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Take the Long Way Home

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Calderon Beta - 21 September 2360

There was something to be said about spending your wedding night — or what could pass for your wedding night when it happened quite sometime after the wedding — sitting on a platform more than 400 feet in the air wearing standard-issue prison sweats and sharing an order of incredibly greasy chips with your presumed husband while watching the most stars ever in history. He’d been right about the light. You could read a book by it. You could do a lot of things by it, really. Sharing chips really wasn’t at the top of River Song’s list, even though it was the planet of the chip shops. She hadn’t had the heart to say no to that earnest face when he’d popped into a shop and returned with them.

The Doctor was quiet and she was quiet, and there was the issue that she wasn’t sure how to broach. She’d be the one to broach it, because it had to be said. She had to know, and if her life had centered around anything since Berlin, it was the pursuit of knowledge. 

She could see his not-so-subtle glances at her out of the corner of her eye. Sadness, a bit of fear. Mostly the sadness. He’d been so full of joy when he’d picked her up from Stormcage, and something had happened with that other Doctor from the future to cause it. Well, then. She was enough of Amy Pond’s daughter to know not to let this brooding keep going. The issue needed to be addressed, otherwise the night would be absolutely rubbish. 

Eyes fixed on a falling star, River drew in a deep breath. “What happened at Area 52. I’m sorry.”

He jumped, and she hid her smirk. “For what?”

“Well, first of all, for embarrassing you.” For being horribly, infallibly human, and she wasn’t doing that again. Not when the consequences had nearly torn the universe apart. She could see that now, and she should have trusted him. Then again, she thought with a bit of annoyance, he-

“I should have trusted you,” he blurted.

Surprised, she risked a glance at him. He, too, was gazing at the stars. His foot tapped nervously, and his hands danced along the railing, drumming out an absent beat. 

“Well, everything is fine now, isn’t it?” she said with as much jovially as she could muster. It surprised her at times, just how very good she was at acting when she put her mind to it. “I’m just curious. Was it real? Or are you visiting me out of a sense of obligation?”

His jaw dropped, and he stared at her like she’d grown a few extra appendages. River kept her breathing steady and her hands loosely fisted as she met the Doctor’s eyes. “I understand why you did what you did. I don’t hold you to it. It’s an alternate timeline in a place that no longer exists. The only people who know about it are you, me, and my parents, and to them you’re dead. I promise you, I’ll keep your secret until the day I die. But, I won’t hold you to whatever vows you think we took on that pyramid.”

His mouth opened and closed a few times, and he shoved away from the railing. He fisted his hands in his hair and muttered under his breath. River swallowed and promised herself not to cry until she was back in Stormcage. She would remain strong. She’d survived far worse, and this was the decision she’d made.

She was just about to walk back to the TARDIS when he sudden spun on his heel. He marched to her, gently spanned her waist with his hands and boosted her onto the railing. He moved between her thighs, and her hearts began to race just a bit. She could smell his cologne now, whatever he’d most likely splashed on in a rush. It was woodsy and comforting. Her hands automatically went to trace his bow tie, then limply fell into her lap.

“Look at the stars,” he urged, and she peered over her shoulder at the brilliant galactic display, still as impressive as it’d been minutes earlier. “Somewhere in time, there is a sad, grieving man harnessing the power of a supernova to say good-bye to the woman that he loved. Somewhere else, there is a man waiting 2,000 years beside a box for the woman that he loves. Yet elsewhere, there’s a lonely old man who locked the door of his ship on his granddaughter, loving her so much that he is forcing her to make a life with the man she loves and knows that she’ll be happy. Well, and then there’s me. Common thing about that. All of them involved me.”

“I know,” River replied softly. His tenth incarnation and Rose Tyler. Her parents. His first incarnation and Susan. She’d read all those stories or had them related to her in some form or another during her thesis study.

“I’m an old man, River. I’ve been running for a very, very long time. I’ve been running away from a lot of things, including you.”

She swiveled her head back so she could look at him again. “Me now or in the future?”

“Spoilers.” He tapped her nose, prompting a smile.

“I understand.” She shifted, started to inch her way around him to climb down, but he held her still, leaning forward to whisper in her ear. 

“I lie about a lot of things. Have to, really. But not about what happened at Area 52, wife.” He said it so softly that she had to strain to hear him. She pulled back, wondering why her eyes were suddenly so misty. Oh, tears. She blinked them away. This time he leaned in, pressing a kiss to her lips briefly. 

“This is going to hurt like hell, isn’t it?” she guessed.

She could see the answer in his eyes, as he wiped the tears away with his thumb. Yes. Yes, it would. It would be twisty and turny and there would be times they would be fully in sync and others when they were scrambling not to be hurt because of their mismatched timelines.  Two lost souls making their way through the universe together. It was marriage, and it was theirs. Like her parents, they would choose each other. Every time. They would make it work.

——

The Library — 51 st Century

Her palms sweat as she kept an eye on the shadows, and she wiped them on her trousers absently. The Vashta Nerada didn’t just exist in this universe. It’d spread beyond the void to universes beyond, using the broken-down walls to aid travels. Creatures of the likes that her world had never seen were now catalogued into Torchwood databases: the Weeping Angels, the Zygons, of course the Cyberman, and now the Vashta Nerada. 

But, she was OK. She was really OK, because she was almost to him.

She pulled out her scanner and flipped it on, hooking it into the dormant CCTVs so she could work out the best route. She whooshed out a breath in relief when she spotted the familiar shock of brown hair spinning around and commanding the group of spacesuit-clad people like he was the general. “Finally,” she gasped and beamed. The Doctor was bickering with a curly-haired woman while Donna watched. Suddenly, everyone stilled, and the spacesuit people began putting their helmets back on. Suddenly, the woman pulled out an object that made her gasp.

“How did you get a sonic screwdriver?” she whispered to the scanner.

“Hello, Rose Tyler.”

Rose’s gaze flicked up to find a diminutive girl standing a few feet away. She was clad in a short red dress, tool belt slung low on her hips. “Sorry, have we met?”

“Oswin Oswald.” Oswin skipped over the growing shadows and held a hand out to Rose. “You and I are going to save the Doctor.”

Warily, Rose took her hand. Months upon months of travel had tempered her impulses to rush ahead and trust everyone. But this girl knew her name. She knew who the Doctor was. “We are?”

“It’s why you’re here. It’s most certainly why I’m here.” Oswin tucked a long lock of hair behind her ear and pulled out her own scanner. “4,022 people stuck in a database, the Doctor, Donna Noble, and a team of archaeologists. We’ll have them out of here before lunch. We’ve just got to make sure she gets out along with them.”

“She?” Rose’s thoughts drifted to the curly-haired woman, and her stomach churned. “She who?”

“River Song. The Doctor’s wife.”

“The Doctor’s what?”

Chapter Text

Manhattan — April 2012

He thought at first that she’d left.

It was the way his life normally worked. His companions would leave him, and he’d be alone to wallow in his grief until a bride suddenly found herself on the TARDIS. Or the Titanic took out a wall. The Doctor knew River said she would go with him anywhere, anywhen. But not all the time. Of course. He’d been such a fool to ask. He’d really been a fool in a lot of ways, especially considering their future, and today was a painful reminder that their marriage was on a collision course with The Library. Clutching Amy’s last message to him, the Doctor softly closed the door and prepared to do what needed to be done next. Tell Brian. Figure out a way to close out the Ponds’ lives in the 21st century, just like he’d done for Rose and Jackie Tyler. 

Or he could just run away from it all.

His hand tightened around Amy’s message, hopelessly wrinkling the paper. No. He couldn’t do that to her. Not his Pond.

He stepped up to the console, pulled the monitor down and spotted the map showing the interior of the TARDIS with one life form moving around.

He went weak-kneed and a grin spread from ear to ear. She stayed. She stayed. Well, of course she would stay! His bespoke wife, his psychopath. Well, they both were using the term incorrectly, but he knew what she was getting at. She wouldn’t leave him alone, and he was quite the idiot to even think that she would. Feeling lighter than he had since first Rory, then Amy disappeared in that blasted cemetery, the Doctor tacked Amy’s letter on the console. He’d show it to River. They’d tell Brian together. 

“All right, Old Girl, where is she?” he murmured to the TARDIS. Directions lit up on the monitor, and his brow furrowed. “Since when do we have a dojo?”

Curiosity banishing the rest of the sadness for the moment, the Doctor sprinted down the hall, up two flights of stairs, pirouetted three times, crawled upside down through an escape hatch and moonwalked to a door he hadn’t seen before. It was a shoji, a sliding door made of bamboo and paper that was favored by the Japanese. He slid the door open and immediately ducked to prevent himself from being accidentally decapitated with a large chunk of stone. 

The room was filled with statues, and for a moment both his hearts stopped. Warily, he rested his hand on one and slowly blew out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. They weren’t Weeping Angels. Just generic statues. He started to look up, then immediately dove to the floor as the stone began flying again. Throwing his arm up to shield his eyes, the Doctor could barely make out the figure in the center of the room.

River still had her hair tied up, though tendrils had escaped and curled around her face. Sweat ran down her forehead, her cheeks, and she ran the back of one arm over her eyes to clear them. She wore a traditional kendogi and hakama, forgoing the armor. She had switched her heels out for tabi, which fell into the category of really cool socks. She gripped a katana in both hands, and with a battle cry, attacked. She moved through the forms of ancient battojutsu, the sword flashing as it cut through the statues. 

Knowing that normal swords couldn’t cut through stone, the Doctor snagged a fragment and licked it. Rock from Parsa X, far softer than normal Earth rock. That made sense. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and focused on River. Her face was calm, a serene expression that caused a chill to run down his spine. Then there was the eyes. There was the anger, the sadness, the white-hot fury she’d been suppressing for hours. Her chest heaved with each perfectly executed form, and at any other time it would be delightfully sexy. But she kept going and going, and the room generated more statues in response to her executing the others, and why wouldn’t she stop?

“River!” he yelled through the madness and ducked more flying stone. He crawled among the statues, getting close, then launched at her legs. He took her down, and she rolled to her feet, instinctively defending herself. Just as he was getting comfortable with the idea of being accidentally decapitated into his next regeneration, her sword stopped just above his neck, and she gaped at him with growing horror. 

“Doctor!” She dropped the sword and fell to her knees as he gasped for air. “Are you OK? I’m sorry,  my love! Oh, god, I’m sorry!”

“Fine, fine. Hadn’t been that close to a 15th century katana for quite a few years.” He rubbed his neck and reached for her hand. “River-”

“Don’t!” She jerked away from him. She covered her face with her hands, rocking back and forth on her heels as she fought for control. “I just need a moment.”

“I’ve yet to honor a keep-out sign,” he said and managed to wrap his arms around her before she could scramble away. She held herself stiffly for a couple seconds, then relaxed into his embrace, pressing her face into his shoulder. He waited for the tears, and his hearts ached when they didn’t come. No, he thought sadly, remembering her words to him earlier. Wouldn’t come. She would hide the damage. He wondered how many times she’d had to lie to him to keep him strong. To keep them all strong. For the first time in years, he remembered that first trip to Utah, then 1969. When he’d hurtled accusations at River, trying to get her to break. How she’d given him the same stoic look, those steady eyes as he lied and said he wouldn’t trust her. His hold on her tightened. 

He wondered how much she could handle before she broke. Then he remembered the last time she’d been pushed too far, a charged queen on the chess board. The universe had barely survived.

“I nearly hurt you,” she whispered.

“You didn’t. I’m fine. What you said earlier. It matters,” he murmured into her hair, rocking her back and forth. “They’re your parents. Of course it matters. You need to grieve for them.” 

She shuddered once, a vicious shudder that ran through both of them. Then she pulled away, slowly getting to her feet. “I need a shower,” she said, her voice as dead as her eyes.

“River,” he said helplessly, also getting to his feet. 

“Sweetie.” The endearment was reassuring, and she turned to him. “I can’t.”

“I won’t think any less of you if you do,” he said quietly. When she didn’t say anything, he tried a different tactic. “Remember how you got us out of that mess with Genghis Khan?”

Now a small smile tugged at her lips. “I literally pulled you by the back of your jacket for a quarter mile through the snow to the TARDIS.”

“Taking down soldiers with a sword your free hand,” he finished. She’d made a glorious warrior, decked out in Mongol armor. Approximately 73 legends in six cultures sprang up from that incident.

“All while you told me not to injure vital parts,” she strode to him, a bit of the flirt back in her voice. “I think you were a bit turned on by it.”

“Well.” He coughed, blushing a bit. “I did have that arrow in my leg. You made an excellent nurse.”

“So I did.” She toyed with the ends of his bow tie. “Care to join me in the shower?”

It was a distraction. An avoidance really. But suddenly a shower with his wife was the best idea to ever. He grabbed her hand and tugged her out of the room. 

——

The shower helped. So did the sex that it led to — once in the shower and again in bed. They lost themselves in each other, and it turned out to be a bit easier to face the universe once they had taken a second shower and dressed. River suggested incinerating their clothes, and the Doctor really was all for that. With that chore done, River made tea, and the Doctor found a relatively fresh sandwich that they shared. They sat together on the stairs, unwilling to be apart. Not right now. They couldn’t stay like though, River knew that. There were things that needed to be done, and if she didn’t do something, she was quite sure she would venture back to that dark place she’d been in the dojo before the Doctor stopped her. 

A mental checklist was already running through her mind: Deal with closing out her parents’ lives in 2020. Plant seed money and identities so they wouldn’t be struggling wherever they went. Find out where they went. Logic would have it be 1938 since that’s where they’d been, but it wasn’t that simple. The Rory grave had been there all along, which meant the older Rory that died at age 82 in 1938 would still happen. Her hunch was that they landed somewhere in the 1880s, and she needed to run a few tests to make sure.

She glanced at the Doctor out the corner of her eye. He was steadier than he’d been earlier, before he’d gone to retrieve her mother’s last message. She was grateful for it. The bulk of Amy Pond’s final words had been to her daughter, clutching her hand like a lifeline. She didn’t have the chance to tell the Doctor, her Raggedy Man, a proper goodbye. The Doctor had pointed out where the wrinkled page was tacked to the console, and they left it for the time being.

“We need to get this done,” River decided. The workout, the sex, the shower and food … her head was clear now, and she needed to be doing something. She would be the one to do it, because she knew the Doctor would fall apart in the middle of it. Even now, she could see the shadows start to cloud his eyes again. Oh, he’d do it. He’d done it before, on his own, so many times. Not now. She would take care of him. She strode to the console and conducted an environmental check. “She’s landed. She must have done so when we were in the shower.” She drew in a deep breath to steady herself. “Amy and Rory’s. I suppose we need to start here first.”

Their eyes met across the console and held for an endless beat. Then with a sigh, moving slowly, the Doctor joined her. She could see every line of age in his face, cleverly disguised to be so young. He rubbed her arm, hand sliding down until his fingers linked with hers. She fought the urge to lean into him, instead managed a small smile. Together, they walked into the Ponds home together to find Brian Williams, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith having tea.

“Martha Jones!” The Doctor’s eyes lit up as the three rose to their feet. Swinging River’s hand with the giddiness of a little boy, he pointed excitedly to her, to Martha, then to Mickey. “Mickey Smith!” He threw his arms around Mickey, then Martha. River noticed the wary look from Martha and worked it out in her head. She’d spoken with Martha Jones during her thesis, but about five years in her personal future. She’d probably never met the Doctor since he regenerated.

Martha accepted the hug, her face a perfect mask of confusion. “You’re the Doctor?” she said with a great deal of skepticism. “You’re all bow tie and tweed.”

“Bow ties are cool,” the Doctor stated, leaned in toward her and adjusted the tie. Something about the gesture made Martha break out into a grin, and she threw her arms around him once more in a genuine hug.

“Oh, it really is you,” she said, hugging him tightly. “You were right,” she said to Mickey.

He rolled his eyes. “Course I’m right, babe.” He threw his arm around Martha’s shoulder and exchanged a fist bump with the Doctor. “Figured it out when we got that missive from Kate.”

“Kate Stewart!” The Doctor clapped his hands and spun to River. “Oh, you’ll love her, dear.”

“I already do,” River said with a fond smile. 

He pointed at her again, pleased. “You’ve met?”

She considered, then decided it wasn’t a spoiler. The Doctor had gone through the year of the silent invasion not that long ago in her personal timeline, even though she hadn’t been with him. He’d come to Stormcage after his initial period of boredom with her parents and tried to lure her back with him. She’d taken a cube and done an investigation on her own, but the quirks of time travel had her visits to her parents rarely coinciding with the Doctor checking on the cubes. She’d been at a dig on Lumos when the Shakiri revealed themselves, and the Doctor and her parents had joined her when it was all over.

“During my thesis,” River explained. “A younger version of myself will be having tea with her, Dr. Smith-Jones and Mickey Smith in about five years.”

“You will?” For the first time, Martha centered her attention on River, and she narrowed her gaze. “There’s something’s familiar about you.”

“It’s the hair,” River said cheekily. “I’m told I greatly resemble an actress from this era.” She would never bring up The Year That Never Was, especially in front of the Doctor. But she remembered it as clearly as she did her own childhood, and Martha did as well. She’d enlighten her at a much later time. Maybe. 

“Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, this is Professor River Song.” The Doctor made a sweeping gesture toward her. “My wife.”

Martha and Mickey’s jaws dropped at the same time.

Brian merely beamed. “Congratulations!” He patted the Doctor’s shoulder and pushed his tea mug into River’s hands. “Just filled it. Come on, sit down. I’ve a feeling this will be quite the show.” He glanced around the room for a moment, a questioning look in his eyes, as if he expected Amy and Rory to step out of the TARDIS. 

River smiled at her grandfather, astonished at how easy it was to manage one. “I’d love to, thanks.” She settled herself beside him on the sofa, tea in hand, and tried to ignore the frantic beating of her hearts. She hadn’t seen her grandfather in years, not since she’d been in school alongside Amy and Rory. Out of her grandparents, he’d been the one to take the greatest interest in Mels. He’d given her new shoes, a new coat. He made sure Rory had extra food at lunch so he could share his meal with her. He never said a word when Mels had shown up with bruises and scrapes and a broken arm she couldn’t explain. Rory told her years earlier that Brian had tried getting her out of the system but had failed. Of course, he’d been up against the Church and hadn’t realized it, but it endeared River to him more.

Brian glanced toward the TARDIS again. “Where’s Amy and Rory? They’re taking their time, aren’t they?” He returned his focus to River and tilted his head. “You know, she’s right? Dr. Jones, that is. Something about you looks familiar.”

River’s hands shook, and she immediately put the tea on the coffee table before she spilled it everywhere. “I’m not thirsty,” she lied when Brian lifted an eyebrow in a way that reminded her so very much of her father. She shot a furtive look at the Doctor, who was chatting animatedly with Mickey and Martha, and wondered why they were there. They had to tell Brian about her parents, but it was better if it wasn’t in front of them. Then again, if anyone knew what it was like to suddenly be locked away in another time, another place, it’d be them. 

“You’re married?” Martha cut into the Doctor’s babbling, looking as if she’d just been informed that there were really 216 bones in the body instead of 206 and she’d been wrong all these years. “You’re actually married? Time Lords can do that?”

“Good on you, mate!” Mickey said with a grin and a friendly punch to the Doctor’s shoulder. 

“Who says Time Lords can’t marry?” the Doctor huffed.

“I’m sure it’s not impossible, but all that time mooning after Ro-” She cut off, and she suddenly flicked a glance at Mickey, then River.

“It’s all right,” River reassured her. “I know about Rose Tyler.”

Martha gave her a measured look that spoke of her disbelief. “Everything?” 

“Everything.” She smiled at the Doctor, and he nodded his confirmation. “And that your husband was once her boyfriend.” And also that Martha once had quite the crush on the Doctor, but it was information that really didn’t need to be verbalized at the moment.

“Right, so, Martha and Mickey Smith! Smith-Jones! Not Jones-Smith. What brings you here?” The Doctor clapped his hands and surveyed the home. His gaze fell on a picture of himself with Amy and Rory on the mantle, and River saw the flash of pain in his eyes for just a second before he lunged for the Wii. “Tennis! Oh, we can do doubles. I love tennis! Won 16 matches in a row last time I was here.”

“We actually came here to deliver something,” Martha said. She nodded to a package sitting on the table. “Kate hired us to deliver it. Said that UNIT had been keeping in storage for the past few years. It came from Torchwood and survived the destruction of the Hub. We did some testing,” she added as the Doctor strode to the package. “It looks like it came from the 1920s.”

