Chapter 1: drinking from your cup of broken ends
“I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected…
He made me love him without looking at me.”
– Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
As far as solicitors go, Mr. Lux has never been particularly useful. Most of the time, River ignores his advice entirely and he’ll only sigh and draw up the necessary paperwork to fulfill whatever demand she lays at his desk. He’s always been amenable to her will, despite the pressure of a society quite convinced a woman could never and should never handle her own finances. River has never been one to let anyone else touch anything that belongs to her – and her money is most decidedly hers. Mr. Lux never forgets that.
Which is why she stares at him now with incomprehension, watching blankly as he fidgets behind his desk and wipes his perspiring brow with a handkerchief. “Sorry, what did you just say?”
Mr. Lux draws in a fortifying breath and repeats, “Your ex-husband is claiming you lied to him about your fortune when he divorced you. He’s suing you for everything you own. And since you have yet to marry another, he may very well win.”
Her hands curl into fists on her lap, gripping the fabric of her skirts until her knuckles turn white. Jaw clenched, she speaks through her teeth. “How is this possible?”
“You divorced Lord Hydroflax on the grounds of deception, Ms. Song, but the man is now claiming you deceived him in turn by hiding your fortune from him. Since you are still unattached, it is a fortune that is rightfully his should he prove your treachery-”
“I know how it happened, you rotund buffoon,” she snaps, leaping to her feet and pacing away from his desk. “I probably understand the law better than you do.”
Mr. Lux flinches, watching her stalk up and down the length of his office like a caged lioness. River pays him no mind, her heart thudding erratically and her lungs burning. Her corset feels too tight and every swish of her skirts as she moves sounds deafening to her ears. She can taste bile in her mouth and she swallows but her throat closes up and nearly chokes her.
Gripping the back of her chair in front of Mr. Lux’s desk, she steadies herself for a long moment and waits, knuckles white, until the rising panic abates and gives way to something more familiar – unchecked fury and determination. She lifts her head, eyes narrowed. “How do I stop him?”
“In a word?” Mr. Lux wrings his hands. “Remarry.”
River bites down hard on her tongue. “No.”
After her disastrous affair with Lord Hydroflax, she’d promised herself she would never again be in a position of subservience to another man and ever since then, she’s worked hard to ensure she never had to. These last few years, she’s finally been in a place where no one had power over her – not Kovarian, not her husband, not even a tax collector. And she won’t relinquish a drop of that freedom to anyone.
Mr. Lux sighs, as though preparing himself for battle. “If you remarry, your assets will become your new husband’s and any rights Lord Hydroflax might exercise over you would be absolutely null and void.”
“Yes and I would still lose everything to some greedy little toad of a man with more fingers than brain cells.” River whirls away from him, glaring hard at the floor. There’s still a flutter of fear in her chest but the longer she thinks of her odious ex-husband, the angrier she becomes. “I made my fortune after I escaped his meaty clutches.”
Most of it anyway. She can’t deny she’d absconded with his coin purse and a great deal of the silver but in the grand scheme of things, her thievery had hardly done more than keep her fed for a few months. After that, River had been forced to make her own way in the world and she had – using some unscrupulous methods, perhaps, but never taking advantage of those who didn’t deserve it.
She swallows back furious tears, grinding her teeth together. “Everything I have, I worked for.” Conned, swindled, at times outright stole. “He has no right -”
“Unfortunately, he has every right.” Mr. Lux shuffles some papers on his desk and River glances over her shoulder to find him avoiding her gaze. “But he won’t be able to touch a farthing if you and your fortune belong to another man.”
She stiffens. “I belong to myself, Mr. Lux.”
“All the same,” he says, waving her away. “You might want to consider your options. You’ll belong on the street if you don’t take action soon.”
Lifting her chin, she snatches up her gloves and her purse from his desk. “I have no prospects and you know it,” she snaps.
“Perhaps someone might want to marry you,” he ventures hesitantly. “If you weren’t so…”
Mr. Lux grimaces. “Well, you.”
Baring her teeth, River steps forward threateningly and delights in watching her solicitor yelp and recoil – like she might actually hit him. It’s almost enough to cheer her up. Turning on her heel while he cowers behind his desk, she marches for the door and calls over her shoulder, “I’ll be in touch, Mr. Lux.”
She slams the door behind her and it isn’t until she’s halfway down the street and still fuming that she admits perhaps Mr. Lux has a point. Among London’s elite bachelors, she’s practically a pariah. Wild, unscrupulous, and audacious to a fault, she’s hardly the sort most men want to take home to meet Mummy. Men think her very fine to look at and when she allows them to, they also find her very pleasing to touch but not one of them would ever consider actually marrying her. Up to now, that arrangement has suited River just fine.
The only time she’d ever shown any interest in holy matrimony, she’d been looking out for her best interest. She’d conned the wealthy Lord Hydroflax into marrying her, quickly realized she had been conned in return – duped into binding herself to a violent brute – and got out as quickly as she could.
Since then, the idea of tying herself to someone else has lost its appeal and not even the idea of gaining their fortunes has been enough to sway her. The thought of entering into such a union again in a desperate bid to keep everything she’s strived for since she was a sixteen-year-old divorcée makes her sick to her stomach.
Turning away from the crowded city street, River veers off down a less populated, narrow lane and comes to an abrupt halt. She wraps her fingers around a lamppost and braces herself against it, squeezing her eyes shut. She has not come all this way – from a pitiful little orphan to a wealthy London socialite – just to lose everything to her dim-witted bully of an ex-husband.
Whether it meant stealing, cheating wealthy men out of their undeserved earnings, or defying the dangerously omniscient woman who raised her in filth and violence, River has always done what’s necessary to keep her head above water. This time is no different. She straightens, uncurling her fingers from the lamppost and drawing in a steadying breath. Whatever it takes to keep her fortune, she’ll do it.
Mind already occupied with plans to find some poor sucker and con him into marrying her, she almost doesn’t notice the hand in her dress pocket – unmistakably attempting to filch her coin purse. Almost. Without looking, she catches the wrist of her assailant and bends it violently back, pinching with her thumb and forefinger.
Behind her, she hears a pained gasp of surprise.
“I’ve had a hell of a day, darling, and one little twist of my hand will be more than enough to ruin yours.” She bends his wrist just a bit more to prove her point, satisfied when she hears a yelp and a muttered curse. “So. That better have been my bum you were reaching for.”
“Afraid not. But I can certainly give it a go if you like.”
“Tempting but no.”
“Probably for the best. I’m a wee bit out of practice.”
Still holding onto his wrist, River turns slowly and comes face to face with her pickpocket. He’s older than she’d expected – fluffy gray curls peeking out from beneath a battered top hat. Tall and thin, he wears a shabby black coat and leans heavily on a walking stick. He’s staring right at her but his eyes are oddly blank and she realizes with a jolt that he’s blind.
“Well no wonder I caught you,” she mutters, watching him frown in her direction. “You can’t even see what you’re doing.”
“Actually, you’re the first to catch me,” he admits, and his brows waggle smugly. “I’m impressed. Irritated, mind, but impressed.”
River snorts, releasing his wrist. “Forgive me but I don’t think thievery is the best career choice for a blind man.”
He tilts his head in acceptance of the criticism, that smug expression never fading from his lined face. “The blindness is a recent development. I haven’t got round to picking a new hobby just yet.”
“I’d hurry, if I were you,” she advises, all the while wondering why she hasn’t shoved him into a puddle and stalked off yet. “Not many will be quite so merciful with a pickpocket.”
“Merciful?” His brows raise and he flexes his doubtlessly sore hand, frowning. “What do you do when you’re feeling vengeful? Behead? Draw and quarter?”
“Behave yourself, Granddad, and you won’t have to find out.” Leaning against the lamppost behind her, River studies him quietly. “How did you even know I was standing here?”
To her amusement, his whole face lights up at the prospect of explaining his own cleverness. She bites her lip against a smile before she remembers he can’t see her expression anyway. “You were muttering to yourself. Quite rudely, by the way.”
“Bad day, remember?”
“Lucky for me. I followed your voice.” He leans forward, like he knows instinctively where she is. He reaches out a hand and River stills, watching intently as his knuckles lightly brush her skirts. “And then I felt your skirts to assess the fabric. Expensive. And you smelled like Parisian perfume so I-”
“You deduced I had money,” she finishes, eyeing him appraisingly.
He shrugs, his hand falling away from her skirts and slipping into his pocket. “After that it was just a matter of finding your coin purse.” He frowns, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “It was almost too easy. You were distracted.”
“I wasn’t distracted,” she lies, bristling at the scolding tone of his voice. She’ll not be lectured by a pickpocket. “I was giving you a fair chance. I’m rich, I’m not rude.”
“Better rude than an idiot,” he chides, brow furrowed. “Not everyone would just pick your pocket and walk away.”
River stares at him, a surprised grin curling her mouth. “Are you worried for my safety, Granddad?”
“Not worried,” he says, scowling. “Reluctantly concerned, maybe, but not worried.”
She lifts her chin, watching his unseeing eyes stare right through her. “I can look after myself.”
Huffing a gray curl off his forehead, he mutters, “I’m starting to realize that.”
“You, on the other hand, might want to consider an alternative vocation before someone more cruel than I guts you and dumps you in an alley.” She wrinkles her nose. “Or worse.”
His brows lift. “Worse?”
River ignores him. “Might want to think about good old-fashioned begging.” Reaching out a hand, she taps the brim of his hat and he flinches from the unexpected touch. “And look, you’ve already got a collection plate.”
He swats her hand away. “People don’t give money to old men like me. Not even blind ones.” Gripping his cane, he adjusts his hat with his free hand and turns his back on her. As he moves slowly away from her and down the pavement, he calls over his shoulder, “Remember what I said, eh? Better rude than an idiot.”
River stares after him, not quite sure why she’s so reluctant to see him walk away but unwilling to let him out of her sight just yet. “Find a child,” she shouts after him. He pauses, turning to frown at her over his shoulder. “Or a dog. Some sweet-looking creature they’ll feel sorry for.”
He snorts. “Might work but I’m not exactly in a position to decide what’s visually appealing and what isn’t, am I?”
She bites her lip, watching him turn the corner and disappear. Once he’s gone, she pivots on her heel and walks in the other direction, hurrying home. It’s easy to push the strange encounter out of her mind, her thoughts instantly returning to her own misfortune. When she finally walks through the front door of her townhouse, they’re all waiting for her – her maid, her cook, and her coachmen loitering in the front hall entryway and trying to pretend they haven’t been on pins and needles since she left hours ago.
“Am I really so easy to look after that you lot have had nothing to do while I was gone?” She asks, smiling tiredly for their benefit as she drapes her cloak over the coatrack. “I’ll have to start being more of a bother.”
“You’re plenty bothersome,” Amy says, foot tapping impatiently against the marble floor. “We’re just that good.”
“I doubt don’t it,” River murmurs fondly, turning to face them at last.
Clara and Rory stand just behind Amy, their eyes anxious and questioning. “Well?” Rory finally asks when she only watches them silently. “What did he say?”
River sighs, forcing the words from her mouth. “He’s really trying to take everything.”
“Arse,” Clara mutters instantly, scowling. “Doesn’t he have enough already?”
Letting out a string of profanity made all the more amusing by the way her accent thickens when she’s angry, Amy shrugs off Rory’s quelling hand on her arm and steps toward River with a determined gleam in her eyes. “What do we do?”
“You won’t be doing anything.” River pats her cheek when Amy opens her mouth to protest. “Except going upstairs to run me a bath. I’ll deal with everything else.”
“A bath, please, Amy.” River massages her fingertips into her aching temple, giving her maid a pleading glance. “I need to get the stink of downtown out of my hair.”
“Fine.” Amy frowns, turning to head for the stairs. “But we are so not done talking about this.”
River watches her go, wondering how she managed to acquire the most impudent maid this side of the continent. Once Amy disappears, she turns and finds Clara’s sympathetic brown eyes on her. “Make me a drink?”
Clara nods. “Of course. Tea?”
“If you like. I’ll take mine with whiskey.”
“Coming right up.”
Clara squeezes her arm and bustles off, leaving River standing alone in the foyer with her coachman. Rory eyes her with fatherly understanding that he’s far too young to possess, asking softly, “Are you all right?”
“Fine.” She nods, refusing to acknowledge his knowing stare. “I just need to think.”
“We’re here, you know,” he says. “If you need us.”
“I know.” River smiles. “You always are.”
It’s only once she’s alone in the privacy of her bathroom, sinking into the steaming water of her clawfoot tub that she finally allows herself to panic again. It’s been years since she escaped Hydroflax’s clutches but it appears he’s still perfectly capable of backing her into a corner, defenseless and overpowered.
She flicks irritably at a few sudsy bubbles on her knee, setting her jaw. Her ex-husband may have been bigger and stronger than her but River has always been faster and smarter. She searches her mind desperately for some way around the predicament before her but no matter how hard she tries or how long she sits in the rapidly cooling water, no magic solution presents itself.
When she finally climbs out of the tub and wraps herself in the towel Amy had left for her, she stands dripping onto the cold tile floor and stares at her pale face in the mirror. One day, a long time ago, she’d promised herself to never marry again but it’s with a sinking heart that she determines there is but one choice left to her.
Tomorrow, she’ll have to start looking for a husband.
Chapter 2: darling i feel like you are all that i need
On a bench in the clearing sits a familiar figure, poking his walking stick at the grass. River hesitates, glancing around and finding no one near. It would be easy enough to walk right past him. He’d never even know she was there. Instead, and against her better judgment, she finds herself moving right toward him.
In which a proposal is made.
Chapter title from Yours to Keep by Ellen and the Escapades.
River slips out of the house early the next morning, quiet as a mouse. Her childhood had taught her how to move silently, how to blend in and make herself disappear. She manages to escape the notice of even the ever curious Amy who surely would have had questions about why she was leaving the house before nine in the morning while wearing one of her best gowns. She makes her way out of her neighborhood and heads for the park, knowing that aside from a party this evening it will be the perfect place to “accidentally” run into any eligible bachelors.
When she’d pulled on this particular dress this morning – a deep violet with a scandalous neckline – she’d done so in hopes of attracting a few suitable men but as she strolls through the park, the only members of the opposite sex she encounters are those she already knows. St. James Park seems to be filled with her old suitors, all of whom nearly trip all over themselves to ask if they can call on her again. Even if she could con one of them into marrying her instead of just bedding her, the thought of putting any of the idiots in charge of her finances makes her shudder.
She’d barely tolerated them in her bed for one night, let alone forever. Tolerating one of them enough to marry them? To give them control of her hard-earned fortune? Unthinkable. Her last marriage hadn’t been for love by any stretch of the imagination and by the time she’d escaped it, she’d been quite certain there could never be anyone she could be persuaded to spend the rest of her life with.
Making her way around a winding path in the middle of the park, she wonders with growing panic what she’ll do if she doesn’t find anyone she trusts with not only her life but her money. What if Hydroflax succeeds in taking everything away from her? She’ll be penniless again, with nowhere to go and nothing to call her own.
River clenches her gloved hands, setting her jaw. If he takes everything she has, then she’ll start over. She will not rest until she’s regained every measly pence and then some. She’d made her fortune once, she could do it again.
As she rounds the corner, resolve strengthening with every step, the path clears and the way ahead opens up before her. On a bench in the clearing sits a familiar figure, poking his walking stick at the grass. River hesitates, glancing around and finding no one near. It would be easy enough to walk right past him. He’d never even know she was there.
Instead, and against her better judgment, she finds herself moving right toward him. “Fancy seeing you here.”
He stiffens and she suspects he doesn’t recognize her voice yet. “Yes, yes,” he mutters. “You’re very clever. Haven’t heard that one yet.”
“No need to be cross, Granddad.” River gathers her skirts, settling onto the bench beside him. “Look around, it’s a lovely day.” She scrunches her nose. “Or don’t look, considering.”
“There you go, being clever again.” He tilts his head toward her, sniffing. “It’s you, isn’t it? The rich one who almost broke my wrist yesterday.”
She hums in greeting. “At your service.”
“Are you following me?”
“Why would I follow you?” She asks, smirking. “To see where you buy your clothes?”
He harrumphs, brows twitching. “Same place you buy your perfume, probably.”
“Rude,” she tsks. “And after I came all the way over here to sit with you.”
He extends his walking stick and taps it against the pavement. It’s not in any particular rhythm but more like he’s checking to make sure everything is where it ought to be; a rather adorable way of anchoring himself to his surroundings. “I don’t remember asking for your company.”
“And yet you haven’t left yet,” she observes wryly.
“I was here first.” He frowns. “You leave.”
“All right -” She rustles her skirts in an effort to trick him into thinking she’s moving to get up, smiling when his hand shoots out to stop her. “Problem?”
“Well…” He clears his throat, staring hard at the ground. “No need to rush off just yet. There’s enough room on this bench for two, I suppose.”
She arches an eyebrow. “How can you tell?”
He huffs, clearly tamping down a smile. “Would you sit down? Bloody impossible-”
“Very well, darling,” she says, letting go of her skirts. “If you insist.”
To her amusement, the blind stranger beside her turns a light shade of pink even as he does his best to disguise it with a scowl. “Do you call everyone who tries to pick your pocket darling?”
“Only the blind ones.”
He smiles, a quick flash that reminds her briefly of lightning – there one minute and gone the next. As a solemn expression settles over his sharp features, she stares at him and wondered if she’d imagined it. “Going to tell me what’s wrong?”
She blinks. “Wrong? What makes you think anything’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he says, a little too quickly. He waits a beat, then relents. “It’s just… you sound sad.”
River opens and closes her mouth soundlessly. Is she really so transparent that even a blind man can see through her theatrics? She snaps her mouth shut, looking away in an effort to collect herself. “And what about you? Do you ask everyone who sits beside you on park benches to tell you their problems?”
Her perceptive stranger waggles his brows, bestowing her with another quick smile. “Only the ones that sound really fit.”
She laughs and the sound startles them both, sitting there on a bench in the middle of St. James Park and grinning at each other like complete fools. It’s only then that she realizes why she’d been so reluctant to part with him yesterday. She’s found him.
He isn’t quite the poor sap she’d been hoping to stumble across but he’s certainly someone she can tolerate for more than five minutes. He’s intelligent and daring and he’s already made her laugh. He’s also older and blind and therefore less inclined to stick his nose in her business. And if he happens to benefit from the arrangement as well then so be it.
As their chuckles quiet, she asks, “Are you going to tell me your name, Granddad?”
“Why?” He inclines his head toward her, brows raised. “Going to turn me in for unsuccessful pilfery? You really should have reported that when it happened.”
River shakes her head and reaches out to him, tightening her grip on his arm when he starts in surprise. “I’m afraid I have as little interest in alerting the authorities as you do.” She stands without letting go of his arm, carefully helping him to his feet. He follows her lead cautiously, his brow furrowed. “I’d like you to have dinner with me.”
“Why?” He grumbles, and she feels him tense under her hand. “Because I’m old and blind and poor? I don’t need your pity.”
“Good,” she replies tartly, tugging him along back the way she came. “Because you won’t get it.”
He snorts. “Fancy me then?”
She rolls her eyes. “Actually, I have a proposition for you.”
His brow arches and River watches out of the corner of her eye as his lips twitch into a faint smirk. “Oh?”
“A business proposition,” she corrects, amused despite herself. He’ll definitely be able to withstand her sense of humor. She guides him around the corner, listening to the click of his walking stick on the pavement. Her townhouse isn’t far but she adopts a slower pace for him, hoping by the time they arrive Clara will have lunch ready.
Her prospective partner in crime lopes amiably alongside her, apparently unbothered about being led blindly – literally – by a complete stranger. “Need me to steal something for you?”
She laughs. “If I needed something stolen, the last person I’d ask is a blind granddad.”
“Don’t be rude,” he grumbles. “Rude belongs to me. Is it…something to do with why you sound sad?”
She purses her lips against the urge to actually be honest. “I’ll spare you the details until we arrive.”
He huffs impatiently. “Arrive where?”
“My place, of course.” River pats his arm with a smirk. “I never talk business before drinks, darling.”
They walk together in silence after that, River guiding him around puddles and uneven cobblestones with her arm draped snugly through his. Each time he leans on her, she can smell chimney smoke and wet earth. He doesn’t seem to mind her closeness and when she catches a glimpse of his softening expression each time she carefully steers him away from some potential hazard, she suspects he might even be grateful for it.
She’d chosen her home in Belgravia for two specific purposes – the first being to cement in her own mind that she was hardly a ragamuffin orphan any longer and the second to intimidate those who came to call on her. She likes watching enemies and acquaintances alike as they look upon the symbol of her status in this world, likes the intimidation in their eyes when they stand in the middle of her vast foyer and stare in wonder.
It’s silly but after decades of being looked down on and spat upon, it’s a nice change to be the one looking down from above. She gets no such advantage with her new friend as she leads him inside, shutting the door behind them. He stands in the middle of her immaculate foyer, his dirty boots on the spotless marble floor, and looks around with blank blue eyes.
He tips up his chin and sniffs the air. “Smells like money.”
River blinks at him. “I…” She breathes in, frowning. “Yes, I suppose it does.”
“Is that you, Ma’am? We were starting to wonder-” Rory stops in the doorway, taking in the sight of the blind vagabond standing in her foyer. His eyes drift from the stranger to River and back again. “Uh… Ma’am?”
“I’ll explain later, Rory.” River tosses her gloves onto a table by the entryway, shrugging out of her cloak as well. “Please take Mr. -”
“Smith,” the stranger supplies, then grimaces. “John, please.”
“John,” she murmurs, nodding. “Take John upstairs and help him clean up for dinner. He’s our guest this evening.”
Still looking mystified, Rory doesn’t hesitate. “Of course. I’ll have Amy draw a bath.”
Nodding her thanks, River stands at the bottom of the staircase and watches as her servant and trusted friend takes John gently by the arm and leads him toward the second floor. Grumbling under his breath, John shifts impatiently out of Rory’s grip. “I think I can manage some bloody stairs without hand-holding. I’m blind, not a toddler.”
With that, he stomps up the staircase with his hand on the rail – his walking stick thumping on steps as he goes. With a sigh and a reprimanding glance at River over his shoulder, Rory follows dutifully after him.
Once they reach the landing at the top and disappear around the corner, River stops lingering at the bottom of the stairs and abandons the foyer entirely, wandering off in search of Clara. She follows the mouth-watering scents of lunch into the kitchen and finds her pint-sized cook bent over with her head inside the oven.
“I appreciate the sacrifice, dear, but surely there are still a few birds left to roast first.” She bites back a smile when Clara yelps, jumping in fright and smacking her head on the oven. “Something tells me you’d be a bit too tough anyway.”
Rubbing at the back of her head, Clara straightens and throws her a withering glance. “Just for that, I’ll be under-seasoning the duck this afternoon.”
River tilts her head and crinkles her nose, swallowing back a smirk. “Just so long as there’s enough for two. I have company.”
“Oh?” Clara turns her back to mind the bubbling pot on the stove but not before River catches a glimpse of her sly grin. “And who’s the lucky boy this time?”
“Not that sort of company. Just business, I’m afraid.” River sighs mournfully, stepping dutifully forward when Clara lifts the ladle from the pot and beckons her closer. She samples the soup and grimaces. “Needs more salt.”
Clara reaches for the salt and sprinkles it liberally into the pot. “Does this have something to do with what Mr. Lux said? About your ex?”
“It does.” River moves away from the stove, avoiding the girl’s knowing gaze. “I’ve had an idea.”
“A devious one, no doubt,” Clara mutters. “I can see it all over your face.”
“Not devious.” River shrugs, silently damning her tendency to hire help with a penchant for taking a running leap over the line of propriety. None of them ever know when to stop prying into her business. “Practical.”
Clara snorts. “One and the same to you.”
As River glares at her back, Amy scurries into the kitchen with her red hair flying behind her and her eyes sparkling with mischief. Around a scandalized grin, she asks, “Oi, why’ve you got a homeless man taking a bath upstairs?”
Whirling at once, Clara gapes at her with wide brown eyes. “You what?”
Amy snorts. “She brought home a hobo. A really grumpy, blind hobo.”
Softening, Clara rests a soothing hand on River’s arm. “I know pickings are slim in this city and judging by your ex-husband your standards aren’t terribly high but surely you could have found someone with…”
“A house?” Amy offers, smirking.
Scowling at them both, River silently promises herself the next time she needs more help around here, she’s hiring a mute. “Not that I have to explain anything to either of you but he is not that sort of company.”
Clara frowns. “What sort of business could you possibly have with a vagabond?”
“If things go the way I hope, that man is the key to keeping my fortune and you miserable lot.” River crosses her arms over her chest, fixing them both with her best I Am Mistress Of This House And You Will Damn Well Obey Me glare. Despite her best efforts and the fear she tends to inspire in most, it hardly ever works on her household staff. “Now will you just trust me and go set the table?”
“Fine,” Amy snaps, eyes narrowing. “But don’t think I won’t be standing outside the door eavesdropping.”
River blinks at her. “I would expect nothing less, dear.”
With one last suspicious and not entirely appeased glance, Amy harrumphs and turns on her heel, marching back out of the kitchen with as much flare as she’d entered it. Once she’s gone, Clara reluctantly turns her attention to cooking once more and River slips out of the kitchen before she can start doubting the wisdom of this particular plan. There really isn’t much of a choice.
Making her way upstairs, she locks herself in her bedroom under the guise of changing for lunch and fumbles for the stash of cigars she keeps under the music box on her vanity. Dressed in her dinner gown, she settles onto the sill of an open window and smokes until she can contemplate the prospect of remarrying without wanting to be sick.
By the time Rory comes to fetch her, the cigar is half gone and her hands have stopped shaking. River leaves the cigar on the windowsill and smoothes down her dress, taking a deep breath before she ventures downstairs to face the future she’s been forced into.
John is already waiting for her when she arrives in the dining room, though he doesn’t bother standing when she enters the room. Most might find the lack of ceremony rude but River can’t help but breathe a little easier at his complete lack of airs. She isn’t looking for manners – just someone tolerable.
Instead of standing, John tilts his head toward her when he hears her footsteps, like he’s tracking her movements. She reaches her chair across from him and pauses, staring. While the overcast afternoon didn’t provide much light to see when she’d been across the room, it’s easy to notice now that John Smith cleans up remarkably well.
Gone are the shabby coat and battered top hat – even the scruffy beginnings of a beard. She has no idea where Rory managed to find a suit to fit him but he doesn’t look nearly so odd as he had standing in the middle of her foyer an hour ago. Sitting at her dining room table in a finely tailored suit, smelling faintly of her perfumed bath salts and his wild gray hair combed into submission, he looks almost like he belongs.
Yes, she thinks faintly, still staring. He’ll do very nicely.
“Are you going to eat standing up?” He asks dryly, startling her out of her stupor. “Or are you planning to have a seat at some point this evening?”
River almost flushes before she remembers that at least he hadn’t seen her staring. “I was lighting some candles,” she lies. “You might not be able to see your plate but I’d like to see mine.”
He huffs irritably through his nose. “You smell like smoke but it isn’t the candles.” He sniffs the air, leaning toward her until his cravat nearly lands in his soup. “Cigars?” He tuts, smirking. “And I thought you were a lady.”
“Your mistake,” she quips, helping herself to some wine. “Drink?”
“I don’t usually accept drinks from strangers but then again, I don’t normally bathe in their houses either. So bugger it.” He fumbles for his glass, his fingers wrapping firmly around the stem as he lifts it toward her and holds it aloft. “If you don’t mind pouring?”
River pours him a generous amount of merlot and settles the bottle back on the table, fussing over her napkin and her cutlery while watching him out of the corner of her eye. He’d said the blindness was a relatively new development and she can tell just by observing him that he’s still getting used to depending on his other senses. His hands are cautious as he reaches out, touching his fingertips to his glass and each piece of cutlery – as if memorizing where they are.
“Soup spoon is on the left,” she supplies, watching him frown at the array of forks and spoons and knives set out for his use. “And the soup itself is just to the left of the spoon. Mulligatawny, in case you were wondering.”
“Thought I smelled curry,” he mutters, and dunks his spoon into the bowl. After a careful bite, he wrinkles his nose. “Too much salt.”
River bites back a grimace and decides she definitely won’t be telling Clara that.
She doesn’t bring up the reason she’d brought him back home with her right away, telling herself it’s because she owes him at least the courtesy of enjoying his meal in peace before she proposes to him. And if she uses the extra time to observe her potential husband a bit more, she doesn’t see the harm in wanting to know more of his character. She could be wrong about him, after all. She’s certainly been wrong before.
The more she watches him, however, the more he puts her at ease. He’s clearly still a bit irritable but considering she’d practically dragged him to her home and he still has no idea why, she can’t blame him for that. As dinner progresses, he begins to relax and she can see him softening with every moment that passes.
With his hawkish features and fluffy hair, he resembles a bird with ruffled feathers but his eyes, while unseeing, are kind. She even gets him to laugh once, briefly. She knows next to nothing about this man but somehow, she knows a laugh is a hard won thing. River sips her wine and watches him eat his fill, pondering how best to broach the subject of matrimony with a complete stranger.
By the time Amy serves dessert and ducks back out of the room, no doubt to continue eavesdropping in the hall outside, John has had enough of waiting. He fumbles for his coffee cup just to push it away, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. “Granted, the fine dining has been a nice change of pace and the whole forced to follow you home bit was novel but I’m clinging to my admittedly limited patience -”
“River,” she supplies, setting aside her own coffee. “My name is River.”
“Charming,” he says dryly. “What the hell am I doing here?”
“I told you, I have a business deal for you.” She swallows, folding her hands in front of her on the table in an effort to quell the trembling of her fingers. “I’ve recently found myself in a bit of a bind and you’re clearly… in need of assistance.” He snorts under his breath and she bites her tongue. “I think we can help each other.”
His brow arches. “How’s that?”
“If you grant me a favor,” she begins hesitantly, watching him closely. “I can see to it that you’re never without a hot meal or a roof over your head. I can give you a bed to sleep in and clothes that don’t have holes in them. I can guarantee you’ll want for nothing the rest of your days.”
“Tempting,” he mutters, though if he’s swayed by the thought of such material wealth, he doesn’t let on. “And just what would I have to do to gain such riches?”
“Not much, in the grand scheme of things.” River draws in a breath, steeling herself. There really is no way to ease into this sort of thing so she blurts, “Only marry me.”
In the corridor outside, she hears someone choke on air but she barely spares a thought for Amy currently struggling to breathe. John’s eyes widen and his brows lift practically to his hairline. He stares in her direction without blinking, his lips parted in stunned silence. “Sorry, what?”
She clenches her jaw, loathe to explain the whole wretched business. “My ex-husband is after my fortune – the fortune I acquired after leaving him. He claims I was hiding it from him while we were married and therefore it belongs to him. He might very well convince a judge of the same unless I can protect my assets from him.”
“And… marrying me would accomplish that how?”
River stews in silence for a moment, her hands fisted in the tablecloth until she can force the words from her mouth. “Anything I have would no longer be mine but my husband’s and therefore more difficult for Lord Hydroflax to get his meaty hands on.”
“Lord Hydroflax?” John releases a snort of laughter, his blue eyes twinkling with mirth. “That’s who you married? Someone actually married that nutter?”
“I was young,” she snaps, bristling. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
John sobers instantly, the mischievous smile fading. “I’m glad you managed to escape the brute. But that still doesn’t explain why you want to marry me.”
“I told you,” she says, biting back a sigh. “I have to get married -”
“No.” He shakes his head, his lips pursed as he taps his fingers against the edge of the dining table. “I mean why would you want to marry me, specifically. You’re wealthy and by the sound of your voice, still relatively young and attractive. Why would you need to marry a blind pickpocket?”
River sinks her teeth into her bottom lip, studying him in appraising silence for a long moment. Not just a terrible thief, then. It’s becoming clearer by the moment that she’d managed to find someone clever. “Because you don’t strike me as the type to value money,” she finally answers. “Or want control of mine.”
He stops tapping his fingers and though she knows it’s impossible, when he directs his gaze across the table he seems to be looking right at her like he can see her. “Or you, isn’t that right?”
She blinks. “Pardon?”
“You wouldn’t ask me if you had other options,” he says, leaning back in his chair again. “This whole thing reeks of desperation. Which means no one else will marry you.”
He folds his hands over his stomach and directs that oddly piercing gaze toward the ceiling, looking for all the world like a philosopher contemplating the secrets of the universe. River grinds her teeth together, nostrils flaring.
“Considering you smoke cigars like a man and brought home a known thief, I’m guessing it’s because no one wants to attempt taming you.” He smirks, his sightless gaze drifting back across the table again. “And you don’t want to marry them because you don’t want to be tamed. You want to marry me because you think I won’t try, either because I’m old and blind or because I’m a kindred spirit – just as unacceptable in the eyes of society as you are.”
River glares at him, eyes narrowed, but it isn’t quite the same knowing he can’t see her. No one has ever seen through her quite so easily before. It usually takes people time and a crowbar to pry out some glimpse of her psyche. Even Amy and Rory, who have been with her for years, know only what she wants them to. Of course it would be this man who can’t see anything else who manages to see right through her.
“Well spotted,” she mutters sourly, rattled and struggling not to let him hear it in her voice. “Was there an answer in there anywhere?”
John rests his elbows on the table and nearly upends his coffee cup in the process. He settles the wobbling china with a hand, lifting it slowly to his lips. After a brief sip, he says, “I used to get in trouble all the time when I was a lad. For lots of things – running, fighting, dirtying my clothes. I was never in trouble more often than I was for freeing the chickens from the coop or letting the horses out of the stables.”
His lips curve faintly into a smile and she wonders despite herself what he’s remembering, what his childhood might have looked like. “Once, my best friend had a pet bird. Beautiful, expensive animal. I let it out the window. Missy was furious…” He shakes his head, blinking away some secret memory. “I’ve never had any interest in caging wild creatures.”
River lets out a quiet breath and slowly releases her white-knuckled grip on the fine tablecloth, inexplicably glad that he can’t see the relief bleeding out of her eyes. “Then do you accept my proposal?”
He tilts his head, frowning. “On one condition.”
She braces herself for something ridiculous or impossible, something that will allow her to see his true nature and call the whole thing off. “Name it.”
“There’s a children’s home on Gracechurch Street,” he says. “They need donations. Will you grant them enough for new blankets and some toys?”
River stares at him. “The one run by Mr. Renfrew?”
His eyes narrow. “How did you -”
“I give him a sizable donation every month.” She smiles, remembering how excited the children had been last month when she’d arrived with sweets as well. One little girl in particular, a tiny thing called Susan, had clung to her for the duration of her visit. “I’m responsible for most of the repairs to that old building.”
Startled out of his usual scowl, John stares in her direction with his lips parted in surprise and his brows lifted. “You… you donate to the orphanage?”
She lifts her chin. “What of it?”
“Why do you do it?”
River ignores him, countering pointedly, “Why do you care about those children so much?”
“Because someone should,” he replies, stiffening in his chair. He doesn’t have the advantage of sight but his gaze seems to burn through her all the same. “Because it’s kind.”
Heart in her throat, she watches him quiver with the truth of his words and knows that if her goal is to marry the exact opposite of Lord Hydroflax then she need look no further than the man sitting across from her. Yes, she thinks again, studying him in silence. He’ll do nicely.
“Your turn,” he prompts. “The truth, please. Consider it a condition of our engagement.”
She sighs through her nose, gathering her resolve. “Donations like mine keep places like that running properly. There are always too many children and never enough money or minders to look after them all.” She grits her teeth, watching John wait in silence. Like he knows she’s holding back. “And I know that first hand, all right?”
He shuts his eyes, apparently satisfied. After a moment of tense silence, he swallows and says, “This remains a business deal. Not a real marriage.”
“Of course not,” she scoffs. “It’s convenience, nothing more.”
“Well then.” John opens his eyes, staring somewhere just over her shoulder, and smiles. “Do you prefer Mrs. Smith or should I come up with some sort of pet name? Sweetie, perhaps?”
She glowers. “River will do.”
Chapter 3: i'm reaching out to touch your voice
When she’d proposed marriage to John Smith two days ago, River had been thinking mostly of how to salvage her independence and not nearly enough about the consequences of marrying a complete stranger with no possessions of his own save the clothes on his back.
In which John wears a suit, River scares Mr. Lux, and something is discovered.
Chapter title from Agape by Bear's Den.
When she’d proposed marriage to John Smith two days ago, River had been thinking mostly of how to salvage her independence and not nearly enough about the consequences of marrying a complete stranger with no possessions of his own save the clothes on his back. While getting acquainted with her betrothed will inevitably be a long, arduous process she doesn’t at present have the patience for, making him look the part of River Song’s fiancé is a decidedly simpler task.
She takes him shopping on Threadneedle Street, dragging him sour-faced and complaining to the only tailor she trusts to keep a secret. While Jack Harkness is hardly known for his discretion in his personal life, River has known him long enough to trust that he’ll guard her own secrets far more closely. He’d even closed up shop for her, letting her browse in peace.
Trailing her fingertips along the sleeves of a selection of dinner jackets, River listens as John, confined to a back room while Jack gets his measurements, curses under his breath and snaps, “Oi, I don’t think your bloody tape measure has any business being there.”
“Spoilsport,” Jack mutters, and River can hear the sly grin in his voice. “Hold still, handsome. Almost done.”
John huffs and grumbles, “This is ridiculous. I’m being poked and prodded like a prized horse.”
Selecting a deep maroon waistcoat, River lifts it up and examines it, squinting as she tries to imagine John wearing it. “You’re hardly anyone’s idea of a prize, darling.”
“Well if that’s the way you feel,” he snaps. “Go and find someone else who’ll marry you. Oh wait, you can’t. That’s why you’re marrying the blind thief.”
