Sometimes River writes in the margins of her book, the book the Doctor gave her. Things lived and relived and remembered. Things illuminated for what comes after. Sometimes she writes warnings, sometimes amendments, corrections.
Sometimes it's just a way to say “hi” to her former self.
Like a story, the book grows. Like a story, it changes. What it's written, has always been written. But it hasn't been written yet. River has to learn this. The Doctor taught her that one's memories can change as one goes – it is a bit of a shock, every time she changes something (every time she writes another sentence) her memory of it alters, she remembers it being there forever, but with a hum in the pitch of her stomach she also remembers when it wasn't, the alternative life she once led.
In the end it's also a way to remind herself nothing is set on stone. There's their diary, but there's always space in the margins. And there's always time left. And change.
Don't treat me as if you have the upper hand, the Doctor thinks, because I can run, oh I can run.
`You can postpone it all you want,´ River shrugs. `But you can't run away from your future, love.´
`No? Watch me.´
He walks away from her, turning his back. This is going to be a theme. But the Doctor is only half-right. He can run away from his future, but there are other things he cannot run from.
The thing about River is, she is a prodigy. She'll be more than happy to tell you this herself, modest she is not.
At fourteen she is one of the most celebrated archaeologists of her time (not a particularly pleasant time for archaeology, not like the boom in the field of fifteen years later so River has to make do with brilliance in academia first, but it barely pays, and it's not exciting and River at fourteen can't sit still more than she can at twenty-four or thirty-four, so she gets out. Bibliography vast here but partly classified on most planets.)
River Song runs away.
At sixteen she becomes a felon for the first time.
It's not that much of an impressive age to become a felon but give her time – it's not until later that she'll develop a passionate affinity for crime.
She would have also become a convicted felon at sixteen if it weren't for the strange stranger (uninspired choice of words, she knows, but she is on the run, breathless and with very few brain cells to spare, there'll be poetry later: for now the stranger is just that, strange, his face, his hair, his clothes, even his voice when he says “don't scream, if you do that police officer looking for you is going to hear you and don't bite me, cause I can scream too. I came to help you.”)
`Help me?´ River blows some hair off her eyes, looking like a wild child.
The stranger eyes the metal case she is carrying.
`Stealing? Bad girl, River, bad girl.´ He seems to think about it: `Girl girl girl. You are a girl. A little girl. You never told me you were a girl, you just told me- Never mind, listen to me.´
`How do you know my name?´
River looks around. Maybe he is a policeman. This is the part when she looks at him as if she wanted to say well, this is the part where I have to kill you. But she no killer (yet).
`How old are you?´ He asks, than shakes his head. `No, no, I don't have time for chatting. The answer is too young anyway. Listen, you have to get in the ship, the one you were thinking about getting on, the Meliae, I know, I know, the irony of the name but my whole life is like that, it's very important that you don't miss that trip. There's a whole universe out there that needs you not to get caught today and lucky for the universe I'm in it.´
`How do you know about the ship?´
The stranger tears at his own hair dramatically.
`This kind of conversation is so boring! You and I don't do that. Hurry and grow up into a proper River Song so we can have proper, fun conversations.´
She hears the noise of footsteps and communicators crackling nearby. The stranger looks at his watch (is it a watch? River wonders what she is seeing, wants to take another look, curious about this curious man).
`A distraction! I can give you five minutes,´ he says, gesturing towards the sound of police steps. `Is that enough? Of course it's enough. You are you, even if miniature-you, five minutes is four minutes too long for you.´
River hesitates, her instincts telling her danger is coming closer and closer.
`Oh and don't use the backstreet,´ the man adds. `There's one of them waiting for you there. Go through the market and then turn right, no, left, no, keep straight ahead. Well, you'll manage. Trust me.´
River runs. Has anybody ever said that to her before?
The thing is: the first time River meets the Doctor is not the first time the Doctor meets River. Later, when she has her book, she will look back fondly on it, she will ask their future selves, remember? Ah yes. I never asked him what kind of distraction... but there's time, she thinks naively, she can change it, rewrite the pages, some other day.
They both have false names.
But the Doctor chose it for himself and River's was given to her.
She considers the careful way his voice presses against the syllables of her name. As if forever chastising her for some thing or other. He sounds stern and impossibly fond of her at the same time, like a grandfather.
`River,´ he starts and there's that again, the clipped, strained and restrained tone of his voice.
`New Zealand!´ comes Amy's voice from top of the stairs.
She comes down, Rory following her dressed in Hawaiian colours and shorts, a brown hat.
`We're not going to land in some dangerous period when the place was inhabited by convicts arrived from England. Are we, Doctor? Because I've seen tv about it, and those were very hard times,´ Rory asks, concerned and excited.
`Hello, River. Are you coming to the beach with us? How did you get here?´
`No, she is not coming with us,´ the Doctor declares, still looking at River.
`We're going to the World Surf Championship,´ Amy goes on, taking River by the arm. `Or is it the World Surfing Championship? By the way, does the Doctor know how to surf?´
`Hey, why are you asking her? Why don't you ask me?´ The Doctor protests.
