Birds are leaving over autumn's ending
Summary: "Victorian England," he says, through a haze of tears. "It was at a ball." Based on an abandoned prompt at SpoilerSong. River/Eleven, River asks the Doctor about the first time he met her in his timeline. He has to lie.
A/N – Story title from Iron & Wine's Naked As We Came. Just something I've been kind of gradually adding on to whenever I got the chance and then it was suddenly a oneshot. And Charina told me it didn't suck as much as I thought it did, so I'm posting. Excuse me while I cringe and run back to RPF where I feel safe.
She sends him a message on the psychic paper.
Normally, he would have gotten it right away and ran to her aid. Except this time, he found a rather delightful planet with ponds of banana daiquiris (not Ponds with a capital P because who would want a Pond full of daiquiris. Amy is rather horrible when she has any sort of alcohol at all and the Doctor wouldn't be excited about that in the slightest). The thing was, though, this planet also has a strange hatred of tweed. Well, he thinks it's hatred but he finds out later they're just very…conscientious. Banana daiquiris are a nightmare to get out of tweed. He figures this out the moment he steps foot off the TARDIS and is immediately wrestled out of his jacket by one of the creatures while another one keeps its suspicious eye on his bowtie (he says 'eye' of course because the creatures only have one – right in the middle of their foreheads, interestingly enough). They take his coat hostage until he leaves again, and the Doctor doesn't think to take his psychic paper from his pocket.
He returns to his ship several hours later, covered in banana daiquiri which actually had turned out not to be banana daiquiri at all (he really doesn't want to talk about it). He drapes his spotless tweed coat across the jump seat and trudges to his room to shower and change, squelching noisily the whole way.
When he comes out of the shower, still trying to get goo out of his ears rather unsuccessfully (he's convinced he's going to smell like banana scented sludge for weeks), his tweed coat is lying on the bed instead of where he's quite certain he'd left it. He glances around curiously, frowning because obviously the Old Girl is trying to tell him something.
Perhaps she's just grown fond of the tweed.
Someone should, at least.
Shrugging, he pulls the jacket on over his usual uniform and tugs at the sleeves until he feels a burning in his pocket – a white hot sear that burns his fingers when he pulls the psychic paper out, letting him know whatever message there is has been waiting for quite some time for him to notice.
He drops the paper onto his bed (Not really just his anymore though, is it? He shares it. Sharing. That's new.) and blows on his scalding fingers until the throbbing stops. His eyes scan the message quickly:
'Need backup. xx'
River needed help. Quite some time ago, it seems.
Leaving the paper where it is, he races through the corridors to the control room but the TARDIS has already started without him. She sends them hurtling through the vortex without any direction from him but the Doctor nearly falls all over himself down the stairs and staggers against the console, breathing out, "River. Wherever she is."
When the TARDIS jolts to a stop, the Doctor is out the doors within moments, not bothering to check the scanner and only patting his pocket to make sure his sonic is with him. As he closes the door behind him, he finds himself in the middle of what at one time might have been just a bunch of sand in the middle of the desert. Now though, it looks more like a battlefield.
The landscape is littered with bodies; the sand beneath them stained dark and already the hot sun is beginning to make the whole area reek of death and decay. There isn't a man or woman standing.
Where is River?
As a dry desert wind whips at his coat, the Doctor scans the landscape with frantic eyes; searching for the woman he'd know anywhere. At any time. Except once, of course. Best not think about that now.
The Doctor is beginning to panic while inwardly telling himself that she's River bloody Song and she can take care of herself, that she probably got tired of waiting for him and stole a camel or something, when he spots her hair far ahead, shining like a beacon on the horizon. Wild blonde curls that more often than not, are clouding his vision when he wakes in the morning. The wind ruffles those curls now, but River is lying there in the distance and not moving.
