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the flowers i did not gather for you (today i bring them all back)

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The flowers that I left in the ground,
that I did not gather for you,
today I bring them all back,
to let them grow forever[.]

- Leonard Cohen, "The Flowers that I Left in the Ground"
The Spice Box of Earth

*

Showered: check.

Teeth brushed and breath minty fresh: check.

New suit: a very dapper check, if he does say so himself.

The Doctor gives himself a once over in the mirror, straightening the lapels of his dark grey tuxedo and patting his pockets.

Wedding ring: check.

With a reaffirming nod to his reflection, he makes his way to the console room, grabbing the bouquet of roses from the jumpseat and blows a kiss to the TARDIS.

“Wish me luck.”

The TARDIS hums bemusedly, and The Doctor rolls his eyes.

“Some help you are.”

He swears she laughs at that, but he pays it no mind. Running through his mental checklist one more time, the Doctor opens the TARDIS doors and steps out, grinning.

Again?

His smile drops as he looks up. River is scowling, arms folded under her breasts and he must admit it really does delightful things to her—

“Up here, sweetie.”

He meets her gaze.

“What’ve I done?”

Rolling her eyes, River drops her arms, and he can tell by the firm press of her lips that she’s suppressing a smirk.

Arching an eyebrow, River looks pointedly at his feet.

He looks down, frowning, then back up.

“What?”

Her look hardens, and he looks down again, frantically trying to figure out why his shoes would bother her so much. They match his suit, they’re tied properly, and yes, they’re a bit dirty now, but that’s only because he’s landed in her flower bed and—

Oh.

He looks up.

“Oh.”

River steps closer and offers a hand, helping him tread lightly out of the planter. A tomato squishes under his toes, and he winces.

“Oops.”

River sighs, but her amusement is slowly overtaking her annoyance, and when he’s safely on the gravel path leading up to her tiny house, he offers a wide grin.

“I brought you roses?”

Rolling her eyes, River takes the proffered bouquet, and he knows by the way she lingers with her nose in the petals that she’s hiding a smile. “You owe me new seeds.”

“I’ll do you one better. After the party we can go to Chimeria, The Garden Planet. You can get plants and seeds and flowers in every type imaginable at the flower market, from all over the galaxy. In fact, there’s even a plant that sings! Terribly off-key, of course, but it’s amusing for a bit and—what?”

He stops his rambling when he notices her watching him.

“We’re going to a party?”

Shit. That was supposed to be a surprise, after dinner which is also a surprise, and is it just him, or does she look really hot in his shirt?

“Shit. That was supposed to be a surprise, after dinner which is also a surprise and is it just me, or do you look really hot in my shirts?” He clamps a hand over his mouth. “Did I say that out loud?”

River smiles, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “Afraid so, sweetie.”

He shrugs. “Ah, well. Better out than in, I always say.” He pauses. “Oh, I’m never saying that again, that is fucking ridiculous.”

River laughs. “I always forget you’ve got quite the mouth this go-around.”

“You’ve seen me before?”

She nods, a fond smile tugging at the corners of her lips, and he badly, badly wants to kiss her.

“I’m not protesting.”

He blinks. “Out loud?”

“Again.”

“Filter. Gotta work on that.”

“I like you without it.”

The Doctor grins, stepping into her personal space, a hand curling over her arm. “You like me no matter what.” It’s half a statement, half question, and River reaches out, cupping his face in her palm.

“Oh, sweetie,” she murmurs. “Don’t you know that by now?”

Instead of answering, he brushes his lips over hers, tentative at first, giving her the choice to pull away. She doesn’t. Wrapping both arms around his shoulders, she pulls him down, mouth opening under his and she tastes the same as she always has, but it feels different, better, somehow, even though it felt quite perfect before, and he’s so busy tasting her, breathing her, that he doesn’t notice his hands wandering until she lets out a soft, startled noise that instantly makes him laugh, because he’s never heard it before.