The book says: You will have doubts.
It is very cold here. The last star of the system is dying off and its warmest planet is shutting down. The last evacuation shutter is barely leaving that coldness. Amy and Rory are hunched together, sharing the body heat, cross-legged on the floor of the luggage compartment, and it being the luggage compartment the temperature is considerably lower than the rest of the comfortable startship.
`Why are we hiding again?´ Rory asks.
`They really hate hitch-hikers,´ River offers, smiling at Doctor as if sharing some kind of joke but no, he is not there yet. He never catches up with her. A note on the margin says: You will despair at times. When did she write it? It might as well have been now.
The Doctor is sitting across her, by Rory's side, not yielding one inch, not even for the comfort of warmth.
`Technically we are not citizens of this planet,´ he explains. `So it'll be a tough one to explain why they should evacuate us. Of course I could use the psychic paper, what a brilliant idea, no, wait, I can't, Amy lost it.´
`That was fifteen minutes ago. I already said I'm sorry, get over it. Ugh, you really are a grumpy one.´
`You have no idea,´ River says, always counting on Amy's humour when she wants to vent her frustration on the Doctor. She guesses they are sort of friends now. Does Amy think so? One thing is the Doctor, a very different matter altogether is going in and out of the messy lives he lives. She knows better than to get too attached – she's done this before (his friends, the adventures, the farewells) and she know hot it ends.
`You know,´ the Doctor says, shifting in his spot and crouching to look at River. `I met a younger you the other day. And you weren't nice either. You were never nice, not once in your life.´
`A younger version, mmm?´ She fingers the blue book in the pocket of her thick coat. She asks, voice red-hot: `How young?´
The Doctor's eyes widen. Amy and Rory chuckle a fourteen-year-old-boy-chuckle.
`Oh, no, too young.´
`I hope you behaved.´
`You know I behaved. What's more, you sent me there, to her. You sent me to her.´
`Did I? You mean I will? Good to know.´
The Doctor runs his hands through his hair, then suddenly stands up in one single, sudden jump.
`I'm done with you – you people, I'm going to look for the TARDIS.´
Rory protests: `But Doctor, didn't you say it was dangerous if they found us and that we should wait a few hours until they have the minimum security shift to look for the TARDIS and that this was why we are freezing to death now, in here?´
`Oh, shut up, Rory.´
`Oi,´ Amy punches him in the knee.
`Ouch. Pond, you've just punched me in the knee.´
Amy has a beaming expression of here I was fighting for my husband's honour and Rory has a confused expression of I think it should be the other way around but never mind.
`Don't be rude to us just because you are having trouble with your girlfriend,´ Amy admonishes.
`She is not my girlfriend.´
River feels she is not really needed for this conversation. Rory has caught the drift of that too and he gives her an apologetic smile while he tugs at Amy's sleeve, trying to make her notice too. In vain.
`And she is never going to be at this rate, you idiot,´ Amy argues logically, `if you keep being a twat around her.´
They are like a the needle of a record player than can't seem to find the record groove.
They are scratches and noise.
`Sorry, I have a question. For once I want to get this right. When was the last time I saw you? No, when was the last time you saw me? Could be quite the difference, there.´
She rolls her eyes.
`So *that* might mean I'm right. Last time you saw me I was very very rude to you.´
`Which of the times you've been very very rude to me?´
`Ah. Okay. I get it. The time I yelled you weren't my girlfriend.´
`I am not your girlfriend. To you I'm not, anyway.´
He falls silent. This place is depressing him. All those times River talked about being in prison, about being a bad girl, she talked with the pride of a child being mischievous and having something to show for it. But she must be so lonely and bored here. He's been here less than five minutes and he already feels really lonely and bored, and he's just visiting. Maybe River is always pretending. Maybe he doesn't know her at all. Does he want to? It's easier to think the answer is the same it's always been. But something as definitive as “always” can change too.
`How long do you still have here?´ he asks.
She shrugs: `I don't remember. I think the book said something about coming to save your sorry ass soon so I guess I'll have to start thinking of escaping.´
The Doctor smiles sadly.
`Oh River, of course you know. Don't lie. You know that book by heart, don't you.´
She shrugs again.
`Don't you think it's too much effort?´ he asks.
`Me, of course. You try so hard to make everything go according to plan so I can become what I was to you. But in the mean time you are stuck with... well, with me. Is that really worth it?´
`Doctor, you are an idiot.´
`Yeah, but what does that really mean?´
`Are we lost?´ Rory asks, his hand over his eyes, blocking out the sun as best as he can.
The... desert? One would not call it that, it's not sand under their feet (it's not anything Rory has seen before, something like stone or gravel but lighter, so light, and red and green), but it's empty and it's dead and he and River have been walking for hours and they always end up (this is the fifth time) on the same spot – a big rock in the shape of an hippopotamus' back.
They've been walking in circles.
`I can't be lost,´ River says, the cockiness in her voice a bit forced, a show for Rory's benefit. `I'm an archaeologist.´
Rory knows better than to question it.
`Okay, Indiana Jones...´
She stares at him.
