His gut instinct told him to leave – to fall humbly to his knees and plead for the TARDIS' return. He had found her out of context – without even looking. The Doctor wasn't supposed to be there – he had gone backwards in their timestream. But at the same time, why was she living a life from which he felt the need to run? This life that she would risk losing him in order to protect…
The Doctor stared at the ceiling and watched shadows dance as clouds passed over the moon and the lights twinkled on the tree. The evening had been torturous and seemed to have gone on for days. Somehow the children had sensed it and tried to compensate for the feuding adults with nervous chatter over dinner. Gus, however, was eerily quiet. He rolled his green beans around on the plate and buried kernels of corn in his mashed potatoes. His breathing was shallow and labored, and he seemed barely able to keep his eyes open.
"Mimi, I'm not really hungry. May I be excused?"
River pushed her chair back from the table and dropped her napkin on her plate. Walking over to Gus and avoiding any eye contact with the Doctor, she took him by the hand and led him upstairs. "Maybe I just need to lay down for a minute…" he heard the child say over the sound of their feet on the stairs.
The banter at the table died down to a creepy silence as the girls finished up their dinner. A sad look passed between Sophia and Olivia, sisters whose parents had been killed in a car accident three years before. Almost as if synchronized, the children left their seats and began clearing the table.
"Doctor, are you finished?" Becky timidly reached for his plate when he smiled weakly and nodded. "But perhaps you should leave Ri…Mimi's plate. It doesn't appear that she ate very much."
"Oh, she doesn't eat much when Gus is sick," Susannah explained quietly. "She'll make herself a sandwich before bed."
"Does this happen frequently?"
"Recently, yeah," she said before moving to the sink to wash up the dishes.
The Doctor watched the girls maneuver smoothly around the kitchen to get the chores completed. Over the course of the last two weeks, he had seen and heard the gamut of female emotions. They had brawled, laughed, cried and yelled. On Monday, two of the gigglies were the best of friends, and by Thursday they were at each other's throats. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. Which made their teamwork in the kitchen rather remarkable. The unspoken understanding they all seemed to possess was frightening, especially since the Doctor seemed to be the odd man out. There was a loop that he hadn't been able to run in.
He rose from the table to make himself useful but was halted by Janie. "We've got this. You're kinda klutzy."
"I'm sure there's something I can do…"
"Doctor, you are organization's worst nightmare," Katie said, gently patting his shoulder and returning to her sweeping.
"Well, I suppose I'll just go…in there…or somewhere…" He backed out of the kitchen seemingly unnoticed and stumbled his way up the hall into the living room. After plugging in the tree and dimming the overhead lights, he lay down on the couch and watched the twinkles bounce off of the glass ornaments.
Although his stomach churned when he thought on the madness with River, he couldn't remember a time when he had felt more at ease with life, almost as if the universe was telling him that he belonged on that couch in front of that tree…with that woman upstairs and those children mucking about. His life as a Time Lord fought hard to be remembered as the priority, and his insides rolled each time he thought about leaving for the TARDIS.
An army of bare feet padded down the hall and up the stairs. One stray set of footprints could be heard approaching the couch. Samantha stood over him, and he looked up at her as she teetered over him upside-down. "We're going to play a game of Monopoly before bed. You're welcomed to join us."
"Thanks, but I think I'll lazy around down here for the evening. Perhaps some other time. Tell the girls goodnight for me."
"Sure. Goodnight, Doctor."
Shortly after the girls had settled in a bedroom with their game, he could hear the heavy footsteps of River shuffle down the stairs and into the kitchen. He sat up and leaned into a corner of the couch, feeling it was best to make himself known and not be a surprise, considering the degree of bodily harm of which River was capable. After a few minutes of rummaging around in the kitchen, she crossed in front of him and sat on the other end of the couch, plate in one hand and a glass of milk in the other.
The Doctor shifted his gaze downwards as River had seated herself within his line of view and occasionally lifted his eyes to cast a glance in her direction. The blinking lights sprinkled color throughout her hair and gave her skin a warm glow. She looked a bit younger than the she did at Demon's Run, and he wondered if this life was better suited to her, more so than a life of chasing him through galaxies and catastrophes. He had always viewed River as a warrior of sorts – a partner in the defense of the nasties that threatened this or that planet or species. It hadn't occurred to him that perhaps she was what he had made her into. That if left to choose her own course, she would have become someone different. And if that was the case, did he really even know her at all?
River placed the empty plate and glass on the coffee table and, without a word passing between them, crawled over the Doctor and snuggled up to him, wrapping an arm around his middle and tucking the other between them. He encircled her with his arms and pulled her tightly against him, her head resting underneath his chin.
"I'm not sorry I slapped you." Her voice was quiet, yet still very River-ish.
"I'm not sorry I got angry."
Several more moments of silence filled the air before River spoke again. "We are horrible at apologies, I fear."
"I don't understand why you feel the need to hide your life from me. Amos…Gus…Melody… Granted, I've only been here two weeks, but our lives together are like infinitely massive files that have been compressed into almost nothing when you consider how long I have been and will continue to be knocking about the universe," he reasoned.