“You squeaked,” he laughs, and River hits him softly on the arm.

“You grabbed my bum.”

He frowns, assess his limbs and finds that, yes, his hand is indeed covering her arse, and, if he’s not mistaken, squeezing lightly.

“So I’m handsy?”

She laughs. “Very.”

“Does it bother you?”

She snorts. “What’d you think?”

He grins, and nuzzles her cheek with his nose, pressing his hands even more firmly against her, so she presses firmly into him, and their bodies line up like points in a constellation. Angling her neck, she draws him back into another kiss, her palm settling on his cheek and she smells like clouds, and dirt, and old textbooks, and he doesn’t want to ever stop kissing her, he decides.

“Glad to hear it,” she murmurs breathlessly, and he shuts his eyes.

“I did it again.”

She nods, almost giggling into his neck before she restrains herself and pulls back. “So. What’s this about dinner?”

--

He takes her to Karass Don Slava (or rather, she takes him and he moves around the console as if he knows what he’s doing), a mostly agricultural planet with one city, built straight up in glass.

“The higher you go, the richer you are, and the people advance with those chips,” he says, pointing out a couple scanning a barcode near a door. “Everyone advances at least twice in their lifetime, and if you’re discovered to have obtained your wealth illegally or through ‘immoral means,’ you’re automatically sent back to the bottom.”

River smirks, fingers trailing over the chain of a sapphire necklace. “So, stealing, for instance…”

The Doctor plucks her hand away from the jewels and kisses it. “Definitely immoral.”

“Pity,” she says, but her eyes are twinkling, and whereas before he might have been exasperated, might have grabbed her wrist and tugged her away, he can’t help now but be amused, and adds,

“Anyway, that one’s fake—replicated with one of those.” He points to a machine in the corner, where a small group of children are duplicating their desserts. “Probably altered to work on expensive merchandise, but significantly lowers the value of whatever it spits out, so, if you’re going to steal something, dear, you might try that one there instead. Genuine pearl, circa 1250 AD, probably from the Pandyan Dynasty or—may I?” Without waiting for an answer, he picks up the bracelet, sniffs it, and shakes it by his ear. “Yup, Pandyan.”

“Show off,” River snorts, rolling her eyes at the flustered merchant, but nonetheless takes the bracelet out of her husband’s hands and sets it back on its cushion.

“I’m just saying, if you’re going to nick stuff, make sure it’s real. I’d hate to be arrested for stealing costume jewellry.”

“You’ve been arrested for less.”

Tapping her nose, he smirks. “Not the point. Now.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he guides her through the throngs. “This probably isn’t the luxury you were expecting—we’re on level 82 of 1,347—but, I happen to know that on this level there's a little shop—well, a shop in a shop to be more specific—that has a little restaurant with the best Zavát in the galaxy.”

“Doesn’t that make you susceptible to telepathic suggestion?”

“If you want to get all technical about it,” he grumbles. “But no, it only works on Kirithons, and besides that, I know the owner, and he’s assured me the recipe’s been altered to make it safe for all species. Plus, delicious.”

River chuckles. “Whatever you say, sweetie.”

“I do say!” He pokes her in the side. “Quit being ornery, Doctor Song, or no Zavát for you.”

“Oh, I do love it when you go all strict.”

Letting out a low growl, the Doctor nips at her ear while they walk. “You haven’t seen ‘nothing yet.”

“Wanna bet?” she teases, eyes bright, and the Doctor stops, mouth open.

“You—oh, that’s not bloody fair! Am I ever going to meet a version of you that hasn’t slept with the version of me?”

A few passersby stop and stare, but River just laughs softly, stroking his arm. “You already have, sweetie, remember?”

“I know,” he frowns, “But that wasn’t—that wasn’t fun flirty not yet sleeping together, that was me being an idiot and a prat.”

