The second time the Doctor meets River Song isn't an accident. He's already failed her once, and after what happened with Donna he doesn't want to let anyone down ever again. It's a doomed plan, he knows that, but at least he can try.
He tracks her down at her university, sits opposite her in the cafeteria and tries to be the man she wants to see.
"Hello, sweetie," she says, not looking up from the book she's reading.
He smiles for her. "Hello, cupcake."
River silently puts her book to one side. "Did you just call me 'cupcake'?"
So that's not what she was expecting. Good start, Doctor, nothing can possibly go wrong. He leans back in his chair, trying for casual. "Honeysuckle?"
River stares at him and then, thankfully, smiles. "Are you drunk?"
He shrugs. "I'm just trying to be, you know, romantic. I'd have brought you flowers but the last time I did that for someone they bit her and she had to get a tetanus shot."
River nods like she understands and moves a hand to cover one of his. "How long is it since Donna ... left?"
He shifts uncomfortably but doesn't pull his hand away. "Not long."
River slides her fingers between his. "I wish I could tell you ... oh, sometimes I hate this."
"This isn't about her. This is about you, and me, and having a good time. Can we do that?"
"I've got a class in an hour."
"I've got a time machine."
"Well, when you put it like that ..."
He kisses her at the top of Blackpool Tower, in the rain. He fights down the usual urge to run, reminds himself that this is about River, works on his memories of being a husband.
He's seen a lot of people die. Only rarely does he get a chance to apologise after the fact.
Nothing dangerous happens; it's just a normal day at the seaside. Slightly on the boring side, if he weren't so focussed on fixing his own mistakes. They eat ice cream on one of the piers and she wins him a stuffed toy elephant by firing water at targets. He wonders where she learned to shoot like that, and whether it should worry him.
They stop for fish and chips in a café just off the promenade. As they wait for their food, he uses the condiments tray to relate an old adventure. "So," he says, "if you imagine that I'm the ketchup, and if we say the pepper is a Dalek ..." He tails off to watch a woman pass the window, turns his attention back to the story a moment later. "Then —"
"Do you even know that you're doing it?" asks River.
He's confused. "Know I'm doing what?"
"Redheads," she says, "you're staring at every woman with red hair."
"No, I'm not," he says, and he's lying. Of course he knows he's doing it. He just doesn't know how to stop.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asks, and it's not quite pity but it's close enough.
"There's nothing to talk about. I'm fine." He looks around anxiously for a distraction.
"Who are you travelling with at the moment?" asks River, who surely knows the answer.
"Just myself," he says, unable to think of a good enough lie.
"You're on your own and you're staring at redheads. And you think there's nothing to talk about."
"It was three weeks ago," he says. "Three weeks, one day, fourteen hours. I'm trying not to keep track of the minutes and seconds."
"Oh, sweetie ..." Her hands cross the table and he draws away before she can touch him.
"You knew," he says. "I saw you and you knew and you didn't tell me. And don't say 'spoilers' because time doesn't have to work like that."
"You knew something would happen eventually," says River. "You know that nobody can stay with you forever."
"That's not the point and you know it. She could have left of her own free will, she could have found something else to do, she could have met someone she wanted to settle down with. If I'd known in advance —"
"What?" asks River. "You'd have risked a paradox? You'd have risked the universe for her?"
"One little paradox isn't going to blow up the universe, even these days, and even if it did —"
"Well," says River calmly, "as someone who lives in the universe I'm grateful for your concern."
The Doctor doesn't want to admit that she's right, so he's glad when the chips arrive and he has an excuse to stop talking. The chips are limp and underseasoned, but calculating the precise amount of salt and malt vinegar to improve them keeps him occupied for a full minute.
"Anything would have been better than what I did," he finally says. "I didn't have a choice, River, don't you see? Not with her brain beginning to boil. If only I'd had more time to work it out —"
There's a thick tangle of chips on River's plate, but she steals one from his anyway and wags it at him while she speaks. "But you didn't. Honestly, I've met a few of you over the years, but not one with more self-pity." She chews the chip. "Just for that, I'm having another one of your chips."
He shoves the plate to her side of the table, no longer hungry, and runs a hand through his hair. "I need to know that she's all right, River. That she's making something of herself — that I didn't take away everything that she'd become."
"You couldn't have," River says. "If she grew into the person you knew once, she can do it again. I assume." She finishes softly, "I'm sure she's fine. Even if you can never see her again."
"Yes," he replies. "That's why I'm asking you to look in on her for me."
