River blew some curls out of her face as she balled up another piece of paper in frustration. She rummaged through the piles of books and mountains of debris for her clock, but it was nowhere to be found. It was probably about half past crazy o'clock in the morning anyway. "Why did I have to choose Gallifrey for my thesis? What was I thinking?"
"It's really a shame you don't know any Gallifreyans."
River turned to see the Doctor leaning against the door frame. "What are you doing here?"
"Hello to you, too!" he exclaimed, moving toward the desk. "I was just in the neighborhood and thought I'd pop by." He started flipping through the massive ancient tome that was open. "Wrong, that's wrong. That's so wrong it's funny. VERY wrong! Why did you choose Gallifrey if this is what you have to reference?" he asked, thumping the book.
She looked him up and down then turned quickly back to her notes, "I really couldn't tell you."
With a small smile, the Doctor pulled a chair over to the desk and sat down. "Okay then, can I help?"
"Well, you want to proof this?" she asked, gathering up some of her notes.
"Why are you using paper anyway?" he asked, shuffling through the pages she handed him. "Don't they have those mind-reading note-taking thinky things now? I think they do. They do. Those are cool."
"I like how the ideas and words flow from my pen to the paper. It's your fault, really," she teased as she touched her diary "You shouldn't have given me a diary if you didn't want me to write."
The Doctor beamed at the sight of the blue book. "Point taken, write all you want," he said before he turned his attention to the notes. He read through a couple pages before commenting, "This is almost right, but—" He stopped as he turned to River and saw she was fast asleep with her head propped on her hand and her curls tumbling in her face. The Doctor brushed her hair behind her ear, smiling to himself.
River barely stirred as he carried her to the couch, took off her shoes and pulled the TARDIS blue blanket over her. He turned to the desk but then looked back at River. She was so young still. Sure, she looked like his River, but she wasn't quite there yet. That didn't stop her from being so beautiful, though. He knelt next to her and simply watched her sleep, the gentle rise and fall of her chest, the slight movement of her eyes beneath their lids that suggested she was dreaming. Gallifrey, probably, based on how much she was studying. Or, perhaps, someone from Gallifrey? He brushed a couple stray hairs from her forehead and placed a gentle kiss there. As he withdrew, a soft smile spread across her lips. He watched over her for a bit longer before he stood and returned to the paper-covered desk.
Light was flowing in the window when River woke. She rolled over and saw the Doctor hunched over the desk, his coat draped over the chair next to him and his braces hanging off his shoulders. He combed his fingers through his hair in a futile attempt to push it from his eyes. River suddenly found it very difficult to not imagine her fingers running through his hair. She swallowed hard, trying to close her mind as if he would become aware of the images in her head if she thought too long or too hard.
The Doctor rummaged through a pile of her notes, selecting one of the papers. After turning a couple pages in the book next to him, he referenced the page and mumbled, "Book's wrong again, she's right again."
"I'm glad you approve, sweetie."
"River!" he exclaimed, spinning around in his chair. "You're awake! Good morning! Or afternoon. Not sure, really," his voice trailed off as he gazed out the window.
"You should've woken me," she chided him gently.
"You needed sleep," he retorted with a similar tone.
River got up and moved to look over his shoulder. "You aren't trying to write my thesis for me, are you?"
"What? No! I'm making notes on your notes. So I know what to talk about when you interview me."
"I'm interviewing you?"
"Of course! Aren't you? Sure, you are! You can use an interview as a source, right?"
"Well, I suppose, but—"
"And where are you going to find a better source than me?" he asked, tossing his hair out of his face to look up at her.
River bit her lip as the images of her burying her hands in that wonderful wave of hair entered her mind again. Forcing them out, she opened her mouth to reply but her stomach rumbled in response.
"Ah, yes! Breakfast! Or lunch. Brunch? Linner? Mmmm. Where's a good place to eat around here?"
"There's a diner across the square I usually go to."
"Excellent!" he exclaimed, jumping from the seat and pulling his bracers up in one motion. "Let's go!"
