They’d been through the crash, they’d been through the new screwdriver. They’d been through him having to tell her that yes, they couldn’t do this forever, and, yes, this was their last night. They’d been through her fervent protests, and, subsequently, he’d been through his hearts breaking. They’d also been over the fact that by the grace of- well, someone, one night on Darillium lasted twenty-four years, and then they’d sort of fallen into a slump of relief. They did still have time with each other. Not enough time - they’d never have enough time - but far more than one Earth night. The relief was tainted slightly by a brutal, heartbreaking acceptance of what would happen come morning, but twenty-four Earth years was a while to wait.
And the more time passed, the more that acceptance was either furthered or just dulled. Either way, it started hurting less. River started smiling more, and that was worth anything. And he himself started feeling less like they only had one night left and more like thank goodness, they still had one night left. It wasn’t forever, but it was something, and he was beyond grateful for that.
They listened to the Towers a lot. River loved music; she always had, as long as he’d known her. They were doing less of their usual sharp fierce back and forth, though, and acting - as he was realizing, with a growing bittersweet feeling - more like a real couple. They held hands now, walking along the paths and promenades that crossed Darillium, and they shared meals, and they slept in the same bed without- well, without sleeping together. They were becoming domestic, and it scared at least a part of him half to death. It would just make it that much harder when their twenty-four years were up. Another part of him, though, loved it, loved it more than anything except River herself.
He’d always been in love with River, but now he was getting to fall in love with her, and it was almost too much to bear. They did cheek kisses now. He did cheek kisses. He never did cheek kisses, and here he was. Doing cheek kisses.
More than just falling in love with River, he was falling in love with the normalcy of it. Usually, his companions were the only partners he had, and they almost never stayed with him for twenty years. There was only a very slim precedent for something like this, and he wasn’t used to it. He was finding he could get very much used to it, though, and very quickly. They did things like trade off on dishes and making the bed, and he found such joy in it.
And another thing- it didn’t get old. Twenty-four Earth years was a long time to stay in one place, especially for him, who usually couldn’t stay put for twenty-four Earth minutes, but his wanderlust was sleeping, at least for as long as he had River. All he wanted to do was stay with her here, where she was happy, and walk with her, and watch her smile. It was - and he really, really didn’t use this word lightly - perfect.
Well. Almost perfect.
There was one thing that had been bothering him the entire time, ever since she first realized it was him back on the spaceship. It sat in his chest, cold and ugly, and threatened to ruin the time they had left even more than the fact that it was their last night could. When it came down to it, River had said - albeit when she thought he wasn’t listening - that he didn’t love her back. That he couldn’t love her back. Lord knows what a terrible lie it was; he loved her more than breathing. But the thing was, to her, in that moment, it was the truth. And that chilled him through to the bone.
Because that meant as long as they’d been married - as long as they’d known each other - she thought she was stuck loving someone who didn’t love her back. Somewhere, deep down, she probably thought it. That he didn’t love her, that she was loving him and expecting nothing in return, perhaps, horrible as it was, that she was unloveable. And it was such utter horseshit, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense.
Maybe he hadn’t been as loving as he could be. In his last regeneration, he was childishly unaware of how important loving people could be. He loved, surely, but he didn’t always care to let people in on it when he did. And besides, he was closed off, too closed off for his own good. Now, he wasn’t so locked up and happy go lucky and intentionally ignorant. Now, he was kind, as often and as openly as possible. Clara made sure of that, and he’d never be grateful enough.
Just because he was different, more comfortable in his own skin now, didn’t mean he was absolved of what he’d done in his previous regeneration. Because some time during that life, he’d made enough mistakes to convince River he didn’t love her back. And that was a sin of sins, one that he knew didn’t deserve to be forgiven.
It kept him up sometimes. How in the world had he been so callous as to make her think that? Why had he hurt her? Why hadn’t he just told her, just said it, even once or twice or three times, in a way that was sincere? Moreover, what right did he have to keep calling himself her husband?
