you walked off the water in a porcupine of light
Delays and avoidance are skills he has had centuries to hone, and he is oh so very good at them. He saves Christmas five times, helps discover toppled empires (conveniently forgetting along the way that he may have had a hand in the toppling of them in the first place. River would call it cheating. River would-). He orbits the Library no less than fifteen times, sitting in the open door of his TARDIS, his long legs dangling in the free space above a planet filled with books and carnivorous shadows and his wife, and he speaks out loud to the inky vastness of space, confessing his fears and whispering secrets to the stars around him.
He doesn't visit the Ponds, because he can't be sure if they know. He can't visit anyone because he's said goodbye to everyone. So he throws around aliases and visits planets that are off the beaten track. He doesn't make friends, but he saves some people, ignores their thanks and enters his TARDIS alone, always alone, with a snap of his fingers and his wife on his mind.
He has all of time and space at his disposal.
He doesn't need to be anywhere.
Time is not the boss of him.
But he cannot run forever, and he shouldn't be shocked when she is the one to catch up with him, in the middle of a barren desert on some tiny remote planet, her hands covered in dust as she peers up at him, studying his expression intently. "Hello, sweetie."
He swallows and stares down at her, and if he's honest with himself, which he never, ever is (the Doctor lies. But every lie is told to himself first.)- he could admit that he's been purposely helping these types of discoveries along in the hopes that she would be there for one of them. He colours and clears his throat awkwardly. "River. This is a surprise!" He shoves his hands into his pockets and rocks back on his heels. She frowns, standing up and brushing the grey dirt from her pants (this entire planet is greys and blacks, ashes to ashes and dust to dust and of no interest to anyone who isn't an archaeologist. Or someone who is accidentally on purpose looking for an archaeologist.) and climbs out of the shallow pit she was sifting through, stepping up beside him.
The sky is grey and the sun is a colourless orb, hung low in the sky, and it makes her eyes seem like granite as she looks up at him with curiosity. "It's an abandoned planet fifteen centuries after a total extinction, sweetie. What exactly were you expecting to find here if not me?" Her brow lifts delicately and he finds himself drinking in the sight of her. Her skin looks pale, almost glowing in the odd, washed-out lighting of this planet, her hair is pulled back and there are smudges of dust on her cheek and jaw. She looks exhausted. She looks filthy. She looks-
"You look amazing." He breathes the words out and she actually looks down, fidgeting and biting her lip as she blushes.
"Right. Well then, shall we do diaries? Mine's in my tent, come on." She starts walking past him to a row of drab canvas tents located several yards away from the dig site. "I'm finished for today, Walt – alright?" She calls over to a man who is hunched over a table, sorting finds and scanning several artefacts.
"Alright, Professor." He waves dismissively. "See you in the morning." Walt – whoever Walt is, doesn't even look up and the Doctor stumbles as he hurries after River.
"Wait – Professor?" The breath in his lungs seizes and he feels adrenaline pouring through his body as his hearts pound and his body prepares for flight. No. No. This is not the her he wanted to find. This is not the River – this is far too late and he is crossing time streams. His throat feels suddenly dry and she pushes open the flap of the very last tent, waiting for him to pass her before she enters after him, letting the doors shut behind him.
It's bigger than he expected. It's – it's –
"Bigger on the inside." She admits smugly, kicking off her boots and padding across the rug over to a rustic desk in one corner. "Perception filter, of course – so the students don't notice. But have you seen the size of standard tents? No – I need a little more space than that." He peers around, taking in the small row of cupboards, the desk and chair – the rugs one the floor, the sleeper sofa in the main area. But beyond that – and cleverly disguised by a perception filter, he can just make out a large hall leading to who knew what. He shrugs his tweed off and tosses it on the coat tree by the door before he turns back to her.
"Professor?" He asks again, his voice less high and certainly not as squeaky as it was outside.
