Disclaimer: Characters are very much not mine.
Title from: Landscape by Florence and the Machine.
Summary: "They lay next to each other in the dark, not quite touching. Casting worried glances at each other when they think the other is not looking and biting back all the words that billow unsaid between them."
Betas: Megs, Becs, Charina.
Now all of the landscape, it's just an empty place. Acres of longing, mountains of tenderness.
Wherever and whenever turns out to be two weeks in the TARDIS. River holes up in the library, the one room the Doctor almost never visits, and busies herself writing the Melody Malone novel. It helps to think of Melody as a separate person - yet another separate version of herself; writing it all down makes her feel more detached as she focuses on syntax and sentence structure rather than the raw agony of watching her parents blink out of her life.
It gives her time to collect herself. To hide the damage.
The Doctor spends his time under the console, meticulously going through every last little blip and kink and issue that he has ignored for centuries. He is stuck in his own head, and he hardly seems to notice whether she's there or not, so River leaves him to it. The TARDIS will stop him from destroying anything important, and if he'd really rather hide behind the wiring, muttering to himself darkly as he tries to adjust the temperature in the gumdrop tree room to optimum, she can hardly blame him.
Neither of them eats nor sleeps enough. But then, that's hardly new. It's easy to lose days on the TARDIS, wandering the halls or hidden in the library.
Eventually, sleep tugs at River until she tugs at the Doctor and drags them to their bedroom. It's better to sleep in a pair - the nightmares - well, he'll never sleep without her anyway.
They lay next to each other in the dark, not quite touching. Casting worried glances at each other when they think the other is not looking and biting back all the words that billow unsaid between them.
They are caught twisting in the vortex, the engines silent - their absence blaring in River's ears.
"River-" His voice is small and broken in the dark.
River turns and takes him into her arms, "Shh, my love." It is as much to comfort him as to quiet him - she's not sure she can keep herself together in the face of whatever words might tumble, jagged and wounding, out of his mouth.
Finally, exhaustion overcomes even Time Lord intractability, and River and the Doctor find their eyes drifting shut. River's last thought is feeling the Doctor tense against her - sleep is far from peaceful for either of them at the best of times, and they've been avoiding it more of late for innumerable reasons.
Which is why she starts to find herself in a solarium, an elaborate tea trolley in front of her and the Doctor blinking at her side, spinning in half circles as he takes in the brightly lit room. As far as nightmares go, it's off to a fairly benign start.
"Ah, Professor, Doctor. Good of you both to join us on such short notice."
River spins at the voice and lets herself tentatively relax. "Madame Vastra, Jenny. What a pleasant surprise."
The Doctor's hand finds hers as he tugs her forward toward the tea trolley, cutting across any explanations Vastra would offer. "Trans-dimensional conference call! Psychic link using a dreamscape. Brilliant!"
River takes in her surroundings more carefully, noting the elaborate murals and architecture. "Is this the Taj Mahal?"
Vastra looks pleased, sipping at her tea and gesturing for them to sit. "Well, a desktop facsimile of it, yes. I find the tea lacks a certain flavor without context."
River drags the Doctor, who is eyeing the walls with a level of interest that suggests he is considering licking them, to sit next to her on the ornate marble bench. Jenny fixes them tea.
Despite the pleasantries, Vastra and Jenny keep exchanging furtive, tense glances. River sips at her tea respectfully and decides it's best to get it over with - it's hard to say how long the connection will hold. "As lovely as it is to see you both, I get the feeling you didn't bring us here for tea and a chat?"
The Doctor's hand grips hers tighter, just briefly. River glances at him out of the corner of her eye, but his gaze is full of false joviality as he twirls his teacup in his saucer.
Vastra and Jenny look at one another again, and it's Jenny who begins. "There's been a bit of bother, and we were hoping for help to sort it all out again." She looks between them and back at Madame Vastra, suddenly sheepish. "That is, if it's not too much trouble."
The Doctor is still uncharacteristically silent, staring at the contents of his cup as though he is trying to prove he can read tea leaves again. River just nods briefly at Vastra and Jenny, "I'll bring my gun then. Coordinates?"
Vastra merely replies succinctly, "London. 1 July, 1890. 13 Paternoster Row."