He had one hand on the package and snatched it away like someone had set it on fire. “1920s?”

“Possibly earlier.”

Steeling herself, River got to her feet and joined the Doctor. She turned the package toward her and recognized the faded handwriting. There was no putting it off any longer. “Martha, Mickey. I hate to be rude, but we need to speak with Brian privately.”

The Doctor pushed the package away. “No, no, it can wait.”

“Doctor, this can’t wait.”

“We don’t have to do it now.”

“We can’t just keep putting it off.” She recognized the growing agitation in his voice. “Now, we can either stand here and have a row in front of them, or we get this done. You owe it to Brian to tell him. Now.”

Anger flashed in his eyes. Anger at her, at the situation. At himself. Then his shoulders slumped, and the age he normally managed to hide seeped through. Ignoring the curious faces, River reached for him, gently taking his arm. “Sweetie,” she murmured. 

“Do it with me,” he asked softly, and she nodded. She laced her fingers with his and faced Brian.

Brian was standing now, and she could see him trembling. The disbelief, the shock was already setting in, and he knew. They always knew, the survivors. The ones left behind. Martha and Mickey had retreated to the kitchen, hovering away at a discreet distance. They knew as well. She could sense the hum from the TARDIS, knew she was doing her best to extend her comfort as well.

“Rory and Amy. They’re not coming back, are they?” Brian’s hands curled into fists. “You said they wouldn’t be one of them. You said they wouldn’t be one of the ones who died. You’d bring them back safe.” 

“I’m sorry.” The Doctor squeezed River’s hand as he spoke, and he was holding it so tightly that she briefly wondered if she’d have a broken hand to go along with the wrist she’d had to break earlier. He hung his head. “I’m so sorry.” He swallowed. “They’re safe. They’re just not here.” His gaze met Martha’s. “It was the Weeping Angels.”

Martha’s eyes widened with recognition, and she reached for Mickey. She leaned into him, murmuring an explanation about what they were.

“Kindest assassins you’d ever met,” the Doctor continued. “They send you back to the past and feed off the potential energy from the life you would have led. Rory was at the center of a paradox and was sent back in time. Amy chose to join him. We can’t retrieve them in the TARDIS. The time distortions around New York City are so unstable that even River can’t use her vortex manipulator. We can’t bring them out and back home, because if we do, it’ll be a paradox of a paradox.”

“Then those reapers would happen, yeah?” Mickey spoke up. “Rose mentioned those, first time you took her to meet her dad.”

“It would destroy New York, yes,” the Doctor confirmed, “trying to repair the timelines. Even if they left the city, if we took them out of that time, it could cause irreparable damage.”

“So, they can’t ever come home?” Brian sounded lost, and Martha approached him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. 

“Amy and Rory have done a lot through the years. They’ve messed with time so many times that it’s surprising they haven’t been a target of the Weeping Angels before now other than Amy on the Byzantium,” River said, thinking of the 2,000 years her father had waited for her mother. Of course the Angels would go after him. If a normal human was a meal to an Angel, Rory Williams would be the equivalent of a seven-course banquet. “We could try with the vortex manipulator, but I’m not comfortable risking it. Even if the city wasn’t destroyed, the Angels would come for Rory again. And this time, he and Amy wouldn’t be able to find each other. I’m not going to risk that.”

Brian drew in a shaky breath and settled his gaze on River. “What if I asked you to?”

“I can’t, and I won’t let him,” River replied, indicating the Doctor. “I’ll stop you both if I have to.”

Brian shrugged off Martha’s hand. River steeled herself for the anger. She was used to it. She could take it — would take it — because she didn’t think the Doctor could.

“How well do you know them?” Brian demanded.

She refused to allow her gaze to go anywhere but on her grandfather’s eyes. Her father’s eyes. “Better than you’d ever think I would.”

His color rose. “They’ve never talked about you. They never mentioned he had a wife, and neither did he, and we all spent the better part of a year together. If you really do know them at all, what would they have wanted?”

“To be together,” she immediately answered, the hurt she thought she’d dealt with a long time ago flaring back up. She’d been used to being segmented into a corner of her parents’ lives but now wasn’t the time to focus on that. “No matter the time or the place. Nothing matters beyond that. They have torn time apart on multiple occasions to be together.” 

She could tell when the Doctor hit his limit. He pulled away from her, moving to the back door without saying a word. He slammed it behind him as he walked out, the only sign that he was feeling anything at all. Martha and Mickey exchanged a look. Mickey jerked his head toward the garden, Martha nodded and silently followed the Doctor outside.

Brian swallowed once. Then twice. Then he reached for River, hugging her hard. “Thank you,” he whispered, “for knowing them so well and for letting them be together.”

She was grateful he was holding onto her, because she doubt her legs could support her at the moment. Tears burned in the back of her eyes and for once, she wished she was able to cry. “I love them very much,” she murmured. “Just as much as you do.”

He pulled back, studying her face intensely. A minute passed, then two. She could see his mind working, connecting the dots between this strange woman and Amy and Rory. His bottom lip quivered just a bit, then he steered River toward the mantle, toward the picture of her parents flanking her husband. “You’ve got his eyes,” he said hoarsely, pointing to Rory. “His eyes and nose. Her face.”

River had always questioned whether familial resemblances carried through regenerations, but her grandfather was as perceptive as her father. “I was born Melody Pond,” she admitted. “I’m Amy and Rory’s daughter.”

“You’re theirs?” His hands shook. “How? How could you be theirs when Amy said she couldn’t have children? She and Rory nearly divorced over that.”

“I know.” River wrapped her arm around Brian’s waist. “Granddad,” she said, the word almost sticking in her throat, “consider me a miracle.”

——

The Doctor found the football he’d left behind so long ago and kicked it around angrily. He couldn’t deal with it anymore. Not with Brian’s grief, not with River’s rigid stoicism as she remained strong for them both again. Every word sliced through him, twisting the guilt over what happened to Amy and Rory into a many-edged sword that cut through his soul again and again. Brian was right. He’d promised to bring Amy and Rory home. He promised. Just like he promised Jackie Tyler so long ago that he would keep Rose safe. He’d promised the same thing to Wilf about Donna, and look what happened to her. There was common denominator as to what happened to all of them, and that was him. 

He could already hear River scolding him for thinking this way, but hell, he’d hurt her in so many ways that he’d lost count. He channeled all his frustration into a single kick and sent the football flying over the fence. Well, great. Now he didn’t have a football either. Fists clenched, he spun around and nearly ran over Martha.

“So, you finished there?” With an ease born by seeing the Doctor worked into a similar state far too many times, she gave him a half-smile. “Going to kick something else over the fence?”

The anger drained out of him. He dragged his hands over his face and threw himself into one of the chairs surrounding the small table. He could barely look at her. All he could see was the pain and the torture she and her family had to endure at the hands of the Master because he couldn’t leave well enough alone. If only he hadn’t been so arrogant and brought down Harriet Jones with a single sentence. If only he’d listened to his gut and kept Martha off the TARDIS. “I keep breaking them, Martha. Rose. Donna. Amy and Rory. They’re all gone because of me. Locked into a different universe, a different time. Donna’s memories are gone. Jack’s immortal, and he never wanted to be. Nothing good ever comes out of me.”

“Are you listening to yourself?” Martha folded her arms across her chest. “So, you’re saying me and Mickey being married was a horrible thing to happen?”

“No! No, of course …”

“What about River? I don’t know her, but lord knows she must have the patience of three saints to even considered being married to you. No offense.”

“I ruined her life, too.”

She threw up her hands. “Oh, this is ridiculous. I would have hoped maybe with the new face that some of that cosmic angst would have gone away.”

“No,” the Doctor admitted, “I just hid it better.”

Martha dropped into the seat next to him and leaned forward so he could meet her gaze. “Being with you was the best thing to happen to me, to so many people. Yeah, I blamed you for what happened with Saxon. But, you know, it’s not like you caused the Master do what he did. It could have happened to anyone. What if I’d lived for real during the American Civil War? Or in Nazi Germany? Things like this would have happened, and you wouldn’t have caused any of it. You’re grieving them, and I’ve seen you do it for Rose. But, River’s right. If Amy and Rory loved each other the way she says they do, then they would want to be together no matter what.”

“I’m aware of that,” he said shortly. “I’m really tired of all of you treating me like a 12-year-old.”

“Maybe if you stopped acting like one, we would.” She placed a hand on his knee. “Remember what happened with Rose. The walls between the universe. It sounds like that, and you know what happened if you’d tried to fix it.”

He remembered. He could hardly forget. That was the hardest thing to swallow. His Amelia, the little girl who had waited for him. His best friend. Her and Rory gone before he’d managed to even say a proper good-bye. He’d had that with Rose, even to a degree with Donna. He would have it with River, whenever that cursed day came that they went to Darillium. He couldn’t quite stop his chin from quivering.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “Sorry for how I acted toward you. You didn’t deserve it.”

“You’re right about that,” Martha agreed, and he knew she understood that he hadn’t meant now, but all those years ago when she had traveled with his tenth self. “But, I forgave you a long time ago. So did Mickey.” She cast a glance toward the house. “I think you should go help River. She looked about as rough as you do, though she does a better job at masking it.”

Hiding the damage. Once again, those words sprang into his mind, and the Doctor hunched his shoulders.

“There now. You look like a properly chastised husband.” Martha wrinkled her nose a bit. “That’s never not going to be weird, you being married. I honestly thought … well, Rose. I thought you’d never get over her.”

“She’s happy,” the Doctor explained, not sure how to convey it. The pain had all but disappeared with his regeneration. Then his life, his hearts, had become so entangled around River Song that as hard as he’d fought their relationship, he’d been falling into it all the same. “You never forget them. You never stop caring for them, remembering what you felt. Rose wasn’t the first. Neither is River.” He didn’t want to think about the future without River yet. Not while his hearts were scraped raw from the loss of Amy and Rory. 

 

Chapter Text

The package sat on the table with the allure of a long-hidden archaeological wonder and the dread of a ticking time bomb. Once Brian had pulled himself together, he peppered River with questions about her birth, about why Amy and Rory hadn’t told him about her, who she was, what she was doing — a brilliant effort to grab as much knowledge about his newfound granddaughter in a short time. She deflected the obvious, deciding that Demon’s Run was a bit too much for Brian to handle right now.

Over his shoulder, she saw Mickey Smith leaning against the counter in the kitchen, tapping away on his iPhone. He kept shooting her speculative glances, and she wondered how much information UNIT had on her in this era. It was probably time to go alter the files again. 

She explained her Ph.D in archaeology to Brian and how she was “in-between” jobs in academia. Dreadfully hard to make tenure when you traveled with the Doctor, she explained breezily. She winked at Mickey’s snort. Her time in Stormcage was a very convenient lapse in conversation, and if Brian happened to believe that she was a child of Amy and Rory’s conceived after their disappearance, she wasn’t going to convince him otherwise at the moment. 

Brian excused himself to go to the loo, and River peered through the window to see the Doctor and Martha sitting in the garden. 

“Strange thing about you,” Mickey spoke up. He waved his iPhone at her. “UNIT files indicate that you’re a time traveler like the Doctor. Everything you’ve told Brian is technically true. But, something’s not right about it.”

“Really?” River asked in a disinterested voice. Oh, she really needed to check out those files when she had a spare moment.

“Whoever hacked into the system was really good. That’s why they hired me. I can spot this sort of thing. Oh, and carry a massive gun, but that’s just one of the perks. Torchwood … I still have access. Martha and I work with Gwen still when we get a chance. There seems to be a lock around your file and the Doctor’s that I can’t even hack into.”

Bless you, Jack. River sent a mental kiss to one of her oldest friends and flashed a brilliant smile at Mickey. “Isn’t that just fascinating?”

Mickey narrowed his eyes. “You tell me.”

“Maybe there’s nothing beyond what you see in those files, Mickey Smith.” Her grin grew wider at his disbelieving snort. 

Brian emerged from the loo just as Martha walked back in the house, the Doctor following her. His eyes met River’s briefly as he strode to the table and picked up the package, turning it over and over in his hands, cataloguing everything he could from the age of the paper to where it was made. He started to lick it, but a raised eyebrow from her stopped him.

“I love packages! Packages can be full of surprising things. Well, deadly things as well, but mostly surprising. Then again, the deadly is always surprising. Too bad it’s not Christmas, because Christmas packages are the best. Filled with biscuits and crackers and those chocolate-covered orange slices. I’ve a fondness for them in this body. Didn’t think I would.” Tongue between his teeth, he tried yanking off the twine. After a minute of tugging, Mickey unearthed his pocketknife and sliced through the twine.

The paper fell apart, revealing a shirt box from Macy’s from the early 1900s. River sighed inwardly with regret. Visiting one of the original Macy’s holiday parades had been on her bucket list, but it would be nearly impossible to do now thanks to the time distortion. The Doctor whisked away the lid and snatched up the first paper. He scanned it, then dropped it like it’d caught on fire.

“What is it?” Brian asked as River joined them at the table. 

“Last will and testament,” she said in a clinical tone, because her hearts were reminding her that everything was going just a bit too fast, hurting just a little too much. “Don’t touch it,” she ordered when Brian reached for it and patted her trousers and sighed when she realized how shallow the pockets were. She’d grabbed the ordinary ones and not the ones she doctored to hold more, including her portable kit. “It’s at least a century old, and the paper’s brittle. The Doctor’s hands are cooler than ours, he can handle it better.”

The Doctor dug into the pocket of his tweed and pulled out a pair of disposable gloves. Without saying a word, he handed them over. She swallowed, touched by the gesture. He’d never needed them other than for her work, and she usually carried her own. Funny how that worked. Despite his disdain for her profession, he tended to have the tools she needed to get the job done. She pulled them on and gingerly picked up the paper.

“Last Will and Testament of Amelia Jessica Pond Williams and Rory Arthur Williams,” River said. “Hello, River. We assume you’re the one reading it because the Doctor probably took one look at it and handed it to you.” The Doctor snorted and they exchanged a small smile. He shifted so he could read over her shoulder. “To get the legal business out of the way, you’re the executor of this will. Please don’t let the Doctor handle it. He’s likely to turn the lounge of our house into a bouncy castle before selling it.”

Martha had to turn away to hide her laugh.

“Not the lounge, Pond,” the Doctor muttered. “Maybe the spare bedroom.”

“Rude! That was our room!” 

“And I keep telling you, dear, the TARDIS needs a bouncy castle. And a ball pit.”

She rolled her eyes. “My husband, the 12-year-old!”

“Who ambushed me with a paintball gun on Xragh, Professor?” He bopped her nose, and she very nearly stuck her tongue out at him. His arm slipped around her waist, and for the moment, everything was relatively normal. 

River decided not to rub in the fact that she had been winning that paintball ambush until the Doctor had used extremely dirty tactics that involved making her slip, handcuffing her and well … they’d both turned out to be the winners in the end. “It seems weird to be doing this, but we just had an event happen that made us realize we needed to leave you some instructions. By the way, young lady, when are you ever going to finish that book? It’s 1912 now, and we’ve got to get it out no later than 1930. Stop letting the Doctor distract you.”

“This is really a will?” Mickey asked.

“It’s Amy,” Brian said with pride.

“They didn’t get sent back to 1938,” River said. “I was wondering about that. That last Angel, the survivor. Its orders were to send Rory back to an earlier time so he could live to 1938.”

“It’s most likely that it was carrying out those orders instead of just sending them straight back to where we created the paradox,” the Doctor agreed. 

“Could you find them then?” Brian asked. “Bring them home?”

“It’ll make it a lot easier.” River kept reading. “I can’t tell you too much about things here. Spoilers. I know you, Doctor, you find out now and you’ll try to change things. Just don’t. Please. We’re fine and we’re happy, and you’ll know more soon enough. River, in my jewelry box, there’s a key to the safe deposit box at the Barclays down the road. You know, the one next to the Tesco. The deed to the house and our other important papers are there. The house is yours to sell or keep. Please tell Brian. He needs to know. As for my parents, it’s up to you. I know you’ll have to come up with some way of killing us in 2020. Make it a good one. There’s a letter for Brian from Rory. You’ll figure out what to do with the rest soon enough. We love you.”

She set aside the will quickly and found the letter for Brian. The only other thing in the package were three envelopes that appeared to be older than the will and letter. She gingerly opened it and winged an eyebrow as she pulled out a train ticket from Philadelphia to New York City dated 1889. 

“Train tickets?” Brian asked as River peeled off her gloves and handed them over so Brian could use them to read the letter.

“I believe Mother and Dad are inviting us to visit them in old New York.” 

——

Martha offered to take point in creating an imaginary death for Amy and Rory. It was almost too easy. Hours earlier, a plane making the long-haul flight from London to Mexico had a fatal malfunction and wound up in the ocean, killing everyone aboard. As tragic as the event was, it was the perfect cover. Mickey used his hacking skills to get Amy and Rory on the passenger list while River hacked into her mother’s email and sent one to Tabetha Pond to let her know of a surprise second honeymoon that the Ponds were taking and tweaked the computer so it would land in her email a day before the flight. By morning, Tabetha would be receiving the bad news.

“They really don’t know who you are?” Martha asked as River completed the email.

Because the Martha in her past had known, River briefly explained Demon’s Run. She left out the parts about trying to kill the Doctor. Mickey was bound and determined to hack into her file, and one day she just might let him. “It was my parents’ choice to make.” She bit her lip as she pressed the send button and sat back in the chair. “I understand it was difficult for your mother to accept.”

“Oh, just a bit,” Martha said dryly. “She came around after the world had gone to hell back, but she eventually came around.”

“Brian apparently found out when the Doctor whisked away my parents for a trip and accidentally took him along.” She smiled fondly. “Bless. Dinosaurs on a spaceship. Oh, how I wish I’d seen that.”

Across the room, the Doctor was shuffling through old magazines. His head snapped up. “What?”

River spun around in the chair, realization dawning. “Doctor, have you taken Brian into space yet?”

“No. No, I haven’t.” She saw the equal realization in his eyes. Adventures he hadn’t done with her parents yet. “What do you know about them?”

“It was in the past for them. Hang on.” River quickly retrieved her diary from the TARDIS. She kept a running list of her parents’ adventures because it was another way of keeping time. “The Asylum?”

“Yes, I’ve done that.”

“Dinosaurs on a spaceship? Queen Nefertiti?” 

A grin blossomed from ear to ear, and he looked lighter than she’d seen him since she’d first seen him in Manhattan. 

“Mercy, Nevada? You know Kate Stewart, so you’ve done the cubes.”

“No. No, not Mercy.” She could see the excitement bubbling in him, making him bounce from foot to foot. She quickly made a decision. Snagging a sticky note, she scribbled down a date and coordinates and handed them over. “This is for Mercy. You did it about a year ago in their past. I can try to find more. Fill in the blanks.”

He grabbed the sticky as if he’d handed her the Holy Grail. Then he grabbed her hand. “Right! Martha, it’s been lovely seeing you …”

“Sweetie,” River said firmly, and she could already see his face falling. She kissed his cheek. “I wasn’t in Mercy, nor was I on that first trip with Brian. We can find other gaps to fill in later together, but for now, go take my parents to Mercy. Actually, you were going to meet me in Mexico to celebrate El Dia de Los Muertos, but you missed. Bless. You’re going to go mad with boredom, and I’ve got to take care of things here.”

“I can help you,” he insisted, and she merely arched an eyebrow.

“You can help me by taking Mum and Dad to Mercy while I handle things here. I’ve got to decide what to do with the house and pack things away. It’ll be boring.” And excruciatingly painful, which was the biggest reason why she wanted him out of the house while she took care what needed to be done. She saw the sad look in his eyes and knew he’d come to the same realization. 

He fiddled with the sticky, not quite meeting her eyes. “I’m sure we can rewrite just that-“

“Sweetie, get out of here.” She steered him toward the TARDIS and laid her hand on the door. “Try to get him back here in a week, dear,” she addressed the ship. “Tell Martha good-bye.”

“Martha, tell her-”

“I’m with her. Get out of here, Doctor,” Martha said gaily. 

The Doctor shook his head, kissed River and let the TARDIS door close behind him.

