This is dedicated two ways: to AngelofDarkness1605, who suggested I write a fic in which Eleven tells River about Donna—I hope you like the result, love!—, and for honeynoir, who read it over when I was too chicken and unsure to do anything with it at all, and was more amazing and supportive than I can possibly express.
Set right after The God Complex, named after a line from the song "Losing Touch" by The Killers. I don't own anything. Enjoy, hopefully!
"I lost them. I lost everyone," he says. "Or I left them before I could really lose them, maybe. Before I destroyed everything. At least I got to say goodbye."
River hums low in her throat, neither in agreement nor denial; her eyes are intent on his face, reading each flicker of emotion that passes there, trying to figure out how to behave. As soon as she slipped from her prison cell into the awaiting TARDIS and met his eye, she's known he needs someone; her "When are we?" flew out more urgently than ever before. He's left the Ponds, and he knows who she is, but he needs someone and not quite her yet; she hovers a little, doesn't dare touch.
She writes events in her diary, of course, with unwavering accuracy—and some things about their relationship are to be found there indeed, but she cannot simply have a guide of what might and what might not be done ready for every single time. Touch his back, brush his face, stroke his hair—it's okay; now he's stepping back, keep at arm's length, control your voice, no emotion. It is tiring, so very exhausting, but he needs her (someone) and she cannot afford to go too far and drive him away. Time can be rewritten (what if she got it wrong once, just once, and one of those early selves never wanted to see her again?) and she will take no chances, not one, not ever. She sets her jaw, and settles for just eyes, finding his, willing her gaze to be calm, soothing depths. She hopes she's managing to keep the anxiety properly concealed—can never be quite sure, after all those years, a whole timeline of acting and the relentless rule one.
He looks at her, properly, for the first time. "I don't know why I came here," he says. "I wanted to keep away—stay on my own, not mess anyone up again. Not pull anybody else along, this time. I really, really did want to stop, so why did I come?"
A tiny smile tugs at her lips. "Because, my love, you don't pull me along. You come running when I call." Always those little words, that keep slipping past her control. Well, he must at least be quite used to "sweetie" by now, mustn't he.
Indeed, he doesn't even blink at the title. "I'm not at your beck and call," he mutters. "I told you, I'm nobody's taxi service." She laughs, though he actually hasn't told her that yet.
His eyes are dark again and his fingers brush the TARDIS controls absent-mindedly. "It's a good thing I left them," he says under his breath, picking up the thread of his somber thoughts. "It's good. Else it always ends badly."
"Life usually does, sweetie," she whispers, but he dismisses her words with a wave of his hand— teeth gritted, frown deep, eyes flashing fiery.
"You don't know what you're talking about. You—really—don't." His hiss still hovers in the air, but his gaze flickers to her face, lingers on her raised eyebrows, and he seems, for the first time, slightly uncertain. "Or maybe you do. Whatever—do you?"
Spoilers, she thinks she should say, watching him shake his head. But that would be too cruel and there's an ache in her chest that mirrors his pain, makes gentleness imperative. "I know everything you bring to people," she responds evenly, "and how much it hurts when you lose them. On all sides."
"I destroy lives, River. I put them all in danger."
"You never forced anyone into your TARDIS. Give them some credit—some respect. They'd all made their choice."
His mouth twists like she disgusts him, and she flinches, unvoluntarily. "How does that lessen my responsibility?" he demands, panting and relentless. "If only they just came to see the universe! But they start believing in me, too—and they believe that I'm always going to come and save them, that I can't ever fail. I even believe that, too, ancient fool that I am. And then, one day, I let them down."
"You can't—save them, save them always. What would that make you? A god?" she argues in increasing desperation.
He laughs, savagely. "Exactly. That's exactly it."
He whirls away from her, paces around the TARDIS like some caged animal, exuding waves of distress that very nearly choke her. "I saw my worst fear, you know," he speaks again after a while, his voice booming, ever so slightly shaky. "There was this room, that was meant for me, just for me. My fears were there, waiting inside for me to peek."
"Do you really want to tell me?" she asks.
"Of course not. That's private. I like some privacy, me. Who knows if I haven't told you already, besides." That laugh, too loud—it makes her shudder and want to shake him, stop him. "But my point is, because I always have a point… I know my worst fears. I'm facing them every day. And, even little by little, they come true."
"Doctor," she says. He completely ignores her. "Doctor."