"But you aren't entitled to know everything, Doctor. Perhaps having to save the helpless universe time and time again has given you that impression, and I can say that, in regards to your superhero responsibilities, being somewhat omniscient is beneficial…"
He held his breath and waited for the but.
"…but I'm not someone to save. I'm not endangered by anything other than my own questionable decisions. Please understand that this is not a statement meant to blame, but you have no idea how much of my life has been sacrificed to keep planets spinning and suns burning for you. And yet, races and species still war; it's a neverending battle between evil and lesser evil. I'm doing what I need to do, where and when it has to be done."
"River, I'm not asking as your savior, as a superhero or even as the Doctor. I'm asking as your friend. I'm asking as…" The words were trapped behind hesitancy and knowing that there was no turning back once they were spoken.
She sat up and took him by the hand. The Doctor avoided her eyes and focused his attention on a crayon mark left on his jeans by Gus. River had scrubbed until curses exploded from her, but the mark refused to be silenced.
River waited for him to finish his thought without encouraging. He had to take sole ownership of the words. His hands traced a stain on the leg of his jeans that she had been unable to remove; it had been the bane of her existence for what seemed like hours until she finally gave it up and admitted defeat to a crayon.
Her hand looked tiny in his. Hands so small seemed too fragile to take on the world with any confidence. But her hands…well, her hands had accomplished more than most twice their size. They had fought in battle and comforted through storms, and usually while bound. Whether wrapped around a weapon or holding a heart, there was safety to be found in them. He felt safe in them.
"…as a man who loves you, River."
They both sat quietly while the words hung in the air, neither looking at the other. River knew it was too early for him to make such a declaration, yet the timing didn't take away from the sincerity. She unfolded his hand from hers and began tracing invisible lines from the tips of his fingers to the heel, smiling when the hair on his arm stood on end.
She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. "You know, before we found ourselves chasing down aliens and spacesuits in Florida, I didn't remember being that Melody. It came as quite a shock to me when I realized that the little girl was some long forgotten version of River Song. And I think the only reason I figured it out is because of the photo of Amy and baby Melody at the Florida orphanage."
Her abrupt explanation was only adding to his confusion, but no power under the sun could have persuaded him to stop her.
"And the more I thought about the little girl, the more I became her. I started remembering little things and then the bigger things until I had a timeline that made my life a bit easier for me to understand. The stormcage is quiet, and it seems like you have nothing but time to reflect and reconsider. And from the time we returned from the moon landing until I was released after the Byzantium, one of my purposes in life became finding Melody…"
For the first time since she had sat down, the Doctor looked River in the eyes and saw them welling with tears. He instinctively pulled her to him, and she cuddled against him like a child.
"So, when I was pardoned, I took care of some business and came back here to find her. I remembered hopping freight trains up the East Coast, and then I remembered being found at the South Philadelphia Railyard, though the memory blurred a bit from then on. I suppose it's because I'm the one who found her, except I didn't find her, really. I knew exactly where she was. God, it's all so complicated…" River breathed out another sigh and pulled away from him, leaning back against the couch to sit shoulder-to-shoulder. "I didn't seek her out to change her past and certainly not her future…for what happens to her leads to being me. That's why I built the paradox machine. And I wouldn't risk her future of becoming River Song for all the stars in the sky. I can't tell you much more than what I have because our story has to be lived. But if you could feel in your hearts how lonely I was in those railcars…moving from city to city with no place to go and nobody to care…I couldn't just leave her, Doctor."
She laid her head on his shoulder, emotionally exhausted from confessing that one piece of the puzzle. He leaned his head atop hers and asked, "Do you absolutely know that by being here you haven't altered the course of your life?"
"I guess we can never be certain of anything, but I know how this ends, now. I remembered. Otherwise, I would have had no choice but to leave her sleeping in that car," she said sadly. "I have to let her go again, and I know her fate. But I think that these six months of stability and comfort taught her...me... how to love. One of these days, Doctor – in fact, sooner than you realize – you will understand how important this seed I've planted in Melody will be in our lives."
The Doctor grinned and asked a question that was sure to be answered in one of only two ways River knew how to answer a question. "How soon?"
She lifted her head and kissed him on the shoulder. "Must I say it?"
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't."
River stood and offered a hand to help him from the couch. "Well, I'm not going to say it."
The Doctor rose and waited while she unplugged the tree before following her up the stairs. "But why not? Come on…now it's just hanging out there. Dangling words could be dangerous...with the falling and the dangling and such. I need to hear it."
"I imagine that you'll survive, Doctor. You've got surviving down to an art," she teased as she cracked opened the door to her bedroom. "Now, you just keep on climbing up to the attic. This is my stop."
"Guess I'm not invited in for tea and biscuits?"
"You would be correct, sir. And Gus and I will be gone before the kids get up for school, but don't worry. Mrs. O'Malley will be here at six o'clock to help with the morning routine. We should be back by dinner time." River slid a hand up to his face and brought him to her for a gentle kiss before walking through her bedroom door.
The Doctor was nearly to attic door when he heard her whisper it from the bottom of the stairs, and he smiled as he shut the door behind him. Yes, everything about River Song was a spoiler.