The letterbox makes a faint click as it opens and closes. Rory goes to check on it, because this is Sunday, so his letterbox shouldn’t be making any kind of noise at all. In his experience small strange things often have a habit of turning into bigger ones. Investigating them early on has rarely helped them becoming even stranger, but at least he’ll be prepared.
There’s a little white card lying on the doormat. Rory picks it up: Sanders Window Cleaning! – Great Rates! – Call Us To Find Out More!
Aside from the rather unnecessary exclamation points, it’s not very threatening. Which is- not disappointing, because who would be disappointed to find out that this is still, for the moment, a perfectly ordinary Sunday afternoon? (Although it’s still not quite ordinary, of course. River and Amy have gone into town together, and God knows what kind of damage the two of them can do in four hours.) It doesn’t feel ordinary, and he has a good sense of these things nowadays. Rory turns the card over.
Meet me at the corner, by the big empty warehouse. Don’t be late!
Rory looks at it. “What’s he doing in a warehouse? And how can I be late, he hasn’t told me when to...?” This is an argument that might be having more effect if there were anyone else in the house. Rory sighs, and gets his coat.
The Doctor is wearing a trench coat, a fedora, and a pair of enormous sunglasses.
Rory stares at him. “What are you wearing?”
“I’m being incognito. This is me now. Incognito and on the lam. On the run? Which is the one where you have to hide behind a newspaper in case people recognise you from the police sketches?”
“You’re wearing sunglasses. In England. In the rain. You’re about as- as cognito as it gets.” Rory has dim, dark memories of centurion-hood that make him doubt the construction of that sentence, but it gets the job done.
The Doctor takes off the sunglasses, at least. He blinks in that wide-eyed way he does when something human doesn’t make sense to him. He’s standing at the doorway of an abandoned warehouse, dripping wet, looking like something out of an American spy film. And he doesn’t really get why that seems a bit strange.
Rory shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. What do you need?”
“What do you mean?”
“You left me a note?” Rory waves it at him.
“Yes, but not because I needed anything. Can’t a person just drop by to say hello without- although, while you’re here, I could do with a second pair of hands. Did try that once, more complicated than it looks. Come here. Hold this.”
Rory allows himself to be led into the TARDIS, to the space underneath the console. The Doctor exchanges the sunglasses for goggles, and hands Rory another pair. “You’ll need these.”
Rory puts them on while asking, “Why?” Sparks fly everywhere. “All right. What am I holding?”
The Doctor takes Rory’s left hand, and gives him something that looks like a paraffin lamp. Then he puts a red cable the width of his arm into the other hand. Rory holds onto them, and lets the Doctor whirl around him with more pieces, connecting them while chattering quickly about what they do, and what they would be doing if they weren’t in bits across the floor, and how this part wasn’t really pulling its weight to begin with.
“Doctor,” Rory says. “It was me you were looking for, wasn’t it? Because Amy wasn’t at home. She’s with-.”
“River, I know. No, no. I wanted to talk to you. Nothing wrong with that. Two men, fixing things, engines, and… things. Should there be beer? I never know what the appropriate beverage is for these social situations. Is that the problem?”
“You don’t drink beer.”
“No,” the Doctor admits. There’s another odd look.
Truth be told, this is probably the most ‘normal’ thing he and the Doctor ever did together – sitting and tinkering with the TARDIS. Amy isn’t a morning person, and so Rory would almost always wake up first, and follow the noise to the console room. They used to sit here, he and the Doctor, underneath the TARDIS console. They used to talk, a little.
“What’s wrong?” the Doctor asks, very quiet.
“Why do you think there’s something wrong?”
“Because I looked through your window this morning and you looked sad.”
“Why did you-?”
“I was trying to work out if this was before or after River told you I wasn’t dead. Don’t know how I thought looking at you would help, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I saw them getting ready to go out. And you looked sad.”
“It’s River’s birthday.”
“And she’s forty-one. But it’s only a year since she was born. To me, I mean. My baby girl would have been turning one today.”
“And I know, I know it’s not like she’s dead, she’s right there. But she’s not-.”
The Doctor says, “She’s not your baby. You don’t love her like that.”
“I- don’t you- don’t you dare.” Rory finds his hands gripping too tightly on the pieces of engine. “She’s my daughter, and I loved her even before I knew that. Back when she was this dangerous, strange, amazing woman who knew too much and killed monsters and smiled just like Amy. I loved her then, and she’s my- she’s my daughter so don’t you dare tell me I don’t love her. I’m just-.”
