More than once upon a time, there was magic. The walls of the world were wide. Mortal men had endless potential beyond the laws of logic and reason. Gods had faces and names that held them accountable for their choices. Never were mortals more like gods. Never were gods more like men. There was so much beauty, joy, and sweetness in life. There was so much suffering and death.
The magic was there in the story of Amelia Pond, the Girl Who Remembered, and Faithful Rory, the Boy Who Waited. With mortal hearts and memory, they overcame the greatest army since the Time War and the very unmaking of creation. They loved each other with the greatest impossibility. She was a riddle with no rhyme. He was a certainty that didn't exist.
This is not their story.
The magic was there in the story of Jack of Boe, the man who was neither immortal nor a god. He was doomed to a life of death for daring to love. For time unmeasured, he was sentenced to watching everything and everyone he loved abandon him in death. He was damned to betraying anyone he loved by living. Everyone knows the story of his mortal daughter, Alice, who never forgave him for saving the world. Everyone knows the story of his lover, Ianto, who asked for too little too late. Jack was the greatest of heroes, but was only ever repaid by the fear of mortal men and the distaste of the gods. He learned the terrible truth of undying love.
This is not his story.
Before and after the story of Amelia Pond and her Faithful Rory, before and after Jack of Boe, there was a god who wished he was a man. He had many faces and many names and thus really had no face and no name. He was the god of love and hope. He was the god of sorrow and despair. He was the Lord of Time. He was the Lord of Dreams.
Every story is his story.
As a young god, he ran away from his home on a ship called Tardis woven from the possibilities left over from the beginning of creation. It was made up from everything that could have possibly been or could possibly ever be. The other gods had wanted to unmake this ship, afraid of its power when it began to feel and think for itself. The Lord of Time saw a kindred in this living machine since he was also the Lord of Dreams and what is a dream but endless possibility. Together, they escaped the other gods and because of his defiance, the young god could never afford to stop running again. Banished from all that he knew, this Time Lord began to dream of a new life where he and his great ship sailed the skies and saved those who couldn't save themselves. He dreamed of a world where gods cared and helped just because they could. This Dream Lord used his living machine, his beautiful ship, his Tardis, to create such a world. He created the feeling of hope and healed so many hurts.
The mortal men he saved gave him a name and because he loved them so greatly, he would answer to no other. He was the Doctor.
"Hello, I'm the Doctor."
She looked up to find a young man sitting at her table. Her eyes scanned him over the edge of her iPad. His hair was a floppy mess, tamed just enough to say, 'I want to look like I don't care,' instead of really looking like he didn't care. His face was very young but had classic lines that would've been considered handsome almost a hundred years ago. That made him look older too. He was wearing a tweed coat and bow-tie. She couldn't help smirking at that. She'd seen many students over the years try to resuscitate dying fashions and taken enjoyment in the ridiculousness that is an eighteen year old girl in a cummerbund or the one time with that young man and the codpiece. It had always screamed, 'I want attention!' But the way he wore it. It was like he had no idea that he was supposed to be wearing anything else. She had the odd thought that it fit his face. He was a handsome young man, that seemed to care little about what that meant in this time and place. She could respect that.
She could also respect the audacity it took for a new professor to walk up to a senior professor at a cafe, sit at her table uninvited and just introduce himself like that.
"Hello, sweetie." She meant for the term to come out sounding matronly. Instead, it might have sounded a bit flirtatious. He smiled wide, slightly goofy but very endearing. She couldn't help but smile back. "How can I help you?"
"You're Professor River Song," he said, rolling the sound of her first name so that it sounded like something new. No one had ever said her name like that. She'd always resented her name a little bit, thinking that it dated her too easily as the daughter of hippies. She'd certainly been teased about it enough throughout her life. But the way he said it, it didn't sound like English or a word. It sounded like an incantation and she imagined finding it in an old book in a collapsed tomb. Finally, it fit.
