A/N: Thanks to phoenixwormwood for the fantastic betaing. Any mistakes are my own. EDIT: Fixed some errors in the text that were bugging me. ~madis
I bleed for you now and I'm skinny as a rail
And I'll be so obliged to keep you nice and warm and safe
and won't you be so proud of me
~Chris Thile, "How to Grow a Woman from the Ground"
He fell down the rabbit hole and could never get out again. The summons come when he's leaving Lady de Souza to her stealing and travels. He sniffs, flips open the psychic paper, glances inside at the hastily scrawled note.
He shoves the wallet closed back into his long-trench coat inside pockets, lifts off into the Vortex, saves a civilization from drowning, Atlantis all over again but without the fish, runs away from knocks of four and a woman who saved the entirety of the universe with the flip of a switch. Wild, wild nights, and even wilder days.
But he can't ignore the burning packet of paper-not-actually-paper underneath his left heart, his human heart, a dwarf star buried deep in his pocket. (Unable to imagine having only the one, glad glad glad it's not him ((but ever so envious)) left on a beach in Norway, because this body's made for running.)
Running away from all his problems. Running towards (away from) the future, a word whispered in his ear that no one has the right to know anymore, running away from the past, from prophecies and forgotten best friends, not mates, never mates, not ever again.
The summons are a burning firebrand underneath his heart, hotter with each slipped minute. The TARDIS refuses to let him ignore her.
"Please old girl," he tells her. "Not her. She's my future. I don't want to go. Not to her."
Because he's still grieving over Rose, over Donna, over missed opportunities (over River herself), over Jenny, and he does not want anyone to make him happy, he just wants to forget.
But if River's learned anything by now, it's that he never answers his phone.
She ambushes him with a picnic hamper. He's strolling down the streets of Asgard, hands fisted in the pockets of his trousers. Ragnarök has just been averted by a daft old man and two young brothers—the daft old man just hopes that no one recognizes him before he can escape back to his TARDIS. She'd parked herself on what could only be described as a snow covered hill right outside the shining city. Around him everyone celebrates the prevention of their apocalypse; they wheel around him, drunk on mead and ale, warriors all. At the moment Valhalla has nothing on Asgard.
A roar of tangled limbs and tankards spills out of a nearby tavern; they engulf him in a wave, a dozen red, smiling faces, the sour stink of ale on their breaths. Someone claps him on the back; his knees buckle at the blow, but the arm clasping him to its owner's side keeps him from falling. "I rec'nize you," the owner slurs, focusing bleary eyes on the trapped Doctor. His breath steams in the still-winter cold air. "You were wi' Odine—Odan—Ondine—Udini—" As he struggles over the knotty problem of his sovereign's name, going somewhat cross-eyed with the effort, his arm crushes the Doctor into his side, so the Doctor's forced to smell the unwashed sweaty stink of his leather breastplate. He does his best not to gag, blurts out, "No, you have me confused—" attempts to extricate himself from the warrior's grip and his equally intoxicated gaggle of friends, who are beginning to take notice of the stranger in their midst.
His shoes slide on the icy slush of the ground; after three score years of winter with never any Christmases, Asgard was eager to shake off her icy mantle. The terraforming should kick in any minute now; he'd hoped to be back and away in the TARDIS by then. He doesn't want any thanks.
"Of course I don't!" the warrior roars. He lurches to one side, banging into another friend of his; she snags him around the shoulders, ale from her tankard sloshing down his shoulder and onto the Doctor's head. "Little skinny man—I'd remember anyone that small, drunk or not! You, my hero, deserve a drink! A drink and—and honor! A place of honor at our table!" To finish off his speech, he kisses his lady friend, and then the Doctor for good measure. Around him his friends roar their approval, slap the Doctor on the shoulder. Underneath the rain of blows he feels himself began to be towed towards the tavern.
This is decidedly not cricket, he decides with a savage twist. His new found friend only serves to clasp him all the tighter, intent on doing the honor of getting their hero slop-happily drunk.
Then she is there, shouldering her way through the mob to slip her hand through his. "Excuse me!" she calls out, boisterous, a wicked grin curling the edges of her mouth. "But my man and I have far . . . different plans than a tavern." The wink she sends the Doctor's way gives no doubt to her meaning; he flushes to the roots of his hair, makes a sound closely resembling a werk. He didn't—he'd thought—River presses in close, the wild curls of her hair crushing into his nose and mouth. Cinnamon and a healthy, clean scent that can only be River herself cloud his senses.