"When are we for you, Doctor? What's the last thing you did?" She turns toward him, her diary cradled in her arms and he swallows – because it is old. It is so very, very old and full and he can see several pages out of alignment. It looks as close as he's ever seen it to the very first time he ever saw it. The mere sight of it makes his hearts squeeze unpleasantly and tangle together in his chest, twisting and knotting until he feels an ache every time they beat.
"Area 52." He whispers and she gasps, dropping her diary on her desk as she straightens up and glares at him.
"You shouldn't be here." Her voice is strained and he shrugs, moving to pace across the small room as he shoots a glare at her.
"Well I didn't come on purpose, River. Don't be stupid." He snaps in irritation, and instantly regrets it because he knows – this is hardly her fault. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-"
"How long ago?" She interrupts him, moving over into his path and blocking him from continuing his frenzied pace. "How long ago, Doctor?" She crosses her arms and stares up at him, dirty face and bare feet and dusty pants and shirt and his breath catches because he doesn't think she's ever looked so lovely.
And these were the thoughts he'd been trying his very very best to avoid. "A while." He hedges and she sighs forcibly, pushing a hand through her hair roughly, allowing several curls to escape.
"But you told me – that first night you visited you told me you'd just-" She pauses, glaring up at him before she slaps his shoulder and he winces at the sting. "You lied to me. Of course you did." She laughs, a hollow sound that is so sharp, he thinks the mere pitch of it may be slicing into his very soul. She closes her eyes, and he can see pain etched into the lines of her face, and he feels like all the guilt within him could just crush him, right at this very moment. This is what he does, he knows. He hurts them. All of them, always. "Of course you did." She repeats once more, her eyes opening and her voice softer now.
She stares at him for a silent moment, making no move to come closer, and he feels stripped naked under the weight of her gaze. He feels exposed, like she can see absolutely everything within him – and a River this far along – maybe she really could. "You're scared." She whispers the words like a secret, so light and so fragile they may crumble to the ground beneath their feet – more dust for the dead rock they are standing on.
"I'm not scared." He splutters, actually backing away from her as he speaks, his hands gesticulating wildly.
"You can't lie to me, you realize that right?" She shakes her head as she speaks and stares at him calmly.
"Well, technically I can – clearly you just said I did and got away with it-"
"Well that was a few - a long, long time ago, Doctor. Me then and me now are almost two different people. And you cannot lie to me now. I know all your tells. And you are terrified. Of what? Why are you running, my love?" There is surprisingly little censure in her tone and he feels the tension drain out of him at her words. He's been sitting in a box; hovering over what is essentially her grave confessing things to a her he felt would understand. Who else could he talk to but this version of her?
"I don't know," he confesses quietly and she moves in closer to him, her hands reaching for him for the first time since he's stumbled across her little dig. "I don't – no, that's not true. I do know. It's you."
"You're running from me?" She holds out her hand and he reaches for it hesitantly, his fingers lacing through hers and turning their hands in between them until he could study the smooth skin and observe how her palm seemed to fit within his so perfectly.
"I don't want to hurt you." He explains in a halting tone and she heaves another sigh, staring up at him.
"You will." She responds bluntly, her words twirling through the air with all the grace of a pirouetting giraffe, and he winces. "You have. Already, my love. So what – you don't want to hurt me more? Because somehow I doubt leaving me on my own in prison while I serve time for a crime I didn't commit and spend my empty hours wondering what the hell just happened while you run away is a really effective means of not hurting me." Her hand tightens around his and he drags his gaze back up to her face – her eyes are more green than grey now, and he can tell she is very, very upset with him.
"You don't understand." She laughs at his words, a dry brittle sound that collapses almost before it even leaves her lungs.
"Oh please, sweetie. By all means, try me." She scoffs and he flinches from the sound – from her all-seeing gaze that makes him feel like his hearts are lodged in the wrong location. This feels wrong. This is River. His River – the woman who loves him just as much as he loves her (maybe even a bit more still, but he cannot imagine possibly loving her more than he does now. Still, he leaves room for a margin of error.) and this should be him and her, almost lined up at the seams. This should feel like the sweet relief of a proper fit after months of chafing. Instead he feels lower than low, and he supposes that if anyone has the right to cause that feeling within him – it is her.
