miles to go before i sleep

He's so very tired.

She can read it in the line of his shoulders, the curvature of his spine as he leans against the console, his palm flat on the etched glass, the line of his arms rigid as if he is supporting more weight on them than he should. She longs to move over there and wrap her arms around him, be the source of strength he needs, but it is beyond her for so many different reasons.

She knows him so very well, even if he knows her almost not at all. She leans against the doors she has just eased through, remarkably silent – a particular talent of hers, and she still calls it a talent even if it was trained into her as a child. Kovarian may have drilled these skills into her, but it is River who makes them her own. She is River, not Melody. She closes her eyes for a moment, leaning her head back and when she opens her eyes he is watching her with a wary curiosity. Her eyes meet his but she does not move and his eyes track over her body as his curiosity morphs into a frown of confusion , and then one of worry.

"River?" It is a tentative question – there is doubt colouring his voice and she feels her nose tingle and her eyes sting and burn. He's far enough along to question who she is, but not far along enough to know.

"Hello sweetie." She manages to grind the words out, her throat tight and her body aching. She tries to mask the pain with a smile, but he misses nothing and she is fooling no one. He pushes himself off the console, and is beside her faster than she can comprehend, his hands on her shoulders as he pulls her closer, supporting her weight and she feels awful – like a burden or another albatross around his neck.

"What – what's wrong? Are you hurt?" His hands are running over her body – but it's wrong. All wrong. Clinical and searching, not stroking and worshipping. And it's been so long since she has felt his hands on her in that way. So very, very long and she is lonely. Their lives are a tangled web, and the gaps in between where they intersect always feel like gaping wounds. Empty and unnatural. Tears sting her eyes and he looks even more startled, his expression panicked as his hands hold her upright.

"No, I'm fine." She finally manages to speak, her voice thick with repressed pain and tears. She longs to wrap herself up in him, like a child burrowing under blankets and hiding from the dark. She wants so much, so badly – she always does with him, but it is always his pace they follow. She loves him enough to give up that control, and if she's honest; she appreciates it being out of her hands. She looks up into his face and his disbelief is palpable. "I'll be fine. Just – just give me a minute." She grips his forearms tightly, the tweed scratching her palms gently as she focuses on breathing through the pain. They heal – so much faster than most species – but it hurts.

"You were hurt." He looks down at her with dark eyes, and she avoids his gaze because she knows what she'll see. Pain, guilt, blame, all directed inward. "Why are you alone? Where did you come from?" The 'why didn't I help' goes unspoken, but it dances through the air between them as if he'd spoken it aloud anyway.

"I didn't call you." She answers the question he didn't ask first, and her hands tighten around his arms as she pulls herself upright, the pain receding for the most part.

"Why not?" He sounds bereft and she smiles through the remaining aching echo of pain, trying to keep her breathing even. "I always come when you call."

"Some things I wouldn't ever put you through, sweetie." She doesn't want to tell him. Doesn't want to explain the types of missions she sometimes has to do in order to earn time for her pardon. The clerics – thousands of years in the future and the Church is still as much of a perversion as it ever was. Any warfare can be justified in the name of God.

"River..." his voice is a whisper and she steps away from him delicately, able to support herself finally.

"Please don't, sweetie. Some things are best borne alone." She moves past him, up the stairs with her fingers gripping the railing tightly. She's just made it to the console and when she turns around he is right there behind her, his expression a mixture of worry and hurt and she feels her hearts ache in sympathy. She is hurting him – it's not what she intended, but it doesn't change the fact that she is regardless. "Honey, no – it's not – not like that. It's not that I don't trust you or wouldn't have wanted you, but you-" She reaches a hand up, straightens his bowtie and smoothes her hands down over his chest as her eyes travel up to meet his. "You carry so much darkness already. I couldn't add to that. I'm – some things I've had to do, Doctor-"

"Things the clerics have you do, River." He stresses his words, his hands coming up to frame her face as he stares at her intently. "Not you. Why do I make you stay there?"

"Why do you assume it's you who does? If you don't know the answer to that, you haven't done it yet." Her voice is quiet and he slides a finger along her jaw, his thumb brushing over her mouth and she holds her breath at the sensation. She never knows which him she's going to get – she knows he's early on. Very early, but this intimacy is unexpected, and she wonders if this is when everything changes for him.

"You said you made a promise. Who else would ask, River? Who else would you make that sacrifice for?"

"Bit egotistical of you, my love." She points out and his thumb presses against her lower lip, dragging it down. Her tongue darts out automatically to wet her lips in response, and he doesn't flinch. Doesn't move his hand, doesn't look away – instead she watches as his eyes darken.