`Oh, right, you are from the future. I always forget that.´
Her expression softens – she is tired.
`I always forget that you are from the past.´
Her smile seems sincere, that's new; one never knows – once the Doctor took him aside (Rory, Rory, good-hearted Rory he said like it was a bad thing, his arm around Rory's shoulder) and told him to watch his back when it came to River. Which was weird because River seemed like one of the good guys to him.
`So what do we do?´ He asks her.
`My compass is working perfectly. We just... can't seem to follow it.´
`What does that mean?´
She rests against the rock.
`That means something is making us get lost, go in circles. I've studied this sort of places. Never thought they were so... unnerving, first hand. I guess we'll have to wait until the others find us.´
`But wouldn't they get lost too? If it's this place doing it...´
`The Doctor,´ River says, and it sounds like that it's her answer to every question in the universe. `The TARDIS has a stronger pull than... whatever this planet is doing to us.´
Rory sits by her side. She looks a bit at a loss; this is the most vulnerable he's seen her, he thinks. They have been alone in very few occasions (have they been alone before at all?) and Rory finds that he is a bit frightened of her.
`Amy and I have this bet going on about you and the Doctor,´ he tells her.
`She says you two are married and I think no way. There's fifty quid on it.´
`You don't think we are married?´
`Nope. You are more the type to... live in sin,´ Rory actually does airquotes here; it makes River laugh, openly. Rory thinks she should laugh like that more often, it suits her.
`So... what is it?´
Rory knows that if he can obtain information so monumental on his own Amy will never live it down; he will be a hero, he can torture her about it for the rest of their lives.
And River looks at him, nose wrinkled in a serious gesture, as if she is actually considering telling him.
(she is; for once she just wants to tell someone)
`I'll tell you what we are going to do,´ River replies. `I'll tell Amy we aren't married and you and I can split those fifty quid... however much that is.´
They are in a vast library. Another one. Yes. The Doctor doesn't like it. River doesn't get why the Doctor doesn't like it and he thinks that maybe it's not worth it, maybe he has always been the sane one about this and they are too mismatched after all and his first instinct – running away, always his first instinct – was right.
Amy and Rory are downstairs, going through shelves and shelves – they are looking for a note (very important, very vital note, chop chop, get working) somebody left here for the Doctor time ago but never said in which volume; but Amy and Rory, they get distracted by holographic pop-up books of Earth history, reading about the 22th century and that's probably not a good idea but there's not much the Doctor can do now. As long as they don't do the equivalent of Googling their own names it should be safe.
River is looking at him, discreetly, from the corner of her eye. The Doctor knows it because he is doing the same.
`You are awfully non-chatty today,´ she says.
`That has never stopped you running your mouth before.´
He doesn't answer. He's found out that's a good tactic with River, this non-answering, this pretend-you-are-ignoring-her.
She sighs. Digging in her bag she hands him an object. (It's hard, the kind of care she takes not to touch his hand when she does, because she knows his hands so well but this is not the moment and it seems it never is it never will be)
`Here. I was going to give it to you later but you're being such a pain... This might cheer you up.´
He looks at it. (At his own hand, and it makes him stop a moment, the care she took so that she wouldn't touch him, so that their hands wouldn't meet; there's something artificial about it, a conscious struggle, and the Doctor feels the drop of something – sadness? – inside his chest)
`A psychic paper. How? Where?´
`Don't worry, it's your one. There are no other psychic paper going around. And you'll need it soon.´
`You came back for it? To the ship?´
`It was easy. I knew where I was going to find it.´
`That's all I ever do.´
That's not true. Or if it is he doesn't want to know. (Since when has he started wanting things when it comes to River?)
He brushes his hand against hers; doesn't know why he does it, it's just a sliver of contact, something tiny, the tiniest thing, her hand around her index and middle fingers. He doesn't really know how it makes him feel, he is too busy feeling her pulse, this moment.
`You are starting to like me a little bit, aren't you?´ She teases.
The Doctor lets go off her hand in a rush.
`Not even a little bit, no,´ he replies.
She wears a hat he remembers. She is young. She is too young. There is almost a thousand years between them.
He remembers how he got here, but he is not sure it will stay that way forever. River deserves a choice and he is going to give it to her, even if she doesn't want it.
(what the Doctor doesn't realize;
River has a choice
she has always had
she choose and chooses and chooses)
`I didn't sign up for this,´she says in a particularly weak moment; her hair in her face (where is the hat now?), the line of her shoulder-blade so clear under his mouth. They are lying on the ground; a planet with two moons, nights as clear as days.
`Well, actually, this is exactly what you signed up for.´
One of the few times when they are synchronized, when the Doctor is her Doctor and River is... well, not “his River”, there's no such thing, but one of those rare, almost painful moments, when they are exactly who the other needs them to be, the one they know.
`You can change it all if you want,´ he tells her softly.
She is so young, he fears he might harm her, she might be fragile like dry leaves in his hands.
River holds out her blue Book, lifting it over both their heads.
`What will happen if I do? Will all the writing disappear?´
She moves closer, her cheek on his chest.