It was a fairly warm day as they exited the apartment building. A slight crispness was present in the air suggesting a change to autumn was imminent. The sights and sounds of a university campus surrounded them, but they seemed to be attracting more attention than the average pair. Several students did double-takes as they passed and a couple even stopped and openly gawked.
While crossing the square, River dropped her head to avoid the stares and saw the Doctor's hand swinging just the barest distance from her own. After hesitating only a moment, she timidly allowed her fingertips to lightly brush the back of his, but either he didn't notice or didn't take the hint. Instead of making another attempt, she brought her hands together in front of herself, weaving her fingers together, imagining her hand was in his and not her own. The tinkling of the bell on the door to the diner brought her back and she looked up to see the Doctor holding it open for her, ushering her in ahead of him with a grin.
Upon entering, they were overwhelmed with the smell of coffee and grease. River headed immediately for the booth in the far back corner, heads turning as they passed and the hiss of whispers trailing them. River sat with her back to the rest of the restaurant, leaving the Doctor to try to ignore the uncomfortable stares of strangers. "River," he leaned toward her across the table, "why is everyone looking at us?"
She shrugged. "I'm the nutter who chose Gallifrey for her thesis. No one chooses Gallifrey as their thesis. It isn't done."
"Well, you're just braver than them. And cleverer," he said, reaching across the table to tap her on the nose. The action caused a noticeable swell in the volume of the incessant murmurs.
The waitress appeared out of nowhere and barked, "Wateryahavin?"
"The usual," River replied.
The Doctor grabbed a menu from the stand between the salt and pepper shaker and flipped through it. "I'll have the fish sandwich, plain, nothing on it, and er…" he flipped to the desserts, "and a side of custard. Yes, please. Thank you." He gave the waitress a bright smile which was not returned. She glanced back and forth between him and River before shrugging and heading back to the counter.
"I think people here find me a bit… odd," the Doctor observed.
"No," she said quietly, looking down at her hands folded on the table. "They're just not used to seeing me with someone."
The Doctor opened his mouth but River stopped him. "No, it's okay, it will be worth it when I'm done. Only right now sometimes it feels more like… like prison."
That final word burrowed into the Doctor's chest and seized his hearts with the painful grip of icy claws. He reached across the table and placed his hand on hers, acutely aware that the motion drew the attention of several other patrons. "River," he paused. He knew he couldn't say too much but he had to say something. "I'm so sorry."
"No, really, it's okay. It isn't your fault," she replied. "Hey, maybe once I'm done I can travel with—travel, and then maybe we'll meet up. Sometimes. Occasionally. Maybe."
The Doctor put on the most convincing smile he could and started to say something when he was cut off by a taunting voice from the other end of the diner.
"Hey, Time Girl! I thought you only went for Time Lords, not professors."
The Doctor began, "Well, actually—" but another voice interrupted him.
"Of course she goes for professors. How else does she always have the highest marks in everything?"
The relatively quiet diner broke out into cat-calls and whooping laughter. River stared intently at the table, flush spreading across her cheeks to her ears. The Doctor could tell from the look on her face that although she was embarrassed, this sort of thing wasn't a new occurrence.
"Shut it," he ordered, standing up from the table. The laughter continued unabated. Anger burned and boiled in the Doctor, rolling like the ocean upon the impact of a blazing comet. He may not be able to do anything about the pain she suffered in the past, or the agony he would have to put her through in the future that he had been running from for so long, but he sure as hell could do something about this.
"Oi! You will listen to me when I AM TALKING!" he roared and this time, the diner responded with silence. "Now, you lot seem to have some mistaken ideas about my friend here. Perhaps you don't know her that well. Or perhaps you're just gits," he said darkly, freezing the young man who spoke first in his stare.
"Not my place to say," he continued, strolling down the aisle between the booths and the counter. "It is my place, however, to inform you that this woman is amazing. And she is just going to get even more amazinger as time goes on. I have seen her do things—incredible things—that you would not believe. She has the capacity for more trust and love than anyone I know. And oh, is she clever. She figures out things as quickly as I do, which is quite impressive if I do say so myself. I'm sure each of you fancies yourself great in some way, but let me assure you, it would take every single one of you combined years to amount to a fraction of the greatness this woman is capable of before breakfast."
