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Stealing Time

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It's Demon's Run all over again, River thinks to herself, when she's alone in the TARDIS and finally allows herself to breathe. She's known this day was coming, and she knows now that everything will be all right, but it's still hard.

Well, she can have a good cry about it later. Right now she has work to do. She heads to one of the chronology labs, and starts setting up readings to get a handle on the ebb and flow of temporal energy in 20th century New York in combination with the readings she took at the graveyard. First, she'll need to get Amy and Rory settled, find an entry time point long before they arrive and set up an identity as a wealthy, eccentric spinster who will leave her vast fortune and property to an estranged Scottish niece.

That part is easy enough. The rest may prove more of a challenge.

The last time she saw the Doctor was a good few years ahead in his personal future, and he was fine. It seems impossible now that their quiet afternoon wandering the markets of Jeslae X was only a week or two ago for her, but the memory of his happiness then gives her comfort now.

They will all survive this, if they hold tight.

She sits at her desk in a part of the lab she's long since taken over, with everything set up to her specifications. She calibrates her instruments, and starts to work.

*

When the Doctor returns, the first crashing wave of his grief has begun to subside. He clutches Amy's afterword in his hand like it's the most precious thing in the universe. River supposes that right now, it is.

He finds her still at work, where he hovers silently in the doorway until she triple-saves her progress and stands to meet him. She says nothing, just holds him close and lets him shake against her shoulder, and tries to keep her breathing steady even as his misery radiates from him strongly enough for her to feel it too.

"I am so sorry, my love," she tells him, and kisses his shoulder. "Listen. I am going to make tea, and then you can tell me what Amy said."

She takes his hand, and he offers no resistance as she leads him to the kitchen.

She boils the kettle and picks out their favourite mugs, and leans against the counter and watches him as he hunches over in his chair, reading Amy's words over and over again.

"What did she say?" River asks quietly.

"She says --" the Doctor breaks off, his voice too unsteady to continue.

River pours the tea, sets a mug down in front of him, and picks up the page to see it for herself. She reads her mother's last request of the Doctor and she smiles, even as her heart clenches and tears start to gather in her eyes. (She will not cry, not now. Her family needs her, and everything will be all right.)

She reaches for the Doctor's hands and wraps them up in hers. "She told me, once, about this dream she used to have. Not every night, but often. The same dream, every time, where she was a little girl in her garden still, and her Raggedy Doctor told her that she just had to be patient, and that he'd be coming back for her soon." She bites her lip. "Oh, mother. I never knew that was more than just a dream."

She runs a hand lightly over the page, her heart almost overflowing with love for her parents.

"You know they'll be fine, don't you," she says to the Doctor. It isn't a question. "Just like Amy says, right here."

He nods.

"And I know that you'll be fine, too." She squeezes his hands. "Well then, do what Amy asked. Go to her. Go find that little girl in her garden and tell her what she needs to hear."

"I don't--" the Doctor starts, looking lost.

"Of course you do. Be her imaginary friend, Doctor. One more time. And I'll be right here when you get back."

Slowly, the Doctor gets to his feet. He tugs on the lapels of his jacket. "Well then. I suppose this calls for a change of clothes."

When he's gone, she buries her face in her hands and allows herself to fall apart, just for a little while.

*

The Doctor is different when he returns to the TARDIS. Full of sorrow still, but lighter and a little more at peace. He's still in those old clothes, the pinstriped trousers and blue shirt, the swirling patterned tie. It's not the original Raggedy Doctor outfit, of course, long since abandoned in a Leadworth hospital locker, but it's close enough. It makes River laugh to see it - she's met the incarnation who wore that suit once or twice, now, and he's a strange, young, volatile man.

There was a time she believed that their lives would always be back to front, that she'd spend the rest of her life slowly losing him, destined to forever meet his younger selves until they lost each other entirely. Now she knows better. Their lives are complicated and out of order but they are not impossible. There are days like these, when she sees him and knows without having to ask that he is the man that she married.

