Wise men say only fools rush in
He snapped the blue door shut behind him and spun up the stairs, as jubilant as it was possible to be. Outside, he could practically feel Amy's newly maternal eyes boring into the walls of his ship, asking questions only one person held the answer to. He hesitated briefly, wondering if he should stay and watch the beautiful emotion bloom across his best friends' faces. No, he decided; it wasn't his place to intrude upon the First Glorious Pond Family Gathering. Instead, he flew up the stairs and, twirling around the glowing console, flipped switches jovially. He had to move, to get out, to think, to celebrate and shout and laugh. Besides, his Ponds would be perfectly safe there; they had River.
They had their daughter.
For the first time in a very, very long while, his hearts felt real and capable. All that darkness, all that sorrow and weight pressing down on every artery had somehow been alleviated through the simplest, most marvellous revelation he'd had in all his 909 years. It was as if the light inside him was beaming out of his chest; the unexpectedness of it made it all the more glorious. He grinned even wider. Around him, the TARDIS hummed her approval, relieved that her beloved Thief could finally understand her child.
He spirited around the console, twirling and laughing, euphoria and relief mixing through him in the rare mix of emotion that fought the darkness off with piercing blades of light.
Part of him wanted to believe it was impossible. Which was new, but honestly it seemed far too good to be true. The daughter of his very best friends in the entire universe was the very same woman who had been driving him up-the-wall-and-around-the-ceiling mental for years.
Melody Pond was River Song.
He kept turning the syllables over in his head, hearing them, amalgamating them, accepting them.
In his joy, his hands fluttered over the console even more erratically than usual and the blue box flew across the vortex without a course - although he certainly trusted his old girl enough to find somewhere - because right now he was perfectly content contemplating the mystery that was starting, slowly but surely, to unravel around him.
River Song was Melody Pond.
"Ha!" he yelled. Really, she was extraordinary. Completely and utterly extraordinary.
Quite a large part of him was put out he'd not solved the puzzle immediately. Honestly, how could River - gorgeous, vivacious and flirtatious to the point of foolish River - be anyone other than the daughter of Amelia and Rory Pond?
The TARDIS hummed around him, laughing in his mind, and he realised.
"You! You knew!" he shouted out to her, still thrilled despite his attempted stern expression. The room only glowed.
Well, River had covered her tracks very well. Cleverness and intelligence, he knew, were traits she possessed in great quantity. He wondered if he'd ever be aware of their full extent.
In his defence, she didn't look quite like a Pond. All those positively majestic curls - where could they possibly have sprung from? Was she - could she - had she regenerated? For a shining moment, total wonder overtook him, washed over him, and the bathe was so comforting and healing that it almost brought tears to his eyes.
He wasn't alone, not any more.
If she had regenerated, mind, he was rather put out she wasn't ginger. It seemed that if he was destined never to have fiery red locks, that at least his -
Ah. His what, exactly? He felt the familiar pit of anxiety bubble up in him at the thought of his future with River. He fiddled with a loose bolt on the console, and heard a distant crash in the left-left wing. Wincing, he hoped it wasn't the arcade room's second floor alcove. Again.
For now, he knew her first name. But he could also tell she was so much more than four syllables, so much more than two words could convey.
So while he knew who, he still didn't know how or what or even why.
However, while that burning desire to know and understand was brighter than ever, it was gilded by something else. Something new was growing within his hearts - either that, or he was finally allowing it to grow: an uncontrollable bubble of anticipation and excitement.
River had always excited him - not like that, he lied - but simultaneously he'd been a little terrified of her. Well, more than a little, but really, when a strange woman marches into one's existence uninvited, throwing around infernal catchphrases in a throaty voice and nobly sacrificing her life without apparent motive and professing to know secrets the likes of which hadn't been uttered for centuries it was no small wonder he'd sprinted away as fast as possible and then some.
She'd warned him, though. 'You're going to find out who I am very soon now. And I'm sorry, but that's when everything changes.'
And oh, how it had changed. He grinned even wider, sure his face was about to split from felicity. With a bump, the TARDIS landed goodness knew where, but he honestly didn't care. Practically dancing the jive, he bounded out of the doors with so much energy he misjudged the distance between his feet and the floor and ended up spread-eagled on the dusty ground. He heard a soft snort above him, followed by a melodious, mirthful and yet pleasantly surprised voice that fell down upon his ears like tinkling bells.
His stomach dropped through his body even as he scrambled quickly to his feet. Really, he'd not expected to see her again so soon. But of course he should've known his Old Girl better than that.
She was standing before him - Melody Pond! - clad in simple, slightly familiar jeans and a fitted button down shirt, eyes laughing.
"River," he said, dipping his head and winking (winking? Where had THAT come from?) at her. Upon closer inspection, he could see she was a little worse for the wear; her hair was even more awry than usual, a bandage was wound around her left hand and her jeans were ripped slightly. Tally marks slashed across her visible skin, contrasting starkly with the honey colour.
