A/N — Takes place during The End of Time. This references a previous fic of mine Falling Out (it's short) - this story happens after for him and before for her. This series is slightly AU, in that it discounts the First/Last-ness of the kiss in The Day of the Moon. Otherwise it's canon compliant up to the end of series 6.
Tea and Sympathy
His fingers hovered over the keyboard. Every time he went to enter a new set of coordinates he itched to enter Donna's. He thought of her, living her ordinary life in Chiswick, knowing how she could have been living, how she had been.
A streak of heat ran down his spine, the radiation sickness was becoming harder to disguise. It was clawing at his nerves, making him shake. He still wasn't ready to go. He entered another set of coordinates and pulled the lever.
The TARDIS materialised and he stepped out into an airy high ceilinged office to see possibly the last person in the universe he wanted to see at that moment. River strode up to the doors and stopped short as she took him in. "Doctor?" Her eyes catalogued his features, it was the first time she had seen him with this face.
"Yep. Hello, River."
She smiled widely and approached him. "Look at you, so different."
"I wouldn't know."
"Of course not, I'm sorry. No need for the diary then." She looked at him expectantly.
"So," he said, pacing away from her to poke at a random artefact she had perched on her office windowsill. "How's, em," he looked out the window, "Oxford treating you?"
"You're here by accident, aren't you?" She smirked.
"Yeah, I am."
"It won't be the first time," she said with a laugh. "Or the last time, for you I suppose." She crossed her arms to ponder the apparent countless occasions he had accidentally turned up on her doorstep. He wondered if he ever met her on purpose at all. Maybe it was all some sort of cosmic joke.
He tipped at the nameplate on her desk 'Prof. River Song, MA, PhD. Department of Archaeology.'
"They only put the most relevant ones on there."
"Got a few?"
"I had a lot of time on my hands for a while, and collecting qualifications became a bit of a hobby." The faraway look returned to her eyes as she smiled and reminisced internally then chuckled.
"Going to fill me in?"
"Well I can't because, you know, spoilers. But let's just say you never let an opportunity to be competitive slip past, and there are differing opinions on whether a certificate in knitting actually counts as a qualification." She winked.
"You knit then?"
"No," she said, and smirked the most self-satisfied smirk he had ever seen outside of a mirror.
Her confidence was disconcerting; the last time he saw her he had broken her a bit, accidentally for the most part. But this River hadn't experienced that yet. He felt as though he should warn her somehow, apologise in advance, but what would that achieve? It would probably make no difference whatsoever, she's still be there, letting herself be used. And then she'd still be there dying and saving him to preserve this, so far, tragic and messed up timeline. He hoped for her sake that it got better than this.
"Tea?" she said as she opened a cupboard near the window, and even though he felt he should leave, a cup of tea could really have hit the spot.
"All right, but none of that herbal stuff."
She gasped in mock offence and placed her hand over her heart. "Black tea is the only thing I'll let into my office. Good and strong, I think," she said glancing over at him, a hint of concern on her face. "Are you feeling okay, Sweetie?"
"Me? I'm always all right. Strong as an ox. Fit as a fiddle."
She looked unconvinced and spooned a third and fourth scoop of tea into the bone china pot before spilling boiling water on top and placing the lid on.
He sat in her chair and made himself comfortable as she approached with the tray of tea. She shook her head and grinned before putting the tray down and seating herself on the wrong side of her own desk. "So is there anything you'd like to talk about?"
He wanted to ask her what he could possibly have done to make all of this worth it. She can't have had more than twenty years of him and it was impossible to have given her nearly the amount of happiness that would merit the abject misery she'd been put through in the few years since he'd known her. Especially considering how slowly his affection for her was developing. Maybe time seemed to pass more slowly for them, for humans. Their lives so short, over in a flicker, that time itself appears altered. "You've got a big office."
"I do. The one I was originally assigned got a bit damaged the first time the TARDIS landed in it, and they decided it might be a better idea to just give me the office I had asked for in the first place. Just because she's bigger on the inside is not to say she's small on the outside." River glanced fondly at the blue box parked in the centre of her office. She loved his TARDIS and it made him ache a little to see it in her eyes.
She stood again to pour the tea, strong and hot, into the cups. She dashed her own with milk making it turn the colour of a burnt biscuit and then paused the jug over his. "Do you take milk? In this incarnation I mean?"
"Yeah, just a drop."
