River isn't expecting him when he shows up at her hotel that evening, leaning against the TARDIS door in a way she never wants to see, because she knows what it means as soon as she sees him through the window.
It doesn't matter that she wasn't expecting him: she's always ready. It takes her only a second to slip the diary into a drawer, and throw her coat over her shoulders.
(She'd almost forgotten how nice it was for the floor to not always be cold beneath her feet. Her pardon hasn't been long enough for her to stop appreciating all the freedoms that she's gained. She doesn't think it ever could be.)
(There's not a day that goes by that she doesn't wonder whether or not she's truly earned it.)
Years with a person will teach you things even if you're dense, and River Song is observant by nature. As Melody (as a weapon) she'd been conditioned to notice everything. Catalogue. Observe. Don't let a single thing pass you by, especially if they concern the Doctor.
Things like that don't change merely because emotions do, and as River Song she's had far more to observe than Melody Pond ever did. By closing her eyes she can map the line of his body, every scar or line, the shape of his face. She's had observation opportunities Melody Pond never dared of dreaming for. (River still dreams of them now.)
She knows him inside and out; she can tell things about him only a very few people ever had the privilege to say that they could. River can read him from his eyes to his body language.
It's the way he's standing that bothers her.
He's a confident man – ridiculously, over confident. He can be cocky and childish and proud. He's all those things and no matter how many times she chides him for it, it endears him to her.
But there are so few times in her life that she's seen him the way he's standing now, and nothing in that posture reflects anything near confidence.
No, all she can see is exhaustion. His shoulders are slumped and the line of his back looks empty. All she can see is a hollow man.
And she understands.
(Because she's from his future, and she knows things. All of the things she's ever known of him fly by her mind, and there are only a handful that could make him look like this, so utterly defeated.
He's too young for it to be Berlin. Not too much, but enough so that…)
River rests a hand against the window, eyes misting over without her consent as she watches him stroke the TARDIS, the only place that's ever, truly, felt like home.
Idris makes sense.
"Oh, sweetie." Her breath fogs the window. "You're so young." Older than she'd seen him last, when her mother's eyes had been young and wild and unknowing, and it had hurt River more than she'd ever thought it would.
Everything is young, though, when she compares him to her past. Demon's Run ages him years, and that's most certainly a bridge he hasn't yet crossed .Good, she thinks. That pain hasn't happened for him yet.
If he's so young – how did he know where she was? That one question circles her mind. The River he knows is still in Stormcage, and she's only been pardoned for a month.
But when he finally raises his eyes from the TARDIS, and to the window, the answer is obvious in his surprise.
The realization dawns, stilling her breath in her throat. She sucks in her cheeks, hardly daring to breath again for just that moment. There's something in his eyes that she can see even from here – something like fear, and he wouldn't dare to bolt now. She doesn't think he can do it. He's not running, not this time.
But he wants to, and she can see that much. Because if he's half as smart as he pretends to be, he's figured this one out already.
River puts her hand up, raising a single finger. One second, she mouths, before drawing the blinds closed again and slipping from the room as though she'd never really been there at all.
It's late enough (or early enough) in the night that there's no one around in this tiny, fifty first century hotel. Or maybe it's just because it's shadier than she thought when she checked in. Twenty centuries after her birth and hotels haven't changed a single bit. Well, the technology's quite a bit better, but cockroaches are forever.
Prison living has taught her to be quiet. (That's a lie. It's not prison living that's taught her to be quiet; it's prison escaping. Though, of course, the loud ones were always the best.) River is down two flights of stairs and out the back door, into the garden that she can see from her window, without a single person noticing her presence.
"River," He says, and she loves the way he draws out her name, but it's wrong. It's muddled with surprise and rejection. The usual warmth is cramped by regret, and in that single word she knows she has his timeline correct.
"Hello," She doesn't add anything, too worried he'll flinch away from an endearment. River might b a strong person, but today, when she's obviously drawing so close to the end, she doesn't think she can handle seeing that.
"I'm sorry." His eyes are apologetic, darting to either side of her. "I didn't mean – I thought-" He turns, resting his hand on the TARDIS. It lingers there more than it normally does. "She did it, I swear. I thought she'd bring me someplace quiet."
River can't help the chuckle that escapes. "It's plenty quiet here. I quite like it here, actually."
"You're not in… well," He scratches at his cheek. He's adorable this young, she thinks, like an awkward boy stumbling around his first crush.
"Prison?" She finishes for him, just to see him blush. "Finally did enough to be pardoned."