River’s smile dims slightly, and he can see her shake it off, put it aside, already forgiven him long ago. “Yes, well,” she murmurs, hands wandering to the knot in his necktie where his bowtie used to be. “You weren’t there, sweetie. And neither was I, frankly. Still in University, still bouncing from man to man—”

“Oi!”

“Well, I say man…”

“River,” he growls, hands finding her hips.

“It’s only ever been you, you know,” she murmurs, low, as if she doesn’t quite want him to hear. “Even when you didn’t—” She shakes her head. “It’s only ever been you.”

He doesn’t know how to respond. Doesn’t know what his favourite colour is or what foods he likes best yet, let alone how to tell his wife that he knows. That he gets it. That he’s so goddamn sorry for everything he’s put her through. But he owes it to her, he knows that much. He owes it to her to try.

“River,” he breathes, resting his forehead to hers. “River, I—”

She places a finger over his lips. “It’s okay, my love.”

He closes his eyes. “It’s really not, you know.”

She doesn’t answer, just kisses his forehead and takes his hand. “Come on. We’re blocking traffic. And besides, you promised me some mind-altering sustenance.”

“Oi, it’s perfectly safe!”

“Says you.”

“Yes, says me, River, I am 1300 years old and clever and funny and wise and I know what foods are poisonous and which ones aren’t!”

“Have you figured out how to fly the TARDIS yet?”

“I’m working on it, shut up.”

River kisses his cheek. “Not a chance.”

--

The restaurant, as it turns out, won’t be built for another three thousand years.

“You drove!”

“You’re the one who entered the coordinates.”

“Yes, but you hit the—the—the thingies and those always mess with the flight path and—”

“They’re stabilisers, honey, and they stabilise the flight path. You must have gotten the coordinates wrong—”

“I entered them perfectly.”

“Obviously not.”

The Doctor huffs. “Fine. There must be somewhere else we can eat around here.” His stomach growls, and River stifles a laugh. “Quickly.”

Pulling out her computer, River scans the city for something that might appease her picky husband.

“Ooh, there’s a Library Restaurant on the floor above us.”

Covering a wince with a scowl, the Doctor snatches the computer from her and closes the page. “I take you on a romantic date and you want to read?”

River snorts and takes the device back again. “So far all you’ve done is drag me around a middle-class suburb.”

“It’s not my fault it wasn’t open.”

“It wasn’t closed, sweetie, it hadn’t even been built yet.” The Doctor mutters to himself, and River rolls her eyes fondly, scrolling through the options. “How about this—three course indigenous Karassi-Slava fusion, floor 1063.”

“Sounds lovely, dear, but how are we going to get the—no.”

River schools her expression. “I didn’t say anything.”

“I know that look.”

“What look?”

That look, the look you’re wearing right now, your lets steal something expensive look!”

“I have different looks for the price level? Interesting.”

“River!”

“Oh, come on. We’ll just use it to get to the right floor. I’ll put it back.”

“No, no way, the last time you said that we wound up in prison.”

“Because you ratted us out.”

“I felt bad! We took it from its home!”

“It was a vehicle, Doctor, not a puppy. Now do you want dinner or not?”

“No.”

His stomach growls angrily.

“Yes.”

Grinning, River pushes the computer into his hands. “Good. Now, you can play lookout.”

“I don’t know why I’m agreeing to this,” he grumbles to himself, following her dutifully back into the crowd. “Could have just gotten back in the bloody TARDIS and pitched forward a century. But no, we’re going to steal instead. Married a ruddy thief.”

“Quit grumbling, and watch for coppers.”

“It’s the 82nd century on a planet halfway across the galaxy, River, they don’t have bloody copper—”

From behind him, she turns his head so his eyes fall on two men in uniforms, lounging against a food cart.

“Oh those coppers.”

