds her he looks just as surprised to see her as she is to see him. The last time they saw each other was at the Bone Meadows, and had ended up with her father injured, suspicions that the Doctor knew more about her than he was letting on, and his reluctance to take her along in his— his what exactly? From the outside it looked like a blue box – she has no idea what in hell a public call box is – but she suspects that inside there are secrets just like those the Doctor keeps from her.
She's reading for one of her classes on 20th century history when the TARDIS materializes on the hilltop next to her. At first she doesn't know what it is, just some noise interrupting her train of thought, but then there's a blue box materializing out of nowhere right in front of her eyes, and (even though she's seen some pretty spectacular things) the sight gives her tingles all over. And then, of course, who should appear but the Doctor.
"Doctor?" she still asks, because as much as she understands Time Lord anatomy it's hard to believe it's the exact same man that left her two years ago. "You've not aged." Yes, same tweed jacket, red bowtie instead of the previously blue one, but it's the exact same man.
"And you're a blonde now." The Doctor stares at her hair curiously, as if somehow he'd expected it, but hoped it would still be red. Maybe he has a preference for redheads. She'd dyed it on a moment's whim, after realizing that even after several centuries had passed, men still preferred blondes. For the moment it was just something new she was trying, just for the heck of it. "Amy insisted I take you for a ride."
River is shook abruptly from her thoughts into much more pleasant ones. "Excuse me?" she asks, because this is probably just her misinterpreting.
"I mean…" the Doctor clears his throat and straightens himself out. "In the TARDIS." He pats the wooden box. "The— It's a spaceship. And a time machine."
The Doctor snaps his fingers, and the narrow door opens automatically. "Is that supposed to impress me?" River asks, and crosses her arms over her chest, but peers inside anyway, because really, this is a Time Lord's time machine. She's read all about them, but this is the real thing. The Doctor stares at her, with those old yet playful eyes. "You already know it does, don't you?" she smiles, and is rewarded one in return. Even after all these years, and despite him not having the same face, she can still feel the same quiver in her knees.
"River!" Amy shouts from inside, and River's eyes go wide when she hears Amy's voice echoing through what she guesses must be quite a vast space. The Doctor extends a hand, welcoming her inside. River takes a hesitant step inside, barely noticing how the Doctor takes over her book and closes the doors behind her.
River is beyond words; she doesn't know where to look first.
"So?" the Doctor asks, awaiting her answer with great anticipation. "What do you think?"
"It's…" it's bigger on the inside, she thinks, but then looks at it more closely, at the vastness of it, all fitted into one tiny box, and this was just the control room; there were bound to be more rooms, like sleeping quarters, auxiliary maintenance rooms. All inside one blue box. "It's impossible," she says, but doesn't mean that in sense of 'precluding the possibility' – no, much more in a 'this is insane' kind of way.
The Doctor next to her beams. She looks at him uncompromising, at his tweed jacket and red braces. "It's very you." She squints, and watches the Doctor readjust his bowtie.
The Doctor doesn't like her wandering around on her own; apparently the TARDIS has a tendency to move rooms around and he'd hate to see her get lost. River thinks that he mostly doesn't want her to stumble onto things without him having seen them first. But that's never really stopped her before. Only it really is exponentially bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and she does end up getting lost.
"Marco!" the Doctor's voice echoes alongside her in the corridor. River turns, and looks back around, but she doesn't find the Doctor anywhere.
"River?" the Doctor asks. "Where are you?"
"At the moment?" River looks around again, searching for any points she recognizes, but she's pretty sure this is one hallway she's never ventured inside before. "I'm not really sure."
"What do you mean you're not sure?" There's a hint of condescension in his voice that she's only slowly getting used to; she constantly has to remind herself that behind the face of the 26-year old she's getting to know, lies the mind of a Time Lord that's been travelling through time and space for the past 907 years.
"I was looking for the library." She feels silly talking to the air like this; can he hear her over some intercom device or something? River continues along her way, deciding to keep walking in a straight line, rather than making any left or right turns. "I must have got turned 'round. I just have to retrace my steps and— AH!" The Doctor jumps out in front of her. "Don't do that!" she scolds him, hoping to wipe the grin right off his face, but it has the opposite effect.