`Will you disappear as well?´
`To be honest, I don't know. I don't know what would happen.´
She grabs his arm just above his wrist, a tight grip as if she believed that just talking about it might cause him to vanish into thin air. I'm not going anywhere he thinks before he realizes what that means, the contradiction, the selfishness.
`You could have changed it all, too,´ she ponders.
`Well, you could have. You could have resisted me.´
It's the way she says it: childish and cocky. The Doctor chuckles. He turns and takes her face between his hands.
`Oh I tried...´
He kisses her throat, making her giggle.
This is not the first time the Doctor has let them down – the first time he lets Amy Pond get snatched right from between his hands. It won't be the last time.
Rory snaps. But not at the Doctor.
`Is she going to be okay? Tell me, tell me now.´
`Rory, you can't–´ the Doctor tries to interrupt.
`No!´ He lashes out. He seems different now – the way he stands, blocking River's way out, he doesn't look like the Doctor's Rory, he doesn't recognize in him the boy that is his companion, cares for him and likes River. Rory is now just Amy's Rory, there's no other priority, no other life at stake but hers. He is not the Doctor's friend now, not River's friend. And there's a moment, looking at the gleam of menace and absolute certainty in Rory Williams, when the Doctor feels jealous. But Rory keeps talking: `I know she knows, Doctor. It's in that book. So tell me. Is she going to be fine? Because if she's not and you lead us here knowing that...´
Rory starts shaking. Resolve morphs into desperation. River puts one hand on his shoulder and squeezes.
`Rory, I promise, if I knew anything bad was going to happen to Amy I would do anything, anything.´
With one, two long breaths Rory seems to accept that, he seems to trust River again, just like that, River and her hand on his shoulder, squeezing. The Doctor can't be sure. It makes him a monster – for a moment he thinks How can you think that? This is River. and he wonders what the hell that means – but he can't be sure, not like Rory, lovely, brave, trusting Rory. The Doctor knows the lengths River will go to keep history as it is. What she would sacrifice.
River gives Rory's arm a little slap.
`But standing here whining is not going to help Amy,´ she tells him. `Let's go.´
They go. Following River's lead blindly. The Doctor finds himself envying that.
`I don't know if I've already told you this but let's have this rule: you should never let me see what's in your book.´
She's an archaeologists and there's dirt under her fingernails.
Is this before or after? The Doctor wonders but can't say out loud – even though he could, River is just the person who would get it, if he asked -, wonders if they had held hands already, wonders if this terror that she is going to die, because he watched her, if the feeling is ever going to go away.
She looks up at him, sun and sand in her hair. (is this the first time he thinks she's beautiful? or the first time he admits it to himself?)
`You're not dressed for the desert,´ she says.
let's have this rule: come whenever I call you.
Spoilers and teasers.
Because sometimes it's the other way around; sometimes he knows more than she does, sometimes he is way ahead and forgets the day and the year and forgets what they are to each other, at this precise moment, and assumes and mistakes and says really stupid things with his big stupid mouth.
And in the future, much later in the future, he will say something he shouldn't.
`What? Are we going to get married? Oh, now you're talking,´ River says, laughing triumphantly, spoilers policy be damned.
The Doctor puts his hands over his mouth, like in cartoons, as if he could physically stop the words escaping from his mouth even though the words are already out there, and River has heard them. River, yes, who is not his wife and shouldn't know that she is ever going to be – although the kind of wedding they had, the Doctor wonders if there is a contract legally binding in all that, but not wondering that now, not the time, River doesn't know, River hasn't lived it, and now River is holding his head in her hands and kissing him as she laughs.
`No, no, no, no,´ he tries to shove her away, `this is bad. This is paradoxical. This is very bad.´
`Did you propose or did I have to ask? No, no, don't tell me,´ she says and kisses him again.
`Shoo, shoo,´ he stops her, grabbing her elbows. `I have to figure out if this is going to completely destroy the universe, okay, River? Priorities?´
But he knows River's priorities have never been in the way of protecting the universe from ridiculous paradoxes about weddings and marriages and kissing, oh yes kissing, that is River's priority, specially now, not just kissing, kissing him, her arms around his neck and somehow his arms are around River's waist and the Doctor thinks, selfishly, that perhaps paradoxes don't matter much in this case, because this is what they do, this is sort of their raison d'etre, isn't it? So he kisses her back.
`Sorry, we are not at that point in our relationship.´
`And at what point are we?´
`We are at a good point.´
`Do we have bad points?´
`Are we going to fight a lot?´
`We are fighting a lot right now and we are not even having sex! Well, you are not having sex with me, anyway.´
`You mean... you are having sex with me right now.´
`Doctor, I'm always having sex with you. We've been having sex since I was –´
`NOOOOOOOOO. I don't want to hear it.´
`But I do,´ Amy, always helpful. `Come on, River, how long have you and the Doctor been... an item?´
`Not now, Amy.´
`I wasn't talking to you.´
Right now he is not the man she will love, the man she had already loved. But the thing that scares River too: she is beginning to love him as he is right now.