Feeling his hearts constrict and his blood pound in his ears, the Doctor begins to run, calling for her as he stumbles over broken bodies and his own two feet. He's the Lord of Time and in his head, he knows exactly how long it takes to reach her, but it feels like an eternity. He drops to his knees in front of her and finds her eyes firmly shut. Her chest rises and falls – much to his relief – though a little too slowly for his liking. More troubling than her shallow breathing is the way River's bloodstained hands cradle her abdomen, fingers curled into her red shirt. Hearts hammering, he carefully lifts her hands and to his horror, realizes that River's shirt hadn't been always been red. He can't tell how bad it is with her shirt in the way but there's so much blood…
As he scrambles for the sonic in his pocket, he tells himself that flesh wounds sometimes bleed quite a lot and there probably isn't anything at all to worry about. Perhaps after River had killed all these men (with good reason, he hopes) she'd simply been tired and decided to rest while she waited for him to finally show up. Yes. That's probably what had happened.
He flicks open his sonic and begins to scan his wife's wound but at the whirring sound it emits, River's eyes fly open. He nearly drops his screwdriver in shock. She tries to sit up, her whole body tense with the willingness to fight even now, if need be. But then her unfocused gaze seems to clear and she really sees him, rather than just past him. The panic in her eyes immediately flees when he tries a weak smile. "Hi, honey."
She collapses once more onto the sand, gritting her teeth against the pain. "You're late."
"Long story," he says, pushing away the guilt to deal with later. It certainly won't help him now. "I'll tell you about it sometime. What about you, River? Got a story to tell me?" When she doesn't respond, he sighs and points his sonic at her injury again. "What happened, River?"
She coughs in reply, a terrible, wet sound that scares him to death. He glances from her pained face to his sonic and realizes the wound really is as bad as it looks. She needs medical care and fast. But the TARDIS is a long way off and he'll have to carry her through deep sand over a ground strewn with bodies. It won't be easy going and he can't guarantee that all the jostling won't hurt her more or aggravate the wound.
"Come on River," he says, reaching up and patting her cheek as her eyes begin to shut. "Open your eyes. Look at me. Tell me what happened."
She blinks at him dazedly and it takes her a moment to respond. "I was on a dig with a team," she says slowly, as if she's recalling the memories as she speaks. "We'd found a book." She coughs again. "The Book, my love."
He can see that the effort it takes to speak is taking its toll on River but if she doesn't, he's afraid she'll pass out again. "What book, River? Come on. What stuffy old Egyptian book did you find?"
She glares weakly, like she knows exactly what he's doing and answers, "Thoth."
His eyes widen. "The Book of Thoth? The book that's supposed to contain all wisdom?" He'd been there when the Egyptians had buried it. Not a fun day.
She nods and even pale and weak, his River can't help but be a bit smug. "They found out somehow."
She shrugs and then winces. "People who knew exactly how much money it would fetch."
"Did they take it?"
Shaking her head, she smiles faintly and gestures beside her with a violently shaking hand, and he finally notices the thick tome nestled into her other side like a precious child. He grins, taking her trembling hand in his and leaning down to press his forehead to hers. "That's my girl."
"Always," she murmurs, and usually when she says that, it's flirtatious and downright sinful. Now, she just sounds frail and he thinks that worries him more than anything. "I want to sleep."
"No," he says firmly and forces himself to move. Tucking the prized book into his bigger-on-the-inside coat pocket, he slides an arm under her legs and wraps the other around her back. "I'm going to carry you back to the TARDIS, alright? Just stay awake, River. Talk to me."
"Can't," she says, and whimpers when he stands with her in his arms. He shushes her soothingly, brushing his nose against her hair and smelling her shampoo and Time, sand and blood. He settles her more closely against him and her blood begins to seep into his shirt and stick to his skin. He ignores the wave of anger and nausea that sweeps over him. Getting angry isn't going to help – whoever had done this to his wife is most likely bleeding out on the sand somewhere and he isn't sorry at all. He focuses instead on getting River to the TARDIS. That is his main goal for the moment – his Old Girl will take them where they need to go. She won't let anything happen to their River. He just needs to get there.
As he steps around the bleeding form of some unnamed assailant, he says, "You've got to stay awake, you know that. Your father's a nurse. Good old Rory. What would he say if he knew you were falling asleep and bleeding all over me, hm? Just wait till I tell your father, River Song. You are so grounded."
River tries to laugh but just ends up coughing harshly into his neck and he silently prays that the wetness he feels seeping into his shirt collar is not blood. "Tell me a story, then. Hurts -" She stops, breathing shallowly. "Hurts to talk."