His brain short-circuits. For a moment all he can think is that Rassilion, she smells good.
With a laugh his warrior friend lets him go. "Why didn't you say so, little hero?!" he booms. "Go. Be with your woman!"
"Right, well . . ." the Doctor replies faintly, unsure how to inform him that River is not his woman, but River's already pulling him through the mob and down the street, brightly scolding him loud enough for the amused party-goers to hear: what did she tell him about running off, she takes her eyes off him for one second and he's rescued an entire civilization from their foretold apocalypse, why did she ever let him out?! And underneath it all she's laughing at him, blast her, while he can only stutter and trip along behind her and pray he isn't blushing as profusely as he thinks he is.
She drops the tirade once they turn the street corner, although she continues to laugh at him. "Sorry about that," she says. "I had to give them an excuse they'd appreciate."
"Professor Song," he says, placing her just exactly where he wants her in his life.
He twists his hand free of hers, rasping their skin together. She gnaws on her bottom lip for a moment with her teeth, studying him. Her lips are chapped; he wonders how long she was looking for him, through this abrupt cold shift into spring. Judging by the red ache of her hands when it was twined through his, it's been awhile.
"It's early for you then," she surmises, twisting the basket around from the crook of her arm to her wrist. She grasps the handle tight with both hands. He raises both eyebrows at it—what in the world is River Song doing lollying about with a picnic basket in the middle of Asgard? Several scenarios present themselves, none of which he is particularly partial to, especially since they all involve him.
"Yup." He crams his hands into his pockets, studies the pale white-blue shift of the sky. He glances at her sidelong after a moment, adds, "But you would know, with this me."
She sighs. "Yes. I would know." He reminds himself to ask her later how, exactly, she knows that. Then he catches what he's doing and scowls.
"Right, well." He sniffs, nods to himself, stands a bit straighter. As much as he likes River, he absolutely does not want to be tangled with her. Especially since the sight of her fills him with this vague cross fondness that makes absolutely no sense. "I'll, um, be seeing you then. Right. Um."
"I was thinking we could go for a picnic," she says, indicating the proffered basket. "If you'd like."
River Song absolutely terrifies him because she is completely, utterly compelling. A mystery wrapped in curls and a curved smile and smoke green eyes. How could he resist? How could he not? She is so, so different from Rose, who was warm and open, willing to follow him anywhere. River Song is more likely to grab his hand and tug him after her headlong into danger. But Rose isn't here anymore, none of the people he loved (loves) are here anymore, that's why he's by himself, and who the hell did River think she was, asking him on a picnic.
The thing is, he knows who he thinks she is, and that's enough.
(Four thousand and twenty-two people, pressing down white hot on her brain for the download, and he looks through the brilliant white light screaming through the cracks of his fingers. To honor her death the very least he could do was watch her die. And he ran, to save her. He ran and ran, and gave her mind a burial befitting his people. Leela would have had one alongside her Time Lord husband, if they hadn't been cracked through the war. So he knows. He knows exactly who he thinks River is.)
The Doctor sighs, rolling his eyes. 'River, why in the world are you walking around in just a sundress? And," his gaze flicks down, back up, "heels. Mind you, it's quite fetching, but honestly without a coat on you'll catch your death." His mouth automatically jams down at his poor choice of wording, but he rambles on, ignoring himself, trading his coat for her hamper.
"I just happened to arrive a bit earlier, that's all," she explains, shrugging on his coat. It's too big for her, trailing along the ground. "I expected it to be spring already."
They begin walking. He peeks at her out of the corner of his eye, because she is so, so alive, and he saw her body burnt to a blackened crisp, and he'll never really be able to forgive her for that, dying. River Song shouldn't be cold and still, stiff as rigor mortis crept in. She should be bright and alive, a brightly winged bird (and he can't help but think that this is not his River, whom he met at the Library; he can't help but think that that isn't fair).
"Yes, well, it's almost spring," he says.
"Yes, it is." She grins at him, all sauce, and he looks at her, sort of horrified. Without even trying, River Song is going to lift him out of his bad mood and make him happy.
