They begin things at the end.
When he meets her, she already knows him well.
One of the more frustrating side effects of time travel, he supposes. He's used to this sort of thing; arriving at weddings too late and sending notes to his own past. He's gotten used to trusting his own handwriting. When he sends a note to his past telling him that Arthur died in the final battle, he doesn't worry that he won't believe himself.
But trusting other people? It's not nearly as easy.
She's this strange woman. Not conventionally pretty, not particularly polite, though she seems clever enough. She teases him and talks to him so casually it's off-putting. She rests her hand on his shoulder with such ease it's startling. She touches him like she's touched him a thousand times over, and he's not a touchy-feely individual.
"Doctor," she says. "Please tell me you know who I am."
He looks at her hand, then back at her. He can't tell what she's looking for. "Who are you?"
He's taken aback by the sadness and disappointment on her face. He's not her Doctor, the real Doctor. The Doctor she expects. The Doctor who loves her and accepts her flirting and touches as normalcy.
He is the Doctor, though the Doctor has yet to become him.
Time is so complicated.
"It means you've always known," she says.
He begs her to let him go, to let him rewrite history and save her.
"No," she says. "Not one line."
But she spoke his name to him, he tries to explain. She spoke his name and that means something. It means she knows, and there's only one way she can know.
But it's too late. She's gone. He'll never really know. He'll never have a chance to love her like she says he does. Said he does.
No, he will. One day.
Somehow that's more terrifying.
The first time he visits her, it's completely planned.
Donna's gone on holiday from their crazy life (which for her is a lie down and a lot of hot bubble baths back at her house) and he's taken a trip to the interstellar junkyards, looking for useable TARDIS equipment.
As he's rifling through another pile of stuff (there's not really enough of it all together to be called "equipment"), he finds a few pieces of a relay communicator. A green light blips but it's very nearly gone.
"I can't---why can't---help---" A female voice, somewhat young.
He glances behind himself to see that the Foreman isn't paying attention. He pushes the little black button and speaks into it.
"It's all right, you're not alone here," he says. "I'm here."
The light blinks again and the Doctor is very nearly certain it will go out. Instead, more words come from the communicator.
"You were always the love of my life, you know. I'm sorry I never told you that."
The thought of someone's last thought being a never-realized love hurts. He's lost many before who never knew he'd loved them, he can't imagine what it must've been like for her.
"It's all right," he says to the dying consciousness. "I already knew."
"You were always the love of my life, you know."
"Yes, I know."
"You were always the love of my life, you know."
The light flickers and goes out. The Doctor's never really had a love of his life, he has no idea what the words really mean. For a man like him, love like that…it doesn't happen. Nothing lasts forever, not even love.
All the same, he buys the dead communicator and a few reactor coils and sets the TARDIS to University of Eresol, the archeological department. He steps out and wanders the hallways a bit, eventually finding her on the other end of a sterile room, working on a preserved Morsorian hairdryer.
"I think it's a weapon of some sort," she says over a recorder. "There's a handle, a definite column for energy discharge."
Archeologists. They never get it right. He'd point and laugh, but she seems to be concentrating, no real reason to disturb her. After a moment, she looks up as if she suspected he was there.
"Hello, sweetie," she says.
Involuntarily, his lips twitch into a smile. She continues her work and he eventually heads back to the TARDIS. He's never going to love her, but he's glad she had the chance to tell him she loved him.
The first time he goes on a date with her, it's not really his idea.
He's chasing Geratines off of Aphora when he (quite literally) walks into her. Her hair is shoulder-length and her face is younger, but it's really not hard to mistake that slap.
"Hello, sweetie. Do you have any idea how furious with you I am?" she shouts. So much for sneaking up on the Geratines, they already started running off down the corridors.
"Very very very furious I'm assuming. River, really, I don't have time---"
"What, chasing monsters? Is that your excuse?" Her hands are on her hips now and the scowl on her face is nothing short of completely irritating. He's got things to do and a planet to save and he has no idea why she's yelling at him at any rate, it's clearly not something he's done this time around.