River sets down her teacup, rescuing the Doctor's before he can break it. She'd rather not test Vastra's patience on an astral plane. The Doctor huffs slightly and opens his mouth, but it's too late.
The desktop fades out as the call ends, and River and the Doctor find themselves back in bed, blinking up at the stars that make up their ceiling. "Sweetie?"
"Right. London. 1890. A particularly hot July, if I recall correctly. There's a show we really should take in at the Adelphi."
He's already out of the bed, dressing with his back to her as he flails and rambles and generally avoids the question she was asking.
River sighs, moving around him to the wardrobe, thanking the TARDIS with a soft pat when she turns the lights back up. River carefully selects a lovely period gown, black taffeta (the TARDIS has thoughtfully shifted her entire wardrobe to black as of late) with a neckline that isn't modest in any sense of the word. She pulls her guns from the nightstand and secures them carefully across her person before quickly pinning her hair up and going to join the Doctor in the console room. The TARDIS hasn't left the vortex yet, and she doesn't want to keep Vastra waiting.
The Doctor is fidgeting when she arrives, and he doesn't look up. The coordinates are entered on the monitor, but the parking brake is firmly set, and the Doctor is playing with the climate controls for the coral reef instead.
River crosses her arms and regards him for a long moment. "You don't want to go, do you?"
The Doctor glances at her, his eyes trailing across her form before he blushes and looks away again, his eyes still pained. He hurries to defend himself, but River can already tell his hearts are simply too heavy for the effort. "We don't know what's involved, really. It could be nothing. I'm sure Vastra and Jenny and Strax can manage quite competently."
River marches up the stairs and switches off the parking brake, tone sharp. "Do you really think that Vastra would ask us if it wasn't important?"
He still won't meet her eyes, though his shoulders slump and River knows he's appropriately chastened. She softens at his pain - she can never stand to see him in pain. Hides away half her life to avoid seeing that exact look crush his features. "We can't just hide away in the TARDIS forever, Doctor."
"And why not?" His tone is harsh, the omnipresent anger bubbling up quickly.
Despite her best efforts, River finds herself losing her patience. Her emotions have been all over the place lately, leaking out at the edges of her control. This is precisely why she's been avoiding him. "They're our friends, Doctor. And they came when you called them. Or have you forgotten Demon's Run so quickly?"
The Doctor flinches as though she's slapped him, and River feels a low ache bloom in her gut even as she fights to relax her hands from fists and catch her breath.
The Doctor brushes angrily past her, reaching around her to adjust the zigzag plotter with a coldness that is palpable. "How could I forget?" And she can hear the failure echoing in his quiet voice. He's remembering how he failed to save her parents there as well.
The TARDIS lands with a barely perceptible jolt, the brakes still off, and the Doctor is marching toward the doors and out of them without another word.
The second the door closes behind him, she feels suddenly antsy, skin crawling. He's out of her sight in the blink of an eye and she knows better than most what can change in the blink of an eye.
River sets the parking brake, gritting her teeth and trying to check that all those stray emotions are firmly in hand before she starts after him. She parked in the foyer. There shouldn't be any danger. But with him - she can't lose him, again.
River ducks out the door, her hand already resting on her gun in her purse. To find the Doctor already laughing and bouncing across the room with an easy smile, mask firmly in place.
River smiles shortly and tries to calm her breathing, ignoring the entirely uncharacteristic and ridiculous flash of panic that had gripped her. The Doctor catches her eye over Jenny's head, wary and confused. Are you okay?
River nods quickly, smoothing down her dress and moving to join them. It's nothing.
She can tell he doesn't believe her by the concern crinkling around his ancient eyes as he edges toward her. Somehow, she feels better, even though nothing has changed. He's not so angry with her that he's not still checking on her, at least.
River stifles a sigh and moves closer, joining the conversation just in time to feel her blood go cold.
"There've been a whole rash of disappearances of late. All from the same place. People vanishing into thin air." Jenny is talking in her typical fast and animated tone, though it is somber to reflect the mood.
Vastra picks up the story, "Scotland Yard requested my assistance. I must confess, I was initially baffled. No witnesses, no traces, no discernible evidence on which to build a credible hypothesis."
