She looks and walks and talks like River, but every time someone makes a sudden move, he sees her fingers flex, dancing along her holster, or else watchers the barest trace of her fingers over what he knows to be a knife concealed in her sleeve. As they walk through a crowded marketplace, she moves like a prowling cat, green eyes narrow, shoulders tight. She laughs at his jokes and grips his hand when they run, and although he can see the cogs turning in her head—the hatred bred into her bones—she helps him save the world, and smiles thereafter.
He marks it as progress.
When he drops her back at her apartment, she closes off. He witters on and on, because in her future she'll pull him in by his bow tie and there will be snogging against various surfaces and hands in places they shouldn't be, or just laughter and stories and love, but she's not there yet. She is River, but just barely, and she's still a little too green, still a little too raw, but it doesn't mean he doesn't feel the same way toward her he will later in her life. He wants to embrace her, to kiss her, to hold her hand and speak with the familiarity owed to the last two lords of time, but her body language is closed off, the skin around her eyes tight, and when she says goodnight she barely opens the door before slipping inside.
She doesn't let him in, because although she managed to finagle her way into Luna University and secure herself a decent apartment, she can't settle in. The walls are bare and all the drawers and tables and shelves are empty, save for her clothes, hung with a meticulous neatness into her closet. The apartment is silent—it says nothing about its occupant, save for the desk covered in personnel files and sketches from half-forgotten memories. Save for the gun resting on her nightstand and the knife tucked beneath her mattress and the collection of poisonous lipsticks scattered innocuously throughout the apartment, in case she ever needs one at a moment's notice. The Doctor would fret.
She locks him out and screams to the unyielding whitewashed walls every night when her nightmares inevitably wake her.
Years in her future, she'll explain, and thank him for his patience. But her future is his past, and so he already knows: he cloaks and parks the Tardis just outside her window. He doesn't watch her sleep—the hum of the Tardis always soothes him, and he knows that his girl loves River almost as much as she loves him. As he settles under the console to fiddle with the time rotor, he feels the old girl's energy swell and extend outward, and though he doesn't know, he hopes that she can sense it, hope that she can feel that she is loved and cared for, even in her darkest nightmare, and that she will never, ever be alone again.
They go dancing, but because she's River Song and he's the Doctor, they end up running for their lives before the second song even finishes—something about indecency and cheek and
"I can't take you anywhere!"and
"Me? You're the one with the dress that violates their constitution"
—and it doesn't matter in the end, because they make it back to the Tardis and onto River's apartment. She laughs brightly as he grabs her hand, twirling her gracelessly onto her doorstep and attempting a dip but failing miserably.
"You're fun," the Doctor says, and she winks.
"You have no idea," River says, and suddenly she's so close. He can't help but sigh at the feeling of her finger curling around his lapels and pulling him to her. Really, he shouldn't let her, but she's River, and so he wraps his arms around her and kisses her back. She is unexpectedly rough and demanding, and the Doctor slows her down, moving his lips languidly against hers, stroking her back, brushing her curls from her neck and resting his hand there. The kiss is slow and lovely, spreading warmth from his head to his toes until he feels pleasantly drunk off of her, affection flooding him until he pulls away, needing air. His expression is so loving, so deep and wise and totally enamored of and focused on her that she balks.
She's used to angry sex against a desk in Berlin when no one's watching; to stolen, sultry kisses in the corridor of a crashing ship they're trying to save; to wandering hands and lascivious banter as they rewire a bomb due to detonate any minute; she doesn't know how to do this—or maybe she doesn't want to, and her walls are still bare and the small pistol tucked into her boot suddenly burns against her skin. Her thoughts are a tangle of hers and his and the Silence's, and she accepts that she's his and he's hers, but one day, not yet not yet not yet not yet—she's not ready and she's terrified—she's not even sure if she knows how to love, or if he knows her half as well as he lets on, or if she's even okay yet—and so she hurriedly offers some sort of excuse about class and exams and slams the door behind her, her heart hammering in her chest.
The Doctor doesn't stay the night this time. He saves two planets, rewrites a constitution, attends one of Jack's stag parties, and goes for a long swim because he is the Doctor and he is called a good man by so many—the best by some—but the image of River's face, and knowing that her terror and her uncertainty and her troubles are caused by the Silence leaves his mind busy concocting upward of fifty ways in which to kill Madame Kovarian and all of her initiates. Being a good man, he knows, is an exercise in restraint.
So he does another lap.
She's younger than he's used to tonight, and there's a wildness in her eyes that scares and thrills him. They run, as they always do, but this time River's looking for something. Her entire being buzzes with a strange, frenetic energy as they dart through corridors and root out corruption in a distant galaxy's governing planet. He doesn't know what to do with her, so he runs along beside her, hoping that she will wear herself out quickly.
But their evening, in her linear time, lasts for weeks.
She stands on a hill and looks up at the stars. She spins in slow circles, and she looks so small and lost. River, who one day will navigate all of space and time with a vortex manipulator and more grit than any one person has any right to, is fighting to stay afloat. His hands twitch at his sides, but in the end he realizes he can't help her. He walks by her side, but he knows better than to hold her hand.
They're tired and bruised and bloody when the Tardis finally lands outside of her apartment, and she's angry with him, he knows. He brought her home against her will, and as he walks her to her door, he expects a great many things from her.
He doesn't expect her to kiss him.
