It wasn't just piloting that River Song had learned from the TARDIS. The connection had been telepathic, at the speed of thought (River's thought; the TARDIS' thought processes made those of the Doctor look positively slow by comparison), and was made up of impressions and images and feelings rather than words. But she understood River's words, and she loved the Doctor with an intensity that awed the woman.

"Does it bother you? That others can love him in ways you can't? Physically, I mean? Or even on a... a solid biped level?"

She got the impression of a negative response, flashes of faces... a thin woman with short dark hair... a man with a military bearing and a black mustache... a blonde with a sweet smile... a brunette who was as attractive at 50 as she was at 20... a robot shaped like a dog... an adolescent boy (human?) with an air of unruly intelligence... a young woman with a baseball bat... a blonde with lovely brown eyes and a feeling of attachment and aching loss... another blonde, this one in Baroque dress and a sensation of wistful sadness... a very handsome man whose blue eyes shone with intensity (the feeling attached to this one was... not negative precisely, but less positive than the others)... a pretty black woman with an air of competence... a redhead who was not Amy, laced with a sense of regret and guilt... Amy herself, as a child and an adult... and Rory (the 'pretty one'?)... and herself, Melody / River, whom the TARDIS acknowledged as her own child and perceived with the regeneration glow about her, making a halo of her wild hair.

River understood. These were all people who had - on some level - loved the Doctor and whom he had loved in return. He didn't always show it. He almost never said it. But he loved them. And because he loved them, the TARDIS loved them... they were linked on a level so deep that River could only catch the edges of it. She got the welcome impression that the Old Girl approved of her feelings for the Doctor, and a rush of affection from the TARDIS at River's use of the Old Girl nickname in her mind. And then a surge of pain, because laced through the love the TARDIS and the Doctor felt for these people, there was an endless thread of loss and regret and hurt and guilt. River ached with that pain, in sympathy with it.

"How can I help him? Help you?"

Love him. Don't let him destroy himself with guilt and pain. Love him.

That hadn't been in words either, just a wave of emotion, of love and determination and desire and affection and persistence and longing.

River set out to do just that. She would have anyway... but she had a greater insight into his hearts and his mind, thanks to the one Companion who had been with him for centuries. And that Companion gave her a boost every now and then - the two females who loved him most - conspiring to keep the Doctor happy between them.

So when the TARDIS materialized outside her cell in the Stormcage unexpectedly, she wasn't really surprised; sometimes the Old Girl decided the Doctor needed her company. And took it upon herself to make it possible for him to haveher company. So she smiled to herself as she quietly packed an overnight bag and waited for the Doctor - or the TARDIS - to open her cell door and let her out. She slipped into some heels - they did great things for her legs and she knew it - and stood there waiting with that sly half-grin on her face.

The door of the blue police box opened and he stepped out.

His sad and somewhat distracted expression lightened when he saw where he was, and his face positively lit up when he saw that she was waiting for him. The one person besides the Old Girl herself he can relax with, River thought with a certain satisfaction in that status. If he lets himself. "Hello, Sweetie." She watched him as he sonicked the security camera - he always did that with a casual panache, a flick of the wrist without even looking, as if it wasn't required but just made life less hectic - and sauntered toward her. He pocketed the sonic screwdriver and beckoned to her. She met him at the bars of the cell, kissing him and slipping the screwdriver out of his pocket before he was aware of it. She smirked at him as she opened the door herself, and then slid the screwdriver back into his pocket as she kissed him. He tasted like vanilla.

"Mmm..." she murmured, "been eating custard again?" She licked at his mouth, teasing him. "Oh, and without the fish fingers this time. Nice." She slipped her arms round his neck, nuzzling at his mouth and jaw, nibbling up to his ear. He smelled like vanilla too. Her favorite scent, as he very well knew. He did enjoy pleasing her when he could. She whispered into the ear she was nibbling, "Can we slip into something more comfortable? Like the TARDIS?" She felt the chuckle deep in his chest, and he picked her up and carried her to the big blue box, set her on her feet just inside the doors. She spent a moment greeting the Old Girl in her thoughts and felt that wash of amusement and affection at the nickname. She loved that feeling.