Vastra pauses to exchange a careful look with Jenny, while River suddenly feels exposed, the rising panicky feeling fluttering in her chest. She doesn't dare look at the Doctor - afraid of the confirmation she will find in his gaze.
Having come to a decision, Vastra continues, "And then I noticed something peculiar. A new statue near to where the disappearances have recently occurred. Only no one that we interviewed can say how it was placed there or to what end."
River sucks in a breath, feeling the world drop out around her as though she has been thrown into the vortex against her will. Vastra pauses again, glancing between River and the Doctor, and the dread must be palpable - rolling off them in waves.
Finally, Jenny offers, "See, the thing of it is, the statue - it keeps changing. Like it can move."
River tries to let out the breath she was holding discretely, but her hearts pound. She startles at the Doctor's hand, pressing gently against the small of her back. She hadn't seen him move, and River curses her own emotions and inattention even as she closes her eyes for the briefest of seconds, letting him ground her.
"Show us." The Doctor's voice is a dangerous shard of ice, his fingers digging in the fabric of her bodice.
They rendezvous with Strax about a block from the area in question. He regales them with field reports and River catalogues his notes and files them away as potentially useful information. It's a handy trick that helps her turn off her emotions and focus on assessing the strategic points of their current situation. She is so grateful that she could almost kiss Strax, if she didn't know for a fact that it would only offend his Sontaran sensibilities.
The Doctor is agitated. His strides are brisk and long, and his grip on her hand is bordering on painful as she hurries to keep up despite her overabundance of skirts. Strax bobs along beside them, while Jenny and Vastra follow at a statelier pace.
When they finally round the corner and see it, River's grip on the Doctor's hand tightens so much that he yelps. They skid to an abrupt halt, frozen, while Strax blithely continues presenting his observations and walking toward the creature in question, until he realizes they're not following. It doesn't matter. River has no idea what Strax is saying anymore.
In front of her stands another Weeping Angel.
The hand that is not crushing the Doctor's goes immediately for her gun, clicking the safety off and drawing it.
Jenny and Vastra have not caught up to them yet, but there are people milling around. There's no immediate danger. The adrenaline is racing through River, hot and pounding.
The Doctor steps in front of her, his other hand coming up to hover over her wrist, as though he wants to take the gun but is afraid to touch her. She can't see the Angel, and his back is to it. River wants to yell at him and kill him and protect him all at once. She's afraid what will happen if she opens her mouth.
The Doctor fixes her under a probing stare. His mouth is set in a grim line, his shoulders are tense, and his grip on her hand is too much, but his eyes are pleading with her. "River. Are you all right?"
His tone is harsh and it drags her back to the present. She wants to hide from him, but she can't when he is looking at her like that and now is not the time. River shoves past him, biting out, "I'm fine, Doctor," as she levels her gun and keeps him behind her body.
The Doctor suddenly explodes, all white-hot anger, "Hiding the damage again, Professor?"
"Now? You want to do this now?"
"What else have you been hiding," he demands, spinning her around, heedless of the attention he's drawing to them - of their friends falling silent off to the side.
"I learned from the best, sweetie." And it tastes like acid in her mouth.
The Doctor deflates. "Is that what I - River - I never meant -" His grip on her finally loosens, and he runs his hands through his hair instead. They're shaking slightly, she notes. He's too fragile for this right now. He's too caught up in his head and his failures and his demons. And now one of those demons is physically in front of them, and she can't be the one to break him down when she's not sure she has the strength to pick him back up again. It almost killed her the first time.
She sighs, forcing her temper back behind closed doors. "It's okay, sweetie. One of us has to be the strong one, and it's my turn. I've been dealing with younger versions of you for some time, now. I'm used to it."
She means it to be comforting, but the Doctor's face crumples, just the perfect etching of pain, and River wants to swallow the words back up. But he wanted her to be honest - he poked her and prodded her, and they both know that it's true. There's no taking it back.
River finds her free hand tugging at her own hair, already escaping its styling, a mannerism that she has picked up from the Doctor and doesn't have the hearts to fight. Vastra wisely chooses this moment to interrupt, albeit delicately. She eyes River's gun. "I take it you have encountered this creature before?"
