He pauses, jam doughnut halfway to his mouth when he sees her - or rather, sees hair. An inhuman amount of it, and he thinks of lions and the Venus de Milo and clamshells - ugh, clams - and how the sun off the Thames is making it look iridescent, like putting your hand through a waterfall with no idea what’s on the other side.
She’s sitting on a perfectly ordinary bench, at a particularly uninteresting spot along the promenade. She isn’t on her phone, there’s no hurried lunch or dog yapping at her feet; there’s no one next to her, and she doesn’t appear to be waiting for someone. She looks too stiff to be simply enjoying the view or the leisure of an unremarkable day.
She’s just… sitting.
It’s not unusual to see women - anyone, really - sitting on a bench looking at the river. The weather’s nice enough, though he’d much rather be at his usual cafe, sitting in his usual comfy chair. During the daytime, his fondness for the outdoors is limited to patios and the occasional park - neither of which are particularly suitable for stargazing in the city - but his regular seat had been occupied by a morose-looking elderly couple and all the other seats had been taken up by professors and researches and, to his disgust, archaeologists attending a conference at the Savoy.
What is unusual, however, is her posture—her head is bowed, hair falling over it, but her spine is ramrod straight, hands clenched in her lap, and as he moves closer he can see she’s taking slow, even-measured breaths.
He’s never been good at resisting an oddity, so he makes his way to the wall just off to the side, snack all but forgotten in its white paper bag, and tries to surreptitiously look back at her out of the corner of his eye. Clara insists he hasn’t got a subtle bone in his body, but she’s wrong. He can be stealthy when he needs to. He can fly under the radar, stay on the down low, pull a 007, blend in with his environ—
“Is there a particular reason you’re staring at me or have we come to the part where I tell you to get lost and you run away like a good little boy?”
John blinks, shaking his head to clear his thoughts only to find he’s been staring at her rather blatantly for… “How long… exactly… ?”
“A good three minutes.”
“Ah,” he says, scratching his head absently. “Right. Sorry. I do that.”
She sniffs and clears her throat. “You come to the Thames and leer at crying women on park benches?”
“What? No! I do not leer at—and nobody’s crying, what are you—”
He notices then, with some degree of alarm, is that she is - or at least was, not too long ago - in fact crying.
Not audibly, not ostentatiously, but now that he can see her face, he realizes her cheeks are streaked with tears and her nose is slightly red.
She snorts. “Brilliant deduction.”
He swallows nervously, taking a step toward her and then quickly away, before she notices, but she isn’t looking at him anymore. Her eyeline has drifted out over the water, but he knows she isn’t really seeing that, either. There’s something else, behind those eyes - beautiful eyes, he thinks, and then, what? - and he takes another step forward. And a step back.
John winces at his own voice, face in half a cringe when he meets her gaze, and he opens his arms apologetically.
“Why what?” she snaps, but she sounds more exhausted than angry, and he slowly, hesitantly, moves toward her. He doesn’t quite want to - she’s frankly quite terrifying, that strong nose and beautiful eyes and hair - but he can’t seem to help himself, his legs skipping over that all important step of receiving directions from his brain and choosing to operate independently. That’s it—he’ll blame his legs.
He stops a few paces away, hovering toward the empty side of the bench, and resists the urge to shove his hands in his pockets. “Why are - were - you crying?”
She frowns, eyebrows drawing together in a way that makes her nose scrunch, just a little, and it’s ridiculously adorable. He wants to grin, though, thankfully, is socially aware enough to know that grinning while talking to crying women generally ends badly (and he has a broken doorknob to prove it).
“That’s not really any of your business,” she says finally, and he nods.
“No, it definitely isn’t. But—” He sees her shoulders stiffen even further. “I just got off work and so happen to have two of London’s finest jam doughnuts and, regrettably, couldn’t possibly finish them both.”
He has no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t talk to women - not in that way. Not flirtatiously, which he thinks - maybe? - he might have been doing. But he doesn’t feel so awkward with her, even though they’ve barely said anything and all she’s done is threaten and snap at him, and all he’s done is stare creepily and offer her a doughnut.
The woman is - was - crying and he’s standing here offering her a bloody doughnut and how, he wonders, on Earth, is he not dead yet? How has lightening or an asteroid not just appeared to strike him down and then she smirks and says, “I don’t have that kind of luck,” and he realizes with increasing distress that he’s just said all of that out loud.