The Doctor opens his mouth before closing it, and she suspects he'd been about to ask her what she'd done.
When he speaks again, his voice is thicker. Sadder.
"Where are we, River?"
Her hearts clench. "Byzantium." There's a flash of recognition in his eyes; they've done that. River can't bring herself to mention just how far along in her timeline with him that she is. He doesn't need that today. He doesn't need that guilt, doesn't need to try and comfort her for something she's never regretted for a single day.
"She brought you here herself, I gather." River says instead. "Smart girl, your Sexy. Always did know what you needed."
He doesn't need to say it out loud. She can see it in his eyes, pain as strong as a heartbeat.
His eyes dart downwards, on their feet, and his head hangs.
"She brought me to a you that knew."
There's a wonder in his voice, an amazement, but it couples with a sadness so deep she can feel it in her bones.
"Told you she's a smart girl."
The sound he makes is strangled, verging on hysteria. He's too close to it – to breaking.
She slides her hands underneath the collar of his jacket, sliding them down his arms and shrugging the jacket off of his shoulders. Overlong hair flops in front of those sad, tired eyes, and she brushes it away with the back of her hand.
He tenses at the contact, muscles in his jaw tensing and brow drawing together. The Doctor works his jaw, breathing in too heavily for normalcy.
"Shh," She says, a word on barely a breath. River drops the jacket on an empty bench, not failing to notice the way his eyes don't track it like they normally would. Her hearts twist in a breaking sort of way, and the Time Lady fears if she takes a breath, they'll shatter.
There is nothing she wants more than to reach forward and stroke gentle fingers along his temple, or to cup her hand at the back of his neck and pres their foreheads together. Oh, she could show him worlds exploding with stars, lights in skies he's yet to see. She could show him the end and the beginning of the universe, or she could show him how she sees the TARDIS, a swirl of color and time, and brilliant light, so much love it changed her own hearts in the moment she saw it.
If she could, she would show him eternities of love, times she can feel flowing through her fingertips.
But she cannot.
Because he's young, so very young, and he doesn't know. Soon, but not yet.
And so she keeps the ability at bay, forcing down that particular idea of comforting him. Biodamper earrings still firmly in place, River strokes a hand over his hair.
"She's gone." The words are thick and rough, caught in his throat and never truly leaving.
"No," She murmurs, sliding a hand down his arm. "She's not. You know that, sweetie."
The Doctor's mouth trembles, and something in her very core snaps. Oh, she's always known this was difficult for him … but this is simply pain – raw, horrific pain and loss at the most basic of human levels.
"It's going to be alright, my love." Her own voice is thick. He doesn't know it, but the TARDIS does – because she brought him here. Because River might eb the only person left in the universe who actually understands.
The TARDIS is a part of her very being.
"We talked, River. Her and I. But a TARDIS matrix, in a human body, it can't survive. And she. I. I lost her."
"Oh, no. You most certainly did not. She brought you here all on her own. A simple machine couldn't do that, and you know it as well as I, my love. She's so much more than sentient. She's alive."
In all her life (and it's been long, so long) there's one thing that breaks her quicker than any other. Those tears spill, clumping his lashes and rolling down his cheeks. Wet marks track down his skin, leaving physical evidence to his pain.
"I love her."
Her throat is tight, hearts beating a rapid tattoo against her chest.
And he breaks, then, like she knew he would. The first sob spills from his lips, heaving his chest, and she's as quick as she can to wrap her arms around him, giving him a place to bury his tear soaked face.
"So do I, sweetie." River murmurs turning and pressing her mouth to his hair. His arms around her feel good, whole, but he's sobbing. He's breaking in her arms.
And he doesn't trust her, not yet. He can't, and she doesn't expect him to. He will, one day. He'll trust her completely.
From River's eyes, she'll never have had to prove herself at all.
He just knew.
But today and always, the TARDIS has trusted her – through the entirety of time.
The Doctor is only just staring to. Enough to be here, for the TARDIS to have brought him because there's not a snowball's chance in hell he found her this late in her time stream on his own. The Doctor trusts her enough to press his face in the now wet crook of her neck, to knot his fingers in her hair, and it amazes her.
His body is wound tight as a spring despite his shaking, and so she gives him something. Spoilers, she supposes, but only the smallest and if he doesn't know already – well, he'll find out soon enough.
So she goes against instinct and traces Gallifreyan on the planes of his back, fingers bumping into the braces.
His shoulders slump and he breathes out, breath warm against her neck.
"That's it, now." She says, continuing to trace.