She rolls her eyes, draping the waistcoat over her arm and bending to examine a selection of cravats Jack had left out for her perusal. “Oh, quit complaining. You slept in a real bed last night thanks to me.”
“Yowzah,” Jack says, whooping mischievously.
“Not like that.” John growls under his breath. “Stop touching that.”
Biting back a smirk, River picks out a cravat to match the waistcoat and wanders into the back room. “Everyone decent?” She asks, stepping behind the curtain without waiting for a reply. At the sight of John, still in the clothes he’d borrowed from Rory, standing in the middle of the room wearing a scowl and Jack knelt in front of him with a measuring tape in hand, she sighs in disappointment. “Pity.”
“You’re telling me.” Jack winks at John, who somehow seems to sense it and glowers in reply. Hopping to his feet, Jack approaches River with a grin and relieves her of her burdens. “Oh, nice selections. He’ll look delicious.”
River hums. “He’d better if he’s going to marry me.”
“Lucky bastard,” Jack groans. “You know I’d have happily been your kept pet if you’d asked.”
“Yes, and spent all my money on your lovers while you were at it.” River pats his arm sweetly. “Sorry, dear. I’d much rather settle for the mysterious handsome stranger.”
John stares at them with narrowed eyes, as if he can’t decide if he wants to keep complaining or start preening. He settles for a grumbled, “I’m right here, you know.”
“Trust me,” Jack says, smirking. “We haven’t forgotten you.” Her clothing selections still in hand, he takes River by the arm and steers her gently from the room. “Don’t even think about peeking, River Song. You can see him when he’s dressed.”
She sighs. “That’s so close to the perfect sentence.”
Jack winks at her, yanking the curtain shut. Left alone to pace the empty shop, River listens to John’s complaints and Jack’s innuendo-laden voice with a faint smile. Considering the utter disaster her life had become only a few days ago, things are looking considerably brighter. If she can prevent John from calling off the whole thing in a fit of pique over a suit, she might actually manage to keep Lord Hydroflax’s greedy paws off her fortune and keep her independence all at the same time.
“I can unbutton my own trousers, you know.” River hears the distinctive sound of John smacking Jack’s hands away. “I’m blind, not paying you by the hour.”
Biting back a smile, she turns on her heel and faces the shop windows. The moment she does, she realizes her mistake. Standing out on the pavement, red in the face and peering through the window at her with wide, panicked eyes, is Mr. Lux. He gestures wildly toward the locked door, clearly asking to be let in, and River groans.
There’s very little doubt that her blustering solicitor has heard something about the identity of her intended and he isn’t here to wish her well. For a brief moment, she contemplates ignoring him and turning away but hearing all about his disapproval is inevitable. The sooner he voices his concerns, the sooner she can force him to shut up and do her bidding anyway.
“Let’s get this over with,” she mutters, gathering her skirts and marching toward the door. Eyeing her solicitor through the glass, she draws in a breath and collects her patience.
The moment she flips the lock, Mr. Lux barrels through the door huffing and puffing. “I saw your carriage outside and I simply had to find out for myself if what I’ve been hearing is true. Marrying a homeless thief? Have you completely taken leave of your senses?”
“Oh, absolutely.” River gives him a sharp-toothed smile, leaning against the counter to watch Mr. Lux wring his hands. “Long time ago.”
River interrupts him with a sigh. “Did you or did you not suggest I find myself a husband in order to maintain my fortune, Mr. Lux? I thought you’d be pleased.” She bats her lashes at him, amused when he blusters. “I’ve simply followed your advice.”
His face grows bright red and his beady eyes narrow – sure signs that River is about to drive him to some sort of aneurysm. And he hasn’t even been in her presence for all of five minutes. A record, surely. “When I made that suggestion, I did not mean to imply you should throw yourself at the first man you stumbled across. Particularly when that man happens to be a vagabond with no connections, no wealth of his own, and -”
“No sight, either,” she supplies, enjoying herself immensely. She lounges against a table of cravat selections, watching Mr. Lux stare at her with incomprehension. “Oh sorry, didn’t you hear about that part? He’s completely blind. Such a pity – all this going to waste.” She affects a pout and gestures at herself just to watch a vein in his neck bulge. “But I suppose every marriage has its challenges.”
“You – I – this is the most ridiculous-” Mr. Lux makes a distressed noise and turns away from her, smashing his bowler hat between his hands as he paces toward the windows. His shoulders are a taut line and his fidgeting fingers quake with anxiety as he struggles to form a response. It’s almost enough to make her feel sorry for him. Almost.
River bites her lip against a smile, watching him pace himself into a fretful mess. “I do hope your silence doesn’t speak of your disapproval. After all, this was your idea.”
He whirls on his heel and she gets a close up view of that pulsing vein in his forehead. His eye twitches. “This was not my idea,” he says, his voice nothing but an anxious squeak. “And this is not one of your little schemes you always think are so very funny. You’re awfully facetious for someone so worried about her finances. Do you really think you can trust someone who has never had his own finances to concern himself with?”
To be fair to Mr. Lux – which River hardly ever strives to be – to just about anyone looking at her situation from the outside, her decision to marry John Smith seems like utterly desperate nonsense. And she supposes it is. She certainly wouldn’t be marrying him or anyone else if she could help it. But of all the people she could be marrying, she could certainly do worse.
She may not know much about him yet but it’s easy to see John is different than most – crass and sharp-tongued and blessedly less of a snob than her contemporaries. And unlike most men she encounters, he isn’t afraid of her. Besides, she’s never been able to resist a good sob story. The blind thief lifted out of poverty by the desperate divorcée? Simply too delicious to contemplate.
Alas, the time for playing with her solicitor is over. She may take great amusement in toying with him just to see him grow flustered but on the rare occasion she pushes too far and he loses his temper, his mouth tends to run away with him. There are times he grows far too comfortable voicing his complaints and it’s up to River to remind him that he works for her and not the other way around.
Straightening from her practiced, elegant slouch, River smoothes her dress and settles her hands on her hips. A wayward curl, which had somehow escaped her hatpins, slips into her eyes and she resists the urge to huff it away. Instead, she focuses on Mr. Lux – staring until his complexion starts to pale.
“Let me make a few things perfectly clear, you odious little man.” His eyes widen but she glares, lowering her voice to a threatening lilt. “First, no one is more aware of the dire circumstances I’ve found myself in than I am. Second, I may on occasion ask for your counsel but I am not a child and no one – especially you – will ever dictate my choices to me ever again. If I decide I want to marry a blind beggar, a drunkard, or a damned lamppost, you will not question me. You will not offer so much as a squeak of protest. You will do exactly as I say – just as I pay you to do. Is that understood?”
To his credit, Mr. Lux doesn’t hesitate. He nods at once, his cheeks drained of color and his hands white-knuckled around his crumpled hat. “Of course, Ms. Song. I meant no offense. I am only ever trying to look out for your best interests. It is my job, after all.” He swallows noisily. “So you’re… certain you want to marry this man?”
Before River can snap at him that she’s just as sure now as she was five minutes ago when he asked, a noise behind them interrupts her. She turns just in time to see the curtain rustle and John steps out from behind it, tugging at his cravat and looking uncomfortable. River stares at him. For all his eccentricities, Jack certainly knows how to dress a man just as well as he knows how to undress them. Outfitted in a very fine black suit – Including a rather dashing waistcoat, a velvet maroon coat, and ornate walking stick – John Smith could fit in right alongside the snootiest of River’s high society friends.
The only giveaway is that untamable gray hair beneath his brand new top hat and the way he can’t seem to stop fidgeting with his silk cravat. His blue eyes dart briefly in her direction and then back down again as he fiddles with his shirt cuff. Clearing his throat gruffly, he asks, “Well? Satisfied?”
River blinks, snapping her mouth shut. Lurking in the doorway behind John with an obnoxious smirk on his face, Jack stifles a snort of laughter. Glowering at him, River turns her gaze pointedly away and licks her lips. “You’ll do.”
At his shoulder, Jack murmurs, “She still hasn’t picked her jaw up from the floor.”
Though he starts and swats at Jack, grumbling at him for being so close, John’s eyes soften and crinkle at the whispered insight. He stops tugging at his cravat and nearly preens, looking terribly pleased with himself.
“On the contrary,” River says, throwing a furious glance at her traitorous tailor. “I merely underestimated Jack’s talents – he made you look almost respectable. The walking stick is a bit much, of course. I do hope you’re not compensating, darling.” As John’s smug grin fades into a scowl, River steels herself, lifting her gaze to her solicitor and his baffled frown. “I’m certain, Mr. Lux. I suggest you draw up all the necessary paperwork.”
Mr. Lux wilts, nodding feebly. “As you wish, Ms. Song.”
She smiles. “That’s more like it.”
If anyone at all could see her standing outside the bedroom door of her betrothed, trying to gather the will to knock, no one would ever be afraid of her again. It’s this thought more than anything that makes River grit her teeth and lift her hand, rapping her knuckles sharply against the wood. She listens to John shuffle toward the door, standing in the corridor in her dressing gown, her feet bare and her curls resting around her shoulders. There’s certainly merit to having a fiancé who can’t see her – namely that he won’t know or care that she’s half-dressed and unfit for polite company.
Not that River much cares for polite company in the first place.
The door swings open and warm light spills out from John’s chambers. She wonders briefly why he bothers lighting the oil lamps when it won’t do him a bit of good anyway but he’s staring just over her head with a frown and she remembers belatedly that he has no idea who stands in front of him.
“It’s me,” she says softly, watching him relax. To her amusement, his gaze drops instantly – like he already knows where her eyes are. He peers at her curiously but says nothing, waiting for her to explain herself. River can’t resist teasing him. “You know, someone with manners might invite me in.”
“It’s your house,” he says, frowning. “Why would you need to be invited?”
“It’ll be your house too, after we’re married.” River squares her jaw, shoving aside that flutter of panic that blooms in her stomach every time she talks of her impending nuptials. “And this is your room. So invite me in already.”
John lifts an eyebrow but doesn’t utter a word of protest, stepping aside to allow her past. He moves right into her path and River, too caught up in thoughts of marrying again, doesn’t notice until it’s too late. They stumble right into each other and John staggers at the unexpected collision. Without meaning to, he pushes her into the wall, crushing her with the full weight of him. River gasps out loud, her struggle to breathe made all the more difficult by John’s elbow wedged between her ribs.
“Fuck,” he mutters into her hair, sounding pained. “Are you all right?”
River nods silently, hoping that as close as he is to her, he’ll feel her head move up and down. She doubts she could form a single syllable at the moment. He’s warm and lean and somehow much stronger than she’d expected. Certainly heavier too. Still pressed intimately against him, near enough to catch the scent of her expensive soaps in his hair and the tea on his breath, she stares fixedly at the expression on his face. His eyes are tightly shut and his brow furrowed into a self-loathing scowl.
The blindness is a recent development, he’d said.
“I’m fine,” she finally manages. “You?”
He nods shortly, eyes still shut, and doesn’t move.
She swallows, carefully easing her hands out from where they’re crushed beneath his chest. She settles them uncertainly on his hips, watching John blink his eyes open in surprise. “I’ve got you,” she says, voice barely above a whisper. “Carefully, now.”
Together, they ease off the wall holding them upright and find their footing again. John extricates himself from her arms instantly, brushing himself off with a grumble. Knowing he can’t see her, River hovers more than she might normally allow herself, waiting until she’s certain he has his balance before she steps away. Her lungs burn and she realizes she hasn’t properly drawn a breath since he stumbled into her. She does so now, pressing a hand over her bodice and forcing herself to breathe deeply.
Staring blankly at the other side of the room, John offers a gruff, “Thanks.”
Struggling to shake off the strange flutter in her chest, River offers a blithe, “What are wives for?”
He scoffs at that but she watches in satisfaction as he relaxes minutely, feeling his way toward dresser in the corner where he’d left his cup of tea. “Might as well sit before you trip me again.”
She scowls, moving with an agitated rustle of skirts toward a chair by the window. “I didn’t-” She stops, biting her tongue when he smirks. She didn’t come here to bicker with him, as entertaining as she finds it. Before he’d distracted her, she’d actually come here to be nice. She settles into the armchair at the window and curls her hands into her skirts to stifle the urge to fidget. “I wanted to… thank you for today. For enduring Jack and signing all those papers for Mr. Lux. I know it was tedious.”
He shrugs, leaning against the opposite wall and avoiding her stare. As if he knows she’s looking. “It was,” he admits, lips twitching into a faint smile. “But I did enjoy the smell of fear in the air. Whatever did you say to that poor solicitor of yours?”
“Hardly anything.” She sniffs. “It isn’t my fault he scares easy.” John hums absently in reply, his mind clearly elsewhere. Still a little breathless herself, River can guess where his thoughts are lingering. She’s hardly one to tiptoe around elephants and she isn’t about to start now. “You said before it’s still new.”
John lifts his head, startled. “What?”
“Oh. Yes.” He frowns. “Why?”
River purses her lips and prods at a wrinkle in her skirts. “Tell me how it happened.”
“Why should I?”
Biting her tongue again, River takes a moment to gather her patience before responding. “If we’re to be married, don’t you think I should know more about you than which neighborhood provided the best alley for sleeping?”
“I didn’t sleep in an alley,” he says, and lifts a mocking eyebrow at her. “And this sharing thing is a two way street, you know. When are you going to tell me more about you besides your terrible taste in ex-husbands?”
She glowers, once again irritated that he can’t even see her expression. “You first, fiancé.”
He sighs, lifting a hand to ruffle his hair. Tufts of gray stand on end and River doesn’t try to hide her amusement, watching him attempt to comb it back down. He misses a spot just above his ear and she bites her lip against a laugh, resolving not to tell him. “I got into a bit of trouble with a friend of mine. She stole a carriage in Hanover Square and took it for a jaunt in the park.”
“A pickpocket and a horse thief,” she observes dryly, tactfully not mentioning her own experience stealing horses as a girl. It’s hardly relevant and he still won’t shut up about Lord Hydroflax. The last thing he needs is more ammunition. “It seems I underestimated you, sweetie.”
“Everyone always does.” He tugs at the lapels of his dressing gown, smirking. “But I wasn’t the thief this time; it was Missy. I was just along for the ride – literally. She drives like a maniac.”
River eyes him skeptically. “And what were you doing while your friend was driving a carriage through the park? Having tea and crumpets?”
“Of course not.” He taps his fingers impatiently against the mantle. “I was in the back trying to contain the python.”
She blinks at him. “The what?”
John waves a careless hand and mutters, “Long story.” He lifts his head just long enough to flash her a blinding grin and River stares, too startled to look away. “Anyway, it got away from me and once the horses spotted it, there was no controlling them. They took off at speed and not even Missy could get them to slow down. I fell out the back, hit my head on the pavement so hard I passed out. When I finally came to, I couldn’t see and I’d lost the damned python.”
He scowls and River can’t decide whether he’s more bothered over losing the snake or his eyesight. Idiot. “When was this?”
He shrugs, rubbing absently at the back of his head. “Harder to keep time now. But I still get headaches so not more than a week, I’d imagine.”
“I know you said it was a new development,” she says, frowning. “But I didn’t realize it was quite that new. A head injury isn’t something to be trifled with. Did you at least see a doctor?”
“Yes,” he says, his voice heavy with scorn. “And I paid for it with my rugged good looks.”
Unamused, River only stares at him and asks, “Does sarcasm help?”
“Not yet, but I’m optimistic.”
Refusing to relent even at the sight of another of those wide grins, she rolls her eyes and looks away. “Well, you certainly have the funds available to you now. I have a friend who wouldn’t mind making a house call. I’d prefer having his medical opinion that you haven’t addled your senses.” John makes an indignant noise of protest and she interrupts, “The last thing I need is my ex-husband trying to contest the marriage by saying you weren’t in your right mind when you signed those papers.”
He scowls. “I’m perfectly fine.”
“Excellent,” she says, standing with a smile. “Then you won’t mind getting a professional opinion on the matter, will you?”
Glowering – about two feet in the wrong direction – John mutters, “Yes, dear.”
“Good, it’s settled.” She tightens the knot around her dressing gown but doesn’t try to leave just yet, lingering for reasons beyond her understanding. Silently, she watches John navigate toward his dressing table. “I’ll send for him in the morning so be sure to get some sleep.”
John sighs, looking resigned. “Goodnight, River.” It’s as good a dismissal as any and River forces herself to move. She’s at the door and on her way out when he calls out again. “You didn’t tell me something about you. That was the deal, remember?”
She pauses in the doorway but doesn’t turn around, shutting her eyes for a moment as she thinks. Curling her fingers around the doorframe, she admits, “I lied before. I thought the walking stick made you look rather dashing.”
From behind her, she hears John draw in a startled breath and smiles to herself, slipping out of the room and clicking the door shut behind her.
Unlike with Jack Harkness, John endures Dr. Lethbridge’s examination with a bit more patience. From her place outside in the corridor, she can’t quite make out what they’re saying but every time she paces past the doorway and glances inside, John is very nearly smiling. She’s never seen him smile at anyone but her before – and that’s usually because he’s mocking her.
In the quiet of the corridor, she listens to the gentle rustling of her skirts when she moves, her heeled boots treading the expensive rug thin as she paces. Dr. Lethbridge had invited her inside to sit with them during the examination but she feels far too restless to sit quietly beside John and wait. River isn’t really a waiting person.
As she turns on her heel and begins her stride down the corridor anew, Amy appears at the top of the staircase, her arms weighed down by a basket of freshly laundered clothing. She settles the basket on the landing and huffs a stray lock of ginger hair from her face, marching toward River with a frown.
“Oi,” she says, her voice a loud whisper. “Clara told me Dr. Lethbridge is here on a house call. Had a domestic with the new beau already?”
River shakes her head indulgently, smirking. “Not yet, dear. He’s just having his head examined.”
Amy blinks at her, pursing her lips and lifting her brows. “Oh.”
Narrowing her eyes, River asks suspiciously, “What?”
“Nothing,” she says, shrugging lightly. A mischievous smile curls her mouth. “Just wondering if Lethbridge could examine yours as well. Y’know, like a two for one deal.”
River glares, though of course it does nothing to deter Amy’s smirk. “It’s how he went blind, you smartarse. He hit his head too hard.”
Amy frowns. “And you’re what, making sure he didn’t knock something loose up there?”
“Exactly.” River shifts, peering around Amy to glance through the doorway where John and Lethbridge are still talking quietly. With an impatient huff, she turns back to her bemused maid and explains, “To keep my ex-husband’s greedy hands off my fortune, I need an iron clad case. And that includes a new husband who has all his wits about him.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Amy tosses a quick peek over her shoulder at John and Lethbridge before ushering River further down the corridor and out of earshot. Slim hand curled gently around River’s elbow, she asks softly, “And what if there is something wrong? What if you can’t marry him? Do you have another plan?”
“If there was another plan, do you really think I would be putting my fortune into the hands of a blind beggar?” River snaps, carefully extricating herself from Amy’s increasingly tight grip. At Amy’s pained expression, River softens and heaves a sigh. “I know you’re worried about me -”
“Everyone is,” Amy interrupts with a hiss. “We’re all afraid you’re so determined to keep your money that you’ll sacrifice everything else. Like your freedom, for a start.”
“What I’m doing is ensuring my freedom.” River forces a smile, silently hoping that time won’t make her a liar. “It may not seem like it but John is my freedom.”
Amy opens her mouth to protest but Dr. Lethbridge pokes his head out of the library, smiling gently. “My examination is at an end. Ms. Song, if you wouldn’t mind joining us.”
“River, please,” she corrects, though she knows he will disregard the request just as he always does. “And I’ll be right there.” Lethbridge disappears into the library again and River turns her attention back to Amy. Squeezing her arm briefly, she says, “Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
Amy nods reluctantly, stepping away. “Go on then. Make sure Prince Charming isn’t a card shy of a royal flush, yeah?”
It’s as close to saying I trust you as Amy Pond will ever get. Biting back a smile, River turns and slips into the library. John hasn’t moved from his armchair by the window but Dr. Lethbridge has relocated from the footstool in front of him to a sofa by the fire. Though his bag of equipment sits on the cushion beside him, there’s plenty of room for River to take a seat. She moves to the mantel instead, still too on edge to sit.
“Well?” She asks, her back to the warmth of the hearth. “What did you discover? Is he addled in the head or this just his personality?”
John shoots a glare in her direction, grumbling irritably.
Swallowing a smile, Lethbridge shakes his head. “As far as I can tell, Mr. Smith appears to be perfectly sound in mind. But since his affliction wasn’t caused by injury to the eyes, I can only deduce that when he hit his head, he damaged the visual cortex of his brain, specifically the occipital lobe.”
River frowns, her eyes drawn across the room to where John sits completely motionless, staring straight ahead. Even his face is blank and for the first time since they met, she has no idea what he’s thinking or feeling. The knowledge opens a pit in her stomach and she feels her anxiety spike. Tearing her gaze away from him, she turns back to Lethbridge. “What does that mean?”
Lethbridge crosses his legs, tapping his fingertips against his knee as he looks cautiously between River and John. Eventually, he says, “It means there is no way to know if his blindness is temporary or permanent. If it’s temporary, Mr. Smith’s sight will return once the swelling resolves – usually in a few weeks. Sometimes less, sometimes more.” He meets River’s unwavering stare, leaning forward. “My point being, his sight could return at any time or not at all. But there is no way to tell you with certainty which it will be.”
For a moment, River can’t speak. Her heart feels like it’s in her throat and the roar of her pulse in her ears is all she can hear. The thought of marrying again at all twists her stomach into knots but she has been able to ignore it because at least with John, she didn’t have to consider him a threat. He’s content with just a place to sleep and a roof over his head that doesn’t leak. But what if his sight returns? Will he still be happy with something so simple? Will she have to constantly look over her shoulder to make sure he isn’t filching her jewels or sneaking money from her accounts? If his sight returns, will she still be able to trust him?
The soft, rumbling voice snaps her back into focus and she looks up to find John’s eyes on her. His gaze is so intent that for a moment she fears he can see again already. Gone is that careful blankness that had made up his expression when Lethbridge was telling her the news. His face is lined with unusual gentleness now and she wonders how he’d known – if he’d heard her elevated breathing in the quiet of the library or if he’s already perfectly attuned to her.
He tilts his head and a gray curl falls into his eyes. “This changes nothing.”
He’s right, of course. Her situation is still exactly the same as it had been five minutes ago and blind or not, John is her best – and only – option. With a short nod, she clears her throat and finally manages, “No, it doesn’t.”
Glancing between them uncertainly, Lethbridge asks, “Have I missed something?”
River shakes herself from her reverie, forcing a smile. “Probably,” she teases, uneasy when she realizes John is still looking at her. As though without his sight to distract him, he can hear the tremble in her voice. She ignores him, tossing her hair at Lethbridge. “You’re always so behind on the gossip.”
Mustache twitching, Lethbridge sighs playfully. “Unfortunately, my patients tend to want to discuss what ails them rather than high society politics. I don’t suppose you’d care to enlighten me?”
“Well,” she hesitates, fisting her hand in the silk of her gown. “I suppose a bit of a congratulations is in order.”
“Oh?” Lethbridge arches a brow, smiling. “Why is that?”
River glances at John, unsurprised to find that his blank gaze hasn’t wavered from her. “We’re getting married.”
Chapter 4: take my love and wear it over your shoulders
Bill gapes at him. “You ditched us to get married?”
“Well, not yet. But soon.” John hums, clearly chuffed. River’s surprised Bill doesn’t slap him. “Isn’t it usually the case?”
She frowns. “What?”
“The good ones are always taken.”
In which River and John get hitched.
Chapter title from The Light by Sara Bareilles.
Judging by the deep, near blackness of the sky outside her bedroom window, it must be nearing one or two in the morning. Warm and half-asleep beneath her blankets, River rolls over onto her back and stares blearily at the ceiling as she tries to assess what had woken her from her deep slumber. The entire house is silent and still, nothing louder than the tick of the grandfather clock in the corridor disturbing the peace. And then, from somewhere downstairs – the very distinct clatter of glass shattering against a wooden floor.
River tenses, her hand inching slowly beneath her pillow, grasping for the knife she keeps tucked away out of sight. Her mind works fast, taking stock of everyone in the house and their typical whereabouts at such an hour. Amy and Rory no doubt sleeping in their little flat on the top floor and Clara probably still huddled in bed with a candlestick to read. The only wild card is John, his habits still as foreign to her as the man himself.
Hearing a muffled thump from downstairs, River sighs and slowly releases her grip on the knife. She leaves it beneath her pillow and sits up, lifting a hand to shift her curls out of her eyes. She can just picture him down there, staggering around the kitchen attempting to make himself a cup of tea without any help.
“Stubborn idiot,” she grumbles to herself, slipping from her warm nest of blankets. Her feet hit the cold floor and she shivers, fumbling in the dark for her silk slippers and a dressing gown. She hurries into both, tying her gown into a hasty knot at the waist as she moves toward her bedroom door.
On her way out, she grabs a lit candlestick from the dresser and slips into the corridor. She only makes it a few steps before a door just behind her creaks open and she whirls, brandishing the candlestick threateningly. When John appears in the doorway of his bedroom, disheveled and bleary-eyed, her heart skips a beat.
“Who’s there?” He calls out into the dark. “River?”
“What are you doing here?” She asks, watching him relax at the sound of her voice. “I thought you were downstairs.”
“Well obviously not.” He frowns. “I thought you were downstairs.”
“Obviously not,” she snaps, mockingly.
At once, they both freeze and stare at each other. “Well if it isn’t me,” John begins, stepping out into the hall. “And it isn’t you…”
River turns, glancing toward the staircase. From below, they hear another thump and an angry snarl. She clenches her jaw, reaching blindly for the hall table behind her. Sliding open the top drawer, she fumbles for the letter opener Amy always keeps stashed away. “Right then,” she breathes, never taking her eyes from the dark stairwell. She grips the letter opener in her fist. “Stay behind me and try not to be a liability, all right?”
“Bugger that,” he snaps, scowling. “I may be blind but I’m not some bloody damsel. Now give me one of your obnoxiously overpriced vases to hit one of them over their pudding brain head.”
River pauses just long enough to cast him a surprised, appreciative glance before she picks up the vase on the hall table. She dumps out the freshly cut flowers and presses the pottery into John’s waiting hands. He moves to stand beside her, both of them lingering at the top of the stairs. “Ready?”
At his nod, they move silently down the stairs together. To her surprise, John doesn’t protest her guiding hand on his elbow. He doesn’t lean into the touch either, apparently determined to maintain his independence even now, but instead clasps his hand over hers as if she’s the one who needs steadying. Too intent on listening for their intruder, River doesn’t bother to correct him.
Whoever is in the house hasn’t bothered lighting a candle, navigating the first floor in the dark. When they’re nearly at the bottom, the sound of hushes voices becomes clearer. “Bloody hell,” John mutters, staggering down the last two steps and pulling River with him. “There’s three of them.”
“Shh,” she snaps, pinching his inner arm in warning. John hisses through his teeth but doesn’t say another word and they both pause, listening. As the voices grow closer, John tenses in her grip.
The first voice is male – tentative, but long-suffering. As though far too used to breaking and entering to be phased by it any longer. “Are you pilfering the candlesticks? Seriously?”
“What?” A feminine, Scottish voice attempts a go at an innocent tone and fails entirely. “If this isn’t the right house, at least we won’t toddle out empty-handed. I’m being pragmatic, Nardy. You’re welcome.”
“For the last time, it’s Nardole.”
“It’s either Nardy or Egg Head. Your choice.”
He heaves a heavy sigh laden with resignation. “Come on then, let’s check upstairs.”
“I don’t know why we’re bothering,” the Scottish woman says, sounding bored. “The idiot is probably dead.”
“He’s not dead,” Nardole snaps, still somehow managing to sound patient. “And we wouldn’t be in this mess at all if you hadn’t wandered off and left him to fend for himself.”
The Scotswoman scoffs. “Oh, don’t be tedious. He loves fending for himself. It’s practically his sexual preference.”
A new voice joins the other two, another woman. “Would you two shut it and start looking for John?”
River starts at his name, turning swiftly to stare at him but John slips out of her grasp and takes a step forward. Face bright with recognition, he calls out, “Bill?”
“John?” A young girl with dark skin and wide brown eyes steps into the candlelight, throwing herself at John, her grin wide and her laugh bright. John stumbles briefly but manages to hold his ground, giving her a fatherly pat on the back. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you, you bony pillock.”
“Apologies,” he says, carefully extricating himself from the girl’s grip. “I got a wee bit sidetracked.”
The dark-haired woman beside Bill who can only be the Scottish one glances at River, standing behind John in nothing but her dressing gown. She arches an eyebrow and snarks, “Is that what the kiddos are calling it these days?”
“Hush, Missy.” John scowls, glancing over his shoulder. “River and I have come to an arrangement and there hasn’t been time to get word to you. To be honest, I didn’t think you’d worry so soon.”
“Well, we did.” Bill nudges him, attempting a glare but clearly too fond of him to manage it properly. She glances uneasily at River and lowers her voice. “Word on the street was she’d kidnapped you and forced you to warm her bed.”
River snorts delicately. “There isn’t a bed cold enough, darling.”
Turning her head, Missy blinks startled eyes at her before her scornful expression finally settles into something that vaguely resembles respect. With a sharp nod, she decides, “I like her.”
River smiles with too much teeth. “You still can’t keep the candlesticks.” With a pout, Missy drops the silver candlestick onto the nearest table. Watching her slink back into the shadows, River frowns. “Hang on. Missy, was it? You’re the childhood friend. And the carriage thief.”
Missy curtsies, looking pleased.
Swatting the air near Missy, Bill ignores them both and turns back to John. “You disappeared for days, John.” When he only shrugs and stares resolutely over her shoulder, she sighs and presses, “What kind of arrangement have you gone and made then?”
At this, John’s eyes flicker and River watches as he straightens and tugs at his dressing gown. Bill’s eyes are drawn briefly to the movement and she lifts an eyebrow, making River wonder if she’s ever seen her friend in something so finely made. From the look of the ragged group, she doubts it.
Ruffling his hair, John admits, “I’m certainly no expert, but I believe the romantics like to call it holy matrimony.”
Behind Bill, Nardole makes a soft noise of disbelief, his round eyes wide. Missy nearly chokes, pausing in the middle of her attempt to filch a statuette to whirl around and stare, stray tendrils of her dark hair wild around her angular face. Bill gapes at him. “You ditched us to get married?”
“Well, not yet. But soon.” John hums, clearly chuffed. River’s surprised Bill doesn’t slap him. “Isn’t it usually the case?”
She frowns. “What?”
“The good ones are always taken.” He lifts his brows, giving each of his friends a wide, smug grin. Leaning against the stairwell banister, River shakes her head and crosses her arms under her breasts. She certainly has to hand it to him – he’ll manage to give off the impression of a besotted groom when they’re in public with little difficulty.
“Bloody hell,” Missy murmurs, gazing wonderingly at him over Nardole’s shoulder. “Someone actually fell in love with that face?”
John rolls his eyes. “It’s hardly a love match.”
“Well you must feel something,” Bill insists, her brow furrowed. “You’re getting married, after all.”
“It’s not that sort of marriage,” he admits, glancing at River like even in a room full of other people to distract him, he still knows exactly where she is. The thought at once puts her on edge and soothes her immensely. River curls her fingers into her palms, nails digging into her skin, and stares back at him. “But the details are private, I’m afraid.”
Mouth tightening into a stern line, Bill grasps John by the elbow and drags him aside, though not nearly far enough to be out of earshot. Everything echoes in this house, with its high ceilings and empty spaces. “What are you doing, John?” She hisses, staring up at him imploringly. “Has she got something on you? Blackmail material?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” John brushes aside her hand on his arm, frowning. “I told you, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. She asked, I agreed.”
“Just like that?” At John’s nod, Bill peers at him incredulously. “So you’re really not in love with her?”
He sighs and explains patiently, “It’s a business deal, Bill. Nothing more.” He turns before she can respond, snapping, “Missy, don’t touch that.”
River turns her head, dragging her eyes away from John long enough to find Missy in the process of reaching for a decanter of expensive bourbon. Caught, Missy drops her hand with an annoyed sniff. “How do you do that?” She asks, mumbling under her breath. “Ruddy sightless -”
“Thief skills,” John interrupts, patting Bill on the hand. “Now, I appreciate the rescue mission but as you can see, I’m perfectly fine. Might even get fat if the Missus keeps making the cook serve five courses every sodding night.”
River bats her lashes. “Only trying to look after my sweetie.”
Bill cracks a small smile at that, though she still stares at John like she’s waiting for him to give her a signal that he’s being held against his will. When he offers her nothing of the sort, she latches onto the sleeve of his dressing gown. “You’re really staying here because you want to?”
He nods solemnly, softening somewhat. “You have my word.”
Bill hesitates. “But… you’re a liar.”
“Not about this, my girl. On my honor.” He winks, his gaze wandering briefly toward River again. She’d even moved a few feet to the right, just to see if he’d still find her. Somehow, inexplicably, his blue eyes pin her in place anyway. “River isn’t so bad, you know. And I can’t see her but I’m fairly certain I’m marrying up.”
Glancing over her shoulder, Bill gives her an appraising stare and River does her best to stand unaffected under that searching gaze. Finally, the younger girl grins. “Yeah, she’s definitely too pretty for you. Like, properly gorgeous.”
John smiles, his eyes strangely warm as they land on River again. “I thought she might be.”
Looking between them with something indiscernible in her gaze, Bill smiles a secret smile and nods once softly. River stares at her, puzzled, but the girl offers no explanation. She only kisses John on the cheek and steps away, gloved hands stuffed into the pockets of her thin coat. “Right then. We’ll just get out of your hair.” She gives River a small, apologetic smile. “Sorry for, y’know, breaking in.”
River smiles back, shaking her head. “No need for that next time. Knocking will do.”
“Next time?” Bill brightens, clearly relieved that visiting will be permitted. “Yeah, of course. Best behavior, I promise.”
“Well I didn’t say that, did I?” River tilts her head, frowning. “That sounds terribly dull.”
Beaming, Bill shuffles toward the door with Nardole and Missy. She stops to squeeze John’s arm and hisses in a whisper that echoes, “Are you sure you don’t love her? Because I think I do.”
John snorts, swatting her a moment after she’s out of reach.
Watching them file out the front door, River calls out, “Oh, Missy?”
The dark-haired woman turns, her face a mask of faux innocence.
Striding toward her, River holds out a hand. “The other candlestick, please.”
For a moment, Missy simply stares at her but when River arches an eyebrow and doesn’t back down, she sighs. Reaching into the folds of her dress, she produces the missing candlestick, sticking out her tongue.
Snatching it back from her, River nods her thanks. “And the crystal candy dish, if you don’t mind.” This time, Missy almost smiles. Reaching into her cleavage, she plucks out the little dish and deposits it onto River’s waiting palm. “I’d ask for the ivory statue but I watched where you put it and honestly?” River crinkles her nose. “Keep it.”
With a triumphant hum, Missy turns on her heel and marches for the door. She pauses on her way out, looming in front of John. “Glad you’re not dead,” she says, a reluctant offering she and John seem to treat as the grandest of affectionate declarations. “But if you don’t marry the lass, I will.”
John raises an eyebrow. “Noted.”
She leaves the door open on her way out and John follows the draft to stand in the doorway, staring after them like he can see them walking down the street. Shivering in her nightdress, River pads across the marble floor of the entry hall and stands beside him. Peering out into the night, with John a warm presence at her side, she watches his friends slip into an alley and disappear.
“How did it happen?” She asks, a question that’s been burning on her tongue since nearly the moment she met him. “How did you become-”
“What?” He asks, lifting an eyebrow. “Homeless? A thief? Devilishly handsome?”
She rolls her eyes. “The first two. The third is genetics.”
He smirks. “So you agree that I’m devilishly handsome.”
He sighs, leaning into the doorframe. “My parents died when I was a lad and I had no other family so I was sent to a workhouse. They weren’t exactly teaching us a trade in that hellhole. I picked up thieving as a way to survive.”
River swallows, wondering how she’d managed to find someone so similar to herself without even trying. If Kovarian hadn’t taught her the very skills she’d used to obtain her fortune, she’d be in the same place as John. “Is that where you met your friends?”
He shakes his head. “I’ve known Missy my whole life. We grew up together – played in the same nursery when my parents were alive. Her own parents were…less kind than mine. Stuck her in an asylum when she was about fifteen.” John glares out into the night, lost in some memory, and River fights back a shudder. “She wasn’t mad when she went in but she was by the time I got her out.”
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, feeling an unexpected rush of empathy for the woman who had just a few moments ago been stuffing anything shiny into her corset. “And what of Bill and Nardole?”
“They came along later,” he admits, grimacing. “I had a habit of taking on apprentices, teaching them what I knew so they could survive on the streets. Sorry about them, by the way. Didn’t think they’d come looking for me.”
River shakes her head. “They care about you. It’s… nice.” She forces a smile. “If I went missing, I doubt anyone would notice besides the people I pay.”
They stare into the dark together and John clears his throat, shifting until the warmth of his side presses comfortably against her. “And me, now.”
“Yes.” She exhales, her breath misting in the air and drifting toward the stars. “And you.”
She’s getting married in the morning.
The mere thought makes her stomach heave and River reaches blindly for the glass of brandy on the windowsill. She presses the glass to her lips and takes another long, slow sip. Squeezing her eyes shut, she swallows and feels the alcohol burn her throat all the way down.
She breathes out shakily, squaring her shoulders. “Well,” she mutters, bending from her perch on the windowsill to retrieve the bottle she’d left on the floor. “A few more of those and I might actually be able to sleep tonight.”