Not exactly the type of personal revelation she should be experiencing when speaking with a man still in his twenties. He was a professor, too, but he was still so much younger than her. She knew that. Everyone knew the professor who called himself the Doctor.
"And you're the wunderkind." she replied.
He had the grace to look embarrassed at his name preceding him. He readjusted his bow-tie with a hand and grabbed for the salt shaker on the table with the other.
"Yes, well, some call me that, I suppose."
"Are you saying you don't deserve that title?" River teased.
He stopped fiddling with his tie and concentrated on the salt shaker. His eyes looked up at her with his head angled. It made him look coy and just a little bit smug. She could appreciate that. Many people had accused her of being smug from time to time. She'd never been accused of being coy.
"Oh no, I'm brilliant," he answered. "A complete genius, that's me, but I've never really liked being called that."
"It always sounds like people are surprised."
"And people shouldn't be surprised that you're so amazing?"
He smiled and poured salt on the table. "Because I'm the Doctor."
"You do realize what people think when you introduce yourself that way?"
"Yep," he replied, setting the salt shaker down and stealing her butter knife. He began to scrawl with it in the spilled salt. "They think I'm talking about my doctorates."
"No." He replied, giving her a vague smile to match his vague answer. "I read your paper on mathematical connections between the Mayan calendar and the geometry of Stonehenge."
"Oh?" she asked. "What did you think?"
The Doctor finished the loops and swirls he was tracing on the table in salt. He set the butter knife down, sat back in his chair, and smiled in a halo set by the sunlight streaming through the shop window. He looked incredibly pleased with himself, so young with energy, so old with confidence. He looked at her as if she were something he'd never seen before but approved of her completely.
Suddenly, he jumped out of his chair, causing it to screech a little on the concrete floor. It startled her but she didn't show it any more than with one or two slow blinks. She was a professor of archeology, but she had lived an active, adventurous life. She knew how to take sudden changes in her stride.
It looked like he was just going to walk away but instead, he paused at her shoulder. He looked down on her and she felt like the young one, forced to look up at him. It didn't feel like a power-play precisely, though there was a very strange sense of role-reversal going on. He waited until he knew he had her full attention.
"I think you're brilliant," he replied. The way his voice lingered on that word made her shiver. "Let me know if you're interested."
He flashed her a smile and the next moment, he was gone in a whirl of tweed and floppy hair. She watched him through the shop window as he walked down the pavement outside. People parted for him without realizing. Only when he disappeared from view did River notice the smile on her face in the window's reflection.
River set her iPad down and tried to return to her meal. Her eyes were pulled back to spilled salt. She'd have to apologize to the waitress for the mess. Something about it struck her as odd though. It was a tickle in the back of her mind. There was some logic to his mad drawing. She stared at it for a long minute but only when she rotated it in her head to be facing her did she realize what it said.
He'd sketched out a Mayan hieroglyph for banquet or meal or dinner. The Doctor had asked her out on a date with spilled salt and a dead language.
River Song laughed and fell in love.
The Doctor was by nature a happy god, who loved laughter and smiles and tricks and games. He enjoyed the presence of the mortals he saved so very much that it wasn't unusual for him to take one or two onto his ship, the amazing Tardis, to travel with him for a time. He loved his companions and his companions loved him. He had many happy days with them.
The Doctor was a very lonely god. Though his good deeds had earned him the biggest family in the whole world, filled with friends and loved ones, the Doctor suffered and had no one to soothe him. Who heals the healer? Who saves the savior? Who could share the burdens of a god?
Though the Doctor had many lovers, several spouses, over the millennia, he lost them all. They were each of them great in their own ways, but their paths led away from the Doctor. If he were lucky, they would still remain friends, like Jack of Boe. If he were unlucky, he'd never see them again, like the Valiant Child. Even while loving them, he hid the vastness of who he was from them all, because the true nature of a god is a wondrous and terrible thing. He feared to break those he loved. He broke them without even trying.
He gave up on trying.
