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because now is now, it can never be a long time ago

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The Doctor frowns at the psychic paper, bearing coordinates and only one word:

Scones?

--

He lands on Argolis, prior to its radioactive blunder. It’s a noisy place, full of different species and languages and no one even notices when he steps out of the TARDIS, eyeing the crowd wearily.

Unidentified invitations don’t usually drop in his lap, and when they do it’s never particularly good. For him, at least. Still, he’s curious, and the Ponds are asleep, and he’s got too much energy to sit around and tinker with the controls. A bit of running never hurt anyone, anyway.

Looking down at the psychic paper briefly, he then scans the area, a large, metal shopping centre, and almost startles to see a neon sign on the opposite platform: SCONZE! HAWT AND FREESH.

The Doctor blinks and glares behind him at the TARDIS, who seems to shrug.

Deciding—however erroneously—that a misspelled cafe can’t bode too much danger, the Doctor makes his way around the centre and toward the shop. Inside is bustling, an automated counter serving meals and taking change. He looks around, confused, until he spots her—or rather, her hair.

She’s in the corner, back to him, lazily scrolling through a tablet. There are two mugs on the table, and a plate between them, though it looks untouched.

He gulps.

He isn’t ready for this. The Byzantium barely behind him, the Pandorica—whatever that entails—looming ahead, and River Song, sitting blissfully unaware in a 81st century coffee shop waiting for him. With her secrets and spoilers and space hair and flirtatious smirk and while his brain is backpedalling at immense speeds, his feet move him forward.

He tries to stop, to turn around and run back to the TARDIS, but whether by fault or design, she looks up over her shoulder, and smiles, the most brilliant, carefree smile he’s ever seen on her, and it’s stunning. More than stunning, it’s beautiful, possibly the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, and without his permission, his hand waves.

He can’t hear her across the room, but he can tell she’s laughing, and he looks accusingly at his hand, quickly snatching it with his other and dragging it to his side. When he looks back, her eyes are bright and welcoming, and she points to the large plate of scones.

The Doctor points to himself in question.

River rolls her eyes, and turns back to her tablet.

Taking a deep breath, he squeezes through the crowd and hesitates in front of the empty chair across from her, fidgeting.

“I’m not standing up this time,” she warns, scrolling through an article. “Argolis is very strict about public displays, and I’m not having a repeat of Mechanus.” She looks up and smirks, her eyes dragging along his frame. “Well. At least not until after we eat.”

The Doctor swallows tightly and forces himself down into the chair. “Mechanus?”

River looks up. She’s dressed down, it seems, in black leggings and a large button-up that looks suspiciously familiar, a sweater thrown over it and tied loosely around her (very, very tiny) waist.

“Never mind,” she says, waving a hand. She exchanges her tablet for a stack of worn cards, bound together by a piece of string, and sets them on the table between them. “You want to start?”

He blinks, his hand hovering over a scone. “Start?”

She nods toward the cards, and he can’t help a fission of excitement. “Are we playing Go Fish? I love Go Fish. Amy and Rory won’t play, they think it’s childish, but it’s best when the cards have actual fish on them, like the decks on Triton—overpriced, of course, but totally worth it when the fish swim off one card to another and—”

He looks up, expecting a fond smile of exasperation, and his breath completely stalls. Her eyes are wide and wet, her face pale, and the warmth from moments ago has been replaced by a devastation he’s only ever seen in mirrors.

“River?”

“You’ve never done this before.”

He hesitates. “Play...cards?”

She forces a smile. “It’s a special game,” she says, reaching for the top of the deck with a shaking hand. Turning it over, she shows him the underside, handwritten questions scribbled down in what looks like his handwriting, then hers, then his again. He flips through a few cards.

“Favourite pastry, best Shakespeare adaptation, earl grey or english breakfast—River—?”

“It’s a ritual,” she says, her voice a bit stiff. “Every so often, when time permits, we have tea and talk.”

He frowns. “With ‘getting to know you’ cards?”

She shrugs. “They’re all spoiler-free. A way for us to talk without...” She waves a hand. “I’m sorry. I thought I sent it to an older—” Her voice catches, and she reaches for the deck. “You don’t have to stay, I’m sure you’re—”

“River.” He grasps her elbow gently across the table, stilling her movements. Her eyes are bright, her jaw set, and he tries his best to smile. He barely knows her, but he remembers that look from the first time, the last time, and wants to see it gone.

Taking the stack gently from her hands, he flips through them for a moment, mumbling the questions to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as River resettles tentatively, as if ready to bolt.

Determined to relax her, the Doctor takes a swig of his tea—hardly thinking about the consequences or Octavian's warning—and nabs a scone while he’s at it.