He makes what he’s certain is a pitiful noise in the back of his throat, but the woman just quirks her lips slightly and pats the bench next to her.
“Sit down, before you strain something.”
He looks from her to the seat and back again and gulps before gingerly sitting down beside her, poised on the edge of the bench.
“Who gets off work at eleven in the morning?”
“Loads of people - doctors and garbage collectors and those people who change the displays in the shops. Love a good display.”
When she doesn't answer, he peeks in her direction to find her giving him a slightly exasperated - yet also bemused - expression.
“Oh, you meant me. Right. I work at the Observatory. Night shift, better for - observing. Space. Obviously.”
He winces, waiting for her to get up and walk away or tell him to bugger off.
Instead, she just smirks. “And do you have a name to go with your space and creepy staring and doughnuts?”
He beams, and - stupid, he thinks - holds out his hand. “John Smith.”
“Generic,” she returns, somewhat skeptically, but she shakes his hand regardless, skin soft and cool in his own and he wonders what it would feel like, warmed.
Pulling back before he can do something weird like kiss her knuckles or blow on her hands, John shifts, slightly more centered on the bench and offers a grin.
“Yes, but no one can find me on the Internet.”
She arches an eyebrow. “Is someone looking?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so—unless Susan still wants to beat me over the head with a croquet mallet over the gerbil incident, which I maintain was not my fault, by the way, I had absolutely no way of knowing that rocket wouldn’t make it past the troposphere. Or that it might, unintentionally, sort of… explode.”
He scratches his cheek nervously, half expecting Susan to come out of the shrubbery behind them and whack him over the head.
“Why were you trying to send a gerbil into space in the first place?”
John sighs, staring down at the wrinkled bag in his lap. “I thought he wanted to be an astronaut.”
“Yes. Phillip. I… thought I could talk to him. Was utterly convinced he wanted to go to the moon.”
The woman eyes him skeptically. “How old were you?”
John flushes. “Four and a half?”
She starts to smile, relieved, then pauses. “Wait, sorry, you built a rocket when you were four and a half?”
“A faulty rocket. Too much baking soda,” he grimaces, recalling Susan’s outrage and his father’s firm hand—
He shakes his head, pushing the thought away. “Anyway, I’m stalker-free.”
She snorts, but delicately reaches into the paper bag when he offers it to her, pulling out one of the (now rather mashed) doughnuts. She eyes it warily, dusting some of the sugar off the top and onto the ground. “Glad to hear it.”
“What about you?” he asks, pulling out his own snack with glee, then disappointment when it isn’t warm any longer.
“Do I have any stalkers? Well—” She looks at him pointedly, and he flushes.
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant. You’re just fun to rile.”
He huffs, aware that he’s pouting, tearing off a piece of pastry and chewing it slowly, giving himself time to come up with some clever retort.
“River,” she says, ruining his chance.
He swallows. “What?”
“My name is River.”
He pauses, looking over her intently. He hadn’t expected that - had expected, not a common name, but something less… romantic - but the more he studies her, the more details he notices, the more it suits her. The more it fits, and by the time he realizes he’s doing it again, he’s convinced her name couldn’t be anything else.
“‘Course it is,” he says brightly, and for some reason unbeknownst to him, reaches out and taps her nose with a slightly sugary finger. “What else would it be?”
River wrinkles her nose, batting at his hand, but she doesn’t seem particularly upset. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a bit strange?”
John smiles, but sadly. He has friends - he’s well liked by just about everyone, but he knows it’s because they all find him strange. He’s a novelty, a curiosity, someone who doesn’t quite fit into their mold of what a person should be.
“They never really stop.”
She appraises him for a moment, then lifts her chin decisively. “Better that way,” she says, “Normal people, they're content with the way things are, their 9 to 5s and their 1.3 children and lusting after some car they’ll never be able to afford. Sounds terribly dull, don't you think?”
“And how do you know I'm not like that?”
“Normal people don't wear bow ties,” she says, smirking when his chin drops, affronted. “And they don't share their pastries with crying women on park benches, either,” she adds, softly, gaze dropping to her hands, her barely touched doughnut.
There’s a small bird next to her on the ground, and he feels some sort of awe, or fondness, for the way she drops a tiny bit of dough at its feet.
“Seemed like the thing to do,” he offers finally. “And for the record, bow ties are cool.”
“Of course. If you're a stodgy old physics professor.”