——

It took the Doctor longer than a week to return. It turned out to be three weeks and a day, which didn’t surprise her one bit. During that time, River and Brian dealt with everything. A funeral was held for her parents that River attended with Brian, and it was the main reason why she didn’t want the TARDIS bringing him back so soon. He wouldn’t have coped with it, and he was finding closure in his own way. Brian introduced River to the grieving Ponds as his niece who had missed the wedding because she’d been traveling abroad. Enough of the truth, enough of a lie to make it work. Because Brian lived in London, he said he would take care of the house.

River spent two days packing her parents’ personal effects and donating them to charity. A few pieces of good jewelry were sent to Tabetha, but Amy had her “A” necklace and wedding rings with her. There were some things she put aside for herself — the pieces of jewelry Rory had bought for Amy, a couple bottles of Amy’s nail varnish, a pair of her shoes and Rory’s Roman lunchbox, which River had bought him as a joke. The tears threatened to finally come then, as she held the metal box in her hands and remembered the look on his face when she presented it to him. Amy had fallen off her chair with laughter. 

Brian took everything in stride. He quit the lease on his flat, River using her psychic paper to get him out of the contract without fees. He took up residence in Amy and Rory’s guest room while River avoided their bedroom, instead catnapping on the sofa. Her body was wearing down, but she made herself work. The hours she didn’t spend packing, she spent them making arrangements to set up accounts in the past for her parents. While Brian slept, she used her vortex  manipulator to hop back to New York in the 1850s. The time distortions were absent then, and it helped her narrow down a timeframe. She set up bank accounts, established the persona of a slightly dotty elderly spinster who would leave her fortune and home on the Upper East Side to her favorite nephew and his wife in the 1880s.

When the last box had been hauled to the charity shop and the deed to the house signed over to River’s preferred legal identity for this era, Brian informed her that he had no plans to stay in the present.

“You know Marissa died when Rory was 3,” he said. “And Carol … the less said, the better.” River agreed. She and Amy had always hated Rory’s stepmother. “Rory’s all I got, and I’m not going to sit here and become a bitter old man when I have the chance to be with them.” His brow furrowed. “Will it affect that paradox if I stay with them?”

“No, not where we’re going.” River idly perused the day’s news on her tablet. “We still can’t risk taking the TARDIS back there. The latest I was able to go without noticing any distortions was 1881. It’s not when they arrived there, but when things began happening. Using their ages when they left and Rory’s when he died in 1938, I believe they landed somewhere around 1888-1889.” If the Angel allowed them to land together, but she hoped that for once that fate was kind to her parents, and they were at least together by the time Amy prepared the will. 

They drove to Leadworth that day, so Brian could tell his friends that he was spending the rest of his retirement in the United States. She couldn’t quite bring herself to visit the Ponds with him, so she wandered to the school and found herself staring at the playground where she’d come across Amy and Rory for the first time since her second regeneration. At first she’d wondered if perhaps they’d been taken back to the 1930s or the 1960s — she had regenerated herself in New York City in early 1970. But the Church had quickly scooped her up thanks to a plant in Torchwood who was monitoring for regeneration energy. They leaped forward to the early 1990s to try again, this time having Mels infiltrate the ranks from within via Amy and Rory.

River shook her head, turned and found herself studying the idling bus lingering near the school.

“The strangest thing happened as I was leaving Colin’s,” Brian said on the way back to London. “Report came on the news about this person who suddenly stole the bus from in front of the school. Drove it through the botanical gardens.”

“Interesting.”

Brian narrowed his eyes at his granddaughter. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

River kept her face neutral. “I haven’t the faintest idea, Granddad.”

When they got back, Brian headed to bed and River curled up on the sofa with the one family album that Amy used to keep pictures of the Doctor and River. Her feet tucked under her, she idly turned the pages. There was nothing left to be done. Once Brian woke up and was ready, she’d use her psychic paper to summon the Doctor. She was halfway tempted to use her vortex manipulator to leap ahead, but that was the sort of cheating the Doctor did. When the memories grew too painful, she closed her eyes for just a second. She had some work on her tablet, and she needed to narrow down the results of her-

She stirred when she smelled the familiar scent of woods and time and realized that the sofa cushions had been replaced by something more lumpy and boney. Instinctively, she turned into the scent and nuzzled. “Sweetie?”

“Go back to sleep,” the Doctor whispered, and she felt his fingers in her hair playing with her curls.

“No, I just wanted to shut my eyes for a moment.” 

“When’s the last time you slept?” 

She didn’t want to think about that. She lifted her head and noticed that the Doctor managed to wedge himself between her and the sofa. She shifted so she was in his lap, nestled between his legs. It also afforded her a view of the clock. “About 30 minutes? Can’t be any longer than that. You just got back. How was Mercy?”

He kept playing with her curls and didn’t say anything. “I might have done Mercy … and Nefertiti … and the dinosaurs.”

“All at once?” She craned her neck to look at him. “Sweetie, how long have you been gone?”

He couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Maybe a month … or seven.”

With a resigned sigh, she settled back in his lap. Seven months. Of course. Resentment curled in her stomach, and she quickly tampered it back down. She knew he’d avoid coming back to deal with his loss as long as possible. Seven months to a Time Lord was practically a week for humans, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’d been gone three weeks instead of the one. She wanted to slap him. He deserved a slap this time, for leaving her alone with this for so damn long. But it was part of the package. Part of the damage. So she said nothing and listened to the steady beat of his hearts beneath her ear.

“What’s there left to do?” he asked.

“Absolutely nothing.” She couldn’t quite hide the bitterness. “We planned the funeral and held it. We settled the estate and took care of disposing Amy and Rory’s things. I’ve packed some items they’ll need in the 1800s. I’ve set up new identities for them, forged the proper paperwork, seeded several bank accounts. Brian wants to settle with Amy and Rory back then, and if you won’t do it, I’ll do it myself. I sincerely hope you had fun with my parents.” The tears threatened again, and she stood. She wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the sudden emotion, and she blamed it on lack of sleep. So, she stormed into the TARDIS and felt the fissures in their marriage that the Weeping Angels exposed crack a little wider.

——

He’d been running. He’d always been good at running, ever since from the beginning when he had fled the strict confinement of Gallifreyan society, stole a TARDIS and his granddaughter and took to the stars. So he barely hesitated when River had urged him to go, to do Mercy with a past Amy and Rory. She’d been right about that. He needed it, and she needed to take care of the details. Always pragmatic, his River. Always willing to handle everything that he couldn’t. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done it before, hadn’t faced death before. But it had taken him months to even begin to close the past on Rose when she slipped away from him — only doing so right before he burned up that supernova to say good-bye to them. 

Doing Mercy was OK. Being gone a week, even two or three was OK. But then he’d kept going. One adventure led to another, some with the Ponds and some without. He even spent time with a younger River, one still in Stormcage. She would connect the dots soon with that, she was far too brilliant not to. But he needed her, that younger River, the one that wasn’t a professor and wasn’t pardoned and the neon sign of the Library wasn’t burning so brightly. So he told himself that he would go back to 2020 eventually, that River would never know how long he really ran for. Mistake no. 1, the Doctor thought glumly. River would know. She always knew. It had to be that sixth sense wives had, the one that caused them to arch their eyebrows and know what their spouses were really up to. And his wife … well, she’d always been scary when it came to that.

He hadn’t done his environment checks again, and when he bounded into the Ponds’ lounge and saw River curled up on the sofa asleep it was time to deal with it. He had watched her sleep for a few minutes, hands tucked beneath her cheek and deep shadows under her eyes. The guilt clawed through him. Then he’d been selfish, managed to work his way onto the sofa and let her curl into him. It’d taken her a couple minutes to wake up, but he cherished every one of those stolen seconds as he closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the peace of just being with her.

He deserved the snarky comments she made. He really deserved far more than that and was grateful she hadn’t just used her vortex manipulator and skipped out to parts unknown. He wouldn’t blame her if she did. But she mentioned Brian and she wouldn’t leave Brian. She wouldn’t walk away from the only family she had left, because he was doing a piss-poor job at the moment at being her husband, and she would never confide in Amy’s parents.

That was the thing about being 1,200 years old. You usually were painfully self-aware of when you mucked everything up.

The Doctor cautiously peered into the console room and found River bracing herself against the console, head bowed and shoulders stiff. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “I should have come back sooner.”

“It’s my own fault. I’m the one who urged you to go.” Her fingers absently trailed around a dial. “I knew you couldn’t handle it, and I could.”

“None of you give me credit for anything,” he said a bit grumpily.

“Oh, sweetie. Tell me again, how long did it take you to handle Rose’s affairs when she was sealed in the other universe?”

His shoulders slumped, and he sank onto the captain’s chair. “It’s been harder,” he admitted. “Every since the Time War. I thought making Susan go her own way was hard. Katarina and Sara, their deaths were a shock … but Adric. It was like something had been ripped something out of me. I’ve lost people before. Not everyone. Martha reminded me of that. But it’s just … Amy and Rory. Especially not after …” He immediately clamped his mouth shut. Not after you, he thought. Not after seeing you die in that Library, to save all those people. To save me. To save our marriage, what was to come for me, even though the more I know you, the more I know you would hate what I did. He swallowed and kneaded his eyes. “I wasn’t ready to let them go yet. I’m still not. A little more, yes. Everybody eventually leaves. Everybody dies.”

“Including us.”

And he couldn’t stop the tears this time. “Including us.”

“Sweetie.” She stepped around the console to embrace him, but he took a step back. He saw the hurt flash in her eyes and shook his head. He had to finish this first.

“I have my own damage I hide every time we’re together. I don’t want to think of the number of times you’ve had to mask your pain because I’ve been so stupid. I don’t know how much time we have left, River.”

“Oh, sweetie. Years. Centuries. We’ve been together for a long time, but you know the lifespan of a Time Lord. We have so much more to come …”

“You’re a professor now.” His voice rose in anger,  frustration and the cold, polarizing fear that the next time he opened those doors that it would be at the Singing Towers and he would be losing her. 

“And that doesn’t mean we’re going to-”

“You don’t know that!” he yelled at her. 

“And you do,” River said calmly. “Doctor, I am not an idiot. I figured out a long time ago that you were there at my end. I’m OK with it. I’m more than OK with it. If there’s anyone I want there with me, it’s you, so I’d rather you-“

He cut her off by grabbing her in a fierce hug, pressing her face to his shoulder because he didn’t want to hear it any longer. 

“Oh, sweetie,” she murmured against his shoulder. “Is that why you were avoiding coming back here so long?”

He pressed his face into her curls and didn’t trust himself to say anything.

“I’ll tell you a spoiler. Just a small one in the grand scheme of things.” She gently tilted his face up and caressed his cheek. “When it comes for you, at the very end, you won’t be alone. I promise.”

It didn’t make it any easier. It was just another piece of pain that River had apparently held onto and squirreled away deep in her soul. Just like the Library for him. “Stay with me, please,” he begged. “Any time, any place, any when. I’ll even go on archaeology digs and won’t complain … well, I won’t complain on the first one. Maybe the second. We’ll negotiate. But, please. Please, please, stay with me.”

Her voice hitched. “I can’t. I sorry, my love.”

He pressed his face into her hair and wept a bit. For her. For himself. “But you’ve been pardoned. Why can’t you stay with me?”

“Because you told me it couldn’t be this way!”

He was officially the biggest idiot in the galaxy, he decided. What version of himself toward River that? Especially, especially know that the Towers were close. “Sod me! When should you ever listen to me? Rule 76, don’t listen to the Doctor when he’s being an idiot. Or a cad. Or covered in dungbombs.”

River shook her head and laughed. Everything inside him went weak with relief. They were going to be OK. He would figure out when he apparently told her there was no way for them to live together in a post-Stormcage world. Then he would make sure River slapped the living daylights out of him for even thinking such a thing. And one day, he would figure out how to rewrite time to get her out of the Library, and then he would figure out how to give her back some of that regeneration energy she’d given him. He’d been slipping it to her in small doses, but he had a feeling she was catching onto that one. An old man’s follies, he knew, but he wanted to hold onto his wife for just a little while longer.

And he didn’t want to talk about death anymore or think about it or do anything associated with it. So he backed her into the railing and kissed her as if his life depended on it. Which it very well did at that moment. His fingers dove into her hair, and he boosted her onto the railing and stepped between her thighs so she could return the favor. He was busy peeling her jumper off when the door opened.

“Oh my God,” Martha said, eyes wide with shock, and the Doctor immediately jerked his hands out from under River’s clothes.

Mickey let out a wolf whistle.

“You two are like Amy and Rory,” Brian said with a huff. “There’s some things that need to be kept to a bedroom.”

Martha grabbed Mickey and Brian’s arms and hauled them out of the TARDIS. 

“Well, that’s our cue to rejoin the world.” River calmly patted her hair, straightened her jumper and kissed his cheek. She hopped off the railing. “I think you broke Martha.”

“I did not break Martha,” the Doctor insisted with his own huff. He followed River, then grabbed her hand. “Will you stay with me until you finish the book? Please?”

She smiled. “Yes. I’ll stay until it’s finished.”

With a grin, he kissed her cheek, bopped her nose and tugged her out of the TARDIS.

Chapter Text

The Library — 51 st Century

Rose followed Oswin, her body on autopilot. It felt like someone had dropped her heart off a very high cliff, then stomped on it for good measure before tossing it into a recycler. She dashed away a tear and forced herself to maintain her focus. She was here on a mission. She needed to find the Doctor so they could close the cracks in the universe and set everything to rights. He had the right to move on, to develop relationships with other people. Her conversation with Sarah Jane Smith a lifetime ago looped again and again. The Doctor loved but moved on. She was apparently the latest in that line. Still, a wife? He’d only given the barest implication that he’d had a family before the Time War, something Sarah Jane confirmed when they managed to get away for lunch not long before she was stranded in the alternate universe. Pete’s World, he’d called it.

A wife meant that not only had the Doctor found love again, but he’d loved and opened himself enough to the point that he could share his very long life with that person. That River Song. He was willing to live a mere mortal lifetime with this River, because surely her lifespan wasn’t any longer than Rose’s own.

“And that’s where you’re wrong.”

Rose nearly plowed into Oswin. “Sorry?”

“You’ve been gone from here for years,” Oswin informed her and gestured to a panel. “Here, help me with this.”

“What’re we doing?” Rose helped Oswin unscrew and remove the panel.

“Redirecting the wiring to this.” Oswin opened the bag she had slung over a shoulder and pulled out a large box. “It’s an external hard drive.”

“Designed to do what?”

“There’s 4,022 people trapped in the data core. The Doctor’s going to negotiate with the Vashta Nerada to save them, but to do so, CAL needs extra memory.”

“Like it’s at full capacity, so it doesn’t have the extra memory needed to complete the process of bringing everyone back?” Rose guessed.

Oswin pointed at her. “See? You’re clever. That’s why the Doctor loves you so much.”

“If he loves me, why’s he with her?” The bitterness slipped through, just for a second, but it was enough for Rose to mentally smack herself in the forehead. “Sorry. Sorry, that was really-”

“Well, he’s not with her,” Oswin said conversationally as she started wiring the hard drive into CAL. “Not this one, not your Doctor.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I know things.” Oswin tapped her forehead. “Trust the brain.”

“You’ll pardon me if I don’t just fall at your feet praising your existence.”

“That’s fine, plenty enough to do to cover your oversight.” Oswin winked at her and took a couple small tools from her belt. “This Doctor, the one a couple floors below us, is your Doctor. He’s not Professor Song’s Doctor. She’s married to a future version of him.”

“How far in the future?”

Oswin rolled her eyes. “Spoilers! You know, the jealousy isn’t becoming.”

“I’m not jealous!” Rose huffed out a breath as Oswin arched an eyebrow. “Oh, all right, I am. Just a bit. But it hasn’t been all that long for me. A couple years.”

“Even if you did come back here for good, you have a mortal life.” Oswin tapped the monitor. “She doesn’t.”

“She’s not human?” Rose stared at the monitor as Oswin continued her work. “What is she?”

“According to the Doctor, amazing.”

“How do you know?”

“Saw it in his mind, keep up!” Oswin finished her work and stepped back, dusting off her hands. “Now, we need to prevent them from doing something massively stupid and ruining my work.”

“How do we do that?”

“Oh, I summoned you here for a reason.”

——

Pond residence, London — 2020

“River said she was sending for you today, so we wanted to say good-bye,” Martha said as she handed out cups of takeaway coffee to everyone except the Doctor. “You won’t be coming ‘round here for awhile, will you?”

“Probably not,” the Doctor agreed and gave Martha a sad smile. She really did remember him well, his Martha Jones. “Take care of things for me here, Dr. Jones. Keep Mr. Smith over there in line.”

“I am perfectly capable of keeping us all safe, boss,” Mickey said, giving the Doctor a fist bump. He wouldn’t look River in the eye, and that was enough of a sign for her. She stepped into the kitchen and waited for Mickey to follow. 

She deposited trash in the bin and turned to find him blocking the entrance back to the lounge. “I take it you managed to break through some of those locks.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Mickey said and folded his arms over his chest. “Did you kill him?”

“Well, you could have just asked.” River tucked her hair behind her ear. “Yes. I killed him twice. Long ago for him.”

Mickey merely raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, Mickey Smith. The man who’s traveled between universes. Not even my parents did that. The closest they came was to a pocket universe. Don’t you know that everything’s not what it appears?”

He grumbled under his breath. “It hurt him when Rose left. Both times. She does that to you.”

Foreknowledge could be a dangerous thing, River thought. But in this case, it didn’t hurt to have this talk now. “I’m well aware of the history between the Doctor and Rose, and the history between the two of you. There were problems between you and her in the other universe. No, it’s not my place to know,” she said when he opened his mouth to object, “but I’ve met Rose. She is not a cruel person. I actually happen to like her a lot. She was young. So were you. She wanted the universe and wasn’t sure how to balance it with her life here. So many people who meet the Doctor struggle with that. Your wife did. So did my parents. And me, I suppose, but I’ve always been a special case.”

River leaned against the counter. “If there’s anything that all of us in this house can agree on, is that we’re all fond of the Doctor.”

Mickey smirked. “Seems to me you’re a bit fonder than most.”

“Being married more than a couple centuries does that to you.”

He let out a low whistle. “Didn’t think he had it in him, really. I hated him for awhile, you know. That he turned Rose away from me, that Martha had that crush on him. Hell, even Jack was obsessed with him. Felt like I was always getting the leftovers. But, then Francine and I … we talk a lot. And she said that Rose would have eventually left anyhow.”

“I believe she’s right,” River said, picking up her coffee cup from beside the sink. “You both became so much more than you were.”

“Yeah. I realize it now. Me and Martha … we’re tighter because of all we went through. Medusa Cascade, all that stuff. Rose hated having me around when we were with the Doctor, but Martha doesn’t mind. We’re good for each other.”

“I’d say so.” River glanced into her coffee. 

“And Rose was good for him, wasn’t she? She made the Doctor better.”

“So did you, Mickey. So did Martha and Donna and my parents and everyone he meets. When he met you and Rose, all those years ago, he was broken. He fully believed that there wasn’t anyone out there who could love him. That he wasn’t worthy of love from anyone because of what he did. But, Rose loved him. He needed that, or he wouldn’t be here now, and we all have to thank her for that.” She took a sip of coffee, mainly to wet her throat. “The fact is, he still doesn’t believe he’s worthy of being loved. I found that one out the hard way.”

Mickey turned away, and she knew he was thinking it through. It was a start, she thought, to finding his own closure about Rose. She never knew what happened in the parallel universe between them, but the older Mickey Smith she met when she was younger had been at peace with her. “When you met Rose,” he finally asked. “What did you tell her?”

“I was only there for about a minute. I didn’t want to risk getting spotted.” River smiled at one of the few memories she had of the younger girl and relayed the one that she could get away with talking about. “I told her that I owed her a great debt. I paid it by slipping her a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

The corner of Mickey’s mouth lifted. “So, that’s how she got that book. She was lording it over me for weeks!” He laughed, a rich sound that echoed through the small kitchen. “I like you.”

“I like you too, Mickey Smith. Now stop trying to hack into my files.” River kissed his cheek as she walked back into the lounge. 

——

River stopped short as Brian descended the stairs dressed like a fashion plate out of the 1890s — if fashion plates had moth-eaten holes throughout the suit and threadbare patches at the shoulders and knees. “Where did you unearth that?” she asked. 

“Belonged to my granddad,” Brian said, holding out his arms. “How do I look?”