He stepped in behind her and shut the doors, then lifted her by her elbows and turned her around to face him. "Well then, River Song, my naughty girl, where are we these days?" He handed her the overnight bag she'd dropped, and she got out the blue book. "Done the Pandorica?" She nodded. That had been when the Old Girl had taught her to pilot. "Lovely, me too. Byzantium?" She had. He looked a little nervous. "Neil Armstrong's foot? The Silence? Demon's Run? The Pyramid?" They shared a look. They never - ever - had this many events in common.

"Did the Old Girl give you spoilers on these things?"

"Hmm... River, she wouldn't consider them to be spoilers, she sees time as all of a piece, as one thing, not as then and now. But she didn't. Hasn't. Whether she will or not in my future is a separate issue."

"She must have done something, Sweetie. Let's ask her." Well, that comment put a bemused expression on his face. He doesn't know, River thought, he doesn't know that the Old Girl talks to me. His face suggested that his thoughts mirrored hers, and he took her hand and led her to the console. There he took a deep breath and asked the TARDIS directly.

"Well, Sexy... ah, the other Sexy, River, you're sexy too, of course, but it's in the nature of a nickname and... what?" She was giving him an exasperated look, the look that said Who cares what you call her, can we just get on with this? "Right, okay. Old Girl..." he shot a look at River, standing next to him with her arms crossed and that irritated expression on her face. She made a get-on-with-it gesture and he cleared his throat. "Right. Old Girl, why did you bring me to a time when River and I both know... er... what's going on?"

Need... love... fear... desire... loss... despair... longing... affection... loneliness... They both felt it, the wave of mixed emotions, but there was an expression of utter shock on the Doctor's face as he saw that River felt it too. He'd known that River had learned to pilot the TARDIS directly, but he hadn't realized just what that entailed. He swallowed a couple of times before he managed to say, a bit hoarsely, "D'you know what that meant?"

She was having as much trouble speaking as he was, because she was pretty sure she knew exactly what that meant. And it had been... intense to say the least. "I think... I think she thinks you're too much alone with your own thoughts and memories." She said it in a rush, and she didn't meet his eyes. "And I think she wants us to... to be together... so you aren't so alone anymore." She was pretty proud that her voice remained steady. Certainly it was steadier than her hands were at the moment. He turned toward her, and took her trembling hands in his, bringing them to his lips. He kissed each finger, gently, and placed her hands on his shoulders, then tipped her chin up so she had no choice but to look him in the eyes.

"And you, River? Are you lonely?" His voice was very quiet, but it wasn't his angry-quiet voice. In some ways, this voice was scarier, for all its gentleness. "I think you are. I think... that although you've lived a shorter life than mine, you've been betrayed by nearly as many people... and been forced to betray some yourself. You are so like me, River Song, Melody Pond. More than you know. And I... I've caused everyone I've ever let myself love such pain." There were tears in his eyes now. "I don't want... I couldn't bear to cause you that kind of pain."

"You're afraid." She smiled at him. "You're afraid for me - afraid I can't handle the pain you could cause me. Afraid it could break me... or scare me away... or... or even kill me. Like it did some of the others... the people she showed me." He was staring at her now, shocked that his TARDIS had shared his guilt and rage and pain and self-hatred with her. She smiled again, through the tears in her own eyes. "Don't you understand, my love? She knows it, and so do you. You said it yourself, just a moment ago. We are so alike. Give me credit for being able to take what you have to give." She slid her hands up from his shoulders and laced her fingers together at the back of his head, pulling it down toward her. "Let me stay. If you can't love me, please let me love you." And she kissed him.

Oh, he thought, so sweet. And so strong. And then she moaned into his mouth and his knees went weak and they lowered themselves to the floor.

And the TARDIS hummed contentment as they dared to love one another.