strange how this journey's hurting

When he turns around after shutting the door, Rory is standing there, waiting. In a way – the Doctor is happy that it is him. Amy would do something about the noticeable tears on his cheek. Tease him or hug him or try to make him feel better, when he didn't need anything of the sort.

Rory acts as though nothing has happened at all. He steps in closer, pulling his cardigan closer to his body as he stares at the Doctor. "There's something you should know." Rory's voice is low, and the Doctor frowns in confusion.

"There is?"

"Two years Doctor. It's been two years since River told us the truth. This is our third Christmas." The Doctor frowns and nods with a shrug.

"I'm sorry but you know me I'm always-"

"River's been here. Each year, for Christmas with us. Post-Byzantium River, Doctor. And she's – she's told me all about that. The bits Amy couldn't, or wouldn't fill in." Rory's gaze is solemn and he stares at the Doctor. "You told Amy to stop waiting. But she hasn't you know. She has – I mean, she understands that it's different now, but she sets a place for you. Every year. Which means that the last two Christmases – they both waited."

"And I didn't come." The Doctor finishes for him and Rory nods sadly. "Amy was sad, but okay. River – I think she was convinced you'd just never come. She's so late in her timeline, you see."

"Is she – is she here?" The Doctor asks, one heart hopeful and one heart fearful and he's not sure which heart he wants to follow. It doesn't seem to matter much because both are barrelling on with or without him.

"She just went out to the back garden right before you knocked. She wanted to see the snow – all she gets at Stormcage is thunder and lightning and nothing else you know. Can't even see the stars at night through the atmosphere." Rory's voice is soft and the Doctor is struck by how much older he seems. Feels. How much better he seems to know River, and he finds himself oddly jealous about it. Surely Rory and Amy can't know her better than he does. It's a ridiculous thought, and he recognizes that even as he's thinking it. But the concept of sharing her never occurred to him along the way. Forever, since the very moment he met her and she called him her Doctor – he'd known. He hadn't wanted to know – but he had all the same. He was hers. And she was his.

"Alright – I'm just going to go – and go – and..."

"Yeah, you might want to do that." Rory nods in agreement, hands sliding into his cardigan pockets, rocking back on his heels as he nods. "Amy will understand. Go on." He jerks his head over his shoulder and the Doctor sidles past him uneasily, his fear and hope all tangling up in his chest, each heart tripping over the other as he walks toward the garden.

When Madge had asked him earlier – if he'd had family, his no had been almost automatic. His friends all thought he was dead. But his hearts had whispered, River knew. Even as he'd protested that it was complicated, his hearts had pointed out that he'd married her. Didn't that make this one woman – this one woman in the whole entire universe – his family? And it wasn't that he hadn't been married before. For larks and because sometimes he was utterly ridiculous, but none of those mattered. None of those were real. And maybe this marriage wasn't either, but it felt more real. He knew River. She knew him. He didn't-

"You know I can practically hear you thinking from over here." River sighs, her face still turned toward the night sky and he jumps in surprise, before smiling softly. Of course she knows he's there. She always does. She is dressed warmly, in boots, leggings and a long red jumper that nearly reaches her knees. She has no coat on, and he walks up behind her silently. "Hello, sweetie." She turns to him them, but her smile is sad and he feels like that fearful heart is about to beat the life out of the hopeful heart next to it.

"River." He breathes her name out like it is part of the very chemical compound of the air he expels with it. "I'm sor-"

"Oh don't." Her laugh is short and she shakes her head, curls brushing her shoulders as she looks away from him. "Please don't."

"Two years."

"But when are you ever on time, my love? Almost nearly never." She shrugs and looks at him once more, her eyes bright in the darkness. "I thought – you barely knew me that last time. The last time I actually saw you, you weren't –" She waves a hand over his general form and he knows. She's done Asgaard, with his tenth regeneration. Her eyes fill with tears and she blinks suddenly, looking down, her own arms wrapping around her midriff in a self-comforting hug. His hearts sink, because what sort of man is he? He steps closer to her, his hands reaching forward, faltering in the space between them.

He's held her hand. He's stroked the skin along her jaw. He's held her in his arms, sort of, while he's kissed her, and he's touched her in so many ways.

He can't remember ever hugging her.

"River, I should have come sooner."

"Why? For them? For me? I knew, going in, Doctor. I knew – back-to-front. Oh not exactly but my end is your beginning. I've always known that. So many years you've known me now - surely you know that. I knew this was coming." She swallows suddenly and he can't seem to help himself anymore, because at some point his traitorous, stupidly hopeful heart has risen and is tugging him forward like a fish on a line. His arms wrap around her shoulders, and the fit isn't comfortable because she still has her arms wrapped round herself.

"Just because you expect it doesn't mean you deserve it. Any of this. River. Please." His voice is a whisper and his face is pressed into her hair. The curls brush against his cheeks and the feel of it is so haunting, he aches with it. He inhales deeply, the scent of her shampoo and that particular scent that is uniquely River underlying it. She smells like time – like the smell that pervades his TARDIS if he stays in the Vortex too long. He loves that smell. He loves her. He does, and he knows it, but he wonders if he's ever told her? He hasn't – not in his timeline. He hopes he has in hers.