“Hideous. We’ll fix you up.” She steered him toward the TARDIS. “Thank you for everything,” she told Martha and Mickey.

“We’ll be seeing you in a few years, ma’am,” Mickey said with a salute.

“Ma’am?” Martha questioned with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, well, that’s an improvement. He was about to arrest me on murder charges a bit earlier. Far more exciting, but we’re on a schedule.” 

The Doctor said his own farewells to Martha and Mickey. He kept them casual, River observed. Not quite saying good-bye, but making sure to hug them both a little harder and longer than normal. Martha slipped her hand into Mickey’s as they headed down the pavement toward their car, parked about a block over. “See?” River murmured. “They’re fine and happy. They wouldn’t have each other if not for you.” He didn’t say anything, but he did squeeze her hand in response.

They stepped back into the lounge to see Brian holding Amy and Rory’s framed wedding picture. He sniffed and dashed the back of his hand across his eyes. “Could I keep this?” he asked, waving it. “I know I’m going to see them again, but …” He glanced around the lounge, drinking in his final glimpses of the 21st century. He would never come back. He would never drink Earl Grey while watching the morning news on the BBC. Would never play another round of golf at his favorite course. Would never have kippers and toast at his favorite diner. 

“Hang on,” the Doctor said and clamored up the stairs. River winced as she heard cupboard doors bang open. “River!” he shouted after a moment. “Where’s that lockbox of Amy’s?”

“Down here on the dining table. It’s the last thing we need to bring.”

He took the steps three at a time going down, and River thought for a moment that he was going to tumble down headfirst and break his neck. He grabbed the box and soniced it open.

“Really, my love, I have the key.“

He ignored her and rifled through the papers. It was the only thing River hadn’t gone through. “No, no, no, got it! Dear, remember Space Vegas?”

“Which time?”

“Our wedding! Ah … 16 for you. 50-something for me, I forget.”

“The one with Mum and Dad?”

“That’s it!” He pulled out a photo that had all four of them plus Jack Harkness decked out in garish 50’s clothing and waving at the camera. They had perfected the technology to make Harry Potter-style photos by the time they’d married there. “Here you are, Brian! Have a picture of all us.”

“You married in Vegas?” Brian’s eyes went wide as the figures in the photo switched their focus to waving at him. Then the River in the photo grabbed the Doctor in the photo, dipped him back and gave him a full-on snog as Jack and Amy cheered and Rory sniffled into a handkerchief.

“One of them at any rate. Tap the corner three times to freeze it.” The Doctor did so, freezing the picture in mid-snog. “Don’t want the new neighbors getting ahold of that tech.”

River peered over his shoulder. “That was a good wedding.”

“It was,” the Doctor agreed and kissed her forehead. “Right! To the future! Which is in the past, but is still your future!” He ushered River into the TARDIS and tucked the lockbox under his arm. “Come along, Pond!”

“Still don’t get why you’re calling me that.” Brian paused at the door to the TARDIS and looked over his shoulder at the life he was leaving. “Well,” he said to the empty house filled with memories, “good-bye.”

——

 As always, things didn’t progress in a linear fashion.

“We can’t just go straight to Amy and Rory because we don’t know precisely where they are,” the Doctor explained to Brian as he and River took the TARDIS into the vortex. “We have an approximate when, but not exactly. Arrive too early or too late and it could change everything.”

“But there’s a date on the tickets,” Brian pointed out, gesturing to the folder that he held. “29 September 1889.”

“Ah, but did the trip actually take place on that date?” The Doctor spun around, pointed at Brian, then turned back to the console. “Or was it just tickets they managed to find and stick in the envelope? For all we know, they don’t know that we’re coming. Well, they do in the future, because they sent us the tickets in the past. But they in the past didn’t know, and for all they know they could be spending the day in Hoboken while we fight Cybermen or the four horsemen or street thugs. Though if they are going to Hoboken, I’ll have to question why they were that bored to begin with.”

“It’s pretty clear to me. Three railway passes from Philadelphia to New York dated 29 September 1889. What’s not straightforward about that?”

The Doctor dashed around the console to pull a lever above River’s head. “It’s time, Brian. Nothing’s ever straightforward.” River rolled her eyes skyward and pushed the lever back into its proper place.

Brian jabbed a finger in the Doctor’s nose. “You’re just stalling because you don’t want to face them.”

“Score one for Granddad,” River said under her breath, and the Doctor glared at her.

“Don’t you side with him,” he ordered. “You know what’s at risk, River.”

“I know perfectly well, sweetie, and don’t use that patronizing voice with me,” she shot back. “That is why we’re going to do the proper tests first.” She turned her back on him and smiled at Brian, hiding her smirk as she sensed the glare he shot at her back. “The Doctor is correct about a good bit of it. We do have the tickets, and I believe that’s the right date and station, but we have to make sure. We have to land the TARDIS outside of the time distortion, and for all we know, that can be on that day or it could be another year entirely. New York and its vicinity is extremely fragile. Not only do we have to be far enough away distance-wise, but time-wise as well.”

“Because if you get it wrong, it could hurt Amy and Rory,” Brian said.

“It could destroy the city. All those people, all that history.”

He nodded. “Fair enough. How do you test it?”

“Like this.” The Doctor came around the console, grabbed River’s hand, and tugged her to the stairs. “Come on, Brian, don’t just stand there.”

He led them to a medium-sized room that had two walls covered in clocks of every make and model, from cuckoo to solar-powered. The other two walls had various calendars spanning a number of years in a language that Brian didn’t recognize and a small desk.

“All we have to do is just concentrate for a moment and …” The Doctor closed his eyes, then snapped his fingers. The room shimmered, and all the calendars and clocks changed so their times showed the late 1800s and early 1900s in the U.S.

“Amazing. Just close your eyes and snap?” Brian trailed a finger down the hand of a tall grandfather clock.

“Well, you just need to close your eyes. The snap’s for show.” The Doctor pulled out his sonic and a fob watch as River took out her tablet. “Right. First, 1880. Most likely didn’t go back any further than that.” 

“1881 to be exact. It’s when I first detected the distortions when setting up their accounts,” River said, bringing up the data from the research she’d done over the past three weeks.

The Doctor strode to a calendar and held up the watch. “Ready, dear?”

“Almost.” River opened a drawer on the desk and took out a tuning fork. She tapped a button on the end, waited for it to sync with her tablet, then nodded. “Ready.”

“What does that do?” Brian asked as she moved to the Doctor’s side.

“The watch has a detector in it for time distortions. You sonic the watch, and the distortion is picked up by the watch, amplified through the sonic so this tuning fork can pick it up, then read by my tablet. We keep a log of the readings and determine which is the safest point of the timeline to enter.”

“But the last time I went anywhere, he just materialized around us and scooped us off.”

“Well, if we’re always careful, there’d never be any fun in this, would there?” River winked at Brian and held up the fork.

Brian shook his head and decided to stand a few extra feet away. Just in case.

The Doctor let the fob watch dangle in front of the calendar for 1881 and activated the sonic. The tuning fork vibrated, and a chime sounded from River’s tablet. “And that’s it,” she told Brian. 

“Seems painless,” he agreed as the Doctor repeated it for 1890, 1900, 1910, and 1920. As they grew closer to the 1930s, the fob watch made wider swings, and the tuning fork vibrated a little harder. After 1925, they began to go year by year. In 1929, the tuning fork vibrated so hard that River nearly dropped it. “Black Friday,” she explained, shaking out her hand to alleviate the numbness. “From here, it’s going to get tricky.”

“Pretty dangerous,” the Doctor agreed. “We can get a good estimate from here-”

“But, we’re not going to know for sure unless we keep going.”

“Is it dangerous?” Brian called out.

“Yes,” they said together, giggled like school kids, then the Doctor moved to 1930.

In 1936, the fob watch suddenly did two wide swings, snapped off the chain and embedded itself in the middle of 1907. The tuning fork shot out of River’s hand and took out one of the cuckoo clocks across the room.

“We won’t mention that to Eisenlohr next time we see him,” the Doctor said as Brian worked the tuning fork out of the clock. 

“You didn’t damage 1907 with that watch for real, did you?” Brian asked as he handed the fork back to River. 

“It did embed itself in the day the S.S. Columbia sank,” River observed, then patted Brian’s arm. “I’m teasing.” Well, really, she wasn’t, but she didn’t want to alarm him too much.

The Doctor and River kept testing, narrowing down dates, discussing physics, theories and other complex topics that Brian hadn’t heard of. They slipped into a musical language at times as they argued over a particular date in 1895, then kept going back, back, back — to 29 September 1889.

“It’s the date on the train tickets,” Brian commented.

“Which means it’s completely safe!” The Doctor proclaimed. 

“So, the entire point of this was?”

River sidled up to Brian. “Let him impress you,” she murmured.

“I don’t need to be impressed. I need to see my son and Amy. Your parents. Don’t you want to see them, too?”

River didn’t say anything. She could hear the Doctor behind her going over the clocks, babbling to himself as he tried to drown out the discussion. Drowning out the guilt. So she kept her thoughts to herself. “Let me show you the wardrobe. That suit’s going to fall off you if we have to do any serious running, and you need extra clothes.”

She directed Brian to the wardrobe and fled to her library. A tea set awaited, and she was grateful for it. She poured out a cup and sat at her desk, hands curled around the warm mug as she breathed in the comforting scent of Earl Grey. A typewriter now graced the middle of the desk as well, and River absently ran her fingers around a key. No computers, no shortcuts for this one. She would do this one the hard way, and there was no time like the present.

She’d just gotten through the About the Author page when the Doctor slipped into the room. He sat on the corner of the desk and craned his neck to peer at the writing. “So, you’ve started.”

“I have to start some time, my love.” She inserted a fresh sheet of paper and typed out, “Chapter One.”

“Didn’t you leave Brian alone?”

“He’s having fun in the wardrobe, and I’m sure he can find his bedroom from there. The TARDIS made him one when he was staying on board with the cubes. God, Doctor, you left him for four days then!”

“I apologized for it!”

“Rude!” River turned her attention back to the typewriter and began writing out the story of her adventures in 1938 just before Rory had been sent back to the past.

The Doctor picked up a paperweight and juggled it. Then he dropped it. He bent over, scooped it up, juggled it, and dropped it again.

“Doctor!”

“River, you can do that later. Look, let’s take Brian to Felxa. After the Lion Taming Wars of 1359, it’s quite peaceful after that. Best golf courses in the galaxy. Or, we can go to planet of the shoe trees! Oh, he’d like that.”

“I think that would be brilliant. I want to try to have some of this done before we see my parents, and you and Brian will have a lovely time.”

He pouted. “But, it wouldn’t be the same without you.”

“Sweetie, get out of my office.”

Brian emerged from the wardrobe with an armload of clothes just as the Doctor was unceremoniously shoved out of River’s library. “River!” he yelled at the door. “Oh, come on, I was only trying to help!” He tugged at his hair and kicked at the door in frustration. “Are all wives this maddening?”

“Doctor, that woman is the child of Amy Pond. That means I won’t ever say anything other than she’s a saint.” And with that, Brian disappeared into his room.

——

The Doctor did take Brian and River to Felxa. And to the Planet of the Shoe Trees. And to about six other planets beyond that. When he wasn’t taken them to a planet, he was showing Brian an unexplored area of the TARDIS. He cajoled River into telling them when one of her digs was and took them on a field trip there. They dropped in for an alumni gathering at Luna University. He insisted that they couldn’t see Amy and Rory until they had everything settled and River had written Melody Malone.

They all knew what he was doing. He was delaying the inevitable. He insisted that it was to give Brian time with the granddaughter he never knew he had, but River knew that the Doctor’s guilt was keeping him away from New York. She found herself staring at the sheet of paper in the typewriter, the words “Chapter One” still the only thing on the page.

He didn’t have the only planet-sized case of guilt in the TARDIS.

With a sigh, River shoved away from the desk and went in search of her husband.

Instead, she wound up finding Brian in the aquarium, sitting on a bench as fish from a number of galaxies floated around him in large tanks. He held a couple of golf balls, absently rolling them between his fingers. It was one of the habits she discovered about him in the weeks they spent together, something she didn’t even notice as a child. Granted, she’d paid less attention then. She sat next to him, halfway tempted to lean her head on his shoulder. It was something she’d finally grown comfortable enough to do with her father in the days just before Manhattan. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you’ve been wanting to go directly there for ages.”

“Hasn’t been so bad,” Brian admitted. “I got to see a good bit of what lured Amy and Rory away from home. Once you’ve seen all this,” he waved his hand at the fish, “it’s hard to go back. Besides, I’ve been running a bit as well.”

“From what?”

“From what I want to say to them.” He drew in a shaky breath. “Because I know that traveling is their choice, and I get that. But, I don’t understand why they never told me about you. At first, I thought you were in their future. The one they’re living now. You made it appear that way, I realize it now. But the more time I spend with you and the Doctor, the more it doesn’t make sense. Amy and Rory had you when they were still living in their proper time, didn’t they?”

River bit her lip, weighing her words carefully. “It’s not my place to tell you.”

“Like hell it’s not!” Brian’s hands balled into fists, and the golf balls spurted out and shot across the room. “Whatever they asked you to say or not to say, I don’t care. If they’re angry about it, I’ll deal with it. I deserve to know the truth.”

“Yes, you do.” She noticed her own hands had curled into fists. Another trait they shared. “I have never agreed with their decision about me, but it wasn’t my choice to make. I understand why not.” She shifted so she could take one of Brian’s hands in hers. “I was conceived the night they were married in 2010. They were in the vortex, so my DNA was altered. Amy will tell you more about the circumstances, but I wound up being born at a place called Demon’s Run. I was taken by a religious order called the Silence to be raised to kill the Doctor.”

She stared at their joined hands. “I was taken back in time to Florida in the 1960s. I managed to run away from the Silence in 1969, but I wound up starving on the streets of New York.” She lifted his hand and held it on her chest -- over one heart, then the other.

Brian blinked, then lifted both hands to feel the twin heartbeats in River’s chest. “You’re like him?”

“I’m part-Time Lord. I’m Amy and Rory’s biological child, but because of where I was conceived and the experiments done on me in vitro, I was born as a part-Time Lord. As such, I share similar traits to the Doctor. Including regeneration. Do you remember Mels Zucker?”

He laughed. “How could I forget her? Or anyone in Leadworth?” His eyebrows raised in surprise. “That was you?”

“My second regeneration. The Silence captured me again after I regenerated and took me to the 1990s so I could be raised alongside Amy and Rory, try to infiltrate the Doctor that way.” Once the wall was broken down, she found herself telling Brian everything. Of Berlin, giving up her regenerations. Her time at Luna University and how the Doctor had courted her through those years. Utah and Area 52. His face went grey when she told him of Stormcage, but she assured him that her life had been just fine. She continued to her pardon and becoming a professor at Luna.

“So, you’ve always had to meet them out of order? The Doctor and Amy and Rory?” Brian asked.

“Yes, though it’s more complicated with the Doctor. He has 13 faces, and I’ve seen all of them.” She closed her eyes. “I always thought the worst day of my life would be the day that I see my Doctor, and he wouldn’t know me. But, I was wrong. It could get worse. It did.”

“What happened?” Brian asked gently.

River opened her eyes, tears shimmering in them. “Spoilers,” she managed. “I don’t think it’s happened for him yet.”

Brian gave her a long and steady look, eyes filled with sympathy. “Can’t tell your old granddad about it?”

She closed her eyes and, to her horror, two tears slid down her cheeks. She took several deep breaths to steady herself, but before she could fully regain her composure, Brian wrapped his arms around her. She buried her head in the crook of his neck. “I don’t know what to do,” she managed when she was relatively sure she wouldn’t break down into a sobbing mess.

“You’ll figure it out,” he said soothingly, patting her back. “You’re a good girl.”

The words, so much like her mother’s, made more tears escape. Part of her was mortified, deeply so. She never cried. It went against everything she’d known since she’d been able to crawl. Bury everything. Be brave. Don’t let them see that they could hurt you, that you could be hurt. Don’t show any signs of aging, of slowing down, of being anything less than what was expected. Everything that was buried deep, deep down was bubbling to the surface, and she wondered at her own capacity to hold it all. She wondered if she would break again.

The universe had barely survived the last time she did.

Hands shaking, she accepted a handkerchief from Brian and pressed it to her eyes. She’d fought so hard against crying that she could feel a headache pressing at her temples. “Thank you,” she said thickly. “I’m sorry.”

“You need to cry. We all need a good one every now and then.” Brian patted her knee. “You were working so hard during those last few weeks. If an old man like me could cry over handling wedding photos, you can cry over all that.”

She balled the handkerchief in her hands. “But, I don’t. I can’t. I told myself a long time ago that I’d never let the Doctor see how all this affects me. Nor Amy and Rory.”

“Well, I’m not the Doctor. I’m your granddad.” He leaned over and picked up one of the golf balls. “You know, I really can’t say much about marriage. I wasn’t married to Rory’s mother long before her death, and I gather you remember my second wife. But, I’ve learned a thing or two in my time. How long you two been married?”

“Several hundred years depending on the perspective.”

“You never showed him that pain? Not even once?”

River found herself absently rubbing her right wrist. “Once.”

“Did he realize you’d been hiding stuff from him?”

She thought of his devastated look as he’d realized that she’d hidden breaking his wrist from him, that he was realizing how much she was keeping from him. The Doctor was far from a stupid man. “Yes.”

“Pretty hurt, wasn’t he?”

She hung her head a bit. “Yes.”

Brian gave her a shrewd look. “Thing about husbands is that we tend to want to protect our wives. You look at Amy and Rory, and you see what my son will do for her. Not that I don’t blame him. Amelia Pond is one fine woman. I know about their almost-divorce, that she was protecting him as well. Thing is though, you need each other. You can’t do all the heavy lifting alone, either one of you.”

“Is that what happened with you and Rory’s stepmother?” 

“We cared for each other after a fashion. But nothing like Amy and Rory. Or you and him from what I’ve seen.” Brian patted her back. “You’ll be fine.”

River gave into her earlier impulse and rest her head on her grandfather’s shoulder as they watched the fish lazily swim.

 

Chapter Text

They took Brian to the ancient pyramids of Egypt, and it was there that the argument began.

“Was it a lot like this one?” Brian asked as he stood at the very edge of one of the pyramids, squinting through a pair of binoculars at the miles upon miles of sand, other pyramids and little villages that dotted the terrain. “The pyramid where you said you were married?”

“A bit more modified to our specific purposes, but yes.” River angled the pith helmet she wore to block out more sun. The outfit she’d chosen for this trip left her arms and legs exposed and had caused the Doctor to nearly walk into the closed door of the the TARDIS because he’d been too busy trying to sneak not-so-obvious peeks at her legs. 

“Though, it didn’t really count,” the Doctor mused as he studied the hieroglyphics carved into a nearby wall and memories flashed through his mind. Tongue caught between his teeth, he frowned at them before starting to mutter the translation. It took him a good couple of minutes before realizing that he was on the receiving end of a very cold stare. 

“What didn’t really count, sweetie?” River’s voice was pleasant enough, but it had enough of an edge that Brian carefully lowered the binoculars.

“The wedding. The one in the aborted timeline where I was disguised a robot replica of myself.”

“Could you be more specific?” Her voice dripped ice.

He blinked several times, then realized he really should have just walked off the edge of the cliff and plummeted straight down into his next regeneration. 

Brian’s glare was equally frosty. “Are you or are you not married to my granddaughter?”

“Yes!” he blurted, then hesitated. “Ish. Of course. It’s just- well, it’s complicated. Technically, we’ve been married at least 56 times, and well-“

“We are discussing the first,” River said calmly. Too calmly. Entire alien races had turn tail and run at the sound of that faintly pleasant voice that shimmered with the passion that he admired about her. Though this time instead of passion, it was anger, and there were huge flashing warning signs and bells and alarms and all sorts of things going on in his brain. “Doctor, not long ago, you were reminiscing with Brian over our Space Vegas wedding, and now you’re saying the first one didn’t count. Now, answer Brian’s question. Are we or are we not married?”

His brain felt like it was filled with radio static as the rest of him scrambled to catch up.

“Because if you’re saying the first wedding didn’t count, then did the second? The third? The 16th, the 37th, the 56th? Was all that just galavanting across galaxies? Did a single one of them not hold any meaning other than to have a good time?”

“River-“

“You told me a very long time ago that you lie about a lot of things, but not about Area 52. Or were you lying about that, trying to ease your guilt?” 