He doesn’t have to be looking at her to know she’s rolling her eyes. Still muttering to himself, he keeps an eye on them, greeting people as they pass by, all too aware of River standing behind him, flirting with the merchant. It’s enough to make him grind his teeth, and he’s almost pleased when he feels her drop something heavy into his trouser pocket. Obviously, the merchant deserves it, flirting with another man’s extremely hot wife, and—

Looping an arm through his, River begins to drag him away, murmuring in his ear, “Not that I mind the compliments, sweetie, but you’re drawing a bit of attention.”

“I have got to stop doing that,” he groans.

To his right, River shrugs, a very, very faint blush to her cheeks. “I don’t mind it, really.”

Smiling, he makes a mental note to compliment her more often, on purpose, and leads the way toward the nearest cash exchange. With a bit of sonicing, and a lot of lying, they end up with enough credit exchange from the ridiculously ostentatious necklace River had dropped in his pocket to advance thirteen levels.

From there, it’s another round, and though the Doctor will never admit it, he’s almost having fun, watching River pinch items from unsuspecting merchants and travellers. She seems to have no method to her targets at first, but he knows her better than that, and as they advance through the floors, he watches carefully.

She goes for all genders, young and old, human and alien, and it isn’t until they’re nearly at the top that he realises the commonality. Small, barely noticeable, but they were all wearing pins, or patches, or jewellry.

“Playing a bit of Robin Hood, dear?”

She smirks, depositing the last watch and car keys into the cash exchange. “Hardly. I’m not that nice.”

Frowning, the Doctor scrolls through the mental pictures he took of each person, and River’s already dragged him into the final lift when he realises.

“The logos. The logos on their clothes, or accessories. They were all the same.”

River shrugs, peering out the window as they rise up toward the very top of the tower. She won’t look at him, and he wracks his brain trying to remember where he’s seen it before, because he knows he has.

The doors open, and a man waiting for the elevator, dressed in fatigues, has a patch on his arm. He steps aside to let them pass, tipping his hat to River. She straightens, nods but doesn’t smile, and steps infinitesimally closer to the Doctor.

Oh, he’s an idiot.

If he says it aloud, River doesn’t call him on it, and with a hand at the base of her spine, he guides them to the restaurant, overlooking the other, smaller city towers, the ground invisible below the clouds.

They’re seated, and brought champagne and hor d'oeuvres, and River fiddles with her napkin. He doesn’t want to ask, doesn’t want to press the issue but he’s never been good at holding his tongue, and this go-around is apparently no different.

And, he admits, he wants to be able to say something to wipe the nervous look from her eyes. Like he’ll judge her.

“They were all members of the Church, weren’t they?” he asks softly, too low for anyone to overhear.

River nods shortly. “The Kovarian Chapter, to be specific.”

He nods. “There are good people in the Church, you know. Not all of them are—”

“I know,” she snaps. Takes a deep breath, and meets his gaze. “And don’t you think I can recognise the ones that aren't?”

The Doctor startles, sitting back in stunned silence. It had never occurred to him, in this regeneration or the last, that she would know. That she would remember, or have discovered, at least enough to research, to dig into her own past and know the people who took her, to the point of being able to identify them on sight.

“No, because you never asked,” she says lowly. “You have your battles, Doctor, and I have mine, and I’ll fight them in whatever way I choose.”

“So, petty theft?”

She takes a long drink from a glass of champagne. “Among other ways.”

He nods slowly, eyes narrowed, studying her. She looks away, out the window again, one hand dropping to her lap, and the Doctor sighs. Reaching across the table, he pries her other hand away from the champagne glass, pressing it between his own.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “You’re right. I should have known.”

River softens instantly, and he almost wishes she wouldn’t.

“I never told you.”

“I never asked. I’m sorry.”

She nods, but it isn’t until he raises her hand to his lips that she fully meets his gaze.

“I’m not judging you, River, if that’s what you’re afraid of.” He gives a self-deprecating smile. “If nicking gems off the people responsible for your childhood is the worst of your crimes, well. You’ve got a ways to go to catch up with me.”