"What are you doing here?" the Doctor laughs, out of his tweed for the occasion.
"I told you," River answers. "Looking for the library."
"Library's two decks up."
River stares at him blankly. "You've got decks?" She knows the TARDIS is a maze of corridors and rooms that'll probably take her years to explore, but at the very least it could have the decency to not have decks.
The Doctor guides her through a plethora of corridors – two right turns and one left – and they pass the pool; River files that away for future reference. "I thought I told you not to wander off on your own," the Doctor says, leading her up two staircases.
"And I'm pretty sure I told you that wouldn't stop me." River wonders if he's actually taking her to the library or is just keeping an eye on her – for some reason she still hasn't figured out he doesn't like her in the Library. "What's this?" River asks, halting in front of a side chamber she's never seen before either; maybe it's one of those infamous floating rooms.
"Art gallery." The Doctor pops back around the corner and opens the doors for her. When River steps inside it's like walking into a museum. She knows the Doctor has a thing for museums, but how can any of them ever live up to his own private one right here? There are things in here that haven't seen the light of day for centuries.
River halts in front of a glass case. "These are the Dead Sea Scrolls," she says, recognizing the texts from one of her history books. "You're not supposed to have these."
"I saved them from World War Five," the Doctor rebukes as if it's something he says every day. River wants to tell him just how impossible he is, but she figures he knows that by now.
The TARDIS is the Doctor's ship, River realizes that all too well. But after a while even River gets fed up with it being Doctor-exclusive. She's not allowed to touch the flight controls, she's not allowed to make any repairs, she can't look inside his diary, nor can he look inside hers, just in case of spoilers. And yes, even though she is definitely one for surprises rather than knowing what's coming, where does any of that ever get fun?
There's not a day goes by that something on the ship starts malfunctioning or explodes, and River is sure that there will come a day not even the Doctor will be able to keep track. There's one time they're being shot at by a very angry Slitheen, and it gets in a lucky shot, hitting the view screen point blank. Luckily the TARDIS has a few spare parts lying around.
It's the same day that River learns there was a time no weapons could be fired inside the TARDIS, something the Doctor calls Temporal Grace. When she asks him about why he hasn't fixed that particular system, he only answers with working on it but she guesses he's working on that in the same manner that he's working on the Chameleon Circuit. She's not sure this particular Doctor even knows where that has disappeared to.
And then there's the day she learns the TARDIS isn't protected from any outside time distortions.
She doesn't even know it has happened until it's already over; she's walking one of the corridors leading to the control room, and during one split second she can swear she's back home, watching herself at the dinner table with her dads.
"River!" the Doctor calls for her and it's almost as if his voice snaps her back to reality. She shakes her head, and takes a glance back over her shoulder just to check she's not completely delusional. But everything seems to be back to normal.
"Doctor." River stumbles into the control room. "I just—"
"Yes, I saw," the Doctor answers before she has the chance to finish the thought. He's running from one panel to the next and pulling or pressing just about every control thinkable. That can't be a good sign. "We must have jumped a time track."
"Okay," River says, still keeping calmer than she suspects she should be. "Is that a bad thing?" she asks, when the Doctor reaches for the sonic as well. She's never seen him use the sonic on the TARDIS.
"Nothing too alarming. Just have to stop it from happening again."
"Doctor!" a voice sounds through the TARDIS, and River immediately recognizes it as her own. Only she hasn't said anything. The Doctor and her turn and see River— hang on, how is this even possible? – running towards them both in panic, but reaching for something out of sight. And then she's gone again, evaporating into thin air.
"That one lasted longer," River says, and from the alarmed look in the Doctor's eyes she figures that what she just saw was something in her own future. Her future right here in the TARDIS; she'd looked absolutely terrified. "How do we stop it?" she asks, and the Doctor rushes past her, down the steps, to one of the control panels beneath the main console.
"Time dimension tracker circuit," he blurts out. If she didn't know any better by now, she'd say half the time he's making up these names himself. "Must be malfunctioning!" he shouts up at her.