The Doctor won't look at her again. River turns her eyes to the Angel, calculating. It's not the same one. All Angels look much alike, but she stared into an Angel's face as it tore her family apart, and she will never forget. No, this is another survivor, which makes it more dangerous. The question is - how did it get here? A half a world and more than a hundred years away from where they left its compatriot in a desolate graveyard next to a plain gravestone bearing her parents' names.
The Doctor finally forces himself to answer the question, half turning to Jenny and Vastra and keeping one eye on the Angel. "It's a Weeping Angel. Kindest assassin in the universe." He scoffs, bitter. "Sends you back in time, feeding off of your lost days." He trails off, and she doesn't have to see him to know how much he's hurting.
"What is it doing here?" River hisses through clenched teeth.
The Doctor whips out his sonic and aims it alongside her gun. His is for show - hers isn't. She already knows what he's going to say. "Judging by the residual energy signature... It's another survivor from Winter Quay. They've probably been scattered across similar paradox fault-lines." He swallows, and River rests her finger over the trigger. "Span of maybe a century in either direction. Some make it to London..."
"And some to America." River's jaw is tight, the words forced through clenched teeth.
This Angel is not leaving London, of that River is deadly certain. It doesn't change the fact that neither her nor the Doctor have ever actually defeated an Angel, one on one. Oh they've tricked them and played them against one another and let cracks and paradoxes swallow them up. But there's only one right now, and someone has to keep staring at it. River has half a mind to hear it scream.
River keeps her eyes locked on the Angel, but her words are clearly toward the Doctor. She doesn't mind if the Angel hears. "Go to the TARDIS garage and get something with a forklift. I'm sure the TARDIS will make one if it's not readily available, though I think I saw one back by the airplane. The wooden one, not the jumbo-jet."
She can feel the Doctor regarding her out of the corner of his eyes, though neither of them so much as chances a glance from the Angel. They're having a conversation without having to look at one another. It's perhaps the only way they can anymore. His voice is both hard with determination and soft with consideration - yet another paradox only he can ever manage. "And then what?"
"Then we'll toss it in the nearest sun or void or black hole. I don't care. It's not staying here."
She's glad she's not looking at him when his tone softens further, regretful. "We can't let it near the TARDIS, River. You know that."
"Then get me a sledgehammer!" River's voice whips out too angrily, cracking on the last syllable.
It's too much. She can feel the Doctor struggling to come to a decision beside her. River presses her lips firmly closed and tries to get her breathing under control. She absolutely will not break down now, here, of all times and places. Not in front of strangers and friends and her husband and the bloody Angel.
"If I may interrupt," comes the always measured voice of Vastra, "it seems like perhaps this is a discussion you would both prefer to have in private."
River has to forcibly stop herself from turning to the Doctor in surprise at his agreement. River addresses everyone - the Doctor and Vastra and the Angel. "I'm not letting it out of my sight."
Vastra does not sound perturbed by the vehemence in River's voice. "Ah, but perhaps you will entrust it to mine, just briefly?"
It's the Doctor who protests this time. "You can't let it out of your sight - even for a second. It moves when you blink."
"Then perhaps this is an advantageous time to remind you that, as a member of homo reptilia, I do not need to blink." After a moment of silence, Vastra adds, "And as I am already staring at the creature in question, you may direct your grateful stares toward me at your earliest convenience."
The Doctor leaps back from the statue, spinning on his heel and grabbing River's arm to move her away from it. She glances down at his hand on her wrist - the most deliberately gentle of touches - and then she's free from the Angel. They have both looked away, and they are both still there. She doesn't know whether to be thankful or hostile. River offers Vastra, now regarding the Angel with a sort of stoic curiosity, a short nod. "If you're certain you-?"
"Quite certain. Jenny will see to it that I am not disturbed by passersby. And I must confess, I shall rather enjoy the opportunity to observe such a creature so thoroughly. Strax will let you back into the house. Collect us when you've come to an agreement."
The quirk of Vastra's lips implies that the Angel is not the only thing she is expecting them to come to agreement on. River reluctantly re-holsters her gun. It's not much use against an Angel - even a weakened one - but River feels loath to let it out of her hand anyway. There's still an edge of adrenaline pounding through her blood.
Strax offers, "If they cannot decide, I shall be happy to deploy the grenades!" And turns down the street, clearly expecting them to follow.