She raised a delicate eyebrow at him and he started, realising he was shamelessly staring.
"See something you like, Doctor dear?" she teased, all fluttering eyelashes and knowing grins and he really had been utterly blind before.
He opened and closed his mouth like a fish and she laughed, breezing up to kiss him on the cheek lightly.
Strangely, he didn't mind as much as he usually did.
"So, where are we?" she asked, and he could hear it - the ever-so-faint chime of hope in her words. A little bubble blew up inside him because he knew her now, and never again would he have to disappoint her with his previously immutable ignorance.
"Oh, you tell me, Melody Pond," he nonchalantly attempted, entirely unable to conceal his joy at letting the words roll of his tongue.
That was it, all was now determined; he was going to have to work every day to see that smile spring across her face so effortlessly. There was no going back, not now he'd seen her light up like that, with such happiness. And all it had taken was her name!
His cheek still tingled slightly from where she had kissed it.
"America. 1969. I'm running your errands, as you so delicately put it. But I daresay you've guessed that much," she said, eyes sparkling.
"Correct," he confirmed. She rolled her eyes at his smugness while behind her the sun began to sink lower in the sky.
"Alright, my turn to guess, then."
He laughed at that - so competitive, just like her mother - and motioned for her to continue, sure even she couldn't pinpoint his timeline with such accuracy.
"Go ahead, Doctor Song," he said, leaning smugly on the doorframe of the TARDIS. "Try your best, but I'll not give you any clu-"
"Just after Demon's Run."
He blinked, and this time it was her turn to look smug. "How could you tell?" he demanded, a growing determination to one day catch her by surprise welling up next to the bubble in his chest.
She merely smirked impudently. "I know these things, honey."
He shook his head incredulously, offering her his arm. She took it, folding her own gently over the scratchy tweed, mad hair tickling the side of his head. But instead of pulling her forwards for entirely investigative purposes, he was abruptly yanked into line behind her and marched back into the TARDIS.
"River?! What ar-"
"Sweetie, no protesting. I haven't had a shower in three and a half weeks," she said, striding across the console room.
"Yes, yes, understood. But investi-"
"Can wait. If you're a good boy, maybe you can shower with me," she winked, flipping her hair with a grin.
He spluttered as he watched those notorious curls spring back into place. She leapt gracefully up the large staircase, practically gliding up the glass steps. He wondered how so dishevelled a person could look so ... muchly without any effort. Obviously, it had nothing to do with her arse in those jeans. Certainly not. No way.
Okay, he could do with a distractingly distracting distraction this very instant.
"River? You still haven't said how you knew it was this me."
He was 87% positive he wouldn't get a straight answer - in fact, even one following any sort of logical progression was as improbable as finding a hat he didn't like - so he was pleasantly surprised when she spun around at the top of the stairs and smiled down at him fondly.
"You're wearing the same bowtie," she softly said and even from his 5.6 meters away he could see her galactic green eyes glittering. She shrugged nonchalantly before adding as an afterthought, "And I've not seen you look so spontaneously, uncontrollably happy for a long time," she reflected, a hand unconsciously resting on her hip as she looked down warmly at him.
If he were honest with himself - something he deftly avoided - he'd felt it coming for an age. This bubble inside him wasn't going away; it was taking over his hearts, nestling into them and building itself a home. Looking at her face, he realised it wasn't going to pop, not ever. He'd always known his future self would love her, had really known it from the moment she whispered in his ear. Thing was, his future had always seemed so distant and impossible, like another person or an unattainable accomplishment or actually enjoying the taste of baked beans.
Yet now, the future was the present. He had become the him he had dreaded and envied equally.
But - and surely this was impossible - he didn't have to be this him alone. Not anymore.
"Sweetie? Are you going to move this century, or are you waiting for a more nimble regeneration?"
The Doctor started, looking up at the woman waiting impatiently atop the stairs. He grinned and ran up to her, bouncing up the stairs in a clumsy impersonation of her grace. "Your wish is my command, Melody Pond," he practically shouted as he ran. He could hear the uncontrollable smile in his voice.
Reaching the top of the stairs, he caught a glimpse of her practised bewilderment before he seized her by the waist and spun her around once, twice, thrice. He smirked at the appropriate melody of her shrieking, breathless laughter.
"Doctor! Enough! Put me down!"
Her curls brushed past his ear as he lowered her to the ground, setting her on her feet with a grace that surprised both of them. He was still grinning like a child on Christmas morning.
"Doctor, darling, I know you adore me so, but what on earth was that for?" she teased, edges of her mouth curved upwards.
Impulsively, he leaned in and kissed her on the smiling corner of her mouth. Her practised hands immediately found a home on the back of his neck, one finger looping languorously through his hair as she turned her lips fully towards him. Instantly, her half-smile transferred across to his own mouth.
He wasn't quite sure how long had passed when they finally separated, but she was looking at him with bright and smiling eyes.
"My, my, aren't I a lucky girl? If this is anything to go by, I say we skip the shower," she suggested, hands running down his lapels gently.
