Thousands have lived without love, not one without water
Summary: The Doctor has trouble saying those three little words.
A/N: Written in honor of the Doctor and River's anniversary. Story title from W.H. Auden's First Things First. Charina mentioned that anniversary fic should be fluffy, so…sorry about that.
"Just promise me you won't use it unless absolutely necessary," the Doctor frowns down at River, standing outside her cell and watching her smile gleefully down at the bottle of blood red nail polish in her hands.
It looks perfectly innocent but before the polish dries, it's absolutely deadly. She'd nicked it from a market on Phaester Osiris and the Doctor has little expectation of getting it back from her – the best he can hope for is a compromise.
River runs her fingers reverently over the bottle and mutters, "Define necessary."
"River," he scolds, eyeing her a little nervously now.
The bottle is new and shiny, and the Doctor's wife is nothing if not always eager to try out a new toy.
Laughing softly, River finally looks up at him, curling the bottle of polish in her small fist. "I'll use it when I have to, sweetie. That's all I can promise."
The best he's going to get, probably.
Sighing, he nods reluctantly and curls his hand around hers. "Very well, then, my bad girl. Now give us a kiss before the guard change."
He makes that ridiculous kissy face she always rolls her eyes at, but River only laughs fondly now, wrapping an arm around his neck and bringing his mouth down to hers. He holds her close, still rather chuffed that he'd finally figured out where to put his hands, and revels in the taste and feel of his River.
Despite how much he loves the running and the adventure and the close calls that characterize all his adventures with her, the Doctor thinks this might be his very favorite part. The goodbye kiss. Well, not the goodbye, per se. Goodbyes are rubbish. He hates goodbyes. But the kissing is nice. More than nice. Kissing River in particular is brilliant.
River nips briefly at his lip before letting him go with a smile that the Doctor returns goofily. She traces her index finger down his nose and over his lips, her eyes soft. "I love you," she whispers, and he feels his hearts swell and constrict all at once.
He opens his mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. Not a sound.
River smiles, a melancholy mix of sadness and understanding that makes his chest ache. "It's alright, sweetie. I know."
And he knows that she knows. He shows her often enough and he tells himself that it's sufficient, that River hears all the things he isn't saying. But he still can't help the stab of guilt when she tells him she loves him and all he can do is kiss her in response.
It's not that he doesn't love River. He loves her more than anyone or anything in the universe – and considering how vast and full of fantastical things the universe is, the Doctor thinks that says quite a lot about how much he adores his wife. Not loving River Song isn't the problem. The problem is that for the first time in a very long time, he's afraid.
Because no matter how much he loves her and how hard or how far they run, their time is running out – like sand trickling through his fingers however much he cups his hands around it and tries desperately to stop the inevitable sifting of time. No matter how he scrambles to hold on to just a couple of grains, hoarding them like a miser, time stops for no one – not even a Time Lord.
He will lose her.
It's only a matter of when.
And that's the problem with saying those words that seem to come so easily to River. He knows how they end and there's no forgetting that. It's always there, in the back of his mind even at their happiest moments together, coloring their most magnificent days with the dull grey of his foreknowledge.
At first, he'd been convinced that he could change everything if he just made sure she never loved him at all. He'd tried to be as sullen as he could during their picnic at Asgaard – which wasn't difficult considering the last memory he had of her was the smile on her face as she died. But being River, she'd managed to pull him out of that mood with a few well-placed innuendos and the little nibbles he loved so much on a cake platter. And she proceeded to keep being naughty and brilliant and her hair was always so distracting and the way she handled a gun made him a bit weak in the knees – he probably should have felt bad about that. He really didn't.
Not falling for River had never really been an option. Rassilon knows he'd tried, but resisting her had been quite a lot like resisting her namesake. Like paddling his arms and kicking his legs against the force of the tide and just when he thought he was getting somewhere, the swift undercurrents wrapped around his ankles and pulled him under. Falling for River had been like drowning, and he'd enjoyed every agonizing moment of it.
He'd never had a choice in loving her – he was already halfway there by the time he'd realized what was happening.
After he married her – bound together with a bowtie on top of a pyramid at the center of every moment in history and even for the Doctor, that was spectacularly romantic if he said so himself – his resistance was in shambles around his feet. There was no reason not to tell her how he felt.
Except, if he did say the words, there was nothing to stop it all from ending. How would he know when their latest adventure was their last? How would he know the Singing Towers weren't looming, just out of sight in their timeline?
An irrational, human part of him thought that perhaps River couldn't go to the Library as long as he didn't say the words. Because she could never reach the end of her timeline without him saying it, and the longer he put it off, the more time he had with her.
So he hoards the words just like he hoards their time, protectively cupping all the grains of sand in his hands, waiting for the right moment to open his palms to the air and watch them sift away in the wind.
He doesn't know if he'll ever be ready.
So for a long time, the words don't come.
Until he and River attend a party on Castor 36, where unfortunately, the guests of honor are a couple of Sontarans – the Doctor still can't quite wrap his head around that one, but that's the 64th century for you. River, lovely as the Doctor finds her, has a terrifying habit of not being able to keep her mouth shut around Sontarans. She'd confided in him once that there was just something about them that made her revert to Mels, egging on her victims just to watch them try to swing a punch. Rather like playing with one's food before eating it.
Half an hour into the dinner, they're holding hands and running for their lives down vast corridors, searching for the TARDIS because neither of them can remember where they'd parked it. That's the thing with 64th century palaces – all the architecture looks the same.
River ducks around corners and shoots at the guests of honor pursuing them with her plasma gun while the Doctor complains about her inability to keep quiet – it's a miracle she doesn't shoot him for that one, considering his own track record – and tries to find the TARDIS, calling out for the Old Girl like she might actually answer. Which she had, once upon a time.