"River." He pauses, stares blankly at her. "You, honey, are living proof of what my existence does to people."
"Don't you dare," she replies, determined to stay calm—that isn't exactly easy. "I am living proof that people have a choice about what their lives turn out to be."
He scoffs. "Oh, you flatter yourself." This doesn't just hurt a little.
"You'll see that in a little while, sweetie," she mutters, turning away. River breathes deeply, glances around at the TARDIS; hopelessness is mounting within her and it would be so easy to just walk out and wait for another him, one who would know that he's coming for her, and not need any other reason. She considers it fleetingly, though she knows that she won't abandon him, and most certainly not when he's trying to push her away. Emotional, irrational—vulnerable.
"Tell me about them," she asks. "Your companions."
He blinks at that, turns towards her; she faces him, resolutely. "Why?" he questions.
"You don't need a why."
"Why would you want to know?"
"When don't I?"
He frowns, staring down at his hands. "You know more than enough about me already."
"Perhaps not as much as the last me you've run into," she counters. "And it's not the easiest thing for me to deal with, either."
He swallows, nods vaguely, and leans against the TARDIS console. He clears his throat; River's fingers curl around her diary, instinctively, and hold tightly onto it as she waits.
"Amy Pond wasn't… my only ginger," he says. "There was another one before her, Donna. Donna Noble. Most important woman in the whole of creation." He pauses, exhales sharply. "And there was Martha before her, Martha Jones, and… Rose Tyler… and Ace and Mel and Peri and so many before them, so many years." He trails off and goes quiet, staring at his hands. "I must have told you before, surely."
"About some of them, bits and pieces. They were all exceptional, weren't they?" She has a short, low laugh. "Don't think I know everything, or that I even believe I do. There's too much to learn, all of those centuries of you."
He stares at her for a moment, then looks away again. "You met her," he tells her. "Donna Noble. Well—she met you, I mean."
River's eyes widen. "Spoilers," she answers automatically, a bit light-headed at the idea that she'll come that far back. Amelia Pond was the first face this face saw. Another him, then, a wholly different Doctor. Different face, different voice, a whole new range of little antics.
He hisses in annoyance. "My rules again?"
"Always." She smiles, and he scowls. "Did we get along?" she pushes, oddly and unreasonably curious.
He laughs at that. "Not particularly. Didn't get that much time. She did yell at you for talking rubbish, I think. Wanted to find out if you knew me, simple answer, yes or no. But you never give simple answers, do you now, Doctor Song."
It stings a little, because his tone hovers between bitter and teasing. She cannot be sure whether he's telling her off through Donna's words, or simply stating a fact, observing it in the new light of what he has now learned. There is a fine line, after all, between knowledge and acceptance. She's clinging to the look on his face at Demon's Run, saying hello as if to welcome her into his life, name and past and common future; but that instant, for all the merry light in his gaze, does not erase the weight of secrets, those timelines out of order. He doesn't know what she does, will do, has done for him, horrible or wonderful or perhaps a bit of both, and what he does know doesn't fully cover the reality of her. It is but a name she hasn't used in years, Melody Pond. Who she really is counts amongst those things that cannot be told, have to be lived. He still doesn't know her like he will, from the core of her to the most fleeting façades.
He will, in fact, know less and less as she goes on; and the thought makes it hard to pull the air in and out of her tight throat—to force a smile and resume the conversation like his words don't mean that much at all. She shakes herself anyway, snaps out of the selfish, selfish anxieties, fights to focus. This talk, this moment is not about her, should not be.
"Nothing like some good yelling to make one feel better. I wouldn't doubt you might have liked to do the same," she teases, tone light, voice too high in pitch, but he cannot notice yet.
"Oh, sometimes. Okay. Often." She snorts, and his gaze flickers to her. She thinks it might have softened, he might be calming down, or maybe it is wishful thinking on her part. "But that was Donna," he starts again, voice slower and controlled, with just a tiny shake to it. "She spoke her mind. She was open and bright and generous and brilliant, and with her everything was simple."
"She sounds like a beautiful person," River murmurs.
"She was more than that. She was so alive." He shuts his eyes.
River can see the lines of pain etched onto his face, centuries-deep and still aching afresh. Once more, her fingers tingle with the craving to reach out and brush his skin, rub his temples and kiss those pale eyelids, and she has to dig her nails into her palms, her heels into the floor. She realizes that she is trembling, just a little. She has to keep him talking; it helps. The pain is drained along with the words, very slow, and she isn't sure how much of it she can stand but absolutely doesn't care.