"River, really, not now!"
"I hate you!"
He takes off down the corridor and she chases after him. It's not long until she's running alongside him, her hand in his. They win, well, they always do, and as they sit panting next to the corrupted and smoking main computer to Aphora he wonders when it went from "he always does" to "they always do" in his mind. After all, he hardly knows the girl next to him. And she's most certainly a girl, she can't be more than twenty.
"So what did I do to make you hate me?" he asks in between gulps of air. He begins to wonder if he's really too old for all this running.
She lets out a laugh. "You stood me up. Not right at all, promise me a picnic and then let me down."
"Stood you up? What, like a date?"
"Yes, exactly like a date. Are you trying to tell me you don't remember?" This appears to make her angry again. She's got an insanely short temper, he finds that oddly endearing. She also doesn't have that strange familiarity that she had before and he feels more on even footing with her.
"I'm a time traveler, River, things don't always happen in the right order for me," he leans back and smiles at her. "Makes me a bit rubbish with people. Especially weddings, I'm horrible with weddings. Especially my own."
"Can't imagine you getting married," she says, raising an eyebrow. "Settling down? I can't even get you to properly go on a date with me, what sort of a woman could tie you down?"
He raises an eyebrow and allows himself a moment of nostalgia. The women he's loved, the things that never quite worked out. He feels a familiar stab of regret for his past, but he lets it go quickly. He has to. Can't dwell on things, any more than he can dwell on the image of River in that chair in the Library as he sits next to her on Aphora.
"Picnic at Asguard, then?" he says. "I suppose I've got a little bit of time." And she certainly doesn't want to be here when the authorities arrive. All of her anger melts away instantly and she takes his hand.
He's probably never going to love her, but there's no harm in enjoying himself once in a while.
The first time they embrace, she doesn't expect him.
It's been the worst day. The worst year, probably.
But today just sort of caps it all.
There are some days where everyone lives. He loves those days, no matter how few and far between they are. Everyone makes it out, somehow. He loves days like that.
But today nobody lived. Nobody. Just him and the TARDIS and the remants of a planet that had billions of lives praying for someone (anyone) to save them. And he failed. His chest hurts, like the weight of a thousand years of travel has finally started to catch up with him. He doesn't even know where he's going and when the column stops moving he walks towards the door, wading through the guilt.
No snaps today, no flash. He just pushes open the door to an archeological dig on a grey planet with two moons. It's night but a few of the archeologists are still digging.
She appears next to him, a wide grin on her face and a piece of a Beylixian love chain in her hands. Her hair is very nearly to her waist and she has a dark tan, probably from the days on this planet.
"Hello sweetie," she says. "Didn't expect to run into you here. Still, what do you think? I'm guessing a battling chain, maybe something from the Gravitias period---"
He doesn't respond, just looks down at this woman, this strange woman whom he watched die years and years before. She's so much different than the girl who laughed as he told jokes on the edge of a building during a picnic. She prattles another moment, then looks up at him. The lines above her eyebrows deepen, and she puts the chain down.
"Doctor? What's happened, what's wrong?" Her hand goes to his arm in that familiar way, the way that made him uncomfortable before but now it feels almost comforting. Like a thin blanket when one is very cold, it covers and keeps a little of the heat in.
She steps forward and wraps her arms around his shoulders, pulling him into a hug. Her fingers gently massage the skin at the nape of his neck. The sensation is like something his mother would do when he was upset or frightened as a child. He wonders if he's told her that in the past.
After a moment, he returns the embrace. He doesn't cry properly, but he feels tears burn in his eyes. She doesn't talk anymore, just holds him until he leaves again.
He stops at the door and turns to look back at her. Her expression is somewhat confused, but she doesn't question him or his sudden departure. He's never going to love her, but right now he's grateful he's met her.
The first time she kisses him, he's completely unprepared.
Well, why wouldn't he be? It's not exactly the situation that warrants kissing, they're running along a corridor (why is it always corridors?) away from some rather unpleasant Cybermats. Not as if all Cybermats are anything but unpleasant, but these are really, really unpleasant.