“I am a stodgy old physics professor! Well, sort of. Not old, really, unless you ask me mum and then it’s all - but you’ll be dead before grandchildren! - and not stodgy - eccentric, I like to think - and not so much physics as astronomy, though there’s a lot of that too, and I’m more of a researcher than an instructor so really, no, sorry, I'm not at all a stodgy old physics professor.”
A bright sound that - hand on his heart - clears the last of the summer rain clouds hovering over the Thames.
Clearing his throat before he can say something ridiculous like you have a great smile or you're beautiful or marry me, John dusts his sugary hands on his trousers and asks, “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“What do you do? When you're not not crying on park benches.”
She glares at him for that, but he can tell it’s humored. “I'm a professor at Oxford. Archaeology.”
“No,” he moans, “you can't be. You're quick and pretty and you've got space hair!”
River smirks. “Got a problem with archaeologists?”
“It’s all sand in uncomfortable places and boring pottery and nothing at all like Indiana Jones.”
“It is when I do it.”
“I doubt that.” At her raised eyebrow, he huffs dramatically. “Well for one thing, you can't possibly be afraid of snakes—how would you ever look in a mirror?” He gestures about her head, miming her curls, and River swats his arm with the back of her hand.
“This coming from a twelve year old man-child.”
“You might dress like a stodgy professor, sweetie, but you barely look past puberty.”
“I will have you know, I am light years beyond puberty. I'm practically ancient in my post-puberty...ness.”
“Careful, I'm getting weak in the knees.”
He flushes, first at the jab and then the endearment, one she doesn't appear to be conscious of.
“I've heard that before, but it's usually followed by ‘you did what?’ or ‘open a window.’” He pauses. “Not like that! Not like, smelly. Stuffy. Lack of oxygen or, you know, sunlight—” He grimaces, but River just smiles.
“I knew what you meant.”
“I doubt you spend much time outdoors. You're practically reflective.”
She shakes her head. “It suits you. You've got that whole ‘absent minded but brilliant’ attitude—wouldn't work on a tanned, buff sort.”
He starts to preen, then realizes the double edge and pouts. “Oh, don't tell me that's your type.”
“No, dull! Spends all day at the tanning salon—”
“—and the gym—”
“Or manual labor.”
He huffs. “I can be manual.”
“I've no doubt,” she teases. “All that mad energy.” She gives a mock shudder, but she’s smiling at him fondly, softly, still with sad eyes.
“Is it?” he asks abruptly, unsure he wants the answer.
“Is what what?”
He gulps, eyes darting between her and the ground.
“Why do you ask?”
“I dunno. Just…curious, I suppose. I'm curious about everything—thermodynamics and water on comets and why cereal boxes come with prizes but not crackers and—”
“And whether or not I like buff men?”
“Yes. I suppose, yes.”
She studies him a moment, and seems to find something in his - probably terribly hopeful - expression that makes her sigh.
“I like intelligence. Nice abs never hurt anyone for a shag, but without brains to back up your brawn, what's the point? No use spending an hour, let alone your life, with someone who can't hold up his end of the conversation.”
He nods, and thinks of the dates Clara’s tried to set him up on—lovely, kind, bright people who never understand. Who look at him like he’s mad, who never ask for explanations, who think he’s nothing but an arrogant know-it-all. He is arrogant, he knows that, and confident in his work but in little else. Certainly not in himself.
“I know the feeling.”
“Oh? You like nice abs for a shag, too?”
“What? No! The conversation part and the brains part and the—” he looks over to find her smirking, and huffs. “Fun to rile, eh?”
“And after I've gone and given you my doughnut,” he sighs.
She chuckles, and takes what's left of her pasty, tears it in half and gives it to him.
It’s just a doughnut - a cold one at that - but it feels bigger. Feels like understanding and reassurance and acknowledgment, and he takes it with a smile before popping it in his mouth.
She laughs, and from there it’s easy—they talk about their jobs and hobbies and all sorts of things. He tells her about consulting for NASA’s Mars mission and the occasional lecturing and moans about the state of the education system; River agrees - even more passionately - and tells him about her students, and her last trip to Morocco and how the oxygen isotope analysis in ancient snail shells provides significant evidence for climate change, one that triggered early agricultural development in North Africa.
He honestly doesn't give a damn about snails, or 11,000 year old weather patterns, but he likes the way her eyes brighten with excitement even as her voice is calm and measured. He likes the way she’s started talking with her hands, little unconscious movements that never stray far from the brown envelope in her lap.