“No!” It burst out of him in a single expletive, echoing across the desert. 

River closed her eyes, and for a single second, the universe held its breath. Then she shook her head and gave Brian a tired smile. “Well, that clears up a lot of things for me. I’m going back inside.”

When the door closed behind River, Brian let the binoculars drop. “Doctor?”

“Brian?”

Brian punched him.

The Doctor’s head snapped back for a second, and when he recovered, he rubbed his jaw. “I deserved that.”

“You bloody well did deserve that.”

The Doctor worked his jaw. “You punch just like Rory does.”

“Learned it from his old man. Now, you get in there and fix things with your wife. She is your wife, right?”

He hung his head. “Of course.”

“Good.” Brian picked the binoculars back up. “I’m going to keep looking at the pyramids.”

——

She’d retreated to the pages of Melody Malone. He watched her from the door, head bent over her typewriter as her fingers raced over the keys. A loud bell sounded each time she reached the end of a line, and he nearly clapped at the sound. Something about typewriter bells made him giddy. But, no, a good typewriter bell could wait. Well, there was always a time to appreciate a good typewriter bell. 

Then River did a decisively un-River-ish thing. She balled her hands into fists and slammed them several times on the keys. Cursing fluently in Swahili, she shoved the entire contraption off her desk. It landed on the floor in an impressive clash of metal, popped-off keys and mangled pages. She closed her eyes, took two deep breaths, then focused her gaze on him with that rigid mask of stoicism firmly in place.

“You ruined a perfectly good typewriter!” The observation spilled out of him before common sense could catch up.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. It’s the seventh typewriter I’ve ruined. The old girl always has another one ready when I come back.” River pushed away from the desk. “Another few days, and I’ll be out of your hair,” she said pleasantly as she swept past him, regal as Cleopatra and every bit as cold.

“River!” He stomped his foot impatiently and shoved his hand through his hair as she walked away from him. He followed her, his own frustration simmering to a boil. “Would you stop running away?”

Her laugh was bitter. “Pot calling the kettle black.”

His fingers closed over her wrist, the same one he’d healed in Manhattan. So long ago now. Months for him. Weeks for her. She froze. “Let go of me,” she warned.

“I didn’t mean what I said.”

“Really?” She whirled around, yanking her wrist away. “My love, we both know how you hate for things to be unsettled in your world. Are you just saying that so I can forgive you and everything goes back to normal? Just like when you left me to deal with my parents’ funeral alone while you went off on adventures with their younger selves?”

“You told me to go! And we fought about this already! Or were you the one lying when you said you understood?”

She didn’t slap him this time. Her fist aimed for the same spot where Brian’s had minutes earlier — almost. He anticipated her reaction, and he caught her fist just before it connected with already bruised skin. “Always so violent, Professor,” he murmured.

“It’s either that or cut you down where you stand,” she hissed, every iota of programming humming beneath her skin. 

He backed her into the wall, crowding her space. Her knee slipped between his legs, perfectly positioned to disable him with a shot to a highly vulnerable area. “If you had bothered to not run away, I’d explain myself.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Is our wedding, the one on the pyramid valid?”

“No.”

Her body tensed, and he deflected her knee. “I told you years ago that I lie about a lot of things, but not what happened at Area 52. That was a wartime ceremony, made in a time that no longer exists. The wedding wasn’t valid. But, our marriage is. Every single day of every year we’ve spent together since. Our marriage is real, and no matter how many ceremonies we go through, it doesn’t add to that validity.”

She didn’t say anything. It worried him more than any words she could toss back at him, and he realized she didn’t believe him. It cut through layers upon layers of his soul, down to the hearts he had surrendered to her and did an excellent job of not showing her that. “What can I tell you that would make you believe me?” he asked softly.

She slipped away from his now-slackened hold. She walked toward the console room and paused at the very edge of the hall. “My offer on Calderon Beta still stands. I’ll keep your secret until the day I die, but I won’t hold you to any vows we’ve made, pretense or otherwise.”

“River!” Moving faster than he thought possible, he sprinted toward her retreating back. He fisted the back of her shirt and dragged her away. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he closed his arms around her tightly. Uh oh, he thought for a fleeting second before she performed a perfectly executed judo move that left him on his back, wheezing. He scrambled to his feet and kept chasing her.

Instead of the console room, they found themselves in another hall. River rolled her eyes and lightly tapped the walls. “Stop it, dear, I want to go back to the console room.”

Thanking the TARDIS with every fibre of his being, the Doctor caught up to River once more, planted his hands on her shoulders and steered her through the closest door before she could counteract. Their bedroom. Thank goodness, he was worried they’d wind up in the zoo or the herbarium. The door locked softly behind him, leaving the two of them with each other and all the issues that lay between them.

She harrumphed and tore the pith helmet she forgot to remove off her curls, tossing it on one of the armchairs. She stalked to the wardrobe and yanked it open. He leaned against the door, watching as she unbuttoned her shirt with shaking fingers. This was all his doing, his creation. Every time he said something that flayed her open, every time he chose her parents instead of her, every time he’d given her a reason to doubt him along her timeline. 

“Do you have any idea what it’s done to me for all those years, knowing the sacrifice you made when I don’t deserve it?” His voice was barely above a whisper as he spoke. “I am the last person in this universe who deserves what you did.”

“Guilt doesn’t make a marriage either.” River tossed the shirt down and stepped out of her shorts, and he tried his best not to ogle her, back to him in just a sports bra and knickers. “I’m your wife when it’s convenient for you. Not all the time. Not during the hard parts. And do you think I don’t recognize what you’re doing to make up it?” She reached for a dress, then spun around. “All those little slips of regeneration energy — a broken wrist in Manhattan, a shattered ankle on Tracxa XI, that Plutonian flu I caught about 315 years ago. I don’t deserve any of it, not for what I did. Not out of guilt. You’re worth so much to so many people.”

“Didn’t you ever consider that you’re worth just as much to me?” Caught in the emotion, he crossed the room, pulled her into his arms and buried his face in the crook of her neck. “I want you to stay with me. You keep turning me down. Always.”

“Your terms, not mine.”

“Sod me! Since when have you ever listened to me?”

Her laugh was cold. “Since I chose to love you. How long do we keep playing this game? Until it breaks us? We will never be like my parents. You’ve made it very apparent in the years we’ve been together that you find their love baffling and odd. Very human, but my parents are just that. Brilliant, wonderful humans. Tell me, Doctor, would you jump off the top of a building with me?”

He knew what she wasn’t saying. She would never directly ask for it. He stared into her face, and all he could see was the Library. Losing her over and over again, because his younger self hadn’t a bloody clue. Timelines spun around him, whirling faster and faster. Everything he wanted to tell his wife, all those lost chances with her, because every time he stared at her he saw her hooking those wires together. Losing her over and over and over again. The Library. 4,022 people. Donna. Was he willing to sacrifice all of them to save his wife? Would she allow him?

“It’s called marriage.” Amy’s words echoed in his mind over and over again, when she grabbed Rory and leaped to their deaths together. He remembered shock and the pain and the immediate instinct to reach for River’s hand after that moment because he needed her strength, needed her. He needed River to tell him that everything would be OK. But in the end, River had urged Amy to go, to be with Rory, and she’d been gone. His Amelia, gone forever. She left him, because she had faith in River that she would take care of him. No one had asked the Doctor to take care of River. They assumed he wouldn’t.

He eased back and ran a thumb over her cheek. “I won’t let them take you,” he murmured.

“Sorry?”

“It’s called marriage.”

River’s eyebrow quirked. “Why are you quoting my mother?”

He knew what to say. He swallowed and leaped off the building. “The first time I met you, you died. You had gone to the Library on an expedition and discovered it was infested by the Vashta Nerada. You handcuffed my tenth self to a pole so I wouldn’t sacrifice myself for you, and you died. I’ve known it the entire time we’ve been together, and I don’t care. Not anymore. We’re going to fix this, River, because you weren’t meant to die there anymore than I was.”

River blinked once, then twice. Then her eyes went wide with realization, her mouth falling open slightly as she searched his face. Please, please believe me, he wished with everything that he was. Because I don’t know what to do if you don’t

“You don’t know,” she whispered.

“Know what?”

“I can’t tell you. Spoilers.”

River, tell me.”

She bit her lip, and silence stretched between them. “We never did diaries. That was foolish of me. Have you done Darillium yet?”

“No.” His knees went weak. He knew of it. He knew of it. The Singing Towers. The night before she went on the expedition that took her life. But if she knew of Darillium … His throat went dry, and he forced the words out of the clenched fist around his vocal cords. “River, have you done the Library?”

Her eyes shone with tears as she nodded. 

All the strength went out of him, and he simply sat on the floor. She’d survived the Library. She survived. Her arms slipped around him, and he clung to her tightly, not sure if he could ever let her go. It’d been the elephant between them through their entire relationship. The reason he’d ran so far, so fast, had hoarded his time with her like precious gems. They’d been hurling toward Darillium, but at some point, they sped past it and now … now they had days, years together. Centuries. She’d cheated death, and time hadn’t fallen apart. She’d done it. He buried his face in his hands, unable to stop the tears. He scrubbed his hands over his face. “How?” he asked hoarsely.

“Spoilers.” She dropped to her knees next to him and affectionately ran her fingers through his fringe.

“One day,” he vowed, “I am writing that word out of existence.”

“No, you’re not.” She pressed her forehead to his. “You’re really, really not.”

“I had it done with my records,” he grumbled. “Surely I can retcon a word.”

“It’s spoilers, because you’ll remember later.” River eased back. “Because you haven’t done what needs to be done to save me yet.”

“Then we’ll do it! Right now!” He grabbed her hand and scrambled to his feet. “Come along, we’ll grab Brian, and-”

“We can’t!”

“Why not?” He spun back to her and noticed the lack of clothing. “Oh, OK, fine, get clothes.”

“It’s not that.” She tugged him toward the bed. “Sit down, sweetie.”

He huffed, but plopped on the bed. She perched next to him and patted his thigh. “I was rescued because of a connection you made in your future. You have to believe I died at the Library, otherwise you’re not going to meet the person you need to know that saves me.”

“Who?” the Doctor demanded.

“I can’t tell you all the details. Not yet. Even now, you know too much.” 

“That’s easy. Just wipe my memory.”

“What? No!

He snorted. “I know where you keep your mnemosine recall-wipe vapour, dear.”

“That’s different, and you know it!” River leaned into him. “I had to preserve your timeline, and those versions of you didn’t know who I was. I can’t just go spritzing that in this face and walk away. If I did, you would lose every memory you had of me. I refuse to do it.”

“Then, you’ll just have to remove this specific memory from my mind.”

She recoiled from him. “Absolutely not.”

“River!”

“Not after Donna.” She shook her head and leaped from the bed, went back to the wardrobe. “I can’t do that to you knowing what it did to her. Doctor, you raped her mind.”

“I know,” he whispered as she yanked a dress off the hanger. “I’ve yet to forgive myself for it.”

“Then why-”

“You have my full knowledge and blessing,” he cut her off. “And leave a door.”

She turned to him, dress in hand. “Pardon?”

“Leave me a door. A word, an action, spoken in the right place in the right time. I’d remember everything.” Something pricked in the back of his mind, and he remembered when she mentioned that he had told him they were never meant to travel together. “How far after the Library is this for you?”

“Not far.” River pulled the dress over her head and did up the buttons. “I’d just come back when I heard about the Weeping Angels in Manhattan in the 1930s.”

“Before or after I told you we couldn’t travel together?”

She picked up earrings off her vanity. “After.”

“It makes sense.”

“It does now,” she agreed and turned back to him. “This is part of a time loop.”

He nodded, grateful he didn’t have to explain. He rarely ever did. River was that smart, that in tune to things. She had run into him, post-Library for her, and he told her that she couldn’t travel with him. Because if she had, then she wouldn’t had gone to Manhattan. If she hadn’t gone to Manhattan, they wouldn’t be sitting here now talking about her survival. Amy and Rory were in the past, but they were safe and together. The temptation to right that was overwhelming, but there-in lay the odds. Did he change time to save his Ponds or keep time the same to save his wife?

Was there even a choice?

“Take Brian,” he urged as she stepped back to the bed. He took her hands. “Go to New York, to Amy and Rory. Wait for me there. I’ll come to you. I promise.”

She frowned at him. “You’ll have to go through all that pain, my love.”

“It’ll be worth every second of it.” He swung her arms a bit. “You and me, time and space, eh? No more diaries. That’s why you didn’t check in Manhattan. When this is over with, please, please travel with me. Stay until we get sick of each other, then stay longer.”

Her eyes shone with amusement. “Two psychopaths on a TARDIS?”

“That description’s rubbish, and you know it.” He tugged her to him, had to kiss her, because he needed his hands on her. He needed to touch and feel and know that she was alive, and that somehow he managed to save her. Though, he was quite sure that River managed to save herself. Oh, the particulars didn’t matter. The fact was that she survived, and they had to ensure her survival. He rolled until she was pinned beneath him. He’d wait for years upon years, longer than Rory waited outside the Pandorica, just to have River with him alive and whole.

Much later, as the sweat cooled from their bodies, he reached for her hand and found she was already returning the gesture. She turned onto her side, he to his, hands joined between them as they drank in the sight of each other, naked and sated from loving each other.

“If I hadn’t already been saved, what you told me could have ripped our timelines apart,” River gently scolded him.

“Someone did the same thing to prevent my death some time ago. I finally understood why she did it.” He chuckled when she shook her head and rolled her eyes. He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the palm before placing it against the side of his head. “Do it now, dear.”

“Doctor-”

“Please.” He stroked the fine bone that snaked through the back of her hand. “I know you’ll explain it to Brian. I’ll be back with you soon. You won’t even know I’ve been gone.”

“There’s got to be another way.”

“This is the other way. Otherwise it’s is me standing over your grave, and you stuck in the data core of the Library for eternity. That’s not a life you want River, I know that now.”

“You’ll be on your own for a very long time.”

“But, I’ll see you again at the end of it, eh?” he tapped her nose. “Indulge a foolish old man who finds his wife’s the bee’s knees.”

River laughed. Then she insisted on clothes, much to his disappointment. Once they were dressed, the Doctor lay back on the bed with River perched on the mattress next to him. He drank in the sight of her, locking it away in the darkest corner of his mind, knowing that somehow this memory would carry him through it. She leaned over, pressed her lips to his, and he drank in her kiss greedily. Then she touched her fingers to his temples, and he brought down the walls shielding his thoughts from her.. The last thing he saw was her smiling down at him as the world went dark.

——

Exhausted, River made her way back to the console room. Her eyes burned with fatigue and the tears she still refused to shed. 

Then she stopped up short.

The console room had changed. Where it was all brass and glass and odd gizmos and warm light, it was now cold and austere. The Gallifreyan etched into panels surrounding the time rotor was elegant, but everything else had changed. This was the TARDIS after her death, after her parents taken away from him. She’d seen it a few times when she was younger, and there was an excellent flat surface on the console that seemed to be made for hot, desperate sex. But she had always associated this desktop with his twelfth incarnation. But, no, it had come after all his losses, and it was nearly unbearable to look at.

Brian stood in the center of the room, turning around as he frowned. “Did you redecorate while I was gone?” he asked as River ascended the stairs.

“No, she did this on her own. Preparing for when the Doctor wakes up. Which means we can’t be here.” River moved to the console. “I have to do this quickly. Granddad, can you go get the stuff for New York?”

“You mean the train tickets?”

“Yes. We’re going to meet the Doctor there.” River set the TARDIS into flight and hurried to the wardrobe room. It had relocated below the stairs, and she hunted through the clothes until she found a suitable outfit for the late 1880s. She wrestled her way into the corset and packed a bag she altered to be bigger on the inside with other clothes, then essentials for Amy and Rory. She emerged just as Brian came back with better-fitting clothes they’d found for him days earlier. 

River conducted an environmental check, then programmed the TARDIS to head to her flat. For her husband to take her Darillium. She patted the time rotor. “Be good to him. He’ll need it. And you’ll want to change the desktop back briefly. Just for one night.” She peeled off one of the train tickets and tucked it into a small cubby in the console. The door glided over the it, concealing it until the Doctor was ready to use it.

“What’s going on?” Brian asked as River escorted him out of the TARDIS. They were outside Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station, still relatively new but would eventually be replaced by the 30th Street Station. “Where’s the Doctor?”

“In the wrong time. He’s going to take the slow path and meet us at Amy and Rory’s.” She checked the time table and discovered they had a few hours to spare. “How about some lunch? I can get us some money, we can go get a bite and get some presents.”

Brian frowned. “By getting money, you don’t mean robbing a bank, do you?”

River gave him an innocent look. “Why, Granddad, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

He shook his head and tut-tutted. “Just don’t tell me when you’re committing petty theft, OK?”

It was a reasonable request. River cast her gaze down Market Street and decided on a bank to rob.

Chapter Text

The Library — 51 st Century

They descended further into the Library, getting closer to the data core. Rose barely found herself focusing on the breathtaking scenery as she mulled over Oswin’s words. Oswin was quiet, and for that Rose was thankful. She needed the time to grasp the sheer fact that the Doctor — even a future Doctor — had managed to move on.

And she hadn’t.

Rose had tried. She really, really tried. Her mother’s pregnancy and her increasing workload with Torchwood provided enough of a distraction that she thought she was moving on with her life. But, every so often, someone would carelessly reference the Doctor’s previous visit, or she would catch a glimpse of something that reminded herself of him, and the grief came back with a vengeance. Rose had learned to shove all of those feelings into the darkest part of her mind, because her mother fretted, Pete suggested a visit to the Torchwood psychiatrist, and she and Mickey had several painful rows over it all. Rose wondered what the Doctor would say to her if he knew. Would he be touched? Disappointed? Stupid ape, letting your emotions lead you about, his ninth incarnation would say with great sarcasm. She dashed her hand over the back of her eyes at the thought of him.

“You OK? I need you sharp here.”

They had paused just outside a room. Inside, Rose heard the warm, familiar ramble of the Doctor. Her Doctor. High-pitched, a bit panicked as he babbled to River Song.

Auto destruct in two minutes

“Auto destruct?” Rose started to sprint into the room, and Oswin grabbed her arm. She could see River sitting in a huge chair, still clad in her spacesuit but fiddling with cables with surprising ease given the bulky gloves she wore as part of her spacesuit. The Doctor was handcuffed to a pillar, trying his best to break free.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, come on! What are you doing? That’s my job!”

“Oh, and I’m not allowed to have a career, I suppose?” River casually tossed back.

“We’ve got to save them!” Rose hissed to Oswin.

“Working on it! I need the Guggenheim scanner you have.” Oswin arched an eyebrow at Rose’s shocked face. “Come on, hurry up! Less than two minutes now. I’m good, but even I need 60 seconds.”

“I can’t just use it here! One-time use only. I’m to use it when we get to the right Doctor, to fix the cracks in the universe.”

“You’ll find another way. Trust me! I was there!” Oswin’s nails dug into Rose’s arm. “Hurry up! 90 seconds, if that!”

Torn, Rose stared at River and remembered her mission.

“I’m timing it for the end of the countdown, there'll be a blip in the command flow,” River told the Doctor. “That way it should improve our chances of a clean download.”

“River, please, no!”

Tears shone in River’s eyes as she gave the Doctor a gentle look. The look, Rose recognized, of someone who not only loved him, but knew him with an intimacy that even she hadn’t managed to achieve. “Funny thing is, this means you've always known how I was going to die. All the time we've been together, you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you, the real you, the future you, I mean - you turned up on my doorstep, with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Darillium to see the singing towers. Oh, what a night that was! The towers sang and you cried. You wouldn't tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the Library. You even gave me your screwdriver - that should've been a clue. ”

Rose’s chest went tight, and her breath hitched.

Auto-destruct in one minute

Rose yanked a thick scanner out of her jacket and handed it to Oswin. “Do you have enough time?”

“Barely.” Oswin set to work, tongue caught between her teeth as her fingers flew over the keypad.

Not quite sure what to do, Rose watched as the Doctor pleaded with River to switch places, even though it would rewrite time. Every muscle coiled, ready to stop the madness, but knew that River was right. She wouldn’t change a second of her time with the Doctor, despite being closed away in another universe. She wouldn’t change a thing. Not a single line. 

“River, you know my name!”

Rose’s jaw dropped.

Auto-destruct in 10 …

“You whispered your name in my ear! There's only one reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There's only one time I could!”