"Of course," he says, latching onto the idea with enthusiasm as he trudges through hot sand and tries not to jostle River too much. "A story! What do you want to hear, love? Did I ever tell you about the time I met myself? Well, one of the times, anyway."
She curls her fingers into his shirt feebly. Feeble. A word he never thought he'd associate with River Song. He swallows down the terror he feels and listens to her soft reply. "Tell me…tell me about the first time you met me."
The words make his steps falter and he nearly trips, his hearts stopping in his chest. The first time he met her was the same day he lost her and River can't know about that. Not ever. The Doctor wishes he could forget it. But then, he supposes he did, didn't he?
Swallowing hard, he opens his mouth to protest but River cuts him off. "And don't say spoilers. Doesn't have to be specific." She takes a deep, wheezing breath and whimpers into his neck.
If it felt like it took an eternity to reach her, the journey back walking slowly and carrying River is endless. They're about halfway to the TARDIS now but his arms are aching and he knows if he doesn't rest, he'll end up dropping her. Slowly and carefully, he kneels on the sand and lays River down, cupping the back of her head in his hand like he might an infant. She bites her lip against the pain and he hums soothingly, pressing his lips to her pale forehead.
"Probably won't remember this later anyway," she says through clenched teeth. "If I'm around to remember it at all."
"Stop it," he says fiercely, gaze darting up to hers and eyes burning with the effort of holding back his emotions. "You're not going anywhere, do you understand me, Melody Pond?"
She nods weakly like she doesn't quite believe him, and he can't help but remember that this is all his fault. He'd been late when she needed him and nothing in the universe will ever make that right. Everything bad to ever happen to her has been because of him. He ruined her life and led her to her death.
Twice, his mind supplies and he shakes the thought away angrily. No, not like this. It didn't happen this way and he will not watch her die again. Surely even the universe can't be that cruel.
Even so, River is looking up at him through pained eyes that are slowly fluttering shut, and it's all his doing and he knows in that moment he isn't capable of refusing her anything. She could have asked for the Lost Moon of Poosh and he'd have done his damnedest to bring it to her on a silver platter.
Cupping her face in his hands, he says softly, "Look at me, River. Look at me." She struggles to keep her eyes open and on his face and he rewards her with a watery smile and the caress of his thumb over her cheekbone. "That's it, my love. Keep your eyes on me, eh?"
He slides his arm under her legs again and lifts her into his arms, standing once more. River buries her face in his neck and breathes shallowly. The Doctor keeps his eyes straight ahead, concentrating on the TARDIS in the distance and refusing to let his thoughts wander to the terrifying places they want (What if he loses her again? And all because of some dusty damned book and his inability to remember his psychic paper like the daft old man he is?). He speaks softly past the lump in his throat, "The first time I met you, you were glorious. Absolutely maddening, too. I think I loved you even then."
Not untrue. And not really a spoiler – he has a feeling River already knows he's always loved her. She's infuriating that way.
He feels her smile faintly into his neck. "Where was it? Where -" Her breathing hitches in her chest and he closes his eyes for a moment, holding her a little tighter. "Where did we meet, Doctor?"
He refuses to say spoilers, not now. He hates that horrible word and he hates that he'd been the one to introduce her to it – now more than ever. But he can't tell her the truth either. With any luck, she won't remember this entire conversation when she's better. And she will get better. The Doctor refuses to accept any other outcome.
So instead of thinking about a planet of vast, dusty shelves lined with books and surrounded in shadow, he thinks about how he wishes he'd met River Song. The imagery comes to him so quickly and so clearly that it brings tears to his eyes because no matter how much he wants it, that perfect first meeting will never be theirs.
"Victorian England," he says, through a haze of tears. "At a ball."
River coughs, head lolling as she looks up at him through half-shut eyes, that exasperating smirk still fighting to curl her lips. "Saw me across a crowded room, did you, sweetie?"
He smiles down at her tremulously. "You saw me across a crowded room, River Song. Recognized me instantly."