"Something always happens River. I screw them up; I hurt everyone I come in contact with. And no one," he raises his other hand to her face, brushing his knuckles against her cheek softly as he looks at her with centuries of pain and guilt laid bare before her, "no one more than you."
"How can you be the cleverest man in the universe and be so singularly stupid at the same time?" She sighs the words out and the resentment bleeds out of her eyes as she looks at him. "Everything ends, my love. No force in the universe can stop that, not even you. And endings hurt – even when they're good ones. It can be a good kind of hurt, but it still hurts."
He swallows at her words, and they steal through the air between them, wrapping themselves around his hearts like bits of barbed wire. "River,"
"No one has seen more endings than you, honey. You've had more than your fair share, but just because things end doesn't mean you should stop doing them. You're missing the best parts." She speaks in a rush, before he can continue and he leans into her space until his lips brush across her forehead, his hand still entwined with hers.
"Like what?" He attempts to lighten the mood, desperate for an escape but she pulls back, watching him knowingly.
"Spoilers." She murmurs and the corner of his mouth twitches, because of course – spoilers. "I told my mother and father you know. Even though I promised you not to tell anyone. I'm sorry, but I couldn't just watch her sit there and stare at the stars, mourning you."
"You shouldn't have done that," he whispers, but his hearts leap in his chest because he doesn't have to avoid his Ponds any longer. "When did you do that?"
She smiles softly, and whispers coordinates in his ear, knowing he will remember them without ever needing to write them down. When she pulls back, his hand tightens on hers, tugging her back in closer to him. She blinks up at him in confusion and he doesn't give himself time to think or over-analyze, or even wonder what this moment means for their time streams, he simply gives himself over to the longing that has consumed him since spotting her golden curls from further away than he'd ever admit, leading him straight to her. His lips brush against hers, softly, gently – one, two, three times before her mouth opens on a gasp and he swallows the sound, wrapping it around his own tongue as he pulls her flush against him.
His hearts are pounding, and his hand grips her waist tightly as his mouth moves over hers. He is kissing and nipping and sucking – her lips are so soft – and the few escaped curls tickle his face gently as he hums his pleasure into her mouth. She tastes perfect, like the universe and everything in it, and her breath is soft against his cheek and her lips are pliant under his own and her tears-
He pulls back abruptly, his breathing harsh as he stares down at her in confusion. "River." His hand reaches up, brushing a tear away from her cheek as he looks at her with concern.
"You weren't supposed to – back to front Doctor and you're outside of our time." Her voice is soft and strained and he pulls her into his arms, wrapping his around her shoulders as he buries his face in her hair.
"Timelord. I'm never out of time, I am always precisely in time, River Song. And you should know better. Back to front – who told you that rubbish anyway?" His voice is warm with amusement and she giggles into his shoulder, shaking her head.
"Who do you think?" She asks in an exasperated voice, looking up and pressing a soft kiss against his cheek.
"Well you should know better than to listen to me, River. Honestly. If you don't know that by now..." He looks down at her, her face so close he can study the constantly changing colour of her eyes. She really is like water in every sense of the word, she can be stormy or calm, deep and still. She can surround him, can drown him, she can carve her path in the most unyielding of terrain, she is rapid and thrilling and her only constancy is that she constantly changes. Despite knowing that she is Melody Pond, he can never assign any other moniker to her but River. Right now she looks a little bit thrilled and somewhat scared. "I needed you. This you. Of course it had to be this you, River. Who else could I come to?"
"You're risking ripping apart our very time streams by being here Doctor." She admonishes him, but her eyes are warmer than they've been and he smiles crookedly at her.
"Well, I learned from the best." His voice is a whisper and she smiles with him then, attempting a disapproving glare but she falls short of the mark and lands on affectionate exasperation instead. He sobers, swallowing and looking down at her, his gaze tracking across her face as he took a deep breath. "You're everything, River. Do you know that – do you understand that? And we're not back to front but in the most finite sense we are. We're a clock, ticking down. If I go and see you – not you you obviously but you then – I feel like I'm starting the clock. I don't want to start the clock, River. I don't want to count down."