He still spluttered a little - bother - but managed to grin back at her. "Patience is a virtue, Doctor Song."
"Hmm, and when would virtue and I fit in the same sentence?" she said, attempting to twist out of his embrace and flounce down the hall.
"Fair point," he nodded, before realising she was very successfully sidetracking him from what he wanted to say. Now, before it became obscured or he lost the shiny, new sincerity he knew she deserved to hear.
Ooft, had he just swallowed his tongue? What was that lump in the back of his throat - surely it wasn't nerves? If so, they'd come on awfully quickly and now she was staring at him, lips half pursed with amusement and heavy boot clipping lightly on the glass floor as she waited for a reply that would quite feasibly never emerge from his ridiculous mouth and why oh why was this particular him so incorrigibly awkward?
"I ... River ... I love you."
Her face transformed as she gasped and her eyes immediately glazed over. Had he said it wrong? "I mean, it's - it's more than that; it's bigger," he stuttered, trying to amend whatever he'd not included in an effort to understand these daft emotions. Honestly, over 900 years old and he still didn't comprehend these women. Maybe he would've been safer designing that new screwdriver. But, well, in for a penny, in for a pound.
"It's - It's having someone who is wonderfully confident and both understanding and ridiculous and - and very much amazing," he said, echoing her words from a mere moment ago for him. "A part Time Lord with magical hair and a disproportionately high tolerance level couldn't really be otherwise. Also, the high intelligence and an almost stupid degree of bravery are perks too. Even though there are guns and battles and frequently inappropriate flirting - which is suddenly a whole lot worse because there were Parent Ponds about, River! – you're devoted in a way that I'd thought impossible. But there's not really a word that fits all of that inside in any language I know so yes. Love," he finished, taking a deep breath. She still hadn't moved. "River?"
She seemed to unfreeze at that, blinking away the glaze in her eyes and unceremoniously pulling him down into a kiss. He hummed in surprise and deepened the kiss as relief flooded through him. His hands wound their way into her hair, twisting and coiling around her ringlets, which, to his complete excitement, were actually as soft as he'd thought.
Eventually, they broke apart and her face split into a positively iridescent grin. When she spoke, her voice was ever so slightly thicker. "I love you too, my daft sentimental idiot."
"River! For goodness sake, wear nothing at all if it saves time! Just hurry up!"
River Song laughed at her husband from the console room's clothing annex. "Look, if that's what you want, all you have to do is ask," she shot back suggestively as she touched up her lipstick.
His spluttering was practically tangible. Bless.
"No, River, I just want you to hurry up! We've landed and stars wait for no man."
She rolled her eyes, fixing her dress and sliding her feet into a pair of highly impractical shoes.
"Well, stars might just wait for a certain woman if I asked nicely," she said, stepping out of the annex delicately.
The Doctor looked up and she had the unconditioned pleasure of watching his furrowed and grumpy eyebrows shoot upwards as he took in her clothing choice.
"I don't even think you'd have to ask nicely," he said, voice humming with approval as his eyes swept over the long black and white dress that curved over her waist and floated down and around her ankles. His eyes widened and he grinned when he saw the red shoes she had chosen. In retaliation, River cocked a hip.
"Good. I'm not very apt at 'nice'," she grinned wickedly, privately glad he approved.
"Well, you look beautiful, River," said the Doctor, bounding down the stairs to join her, suavely offering his arm. She glowed at the praise, biting her red-painted lip to contain the unladylike grin she could feel building.
"Having said that, the most stars at any point in the universe would have a collective force large enough to continue without the approval of an extraordinary woman such as yourself - though I'm sure the margin would be very slim indeed," he said, setting her eyes rolling.
"Charmer," she labelled, laughing.
"Always and completely," he returned, wiggling his eyebrows as they stepped out of the door together. Despite his blasé grin, she felt her stomach twist at the words he delivered so effortlessly, guilt seeping slowly into her veins.
Forgiven. He'd forgiven her, she reminded herself.
But all thoughts of anything flew out of her head as she took in the sight before her, soaring across the horizon. An enormous tree rose up before them, towering thousands of feet high. The trunk was huge, the people milling around it dwarfed by the sheer size. River could see little bursts of light flashing through the foliage and was surprised to realise he'd actually been serious about a tree with elevators. But by far the most wondrous part of the whole image was the stars, the billions and billions of stars that dazzlingly lit up the background and whose beauty was entirely ineffable. River stared, open-mouthed. Next to her, she could feel the Doctor grin. "Come along, River Song. This isn't even the best part."
She allowed herself to be dragged along without complaint, her hand in his as they rushed to the base of the tree. Privately, she wondered again if it would always be like this. If every time he saw her, he would whisk her away to any and every part of the universe that juxtaposed the dreariness of her cell. The guilt came back then, bringing worry with it. As they stumbled along, she bit her lip again. It was quite possible he felt some sort of … obligation towards her. She didn't doubt his sincerity - or his abysmally excellent flirting - but she was almost sure there was something else tying him to her, a chain shackled to his mind, binding them inevitably.