Then one night, the Doctor visited the greatest library ever built. The corridors were so immense that even a god could get lost. The Doctor delighted in his dilemma but soon found himself too tired to work his way out. He was in no rush since he was a Time Lord and the world wouldn't dare leave him behind. He was also a Dream Lord and he understood that he did some of his very best thinking when he disregarded reality.
The Doctor laid down in the Library and dreamed of a woman made of water. She would never break because water could not be hurt. She would never end because water had no beginning. She would understand because water was ancient and wise.
"I know you," she said, her voice like the rush of a stream and the hum of rain. Her love enveloped him because she was water, but he didn't drown. She washed the worries of the world away.
The Doctor woke up in the Library and it hurt.
River got his text during lecture. Normally, she turned her mobile off during class, but she was waiting to hear from the lab when the results from an artifact were finished. Two years of work relied on its dating. The Doctor knew that, which is no doubt why he sent her the text.
'The library. Come as soon as you can. x'
Sealed with a kiss. It was hard to tell when the Doctor was joking and when he was being genuinely affectionate. Either was a possibility. The fact he sent it when he knew she'd read it in class suggested something a little more salacious. It was a bit naughty, almost taboo, reading a text message from her twenty-eight-year-old lover while lecturing to university students young enough to be her children. No doubt, he got a thrill out of it too. He enjoyed flouting social norms that inconvenienced him. Particularly the ones that suggested he shouldn't love her because their time lines weren't perfectly in sync.
River didn't blush. She didn't pause in her lecture. She simply exited the message and carried on with her topic. No one in the class had a clue.
Afterward, she went straight to the library.
He found her in the shadows and grabbed her from behind. She didn't jump. She didn't scream. She twisted in his arms and returned his embrace.
"I can never surprise you," he said, with a small frown.
"You surprise me plenty, sweetie," she replied.
"Good. Good," the Doctor said, running his hands down her back. "Because I'm told that you are only using me for the excitement and my body, despite the fact that I have an IQ of about a bazillion."
"A bazillion?" River asked, pretending she didn't notice he was backing her up slowly against a wall at the end of the aisle.
"About," he clarified, so serious that he was certainly making fun of himself again. It was one of the things she loved about him. He had no patience for false modesty, but he did appreciate his own ridiculousness. Of course, she knew he often tried to hide hurt behind humor. She'd never seen him cry. He laughed instead. But for him, it could be the same thing.
River put a hand on his chest, over his heart. It stopped him without the need of any real force. She studied his face. He let her. She could read everything she needed to know there.
"What happened?" she asked. He opened his mouth to deny. "I know something happened, Doctor. You're upset about something. Who said that I'm only with you for the excitement?"
"Ohhh," he stretched the word and looked at the ceiling as if trying to remember precisely. River rolled her eyes. The Doctor had an eidetic memory. He could tell her whether she'd put in the right foot then left or left foot then right when pulling on her knickers that morning. The idea that he could ever forget who told him such a thing was ridiculous. Really, it was only a diversion for his hand to start wandering south. It was much easier for him to try to convince her to forget. "You're wearing the red pair today, aren't you?" he asked, brushing the line of her underwear through her skirt. "Naughty girl. I love the red pair. Which is probably why I keep stealing them. Not to wear them, mind you. Though I could. I'd look rather silly in them, don't you think? Red knickers. Bow-tie. Plus, I'd stretch them all out with my," he cleared his throat. "They'd never fit you right again. And that'd be a terrible shame. No, I steal them for other reasons."
"You're rambling," she said.
He nodded. "Yeah."
"You're afraid that if you tell me who said I was only in it for your body, I'll hurt them, aren't you?"
He looked at her keenly in the dark. "Would you?"
The Doctor smiled. "I understand though. I am quite exciting. And look at me. How could you resist this bod?"
"And the bow-tie," she teased, readjusting it just because he let her.
"Respect the bow-tie," he said in the deep voice he used when pretending to be a more serious man than he really was.