"River." His voice is jagged, lips brushing her neck with the word. River barely suppresses a shudder.
"Right here, sweetie." She reassures, palm flattening on his back. "As long as you like." It's not true, can't be, for more than this moment. It is the nature of their relationship and of her life.
He doesn't draw back. In the recesses of her mind, she knows that would be the last vestiges of his trust – for him to let her see him so very vulnerable.
"Spoilers, I suppose, but…" The Doctor hums. His voice is rough with pain, but it's lessoned. Somehow, he's going to be okay. "… she said something. The TARDIS. Before she … went back, and-"
"Spoilers." River hushes, because she knows what he'll say, and he's not ready. Not yet. "One day, my love. Soon. But not yet."
"It's not your fault." His hands twist in her hair, and for a moment she has to suppress her chuckle. Of course, that's so him, playing with strands of her hair like he's never touched it before –
He hasn't. Not like this.
A small part of her heart twists and breaks, and River swallows heavily before letting her eyes flutter closed in absolute, total pain.
A last kiss, and a last touch. But a first, too, and it's that thought allowing her to move forward every single day.
"River?" He's turned, no longer buried in her shoulder, and it means his eyes are on her. "What's wrong?"
She breathes out, softly. He's curled on her like the five year old man he so very much is, cheek resting on her shoulder. It has the same affect it always has. River's hearts lighten, her stomach flips, and she smiles.
"Nothing, my love. Absolutely nothing at all." At the very least, her voice is calmer than she'd have expected it to be, but she suspects years of practice have given her strength. And oh, really there is nothing wrong, nothing at all – because he's here, and he remembers her, and that means so much more than she thinks he could possibly know.
"She loves you, you know." He finally lifts his head, face dry, no longer as vulnerable as before. Those familiar, old eyes search her, so hopeful she nearly catches her breath. "I can't tell why – oh, you know what I mean, hush up – and you'll keep silent. But she does, River."
She chuckles. "You're fishing, Doctor." A hand strays to straighten his bowtie, lingering to brush against his throat.
"You're a toddler," She chides, but it's fond. It could never not be fond. "We're not there yet."
The Doctro's hand stills hers.
"You love her back."
He nods once, resolved – happy, she might think, because there's a contentment in the way he rests his eyes on her now. "She was alive." He's calmer, now. More rational. There's no rushed panic in his voice. "Big, and beautiful, but in this tiny human body. My TARDIS. And woman."
"Yes,' She laughs at his blatant enthusiasm. "She was."
His lips part and he takes a surprised breath. The Time Lady is cursing herself in every language known to man. (And some not.) She hates these slip ups, despises them, because he gets so damn cocky, like he's responsible for it.
And then she's got to tell him something, usually something she shouldn't, and threaten the fabric of time and space. River really detests doing that. Tends to get boring after the first couple of tries.
"River? Have you met her?"
His voice is so hopeful, and it tugs at her in all sorts of terrible ways. After so many years, he's still that same eternal optimist, up against the world with a box and a screwdriver, hoping to save everyone.
She doesn't think he'll ever realize that he can't always so it, that he can't save everyone – that people die, that children cry, get kidnapped, go up against hell with all the bravery in the world and they fail.
God, she hopes he never realizes that he can't do it.
Because the world needs him, needs somebody who doesn't listen to everyone shouting no.
(It might have been easier, if he did; but that's what makes him him. That raging fire of hope and peace, the spirit of a warrior only wanting good despite his own failures.)
And so she lets him down gently, unwilling to watch hope's light fade from his eyes.
"No," There is compassion etched in every inch of her face. "But I've met you, love. And she's the same, always, whether human or ship."
"I've told you this before?"
River thinks of the TARDIS, blue and gorgeous, a mother of sorts and definitely, very much home. She thinks of seeing Idris in her mind, showing her how to fly the ship in a way only River can communicate with her, on the very worst and best day of her life.
And she smiles, despite longing.
He leaves because he has to, but for one of the first times in a very long while, she doesn't think he wants to, and she knows now that it really is just starting for him. He's got all of that ahead of him. Beautiful, lovely days, and dark ones too – days full of pain but measured out so beautifully with days of absolute joy.
Oh, it's been so very long since she's seen him, and for just that split second, she wishes she knew – knew when she'd see him again, knew where he'd be.
(She doesn't know that he'll show up tomorrow, doesn't know they'll be linear. She doesn't know he'll have a new suit and a haircut, and that he'll cry.)
But foreknowledge is dangerous.