She didn't like that, but almost snorted mirthlessly at the appropriateness of it. Neither of them was perfect, obviously. It had taken a great deal of effort on her part to see the Doctor for who he was; not that she'd thought he was wonderful - would've been difficult idolising a man she was trained to kill - but that he had equally flawed and whole sides. He was a good man who had been forced to make bad choices. And, like anything, those moments had wormed their way into his hearts.
River certainly knew exactly what that felt like.
She pushed the thoughts of obligation out of her head as they arrived at the tree's base; the Doctor flashed his psychic paper at what he called 'an official looking bloke - look at his hat, River' who absently waved them up. The Doctor directed her toward a private elevator, which would take them to the top most branch of the tree. He grinned excitedly at her as he punched the buttons and she smiled honestly in return. She knew that, when she wasn't looking, he was searching her face for some kind of reaction; honestly, she felt a little unsure of herself. Was it this her he was looking for, or a different version? Or was he looking for a particular trait he loved but didn't yet exist? Frustration welled up inside her, but it dimmed a little when the Doctor found her hand resting in the folds of her dress and curled his own fingers around it. She gently wove her fingers into his and her mind inevitably wavered towards the bowtie that had bound them together mere hours ago for River.
She realised, as they passed Level 34, she didn't know how old he was, or where he was in their strange, twisting timeline. "Doctor, when was the last time you saw me?"
His eyes snapped over to her from where he'd been examining a panel on the trunk/wall. Smiling softly, he satisfactorily said, "Just after Area 52, wife. I'd say we're practically linear." She noticed the way his voice smiled when he said 'wife,' like the endearment was the most precious of a long list.
So. He was old enough to know whom she was, to know what he was to her. But also old enough to notice any mistakes or irregularities in her River-ness of it all; to her irritation, she felt herself grow a little self-conscious.
His hand squeezed hers tighter as the elevator slowed to a stop. Then, just as the elevator doors began to open, the Doctor sprang behind her and clamped his hands over her eyes.
"What are you doing?" she shrieked, feeling the cold air dance across her nose.
"Sorry River, it's the only way." He was clearly trying his best to be serious - but failing abysmally, because she could hear the giggle forcing its way up his throat.
She tutted at him but said nothing more, trusting him to both guide her and not be an idiot. Slowly, he walked her over to a platform, attentively telling her where to step. She was forced to climb a small staircase and she purposely stopped on one step so he would run into her.
"River. Behave," he warned, and she hummed at his voice's lower tone.
"You don't want to know."
"Oh, but I do," she smirked, stepping onto what felt like the end of the staircase.
"No, you don't, because you're about to see something that eclipses it totally."
With that, he removed his hands from her eyes. The brightness blinded her for a moment, suddenly shining from every angle. They were standing on a little balcony-type structure that jutted out of one of the tree's highest branches. River shivered a little and the Doctor's arm snaked around her waist, comfortably holding her close to him. Above them was only one thing; no foliage, no starships, no clouds. Just stars. Millions and billions and trillions of stars twinkling and shinning and glowing above them. River felt her breath catch in her throat as she stared, captivated by the suspension the sight had swept her into.
Her voice was breathless when she finally found it. "Doctor, it's beautiful. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"You obviously don't own a mirror, then," came the chuckling voice of her husband from beside her.
Honestly, his ability to break a moment was rivalled by no other. "Oh, shut up, sweetie," she said, elbowing him in irritation but grinning in spite of herself.
Sweetie - she used the endearment again. He'd told her, when she'd tried to kill him, that 'sweetie' was Strictly Off-Limits to all bar The Great and Mysterious River Song. But then, in a flurry of regeneration energy, she had saved him and, in doing so, had become River Song. Here, staring at the most stars in any point in the universe, she recognised that she felt as though she was clattering around in his expectations and would never quite equate to the woman he had placed on a pedestal in his mind.
And that terrified her, because she knew he needed someone. The mantle of the most burdened man in the universe had fallen onto her and though she shouldered it without a second thought, she wondered and worried constantly. Wondered at the intensity with which she loved him and worried that it was somehow not the same on his behalf. She felt rage's flames lick at her ribcage when she realised a tear was threatening to fall out of her eye. She blinked and hoped the Doctor wouldn't notice; he shouldn't, not when they were both looking at the stars with such rapture. But she no sooner let that thought flit across her mind then felt a gentle finger wiping the tear off her cheek. She turned to the Doctor, who was looking at her with furrowed brows, eyes searching.
"Are you alright, River?" he asked, his voice soft.
"Yes." She took a deep breath. "It's just a lot to take in."
And just like that, she was folded into his arms and his hand was gently rubbing the back of her head, fingers coiling in her curls. His warmth was intoxicating and she breathed in even deeper, relieved because he had known immediately she wasn't speaking of the stars. "River Song, I'm so sorry." Instantly, she knew what he was about to apologise for, blaming himself in the process. Her sentence.