She will always have her secrets, though, and the one she is going to tell him today is one she has kept guarded and close for longer than any other.

"Come here," she says, extending her arm. "There's something I want to tell you." She makes room for him to sit beside her.

He sits, and laces their fingers together, watching her with badly-suppressed hope.

"I don't know where exactly they've gone. I'm still working that out. But let me tell you something that I do know. In 1969, there is a lost little girl wandering the streets of New York. She's injured, badly, but that's all right. She has a magical power that's going to make everything better. She's scared, though, because she doesn't know what's going to happen to her. Maybe the people who hurt her are coming back for her, and she'll trapped inside a spacesuit again. But they don't. At least, not yet." She smiles, remembering. "The little girl regenerates, and when she opens her brand new eyes, her mum and dad are waiting right there, and they've come to take her home."

"No," the Doctor breathes, looking awestruck.

"Yes," she says. "It won't be forever, of course - Kovarian will come for her, and she will be taken away and turned into a weapon again, no matter how hard her parents try to fight it. But they will have many happy years together, and though she won't remember all of it at first, eventually, she does. Her parents know that she has to go and live in her own story, and that the time they had together was an unexpected gift. The grace of an angel."

She looks down at their entwined hands, her mind suddenly full of long summer afternoons in the garden and the sound of laughter that always filled the house. It took such a long time to get those memories back, and some will never return, but what she has is more than enough. She remembers what it is to be a beloved child.

"And so you see," she says, "it always had to be this way. You brought them back to me."

The wonder on his face is beautiful to see. He laughs, sudden and bright, and hugs her tightly, kissing her. "You impossible woman," he says, delighted.

"Thank you, sweetie. I do try."

*

"Got it!" River claps her hands together as the numbers on the screen turn green. "Finally."

After the positive result has been confirmed three times, she packs a bag, and goes to find the Doctor.

"I've found an entry point," she tells him, tapping her vortex manipulator. "April, 1961, a year after they arrived. Not much temporal displacement for a while either side so I should be in and out with no harm done."

The Doctor looks like he wants to protest, and she knows how afraid he is of doing anything further to disrupt her parents' lives.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't sure," she tells him, and he nods. "I'll give them your love, of course." She starts to walk towards the TARDIS door, pauses, and turns back. "You could come with me, you know."

"River, I can't."

She sighs. "I know that you think that. When you change your mind, I'll know where they are."

He looks small and sad, alone in the console room, and it hurts to leave him, but her parents need her too.

*

When she materialises, her scans confirm that her presence is not enough to disrupt the fragile fabric of time surrounding this place. The ripples she created fade away into nothing, and time continues moving as it should. Relieved, because she is an academic, and is never one hundred percent certain about any theory, she hurries towards the Brooklyn brownstone house that she bought nearly a century earlier.

She knocks smartly on the door, and hears Amy grumbling inside.

"If that's another salesman," she snaps, before there's the clatter of footsteps on a wooden floor and the door swings open.

Amy's face changes from irritated to amazed in an instant. "River? Oh my god, River! Rory, come here!"

She steps back to let River in, then flings her arms around her as soon as the door's shut. Rory runs to see what all the fuss is about, and then he's joining the hug too, wrapping his arms around them both.

"I knew you'd come," says Amy.

"Yeah, thanks for the house, by the way!" Rory says with a laugh. "Wasn't expecting that."

"Least I could do was get the two of you set up," says River. "Did that lawyer I hired come through?"

"Like a dream," Amy says. "Seemed like he was pretty used to dealing with strange requests."

River grins. "Yes, Matthew and I go back quite a way."

Amy kisses her cheek. "My clever girl."

They go into the living room. The place looks lovely - high ceilings, big fireplaces, large bay windows covered in throws and cushions. There's a desk in the corner with a typewriter and a manuscript covered in red ink, a coffee table covered in books, and there are crisp white scrubs hanging on the back of a chair.

The house doesn't quite look the way she remembers as a kid, not yet, but she knows that it will. This is the place that she will associate with the word 'home' more than any other. She smiles to herself. Today, it feels good to have secrets.

