Darillium's last day of dawn announces itself in pale turquoise, a sprinkling of stars still winking white in the gaps between the clouds. River watches from the back garden, her last mug of smoky tea in her hands while she collects herself for the next step on her journey. Earth, again; time to see her home for what she hopes won't be the last time, so she's found herself a position at a university, albeit in the 1920s. No chance of meeting people she grew up with, or the people who should have raised her.
The Doctor, uncharacteristically, is actually asleep in their bedroom. Surely he must know what day it is. He wouldn't let it pass by without marking it. But perhaps he's letting her believe he has, so that she can do what she needs to do, what he knows she needs to do. They've always been very good at mutual fictions.
* * *
It had been tempting to let the kiss go as far as she wanted; take his hand, shift it to her breast, make it clear she expected his presence in a bed or against a horizontal (or even vertical) surface as soon as possible, but they had twenty-four years to fill. Near enough to a lifetime in the fractured love story they shared. She could wait, just this once.
"You ordered oysters," she said when the first course arrived. "Why, Benjamin, are you trying to seduce me?"
He dripped mignonette onto the oyster, tipped it into his mouth, swallowed. "In all the times we've met, I've never once known you to need an aphrodisiac," he said. "Besides, that's mostly legend. No one's ever proven anything conclusively, although Casanova swore they worked." A squeeze of lemon; another oyster. "I lost a chicken to him with the most ridiculous bet, but quite honestly, I think he cheated."
Oyster and shallot slid down River's throat, all brine and vinegar. She shifted her hand to the Doctor's knee. "Tell me more," she said. "Tell me everything."
* * *
Even without the chips, she holds so much of him in her memory now. The burr in his voice; the roots he'd never let her dye; the sharpness when they squabbled over who flew the TARDIS best; the tremble in his fingertips when they passed across her skin. She supposes that even if she did lose the diary through some horrifying accident or theft, she could survive on memory alone. She wouldn't have the written details, but no one can take his touch from her.
* * *
"Do you think we should find a place to live? Not that the TARDIS can't provide everything we need, but I wondered if you might like a little house, somewhere with a view of the towers," the Doctor had said, finger hovering over a moulded sugar box of glistening fruit jellies and chocolate twists. "What do you think this purple one is? Grape? Violet? Asterberry?" It disappeared into his mouth. "Ah, violet, definitely."
"I hadn't thought that far ahead." The twists turned out to have been filled with orange and bitter chocolate ganache. Yes, a couple of these would do nicely. "Although I don't think I've ever had a house of my own. Had a few flats here and there, and Cleo always left me my own suite and servants, but it's not the same as your own land, you know? Oh my goodness! I could have a garden! I've always wanted a garden! Not to garden in, obviously, far too much effort, but one with lilies and a little fountain. Something pretty to look at in the afternoon. Other than you, of course."
"Of course." An amber jelly disappeared. "Passionfruit," he said. "Here, have the other one, it's magnificent." He plucked it from the box and held it to her lips. "Open wide."
River parted her lips slowly, extended the tip of her tongue, kept her eyes on the Doctor. He paused, gaze focused on River's mouth, his own mouth slackening to mirror her own. He carefully placed the candy on her tongue. She took her time swallowing it.
"Time for the bill, don't you think?" she said, a finger stroking the back of his hand.
"Yes," he said. "It's time."
* * *
Inside, she washes the mug, leaving it upside-down on the rack to dry. Another lie. If she towel-dries it and puts it away, he will know something's out of the ordinary. If she leaves it on the rack as usual, there's no reason for suspicion.
As if his senses can't tell him the exact date and minute and millisecond Darillium's night is over. As if River's can't, too, if she tries hard enough, and he's given her a bit of training over the years – nothing like what she'd have got at the Academy, not that either of them would have wanted her to go, but a little. A taste of what could have been.
Twenty-four human years, though. As tastes of what could have been, that's not bad at all.
* * *
She reached backwards and kissed him. "You wanted to know what I think of your new body," she said. "Time to show me."
She slithered out of the rest of her dress, leaving it puddled on the floor, and settled herself on his bed, neatly made with a precision his previous incarnations must have deemed irrelevant. "Go on, then," she said. "Undress for me. Slowly."
