Pre-story playlist to listen to as you read:
Square One, by Coldplay
Say My Name, by Within Temptation
Dark Come Soon, by Tegan and Sara
Stars, by Grace Potter
Comes and Goes, by Greg Laswell
Bang Bang (feat. Sky Farreira), by 2CELLOS
If you aren't done reading when these songs are over, listen to them in reverse... back-to-front, you know.
The first cut is always the deepest.
As he wet his lips, looking up at the sky over Asgard and trying to pretend he wasn't avoiding the gaze of the woman next to him, he wondered if she could tell. If she knew now what she had told him/would tell him last time he'd seen her, that he was –
He wasn't her Doctor yet.
"Sweetie?" He whipped his head to face her, reflexively, hair wild as always, eyebrows halfway up his forehead and mouth slightly open. She held out half a bagel with yellow custard smeared over it. She looked so hopeful, and somehow he knew that even as he was being swept out to sea by the River, the tides were pulling her back to shore. The face he wore wasn't her Doctor's face, the one she knew and maybe even loved if that look she'd given him right before the countdown ended meant what he thought it did.
She was scared of what she was losing, and he was scared of what he might be gaining. She wasn't ready to let go. He wasn't ready to start again.
They were scared of each other.
He took the proffered bagel and studied it curiously, unsure of why she would put custard on it. "Sorry, does this mean something?" He quirked an eyebrow at her, licking a bit of the custard off. "Because I don't know about it if it does."
"Not yet." She smiled, sadness creeping in to steal the authenticity, and held out her hand. "If you don't want it –"
"Oh, I'll eat it," he was quick to interrupt, taking a bite. He needed to wipe the sadness from her face. "Funny tasting, but not bad." He nodded approvingly. "Always up for tasting new things. Allons-y!"
If he was being perfectly honest with himself, it had almost physically hurt him when she blew into the TARDIS on wind of her own making, picnic basket in hand, and announced breezily that he had promised her a picnic at Asgard and would he please try to keep his mouth shut, he was going to catch flies gaping like that and – ohh, sorry, he was early on, wasn't he? The air had whooshed out of his lungs when that raw grief leapt to her eyes for a split second as she realized he knew little more about her than her name.
Professor River Song, archaeologist.
I'm a time traveler. I point and laugh at archaeologists.
"So." She cleared her throat and reached for her diary, not quite as badly worn as he had seen it last in the Library, but very close, a smile on her face. "Where are we, before I die guessing?"
He jumped at her choice of words. "Sorry, what? Am I supposed to have a journal too?"
Her smile faltered. "Doctor… you do know who I am, don't you?"
No. He didn't know who she was, except she was an archaeologist from his future and she had burned in a throne with a mock crown of wires resting atop her curls and she was nothing but a string of data code living in a dream now and there was a handwritten book in the biggest library in the universe with their story in her handwriting and somehow she seemed to care even though he just wanted to run away from the future that held her and she had sacrificed her life for him and she was dead and it was his fault.
"River Song," he said instead. "Archaeologist with hair full of spoilers from my future. Course I know who you are. I just didn't know I was supposed to have a… book."
"Oh." Slowly her fingers left the cover of the book, as if it was tearing away some piece of her. He imagined it was. Part of her just being peeled away, slowly, like a bandaid one doesn't really want to take off but that has to be thrown away because it has outlived its usefulness and can no longer perform its task. When she looked back at him, her smile was plastic. He knew why. How could he not?
He wasn't her Doctor.
He wasn't her anything, not yet.
He didn't even know where she came from, her favourite colour, when her birthday was. Basic things, he thought. He hadn't a clue. He didn't even know how old she was.
And she still looked at him as if he were the only man in the universe.
That was the first cut.
The second time the air left his lungs and refused to return, he wasn't sure if it counted as a first cut or not, because it was her first proper meeting with him, but it hurt him just as much as his, and suddenly he knew almost how she felt staring at him with wide, heartbroken eyes in the Library.
"That's River Song."
"Who's River Song?" She looked between him and her parents with an expectant smile, the rest of her face blank.
He licked his lips and said the only thing he could think of. "Spoilers."
But of course she didn't know what that meant yet, she'd never met him before and she had nothing to hide. She didn't have any spoilers for him. To her, he was just a target, a man she had been raised to hate because he was supposed to be a monster who had killed entire planets, entire races, and for a moment he felt like he was falling because how was he supposed to change a belief that had been literally drilled into her head her whole childhood? So no, she had no spoilers. Nothing he didn't already know about himself. It was his turn to be the knowledgeable one. It was his turn to show her just how much she was loved, even before she knew him, and hope that it was enough to convince her he was sincere, and that maybe there would be a time when she would love him too.
Is killing you going to take all day?
Why, are you busy?
Stay, he silently begged her. Stay long enough for me to help you, to show you the gloriously radiant woman you'll become. I can't let you go yet, because you're –
She wasn't his River yet.