"Looks like you're settling in wonderfully," she says, taking it all in.

"So far so good," Rory agrees.

"Sit down, sit down," says Amy. "Tell us everything you've been doing."

She does.

*

Perth, Australia, 1968. River waits at the airport, the Doctor beside her. Halfway around the world from New York, and no signs of any temporal disturbance even with the sudden appearance of a Time Lord. Nonetheless, the Doctor is anxious, and he fidgets.

"Would you stop that?" she hisses.

He shakes his head, shifting from foot to foot. "I shouldn't -- this isn't -- haven't I already caused enough damage?"

She rolls her eyes. "For god's sake. The self-flagellation really wears thin, you know. They're the ones who asked to see you."

"I know." He swallows.

She kisses him, quick and soft, and he stills at her touch. "It's all right," she says. "You're allowed to have this. We can steal a little time without undoing it."

Over his shoulder, River sees a terribly glamorous couple striding towards them. Amy and Rory have taken to Sixties fashion with great enthusiasm, and they look fantastic.

"Turn around," she says.

He does, and the sight of all three of their faces lighting up with joy will stay with her for a long, long time. River beams, and hugs herself a little as she watches them all talk over each other in their excitement. Hugging, kissing, crying, laughing: the reunion is loud enough to attract a fair amount of attention from the other passengers as they disembark. None of them care.

"I couldn't even say goodbye," Rory's saying, "it was so bloody quick, I--" he trails off and settles for hugging the Doctor again instead.

Amy races over to River and hugs her too. "Thank you, so much."

"You're very welcome," River says. "There had to be a way - the hard part was convincing him."

Amy nods. "Thought as much. Come on, I'm told there's a great place to get some lunch downtown, and I need coffee before I keel over - long-distance flights just aren't what they used to be! What they're going to be, I mean."

*

They all stay for a week. They do ordinary things: sight-seeing, fancy restaurants, arguments about special relativity and its application to swimming whilst travelling in the time vortex. The Doctor seems to believe that any moment in which he is not touching at least two Ponds is a moment wasted, and they are all happy to agree with that assessment.

They all say things to each other that they've said a thousand times before, but which always bear repeating. I miss you. I love you. I wouldn't change a thing.

Rory mentions that they've started looking into fostering, now they feel they've got a decent grip on the era they've found themselves in, and River and the Doctor share a private smile.

River promises to bring her grandparents to visit again soon - Brian, Tabitha and Augustus had all been initially very taken aback to discover that their children had not just moved country but moved time period, but with River's help in setting up a few channels of communication as well as facilitating the occasional in-person visit, they're managing.

The goodbyes are long this time, drawn out and sentimental like they should be.

"This doesn't have to be forever, Doctor," Amy says. "But you have your life, and we have ours. Let's live them."

"Amelia Pond. The woman who stopped waiting." He kisses her forehead.

"You'll look after each other, won't you?" Rory asks, looking between River and the Doctor.

"Of course," the Doctor says, hugging him. "Just so long as you two do the same."

"Always," says Rory.

The Doctor steps back, and lets River take his hand and start punching coordinates into her manipulator.

"You'll come and see us again soon, won't you, River?" Amy asks.

"Yes," says River. "Won't say when, though - spoilers."

The last thing River sees before they vanish is her mother's laughing face.

*

Six months since she escaped from her mobile prison, the spacesuit, Melody Pond is wandering the streets of New York. She is cold, hungry and tired, and she knows she doesn't have long. She's afraid that it will hurt, but as her hands start to blaze with golden light, she suddenly knows that she doesn't have to worry. The light starts to fill every part of her, until she's glowing, changing, healing.

She falls down when it's over, and she is very small now and she feels very strange, so she starts to cry.

"Hush," says a voice, and two warm arms pick her up and hold her close. "Melody, sweetheart, it's all right. Everything is going to be all right."

"I can't believe we found her. Melody, it's me. I'm your mum. That's your dad. We're going to take you home now."