“Sad,” the Doctor says. “Okay.”
“I miss her. Is that weird? I never even- I never even held her. Not really.”
“No. That’s not weird.”
Rory waits while the Doctor hands him another strip of wiring and leans back so he can look up at the stairs. “You can’t- not even for a minute?”
“You know that I can’t.”
River grew up, back when she was still Melody, she grew up in an orphanage. Almost all alone, and she must have been frightened. She was still so brave, brave enough to look for help to fight the monsters, brave enough to tear herself from the spacesuit and run. Rory wants to go to her then, and rock her in his arms, swaying across the timelines. He says, “Like you couldn’t find her when she was taken. Like that?”
“Yes. Sort of. Yes.”
“Why? And don’t- I’ve been thinking about this, and don’t, please don’t tell me it was because she had to be the one to kill you. She had to be there at the lake so the universe had to unfold that way because…” Rory is waiting for the Doctor to stop him; this once, he really wants to be interrupted and told that he’s being ridiculous.
“No,” the Doctor says. “Not because of that. Because she asked me.”
“She- a long, long time ago. When I met her for the very first time. She asked me not to change what happened to her. I thought she meant that time, I didn’t realise until after that she meant the whole- She didn’t want that. The adult River made that choice and I…”
“You didn’t want to take it away from her.”
“Oh, I wanted to. Except I don’t know if you know this about your daughter, Rory, but she’s a scary woman when she wants to be.”
“She gets that from her mother.”
The Doctor laughs. “Yes.”
“I always wonder if we’re imagining that. I mean, she’s changed twice since then and she didn’t really- we only met each other properly afterwards. But then I think- she was going to let the world die, to save your life. The life of the man she loved. And I knew exactly how she felt.”
The Doctor swings his head sharply to the side, to look at Rory properly. “You would.”
It’s not properly a question; the Doctor already knows that answer. Rory says, “Yes.”
The Doctor says, “She’s herself too, of course, how could she not be, the way she grew up. But she’s your daughter. Even the way things worked out. You have to remember…”
“You have to remember that the very first fairy-tale River ever heard wasn’t about me, or the monsters in the dark. It was about her father. Her father - the last centurion - who was coming to find her. Amy told that story to Melody back when she still had just enough Timelord in her to be a little bit telepathic. River might not remember exactly what Amy said but she knows it. You two are her first story.” The Doctor smiles at Rory. “I can think of worse things.”
Rory suspects that most fathers want to be heroes to their little girls. There have been museum displays written (and unwritten) about the things Rory did for love. There have been planets, sometimes, where they landed and didn’t even need to introduce themselves. They know the Doctor – lots of people know the Doctor - but when they look past him to Amy and Rory, they know their names too. Rory would trade his part in those stories to have been a hero to Melody when she still needed one.
The Doctor knows all that. They understand each other too well.
Rory wonders what sort of stories the other baby Timelords grew up with. He wonders if, before they were lost, they told stories about the Doctor, the way the rest of the universe does. Stories about the box and the man, and the way he tries so hard to hold all of time and space in his hands. Even when he can’t. Maybe especially when he can’t.
They probably didn’t tell stories about his terrible fashion sense, or those rare days when the TARDIS just spun there in space and Amy planted her feet in his lap to watch a DVD, before the three of them walked out to explore the rock pools of an alien shore. They probably didn’t talk about the way that River had him wound around her little finger. Although they do talk about River, and Rory is glad of that. She deserves that. Even if he doesn’t know how to tell her that she astounds him too.
“You meet in the middle,” the Doctor says, an answer to a question Rory hadn’t yet voiced.
“You… She’s not little any more but she’s still… You’re time travellers, Rory. You meet in the middle.”
“And that’s how it always is with you, is it?”
He frowns. “Metaphorically, yes. Sort of. River and I are… it’s not usually this complicated, that’s pretty much just River.” He shrugs. “But I’m okay with that.”
There’s a paternal ‘don’t break my daughter’s heart’ speech that belongs here somewhere, but Rory doesn’t have the right to make it. He gives it anyway, because this is River, and this is the Doctor and even if neither of them will understand the reasons for it, they still need to hear it. “Don’t hurt her,” he says. “Be there for her.”