River's hair is up in a ponytail but still falls longer than her shoulders. She touches him with a familiarity he's starting to appreciate. He's gotten used to the strangeness of their meetings, of asking her where she is in her diary and expecting a different answer every time. It's not a normal sort of friendship, but since when has anything in his life been normal?
"If I can reroute the subatomic clusters on the back end of the triaptorlane subsector, we can reset the extradialation, fry their sensors!"
"They'll still be able to tell we're here, though, they'll kill us!" She's got an angry grumble to her voice, but he's learned that actually means she's scared. There's a lot he's learning about her, slowly.
"Well, probably, which is why we're---" The circuitry sparks in his hands and he cries out. "No, no no no!"
"What is it, what's happened?"
"The power's backed up, I---I can't do it!" He smacks the sonic screwdriver. While he likes the feel of the newer model, it's still so buggy. "The red setting's gone faulty."
"Did you try the dampeners?"
"Wouldn't be of any use here." He steps out onto the platform. They've apparently run themselves into a train station. If nothing else, their signatures will be more muddled here.
"It's Mr. Crow," River hisses at him, nodding down another corridor. The insane leader of those trying to set the Cybermats loose on the city. He's already been interrogated by the man and the Doctor is not his biggest fan.
"They're sweeping this area, we'll stand out," he says. "We have to---"
River grabs him suddenly, wraps her arms around his neck, and kisses him. He's so completely startled by it that he's not certain what to do at first. There's no nervousness, no tentativeness, not even the slightest hint of wariness in her kiss.
It takes a moment, but his hands eventually find their way to her waist and he kisses her back. She kisses like an old lover, deeply and yet casually. It doesn't fizzle like a kiss with a youth, it sits warm and heavy on his lips like warm caramel and a hot Brandy Alexander (sweet and simple yet seems to go straight to his head).
When she pulls apart, he's still stunned enough that he can't figure out what she's looking for over his shoulder.
"Good, it looks like they moved on," she says. "I think we should get back to the command area, try to…Doctor, are you all right?"
He blinks, trying to clear up his rather foggy brain.
Right, the Cybermats. "Uh, yeah, we should."
She grins widely, takes his hand, and leads him away from the platform.
Maybe this is love, but he hasn't fallen in quite yet.
The first time he kisses her, she's not expecting it.
It's really only a return of the favor, he decides. They're standing at the edge of a long fall into a churning, dangerous ocean full of sentient sharks.
So, really, it's just a typical Saturday for him.
"You'll drop down, you'll kill yourself!" She looks positively terrified, so naturally she sounds angry.
"Could be," he replies, glancing over the edge. He looks back at her and grins suddenly, widely. "So, in case we never meet again…"
He tangles his hand in her short hair and pulls her to him. She's stunned into non-response at first, eventually returning his kiss deeply, very nearly desperately. Sizzling, spicy and young---that's what she is now, young. Her adoration for him is young.
He pulls back and she throws a punch at him, which inadvertently sends him flying backwards into the water. Well, it's where he was planning on going anyway.
This whole falling in love thing, not so much.
The first time they spend the night together, he is fastidious about making sure they're on the same timeline. It's too strange otherwise.
It's actually fairly embarrassing, finding out if they are, but eventually he just learns that asking her from a confused time traveler perspective usually gets an honest (albeit slightly annoyed) response.
It's their sixth official date, though many, many adventures sit in between that he's seen and hasn't seen. They went to see the shooting ice stars over Coronaiya 7 and got a little tipsy on champagne.
They get to the door to her flat and she's already loosened his tie and left red smears of lipstick on his jaw.
"Don't even think about telling me you've got somewhere to be in the TARDIS," she says, tugging on his beltloops.
Who is he to deny her?
Later on that evening, she should be sleeping but instead she's lying on her back, scribbling in her diary as he watches her. He's propped up on one elbow, just watching. He can't figure out why he didn't find her beautiful when he first met her. Youth, he figures, made him only see the conventional.