River avoids the Doctor's eyes. "I've a mind to let Strax try the grenades, for once." She cuts off his inevitable protest, "I know you don't want it to suffer, Doctor," she stops, frustrated, blowing her curls out of her face with a weary gust of air, "but honestly-"
He cuts her off, his voice with that hard, glinting edge that has turned armies around and monsters to tears. "I never said that."
River glances up, startled, and the Doctor is right in front of her again. His hands reach out but stop just short of touching her. He swallows, but his eyes are clouded with a million ancient agonies, "They took Amy and Rory - my best friends - your parents, River." And then the hard mask descends with finality. "I'd rather prefer to see it suffer, actually."
River feels a cold dread settle in her stomach, draining away all the anger. This is why they can't travel together. This is why he needs someone who's not - a psychopath - her at his side. She hates to see him become this because she knows, oh she knows better than most, that he will just hate himself later. Her Doctor is such a good man - the best man - and he never forgives himself for these moments of rage. Her hand comes up to brush against the set of his jaw, just the most fleeting of touches. "Oh, sweetie."
And he collapses into her. His arms coming up to envelop her and his head pressed against her curls. He's not crying - not exactly. And River feels tears well in her eyes that she refuses to shed. They're standing in the middle of a murky London street, clutching each other. And it's the most sane that River has felt in days.
Strax eventually comes to collect them, tugging them along toward Paternoster Row with a disgusted, "You're not going to start swapping bodily fluids, are you?"
The Doctor is still tense, and River can't pretend that the set of her shoulders is any less so. They need a plan. And as much as she fancies taking a sledgehammer or a lasersaw or a forklift to the Angel, she highly doubts that would go unnoticed in Victorian England. She'd rather prefer not to alter the course of history or be tried as a witch, again. She's not sure she has the energy for a daring escape plan.
Thankfully, the Doctor seems to have come back to himself somewhat. He stops to adjust his bowtie at a mirror in the entryway, and River can tell by the way his eyes flash that he has a plan. He spins to face her, grim. "What do you think Vastra would say to a little redecoration?"
"I think either her or Jenny would detach your head from your body, and I do rather prefer you in one piece."
But the Doctor is already using his sonic to detach the floor-length mirror from the wall, something almost approximating his normal excitement in his features. River tears herself away from studying him and regards the mirror. It's so simple that it's mad, which all his best plans are.
River uses one hand to stop the heavy frame from toppling over with the Doctor in tow, turning toward Strax. "Bring the carriage around, would you, Strax? I think the Doctor and I have finally discovered the perfect wedding present for Vastra and Jenny."
If it lacks some of her usual flourish, Strax would hardly be one to notice. He eyes them suspiciously, shrugs as best he can with no neck, and spins on his heel to march off to the carriage-house.
It takes some maneuvering, but River, the Doctor and Strax manage to get the mirror into the carriage miraculously in one piece. They carefully balance it across their laps as Strax shuts the carriage door and starts loudly threatening the horse.
The sudden silence in the carriage is oppressive.
River stares at their reflections, warped and distorted in the glass. She forces a smile. "We might have to intervene on behalf of the horse if we want to actually get anywhere."
The Doctor's reflection remains bleak. "We'll be leaving it. Here. In one piece."
River swallows back the thought, blinking quickly. "I know."
"Are we married, River?"
She's so startled that she jerks her head up, staring at him openly as she snaps, "What? Of course we are. Don't be ridiculous."
His face is all the Oncoming Storm, and River feels her own hackles bristle in response. How dare he, now of all times.
The Doctor holds her gaze carefully, "Then why are you hiding so much from me?" His voice is accusing and hurt and damn him, she refuses to feel guilty about trying to protect him.
"Because you've never used rule number one, Doctor?" It's too much. The anger has been building for weeks, boiling under their skin. Before that even. Years of harsh words and forced lies. River shoves it viciously back down. She will not lose her husband on top of her parents. "Spoilers. You know how it is."
But it comes out too bitter anyway and the Doctor is not fooled. "And your wrist, River? How is that spoilers?"
He practically spits the word out and she feels herself recoil. "I don't want to talk about my wrist."
"Well I do!"
Her voice rises to match his. "And it's all about you, sweetie, isn't it?"
The carriage comes to an abrupt halt, and the door swings open to reveal Jenny peering at them curiously.