She smiled as she milked the tea. "It's always nice to see what changes and what stays the same." She passed him the cup, sat back down with hers and stared intently at him. He looked away, uncomfortable under her gaze. "Sorry," she said, "I'm just getting used to the new face. It's quite pretty."
"Are you telling me my next one isn't?"
"That's a bit of a leap. Anyway, if anyone were to ask me about the relative attractiveness of your next face, I fear I couldn't give an unbiased answer."
"Hateful chap, is he?"
"Oh, the very worst." She smiled warmly and leaned in to look at him. "You're the same man. You're always the same man. Everything else is just window dressing." She put her hand over his for a moment then took it away again to cradle her cup.
Of course he knew what she had said was true, but he sometimes forgot. Maybe he chose to forget it and think of the next bloke as someone else. It was rare for him to have any encounter with his other incarnations, and when he was with River he felt that his next self was sitting in the room with them smirking silently from the corner. And he hated it, just a little bit. He drank some tea; it was so strong that it coated his mouth, just how he needed it.
River was frowning as she stared into her cup. The Doctor sat up in his chair. "Do you think the milk's off? Because mine tastes fine."
"Doctor," she said, placing her cup down to one side and putting her hands on the desk, "are you going to tell me what's wrong? And before you say it's nothing, I just felt your hand and you're burning up, so please, just tell me."
She swallowed heavily, and fought to control the expression on her face whilst searching his eyes. "You're dying."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Doctor, please—" There was a tremor in her voice and she stopped. "I can help you; I know how."
"No one can help me, it's a foregone conclusion. It's only a matter of time before I regenerate."
"That's what I mean."
"You want to help me regenerate?"
"Of course, what else?"
"Ah!" he said, wagging a finger at her and getting to his feet. "Well thank you for the kind offer Professor Song, but I think I'll be off."
"Wait, have you been holding off regenerating? Surely you know how dangerous that is?"
"It's fine, I'll be fine. I just have a few more places to stop off is all."
"You and your bloody farewell tours! It's not you I'm worried about, just whoever might happen to be around when you finally let go."
"It's fine, I'll be inside the TARDIS."
"You can't! You'll blow her up."
"I have calculated. There'll only be minimal damage; I'll park up somewhere safe first"
"If you get the chance."
He moved towards the TARDIS and she stood in his path. "Please Doctor, please stay. I'll find somewhere in the middle of nowhere for you." He edged to the side to try to pass her, but she stepped in front again and put a hand over each of his hearts pressing gently against him, insistent.
"River…" he said, looking down at her and the tears pooling at her lash line.
"She brought you here for a reason; she knows I can help you. Please let me."
He put his hands in his pockets. "I know you mean well, but honestly, I'm better off on my own."
She took her hands from his chest and turned around to discreetly shoo the tears with a thumb. "It's cruel."
"I'm not trying to be cruel."
"It's cruel, you egotist," she said and sniffed a light chuckle. "I love you so much, and all I want is to help you. And, oh, do you need help. But you don't know me enough to let me. It's cruel that you're going to have to go through this alone because of our ridiculous timelines." She turned around to look at him again, holding her head high. For the first time he wished that they had been on the same page, or that he could accept her love. But how could he, especially after the last time?
"Don't be. It's no more your fault than it is mine. Just be careful and look after her." River put her palm to the door of the TARDIS, about where the old St. John's Ambulance sign used to be, and pressed her fingers to the wood.
She let her hand drop and backed away to allow him access, and then remembered something. "Oh, wait, finish the tea. It might buy you a little extra time and you can get that tour of yours finished. You wouldn't want to miss anyone out."
She emptied the remainder of the teapot into the two cups and handed them to him one at a time; he swallowed it back and grinned. She reached up to peck him on the cheek. "Such a stretch," she said, chuckling.
"Shorter and uglier, wow, I really can't wait for this one."
"Go on, you idiot. I'll see you soon."
"You will, and I'm sorry. In advance, you know."
"Whatever it is, I forgive you. Always."
"Yeah. Okay Professor Song, I'll see you soon too I suppose."
"You did indeed. And you were neither ugly nor short, so don't worry."
"Ah, but you said you're biased." He grinned as he backed into the TARDIS.
"Biased, not blind!"
"Ha! Thanks for the tea."
"You're welcome, Sweetie."
He nodded, and she lifted her hand to wave as he shut the door softly.