He likes the way she listens, to his spiels about chaos theory and the uncertainty principle and ASASSN-15lh, the supernova which, at its peak, was over 20 times brighter than the Milky Way’s 100 billion stars put together. and the way she argues - over everything from which Italian restaurant makes the best pasta e fagioli to whether the Christians were responsible for the myth of Roman hyper-sexuality. She argues with him about the Cold War and the best music and, to his absolute delight, how much wood a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood (he agrees with Richard Thomas’ answer, 700 or so pounds, while she maintains that the answer is irrelevant, because if they could, it would render the tongue twister obsolete).
They exchange very little by way of personal information - he can tell she’s equally as guarded as he is, perhaps more so - but with every word he feels like he knows her better and better. Nothing about her, not really, but her.
There’s a perpetual sadness she tries to hide that's so familiar, the kind that comes only from having lost everything, over and over again. The kind that makes its own ghosts, its own monsters under the bed. He knows, somehow, that she has nightmares. Just like him.
And he knows that no matter how much good he’s done, how much she’s smiled in the hour or so they've been there, that nothing’s really changed. Whatever's haunting her hasn't left, and he wishes he could do something, anything, to help.
“You've got that face on again,” she says, and he realizes there’s been a few minutes of silence, with him probably just staring.
“Sorry. What face?”
“The ‘I’ve stumbled upon a problem I can't fix with my advanced degrees’ face.”
He blinks in surprise, then chuckles. “You're a bit scary, has anyone ever told you that?”
“They never really stop.”
“River…” He hesitates. They're strangers, he keeps reminding himself. They get on, but he doesn't know her and she doesn't know him except he does, and so does she, and it’s confusing and frightening and he takes a deep breath, letting it all out before he says, “It’s fine if you don't, but if you want to talk about it…”
She looks away. “Talk about what?”
“Why you were crying,” he says softly.
She tenses, and he notices again the envelope in her lap, her fingers gripped around the edges. She stares down at it with a slight frown.
“It’s not exactly share-with-a-stranger material.”
He licks his lips. “What about friends?”
Her eyes dart to his. “We're not friends,” she says, though not unkindly. Almost a bit unsure.
“Why not? Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet. What do you say we skip the pesky ‘acquaintance’ part in the middle and jump straight to friends, eh?”
She drags her eyes over him slowly. “I'd rather jump something else.”
He blushes, but points a finger at her. “Don't change the subject with your flirting,” he scolds. “It’s distracting and wildly effective and I'm trying to make a point over here.”
“And what point is that?”
“That you need someone to talk to about whatever’s in that envelope.”
“How did you—”
“You've been clutching it for dear life since before I sat down.”
Her eyes narrow, and for a brief moment he’s afraid she’ll walk away, afraid he pressed too much. Instead, she sighs, her shoulders slumping.
“I do hate to be obvious.”
“You aren't,” he says. “I just see you.”
She swallows, stares at him for a long moment. The silence stretches between them. She doesn't say a word. A woman stops and asks him for the time, and it isn't until she's out of earshot and then some that River finally speaks, her voice low and quiet, as if any volume might make it crack.
“I found my parents.”
He freezes, eyes darting to hers. “What?”
“My parents,” she repeats, keeping her gaze firmly fixed on the water. “I was separated from them as a child. I’ve been searching…” She trails off, the space between her nose crinkling as she frowns, and he isn’t sure if she’s reluctant to share, or if she’s just lost in her own thoughts.
“What happened?” he prompts gently, twisting sideways on the bench to face her, their knees bumping together.
“Six months ago I hit a dead end, and hired a woman to help me around it. I’d been… wary,” she settles, “of asking anyone for help.” Her eyes flicker to his, and there’s so much pain there, so much suffering, he has to look away. “The circumstances of our separation weren’t exactly pleasant and I don’t… trust people easily.” Her eyes meet his briefly, and he hears what she doesn't say: except you. She shakes her head, lips curled in a wry smile. “River’s not even my birth name. But Jenny - the woman’s wife - said she could help, said she was the best—and she is.”
“She found them.”
River nods, eyes falling to her lap, to the manila envelope he’d only barely noticed before. “She said they’re in New York. That they’ve lived there since before I was born and… apparently, everything I could possibly need or want to know about them is in this envelope.”