It's the first night of the Fifth French Revolution and the balcony of their hotel has just the perfect view of the Noveau Champs-Élysées – of course, people in the hotel don't know why it's such a perfect view but that's because nothing has happened yet but the Doctor takes the room and he and Rory take champagne cocktails to the balcony and while the Doctor had tried every incarnation of the word “flaneur” around reception and hallways and worries a lot about “poise” both he and Rory suspect that Amy has left them alone (where is she? doing something dangerous and foolish and wonderful, he can only guess) so they can have a Boys' Chat. Dreadful, the Doctor decides but it's too late, Rory is already clearing his throat.
`So the way I see it...´
`Rory, are you just about to give me love advice?´
`Yes, I am. You got any complains?´
`None at all. Please go on, Mister Pond.´
Rory takes a sip.
`The way I see it, you are overcomplicating things,´ he tells the Doctor, clearly, in a no-nonsense tone. `If you like somebody, a girl, you like them. Just that. Does it really matter that much the order in which you've done things?´
`For the record, I do not like her. Anybody. Her. I do not like anyone.´
`Yeah, we all know that. That's the one thing you've been extremely loud and clear about. Not. Liking. Her.´
`Rory, are you mocking me?´
`Did Amy tell you to say all this to me?´
`Please, Doctor. Have you met Amy Pond? If she were to give you any kind of advice in this situation it would sound like Get over yourself and get in there. And then she would buddy-punch your arm.´
His imitation of his wife is pitch-perfect, the Doctor is nothing short of impressed.
`Yeah, I guess so.´
Rory finishes his absurdly looking drink in one sip.
`Don't tell Amy I said that.´
This is the next time and she is crying. Not loudly, not messily, she just sobs quietly when he finds her.
`I can't tell you.´
`You can't tell me why you are crying? River...´
`Don't ask me, pl–´
By now the Doctor knows a couple of things about River Song: she is proud, and she is never the first one to back down. So it surprises him – it surprises him into inertia, into a panicked non-reaction – when she goes to him now, when she walks to him, her head down and not looking at him, and puts her arms around his waist and the Doctor has always been a bit frightened of her, even when she was a young and tiny thing, even when she was cornered and desperate, she was frightening and now she is not, she has her arms around him and her head is pressed against his chest (he can feel her laboured breathing through his shirt) and her eyes are tightly shut, he can see them moving under her eyelids, and what is this, what is this River Song he doesn't know and that still frightens him in an entirely different way?
`I've just missed you so much,´ she mutters against the damp fabric of his clothes.
`Can I ask you a question?´
`That normally only gets you into trouble, love.´
`And I hate getting into trouble.´
There's a humour in her eyes that the Doctor finds comforting, because he is beginning to get used to it.
`I guess you may ask a question or two,´ she says.
`About why you are in here?´
`Ah.´ She's been waiting for this. Why? Because she knows what he is going to ask? Maybe he should as something else. Or maybe she has just been waiting for this. This is exhausting.
`Is it me? Are you going to kill me? Is that why you are being so secretive? I want to say stubborn, actually. Is it because you are going to kill me?´
`Wouldn't you like to know.´
She has to remember he is not him sometimes. Not the him he is meant to be. It's hard, she wants to get ahead of herself but she has to wait. She wants to run up to him and kiss him and hug him and take him by the hand as she has done a hundred times before but sometimes the Doctor is not him so she has to wait to see who will show up this time, what he remembers. It's frustrating – and maybe it's a bit selfish and self-centered but River believes it's much more frustrating for her than it is for him right now, because he doesn't know any better, because he doesn't feel like he's missing something – all this wait-just-a-moment, all this wait-until-he-remembers-you or until he doesn't, when all River wants to do is run and kiss and hug and hold hands.
The TARDIS landing is for once soft and swift and... well, perfect. That's not like him at all.
`Well, you have improved a lot. Who taught you to fly so well?´
`Oh, River, you are going to love this: You did.´ He is showing off.
`So I taught you to fly the TARDIS because first you taught me because I taught you. Don't you just love when that happens?´
`Yes. What? No.´
`No, no, you can't do that.´
`Because if you do that...´ Before he finishes they find themselves standing in complete, absolute darkness. `Because if you push that the TARDIS switches off all the lights, that's what I was trying to say, thank you for listening, Miss Song.´
`This is ridiculous,´ River says.
She stumbles and is about to fall; he catches her by the wrist. How old is she now? He forgets.
`Look, if we have any chance of this plan –´
`This ridiculous plan of yours.´
` – any chance of it succeeding, a chance of me surviving this brilliant plan, you need to know how to do this.´
He can feel her tense under his hands. She doesn't trust him. Well, it's a refreshing change, at least. The Doctor is much more comfortable trying to win people over than the other way around. Her breathing relaxes. It's funny how River used to be so serious when she was a girl – unlike her future self. The Doctor wonders when the change happens, and how, and will he be there to see it?
`The problem is this piece of junk,´ she states when he finally lets her go.
`Don't be mean. It's, it's... okay, it's old. And it's... not ideal. You have to remember it's a spaceship and a time machine. It's like buying a DVD and VCR combo, if you know what I mean.´
Of course she doesn't.