The words escape his mouth almost before he realises he's thought of them. He will show River he trusts her. He will know Donna's okay, assuming she actually is okay, which she probably is because she was always far more resilient than she believed, that most human trait of all. He will have all of the information, and none of the responsibility.
It is a brilliant plan. A perfect plan.
River stops mid-chew, jerks her head up to stare at him. "You're what?"
"Just check in on her every now and then, make sure her head hasn't gone ka-bang —"
River finishes her chip and gives him that same piercing look he saw so often in the Library: a look that weighs her secrets against his probable knowledge, and does not decide in his favour.
"You'd like me to spy on her," she says.
"I suppose when you put it that way: yes."
River pauses to squeeze lemon on her meal, tear off a chunk of fried fish, pop it in her mouth. She takes her time with it, then goes for another bite. Lets him dangle.
"All right," she says. "But only because Dr. T said my companions chapter needs work. You may be easy to find in the history books, but ordinary humans aren't."
"None of them were ordinary, River."
"I know," she says. "But we all pale in comparison to a god."
The next time the Doctor sees River she's marking papers in the basement warren she shares with three other graduate students. She's alone, at least, though barely; he can still smell sour, stale coffee dregs an office-mate has left behind.
It's probably been two and a half weeks since he gave her a time ring, coordinates for Chiswick, and strict instructions not to abuse her time-travelling privileges, although he fully expected to be ignored. Or maybe it's been more like two weeks, or more like three, the TARDIS' precision not always being accurate (much less precise), but she's accurate enough that he won't be surprising a River who hadn't agreed to look in on Donna.
The stack of student papers on River's desk is several inches high and weighted down by a chocolate bar with an anachronistic logo.
"Here for me, or for your field report?" River asks. She doesn't bother to look up at him until she's made two more broad swipes of her red felt-tip across the page, along with the word "NO" underlined three times. She finishes with a smiley face.
"I thought you might fancy a trip to Las Vegas. Not Earth Las Vegas; New New Las Vegas, out in the Scorpius Cluster. If we leave now, we can still catch the Cirque des Deux Soleils' late show."
"You have a time machine. We can leave whenever we like and catch the late show."
"Well, yes, but it's the principle of the thing."
"Sweetie, in case you haven't noticed, I have twenty utterly terrible first-year papers to grade before tomorrow."
"Time. Machine," he repeats. "Remember? Take a week to look over the papers, have you back here in the morning, fresh as a daisy, maybe even with a souvenir. Mind you, the last time I saw them, they were out of everything except spangly thongs, and only in medium. Not my size."
River's pen clicks solidly on the desktop. "I told Dr. T I'd finish these. I like keeping my promises to her."
"This Dr. T must be a very special woman."
"She is." River spins the pen in a circle, and doesn't speak again until it sputters to a stop. "Donna's fine, by the way. Since you haven't bothered to ask, though I can tell you're dying to."
"Ah." He settles down in the cheap and mysteriously stained side chair by the desk. More like sinks, really, as what's left of the springs simply gives way beneath his buttocks rather than attempting to do anything vaguely springy. "That's good. Good, good, good."
"She's still temping. She buys an OK! and a lottery ticket every week. Fridays she's down the pub with a couple of mates, one with a terrible blonde bottle job and the other a brunette, and I think the three of them are covering the bar's sour apple vodka bill." River reaches for another paper, immediately rolls her eyes, and makes several emphatic red marks. "Most other nights she's up on the hill with her grand-dad. Lovely man. Shameless flirt, just like you. And me." She winks at him, then adds several more red lines to the paper. She flips to the second page, stares at it, stares again, buries her face in the paper, and then drops it face-down on the desk. "Did you know there's a secret underground prison below Stonehenge? I have got to have a word with these children about search engines."
"You do that," he says. "Anyway, you've spoken to Wilf?" He tries to straighten up in his chair, but the springs simply suck him in further. "River, you've got to be careful. If he finds out who you are — if Donna finds out —"
"If Donna finds out ... " River laughs, shakes her head. "Now you're being as ridiculous as my first-years. Of course I'm being careful."
"What, they teach spycraft in archaeology programs now?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps I learned it somewhere else. Perhaps I simply have innate skill at covert operations honed by years of training with a rogue paramilitary organisation from whose clutches I've only recently escaped."
"Oh, and I'm the ridiculous one in this scenario."
"I suppose I was pushing things a bit," she says. "Anything else for now?" There's an edge in her voice, and she reaches for the next paper in the stack.
"A rain check on the Cirque, then."
"Yes. Let's do that." Head down again, even as he leaves.