"Donna Noble," she whispers like she's tasting the name. His lips tighten; she thinks he might not like it, her trying to know, to understand those people who belonged to him, with him. It is quite hard to forget about her own concerns and history with him, when she is so used to weighing every word and attitude, constantly calculating where they stand—quite hard to step back and be a mere quiet presence for him to open up to, when her whole being yearns to reach out, embrace him, make it all better. She can't, she's helpless, and not getting used to it—not ever. And she bites her lip until she can taste blood, thinks of a woman who was honest, wide-hearted and shining with life, who could bring such light to her Doctor's eyes, as though it might help her become who she's not, even for a moment. Selfish, stop it, focus on him, she thinks. He needs someone and you're letting him down. Breathe. You can do this.
"Tell me more," she says.
He blinks. "About Donna?"
"Or anyone. But yes. About Donna," she decides. The corner of his lips twitches, neither up nor down.
"Donna…" He breathes deeply, hesitates. "Kept meeting her. First she appeared in the TARDIS. In a wedding dress. Yelling. Terrific. Then I ran into her again. Then she travelled with me—she was amazing, amazing—and then… then it ended."
For a moment it sounds like he cannot find air in his lungs, and she looks away carefully, allowing him this moment's privacy.
"I had… to leave her. There was an accident. A meta-crisis. She became half-Time Lord. Would have burned her brain, I had to stop it. Couldn't let it destroy her. Had to stop it. Save her. That's what I did."
River doesn't ask the next, obvious question. She scarcely dares to glance at him, either—the pain in his voice is so strong, they might both drown in it. It is a rare day when she cannot bring herself to look at the Doctor, but she can feel that he doesn't want her help, and that is killing her. She wishes Donna were still there for him, wishes she might have the chance to know her—and not at the very end of their journey, when her husband will look at her with cooler eyes and a foreign face, when every secret, every spoiler will become so much heavier. She imagines Donna Noble as such an inspiring presence—so warm, so genuine. River Song always has to play a part, lie a little, she tricks with a grin and a wink and a kiss, as easily as breathing. It would be so refreshing, to meet someone utterly different, someone simple.
"Nothing left to say, have you?"
The Doctor's voice is low and defeated, and she jumps at the unexpected sound. He isn't looking at her either, just staring down at the TARDIS.
"I can't think of anything," she says softly.
He makes a sound of agreement.
"This is it, then," he mutters. "Even River Song remains speechless."
She bites her lip, and he glances up. His gaze on her softens.
"I'm sorry," he says low. "It's not your fault. It probably wasn't very fair of me, coming to you and then treating you like that."
"It's all right. You can't always be…"
She looks for the right word, then shrugs it off with a quickly-tossed grin. He smiles tentatively back.
"Well, still." He pauses. "I did swear to stay by myself for a bit, for once. And yet what did I do? Come straight to you."
"I'll call myself flattered."
"Guess I wasn't too busy pushing you away for once."
The confession takes them both by surprise, it seems. She attempts to lighten up the mood. "You just can't resist, can you?"
He stares at her with dark eyes. "Apparently not. Wherever I turn, here you are. And now I know that I've been there all along, in your life, too… That my existence turned it all upside down. I know that… you're special…" He swallows. "Melody Pond, child of the TARDIS. River Song. It seems so pointless to run away from you."
"Don't think you don't have a choice in the matter," she says quickly, fiercely. "Don't you think that."
"I know I do," he whispers. "I'm just afraid to make it, that's all."
They exchange a look, long and deep and silent—breathless, aching, unsure. River's single heart is hammering—she wonders about the two of his. The Doctor glances away.
"Well… I guess I'll travel alone for a bit. Won't hurt." His hand hovers around the console. "Should I drop you back to Stormcage, Doctor Song?"
"If you want to. Isn't that the wrong button?" she manages to tease.
His scowl is more lively than any other face he's made tonight; she smiles angelically next. "I lied. You're all good, take me back to my little cell."
He laughs low, and quickly strides around the TARDIS, his hands all over the commands. She pretends she fails to notice when the movement brings them closer together—when he barely brushes her side, before he is away again.
Until we meet again, my love, she thinks, then has to amend—or until you meet me.