Rose’s gaze fell on River. She knew his name. His name. “Oswin, we’ve got to stop this!”

“Hush, now! Spoilers!” River gently scolded him. 

Three … two ….

Time stopped.

——

She’d been so prepared to die that it took River a few seconds to realize that she wasn’t dead. No, she was very much alive. The two ends of the cables she was about to connect hovered just a couple inches apart. She stared at one cable, then the other, then looked over at the Doctor. Not her Doctor, which hurt so badly. He was frozen in time, face twisted in horror as he started to reflexively turn away. Everything was still. Disturbingly so. It took her a couple more seconds to realize that time had literally frozen.

“OK, up with you now! Hurry up!” 

A young woman with long, brown hair wearing a long, red tunic popped into view, nudging the cables apart. “I’m good. I’m really, really good, but this doesn’t last forever. Come along now, your ride’s waiting.”

“My ride?” River allowed the woman to tug her out of the seat as she looked across the room and straight into the stunned eyes of Rose Tyler. Her composure already shot because of the past hour, she stumbled as the woman helped her off the platform. “Rose Tyler!”

“You know me?” Rose’s expression mirrored River’s.

River laughed a bit. “Of course I know you, darling.” She turned her attention to the woman, and she frowned. “You seem familiar to me.”

“Oh, we’ve met. Well, we’ve met in a way, but I’m a perfect stranger. Right. You’re all situated. Got to leave the diary and the screwdriver, but just pop back for them later.” The woman patted River’s arm and slid into the chair.

“No, what the hell are you doing?” River sprang forward to grab the woman out of there.

“Well, I’m taking your place. When I do so and you restart time, I connect these wires and Charlotte uses my memory space instead of yours.” The woman pointed at River. “However, since I’m not a part-Time Lord like you, I don’t have enough. So, I’ve wired up a separate hard drive into the system that’ll provide Charlotte with plenty of memory space. Still am going to burn to a crisp, but the Doctor won’t know that.”

“I’m supposed to die here,” River protested. “The Doctor, my Doctor, he took me to Darillium. He cried, and he gave me everything I needed for this trip. He knew I was coming to my death.”

“I know.” The woman’s eyes softened. “I’m a friend of the Doctor’s.”

“Says her name is Oswin Oswald,” Rose spoke up. 

“Not my real name. Some of the echoes, they know less about him. I probably know more than most. I was born to save the Doctor. By saving you, I save him. He barely got over losing Rose. He didn’t get over losing you.” Oswin’s eyes gentled. “It’s about the only thing that fully bled through. How he cried when you were mentioned. You’re not the only one I’m saving.” She nodded over River’s shoulder at Rose. “I’m saving you both.”

“I can’t leave you here to die in my place,” River protested.

“But, if you die, then he’ll be alone again, yeah?” Rose stepped into the room. “I never wanted to leave him alone. Surely you don’t.”

“Of course not!” River snapped. “Especially-” She cut off, biting her lip as she stared at Rose, all the foreknowledge going through her mind. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly. “He has to think I’m dead for the timeline to keep intact. How did you pull this off?”

“I knew that Rose carried a one-time use device for freezing time, developed by Torchwood in her universe. Three-for-one special, yeah? I help her and you and the Doctor.”

“How have you helped me?” Rose asked.

“I’m sure you and River will figure that one out. Better re-start that thing. It’ll grow unstable if you don’t, and you’ll ruin my handiwork.”

Rose stared down at the scanner, then back at Oswin. “So, you’re just going to die?”

“No. Just reset.” Oswin’s gaze settled on the Doctor. “And one day, this clever boy will remember.”

“Back here,” River urged, steering Rose outside the room. “He can’t see you.”

“But-”

“We have to maintain the original timeline from here on out, which means he can’t see either one of us.” River pulled Rose just out of the room, but still in the light. “Now.”

Rose pressed the button, and they both looked away as the transmission burned the body of Oswin Oswald.

——

From a safe distance, Rose watched as Donna Noble approached the Doctor and removed the handcuffs. Donna glanced at the chair, and they murmured to each other. The Doctor picked up River’s screwdriver and diary, and Donna helped him from the room to make their way to the area by the little shop. “I don’t get why I can’t just go to them now.”

“Because, you have events to play with Donna before you can see the Doctor again. When you do, it’ll be the right time.”

Resigned, Rose turned to River Song. The Doctor’s wife. “Oswin said you’d help me. How?”

“Well, for starters, I managed to get back to my bag in the other room.” River held up a vortex manipulator. “You know what this is, right?”

“Yeah, Captain Jack had one! The Doctor hates them.”

“He got over it. Mostly.” River strapped on the bulky device. “It’s a lot more reliable in getting out of here than your dimension hopper.” She extended her arm. “Come with me, Rose.”

Rose warily took River’s arm, and before she could blink, they had teleported to a cheerful little cottage tucked away in a large park. Overhead, she could barely make out the thin sheen of a biodome. The sight of the Earth beyond was breathtaking.

“We’re on the moon, just off campus at Luna University. My alma mater,” River explained as she tugged off a glove and used her palm print to unlock the door. “I think I have enough here for a cup of tea at least. Make yourself comfortable while I build a bonfire with this suit.” At Rose’s questioning look, River smiled. “I have a very bad history with spacesuits.”

Minutes later, Rose found herself sipping at PG Tips, the first she’d had since leaving her own universe. “Where’d you find this?”

“My parents made sure I was kept well-stocked, not to mention I’m not adverse to doing my shopping in the past.” River sat across the table, changed into casual clothes. “You must have a lot of questions.”

Rose put her tea down. “You’re really the Doctor’s wife?”

“Not your Doctor. He loves you greatly, the tenth incarnation of my sweetie. He never got over losing you.”

“That’s what Oswin said.” Rose wrapped her hands around her mug and didn’t quite meet River’s eyes. “I suppose … I’m not doing so well either.”

“A lot of people don’t.”

Her hands tightened around the mug. “I’m jealous,” Rose blurted, then mentally kicked herself. It wasn’t what she wanted to say at all, especially not to the Doctor’s wife. Wife. Wifewifewifewifewife. The practical side of her was rolling her eyes, reminding her that here sat an extremely invaluable resource regarding the whereabouts of the Doctor and key information to finding out what caused the holes in the universe, what was causing the stars to go out. “Seems really silly when you look at it. The stars are going out, and so many are depending on me to find the Doctor so he can save us again.”

“But, all you can think about is that you’re sitting across from a living reminder that he’s moved on with his life, and you feel like he forgot you,” River said gently.

For the first time since walking in the kitchen, Rose made eye contact with River. “How’d you know?”

“I’ve lived a very long time, Rose Tyler. “

“He never even mentioned her. Sarah Jane Smith,” Rose clarified. “Long time ago, when I met her, I never even knew he had other people who traveled with him. Other people who feel the way I do for him. He told me then that he could spend the rest of my life with me, but I couldn’t spend my life with him. Curse of the Time Lords, he said.”

“Yes, well, his tenth self was rather an angsty one,” River mused.

“Sorry?”

River reached for the teapot and bit the inside of her cheek before she could make another sarcastic remark about her husband’s younger self. He really was hard work young. “You have to figure out how to move on with the rest of your life, just like I need to with mine.” She closed her eyes. “Our timelines move in the opposite directions, his and mine. My lasts are his firsts, his firsts my last. When you saved me, Rose, it was the first time the Doctor had ever met me.” She kept the explanation quick and clinical, hoping it disguised her hearts shattering. The worst day of her life had come and gone, and for some reason she had survived. “I’ve known him my entire life, from when I was just a month old. Every time I’d seen him, he at least knew my name. Sometimes the universe was kind and granted us a reprieve, but not today. Now that I’ve met a Doctor that should know me but doesn’t, our story has finished.”

Rose blinked. “You mean you’ll never see the Doctor again?”

“I most likely will. Just not my husband. It was very clear throughout our marriage that the first time he saw me would be the last I ever saw of him. He wasn’t that specific, but you overheard me, didn’t you?”

“About Darillium and the Singing Towers?”

River nodded. “But you, Rose Tyler, you have so much more to come.” She finished the last of her tea and pushed away from the table. “Come with me.”

Rose followed River through the cottage to a room tucked into the back. Warm sunlight spilled through floor-to-ceiling windows, and bookshelves lined the walls. River moved to one of them and tapped button next to the shelf. The bookcase shimmered a bit.

“Temperature shielding,” River explained. “The only way I can keep books in a room with sunlight. It provides regulated climate control so the books aren’t destroyed by the exposure to light.” Her fingers danced along the spines until she selected a chunky volume without a title. She flipped the cover open to reveal a box inside the book. “You saved my life, Rose, so this is my thanks. You will see the Doctor again. He’s never forgotten you, not one second. You’re in the back of his mind, just like so many he’s loved and lost.” She pulled out a thin wand and a piece of paper. “You want to hold onto your dimension hopper, keep that in reserve. So use this. It’s a one-time-use vortex manipulator. The model I use is multiple use. This one was developed by the Time Agency for emergencies. These coordinates will take you to Chiswick, 2008. Right time, right place. You’ll find your Doctor.”

Rose’s jaw dropped. “Really?”

River pressed the objects into Rose’s hands. “Really. Be with him, Rose. At that point in his life, he needs you more than ever.”

Rose stared at them, then back at River. “But what if my going back to him changes his future with you?”

River arched an eyebrow. “Spoilers.”

“Spoilers? You said that at the Library. He must hate that word.”

She laughed. “With the utmost passion, Rose Tyler. Now, press that button and go save the universe.”

Rose immediately rested her thumb on the button. “Will you be OK?”

“I’m the Queen of OK. And you, Rose Tyler, are going to be amazing.” River smiled warmly at her. 

Rose smiled back. “Thanks, River.” 

She pressed the button and disappeared, leaving behind a thin plume of smoke. River watched as the smoke twisted and curled in the air, gradually disappearing. She turned away, re-engaged the temperature shields and dashed a hand over the back of her eyes. She rested her forehead on the shield and tried to ignore the burning in her chest. Once again, she’d cheated death, but she didn’t want to even think of the cost. She took a shuddering breath and walked to her desk. She needed a distraction before she figured out how to go on with the rest of her life.

——

April 2013

“Spoilers …”

The Doctor sat at the foot of Clara’s bed and watched the young woman sleep. He’d carried her into the Maitlands’ home after he had carried her out of his timeline, after the years of being silently haunted by the ghost of his wife culminated in him saying good-bye to her deep in the heart of his tomb. He heard the vague squawkings from Angie and Artie somewhere in the back of his mind, but he wasn’t in the mood to humor Clara’s charges at the moment. He didn’t even remember exactly what he said to them. Clara really needed a better job. He had a few strings he could pull regarding that.

As Clara slept, his mind whirled with the information unlocked in his mind. Leave a back door, he’d told River, and oh she had. His wife was oh-so-clever and figured out he’d still upload the copy of her neural relay to preserve the timeline, had hedged her bets on him eventually seeking out her data ghost. Except he hadn’t. But, she pursued him, got the message through to him. He kissed a ghost version of her, physically touching her for the first time in decades upon decades, as he had sat upon his cloud and mourned her and the Ponds.

Memories poured into his mind, neatly slotting themselves where a fog had been in his memories. He’d attributed it to the overwhelming loss, but no, it was River locking away the months just after Manhattan. When he had left her and Brian alone to deal with tying up the loose ends of Amy and Rory’s lives, when they had fought and she revealed that for her, Manhattan had been post-Darillium. Post-Library. He’d asked her to seal his memories, so he could set the sequence of events in motion to close that particular time loop. So he could meet the person that made it all possible. His Clara. His impossible girl. 

The Doctor blinked and briefly passed his hand over his eyes. The hearts he thought had been shattered were still filled with so many. Clara, Vastra, Jenny, Strax. They’d been there for him in the end. And River. Even as a ghost, she’d been by his side, still promising him of more to come. 

Restless, he leaped to his feet and took the stairs two at a time as he headed down to the TARDIS. He walked in the door, up to the console, and grabbed one of the levers. Waited. He flexed his fingers and let it go. He couldn’t leave Clara. Not now. And hopefully the old girl wouldn’t be quite so temperamental with Clara now that Trenzalore had come and gone, but he didn’t want to risk it. He wanted Clara with him when he picked up River and Brian. There’d been three train tickets, but a fourth could easily be acquired. Right. He spun away from the console. He needed to do something. He could go for a walk.

He wandered through Chiswick, over streets grown familiar. Not because of his weekly treks to fetch Clara, but because of Donna. He wasn’t sure why he sought out the Underground, but once he was on the tube, it just felt like the right thing to do. He spent the half-hour ride people-watching and entertaining two toddlers who had had enough of crowds today, thank you very much. He drew them into the story of him and Donna chasing down the Adipose, and by the time he finished, the entire car was enraptured. He got six propositions (three from women, two from men, and one from an utterly magnificent transvestite), an offer to publish children’s books, and four pleas to just shut the hell up. 

He hummed under his breath as he wandered through south London, already knowing where he was going. Amy and Rory didn’t live far from the tube station, and within 10 minutes of reaching street level, he stood at the park across from their home. He perched on the swings and watched through the gate as lights came on in the lounge.

“Hello, sweetie. You’re early.”

His hearts swooped, then did a slow roll in his chest at the sound of his wife’s voice. His fingers tightened over the chains as he fought the urge to throw himself at her. “Am I?”

River settled into the swing next to his. “You’re not supposed to be here for another 11 days.”

“No?” Curious, he finally looked at her. She was the same as he’d last seen her, when she had done Darillium. When she had done Manhattan. Though she’d taken the age down a bit in the face, there was no hiding the eyes. “And when are we for you, Professor?”

“Aren’t we being presumptuous?”

“We’re a little past that, don’t you think? Right.” He dug into his coat pocket for the little diary he’d never stopped carrying with him, even in the long years he thought he gone for good. “Spot check time! Since you didn’t correct me on being a Professor this time, you’ve done the Byzantium and informed your parents I was alive again. What do you mean 11 days?”

“Check earlier in your diary, sweetie, just after Utah. The second time for you.”

He flipped a few pages back, then the memory hit. “Ah ha! So, this is when your mother sprang that surprise party on us.”

“22 April 2013,” River confirmed. “I’d not been in Stormcage long, but so I hadn’t experienced Christmas 2012 yet. Amy was determined to properly celebrate our marriage with that party. Except you had that ship of Lysterne on your tail …”

“The house recovered from the damage eventually,” the Doctor recalled fondly. Oh yes, it had been quite the party he crash-landed. And River, his brave, brave River, had taken one look at the aliens and pulled out the blaster she’d kept strapped to her thigh. In the middle of him lecturing her about guns in her parents’ home, she’d managed to subdue the Lysterne. Amy and Rory had gotten a remodeled lounge out of the deal. “Don’t think Rory ever recovered from what he saw after.” That being River pushing the Doctor into the walk-in linen closet and snogging him within an inch of his remaining lives before he turned the tables on her and … well … it hadn’t been the first time Rory had walked in on them shagging in inappropriate places. He grinned from the memory and noticed River doing the same.

“What carpet bag did you murder to come up with this outfit?” She reached out and flicked a nail along his collar. 

“I like tweed!”

“Yes, and somewhere the Harris Tweed Authority is demanding their material back.”

“Are you going to peel it off me and mail it to them?”

Her eyes danced with mischief. “If you’d like. Probably not in the middle of the park. There is a limit to the corruption I do around minors.” She gave a little wave to children playing a few feet away.

He leaned into her, chest burning as he wanted to touch her so very much. Her actual flesh, hear her hearts beat, strip the clothing from her and lay her bare in front of him as he worshipped every inch of his miracle. He didn’t think he could stop once he had his arms around her, and she was right. No corrupting minors. “Right. Still spot checking.” He made a great show of flipping ahead in the diary. “Have you done Manhattan?”

“Any particular time?”

He nearly dropped the book. “Um … 2012. Manhattan 2012.”

“No, can’t say that I have.” The disappointment on her face mirrored his, and he suddenly knew when this was for her. Just before, when he would tell her the words that would drive her on a quest to start hunting down Weeping Angels in the Big Apple in the 1930s. He already hated himself for it, because he wanted to spin her around and celebrate the fact that she’d escaped death in the Library. They could finally live together, no more diaries, no more spoilers. He just had to do it one more time. One more secret, then he knew where he was taking Clara next. 

“I wonder,” River ventured, “if there’ll ever be a point in our lives where there’s no more spoilers.”

“Our lives are like a loop, River,” he said hoarsely. “My firsts are your lasts, your lasts my firsts. Believe me, if there was any other way …”

“I know,” River said with a touch of resignation. “It’s something I’ve long grown used to. I still wonder at times, that’s all. You’re getting younger and younger each time I see you. But, I’m sitting here with you now, my Doctor, looking as old as I’ve ever seen you. I wonder if somehow the universe has granted us a reprieve.”

He didn’t say anything. He scuffed his shoe in the dirt and tried his very best not to fall to her feet and tell her everything.

“Hypothetically,” River continued, “say I reach the point where I meet a version of you that should know me but doesn’t. When I look into your eyes, and you’re supposed to know me, but you don’t even know my name. Provided I survive that meeting, we’ll have closed the loop, yes?”

“But, we can’t ever know for sure,” he replied more acidly than she deserved. He had to do it this way. He had to be cruel. “That’s why we have the diaries. That’s why we always check. You know all my faces, River. That’s why we can never travel together, never live like a normal married couple. That wouldn’t be us, eh? Terribly boring, all full of darning socks and day-old toast. Even if you think all the spoilers have been revealed, they haven’t. We’re in an endless loop, River, and we can only have moments like these.” He got to his feet, refusing to glance at her. He knew once he did, he’d either see the pain magnified back at him or worse - the deadened look in her eyes she hid her pain behind. This was why she’d been reticent with him at times in Manhattan, when she admitted to hiding the damage. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I should be going. See you around, Professor.”

“Until the next time, sweetie.” Her voice sounded the same, but he could hear the strain in her words.

He started out of the park, then lingered by the gate. He closed his eyes, then turned back to her. She sat on the swing still, watching him go. That mask wasn’t in place, but she looked so sad that he headed back down the path, crossed over to the swings, and pressed his lips to hers. Her breath hitched as he kissed her, and when he pulled away, he pressed a second kiss to her forehead. He gently looped a curl around her finger and tugged on it. When she grinned, he kissed her nose and scurried out of the park. 

 

Chapter Text

Philadelphia — 1889

“He’s going to make it, right?” Brian craned his neck to peer at the large clock in the train station. The conductor had bellowed for passengers to board some time ago, and the line of suited men and women with wide bustles boarding the train was growing shorter. A few women had forgone the bustle in their skirts, foreshadowing the next decade in fashion. River had chosen a modest one for her costume, finding it far easier to move about in. 

“If not, he’ll be on the next one,” River reassured him as she cast her gaze across the thinning crowd. They waited another 10 minutes, but when the Doctor didn’t appear, River tut-tutted and led her grandfather to the train. They boarded, and she thought about exchanging the tickets for the later train when she heard a loud scuffle and a familiar shout. A petite woman with dark hair coiled into a neat bun stumbled onto the train as if she’d been shoved up the stairs. Seconds later, the Doctor sprinted on after the woman, wearing the same purple tweed she’d seen months earlier when she visited her parents right after being rescued from the Library. 

“See, right on time!” the Doctor crowed to the woman as the bells clanged and a whistle blew, indicating an imminent departure.

“Yes, but did you have to push me like that?” The woman shook out her skirts and ran a hand over her pinned hair. She turned up the aisle, and River sucked in a breath as she recognized the woman from the Library. Oswin. The woman, for her part, looked like she’d seen a ghost. 

“Oh my God,” she whispered.

“Brian!” The Doctor eased around the woman, stumbling a bit as the train lurched into motion. He clapped Brian’s shoulder and steered him into their assigned compartment. “Private compartment! Good idea, good idea. Going to need room to talk. Go on in, Clara.”

She tugged at his sleeve. “But, Doctor …”

“I need to speak with Professor Song. Privately.” He took her elbow and guided her into the compartment.

Clara arched an eyebrow and grabbed the doorway to keep him from entirely dismissing her. “In the middle of a train car?”

“Yes, no one out here. Everyone’s in their seats or eating candy. Off with you, scoot!” He slammed the door in Clara’s face. He bounced on his toes for a couple seconds, smoothed his hand over his hair and turned to River.  He held his arms open. “Hi honey, I’m home.”