But that didn't matter, because she needed him and he needed her and she kissed him but it wasn't even nearly long enough for him and then she was saying something that sounded as if it came from another person altogether, standing in the windowsill with her hair swirling faintly in the breeze like some kind of goddess meant for him and him alone, while his organs went on strike one by one.
The man of peace who understands every kind of warfare – except, perhaps, the cruelest. Kiss kiss.
Come back, he tried to choke out as she fell from yet another window. He couldn't catch her this time, and heaven knew she would just as soon put a bullet in his head as let him try to help her. He was going to die.
Thanks to the magnificent River Song and her kiss of death.
He refused to put death in the same sentence as someone so full of life and wisdom and love and loss and spoilers and brilliance. Someone so alive.
Death didn't deserve to have her.
But him… death knew him, and he was welcomed with open arms into the void. Death was a friend. Death cradled him close and whispered that he had failed her because he was clearly very dead and she didn't seem even vaguely remorseful about it. But why should she? He had done everything she had been told he did, and then some. Maybe he deserved to be here. Yes. Here, where there was nothing but his own thoughts and the knowledge that he was nothing to anyone anymore – this was where he deserved to be. Not alive.
Not with her.
And then he was brought back.
He loved her, she killed him, and she gave up all her regeneration energy to undo what she had done. She was signing her death sentence even as she chose to love him back.
That was the second cut.
The third time that his breath was stolen and an ache was shoved down his throat to settle in his stomach came when he wasn't expecting it. It was her birthday, and he sneaked into one of her lectures, sat in the back row and watched as she taught, animated and gesturing wildly. Curls spun out around her head like a golden halo as she turned to the screen and pointed out exactly where she meant on the map of the dig, fingers running lightly across the grid. He wondered if these students knew exactly how blessed they were that they had been given this incredible, impossible woman as their professor, that they got to listen to her voice and see her every day of class. He was almost jealous, except he heard the student in front of him mutter something to his friend about "this last paper was killer. She's gonna flunk me again" and then he was almost sweating at the thought of failing a class even though he had no reason to turn in an essay because he wasn't really a student here anyway. When she finished and dismissed the class, he waited for her students to leave, careful to hide behind his desk in the back of the room.
Her head was bent over her notes and the papers to grade when he swaggered up the aisle to her desk. He'd been working on his swagger; it was pretty impressive, he thought proudly.
She jumped, startled, and her whole face lit up when she saw him. "Hello, Sweetie. And to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"It's your birthday! Can't a Time Lord visit his beautiful wife on her birthday?" He leaned in and kissed her cheek.
She laughed, walking around her desk to stand in front of him and straighten his bowtie. "New haircut, new suit – all for me?"
He'd heard those words before, hadn't he?
You showed up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a new suit…
He brushed it aside and grinned down at her. "Of course it is. All for you." Her eyebrows shot up as an impish smirk lifted the corners of her mouth. He rushed to get out what he wanted to say before they ended up desecrating her workplace – it still felt like her students were watching, for Rassilon's sake. They weren't, of course, but… "So! Happy birthday! Where do you want to go?"
Hands smoothing out his lapels, she chewed on her lower lip as she thought. "Somewhere amazing, naturally."
"Why don't we compare diaries, and then I'll decide?" She turned and leaned over the desk, opening a drawer to take out her diary. One heart skipped a beat; the other stalled and forgot how to keep beating. It was so worn, run ragged – he hadn't seen it this battered since…
No. No, no, no, he wasn't ready, she was his, for crying out loud, the universe couldn't have her! He wouldn't let it. It had already claimed Amelia Pond, the girl who waited, and Rory the Roman, and then Clara the impossible girl twice… they were just the ones with this face.
He wasn't ready to give up his wife too.
But he compared diaries with her and kept his smile carefully pasted in place. She was so excited when she realized they were at the same point in their timestreams at last.
Both hearts were in his throat as she clapped her hands together with a wide smile. "Well, I'd say this occasion calls for somewhere exceptional! Happy birthday to me, indeed! Anywhere I want, did you say?"
He nodded. His smile was getting thinner, harder to hold, as the sinking feeling in his gut grew. "Anywhere in all of time and space. I would even go with you to swipe some of those scrolls from Alexandria like you keep threatening to do." He hoped the suggestion would put Darillium from her mind. Anywhere but there.
"Do you mind if I collect on a promise, then?" Her eyes were bright as she sidled up to him, lightly bumping his hip with hers. "I want to see the Singing Towers of Darillium. I found them in that book and they looked so lovely, but every time I ask you say 'someday, I promise.'" She sat on the edge of her desk, looking up at him hopefully. "Can someday be today?"
He couldn't breathe. "River…"
"You said anywhere I want, Sweetie; besides, it's my birthday." She tipped her head, eyes narrowing. "Is there another woman who lives on Darillium and that's why you don't want to take me? Should I just go on my own and get her sorted out?"