He lasts nearly an entire week before he walks past a market stall on the rings of Akhaten selling the same fizzy coconut drinks he and Donna had shared on Shan Shen, and he winds up half-heartedly sipping at one while attempting to admire the seven worlds. Susan had so loved the marketplace here. Donna would have, too; she never could turn down a shopping trip.
He drops the unfinished coconut drink in the nearest composter, and sets the TARDIS looking for River. They find her at her flat, where she opens the door after several knocks and stares at him as if she's seen a ghost.
"Goodness," she says, "it's you."
"None other! I thought we could catch the Cirque des Deux Soleils. After all, I owe you a trip."
"You certainly took your time about it."
"It's only been a week, River ... hasn't it? Two weeks? Oh, come on, it can't have been more than that."
"Seventeen months. Nothing much."
"Ah." Time to recalibrate the TARDIS tracking sensors, apparently. "Sorry about that."
"I finished my degree. I'm a doctor now myself. And ... a few other things happened, but you'll get to those eventually."
"After the Cirque?" He extends his arm and gives her his most conciliatory smile.
She smiles in return, a promise of much more in the curve of her lips. "After the Cirque."
River tumbles tipsily from the TARDIS into the Doctor's arms and onto her couch. A low-gravity acrobatics show, a late dinner (and a hundred-year-old Clos de Vougeot) at the hovering restaurant, and accidentally foiling a casino heist takes a lot out of a woman. It takes a lot out of a Time Lord, too, for that matter, although various soft parts of River make breaking his fall more enjoyable than usual.
His lips meet the curve of her neck, and she stretches, giving him room to trail kisses towards her mouth, which opens at the touch of his tongue. Her nails scrape the base of his scalp. Fingers tangling in his hair, her leg sliding along his, an ankle gently nudging his lower body closer to hers. If this is the welcome he's going to receive every time he forgets about her for a year and a half, he should be forgetful more often.
Forgetful. Like the woman whose memories he took.
The graceful way to have this conversation with River would be to stop now, pull away from her, come clean about why he'd really dropped by her doorstep. The less graceful way would be to keep going, because there's no question he could have River's clothes off in seconds if he asked (and probably without even having to ask), and then he could casually bring up Donna's name post-shag.
Or there's the truly ungraceful way, in which he pauses awkwardly mid-kiss while he ponders Donna and his internal motivations, and River suddenly grows aware she's doing all the work and pauses herself.
"Sweetie?" she says. "Is everything all right?"
Concentrate on how her lips feel against his own. On how she tastes of rare Burgundy, or how her curls twine round his fingers.
"Of course. Everything's fine. Just ... needed to catch my breath for a moment. That's you, River Song; literally breathtaking."
Her eyes narrow. "You always try too hard when you lie to me." She lifts herself up on one elbow, pushes him upright with the other arm. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong, or do I need to beat it out of you in a way I promise you won't enjoy?"
"It's nothing, River, honestly. Nothing." He runs his hands through his hair, momentarily distracting himself with the royal mess they've both made of it, and sighs.
"All right, then," she says, "we'll go through the list. It's you, so ... sudden attack of shyness? That's easily fixed." She reaches for his tie, tugs the knot below his collar. "No? Sudden attack of loneliness, then?"
"That's not fair, River."
"You're right. I'm sorry. But you look so sad, my love. And we were having such a wonderful time." Her fingers cross his face, stroking his cheeks. "Oh," she finally says. Her voice hardens, and she sits up fully. "Of course."
"Of course what?"
"Seventeen months for me. Not nearly so long for you. You came here to talk to me about Donna."
"Be fair. I came here to take you to dinner and a show."
"And to check on my extracurricular assignment."
"Only if you had anything that might be worth sharing."
"It's been a year and a half, sweetie. I'm done spying on her. I've been done spying on her for a very long time now. And I wouldn't have even done it in the first place if —"
He winces. "Don't. Really. It's fine. I should never have brought it up." His eyes drop to her lips, then the cleavage her dress was carefully arranged to expose. He leans back over her, strokes her temple, whispers against her cheek. "Let's start over, shall we?"
"No," she says, moving away when his hands start to wander. "I'm not having pity-sex with my own ... with you of all people. Come back when you're here for me and not for her."
But she stands up, slides open a hidden drawer in a side table, and reaches in to hand him his time ring. "I believe this is yours," she says.
The ring's edges cut into his palm when he closes his fist around it.
"Thank you for the lovely evening," River says. "I think you know the way out."