Her eyes fill with tears as she listens to him and she releases his hand, both of her palms sliding up over his chest until they rest over his hearts. "It's too late, my love. It's already started and you're wasting time when we have precious little to spare."
"How little?" His hearts feel as if they are lodged in his throat and he barely manages to squeeze the question out around them.
"How much would be enough, Doctor? Enough for you? Enough for me?" Her smile is sad, as she flattens her palms over his shirt and he can feel the coolness of her skin through the cotton.
"There could never be enough." He admits the truth softly and she nods in agreement.
"Exactly. So why are you really avoiding this? Avoiding me?"
He brushes a hand along her crown, soft curls tickling his skin until he reaches the tie that holds her hair back. Soft silk – tied in a bow and his breath catches as he recognizes it. "I put you there. I put you in that wretched place and you stay there for me. How much more can you be asked to sacrifice, River? Your humanity, your childhood, your regenerations, your very life when you only have this one left. And I didn't even – I wasn't even going to tell you. I was going to let you live your life thinking you'd killed me. I'm not – I'm not worthy of any of it. I put you there. And I don't want to face that." His fingers tangle through her hair – so soft as it wraps itself around his fingers, and he sighs softly, closing his eyes for a moment.
"The problem with you, you great idiot, is that you seem to think you force decisions on me. Am I so weak-willed that you led me by the hand, Doctor? Granted, I had no choice in the matter of my birth – but that's more my parent's faults than yours, you stupid man. I gave my regenerations to you – I chose to do that. And I could have stepped away from you on that pyramid – the instant you asked my father to give consent. Did you think I didn't know what you were doing? That kiss – do you really think me so unintelligent that I didn't realize what would happen? In prison all my days – you told me that on that beach." She presses her palms to his cheeks, cradling his face in her hands until he opens his eyes wide with panic.
"No! No of course I don't think that – you – you're so clever River. I know you understood what I was asking of you, but-" She presses a finger to his lips, hushing him.
"Quiet. It was my choice. You never stole a damn thing from me that I didn't give you willingly. And I'd do it all again. I would marry you, murder you, save you – all of it, every single moment, even the terrible ones. You're seeking absolution sweetie, and I have none to give you. I can't." She smiles softly at him and he purses his lips under her finger in thought, but does not interrupt. "No one can forgive you, my love. That's just you longing for the ability to create a better past for yourself, and you and I both know you can change everyone's past but your own. So just accept it. Accept what's been given to you – through your choices and others' – and appreciate it."
He licks his lips, his tongue running along the tip of her finger and she moves it with a weary smile. He looks at her for a moment – this absolutely fantastic, amazing woman who does what no one else in his life ever will or can. She doesn't try to fix him. She doesn't try to change him. She doesn't try to tell him he is a hero – because he is not. She knows this, better than most. She simply stands beside him, and tells him he has no need to walk alone. "River..." Her name is drawn out, it is a benediction, it is a thanks, and it is a melody he never wants to stop singing. His hands release form her hair and he feels his weight drop, his knees hitting the ground in front of her as he wraps his arms around her waist and buries his face by her stomach. Her hands lace through his hair, a soothing motion repeated over and over again.
"I know, my love. It's alright. Shhh," She repeats nonsensical words to him, her hands in his hair as he holds her. He grips her tightly; as if afraid she is her namesake and will flow out of his arms at any moment.
"I'm sorry," he whispers apologies into her skin, knowing she can't possibly hear them through his ragged breathing and her own soothing sounds. But he says them anyway, because he thinks she will know. Her shirt is riding up under his arms, and he can feel the soft skin of her lower back as he presses his face into her belly. After a while, he looks up at her, like a supplicant kneeling before an altar. "River," he starts and she moves, flows down and around him until she is knee to knee with him on the floor, and he smiles because everything between them feels best when they are equal. "I'm going to," he swallows roughly, his hands tracing the line of her jaw as he searches for the right words to tell her. "I'm going to love you until the day I die. Forever, do you understand?"