John drops his eyes from her face to the pristine seal, the slightly worn edge. He frowns, thinking back to the beginning, her posture, the tightness in her jaw and the streaks on her face, the way she’d kept her hands perfectly still. “If you don’t know what it says,” he asks, careful to keep his voice soft, free of judgement or condescension, “why were you crying?”
Pursing her lips, she takes a deep breath before admitting, “I was angry.”
He almost smiles. “You cry when you’re angry?”
She glares, and he feels the edges of his lips curve up, sees hers do the same. “I hate it.”
“Nah,” he says lightly, “Everyone needs a good cry now and then. Over big things, silly things—I cried when they announced the new train designs for the Tube.”
“Weren’t those released just last year?”
John scratches his cheek nervously. “Ah, well. Yes. They were. But they’re horrible, and I stand by my… slightly unfounded emotional distress.”
His cheeks lift to mimic hers, but it doesn’t last long. Her attention falls back on the envelope, fingertips trailing over the seal, and he isn’t quite sure how to do this, how to be of any comfort. He usually just provides a distraction, offers a few words of what he hopes is advice and then flees, before it gets too serious—before anyone can really expect to rely on him.
But he can’t run, not now, not from this woman who’s utterly enthralled him, this woman he desperately wants to make smile. But there’s nothing to smile about, not yet, so he swallows down his nerves and asks,
“Why were you angry?”
She sighs, her shoulders slumping, as if she’s been waiting for the question and is almost relieved—that she doesn’t have to share anything unprompted. “I was - am - angry at myself,” she says. “Twenty years of searching and the answers are all right here and I can’t… I can’t open it. I’ve had it for three days—skipped the conference to go pick it up myself in Belfast. I didn’t even tell anyone I was leaving, I just… “ She looks up at him, eyes wide and bright again, shaking her head almost frantically. “Why can’t I open it?”
She’s almost pleading, not with her voice but her expression, silently begging him and he knows it’s ridiculous, and he’s fairly certain she knows too - they’re virtual strangers - but he understands. More than she realizes, he thinks, he understands.
“Because all the answers are right there,” he says, “and no matter what’s in that envelope - even if it’s completely wrong - it changes everything.”
“It won’t stop me. If it’s wrong. I’ll keep searching.”
“I’m sure you will. But that, right there,” he points to the envelope, “that’s hope. Visible, tangible hope and as long as that envelope stays closed, you still have it. The moment you open it…”
She’s silent for a long moment. Her gaze passes over his face, searches his eyes, and he tries to keep his expression open. Honest. For once, without a mask, in part because he doesn’t think she’d appreciate it, but mostly because he wants her to see him. This woman, who’s taken all his quirks in stride, who speaks to him so casually, so brilliantly, and he wants her to know that he sees her, too.
And then she inhales sharply, lets out a long breath and squares her shoulders. “Right then.” Her thumb slides under the flap, and she hesitates. “Would you—”
“Right, sorry, I’ll leave you al—” he stumbles, moving to stand, to give her privacy, until her hand grips his arm, fingers curling into his tweed jacket.
“No, I—I was going to ask if you’d stay. I realize that’s quite a lot to ask, but I—” He sits down immediately, closer this time, and she offers him a small smile. “Thank you.”
He nods, and she takes another breath, but it isn’t until his hand falls to the center of her back - just a light touch, barely there - that she breaks the seal and pulls out a thin stack of papers. Her hands are trembling, but he can only tell because of the paper itself. When she turns it over, right-side up, she gasps, a strange cry she silences with a hand over her mouth because there’s a photograph, probably an old passport headshot - they’d be much older now - of a man with an odd nose and kind eyes. Her eyes.
“Do you recognize him?”
She nods, taking a moment before she says, “I think so. I only had flashes. I was too young to really remember them, but my father… I… it looks like him.” She swallows, releasing a breath. “Might not be, though.” She frowns, lifting the stapled page, eyes scanning over the documents—there’s a birth certificate, license photocopy, financial statements, employment records.
“How will you know?” he asks, a bit disturbed by the amount of - theoretically private - information at her disposal.
“If it’s really him?”
River licks her lips. “His voice. I remember his voice. Stories he used to tell me.”
John smiles faintly. “And your mother?”
River flips the page, and a young woman stares back at him with familiar eyes.
It can’t be.