“And if it isn’t?”

Her voice is so low he can barely hear. “Isn’t what?”

She swallows. “The worst of my crimes.”

Smiling sadly, The Doctor squeezes her hand. “Then we’ll hold hands on the way back up, how’s that?”

River nods, and clears her throat, and the moment is broken by a blue waiter in a purple suit delivering their first course.

The food is delicious, and the Doctor hates most of it, and they spend the evening bickering and laughing and playing footsie under the table, a game he’d never understood before, but now quite sees its merits.

They sit for hours, even after the meal is over, and he finds that he can’t stop staring at her, the way she moves, the way the light catches her hair, the way she gestures when she tells a story or her lips twitch when he says something she doesn’t want to find amusing but secretly does.

She tells him about her studies and digs and co-workers and students and things that in his last regeneration he found dull and pointless, but now he soaks it up, every story, every moment, every picture of her he can glean from the words she uses to the actions she takes. His Eleventh self had loved her, he knows that, but sitting across a small table, listening to her describe the different uses for a trowel versus a spade, or a chisel-edged rock pick versus a pointed-tip rock pick, he thinks he might be a bit in love with her, too.

More than a bit.

Glancing at his watch, the Doctor blanches, jolting out of his seat and grabbing her hand. “Come on, come on, we’re going to miss it.”

“Miss what?”

“The best part!”

Tossing a money chip at the waiter, he drags her through the lavish halls and into the elevator.

“Lower Garden Arena, please.”

The automated voice intones: “Please be advised. Once you descend from the 1064th level you cannot re-ascend without proper payment and documentation. Are you sure you would like to—”

“Yes, yes, and hurry it up, will you? We’re going to be late!”

“That is your own temporal miscalculation. This elevator will descend at precisely 3.65 pilex per hour. You will reach your destination in—”

“48.62 seconds, yes, I know, now can we get a move on please?”

The Doctor grumbles, and River doesn’t even bother hiding a smirk as he bickers with the computer before finally wrenching open the control panel and sonicing the wires.

“You will now descend at 8.93 pilex per hour. You will arrive at your destination in—” The voice goes wobbly as the elevator lurches, bottom falling out, and the Doctor crashes into River as the lift falls.

“Oh, no no no you’re not supposed to fucking do that!

Even as he scrambles to resonic the wiring, River laughs, head thrown back as she grips the railing.

“We could die you know!” he shouts over the blare of the alarms

“Yes, sweetie, I’m well aware.”

“Then why are you giggling instead of helping!

She laughs harder at that, pushing off the wall and grabbing his arm for support. “Give me that,” she mutters, snatching the sonic and aiming it at the wiring. The lift stabilises almost instantly, throwing River into the door and the Doctor into her. They’re both panting, wide-eyed, and the Doctor can’t help leaning in closer, smelling her hair, hands settling on her hips as he leans in to—

“You have arrived at your destination.”

The lift doors open, and they both topple backwards. The Doctor just manages to slide a hand under River’s neck to keep her head from cracking on the pavement, and when he looks up, they’re surrounded by wide-eyed, intrigued Karassies.

“What’re you lookin’ at?”

The Karassies scramble into the elevator behind them as the Doctor pushes himself to his feet, offering River a hand as he dusts himself off with the other. “Can’t a bloke fondle his wife around here without an audience?” he grumbles; beside him, he hears River’s breath catch. “What?”

She blinks. “Nothing. Nothing, you just said—”

“Said what?”

“ 'My wife.' ”

He frowns. “What else would I have said?”

River shakes her head. “Nothing, I just—I mean, I wasn’t sure if it…”

“What?”

“Counted,” she manages. “To you. If it counted—”

“Of course it counted. River—”

“Different tastes, is all, and—”

He frowns. “But you’ve met me, in the future. This me. Aren’t we—”

“Yes, of course, but—”

“But?”