"Don't you sleep?" she asks, keeping her eyes on her diary.
"You never ask me to look in my diary," she says. This is the way it is with River, sometimes. She leaps from topic to topic, not unlike the way he thinks. It works for them.
"I can't," he says, thinking back to the day in the Library. He doesn't like to think about that day very much, but he does, often. "Against the rules, am I right?"
His rules, she'd said once. The rules he hasn't set up. He hates rules, why would he make rules? Maybe he wouldn't have if she hadn't said something in the Library. Timey-wimey and all that good nonsense.
"You must never, ever let me look in your diary, River," he says. His tone is so serious she turns away from her writing to look at him. "I can't be spoiled by the end, no matter how much I want to."
She might not understand, but she nods and accepts it. When it comes to things she doesn't understand, she knows when to accept them and when to make him tell her the truth.
As she puts away her diary and settles back on his chest, he thinks that it's not fair he has to know how it all ends when he's so happy right now.
"I love you," she says as she falls asleep.
He takes a breath and nods. "Me, too."
The first time he asks her to marry him, she doesn't answer as he suspects.
Which is, if nothing else, completely embarrassing.
He remembers the Library, remembers her whispering his name and knowing everything about him. Knowing his name means she's been psychically bonded to him, which means he's done the Gallifreyan equivalent of a marriage. Seems logical, after all these years, that he should ask her anyway. It's not as if he's got any other sort of woman on the side and she's been faithful to him.
Of course, when he asks her, he expects her to say 'yes'. Instead, she laughs at him. Laughs!
He doesn't pout. Okay, he does. But only a little. He's got some pride at least.
"Isn't marriage too domestic for you?" she asks, only barely able to breathe from how hard she's laughing. "Never saw you as a nuclear family sort of bloke."
"Well, I thought it might be something we could try," he crosses his arms. "I suppose not?"
She wipes the tears from her eyes. "I'm not settling down," she says. "Don't even think about it."
"Wasn't planning on it," he says. "I was just…thinking about making it official."
"And you had to ask me now?"
Well, maybe the situation isn't the best. They're handcuffed together on a railway track with the noises of oncoming locomotives in the distance and he hasn't got his sonic screwdriver.
She shakes her head firmly. "We've got plenty of time, you and I, Doctor. No need to rush into marriage."
His eyebrows knit together. Her book is more than halfway full. "You willing to bet your life on that?"
"Always, Sweetie." She pulls out a familiar looking gun from the fields of Villenguard and points it at the track. A perfect square hole appears and they slip the cuffs out.
"Where did you get that?" he demands, rubbing his wrist.
"Box in the TARDIS labeled 'Jack'. He had fantastic taste in underwear, too. Come on!" She grins, takes his hand, and they run.
He asks her to marry him again a week later, without the expectations of a 'yes' and with a proper ring. She says yes. He's impossibly happy for a few days, then the reality sets in: He's moving closer to that day in the Library.
He doesn't know if he's going to be able to let her go.
The first time he interferes, he's terrified he'll break everything.
Everything hangs by such a delicate thread. Them meeting, how they became companions, even their wedding fell on a string of coincidences and mixed-up timelines (though they were still happily photographed together afterwards, despite being covered in Mandrake entrails).
Bonding to her goes more smoothly, but it's still the most terrifying experience of his life. She learns his name and her eyes grow darker for the things she sees in his mind. And yet, she still loves him.
But this little stupid book is almost full and when it's full, she'll go to the Library. So he stays up late and splits the binding so he can glue in more pages. He tears the spine and swears under his breath.
"What are you doing?" She comes out of their bedroom wrapped in a blue terrycloth robe.
"Adding more pages to your diary," he says, holding it up.
"You don't have to do that, I can always get another."
"No, I like this one."
"So do I, but it's getting rather full."
"You've got a good thirty pages more."
She wraps her arms around him from behind and places a kiss to his bare shoulder. "You worry too much about that diary sometimes, I think. I've thought about throwing it away---"
"Thought about. It's not like I'm going to." She sighs. "Do you ever wonder, Doctor? What it would've been like if everything moved a little slower?"