He loved being married to River, but if she thought that, that he didn’t love her back, he hadn’t served his duty as a husband, hadn’t been to her what a husband should be. It was unfair that he even kept claiming he was her husband, because he surely hadn’t been the kind of person she deserved for one.
And, while it was indisputable that he hadn’t properly acted a husband in the past, he thought that he could be that person for her now, or at least he could try. He had to try, to make it up to her, because she loved him more than anything and she should at least know that he matched that love. He washed the dishes when it wasn’t his turn. That, if anything, proved that he had what it takes to be a good husband. That, and starting over, might set things right. They still had a few decades for him to fix things.
So. A proposal was in order.
He’d always had a bit of a flair for the dramatic, and he’d always lamented that he’d never gotten the chance to do a proper proposal for River the first time around. He definitely had time to set that straight now. She could take it as just a renewal of vows, or as a new proposal for his new regeneration - technically she’d married the last one - or just a bit of senseless romance. Anything would be good. Maybe she’d see right to the heart of it and know why he was doing it, and while that frightened him a bit, she’d always seen straight through him, and maybe it was better that way anyway. Transparent.
He tried writing it, time and time again until it was perfect, but he hardly wanted to take the time to do it on his own, secretly, because any time he spent locked in his study running lines for the proposal was time he could be spending with River. It took a while before he considered it done.
By that time, his nerves were so bad that River actually asked him what was bothering him. This regeneration was a naturally nervous person, and a natural overthinker, and those traits combined with an impending marriage proposal probably made him insufferable. But he brushed it aside, told River not to worry about a thing, and - although she gave him that look, that knowing one with her eyebrows doing that thing - she let it alone.
When he thought it was ready, and everything was as close to perfect as it could get, he’d asked her on a walk - quite suavely, in his opinion - and told her he’d be ready to go in a moment. Then he’d made a dash to his study, looked in the full length mirror hanging on the door, fixed his hair up, and at the last moment, switched his green jacket for a black one. There. Ready.
A few minutes later, they were out of the TARDIS and strolling along one of Darillium’s promenades. The Towers could be heard singing faintly in the background, the melody carrying over the slight breeze in the most beautiful way.
River looked stunning. She always did, she never didn’t, but now, the last strains of the sunset caught each ringlet of each of her curls, her whole body shining copper in the fading light. She was unbelievably gorgeous. She looked over at him, gave a slight nod of her head in the direction of the music. She was smiling.
“Yes,” he agreed, voice nearly catching in his throat. “Yes, let’s, but first I’ve got one small thing to ask you. A favour. You’d hear me out, wouldn’t you?”
River raised an eyebrow, face falling into her trademark smirk, but this time just a touch inquisitive. “What, don’t tell me you’ve packed a picnic. Do we need to run home and fetch it?”
He let out a breath. She’d called the TARDIS home. Right, that was a sign to really knuckle down and get to it. “No, but I should’ve thought of that.” He fumbled in his pockets for his cue cards, on which he’d painstakingly written his speech, and couldn’t find them, not in his pants nor jacket. He was halfway to a full blown panic, River watching him, perturbed, when he remembered he’d switched jackets at the last minute. Those cue cards were still back onboard the TARDIS, and he’d have to do this improv style. “Here. Hold on. Just stay right here. Everything’s fine.”
River’s eyebrow arced higher. “Is it?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes.” He gave her a smile. “I promise. Just let me-” He knelt in front of her on the path. “There. River Song.”
“What the hell are you doing?” River whispered, still smiling, like she thought he was adorable. “We’re already married, and- look, everyone’s looking at us.”
He stared up at her, perhaps more in love with her than he’d ever been before. “I thought you liked when people looked at us.”
River laughed, casting a glace around. “Well, you’ve got me there. What is this?”
“River,” he said. “River Song, this is a marriage proposal.”
“Already married, I know. Hear me out.” He held out his hands.
Still smiling, still slightly quizzical, River laid her hands in his.
Holding her hands grounded him, pulled him back to what he actually wanted to do here. He stroked the backs of them with his thumbs, felt her heartbeat in her fingers. “It occurred to me before we crashed here that maybe I’m not doing my job as your husband if you could think that- if you could think that I don’t love you.” It was painful to say.