It absolutely, in all the universe, can’t be, but it is, and it has to be, and John looks from the photograph to River and back again almost wildly. River is too busy staring at it to notice, a red-painted nail tracing over long red hair, and it’s enough time for him to collect himself, just a little, just enough.
“Do you believe in fate?”
She blinks, glancing up at him. “Sorry?”
“Fate. Destiny. The long arm of God twisting our little puppet strings.”
“No.” She frowns. “Do you?”
“Nah,” he says easily, “I think it’s total rubbish. Something people tell themselves to feel better because life is hard and it’s easier to think it’s all some grand design than it is to admit we’re all just pin balls, bouncing off each other and circumstance and events; it’s easier to pretend everything happens for a reason, because then we can deny our own culpability and limit the… massive, extraordinary, terrifying impact we have on each other’s lives.”
“I’ll give you an example,” he interrupts, sitting up straight, hands echoing his words as best they can. “Every single morning I eat breakfast - dinner for me, technically speaking - at the same cafe - I sit in the same seat and order the same thing, just like I did in the shop before, except today they were busy on account of the conference, the one you failed to attend, so there was no place else to sit and, more importantly, there was an older couple at my table and Nancy, the shop owner, told me she didn’t have the heart to ask them to move because the woman had been crying. So here I am, two jam doughnuts and no table, but it’s nice out - I’ll spare you the weather patterns - so I decide to take the long way home with a stroll down the Thames.”
“Not that this isn’t fascinating, but I don’t see how it has anything to do with—”
He presses a finger to her lips to silence her, part of his brain ridiculously adoring at the way her nose wrinkles at the gesture, the other part still spinning, still tying together all the strands.
“Now, back to the first shop — the owner retired because she won the lotto, because her daughter bought her a ticket as a stocking stuffer because she got a raise at work and could afford the frivolity. Apparently, she got the raise because the old boss was fired for having an affair with the wife of the board of directors - nasty business - and the new boss, nervous about her first big meeting, spilled coffee on her blouse so the daughter of the shop owner swapped blouses with her, saving her from caffeinated embarrassment; are you with me?”
“Good, hush. So all of that happened and much more, going back, back, why that shop and why that husband and so on and so forth and meanwhile, I’m in the market for a new cafe, and I am very, very picky. It has to be sunny but not too sunny, and not too noisy but not too quiet either, and above all, it has to have comfy chairs and do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a cafe these days with comfy chairs?”
“No, not the point, sorry — the reason I started going to my new shop is because Clara, my assistant, told me they make the best custard in Central London and they're open 24 hours, and sometimes you just really want custard at three in the morning. So happens everything they make is delicious, so I made myself a regular - same seat, same table, every morning, and the staff all knows me.”
By the frown on her face, he can tell she’s getting impatient, but he just grins, excitement making his gestures more frantic and his legs unable to still.
“Now, I could go into the reasons I hired Clara, despite the fact that three years on and she still can't explain to me the difference between a meteor and an asteroid, and I could tell you why I went into astronomy in the first place, and why the cafe’s open 24 hours, which is the only reason I went there in the first place; I could tell you about the colleges all these people attended and their life paths and their parents’ life paths and so on, going all the way back to the day I shot a gerbil into space and beyond but really, all that matters is this morning when I went to my coffee shop there was an older couple sitting at my table, and the woman was crying.”
He lurches to his feet. “No, you aren’t—you aren’t paying attention, River, think about it: chaos theory, evolution, this god that god, all of it, secrets of the universe! In a crying ginger woman!”
“I was crying. The world didn't change because of it. Your life might, if you don’t get to the point, but not the whole universe.”
He smiles, then, crouching in front of her as he reaches for her hands. “Yes, it did.”
“John, what are you—”
Turning the page back, he points to the picture of her mother’s face. “It was your parents. Your parents were sitting in my seat.”
She stills, every muscle and bone in her body freezing. “What?”
“I remember, because she looked up when I walked in and tried to smile. Same way you did.”
Swallowing, River pulls her hands back sharply. “Is this some sort of sick joke?”
“No, no, River, on my life,” he swears, reaching for her again. Her hands are shaking, visibly this time, and he rubs his thumb gently over her knuckles. “These are the people I saw in the cafe. If this information is correct… Then your parents are a five minute walk away.”
She stares at him, and he sees her flicker through dozens of emotions - anger, fear, disbelief, distrust, joy, hatred, disgust, apprehension, and finally, finally, hope.
“I know you don't know me,” he murmurs, “You have absolutely no reason to trust me. But I would be… honored, if you let me walk you to the cafe.”