Pouring another generous measure, she tucks the bottle back out of sight again and curls her feet up under her nightdress. She leans her head against the windowpane, staring out into the night. The cobbled streets are lit up by gas lamps, giving just enough light to see the occasional person wander by – at this hour, anyone out and about must be up to something scandalous. Envying them, River shifts her attention away from the outside world and back to the book open on her lap, eager to distract herself.
“… our endurance must end and our resistance must begin today. That mark is a weapon to strike him with. Let me see it now – I may have to swear to it at some future time.”
Behind her, she hears the floor creak – someone stepping on that squeaky floorboard just to the right of the entrance. She stiffens and her fingers tighten around her book as she turns to glance over her shoulder, fully expecting to find Amy or Rory in the doorway ready to attempt ushering her off to bed.
“Which of you lost rock-paper-scissors this -” She stops, blinking at the sight of John standing just inside the library door. There’s a puzzled expression on his face and she wonders if he’s looking for her.
After a moment, he confirms it. “River?”
“I’m here.” He takes a cautious step forward, brows knit together in concentration and head tilted. He’s listening for her, she realizes. “Straight ahead. Watch out for the loveseat on your left.”
John navigates the room and its obstacles hesitantly, one hand outstretched to keep him from bumping into things. He’s already familiarized himself with the parts of the house he frequents most and it’s odd to see him so unsure now. Once he’s close enough, she reaches out a hand and brushes his wrist with her fingertips to let him know where she is. John starts as if scalded and she draws back at once, curling her hand into a fist on her lap.
He hesitates, gesturing in her direction. “Mind if I join you?”
Refusing to look at him, River shrugs. “I’m afraid I’m not much company at the moment but you’re welcome to sit if you like.”
He settles onto the window seat beside her and River, on edge and at a loss for conversation with the man she’s supposed to marry in a matter of hours, unceremoniously shoves her glass of brandy into his hand. John mutters a surprised thanks and she hums, staring fixedly out the window as he drinks.
He grimaces at the first sip, then takes another, longer drink with an appreciative noise. “Not bad. Might even be better than the swill I used to steal.” Glass cradled in his palm, he asks, “What are you doing up at this hour?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” she says, and it isn’t technically a lie.
“Ah.” He frowns into his glass. “Big day tomorrow, eh?”
Just the reminder of her impending nuptials is enough to cause the recurrence of her nausea. Pressing her lips tightly together, River waits for her stomach to settle before she speaks again. When she does, she ignores the question entirely. “Were you looking for me? How did you know I was in here?”
“I didn’t,” he says dryly, a faint grin curling his mouth. “I found your room first and when you didn’t answer, I just started wandering from room to room calling for you.”
River chuckles before she can stop herself, the image of him speaking to empty rooms in hopes she might be in one of them too amusing to resist. John offers her a startled, pleased glance and River doesn’t bother hiding her grin. “Poor darling,” she coos, stifling another bout of giggles.
“It isn’t funny,” he complains, though he can’t seem to stop smiling either. “What does one person need such a ruddy big house for? Showing off?”
“Something like that,” she admits, her chest still light with the unexpected bout of laughter. The air feels less suffocating now and she relaxes against the window, finally really looking at John for the first time since he sat beside her. “How’re you settling in? Besides getting lost?”
He shrugs, swallowing the last of the brandy and nudging the empty glass onto the windowsill. “Everything chafes a bit,” he confesses. “Like an itchy suit.”
River smirks. “Funny, since your new ones fit like a dream.”
“Knew you liked them.”
At his smug glance, she rolls her eyes. “If you’re not happy, it isn’t too late to change your mind, you know.” The truly troubling thing is despite her growing dread for tomorrow, she still has no idea whether she’d feel relieved if he did back out.
John grows solemn again at that, shaking his head. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’ll get used to all your finery and first class rubbish.” He turns toward her, angling his body against the window. If he could see, he’d be looking right at her. “Where are we, by the way? Enlighten an old man.”
“We’re in the library,” she says, biting back a smile as he instantly reaches out a hand as if to feel for himself. His fingers meet a bookshelf and she watches his expression turn wistful as his fingertips trip over the spines of the books sitting there. She stares at him, wondering what it would be like to never read a book again; to never sit up late breathless with anticipation, waiting for the denouement; to know that those stories will only live inside her memory now. She shifts as he strokes his hand over the binding of a heavy Shakespearean tome, something like pity making her offer, “I could …read out loud if you’d like.”
John perks up at once and it’s with amusement that she witnesses his struggle to hide his enthusiasm behind a disinterested frown. “Depends,” he says, clearly trying for aloof. “What are you reading?”
She shifts her attention to the book still open on her lap. “Wilkie Collins.”
“No, the other one.”
“The one with the fat Italian?”
River smothers a laugh. “That’s the one.”
Frowning, John asks, “Why?”
“Why is he fat?”
“No, why that one?” He taps his fingers against the edge of a bookshelf. “If you’re looking for a good mystery, Moonstone is clearly the better choice.”
She shrugs, frowning at the page in front of her. “I don’t know. I suppose I like the characters in this one better.” He keeps frowning and she knows he can’t possibly suspect she’s reading it because it contains cruel husbands, arranged marriages, and nefarious people taking advantage of those helpless to stop them – all things as familiar to her as breathing – but it unnerves her just the same. “Do you want to hear it or not?”
John drops his hand back to his lap and shifts as if to get comfortable. He kicks his long legs out in front of him and crosses them at the ankles. “Go on but don’t start over on my account.” He leans his head back against the window. “Pick up where you left off.”
River does just that, finding the place on the page where she’d last read and beginning again but this time out loud. While she has her reservations about reading to a man with a tendency to make her cross without even trying, John manages to behave himself. He sits quietly, leaning back on the windowseat with his eyes shut as he listens to her voice and the rustle of pages.
She reads for some time, recounting the tale of how Marian comes to reside at Blackwater and Fosco’s plan to switch the identities of Laura and Anne but it’s only when she finishes the part about Marian climbing through the window and onto the roof to eavesdrop on Sir Percival and the Count that John finally interrupts.
His eyes snap open and he leans forward, frowning. “Hang on,” he says. “That’s not how it goes. Marian falls ill from being out in the rain, which makes it easy for Fosco to obtain her journal and discover everything she knows. Have you got a different version or are you making this up as you go along?”
River rolls her eyes, tucking her finger between the pages as a bookmark. “I know how it goes, you daft man. I just don’t like how Collins has Marian do all the work only to set her aside so Walter can be the hero. It isn’t fair.” She sniffs, shrugging. “Besides, Walter is ever so dull.”
John’s mouth curls briefly into a smile before he leans back and stares at her like he can see her perfectly. “Maybe Collins thought it only fitting that Walter was the one to tie up all the loose ends. He’s trying to protect the woman he loves, after all.”
“What?” He lifts an eyebrow. “Got something against love as well as boring heroes?”
“No,” she says, shifting under his gaze despite knowing he can’t see a thing. “But I think it’s tedious how the hero always falls for the beautiful, helpless damsel rather than someone strong and intelligent who can look after herself. Someone like Marian.”
“Hmm.” John hums his agreement, smirking. “I quite like a strong woman, myself. Much more my type.”
River shakes her head, smiling. “You say that but when it comes down to it, men always choose beauty over strength. It makes them feel needed.”
“This might be news to you but…” John leans forward, elbows on his knees and his eyes wide, like he’s imparting a precious secret. “Beauty means bugger all to me these days.” When she snorts in amusement, he leans back in his chair with a pleased grin. “But something tells me you’ve got both in spades, River Song.”
“Oh shut up,” she mutters, grateful that he can’t see the flush of her cheeks. Her eyes drift back to the words on the page but she can’t bring herself to begin reading again. Instead, she stares fixedly at a passage of Fosco threatening Walter and asks the question that’s been on her mind for days. “Have you been married before?”
John blanches. “What?”
“I think it’s something I should know, don’t you?” River glares at the page in front of her. “Considering I’ll be your wife after tomorrow.”
He swallows. “I – yes. Once.” His eyes flicker. “Long time ago.”
Despite her own impending marriage to him, it’s difficult to picture the man beside her as someone’s husband. River wraps her arms around her knees and studies him. It’s clear by the look on his face that something had happened to his wife – probably some sort of illness – and it seems cruel to ask him to recount it so she settles for another question instead. “Did you love her?”
He nods but it’s slow and uncertain. “I think so. You know, I can barely remember what she looked like.”
“What about children?” She asks, at once desperate to keep her mind off her own difficulties and to learn more about the man she’s going to wed in the morning. “Do you have any equally smug offspring roaming about anywhere?”
John shakes his head, smiling slightly. “My life has never been suited for little ones.”
She eyes him carefully. “That isn’t an answer.”
His smile turns brittle but he offers her nothing else. “Your turn. Why are you really awake?”
River bites down on her bottom lip, weighing the possibility of actually being honest with him. It’s only fair, considering he’d at least told her he’d been married once before. And that intent stare of his tells her he already knows why she’s up anyway. If they’re going to be married, she rather likes the idea of having someone to confide in. With a sigh, she turns to stare out the window and says, “Despite marriage being a necessity to me at the moment, I don’t much enjoy the thought of going through with it again. I certainly wasn’t fond of it the first time.”
With a hum of understanding, John shuts his eyes for a moment and she starts to believe he’ll let the confession pass by without comment. She keeps her eyes on the cobbled street below, watching old Mr. Saxon return from his usual midnight visit to his mistress. He unlocks his front door and slips silently into his home, shutting it behind him. By the time River has watched him navigate up the stairs by candlelight and disappear into a second story bedroom, John finally breaks the silence.
“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but I’m hardly your ex-husband,” he begins gruffly. “For one thing, my head is too small.” At River’s derisive snort, he gives her a quelling look. “For another, whether I regain my sight within the next five minutes or not at all, I can’t think of anything I have less interest in than controlling you or your money.”
River blinks hard, something horrible and tangled in her chest coming unknotted at the sincerity of his Scottish growl. She has no reason to trust him but she can’t deny that she does anyway. She says nothing, fingertips pressed to the windowpane and a lump in her throat.
Beside her, John sighs softly and says, “I can’t promise you won’t regret marrying an old bampot like me but I can promise you won’t regret it for the reasons you regretted marrying him. Understood?”
She nods jerkily, remembers he can’t see her, and manages a quiet, “Yes.”
River turns her head just in time to see John unclench his jaw, some unknown tension bleeding out of his slender frame. As if those words had been coiled up tight inside him, waiting to spring out. He looks more at peace now, less restless, and she feels it too. “John?”
“Do you have children?”
“A granddaughter,” he finally answers, his voice soft and tired. Defeated. “She’s three. Beautiful.”
She breathes in, startled beyond measure at the admission. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“It never came up,” is his patient reply. River stares at him, feeling as though he’s tilted her entire world with one little confession. “My daughter – she’s… gone. Her husband was never really present in the first place. The only person to take the child was me.”
Her tongue feels stuck to the roof of her mouth but River manages, “Then where is she?”
John purses his lips, as if trying to contain the answer. After a moment of silent struggle with himself, he replies faintly, “The orphanage on Gracechurch Street.”
“Oh,” she breathes, eyes widening. “That’s why you wanted me to donate there.”
“Not the only reason but yes.” He clears his throat, avoiding her gaze like he knows she’s gaping at him. “I want her to be looked after.”
She frowns. “Then why isn’t she with you?”
John rests his forehead against the cool glass of the window and shuts his eyes. “The street is no place for a child.”
The words form an ache in her chest and she swallows tightly. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but…” River licks her lips, forcing the offer from her mouth. “You don’t live on the street anymore.”
He huffs softly, shaking his head. “No, but she’s still better off away from her old granddad.”
When River had been an orphan – stuck in a place far worse than Gracechurch, admittedly – she’d have given anything to be taken away. She’d curl up beneath her threadbare blanket and dream of someone who loved her coming to scoop her up and carry her off. Whoever John’s granddaughter is, River very much doubts she’s better off tucked away in a children’s home. She won’t say any of that to John, though, since he so clearly needs to believe he’s made the right choice.
“If you ever change your mind…”
He only hums in reply, a low sound meant to soothe her, and for the first time all night, her eyes begin to droop. She rests her head against the windowpane and keeps her gaze fastened on John, blinking rapidly in an effort to stay awake. It’s a battle she loses, and quickly. She dreams that she’s small again, huddled in an orphanage with John’s granddaughter – the two of them clinging to each other in the dark.
When she wakes in the morning, the sun is shining through the window and she can see Rory outside preparing the carriage. Beside her, John sleeps with his face pressed to the glass. At the sight of him, her stomach somersaults. It’s her wedding day.
She decides that wearing white to her second wedding would be quite ridiculous. The color hadn’t suited her the first time either. She wears black instead, pinning up her wild hair and fastening a black and red flowered hat on top of her curls. It’s hardly in keeping with the tradition brought about by Queen Victoria, but at least she doesn’t feel as ridiculous as she had at her first wedding, standing in front of Lord Hydroflax in that fluffy white disaster.
In a register’s office in the middle of London proper, the magistrate drones on about making a commitment before God but River tunes him out, confident that not much has changed since the last time she did this. Instead, she focuses her attention on John. He looks rather handsome in his tailored suit and someone, probably Rory, had pinned a red flower in his lapel to match her hat.
His face is creased into a frown of concentration, apparently keen on listening to every word the magistrate has to say, and River wonders briefly how long it’s been since his first marriage. He’d said he could barely remember her face so she assumes it was a long time ago but truthfully, she has no idea. She’s in the middle of marrying a man she hardly knows anything about and the thought might have caused a moment of panic if John’s hand wasn’t so steady in hers.
His words from the night before ring in her ears. “I can’t think of anything I have less interest in than controlling you or your money.”
She breathes in shakily, glancing around the room in an effort to distract herself. She’d wanted the civil ceremony to be a quiet, discreet affair but that brief hope had been dashed the moment they arrived at the register’s office this morning and found John’s friends standing on the pavement waiting for them.
Bill had latched onto his arm with a smile. “Didn’t think we’d miss this, did you?”
They’re all gathered around as witnesses now and if anyone happened to see, they’d make quite the spectacle – John’s ragamuffin street friends standing beside River’s household staff, looking on as the blind beggar marries the wealthy socialite. If not about to tie herself to another man forever, she might have laughed at the absurd sight they must all be.
John’s hand tightens around hers and River blinks, turning back to the matter at hand. The magistrate is staring at her and she realizes it must be time for her line. Clearing her throat, she says evenly, “I do.”
The magistrate continues to stare at her expectantly and it isn’t until someone – she suspects Missy – coughs discreetly, “The ring.”
Bugger. Perhaps she should have been paying attention after all. She’s clearly forgotten a few of the details. Fishing the gold band from the pocket of her dress, River takes John’s hand and slides it onto his finger.
Apparently satisfied now, the magistrate turns to John and River forces her mind not to wander again. “And do you, John Smith, take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, from this day forward?”
John nods once and murmurs, “I do.” With only a bit of fumbling, he slides the gold band onto her finger. River stares at it and does her best not to think of shackles.
“By the power vested in me, I pronounce you husband and wife.” The magistrate smiles. “Mr. Smith, you may kiss your bride.”
River starts, her throat tightening. Sod it all, she’d forgotten about that bit. She eyes John uncertainly, sensing his hesitance as the magistrate and their friends look on expectantly. Well, best get it over with.
“Pucker up, darling,” she purrs, and reaches out. Cradling his face in her hands, she guides his lips to hers and John meets her in the middle. She expects nothing more than a chaste peck to satisfy the tradition but the moment their lips touch, John is in charge.
He kisses her with shocking thoroughness, his lips moving expertly over hers like he’s done it a thousand times. One of his hands settles over hers on his face, the other resting at her hip to draw her closer. His teeth nip at her bottom lip and River’s mouth parts in a gasp. Ever the thief, John takes advantage of her surprise, slipping his tongue into her mouth and taking what he likes.
Distantly, River hears her staff cheering and John’s heathen friends hooting but she pays them no mind. John tastes like brandy and hope and it’s nothing at all like her last wedding kiss. Nothing at all like any kiss she’s had since. He doesn’t rush it, taking his time with a kiss that’s warm and fervent, stealing the strength from her knees.
As the kiss comes to its natural end, John’s mouth parts slowly from hers and they’re both breathing heavily. She wants see if John is as flushed as she feels but she can’t seem to force her eyes open. Instead, she clutches John’s coat in her hands and sways unconsciously toward him, her head reeling and her heart pounding away in her ears.
Tightening his grip on her hip in an effort to steady her, John whispers in her ear, “Was that all right?”
At the sound of his voice, the rest of the world comes roaring back and River snaps her eyes open. She draws away from him at once and stands up straight, her thumb swiping unconsciously across her new wedding band. “Very convincing,” she says, a touch breathless. She forces a flirtatious smile, her world still struggling to right itself, and adds, “Husband.”
Chapter 5: what desire will make foolish people do
She can’t remember the last time anyone had kissed her like that – with such passion and feeling. And he’d been faking it. Every time she wonders what it might be like if he really felt something for her, she has to sit down and light a cigar.
In which River makes a mistake and John is a jealous idiot.
Chapter title from Wicked Game by Ursine Vulpine.
On a typical Friday night, the pub at the end of Paternoster Row is crawling with every type imaginable – the privileged, the working class, criminals, prostitutes, government officials, and holy men all congregated together. Jenny Flint prides herself on owning a pub considered neutral ground for all of London’s citizens and River shows her appreciation by frequenting the establishment as often as possible. And she always makes certain to tip well because whenever she does happen to make an appearance, things tend to get a little… rowdy.
At the moment, the pub is packed to the gills with all manner of savory and unsavory characters. Ladies from the brothel down the street lurk in shadowy corners doing their best to entice a new customer to join them. Businessmen sit at the bar trying to forget their troubles and there are one or two drunkards already passed out for the evening, slouched at their tables still clutching their drinks. Old men sit at tables playing cards.
Onstage, a band plays a cheery Irish tune and a few young people whirl across the dance floor but it’s nearly impossible to hear the music over the chaos taking place in the center of the pub. A huge crowd of men and women have gathered to witness a drinking competition, all of them packed round the table in question. Bets are placed and money changes hands as everyone shouts and cheers for their favorite.
Sitting at the table in the middle of all this ruckus, River picks up her seventh shot glass and eyes her opponent over the top of the drink. “Oh dear,” she coos. “You’re looking a bit under the weather. Are you sure you want to continue?”
Dave grits his teeth and wipes the sweat from his brow with a shaking hand. Nostrils flaring, he slurs, “M’fine. Now get on with it, Song.”
Behind him, one of his compatriots slaps him on the back and nearly sends Dave tumbling out of his chair. “Come on, lad. Show ‘er who’s boss, eh?”
Stifling a delicate snort, River tips her glass up to her lips and knocks back the hard liquor. She has no idea what sort it is but it’s positively vile and she suspects Jenny distills the stuff in her bloody bathtub. Whatever it is, she swallows it down and slams her glass upside down on the table. Around her, the crowd erupts into applause and jeering once again.
“Your turn.” She smirks, wiping a drop of liquor from her chin. “If you can handle it.”
To some, it might look as if Dave offers her a withering glare but River knows better. He’s squinting and she suspects he’s seeing more than one of her at the moment. His breathing is shallow and labored and there’s no hiding the sweat beading on his brow. Leaning back in her chair, River crosses her arms and lifts her chin, watching him reach clumsily for his glass.
To his credit, he manages to drink the whole thing. The full effect of the liquor doesn’t hit him until he’s in the middle of setting his glass back on the table. He pauses, cup in mid-air, and sways in place. The shouting dies down and no one moves, waiting with bated breath to see if Dave will push through or admit defeat.
After a moment, River watches with a mixture of pity and satisfaction as his eyes roll back in his head. He slumps right out of his chair like a limp doll, his shot glass breaking as he hits the floor. The crowd around them explodes into chaos once more, everyone shouting and bickering and collecting their winnings.
River ignores them all, reaching for her remaining drink and knocking it back. With the excitement mostly over, some people shuffle off to find other forms of entertainment but many linger nearby, fascinated by the socialite who had just managed to outdrink a man twice her size. River doesn’t bother telling them her secret – that the woman who had raised her and a handful of other unfortunate orphans had given them whiskey at night to make them sleep; that she’d built up a tolerance for most hard liquors by the time she was seven years old.
Instead, she turns her attention to those still seated at the table with her. “Now then,” she says, squaring her shoulders. “Where were we?”
Across the table, Mickey snorts. “You were kicking our arses at poker.”
“Ah, that’s right.” River brightens, picking up her cards where she’d discarded them when poor misguided Dave had challenged her to a drinking contest. “Shall we?”
As the game resumes, she reaches into the folds of her dress for a cigar and holds it between her lips while she searches for a match. One appears in her line of vision before she can find her own. “Allow me.”
She glances up, eyeing the dark-haired fop staring down at her with a hopeful smile. “Ramone,” she murmurs in greeting, taking the match from him with a nod of thanks. “Always so helpful.”
“I do my best,” he says, still smiling at her.
River holds in a sigh, watching him drag a chair from a nearby table to join her. He’s quite pretty for a fop and he practically swoons whenever she looks at him. In fact, he’s damn near worshipful and it never fails to make her shudder for all the wrong reasons. Tonight, however, his blatant infatuation is a welcome respite. She winks at him and Ramone lights up.
“Oi, River,” Mickey says, smirking at over from over the top of his cards. “Got your old fella waitin’ up for you at home? Keepin’ the bed warm for you?”
Beside him, Anita snickers.
Smiling serenely, River says, “Oh I tucked him in hours ago.”
“What’s the matter, eh? Can’t he keep up?”
“I’ve yet to meet anyone who can.” She places her hand on Ramone’s knee and squeezes. He jumps, startled, and blushes like a schoolboy. Bless. Satisfied, River lays her cards down and confesses, “Royal flush.”
Around the table, everyone groans.
She laughs and gloats more than she normally might have, making an effort to distract them all from the conversation she’d wanted no part of. She has little doubt that her new husband is most certainly at home and asleep, oblivious to both her nighttime adventure and the turmoil he’s caused with just one measly kiss.
They’ve been married for three days and she feels as if she’s slowly losing her mind. She hasn’t been able to properly look at him since the ceremony, since they parted ways on their wedding night and she’d lain awake for hours biting her lip until it bled. She’d swear on every holy book in existence that she can still taste him in her mouth no matter how much whiskey she drinks to wash him away.
She’d warned him that everything had to look real and genuine and he’d done just that. He’d very nearly convinced her. Her head has been spinning ever since. She can’t remember the last time anyone had kissed her like that – with such passion and feeling. And he’d been faking it. Every time she wonders what it might be like if he really felt something for her, she has to sit down and light a cigar.
Which is ridiculous because he’s an infuriating, smug idiot.
Whenever those thoughts come, she sneaks out of the house and comes to Paternoster Row. Which is how she’d found herself playing cards and getting into a drinking contest and yet she’s still thinking about the blind old man she’d left at home. She might be growing fond of John Smith, but oh, she hates him too.
Forcing a smirk, River reaches out an arm and sweeps all of her winnings toward her, collecting everything and dropping it into her coin purse. “It’s been a pleasure, as always.” She tucks the purse into her corset and stands, motioning for Ramone to follow suit. “But if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a very pressing matter to attend to.”
Turning her back on the snickers and catcalls, River searches out an unoccupied back room in the pub and yanks Ramone into it with her – determined to get John Smith out of her head before she sleeps tonight.
It’s the wee hours of the morning before she slips silently through the front door of her home and heads upstairs, smelling of sex and whiskey. In the quiet before dawn, she draws herself a bath and soaks in it until the water grows cold. By the time she gets out, her skin is pruning and the sun is just beginning to peek over the city skyline.
Sore, hungover, and just as heavy-hearted as when she’d left, River falls into bed and hopes for a few hours of dreamless sleep before she has to get up and have breakfast with her husband.
When River receives an invitation to tea at the home of Vastra and Jenny Flint, she knows the reason for the request – meeting her new husband – is simply an excuse. Jenny has a tendency to gossip and River had clearly been the subject of late night pillow talk between the pub owner and her long-time companion.
“Ruddy snitch,” River mutters under her breath, hopping down from the carriage. She supposes she should count herself lucky that Vastra had allowed her forty-eight hours to recover from her lengthy hangover before she summoned River for a scolding. And she isn’t naive – that’s exactly the purpose of this little tête-à-tête.
John follows her carefully out of the carriage, standing beside her on the pavement in front of the house. “What was that, dear?”
His voice is dry and bemused, as though he’d heard her perfectly clear even if he didn’t understand what she was on about. River bites her tongue against a sigh. “Stitch,” she lies, silently daring him to contradict her. “My dress needs mending.”
Mouth twitching in amusement, he says nothing to challenge the fib and instead holds out his arm for her. She takes it, knowing that even if she’d rather rebuff him, he could use the help navigating such unfamiliar territory. He’s only just starting to get used to her – their – home. As she guides him toward the steps, he tilts his head toward her and asks, “What are we doing here again?”
“Having tea with an old friend of mine. Mind the step.” She holds onto his arm as he follows her up the stairs and to the front door. “Her female companion is the proprietor of the pub over on Paternoster Row.”
John nods, frowning. “And this is to, what? Examine your new husband and find him lacking?”
River pats his arm, lifting her hand to ring the bell. “Shockingly, husband, this has very little to do with you. Vastra always seems to know when I haven’t been behaving myself.”
His eyebrows lift nearly to his hairline. “Have you been bad? Without me?”
“Only a little,” she admits evasively, ringing the bell again with an impatient huff. “Nothing to worry your fragile graying head about.”
John grumbles something rude under his breath but before she can elbow him in retaliation, the door swings open and Jenny stands on the other side. She smirks at them, eyeing River’s arm linked snugly through John’s, and settles a hand on her hip. “Well, if it ain’t the happy couple.”
“Don’t start.” River glares at her. “Jenny, meet my husband. John, that terribly crass Cockney accent grating your ears belongs to Jenny Flint.”
Far from insulted, Jenny merely bites her lip against a bout of laughter and leans against the doorway. “I s’pose I owe Vastra ten quid. I refused to believe you’d actually gone through with it. Especially not with that display the other night-”
“Well,” River interrupts sharply, narrowing her eyes in warning. “As you can see, I did go through with it. This is my husband, John, and as far as anyone else is concerned we’re so in love we’re sickening to be around. Is that clear?”
Jenny snorts. “Crystal, Ma’am. Come on then, Vastra’s waiting for you in the drawing room.” She turns and leaves them standing on the doorstep, calling over her shoulder, “This way, lovebirds.”
She leads them through the house and into the sunlit drawing room, where Vastra sits at a little table in the middle of the room, pouring tea into delicate china cups. She looks up when they walk in, blinking wide green eyes at them. It’s only because River knows her so well that she notices the slight purse of her lips – a clear sign of her disapproval.
“Welcome,” she says, her voice as even and civil as ever. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
River lets go of John’s arm and sheds her fur cloak, draping it over a settee. “Drop the act, Vastra. You know as well as I do that all of my marriages have been out of necessity, not love.”
“You wound me.” John places a hand over his heart, waggling his brows. “Truly.”
Rolling her eyes, River fastens her gaze on Vastra and doesn’t look away. “Jenny, dear, can you escort my husband to the kitchens for some biscuits?” She tugs at her gloves, peeling them off to join her cloak. “This will be far less painful if Vastra doesn’t spend an hour of small talk looking for a suitably polite excuse to get him out of the room.”
Behind her, John harrumphs irritably.
Jenny sighs, taking him gently by the arm. “This way, Sir. D’you like raisins in your biscuits?”
John turns to stare at her as she leads him out of the room. “God no.”
“Good.” Jenny pats his hand reassuringly. “Neither do we.”
The moment they’re alone, Vastra sets aside her tea with a businesslike clearing of her throat. Resigned to enduring a well-mannered scolding, River takes a seat across from her without breaking eye contact. She folds her hands in her lap and arches an eyebrow, a silent Get on with it then.
“I had my contacts look into your dearly beloved. You are aware he’s a thief, yes?”
“Is he?” River blinks innocently. “I had no idea.”
“A simple yes I did know would suffice.” Vastra eyes her wearily. “Did you also know his inner circle consists of the notorious Mad Missy, the con artist Nardole, and that street ruffian Bill Potts?”
River presses her lips together in an effort to stifle her amusement. “Yes, I know. They were witnesses at the wedding.”
“Of course they were.” Vastra rubs at her temple with her fingertips, apparently despairing of her. After a moment of silence in which River can only assume her old friend is gathering her seemingly limitless supply of patience, she straightens in her chair and drops her hand back to her lap. Eyes solemn, she says, “I understand you found yourself in a difficult predicament but surely you could have found someone more...suitable?”
River merely smiles. “Now where’s the fun in that?”
With a sigh, Vastra leans forward and asks, “Are you certain this man can be trusted?”
“Can any of them?”
“A fair point,” Vastra agrees with a smirk. “I do hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I always do.”
Vastra shakes her head. “Somehow, I doubt that.”
“Jenny happened to be at the pub the other night -”
“Ah, here we go.” River sighs and reaches for the little plate of sugars on the table, dropping a few into her tea. She picks up her spoon and mixes in a bit of milk as well, busying herself with preparing her cup just how she likes it. “Go on then. Get the scolding over with.”
“Don’t be dismissive.” Vastra sniffs, studying her with annoyance. “You did all of this because you wanted to keep your fortune, yes?” At River’s reluctant nod, she says, “You’re about to spoil all that effort if you don’t start behaving like a proper married lady.”
River waves a hand at her. “Proper and I haven’t spoken in ages, as you well know.”
“Well perhaps the two of you should get reacquainted.” For the first time in their conversation, Vastra’s voice turns sharp – not enough to startle anyone else but River knows her too well. She’s actually growing impatient with her. The realization freezes her in place, teacup halfway to her mouth. “If you carry on the way you have been – drinking grown men under the table and having arm wrestling competitions with merchants twice your size, bedding young men or barmaids with no discretion – then Lord Hydroflax will surely get wind that your marriage is a farce and your fortune will once again be his for the taking.”
Rattled but unwilling to show it, River forces a smile and sets aside her tea. To her credit, her hand doesn’t tremble at all. “Come now, Vastra, don’t be silly. He’s hardly going to hear about it all the way in Cornwall.”
“News travels fast and salacious gossip even faster.” Vastra sets her jaw, narrowed green eyes pinning River in place. “I hardly think you want any of his cronies sniffing about looking for answers, do you? Perhaps he’d even come here himself.”
She stiffens, her throat going dry. For a moment she can think of nothing but exactly that, her ill-tempered ex-husband traveling all the way to London just to dismantle her sham of a marriage and take what doesn’t belong to him. She draws in a sharp breath, firmly reminding herself that she isn’t a girl any more and even then she’d been perfectly capable of handling him. So long as she had a weapon in her hand. When he caught her off guard, well… that beast of a man could easily overpower her.
But not now. Not ever again. She’s a grown woman now and there isn’t a single day that she doesn’t have a pistol strapped to her thigh or a knife tucked into her bodice. Any man trying to take advantage of her these days always finds himself wishing he hadn’t.
River tips up her chin, curling her hands into her skirts until the fabric crinkles and her knuckles go white. “Let him come. I’ve been ready for that since the day I left.”
Vastra sighs. “I’d rather we avoided the situation altogether, wouldn’t you?”
Looking away, River stares resolutely at an impeccably arranged vase of lilies sitting on the mantel. She works her jaw in silence for a moment before she asks, “What do you suggest?”
“You must make it look real. You must be so in love with your husband – so faithful to him – that no one would ever dare question the validity of your arrangement.” When River purses her lips and says nothing, glaring at the vase of lilies, Vastra reaches out a hand and pats her fingers delicately. “You know I’m only thinking of what’s best for you.”
She nods once, dropping her gaze to her clenched hands. “I know.”
Vastra has been something of a constant in River’s life since childhood, taking her in when she didn’t have a farthing to her name and no one else would take pity on an orphan. She hid River from Kovarian’s henchman when they swept the whole of England searching for her. Vastra had been there on River’s wedding day to Lord Hydroflax, trying to dissuade her from going through with it. And when River didn’t listen, Vastra had been there when she barely managed to escape that hellish marriage, giving her a place to stay until she got back on her feet again. None of those instances ever benefitted Vastra in the slightest. It has always only been for River.
Looking at her old friend now, staring at her so imploringly, River is helpless to do anything but reluctantly agree. “You’re right,” she admits, forcing her teeth to unclench. “I’ll -”
What, exactly? Stop going out at night to get away from her husband and have a moment of freedom? Allow herself to continue fantasizing about what it would be like to have the genuine devotion of a man who kisses her like John Smith had? To keep thinking about that kiss every time she closes her eyes to sleep? To become some celibate old maid who falls in love with her blind roommate and pines for him until death do they part? No, none of that will do at all.
River forces a smile. “I’ll try to be more discreet from now on.”
After that, she doesn’t linger long with Vastra and Jenny. Merely an hour after she’d arrived, River says her goodbyes and tugs John with her outside to their waiting carriage. He’s unusually silent for much of the ride back to Belgravia, offering her none of his usual dry commentary or wicked grins. Instead, he sits on the bench across from her with his jaw clenched and his hat clutched between his fists.
It’s only when they’re about to turn onto their street that he finally shatters the uneasy quiet. Voice gruff, he says, “Ms. Flint brought me to the kitchens but was called away. I took a plate of biscuits and thought I might try finding my way back to you.”
She doesn’t look at him, staring resolutely out the carriage window. “And?”
John’s gaze is hot against the side of her face. “And I arrived just in time to hear about your little excursion the other night.”
River swallows. “Vastra exaggerates. It was nothing.”
With a snort of derision, he finally turns away. “If it was nothing, why didn’t you mention it? Why didn’t you ask me to come with you?” He pauses, his voice heavy with contempt when he speaks again. “Oh that’s right, I suppose bringing your husband along would make bedding someone else rather difficult.”
She stares at him, eyes wide. “Are you… jealous?”
“Don’t be absurd.”
River watches in fascination as the tips of his ears turn red. Stifling a smirk, she observes, “Well, you certainly seem jealous. What’s the matter, darling? Wishing we’d had a wedding night after all?”
“I’m not jealous,” he snaps. “Stop it.”
“No, dear husband, you stop it.” River drops the smile, amusement fleeing in a moment as she watches him glare at his shoes. “We agreed long before the ceremony that this would never be a real marriage. In fact, you insisted upon it. You have no right to complain about what I do in my own time.”
John bristles, his eyebrows drawing together as he lifts his head and finds her with sightless blue eyes. “Of course it isn’t a real marriage. But it would be very much appreciated if you had the decency not to carry on with your lovers in sodding public. I agreed to this whole sham for you, you know.”
“Yes,” she hums, mockingly. “You agreed to a lifetime of luxury. What a bloody hardship.”
“Do you really think any of this matters to me?” He snarls, dropping his crumpled hat to the carriage floor. “I’ve spent a lifetime without the certainty of a soft bed or a decent meal and I’ve managed just fine. I was happy, even, in my own way-”
River scoffs. “So you married me out of the kindness of your heart, is that it?”
“Yes, I bloody well did.”
River blinks at him, stunned silent. After a moment, she gathers herself and asks archly, “And I suppose the promised donations to the orphanage housing your granddaughter had nothing to do with it?”
“You already sodding donate there – not much of a bargaining chip, was it?” John sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I did marry you out of kindness, River, but not just my own. I thought I saw kindness in you too.”
She swallows hard as the carriage jolts to a stop, listening to Rory climb down from the box seat and move to open the door for them. “Well,” she says, hating the way her voice trembles. “That was your mistake.”
John stares at her, his face a mask, as Rory opens the carriage door and holds out a hand to help her down. She waves him away, refusing to look at him lest he see the brightness of her eyes.
“I’m fine,” she mutters. “Help my husband down, will you?”
Without waiting for his reply or for John to climb out after her, River stalks quickly into the house and refuses to acknowledge it as fleeing. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Amy and Clara waiting for her in the foyer but she doesn’t stop until she reaches her study.
Slamming the door shut behind her, she flips the lock just in case her maid or her cook or heaven forbid John himself decides to come looking for her. Safe in the ringing silence, she drops her cloak on the floor and reaches for the decanter of brandy on the drinks cart. Clutching her glass in numb fingers, River sinks onto the edge of her desk and tries to breathe again, her heart pounding and her throat tight.
When she’d made the decision to marry John Smith, she thought she’d known exactly what she was getting into – tying herself to a blind old man who may or may not regain his sight, who showed no interest at all in her fortune, and just the right amount of interest in how little regard she had for what was expected of her. At the time, she hadn’t realized she’d agreed to marry the one man on the planet just as maddeningly stubborn as she.
After their disagreement, they spend several days avoiding one another entirely. River takes breakfast in her room, takes tea with Vastra, and skips dinner completely just so she doesn’t have to be in the same room with him. For a man without his sight, John is remarkably adept at never accidentally stumbling across her in the spacious house. She doesn’t see him for days, doesn’t even hear him wandering the halls at night. If it hadn’t been for Clara complaining about the amount of sugar he insists on having in his tea, River might have believed he’d left.
It’s utterly ridiculous and she’s quite aware they should both apologize and move on but she hasn’t had much practice in expressing regret and she imagines the same must be true for John. So instead she keeps to the house, avoids the telegrams Ramone continues to send in hopes of seeing her again, and generally tries to behave herself.
So far, it’s terribly dull.
Nearly a week after their row, John walks into her study with two parcels under his arm, his fingertips trailing the wall to keep him grounded. River looks up from a stack of paperwork Mr. Lux had sent for her signature, eyeing him warily. As if sensing her scrutiny, he says, “Don’t worry, I come bearing a peace offering.”