"Don't be daft," she chastised. "I did it for you, sweetie. I don't mind it, not if it protects you."
He pulled her back, holding both her shoulders as he stared into her face, looking for something. "Why, River?"
"Because I tried to kill you." He opened his mouth to reply and she held up a hand. "Don't interrupt, please. I tried to kill you and I would've succeeded. And that haunts me."
"But you didn't."
"But I didn't," she agreed, smiling wistfully. "So really, after that, I could do anything to save you."
The Doctor blinked a fraction of a second longer at that, as if he were trying to compose himself.
"You are amazing, River Song."
"No. Just in love," she whispered, almost to herself.
He leaned in then and kissed her gently on the cheek; somehow it meant more than any declaration. They were silent for a time, her attention turned back to the stars above her. She still felt the niggling thoughts in her mind - she doubted they would disappear for a very, very long time.
Eventually, the Doctor spoke. "River ... you know it counted and everything?"
"What did?" she asked, eyes deciphering a constellation.
He paused. "The wedding." She froze. "I mean - look you ought to know I'm pretty rubbish at this - I married you because I wanted to, not because I needed to or felt any oblig- mmuph!"
River had spun around and seized his face in her hands, kissing him with a passion that surprised even her. It took him a moment, but he pulled her into him, hands winding securely around her waist as he deepened the kiss. Gently, the tip of his tongue ran along her lips; she parted them instantly, letting him in without a care as she curled her fingers around his lapels. Inside, she felt as though she were mirroring the stars blazing above.
When breath became a priority they split apart; however, his hands remained placed gently on her waist, sealing her in. When she spoke, it was quiet and a little breathless. "Doctor?"
"I love you, daft man."
There was something viscerally wonderful about being able to let those incredibly normal three words roll of her tongue and sing into the ears of the loneliest man in the universe. She turned and looked him dead in the eye.
The corner of his mouth twitched and she hoped he could feel the importance behind her words - it was the first time she had uttered them. Then he spoke and she knew he had. "I love you too, River Song."
With that, she returned to watching the stars, resting her head lightly on his shoulder, angling her hair so it would accidentally-on-purpose tickle his head.
Pity. That's what she felt for the man laying helplessly on the steps. Pity.
That was wrong. She wasn't supposed to feel anything but anger and hatred. She'd been training for this her whole life, waiting for this exact moment. Now, she had accomplished it - she had killed the Doctor, the destroyer of Worlds, the Oncoming Storm. He had crumbled before her like a prancing marionette with its strings suddenly, brutally severed.
She'd done it. She'd killed him.
So why then, was there a tiny knot in her stomach? Was it because she was watching her parents hunched over in front of the man, one of her father's hands resting on the small of her mother's back as she leant forwards and spoke with shining eyes to her childhood hero?
She could almost hear Amy's teasing, her faith. It was tangible in the draughty air of the hall, hanging like a disease. Low susurrations of belief in the cripple lying helpless on the floor, only broken by the Doctor's rasping, scratchy voice as he told the, help was impossible and demanded one last thing.
"Ponds, listen to me. I need to talk to your daughter."
His words floated feebly on the air and Melody half-started in surprise. Her? Amy and Rory stumbled back from the dying man, arms wound around one another. Melody stepped forward obediently, suddenly feeling quite disoriented. She glanced over at her parents, who gave her a little encouraging nod through their confusion and grief. It was almost as though they knew something she didn't, but in turn didn't quite understand it. Which, of course, made no sense at all.
Melody knelt down next to the Doctor, one hand unconsciously curling around his shoulder, brushing the black fabric smoothly. She stared at him, at the man she had just brought down, and watched him stare back with eyes devoid of anger or pain or hate. He took a breath and she could feel the labour of his lungs as they inflated laboriously.
"Find her," he said with a voice like lead. Immediately, Melody knew whom she was searching for. "Find River Song, and tell her something from me."
Not once did it enter Melody's mind to deny the Doctor's last request. It imbedded its way into her hearts and settled, solidifying.
"Tell her what?" she breathed, breaking their eye contact to lean forward over his broken body. Her ear brushed against his lips. He was quiet - so, so quiet - that she had to strain to hear him speak.
"'I love you'," he whispered, weight of a thousand years behind his fluttering voice.
"Well, I'm sure she kno-" Her voice faltered and died as she pulled back and saw the man lying stone still before her. He looked more tired than she'd thought he was, the secret lines of his face illuminated by his now-vacant, closed-eyes expression.
His last words. A 900 year old Time Lord - the very last one in existence - who was perhaps more feared and admired than any other creature ever to exist in the universe, and his last words had been of love. Stranger still, they had been said to her; his killer, now charged with delivery.
Wonder mixed with pity inside her, forming a violent, untempered curiosity. Slowly, at odds with the raging flurry of emotions inside her, she stood up. She walked backwards to where her parents were standing, never taking her eyes off the man lying dead on the cold marble steps.