`You're a Time Lord. The last of the Time Lords.´
`I didn't realize. You didn't tell me. Why didn't you tell me?´
`I'm not a museum piece.´
`But you are. Sorry but that's what you are, a museum piece.´
`It's my field. And you never said. All those times you showed up out of the blue.´
`What do you mean your field?´
`My field, my speciality. Gallifrey. I'm writing my thesis on –´
`Oh no that's a bad idea. A very bad idea, River. The worst idea that anyone could –´
All this time he had thought the reason she knew so much about him, the reason why she could read and write his language, his dead language, was because he had taught her. He had been such an idiot.
What would happen if she pushes it, she wonders. If she pushes him.
She knows she has to be careful – don't disturb future history. But she can still play around, gamble a bit.
`Ugh they are doing it again,´ the Doctor protests, pointing at Rory and Amy sitting on the stairs of the TARDIS while they are... well, River is trying to come up with a more elegant expression than trying to eat each other's faces but that's what it looks like from here.
River throws her head back, laughs, getting a bit nostalgic about the Doctor's intimacy issues.
He doesn't look the shy type but hey, he doesn't look like a lot of things.
`Envious?´ She asks, which is a very different thing from jealous. She puts her hands, open palms, on his hips and the Doctor shivers, too stunned at the touch to know what to do to avoid it. `We could give them a run for their money.´
He steps back, recoils, but he finds himself trapped between the ship's console and River's body, like she planned. She likes to see him panic. Her hands are cold – she realizes she is nervous too, no matter how many times before she's touched him.
She lets him go before this becomes a problem.
She clasps her student ID around her wrist, the high-pitch of the DNA recognition beep – the security is high around this faculty and she is, well, people are always wary of her as soon as they find out her story. And they always find out really quick.
`I thought you'd already went to university,´ he comments.
He makes a grimace.
`It's funny how your voice sounds much different now. From when you are old. I mean, grown up. Grown up-er?´
`I wouldn't know, I'm only myself.´
Twenty minutes after he walks into her classroom and pretends to be their teacher – better, a professor, the psychic paper says - for the next hour and a half of Laboratory Methods: Hypothetical Ceramic Studies. Not a bad lecture, considering his techniques were a couple of centuries old and his theories a couple of millennia ahead of this time. River should not be surprised at his skills: the book she carries says he is good with the hypothetical, not so much with the actual thing.
`River wrote a book about you? How... not obsessive at all.´
`I think it's very romantic.´
`Thank you, Rory.´
`It's not about me – well, it's not just about me. It's full of errors, is what I'm saying.´
`To be fair, my love, I wrote it before I met you.´
`Well, sort of. You had met me, you just didn't know who I was.´
`You remember that?´
He nods, almost happy that they have some kind of common ground, something they both remember.
`We've done that bit already?´
There was a time when she didn't have the Book of Spoilers, of course, and she had to navigate her relationship with the Doctor by heart. Convenient figure of speech.
But River is not easily impressed. Not at twenty. Not even by a time-machine. Not even by seeing her older self.
Well, maybe seeing her older self impresses her a bit.
`Am I going to have that hair? How?´
`Haircare technology will advance wonders in the next twenty years.´
`I knew this was a bad idea,´ the Doctor comments.
River, younger River, turns around to meet his eyes, tilting her head with curiosity – she is wearing a cap over her blonde hair, the kind that used to be all the rage on Earth in the 1920s. She touches her fingertips to it when she notices the Doctor looking. He imagines she blushes a bit.
`Is he going to still bother me when I'm old?´ She asks the other River.
River – older River – looks offended.
`I'm not old.´
The Doctor is having a quiet panic attack meanwhile; one River at a time is hard enough to handle, two of them will probably tear him to shreds.
`How many times are you going to escape from this prison?´
`I will be trying to break a record, I think.´
He could find out things about her if he wanted – for Rassilon's sake, he is a time-traveller after all, he can do anything he likes. And it's not like she is a discrete person. Asking her is no use whatsoever. Is she always going to be so difficult? He could just look at her records. It's not hard. Maybe he doesn't want to know. Have you thought about it, Doctor? Maybe it's so easy and safe this way, keeping River as mysterious and wonderful and vaguely annoying, something essentially inscrutable, and thus something that can't be ruined. River is like an onion. An onion? Yes, an onion, with the layers and all that. And the Doctor isn't sure if he wants to keep on peeling. Ugh, bad example, bad mental image. And also, onions make you cry. Do they? Okay, River is not exactly an onion but the thing is maybe the Doctor is too comfortable not knowing anything and that is not good, not at all.
And then the Doctor has to stop thinking about this because something is exploding and yes, he remembers now, they are on a starcruiser, a failing one, and people are shouting all around him and River – handcuffed, seriously, does the woman ever learn – is toggling with one panel on the main console and somebody asks him –
Do you trust her?
And the Doctor thinks,
Yes, everybody is very upset and shouty, on account of DEATH and that sort of thing, the Captain (what was his name? The Doctor is calling him Captain Ahoy because he looks like a pirate) is shaking him by the arm. He's done this before. Repeating patterns until it's too late.