She looks away. “Time can be rewritten.”

Closing his eyes briefly, the Doctor opens them to find her staring at him, wide-eyed, barely breathing, and this, this is the River Song he never got to see, before. Never wanted to see.

Cupping her cheeks in his palms, the Doctor shakes his head before pressing a kiss to her nose.

“Not one line, sweetheart.” The endearment falls strangely from his tongue, but it feels right. He likes it. “I promise.”

River exhales shakily, and he kisses her lips to swallow the sound.

“Now, come on. I want to show you something.”

Grabbing her hand, he pulls her down the path, away from the city. It’s already well past dark, tiny lights brightening the way.

“Where are we going? To the party?”

“In a manner of speaking. Party comes later,” he says, sniffing the air for the right direction at a crossroads. Ignoring the dead-end sign, he pulls her off the road and through the grass, up a shallow incline. Halfway up they start to hear music and chatter, and River squeezes his hand tighter in excitement.

At the top of the hill, they can look out and all through the valley are people of different species, talking and drinking, dancing and laughing.

“Ooh, it is a party!”

The Doctor grins, and decides not to tell her the party hasn’t even begun. This time, it’s River pulling him down into the throng toward the music. She never could resist a good rumba, he knows, and chuckles as the natives immediately gravitate towards her, petting her hair and, much to his disapproval, on occasion her dress.

But it’s only a few minutes before the music starts to quiet, and the people begin to move, shifting into circles, some large, some small.

“What are they doing?” River murmurs, and the Doctor smiles.

“You’ll see.”

She huffs. “I hate it when you say that.”

“I know.” Then, “Close your eyes.”

“What?”

“Trust me, River. Close your eyes.”

Turning, tucking herself into his chest, River leans her head against his shoulder and closes her eyes. His hands wind their way around her waist, and he sways, like they’re slowly dancing, until the first of the lights go up.

“Okay,” he murmurs in her ear. “Look up.”

She doesn’t see anything for a moment but one bright light, and then, in her periphery, another, and another, until there are hundreds, thousands of lights floating up into the sky.

“We’re in the Candle Fields,” he says, answering her unasked question. “Every year, on New Years Eve, everyone from floors 50 and below come out the Fields to light and release the candles that have been growing all year. They tend to them, every day for at least an hour, a new batch every year, telling them stories and singing to them.”

“To the candles?”

He nods. “They're sentient. Not quite as much as the TARDIS, but similar. They pick up on the hopes and dreams and passions of those tending to them. And when they’re released, they find their way to the person dearest to their heart. Like a New Year’s Kiss.”

River smiles, eyes still on the lanterns floating above, following their paths as they wind through the crowd. Some go up higher, past the atmosphere, some loop around, and one lands in the palm of a delighted child, who throws her arms around her father’s neck.

“They’re beautiful,” she murmurs, turning to face him. “Thank you.”

He smiles crookedly. “This is mine.”

River frowns, following his dropped gaze to the small lantern in his hand. It shimmers blue, where others are pink and red and green, and elevates a few centimetres above his hand.

She looks back up in surprise. “You made one?”

“Cheated a tad,” he admits. “Kept getting distracted—end of the universe, Gallifrey, died a bit—it’s been a busy century. I do it every year, though. Have done for—oh, a long time now.” He nods to the lantern. “Wanna see where it goes?”

River nods, but he doesn’t miss the way her expression falters, just slightly. She thinks it’s meant for Amy, for Clara. For another of his friends or companions or lovers throughout time and space, and he doesn’t blame her. Of course she thinks that.

He’s wearing a suit.

With a deep breath, the Doctor hoists the candle into the air, and River watches sadly as it starts to drift away, getting lost in the tangle of other lanterns.

“I hope it arrives safely,” she says, and he knows she means it. “Wherever it ends up.”