He pulled her closer and she could feel every hard line of him against her. For a moment, the Doctor held her so tightly, it made it difficult to breathe. It was like he thought she might slip away if he wasn't strong enough. River liked the fact that he didn't hold her liked she might break. She tilted her head and wrapped a hand around the back of his neck. He didn't need any more of an invitation. The Doctor kissed her like he had all the time in the world. He pressed his lips against hers and breathed, as if reveling in the fact that he was allowed such an intimacy, that closeness, that stillness. It was only when she sighed that he took it deeper, a sweep of hot tongue, the gentle sucking of her bottom lip, a nibble at the top. No kiss was ever quite the same. Each one felt like drowning. She was drowning in this kind, wonderful man. There would be no other thoughts. No other people. No other times. It was only this. It was only them. The Doctor and River Song were amazing intellects. They were at the height of their fields. They were sought-after authorities on very important things. But right then, for a time, they were something more.
They were lovers. They were loved.
The Time Lord couldn't forget the woman made of water. For a year, he distracted himself with amazing things. He saved the world a hundred times. He watched the story of Amelia Pond and Faithful Rory. But in the end, the distraction could only remind him of the love he lost from its start. The Doctor understood that some dreams were never meant to come true. They were only possibilities. He wondered if it were not better to let that dream be just a dream. After all, everyone he had ever loved had left him in the end. Though he was the god of love and hope, he was also the god of sorrow and despair. He could give love and hope to others, but to accept it was to invite so much pain. He was a god, but that did not mean he was immune to fear.
Still, he dreamed of the woman made of water. She never told him much but he knew that she loved him, kept him, welcomed him, and could easily undo him. He fell in love with her voice, the sound of a river's song.
One day, he woke up and decided to find her.
It wasn't an easy search to find such a woman. Though she was made of water, she looked like a normal mortal. There were so many women in the world. He could not possibly find her on his own. He asked for the help of his companions and together, they looked for this impossible creature.
"What will you do if you find her, Doctor?" Faithful Rory asked.
"When he finds her," Amelia Pond corrected. "What will he do when he finds her."
"I just want to know who she is," the Doctor replied. It was even the truth, because to him, knowing her meant loving her.
For several months, the Doctor and his companions scoured the world to find the woman made of water. During that time, they saved a man from his own hate, they defeated an army of stone giants, they woke a country from a hundred years' sleep. They were not idle and the Doctor helped many keep hope alive though he felt his own wavering. What use was it being a Time Lord when he could not make the search any quicker? What use was it being a Dream Lord when he could not make manifest his desires?
Finally, it was Jack of Boe who appeared on the Tardis in a flash of light. "I found her," he said. "I never expected to. Forgive me, but I thought you'd finally gone insane. Then I saw her. And," Jack whistled, "you weren't kidding. You should see her. Well, I suppose that's the point, huh?"
"Where did you find her?" the Doctor asked.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Doctor? Sometimes, it's better to love people from a distance."
"Right." Jack of Boe offered his arm. "I'll take you to her."
In a flash of light, they disappeared from the Doctor's ship and found themselves at the bank of a stream feeding into the ocean. The day was drowsy in the sky and the night was pressing the sun down into the plunge of the horizon. The shadows were long on the ground and the Doctor could hear something familiar, water like the sound of her voice.
"Down there," Jack said, pointing toward the ocean. With another flash of light, he disappeared but the Doctor didn't feel alone. He followed the stream and walked out until he stood with his feet lapped by the sea. Finally, he saw her, the woman made of water, and she was more beautiful than he had dreamed because she was real.
She stood naked with the waves pooled at her waist. The sunset behind her defining her body like a cut-out in the sky. He smiled to look upon her.
"Do I know you?" she asked.
"I know you," he replied.
He was wearing a top hat and tuxedo with coattails, a white bow-tie and a white, silk scarf. He looked completely ridiculous. He looked utterly marvelous. She wondered if she could convince him to wear it every day. Perhaps, if they always had a wedding to go to, he would, but she was rather sure strangers wouldn't like it if they started showing up to random weddings unannounced, no matter how good the Doctor looked in a tuxedo.