He stared at everyone in turn, daring them to respond or object. He turned to the counter and said, "We'll take our order—" The waitress held a bag out to him before he finished. "—to go."
The Doctor returned to River, who was still resolutely staring at the table, and held his hand out to her. She looked up at him, tiny pinpricks of tears nestled in the corners of her eyes, and placed her hand in his. He helped her to her feet and headed for the door.
Before they could leave, someone asked, "Who are you?"
"Me?" he replied. "I'm the Doctor."
The sound of a breaking coffee cup followed them out the door.
As they turned the corner, River said, "Thank you for that. You didn't have to say those things." She hesitated before adding, "And you don't have to hold my hand anymore."
"It's just the truth. And you don't have to hold mine, either." His expression softened as he smiled at her. It wasn't simply a nice, friendly smile. There was more to it. River's heart skipped a beat, her breath quickened, her stomach turned uncomfortably, and her skin tingled as if it had been draped with staticy silk. The sidewalk became clouds, her legs turned to jelly and she stumbled slightly. In a blink, the Doctor dropped the bag and steadied her putting one hand on her waist and the other on her shoulder.
"You okay?" He bent slightly so their eyes were level, searching her face for confirmation.
"Yeah, I—I just need to eat," she lied, averting her gaze from his. She tried not to think about how warm and wonderful his hands felt on her, afraid her legs would give out again. "There's a park just up the way."
The Doctor nodded, "I like parks. Parks are fantastic. Went to a planet that was entirely parks once. Lovely place, but not many places to stay. No camping in the parks. Not sure how well that was thought through." He picked up the bag and they continued along the road, not making it far before their hands naturally found each other again. They turned down a wide path shaded by a canopy of branches arcing across, mingling in the middle. The crispness of the air combined with the weight of his hand in hers gave her new life; a breath of spring on an autumn day. She glanced at the Doctor out of the corner of her eye and saw a small smile on his lips. A whispered wish crossed her mind that maybe, just maybe, he was thinking about her like she was of him.
They came across a bench beside a small pond with several ducks. They sat there quietly together, hands still linked, watching the birds float and frolic in the water. After a while, the Doctor opened the bag and handed River her sandwich before taking his own along with the cup of custard.
River stopped, her sandwich half-way to her open mouth, when the Doctor began to slather custard on his fish sandwich. He paused at the shocked expression on her face. "What? Didn't Amy tell you about fish fingers and custard?"
"Well, yes… but I don't think I really ever believed it."
"Oh, I see, you'll believe time travel and bigger on the inside blue boxes and sexy fish vampires, but fish fingers and custard is a bit much to wrap your head around?" he teased, nudging her in her side with his elbow. He took a big bite of the sandwich and grinned at her, his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk's and a dribble of custard on his chin.
"I still can't believe she was right about you actually eating that," River laughed as the Doctor made several faces while trying to chew and finally swallow his mouthful of fish, custard, and bread.
"I still can't believe she never said I was hot," he replied with a wink. River chuckled nervously and turned her attention back to her sandwich, feeling the heat spreading across her cheeks.
"Maybe…" she started then paused.
"Maybe," River turned away from him before continuing. "Maybe she figured it was so obvious and didn't need mentioning."
The Doctor placed a single finger on her chin and turned her face so he could look in her eyes. "Rather like your beauty is so obvious it doesn't need mentioning?"
"Well," she smiled shyly, "I suppose I wouldn't mind if it was mentioned. Depending on who was doing the mentioning, that is."
They shared a soft smile before turning back to their lunches. After finishing the majority of his sandwich, the Doctor started tearing up the remainder of the bread and tossing it to the ducks. They made noises of appreciation as they pecked at the crumbs, and the Doctor quacked in response.
River peered at him oddly. "What are you doing?"
"They thanked me for the bread," he explained. "It would've been rude not to say you're welcome."
"Who thanked—the ducks? You can't speak duck."