She frowns, setting aside her quill pen to watch him navigate her study with impressive ease – as though he’s been practicing. Odd, since she keeps the door locked. Then again, perhaps not so odd considering she’d married a thief. “How did you know I was in here?”
“Followed the scent of parmaviolets and hellfire.” John sinks into the chair opposite her desk and flashes her an oddly anxious grin. “And I asked Amy.”
River huffs, muttering under her breath about traitorous maids.
“Still not ready to see me then?” John carefully eases both parcels in his hands onto her desk, knocking over a – thankfully unlit – candlestick in the process. “Oops.”
There isn’t a trace of remorse in his voice so River sighs and sets her desk to rights, keeping an eye on John through her lashes. “What’s in the boxes?”
“Told you,” he says, waggling his brows. “Peace offering.”
“You went out on your own? I hope you brought Rory, at least.” She frowns, eyeing the boxes suspiciously. “You didn’t steal them, did you? Not that I’d mind…”
He sighs. “River, would you just open the bloody things?”
“I do enjoy it when you get bossy, darling.” She smirks when he ruffles his hair out of sheer embarrassment, reaching hesitantly for the first, smaller parcel. Someone had tied it with a red ribbon and when she undoes it, the wrapping falls away. She isn’t sure what she’d expected to find – something ridiculous John thought amusing, most likely – but a bright blue leather book hadn’t been it. “What-” She clears her throat. “What is this?”
She shakes her head, peering at him. “Yes, but what do you want for it?”
“Nothing. It’s a gift, River.” He frowns, his voice oddly soft. “No strings attached, I promise.”
A gift. A real, genuine gift. No one has ever given her a one of those before. She gazes down at it, her throat unusually tight, and strokes the cover with her fingertips. It’s been intricately carved and the smell of the leather is heavy in the air. River breathes in the scent, her fingers gripping the little blue book.
Staring at her, fingers tapping restlessly against his knee, John asks, “Well? Which is it?”
“It’s a book,” she says, doing her best to sound unaffected as she thumbs through the weighty, crisp pages. “A blank book.”
John tuts. “It’s a diary. Thought you might like a place to complain about me.”
She hums thoughtfully, setting it aside with a hand that shakes. “It’ll be full in a week.”
“A week? How optimistic of you.” He grins, that same wide, wicked smile that catches her off guard every time he directs it at her. “Go on, open the other one.”
The next box is bigger but still rather lightweight and River pulls at the ribbon tied around it with a suspicious frown. “Is it a lot of extra books just in case I find you especially quarrelsome?”
“No,” he says wryly, “but if you don’t like what’s in there you can use the paper in your book to write a letter of complaint to that ruddy shop assistant who helped me pick it out.”
Intrigued now, River lifts the lid on the box and peers inside. And stares.
At her silence, John shifts in his chair and clears his throat. “You were right before. I did promise this arrangement wouldn’t be a real marriage by any stretch. Whether I like it or not, I’ve no right to be angry about how you choose to spend your time.”
River ignores the way her heart leaps, ignores the traitorous part of her mind wondering what he could possibly mean by whether I like it or not, and forces herself to lift her eyes from the contents of the box to meet his stare. “So you… bought me a dress?”
“Picked out the fabric myself,” he says, his voice laced with such pride and smugness that River can only roll her eyes and bite back a smile. “I liked how it felt.”
She reaches a hand into the box, and with a reverence she doesn’t quite understand, touches the shimmering, silken fabric of her new gown. “It’s lovely,” she agrees softly, attempting to rid herself of the troublesome lump that has formed in her throat again. “And I know you couldn’t have known but… it matches my eyes.”
His own eyes lighting up, in fact his whole face brightening, John leans forward in his chair and confides with a scoff, “Of course I knew.”
She frowns. “You’ve never seen my eyes, John.”
“They’re green,” he says, and there’s that smugness again. “And blue. And just a bit grey, like the sea.”
His lips twitch when she draws in a breath. “How -”
“Bill told me. Not the bit about the sea, of course. That’s just… what I keep picturing.” He shrugs, looking suddenly uncertain. “Do you like it?”
Dropping her gaze back to the dress, she touches a finger to the delicate lace trimming the sleeve. “Very much,” she whispers, wondering how on earth this man she barely knows has managed to give her more gifts in the span of a few minutes than she’s ever received in her whole life. Even more so if she counts him agreeing to marry her in the first place, and she’s rather inclined to. She blinks hard to quell the sudden sting in her eyes, breathing unsteadily through her nose. “Thank you.”
His smile is soft and fond and does little to dispel her late night fanciful notions of kissing him again. “You’re welcome,” he says. “So… will you be dining with me tonight?”
Instinctively, she hears what he’s really asking. Are you done avoiding me now?
“Yes,” she replies, watching him smile again. “I believe so.”
“Right. Good.” He stands abruptly, looking a little flushed. Turning toward the door, he holds out a hand to navigate his way out of the room again. “Don’t be late. Clara told me she’s making lamb.”
She watches him go with a hand gripping her desk and the other still resting against the rich fabric of her new dress. He’s almost to the door when she gathers the nerve to call out, “Did you mean it?”
John pauses, his back to her. “Did I mean what?”
She swallows. “What you said in the carriage the other day. About marrying me for…me.”
He sighs and she stares as his shoulders slump and his head drops. “Yes,” he admits, as though she’s forcing the words from him. “I meant it.”
River exhales shakily, her eyes burning as she gazes at his stiff spine and bowed head, his hand curled around the doorframe. No one, outside of Vastra and perhaps her household staff, has ever done anything for her without some sort of ulterior motive. Certainly not her husband. Lord Hydroflax had been rather selfish about most things and River, who had learned from an early age to take what she wanted before it was snatched away, never waited for him to give her anything.
“You were right too, you know,” she admits, gratified when her voice doesn’t waver.
“Oh?” John turns slowly to face her, brows raised. “Well, first time for everything, I suppose.”
“And a last,” she murmurs, smirking briefly. Dropping her gaze to her white-knuckled grip on the edge of her desk, she sighs. “You’re my husband and if I venture out at night with a man, it should be you.” Refusing to let herself hide from John’s probing stare, she lifts her head again. “We have to make this look real to everyone else, even if it isn’t.”
“Right,” he mutters, wearing an inexplicable frown. “Of course.”
“So, with that in mind…” River clears her throat, feeling very much as though she’s asking him to marry her all over again. “Will you come to the theatre with me tomorrow night?”
“Why?” He asks, preening in a manner she suspects is merely to amuse her. “Want to show me off?”
She laughs. “Always, darling.”
When they venture out together the following night, she wears the dress he’d given her and guides him into the theatre with a hand on his arm. She ignores the stares of those seeing her with her new husband for the first time and steers clear of Ramone when she spots him in the crowded lobby. Gripping John’s sleeve, she ignores everyone else and heads straight for her private box.
“Of course you’ve got a private box,” John mutters, snorting under his breath. “What a spoiled creature you are, River Song.”
Pushing him gently into his chair River pats the top of his head. “Says the man who has just sat his arse down on a padded velvet seat.”
To her utter surprise, she actually enjoys herself. The moment the lights go down, she leans into John and explains to him about the happenings onstage, whispering stage directions and the facial expressions of the characters in the play that he cannot see. John listens attentively, mocks the production in all the appropriate places, and chuckles under his breath when River switches from talking of the play to telling him all the latest gossip about the playwright himself.
All the while, he never quite stops touching her. At first, she believes it to be John trying to ground himself in an unfamiliar environment but the hesitant touches to the small of her back or her hand turn to almost unconscious caresses along her arm. Then in a rare moment of silence between them in the dark theatre, John, his face turned instinctively toward the stage lights, curls his hand around her wrist and strokes his thumb over the fabric of her dress. A small, almost unthinking smile curls his mouth.
River stares at his profile in the dim theatre light and remembers what he’d said when he gave her the dress. I liked how it felt. For a man who cannot see, the simple act of touching the silk of her dress must be a secret, unnamable thrill. She resolves to wear more things made like this gown, fine silks and soft velvets that ignite his remaining senses. And if he happens to touch her more often because of it, smiling that little smile of his?
She swallows a smile of her own, feeling his fingertip trace patterns across her forearm. So be it.
Chapter 6: can't hide the way it makes us glow
When John had mentioned at breakfast this morning that he had an idea to get them into the public eye again – to be convincing, he’d said – River had expected a walk through the park or maybe even a bit of pickpocketing for old time’s sake. She certainly hadn’t expected him to drag her to an ice rink and shove a pair of skates at her.
In which John has an idea and River goes for a swim.
Chapter title from Take Care by Beach House.
The orphanage on Gracechurch Street is becoming a problem. Rather, the little girl who lives in the orphanage on Gracechurch Street is becoming a problem. River hadn’t meant to find herself sitting in a tiny parlour surrounded by children today. She’d slipped away from John and gone into town just before dinner, hoping to put in an order for a new dress – something soft and silky and very pleasing to touch in hopes of enticing a few more of those stolen caresses. If she’s no longer going to be welcoming the touch of others, she’d at least like her daft husband to pay her some attention.
And so she’d been browsing the selection of material at her favorite dress shop, listening to her seamstress go on about some new fashion trend but not really paying attention. Her mind had wandered away from dresses, thinking instead of the threadbare clothes the orphans on Gracechurch are forced to wear. She'd dwelled in particular on little Susan in her thin dress and ripped stockings and John’s granddaughter, whoever she is, tiny and cold and alone.
She’d glanced up with determination and something in her eyes must have startled Donna, who stopped talking to stare at her warily. “Get your tape measure,” she’d said. “And come with me.”
Bless her, Donna hadn’t hesitated. She’d taken the measurements of every child in that orphanage and River had paid her handsomely – with a little extra for a new coat for Susan. And now a group of little ones sit around her beside the fire in Mr. Renfrew’s parlour, excitably chattering about their new clothes while River studies them all with John in mind. She could be looking at his granddaughter right now but unless the child has inherited his ridiculous gray hair or surly personality, she’ll never know.
A soft tugging at her skirts draws her attention away from the others and she glances down to find Susan peering up at her shyly. “Thank you for my coat, Miss River,” she says softly, brown eyes wide.
Only River's nails digging into her palms keeps her from melting. She steels herself, drawing in a breath and giving the girl a soft smile. “You’re welcome, darling. ”
Susan lingers at her side, clearly as reluctant to leave as River is to watch her go. Hesitantly, she trails a hand over the girl’s haphazard braid. Tugging gently at the frayed ribbon holding it together, she tuts playfully. “Well this won’t do at all. Come here, let’s plait this pretty hair, hmm?”
Beaming at her, Susan scrambles into her lap eagerly. “Yes, please.”
And this is how River finds herself braiding the hair of every little girl in the house, all the while telling them the story of the time she’d ridden a horse right into a fountain in Trafalgar Square. She doesn’t mention that it was a stolen horse or that she’d been on the run from an irate shopkeeper convinced she’d nicked a pair of gloves (she had).
Though her hair had been braided into a neat plait a while ago, Susan tucks herself into River’s side and doesn’t move. She listens to her stories and watches her braid the other girls’ hair, always quiet and well-behaved but never straying more than a foot from River the whole time.
For her part, River stares out over the crowd of well-groomed little girls and wonders which of them is John’s granddaughter. Did she just tie a ribbon in her hair? Tuck a flower behind her ear? Awkwardly accept a kiss of gratitude on the cheek from her? She could be any of them but because River will never know, John’s granddaughter is all of them.
She ties the last ribbon in the last girl’s hair, preparing to get up and make her excuses before she’s late to dinner with John. Before she can move, Susan seizes the opportunity to climb back into her lap and make herself comfortable. River blinks down at the small child nestled against her and violently shoves aside the warm glow in her chest.
Latching onto her sleeve, Susan turns those irresistible brown eyes on her and asks, “Another story?”
With a sigh, River settles back into the settee cushions, half of her mind concocting a story to explain to John why she’s late for dinner and the other half searching for an entertaining tale for the little one in her arms. “Did I ever tell you about the time I visited the Queen?” River pauses, wrinkling her nose. “She wasn’t the Queen then. Not yet. And… it wasn’t really a visit so much as an invasion. But honestly, how was I supposed to know her family was staying in that cottage for the summer?”
When John had mentioned at breakfast this morning that he had an idea to get them into the public eye again – to be convincing, he’d said – River had expected a walk through the park or maybe even a bit of pickpocketing for old time’s sake. She certainly hadn’t expected him to drag her to an ice rink and shove a pair of skates at her. She stares down at the ice skates in her hands and then looks up, watching John grin down at her.
“Darling, I know you’re a bit visually impaired,” she begins, and he huffs. “So in case you’re not aware, you’ve just brought your wife to an ice rink. And you’re apparently expecting her to put on rented skates.”
“Snobbery doesn’t suit you,” he says. “Look around. This is what couples do, dear.”
She does indeed offering the rink a perfunctory glance, glowering when she finds the place rife with happy young couples – all of them with their cheeks flushed from the cold and their gloved hands laced together as they glide around the rink. “I don’t skate.”
“Why on earth not?”
River glances away, her fingers tangling in the laces of her skates. “It’s too common.”
John snorts. “So is marrying a homeless man but you managed that with aplomb.”
“That was a special case.” She turns her gaze back to the ice rink and the pink-cheeked, laughing couples, ignoring the pang of longing in her chest. “I’m not going.”
“Why not?” He asks again, patiently. “The truth this time, please. Or I’ll drop to the ground right this second and shout that you pushed me.”
River glares. “You wouldn’t.”
John cocks an eyebrow. “In the past month, I’ve wrestled a python, attempted to steal while blind, and married a woman I’ve never even seen. I think you’ll find there is very little I won’t do, wife. Now why don’t you want to skate?”
Realizing with a faint, grudging flicker of admiration that he has a point, she snaps, “Because I never learned how, all right?”
He blinks at her, his mouth curling. “Is that all?”
She frowns. “Isn’t that enough?”
“It might have been,” he says. “If you hadn’t married someone who just so happens to be rather good at it. Used to skate all the time when I was a lad.”
Rolling her eyes, she mutters, “Congratulations, dear.”
John sighs. “I mean I’ll teach you, silly woman.”
She stares at him, mystified. “Really?”
“Course I will.” He holds out a hand to her, smirking when she hesitates. “Unless of course, you’re scared.”
River takes his hand.
It’s a decision she regrets rather quickly, the moment she steps out onto the ice and John lurches sideways like he’s never skated a day in his life. Her knees buckle beneath her and she yelps, gripping his coat to keep herself upright. John grunts at her added weight, one of his hands flailing out to grab her waist. His fingers bite through the boning of her corset and she grimaces, nose pressed to his collar.
“You’re a bloody liar, John Smith,” she hisses through her teeth.
“Am not,” he protests, with such vehemence it makes him wobble.
Still clinging to him, River glares at a couple skating by them with ease. “Skating since you were a boy? You’re rubbish.”
“All right, it’s been a while,” he says, defensive. Gathered close against him, River does her best not to notice his mouth pressed into her hair or the way his coat smells of pine. “But to be fair, I could see then. Balance is a bit off now, you understand.”
She sighs, pushing him away but still managing to cling to his arm all at once. “Well,” she says, her head instantly clearer with a bit of distance. “I can see. So just tell me how to do it so we can get back on land with a shred of dignity.”
“Dignity.” He scoffs, his hand curling tight around her elbow. “What do you want with a thing like that? I’d much rather have fun.”
“So help me, John – I will leave you to crawl off this godforsaken rink on your own,” she warns, bristling when he only grins. As if he isn’t afraid of her at all. The notion only makes her more furious. “Start talking.”
“All right, keep your knickers on.” Still wobbling, John tugs her close again. He presses her back to his chest, keeping a tight grip on her. River stares straight ahead, frozen with indecision as he settles his chin on her shoulder and instructs into her ear, “Bend your knees but keep most of your weight on the balls of your feet.”
Mechanically, she follows his order.
“Good.” His hand slides around her waist, his palm pressing flat against her belly. Her breath catches painfully in her throat. “Pull your stomach in now.” Trembling, she pulls her stomach in tight. “Good girl.”
If her breathing is a little heavier than usual, she’s just grateful he can’t see it clouding in the cold air. Bloody hell, she doesn’t know what’s the matter with her. Something about that gruff Scottish voice speaking to her in that low, authoritative murmur. She always did enjoy a stern talking to.
John curls his other hand around her shoulder. “Keep your shoulders back….There you are. Now, arms out for balance…just like that.”
“I feel ridiculous,” she grumbles, if only to distract him from her heart beating wildly against his chest. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Just trust me.” He moves his hand from her stomach back to her hip and River stifles a sigh of relief, focusing on his voice once more. “All that’s left to do is take little steps. You’ll start to glide, I promise.”
Despite her earlier hesitation, she moves away from him instantly. Anything to put some distance between them. Even if John is still holding onto her cloak, it’s far better than having him pressed against her so intimately. She takes one step – and promptly loses her balance. Her feet fly out from beneath her and she hits the ice hard, bringing John with her.
He lands beside her with a grunt of pain. River, knocked breathless from her fall, wheezes out, “I hate you.”
Beside her, she feels John start to shake. Startled, she turns her head to check on him. Instead of finding him grimacing in pain as she expects, he’s sprawled across the ice, arms and legs flung out, his top hat somewhere behind him – laughing. It’s only a soft chuckle but his shoulders tremble with it. Around them, people continue to skate effortlessly.
Back aching and her dignity all but gone, River scowls. “What, may I ask, is so damn funny?”
To her irritation, it only makes John laugh harder. He throws his head back, his mouth open wide, his eyes and his nose scrunched up, his whole body shaking with the force of his amusement. River stares at him, bewildered, and then without permission her mouth begins to curl up. She simply can’t help it. John’s laugh is a bit like that rare, delightfully uninhibited grin of his – only better. It’s contagious.
Before she can even think of stopping herself, she’s giggling right along with him. Sprawled on the ice, shivering from the cold and curled into John helplessly, River laughs until she can’t breathe. She laughs louder and longer than she has in ages. Maybe even ever. She lays her head on John’s chest and chuckles, feeling his rapid heartbeat against her ear as he struggles to get a hold of himself.
By the time they manage to catch their breath, they’re both teary-eyed and wheezing. Not to mention they’ve garnered quite a few stares but she can’t bring herself to mind. Let them look. That’s the whole point of this little excursion anyway, she thinks bitterly. To be seen.
Clinging to each other, she and John stumble back to their feet. Wobbling precariously, John grips her hand in his and with laughter still in his voice, asks, “Try again?”
River glances around, eyeing the edge of the rink still several paces away. “We don’t really have a choice.”
“Course we do,” he says, smirking. “We could always crawl.”
She hums, shaking her head. “As tempting as it is to see you on your knees, darling, I think I’ll try again.”
John chokes. “Yes, well. Shall we?”
Following his instructions again – stomach in, shoulders straight, bend the knees, take a step – River puts one foot forward, then the other. One step, two steps… On the third, she’s gliding along the ice and tugging John with her. He stumbles after her, laughing under his breath.
River smiles, lifting her face into the cold air as they slide over the ice together. “This isn’t so bad,” she says, nodding her head in greeting at the elderly couple quickly approaching them. They haven’t noticed her yet and she hesitates, wondering if lurching to the side would cause her to fall again. “John?”
“No need to thank me -”
“How do I stop, you idiot?”
“Oh.” He mumbles something under his breath.
“I said I’m thinking.”
She whirls to stare at him. “You mean you don’t remember?”
“I told you,” he says tersely, frowning. “It’s been a while.”
“I can’t believe you -”
John shushes her, eyes brightening. “Shut it, I remember.”
Instead of simply telling her, he stops them himself. They skid to an abrupt halt still a safe distance away from the elderly couple. River, who had been unprepared to be yanked back so quickly, stumbles backward and knocks John off his feet. His hand still clutched in hers, he pulls her with him. Only John gets the full impact of the ice this time. River’s landing is considerably softer and it takes her a moment of stunned silence to understand why. Straddling John’s waist, her full skirts draped around them, she stares down at his startled face. They’re both breathing hard, chests heaving as they gaze at each other. She knows John can’t really see her but he has this intent way of staring that makes her feel like he can see right through her.
For a moment, she can’t move. John swallows hard and she finally notices that his warm, gloved hand is resting on her thigh. She hasn’t been quite this close to him since he fell against her in his room, pressed against the wall and feeling his heartbeat against her. “Well,” she finally breathes, and John snaps his eyes away from her. “When you said it had been a while, I assumed you meant skating.”
He huffs, though he doesn’t look at her again – glowering somewhere over her shoulder. “Don’t be crass with an old blind man.”
“Oh but I’m developing such a fondness for your blush, darling,” she teases, watching him make a show of grumbling and clearing his throat. Grasping his hand in hers, she clambers to her feet and helps him back up. “Come on, let’s try again, shall we?”
Eventually, they manage to skate all the way around the rink without falling down once. She almost feels like any other normal couple, gliding around on the ice holding hands. The afternoon flies by and it’s only as they’re walking home that they realize they’ve missed teatime.
The knowledge still doesn’t deter River from guiding John home along the Thames, taking the longer route back to the house in hopes of stretching out what has shaped up to be a rather nice outing. John doesn’t seem to mind, turning his face into the cold wind blowing off the river. He keeps her tucked into his side as though his lanky frame might actually manage to keep the chill away and despite her doubts, River lets him anyway.
They stroll along the river, comparing bruises acquired from their skating venture and giggling about the moment River had spotted Mr. Lux standing on the side of the rink gaping at them. John is in the middle of bemoaning his empty stomach, longingly describing a helping of Clara’s tea and biscuits, when a passing stranger rushes by huffing and puffing.
He bumps into John – hard – as he hurries past, not bothering to stop and apologize. Caught off guard and knocked completely off balance, John staggers into her and sends her stumbling in turn. River manages nothing more than a wordless cry of surprise before she tips over the edge and right into the freezing Thames.
The shock of the cold water steals her breath instantly. Without thinking, she opens her mouth to gasp and inhales some of it, choking as it fills her lungs. Distantly, she can hear muffled shouting and wonders if it’s John calling for her. She kicks frantically in an effort to stay afloat, breaking the surface only long enough to draw a gasping breath before the heavy skirts of her dress begin to drag her back down into the black depths of the water again.
Helplessly, River kicks her legs some more. Her cloak swirls around her, tangling around her and making it impossible to move. The icy water is like needles against her skin, sharp and painful. Her lungs burn, desperate for air. Her eyes begin to drift shut and she feels her panicked heart begin to slow, calming as her body starts to sink deeper.
A strong, familiar hand wraps around her wrist and yanks hard. River breaks the surface of the water again but this time, her heavy skirts can’t drag her away. John’s hold on her is far too tight. He hauls her out of the Thames and onto the embankment, dropping beside her the moment she’s free.
Shaking violently, River rolls onto her side and immediately coughs up water onto the hard ground. Her eyes sting as she gasps for breath, fingers curled tight into the grass. Distantly, she notes that John’s bruising grip on her wrist hasn’t eased.
“River,” he says, his voice strangled. Frantic, she thinks mutely. “River, sweetheart, are you all right? Fucking hell, River. I can’t see you, say something.”
Though she wants to tell him she’s perfectly fine and perhaps tease him about his heroic efforts, River can only stare at him and shiver. John curses, muttering something about shock, and promptly strips her out of her troublesome cloak. He replaces the garment immediately, wrestling out of his heavy greatcoat and wrapping it around her shoulders. His scarf is next, clumsily wound around her neck.
River keeps gazing wordlessly at him, watching his wide blue eyes and weathered, trembling hands with a stranger sense of fondness. She can do nothing but comply when he gathers her into his arms and lifts her with a determined, “Let’s get you home.”
Normally, she might have protested being carried away like a child – especially by a blind man who will probably end up getting lost – but she can’t speak. She can’t even summon up the energy to glare uselessly at him. Instead, she buries her nose in the collar of his coat and tucks her head against his neck, letting John shield her from the cold. In the water, everything had hurt like hell but now that she’s out, all she feels is numb.
She’ll never understand how he does it but John gets them home without getting lost once. He carries her – heavy, dripping skirts and all – through busy London streets and murmurs shockingly tender things into her ear when he suspects she might be falling asleep. It’s all right, my dear. I’ve got you. We’re almost there, love. Don’t shut your eyes, darling. If she’d known all it would take was a bit of a splash to get John Smith to call her love, she might have done it sooner.
The moment he stumbles with her over the threshold, he drops to his knees on the marble floor of the entry hall and shouts for help in his thickened Scottish voice. He doesn’t wait for anyone, starting to pull at her sodden skirts. River stares at him blearily as he manhandles her out of her dress. “Not quite how I pictured you undressing me. Pity.”
“Don’t start,” he snaps, though his eyes soften somewhat in relief at her quiet quip. The edge of his panic fading somewhat. In the distance, River hears the clamor of approaching footsteps. “And don’t you even think about getting hypothermia, understand? I’ll -“
“What?” She slurs, still clutching his coat around her shoulders. “Spank me?”
To her disappointment, John doesn’t get the chance to reply. Amy and Rory come rushing into the entry hall with Clara right on their heels. For a moment, all three of them freeze in place at the sight of John sitting on the floor cradling a bedraggled, half-dressed River in his arms.
“Well don’t just stand there,” John snarls, as though he can sense them gaping. “Get her some tea and blankets. And one of you useless lumps send for a bloody doctor!”
They all snap into action at once, Rory leaping over them and heading straight for the door. “I’ll get Lethbridge.”
Clara scurries out of sight with a shout of, “I’ll fetch the tea.”
“What happened?” Amy asks, moving quickly to River’s side.
“She decided to go for a swim,” John grumbles, helping Amy lift River to her feet. “What do you think happened? She fell in the sodding Thames.”
“Oi, don’t you sass me, Granddad.” Amy glowers, wrapping an arm around River’s waist. “Help me get her upstairs.”
River isn’t much help navigating the staircase and once they reach the landing at the top, John simply scoops her up again and carries her the rest of the way. If she didn’t feel miserably numb at the moment, River might have swooned. Who would have thought lanky John Smith could be capable of such a show of strength?
“I have my uses,” John murmurs, a smile in his voice.
River hides her face in his neck when she realizes she’d voiced her thoughts aloud. If she wasn’t so damned cold, she knows she’d be blushing. “Hate you,” she slurs.
With a bit of guidance from Amy, John settles River onto her bed and immediately begins to pile blankets on top of her. Over his shoulder, Amy kneels by the fireplace to stoke the flames to life. River settles her head on her pillow, already feeling warmer.
“River?” A cool hand presses against her cheek. “Don’t fall asleep.”
“M’not, darling,” she mumbles, weakly swatting John away.
“You bloody well are.” He pats her cheek and she flinches. “River, sweetheart, you’ve got to stay awake. River-”
Despite how badly she wants to keep her eyes open – if only to listen to John curse her and call her pet names in the same breath – his voice fades away and she slips slowly into sleep.
Chapter 7: love, i have wounds only you can mend
“Hey there sleepyhead.” River turns her head, met with the sight of Amy sitting in a chair at her bedside with a lap full of knitting. She smiles softly, reaching out a slender hand to press against her forehead. “I think your fever’s finally broken.”
Frowning, River stretches and struggles to sit up. “How long have I been-”
“Teetering on the brink of death?”
She glares. “Asleep.”
Amy hides a smile. “About three days.”
In which River is a terrible patient and Tasha Lem makes an appearance.
Chapter title from Can't Pretend by Tom Odell.
What follows is a seemingly endless haze of fever dreams, River caught between tormented bouts of shivering cold and burning hot. Sometimes she regains clarity just long enough to catch a glimpse of Amy or John or Dr. Lethbridge but for the most part, she drifts in and out of consciousness, never truly certain when she’s awake and when she isn’t. The hallucinations only make it harder to differentiate, so vivid and visceral that she can never tell if she’s only imagining things.
Sometimes, Kovarian looms over her bed – dark and menacing and just as cold-blooded as River remembers. She suddenly feels like nothing more than a little girl all over again, shrinking away from the nail-biting grip of Kovarian’s bony hand around her wrist. Useless girl, she hisses, eyes gleaming in the dark. Did you really think I wouldn’t find you?
River flinches away from her, recoiling at the sound of her voice. So hated and so familiar, even after all these years. It’s only when she remembers that she isn’t that scrawny little orphan now that she stops trying to curl into a ball and disappear. She holds Kovarian’s black gaze and says, “I am not afraid of you anymore.”
Kovarian laughs but she always leaves, dissolving like mist.
Unfortunately, her absence only brings about the reappearance of River’s ex-husband. When she sees him, tall and broad and just as brutish as ever, her breath catches painfully in her throat. Out of habit, she reaches for the knife under her pillow but it isn’t there. She’s defenseless against him – just like she always used to be.
As if sensing her helplessness, Lord Hydroflax sits on the bed beside her. He’s far too close and even when he reaches out a hand to touch her his grip is painfully tight. She jerks in his hold, snarling. “Don’t you dare touch me.”
When they’d been married, such boldness would not have been rewarded. Hydroflax had always been a conquering sort of man – he took what he wanted and no had never been a word in his vocabulary. River had learned to stop asking. She’d used her nails and her fists instead, kicking and screaming until even Hydroflax deemed her unworthy of the trouble. It didn’t always work but on the days when it did, River had worn her bruises like badges of honor.
She does the same thing now, twisting in his grasp and kicking out her feet. Her legs tangle in the sheets and it’s so reminiscent of the heavy cloak dragging her down into the Thames that for a moment she’s certain she’s drowning all over again. She chokes and coughs and gasps for air, reaching for the hand that had saved her last time.
It’s always there when she needs it, gripping her fingers tight. It doesn’t hurt like Hydroflax’s touch always does. Instead, it’s just strong enough to be reassuring. I’m here, this touch says. You’re safe.
River relaxes at once, her lungs expanding to let her breathe again. That same cool, strong hand presses against her cheek and John’s voice whispers her name and another of those endearments that chases the darkness away. At peace, River sinks back into oblivion.
It feels like an age and no time at all before she resurfaces again, wading through deep trenches toward sunlight. The first thing she sees when she opens her eyes is the first rays of the sunrise peeking in through the curtains of her bedroom. River blinks groggily, slowly taking stock of her surroundings.
She’s still in bed, though her nightgown appears to be fresh. To her relief, the shivering has stopped and she doesn’t feel that awful numbness in her extremities any longer. She feels a bit groggy but well-rested and blessedly warm.
“Hey there sleepyhead.” River turns her head, met with the sight of Amy sitting in a chair at her bedside with a lap full of knitting. She smiles softly, reaching out a slender hand to press against her forehead. “I think your fever’s finally broken.”
Frowning, River stretches and struggles to sit up. “How long have I been-”
“Teetering on the brink of death?”
She glares. “Asleep.”
Amy hides a smile. “About three days.” She sets aside her knitting, her eyes growing serious. “You scared the life out of all of us, you know.”
“Oh?” River leans back into her pillows, already tired again. “Afraid I hadn’t written you into my will yet?”
Her maid shakes her head, lips pursed. “It’s not funny.”
River sighs. “You do realize I didn’t fall into the Thames on purpose?”
“I know.” Amy folds her arms over her chest, glancing away. Her ginger hair slips into her eyes and she huffs it away childishly. “I just… I feel like I’m always worrying about you. Like I’m your mother or something.”
Smiling, River says, “Shouldn’t that be the other way around? I am older than you, after all.”
“Not by much, young lady.” Amy lifts her head, smiling reluctantly. “Mr. Renfrew had the kids make you some get well cards, by the way. He sent them over in a box and Rory put them in the study but I took Susan’s and stuck it on your bedside table.”
River glances to her right, a reluctant smile curling her mouth at the handmade card covered in glitter and childish doodles. “Thank you,” she whispers, still staring at it.
“Thought you might like that, you old softie.” Amy shakes her head, still grinning. “Now, how about something to eat, yeah? We had a feeling you’d wake up today – Clara made soup just for you.”
“Sounds lovely.” River casts a glance around the room as Amy climbs to her feet and fusses over the blankets. “So… how is everyone? Getting along without me all right?”
“Subtle,” Amy says, snorting. She reaches behind River, fluffing her pillows. “Your husband hasn’t left your side in days. He’s even been sleeping in that chair over there. The only reason he isn’t here now is because I made him leave. He was starting to look homeless again.” Amy wrinkles her nose. “Starting to smell like it too.”
River swallows back a laugh, eyeing her maid skeptically. “You’re not honestly expecting me to believe he’s been here the whole time?”
“Believe what you’d like.” Amy shrugs, eyes sparkling. “But all that rubbish you said about this marriage being a business deal? Total bollocks.”
“You’re ridiculous,” River mutters, sinking into her newly fluffed pillows. “Now stop being impertinent and fetch me a cuppa.”
Beaming, Amy leans down just long enough to press a swift kiss to the top of her head. “It’s good to have you back, boss.”
River swats her away, smiling as she watches her maid skip from the room and dart for the stairs shouting to wake all of Belgravia that Her Majesty is finally awake and long may she reign. As she listens to Amy’s footsteps thundering down the stairs, River tucks her blankets under her chin and stares thoughtfully out her bedroom window.
When she’d woken to Amy watching over her, she’d assumed the sound of John’s voice and the touch of his hand had been simply a part of her fevered dreams. That she’d needed comfort in the midst of her hallucinations and her mind had conjured his soothing words and the constancy of his hand in hers. If Amy is to be believed, she hadn’t imagined any of it.
She bites her lip, wondering what to make of John Smith. He veers wildly from one extreme to the next, insisting one of the terms of their marriage is that it remains strictly business then growing petulant and jealous when she finds company elsewhere. He worries about their public image, kissing her and skating with her to keep up appearances, and then entirely in the privacy of their home he holds vigil at her bedside like he wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.
“Contrary bastard,” she mutters, turning on her side.
John appears in the doorway, a dry smile curling his lips. “You called?”
Despite doubting Amy’s words and her own dreams, River can no longer deny the truth of both the moment she sets her eyes on John. He looks exhausted, his face pale and dark circles under his eyes. His hair is still damp from bathing and as he moves closer, she sees that he must have tried to shave himself instead of asking Rory to do it. He’d missed a spot along his jawline and she can spot the evidence of several days stubble there.
“Something like that,” she says, smiling. “Hello stranger.”
John ducks his head, sinking into the chair beside her bed without even feeling for it – like he’s become so familiar with her room in the last few days he knows exactly where to find it. “It’s good to hear your voice again.”
River stares at him, startled.
He looks surprised at his own admission, scowling suddenly and rubbing the back of his neck. She watches as he scrambles to change the subject. “Heard you were awake-”
“I think the whole street heard,” she says, rolling her eyes.
He snorts, relaxing somewhat when she doesn’t mention his little confession. “How’re you feeling?”
“Rubbish,” she says, inexplicably delighted by his chuckle. “It’s a good job you can’t see me, darling. I must look frightful.”
“I doubt that,” he murmurs, shifting in his chair. He looks grumpy again and she’s wondering if he hadn’t meant to say that out loud either when he drags a hand over his face and slumps forward. “I’m sorry.”
She frowns. “Whatever for? Dragging me out of the Thames before I drowned?”
John shuts his eyes, his hand still over his mouth. He says through his fingers, “For being the reason you fell in to begin with.”
“Someone pushed you,” she says, shaking her head. “It was an accident, John.”
“Of course it was,” he snaps. “But my balance might have been better if I’d been carrying my walking stick. I should have at least been standing on the other side of you-”
“Why, so you could have been dunked in the Thames instead?”
River blinks at him, studying his slumped shoulders and miserable expression. “Self-flagellation doesn’t suit you, sweetie. It makes your eyebrows positively theatrical.”
He huffs. “River, I’m trying to apologize-”
“Yes, and I’m trying to tell you to shut up.” She glares, huddling under her blankets as a sudden chill grips her body. So, not totally recovered then. She grits her teeth and pushes on. “You’re not to blame and that’s the end of it. Don’t make me cross when I’m ill.”
He grunts but she’s gratified to see his mouth twitch into a reluctant smile. “Fine.”
“Good.” She wraps her arms around her middle, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth. “I was informed you’ve been my bedside nurse for a few days.”
To her amusement, John responds to the accusation by blushing. Even the tips of his ears turn red. He clears his throat, apparently trying to look suitably grumpy. “Yes, well,” he says, licking his lips. “I just wanted to be sure you were all right and I didn’t trust any of these ninnies to do it properly.”
She wants to ask if he’d done it only because he blamed himself or if there had perhaps been another reason he hadn’t left her side but she’s far too afraid of the answer to that. So she only looks away and mumbles, “Thank you.”
John won’t look at her, his hand resting on the edge of her mattress as if out of habit, as though he’s still waiting for her to reach for him when she needs him. “You’re welcome.”
They sit in silence for a moment, both of them avoiding the other. River can hear Amy’s footsteps on the stairs, no doubt bringing her tea and soup. She forces a smile, glancing at John. “I do hope you haven’t spent all this time wallowing in your guilt.”
“Not the whole time, no.” John lifts his head suddenly, his eyes crinkling at the corners and a smirk curling his mouth. “Sometimes I thought about what I’d do with all your money if you kicked the bucket.”
River stifles a snort of laughter, hiding her smile behind her blankets. “Shut up, John.”
On his fifth visit in the last four days, Dr. Lethbridge still refuses to declare her fit to leave her bed. Though normally something as inconsequential as doctor’s orders wouldn’t come close to stopping River, John Smith and her household staff make for formidable opponents when they band together. Between her husband, Amy, Rory, and Clara taking turns hovering over her in case she decides to do something for herself she’s starting to feel more than a little smothered.
Bored, cranky, and verging on homicidal, River sits beneath a pile of blankets on her bed and contemplates sneaking out. She hasn’t had to sneak out of anywhere since her younger days, slinking away from under the watchful eyes of her minders after Kovarian had gone to bed.