“Well, it’s about time,” River gently scolded, shaking her head.

“Took a few decades.” He stepped to her, hips swaggering a bit as she backed into the wall of the private compartment opposite the one Brian and Clara were in. “Had to take the long way, you see. Same path I reckoned you took.”

She slid her hand up his chest, felt the strong, rapid beat of his hearts beneath her fingers. She skimmed her fingers up and over his bow tie, adjusting it. “The slow one. It’s ever so dull.”

“Right you are.” He tapped her nose. “Now, Professor Song, when are we?”

She arched an eyebrow. “Do you really need to ask?”

He smirked. “Let’s just say for old time’s sake.”

She smiled slyly. “Very well. Have you done Manhattan?”

“Which time?”

“You know the time.”

He pressed into her, nearly nose to nose. “Yes, I’ve done 2012. And, Professor, have you done Darillium?”

“I have. And have you?”

“Oh, yes. And the Library. Have you been to the Library?”

“Yes-” she started to answer, but his lips cut her off, and they were kissing desperately in the middle of the train car. Her fingers dove into his hair, and he rested his weight fully against her as her mouth opened beneath his. Everything about him was so blessedly familiar. It’d been hours for her since she left his younger self aboard the TARDIS, but decades upon decades for him, and she sensed the desperation and longing humming in his blood. 

“No more spoilers?” she gasped when they finally broke apart.

“Oh, I reckon you could still surprise me a time or two.” The Doctor pulled away and grinned over the top of River’s head at the private compartment he had her pressed up against. “Just like I’m willing to wager that not only did you book the compartment that Brian and Clara are in right now, but the one we’re leaning up against as well. Am I not right, Professor?”

“Why don’t we find out?” River reached behind her for the door handle and they fell into the compartment, his hands already busily unlacing her dress.

——

“You know,” River said much later as they lay together on the floor, “the seats do fold out into berths. Actually, bunk beds. You love bunk beds.”

“Bunk beds are cool,” the Doctor agreed, idly tracing his finger over her stomach. He propped himself up on his elbow as she smirked. “What?”

“Amy jokes that I was conceived on the ladder of those beds in the TARDIS. Not exactly the most romantic of situations, but very like them at the same time.” She danced her fingers over his cheek, and he closed his eyes, humming with pleasure. “How long has it been for you, my love?”

“Too long,” he whispered. “How did you know?”

“Hmm?”

“I would see your data ghost on Trenzalore?”

She pulled herself into a sitting position, baring her breasts as the lap blanket she had tugged off one of the seats fell to her waist. His gaze immediately dropped, and she rolled her eyes and pulled the blanket up. “It was an educated guess, really. We had to keep the timeline intact for everything to work out, which means that your tenth self still uploaded the neural relay imprint of myself to the Library’s databanks. When I programmed the TARDIS to take you to pick me up for Darillium, I messed a bit with the neural relay you had built. It was designed to follow you until you interacted with it. Once you did, your memory would unlock.” She fell silent as he toyed with the edges of the blanket she’d pulled around her. “Trenzalore? Doctor …”

“River, I had to go to Trenzalore.” He sat up as well, his knees brushing against hers. 

“Was there any other way?”

“Not that wouldn’t change our timelines. I see that now.” He explained how Clara had leaped into his timeline at her urging to save him at every point in his time stream that he hadn’t been saved by other means. 

“So, that’s where she came from,” River murmured.

“Who?”

“Oswin.”

The Doctor stared. “How did you meet her? You didn’t go to the Dalek asylum with us.”

“Well, she’s clearly not the Oswin that turned into a Dalek. Another Oswin. One of Clara’s echoes. But, if she was meant to save you at every point in time, then why did she save me?”

He took her hands, running his thumb over her knuckles. “Because, I am a selfish old man, and Clara saw me for who I was, what I was. When she met your data ghost …” His voice trailed off, and he broke eye contact with her. His eyes fixed on a point somewhere above River’s head, and she squeezed his hand in return. “It hurt,” he admitted. “It hurt me, and she saw through it all.”

“Come here.” She pulled him into her arms, and he rested his head on her shoulder as she stroked his back. He clung to her tightly, face turned into her neck. Neither of them openly acknowledged the tears that slid down his cheeks and splashed on her shoulder. When he gained enough composure to pull away, she pushed him back across the narrow floor of the car and straddled his hips. His fingers dug into her waist as she slowly made love to him. 

Although it was a slower train ride than in the 21st century, it still wasn’t too terribly long of a trip from Philadelphia to the port on the Hudson where they would board a ferry to New York City. As the conductor called out that they were about to reach the final stop, the Doctor and River rejoined Clara and Brian. Clara had dug out a pack of cards from somewhere, and the two were arguing the intricacies of “Go Fish.” 

“I love this game!” The Doctor helped himself to Clara’s hand as he plopped next to her.

“No, I’ll deal you in the next round!” Clara pushed at his arm and tried to grab the cards back. As the Doctor held them out of her reach, the train gave a great shudder, then squealed to a sudden stop with such force that Clara lost her balance and pitched across the compartment into Brian’s surprised arms. 

River braced the back of the seat with one hand, the other already sweeping under her skirts for the blaster she’d strapped to her thigh. “What was that?”

“What is that?” Brian stammered when he saw more than he cared to of his granddaughter’s bare leg.

The Doctor lurched across the compartment and yanked the door open as a loud screech made the glass shudder. A second screech caused tiny cracks to spread over the windows. He paled as he stared at the ceiling.

“Doctor!” River pushed out of the compartment. “What is it?”

“I’ve heard that sound. I know that sound!” The Doctor sprinted toward the end of the car, River at his heels. He shoved past the bellowing conductor and onto the narrow platform separating the train cars. 

River nearly plowed into his back. Before she could ascertain the situation for herself, the Doctor was shoving her back into the train car. “Doctor, what the hell are you doing?”

“Inside, inside! You have to stay inside!” The Doctor pushed her in the car and yanked the door shut behind him. Through the cracked glass, River saw a winged creature with long, narrow claws swooping around the train. It was hard to see clearly, but it was a shape she was familiar with from time in university, when she had studied a strange attack on London in the 1980s that the ninth incarnation of the Doctor had been involved with. 

“Is that a Reaper?” she asked him.

“Yes, yes.” The Doctor paced the narrow corridor, shoving his hands through his hair.

“Sorry, a what?” Clara emerged from the compartment gripping a broom she had found. Brian was behind her, trowel in hand.

“A Reaper. A creature that fixes temporal paradoxes by devouring everything around it. Had a nasty run-in with one a couple regenerations ago, but we’re not doing anything like that!” Ignoring Clara, the Doctor spun to River. “We tested it. You and I, we ran the numbers! This time is safe!”

“Of course it’s safe, or just our being this close would have blown New York off the map,” River snapped back. “I need my scanner, it’s back in the compartment.”

“No, no, we don’t need a scanner to tell us that we’re in the wrong time! And the TARDIS is back in Philadelphia!”

“Temporal paradox?” Clara whispered to River.

“Basically altering a fixed point in time.” With a sinking dread, River thought of the neatly bound pages in the valise stashed in their train compartment. 

“But, you’re not taking Amy and Rory out of this time, right?”

“It’s not that.” Mentally pulling up her britches, River intercepted the Doctor’s pacing. “You’re not going to like what I have to tell you.”

His eyes met hers, and he already knew. “No.”

“Doctor.”

“No, that can’t be causing it!”

“You know very well it is. You said it yourself, once the words were read, then it’s true.” 

The Doctor snarled and shoved past River as Clara cried out. He slammed the door open and strode onto the narrow platform, nearly coming nose to nose with the Reaper. Fists curled, he glared at it for all of five seconds before Brian and River hauled him back through the door. 

“Doctor!” River snapped. “What were you trying to do, invite it to eat you for dinner?”

“I can’t. I thought … I had hoped … Then why did Amy send the three tickets? Why?” He rounded on River. “Why did you let her?”

“Stop it,” she hissed. “My mother knew what she was doing. She already lived through this by the time we got that package, remember?”

“Then why the three tickets?” the Doctor demanded again.

“Hello,” Clara piped up. “I’m very lost and very much do not want to be eaten for dinner. It’s clear the two of you know what the issue is and how to solve it. Care to share with the rest of the class?”

River’s gaze bore into the Doctor’s. “When my parents were taken back in time, we knew what was going to happen because the Doctor read it in the pages of the book I have in our compartment. At the end of that book, my mother wrote an afterward. It was a letter to the Doctor, one that made it clear that he would never see my parents again, thus creating a fixed point in time.” She closed her eyes as the Doctor pushed past her and stalked into the compartment. She rubbed the bridge of her nose and focused on Clara and Brian. “The Doctor trying to enter New York City to see them is altering that fixed point and causing a temporal paradox.”

“What about the three of us?” Brian asked. “Are we contributing to it?”

“No. The two of you were never part of the original paradox, and it’s clear that I’m meant to give Amy and Rory the book. I was never mentioned in the afterward, most likely to avoid creating such a paradox from my end.” There was more, but neither Brian nor Clara needed to know at that exact moment. They would figure it out soon enough. 

“But, why the three tickets?” Clara asked.

Brian coughed. “Well, there’s still three of us who can enter the city.” He indicated Clara with a wave of the hand. 

“Why me? No offense, I’ve heard great things about your parents, but it’s odd for me to be going without the Doctor.”

“It’s a good idea,” River said, rapidly running through their available options. Her mother had sent them three train tickets. Obviously it served as some sort of lure. They had received the tickets before the Doctor met Clara. But with him not coming into the city, there was no reason to give her mother three tickets to send back. Which meant Clara came into the city with them for some reason that had to be fulfilled. 

“What’ll the Doctor do? Stay in New Jersey?” Clara asked.

“He can’t go any further,” River told her. “If he does, the Reaper will sterilize everything, including the Doctor himself. If he stays here, or even starts back toward the TARDIS, it should go away because the time line will remain intact. Even just the Doctor traveling back to 1889 and heading in the general direction New York City was enough for the timeline to fracture. We can’t risk it.”

“You two can go ahead,” Clara insisted. “I’ll stay with-“

“No.” The Doctor cut Clara off, his voice lashing out coldly as he stalked back out of the compartment. “You’re going with River.”

Clara placed a hand on her hip. “I’m not just going to leave you here in a snit.”

“I am not in a snit.”

“Yes, you are,” she replied testily. “Angie acts more mature than you’re being right now.”

The Doctor didn’t say anything for a moment, then scowled at Clara. “That’s an insult.”

She winged an eyebrow. “I know.”

River smirked and patted Clara’s arm. “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

The Doctor sighed and sagged against the wall, looking every bit the tired old Time Lord that River knew he was beneath the facade. None of them said anything, the silence nearly drowning out the murmurs from the passengers that had disembarked the train and the screech of the Reapers as they circled overhead. 

“All right,” he said quietly. “I’ll stay.”

As he spoke the sentence, the Reapers gave one last shriek as they took to the sky. They made it back onto the platform in time to see the great creatures circle into the air then disappear, the vortex closing around them as the timelines steadied. River slowly let out the breath she didn’t realize she held, let go of the hand she hadn’t realized she’d clutched in those final seconds. Those same fingers laced through hers once more, and she found herself staring into her grandfather’s eyes. Brian gave River’s hand one last squeeze and let go. 

It didn’t take that long to gather their belongings and herd the bewildered passengers through the streets and down to the waterfront, but it was nearly dusk by the time River, Clara, and Brian boarded the ferry once more, leaving the Doctor standing on the dock.

“I’ll wait on this side,” he told them. “Don’t want to risk bringing the TARDIS closer, so I’ll just wait here instead of going back to Philadelphia.”

“Will this town even still be here once we get back?” Clara wondered.

The Doctor scowled at her. “That’s quite rude, Clara Oswald.”

“I know your track record.” Clara waggled her fingers and strode up the gangplank.

Brian hugged the Doctor, and the two men held on for several moments. “I’ll take care of them,” Brian promised.

“Couldn’t trust anyone more,” the Doctor told him.

They shook hands and Brian boarded the ferry. River mentally girded herself, not quite sure how the Doctor was going to react now that Clara and Brian were out of sight. But the corner of his mouth twisted into somewhat of a genuine smile. She recognized the expression. It was the same one he’d give her all those weeks ago for her and decades in his past, when he asked her to travel with him and she had told him “yes” before adding on the caveat that she couldn’t travel with him all the time. Her husband knew how to hide his pain as well as she did, when the moment called for it. “Right, well, I’m just going to mill about a bit,” he told her.

“We’ll be back in the morning,” River replied. “Think you can manage?”

“What, waiting about for 14 hours? Even I have that much patience, River Song, and don’t you raise that eyebrow.” He lightly tapped her nose, and they exchanged grins. “Tell Amy … well, tell her …”

She took his hand. “Sweetie, she knows. So does Rory.”

He nodded, swallowed hard. Then he lifted her hand and kissed the back of it before she boarded the ferry. It took every ounce of self control for River not to look back over her shoulder. But as the ferry lurched into motion, Clara confessed to River that she had watched as the Doctor bade good-bye to River and watched her board the ferry. 

“He seemed so sad,” Clara said, and River didn’t trust herself not to respond without giving into the lump forming in her throat. So she managed a wan smile for the younger woman and strode to other side of the ship to make sure her focus remained on Manhattan and seeing her parents again.

——

Visiting New York City was a bit like seeing an old friend, and despite everything that had happened, River still loved the city. She’d experienced it as both a child and an adult in the 1960s and even her Manhattan romp in the late 1930s had been fun before the Weeping Angels ruined everything. 1889 was right when the city she knew was starting to emerge. The Metropolitan Opera had opened six years earlier, the Statue of Liberty three years earlier. Carnegie Hall was a few months away from opening, and the New York Public Library would follow in the next few years. Her parents would get to wander Central Park and read “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” as it was being published.

They navigated their way to the street where Amy and Rory lived on the Upper East Side not far from the opulent mansions that signified the excesses of the Gilded Age. River had chosen this spot with deliberate care, wanting to ensure that Amy and Rory could live comfortably and pursue whatever they wanted. She nodded in approval as she surveyed the relatively clean street, the children playing in tidy front gardens in front of stately brownstones. She alighted from the cab they took to find a group of children huddled around one stoop. In the middle, Amy sat gesticulating with her hands, dandling a toddler on her knee. 

“So, the Roman braced himself against the Pandorica, determined to guard it with his life. He kept it, and the princess within, safe for 2,000 years until it was time for the princess to emerge and reclaim what was rightfully hers.”

“What happened to the Professor?” one little girl asked, and River smirked.

“Well, he had a princess of his own to rescue.” Amy gestured to the sky. “She was trapped, and he had to figure out a way to rescue her so the two princesses could defeat the evil bulb-headed monsters together.”

“Which they did so,” a little boy proclaimed “‘Cause they had the Roman and Professor there.”

“The princesses did it on their own,” the girl shot back. “They didn’t need the help of a stupid boy.”

Clara bit her lip trying to hold back her laughter.

Amy started to say something, but whatever she planned to tell them remained unsaid as she caught sight of River, Brian, and Clara a few feet away. She blinked once, twice, then broke into a tremulous smile. “Oh my God. Rory!

After a moment, the front window opened and Rory popped his head out. “I’ve nearly got Anthony to sleep, and you just-“ he cut off as Amy motioned to the sidewalk. His jaw dropped. “River … Dad!”

The little girl who had stoutly defended the princesses in Amy’s story creeped down the stairs and approached them. She tugged on River’s skirts. “Are you the Professor’s lost princess?”

River smiled at her. “You could say I’m his queen.”

The little girl pursed her lips then nodded, accepting this. “Did you come to slay the demons?”

“I’ve slew them a long time ago,” River reassured her. “I’m just making sure now that everyone has their happy ending.”

Chapter Text

New York City — 1889

There was the usual round of hugging, exclamations, a bit of weeping, and a lot of talking over each other. Clara hung back during most of it until Brian took the lead in introducing her, and Amy and Rory warmly welcomed her into the fold.

“I’m glad someone’s keeping an eye on him,” Amy said as she showed off the brownstone that River had purchased for them so long ago. “He doesn’t do well on his own.”

“No, I gathered that,” Clara said as she admired the rooms. “This reminds me of Vastra and Jenny’s, what little I saw of it after Trenzalore. The Doctor dropped them off there before taking me home to recover. I don’t remember a lot. I was really out of it.”

“They helped decorate,” Amy said as she led them into the kitchen while Rory and Brian headed upstairs. “And we’re traveling overseas to visit once Anthony is a bit older and can appreciate it more. Thankfully, we’re not tied to this city. We can’t leave the era, but we can travel, so that’s fine by me.  They were here though, when we arrived.” She grinned at River. “You’re a pretty good daughter, you know that? Don’t think we didn’t realize right off the bat that you arranged everything.”

“I wasn’t about to let the two of you fend for yourselves.” River hefted a carpetbag onto the table. “I seeded everything and contacted Vastra. I wasn’t sure of the exact when and where you and Rory would be dumped, but she said she would be able to figure it out. I have learned it’s best not to question Vastra about these things.”

Amy nodded. “I’m surprised we didn’t end up in 1938. I was expecting it. Rather hoping for it, really. But I wound up being spit out in the same graveyard where the angel was. I wasn’t far behind Rory, and that was luck. He’d only just started to panic when I popped in. And then before we could figure out what to do with ourselves, Vastra and Jenny were there with clothes and that letter from you telling you what you’d done to help us settle.” She squeezed River’s hand. “Thanks.”

River grinned. “You’ll really thank me once you’ve looked in that bag.”

Amy yanked it open and stuck her hand inside. “How big is this?”

“As big as I could make it. I had a lot to bring with me.”

Amy rummaged through it, her hand immediately closing over a torch. She turned it on and sucked in her breath to see so many familiar things from her old home. “You brought all our pictures?”

“Most of them, the ones I felt were mostly era appropriate.” River pulled out a small plastic bag with discs. “Those you want to display in public areas, you can attach one of these to the back of the frame. It’ll enable a perception filter that will make them seem sepia-toned. That way you won’t have to explain why you have colored photographs in 1889.”

Amy pulled out one of her wedding photos, a candid shot of her and her parents. “What did you tell my parents?”

“They think you died in a plane crash.”

Amy lightly traced her mother’s face and didn’t say anything for a moment. “Did you tell them about you?”

“No. Brian knows, obviously.”

“I’m sorry.” Amy sighed and sank into a chair, still holding the photo. “I had a lot of time to think about what happened after Demon’s Run after we got stuck here, especially when Rory and I were talking about adopting a kid. We never did handle what happened to you very well. You were always so generous about it, but we were never that good to you. Not the way we should have been.”

“You were fine,” River reassured her. “You were young, and there was never a guide on how to handle seeing your baby kidnapped then restored to you as an adult within five minutes.”

“You left out the part where I tried to shoot you twice.”

River chuckled. “You were only successful the one time, Mother.”

“Well,” Clara said, fascinated, “that sounds like an interesting story.”

“For another day,” River told her. She nudged the bag toward Amy. “Keep going through that.”

Amy pulled out the pieces of jewelry River saved and laughed at the Roman lunchbox before pushing it and the jewelry back at River. “Keep those,” she said, then exclaimed over packages of food and cheered at a box of PG Tips. With a hoot, she yanked out a package of modern underwear. “Oh, thank God. You have no idea how much I loathe underwear in this era. Tell me there’s real bras in there.”

“An assortment of modern underwear and night clothes,” River confirmed.

“And tampons!” Amy kissed the box of Tampax she pulled out.

“Biodegradable, so there’s no risk of leaving behind evidence.”

“I have the best kid,” Amy told Clara as she pulled out other items. “We’re also a bit ahead of the time here, but Vastra and Jenny saw to it that we had flush toilets. I hate chamber pots.”

Clara shuddered. “That is the worst part about some of the places the Doctor has taken me. It’s like he doesn’t get it.”

“Time Lords,” Amy replied, and Clara nodded sagely. “At least I don’t need birth control.”

Madame Kovarian had taken care of that, River thought as Amy peeked into the first aid kit stocked with penicillin and an array of 21st century medicine. She crammed everything she thought she could get away with into the bag, and Brian held even more in his luggage. She surveyed the kitchen with a critical eye. “I brought my sonic with me, so I can do something about the lights. I’m surprised you have electricity in here.”