Her arms unwind; she slips one under his while she wriggles the second between them to put it over his shoulder. He hugs her tightly – so tightly that he can feel her breasts against his chest, feel the reverberation of her hearts just below his. Something eases and loosens within him and he sighs in content.

She fits there, feels like it's just where she's meant to be. He's hugged lots of people, her parents, strangers, new friends, old friends. Hugs were always his favourite, warmth and caring wrapped up in four arms with no obligations attached. But hugging all of them came nowhere near how this feels. Her head fits right against his shoulder, and their hearts beat in a successive symphony. Her arms grip him tightly, and he rocks left to right with the music of their hearts and she sways with him as if she knew which direction he was going in before he did. He buries his face in her hair, and tears are in his eyes again.

Happy crying.

So human, and when did he become this? But he can't seem to stop himself and he buries his face further into her hair, sliding his arms around her small frame more tightly. Even as he holds her, he aches for her eventual loss. It's something that has terrified him. A constant shadow in the back of his mind that he chooses to deliberately push away for now. It is so close for her, and he doesn't want to think about how sad it all will be later. He would much rather be happy now. Her hand slides up along his back, and curls over his shoulder as she turns her face into his neck. "I missed you." She whispers the words into his skin like a secret. Like a confession. "I know it's – it was still you. I know that but, but he – you looked at me so – it was like you were a stranger. Its close now isn't it? Really, really close. I thought I was ready, and I was so stupid."

He can feel her tears, hot on his skin, and he holds her all the tighter for it, because he doesn't know what else to do. This crying isn't happy anymore, and he can't – he can't seem to hold her tightly enough. "River." His whisper is choked and she shakes her head quickly, her hair brushing against the skin of his cheek, jaw and neck.

"No, I know. You can't tell me. I know that. I'm sorry Doctor, I shouldn't have –" She pulls back slightly, and he looks down at her eyes, brighter and greener than their usual swirling blues and greys. One of his hands slides along her back, pulling away to brush the skin against her cheek gently.

"Of course you should, River. Who else would you ask? Talk to. I want it to be me – always." He presses a soft kiss to her forehead and swallows heavily. "I don't deserve it, I know. You – River, you've given me so much. So many times, and I don't know how to ever tell you-"

"When is this for you?" She asks him softly, and he drops his head. His forehead rests against her temple and their arms remain wrapped around each other. He doesn't want to tell her. Doesn't want to confess this, but she's just been so open with him, it seems a bit unfair. He lies. He lies constantly to everyone, but he decides that he should never, ever lie to her. Not ever again. It's the least he can do.

"The last time I saw you was Area 52. Or Utah. Depending on how you look at it." He pulls back to look at her apologetically. "I may have been running. Just a bit. A touch, really, but it's – it was – River, you are this big, scary thing. And I've always been a bit of a coward." He doesn't apologize aloud again, but it is there in every word he says and she smiles sadly up at him.

"Never a coward, my love. Just... slow to come round sometimes. That's okay. That is – it is okay. I'm just – selfishly I'm a bit happy it's this me that gets you. Is it selfish when I'm taking something from myself?" She frowns and lets out a weak laugh. She looks back up at him after the sound dies away. "Time can be rewritten, Doctor. I don't want you to feel obligated or – or – pinned into a fate you had no choice in."

"I had a choice, course I had a choice, River. I chose to marry you instead of simply telling you my plan. It wasn't for your sake, or Amy's or Rory's. I chose it. But I ran because – because –"

"Because you've seen my end." She finishes for him calmly and he looks at her, fear in his hearts and all over his face. She laughs, and shakes her head. "I'd never really thought about it you know. Until Asgaard. And that new face." She looks up at him as the fingers of her hand on his should brush against the skin of his neck softly. "You looked at me like I was a ghost. Something that was haunting you. And I thought – you know, once I'd reached my end, the first time you meet me – what would ever keep me from you? From jumping ahead – or back, depending on the perspective I suppose, and finding some future version of you I'd never met and just going forward? Not crossing timelines, or endangering all of space and time because I promised you – never again. I learned my lesson in Utah, Doctor. That first time. But what would stop me just looping back and meeting you? Nothing. Nothing in this universe could stop me. And I figured it out. You looked haunted because you were. Because I was a ghost to you then."

He can't look at her then, because tears are in his eyes and he knows she doesn't need him to tell her she's right. Her hands clutch at him, fingers twisting in his tweed jacket as she looks up at him. "But we're here now. And I don't want to think about later. Not today. Not on Christmas. Especially not this one."

"Why especially not this one?" He whispers the question down to her and River sighs, biting her lip before looking up at him with tears in her eyes.

"Amy's pregnant. She hasn't told anyone yet, but she told me earlier. In the kitchen. My first Christmas after Stormcage, I was here – with you, and the baby was – I think this may be my last."

He feels like he can't breathe. His first. Her last. Oh sometimes their timelines hurt. He can't do anything but hold her tighter, and lean down to kiss her. It isn't like their usual kisses – awkward or filled with restrained passion, it is soft, and something he can draw and give comfort from. Her lips are soft and he can taste the salty tang of their tears, but she hums against his lips, and her hands unclench, smoothing across his back as she tries to pull him impossibly closer.

He loves that she tries. Because impossible has no place between them.

When he pulls back, he knows what he has to do. Sad will be for later. It wouldn't do to let any of that in here.

"Then we'll make it the best."