River shoves the mirror until the Doctor grips it to avoid being crushed, scrambling out from under it and out of the carriage and away from him. Bless Jenny, she doesn't say a word, even though she almost certainly heard them yelling.
Vastra is standing sentinel just a few steps away, and River heads directly toward her. She needs to be around someone calmer. Her emotions are all over the place, and the Doctor's aren't any better, and it's too easy for them to fall into anger because the others would drop them to their knees.
She keeps her eyes on Vastra and not the Angel, or her husband, who she can hear tumbling out of the carriage with the mirror. There's no ominous sound of glass breaking, so she assumes Jenny has it well in hand. "How would you feel about a new pet?"
"I tend to eat them," Vastra replies calmly, one facial ridge arching curiously and perhaps slightly wistfully. "Jenny does not approve."
"Perhaps more of a curiosity," River amends. "The Weeping Angel. Someone has to guard it. The Doctor seems to think it would look rather fetching in your parlor."
"As entertaining as this vigil has been, I do not wish to devote myself entirely toward the study of this fascinating creature." Vastra sounds amused now.
Sometimes, River wishes that their friend knew them less well. Though she appreciates Vastra's tact. "Not to worry, we'll leave the Angel to watch itself."
By now, Jenny and Strax are holding the mirror to the back window of the carriage, whilst the Doctor uses the sonic to set it there. It's a temporary solution, but a more permanent installation can certainly be rigged up in whichever room Vastra prefers.
Once the mirror is carefully angled at the Angel, River taps Vastra gently on the arm, and Vastra takes the opportunity to survey the plan-in-progress. She seems tentatively impressed. "I will admit that the proposition of entertaining clients with a captive predator sitting adjacent has its appeal."
By now Jenny and the Doctor have wandered over, the Doctor fidgeting and eyeing his feet and Jenny glancing pointedly between all of them, while Strax measures the length between the statue and the carriage and seems to be sizing up various weaponry options. Thankfully, very few pedestrians are still willing to brave this neighborhood, and those that do keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
"What's appealing, ma'am?"
Vastra smiles at her wife. "It appears I might be acquiring an addition to my collection."
Jenny glances between Vastra and the Angel, shaking her head fondly, before turning to pin River with a fierce look. "I don't gotta feed it, do I?"
River shakes her head, and Jenny sighs. "Right then." She catches Vastra's hand in a quick squeeze and then turns toward the carriage, calling out, "Strax," before going to help him determine how to best move the Angel.
The Doctor shuffles his feet. "Right. So. That's settled then."
Vastra pins River under her gaze, even through her veil. "I appreciate your assistance in this matter, Professor. Doctor."
Tugging at his hair, the Doctor waves her off, though he doesn't come any closer to either woman. "We should, uh, probably move the TARDIS before the Angel gets back. It might - well - don't want to chance it."
He glances up from under his fringe, and Vastra pins him under her gaze as well, as though the two Time Lords are insects she is considering devouring. "I expect that you shall return promptly, to finish elucidating me on relevant measures, and to help assemble an appropriate cage for my new... pet..." Her voice is calm; unbearably kind. "Whatever happened, I expect that you both will sort it out before you return. The unresolved tension is giving me a headache, and I would much prefer to be out of earshot when you remember that suppressed violence is not the only means of resolving tension."
With that, Vastra neatly pivots and goes to assist Jenny and Strax with the Angel.
River turns to the Doctor, watching the energy drain completely out of him now that there is no plan to concoct or world to save. He looks tired and lonely, as though the only thing holding him together anymore is the scar tissue from too many losses.
He takes her offered hand like a lifeline and follows her wearily through the winding cobblestone streets. They make it back to 13 Paternoster Row and into the TARDIS before he speaks.
"River, I never asked you to - I never meant-"
River turns from the console and watches him, sunken on the steps and looking, if possible, more lost than when they were here two weeks ago. She puts them in the vortex and comes to sit next to him. The adrenaline is gone, and she just feels cold and empty. "You never had to ask, Doctor."
His hands tentatively come up to take hers, and when he brings her wrist up to his lips, eyes all anguish and apology, River cannot find the comforting anger that she normally uses to shield herself. It's just the two of them, and she desperately wants to not have to be strong anymore.