The TARDIS is so close that he can hear the hum of his ship in the back of his mind and he pushes himself forward, intent on the story building in his head. He tells River of the scandalous dress she wore and the way she'd smiled at him like she knew things about him that would make him blush. He mentions the blue book, brimming with memories of their life together, and how it had terrified him and excited him all at once. He senses River struggling to stay awake, listening intently. He tells her about the Dalek invasion that almost ruined the party (because their perfect evening always involves a little danger) but she'd saved them all with a smile on her face and a gun at her side. She'd been brilliant, lit from within and he'd been smitten before she even fired off her last shot.
And it's almost the truth. That book had scared him senseless; River's smile had driven him mad and intrigued him all at once. And she had been so beautiful. She'd saved everyone and she'd been so very brave, mustering up a smile for him even at the end of everything.
For a moment, he loses himself in the web of lies he's spinning for her, and he almost lets himself belief that it really did happen that way, that he really did meet River in a ballroom in the 1800's and surrender himself over to her completely instead of trying to fight what he felt. That the clock isn't always counting down against them. That there isn't a day looming when he'll take her to the Singing Towers and say goodbye, that he won't have to leave her standing there, watching him disappear out of her life for the last time, leaving his hearts cradled in her hands.
But that day is coming, far too quickly. But then, all the time in the universe wouldn't be time enough with River Song. And he might not even have the time he thought he did. Time can be rewritten.
The faint TARDIS hum grows stronger the closer he gets to it and he quickens his pace to reach those last few feet as quickly as possible. The Doctor bursts through the doors of the TARDIS just at the very moment he feels River's eyes flutter shut against his neck. He lurches forward and shuts the doors behind them, and Sexy is taking off before he even reaches the controls. Sensing his Old Girl's impatience, he merely slouches against the doors, breathing hard and cradling River to his chest.
She isn't moving at all, but she's breathing and that gives him hope. He clings to it with all his might. It doesn't matter that her blood is staining his shirt and that she looks so pale it's unnatural. River is strong. River is a fighter. River will refuse to die until she's read every single page in the Book of Thoth. Twice.
The Doctor smiles tearfully into her hair and listens intently to the sound of his wife's faint breathing. There is surprisingly always hope.
When she wakes in the hospital, the first words out of her mouth are, "Hello, sweetie."
Slumped in a very uncomfortable chair (51st century and they still can't make a comfy hospital chair. He'll never understand humans.) and gripping her hand, the Doctor glances up with tired eyes and grins. "Hello, dear. Sleep well?"
She snorts. "Is that what they're calling it now?"
"Sleeping, passing out from blood loss and pain," he shrugs. "Either way, you were terribly maudlin about it."
He smiles at her like she'd been the emotional one and he'd remained calm and collected. Like he hadn't paced the hallway while the Sisters worked their magic, like he hadn't growled and snapped at whoever approached and tried to get him to sit in the waiting room. Like he hadn't stumbled into that hospital with his dying wife in his arms and pleaded with them to just make it better.
Because time can be rewritten.
But not all of it. Not what's important to him, not what he wishes he could change.
"Stop it," she says softly, squeezing his hand to get his attention.
"Stop what?" He gives her a bland smile. "Making bowties cool? Because we've talked about this River, and it's just not possible."
She rolls her eyes and while that usually makes him fight between throttling her and kissing her senseless, now it just fills him with infinite fondness. It makes him want to cherish every single moment she's ever exasperated with him because he's just been painfully reminded that one day, she won't be there to roll her eyes at all. And he's going to miss it more than he can possibly begin to imagine.
"You're brooding," she points out quietly, in that knowing tone that tells him lying to her would be pointless. She knows him too well. It's moments like this he misses younger River, who would have been trying to get him into her hospital bed with her right now and totally overlooking the haunted expression he's trying so valiantly to hide from her.
Raising his eyes to hers, he asks, "And why shouldn't I? You're lying there because -"
"Because someone shot me," River interrupts, eyes narrowing. "Hardly your fault, sweetie."
"I was late."
"Yes," she agrees softly. "And if you hadn't been, it wouldn't have been just me bleeding out in that desert." She pauses, that very River-like look of mischief on her face. "We could have died together. Very Romeo and Juliet, don't you think, my love? Is that how you wanted it to go?"