He raises an eyebrow and turns to look at her. "Do you want that?"
She shakes her head. "I'd never want to reverse this, sweetie. Ever. But sometimes…I wonder what it might be like. Three kids, little yellow house, chit-chatting with the girls over lattes at the mall. Seems like a foreign world."
She looks like she's thinking about a life she'll never have.
He thinks about CAL and the Library.
In another year he adds thirty more pages, but by then the book is straining to bursting. He's going to have to let her go soon.
He just doesn't know if he can.
He's not sure how long he spends in the time vortex, avoiding her calls. He even made a plan to go on a picnic date with her when she was younger, but he knows he'll have already taken care of it.
He stuffs himself into tiny places between the TARDIS walls, working on the many, many broken pieces of his machine. There's always something to fix and when he's staring at the tiniest wires or dealing with leaking radiation, he doesn't have to think that he's already filled up almost all of River's diary pages. There's only one more left.
When he wakes up on the floor of the console room a few days short of shaving and his suit badly in need of a tailor, he realizes he doesn't have a choice, now. He's got to move forward.
He makes the adjustments to his sonic screwdriver.
He gets a haircut and dons a new suit.
He thinks about taking her somewhere else. Anywhere but the singing towers.
But that might erase everything they've done and he couldn't possibly do that. He couldn't make it not exist. He takes her to the archeological exhibition in front of the towers and they look at the newly discovered pieces.
"That looks like it could be an information retrieval device," she says, pointing at a piece of twisted metal.
"That's exactly what it is, actually. I think that's archeologists 1, rest of the universe 7 billion."
She slaps his arm, "Oh, stop it, you."
She leans into his arms and they listen to the towers sing. He does everything in his power to memorize everything about this moment. The way she feels in his arms, the way her hair smells as it spills across her shoulders. She's just gotten a haircut, too, and she's got the little lines under her eyes he remembers from before.
He starts to cry against her hair. Quietly, silently. It's nearly over, now. All the things he struggled to stop himself from happening have happened and now that he wants it he can't have it anymore. He can't have her anymore.
"What's wrong?" she asks, turning her head to look at him. "Sweetie? Doctor? Tell me."
He shakes his head and his smile is small and tight. He doesn't lie, doesn't even try to cover up how upset he is. He just is.
They go back to her house and he hands her his sonic screwdriver. She looks ridiculously excited and it very nearly makes him burst into tears again. He doesn't, though. He just tells her to be safe.
"Be safe? With a whole universe out there to cause trouble in?" she grins.
"You'd bet your life on that?" he asks, though he already knows the answer.
He doesn't want to leave, but if he doesn't now, he won't ever. He kisses her one last time, then turns back towards the TARDIS.
He pauses. Turns around. "River?"
"I love you."
She smiles. "I know."
Years pass. He moves on, finds companions, has adventures. River wouldn't want him to fall into a dark depression, so he makes sure to only fall into it briefly before getting back up again.
He eventually puts his wedding band on his nightstand, then in the drawer. He becomes a bachelor again. A proper bachelor with the swagger and the flirty smile, even though it never quite reaches his eyes.
He snaps open the TARDIS doors and heads out to another adventure. Sontarans (of all things!) attacking a school in the 51st century. He rallies the students, gets them to fight back.
"There's got to be a better way to defeat them than just 'back of the neck'," a skinny archeological student says, putting her hands on her hips.
"Well, maybe, but it's the best we've---" He stops as the air in his lungs leaves in a woosh.
She's eighteen. Thinner than he remembers her, and her hair is so short. She's looking at him the way he must've looked at her all those years ago. Like a stranger.
"River Song, archeology student. Do I know you?"
There's a blast outside of the door and he grabs her hand. "Run!"
One last run for him, the first for her.
But that's the way it is for them, beginning things at the end.
Muse: The Doctor (Ten)
Fandom: Doctor Who
Word Count: 4,390