Somehow, she has a feeling John will be even more difficult to evade than her guards had been. She’d ordered him to stop sleeping in the chair by her bed but she has a sneaking suspicion that instead of returning to his room, he’s taken to sleeping in the corridor instead. She’s almost positive she heard Rory trip over him in the dark last night. If that’s the case, she’ll never get past him. John may be blind but his other senses are finely tuned and she refuses to climb out the window like a rebellious child.
And so she’s stuck – a prisoner in her own home.
At the moment, her most dedicated warden has taken up his usual post beside her bed. He’d claimed he only wanted to keep her company but so far, he hasn’t said much of anything. Blue eyes shut and gray hair impossibly rumpled, he sits with a frown on his face and his fingers tapping idly against his knee.
River knows him well enough by now to recognize when he has something on his mind but he’s yet to come out with it. She refrains from asking, too irritated by his excessive hovering. What a pair they make, stewing in stubborn silence and refusing to be the first to speak.
Only a sharp knock at her bedroom door interrupts the tense quiet. Amy pokes her head into the room, grimacing. “Lady Tasha Lem is here to see you,” she says, sticking out her tongue. “Want me to show her in?”
River groans quietly, scrambling to push the blankets away. She lurches for Susan’s card on the bedside table and stuffs it carefully beneath her pillow. “Distract her for five minutes, would you?”
Amy gives her a thumbs up and ducks back out again, shutting the door behind her. John frowns, tilting his head as he listens to River clamber out of bed and pad across the floor. “River?” He asks. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be on bed rest.”
“And I’ll resume my bed rest just as soon as that woman gets the hell out of my house,” she grumbles, reaching hastily for her silk dressing gown. She ties it at the waist and leans close to her vanity mirror, inspecting her sallow reflection with annoyance. “I can’t let her see me like that. Tasha can sniff out weakness like a wolf on a scent.”
John scoffs, his eyes following her around the room like he’s tracking her by the soft sound of her footsteps. “She can’t be that bad,” he insists, leaning back in his chair. “She came to see you while you’re ill.”
“She came to see me ill, darling.” River sighs, pinching some color into her cheeks. “There’s a difference.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” he says, scowling. “Now get back into bed before I carry you there myself.”
She smirks, glancing at him over her shoulder. “You’ve picked a hell of a time to finally show some interest in consummating this marriage. I’m afraid now isn’t the time.” He coughs, mumbling some protest, and River pats his shoulder as she passes him. “Keep it in your trousers for now, sweetie.”
“That is not what I meant and you know it.” He huffs, scrubbing a hand over his reddened cheek. “You’re still weak and I swear if you faint, I’ll make sure Lethbridge doesn’t give you a clean bill of health for at least a month.”
“John, I can’t let her see me -”
“Fine,” he snaps, impatiently. His blue eyes flare with such feeling that she stops in her tracks, staring at him. “But at least sit down, for god’s sake. I won’t sit at your bedside holding your hand and hoping again. I won’t do it.”
His nostrils flare and his hands grip the arms of his chair, like he’s willing to jump up and fight if she continues to refuse him. “All right,” she agrees, softening. “I’ll sit, John.”
He breathes out, the tension bleeding out of him along with his exhale, and River watches as his fingers slowly unclench around his chair’s armrests. “Thank you.”
“I’m only agreeing because you’re unbearable when you pout,” she says, struggling to lighten the mood.
John glowers. “I don’t pout.”
“Of course not, darling.” She climbs into bed and sits just as she’d promised, arranging her dressing gown around her and fluffing her hair. “Two minutes.”
He slouches in his chair, as if determined not to make a good impression despite her own efforts. “Who is this woman, anyway? Not a friend, apparently.”
“Not even a little.”
River sighs, allowing herself to lean back into her pillows just a bit. She’d never admit it to anyone – especially not John – but all that running about just now might have tired her more than she’d thought it would. Perhaps Dr. Lethbridge had been a little right when he’d said she still needed rest.
“Tasha is old money. Very old. And her husband owned most of Canterbury before he died. Now it’s hers and she runs the city with an iron fist. Dreadful woman. And she detests me because my money is new and not inherited and I flaunt it because I can. Because I don’t have to answer to anyone.”
“Then why is she here?”
John looks genuinely puzzled and she knows it must be baffling to someone who isn’t used to the social hierarchies of London society. “We run in the same circles,” she says, skipping over the complicated rules involved. She tends to break them anyway. “It’s considered polite.”
“Polite,” he grumbles, expression pinched. “Sod polite. Why can’t people just say what they mean?”
“Because no one would like anyone else.”
“I’d still -” He begins, and she knows by now that he always knows where she is at any given time whether he can see her or not. Which must mean he’s deliberately not looking at her as he fumbles for words. “I mean, we would – wouldn’t we?”
She lifts an eyebrow. “Was that supposed to be translatable?”
He sniffs, frowning at the floor. “Never mind.”
Smiling, River waits a beat before she answers. “We would.” John still doesn’t lift his head but she catches a glimpse of one of those rare smiles and looks away, satisfied. Before anything else can be said between them, the door opens and Tasha walks in. She unclasps her cloak and drapes it carelessly over a chaise lounge in the corner.
“River, darling,” she says, dark eyes assessing her. Seeing River sitting up in bed, a flush in her cheeks and her hair pinned neatly away from her face, she wilts a little – as though she’d been hoping for something more dire to report to her friends at tea. She recovers admirably, reaching up a hand to touch her undo as she slinks closer to the bed. “So good to see you awake. Word around town was they weren’t sure you were going to make it.”
“Yes, well, as you can see rumors of my impending demise were greatly exaggerated.” River forces a smile. “Thanks to Dr. Lethbridge and my dear husband taking such good care of me, that is.”
At the mention of John, Tasha finally bestows a glance on him – sitting in the chair beside the bed with his head tilted, as though listening to every word. “Ah, so you’re the lucky fellow River scooped up from the streets. How very rags to riches.”
“I’m a success story for the ages,” John replies, his voice dry.
River conceals a smirk in the sleeve of her dressing gown.
Oblivious to his irritation, Tasha abandons River entirely to take a step closer to John. Her eyes are trained on him, sizing him up and taking excessive mental notes if River knows her at all. “I’ve heard so much about you. Particularly what a dashing picture you made carrying this one -” She gestures flippantly toward River. “Through the streets after her little fall into the Thames.” She holds out a hand for him to take. “Lady Tasha Lem.”
John, oblivious to her hand right in front of his face, only blinks at her. “Never heard of you.”
River presses her other hand over her mouth, attempting to stifle a giggle.
Frowning, Tasha drops her hand. “Well, you clean up nicely. In fact, if I didn’t know better I wouldn’t even be able to tell where you’re from.”
Tasha stiffens. “The streets, of course. You look as though you were born for a suit like this one.” She reaches out a hand and straightens his lapel, her touch lingering for a moment too long.
The urge to laugh fading, River straightens from her insolent slouch against her pillows. It really isn’t all that surprising to see Tasha flirt with John – she flirts nearly as much as River does. She’s never actually seen anyone rebuff her advances before, however. John does at once, slapping her hand away from his coat with a scowl.
“You’ll forgive me for not returning the compliment,” he says, and the tone of his voice conveys just how little he cares if she forgives him or not. “But I’ve no idea what you look like. Could be half cow for all I know.”
Tasha stares at John as though she can’t decide if she’s more insulted or intrigued. River bites her lip hard, eyes stinging from the effort of holding in her laughter. “John is blind,” she manages to choke out. “He had an accident just before we met.”
“Really?” Tasha steps closer and bends at the waist, staring into John’s eyes with scrutiny. Sensing her nearness, John stiffens and leans away from her. River curls her hands into her blankets, reminding herself that John is certainly capable of telling her to bugger off and she’ll never hear the end of it if she drags Tasha away by her terrible hair. “I’d have never guessed.” She laughs softly, finally straightening and turning to face River. “No wonder you managed to drag him down the aisle. He’s literally blind to your faults.”
River rolls her eyes but over Tasha’s shoulder, she sees John’s jaw clench.
“I wouldn’t say that.” He waits a beat, sightless blue eyes boring into Tasha’s back. “I may not be able to see River but that’s only made her more beautiful. I don’t know the shape of her face but I know the kindness in her voice and the generosity of her heart. I don’t know how fetching she looks when she wakes in the morning but I know the touch of her hand better than you probably know the color of your lover’s eyes.”
The vehemence of his words and the sheer ferocious protectiveness in them steals River’s breath. She has no idea how he manages to always sound so bloody genuine when convincing people that their marriage is real but she’s never been more grateful for it because she gets the distinct pleasure of watching Tasha’s face fall.
“Well,” she says, glancing away. “Isn’t that sweet?”
“He’s such a romantic,” River sighs, unable to resist rubbing it in a bit. “Bless.”
Tasha sniffs. “And all this time I thought I didn’t receive an invitation to the big day because you were embarrassed about marrying so beneath you.”
“Not at all, dear,” River demurs, hearing John’s teeth practically grinding together. “We wanted to keep the ceremony intimate. You understand, I’m sure.”
“Of course, but you must know how disappointed we all were.”
Tasha shrugs. “Everyone who wanted to see the notoriously independent River Song sign her life away. Again.”
River bares her teeth, a feral approximation of a smile. “You know how I love an audience but John is terribly possessive. Wanted me all to himself, the smitten creature.”
“How charming.” Marching toward her abandoned cloak, Tasha picks it up and clasps it around her neck again. “I really must be going. I only dropped by to see how you were recovering.” She reaches into the pocket of her cloak and pulls out an envelope, tossing it onto the bed. “And to give you an invitation to the party I’m throwing in a fortnight. I do hope you’re well enough to attend and bring your delightful new husband.”
Still smiling through her teeth, River says, “We wouldn’t miss it.”
With a nod, Tasha turns on her heel and sweeps from the room. The door clicks shut behind her. The moment she’s gone, John lets out a sigh and says, “You know, this is the first time I’ve been grateful to be blind.”
River glances at him. “Oh? Why?”
“Because she sounds terribly ugly.”
She laughs brightly, shedding her dressing gown to climb back under the warmth of her blankets in her nightgown. “Thank you, by the way. For putting on such a good show for her.”
His brow furrows. “Show?”
She hums, curling into her pillow and closing her eyes. “You know, all that nonsense you fed her about being more beautiful because you can’t see me. That was awfully quick of you.”
John grunts in reply. “It was nothing.”
He grows quiet after that and River cracks open one eye to find him comfortably immersed in the same brooding silence he’d been entangled in before Tasha’s arrival. Considerably heartened by sending her old rival away with her tail between her legs, John’s stubborn refusal to talk doesn’t grate at her like it had only a few minutes ago. “Not that you don’t make a lovely Heathcliff when you set your mind to it, husband, but are you ever going to share what’s going on in that head of yours?”
His frown deepens and he opens his mouth, no doubt to protest.
“Don’t you dare lie to me.”
He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m thinking about you.”
She stares, rendered speechless by the raw honesty in his voice. Swallowing, she clears her throat and manages a light-hearted, “As you should be.”
John ignores her, squeezing his eyes shut. “You kept talking in your sleep.” He swallows. “When you were...ill.”
She freezes in place but only for a moment, forcing her breathing to remain steady. John’s hearing is so sharp these days he’ll certainly hear any irregularity. “Oh? Did I say something scandalous?”
“You kept saying a name.”
He falters, clearly fighting back a blush. “No, stop it. You said-” He sighs through his nose, apparently gathering his nerve. “You kept saying Kovarian.”
River doesn’t move and despite her best efforts she stops breathing too. She can feel the blood draining from her face. Her fingers tremble around her tight grip on her blankets. Her throat closes up and she nearly chokes, only aware of a faint roaring in her ears. It’s been years since she’s heard that name spoken aloud. She’d thought that by now it surely wouldn’t affect her so. What a foolish optimist she’d been.
Undeterred by her silence, John surges ahead. His voice is soft and gentle, like just speaking about that woman will somehow injure River. She wishes she could snap at him that she certainly doesn’t need him tiptoeing around her but the words won’t come and she can’t deny that she feels unbearably fragile at the moment, like she might shatter apart at the slightest noise. “You said another name too – your ex-husband’s – but I knew he was awful so I wasn’t surprised to hear you fighting him in your sleep.” His hands clench around his armrests. “Infuriated, but not surprised.”
Still, River says nothing. Her tongue feels weighed down with lead.
“But Kovarian… I didn’t expect to hear that name from you. The stories I’ve heard – the horrible things she’s done… I couldn’t understand why you’d know that name.”
He lifts his head, shifting to the very edge of his seat so that his knees touch the side of her mattress and his hands rest just inches from her own. His eyes find hers and knowing that he can’t actually see her doesn’t make it any easier to meet his gaze.
“And then I remembered the other stories – about a very special, brilliant girl who escaped. For weeks afterward, I heard of nothing else on the streets but that amazing girl who ran away and changed her name. Kovarian searched for months but that girl had disappeared into thin air. I’d never met her but… I remember feeling so terribly proud.”
River blinks hard, hot tears spilling over.
John smiles softly when he hears her shuddering breath. “Ever since, I still think of her from time to time. I’ve always hoped that she’s still safe and happy. And far away from that awful woman.”
Sniffling, River breathes out shakily and lifts a hand to scrub at her damp cheek. She swallows hard, struggling to find the strength to speak. It’s a long moment before she manages and even then, it’s only two words. “She is.”
It seems to be enough for John. He lets out a quiet, relieved sigh and droops forward. His forehead rests snugly against her thigh and River hesitantly drops her hand, resting it lightly against the back of his head as he breathes, “I’m very glad to hear that.”
Chapter 8: keep you in love with me for a while
Much to River’s annoyance, she’s perfectly well and given a clean bill of health via Dr. Lethbridge by the time the date of Tasha’s party arrives. As happy as she is to be allowed out and about again by her overprotective household, she’d been secretly hoping to have an excuse to skip Lady Lem’s annual holiday party.
In which there is a party, some jealousy, and River helps John to see her.
Chapter title from Dark Side of the Gym by The National.
Much to River’s annoyance, she’s perfectly well and given a clean bill of health via Dr. Lethbridge by the time the date of Tasha's party arrives. As happy as she is to be allowed out and about again by her overprotective household, she’d been secretly hoping to have an excuse to skip Lady Lem’s annual holiday party.
She finds the whole thing tedious anyway but the thought of debuting her relatively new marriage to her high society cohorts as well is simply too exhausting to contemplate. Without a believable reason for skipping out, however, she has no choice but to grin and bear it. It might even be fun, she tries to tell herself, showing off her husband and watching him speak to them all with his usual disdain.
“Might as well get it over with,” Amy says, in the middle of tightening River’s corset. “You know, like ripping off a plaster.”
Gripping her bedpost and trying to suck in, River can’t even find the breath for a properly derisive snort. Grimacing, she waits for Amy to finish tying her corset before she bothers trying to speak. “Going to a party thrown by Tasha Lem is the equivalent of repeatedly stabbing one’s self in the eye with a dull spoon. There’s nothing quick and painless about it.”
Amy shakes her head, moving to fetch River’s gown from the wardrobe. “Maybe before but you’re bringing John with you now. You told me what he said to Tasha when she visited. Don’t tell me you’re not looking forward to watching him take them all down a peg.”
Fighting back a smile, River steps into her dress. “He is rather bad, isn’t he?”
“Reminds me of someone,” Amy mutters, stepping behind her. She starts doing up the tiny buttons at the back of the dress, her fingers moving quickly in practiced movements. “Match made in ruddy heaven, the pair of you.”
“Or hell,” she adds, forcing a smile. “Either way, he was a lucky find.” She turns to study herself in the full-length mirror against the wall, avoiding Amy’s knowing gaze over her shoulder. She’d chosen a deep burgundy gown for the party, a smooth satin material that John will no doubt approve of – one with a black lace overlay on the bodice and full, swishing skirts. She’d even painted her lips red to match.
Amy finishes the last button and bends to fluff her skirts, whistling. “Everyone is either going to hate you or want to snog you. Or both.”
“My favorite combination.”
River pats her arm in thanks, moving to her vanity, and Amy follows behind her. “What about your hair?”
Leaning into the mirror to inspect her lipstick, River shoos away her maid’s hand fiddling with her curls. “Leave it down.”
Amy raises an eyebrow. “Oh, feeling scandalous tonight, are we?” When River merely shrugs and fluffs her hair, she sighs. “At least try to remember you’ve a husband you’re supposed to be madly in love with, yeah?”
“How could I forget?” River turns from the mirror with a pasted on smile, smoothing a hand down the bodice of her dress. “How is him indoors, by the way? I think he’s even less excited about tonight than I am.”
“Actually, Rory’s already helped him get ready.” Amy smirks, folding her arms across her chest. “He’s downstairs right now. Looking delectable. Waiting for you.”
River offers her an exasperated glance. “Honestly dear, your subtleties know no bounds.”
Amy beams at her.
John is indeed waiting for her the moment she reaches the bottom of the stairs, standing beside the banister dressed in a finely tailored suit. His cravat matches the deep burgundy of her dress and Rory had done his best to tame the wildness of his gray hair. River is pleased to note that he hadn’t really succeeded – she rather likes the way it makes him look like a mad professor. His hand finds hers instantly. “You look lovely,” he murmurs.
She laughs. “It’s sweet of you to try but you can’t even see me, darling.”
He winks at her, his grin wide. “I don’t need to see you to know that, wife.”
Rolling her eyes and swallowing a smile, River takes his arm and leads him toward the door. “Come on then, smooth talker. Let’s get this over with.”
Tasha Lem’s townhouse in the middle of Mayfair is already overflowing with guests. Carriages line the street on both sides and even standing on the pavement, it’s easy to hear the band playing a lively tune and the boisterous voices of all those inside. The house itself is lit up from within, shadows cast against the walls by the gas lamps and glittering chandeliers.
Inside the opulent house, the chaos only grows. Brimming over with London’s high society, it’s loud and crowded and far too hot. Everything smells of champagne, heavy perfume, and cigar smoke. It’s enough to make River wrinkle her nose and she can’t imagine how sensitive John must be to it all. His grip on her arm is tight – almost too tight – and knowing how overloaded his senses must be makes her feel unusually protective.
She passes their coats over to the servant waiting by the door and pries his hand from her arm, lacing their fingers together instead. “Stick close,” she says over the noise. “I’ll fend off the wolves, honey.”
At his nod, she leads him through the crowded house – glowering at anyone who gets too close to him and snarling at those who have the misfortune of actually bumping into him. It only seems to amuse John, who trails behind her with a muttered, “Down girl.”
They pass by a parlour flooded with people, most of them gathered around the pianoforte for a rousing rendition of a lewd drinking song, but most people are congregated in the much bigger main room at the center of the house. There’s a band set up in the corner and waiters walking the perimeter with trays of hors d'oeuvres but most of the space has been reserved for dancing.
Those who aren’t whirling around the floor with a partner linger on the outskirts in little groups, champagne in their hands. It’s with relief that River spots a few of her friends in just such a group and she tugs John toward them while explaining. “Jack is here.” When John grimaces, she laughs. “So are Vastra and Jenny. It’s our best option unless you like dancing.”
“Dancing,” he decides. “Always.”
River pauses halfway to her friends, turning to him with a raised brow. “You dance?”
“I haven’t always been blind, you know,” he says, bristling at the surprise in her voice. “I can dance.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to prove that, husband.”
She leads him toward the dance floor but once they’re among the other dancers, John pulls her instantly into a waltz. He doesn’t miss a step, his hand in hers as he draws her into his chest. Pressed against him and ever conscious of his confident hand at her waist, River follows his lead in a daze. He’s just as competent on the dance floor as he’d been when he kissed her at their wedding and she can’t deny John taking charge does girlish, fluttering things to her insides.
With her eyes fixed on his throat, the rest of the crowded room is a blur as he twirls her around the floor. Even the music is nothing but faint background noise, a buzzing in her ears that pales in comparison to the thud of her heart. Her head is full of the scent of his cologne and the way the heat of his hand seems to bleed through the material of her dress and her corset, all the way through to her bare skin. The dance is nearly halfway through before she finds the courage to lift her eyes from his cravat to study his face.
She’s hardly ever this close to him and given such time to really study him. Though he’s older than her by quite a few years, his features are sharp and handsome. She likes the blue of his eyes and the strength of his firm mouth, even the wrinkles around his eyes that deepen when he grins at her. He isn’t smiling right now, however, far too intent on their dance. The concentration clear in his stern brow makes her smile and she finally breaks the silence between them.
“You’re rather good at this.”
John’s expression softens at the sound of her voice, his mouth curving into that smug smile she’s grown almost fond of. “Told you.”
“Where did you learn?”
Instead of a reply, he releases her waist and twirls her out and away from him. Only his grip on her hand keeps her from stumbling and she laughs out loud as the heavy skirts of her dress flare out around her. With a tug, John spins her back to him and she falls against his chest. He leads her back into their waltz with ease, bending his head to confide against the shell of her ear, “This isn’t my first ball, River Song.”
“Oh?” She curls her hand against his shoulder, almost grateful he can’t see the happy flush of her cheeks or the clear feelings probably shining out of her eyes as she tips her head to look at him. “Did you crash parties as well as pick pockets?”
He shrugs, smirking. “Only because no one ever invited me.”
“Poor darling,” she says, grinning. “Now that you’ve married me, you’ll be on every list in the city.”
“Lucky me,” he says dryly. As the music slows, so do his movements and before long they’re both standing in the middle of the dance floor holding each other and swaying lightly in the quiet between songs. “Is Jack still over there?”
“No, I believe he’s found some company for the evening.” Over John’s shoulder, she watches in amusement as Jack leads a very pretty young man away from the crowds by the hand. “But he’s hardly going to molest you in the middle of the party, darling.”
“On the contrary,” John grumbles. “I think he’d relish exactly that.”
River strokes a teasing fingertip down his arm. “To be fair to Jack, who wouldn’t?”
“River?” They both freeze, the smiles slipping from their faces. River turns, eyeing Tasha with barely disguised disinterest. “So good of you to come. I was hoping to see you and your new man.” Tasha beams at them, moving in closer. “In fact, would you mind if I borrowed him for a dance?”
As Tasha steps between them without waiting for a reply, River smiles through her teeth and says, “Only one. I’m afraid I’m far too enamored to part with him for long.”
John glares at her over Tasha’s shoulder but says nothing, reluctantly leading her into the next dance as the music begins again. To River’s satisfaction, he doesn’t look nearly so content as he had dancing with her. She turns away, hoping to find Vastra and Jenny in the crowd, but a strong hand on her arm stops her in her tracks.
She clenches her jaw, reining in the urge to break the wrist of whoever had grabbed her, and turns back. Ramone stands before her, a hopeful smile on his handsome face. “Hello,” he says, his dark eyes roaming briefly along her form. “I’m glad to see you here. I’ve been trying to contact you for weeks.”
Slipping her arm from his grip, River says, “I’ve been busy.”
Over his shoulder, Tasha is adjusting John’s cravat. River curls her hand into a fist, forcing her gaze away. In front of her, Ramone holds out a hand and asks, “Would you dance with me?”
Her first instinct is to deny him but she knows it would merely be prolonging the inevitable. Before that night a few weeks ago, Ramone had followed her about like a neglected puppy hoping for a scrap of affection and finally giving in to his clear desire for her has only made things worse. If there’s one thing River isn’t looking for in a lover, it’s a supplicant.
“All right,” she says, managing a smile as she slips her hand into his.
Young face lighting up, Ramone pulls her into him and she notices with a pang that she doesn’t fit against him quite so comfortably as she had against John. Everything with John seems to be so natural – the fit of his hand in hers, his fingers curled around her waist, even the uncanny way he seems to be able to find her no matter where she is in the room. As if he feels her presence against his skin like sunlight.
River swallows, pushing aside such thoughts as Ramone dips his head. His lips brush her cheek as he asks, “When can I see you again?”
She sighs, shaking her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
The light in his eyes dims and his hand tightens around hers. “Why? River, I’ve seen your husband. I can’t pretend to understand why you married him but it surely wasn’t because he satisfies you – he must be twenty years your senior.”
“Ah,” she says, pasting on a wicked grin. “But with age comes experience. I can assure you, Ramone, I find my husband very satisfactory indeed.”
He frowns. “Then why did you seek me out that night?”
Because she’d been lonely. Because she’d still been reeling from a kiss long over. Because nothing had been more terrifying than the future she’d imagined then – trapped in another loveless marriage. She isn’t lonely anymore and though she still hasn’t forgotten that kiss, she’s managed to put it behind her and stop tasting John every time she licks her lips. He may not love her the way a husband usually loves his wife but she no longer fears being trapped in this marriage. In so many ways, she feels freer now than she ever has.
She can’t say any of that to Ramone, who still looks at her with hope, like she’s going to change her mind and fall into his arms. She slips from his grasp instead, pushing him gently away. “That night was a mistake,” she says, meeting his gaze steadily so he can see the truth of it in her eyes. “I can assure you it won’t happen again.”
“Send another telegram to my home and I’ll make sure you regret it.”
Though the dance has not yet ended, she slips from his grasp and makes her way from the dance floor, leaving a flummoxed Ramone behind. She scans the room for John, keeping an eye out for his fluffy hair. She spots Tasha at once, standing out from the crowd with her usual severe undo and garish makeup but John isn’t at her side any longer.
“I think he went in search of a bit of quiet.”
River starts, whirling when a gentle hand brushes her shoulder. “Vastra,” she breathes, smiling. “I assume you mean my wayward husband.”
Vastra smiles, her eyes shining with some unnamed secret. “Well you certainly haven’t been looking at anyone else tonight.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean by that.” River glances away, in no mood for Vastra and her exasperating riddles. “If you’ll excuse me, I really must find him before he wanders into the master bedroom.”
Pursing her lips, Vastra nods and murmurs, “Consider yourself excused.”
With a huff, River turns on her heel and marches out of the room. Honestly, she adores Vastra but at times that all-knowing gleam in her eyes is a bit unnerving. She slips into the corridor but to her irritation, it’s just as crowded as the ballroom. She pushes through the sea of people, using an unladylike elbow jab and stomping on a few feet when she needs to. After an endless few minutes, she finds herself at the foot of the staircase leading up to the second floor.
Knowing that if John felt the need for a bit of peace in all this madness, he’d almost certainly head for the upper floors if he could find them, River gathers her skirts in hand and makes her way up the stairs. As she’d suspected, the cacophony of the party fades away the more she climbs. By the time she’s standing in the middle of a second floor corridor, the music and voices that had been so piercing downstairs are barely more than a muffled nuisance.
She finds John in the first door she comes across, a small library she knows Tasha never uses. One only has to spot the light layer of dust on the book bindings to realize the room is really more of a symbol of wealth. John sits in a stuffed leather armchair, slouched into the cushions in a way sure to rumple his suit. His fingers drum idly against the armrest and his scowl is something to behold.
River leans against the doorway. “I’ll forgive you for not knowing the rule for parties like these but in future, please remember that if you’re going to escape you don’t leave your wife behind.”
He grunts in reply, not even flinching at the sound of her voice. As if he’d known she was there. “I was going to find you after I fled Tasha’s clutches but she mentioned you were dancing with someone.” He works his jaw in silence for a moment and River stares at him, something uneasy knotting in her stomach. “She was only too happy to tell me all about the rumors she’d heard of the two of you.”
“He’s the one, isn’t he?” John lifts his head, his eyes piercing. “The one you fucked that night you sneaked out of the house.”
River stiffens. “And if he is? Weren’t you the one who said it was none of your business what I did?”
He breathes in sharply, gritting his teeth. “And you were the one who said we had to make this look real. How is anyone supposed to believe we’re in love when you’re letting that dandy sweep you around the floor?”
“And that’s the only reason you’re angry, is it?” She asks, pushing off the doorframe. John tilts his head, listening to her footsteps against the gleaming hardwood floor. “Because I’ve torn a hole in our cover story?”
His nostrils flare but he doesn’t answer right away, staring hard at the floor by her feet. After a moment, he only says, “You shouldn’t have danced with him.”
It’s not an admission but it isn’t a denial either. And it’s still far more than she’d expected out of him. The raw honesty of his reaction startles her and she feels all of her righteous fury begin to bleed away. “I didn’t realize it would bother you so much.”
“Well it does,” he snaps. “You just bloody left me with that awful woman. I distinctly remember you saying you’d keep the wolves away, not sodding throw me to one of them. Were you waiting for the opportunity to slip away and see your little side piece?”
Oh, he’s infuriating. Just when she can feel her heart softening toward him, he always manages to say something completely idiotic and rile her temper all over again. “You’re blind, John, not mute. I assumed if you objected to dancing with Tasha you’d bloody say so.” She slams the library door shut, silencing what little activity from the party downstairs still filtering up from the staircase. “And for your information I wasn’t looking for Ramone. He found me and asked me to dance.”
John crosses his arms over his chest. “And you couldn’t say no?”
“Why should I have?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he snarls. “Maybe so the entire room wouldn’t see you dancing with your lover with your blind, oblivious husband in the room.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, is that all you’re worried about? What other people think?” She rolls her eyes, turning away from him. “They’re all drunk, John. They won’t even remember it in the morning.”
“No.” He jumps to his feet, swaying for a moment before he finds his balance. River stares at him, oddly entranced by his flushed cheeks and furious eyes. His fury shouldn’t attract her to him, considering her last marriage, but even with John at his angriest she feels no fear. And not because he’s blind but because she knows that he’d keep the promise he made the night before their wedding. He wasn’t Hydroflax and he never would be. “I don’t care what those pudding brains sodding well think.”
“Then what?” She bursts out, exasperated. “What are you so angry about?”
"Just tell me,” he snaps, fists curled at his sides. “Why did you dance with him, River?”
“Because, you idiot,” she growls out. “I needed to tell him that I wasn’t going to see him anymore. And the moment I had, I went to find you – apparently so I could stand here and be bloody berated for daring to dance with him while I ended it.”
John blinks at her, all the fight leaving him between one breath and the next. “Y-you ended it?”
River nods stiffly, forcing herself to speak when she remembers he can’t see her. “I did.”
“Oh.” His brow furrows and he sinks slowly onto the edge of the leather chair again. “Why?”
She huffs out a soft laugh, shaking her head. “Because I wanted to, all right?”
“Oh,” he says again. He frowns, eyes darting aimlessly around the room. Back straight and stiff, he shifts uneasily and clears his throat. “Well…why didn’t you bloody say so earlier?”
Her temper flares again and she glowers. “You hardly gave me the chance, did you?”
“I -” He scowls, sinking back into his chair in a slouch. “No, I suppose not.”
Sighing, River abandons her battle post beside the door and makes her way to his side. The man is impossible but he certainly isn’t boring. He can have her furious and ready to slap him one moment and wanting to wrap her arms around him the next, only to send her right back to livid again in seconds. She’s dizzy just from the last few minutes.
John doesn’t move as she approaches, doesn’t even blink until she’s standing beside him and resting a tentative hand on his shoulder. “You married me out of kindness, John,” she says softly. “I’m… rather terrible at marriage but I’d prefer if you didn’t regret it.”
His mouth curves, tugging up into a reluctant, tired smile. “Never.”
She smiles back, lifting her hand from his shoulder to brush his cheek. “Come on, darling. I’ve had enough of this place.”
He stares up at her hopefully, a graying curl falling over his forehead. “Home?”
“Home,” she agrees.
Despite their tentative truce, John is still unusually quiet as their carriage trundles back toward Belgravia under lamp-lit streets. He keeps his body turned away from her, staring out at the passing shop windows and houses like he can actually see them. Considering he’d been the one who pitched a fit over practically nothing, River waits for him to break the silence between them but he never does.
By the time the carriage slows to a stop outside the house, she’s fuming all over again. Without waiting for Rory to climb down from the bench, she opens the door and jumps down, marching toward the house. Behind her, she hears John stumbling after her with much less grace but she doesn’t wait for him to catch up. All she wants is a glass of brandy and her bed. Maybe in the morning she’ll wake up with a less bewildering husband.
As she opens the front door and starts for the stairs without a word, John trails after her with a bemused, “What’s the matter with you?”
She whirls incredulously, nearly nose to nose with him in the middle of the staircase. He wobbles, startled by her sudden nearness. “You can’t be serious.”
“Hardly ever. Why?”
She grinds her teeth together. “How dare you ask what’s wrong with me. You’re the one who hasn’t spoken a word since we left the party. I can’t believe you’re still pouting about one dance.”
She turns on her heel and starts up the stairs again, listening to John stomp after her. “First of all,” he says, cursing under his breath when he nearly trips. “I don’t pout. And I’m definitely not pouting about a measly dance.”
Stalking down the corridor, River reaches up a hand to undo the clasp on her cloak, shrugging out of it. “Then what the hell is your problem, John? I apologized even though I hardly needed to, isn’t that enough?”
“Fucking hell, River. I’m not angry about you.” As she walks into her bedroom, John follows right behind her. “I’m angry about me. And about him.”
She pauses halfway to her wardrobe. “Him?”
“Ramone,” he spits out. “I spent nearly an entire dance listening to Tasha talk about how handsome he is, how young, how smitten everyone is with him and I sodding well hate him, all right?”
River frowns. “What did he ever do to you?”
He snorts bitterly. “Besides shag my wife?”
With a sigh, River turns away and shoves her cloak into her wardrobe. “John-”
“Yes, I know.” He scrubs a hand over his face, sinking onto the chaise lounge. “It’s not a real marriage. I still hate him. And…” He sighs, gritting his teeth. “Envy him.”
“Envy him?” She shuts her wardrobe and turns, watching John shift away from her. “Why?”
“Because.” He swallows, shutting his eyes. “He can look at you any time he pleases. He knows how you look when you’re angry, when you’re happy. And he’s sodding well in love with you so even when you’re not right in front of him, he can probably conjure your perfect image. Look at it any time he misses you. And I…”
She stares at him, her heart in her throat. He’s jealous. She’s teased him about it before but she never actually believed it to be true. Now he’s all but admitting it. The grumpy, thieving Granddad who had once insisted they could never truly be husband and wife, is jealous. And she can’t think of any reason he could possibly envy an old lover unless… he wants her. He wants her the way she’d wanted him the first time he’d kissed her.
Though he always knows where she is, John avoids her gaze by keeping his eyes shut – as though he can’t bear to remind himself that he can’t see her. That he may never be able to. River watches him, this man who married her simply because she asked him to, and clenches her trembling hands in her skirts. She steps forward.
“You want to know what I look like?” He doesn’t answer though she can tell he’s listening, his body turning toward her as she moves across the room. She settles on the edge of her bed, biting her lip. “Come here and I’ll show you.”
He freezes for a moment, eyes opening in surprise. Then he looks away, scowling. “Stop it, River. It isn’t nice to tease an old blind man.”
“I’m not teasing,” she promises softly. “Come here.”
She rather loves that he finds his way to her bed without stumbling once, knowing that he’s so familiar with the room because he refused to leave her side while she was sick. Why hadn’t she seen it then? At the time, she’d blamed his constant vigil on his guilt but now she knows. He’d stayed because he cared.
John’s outstretched hand finds the edge of her bed and River reaches out, wrapping a hand around his wrist. He starts at her touch but doesn’t pull away, settling tentatively onto the mattress beside her. Instead of letting go of his hand, she brings it to her face. Instinctively, his palm cups her cheek. She nuzzles into the touch, listening to his breath catch. “River, what are you doing?”
“Helping you to see me,” she whispers. “Go on. Have a look.”
After a moment, his face softens in understanding. Eyes bright, he sweeps a thumb across her cheekbone and the hesitant caress fills her with more desire than all of Ramone’s eager kisses. “You’re warm,” he says, a tremble in his voice, and she hums. “Soft.”
When he hesitates, she touches his wrist encouragingly. “Keep going, darling.”
He swallows audibly, his fingertips sliding over her face. She wants to shut her eyes and bask in his attentions but nothing could possibly convince her to tear her gaze away from his face as he tries to see her by touch alone. He traces her brow and down the bridge of her nose, his lips quirking when he brushes over the bump there she’s always hated. Now, she doesn’t understand how she could hate anything that makes him smile like that.
His thumb outlines the shape of her lips and River stills entirely, barely breathing. Wanting so badly she aches with it. John licks his own lips and drops his hand from her face, shifting uneasily. She presses her lips together, disappointed but still tingling.
“Do you mind?” He asks, hovering over her hair instead. When she whispers her permission, he touches it lightly. His blue eyes flare with intrigue when he finds voluminous curls and his touch turns exploratory, grabbing a handful of her hair with an appreciative murmur of surprise. “Bloody hell. Has it been like this the whole time?”
River bites back a laugh, wary of piercing the hushed quiet between them. “Yes, honey.”
“Extraordinary,” he says, wrapping a corkscrew curl round his finger. “You’ve got a lion’s mane. What color is it?”
He sighs and the sound is almost happy. “I always thought so.”
She raises an eyebrow. “You’ve been thinking about my hair?”
“Not nearly as much as I’m going to now that I know it’s this interesting,” he mumbles, brow creased with reluctance as he finally lets go of it. She swallows a plea for him to keep going, to bury his hands in her hair and never let go. “Now hush, I’m trying to see you.”
His hand brushes her throat next and any teasing reply she might have had dries up before it reaches her mouth. She doesn’t move, her eyes fluttering shut against her will as John traces a curious fingertip along her collarbone. He stops just over her heart, his palm pressed to her skin, and she knows he can feel how hard it’s pounding – thumping skittishly at his touch.
“You’re afraid,” he observes, his voice hushed.
When his hand falls away, River feels the loss keenly. She opens her eyes, watching John clench his hands in his lap. It melts her, seeing him so determined not to touch her ever again if he thinks it frightens her. He’s perfect for her, this man who understands even the things she’s never told him.