Her hair creates a little halo around her head, golden fire. She tips back the grape-white wine into her lipstick mouth, throws back her heels onto the grass, is barefoot. One small arch of her foot catches the back of her ankle, slides down, back up; he catches himself staring, looks away into the purple grass brilliance of an Asgardian spring. The terraforming had finally kicked in the rest of the way as they'd trudged up the hill towards the TARDIS, knocking out winter with an abrupt whoosh of melting snow and small, pale blue flowers racing out down the hill behind them.
Rose would have loved it here.
They set up camp underneath a small tree with golden colored leaves a little ways off from the TARDIS; he ducks inside to grab a blanket for them to lie on because it's a picnic, and if picnics count as dates he wants to do it right; and he almost leaves River there, the thought crossing his mind, shadowed by his anger of her foreknowledge, her unbearable smugness. But he doesn't leave. He can't forget how broken she was when he said he did not know her.
Shaking his head at his thoughts, he grabs a blanket from the linen cupboard that has materialized off the console room, heads back out to her.
As he spreads out the brightly checkered squares across the still half frozen grass, he cannot miss her look of relief, and feels guilt for something he hadn't even done.
They settle down, and she slips off her shoes, arranges the food and the wine and a thermos of tea for him, because he doesn't like wine, not in this regeneration at least.
"Two sugars, no cream," she tells him. "How you like it."
And yes, that's exactly how he likes his tea.
He wants to ask her—he wants to ask her everything. He wants to know everything about her, inhale her past through his mouth and gather it in his bones (guarding jealously).
He hates that he's bound by his own apparent rule of spoilers, that he feels this way towards a woman he hardly knows (who he knows to intimately already, because he catalogued every twitch, every minutia of expression, every word, that single tear drying out in the stagnancy of her death). He hates it.
But he remembers how she'd smiled, remembering this picnic. She was trying to piece together the snarling tangle of their lives (where are we up to this time?) and she'd smiled. He remembers how she'd looked at him like they shared a secret, as if Asgard was a precious memory in his future, something special.
He'd stared at her, stuttering over this woman who knew him, and he doesn't want to disappoint her, here, now. He wants her to smile at this memory, he wants to ensure his curiosity in that library, ensure that he'll see that small dip in her smile and wonder for the very first time: who is this woman, that she'll smile like that at a memory involving him
(amazing since he hates himself so much, and he can't imagine, well. can't imagine it at all.)
So he buries his annoyance, his frustration at his ignorance of her, his anger that she's intruding into his life assuming love and bloody spoilers, and he charms radiance down the bright sunflowers caught in the color of her hair.
River Song has beautiful hair.
They don't talk of ceiling wax, cabbages, or kings, although he thinks those might be easier topics. They trip along topics that are safe, that are easy, banal: favorite foods; her fellow professors at university; his travels; heists and escapades that she's pulled off that, apparently, he won't be there for in his future . . .
It's amazing, how River is able to spin tales of the fantastic without really giving anything away at all. She shares a story about an adventure with her two best friends that had him gurgling with laughter, without actually handing him the who, when, or where of spoilers.
(Only later will he realize that the boy was dressed up like a raggedy doctor and the monster was the miniature pinscher next door. He'll think that maybe she told him that story because really, Doctor, I had a good childhood despite forgetfulness. Warm the cockles of his crooked old hearts.)
But all that's in hindsight. And right now, he has no hindsight to look back on.
Around them spring bursts into life underneath the lemon yellow sun. Looking around him, he thinks that this is a beautiful slice of lemon meringue pie sort of day.
He wishes Rose was here.
He's still glad that River is the one whom he's sharing it with.
(the strange paradoxical qualities of the human condition can only be believed when put into practice)
Humming a threadbare tune, River says, "Why don't you take off your shoes?"
One by one he flings them down the hill, his socks flying after, and buries his feet into the grass. He lies back on the blanket, feels that blank shift of dirt through the blanket, straightening out his doubled heartbeat and the curvature of his spine. Tracing the tangled web of the gold tree leaves, he breathes out a sigh. Who knew bread and cheese could be so filling? The china bones of their plates mingle with the strangled twists of napkin and his suit jacket is flung lazily to the side. A tree root bores a knot into his back.
He can't remember being this happy since seeing Rose down the broken cars runway of that street. Even if that meant the entire universe was going to hell, his hearts winged their way out of his chest as he began to run, flying towards the bright yellow light of her.