She knew she didn't look too bad herself. Especially if the expression on the Doctor's face was anything to go by.
"Oh, River," he said when he finally saw her. She smiled at the reverent tone in his voice. "Marry me."
"Maybe when you're older," she replied. His smile back was wistful and almost sad as if genuinely disappointed she wasn't playing along. The drive to Leadworth would take nearly an hour. As much as she would have loved to linger and tease him, they needed to leave immediately if they wanted to be on time. Especially if the Doctor was driving and he almost always insisted on it.
"I'm driving," he said.
They missed the ceremony but still arrived in time for the toasts. River had met the bride and groom before a couple of times but not enough to truly call them more than acquaintances. They were the Doctor's friends and River Song was accompanying him as his plus one. Other than Amy and Rory, River didn't know any of the other guests. Still, everyone seemed to know the Doctor. He was always vague when it came to stories of his family, probably because of the lingering trauma, but she knew he'd lived near here for some time when he was younger. After all, he had babysat Amy when she was a child. These people were part of his past and present personal life, something he hid from everyone else he met. The Doctor was a very friendly man, despite the fact that few people could truly equal him. Those who didn't know him would probably even say he was an incredibly open man, but he wasn't. The Doctor hid what meant most to him, whether that included people or memories or emotions. He didn't share those lightly. The fact that he brought River here as his date, openly, meant a great deal. She was honored and touched.
"Professor Song," the bride's father took the seat beside her at one of the tables.
"Mr. Pond," she greeted. River suddenly laughed as she saw the Doctor teach a group of children a dance called the Plesioteuthididae. Most of them were still too busy trying to master pronouncing it to pay attention to dancing it. Luckily, it didn't seem very complicated of a dance. Mostly a lot of arm waving.
"Ah, look at that," Mr. Pond said. "The Doctor's always been good with children. Of course, I half-think he's so clever that we're all children to him. What do you think?"
The Doctor caught River's eye mid-wiggle and winked at her across the dance floor.
"I think he's an incredibly kind and gentle man," River said.
Mr. Pond laughed. "It's hard not to love him."
"Why would anyone even try?" she replied. Mr. Pond nodded as if she'd answered a question he'd never actually asked.
"I'm happy to hear it." With a wide smile and a slightly swaying step, he walked away to rejoin his wife. The Doctor broke away from his pint-sized pack of fans at the end of the song and approached River. She took a sip of champagne, watching the way his eyes sought her out and pinned her in place. It was as if he were afraid she was some mirage that would disappear from one second to the next. Finally, he stood before her and like the moment in the cafe over a year ago, she looked up at him and found him waiting.
The Doctor held his hand out to her. "Shall we dance?"
"Matters," she replied. "Is this dance named after an extinct squid?"
"No, though now I think about it, I'm not actually sure what the waltz is named after. Was there a man named Walter Waltz with particularly good rhythm? I don't know." He blinked several times in a row and seemed pleasantly bemused by the whole thing. "Imagine that! Something I don't know."
"Don't worry, sweetie, I'm sure you'll be an expert by midnight." She took his hand and let him lead her out onto the dance floor. His hand rested with practiced ease on the small of her back. His other hand held hers, absentmindedly rubbing his thumb over her knuckle.
"What were you talking about with Mr. Pond senior?" the Doctor asked.
"So you're really going to insist on referring to Rory as Mr. Pond."
"Yes." He nodded. "Yes, I am."
River laughed. "Mr. Pond senior was just giving me his very oblique version of the Don't-Hurt-Him talk."
"Really?" He looked over her head in the middle-distance, seemingly charmed by the thought.
"Yes. Of course, there weren't really any threats involved."
"Were you disappointed?"
The Doctor grinned. "I'll tell Amy to have a talk with you later. She's nearly as violent as you are. Biter." He bared his teeth to emphasize his point.
