"You've got a message."
The Doctor jumped as a spark flew from the wiring and zapped the fingers clutching the ultrasonic ratchet. He dropped it with a startled curse, and stuck the fingers into his mouth as he looked up through the transparent floor to find River looking down at him. “What is it?” he mumbled around his fingers. “I’m busy.”
River had his psychic paper in her hand, and she gave it a little wave before skipping to the edge of the console platform and lying down to reach over the edge, dangling the paper from her fingers like a lure. She tugged it just out of his grasp as he reached for it, grinning an evil grin that lost nothing for being upside-down.
“Fine then, who is it?” He tossed aside the other tools in his lap, feigning indifference to her antics.
His bored tone did nothing to dampen her mood, and she pursed her lips and flipped it open again, reading it over with a slow shake of her head that sent her gravity-defying hair swaying in a halo round her head. "Either you're not telling me something, or-"
With a lunge and a cry of triumph, he managed to snatch it from her, and she let it go with a roll of her eyes, pulling herself back up over the edge of the console and climbing to her feet. “You just had to ask.”
"My psychic paper, my message," he said sternly, waving it at her as he climbed the stairs to the main level.
"Yes, dear," River said. She threw a lever, and he reached over and slammed it back, giving her a childish and petulant frown, in answer of which she stuck out her tongue. "It's better my way. She flies better my way."
"I like it this way. She hums at a pleasing pitch when it's this way." He patted the console lovingly.
"Your message," River responded in a sing-song voice.
He gave her one last narrow glare, and then the Doctor flipped the worn leather wallet open, scanning the message that materialized.
He took a slow breath, rubbing his thumb over the protective plastic sheath carefully, absorbing the words. He hadn’t expected to see this again. But then when was anything with River ever what he expected?
The library. Come as soon as you can. x
Would that he could.
Nine little words - if you could call "x" a word that is, but at the moment he was willing to call it one and grant himself the poetic license - he had not expected to receive a second time. And with them came the reminder that the beginning he was enjoying so very much was marching to an inevitable end.
He ran his finger over the words again, over each black stroke and curve. How many times might he receive these words again in the future? Always unpleasant to have the past come knocking unexpectedly. Perhaps if he lost the psychic paper for a while, tucked it away until-
"Hm?" He looked up, startled by River's voice. He blinked.
She gave him a curious look as he studied her, the youthful tilt of her head, her mischievous glow and bouncing curls. As far as she was concerned, the universe was her oyster, hers to enjoy with all the steel-plated overconfidence of youth.
How much time did he get with her? It always seemed to come back to counting minutes and hours. He spent far too much time worrying about the destination when there was a wonderful, winding path to enjoy on the way there. But when the destination was one he hoped to never reach, each step was harder to take. He wanted to stop and freeze it in glass, to stand on the path and hold the world still around him.
"Well are you charging off to save me, or what?" She crossed her arms, tapping her foot on the deck plating. "I'm sure I won't wait around all day. Or be pleased if you're late."
He smiled, a faint quirk of the mouth. "Perish the thought. I'm never late."
"Hah!" she scoffed. She set her hands on her hips and gave the psychic paper a pointed glance. “So?”
The Doctor flipped the wallet closed, tucking it in his inner breast pocket. It was like a lead weight against his left heart. "It's taken care of."
River's brow creased as she frowned - no, pouted. "And here I was hoping to see you in action."
"It's not like you could hop out there and shake hands with yourself," the Doctor countered. "Bit boring in here, all alone, while I'm out saving-"
Saving nothing. He bit the words off, rubbing the back of his hand across his brow. He turned away from her, fumbling through painful, unwelcome memories.
She was closer now, her voice concerned, hand extended and reaching for him. She was so tactile, River was; always reaching, able to pin him, to snag him, to trip him up when he least expected it. He both loved and hated her for it. This time he danced and spun, scrambling for the far side of the console, for forgotten tasks and silly distractions, anything to keep his mind from wandering the path of her written future. Words cued up like a barrage, primed and loaded.
He paused, and looked up at her.
She was worried now.
He smiled. Soft, reassuring. "It's taken care of." He failed to keep the sadness from his voice, and he blinked, unable to hold his eyes on her, drifting away to the controls beneath his fingertips.
She watched him from across the console for some time. Eventually she nodded, letting it go.
"Where shall we go then?" she asked, her relentless flirting dampened to a pale imitation.
"Let's let the old girl decide, shall we?" He gave the randomizer a spin.
River smiled as the TARDIS groaned and whirred, and the Doctor tucked thoughts of River’s future away in his past where it belonged.