Two years earlier
Most graduate students dreaded meetings with their dissertation committee, but River had always got along with hers — especially Dr. Temple-Noble, whose knowledge of the Doctor rivalled River's own. The university's archaeology and anthropology department had considered Dr. T quite a catch: while Dr. T had always refused to go into the details of what a two-way biological metacrisis entailed, it was clear the incident had given her a unique understanding of the Time Lord.
River had discovered one other connection between herself and Dr. T not long after delivering an early draft of the dissertation chapter about the Doctor's eleventh incarnation. Dr. T had called River into her office, a small but comfortable space with curio shelves filled with treasures from her travels. She was old, her long white hair bunched into a rough ponytail and her pale, wrinkled hands quivering on the desk. River had never asked her how old she really was; Donna had time-travelled to this century using a machine of her own devising, and had joked that it scrambled her cells along the way. But her blue eyes still gleamed, and her students quickly learned never to underestimate the frail-looking elderly woman who could still slice them to ribbons with a few sharp words.
That day, she had been still and quiet, unusually so, and had not invited River to sit down. When she finally spoke, her voice was hoarse.
"I read your chapter," she'd said. "It's a bit rough, but first draft, you know, we'll let that go."
Dr. T paused, took a breath, paused once more.
"So I never meet him again," she said, looking directly at River. "Is that right?"
All the work River had put into researching this chapter — the adventures she'd pursued with the Doctor instead of certain less interesting classes, the hours reviewing the TARDIS' database — and she'd missed the one thing that mattered even more to her advisor than the quality of her dissertation. The Doctor, a body past having made that terrible choice, still spoke of Donna with regret, unaware that she'd transformed herself.
"I'm sorry," River had said, the words echoing through the hollow in her heart. "I am so, so sorry."
Dr. T waved her hand, but there was still a quiver in her voice when she spoke. "Don't. Don't ever say that. I heard that so many times from —" She shook her head. "If there's one thing you learn travelling with him, it's that we all lose him in the end, or he loses us. Either way — be a dear and close the door on your way out."
After that day, River had never submitted another chapter without an agonised week of review.
Among Dr. T's many charms was that she was perfectly willing to meet with River during graduate student-friendly wee hours. Those were nights they met at Dr. T's penthouse flat, a short monorail ride just far enough from campus that the university's lights didn't interfere with stargazing. River took the lift to the building's top floor and wound her way through the flat to a side deck with an unrestricted view of the sky.
"Come in, come in," Dr. T said, gesturing towards River without moving her eye from the telescope. "You got my message? About your twenty-first century companions chapter?"
River opened the thermal bottle of tea she'd brought, poured two cups, and handed one to Dr. T. "I did," she said. "I believe you called it 'complete and utter cack.'"
"Yeah." Dr. T drew out the word. "It could use a bit of work. Like, any at all."
"I have tried, you know. It's just really hard to find information about most of them. There's the one in another universe, and I've found the UNIT records on Martha, but I can't find much about her husband other than some internet archive posts — though at least there's my parents, I can cover them a bit more —"
"I think you're missing at least one."
"All you have to do is make time for an interview."
"I will, I will, but this can't just be about me. You need to do more research. See things for yourself."
"And how exactly am I supposed to do that? The Time Agency already turned me down, and it's not like the Doctor's visits are predictable."
"Do you always give up that easily? Life's harder than that, missy. Try again." Dr. T's voice softened. "And if the Time Agency still turns you down, tell me, and I'll give them a piece of my mind."
"All right," River said. "I'll see what I can do."
"Good. I'm here if you need me, except between two and four. That's my siesta, and you do not want to wake me in the middle of it." Dr. T adjusted the angle and focus of the telescope. "There," she said. "The Orion Nebula. Gramps' favourite." She motioned River towards the eyepiece. "Look at that. The universe is full of wonderful things, and don't you ever forget it."
The nebula pooled across the telescope viewport, rippling in luminescent, vaporous waves. How many times had she and Dr. T seen something like this up-close? The thrill never faded, even if all they had now to see it with was a four-inch circle of glass. At least they could still share the stars, even if they could no longer share the Doctor.
"Good girl. Now run along. You've got Barker's exam in the morning, don't you? Crusty old bitch. Never changes a thing about the first test, did you know that? Just write her a few hundred words about the decline and fall of the Roman empire, you'll be fine. Did I ever tell you I was at the fall of Pompeii? Pyroviles. Pyroviles, can you believe it?" Dr. T laughed and slapped her thigh. "Ah, another time. Buy me an appletini, I'll tell you anything, I always say. Do you know, I haven't had one of those in ages. Can they even still make them? Oh, come back tonight, dearie, let's find out."
"Absolutely, Dr. T," River said. "I want to hear every last word."
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