"Who's River Song?" she asked emptily, not even sure she was fully in control of her mind. Her eyes were still fixed on this impossible man she had felled so heartlessly. His words were spinning around and around, her mind dissecting them of its own accord. A part of her mind wondered at the strange pronoun use. Another part wondered at legitimacy for, how could a man so violent and destructive as he have spoken of love with his last breath?
Beside her, her parents' comforting warmth radiated; she glanced over to find her mother staring intently back at her. A tenderly reassuring half-smile twitched across Amy's face, illuminating her sad eyes. She turned away and walked over to her robotic duplicate with the empty expression.
"Are you still working because I'm still a relative?" she asked, her voice cracking quietly. "Access files on River Song."
And then, the duplicate's clear ringing voice, contrastingly bland and emotionless. "Records available."
"Show me her." Amy's voice was quiet, cracking even more as she spoke. Melody's eyes were fixed on the robot. "Show me River Song."
The little transformative squares began to shuffle, expanding and contracting and changing colour and size. Amy's duplicate disappeared, fading into a million pixels as new one took its place. In mere seconds, a complete and whole River Song stood in front of them.
Unmistakable. She felt her hearts vanish; not drop out of their place or swell or beat faster. Vanish.
In front of her stood herself. The woman the Doctor would come to love was the very same she was now. Time crashed over her head as she realised the full extent of his final words. It hadn't been strange pronoun usage; he'd been saying it as directly and honestly as he could.
Something shifted inside her, shattering like a million shards of mirror. Without warning, her eyes filled uncontrollably with emotion. The little knot of pity she'd felt but moments ago ignited. Suddenly, she was filled with a flaming desire to see him alive again, to hear those words directed at her, at the woman she was, at the River she could be. The flames began to devour her empty chest, illuminating the cavities where her hearts lay irresponsive. Turning her head back to the irresponsive Doctor, she knew what they were, understood exactly what was happening.
Far away, her mother's voice was talking, asking what the message was, but the words were flowing straight through her mind. Her whole focus was narrowed to the ridiculous and skinny man on the stairs. Singing began to fill the air as the flames flew down her arms and began to glow, illuminating her skin from the inside. Beside her, Amy's voice demanded understanding, but how was she meant to explain this when she didn't fully understand it herself?
Quietly, she spoke. "Just tell me. The Doctor. Is he worth it?" Her resolve was already iron.
When she spoke again, Amy sounded bewildered and beyond hope. "Yes. Yes he is!"
She could picture both her parents behind her easily; sensible Rory holding onto an Amy with the sudden light of hope in her eyes. She knew they would understand,
Her hands were blazing with life now and she knelt in front of him, the same place as before. She was slowly bringing her hands forward, letting the golden glow wash over his face and watch it strip away years of age.
When her hands touched his jaw with a tenderness she didn't expect, he started awake, breath jolting gloriously into his lungs. With the movement of his chest, she felt her hearts beat impossibly loudly back into existence, obliterating the cavity they had left.
"River. No," he breathed, eyes opening and his voice was the balm to a wound she didn't know existed. Her own breath caught at the name - her name - and she smiled tenderly at him. She would match him, new name for new name.
"Hello, sweetie," she whispered, feeling the endearment roll of her hearts and tongue.
When her lips met his, energy exploded outwards. She could feel the fire burning a path through them both, fusing them together through her hands caressing his face and her mouth as it moved softly over his. Above them, she knew, was a constellation of golden light, inextricably twined together as it transferred beautifully between them. Pouring her life into the man she had spent a lifetime trying to kill was fundamentally wrong, but for the first time in her existence she felt as though she had discovered home.
The last thing she saw was his face blazing back into vivacity. Then, everything faded away except the sense of rightness settling deep in her hearts.
Amy's Choice had turned out to be a late 18th century ball in Florence. They were across the grand hall, Rory twirling his fiancée around reverently - if a little clumsily - and looking at her with entirely contented eyes. Amy laughed every time he stepped on his own foot and glared every time he stepped on hers.
Across the room, the Doctor chuckled at them. Glorious Ponds. Still, after the day they'd had, it was hardly surprising. He shuddered a little at the memory of the Dream Lord, dogging him from the back of his mind.
Across the room, he heard Amy shriek with laughter when Rory dipped her down lower than was proper. They were so young, so full of life. He knew he'd made a good decision with Amy, but to his surprise and delight, Rory had turned out pretty good too. He tolerated the fish custard - which was probably unsurprising, given he'd grown up with it practically being force-fed to him by a persistent Amelia.
Looking at them now, laughing and enjoying themselves after facing death and destruction, the Doctor grinned. Ponds were the best of humans. He must remember to give Rory a key at one point, even if only because he was far more sensible than Amy, who had already put hers 'somewhere mysterious, Raggedy Man. Don't worry.' He pretended not to see the panicked glance she gave to Rory, instead clapping the other man on the shoulder as a good luck warning.