He splutters and pushes her away, babbling and bumbling and looking for a way out, because there is bitterness in her touch, deep and dark, and her fingers are bruising against his arm, and his rejection paired with her determination would be comical if he wasn't so helpless to prevent himself from reacting. No words of affection pass between them as he finally gives into her kiss, and she tries to devour him—teeth and nails, pulled hair and throaty groans—an apology passes his lips, for everything he's done and will yet do. Her only answer is something about the Titanic, and then her back slams against the front door, too hard, and she grunts. He tries to apologize for that too, but she bites his lip, her mouth trailing downward and sucking at his neck, scraping his skin with her teeth, her fingers slipping into his trousers as she draws him into her gyre.
She preens against him and moans and twists and hungers in that strange, frantic way, and he can't deny her—she feels so odd to him, so needy, so lost, and so he gives in.
He fucks her against the door of her apartment, until her eyes roll back in her head and she screams his name; until he knows her hips will bruise where his hands hold her and that the marks she leaves on his neck will be impossible to hide. He fucks her—there's no other word for it but that—like he can exorcize her demons, like he can turn her hate into love, and when they're through, she kisses him firmly and leaves him, unzipped and undone, on her doorstep.
She swoops in on him this time, all smiles and infinite hair, and they help a new colony on a tundra planet make find their footing in a new world. Her hands are steady, and even when threatened she doesn't reach for her gun. There is a calm about her he has not seen in so long.
He takes her to dinner, and they discuss her thesis, her studies, her newfound love for jazz music. He promises to take her to America in the 1920s. His hand rests over the back of her chair, her hand on his knee—of course, she's still River, and by the time they have dessert, he's begging for the check, because her hand has trailed north of his knee, driving him positively mad with its stillness and its promise—and most importantly, she is River, finally, his River, and his hands are always somewhere on her person as they head back to her apartment. They stand on her front porch, as they have hundreds of times before, and when she kisses him it's all lips and richness, her hands slow and gentle. Her lips are calm and exploratory, despite the thunderous pounding of their hearts as she looses her fingers in his hair, pulling her body flush against his. His grin is giddy and he giggles as they pull apart, one hand lost in her wonderful hair.
"These field trips," he says, worrying his lower lips between his teeth. "They're not cheating when it comes to your thesis, is it?"
"Only a little," she says with a wink, entwining her fingers with his. "How do I do with that, by the way?"
She kisses his neck. "Not even a hint?"
"Not a one." He makes a sound between a chuckle and a hum as she turns her back to him, unlocking the door. She pauses before pushing it open ever so slightly and stepping inside. She peers at him carefully, half-inside, and the Doctor tucks his hands into his pockets.
"Would you like some tea, Doctor?"
He grins, nodding, and she takes a breath before letting him inside, and marching into her kitchen. She busies herself with making the tea, trying not to worry about what the Doctor is thinking. She's moved in some—her apartment isn't the wasteland it was, but the sketches he finds after flipping through the legal pad on her end table worry him. He spots the weapons still concealed for easy access all over the flat. He notices the walls are still bare. She can smile and flit and flirt with the best of them, but she's not alright yet. She's not done.
But she brings him the tea, and he's all smiles and scintillating conversation. She lets him in, but she doesn't let him spend the night—because sleep is still a nebulous thing for River, and peace is an abstract she hasn't quite managed.
She's getting better. But she's not there yet.
The Doctor knows immediately.
The last time he saw her, there was a stillness about her he had missed—a peace with her person and her life that older versions of her possess, but has only existed in patches for months and months and—and years he realizes. Time Lord or no, he's always been horrible at keeping track of his own.
Now she feels... centered. Grounded. She buffets into his Tardis, blows him a kiss, and says she wants to visit the Delta Quadrant as she begins to pilot the Tardis herself. He splutters about behind her, poking and prodding, making sure she knows what she's doing and complaining about her bossiness, but he loves it, because although their timelines are inside out and upside down, it means that he's doing something right. No.
She's doing something right.
When they arrive at her apartment, she opens the door and lets him in. He babbles and heknows it, but as she begins to fix them some tea, he explores and his heart soars and the words just come bubbling forth. Her walls are covered in photographs and movie posters and paintings and sketches and post-it notes for her studies. Every surface holds at least one book. The furniture is covered in blankets of all colors, from all stretches of the universe, padded by vibrant pillows and exuding warmth and worldliness. A Buddha sits in the center of her coffee table, holding down a stack of looseleaf covered in haphazard notes, resting in stark contrast to the Celtic cross affixed to the far wall. There are pictures of the Ponds at all stages of their lives, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with River, sometimes with Mels, one or two of the Doctor, and a dozen more tacked to a bulletin board of people he's never even seen before. The fact that she has friends makes him happier than it should; of course she has friends. But it speaks of growth.
It's cozily, unexpectedly perfect for her.
When she comes back into the living room with tea, he immediately takes it from her and places it on the end table, burning himself in the process, but not quite caring enough to stop. He licks the scalding tea from his hand before he places his hands on either side of her face and beams at her.
"You're making me nervous, sweetie."
"You are amazing," he says, kissing her firmly on the lips, and this time there's nothing between them. The Doctor thinks about how far she's come, about how strong she must be to have experienced the things she did and to have worked through everything and become this—this wonderful, beautiful, brilliant woman. His heart swells, and he's beaming against her lips, but she quickly distracts him from introspection as she flings his bow tie over her shoulder, pulling him by the buttons of his shirt down the hall and into her bedroom.
That night, he stays. She sleeps uninterrupted. The Tardis hums.