Her eyes widen, lips parting and he quickly barrels over her before he loses his nerve.
“If I'm wrong, if I made a mistake, I give you free reign to bash me over the head with your weapon of choice but River… you should never run when you’re scared. I've made a lot of mistakes, hurt a lot of people, and almost always by running.”
He isn’t sure, why it matters so much to him, but it does. Somehow, he knows, she deserves this - this miracle or gift of the universe and he doesn’t know why it’s him, why it isn’t someone taller or better looking or kinder, that could guide her home but he’s never been more thankful that it’s him. Gripping her hands to keep himself from brushing her hair behind her ear, he looks up at her, her wary eyes, and pleads.
“Don’t make my mistakes.”
“They could have left,” she protests, but it’s weak.
“It’s only been an hour, and they didn't look like they were in a rush.”
“I don't understand. The address in the file is for New York.” She shakes her head. “Why would they be here?”
Something inside him breaks. For this woman who cries when she’s angry. Who digs in the dirt. Who remembers nothing but her father’s voice.
“It's never occurred to you, has it?” he says sadly. “That they would be looking for you.”
“I don’t…” And then she realizes, if the stunned expression on her face is anything to go by. “The conference.”
“You missed it.”
“To go pick up the package.”
“But your name would’ve been in the programme.”
She shakes her head. “It’s not even my real name.”
He smiles. “I’m pretty sure they’ve figured it out by now.”
River swallows, nodding slowly. “I never cancelled. They’d think…”
“I’ve studied space all my life, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the universe is big—it’s vast and complicated and ridiculous and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen, and we call them miracles.” He keeps his hand in hers as he rises, but doesn’t pull, doesn’t attempt to make this decision for her. “I’ve never seen one, never in my life, but this… this would do me. What about you?”
Slowly, and so, so tentatively, she curls her fingers against his palm, tightens her grip and stands, shoulders squaring as she does so and he beams at her.
They don't say much on the short walk to the cafe. River stares directly ahead with her chin out, but never lets go of his hand. John keeps sneaking what he's certain are fairly obvious glances, to make sure she's still breathing, still with him.
It’s hours and seconds before they’re standing on the sidewalk, just to the side of the little shop and he slows, pointing with his free hand. River stops completely, staring at it with thinly veiled terror.
He’s about to offer reassurance - or at least try - when she drops his hand and turns to him, eyes narrowed, a determined look on her face.
He knows what she’s asking - looking for the grand design, the pin balls, the butterfly wings.
He offers her a brief smile. “You can't run much further than outer space,” he admits, and she softens, her hand not clenched around the envelope coming up to squeeze his arm. “And,” he continues, to lighten the heavy atmosphere, “I really thought Phillip wanted to be an astronaut.”
“If it turns out after decades of searching, I find my parents because of your a dead gerbil…”
“Susan’s gerbil,” he corrects with a cringe. “Regrettably.”
“Give me your number.”
“Your number, give it to me,” she says, handing him her phone. He inputs his information automatically, still confused, until she says, “If all goes well there might be a snog in it for you.”
He fumbles, nearly drops her phone and saves it with a few clumsy tosses before handing it back, cheeks red.
“And if it doesn't?”
She glares, but some of the danger is lost on him, now that he knows her. “I'm very, very good at internet stalking.”
Still, he gulps, and gives her a sloppy salute.
She falls quiet, looking over her shoulder at the door, then turns back to him with bright eyes.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, reaching out to fix his bowtie. The gesture seems absent minded, utterly intimate, and oh, he hopes. “You mad man,” she laughs softly, and he grins, covering her hand with his.
“Good luck. River Song.”
He watches through the window as she goes inside, watches her look around, watches her spot the older couple, still in the corner, heads bowed together and hands clasped on the table. He sees her hesitate, look outside and he gives her his most ridiculous grin and two thumbs up; sees her smile, and take a deep breath, and approach the table.
He can't hear what she says, what the older woman says in return. They talk for a few minutes, River still gripping her envelope, the couple still sitting and then he sees the ginger woman’s eyes go wide. Sees the man stand. He hasn't said anything yet, but when he speaks, a softly spoken, Melody?, River’s face crumples, her hand reaching for him and then pulling away but he stops her, steps forward and wraps his arms around her shoulders.
Just before she buries her face in his shoulder, he sees her mouth, Dad.