`That woman is criminal,´ the man is saying.
`Can't argue with that,´ River says without looking up from what she is doing – what is she doing? that red wire should not go there, you silly archaeologist, yes, there, ah, that's better – without bating one eyelid.
She is enjoying this of course – it tires him, she tires him. The basic question, of course, remains.
`Do you trust her, Doctor?´
Why does everybody assumes that he knows better? Some times he does not know better. Some times he has no idea at all.
`Sure,´ he replies.
That seems to do it. He has far too much credit in this galaxy. And did he really said “onion” out loud? He leans into the controls, making sure River goes nowhere near that red wire.
`You were always such a bad liar,´ she says and this time she does look up from the console.
`Yes, well, I don't have the advantage of your practice.´
She stops what she's doing – when she should be hurrying instead, what the hell is she thinking – and turns to him.
`That's really mean. Take it back.´
`Take it –? Are we in kindergarten?´
`If we die here I don't want that to be the last thing you ever say to me.´
She is serious. Oh. That's the one thing she doesn't know. The length of her book means nothing. Turn a different corner, say a different word, choose the wrong button, and her life becomes blank pages.
`River... this is not the last thing I'm going to say to you, I promise.´
`How can you be sure?´
He touches her face lightly. Her handcuffs clink against the console, as if she had tried to move her hands but suddenly remembered she couldn't.
`You are far too bothersome to die now,´ he tells her. He almost doesn't recognize his own voice. `Just when things are getting interesting.´
`How was this one pronounced?´
She nudges him, knee poking at his leg. Inappropriate, that's what she is.
`Doctor, concentrate, this is important.´
And she is so bossy. She has no right. He's not... she is not... and they're not – she is nothing to him and it's the wrong way around again, he keeps showing up when he shouldn't.
`I'm not comfortable with this,´ he says.
`What? Spilling the secrets of the ancient race of the Time Lords? It's only linguistics, and it's not like they are around to tell you off.´
`You're joking about the disappearance of my whole race, fantastic.´
`Look, I can read and write Gallifreyan like a native,´ a look, `but no one in the universe knows how to speak these words. Well, there is one person in the universe and lucky me, he's my –´
`Why now? Why are you in such a rush?´
`I told you, I'm up for that Professor post next semester and I need something amazing to impress the committee in my interview.´ His face falls a bit. `Maybe I didn't tell you, then.´
He is silent, picking at the laces of his shoes, feeling her eyes on him like the tick-ticking of a clock. The Doctor thinks there's a countdown going on somewhere and he there's nothing he can do to stop it.
`So you are going to be professor soon?´
`Someday you are going to have to stop running, River. Stop playing games with me, stop being so damn impossible.´
`You like impossible.´
`I love impossible but don't you think it'd be nice to get to know you better? The real you.´
`Are you saying-?´
`Yeah. No. I don't know what I'm saying, actually. It was a silly impulse. Forget it. Words! Silly, silly words.´
River leaves pauses in the conversation that are not polite, they are taunting, if anything. Her silence attacks you, in a way. Like she expects you to fill the gaps and you feel like a fool when you can't. She stands there, mouth shut, and most of those silences – pauses, really, River tends to go on a bit – tease the Doctor out of his usual reservations (about her, about himself, about the whole business of her and him) and he thinks that maybe he'd like to kiss her. And that's not a good thought to be having. That's one thought that's definitely going to the box marked BAD BAD THOUGHTS and then into a locked safe somewhere very far.
`Are they going to leave me for good? Amy and Rory. After this... Is this it? Am I going back to being alone?´
`I can't –´
`Spoilers, I know, I know. I wasn't actually asking. More like wondering out loud, you know.´
She feels like he is talking to her as if she were a friend for the first time. A sharp ache in her heart. She sits with him while upstairs Amy and Rory pack their things and chat excitedly about their future. The adventure of day-by-day. She understands that. She has also longed for that.
She touches the Doctor's arm.
`What do you want me to say? Bad things will happen to you, yes. And good things, too. You might be unhappy and you might be happy. And you might be alone, or you might not. You get what everybody else gets, sweetie.´
`I could help you.´
`Not now. Not right now.´
`But you're innocent. So to speak.´
`But you don't help me, I mean, you won't. You didn't. It says so in the book.´
`You can't live your life like that, River. Following instructions as if this were a – an espresso machine.´
She looks scared – afraid of living her life otherwise. There are traces of the River Song she will become but she is not there yet. Now he knows how that feels.
So that is done. The house – old and cranky and marvellous – looks like the sort of place that would be haunted by good ghosts and the Doctor thinks it rather fits Amy and Rory. He doesn't resent it. He keeps thinking about Amy's apologetic words (it's just that we want to do our own thing for a while. Pop in in a couple of years and we'll go with you for another spin) and his own pathetic promises of coming back for tea next week, keep an eye on them. When has he ever kept an eye on people?
They are sitting on the porch now. It feels like they met a million years ago. Even for the Doctor, who is used to measure things in great lengths, it feels like a long time since Amelia Pond and fish-fingers.
