She’d thought about aeronautical engineering once, a long time ago. The idea lasted about a week–the same amount of time as her crush on Jacob with the brown hair and freckles. That was during her first year of grad school, back when she still daydreamed about changing her degree. It’s an idea almost worth forgetting, except that it taught her one important thing.
Every six months, the aeronautics department launches a small rocket to check on their satellite telescope and give the grad students something to look forward to.
“The security protocol’s ridiculously weak,” Jacob said. “It’s always a four-digit passcode, usually the ID number of one of the students.”
“So?” she returned.
“So? So? So check your datastream tonight, and make sure you read the satellite updates.”
Of course he would use binary code, she thought later, working out his message in seconds: “Hey, pretty lady.”
River’s never so careless as to use binary, but she’s still good with codes. Every six months, she makes the trip across campus, ostensibly in the name of interdepartmental solidarity. She whips out her datapad while she watches the launch, typing in the standard encoding for Old High Gallifreyan and adding a few clever twists of her own. “Hello, Sweetie,” she writes, following it up with a set of spatio-temporal coordinates.
Her message is better, she thinks, and so is the man she sends it to.
One of these days, he’ll be standing behind her with his arms around her waist, watching the launch with her.
It’s another one of those stupid, no-good-at-all, quite bad incidents that seem to follow him wherever he’s at. All in one day, he’s had his coat singed by a Dalek, quite literally fallen down a well, cracked several ribs in an encounter with a most solid and disagreeable door, and run out of jam. Again.
River rolls her eyes. “You saved a planet, Sweetie. You can expect more than a couple of bruises out of that. I’d say you got off lucky, especially considering your run-in with that door.”
He frowns at that last bit, plucking at his bowtie rather sullenly. “Yes, well, generally I get out of these things quite safely, thank you. If you hadn’t been–”
“Keeping an eye on the Daleks for you? Getting you a rope? Buying you paracetamol and jam?”
He forgets to grumble as she ruffles his hair and leans in for a kiss.
It would be clichéd to say she feels like a princess in his arms. She knows she’s fabulous, but she doesn’t fancy herself a pretty young thing, frivolous and frilly. Besides, the overwhelming majority of the princesses she’s seen in the civilizations she’s studied didn’t have it half so good as she does. They were trophy wives, status symbols not permitted so much as an unsupervised step outside their gates.
She has all of time and space at her disposal, and she’s in love with the good wizard to boot. No, she’s not a princess, and that’s just the way she likes it.
Dandelions remind her of him–the way they’re overlooked but secretly mighty, the way they change their faces, the way they always return no matter how certain you are they’re gone this time.
Once, she tried to press a dandelion between the pages of an old-fashioned book. She laid it out with infinite care, layering wax paper between the pages and smoothing the flower so it would lie flat. Six weeks later, when she remembers to check on it, it’s nothing but a smash of yellow petals and fluffy down.
Dandelions don’t remind her of anything.
Her first night on the TARDIS follows from a day exactly as ridiculous as she could have expected. It starts in the Doxiadosian city of Agrathea-by-the-Sea (“The whole city is one big dock!” the Doctor had proclaimed, flinging open the door and stepping into the sun.) They’re strolling along the edge of the Royal Pleasure Gardens when he carelessly picks a handful of a strange purple berry. He pops the first one into his mouth, makes a thinking sort of face.
“You wouldn’t like these, River,” he says, and takes in the rest in a single mouthful.
As it turns out, they don’t like him, either, and the Agrathean police don’t like him eating them. A half an hour later, he’s handcuffed to the dock railing and retching into the ocean below. River alternates between holding his head and shooting withering glances at the milquetoast policeman writing up their crime reports.
When they’re finally released (without charges, as it turns out), she helps him back to the TARDIS. He makes a feeble effort to unlock the door before she takes the key from him and does it herself. Sinking into the jump seat, he smiles weakly at her. Starts to say something like “Thank you,” but she cuts him off.
“Oh, no,” she says. “Oh, this simply won’t do.”
“River, I’m sorry, but I can hardly take you on another trip right now.” He grimaces, holding his stomach. “Home it is.”
“I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong, dear. You’re not taking me home or anywhere else. You’re going to bed.”
He looks up at her blankly.
“Off with you! Come on, shoo!”
It takes a bit of doing, but she finally persuades him to show her where his bedroom is. She leaves him to undress and starts looking for the kitchen. It was ever so thoughtful of the TARDIS to leave out ginger tea and a plate of crackers, she thinks as she heads back.
She doesn’t remember falling asleep, but when she wakes in his bed, her hand on his chest, she smiles to herself and settles in.
The sun is setting on another adventure, and Amy and Rory are splashing and shrieking along the shoreline. River watches them with vaguely maternal attention. It makes her feel old that they still have the energy to caper about on the beach after running from Cybermen and Slitheen. She, for her part, is pleasantly worn out, leaning against the TARDIS with her head on the Doctor’s shoulder. Once, that would have been her and him, but tonight she’s content just to sit like this.
Her Doctor looks a young thing, but she knows for all his show he’s tired, too. He can keep going for days, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel it. She’s seen it in his face–an exhaustion that comes not from the body but from the soul and reaches down to the bones.
Tonight, though, there’s nothing to see but a sleepy smile in his eyes and Amy and Rory on the beach.
The planet is empty, absolutely empty except for the two of them. River looks up at the stars and thinks she’s never seen so many, not even from the TARDIS. Dust swirls around them in a light wind. The air is thin, but she can breathe it. Nothing lives here–there’s not enough water, though there once was.
“The last time I was here, there were people and trees and grass. Birds. Beautiful birds,” he says.
It makes her head spin a little to think of how old he really is, though she’s traveled to places older than this. “What happened to them?”
He shrugs. “I never heard. A war of some kind, more than likely.”
She looks down at the dust clinging to her shoes and shudders. He does, too, though his reasons for doing so are different than hers.
“What are you thinking of?” he asks after a long moment.
“The past–all those people, just gone and no one even knows.”
“No, River, someone knows. I don’t. I wasn’t here.”
“And thank goodness for that,” she breathes. “What are you thinking of, then?”
He doesn’t answer for what seems like a long time. “The future,” he admits finally.
“Of this planet? Have you seen it?”
“What? Yes, yes, of course I have. That’s not it, though.”
“What future were you thinking of, then?”
“Yours. Ours,” he answers slowly.
“Something not good?” Her voice is level.
“Something I can’t tell you yet.” He won’t meet her eyes, and she doesn’t press the matter.
“What about the planet, then?”
“Dust, River. It’s always dust after this.”
“But it’s a perfect planet. You could terraform it in no time. No one ever comes back for it?”
“Some things are gone forever when they’re gone. The atmosphere is escaping, and the radioactivity levels won’t support life anymore. But isn’t it the most beautiful sky you’ve ever seen?”
They’ve been together years in her time and no time at all in his, but they stretch out together across time and space, an answer to every cliché.
Neither of them is quite sure what it means, but they’re together. Married, or something like it. She pines, and he frets, but they string along nights like Christmas lights on a strand and every morning the answer is yes.