"Course I do," he responded with a matter-of-fact tone. "I speak everything."
"Duck isn't a language. It doesn't count."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow toward her. "Can you be sure?"
She stared at him, unsure if he was lying or not. True he knew a lot, but duck?
"Well then," the Doctor grinned. "How about that interview?"
"What do I ask?"
"How about you start with, 'Tell me a bit about Gallifrey'?"
"Tell me a bit about Gallifrey."
"Ah, Gallifrey," he began, leaning back comfortably against the bench. "The Homeworld. Two suns, two moons."
"Two hearts," River supplied.
The Doctor nodded and took her hand, holding it over each of his hearts in turn. She smiled at the slightly syncopated rhythm they created. He wove his fingers through hers, lowering their hands to rest on the bench between them before he continued. He first spoke of the bustling Citadel, the culture, the politics. He then talked about the Academy and the simultaneous terror and epiphany of the Untempered Schism. River paid rapt attention in the beginning, attempting to commit every word to memory. But as he moved on to the vast mountains and brilliant forests, she got lost in his voice; the images he imparted. The park seemed to change as if his words were a paintbrush and the world his canvas.
"The colors are what stick with me most," he continued with a flourish of his hand. "For the most part, it was the color of an Earth autumn. Rust brown, brilliant orange, deep reds. We had some green forests, but my favorites were the silver forests. Oh, the way they glowed and shimmered in an explosion of dancing light throughout the day. It was like molten gold, copper, and bronze flowed from the trees. Every time you looked, each blink, it seemed like they were different. I could spend hours in the forest, watching it change around me. Sometimes, I'd lie there so still for so long that the flutterwings would land on me. They'd tickle my arms, like this…" His fingers skated over her forearm causing her to giggle while sending shivers up her spine.
The Doctor continued describing every detail until the sun was setting, stopping only when River shivered slightly in the chill of the autumn evening air. He released her hand for the first time since he began talking, draped his arm around her and hugged her close.
Sighing happily, River nestled her head into his shoulder and whispered, "This has been the best day of my life."
The Doctor looked down at her, surprise and sadness tearing at his hearts. This was all it took to constitute the best day of her life? She didn't deserve that, she deserved so much more. He was tempted to simply whisk her away right then, save her from her own future. But he knew he couldn't. Even if he could, he wouldn't. She asked him not to. He hoped there were more in his future that would justify the pain she had been through and would go through again. He rested his cheek on her head and closed his eyes tightly, focusing all his thoughts on the promise of doing everything he could to make her life as happy as possible without changing a word. "You are, you know," he breathed the words into her curls.
"I am what?" she asked, lifting her head toward him.
She looked down and smiled, a pink tinge appearing on her cheeks.
"Even when you blush."
"I'm not blushing," she objected.
"Okay then, even when your cheeks go all pink for absolutely no reason whatsoever."
River squinted at him. "I hate you."
"You really don't," he said, leaning back against the bench and gazing up at the stars. "It's late. I suppose we should get you home."
Reluctantly, River nodded in agreement.
They were quiet as they walked back to her apartment. This time, River paid no attention to the stares directed her way from other couples out for a stroll under the stars. It didn't seem to really matter anymore. Not as long as she was with him.
All too soon, they were outside her door. She didn't want the day to end or for him to leave. River swallowed hard then nervously asked, "Why don't you come in for… coffee or… or something?"
"I can't, not yet. But you'll see me again soon."
With only a moment's hesitation, she slid her hand behind his neck and pulled him toward her. The faintly surprised look that crossed the Doctor's face caused her courage to falter. She pressed her lips against his with less passion than she had imagined and broke away sooner than she intended.
"I'm sorry. I—I just wanted to kiss you when I wasn't—I didn't—when no one's dying. I sh—"
He folded his arms around her, pulling her into an embrace and smoothing a hand over her hair. "Shhh, no. River, you're amazing, always have been. I want you to remember that. And just keep being so, okay?"
"You won't have to try very hard," he assured her, leaning back and cupping her cheek in his hand. "And you know what else?"