Impossibly he's that happy here, now, with River, and ignoring the stab of guilt (because how dare he be happy, destroyer of innocence, murderer or worlds), he listens to the threading little tune of her song.
"I helped him write it, you know," he says. "Stravinsky. I said to him, I said to him Igor—"
"You always help them write it," she mumbles, drowsy in the springtime heat, his coat crumpled horizontal across the small of her back.
"Shut up. I said to him, Igor, my lad, you can't be afraid to think big. And in his dreams he sees himself on a wolf's back, and—"
"—and there the Firebirds sing by night, and peck at golden fruit."
"Mm. I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything you don't know," he mumbles, half smiling, half serious. He sits up to look at her, passing his hand over his eyes to block out the dying light of the sun as it sets over the city.
"It's why my hair's so big—so I can keep all my secrets."
"Yes, of course," he says, and it's fire turning the day black with all of River Song's secrets. He realizes he hasn't seen her diary once today. That little blue book, waterlogged and torn, holding all the secrets in the world; bound out by his own rules, he's unable to travel the hidden countries of future events, forced to the slower path.
His frustration bubbles in him, acid liquid popping to the surface. How is it that he's come to hate his future self so much, when they haven't even met? It's not fair, that he's forced to die knocking; it's not fair, that he's not to be allowed the small comfort now of knowing who River is. He can't help but resent her for that (always the emotional one, hearts worn on both his sleeves to tatters), as irrational as that may be.
He picks at some grass, gathers a handful of it. He can't bring himself to look at her. The ashes of their future curl in his mouth. He wants to know everything; he wants to know nothing. Ask her this one thing, three syllables. Ever so easy.
(who are you?)
"River," he says instead. And when she curls around to look at him, he throws the handful of grass in her face.
The picnic basket is at her feet. Dove blue sundress, and her red heels caught dangling in her fingers, she says goodbye. He curls his feet back into his shoes, shoulders tucked back into his suit jacket. Like a skinny rat in a suit, you are! He swallows, closes his eyes for a brief moment; sorrow and regret tangle together, thorns catching at the runners in his hearts. River had known of her, in the past, but she'd never met her before. And the way she'd looked at Donna, as Donna had introduced herself, as comprehension had kicked in for Professor Song—he should have known then, he should have grabbed this future woman and demanded answers from her bones.
Too late now.
Swallowing his bitterness, he gives River a smile. "Doctor . . ." she says, hesitates, and he wonders for the first time if she's used to a different face entirely. She offers him her hand; he exchanges it for a hug.
"Thank you," he says, and he isn't sure what exactly he's thanking her for—that she hadn't pressured him, that she'd allowed him his sadness and this day of forgetfulness, that she was allowing him to leave without explaining himself in the slightest.
He has to stoop to hug her properly.
"You smell like beer," she informs him, and laughs at him.
He can't forget that she died, and somewhere inside he bleeds for her, this woman he hardly knows, who loves him. How dare he allow her to go through this, to not find some way to stop it, stop seeing her, save her the heartache, save him. Because only what? Two hundred years if he's lucky, if he finds some way to slow down her biological clock? And then death for her, how merrily she dies with a stranger.
How dare he.
As he pulls away from her he asks, "Do I see you again, River Song?"
She grins at him, all teeth and a raised eyebrow. "Spoilers."
Contradictory to a fault, he can't help but think that means yes, is glad of it.
They part with goodbyes; he watches her bright coin stamped hair all the way down the hill, until she's lost back into the city. Folding himself into the TARDIS, he slings his coat over one of the coral columns, jolts the TARDIS into the Vortex. She's a bit unhappy with him, he can tell; the time rotor groans at him, and the console sparks underneath his fingers. Yelping, he tucks his burnt fingers into his mouth. Probably because he didn't offer River a ride. Hadn't thought of it till now, though; you bet rude and not ginger.
Once he and his irate ship are on speaking terms again (a process that takes several hours, an entire pot of tea and him fixing her temporal isometry) he drifts through the stars, feet dangling out the TARDIS doors. Outside the nebula explodes into glittering gold trails of star dust. The Ood sing across his mind, loud insistency.
But it can all wait till tomorrow. He thinks he might finally visit Barcelona.