"No," he couldn't help but laugh. "No, I just – I wanted to save it for, for, for a special occasion –"
"Then let's go." She gave him a cheerful smile and took his hand. "Tell you what. I'll even wear that dress you picked out back on my first night in Stormcage."
Doctor, why have you bought another one of these?
She nodded and kissed him, mistaking his silent struggle with emotion for delight. "I wore it in Utah too, remember? Oh, my, and you couldn't understand why I was so upset when it got all wet from the pool. I suppose it didn't really have any significance to you then." She laughed and shook her head. "I'll go change right now." With that she slipped into the TARDIS, who had conveniently parked herself in the back where he'd sat earlier.
He rubbed small circles underneath his eyes, exhaling. He had the sonic ready for her – for quite some time now, actually.
Their diaries were synced. It really would be the last time he saw her, then. He wasn't ready for this! He was prepared, yes, but ready? Never. Not to say goodbye to her.
He hadn't expected this. Maybe there were things she didn't write down, pages she'd skipped, something, anything to give him more time with her.
"Are you coming, Sweetie?" She leaned out of the TARDIS, putting two fingers in her mouth and whistling with a cheeky grin.
He wiped the expression from his face and replaced it with a wide smile as he spun on his heel. "Course I'm ready! Coming! I meant coming!" He bounded back up the tiers in the lecture hall to the TARDIS and hooked an arm around her waist, whirling her around. She shrieked as she grabbed onto his shoulders, laughing.
"Doctor! Stop that!" He pressed a kiss to her temple before letting her go and trotting over to the console.
"Singing Towers of Darillium it is, then. Let's see –"
"Do I need to fly us?"
"No, you do not. I am perfectly capable of flying my ship and it's your birthday so you relax, River Song!" He tapped her nose and went on flicking switches.
She rolled her eyes, leaning against the console and watching him. "You know I'm just going to follow after you and fix what you've done."
"And then I'm going to follow you and fix what you did, and then we'll be walking around the console in a circle forever and ever because you're stubborn and won't admit I'm right."
"Sorry; did you switch pronouns there, love? It almost sounded like you said you're the one who's right."
He mock-scowled and refused to answer. He wouldn't let on why he was so reluctant to go. Besides, maybe if he flew they would end up somewhere else, and then he could convince her that place was better than stupid Darillium.
But for once, he landed exactly where he was supposed to be.
Of course, the one time he would.
The Towers sang, and you cried…
She was right, of course. He couldn't seem to stop crying once the music swept up his soul and carried him over the edge and he held her close and the dancing, oh, how they danced. She had taught him to waltz a long time ago, and he showed her how to quickstep – but she kept tripping over his feet and that made her laugh, and she said they would just have to try again some other time and it was so hard to hold back the tears again, because, no, she didn't understand, there wouldn't be some other time and he never wanted the sun to rise because he needed more time with her.
He needed more time to help her perfect the quickstep. To show her everything in the universe she hadn't seen yet. To make her laugh again when he did something ridiculous. To sneak up behind her when she wasn't expecting it and tickle her until tears ran down her face and she begged him to stop through her laughter. To run with her from the aliens she would invariably anger by stealing something important. To smother her in kisses and never let her go. To tell her he loved her, over and over and over so she wouldn't ever forget because it was true and if she ever doubted it he didn't know what he would do.
Who are you?
Professor River Song, University of –
No, who are you to me?
The last memory she would have of him going into that computer would be the version of him that didn't know who she was. He couldn't change that.
But he could make sure that her penultimate memory of him would be one that loved her more than anything else, always and completely, to the end of the universe and back again ten – no, eleven times over.
You know my name, River… there's only one reason I'd tell anyone my name. There's only one time I could.
Hush now. Spoilers.
The sun did rise, despite his wishing. He gave her the sonic, made her promise to keep it with her at all times because it was important she didn't lose it. He kissed her goodbye. He sent her to her death.
And that was the third cut.
No one saw the scars she left. No one saw the way he clawed at them and ripped them open again every chance he got from ringing her up in Stormcage, or at her flat, or sometimes, when he was really desperate, even when she was at Luna University and he would help her with her dissertation over him because he just needed to hear her voice again. No one saw him as he wept because it hurt, love hurt and he just wanted to be done with it all and sometimes he would try to convince himself that maybe he could just cut out all the pain and be the happy, silly creature the others thought he was.
He was so tired of hurting.
But the universe had him on puppet strings, and she had been stolen from him just like everyone else.
So he locked away his scars and his aches and his tears and his memories, and he held his head high, and he found a travelling companion who couldn't see the shadows in his eyes or that sliver of ice in his heart, because it was what she would have wanted.
Don't be alone, Doctor.
"Depression's like a big fur coat – it's made of dead things, but it keeps me warm." –Icon for Hire, "Iodine"