"Aren't I always?" He questions her and she smiles in response. He sighs, rubbing his thumb over her bottom lip before sliding his hand back up over her cheek and onward until his fingers tangle in her hair. His eyes light up at the sensation and she drops her head back slightly. "Are you okay?" He asks with a whisper and aside from the slight aching twinge in her side, she is, so she nods carefully. "How did you get here then if you didn't call me?"

"I don't know, honey. I was unconscious for a bit – when I woke up she was there. Didn't you pilot her here?" He pulls her closer, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead before he releases her and steps over to the screen.

"Last time I checked I was in the Vortex. Must have been-" he pauses then, flushing slightly and she moves over beside him, looking up at the screen as well.

"Why you sexy thing you," she strokes the console and smiles up at the time rotor above them. "Thank you, darling." The TARDIS hums in satisfaction and River turns to the Doctor with an appraising look. "You must have been pretty deep in thought if you didn't notice the auto-pilot." She points out, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at him. "What's happened, then?"

"What? Nothing's happened. I was just distracted with-"

"You were brooding." She points out; not waiting for what she is sure will be an abysmal excuse. She knows him well, and as much as the number one rule is that he lies, he is rather terrible at lying to her.

"I was not brooding. I was... reflecting."

"With you? Same difference." She says brusquely, dropping her arms and leaning against the console, waiting. "Well?"

"Well what? Nothing! Nothing of any importance at all." He claps his hands and twirls on his heel to face her. "Will you be staying for a bit? How about an adventure – we could go to-"

"Nowhere." She interrupts and his face falls in disappointment. She sighs, and steps in closer to him, placing her hands on his shoulders, her hands smoothing across the tweed as she looks at him seriously. "Sweetie – I can stay. But you have to be honest with me. And right now, we don't need to go anywhere but right here." Even as she speaks the TARDIS eases her levers back and sends them into the Vortex. He swallows heavily and she pulls him into her arms, any echo of her pain is now gone, and is finally able to do what she wanted to do as soon as she entered the TARDIS. She hugs him gingerly, her hold tentative until his arms wrap around her. Once his arms are around her waist, she embraces him tightly – one hand in his hair and the other pressing across his shoulders. He buries his face in her hair, and she can feel his ribs expand as he breathes in deeply.

They stand there silently for a long moment – time is stretched out and sugar-spun, it feels delicate and precious and she simply lets him take comfort from her while they both enjoy the simplicity of the moment. The simplicity of him in her arms – it is something sacred to her, and she savours it. It is her heartbeats, next to his – a symphony between them. She feels a warm glow low in her belly, and it diffuses through her body, languorously spinning through her veins and reaching all her limbs.

She turns her head inward, resting it against his shoulder and tucking her face into his neck. His hands begin moving – slow sweeping circles traced over her shoulders and back. Each sweep of his hand is like flint on steel – it strikes a shower of sparks within her, and she knows it will be only moments until she is ablaze. It's been so long since she's been with a version of him who would willingly embrace or touch her – their last few encounters for her were startlingly early for him. She is tinder in his arms.

Time seems like it's stopped – slowed and spread out until they feel the weight and presence of every single second. She has her eyes open – tracing the long lines of his neck – the small freckles smattered across his skin – she loves every single one of them. Her breathing slows and her head moves in closer. His hands slow, still moving but in a more languorous manner, moving lower and lower until his palms are on her lower back, his fingers brushing her backside and she moves in that much closer, pressing a soft kiss against his neck.

She hears his sharp intake of breath, and she stills – but his hands continue their slow movements and she takes that as unspoken permission. She presses another kiss there, this time a little more open mouthed, and her tongue darts out to taste the skin there. He gasps at that and she smiles against his skin, her hands sliding down to his hips so she can pull him closer as she presses herself into him.

His hands slide up her back, winding and knotting through her hair as he tugs her head off of his shoulder, bringing her face closer to his own, pulling her into him until his mouth is hovering over hers and he is looking into her eyes. She swallows, and he stares down at her intently. "I need you." His whisper is barely audible, but she can feel the ghost of his words on her skin. "I don't want to," he admits softly, and her hands tighten on his waist. Tears sting her eyes, because she can't quite get a handle on her feelings.

She is elated that he is finally, finally starting down the path – their path. It's only theirs – barely trampled little meandering path in the wood that no one would see as a viable option. No one but them. But she also hates his caveat – he doesn't want to need her. And she feels the sting of that more acutely than she's willing to admit. She looks away from him, turning her gaze down between their bodies. Her breasts brush against his chest, and she can feel the energy humming between them – a live palpable voltage.

"River, I didn't mean..."