“It’s not fear, darling,” she promises, reaching for him. His hand trembles in hers as she places it back over her heart. “And you haven’t finished.”
His brow furrows as she guides his hand, slowly sliding it away from her heart to cup the swell of her breast. He breathes in sharply, eyes widening. “River-”
For a long, agonizing moment, John doesn’t move. Doesn’t speak. His chest heaves just the same as hers, both of them wanting so badly. His cheeks are pink and his eyes are a dark, dark blue as he wrestles with himself. And then he squares his jaw, gathering his resolve. He brushes her guiding hand away gently, cupping her firmly in his palm – and squeezes. Caught off guard, River moans softly.
John’s eyes widen at the sound but it only seems to embolden him. As if in search of the noise again, his thumb sweeps out, finding her nipple through the bodice of her dress. She bites her lip, arching into him with a whimpered plea. “Don’t stop.”
His uncertainty disappears after that and River is delighted to find that he takes charge in this just as he does in kissing and dancing. He maps her with reverent hands – the dip of her waist and the swell of her hips, the delicate bones of her ankles. His touch is like fire, scorching her skin and branding her everywhere he strokes those confident fingers. By the time his hands slip beneath her heavy skirts, his touch has turned frantic and searching, shaking with desire.
She’s trembling too, burning up inside and out as her husband grows ever closer to exactly where she wants him. His fingers slide over her calves and tickle her knees. When his calloused hands stroke the tops of her thighs, her breath catches on a strangled whimper. His devilish grin at the sound is a sight to behold.
He pauses again, and she wishes not for the first time that he could see what he’s done to her – skirts bunched around her hips, her chest heaving, and hunger in her eyes. Even without his sight, he still looks at her like he can see her perfectly. His fingertips tease at her inner thigh as he whispers, “You feel just as beautiful as I imagined.”
River shifts her thighs apart impatiently, falling back onto the mattress and tugging him with her. “You still aren’t finished,” she breathes. “If you really want to see me properly, there are a few places left you haven’t touched.”
His eyes crinkle with mirth. “Well we can’t have that, can we? Lie back, wife, and let me have a closer look.”
His hand smoothes up her thigh and his breath stutters. He glances up, lips parted, and oh she likes him speechless. “You’re not wearing any underthings.” When she laughs, he cups her between her thighs and suddenly it isn’t quite so funny. “You bad girl, were you expecting something to happen tonight?” His expression flickers. “Please tell me this isn’t for Ramone.”
“Jealous idiot.” She nudges her hips against his hand, breath leaving her in a rush when he slips a finger between her folds and finds her dripping. Just as she’d known she would be. Just as she’d been since the moment he first touched her. At his low growl of approval, she whimpers softly. “It’s for you.”
“Better be,” he says, just before he ducks his head between her exposed thighs.
River cries out, gripping the sheets in her hands as his tongue licks experimentally at her folds. He grows surer of himself with every stroke, every time she cries out in strangled pleas for more. He licks at her like it’s his purpose, like his lack of sight has only made him more sensitive to the slippery brine of her under his questing tongue. He groans as she grinds against his face, her hand tight in his hair.
Over her skirts bunched around her hips, she can just make out the blue of his eyes. The heat of his gaze is nearly a match for the heat between her legs, stoked higher and higher with every thrust of his clever tongue inside her. Before long, she’s digging her heels into the mattress and writhing against him, bucking into every movement of his hot mouth.
“John,” she whimpers, feeling him drag his mouth over her sex and shift his attention to her swollen clit. He adds just a hint of teeth and she nearly screams, her thighs starting to quiver. “John, please…”
He brings his hand between her legs, sliding a long, slender finger through her wetness and sinking it deep into her core. River keens, releasing her grip on his hair to bunch the sheets in her fist. John smiles around her clit, matching every nip of his teeth and stroke of his tongue against the aching nub with the motion of his finger inside her.
She can feel sweat collecting beneath her corset and beading on her forehead. Her thighs won’t stop shaking and her chest heaves with such vigor she wonders if she might pass out. But as John works tirelessly between her thighs, the only thing she cares about is chasing the building heat in her abdomen.
Rolling her hips against his face, River stifles a moan and fights to catch her breath. “Oh god, John -” He doesn’t let her finish, his clever mouth closing mercilessly around her clit as he slips a second finger inside her, spreading her deliciously open. And then he curls his fingers up, rubbing them relentlessly against the spot that makes her see stars.
River shatters with a scream, her eyes fluttering shut as her world blinks out of existence, washed over in white. She’s floating somewhere weightless and soundless, only the ringing in her ears to ground her. When the world snaps back into focus, her throat is sore and her thighs are sticky but there’s a ball of light in her chest that glows bright and unending. She’s still shaking as John lifts his head, licking his lips with a satisfied hum. Staring at him in a daze, River doesn’t move as he shifts to lie beside her. Chest heaving, she blinks sluggishly.
John’s hand finds the side of her face, stroking her cheek. “River? All right?”
She doesn’t bother trying to speak, nodding wordlessly.
“Have I found a way to silence my audacious wife?” He asks, a prideful smirk curling his lips. “I do hope it isn’t permanent. I think I’d miss your voice.”
She laughs shakily, covering his hand with her own. Neither of them mentions the way they’re both trembling. “You’re not that good, old man,” she assures him, leaning forward to press a lingering, open-mouthed kiss to his jaw. John shudders beneath her. “Now let’s get your kit off.”
With his help, she wrestles him out of his jacket and waistcoat, unbuttoning his shirt and tossing it away. Everything else quickly follows in a flurry of abandoned clothes until she hovers over him on her bed, still in her rumpled gown as she mouths at his bare chest. He’s narrow and slender but still strong and agile – a body she knows is fully capable of carrying her, heavy skirts and all, blindly through narrow London streets.
“What are you thinking?” He asks, reaching for her face. “Regretting your old husband yet?”
River tilts her cheek into his touch. “Actually,” she says, her lips brushing his palm, “I’m thinking of all the filthy ways I want to ravish you but if you’d rather I didn’t-”
“Shut it, wife,” he whispers tenderly, and she sees the relief in his eyes. Sees the self-conscious fretting give way to the desire still sitting heavy in his belly. He sifts a hand through her curls, tipping his face to hers. Before their mouths meet, his other hand falls to her waist and he frowns. “You’re still dressed.”
“No flies on the blind man,” she teases, placing another kiss just over his heart before she slips from his arms. John keeps his eyes on her as she shimmies out of her dress and struggles to free herself from her corset, as though by listening to every item hit the floor he’ll be able to picture her standing before him.
“Talk to me,” he requests, licking his lips. “Please.”
As she lifts her chemise over her head and stands bare before him, she tells him, “The only thing I’m wearing right now is my wedding ring.”
He groans, reaching for her. River doesn’t let him search long, stepping obligingly into his arms and laughing when he pulls her back onto the bed with him. He buries his face in her neck, his calloused hands wandering over her bare skin. “I’d give anything to see you,” he confesses, his voice choked.
River shakes her head, taking his face in her hands. “You think you can’t see me now but you’re wrong, darling.” She swallows, bumping her nose lovingly against his. “You’re the only one who can.”
“River,” he breathes. “I – Oh, sod it-” He curls a hand around the back of her neck and crashes his mouth against hers, kissing her for the first time since their wedding.
All this time, she’d thought perhaps she’d been remembering that kiss through rose-colored glasses. Surely his mouth hadn’t been that warm or fit so perfectly against hers. He couldn’t possibly have kissed her with such passion and longing, like he’d been waiting to since long before they’d even met. But somehow, it’s even better than she’d remembered it because now she truly knows the man holding her in his arms.
She knows his heart and his soul; knows how he takes his tea and that he hates pears; that he’s jealous and prone to brooding and dances like an expert; that he’d sooner cut off a hand than be unkind to her. She clings to his shoulders, pressing herself flush against him, and kisses him back eagerly, tasting herself and just a hint of champagne from the party still on his tongue.
When he finally breaks away, breathing hard, he presses his forehead to hers. “What I said to Tasha that day – about knowing you… It wasn’t nonsense. I meant it, every bloody word -”
“I know,” she says, pressing her fingertips to his lips with a smile. “Of course I know, you idiot.”
“Of course.” He grins, kissing her again quickly, fervently. “My clever wife.”
“Yours,” she promises, and presses him into the bed.
John reaches for her the moment his head hits the pillow and she straddles his waist; her knees already weak and he isn’t even inside her yet. She watches his face as she takes him in hand, curling her fingers around the girth of him and squeezing. He swears colorfully, his eyes fluttering shut.
This is all he has left, she realizes with a pang. Only this is real and immediate in his world – the feel of his wife’s hands on him, the cool sheets under them and the warmth of the fire in the grate. There’s something to be said for being the sole focus of a blind man’s attention. She pumps her hand over him and watches his lips part in a gasp, wondering why she waited so long to give in to this. How she could ever have imagined he didn’t feel what’s so clear in his eyes now.
Shifting her hips, River sinks down slowly over him, her eyes trained on his dear face as she takes him into the warm, wet heat of her body. He’s gorgeous like this – flushed and trembling, his mouth parted in a silent gasp and his eyes bright with desire. She bites her lip, stretching deliciously around him, letting him fill up the lonely, empty places within.
John doesn’t look as if he’s even breathing, his fingertips digging painfully into her skin until she’s flush against him. She kisses the side of his neck and John finally releases her hip to bury his fingers in her hair, keeping her close. River brushes her lips lightly over his collarbone, letting her breasts brush teasingly against his chest.
He breathes in sharply, his free hand settling against the small of her back. “River-” She circles her hips slowly and he chokes out a soft, pleased groan. “Fuck, sweetheart…yes.”
His hand finds her breast, his thumb circling her nipple as he squeezes roughly. She moans, rising up over him only to sink down again. She squeezes her muscles around him just to watch him twitch beneath her. He hisses through his teeth, his hand slipping down and splaying over her stomach. Down, down, finding the curls between her legs and slipping between her folds. He touches her clit and she jerks, whimpering.
“John,” she sighs, shuddering when he rubs his thumb against her tender sex. “Please, my love…”
“Yes, that’s it,” he whispers, his voice strangled with desire. “I can’t see your face, River. Let me hear you.”
She cards a hand through his wild hair, curling her fingers around it and gripping tight. He growls as she grinds down against him, his fingers circling her clit again and again and oh god. He matches her thrusts with his own, the head of his length nudging beautifully against that spot deep inside that makes her quiver all over.
She moans, long and deep, rocking her hips and clenching around him. Her vision swims, fading at the edges as John presses his fingers hard against her clit. His other hand strokes up her thigh and over her backside, keeping her near. “There you are,” he murmurs, his eyes dark as she rides him. His hips rock against hers, driving himself deeper inside her as she sinks to meet him again and again. “That’s my girl. My River. My wife.”
He keeps whispering to her, a litany of praise and filth in that low, rough voice. Pleasure soars through her veins, swelling in her abdomen and along the length of her spine in molten hot spikes. River throws her head back, curls spilling over her shoulders, and feels her whole body quake.
John gathers her close against him, his hands on her hips to lift her once more. She bounces hard over him, a scream bubbling up in her throat. Fingers slicking frantically over her clit, John sinks his teeth into her shoulder and the pleasure building and sparking beneath her skin finally ignites.
Shuddering all over, River cries out his name as she comes – squeezing desperately around his length as John whispers lewd encouragement against her ear. “Fuck River, yes -” He bites back a groan, low and guttural, and her rhythm falters as he tenses beneath her. “River.”
He clenches his jaw, eyes fluttering closed as he ducks his head and buries his face in her neck. Gripping her to him and trembling, he growls into her hair. River cradles him against her chest, slowing her movements against him as she feels him stiffen beneath her with one final shuddering gasp.
They collapse onto the mattress together, clinging to each other as they catch their breath. River curls up on his chest, her heart pounding and a smile curling her mouth. John smoothes his hand up and down her sweat-slicked back, humming a soft tune into her matted curls.
“Speechless again?” He asks softly, and she shivers at the hoarse tone of his voice. “I think I’ve found a new hobby.”
“A hobby?” She asks, chuckling. “Is that what you’re calling your husbandly duties?”
His lips brush her forehead. “Ah, you’re right. As Mr. Song, I’ve got responsibilities, haven’t I?”
River shuts her eyes, listening to his heartbeat beneath her ear. “You’ve been quite negligent.”
“So I have,” he whispers, yawning. “It won’t happen again, dear.”
Smiling drowsily, River presses a kiss to his chest. “Promise, husband?”
The last thing she hears before they both fall asleep tangled in her bed sheets is John’s soft reply. “I do.”
Chapter 9: our hearts are free
Huddled beneath her cloak and leaning into his side on just such a night, River watches her husband tip his face into the wind and shut his eyes. She wonders, as she always does when she catches him in moments like these, what it must be like to be constantly in the dark. “Do you think your sight will ever return?”
In which there is a nighttime confession, some stolen bread, and a revelation.
Chapter title from Real Love Baby by Father John Misty.
Before she married John, River hardly ever ventured into the back garden of her home but lately, she finds herself spending more and more time sitting beneath a tree in the yard or having a picnic on a blanket in the grass. Robbed of his sight but still ever curious, John likes to sit on the back steps on quiet afternoons and calm nights just to take in the air.
Huddled beneath her cloak and leaning into his side on just such a night, River watches her husband tip his face into the wind and shut his eyes. She wonders, as she always does when she catches him in moments like these, what it must be like to be constantly in the dark. “Do you think your sight will ever return?”
He doesn’t open his eyes, continuing to let the wind ruffle his soft gray curls. “Could do,” he answers, and the contentedness in his voice warms her from the inside out. “I’ve started to see shadows, you know. It’s blurry and faint – like looking through frosted glass – but it’s… something.”
She hums her agreement, fiddling with his cravat.
“It might be as good as it gets,” he ventures cautiously, finally turning his face away from the wind. He buries his cold nose in her hair, sighing. “And if it never fully returns -”
“Then I will be your eyes,” she whispers, stopping the rest of his words with a soft kiss to his jaw.
John stills at once, all but melting into her. At the feel of his growing smile against her temple, River tightens her grip on his cravat and curls further into his side. “And my heart,” he finishes, his voice quiet.
Since the night of Tasha Lem’s party nearly two weeks ago, things have changed quite a bit in the Song-Smith household. To the surprise of no one but them, they’ve fallen into something resembling a real, happy marriage as easily and naturally as breathing. John hasn’t been back to his room since that night, sleeping in her bed so regularly that she finds it difficult not to think of it as their bed. In fact, they’ve scarcely parted at all since then, preferring instead to be constantly in the company of each other.
To her secret delight, she enjoys being around John even when they aren’t bickering. Not that she isn’t still cross with him on a daily basis but she rather likes that besotted smile he can’t hide in the middle of a row or the way he kisses her fingers during breakfast. She finds herself always on his arm these days, acting as his right hand and guide for the invisible world around him. It’s a role she never thought she’d relish but she lives for the way his face loses half its age when he sees the world again through her eyes.
Keeping her tucked snugly against his side, John ducks his head and presses a teasing kiss to the shell of her ear. “And how are the stars tonight, my dear?”
“Bright, my love.” She brushes a curl from his eyes, glancing skyward. “Not a cloud in sight for miles. In fact, I can see Ursa Major.”
“My favorite,” he replies, nudging his nose into her hair. “What about Cassiopeia?”
She frowns, scanning the night sky. “I’m afraid I don’t know that one. Describe it to me.”
“Oh, you must know about Queen Cassiopeia.” He sniffs her hair, clearly distracted. “Terribly vain creature. If you see any stars in the shape of a W, that’s her. Doomed to spend forever upside down on her throne with her skirts round her ears, poor lass.”
River smiles, turning to face him. Their noses brush and she lingers a moment longer than necessary, her face close to his as she breathes him in. “I found it.” Gently, she takes his chin in her hand and guides his face toward the sky. “Just there. You’re looking at it right now, darling.”
He huffs a pleased little noise, his mouth curling up fondly. “Who needs eyesight when I have you, River Song?” For a moment, his eyes dim and he shifts his face away from her. “I only hope you won’t grow tired of looking after your old husband.”
“Don’t be silly.” She reaches for his hand, squeezing lightly. “You’re hardly a burden, sweetie.” At his grunt of disbelief, she sighs and bites her lip. “I’ve never had anyone who needed me before. Someone who wanted me near all the time. I’ve never really had anyone at all.”
John turns toward her slightly, head tilted, and she knows he’s listening.
“It’s not a burden to look after someone I’ve come to… care for.” She swallows, refusing to think about what she really meant to say. It's too soon for that sort of sentiment. Far too soon. “It’s a privilege, John.”
He sighs quietly, angling his body entirely toward her once more. As he gazes down at her, she marvels that such sightless eyes can hold such adoration. “You’re wrong about one thing, my dear.”
“I am never wrong but I’ll indulge you.” She smiles, straightening his loosened cravat. “What about, husband?”
John leans forward, his nose brushing hers once more. “The privilege is entirely mine, wife.”
At that, River closes the scant distance between them and presses her lips to his. Though John’s cheek is cold against hers and his fingers even more so when he slides a hand eagerly into her hair, his kiss is warm and heated enough to curl her toes. His teeth sink into her bottom lip and she whimpers before she can stifle the noise, burrowing into her husband when he presses an insistent hand to the small of her back.
Parting breathlessly from him, River hides her face in the crook of his neck and reins in the urge to climb into his lap right here in the garden. Rory had caught them the last time she’d done that and though she isn’t usually one to bow to a thing like shame, she has no wish to repeat that particular humiliation. “Come along, darling.” She kisses his throat and reluctantly slips from his arms. “Let’s retire to the library and I’ll read more Dickens to you.”
Normally, he loves retreating to the settee in front of the fire, his head in her lap while she reads aloud from one of his favorites but tonight he hesitates, his fingers circling her wrist to stop her from getting up. “Actually,” he says, licking his lips. “I was hoping for a different sort of story tonight.”
She frowns, gently prying his hand from her wrist and patting his fingers reassuringly. “What is it?”
He swallows, shifting from her gaze like he doesn’t even want her eyes on him. “If you can bear it, I’d like to hear about your childhood…and your first marriage.”
River stills, feeling her heart jump and lodge itself in her throat. A muscle in her cheek twitches and she clenches her jaw. John strokes his thumb over her knuckles tenderly and she remembers to breathe, drawing in a sharp breath. With a toss of her hair, she forces a smile. “Not in the mood for a happy tale tonight then?”
He grimaces. “You don’t have to-”
“Why would you even want to hear about that, John?”
“Because it’s you,” he blurts. It’s a confession he clearly hadn’t meant to make, at least not so bluntly, judging by the look of panic that passes over his sharp features the moment the words tumble out of his mouth. After a moment, he sighs and appears to resign himself to being labeled a bit of a sap. “It’s you, River, and I want to know…everything. Even the bad things.”
She’s quiet for a long moment, breathing in and breathing out in hopes of calming her frantic heart. John waits patiently beside her, never loosening his grip on her hand. She closes her eyes and she’s back there – in that dark, dreary place. She’s small again, huddled and afraid in her tiny cot in some overcrowded, cold room; wanting nothing more than warmth and kindness and people who love her.
She shakes her head, blinking open her eyes. She’s not there any longer. She’s a very rich woman sitting in her very lovely back garden on a very fine winter’s evening with her very attentive husband. That little girl is no more and that awful place is nothing but a bad memory now.
Working her jaw in silence, River squares her shoulders and directs her gaze toward the stars. “I grew up in a children's home,” she finally begins. “But it wasn’t really a children's home. That was just what Kovarian told people who asked too many questions – about why she had so many children who weren’t her own, why we always looked so ragged and thin and bruised. To anyone who asked, we were street urchins she’d brought in from the cold out of the kindness of her heart.”
Her voice drips with contempt and John squeezes her hand, anchoring her firmly in the present before she can get lost in the past again. River breathes in once more, steeling herself. “It was really more like a workhouse. She made us do things. Most of it I can barely remember but what I do remember I’m not proud of. No one – let alone a child – should ever have had to…” She trails off, shaking her head. “We were her little soldiers, doing her bidding and getting away with the most heinous things because we were children. Because no one would ever suspect someone so small and innocent. I won’t go into detail. Not even for you, my love.”
“It’s all right,” he whispers. “You don’t have to say any more.”
River scans the night sky, finding Cassiopeia again and keeping her eyes trained on the unfortunate Queen. “I was fourteen when I escaped. She looked for me but by then I’d already learned everything she could teach me – especially how to stay hidden. She never found me and I ran.” She traces the shape of the constellation with her eyes. “I ran until I met Lord Hydroflax. He had wealth and power in spades, things I wanted but didn’t have. Things I thought would make everything better. So I seduced him.”
“How old were you?”
She feels John’s eyes on her, feels the laser focus of his attention burning through the side of her face, but she doesn’t look at him. “Fifteen.”
He swears through clenched teeth. “Bastard.”
She drops her gaze to the stone steps beneath her feet, wondering if he’d prefer to end her sad little tale. “John?”
“Keep going,” he says, and his voice shakes with an anger she’s never heard from him before. When she hesitates, he squeezes her hand and softens. “I’m listening, River.”
She sighs, thinking back on her first marriage and struggling not to get lost in the memories in the process. She’d still been such a young girl then and so hungry to make something of herself, to fully and forever escape Kovarian that she’d jumped from the frying pan and into the fire. “Hydroflax had a reputation for being a bit of a brute but I didn’t realize until we were married that I’d run from one abuser only to tie myself to another. To say he was ill-tempered and violent would be an understatement. Anything and nothing could set him off and I was young and angry and far too stubborn.”
They’d been a match and gasoline; doomed from the start.
John is quiet for long moment and when River risks a quick glance at his face, it’s clear that he’s agonizing over something. After a few seconds of clenching and unclenching his hands, he begins, “I’ve heard things about him. I lived on the streets, I heard things about everyone-”
“He put his hands on you, didn’t you?” John hunches over with his elbows on his knees. “He hurt you.”
“Sometimes,” she admits, as evasive as she can be. Knowing the truth of just how frequent Hydroflax’s fits of temper could be will offer John no peace of mind. “But sometimes I hurt him too.”
“Tell me,” he demands, as though he needs the image of it in his mind in order to breathe again. “Please.”
River bites her lip in thought, searches her memory of those days for something that will ease his mind and possibly make him laugh. Something that will distract him from the horrors of her past. “Once, he came home stinking drunk and accused me of shagging his maid. I denied it, of course.”
John lifts an eyebrow, reluctantly amused. “Were you though?”
“Of course I was.”
He snorts and she’s relieved to see some of the tension bleed from his frame. “What happened?”
“He didn’t believe me – something about finding her bracelet in our sheets – and tried to force me into bed.” She shrugs, regretting it when John tenses all over again. “Some sordid way of claiming me, I suppose.”
“What did you do?”
“Hit him over the head with a lamp on our bedside table.” She smiles fondly at the memory. “Knocked him out cold.”
Beside her, John doesn’t smile. “And when he woke up?”
Her grin slips and she forcibly pushes away that particular memory. “Well, that’s another story.”
John shuts his eyes, expression pained.
Leaning into him, River rests her head on his shoulder in an effort to remind him – perhaps as well as herself – that those days are long over now. “I lasted almost two years in that house before I made off with the silver and started over again, determined not to ever submit to anyone’s will but my own ever again.”
He lifts a hand to her cheek, his eyes still troubled, and murmurs, “You’re brilliant.”
She nuzzles into his touch, pressing a kiss to his palm. “I shouldn’t have told you.”
“I asked you to,” he reminds her, still with that crease between his brows. “And I’m glad you did. I only wish – I wish we’d…”
“I know, my love.” She places her hand over his on her cheek, letting him feel her smile. “But we’re here now.”
He kisses her temple.
She draws in a breath. “Why don’t you ever visit your granddaughter?”
He stills against her. “It’s better if I stay away.”
Reminded very recently of her own misfortunes as an orphan, River shakes her head and asks, “For her or for you?”
“I haven’t just abandoned her there, you know. I send Bill and Nardole and Missy to check on her and they always tell me if she needs anything.” He softens, his expression growing achingly fond as he looks at her. “The last time they visited, they told me she was wearing new clothes. That some wealthy socialite had dragged a seamstress to the orphanage and had clothes made for all of them.”
She hums, looking away. “Well that’s…fortuitous.”
He snorts. “River, I know it was you.” His lips brush her temple again. “Thank you.”
She shrugs, avoiding his tender gaze. “I’m sure she’d give away those new shoes in an instant if she could see her grandfather instead.”
John sighs and the sound is tortured enough to make her chest ache with regret. “I don’t want her to see me like this, all right? It’ll only frighten her.”
“All right,” she whispers. Around them, the icy wind picks up again. He shudders, grumbling under his breath about the cold, and River lets the subject drop for now. “Come on, there’s still time to read Dickens in front of the fire.”
“No,” he says, bringing her fingertips to his mouth. His eyes darken as he brushes his lips over her palm. “There’s something else I’d rather do in front of the fire with you tonight.”
She laughs out loud, her heart light all over again as he smirks at her. “What a dirty old man you are, John Smith.”
“You are part of my existence, part of myself.” He quotes Pip with ease, as though he’s read the tale a hundred times. His eyes find her face, lingering on her cheek like he can see the flush of pink there. “You have been in every line I have ever read.”
“All right, I was mistaken. You’re not a dirty old man – you’re a romantic sod.” Still beaming, she stands and pulls him with her, swaying into the warmth of him as they turn and climb the steps back into the house. “Hurry up, darling, and I’ll let you be a part of me in all sorts of ways.”
With a grin, John tugs her into the house and up the stairs with the eager confidence of a man who knows his way home by heart – even in the dark.
The days when John’s street friends pop by for a visit are always a delightfully bizarre adventure. They invade the house on Belgravia like a miniature storm, disrupting the day with noise that rattles the windows and enough force to leave a few of River’s valuables broken.
Despite Amy’s impatience with the mess they leave behind and Clara’s complaints of her barren kitchen once they’re gone, River would welcome them every day just to hear John’s laughter when he’s with them. As much as she prides herself on being able to get him to smile and blush, watching that scowl soften whenever she presses her lips to his cheek, it’s another experience entirely to watch him with his friends.
With Bill, she gets to see what he’s probably like as a grandfather – patient and kind and never raising his voice. He treats Nardole a bit like a manservant, insulting him and relying on him in turn, and River might have chided him for it if Nardole didn’t respond by calling him Sir. She’s still trying to understand his relationship with Missy, as the two tend to veer wildly from bickering like mortal enemies to giggling over some inside joke like the dearest of mates. When his friends are around, River gets to see so many different facets of the man she’d married.
Today, however, it’s like he’s not even listening to them.
From the other end of the dining table, River steals another glance at her husband, frowning. Bill, Missy, and Nardole had invited themselves over for brunch this afternoon but instead of his usual happiness at seeing them all, John has been unusually quiet. His mind is obviously not on his rambunctious friends as he glances around the dining room with an inscrutable expression on his face, blinking rapidly.
Knowing something isn’t quite right but unwilling to mention it in front of everyone, River does her best to ignore it, pushing aside her concerns to be addressed when she gets him alone. For now, she struggles to listen to Bill and Nardole bickering over the last bread roll.
“I reached for it first-”
“Yeah but I was thinking about it-”
“Thinking about it doesn’t count, you marshmallow.” Bill tugs the plate from the middle of table, toward herself. “Besides, ladies first and all that.”
“I’ll let a lady go first when I see one,” Nardole grumbles, reaching out a pudgy hand to swipe the roll from the plate. Bill smacks his fingers away and he yelps, scowling.
Missy leans forward, quick as a cat, and snatches the roll from them both. She tears off a chunk with her teeth and sinks languidly back into her chair, sighing.
Bill and Nardole gape at her. “Oi!”
“What?” She blinks at them, still chewing. “I was helping.”
River laughs, looking to John to scold them for terrible table manners but he’s staring at his plate and frowning. She struggles not to let her smile drop, turning back to his friends. “Honestly, you two – it’s hardly the last batch on earth. Clara can make more, you know.”
“Clara did make more, you ungrateful lot.”
They all turn, watching with relief as Clara sails into the room carrying another heaping plate of warm bread. River smothers another laugh at the looks on their faces, as though Christmas morning has come early. As Clara settles the plate in the middle of the table, Bill and Nardole pounce on it immediately but Missy only leans back in her chair and dangles her stolen bread between her fingers.
“You know,” she says, her gaze smoldering as she peeks at Clara through her lashes. “I’m suddenly in the mood for dessert.”
Clara rolls her eyes, whirling away from the table. “Sorry,” she calls over her shoulder. “Kitchen’s closed.”
Missy pouts after her but River doesn’t miss the determined gleam in her eyes. She smiles, wondering if her poor cook realizes she’s about to be wooed by the notorious Mad Missy. She’s contemplating teasing her about it when she catches a glimpse of John at the other end of the table, staring at Missy like she has two heads.
“John, darling,” she says, unable to stand it any longer. “You’ve barely touched your eggs. Are you feeling all right, my love?”
He blinks at the sound of her voice, his gaze snapping from Missy to her and instantly softening. River feels her chest flood with warmth at the way he looks at her, even more besotted than usual. “I’m fine, my dear,” he says, and she watches his gaze flicker briefly when Amy walks into the room, as if she’d distracted him. He smiles. “It just isn’t food I’m hungry for.”
Missy chokes on a mouthful of bread.
At his side, Bill grins. “Darling, love, dear. Are you sure this is still just a business deal?”
Clearing away empty plates from the table, Amy chimes in with a snort. “Was it ever just a business deal?”
“Oh shut up,” River says, smiling.
John pats Bill’s hand, his eyes still on River. “Apologies, dear girl, but a man can’t be expected to ignore how charming his wife looks in red.”
Around the table, everyone freezes in place. Nardole with a bite of bread half-chewed in his mouth; Bill and Missy staring slack-jawed at their friend; and Amy mid-reach for an empty glass. River grips the table edge, her heart in her throat as John looks at her and only her. She notices for the first time the sparkle in his gaze, the brand new awareness to everything around him and especially her.
“John?” She asks, hearing the way her voice trembles. “Can you – can you see me?”
The edge of his mouth curls into a lopsided smile. He nods once.
River breathes in sharply. “How long?”
“Since the first course,” he confides. “It’s been fuzzy for days now but suddenly I looked up from my soup and there you were. My brilliant wife.”
She stands quickly, her chair scraping against the floor. No one else moves, still frozen in place, but she barely notices their stares as she moves around the table and crouches right in front of John. A mere breath from his face, she looks up into his eyes and when he looks back, she just knows. He’s truly seeing her.
“Hello.” John grins, wide enough to crinkle his eyes. “I definitely married up.”
“Told you,” Bill mutters, beaming at him.
River laughs, barely containing the urge to climb onto his lap and snog him silly right there at the table. John reaches out a hand, as if to touch her face, and she tips forward to let him. He stops suddenly, hesitating with his hand halfway to her cheek. His brow furrows and his hand curls into a fist, dropping back to his side.
She stares at him, puzzled, as he avoids her gaze. “John?”
He smiles but she knows his face by now – knows it as fondly as a favorite book or an old dress – and it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Perhaps we should have some wine, dear. To celebrate.”
Her own grin fading, she nods and rises slowly to her feet again. “Of course. I’ll go and fetch it.”
John still doesn’t look at her so she turns away, heading for the supply of wine she knows Clara keeps stashed in the kitchen. She pauses only once, in the doorway, to glance over her shoulder at John. He’s already laughing, tossing a chunk of bread at Nardole and insisting the sight of his bald head was the one thing he certainly hadn’t missed.
Heart sinking like a stone, River turns and walks away.
Chapter 10: where have you been my darling
In their relatively short marriage, River has grown attached to the nightly ritual she shares with John, retiring to the library in the evenings to read aloud to him in front of the fire. As they’d grown closer, he’d always rested his head in her lap, content to let her play with his hair while she read of the adventures of the orphan Pip and his friends. In the two days since his sight returned, that ritual has been upended entirely.
In which River gets two surprises and only one of them is good.
Chapter title from A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall by Laura Marling.
In their relatively short marriage, River has grown attached to the nightly ritual she shares with John, retiring to the library in the evenings to read aloud to him in front of the fire. As they’d grown closer, he’d always rested his head in her lap, content to let her play with his hair while she read of the adventures of the orphan Pip and his friends. In the two days since his sight returned, that ritual has been upended entirely.
She sits curled up on one end of the settee with a book of her own, something she’d picked without even looking if only to have something in her hands. John sits on the other end, quietly finishing Great Expectations on his own. She steals the occasional glimpse at him from over the top of her book, bewildered with every second that goes by in silence.
They’re only a few cushions apart but it feels like miles. She hasn’t reached out to him of her own volition since that fateful brunch forty-eight hours ago. Every time she tries, she thinks of the way he’d reached for her and stopped. Too afraid of being rebuffed, she keeps her hands to herself and waits for John to come to her. So far, he’s touched her only a handful of times and always with that second of hesitation first.
On the other side of the settee, John flips the page in his book. River barely conceals a flinch. She just doesn’t understand it. Before he could see, and even before they’d ever kissed outside of their wedding, he’d touched her constantly. His hand at the small of her back or settling on her hip, his fingers stroking up and down her arm or toying with her hair. He’s never shied from her touch either, always happy to hold her hand or allow her to guide him where she wills. And now… nothing.
The snap of a book shutting startles her from her reverie and she glances up to find John watching her with a longing she can’t begin to dissect – as if she feels far away to him too. He looks away quickly, clearing his throat. “I think I’ll go to bed early, if you don’t mind.”
She forces a smile, shaking her head. “Not at all, darling. Old men do need their rest.”
He huffs, a genuine, reluctant smile curling his mouth. “Especially an old man with you for a wife.” He leans in, wavering long enough to tighten her throat before he finally presses a brief, awkward kiss to her cheek. “Goodnight, my -” He swallows, lifting a cautious hand to brush back a curl from her face. “Goodnight.”
She bites her lip, nodding as she watches him retreat hastily from the library and down the corridor. Before, she might have joined him for an early night – perhaps even wearing him out a bit before she let him sleep – but she knows that if she followed him to their room she’d find him rolled away from her side of the bed, as he is every night now. Like he’s afraid of even touching her by accident.
In no mood to be treated like a leper tonight, River doesn’t bother getting up. Her book remains open and neglected on her lap as she stares moodily into the fire, wondering how so much has managed to change in such a short time. She isn’t sure how long she sits there, time slipping away from her, before a noise in the doorway catches her attention.
She raises her head, heart lifting as she wonders if John has come to fetch her. If her face falls when she sees Rory in the doorway, he’s gracious enough not to mention it to her. Instead, he steps fully into the room, his hands in his pockets. “What are you doing up so late?”
She shrugs, gaze sliding evasively back to the fire.
He settles onto the armchair nearest the hearth, warming his hands. “John went to bed without you?”
Nodding, River eyes him cautiously. Despite his quiet, unassuming nature, Rory sees far more than he ever lets on and somehow always knows what’s on her mind – often before she even knows it herself.
“Unusual for him,” he says, still keeping his attention on the fire. “He never goes anywhere without you these days.”
“Yes well, he hardly needs me anymore.” She smiles tightly. “He can see now.”
Rory shakes his head. “It was never about needing you, River.”
She snorts softly. “Clearly, it was.”
He sighs, his shoulders slumping with the force of it. “It’s just a big change. You both need time to adjust.” He finally turns away from the fire, rubbing his newly warmed hands together as he regards her with that kind, knowing gaze. “But you shouldn’t be adjusting separately.”
River stiffens, shoving her curls behind her ears. “Well it’s rather difficult to accomplish anything together when he acts as though I carry the plague now that he can see me.”
Blinking at her, Rory stifles a smile. “Are you actually trying to suggest he’s not interested in you now?”
She shrugs again, picking viciously at a tea stain on the arm of the settee. “What else would make sense?”
“That his whole life changed while he was blind,” Rory says gently. “That he’s struggling to make sense of it all now that he can see again. That he needs you more than ever even if he’s trying to push you away.”
Startled, she lifts her head and meets Rory’s stare through her lashes. “And what would you suggest I do about it?”
“Spend time with him.”
“I told you, he doesn’t -”
Rory arches his brows. “You’re going to drop off your monthly donation to the orphanage tomorrow, aren’t you? Maybe you could invite him to join you.”
River stares at him, an idea Rory hadn’t even intended beginning to take root. Gracechurch is where John had left his granddaughter; the one he’s been refusing to visit out of what she suspects is his own guilt. Every time she remembers John has a granddaughter in an orphanage, she can’t help but feel guilty too – as though he’s made her complicit in the girl’s abandonment.
He’d said the street was no place to raise a child but he doesn’t live on the street any longer. Perhaps it’s time she finally made him face that. Whenever she’d pressed him about it, he’d always say I don’t want her to see me like this. But he isn’t blind any more either and he’s rapidly running out of excuses.
The beginnings of a plan must be evident on her face because Rory smiles, shrugging. “Might be a good start.”
“Yes…” River nods, determination stiffening her spine like steel. Whether he’s ready or not, John is going to visit his granddaughter. “I think so too.”
Mr. Renfrew is a slight little man with wide, dark eyes and a nervous disposition. River has yet to discover if he’s like that all the time or just around her but neither option pleases her. She dislikes cowering, especially in a man who’s supposed to be in charge of a house full of children.
Peering around the doorframe at her and John standing on his doorstep, he greets warily, “Ms. Song, right on time.”
“Oh, you were expecting me. I’ll have to fix that.” River gives him a smile full of teeth and he gulps audibly. “I do hate to be predictable.”
John snorts, muttering under his breath. “Never a day in your life.”
He’s clearly still pouting that she’d dragged him here in the first place so River nudges him with an elbow, never dropping her smile. “This is my husband, John. We’re here to drop off our donation.”