“Ooh, I like this one,” he says. “Favourite museum on Planet MOMA.”

River smile slightly, but it’s still dim. “The photography museum,” she says. “The exhibit with the landscape photographs. I like the serenity, especially in the walkthrough gallery.”

“The 3-D Ansel Adams one?”

“3-D, yes, not so much Adams. I like the colour photographs best.”

“Why?”

She falters. “I can’t tell you that.”

“Then why ask the question in the first place?”

She flinches. “It’s...there are boundaries,” she explains. “It’ll make more sense as we go on. What about you?”

He thinks for a moment, spreading jam and clotted cream on his scone. “Hat Gallery.”

River shakes her head sadly. “That’s a lie.”

“How do you know?”

“Because we’ve done this question before.”

The Doctor freezes, scone halfway to his mouth, and feels instantly horrid. “Oh.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve obviously got you a bit too young, and you don’t—”

“River—”

“It’s okay, Doctor.” She presents her best smile. “I don’t expect you to be interested, not this early.”

Swallowing, he lowers his scone the plate. “I am interested, River. In...knowing you. That’s what this is, right? Learning about each other.”

She nods, but doesn’t meet his gaze.

The Doctor scratches his cheek. “Why don’t you pick one?”

“All right.”

With a reverent touch, she reaches for the stack, and picks one at random, then puts it back. She draws another, and this time reads, “What kitchen utensil best describes you?”

“What?”

“What kitchen utensil—”

“No, no I heard you, I just—what does this have to do with anything?”

“It doesn’t. It just...lets us talk.”

“But how can we do that if we don’t know where we are? Aren’t there spoilers?”

She nearly winces at the use of her own word. “It’s difficult, sometimes,” she answers honestly, “But we manage, usually.”

The Doctor nods absently, and looks toward the exit. He can see the TARDIS through the window, and wonders briefly if he could psychically set off a bell inside, something to wake Amy and Rory. Something to help him escape the look on her face, half broken, half closed.

“I’m not going to force you to stay here,” she says softly, and the Doctor struggles to cover his thoughts.

“No, no sorry, just, eh, thinking.” She doesn’t buy it, he can tell, but he owes her at least as much to try. “Um. A whisk?”

She looks up in surprise, then smiles, a true, grateful smile, and turns the card over. In his handwriting, beneath the question, is the word “whisk” in block letters.

“Are you testing me?”

“I think you’re testing yourself, sweetie.”

He grumbles, but secretly he’s glad to see the smile back on her face. Tentatively, he takes a drink of tea. “So, um. You?”

“I’m not sure. Something sharp, probably.” She rolls her eyes.

“Or a wine glass,” he offers, before he can keep his mouth shut.

“A wine glass?”

“Yeah,” he stutters, “Cause you know—” He mimes curves with his hands, and River laughs.

“Well, thank you, sweetie.”

He flushes and quickly draws another card.

It takes him a while, but he gets the hang of it. He stops saying spoilers when she asks him something he can’t answer, and instead just diverts the question. He giggles when he finds out she likes coloured marshmallows and gasps when she confesses to hating Charles Dickens. He learns that she loves cinnamon and hates nutmeg and has a slight obsession with the Pluto, and wrote a paper once (she doesn’t say where or for whom) to petition it back to planetary status.

He learns that it almost worked.

In return, he tells her about his affinity for slippers and his last regeneration’s distaste for pears and that he once testified on behalf of a chocolate maker to get his candy bar sold in shops on Disneyland Clom.

They don’t stay long, an hour, maybe two, but he finds he likes River Song, without the gun and the spoilers and the running, even—she’s witty and sharp and a bit filthy (okay, more than a bit), and matches him every round. She doesn’t push or pry, knows when to let a matter drop, but more than anything, she looks at him with such warmth that he can feel it in his hearts, and he knows he’s going to fall, fast.

A voice inside tells him he already has.

Still, he waits for her as she gathers up her things and escorts her out of the shop, even asks if she needs a lift. She declines with a small smile, and squeezes his arm in thanks. It means more than just the offer, he knows, and before he can help himself, he taps her nose with his finger.

“See you around, then, River Song?”

She smiles brilliantly. “Count on it, sweetie.” She’s gone not a moment later, in a zap of light and huff of smoke, and the Doctor wonders how long he’ll have to wait for the next meeting.

--

He gets the message again a few months later, after the Pandorica, just one word and coordinates, but this time he grins and puts on a suit and meets her on a resort planet in cafe he’s entirely overdressed for, but she beams when she sees him so he figures it’s worth the odd look.