River drops her eyes to her lap, picking at the beading on her skirts. The Doctor does not release her hand, and River feels tears prickling at her eyes. They stay there for a long moment before the Doctor speaks again.
"I'm a selfish old man, River." He shakes his head when she glances up. "No, let me say this. I'm a selfish old man, and I lie. I lie all the time and to everyone. Because I have to - to..." his voice cracks, "hide the damage. I've lived so long, River. Just a mad man and his box. And my head is too full and I get lost in it, sometimes. In hiding. But you - you mean the universe to me, River Song. Melody Pond. The woman who married me." He laughs, and it sounds wet - he's crying again. "The only woman in the universe mad enough - brilliant enough - to put up with me. I know it's not easy. I don't think when I should. I'm a rubbish husband. I try to make it up to you, but I - there's never enough time, River. It's slipping through my fingers. You're slipping through my fingers." His hand tightens around hers, just slightly. "I hadn't realized quite how much until Manhattan."
River can't stand it a second longer. She turns toward him, and his eyes are ancient and sad, and he's looking at her like he's already lost her. "It's not your fault, Doctor. It's not your fault."
"It is, River." He's not arguing with her, he's just resigned. "It's all my fault. Your parents. Your childhood. Your regenerations. Your wrist." He kisses it again, soft apologies falling with his tears into her healed skin, "I never meant to hurt you. I know I do anyway. All the time. This once, I wanted to make it up to you. Make it right." He brings their hands down to her lap, resting his forehead against her shoulder. "I'm so, so sorry. I'll never forgive myself."
"You don't have to forgive yourself, Doctor. I've already forgiven you. All of it. Always and completely." River runs her free hand through his hair, startled to realize that she's crying as well. It's her turn now, she knows. To say all the things that should have been said weeks - months - decades ago. "Do you really think you have such a hold over me, that you can make me do anything, Doctor? I chose you. I will always choose you. Again and again, and once more after that. I chose to give you my regenerations, and I've never regretted it. And I did what I had to with the Angel because you needed that. I'm your wife - it's my job to do what you can't." River keeps her eyes focused on where her hand rests entwined with the Doctor's, even though she can feel his eyes on her, "I'm sorry that my parents are gone, because it hurts you and because I will miss them. But I don't regret letting them go. My mother chose my father, and they are happy together, out there. And I understand because I would make the same choice. I always make the same choice - you."
It's not enough. There's so much more that should be said. The way a shadow crosses his eyes every time he's met her since she became a professor. How unbelievably stupid and reckless he was wasting his regeneration energy on a broken wrist - and how she should probably gently remind him that it's hardly the first or worst injury she's ever had. How terrifying it is to be constantly faced with younger hims, knowing that each time she sees him is a countdown to an ending he won't be able to face.
She raises her eyes to meet his, and it's all there. They've loved each other across time and space innumerable, and words are not enough to encompass that. In these rare moments, they can read each other across the lifetimes scrawled in their journals, like a much beloved and well-read book.
The Doctor straightens, lifting his head off River's shoulder and shifting until his lips just brush hers, a soft question. His thumbs come up to brush the tears from her cheeks and River feels like she might break in half. She doesn't know what to do with this Doctor, the one who loves her so much that it feels like her hearts might burst.
She kisses him back with abandon, melting into his waiting arms and trying to drag him closer still. She's pushing off his tweed when they break for air. The Doctor's hands slide around to the ties of her dress, his lips against her temple. "Please don't hide from me, River. Not now, not when we're - I can't bear it."
River nods, wordless gasps and agreements spilling into his mouth when it finds hers again. And then he's bending and scooping her up, marching them from the console stairs to their bedroom.
The TARDIS thoughtfully moves it right next to the console room, and they make it there somehow in one piece. More impressive given the Doctor's clumsiness and the fact that River can't be bothered to stop kissing him long enough to steer.
By the time they tumble to their bed, the Doctor's already undone the ties of her dress with his quick, clever fingers. It hangs loosely about her breasts, and he wastes no time pushing it down her waist and off her body.
River kicks the dress aside, working on the Doctor's trousers. His shirt and jacket are somewhere scattered across the console room, though his bowtie is caught in her fist. She sets it carefully aside on the nightstand while the Doctor wiggles out of his shoes, pants and trousers and River tosses the pins from her hair to the floor.