Part of him, an old, angry, Scottish part of him, wants to shake her. Wants her to be angry with him, blame him, criticise him for everything he's done and failed to do. He wants to shout at her for thinking he could love her less than anyone else, even when he knows he's done little to prove it.

But then she kisses him, just under his jaw, and he softens.

He wasn’t planning on it. Hadn’t even occurred to him until this moment, but there’s no reason not to, no reason at all, except he doesn’t want her to think she has something to prove so he waits. Just a little longer. Just a moment.

“There,” he breathes.

River frowns. “What?”

He points up. Above their heads, lowering a bit on a wobble, is his lantern, a bit mangled, but still bright. It floats down to her feet and falls over on its side.

River parts her lips, crouching down and staring at it with a frown. “I don’t—this isn’t the same one, is it? It’s old.”

“Older, thank you,” he sniffs, straightening his suit. River snorts. “But yes. I forgot to mention—when the person isn’t here, on this planet, the lanterns wait. In the lower atmosphere, circling. They’ll stay up there forever, even after the people are long dead. It’s all or nothing for them.”

A second lantern, the same blue, falls to her feet.

“I—I don’t understand. Why are they all coming back to you?”

“Not me, dear.” He steps a few feet away, and River’s eyes widen when a third, and then a fourth candle settle around her ankles.

“Doctor…”

“Did I mention, River Song?” He grins, feeling the hum in the air, the change. “I’ve been doing this for centuries.

A fifth, sixth, and seventh candle float down beside her.

Ten. Twenty. Thirty.

At fifty, the people around them start to take notice, stepping back with a frown.

At a hundred, they start whispering.

Two hundred, and they’re clapping, and River just stares at him from across a sea of blue lights and stares, her eyes wide and wet and he beams as they keep falling, piling up around her. Three hundred. Four hundred.

A thousand.

By then she’s crying, just a few stray tears in the corners of her eyes, and people are cheering and whispering, some awed, others sceptical, as the same blue candles keep floating down around one woman.

He worries, for a moment, that it’s too much, or too little; that she doesn’t believe him, or that it’s too late. He watches her as she looks up, into the almost blue sky, blue for the candles, blue for her, and him, and them, together and then she smiles, soft at first, and then bright and brilliant and wide and she laughs, hands over her mouth as she turns, taking in the pile spread out around her.

Just them, in the middle of a blue candle field, and everyone else seems to fade away as the last candles descend, bouncing arily when they hit the ground, save for one. It’s old, older than all the rest, tattered and torn and faded in places, but the candle’s still bright, and it settles in the palms of her hands.

He carefully closes the distance between them. “That’s the first one I made,” he says, when she doesn’t speak. “Tenth regeneration, I think.”

She swallows tightly. “Haven’t met that you yet.”

“He’s all right. Bit vain.”

She lets out a watery chuckle. “Doctor, I—”

He presses a finger to her lips. “It’s okay, love.”

She nods, cradling the lantern to her chest with one hand, while the other loops around his neck and pulls his mouth down to hers. He’s vaguely aware of cheering and applause, but then his hand settles on her hip and the other over her cheek and he doesn’t hear anything except her quiet breathing through her nose and the crackle of over two thousand tiny candles, all for her.

Pulling back breathlessly, the Doctor slides a hand into his pocket, and holds out his bow-tie. “What’d you think, River Song? Better proposal than last time?”

She laughs, her eyes bright, and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen her speechless. “Positively brilliant, sweetie.”

He beams. “Ah, good. Means you’ll say yes to an old bampot?”

“Well,” she manages, voice trembling slightly. “Not just any old bampot. I’m rather partial to one in particular.”

Grinning, the Doctor loops the bowtie around her neck and ties it quickly, despite the fact that it clashes with her dress and looks far more adorable than the sultry, sexy look she was probably going for. Still, he decides ‘cute’ is a look he rather adores on River Song, and kisses her again before she can protest.

“Yes, dear, I know: I said that out loud.”