“I know you can’t promise not to get her into trouble. She wouldn’t thank you for that anyway. And you can’t promise to- you two aren’t like me and Amy. But do your best, okay? Try.”
The Doctor looks at him, solemn. As though this promise is infinitely more difficult than any of the thousand times he’s said ‘yes, yes, trust me’.
Rory thinks about his wedding vows. To love and to cherish. He means them now as much as he ever did then, as much as he did when he proposed, half-kneeling and fumbling the ring. The Doctor knows how to do those things, even if his ceremony with River didn’t have the words. Maybe not the other parts that marriage normally means, but he can do those two.
The Doctor nods, finally. “Yes,” he says. “Those things. Yes.”
Rory nods back. The Doctor hands him some wires and a string of little red light bulbs. He mimes twisting the exposed ends together, and Rory makes a start on that. It probably won’t electrocute him.
They sit in almost silence for another half-hour, before the knock at the door. Knocking on the door of the TARDIS is almost never a good thing, but today is River’s birthday so Rory doesn’t move. The universe is going to give him today.
The door opens and the Doctor bounds to his feet. “Pond.”
Amy strolls in, with River a step behind her. “Hi. We finished early, thought we’d come and see how our boys were doing.”
“Oh, we’re fine. Doing- man things. Fixing things.”
Amy snorts and gives that the consideration it deserves. “Okay. Fine.”
River pets the TARDIS console. “Hello darling, what’s he done to you now?”
The Doctor sputters. “I’ll have you know I only take…”
Rory ignores him, grabbing Amy’s hand to pull her down into a kiss. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Amy wraps her arm around him, and they both stand up. She says, “By the way, we probably shouldn’t go to the art gallery for a while.”
“What did you…? Never mind.” He ducks around the side of River, and pauses to kiss her cheek. “Hello again, birthday girl.”
River stops in the middle of teasing the Doctor, her hands still on the console. Rory had surprised her; he had surprised himself too. There is a moment where the anger nearly floors him: that this isn’t something she takes for granted, wiping the kiss from her face as a birthright she’s never doubted. They did worse things to her, but they did this too.
Rory takes a breath. They meet in the middle. This is what they have now: Rory smiles at her and watches as a small smile blossoms on her face. River says, “Hello. What have you two been doing then?”
“Oh, the usual. Tinkering with time machines, clandestine meetings – did he show you his latest hat?”
River looks over at the Doctor, who puts the fedora back on and tips the brim in her direction. She laughs. “I might let you keep that one.”
Amy claps her hands. “Anyway. Birthday dinner.” She looks at the Doctor. “You’re coming, right?”
“I’m…” He bounces on his feet.
“He’s coming,” Rory says. There will be other birthdays, when the Doctor takes her to see Stevie Wonder in 1814, but this birthday they’re going to spend together.
“Okay.” The Doctor nods. “Where to?”
Rory waves his hand at the mess of cables littering the TARDIS floor. “How long’s it going to take you to fix that?”
“Oh. Oh! My choice. Good. Just a minute. River? Give me a hand with this. Rory, take this, pass it through to Amy.” He dashes around in a flurry of motion.
“Where are we going?” Amy asks.
“Not sure yet. Maybe Las Vegas. Fifties? Sinatra owes me a favour.”
Amy laughs. “Plus that way your hat might blend in.”
The Doctor pretends offence but it’s all familiar as a song they know every word to. River ducks under the brim of his hat to kiss him. “Come on then. Let’s go.” She plugs one last thing into the top of the console and laughs at them when the TARDIS warms into life.
Rory warns, “I have to be at the hospital tomorrow morning.”
River helpfully adds, “And they will be expecting me back in prison at some point.”
The Doctor looks between the two of them. “I promised, didn’t I?” When Rory blinks at him incredulously he says, “I promised to try.”
“You did.” Rory takes his place around the console, with Amy to his left, and the Doctor and River on the other side. He’s never understood what the Doctor does when he has to pilot the TARDIS on his own; when they’re all in here together, they are all put to work. Maybe it’s one of the things you only do alone if you have to. Rory lets his hands settle on the TARDIS controls.
The engines burst into movement; Amy starts singing ‘Happy Birthday’ just loud enough to hear. River giggles and calls out, “mo-ther!”
The Doctor provides an accompaniment that bears little relation to the original tune, but which makes both Amy and River laugh. He grins at Rory over the console and Rory can’t help smiling back at him. Time and space dances around them in all directions; this is one of the points where they meet in the middle.