The Doctor slides back into the bed next to her, his hands tracing along her body almost reverently. And all the rush is suddenly muted into a soft glowing ache. River runs her eyes and hands along his body, pressed against the length of hers. She can't help a sentimental smile. "Hello, sweetie."
He grins back at her, and it's a ray of sunshine after weeks of clouds. It lights up his whole face, the whole room. "Hello, dear."
And just like that, River knows that everything is going to be all right after all. Her hands trace across his arms and stomach and thighs with more purpose, nails almost-but-not-quite tickling along his skin. "I've missed you." It bursts out without her permission, too needy and raw and honest.
The Doctor just swoops down and kisses her again, one hand typically coming up to her hair while the other slides down her body. When they come together, it's soft and slow and full of aching longing, like they're stealing this moment, and neither of them can bear to let it go.
They twist and tumble among the silky sheets, skin on skin in a warm press, slick, slide. Hands everywhere - kissing, caressing, loving. It feels like the first time and every time all at once. Time for them is always the counting of the seconds when they're apart. Together, time has no meaning. Something hazy and nebulous compared to the sense and feeling and completeness of being wrapped around one another.
He tells her he loves her in a hundred different languages. With his mouth and fingers and looks and words. When they fall apart together he tells her in Gallifreyan - words so ancient and full of meaning that she feels the stars rumble around them as she responds in kind. Love you. Always and completely.
They drift lazily in one another's arms for as long as River dares. The Doctor's hand taps out a sonnet in Gallifreyan on her hip, but his arms tighten around her when she moves to sit up, dragging her back down.
They're sprawled sideways and half off the bed, despite it being twice the size of any normal bed. Honestly, they're lucky they didn't end up on the floor again. River traces her hand along the Doctor's arm. His breath is warm and even against her neck.
But things are better now - he is better - and that means it's time for her to leave. While she still has the strength to do so. "I have to go back soon."
The Doctor's fingers still. "You said you'd stay."
River twists in his arms so that she is facing him, brushing his thoroughly shagged hair out of his eyes fondly. "And I will, Doctor. I have. But, as we saw today, I can't be here all the time. I can't be the one to stop you, Doctor."
He huffs slightly, but keeps his voice soft. "I'm not asking you to."
She strokes her hands down his back, smiling as he shivers against her. One of his hands snakes down to splay across her lower back and River can already feel her resolve fading. "I have a life, at Luna. One I've already left too long. I have a stack of dissertations to review, grants to submit, and at least three expedition requests queued up. Some of them most persistent. The Lux Corporation has messaged me no fewer than five times."
The Doctor's arms tighten around her, "Just a while longer. One trip hardly counts. So many fabulous places to see, River Song."
He looks like he'd bop her nose if he had any hands left, but he's too busy running his hands across her back and tucking her close to him. "Then go see them, my love. It's high time we found you a new travelling companion for when I'm away at university."
"I don't want a new companion. I want my wife."
He's pouting, and it's adorable how stubborn he can be. It doesn't change the fact that they've only just started to heal from Manhattan. "Doctor-"
He cuts her off with his mouth, his lips and tongue finishing his argument for him. Persistent, until she melts under him and grants him access. Always. Maybe they do need this time - now that wound of her parents' loss isn't quite so open and raw. Time to just be River and the Doctor, running across the universe, hand in hand.
When their lips part, River brushes her fingers across his jaw and lips, her touch lingering. "Well, you have been promising for ages to take me to the Singing Towers of Darillium."
He looks away. "No, no. Not yet." When he rolls her on top of him and meets her eyes again, his are playful but dark. "Besides, Singing Towers? Rubbish. We need somewhere with a bit more pizazz! What about Barcelona? The planet, not the city or the country or the really-quite-inventive five-person game."
He's babbling, trying to distract her, just as he does every time she asks about the Towers. He won't tell her when they're going. Only that it's special and not time yet and spoilers. She asked him for their second anniversary and the curiosity that eats her alive is a welcome distraction from the other emotions that have been eating at her for the last few weeks. "Not yet, but soon?"
The Doctor swallows, pressing a chaste kiss to her forehead as she rests against his chest, hands over his hearts. "Soon enough."