And then next thing they're both standing in someone else's bedroom. Amy is there, forcing the Doctor back against the TARDIS, full on kissing him on the mouth. River's eyes go wide, but she can't look away either, because the Doctor is kissing her back, and darn, she's so very interested in those lips herself. "She—" River starts, but finds herself back in the TARDS again. She runs down the steps herself and faces the Doctor. "She kissed you," River says, and raises an eyebrow. Well, that is definitely something she'll have to talk to Miss Pond about.
"Yes, well—" the Doctor hesitates. "She needed comforting." He frowns to himself, before exposing the underlying circuits.
Before she has the chance to react to anything, they're somewhere else again; to River's own dismay she finds herself in her bedroom back home, and she recognizes the naked man in her bed all too well. John. Oh no. The Doctor's next to her, staring at the scene much the same way that she'd been previously staring at Amy. A younger, still redheaded, version of herself – equally naked – is licking her way down John's torso. The Doctor tilts his head when he sees her young self's tongue moving even further down. "Where did you learn to—" He squints to get a closer look, but River pulls him closer and covers his eyes with her hand.
Of course that's the moment they snap back to reality. "Oh, thank God," she sighs, and snatches the stalos gyro (she thinks he must have named that himself) from the Doctor's hand. She dives down for the circuits full speed.
"River, don't you—" the Doctor warns, but she's already applying the tool to the broken circuit. It'll only temporarily suspend the disruption, but it's the best she can do on such short notice. She trusts the Doctor to fix it properly some time soon.
"I've got it." River jumps to her feet again. "You're not going to get a peepshow whenever something on this ship goes dingy!" And she surely doesn't need the Doctor to know about any other of her past endeavours.
The Doctor decides to drop it; she sincerely hopes it's because of her excellent engineering skills, rather than him still thinking about that tongue-thing he just saw her performing on John's privates. "You're starting to sound like me," the Doctor says, and trots off up the stairs again.
Sometimes River thinks the Doctor's really quite obnoxious. What's even stranger, is that she sort of likes that about him.
Sometimes there are moments she thinks that the TARDIS has shown her all its secrets. But there comes a day, not long after the Doctor loses Rory and Amy and he's managed to find room to place that pain, that he takes her down a maintenance shaft that he accesses with his sonic screwdriver. It's one part of the TARDIS she's never seen, or heard, or even felt. She thinks she might just be the first human down here in forever.
"I've never shown this to anyone," the Doctor says, and the brevity of the situation doesn't pass River by. Just a few months ago he was ready to let her go completely, walk away and let her time line get rewritten by less dangerous events, but now here he is, showing her one of the many things he still keeps secret.
"Where are we?" River asks when they reach the bottom of the ladder, finding themselves in a narrow corridor, circling what sounds like an engine of some kind.
"At the heart of the TARDIS."
She looks at him in surprise, because there's not a doubt in her mind that he means that literally, they're at the heart of what makes the TARDIS tick. That's the sound she discerned as the engine seconds ago, not an engine at all, no, a living entity, the heart of the time machine.
"Touch it," the Doctor says.
River is staring at him when she raises a hand towards the copper shielding hesitantly. Her fingertips have but brushed the surface or she feels tears coming to her eyes, something sentient gripping her heart tightly and replacing her heartbeat with its own. It washes over her like it's trying to possess her; it knocks the breath out of her. She pulls her hand back fast. "I think it's more attuned to Time Lord physiology." River struggles to catch her breath, and she wonders if this is what it feels like to have two hearts, her own now hammering in her chest.
"Here." The Doctor puts his own hand on the wall, and signals her to place hers over his own. She doesn't hesitate this time; she trusts him. When their skins touch it's still overwhelming, only now she feels echoes of what she'd previously felt; her own heart tempered by both the Doctor's hearts, but tears still spill over her cheeks.
"She's beautiful," River says breathlessly, and wonders if this is what the Doctor always feels for the TARDIS, this strong connection to it, as if it's a part of him, because right now, through the Doctor's touch, she can almost look inside herself. The Doctor's other hand come to rest on her cheek seconds later, and he wipes at her tears with his thumb.
It's the Doctor's tears she's crying too, she realizes.