Mr. Renfrew steps away from the door to let them in. Offering him a nod of thanks, River slips past him and into the house. When she’d first made the decision to donate to this particular orphanage years ago, it had been a dark, dilapidated little building with a leaky roof and holes in the floor. Over time and with her patronage, it’s transformed into a bright, warm, and welcoming place for the children. Though she’s pleased with the progress the building has made, its owner has yet to impress her.
River has come to regard Mr. Renfrew with intense suspicion, though she hasn’t been able to determine whether he’s a drunkard or merely addled in the head. Either way, she doesn’t trust him farther than she can throw him. For the time being, however, the children seem perfectly fine under his care but just to be sure, she likes to drop by and personally deliver her monthly donation. As she’d told John in the carriage on the way here, it’s an excellent excuse to make frequent inspections.
She leads John through the house, glancing around with a critical eye at every new addition -– chairs, pictures on the walls, and flowers in vases. Following behind her with his hands clasped behind his back, John peers at everything from a scratch in the paint on one wall to a loose floorboard at the foot of the staircase. River wonders if he’d performed the same inspections the day he brought his granddaughter here and how much less intimidating he must have been with the little girl clinging to his leg.
“One of the tykes could trip on this, you know.” He tuts disapprovingly at the loose board, glancing over his shoulder at Renfrew. “Why hasn’t this been fixed?”
Renfrew stutters. “Well, it only happened last week. I haven’t had time to inquire about repairs. The children keep me so very busy -”
John harrumphs, displeased with such an answer, and stalks away into the parlour. River watches in quiet amusement as Renfrew trails hurriedly after him, wringing his hands. She follows them both, continuing her interrogation as John scrutinizes every inch of the cozy parlour.
“Have you prepared your report on how you utilized last month’s donation? I did instruct you to see about getting the children new beds.” She leans her hip into an overstuffed armchair. Across the room, John pokes at the drapes. “I’d also like to know what your plans are for this month’s donation.”
Renfrew turns from fretting over her husband to stare at her, his eyes wide. “Well, I haven’t, that is I’ve yet to -” He squares his shoulders, apparently trying to be brave. “There were a lot of unexpected repairs to be made last month, Ms. Song. I wasn’t able to purchase the new mattresses for the children like you’d hoped.”
River arches an eyebrow. “I do hope you have the paperwork for all these repairs.”
He nods quickly. “In my office.”
“Well,” she says when he simply stands there. “Go and fetch them.”
As Renfrew hurries to do her bidding, John whirls from his spot in the corner of the room. “Hang on.” He gestures widely to the drinks cart, adequately stocked. “What is this doing here where the children can reach it? Are you drinking on the job, Mr. Renfrew?”
Renfrew’s eyes widen. “Certainly not! Those drinks are for the guests.”
John scowls, fingers tapping an irritated rhythm against a bottle of brandy. “Then why, Mr. Renfrew, isn’t there a lock on this cart?”
“And,” John interrupts, stooping to peer intently at a stash of wine. “This is an awfully expensive label. Far too expensive for the measly salary of a simple caretaker like yourself.” He grips a bottle of the wine in his hand, turning to glare at Renfrew with such ire that River feels her heart flutter. She does so love watching him go all strict. “Are you using my wife’s donations to stock this bar?”
Renfrew fidgets, his beady eyes darting around the room. “No, I – not Ms. Song’s donation but -”
“But someone else’s donation?” John straightens, setting the bottle back on the cart. “Are you actually trying to tell me someone else agreed to let you spend their money on liquor?”
Smiling when Renfrew sputters, River tosses John a fond glance. “Settle down, darling. One thing at a time.” She waves a hand at Renfrew. “I’d like to see that paperwork we talked about. Off you pop.”
Grasping at the opportunity for a brief respite from their interrogation, Renfrew flees for the door at impressive speed. The moment he’s gone, John snarls. “I’ve never liked him. He’s twitchy. I hate twitchy people.”
River frowns after Mr. Renfrew, silently agreeing with her husband but also rather grateful for the man’s negligence. It’s the first time John has spoken to her without any awkward pauses in days. “He’s just old and addled, sweetie. There isn’t much I can do about it at the moment but keep him honest and make sure he’s using my money to look after the children.” She straightens, smoothing a wrinkle from her skirts. “So unless you’ve got a better idea, hush and let me work.”
“I don’t want to be here,” he says, glancing around anxiously, as though his granddaughter will wander out from behind the drapes any moment. “Hurry up and let’s go.”
“We’re not going anywhere until you’ve seen your granddaughter,” she snaps, watching John grit his teeth and glower at a cushion on the settee. “So you might as well get comfortable.”
When Renfrew returns with a paper trail of all his dealings in the last month, River settles into an armchair to look over them all with a fine-toothed comb. John paces behind her, muttering under his breath while she presses Renfrew for more information about each and every transaction. By the time she’s finished, Renfrew has broken out into a sweat and looks seconds away from fainting.
River smiles, satisfied. “You’ll buy the beds this month?”
Renfrew nods hurriedly. “Oh, of course. Absolutely, Ms. Song.”
She pauses, her hand closed around the stack of hundred pound notes in her purse. “Actually, it’s Mrs. Smith now.”
Across the room, John turns to look out the window but not before she glimpses his anxious, foul temper disappear briefly in place of a smile curling his mouth. She stares at him over Renfrew’s shoulder, utterly perplexed by the ridiculous man and his contradictions.
“Right,” Renfrew stutters, holding out an eager hand for the donation. “Smith. Of course. Thank you both for your beneficence.”
River drops the money into his waiting hand. “Now, where are the children?”
The old iron gate creaks when she pushes it open, dragging a reluctant John with her as she steps into the large back garden filled with children running amuck. Some of them are vying for a turn on the swings, a few of them are playing in the dirt, and a brave handful have climbed a tree only to swing from the sturdy branches but every single one of them turns with wide eyes when John shuts the gate behind them.
One of them shouts, “It’s River!”
What follows is chaos.
They leap from swings, trees, and meticulously gathered piles of dirt – surging forward like a miniature swarm with sticky hands. Despite his clear anxiety, John gapes, stepping slightly in front of her like they’re going to attack and he needs to protect her. She laughs softly, touching his arm in reassurance, and it’s only when he starts that she remembers they aren’t as comfortable touching as they used to be.
She drops her hand and turns back to the kids as they reach her, jumping about and tugging at her skirts. She never quite knows how to act around children but none of them ever seem to mind, all clambering for her attention like she’s Father bloody Christmas. Greeting them with a smile, she scans the pint-sized crowd for a head of dark, familiar hair. Not seeing her littlest admirer, she frowns and refuses to contemplate the possibility that someone had finally adopted her.
The children gathered around her all glance to her right and River frowns, following their wide-eyed gazes. The sight that greets her makes her heart climb into her throat. John stands a few feet away, his eyes shut tight as he sways in place, clutching tiny Susan to his chest. The girl clings to him like he’ll disappear, whimpering into the collar of his coat.
“Hush now, my little lass,” he murmurs, patting her back. “Granddad is here.”
River stares, watching him sway with her and croon into her little ear. He’s calm and gentle and within moments Susan is no longer sniffling. She scrubs at her cheeks and curls into John’s chest, hiding her face in his neck. He hums to her, stroking a hand over her dark hair, and meets River’s bewildered gaze over her shoulder.
His granddaughter is Susan – the little girl she had fallen in love with nearly at first sight. The little girl who always bounds up to her with a gleeful squeal whenever River visits. The little girl whose Get Well scribbles have been tucked reverently away into a desk drawer in River’s study. All this time, they’ve loved the same child without even knowing it.
Turning numbly away from the reunion of John and his granddaughter, River focuses her attention on the other children instead. Head spinning, she passes out sweets and pats them awkwardly on the head, listening to their silly, rambling stories until they finally toddle off to play again. John sits nearby with Susan on his lap, the two of them with their heads bent together.
Approaching them slowly enough to catch a few words of their conversation – John is telling her a story involving three chickens, a banana, and an angry shopkeeper – she feels like an intruder when they both look up. She ignores the way her heart twists at the sight of John with a child on his lap, smiling gently at Susan instead. “This is your granddaughter?”
John hums, bright eyes still on the child in his arms. “Susan,” he says, and River tenses at the mischief in his voice. “This is your grandmother, River.”
River coughs, eyes widening. “I am not -” Catching Susan watching her carefully, she drops the furious glare and struggles to smooth her features into something a bit less terrifying. Pasting on a smile and softening her voice, she says through gritted teeth, “That is, we’ve met before, haven’t we Susan?”
The girl nods, still clinging to John’s coat. Staring up at River with wide, dark eyes, she asks, “Did you save me a sweet?”
Setting aside her irritation for when she’s alone with her horrible husband, River leans in close and whispers, “I saved you two sweets.”
Susan beams at her, all rosy cheeks and baby teeth. “Lollipops?”
“Of course, lollipops. Who do you think you’re dealing with?” River produces one with a flourish, smiling when Susan takes it and pops it into her mouth instantly. She leans right out of John’s arms, reaching for her, and River lurches forward to catch her before she falls. “Careful, darling.”
Watching them with a smirk, John mutters, “You’ve got favorites.”
“Hush.” She gives him a stern glance, fighting back a blush. “I have no such thing.”
His grin widens. “My granddaughter is your favorite.”
She glares. “I didn’t know she was your granddaughter.”
Their bickering is interrupted, however, when Susan wraps her little arms around River’s neck, squeezing with all her tiny might. River bites her lip, hesitating. Oh, bugger what John thinks. She cradles the girl to her chest, fitting her chin over her shoulder and wondering why every other child here scares the daylights out of her but this one little girl – John’s granddaughter – melts her world-weary heart.
When she catches John staring at them with a strange, pinched look on his face, he abruptly turns away and rises to his feet. “Excuse me,” he mumbles, avoiding her gaze. “I think I see a free swing.”
For the next hour, River sits with Susan on her lap and watches John play some bizarre game with the rest of the children. They clearly relish having a new, much bigger playmate who isn’t afraid to look a bit silly and now that he isn’t so terrified to see his granddaughter again, John is equally delighted to be around them. He grins when they tug at his coat and laughs when they to clamber onto his back, grumbling playfully when anyone dares to giggle about his eyebrows.
When the time comes to leave, Susan clings to her grandfather like she’ll never see him again, tears in her eyes. He crouches on the ground with her, stroking her hair back from her face with gentle fingers. “I’ll be back soon,” he says, his eyes soft and regretful. “That’s a promise from your granddad, all right?”
Fingers still tight around his sleeve, Susan glances warily between him and River standing at his shoulder. “You’ll bring grandmother?”
At River’s sharp inhale, John grins. “Absolutely.”
By the time they leave the orphanage behind and climb back into the carriage, Susan has managed to extract a promise from them both to visit every week. John smiles the whole drive home. Mentally thanking Rory for the suggestion as her husband goes on about his granddaughter and his ideas for improvements Renfrew can make with next month’s donation, River hides a smile as they turn onto Belgrave Square.
He hops out of the carriage first, offering her a hand down without any of the hesitation he’d shown only the day before. She takes it, stepping out onto the pavement. “Do you think the others will get jealous if we start bringing her gifts every week?”” He leads the way up the steps to the front door, boots stomping on the stone. “Because I think she needs new shoes and dresses and I think she lost her doll-”
As he goes on, ticking off a list of everything his granddaughter might require, River bites back a laugh. “Don’t worry, sweetie. We’ll make sure she has everything she needs.” She can’t resist teasing him, just a bit. “Look at you, from absent granddad to overprotective papa in a few hours.”
“Hush,” he grumbles, eyes soft. “I missed her.”
“I know.” Thinking of wide brown eyes and baby-soft hands clinging to her skirts, River clears her throat and affects a smile. “I always did too, when I left her.”
John glances at her as he opens the front door, smiling. “She adores you.”
Flushing, River pushes past him into the house and slips off her cloak. “You’re exaggerating. I was just the rich lady in the fur cloak who dropped by with sweets every now and again.”
He snorts. “Not anymore. You’re her grandmother now too.”
“I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
She turns, leaving the entry hall and heading straight for the dining room in hopes that Clara had baked a little something for teatime before she’d taken the afternoon off. “You know,” she begins, refusing to turn and look at John. “You could always…bring her here. If you wanted.” She swallows, forging ahead recklessly. “There’s plenty of room and you can’t tell me you’d rather leave her with Renfrew.”
“Well, no but-” John hesitates, following on her heels. “You mean you’d actually want to-” River halts in the doorway, fingers curling white-knuckled around the frame. John bumps into her, his hand settling thoughtlessly on her hip. “River? What -” He follows her wide-eyed gaze to the man sitting at their dining table like he owns it. His grip on her tightens, his teeth grinding together as he growls out, “Hydroflax.”
Chapter 11: i want you and i always will
River had always thought she’d be ready if she ever saw her ex-husband again. She’d imagined outsmarting him before he could ever get near enough to touch her, maybe even scaring him away with a pistol and a few well-placed threats. It’s becoming rapidly apparent to her how incredibly naive she had been; pinning her hopes on childish fantasies of new bravado in the face of an old bully.
In which River faces her past and finally embraces her future.
Chapter title from Oceans by Seafret.
River had always thought she’d be ready if she ever saw her ex-husband again. She’d given him hell when they’d been married but she’d been no match for his brute strength when he decided to wield it. Older now and decades removed from the traumas of her youth, she’d always assumed she’d grown strong enough to stop him. She’d imagined outsmarting him before he could ever get near enough to touch her, maybe even scaring him away with a pistol and a few well-placed threats.
It’s becoming rapidly apparent to her how incredibly naive she had been; pinning her hopes on childish fantasies of new bravado in the face of an old bully. Standing in front of her tormentor now, she can’t even move.
Sitting at her dining table, Hydroflax calmly stirs his tea with a spoon. Knowing that her staff is out for the afternoon, River has horrifying visions of him letting himself into the house and making a cup of tea in her kitchen like he lives here. Like he owns everything she has even now. This house is supposed to be her refuge; the very symbol of her independent wealth. She can barely stomach the knowledge that he’s tainted it now with his presence.
“Get the hell out.”
River starts at the low growl of John’s voice, having forgotten he was there – standing solid at her back. She can’t tear her eyes away from her ex-husband but she can almost picture the deep scowl on John’s face. His hand is still curled around her hip, fingers digging into her skin through her dress, but other than that he doesn’t move. She can’t even hear him breathing.
With a smirk, Hydroflax sets aside his spoon and lifts the delicate china cup to his lips, slurping noisily. He takes his time and with every second, River can practically hear John’s teeth grinding together. Setting the cup down on the saucer with a rattle, Hydroflax looks up with a smile and she feels the hair on the back of her neck stand on end as he says, “Hello, dear wife.”
“Ex-wife.” John moves to stand in front of her like a shield and River blinks at him, staring at the tense line of his shoulders and his balled fists, watching in silence as his jaw clenches. “You’re not welcome here. Piss off.”
Hydroflax moves to stand and River tenses, watching him straighten his dinner jacket. He’s as tall and imposing as she remembers, towering over her and everything else. She’d found that so attractive when they met, another sign of his strength and power. In those days, that was more important than anything else.
“So,” he says, studying John as he pushes in his chair. “You’re the new me.”
“Never.” John glowers at him. “I’m River’s husband.”
With a chuckle, Hydroflax asks, “And what was I then?”
“Not a husband,” John snaps, eyes burning. “You were nothing more than a pathetic excuse for a bully. Just as you are now. Unworthy of her in every way.”
"Telling tales about me again, River? You’ve always had a flair for drama.” Hydroflax crosses his arms over his broad chest, smirking, and turns his attention back to John again. “She was a girl when we married and girls require a firm hand.”
John snarls at him and the furious sound finally snaps River out of her stupor. “Enough.” She curls a hand around John’s bicep and forces her mind firmly into the present. “What are you doing here?” Gratitude fills her when her voice comes out like steel, cold and impenetrable.
“Surely you didn’t think I would give up on what’s mine simply because you found a loophole?” Hydroflax tuts softly and her breath catches painfully at the familiar sight of disappointment on his face. Nothing good ever followed garnering his disappointment. “We both know your new marriage is nothing but a lie to keep what rightfully belongs to me.”
“Everything I have is mine.” River bares her teeth. “You won’t get your hands on a single pence.”
Hydroflax laughs, eyes gleaming merrily. “I respectfully disagree, my little hellion.”
“Go ahead and try,” she dares, smiling. “See what it gets you.”
The mocking grin drops from his face at once, a furious scowl taking its place. “You dare threaten me-”
He moves menacingly toward her and she hates him, hates the way she flinches on instinct even now. It’s been years and years since he or anyone else has laid a hand on her and she still hasn’t quite buried the reflex to steel herself against whatever’s coming. She wonders if she’ll ever stop waiting for another blow.
Still standing protectively in front of her, John doesn’t see her recoil but he still snarls the moment Hydroflax moves. “If you even think of taking another step toward my wife, you’ll be one very sorry cripple.” His hands curl into fists, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I can promise you that.”
Clearly unused to the feeling of being intimidated, Hydroflax actually pauses mid-step, blinking warily at him.
River draws in a steadying breath, fortifying herself. It truly has been years and maybe she’ll never manage to forget that time of her life but it’s long over now. And she isn’t facing her past alone. “I’m fine, darling.” She squeezes his arm and moves out from behind him, putting herself between John and her ex-husband. She lifts her chin and stares him down. “I may have been a girl when I met you but I’m all grown up now.”
Hydroflax nods, eyes roaming her form with enough dark interest to make her shudder in revulsion. “You certainly are.”
She takes a step forward, ever conscious of John standing just behind her in silent support. She keeps walking until she’s standing right in front of her ex, until she can feel the heat of his broad frame against her and smell the familiar musk of sweat and lanolin oil that had always clung to him. She tips her head back, looking right into his eyes, and watches them widen when she presses the tip of her concealed knife into his gut.
“I will not be intimidated by you any longer,” she croons, low and dangerous. She smiles. “Now get the hell out of my house.”
The fury in his eyes is as clear as day and she watches him wrestle with the need to wrench the knife from her and show her who is in charge. He knows firsthand, however, how quick she can be when she needs to. And there’s always the chance that John, still hovering protectively and vibrating with fury, will make good on his threat. There’s a battle raging behind her ex-husband’s eyes and she waits, holding her breath, as his chest heaves. Common sense finally wins out in the end and he glowers at her, trembling with the force of his barely contained rage.
“This isn’t over,” he hisses, lips curling back in a snarl. “I am not leaving this city until you’ve been exposed as the lying thief you are. By the time I’m finished with you, you and your mighty protector will be destitute in the streets where you belong.”
“Sorry, what was that?” River frowns, cupping a hand around her ear. “I can’t hear you from all the way up there, dear. You’ll have to speak up.”
With a growl, Hydroflax escapes the end of her knife and stalks past her. He pauses only long enough to glare at John, who waves mockingly in reply. Cursing under his breath, Hydroflax stomps out of the dining room and into the entry hall. They listen in silence to his retreated steps, only breathing properly again when they hear the door slam shut behind him.
The moment they’re sure he’s gone, John reaches out a hand to touch her and despite herself, River recoils. She’s still too rattled, too on edge from standing so very close to the man who’d made her life hell when she was a teenager. John drops his hand, swallowing. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “I just thought – are you all right?”
“Yes.” She curls trembling hands into her skirts and forces a smile. “I’m fine.”
John eyes her calmly, his intent blue gaze seeing through her like it always does. “River-”
“I said I’m fine,” she snaps, and regrets it instantly. He’s only trying to help. Her protector, Hydroflax had called him. She’s never had one of those before. “I’m sorry. It’s not you, I -” Her throat closes up and she shakes her head, tightening her grip on the knife still clutched in her hand. “I’ll be upstairs.”
Without another word, she flees John’s knowing stare and retreats to the second floor and the sanctuary of her bedroom. She stares at the rumpled bedsheets and wonders idly how long Hydroflax had been here before she and John returned home; if he’d been in this room and tainted it too.
The thought makes her stomach pitch and she flips the lock on the door, marching to the bed and tearing off the sheets in a fit of paranoia. She crumples them into a ball and throws them into the corner of the room, her eyes stinging. Sinking onto the edge of the bare mattress, she swallows down the lump in her throat and can’t decide if the smell of lanolin oil in the air is just her imagination.
She gets up and shatters a bottle of perfume against the wall just in case.
The towering grandfather clock in Vastra’s parlour ticks over the minutes as River sits, hands clasped tightly in her lap, and waits for Jenny to finish pouring the tea. In the stiff armchair across from her, Vastra bites daintily into a biscuit and offers one to River, who shakes her head. The thought of eating or drinking anything is enough to turn her stomach so she purses her lips and taps her fingers impatiently against her armrest.
It’s only when Jenny pours her own cup of tea and settles into the chair beside Vastra’s that River finally breaks the silence. “Well?” She asks, struggling to keep the edge of anxiety out of her voice. “I assume you called me here because you found something.”
Vastra glances at Jenny, who nods, and sets aside her biscuit. “I did.”
Leaning forward in her seat, River grips her hands together until her fingers ache. “And?”
Smiling gently, Vastra says, “She’s gone.”
River stiffens in her chair, gaping incredulously. “What do you mean gone?” She shakes her head, heart climbing into her throat. “You can’t just give up. You have to find her-“
Vastra holds up a hand, silencing her. “I did find her, dear.”
“Then where is she?”
“In an unmarked grave somewhere near Herefordshire.”
River blinks hard, struggling to comprehend the information she’s been given. It’s too much to hope for, after so many nights spent wondering where that woman was and which poor children she was abusing now. All those years and the continuing nightmares and she’s just…gone?
“She’s dead,” Vastra repeats, as if she knows how difficult it will be to accept. “Has been for nearly ten years.”
Breathing in shakily, River squeezes her eyes shut. “You’re sure?”
“I wouldn’t have dared mention it to you if I wasn’t absolutely certain.” Though she doesn’t open her eyes to look, River can hear Vastra stirring sugar into her tea. “From what I’ve gathered through my sources, after you escaped others started to follow. Kovarian lost control rather quickly after that and never really managed to regain her power and influence. She died old and alone, deserted by everyone.”
The scrawny, abused little orphan girl inside her leaps up at those words, victorious. River lets her have a moment to celebrate, wrapped in relief and vindication, before she tucks the girl away again and locks her up tight. Slowly, she unclasps her hands and examines the nail marks she’d left on her own wrist.
“She’s truly gone, River,” Vastra says gently. “I promise.”
River releases a breath and feels something of her broken past slip away with it. “Thank you.”
She walks home in a daze, barely aware of her surroundings until she steps through the front door and finds John sitting on the stairs waiting for her. In his hands, he holds an envelope. “Got a summons in the post,” he says, watching her hang her cloak on the coat rack by the door. “Apparently your ex actually means to sue us."
Nodding absently, she only hums in reply.
“River?” John tosses aside the envelope, standing the moment he catches a glimpse of her face. “You’re white as a sheet. Are you all right?”
She moves past him on legs that feel like jelly. Knowing she won’t be able to make it upstairs no matter how badly she wants to get away from him, she moves to the parlour instead and sinks numbly into the closest chair. She feels entirely at sea, the room tipping precariously around her.
Having followed right on her heels, John stands in the doorway and stares at her, frowning. “Where have you been? You’ve been gone all morning.”
“I went to see Vastra.”
He stares at her for a moment, apparently judging by the look on her face that it hadn’t been a social call. “Why?”
“Because,” she answers, wondering briefly why her voice sounds so far away. Everything feels far away at the moment – even John. “I asked her to do something for me.”
“For Christ’s sake, River-” John slaps a hand against the wall, making her jump but managing to get her attention. She really looks at him for the first time since she walked through the door and blinks, taking in his wild hair and the dark circles beneath his eyes. Had he looked like that when she left this morning? She can’t remember. “Would you stop being so damn secretive and talk to me?”
Still studying him but feeling more anchored in the present the longer she looks at his harried expression, she says, “I asked her to find Kovarian.”
“Oh.” John straightens, suddenly tense. “Why? Why would you do that?”
“I needed to know – I had to be sure she wasn’t behind this somehow.” She shakes her head at his expression, looking away. “Yes, I know how ridiculous and paranoid that sounds but you don’t know her like I do. Did. She’d do anything to get back at me for escaping. She’d stop at nothing and I had to know-”
“And what did you find?” He asks, and she’s relieved to hear the same softness in his voice when he speaks to her; his earlier frustration gone as though it had never been.
Even now, despite repeating it to herself the entire walk home, she still can’t quite believe it. The words slip from her mouth in the same breathless tone as a fanciful fairytale told to sleepy children at bedtime. In front of her, John is silent for a long moment. He studies her face, his eyes bright and blue and so understanding that it makes her throat tighten. Finally, he says, “Good.”
“Yes,” she breathes, finally allowing herself a tiny smile. “Very good.”
With a sigh, John sinks onto the settee across from her and scrubs a hand over his face. His shoulders slump and the air of defeat in his posture makes him look old in a way she never sees when she looks at him. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me you were looking for her?”
She shrugs, bewildered. “I didn’t think it was important.”
“You didn’t think it was important to tell your husband you were looking for the woman who made your life a living hell when you were a child?” He scoffs and the bitterness in the sound snaps everything back into focus. The room stops wobbling precariously around her and John doesn’t feel far away anymore. In fact, he feels far too close. “Forgive me but I find that hard to believe.”
She eyes him coldly. “Is that what you are? My husband?”
“I’m certainly trying to be,” he says, and the pain in his gaze startles her into silence. “But you’re not making it easy.”
River manages a weak sneer, scrubbing her thumb over her wrist. The nail marks still haven’t quite faded yet. “That’s rich coming from you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” He ruffles a hand through his hair, eyes narrowed. “You’re the one sneaking about like I’m a stranger you can’t trust.”
She stiffens. “You are a stranger to me.”
He flinches, staring at her in wounded silence. “How can you say that? After everything we’ve been through – the things we’ve told each other-”
“I shared all of that with a blind man who still looked at me like he could see me.” River flexes her jaw, willing her voice to grow sharper and less uneven. “You are not that man.”
“So that’s what this is about,” he murmurs, looking pained. “I can see you now so you don’t trust me.”
She scoffs, glancing away. “This has nothing to do with your damned sight. Or whether or not I trust you.”
“Liar.” John glares at her, dropping his hand from his wild hair. “You can’t even look at me. Ever since I’ve regained my sight, you’ve barely been in the same room with me.”
River lifts her chin. “And why should I? You don’t need me at your side now. You can see everything on your own.”
“You think that’s why I wanted you? Because I needed your eyes?” He stares at her. “For fuck’s sake, River. I didn’t hire you as my nursemaid, I married you.”
“Yes, because I needed help and you didn’t have any better prospects.” She shakes her head, blinking hard to quell the sudden, embarrassing sting of tears in her eyes. “You couldn’t steal anymore, not with your sight gone. You thought I was your best option and I understand that. Just as I understand that you want out now that you’re better. I don’t blame you, John, but at least have the decency to say it instead of fading away like a ghost.”
“That’s mad,” he declares faintly, gazing at her like she’s sprouted a tail. “Have you utterly taken leave of your senses?”
“I haven’t,” she snaps, temper flaring. “Just say you’re leaving. It’s only a matter of time, anyway.” She flings out a hand, gesturing irritably at the envelope he’d abandoned on the stairs. “I almost wish my idiot ex-husband would prove this has all been a sham so we can both stop living a lie.”
Across from her, John stares at her for a beat too long. His gaze burns into her and his nostrils flare; a muscle in his cheek twitches. Finally, he leaps to his feet and paces away from her to the window. He keeps his back to her for a moment, his whole body taut like a bowstring, before he turns to face her with grim determination. “I have been running away my whole life – from children’s homes and angry shopkeepers and coppers and even my own granddaughter but I am not running away now. Not from you.”
She laughs, a sharp, derisive sound that makes him flinch. “Who are you kidding? You’ve already started to let go. That’s why you won’t bring Susan here – you never planned to stay.”
John blinks at her, his face a picture of bewilderment. “What the devil are you going on about?”
“You stopped touching me,” she accuses, meeting his gaze with a glare. “Nearly the second you could see me again.”
“Well -” John huffs, tugging at his hair. “You never tried to touch me either.”
“Only because I didn’t think you wanted it anymore!”
“Why the hell wouldn’t I want you?” He asks, raising his voice. “Have you looked in a damn mirror?”
“Why else would you stop, John? Unless you didn’t want to be married anymore.” She purses her lips, thinking briefly of that early night between them – before they were married and she’d first read to him. “I will never be a damsel for you to rescue and look after. Maybe that’s what you thought you were doing when you agreed to all this but that’s not who I am. I don’t know how to be Laura Fairlie.”
“And I remember telling you,” he says, softening. “I would never settle for delicate, passive Laura when I could have the bold, strong Marian. She’s much more my type, you know.”
Her breath catches. “Then why? Why would you stop touching me? Nothing else makes sense-”
John growls under his breath, whirling away from her. He stares at the far wall, his shoulders tense and heaving like he might implode. She is seconds from admitting defeat, turning away and leaving him to stew in peace, when he bursts out at last, “I stopped because you’re so bloody… beautiful.” He swallows audibly and River stills, baffled. “What would you want with me? Surely it must have been pity that made you so amendable to a blind old man.”
She stares at his back, her heart in her throat and her pulse pounding erratically in her ears. Oh, how blind they’ve both been. She was so certain it had only ever been his need for her light when he was in the dark that had kept him so close. Surely that had been the reason he shied away from her in the days following the return of his sight. He didn’t need her anymore. Never for a moment had she considered another possibility. And her dear idiot, certain from the moment he laid eyes on her that she could never truly love him. Perhaps if she’d been saying it all along instead of keeping the words behind pursed lips, terrified of saying them too soon, he might never have doubted her.
John doesn’t turn and look at her as she rises to her feet and moves slowly toward him. He tenses the closer she gets but she knows better now, so instead of backing away she keeps going. There will be no more doubt between them after today – no more hesitant touches or cold nights spent on opposite sides of the bed. She moves to stand in front of him and when John stares down at her helplessly, she presses a steadying hand over his heart.
“Not pity, no,” she whispers, licking her lips. “Actually, I happen to love that blind old man very much.”
His breath catches. “You – you do?” At her nod, she watches his throat flex as he swallows. “Even though he isn’t blind anymore?”
She shakes her head. “He must be at least a little blind, not to see that pity is the last thing I feel when I look at him.” She strokes her thumb over his chest, feeling John’s heart thudding against her palm. “You’re so kind and so generous. You’re clever and mad and you saved my life – more than once, you know. You’re the best man I’ve ever known.” She smiles tremulously, gazing up at him. “Who else could I have fallen in love with?”
John blinks quickly, working his jaw in silence for a moment. When he finally speaks, his voice is soft and hoarse, raw emotion wrapped around every word. “And you,” he says, gazing down at her tenderly. “You’re so brilliant. So brave and so quick. So much kinder than you think you are.” He sighs softly, mouth twitching. “My River. I fell long before I ever saw your face.”
She stares at him wonderingly, her mind going over every single day they’ve spent together since their wedding. She ponders the moment he realized his marriage was no longer a business deal, wondering if it had been the moment she realized it too. Perhaps it had been after she fell into the Thames or even the night they first made love.
John must see in her face that she’s thinking about it because he grins suddenly. “Remember the night before our wedding? When you read to me?”
River breathes in sharply, all her theories tumbling at her feet. Her throat tight, she rasps, “Even then?”
He nods once, such adoration glowing in his soft eyes that she feels her own begin to fill with tears. “Then,” he confirms softly. “Now. Always.”
“You’re an idiot,” she breathes, her smile bright and trembling.
“Yes.” He lifts a hand and touches her face, stroking his thumb over her cheek when she leans into him and nuzzles his palm. Gaze growing heated, he whispers, “But I’m your idiot.”
They both surge forward at once, noses bumping as they sink into a desperate, frenzied kiss. John slides his fingers along her jaw and tips her head back, slanting his mouth against hers with a hunger that makes her knees weak. He wraps an arm around her waist, holding her to his chest, and crushes his lips to hers again and again. He’s unyielding in his need, pressing kiss after furious kiss to her willing mouth.
She scrapes her teeth across his bottom lip and relishes his gasp, slipping her tongue into his mouth to stroke greedily against his. John bites back a groan, lifting her suddenly into his arms. River yelps in delight, giggling and burying her face in his neck as he moves quickly toward the stairs. She tugs at his cravat and presses a kiss to his exposed throat, laughing again when he nearly drops her.
He carries her all the way upstairs to their bedroom and she suspects she’s starting to develop a bit of a fetish for her older husband sweeping her into his strong, wiry arms and carrying her where he wishes. It’s been a long time since she found something as common as brute strength attractive but when John does it, there’s something deliciously masculine about it.
He drops her onto the mattress and smirks when she bounces. Scooting toward their pillows, River reaches out for him and finds him watching her with that same tenderness that makes her throat close up. “What is it?"
"Nothing," he murmurs. "It's just... I've never taken you to bed when I could see you before."
Her heart skips a beat and she smiles, licking her lips. "Not many couples get two first times." She shivers playfully. "How exciting."
John eyes her fondly, drinking in the sight of her as though he's never seen her before. And indeed he hasn't – not this way, with her spread out on their bed and watching him through her lashes. Voice roughened with desire, he says, "Every time is exciting with you, wife."
She swallows, the space between them suddenly far too much to be borne. "Come here, husband,” she demands quietly. “This bed has been far too lonely without you.”
He frowns, moving to crawl onto the bed after her. Hovering over her, his eyes are intent on her face even as his hands brush her ankles, pushing up her skirts with hands that tremble just as much as they had the first time. He settles solidly between her splayed legs and with the warmth of him so close, it’s all she can do to concentrate on what he says next. “I’ve been right here.”
She bites her lip, shaking her head. “No, my love. You haven’t been.”
He sighs, dropping his forehead to rest against her bare knee. Mouthing at her skin in tender apology, he presses kiss after kiss along her thigh until she whimpers, shuddering with need. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she whispers, managing a smile as she rakes her fingers through his hair. John licks hotly at the crease of her thigh, his long fingers drifting teasingly along her folds. River stifles a moan. “I can hardly blame you for being intimidated by my beauty.”
To her disappointment, he lifts his head from his task with a scowl. “I wasn’t intimidated. I was-” At her raised eyebrow, he deflates. “Yes, all right. I was intimidated.” He ducks his head and nips sharply at her thigh. “Shut up.”
Laughing, River tugs him up by the hair and murmurs, “Make me.”
With a wide grin and a warm kiss, John does.
Chapter 12: back home to you
St. James Park isn’t far and as she strolls through the gates several minutes later, she tries not to think of the day she’d walked through this park in hopes of finding a man to con; the day she’d found a man to love instead. It isn’t an overcast day full of possibilities this time, but rather a sunny afternoon that fills her with dread every step she takes.
In which everyone knows Mr. and Mrs. Smith are in love but that dumbass Hydroflax.
Chapter title from Only You by Parson James.
“Are you sure you won’t come with me?”
River glances up, eyeing her husband through her vanity mirror. He stands behind her, fussing with his cravat without looking at it. His gaze is on her instead, ever hopeful. His back to their bedroom windows, the morning sunshine lights him up from behind and makes his hair a fluffy halo around his head. She bites back a smile, turning to look at him properly over her shoulder.
“I told you, I have business to attend to first, darling.” She stands, moving to his side and reaching for his cravat. John endures her attentions with a sigh, waiting while she adjusts it to her liking, his impatient fingers toying with her skirts until she slaps him playfully away. “I’ll join you when I’m through, I promise.” She presses a quick kiss to his cheek and pushes him toward the door. “Now go on, before Susan thinks you’re not coming.”
John snorts, turning on his heel halfway out the door only to wrap his arms around her from behind and tug her into his chest with a growl that sends heat straight to her stomach. “Don’t be long,” he says, his lips against the back of her neck. She bites back a shudder. “Or I’ll be forced to toss out your addled caretaker and bring all the wee ones home with me.”
“Let’s start with one for now.” She elbows him with a laugh, letting him sneak one last kiss just beneath her ear before she swats him away. “Get out, ridiculous man. I’ve already half a mind to tie you up and keep you to myself today.”
“Maybe for your birthday,” he mutters, smirking as he strolls from the room.
River watches him go with a smile and calls after him, “Or yours!”
She listens to his footsteps on the stairs, then the sound of the front door opening and closing. Moving to the window, she peers through the curtains and watches him make his way down the street. It’s only after he turns the corner out of sight that she finally lets the smile drop from her face.
Diving for their bed, she grabs the knife beneath her pillow and tucks it into the sleeve of her dress. She picks up her cloak on her way out of the room and slips into it as she hurries down the stairs. One glance at the grandfather clock in the foyer shows her she’s going to be late and she curses under her breath, shutting the door behind her and walking quickly in the opposite direction John had gone.
St. James Park isn’t far and as she strolls through the gates several minutes later, she tries not to think of the day she’d walked through this park in hopes of finding a man to con; the day she’d found a man to love instead. It isn’t an overcast day full of possibilities this time, but rather a sunny afternoon that fills her with dread every step she takes.
When she reaches the quiet path where they’d agreed to meet and turns the corner, she sees instantly that he’s already here. Sitting on the lone bench beneath a towering oak, near enough to other people that it isn’t violating her demand for a public setting but far enough away to suit his desire for privacy, Lord Hydroflax waits for her. He hasn’t seen her yet, distracted by a pair of passing young women, and River takes a moment to steel herself.
When she’d gotten his telegram last night, her first instinct had been to toss it away without even reading it but it had been quickly stifled by her curiosity. He’d wanted to meet with her. Everything inside her had screamed not to do it, to show the telegram to John and laugh with him over the absurdity of such a request. And yet she hadn’t. She’d slipped the message into her dress pocket and kept it to herself, sending her husband off to the children’s home on Gracechurch with a smile.