“Vastra and Jenny again,” Amy said. “Not a lot of homes have electric lighting in this time. Really, we’re about five-six years too early on the electricity. And it’s certainly not as durable as what we had in our time, but it’s passable.”

“I can tweak the bulbs, and I think I have some packages of everburning LCDs from the 24nd Century in the bag.” Amy pulled them out as River said this and handed them over. River pulled her sonic trowel out of the small handbag she brought with her and began to tweak the fixture.

“If you were the Doctor, I’d be afraid you’d light the city on fire,” Clara said.

“She’s too good,” Amy said proudly as River worked on the fixture. She turned off the bulb, pulled it out, then twisted off the bottom. She inserted the LCD, soniced the bulb, then reassembled it and screwed it back on. The bulb popped back on, far brighter than it had been.

“I’ll do these with the other fixtures,” River said as she turned to see Brian and Rory standing in the door, a small boy in Rory’s arms. Her breath hitched, just a bit, as the baby stared at her with wide, dark eyes. He looked around two years old, with wisps of black hair that curled around bronzed skin.

“Meet your brother,” Rory told her with no small amount of pride. “Amy and I adopted him about six weeks ago. His parents were Romani and were barely clinging to life when they got off the boat. I run a clinic for the poor, and they made it there before they died, first his father then his mother. I didn’t want to turn him over to an orphanage, not the way Romani children are treated. So I brought him home. We’d been talking about adopting, so it was a no-brainer. His parents were too delirious to tell me his name, so we named him after my father.”

“Anthony Brian,” Brian said, his smile so wide and happy that River automatically smiled in response. “Look at him. My grandson.”

Anthony squirmed in Rory’s arms until he relented and let the toddler slide to the ground. He stuck a finger in his mouth and gazed seriously at Clara, then at River. With a natural ease, Clara sank to her knees and murmured to Anthony. He crept to her side as she enticed him into some sort of game with her hands. River watched, gripping her sonic tightly as the little boy warmed up to Clara. Children had never been her strength, and she’d been content to let the Doctor interact with them when their adventures included them. She startled as she felt a touch on her arm and realized she never noticed Amy get up.

“I’m still getting used to it too,” she murmured as Rory joined the game. “But look at Rory. He’s so good at it.”

He was, River agreed. “Are you happy?”

“Yeah,” Amy said. “I was happy before. But, I’m even happier now.”

——

Weehauken, New Jersey — 1889

The rational part of his brain knew that he was being petulant about this. Really, a small inner voice said, you are over 1,200 years old. You know better than to pitch a fit because time hasn’t gone your way.

Well, the Doctor was quite used to ignoring that inner voice, thank you very much.

He stomped down the dockside, absently kicking a rock as he did so. He refused to even look after the ferry, though he knew Clara was watching. River would be focused on her parents, and she always had the fortitude to actually get on with what needed to get done. As the years slipped by, he relied that more and more to the point where he hadn’t been able to function well without her. The tiny inner voice spoke up again, and this time it was laced with guilt. Time had been evaded and he’d gotten River back, thanks to Clara Oswald’s giant heart. He missed his Amelia and his Rory so much … but he still had River. He still had the Pond he loved the most.

The Doctor leaned against a post and finally hazarded a glance over his shoulder at the Hudson River. The ferry had disappeared into a small speck on the horizon. He turned and rested his elbows on it. He would be content just to stand there until River and Clara returned.

His foot jiggled a bit. Or not.

Great, he was already bored and his girls had been gone for maybe 15 minutes. Tops.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, the Doctor contemplated wandering down to the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr dueling site. There was a memory worth revisiting. He really should take River and Clara to see the musical at some point, and maybe he would let them in on the fact that he dropped a copy of Hamilton’s biography in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bag as the brilliant genius had gone on vacation. Humming “My Shot” under his breath, the Doctor took two steps away from his post and halted as the hair on the back of his neck suddenly prickled. Then there came the tell-tale whiff of the vortex before the distinct sound of time and space being rendered apart. He spun in time to see a woman stumble into existence, blonde hair whipping around her face as she clutched a large gun.

His hearts stopped.

The woman pushed her hair out of her face and quickly surveyed the area. “Oh no, this can’t be it! I was sure she was sending me to the right place. She promised.”

“Rose Tyler,” the Doctor whispered.

Rose startled, swinging the gun up for a second as she quickly took in the Doctor’s stunned expression. She blinked, then let the gun go slack. “Doctor?” she asked hesitantly.

He threw his arms open, unable to keep from grinning ear-to-ear as Rose laughed with joy and ran into them. He held her tightly, pressing his suddenly wet eyes to her hair as he rocked her back and forth.

“I can’t believe I found you,” Rose sobbed into his shoulder. “I came all this way.” She suddenly pulled back. “You changed your face. This isn’t 2008. Where am I?”

“No. It’s 1889, and this is my eleventh incarnation, one after the one you left.”

“Eleven?” Rose’s brow furrowed. “But River Song said the vortex manipulator she left me would send me to Chiswick in 2008. She said it would take me to my Doctor.”

The Doctor stilled and gripped Rose’s arms. “Where did you meet River Song?”

“Oh.” Rose managed a weak smile. “It’s a long story.”

They had the time for it. They headed to a nearby café as Rose started to fill him in on gaps in River’s escape from the Library that the Doctor had quickly started to reassemble in his mind. Rose explained about the dimension hopper, about encountering Oswin Oswald and rescuing River from the Library. “But if you’re a newer reincarnation, I’m not telling you something you don’t already know … am I?”

The Doctor gave her a sad smile. “Spoilers.”

Rose huffed. “She’s just as cryptic, you know. She’s yours, isn’t she? River Song is your wife.”

“Last I checked.” The Doctor fiddled with his tea cup, then decided to be as merciful as he could. “You will find me, Rose. The version of me you’re looking for. Let me see that vortex manipulator.”

Rose handed the thin device to him, and the Doctor pulled out his sonic out and ran it over it. “Right coordinates are keyed in,” he murmured. “But … ah. Ah, clever girl. River didn’t steer you wrong, but it appears she wanted you to make a detour first. Rule 1: The Doctor lies.”

“I thought Rule 1 was don’t wander off?”

“Different Doctor, different rules. In this case, the Doctor lies. But Rule 1b, so does his wife.” The Doctor handed the manipulator back to Rose. “She wanted you to find the oldest version of me that she knew and keyed it to my time signature. Me after Manhattan.”

“Sorry? Manhattan?”

“Another long story.” And his hearts swelled two sizes as the Doctor fully realized what River had done. His beautiful, clever, wonderful wife who had known exactly what he needed, even though at the time she probably thought they would never see each other again. He knew that Rose would find him and Donna, knew that Rose would help in the defeat of Davros, knew that Rose would choose to spend the remainder of her life with a clone of his tenth self. And that was OK. That was good. Though he’d been too thick to acknowledge it at the time, his hearts had begun to heal and reach out toward a certain curly haired archaeologist who was too brilliant for her own good.

“River is like me,” he told Rose.

“She’s a Time Lord?”

“Half-Time Lord. Yet another long story, involves a crazy amount of messed up genetics. But thanks to you and Oswin, we can spend the rest of our lives together.”

“Like we never could,” Rose said a bit bitterly.

“I wouldn’t say that,” the Doctor said a bit carefully and watched a spark of hope come back into Rose’s eyes.

“That time on the beach,” she demanded, “what were you going to tell me? And don’t tell me does it need saying or any of that nonsense. I deserve to hear it.”

“You do,” he acknowledged. “It’s a very human thing to want to hear that. You lot seemed pretty obsessed with it, actually.”

“Doctor,” Rose growled.

“I’m not the one who can tell you what you want to hear,” he admitted. “Besides, do you really want this face to be the one to tell you that?”

Rose didn’t say anything for a moment before sitting back in her chair, deflated. “No. You’re not my Doctor, are you?”

“Not the one you developed feelings for.”

Rose sighed. “It’s not fair to any of us, I suppose. I just always thought … the way you talked with me so many years ago, you would never be the type to marry or settle down. I wanted to hate River, I really did. But she was really nice to me, given she knew who I was to you.”

“She always understood. She’s never been jealous of you or any of my past companions.”

“You’re really, properly happy?”

He smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

Rose smiled back. “Good.”

——

New York City 

Unable to sleep, River spent the night tweaking her parents’ brownstone, installing modern comforts that could easily be disguised. She enlarged all of the wardrobes and fixed the toilets. She finished tweaking all the light fixtures and turned the icebox into a proper refrigerator. There was little she could do with the stove other than ensure that a gas leak wouldn’t start. She altered the boiler so that it would run off of a heat coil from Trexia she brought with her, rather than coal. When she had tweaked everything that she could, she made a pot of tea and sat at the table reading her diary.

“You used to do that when you came and saw us,” Rory said from the entryway. River glanced up to see him wearing his old, familiar dressing gown. She’d brought both his and Amy’s from the future. “I’d get up for work and see you sitting here reading or writing. Then there was the one time I caught you and the Doctor … did you really have to do that on the table?”

“It seemed imperative at the time, and don’t even begin to tell me you and Amy haven’t.” River closed her diary and gave her father a pointed look. “I knew you as a teenager, remember?”

Rory sighed and took the chair opposite hers. “As you loved reminding us. Constantly.” He helped himself to River’s tea. “When do you head back?”

“The first ferry back over to New Jersey leaves a little after 8. I don’t dare leave the Doctor any longer we have to. He doesn’t do linear well.”

Rory rolled his eyes. “Tell me about it. You’ll be all right, you and him?”

River nodded. “We’re finally in sync,” she said.

“You told me though once that your timelines were in reverse. That one day you’ll meet a version of him that should know you, but doesn’t.”

“I have.” Her hands tightened on her diary. “I have, and it did kill me.” She gave him a wry smile. “I got better.”

“Clearly.”

“Rory.” River laid her hand over his. “We’ll be fine. Amy asked me to take care of him, and I have been.”

Rory’s eyes were fierce and protective as he squeezed her hand. “He should take care of you, too.”

“He has. He will be. We haven’t decided what we’re doing yet, but we’ll decide on it. Our marriage will never be typical, and I’m not sure how long we can remain on the TARDIS without murdering each other.” It was a subject that River had yet to even dare think about, not in the flurry of pulling off this trip. Both she and the Doctor were out of regeneration energy. It was something they would have to address. But not yet. “It’s a long story, but the Doctor and I are fine. We’re better, I think, than we ever were.”

“That’s good. You two are pretty unstoppable.”

“I’d like to think so,” River replied with a saucy grin.

Rory grinned back at her, then sobered. “I wasn’t a good dad to you.”

“Amy already apologized.”

“Yeah, but being with Anthony made me realize that I pushed you away, especially after Demon’s Run.” Rory sighed when River didn’t reply. He was right. Amy had always had the closer relationship with River. “It got better there, at the end, but you didn’t deserve us freezing you out at first. But it got better. I’m sorry I never told my dad about you before now.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “He blistered my ears over that when I was showing him the house.”

“We can’t dwell on that,” River told him.

“But I won’t see you again, will I? Not once you and Clara leave.”

She shook her head. “The timelines are too fragile. This was the last possible area of loose time, and as we found out, not even the Doctor can get through it. I can leave you letters, seed them through time, and you can do the same to me. But the Doctor was never meant to be a part of your time stream again, and neither can I. But, Rory, you’ll be happy. You and Amy have Brian and Anthony, and the four of you will have a good life.”

“Whatever happened to your spoiler mantra?” Rory asked.

“Not spoilers. It’s a fact.”

——

Weehauken, New Jersey 

Rose spent that long night with the Doctor, the two of them drifting from café to restaurant to tavern to finally benches looking out over the Hudson as they picked pieces off a stale loaf of bread to feed the birds. With the messiness of human emotions out of the way, Rose filled in the Doctor on her family in a way she hadn’t been able to before. She’d been light on the details, he remembered, once she had found his past self. But everything had moved so fast.

On his end, he told her what he could without spoiling her own future. Instead, he focused on his Ponds, River, and Clara. This was what she needed, he knew, though he suspected it would be a long time before Rose realized it herself. She needed to know that he was OK and not alone. She needed to know the universe hadn’t ended on her watch, even though both were painfully aware of the fact that time could be rewritten. They laughed over old stories and teased each other in a way they hadn’t done since the relationship between their younger selves had turned romantic.

“Oh God,” Rose managed. “I’ll never forget the look on Mickey’s face when you finally popped out of that wardrobe!” She dashed her hands over her eyes, then sobered. “I ruined things with him, Doctor, with Mickey. I can’t fix it this time. He hates what I’m doing. He’s helping, because he’s Mickey, but we barely speak anymore. I’ve lost my oldest friend.”

The Doctor didn’t say anything, knowing far too much.

“I tried apologizing, but he won’t listen. So we just don’t speak at all. He doesn’t understand why I have to do this.”

He squeezed her hand.

Rose huffed a bit and kicked her legs. “I have to go, don’t I?”

“Dawn’s coming,” he acknowledged. “Not that River and Clara wouldn’t want to see you, but you have a universe to save, Rose Tyler. The next few days won’t be easy, but you’ll be OK. I promise.”

Rose quirked an eyebrow. “Is your new rule 1 in effect here?”

“Let’s just say I’ve already lived through the events once.”

He took her hand as Rose got to her feet, standing with her. She worried her lip. “I’m not sure how to say good bye,” she acknowledged. “I’m never going to see this future you again, am I?”

“I love all of my companions,” the Doctor acknowledged, evading her question. “I love almost every person who has stepped through the TARDIS doors and traveled the universe with me. But there are some I will never, ever forget. Some that will stay with me always in a part of my hearts that very few have ever seen. You saved me in so many ways, Rose Tyler. I am who I am today because of you healed me after the Time War. You will always be a part of me.” He hugged her hard, patting the back of her head before kissing her forehead. “Go find your Doctor, Rose. Save the universe, and be amazing. Have a good life. Do it for me.”

Tears streamed down Rose’s cheeks, and she hastily pressed her lips to his. Before the Doctor realized what she had done, Rose gave him a tremulous smile, pressed the button on the vortex manipulator, and disappeared into the past.

——

New York City 

They all went down to the docks together: Amy, Rory, Brian, Anthony, River, and Clara. Anthony still regarded both women with curiosity, but River managed to hold him for all of 10 seconds before he squirmed to get down. She pressed a kiss to his curls and whispered in his ear, “You take care of them. I’m going to make sure that you do.”

Anthony reared back and stared at his sister for several long moments before he wiggled away.

Amy stood at the edge of the dock and stared across the river as Brian and Rory walked with Clara to get the ferry tickets. The breeze pulled thin wisps of hair out of her chignon and across her face. “I feel like if I stare hard enough, I can see him,” she admitted. “He’s standing across the river bouncing on his toes, giving that stupid wave of his. It all happened so fast. I close my eyes at night and see him staring at me, like I was about to die.”

River took her mother’s hand, the same way she had in the graveyard. Instead of kissing it, she merely squeezed it. During the rushed hours together, they had talked little about the Doctor other than to explain about the Reapers and how that forced him to wait in New Jersey. Amy had grown silent at that and didn’t mention him much during the evening other than listening to Clara’s story about how she joined the TARDIS. There had been a few good laughs at his expense, and at hers as well. But the Weeping Angels had not been discussed at all.

Fitting how it would now be crammed into the last 10 minutes of her time with her mother.

“He’s all right now, Amy,” River said soothingly.

“But he wasn’t before, was he?” Amy turned her focus to River. “Be honest with me.”

“No, he wasn’t,” River admitted. “Neither of us were, to be frank. But we’re OK. This helped a lot.”

“But I’m never going to see him again. Or you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” River took Amy’s other hand as well. “The Reapers appearing meant that the Doctor was not meant to see you at this point in time without tearing the fabric of time apart. He’s convinced it means he’ll never see you again. He’s probably right. But it doesn’t mean we can’t find a way. Time has a wonderful way of yielding when you least expect it. We’ll still be a part of each other’s lives. He loves you so much, Amy. He’ll never forget you.”

“He better not.” Amy’s brow furrowed. “So, I’m not really good at imparting advice I don’t follow myself. But let him see that you hurt at times. You’re just like me, you know that? I’ve had to learn to get better about it with Rory. The Doctor loves you so much, and I think he doesn’t know how to handle it. He thinks you walk on sunlight and can change the universe in a fingersnap. Be good to each other, OK?” Whatever she had planned to say next was drowned out by the sound of the ferry horn.

River loathed good-byes. She was never any good at them, but she at least managed to project the illusion that she was when she was around the Doctor. One of them had to at least pretend to be an adult. But as she hugged her parents and Brian for the last time, she wanted to howl with grief. She thought she could handle it, that she could say good-bye. This was the closure she had craved, yet now she was perilously close to not being able to handle it at all. She clung to Amy the longest, both of them trembling as they tried not to break down.

“You be a good girl,” Amy repeated her words from so long ago. “You take care of him, but make sure he takes care of you too. If he doesn’t, I’ll know, and I’ll find some way to haunt him.” Her eyes were shining, but her expression was serious as she handed River an envelope. “That’s for him. I love you both.”

We love you both,” Rory cut in. “Make sure he knows that. We’ll keep in touch somehow.”

“All of us do,” Brian added. He nodded to Clara. “We’re leaving them in your hands.”

Clara saluted. “Taking care of people happens to be my greatest talent.” She laid a hand on River’s back. “We need to go,” she said softly.

Wordlessly, River nodded and pulled on every acting instinct she had. She pasted on a bright smile and blew kisses to her family as they boarded the ferry and it launched. She kept waving and laughing as her family waved after them, even little Anthony finally giving a little wave of his own. She waved until the docks were a distant speck, and the spray from the Hudson disguised any tears that may have escaped.

“You OK?”

It took her a moment to register that Clara was speaking to her. River kept the smile pasted on her face and sincerely hoped the Doctor hadn’t done anything to destroy half of New Jersey out of grief or boredom. “Yes. I just needed a moment.”

Clara squeezed her arm, and they spent the rest of the trip back to New Jersey in silence.

They found the Doctor speaking with a tour group at the dueling site of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, relating a gripping first person narrative. River was braced to find him either still in a petulant snit or have descended even further into melancholy and was relieved to see him be his bouncy, energetic self. His eyes seemed years younger when he spotted River and Clara at the back of the crowd and waved frantically at them. There was an air of ease around him that River hadn’t sensed since before her parents were sucked into the past, and she wondered what prompted the sudden turnabout in his attitude.

Ignoring his fans, the Doctor leaped off the stump he commandeered and loped over to them. He grabbed Clara up in a fierce hug.

“Everything OK?” Clara asked.

“Right as rain, Clara Oswald, thanks to our lovely professor here.” The Doctor pulled River into an embrace and laid his forehead on hers. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“For what?”

“I’ll tell you later.” He kissed her forehead, then drew back for a moment. After a few seconds of contemplation, he cupped her face with those large hands of his and kissed her.  She started with a bit of surprise, then sank into the kiss. She wasn’t about to pass up on a moment like this. Her fingers dove into his hair as he grasped her hips and pulled her closer, both ignoring the gawkers and a fed-up Clara.

Clara rolled her eyes, then squinted at something over the Doctor’s shoulder. “Um, hello. I think the two of you are about to be arrested for public indecency,” she said as two police officers quickly ran toward them.

River smiled against the Doctor’s lips. “What, again?”

He smirked and kissed her nose. “Victorian times, dear.”

“You started it.”

He nuzzled her cheek, and the smugness radiated off him. “Well, my dear, shall we make a run for it?”

“I have just the thing.” River dipped into her handbag and pulled out her vortex manipulator. “How about this time we head home the short way ‘round?” She strapped it on as the Doctor beckoned to Clara.

“How about it, Clara?” he asked, indicating for her to grab hold of River. “Fancy a week in ancient Mesopotamia followed by future Mars?”

“Will there be cocktails?” Clara took River’s arm on one side while the Doctor kept his hand around the other.

“On the Moon,” he promised.

“All of us?” Clara asked a bit nervously.

“All of us. As long as the missus doesn’t mind.”

“The more, the merrier. Of course, I’m driving.” River waggled her fingers over the vortex manipulator.

The Doctor pouted. “Why do you always have to drive?”

“So we can actually get there!” River kissed his cheek, and he scowled at her while Clara laughed. She bumped hips with the Doctor, and he grinned back at her. There were still so many questions to answer, but for now, she and her husband and their friend were going to have cocktails on the Moon.