One night River wakes up to a bed devoid of her Doctor and a sound she's never heard before. First she thinks the Doctor is tinkering with the alarm systems because he can't sleep again, or maybe just because he's bored. Only when she sits up and listens properly, she realizes it's a soft hum coming from deep within the ship, melodic, and it makes her sad.
She patters down to the control room, her bare feet making her approach audible. The internal heating goes up by a few degrees, because for some reason the TARDIS always knows when she's cold now; but that's not startling when her sleeping outfit consists of a top and a pair of knickers.
The Doctor is in his swing seat underneath the main console area, though at the moment it serves more like a hammock. River figures that right now being this close to the heart of the TARDIS is what the Doctor needs. "Doctor, what's it doing?" River asks, her voice but a whisper; she feels it's only appropriate.
There's a pause before the Doctor answers. "She's humming," he says.
Humming? River thinks and looks up at the central control column. She sits on the floor and lies down on the glass, her hair – red again – spread out across it. Of course, the TARDIS isn't just any time machine or ship among billions of others. The TARDIS feels, knows, listens. And more importantly, it's connected to the Doctor. "For Amy," River says softly.
"For Amy," the Doctor repeats.
It won't be the last time the TARDIS laments one of her own getting lost. About twenty-five years from now, in River's personal timeline, the Towers in Darillium will sing, and even though River won't hear it for herself, the Doctor will feel it – the TARDIS humming for River.
After his next regeneration, the TARDIS alongside him, it takes them years to find the kitchen again. It's gotten lost among the whirlpool of auxiliary control rooms, sleeping quarters and the fourteen bathrooms – fifteen now – the little blue box holds. When River finally does stumble upon it, there's a brand new coffee maker, though she has no idea why – the Doctor never drinks coffee. But then this particular regeneration has been known to change his mind mid-sentence.
She still brings him tea. The Doctor is in the secondary control room, because the circuits for the Fast Return Switch have decided they want to be rerouted through there now, which was fairly smart of the TARDIS, considering the Doctor's Eleventh regeneration had once smashed them to pieces in a fit of rage. He's waist-down in the floor, buried in wires and electrics when she finds him; she sits down next to him.
"You're sure I c—"
"No, I've got it," the Doctor interrupts her immediately. Ever since he caught her red-handed making midnight repairs on the translation circuits he'd sturdily reverted back to the-Doctor's-hands-only-rule she had to stick to when she'd first joined him. "Just need to recalibrate the vector and we're good."
"How come this TARDIS wasn't decommissioned?" River asks, lying back on the floor; she likes this vantage point, it makes her feel more connected to the TARDIS. Lately, it's almost as if she can hear the ship whispering to her, singing to her in her sleep.
"Have you been poking around in the database?" the Doctor asks, not bothering to look at her.
"We've been stuck for three days," River says, and puts a hand on her stomach. She's pretty sure their current predilection is her fault; she'd botched the atmospheric reentry by typing in the spatial coordinates before the temporal ones. The TARDIS had reacted rather stubbornly, by sending them back to their last location; only they'd been trying to get away from there. "Yeah sue me, I've been poking around."
"Why would I have gotten her decommissioned?" the Doctor asks, and right on cue, something to River's right implodes and starts smoking. Both of them ignore it. "She's an absolute dream."
"You still haven't answered my question."
"I saved her," the Doctor says and strips a piece of wiring with his teeth.
River smiles to herself. The Doctor likes to tell her he has problems with her euphemisms in certain life-or-death situations, but his own are far from morally righteous. "You stole her," River corrects him, but she doesn't get the response she's waiting for.
"That in the database too, huh?" he asks, just saying the first words that spring to mind; this regeneration also has the tendency to ignore her when he's working on something important.
"No, she told me." She's hoping the Doctor has some sort of explanation for it, because as much as the TARDIS has always been able to get inside her head, and as much as she's gotten to know this beautiful time machine, this is slightly creeping her out.
But the Doctor drops it, probably because he knows why but refuses to tell her. Spoilers, his former and future regeneration will say, but this one stays quiet. The TARDIS is prone to connect with the Doctor's family, River learns a few months later.
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