"I know." She smiles up at him, breathing the words out and he moves in closer, the air growing thick between them until his mouth brushes against hers and he is lost. His hands are in her hair, and he can feel the delicious press of her hips against his – he feels her arms around him, holding him just as tightly as he holds on to her. A low heat spreads through him and his hearts race as his mouth devours hers. He wants to exist in only one place, in only one time – within her.
She pulls away abruptly, turning her face and taking deep steadying breaths that cause her breasts to brush against his chest, igniting a shower of sparks within him. He moves to kiss her again, but she ducks and avoids him, her cheeks flushed and a look of regret on her face. "River?" He sounds unsure, and she smiles at him in reassurance.
"One of the most beautiful nights of my life Doctor, was our – our wedding night, so to speak. And it was," she pauses, her fingers stroking his bowtie gently as her smile warms and spreads, "it wasn't just because it was our wedding night – but it was because it was time out of time. We were aligned – you and I. It was a first for both of us." She explains gently and he closes his eyes in realization, dropping his forehead against hers. They are quiet for a moment, his arms around her and both content to share the same physical space for a moment longer. "I know you love me, my Doctor." She laughs, pulling back to look at him with such immense love in her eyes, his breath catches in his lungs. "But she needs to hear it more. She needs this more than I do. Even though I would really, really like to just take you back to my bedroom and shag you senseless." She amends with a wry smile and he laughs out loud.
"River Song, how did I get by without you?" He wonders aloud and she smiles, straightening his bowtie with one last twitch, smoothing it before she takes his hands and stands with him.
"You did alright, my love. You will do again someday – you have to promise me that. Don't let our end destroy you, sweetie." Her eyes well again and she blinks, biting her lip as she glances to the left, brushing her tears aside with an impatient hand. "I want you to promise me." She looks back at him and he feels his own hearts twist and ache painfully as the image of her, in a chair, a twisted crown of metal on her head and the same tears in her eyes- "Promise me you'll enjoy every second we have. And you'll remember it with a smile when the time comes. I couldn't stand it if you-"
"I promise, River. Always. Our story will be the best one of my whole long life, and we'll relive it over and over again. You and me – all across time and space. I swear, River." She smiles at his words, brushes her fingers across his cheek, and he is startled to realize there are tears of his own there.
"Thank you." She breathes out and moves away, grabbing his tweed coat and helping him into it, brushing the shoulders and smoothing his lapels. "Now then, give me a kiss good-bye; you have a wedding night to get to." Her smile is full of hope – full of sadness and absolute tremulous hope and he feels like he is about to crack in two. He is torn in half, all over the very same woman.
"Not good-bye, River. Not yet – I promise. You'll see me again. This me, I'll be back." He knows the words are true – he's not done that last night she'd spoken of just before she- "I'll be back." He reiterates and she smiles up at him, tucking her hair behind her ear. "I love you."
"Oh I love you too, my impossible mad man. So much. So much." She stands on tip-toe and brushes her mouth against his. This kiss is less heated, softer, sweeter. He cradles her face in his hands, his thumbs brushing over the apples of her cheeks as she smiles against his mouth. "Now, go. Before I change my mind and have my way with you." She laughs and he chuckles too, stepping away from her before he is no longer capable of leaving. He stands by the door, pushing open the flap and looking back at her.
"Next time." He promises, and she smiles brightly at him, her arms wrapped round herself in a self-comforting gesture.
"Next time, my love." She agrees and he nods once, before stepping out into the washed out dreary sunshine. His hearts beat an unsteady tattoo in his chest, excitement pulsing through him. He has a wedding night to get to.
He glances over his shoulder just once – cannot help but look back and know she is there, safe – for now. He thinks when he visits next time, he'll come five minutes from now. He abhors leaving her alone for very long.