Seizing a glass of punch from a passing waiter - eurgh, never mind, it was wine - he debated about whether to join them. He decided not to when he saw Amy lean in and whisper something in Rory's ear, causing her fiancée to go red as an Alaska XII tomato and a few spectators to gasp at the obvious propriety breach. Instead, he folded his arms and leant against an ornate pillar, letting his mind wander absently towards the future. He grinned at the thought of Amy and Rory living in the TARDIS, leaving crumbs on the console and cluttering up the downstairs TV room.
"Hello, sweetie," came an instantly identifiable voice from behind him. Oh no. He gulped and turned around, immediately apprehensive. River Song stood in front of him, dressed head to toe in a stunning, deep blue ball gown, fan fluttering in her hand, hair somehow pinned off her face but still flying everywhere and eyes sweeping over him approvingly.
"Hello, River," he answered, immediately worried for both the Ponds' safety and his own sanity; this woman was the very origin of trouble. He felt the clock clunk and begin counting down the moments they had left inside.
She grinned at him, guessing exactly what he was thinking - and he hated how she could just tell like that.
"Care for a dance?" she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at him and smirking like she knew something he didn't. Again.
He hesitated - honestly he'd been rather enjoying this party - before giving in and resigning himself to five minutes before he'd have to run. "Don't mind if I do."
They swept out on to the dance floor, her hand on his shoulder and his on her waist, as the little orchestra stuck up a lively waltz. Unsurprisingly, because there was hardly anything in this universe River Song couldn't do, she was an extraordinarily competent dancer. He was glad he'd learned this one a couple of centuries ago; it was a classic and he shuddered at the thought of embarrassing himself in front of this particular woman.
"What are you doing here?" he asked as they swept past an elderly couple.
She grinned at him, wiggling her eyebrows - but something was off in her eyes. He told himself he could only tell because he was so close to her. "Running away," she said, a combination of wistful and secretive.
Now his eyebrows rose as he turned inevitably to wonder what on earth this walking hazard could possibly be afraid of. She was no longer looking at him; her green eyes had rested on his ridiculous companions. They were waltzing romantically but badly - he was going to have to take them to meet Fred and Ginger - across the hall, enjoying every moment of it. River's eyes were following their every move and there was a tenderness in her eyes he thought a little odd.
"How are Amy and Rory?" she asked as the aforementioned pair spun away again. Her voice was surprisingly steady; he blinked and the sentimentally was gone from her face. Perhaps he'd imagined it.
"Good. Rory just got killed by a senior citizen with anger management issues and an astonishing ability to scale the walls of a house, but he was brought back to life," – her mouth twitched inexplicably – "by Amy. We were stuck in a dream, you see, and she fixed it to see Rory again, which I suppose is all terribly romantic but really I just wanted to get out of that atrociously dull village."
River muttered something quietly, a smile on her face. He ignored it, adding another mark to his List of Infuriating Things River Song Does. To his vexation, it was getting far too long to be manageable.
"My turn. What have you been up to, Doctor Song?" he asked, mentally crossing his fingers in the hope he'd get to add something to the List of Ingenious Things The Doctor Does To Extract Information.
She pursed her lips teasingly at him. "Excuse you, it's Professor Song now. I worked hard for my degrees."
He felt a dip somewhere in his stomach that had nothing to do with the complicated move he'd just executed and everything to do with Libraries and spacesuits and data ghosts. "Sorry, Professor," he said, twirling her around and not sure what he was really apologising for. "Still doesn't answer my question, though."
She smirked at him and he waited for the infernal word he could feel building in the air around them. "Oh, you know; this and that. Solved some mysteries, kissed some aliens, wrote a book about it."
"Yes. A novel." Of course, another thing she could do. "But you can't have one." It was moments away. "Spoilers. Sorry, honey."
He grudgingly added another five points to her List as they twirled again to the rising music. He looked up and away from her. Through the cluster of bodies he could see Amy and Rory again, now dancing at a tempo that was far too slow for their surroundings.
"They really do love one another, don't they?" he said, more to himself than anyone else, but of course, he'd forgotten who his arm was around.
"Yes, sweetie, they do," she answered, looking fondly at the red hair flickering occasionally into sight between the prancing men and women. He realised she was telling him something from the future. He smugly added a point to his tally, even though he knew she was telling him what would, without doubt, become a universal truth.
The music rose yet again, building to its conclusion and he spun her around again. Somehow, they had wound up in the middle of the dance floor and the intoxicating smells of cigars, fruit punch and River's perfume were invading his senses. He lifted her above his head, hands on her waist and hers on his shoulders. She laughed at him and he realised that was the first time she had properly smiled all evening - irritating little smirks didn't count, because he strongly suspected they were orchestrated specifically to make him frustrated.
They suddenly spun past Amy and Rory; Amy winked at River and stuck her tongue out at the Doctor in one seamless movement. Rory didn't even look away from his fiancée, concentrating too hard on stepping properly to do much else, and they vanished into the crowd of bodies before either River or the Doctor could say anything.