She has to do this. Ever since she escaped him, she’s been preparing to face her ex-husband again someday. As grateful as she’d been for the reassuring presence of John right behind her the last time when she’d been taken by surprise, this time she has to face him alone. It’s the only way she’ll be able to let go of the trauma of her first marriage. Since marrying John and learning of Kovarian’s death, shaking off her past has become more important to her now than ever.
River draws in a breath and takes a step forward. The movement catches Hydroflax’s attention and he turns to watch her approach but River refuses to meet his stare. Making a point to sit as far away from him on the bench as possible, she arranges her skirts around her and gazes stubbornly across the park.
“You got my message?”
“Clearly,” she snaps.
“I trust you also received the court summons.”
She holds in a sigh. “What of it?”
“Did it get your attention?”
Clenching her jaw, River glares into the middle distance. “What do you want, Hydroflax?”
“I’m prepared to offer you a way out,” he says. When she turns her head in mild interest, he smiles. “All you have to do is admit publicly that your marriage is a sham and I won’t sue you for everything you have.”
“All right,” she agrees brightly, smiling to show all her teeth. “Just as soon as you take out an ad in the Daily Telegraph to tell everyone what an abusive prick you are.”
Hydroflax throws his head back and laughs, hearty and booming in a way that sends chills up her spine. She looks away, caught in an endless loop of hearing that same sound years and years ago. Still chuckling, Hydroflax says, “I’ve missed your fire. There have been many others since you but not one has presented the challenge you were.”
River breathes in through her nose and replies dryly, “How sad for you.”
“I’m going to take everything you have, River,” he warns, reaching out a hand. She stiffens on instinct, forcing herself not to reach for the knife in her sleeve as he strokes his knuckles over her cheek. “If you come back to me, you can still keep it. It’ll be ours.”
She scoffs, struggling not to show her relief when he drops his hand. Her skin crawls, like he’d left behind some filth in his wake. “Nothing in our marriage was ever mine. My clothes, my jewelry, any sentimental keepsakes, my body – all things you could take when it pleased you to do so.”
Hydroflax smirks. “And I suppose your new husband would never dream of taking a thing from you?”
“He doesn’t have to,” she says, her voice steady and fierce. “I give everything to him of my own free will.”
“You spoil him.” Hydroflax clicks his tongue, eyeing her carefully. He doesn’t touch her again but his gaze is enough – sliding over her like lecherous hands. “I never loved you more than when you fought back.”
River shakes her head, mouth twisting bitterly. “You never loved me at all.”
He sighs, as if bored. “I don’t understand why you continue to play the victim. We were each of us as hungry for blood as the other – still are, I think.” He raises his brows. “You can’t possibly expect me to believe that stern old man pins you down and owns you the way you needed me to.”
She bristles, glowering at him. “I never wanted to be owned-”
“I didn’t say you wanted it,” he corrects, his voice growing impatient. “I said you needed it. Every time I looked at you, your eyes were begging for a strong authority figure. Someone to overpower you and possess you. Someone to give you a release for all that delicious rage.”
A shudder of revulsion makes its way down her spine and River feels her lip curl. She’d been little more than a child when she’d met Hydroflax, newly escaped from Kovarian’s clutches and still so angry. He had only made things worse with his violent temper, molding a scarred girl into a traumatized, cynical young woman. She’d needed patience and understanding; a gentle and guiding hand to reveal another path. She’d needed someone to show her what kindness was. She couldn’t have known it then but now it’s only too clear to her – she’d needed John.
Beside her, Hydroflax grins smugly. “You’ll beg me again before this trial is over. I look forward to it.” He tilts his head, hand reaching for her again. “Unless of course, you’d like to take me up on my offer before I publicly humiliate you and your beloved thief.”
River smacks his hand away, slipping the knife from her sleeve quick as a flash and brandishing it before he can dare to retaliate. “I would see myself lose every single penny I have before I crawled back to a worthless thug like you.” She holds the blade against his cheek, smiling when he freezes. He grits his teeth and stays very still, at her mercy. Rising to her feet, her knife dangerously close to breaking his skin, River leans in close and murmurs, “If you dare try to speak to me outside of a courtroom again I’ll make sure it’s the last thing you ever do.”
It’s only when he glowers and nods once that she drops her knife, tucking it back into her dress and turning on her heel. As she walks away, she hears him roar, “Go to hell, River Song!”
“I did,” she calls over her shoulder. “It was our marriage.”
Her hands are still shaking when she arrives on Gracechurch Street but thoughts of her ex-husband are fleeting, gone the moment she sees John in the yard with a group of rowdy children. He’d lost his coat and cravat somewhere and he stands in a sea of little ones with his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his hair rumpled. With Susan on his hip and two others clinging to his legs, he’s valiantly attempting to scowl and scold them but River knows him well enough to see the delight sparkling in his eyes.
When one of the children spots her and calls out her name, he glances up sharply. For a moment, his wide grin nearly splits his face in two but when she tries to force a smile in return, his expression drops. He turns back to the children briefly, muttering something that makes them release their grip on his legs. He pats them on the head and settles little Susan on her feet before turning and striding across the lawn to where she stands.
“River?” He asks, brow furrowed and eyes soft. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, my love.” She reaches out and smoothes down his wrinkled vest. Even as he wraps his tender fingers around her hands and discovers the way they tremble, she’s unutterably grateful for the reassuring presence of him. This man who taught her what it means to love. “I’m fine.”
“Liar,” he murmurs, studying her face. “Is it the trial?”
She nods, unwilling to tell him where she’s been. “A bit.”
“Don’t worry, eh?” He brings her hands to his lips, kissing her knuckles. His eyes sparkle and she feels her hollow smile melt into something warmer and genuine. “I have a plan.”
She squints at him cautiously. “Do I even want to know?”
John flashes her a grin. “I’ll tell you later. But for now…”
He glances over his shoulder and River follows his gaze to Susan. “Did you talk to her?”
Shaking his head, John turns back to her with a grimace. “I was waiting for you.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Afraid of your own granddaughter, John Smith?”
He huffs. “Actually, I wanted to make sure…”
When he wavers uncertainly, River finishes for him, “That I haven’t changed my mind?” At his terse nod, she softens. Lifting a hand to his cheek, she waits for him to meet her gaze and whispers, “Not even for a moment.”
Smile wide and relieved, John leans in and presses a brief, enthusiastic kiss to her mouth. “Right,” he says when they part, cheeks flushed. “Shall we?”
She nods, forcing aside any lingering thoughts of her ex-husband. There will be plenty of time to think over the entire encounter later but now, with John a bundle of nervous energy at her side, there are more important things to dwell on. They move across the lawn toward the tree where Susan is playing with a few other children but before they reach her, Mr. Renfrew steps out of the house.
“Inside, children,” he calls, ushering the ones closest to him into the house. “Time to wash up for supper.”
River tightens her grip around John’s arm as little ones scurry past them and toward the house, giggling as they push and shove each other through the door. “Sweetie, we should probably let Mr. Renfrew know we’ll be taking Susan with us.”
Eyes fastened on his granddaughter, John frowns and tears his gaze reluctantly away. Instead of walking up to the caretaker and having a conversation, he calls out, “Oi, Renfrew!”
River rolls her eyes. “Privately, darling.”
“Too late.” John smirks, watching Renfrew scurry toward them. “Obedient fellow, isn’t he?”
She nudges him and says through her teeth, “Behave.”
“You first.” John pastes on a grin as Renfrew reaches them. “Hello there, you’re looking…tired.”
River sighs. “We wanted to let you know we’ll be taking Susan home with us, Mr. Renfrew.”
He frowns. “Today?”
“Of course today,” John says impatiently. “We’re hardly giving you two weeks notice.”
Mr. Renfrew wrings his hands. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
John clenches his jaw. “Why the hell not?”
“Well,” Renfrew stutters, glancing uneasily between them. “We must file the proper paperwork if you wish to adopt the girl.”
As the last of the children file into the house, Susan breaks away from the group and runs up to them. She wraps her arms around River’s legs, peering at her until River bends down and scoops her up. Nestled comfortably in her arms, Susan touches a shy fingertip to River’s pearl necklace and asks, “Stay for supper?”
River smoothes down her long braid and absently hums her agreement, eyes darting between her husband and the caretaker. “We wouldn’t miss it, dear.”
Speaking between his teeth, John asks, “Why do I need to adopt my own granddaughter?”
Mr. Renfrew glances cautiously at Susan, licking his lips. “You gave her up.”
John flinches as though struck and River shifts Susan onto her hip, laying her free hand soothingly on his arm. Pinning Renfrew in place with a glare, she says, “Explain yourself. Politely.”
Stuttering an apology, Mr. Renfrew begins again. “Once you left the child with me, you forfeited your rights. To take her back, you’ll have to wade through quite a few legalities.” He glances at River. “And I assume, of course, that your wife will want to make the child rightfully hers as well.”
River starts, her eyes widening. Until now, with Renfrew watching her expectantly and John refusing to look at her at all, she hadn’t quite put the pieces together. Susan won’t be just John’s granddaughter that she’s taking in and giving a place to stay. The girl will be theirs, for all intents and purposes. Hers. A lump forms in her throat. Her child. Given her history, it’s something she’d never really allowed herself to think about. She wasn’t suited for motherhood and never would be. But now, happier than she’s ever been and faced with the beautiful possibility...
“Yes,” she finds herself saying, her arms tightening imperceptibly around Susan. “I want that.”
John stares at her openly now, his shining eyes soft and grateful.
Mr. Renfrew smiles. “Very well. I’ll begin the adoption process in the morning.”
“You’ll start it now,” John says, frowning. “How long is this going to take, anyway?”
As her husband begins to berate poor Mr. Renfrew into giving him a proper timeline, River glances down at Susan and spots the furrow in her little brow as she watches them. “John,” she says, reaching for his arm again. “Perhaps you’d like to explain everything to Susan.”
He blinks, eyes widening briefly. “Ah. Yes.” Bending slightly to meet his granddaughter’s eyes, he tries a gentle smile that Susan instantly returns. The girl adores him, River realizes, not for the first time. But then again, who wouldn’t? “Your grandmother and I would like for you to come live with us. We’ve got a room for you and lots of pretty dresses and all the pudding you can eat.”
Susan stares at him, her eyes shining. “Really?”
“Really.” John shifts awkwardly, swallowing. “Would you like that?”
Nodding hurriedly, Susan bites her trembling lower lip between her teeth. “Soon?”
River holds the girl close and John watches them together, his gaze bright as he promises hoarsely, “Very soon.”
On most quiet nights, it isn’t uncommon to find the Smiths entwined together on the settee in their library. River sits with her head tucked into the crook of John’s shoulder as he reads aloud. They’ve begun to take turns reading to one another after dinner in the evenings and there is nothing she finds more soothing than the soft way John curls his Scottish tongue around the words of Charlotte Bronte. Any other time, she would have her eyes shut as she listened to him, half-asleep and soothed by the low rumble of his voice in her ear.
John carefully turns the page, his lips brushing her temple as he reads. “And your will shall decide your destiny,” he said: “I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.”
From nearly the moment they met, she’s never been anything but honest with John. He’s become the one person in her life who knows everything about her. He knows things she hasn’t even told him, as if his mind and hers are one. As if they’ve been together all their lives rather than a few short months. It’s slowly eating away at her that she had concealed her meeting with Hydroflax from him. She doesn’t want to keep secrets from John, the man she trusts with everything she is.
“And then,” John whispers, his voice just mischievous enough to catch River’s attention once more. “She told him to piss off because she knew he had a wife in the attic.”
With a snort, River swats at his chest and lifts her head to meet his twinkling gaze. “You’re telling it wrong, you great idiot.”
He shuts the book, index finger holding his place. “I was just making sure you were paying attention.” He frowns suddenly, brow furrowed in concern as he eyes her. “You looked as if you were miles away.”
She breathes in, settling against the settee cushions and putting a bit of distance between them. Gripping her hands together on her lap, she bites her lip and avoids his gaze. “I have to tell you something but you have to promise you won’t get angry.”
John stares at her in silence for a long moment and she feels the heat of his gaze against the side of her face. She still doesn’t look at him but whatever he sees in his careful study makes him sigh and reply gently, “I can’t promise that. But I can promise even if I’m furious, you’ll still have my hand to hold.”
He holds out it to her and she takes it, wondering how she’d ever managed to find the one man who understands even the things she’ll never say. The man who can soothe fears and insecurities she’d never dare give voice to. His thumb strokes reassuringly across her knuckles and River squares her shoulders.
Casting her gaze to the fire crackling in the hearth, she confesses, “Remember the other day when I sent you ahead to see Susan? I lied. I didn’t have errands.” She risks a glance at him, sees him watching her intently, his face blank, and looks away again. “I went to meet Hydroflax.”
John breathes in sharply, a pained noise that makes her shut her eyes. “Why the hell would you do something so stupid? River, he could have-”
“I know,” she says, clenching her jaw. There’s too much disappointment in his voice and she can’t bear to hear it. “I don’t need you to tell me how reckless it was.”
He sighs through his nose and she can hear the way he’s reining himself in out of deference to her, locking away whatever fit of temper might have followed such a revelation in a normal relationship. She listens to the way he grinds his teeth together and deliberately slows his breaths, a lump forming in her throat. Even if he’d never told her he loved her, she would know it now just by the sound of his breathing.
“Then why did you do it?” He finally asks. “Why go to him alone?”
“I had to.” Opening her eyes again, River finally turns to face him properly and hearing the disappointment in his voice is nothing compared to seeing it written so plainly on his face. She keeps talking, desperate to explain herself – to make his gaze soften and his hand relax in hers again. “You were with me the last time and I needed to know I could do it alone. I had to face my demons, so to speak. Without you holding my hand.”
John scrubs a hand over his face. “You didn’t have to do it alone, River. The whole sodding point of marriage is always having a hand to hold.” He peers at her wearily and there's something quietly patient in his blue eyes that takes her breath away. "But then, I can't expect you've had cause to understand that yet. Not with the pathetic excuse for a husband you had."
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, watching him regretfully.
His jaw clenches. "Don't apologize for him."
She shakes her head. "No, but I'm sorry I went alone. I suppose I’m still getting used to relying on you. On anyone.”
John softens at once, his tense shoulders drooping. “I know.”
River licks her lips. “But… I like it. Having you.”
His mouth quirks at the corners, just a bit, and her heart lightens to see it. “I like having you too, infuriating woman that you are.” With a grumble, he tugs on her hand and she follows his lead, letting him tug her onto his lap. She wraps her arms around his neck and John grips her to him, fitting his chin over her shoulder and letting his nose brush her hair. “Thank you for telling me.”
She nods, startled by the way his fingertips bite into her skin through her dress. He clings to her like she’ll disappear, one of his hands sweeping up and down her back as though to make sure she’s whole and unharmed. It’s only then that she realizes he hadn’t been disappointed in her at all. He’d been afraid.
For a moment, River allows herself to imagine how it might have felt if John had been the one to slip away and face some violent enemy alone, without her by his side to make sure nothing dared touch him. Furious, she knows instantly. But scared too. Worried that this beautiful, precious thing she has only just found could have been taken away from her in the blink of an eye.
Shuddering at the thought, River burrows further into her husband, seeking his warmth and the knowledge that she doesn’t have to be alone anymore. John ducks his head, lips brushing her cheek. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Nodding against his chest, she murmurs, “I wasn’t. But then I saw you, standing there in the sun and smiling at me. Holding Susan.” She sighs softly, remembering the quiet peace that had been hers the moment she’d laid eyes on him that afternoon. “And everything was all right again.” John presses a firm kiss to her temple but she feels the moment he tenses at the mere mention of his granddaughter. He’ll never say and River bites her lip, knowing that if they’re going to talk about this, it will be up to her to force it. “Are you scared too?”
John hums softly. “Of what?”
“Being a rubbish parent.”
He chokes out a laugh and her lips curl at the sound. “Terrified,” he admits.
“Why?” She frowns, lifting her head to meet his gaze. “You’ve done this before.”
“Aye,” he agrees. “But it never gets any easier. And I wasn’t particularly good at it the first time.” He smiles suddenly, the worry lines all but disappearing from his dear face as he traces a tender fingertip down her spine. “But I have you now.”
River shakes her head. “Darling, I don’t know anything about children.”
“You know more than you think,” he says, and the admiration in his eyes makes her feel as warm as if she were sitting right beside the fire. “Children are perceptive, you know. And our little Susan is drawn to you for a reason.” His lips drift fondly down the bridge of her nose and then drop a kiss to the corner of her mouth, along with a whispered, “You’ll be brilliant.”
“We’ll be brilliant,” she corrects, smiling despite herself. She’d begun this conversation nervous and guilt-ridden but trust John to reduce her to a grinning, optimistic fool within minutes. And they will indeed be brilliant, so long as they raise Susan like they do everything from now on. Together. “Now go on, darling.” She nudges the book back toward him, settling comfortably in his arms once more. “It was just getting good.”
With an indulgent grumble, John opens the book and the pages flutter as he finds his place. His voice winds securely around her contented heart as he begins anew. “I ask you to pass through life at my side – to be my second self and best earthly companion.”
The courtroom is filled with people, every seat occupied from the front to the last row with strangers, friends, and enemies alike. From her seat, River can’t see them but she can hear the hushed bickering of Bill, Missy, and Nardole somewhere behind her and to the right. Sitting at the front of the room with his council, Lord Hydroflax cuts an imposing figure in his tailored suit but River refuses to glance in his direction. She sits on the other side of the aisle with John, gripping his hand as Judge Hartnell takes his seat.
Leaning in, she whispers, “Are you sure this is going to work?”
John smiles and the calm amusement in his eyes sets her heart instantly at ease. “Trust me.”
“Always,” she replies, winking.
As the Judge reads aloud the reason they’re all gathered together, John bends his head and brushes his lips down the bridge of her nose. River scrunches her face and he chuckles softly, mouth finding hers. She loses herself for a moment, forgetting all about the room full of people or the fact that her ex-husband is trying to prove her new marriage to be a lie. There is only John, her hand curled around his lapel to keep him close and his soft, insistent mouth coaxing a smile from her.
They both jump apart, turning to offer the Judge guilty glances. “Sorry, My Lord.” River licks her lips, smirking. “I just can’t seem to help myself.”
Beside them, Mr. Lux huffs in despair but Judge Hartnell only shakes his head and smiles. “I’m beginning to understand the absurdity of this endeavor but let us proceed anyway, shall we? Let’s hear from one of our witnesses. Dr. Lethbridge?”
Fingers laced through John’s, River watches as Lethbridge takes the stand. He glances reassuringly at them as he sits, winking while Judge Hartnell is occupied with the papers in front of him. River winks back, loosening her grip on John’s hand.
“You know the couple in question well, Dr. Lethbridge?”
“Quite well,” he replies, mustache twitching. “In fact, River told me the news of their engagement herself. I was on a house call, treating her husband’s cold.”
“How did she describe the impending nuptials to you?” Hartnell peers at his paperwork over the rim of his bifocals. “Did she give you any indication that the marriage was anything less than genuine?”
“Not at all.” Lethbridge glances at them, a polite smile on his face. “In fact, they both appeared to be quite happy about it. Positively blinded with it, I’d say.”
As Judge Hartnell nods and makes a note in the margin of one of his papers, River breathes a quiet sigh of relief. Maybe John’s utterly mad plan will work after all. Once the Judge dismisses Lethbridge, it’s a parade of one witness after another – some of which River has never even seen before.
A few of the guests from Tasha Lem’s party take the stand, describing how protective River had been of her new husband, how they’d danced together for a while and then eventually disappeared to do what they could only assume was shag in one of Tasha’s spare rooms. John’s cheeks turn pink and he scowls as the courtroom erupts into scandalized laughter. Unaffected, River only grins and pats his cheek fondly.
Several others have come forward who had seen them at the ice rink the day they’d skated, providing detailed accounts of watching John and River sprawled on the ice together giggling. Yet more of them describe seeing John, still very much blind at the time, carrying his bedraggled wife home after her fall into the Thames. Behind them, River can hear half the ladies in the room sighing and swooning at the picture the witnesses paint. She glances at John, unable to believe his ridiculous idea is actually succeeding. He waggles his brows at her smugly.
Mr. Renfrew describes their visits to the orphanage, particularly how River had introduced him as her husband right away. He wrings his hands in that nervous way of his and glances timidly at the Judge. “They always play with the children for hours. In fact, they’ve already begun the process of adopting one child in particular.”
As an excited murmur rolls through the room at this new tidbit of gossip – imagine, the formidable River Song adopting orphans – River stares straight ahead and doesn’t give any of them the satisfaction of a reaction. She only softens when John brushes grateful lips against her temple.
Satisfied with the caretaker’s testimony, the Judge dismisses Mr. Renfrew and calls for the next witness. Amy clearly relishes her role in John’s scheme, regaling the courtroom with tales of what Mr. and Mrs. Smith are like behind closed doors. She speaks of the time they spend reading to each other in the evenings, their nights stargazing, and the pet names she hears them exchange on a constant basis.
To John’s embarrassment, she doesn’t stop there. With a mischievous grin, Amy declares to the room, “And I can confirm they’re definitely sleeping in the same bed every night.” She wrinkles her nose. “I change the sheets.”
The courtroom erupts into shocked giggles again and John drops his red face into his hands, sighing. River strokes a hand down his back, far too pleased to be embarrassed. She almost wants to glance at her ex-husband and see how he’s handling this particular testimony but she resists, not wanting to dampen her good mood by looking at him.
On the stand, Amy continues. “Oh, my husband wanted me to tell you on his behalf that he’s walked in on them multiple times in the library, half-dressed and snogging.” She grins, waiting for the whispering to die down again. “So if their marriage is a farce, Judge Hartnell, they’re very dedicated. Even trying to convince empty rooms.”
As laughter fills the room once more, John sinks into his seat with a muttered, “Is this a trial or a detailed description of our sex life?”
River leans her head on his shoulder and wonders, “Why can’t it be both?” He huffs, turning to brush his lips across the top of her head. Together, they watch as Amy skips from the stand and is quickly replaced by the last person River expected. As Ramone takes a seat, she whispers, “How on earth did you get him to agree to this?”
He shrugs evasively. “My charming disposition?”
With a sigh, John mutters reluctantly, “Jack might have had something to do with it.”
“Ramone and Jack? Really?” Imagining her old friend seducing her ex-lover in a bid to ensure his cooperation, River can’t help but smile to herself. “The mind races.”
John scowls. “Stop it.”
“What?” She asks innocently. “It’s sexy.”
He huffs. “It’s not sexy.”
River crinkles her nose, head tilted. “It’s a little bit sexy.”
Before either of them can argue about it any further, Judge Hartnell removes his bifocals and uses them to gesture at the documentation in front of him. “It states here that soon after her marriage, you were seen at a pub with Mrs. Smith before the two of you disappeared together-”
John grumbles rudely under his breath, crossing his arms over his chest. River nudges him. “Now is not the time for your jealousy, darling.”
“You like my jealousy,” he mutters.
“Not when I can’t undress you,” she snaps. “Now hush.”
“Don’t hush me.” He bristles, eyebrows drawing together. “I am not a hushing person.”
She pinches him and he hisses but Ramone’s answer interrupts their quiet bickering. “It’s true.”
River stiffens. This is it. Months of pretending and a few blissful weeks of actually being in love with the idiot and she’s gone and ruined it all because she was so bloody careless-
“Mrs. Smith had too much to drink and I escorted her home.”
She stares, dumfounded by the blatant lie, and John squeezes her hand.
“I believe she and her husband had a bit of a newlywed spat, which was the reason she’d been out without him. But I can assure you nothing untoward happened between us and it never would.” Ramone darts a cautious glance at River through his thick, pretty lashes. “I know because I tried. Just a few weeks ago, in fact. At Tasha Lem’s party.”
Judge Hartnell leans forward, brows raised. “Go on, young man.”
Ramone shifts in his chair, looking away from River at last. “I asked her to dance while her husband was occupied and when she accepted, I thought I might ask to see her again. After their disagreement, I was under the impression that she hadn’t married for love and hoped she might desire at least a physical relationship with me.”
“And did she?”
“No.” Ramone purses his lips, expression pained. “She rebuffed me at once. Left me standing alone right in the middle of a dance to go off and find her husband.”
River can feel John staring at her but she refuses to look at him, stroking her thumb over his knuckles with a smile. “My brilliant wife,” he whispers, and her smile grows when he presses a furtive kiss to her cheek.
“Well then, I believe I’ve heard everything I need to hear.”
River breathes in sharply, waiting. She knows her nails have to be digging into John’s wrist but he offers no complaint, sitting steadily beside her like he has no doubt of the outcome.
In front of them, Judge Hartnell tosses aside his bifocals and finally focuses his attention on Hydroflax. With reluctance, River looks at him for the first time too. To her delight, the sight of him red-faced and fuming doesn’t send her heart racing in fear. Instead, she finds herself beginning to smile.
“As far as I can tell, Lord Hydroflax,” Judge Hartnell says. “Your ex-wife and her new husband are just like any other happily married couple. With so many first hand accounts of their devotion to one another, I really have no choice but to throw out this outlandish claim.”
With undisguised glee, River watches in fascination as Hydroflax grinds his teeth together and glares at the Judge. At her side, John snorts what a pillock under his breath.
“You have no grounds to sue River Song. And furthermore, no possible way of obtaining any financial compensation from her husband.” With a bang of his gavel, Hartnell declares, “Case dismissed.”
The courtroom erupts into chaos, the applause and cheering drowning out Hydroflax’s furious snarl. He leaps to his feet and hisses something vicious at his council, storming past River and John on his way out. She stares after him for only a moment, marveling at how very small he suddenly looks.
John draws her into his side, capturing her attention. “Imagine,” he mutters, nose brushing hers as he grins. “Marrying you as a business deal. Ridiculous.”
River laughs out loud and tugs him close by the cravat, kissing him soundly.
Chapter 13: epilogue: where our pieces fall in place
Her eyes land on the brand new sign erected just on the edge of the property and a smile curls her mouth. There have been a lot of changes to the orphanage since she and John had bought it a few months ago but her favorite change by far is the name.
In which they live happily ever after.
Chapter title from Call It Dreaming by Iron and Wine.
“I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest – blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.”
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
“The curtains go in the bedroom, Missy – what do you mean why? Because I sodding well said so!”
Halfway down the stairs, River sighs and shakes her head. Honestly, she can’t leave them alone for five minutes without the two of them resorting to shouting and cursing at each other. She waits a moment longer, listening for things being thrown, but when she hears their bickering dissolve into laughter instead she smiles and keeps walking.
The spacious downstairs still smells of new paint but the windows have been thrown open to let in the fresh springtime air, sunshine spilling through to light up even the dimmest corners. The open windows also have the added benefit of allowing her to hear the children outside on the playground, shouting and giggling as they climb on the new equipment.
River moves to one of the windows, peering out to watch them run. They’d planted new flowers and trees to give the place some color and everything is just starting to bloom as the weather warms. Her eyes land on the brand new sign erected just on the edge of the property and a smile curls her mouth. There have been a lot of changes to the orphanage since she and John had bought it a few months ago but her favorite change by far is the name – The Smith Foundation Home for Girls and Boys.
“Are you sure he’s really given up?”
She turns, glancing over her shoulder at Bill, perched on the edge of a table and watching her anxiously. “Who, dear?”
Bill bites her lip. “Your sorry excuse for an ex. I mean, he wanted your money an awful lot to just disappear.”
Speaking of her ex-husband is usually enough to stiffen her spine and set her teeth on edge but today, with the warm spring air all around her and the sound of such happiness just outside, River can’t bring herself to do anything but smile. “I’m quite sure. In fact, I have it on good authority he won’t be bothering anyone ever again.”
Not even a month after the trial, John and Missy had gone off together for an entire day and hadn’t turned up again until the wee hours of the following morning. John had come home quiet and irritable and it had taken days for Missy’s smug smile to entirely dissipate. While both of them had refused to say a word on the matter, River has a feeling she knows exactly where they’d gone and why. Finding the stub for a train ticket to Cornwall in the pocket of John's favorite coat had given her quite the clue. Subsequent articles in the Telegraph referencing Lord Hydroflax’s newfound seclusion and mysterious lack of interest in finding a new young bride have only confirmed her theory – John Smith is an overprotective idiot who thinks he needs to ward off all his wife’s bad dreams. And Missy… well, Missy is starting to grow on her.
Stifling a smile, Bill asks, “D’you think they killed him?”
“Don’t be silly.” River purses her lips, eyes sparkling. “Threatening is much more fun.”
They share a conspiratorial, fond eye roll and then nothing more is said of Lord Hydroflax. River has already given him far more of her time than he ever deserved.
“I still can’t believe it.” Bill shakes her head, her smile wide and awed. “I have a proper job. And a house.” She tips her face back, staring at the ceiling. “My house has a roof.”
River chuckles softly, chest aching with fondness for the girl. “Mr. Renfrew was only too happy to train someone and retire. I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to be the new caretaker than you. You’ve been looking after John for years now.”
“That’s true.” Bill snorts. “None of these little imps can possibly compare to that… I hope.”
“You’ll be brilliant, dear.” River turns to the window again, laughter bubbling in her chest at the sight that greets her. Nardole is struggling across the lawn with several children clinging to his legs, giggling despite his loud complaints. “And you’ve got Nardole and Missy to help you.”
As if on cue from upstairs: “Missy, stop touching that!”
“Funny, that’s not what your little chef said last night.”
John groans. “Must you?”
“It’s only fair you hear about my sex life. You wouldn’t even have one if it wasn’t for me pushing your little wife into the Thames and making her gooey-eyed for you.”
After an incredulous pause, John spits out, “That was you?!”
Turning back to each other, River and Bill exchange exasperated glances. “Help?” Bill asks, skepticism coloring her voice. “Are you sure about that?”
From upstairs, they hear John growl followed by the sound of breaking glass.
River wavers, nose crinkling. “Well, they’ll be here at any rate.”
Bill laughs. “Have I mentioned how glad I am you and John found each other?”
“I found him, dear,” River says, smiling. “He was hardly in any condition to find even his own nose when we met.”
Rolling her eyes, Bill shakes her head. “I mean it, you know. Only someone as mad as he is could have made him happy. Didn’t think he’d ever find it but then you turned up. What’s madder than asking a total stranger to marry you?”
River winks. “Accepting, I’d imagine.”
“See?” Bill grins. “Perfect for each other.”
They both turn at the sound of stomping footsteps on the stairs, watching as John and Missy descend still looking rather cross with each other. Humoring their childish tendency to row like siblings, River asks, “Must I separate you two until you learn to get along?”
Without a word, John turns his glower on Missy.
She sighs, arms folded across her chest, and mumbles, “Sorry for pushing you into the Thames so you’d shag John.”
River purses her lips against a bout of laughter and manages a strained reply. “Forgiven. So long as you don’t go making a habit of it.”
“She won’t,” John assures her, his voice a warning growl.
Deciding the best course of action is to move on as quickly as possible, River asks, “Did you manage to hang the curtains upstairs?”
“Eventually,” John says, glancing at Missy pointedly. “I think we’re finally finished with the bedrooms. As long as someone doesn’t go about rearranging things to look like an opium den again.”
Missy sniffs. “I can’t promise anything.” She snaps her fingers at a passing child. “Oi, short stack. Fetch me a cuppa.”
John sighs, ushering the wide-eyed boy outside with the others. “Missy, you’re here to look after them, not make them your servants.”
She tilts her head, frowning. “Why not? It’s the profession they’re going to end up with anyway. Might as well train them.”
“Oh fine.” She blows a raspberry at him. “I’ll make my own tea. They’d probably bugger it up anyway.”
As she slinks off down the hall, Bill pushes away from the table she’s been resting against and follows hurriedly after her. “Oi, don’t mess up the kitchen. I just got everything how I want it in there!”
In the blissful silence that follows their exit, River glances at her husband and feels an embarrassingly smitten grin light up her face when she finds him already looking back, his gaze warm and soft with all the unspoken things he sometimes finds so hard to articulate. “Come here, dearest,” he says, holding out a hand. “I want to look at you.”
“I’m right in front of you,” she teases, moving toward him anyway. “Is your eyesight going again?”
“Hush.” He grasps her hand, pulling her into his chest and snaking an arm around her waist to keep her close. “I’m enjoying the view.”
With a patience sigh, she indulges his guiding fingertips beneath her chin and tips her face up for his inspection. “Have you forgotten what I look like in the fifteen minutes we’ve been apart?”
“This face?” John strokes her cheek but his eyes drop to her mouth. “Never.”
“Sap,” she whispers, and leans up on her toes to kiss him. He smiles against her mouth, slender fingertips tracing a line from her chin and along her throat. River shudders, lips parting in a gasp as he dips a dangerous path across the low neckline of her dress. John slides his tongue against hers and she hums low in her throat, pressing herself flush against him as she tastes the faintest traces of brandy.
He groans at the feel of her against him, one hand at the small of her back to crush her to him and the other still toying with the neckline of her dress. He dips teasingly between her breasts and she whimpers, teeth nipping at his bottom lip. “River-”
A loud crash from the kitchen startles them apart. “Missy!”
“What? I’m helping!”
As Bill and Missy bicker back and forth, John and River turn to each other. Still flushed and breathless, they lean their foreheads together and exchange exasperated glances. River straightens his cravat and pushes a lock of hair from his eyes. “Are we mad for thinking this is going to work?”
“Absolutely.” He grins, nudging his nose against her cheek. “But all of my mad ideas tend to work -”
“What, like the python in the carriage?” River raises an eyebrow. “Do I really need to remind you how that one worked out?”
“No,” he says, still smiling. “But clearly I need to remind you because it worked perfectly.”
“You fell out of a carriage and struck yourself blind for weeks, you idiot.”
John nods patiently, lips following the path of his nose along her cheek. “Yes, therefore making it easy for you to catch me picking your pocket and fall in love with my ruggedly handsome face at first glance.”
River snorts softly, shaking her head. “You’re right, darling,” she murmurs, capturing his mouth again in a brief, heated kiss. “It worked perfectly.”
“It’s nearly dinner,” he says when they part, ducking his head to press a line of noisy kisses along her throat that makes her squirm away from him, laughing. “Should we find her?”
She nods, taking his hand and tugging him toward the door. “You know how cranky she gets when she doesn’t eat. Reminds me of someone, come to think of it…”
John offers her a glare and River leans her head on his shoulder, biting back a smile. They stroll outside together, scanning the grounds as they go for a dark haired little pixie. It’s impossible to spot her in a sea of little ones so River finally pauses in the middle of the lawn and calls out, “Susan?”
Almost instantly, a blur of skirts and dark braids throws herself at their knees. John snorts out a laugh, bending to lift the girl into his arms. She’s a tiny thing, made all the more delicate wrapped in John’s embrace. Now that River knows they’re related, it’s easy to see they share the same sharp features and wide grin.
“Did you have fun with Uncle Nardole?” He asks, smoothing her hair back.
Susan leans into his palm on her cheek, eyes drooping as she nods. “He’s funny.”
“Funny looking,” John mumbles, eyeing his granddaughter as she nestles into his shoulder with a yawn. With a playful glance at River, he says, “Oh dear. I think we might have to skip a bedtime story tonight. You look much too sleepy. We’ll have to tuck you straight into bed.”
Gasping softly, Susan lifts her head from his shoulder and blinks her eyes open determinedly. “M’awake,” she mumbles. “Story now? Please, Papa?”
River rolls her eyes as John chuckles, stroking her knuckles across Susan’s flushed cheek. “Your granddad is teasing, sweetheart. We have plenty of time for stories.”
Susan yawns once more but nods eagerly, eyes bright. “Pudding too?”
Smothering a laugh, River murmurs to her husband, “She’s definitely yours.” Louder, she says, “Of course, love. What would you like?”
Lifting pleading eyes to hers, Susan requests, “Petits Choux?”
John snorts. “Yours too, I think.” He grins down at his granddaughter. “You’ve got your grandmother’s expensive taste, haven’t you? Spoiled creature.”
Giggling, Susan snuggles into his chest. Her brown eyes light up in delight when River, heart unspeakably full, leans in and busses her cheek fondly. “That’s my girl.”
Susan’s little hand latches onto her curls to keep River close, nuzzling her nose against River’s with such shy affectionate that it makes her melt all over again. “Mum,” she whispers, as though imparting a secret.
River feels her heart clench and she forces a smile, shaking her head. “I’m not-”
“That she is,” John interrupts, his voice soft but unwavering. “A very grand mum.” His mouth twitches, gaze meeting River’s meaningfully. “Extraordinary, even.”
Breath caught in her throat, River stares at him. “John – I-” She swallows, watching John and Susan give her identical smiles. She huffs out a laugh, a choked noise that makes her eyes sting. “I suppose you’ve both decided this without me, have you?”
“You took us in and made us yours,” he says, pressing in close. His breath is warm against her cheek and River gazes up at him with wide eyes. “I made you mine in return some time ago but Susan has decided to stake her own claim and I won’t stop her.” He smirks. “Couldn’t even if I wanted to – she has your stubborn streak, this one.”
River blinks at him, her eyes filling up against her will.
John leans in and kisses her softly, his mouth tender and familiar against her own and Susan squished between them. For a moment, she’s so happy it’s impossible to breathe. “We belong to each other now, my dear,” he whispers when they part. He flashes her a wicked smile. “Even a blind man could see it.”
Still sniffling, River shakes her head. “I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
Restless and trapped between their chests, Susan asks with impatience, “Pudding now?”
River laughs and John steps away with a grumbled promise of later. “Come along, poppet.” With a grin, he holds Susan on his hip and reaches for River’s hand. “It’s time to go home.”