She's trying to make him feel better and he attempts to muster a smile for her sake because she has no idea. She can't possibly know how very much he wishes he could. And he will, in a way, he supposes. When she's gone, whatever is left of him will die with her.
"It would have been a very quiet death," he says instead, taking his screwdriver out of his pocket, flipping it into the air and catching it. "Not my style at all. But anything for you, honey."
River sighs, watching him with a tired smile. "The things you say to me, darling. Lord Byron couldn't compare."
He smirks, still fiddling with his sonic. "What can I say? You bring out my poetic side."
"Oh shut up and come over here," she says with a laugh, and he tucks his screwdriver into his coat pocket, getting to his feet.
Hands in his trouser pockets, he studies her as he stands over her bed. She's still pale and weak, and it reminds him far too much of the first time he'd carried her into this hospital. He's always hurting her, and the worst thing about knowing her future is that he knows he'll never stop.
River sighs and reaches for his hand, tugging him toward her with surprising strength, considering how tired she looks. He stumbles forward and just manages to stop himself from landing directly on top of her, limbs flailing as he catches himself. Settling onto the edge of her bed, he glares at River, who only smiles. "Unnecessary."
"I don't think so," she says, lacing her fingers through his and staring up at him through clear green eyes that are always so full of love that he'll never understand why she thinks he deserves. "There are some things you can take full responsibility for, my love. But this is not one of them. So please stop looking at me like I'm terribly fragile. It's starting to grate on my nerves."
He grins, so unreasonably in love with her in that moment that he could burst. "And you, it's like having Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the room." He brings their joined hands to his mouth and kisses her knuckles. "You're making me swoon, Doctor Song."
She laughs quietly, wincing as the movement irritates her stitches. "Be quiet, my love, and get into bed with me."
He sputters, shooting up from the bed and tugging at his bowtie. Either the hospital has turned the heating way up or his face is as red as he thinks it is. Clearing his throat and hoping his voice doesn't come out squeaky because River always finds that so endlessly amusing, he hisses, "River. You're recovering. Now is hardly the time -"
"To sleep," she says with a tired smirk, and he stops fiddling with his collar and blushes further.
It isn't until after he's climbed onto the bed and slid beneath the scratchy hospital issue blanket with her that he realizes this is exactly what younger River would have done. She really hasn't changed at all. And he likes that, knowing that no matter when she's coming from, she will always be his River. He wonders if she feels the same way about younger him. If she'd looked at him even when he didn't know her and still saw something recognizable, lurking beneath the surface.
Wrapping his arms around her and smiling at River's contented sigh as she rests her head on his chest; he realizes she hasn't mentioned the story he'd told her. He wonders if she remembers and finds himself hoping fiercely that she doesn't. He wishes he had just said their customary 'spoilers' instead of spinning a tale that had been more for his own comfort than hers. It had been cruel to her make believe that everything would be all right.
The Doctor lies, indeed.
"Mm?" He nuzzles his face into her hair and presses a tender, apologetic kiss into her curls for something she thankfully doesn't seem to remember.
"About that story you were telling me," she begins faintly, and he freezes, eyes widening and hearts drumming out a frantic rhythm.
"Yes?" He rasps, voice shaking.
River tilts her head to look up at him, eyes soft and understanding. "Rule one?"
Closing his eyes, he leans down and presses his forehead to hers, breathing out steadily. "Yes. I'm sorry."
"Don't be," she says and he feels a light kiss pressed to his lips. "I shouldn't have asked."
He tightens his hold on her and refuses to open his eyes. "Some of it was true, though."
"Really? Like what?"
"You really were glorious," he says, fighting to keep his voice from wavering as he opens his eyes and meets her curious gaze. "And I really was smitten."
She beams, her whole face lighting up. "So I made quite the impression?"
"Always," he answers, bending his head to leave a lingering kiss to the corner of her mouth.
"Mm?" He asks, dreading what the next question might be, but unwilling to pull away from her.
"Why do you smell like…" She pauses, sniffing the tweed beneath her head. "Is that banana?"
He really really doesn't want to talk about that. Remind him never to fall for travel brochure pictures ever again.
Smiling into her hair, he mutters, "Bananas are cool, Song."