`What are you going to do now?´ Amy asks.
`Well, as the song says... alone again, naturally.´
`You don't have to be alone.´
He looks at her. Oh no, she has that gleam in her eyes. That's a dangerous look on Amy Pond. The Doctor knows what The Look means.
`Please. Don't start that again.´
She punches his arm. This sort of reminds him of something. But what? It's hard to keep track of all the deja-vu.
`Don't be such a pansy, Doctor. It doesn't have to be so complicated.´
`Yeah yeah Rory already gave me that lecture.´
Ah there it is.
But Amy sighs and she looks like she is only half-joking, like she is about to get completely serious and that's not a nice thing, no.
`It's all a great excuse, isn't it?´ She says looking out at the sky.
`You! Being a time-traveller is just the perfect excuse to sit on your bony ass and do nothing –´
`Bony? My ass is not –´
`God forbid you'd have to live your life chronologically and face the decisions the rest of us do. You big coward.´
`Yes. Why don't you try it for a change? Going from A to B to C. You know? Like girl, go get girl, kiss girl, shag girl.´
`That's A to B to C to... E.´
Amy arches an eyebrow.
`Well, E is very important, you can't do the thing properly without E,´ she tells him.
The Doctor experiences the most horrible pang in his hearts, a pang of missing-her-already.
`Oh, Amelia Pond... How am I even going to make it without you?´
`Poorly, of course,´ she jokes. Of course. `But that's my curse. Why do I have to be so amazing?´
The Doctor can't help but laugh – she still makes him laugh. He puts his head on Amy's shoulder.
Rory comes out to the porch. He smells of fresh paint – white dots all over his blue jumper – and the Doctor thinks he smells rather wonderfully like that. A second horrible pang to the hearts.
`Are you staying for dinner, Doctor?´
The Doctor flashes Amy an inquisitive look.
`Of course he is,´ she stands up, offering her hand to the Doctor. `See, Rory, the Doctor needs to eat a good meal – get himself plenty of energy before we send him to get his ass kicked by a girl.´
The danger of the book is this: even River sometimes forgets that everything and anything can be rewritten.
The Doctor leaves Amy and Rory (or they leave him, or nobody leaves anyone, and they'll see each other again: who knows, the Doctor has this crazy notion that maybe this time, this time, things will be different instead of being the same all over again; everything that has happened today – that house, that porch, sitting on the porch with Amy, Rory smelling of paint, Amy's words of encouragement or bullying – puts him in a strangely hopeful mood and well, he is going to need it, this is bloody scary, mate) and he sets to figure out where the hell could River be. It's quite complicated: see, until now, whenever the Doctor had no desire to see her (read: all the time) River would pop up out of nowhere as if just to annoy him, just to contradict him, and if she ever needed his help, needed him to find her she'd leave clues for him to follow.
But now that it is him who needs to know her whereabouts in order to execute his plan – it's a very simple plan, you could say it's a simple matter of A to B to C (to E? oh god he is beginning to regret this already, wondering if one could do such a thing as “turn the TARDIS around” because that's what he feels like doing) – then of course the Doctor has no idea where to find her.
He finds her.
`Okay I'm going to kiss you now, River.´
`No. It's not time. You can't.´
`My book! This is not how it goes.´
`I don't care how it goes.´
He kisses her.
(once upon a time she warned him: don't you dare change a single line.)
(he loves her: the Doctor has stored it away like a secret note to himself, a post-it for a rainy day; he has not let anybody know that, of course, much less River herself – but he loves her, and keeping that secret, feeling it grow inside him like dawn light, makes him happy)
(he thinks about fairytales; about how they are all about twists of fate and happy accidents and things meant to happen. this is not a fairytale. whatever this is, he has had to arrive here on his own. fight for it.)
She runs her hand through his hair. A gesture she might have done a hundred times but new to him and somehow it feels new to her as well. Maybe they have already been here, on the floor of the TARDIS, lying next to each other, on countless occasions. Who knows. Once you start rewriting history there's the vertigo of possibility. The Doctor welcomes it.
`You have that look on your face.´
`The look that means you are about to ask me something stupid.´
He wonders if it's too soon for questions. Too soon is completely relative in their case so who cares.
`Is there any of me you like better than the others? Any version? You know...´
Her smirk. The Doctor is terrifyingly sure she'll have him wrapped around her finger in no time.
`Oh, I love you all, dears.´
`I know, I know. And I know I'm the same person every time, but you know, there are differences.´
`Oh yeah, differences,´ she says in an unmistakeably charged tone.
The thing time-travellers never tell you: time flies.
Happy, and in love, River lets it slip through her hands, but carefully.
The Doctor still fears, but he forgets. He doesn't know what will happen. He used to. He used to be this powerful thing, a Time Lord. And Time, he used to think it was the most powerful, incorruptible force in the universe. He was wrong. Maybe River will die just as he saw. Maybe she won't. The time between those two variables is theirs.
The Doctor sleeps.
In the margins of her book River writes in her diary, It's a love story. It won't follow rules.