"'Slowly.' Now, that's hardly fair. Look at you, one zip and you're already naked, I'm fairly certain. Me, I've got this necktie, and socks and trousers, and there's laces on my shoes, and it could take days at this rate."
"You got into it. You can certainly get out of it. Especially" – she waved a showgirl's hand across her chest and waist – "if you want to enjoy this splendour."
He tugged at his tie knot, loosening it, then threading one end back out. "You certainly make a compelling argument."
"I like to think so. Here, I'll take that. Silk, is it?" She peered at the tie, rubbed her finger along the fabric grain, then wrapped it around her hand. "Ah, now that brings back memories."
Jacket next, tossed to the corner and landing on a guitar headstock. A twist of the collar button through its buttonhole. A pause before the one below gave way as well.
"Keep going," said River, her hand slipping between her legs.
"Oi, you're getting a head start. That hardly seems fair."
"Tell me you don't enjoy the show."
"I didn't say that."
"Shoes off, then." She was slick already. A new body of his was always exciting.
"Your wish" – one shoe untied, then the other, then both waggled in midair at her and set aside on the floor – "is my command, madam."
"I should hope so."
He took his time with his trouser zip, not in the least, River noticed, because the trousers must have been uncomfortable by this point. Until at last there was nothing left but the underwear, which he wiggled down one arse cheek to give her a side view, then the other, leaving them held in place only by his erection while River giggled at him.
"Are you ready for this?" he said. "I don't think you're treating this moment with the level of seriousness it deserves. That, for that matter, as your husband, I deserve."
"Oh, I'm sorry, was I meant to stop playing with myself so that I can properly appreciate your magnificent cock?"
He paused, thought for a moment. "No, no, under the circumstances, that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to appreciate it. Et voilà!" He tugged the underwear down, posing with hands on hips.
"You may bring that over here for me to admire. And maybe more, if you're good. Though you've been very, very, very good so far tonight."
"Let's see just how good I can be, shall we?"
He kissed her again, lips brushing hers lightly at first, teasing until she drew him closer. Twenty-four years she had to savour this. Twenty-four years, all together in a line. They'd never travelled together for more than a few days, each having their own responsibilities and desires, and knowing she would have so much of him at once was overwhelming, a feast covering a table so long and broad she couldn't see the end of it. Okay, a feast where some of the dishes were likely poisonous and the waitstaff might be trying to stab them with serving forks, but that was all part of the fun, wasn't it? Along with this: his mouth on hers, his hand slipping between her legs, her own grasping the length of his cock, his shivers whenever she brushed the tip with her thumb.
He nipped at her neck, shuddered again, a stutter on her skin. "If you want this to last, I'll need you to stop," he said.
"We've got all night," she murmured. He was still stroking her, her abdomen tight with tension now, her hips arching to meet his hand. "We can do this again, and again, and again. And I intend to. And I don't want to wait any longer."
"If that's what you want –" His fingers sped up, and the breath caught in River's throat. His mouth covering hers again, tasting her; the flutter in her abdomen lower and lower until she could almost hear it humming in her ears; and then it was all she could hear, a buzzing rising and cresting along with her body, waves of sound and pleasure rolling through.
"Yes," she murmured, her head still whirring. "That's what I want. And you?" She flipped on her side to face him and stroked his cheek. "What do you want, Doctor?"
He smiled at her – would she ever get tired of that new smile, the way the joy spread from the crinkles on his face to the sparkle in his eyes? She certainly hoped not – and he pulled her on top of him.
Twenty-four years with him. Twenty-four years of running and adventure and some of that even outside the bedroom, probably. But not right now.
River laughed, and started to move.
* * *
That's the problem with time. That's always been the problem with time: that eventually, it comes to an end, even for people like her and like him who can evade it, literally running circles around it. Their relationship based on unshakable faith in one another no matter how often they have to lie to preserve a timeline, and now she has to have faith that she will see him again, at the very end, the end she's going to run from as long as possible.
The vortex manipulator is set. Dawn glows fiercely outside. And River shuts the door, as quietly as she can, and disappears into the past.