"No, you did." She cuts him off with a hallow laugh and one of his hands slides out of her hair, his fingers tracing her jaw until he presses his fingertips under her chin, tilting her head back. "You meant it. Don't apologize." She whispers harshly, but the tear trailing over her cheek steals the ferocity from her words.

"No, you don't understand." He drops his face closer to hers, his eyes squeeze shut and his forehead presses to hers and his sigh tickles across her skin. "You don't – you don't understand." He lifts his head and presses a soft kiss against her skin and she stares up at him in confusion. "It's not you, River. It's not that I don't want to need you – I don't want to need anyone. So many people – I've hurt them all. It's what happens. I steal lives, I live forever and I steal their lives and give them back some broken semblance of what they had. I don't want to do it anymore. I don't. I'm tired of it. Sad old lonely man, in a too-big box."

She sighs, because it comes over with sudden clarity. Of course. She knows just when he is. So she takes his face in her hands, and forces him to look at her. "Stop it." She instructs, her voice soft, but dangerous. "Stop it, Doctor."

"No, I-"

"No, it's my turn to talk. I'm not them, Doctor. Do you understand that? I'm not some small human who's never tripped through the wonders of the universe before. I'm not like them – I never was." She tries to remain calm and he stares at her with wonder, a faint smile tugging on the corner of his mouth.

"No, you're not."

"No, I'm not." She agrees with him and his hands slide back into her hair. "I'm not your companion Doctor. I've never been your companion; I've just always been yours. Needing me – Doctor, needing me isn't – you're not going to hurt me." His eyes flutter shut at her words, and she can trace the lines of pain across his face if she wants to. His hands tighten in her hair, and her scalp tingles and aches with the tension. "Or you've already done." She amends, and his breathing hitches – a choked sob in the back of his throat. She feels tears slide down her face, and she breathes in carefully.

"River," his voice is thick with tears and she laughs softly, her hands smoothing through his hair as she sighs.

"It's okay. Maybe it's better this way. You've already seen the worst of it, and so have I Doctor. So now... now we have this time. The worst is coming, but it hasn't happened yet so can't we just – can't we just steal this time? Can't I have that? Can't I give that to you? Doctor, I-" His mouth cuts her off, and he kisses her like he is drowning and she is air. She falls into him, even though she knows it is the exact opposite. She's just more water, and she'll take him down eventually.

But not right now.

Not tonight, and not a long while yet for him.

His tongue is hot against hers, and she moans at the taste of him even as her hands scramble for purchase along his frame – somewhere, anywhere – she just wants to have a hold on him. His hands slide down over her neck, her shoulders, her back, her ribs, her hips. He pulls her to him, his hips pressing into hers and his hands everywhere, and he is just all over her. She can feel his heartbeats thundering through his chest and she smiles against his mouth, pulling back even as he follows her, pressing smaller kisses against the corner of her mouth. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He punctuates each apology with a kiss and she knows he doesn't mean for what he's said tonight – though that's certainly included.

"No apologies, Doctor." She whispers against his lips and his hands roam her body, pushing her jacket off her shoulders until it is a heap of black silk tangled around their feet. "I killed you once." She whispers, knowing damn well he's done Berlin. She knows he's just left the Ponds, she can see it in the sadness in his face, the self-blame, the self-doubt. Happy endings are brief, and are not for them – always for others. "You forgave me. You told me-" He kisses her again and she sighs into his mouth, pressing herself into him, but ending the kiss before it turns desperate. "I forgive you."

"You don't know-"

"I'd forgive you anything, Doctor." She confesses. "Anything at all."

"You shouldn't. Oh River, I don't deserve it. I've ruined your life – from the moment you were born." His hand trails along her face and she smiles up at him even as his fingers brush aside the remains of tears on her face.

"I wouldn't change a thing, Doctor. And neither will you." She presses a soft kiss to his cheek, his stubble scratching her lips and chin, and she smiles into his skin, and wishes she could just stay here. Just stop running, stop moving toward her end and away from his. She wants to just stop. Sit, and hold him and stop moving.

She wants to rest. She wants to rest with him, and just never leave – not ever again. But if she doesn't everything will change, and she doesn't want to lose those memories. And in the end, it's fitting that they both move along this path until the darkness overtakes them. But they will never walk alone. Not this path – not these woods. It is theirs, and they will share it in one way or another until their respective ends.

But they can pause – just for these moments – their endless moments. And she loves them – more than all the adventures in the universe, though she loves those in their own way too. But these moments are just her. And him. A resting point.

"The end is too close." He confesses into her ear and she isn't sure if he means her end or his or both. It doesn't matter, she decides. She laces her hands through his and she smiles, her face still pressed against his. "What do we do?"

"What we always do, my love." She kisses him softly, and looks up at him. "Run to the beginning – and restart."