The Doctor turned back to his dance partner to see a tear glittering at the corner of her eye. No, just a trick of the light, because River winked at him a half-second later and all he saw again was Madam Infuriating.
He decided to take a leap of faith and ask her something that had been bothering him since Rory had disintegrated in that yellow and blue baby's room. "River, are they – do they – they're alright in the end, aren't they?"
She said nothing, even though he knew she'd heard him. Nonetheless, he felt her hand tighten on his shoulder.
"River?" he asked again, knowing he should not be asking this but unable to put it out of his mind now. It was as if the question she'd just refused to answer had been burnt mercilessly across his mind, singeing into his brain.
Then, she spoke, and her voice was drawn and tired. "I can't tell you anything. You know that."
He felt anger well up inside him, partly at himself because he should not have asked such stupid question, but mostly at her because the List had just exploded with another million points and all he wanted in the entire universe was to know something.
"Why must you be like this?" he spat at her and they danced faster and faster. He was suddenly filled with white-hot fury. This wasn't spoilers he was asking for, surely. This was the safety of the two people he suddenly cared about more than anyone else in the universe. And - of course - she still wouldn't tell him anything. "Why must you constantly lie and trick and deny me knowledge?" He viciously hoped every word would pierce her like a dart thrown at a butterfly.
"You know I can't tell you that either," she said, face glazed over and unfazed. He hated that she could withstand what he was hurling at her.
"Yes, River, you can. You can, but you won't. There's a difference." He lifted her again as the music built into its final few chords, but all the life was gone from her face.
Her reply was ice. "It's slimmer than you might think."
He hated that too. She was able to lie and twist her way out of anything; his jaw clenched as the violins rose to an almost belligerent pitch. "Oh, so this is an insurance plan?"
He watched her mouth twitch and felt a sadistic pleasure rise within him as he added another mark to his List. To her credit though, she said nothing. The dance finished in a flourish of deep blue fabric and glaring eyes.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to return to looking after someone," she said, turning away and walking towards the huge double doors.
"Why do you do it?" he called out impulsively after her, feeling a both little bit pleased and a little bit hurt for trying to understand.
River turned around, three steps above him. "Why do you think?" He didn't think he'd ever heard such a mix of emotions in a voice; they're so muddled he can't even identify one. She turned away from him, stepping forward once more, skirts swishing over the marble. He half-wanted to follow her and he took a silent step forward, not sure if he wanted to apologise or force more information out of her. Suddenly, he heard her voice on the little breeze blowing in from the door, carrying a tiny half-sentence into his ears. "Because I love you."
He froze as the little words thudded into his mind like poison darts of their own. Silently, he stepped back, not quite knowing what to think. He'd known that was true, of course - he wasn't that stupid. But to have heard it, spoken that quietly but with that much devotion, sent him into almost fully-fledged panic. That sentence was scarier than an armada of his greatest enemies and he knew the instant he poured all of his energy into forgetting he'd heard it that it was going to haunt him.
Framed by the door, River Song turned around. Her face was blank and he realised she hadn't actually meant for him to hear that last sentence. He felt a combination of guilt and worry settle next to the almost-panic as he understood that was a sentence intended to reassure her and her alone.
"Give my love to Amy and Rory, please," she asked politely, ringlets at the base of her neck blowing in that infernal little breeze.
"Of course," he promised.
"Goodbye, sweetie," she farewelled - she was smirking again, this was not good - and disappeared with the crackle of a vortex manipulator.
The Doctor stared at the empty place where she had just been. "See you soon, River," he said, speaking to no one in particular and especially not himself. He'd see her again, he knew it. It didn't help that he was more than a little terrified.
Suddenly, Amy and Rory appeared at his side. "Doctor, we, um, have to go. Now!" Amy shouted, already halfway out the door, a red-faced Rory dragged at her side.
"No reason. Just a teeny breach of propriety. Apparently, public displays of affection are frowned upon or something."
Rory groaned with embarrassment. The Doctor floundered for an instant before two burly guards at the end of the hall caught his eye. They were carrying heavy swords and running straight towards them, followed closely by a screeching, purple-faced man. A little bit behind him, a cluster of people ware gathering around a woman who had obviously fainted in shock.
"What did you do?" yelled the Doctor, immediately running after Amy and Rory.
"You don't want to know," Amy shot back, silhouette illuminated by the moon as she sprinted towards the TARDIS.
They ran across the garden, over the smooth green grass, dodging the occasional shrubbery, Rory yelling when he nearly stepped on an out-of-place garden gnome. Despite the etiquette lessons he was tacking onto the ever-growing list of Pond-to dos, the Doctor was honestly quite relieved to leave the ball, to rum from what had happened and what he had found out and that curly-haired vixen. There was no departure he liked more than a good sprint to keep up the cardio and sense of mystery.
So he ran. He ran faster than he ever had in his life, away from Florence and away from the future.
And somehow, despite his efforts to the contrary, he ran straight to her.
And somehow, despite his efforts to the contrary, he enjoyed every moment of it.