In answer, the Doctor brushed his thumb along her cheek before tilting her face ever so slightly upwards and drawing her in to a kiss. It was tender yet strong, full of promise and longing. He placed his other hand on her waist, pulling her to him as she slid her hands under his jacket in response. They parted slowly and hesitantly.
River dropped her head and he brushed his lips against her forehead. "Hurry back," she whispered into his chest.
He nodded and turned to leave. Her longing for him grew the farther he moved down the hallway until he disappeared around the corner. How soon would she see him again? It wasn't soon enough. It had already been too long. But she would wait for him, and he was most definitely worth it.
The Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS and found himself on a hill overlooking a park. There was a definite chill in the air and the trees were bare of their leaves. A woman was at the bottom of the hill sitting on a bench by a pond watching ducks pacing along the edge of the frozen water. Though she was a good distance away, the hair was unmistakable; it was River. He started down the hill and called to her, "Hello there!"
River practically jumped up and raced up the hill as if she had been expecting him. She threw her arms around his neck, pulling him into a strong embrace and breathed into his ear, "Hello sweetie." She leaned back, her eyes filled with excitement and anticipation before she drew him into a kiss. The Doctor flailed for the briefest moment before allowing his hands to fall comfortably to her waist.
"Wow," he remarked as they parted. "That was some welcome considering this is the first time I've visited you since—"
"What?" River interrupted.
"No, it isn't."
"It isn't the first."
"Not the first what?"
"This isn't the first time you've visited me."
"Course it is, I'd remem—"
"No, but you've been here before. I turned around and you had just appeared in my door, like magic. You helped with my thes—"
"Spoilers, River," he warned.
"No! I don't care about your damn spoilers!" Her whole demeanor changed. Desperation and anger filled her eyes, only just covering the tears she was stubbornly holding back. "That day changed me. That single, beautiful day. The diner, this park, our kisses. Before that day, I had been so lonely and af—Doctor, you have to go back. My whole life, everything, has been so much better since then. I need that day, Doctor. I need you."
"You have me here, right now. Besides, I have the TARDIS, I can go back tomorrow. I just got here."
"No, you have to go now." She started pushing him back up the hill toward the big blue box perched on the crest. The Doctor made a few feeble protests, but soon just let himself be led by this strong-willed woman.
When they reached the TARDIS, he stopped and turned to her. "You know, River," he began with a deeply serious tone. "Someday we're going to have to deal with the fact that time is, and always will be, against us."
"I don't care about someday," she replied, shaking her head. "I care about now. And you. Please, Doctor."
He nodded then pressed a kiss against her forehead. "I'll be right back."
"I'll be waiting."
Once in the TARDIS, he hesitated at the console. When did he first visit her if not now? All those spoilers and she couldn't have mentioned that. Although he supposed it didn't really matter. Whenever he went would probably be what she remembered, wouldn't it? Or would he ruin everything by showing up too late or too early? Finally he made a wild guess, entering some coordinates pointing to a couple months prior. "If I'm off a bit," he whispered to the console, "you'll nudge me in the right direction, won't you old girl?" With those words, he pulled the lever to start the transport sequence.
The Doctor exited the TARDIS into the glow of a street light in front of an apartment building. He climbed the steps to the building and glanced over the block of mailboxes until he found the one labeled, "Song."
After climbing several flights of stairs, he made his way to the apartment number listed on the box. He raised his hand to knock but stopped as he remembered what she said about him magically appearing. Instead, he retrieved his sonic screwdriver from his pocket, fiddled with the settings so it'd be as quiet as possible, then unlocked the door and slowly pushed it open.
River was sitting at a desk pouring over notes and books, the sound of rustling paper alternating with the scratching of a pen. He could see her face reflected in the darkened glass of the window. The difference he saw between her and the River he just left was night and day. There was a sadness and vulnerability that made his hearts ache. A little frustration too, but he supposed that was due to her research. Just as he was wondering what he should say, River mumbled, "Why did I have to choose Gallifrey for my thesis? What was I thinking?"
The Doctor leaned against the door frame. "It's really a shame you don't know any Gallifreyans."