“I don’t think that,” River said immediately. “Is this still about what I said on the ship? Because that was just to buy time, I didn’t mean a word of-”
“But you did,” he cut in. “You did, River, otherwise you wouldn’t have said it. There was no reason to lie about it, you didn’t even think I was there. And I don’t want to put it on you and tear you up about it, I just want to take responsibility.” He took a breath. “Because if you thought that, it is my fault.”
River was staring down at him with pursed lips, like she was just barely holding herself back from arguing.
Before she could, he said, quickly, “It is, alright? And don’t tell me otherwise. And I don’t think it’s like that anymore, is it? You tell me, River. We’re good here, aren’t we?”
“I thought so too, and that’s good.” He took a breath, mulling the next words over. “But it wasn’t always this good, and that’s no one’s fault but mine. So here’s me, fixing it. I wasn’t a proper husband for you. I want to be one now.”
“No, no no no.” He smiled up at her tentatively. “Don’t argue me, not on this. I want to leave no doubt in your mind when I say this: I love you, River. I love you very much, so much that- well, here.” He pulled her hand down and held it to his chest, under his jacket. Unintentionally, he’d made her kneel down opposite him. He watched her face cautiously. “Feel that? Beating out of my chest.”
They must’ve looked a sight, the two of them kneeling there in the middle of the promenade together.
“So, I guess my question is this,” he finished, knowing that it had probably been all over the place and definitely not at all what he’d planned. “River, will you marry me? I promise to get it right this time. And we’ve still got twenty years.” Then, on a desperate impulse, he added, “Please?”
She was just staring at him, hand still pressed against his chest.
Dread and nerves crashed in on him; he’d done it wrong, and messed it up, or something, because she was just watching him, and, “I wrote all this out on index cards but I-” he fumbled with his pockets. “I left them in my pocket- the pocket of my other jacket, the one that I was-” He slowed down, because now River was smiling again, the biggest smile he’d seen in a long time. “That I was going to wear,” he finished, rather quietly.
River pulled him into a kiss, so quickly he couldn’t think. She put her arms around him, held him close. Breaking off but staying so close to him he could feel her breath, she whispered, “What do you think I’m going to say?”
It took him a moment to get over the clueless, smitten feeling sitting in his head and keeping him from thinking, but when he did, he answered. “Yes? Hopefully?”
“Your lucky day then.” She leaned back a little, watching his face, and it was something about her smile plus the sunset but she looked absolutely radiant. “Yes.”
“Right,” he said, near speechless. “Just so we’re clear, this is yes as in-”
“Yes as in yes.” River laughed, and it was so rare that he caught her genuinely off guard, but how light and spontaneous her laugh was told him that he’d done it this time. “I will marry you again, sweetie.”
He pressed a kiss to her lips. “Don’t want to toot my own horn, but that’s probably a good choice.” He gave her a knowing wink.
She snorted, leaning her head down on his shoulder for an instant before looking back up and saying, “I love you ever so much-”
“I love you too,” he half exclaimed, breaking into excited, nervous laughter. “I love you too, River, I-”
“But,” she annunciated it clearly, speaking over his babbling, “can we please stand up now? My knees aren’t nearly what they used to be.”
“Oh. Right, I forgot.” He got up, and gave her a hand. “Mine either, to be honest. Look at us; we’re getting old.”
“You’re getting old,” River replied, linking an arm with his. “Your hair and all that. I’m just getting wise, dear.”
“Ha ha, very funny.” He tipped his head to the side so it rested against River’s momentarily. “Do you still want to see the Towers?”
River was still smiling. “If it’s not too much excitement for you. Your old hearts, and that.”
“Alright, you’ve had your laugh,” he griped, but he was smiling too. “Let’s go.”
They walked towards the Towers, still linked arm in arm, and after a few moments of silence, he said, quietly, “I love you.”
River turned, looked at him. She gave him her signature River smile, eyes full of light, and replied, “I know.”