They swap questions and scones and stories and somehow nothing happens, nothing except Amy stumbling out of the TARDIS at two in the morning and interrupting them, but even then River is gentle and forgiving, and he wonders if there’s more to them than meets the eye.

He learns nothing about her past or his future, but he does learn that her favourite play is Lysistrata (he crosses his legs under the table instinctively), and that she once impersonated Jacqueline Kennedy at a political function to distract the public from an alien invasion. He tells her about the time he met Madame du Pompadour and almost got a horse; she admits to pulling the speaker plugs at a Barry Manilow Tribute Concert on New Manchester, and in return, he confesses he once dropped a vat of cream cheese on the Great Manifest of Chi because he didn’t like the grammar.

She tells him her favourite book one sunny afternoon, and as soon as they part, he finds the the version with the prettiest cover and slips it into her room in Florida. She doesn’t tell him that he did so, but he knows, somehow, by the lilt in her voice and the sadness in her eyes.

He tells her he likes the waterfall museum best, because it reminds him of Gallifrey.

--

After Utah, he’s restless and guilt ridden, and seeks her out on his own, leaving a scrap of paper on her bed in storm cage with coordinates.

She finds him, as she always does, and while it’s more low-key and a bit melancholy, they still talk, and he doesn’t realise until they part that he’d held her hand beneath the table the entire time.

--

Back and forth, they send messages, always the same word, different coordinates, different planets and venues and eras but always with hot tea and warm scones and cream and jam and he learns in one of their meetings that she’s never seen the northern lights, so the next time he sees her, he takes her to the top of Adelphi Tower so she can see them all.

Outside of their respite, he learns more about her: the child of the TARDIS, daughter of his friends, terrified little girl, brave warrior, heart and soul, wife, partner, lover.

He buys her a painting of two Albatross, and when she asks him why, he tells her they’re the same. For life. For good.

For her part, she always manages to surprise him: little things, like his favourite quotes scrawled on slips of paper and tucked away in his jacket. Paintings from his favourite artists across time, signed books from authors he loves.

They never say when they are, or where; everything else disappears around them, and they make up questions, things they remember the other asking, silly and ridiculous things they puzzle over for hours; Why is a raven like a writing desk? she asks once, and he never comes up with an answer, except the one he breathes between her thighs later that night.

They don’t take anything in, but they take everything out, knowledge and love and little things that make their complicated lives all the brighter.

--

The cafe is small, just off a busy cobblestone road, tucked into a back alley. There’s a thin frost over the ground, passersby bundled into thick coats and gloves. It smells like France, 19th century, and he takes a moment to sniff a signpost to determine the exact year and location.

He smiles.

Paris.

Not exactly original, but she’s always had a fondness.

“You could just look up, you know,” she says from behind him, and he can hear the amusement, see perfectly the purse of her lips and flush to her cheeks.

The Doctor turns, arms wide. “Up?”

River rolls her eyes, and when he directs his gaze above her head, pinks in embarrassment. The Eiffel Tower stands incomplete behind her in the distance, and he scratches a cheek. “Yes, well. It’s more precise my way.” He straightens his lapels.

“And why you always taste like a construction site,” she teases, but at his pout, relents. “Oh, go on, then.”

Swaggering toward her, he takes a deep breath. “December, 1888. The 26th. No, wait.” Leaning in, he inhales deeply, lips against her cheek. “28th.”

She shudders slightly, not from cold. “Cheating,” she murmurs. “Plus there’s snow.”

Resting his hands on her hips, he nuzzles his nose against hers. “And?”

She smiles, eyes full of warmth that spreads from his lips to his toes, her expression like a fire in a drafty room. “Doesn’t matter,” she breathes, fog between them. “Hello, sweetie.”

He giggles, hands finally settling on her waist as he pulls her closer. “Hello, wife.”

“Shall we?”

She tries to chase the brief kiss to her lips. “We shall,” he says, looping his arm through hers.

The cafe she’s chosen is warm and full of people, the scent of cinnamon and flour and a hint of wine. There’s a table in the corner miraculously empty, and she orders in French because she can, and he holds her hand between his on the tabletop because he must.

He releases her only briefly, so she can shrug off her heavy coat, and his eyes drift down her neck, over her collarbone and décolletage. “Not exactly period.”

She lifts an eyebrow. “Are you complaining?”

He snorts.

Tea arrives with a plate of scones and the Doctor pulls a crumpled deck of cards from his inside pocket. He flips through them, and River swipes a bit of cream from the side of his lips. Catching her wrist almost absently, he kisses her palm.

“Ah! Here we go: ninjas or pirates?”