There are a few close calls, some a little closer than the Doctor would like, but nothing out of the ordinary for a night out with the two of them. They finally stumble into the TARDIS chased by gunfire – again, not out of the ordinary – the Doctor with a scratch on his cheek and his bowtie a little worse for wear, but otherwise right as rain (Why do they call it 'right as rain' anyway? Can rain be right? Is it sentient rain? Oh, that's interesting. Sentient rain. He'd like that.).
River, however, slumps against the console in a singed evening gown, her hair falling from its elegant updo, and a nasty burn on her right arm. Despite her protests that it's "just a flesh wound" the Doctor practically carries her to the med bay and tends to her, bandaging her wound and kissing it better. He even gives her a lolly for good behavior, and while River glares at him for it, she has no problem sticking it in her mouth and torturing him with it for the rest of the evening by sucking rather provocatively.
Altogether, it isn't an extraordinary evening – no more than all their evenings are extraordinary together. The Doctor considers them all rather brilliant. He curls around River in bed that night, closes his eyes, and sleeps.
And he dreams.
He dreams of his wife and the Library – another ordinary occurrence, since it's always lingering in the back of his mind while he's awake. Sleeping, he lacks the ability to push the thoughts away and they consume him. This time, he dreams that they'd listened to the Towers sing, and he'd given her his screwdriver and sent her off to the Library without saying the words.
He dreams that he'd never said them, through their whole long lives together. Not once.
In his dream, he can feel River's doubts, and his own agony at knowing her last thoughts had been of him, and how he'd never told her he loved her. She never heard him say the words she deserved to hear. So maybe he hadn't. Maybe the Doctor hadn't loved her and it was all a lie. Their whole life together, nothing but an elaborate web of lies spun by the King of Deceit himself.
He tries to tell her that he did, that he loves her, he'd always loved her, but she's connecting the wires and she doesn't hear him no matter how loudly he shouts the words. He's finally ready, but it's too late to do anything but watch his wife die.
Putting off saying the words hadn't saved her, hadn't given them any more time together than they'd already had. All he'd succeeded in doing was denying her their whole lives of the most basic of truths between a husband and a wife.
That was even more unbearable than saying the words and still losing her. A bright light blinds him as River connects the last wire and the Doctor shouts himself hoarse trying to make himself heard, but River is gone, and the words echo in the empty space she leaves behind.
The Doctor wakes with a gasp, eyes flying open to the dark ceiling of the bedroom he shares with River. Aching everywhere and tears burning his eyes, he reaches out a hand frantically, feeling for the warm, reassuring form of his wife next to him.
She makes a soft noise in her sleep at his touch and he breathes out a sigh of relief that he just barely manages to keep from becoming a sob. She's still there, she hasn't gone anywhere, she's safe.
He draws in a steadying breath, his hearts pounding as the TARDIS hums soothingly around him. Finding River's hand in the dark, he squeezes tightly and tells himself that everything is fine.
River is still here. She is safe. There is still time.
She stirs next to him, blinking open her eyes in the dark and scooting closer to him, curling her fingers around his. "Doctor? What's wrong?"
He beams at her, tears blurring his eyes because everything is amazing. Throwing his arms around her, he pulls his wife into his frame and rolls over, pulling her on top of him. River giggles sleepily as he holds her close, burying his face in her curls.
"My love, what did I tell you about waking me up for sex?" She asks, sounding amused as she presses a kiss to his sternum. "Make me breakfast first. You make a girl rather famished, darling."
The Doctor snorts, refusing to release his hold on her but silently promising her a whole bloody planet of breakfast foods because he loves her and he'll tell her again while they're swimming in a lake of syrup or wading through a field made entirely of soggy cereal.
Taking a deep breath, he whispers, "I love you, River. So much."
And oh, it feels wonderful to finally say those words. Liberating and magnificent and freeing and all sorts of other things he can't quite name at the moment because he loves her and saying it is just so much better than thinking it and hoping she understands.
River gasps, stiffening in his arms. Pulling back to look at him, propping herself up on his chest, she stares down at him silently, eyes thoughtful and so incredibly ancient. "This is the first time for you, isn't it?" She asks sadly. "The day you finally said it."
He nods, resting a gentle hand on the back of her head and pressing her face into the crook of his neck because he can't bear the look on her face, as if she's afraid it's the last time she'll ever hear him say it.
"I love you," he says again, to prove her wrong, and just because he can.
River clings to him, and he feels her wet eyelashes brush against his neck as she squeezes her eyes shut. "I love you too, sweetie. Always."
His hearts thrill at hearing her say it, just as they always do, performing funny little somersaults in his chest. He just wishes he'd said it from the beginning, as she had. She wouldn't have to go through periods of time where her husband was too much of a coward or just too bloody oblivious to say how he really felt. He wishes he'd been better for her.
But he'll make up for it now. He'll tell her every chance he gets, every time he sees her, so that even as he forgets, River will remember.
She is loved. So very, very loved.
"Now," he says into her hair, delighting in the way her curls tickle his nose. "You mentioned breakfast?"
"Later," she says, and kisses his neck.
It turns out; later means several hours and breakfast means munching on toast (Toast is rather fantastic, he's come to find. It's just so versatile; you can put anything on it – butter, custard, that special sauce from Barcelona. The planet, not the city.)
They stand only partly dressed in the kitchen, and at first River mocks his choice in toast topping but it isn't long before she steals half – probably just because she claims to like his Cross Face – and dances out of his reach before he can swipe it back. But the Doctor doesn't really mind.
He's slowly learning that he should share everything with his wife. Control of the TARDIS, I love you's, and yes, even toast.