They danced in silence for several minutes, not as much waltzing as simply swaying to the music. A waltz would have required too much structure and frantic energy. The music and this feeling between them didn't support that. There was something gentler, more fragile here. River rested her head against his shoulder and the Doctor hummed along with the band.
"So are you going to?" he suddenly asked.
She turned her head so that her temple still rested against his shoulder but her face was directed toward his own. She couldn't look into his eyes from this angle but she could see the strong curve of his jaw and cheek bones, the small muscle twitches of emotion that could only be seen so extremely up close.
"Am I going to do what?" she asked back.
"Are you going to hurt me, River?"
She frowned. "I hope not."
He nodded. She knew he was waiting for her to ask something, but didn't know what it was. She was patient enough to just wait. He wouldn't last very long now that he had his teeth sunk into a topic. River enjoyed the warm feel of him under her cheek, beneath her hands, on the small of her back. His presence surrounded her and the world fell away.
"Aren't you going to ask me?" he suddenly asked in a rush, like he'd been holding his breath.
"Ask you what?"
"If I'm going to hurt you."
"No," she said.
She could feel the tension just beneath his surface and held him tighter to soothe him. He was considering whether he could let it go, obviously. He decided he couldn't. "Why not? It's a legitimate question. I could hurt you."
Now he huffed, annoyed with his confusion. "River," he complained.
"I'm not going to ask you, Doctor, because I already know the answer," she explained. "You're a good man. You'd never hurt me on purpose. That's the best any of us can ever do."
"You know I was serious. Earlier. At home." A muscle in his jaw twitched. She wanted to reach out and smooth it with a touch. Instead, she only watched as he pressed his lips together so hard they turned white. "The marrying thing. You marrying me. We could. Get married. If you want. Or not."
"Hmm," she hummed. "That's a rather serious step."
"I'm a serious man," the Doctor replied. "No, what am I saying? I'm never serious. Well, sometimes. Like about this. I am serious about this, River."
"I know, sweetie," she said and then paused, not to be cruel or funny but because she hoped she wasn't going to break her promise so soon. Sometime, during this conversation, they'd stopped moving and stood still in the sea of dancers around them. The Doctor gazed down on her as if entranced and River looked up to him, holding her breath. "I was serious too."
"Maybe when you're older, yes." She smiled.
"And by maybe, you mean-"
"Oh," he breathed.
The Doctor readjusted his hold on her. He placed her other hand on his left shoulder and she loosely twined her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck. His arms wrapped around her waist, completing the circle.
"Who are you, River?" he asked, watching her from beneath half-closed eyes. He was smug again, with that little smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. His tone was also some bit dreamy, as if he were confused and amazed in equal parts. "You brilliant, beautiful woman."
"You still haven't figured that out?" She tutted. "And here I thought you were a genius."
"If I lived forever, I don't think I'd ever fully figure you out, River Song."
She tilted back her head, trusting some of her weight to his arms wrapped around her. She laughed. "And you love it."
He smiled good-naturedly at her teasing and pulled her back against his chest. The Doctor kissed her temple and whispered into her ear, "I do."
Dreams can be of the past, the present, and the future. They are impossible things based in very real things. The woman made of water was a dream who dared to breathe. The Dream Lord loved her because she was water and she was a woman. He spent endless days with her, keeping the sun forever hanging on that precipice in the sky, because he was a Time Lord and he could do such things. He told her many stories. He told her of Amelia Pond and Faithful Rory. He told her of Jack of Boe. He told her of the Valiant Child. He told her many stories because they were all his stories and he wanted her to know him. She listened to it all with a smile and peace in her eyes, because water can be patient and kind.
When he was done, he had revealed all his love and hope to her. He had revealed all his sorrow and despair. The grandeur of time and a god's dreams rested upon her head but she did not flinch away from him or break because she was water and water was strong and giving. She held out her hand to him and called his name, because she was water and water was wise and understanding.
"Forgive me, my love," she said. "I didn't know. The Lonely God. Lay down with me and I will shield you from the world."
The Doctor took River Song's hand and sunk beneath the waves.