River takes a long drink from her mug and considers. “Ninjas. Stealth and skill. Pirates are all blunder.”

“But they have cool hats! And parrots!”

She shakes her head. “They’re a liability.”

“The hats?”

“The parrots. They only repeat what they hear.”

The Doctor swipes jam over his scone and takes a bite. “Pirates swashbuckle.”

“Ninjas are silent.”

“Pirates have ships. And flags!” He takes a drink of tea. “You can’t go wrong with a good flag.”

River smiles. “I’m not one for water, really,” she says, and he doesn’t need to ask why.

“Fine, he grumbles. Ninjas it is. Your turn.”

River pulls a card from the deck. Her nails are painted a light pink, and his heart soars at the delicacy.

“Favourite sexual position.”

The Doctor chokes, loud enough to make several patrons look up. “River!” She shrugs, unapologetic, and the Doctor stifles a cough. “That’s not what it says!”

She bats her eyelashes. “Could be.”

He reaches for it, but she holds it at arms’ length. “River.” He lunges, and she stuffs the card down her blouse. The Doctor sighs.

“Rules are rules.”

“Fine,” he grumbles, then considers, twirling his spoon in his tea. He’s quiet too long, and River arches an eyebrow.

“Well?”

Reaching across the table, he takes her arm and lays it flat, palm up, fingers caressing from elbow to wrist.

It doesn’t matter, he says, though not out loud, as long as I can see you. Watch your face as you come undone, the way your breath stalls in your throat when you moan, and your eyes flutter closed. As long as I can kiss you—your lips, your neck, your breasts, that spot under your chin that makes you gasp, your head thrown back, my hands tangled in your hair, but you like that, don’t you? A little bit rough.

She chuckles throatily, her pupils blown and lips parted. “More than a little bit, sweetie,” she manages, and he raises her arm to kiss the inside of her wrist.

“That answer your question?”

She shudders as he pulls away completely. “I might need a demonstration later.” She shifts in her seat and raises her cup to her lips; he doesn’t miss the way her hands shake slightly. “Your turn.”

He grins smugly and picks up a card. “Favourite cookie.”

“Macaroons.”

“Jammy Dodgers.”

“Obviously.” She flips a card. “Favourite Earth animal.”

“Triceratops.”

Her answer takes a moment longer. “Albatross.”

“The bird?”

She shrugs, a bit embarrassed. “They’re romantic. They spend half the year apart, but always come back to one another.”

“Like us,” he breathes.

“Like us.” She smiles, the moment too much, and adds, “They also have ridiculous mating rituals.”

The Doctor flounders, then stills, straightens his bow-tie, and grabs her hand, dragging her out of the chair. “I’ll show you ritual, River Song.”

She laughs, breathless as he tugs out out of the shop and toward the TARDIS, hidden away in the next alley over. Inside, he presses her against the door and she lets her coat drop to the floor, both hands sliding through his hair and his lips slide over hers.

“Four questions,” she murmurs.

He kisses her neck. “We’re getting worse at this.”

“Or better.”

He pulls back enough to see her face. “Better,” he agrees as she hauls him down again. “Definitely better.”

--

The pieces always fall into place.

She loves the holographic photographs, but only the colour ones, because grey reminds her of Stormcage. She never picks boats, because she's afraid of still water. He holds her close in the bath one night when she's very, very young, and tries to drown her memories with better ones.

Over tea, he never mentions why he hates New York, but she holds his hand years later and draws him out of the dark.

She loves clouds, so he decides that's where he'll stay, after.

--

He shows up with his deck of cards, worn and full, and she appears with a frown, but he sits her down and takes her hand and shows her how to read between the gaps of their timeline. He tries to hide the sadness when she stares at him, perplexed, and tries to apologise for something she hasn’t yet done.

With a finger over her mouth, he shakes his head. “Let’s try this,” he says, pulling out a card. “What’s your favourite book?”

River blinks. “Book?” She hesitates. “Great Expectations.

“That’s a lie.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because we’ve done this question before.” Turning over the card, she finds in her handwriting, Little House on the Prairie, and gasps.

“How—” Her eyes narrow. “Are you testing me?”

He laughs. “I think you’re testing yourself, dear.” With a smile: “Want to try again?”

Hesitantly, River picks up a card. “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

The Doctor grins, delighted, and rubs his hands together. “Ooh, I’ve been waiting for this one!”

They never come to an agreement, but she learns that he likes his shirts fresh out of the dryer, hates pineapple, and sleeps in the nude. She’s surprised when he doesn’t blush, and instead, taps her on the nose.

She smirks. “Isn’t that spo—”

He silences the word with a kiss.