or- Escaping the Loop

A gust of wind off the nearby lake blew a long strand of curls across her cheek, and she pushed it back behind her ear. Turning to the man seated next to her on the park bench, she asked, "Why are we here, then, exactly?"

The Doctor smiled at her and squeezed her hand, which he held clasped in his own, still tighter. "You'll see. You'll see," he promised before turning back to look at the playground in front of them. "Just wait."

As they watched the small group of children playing around the equipment, a small dark-haired child broke away, chasing a ball out toward them. The Doctor stopped the ball with his foot and, releasing River's hand, reached down to pick it up. "This yours?" he asked, holding it out for the boy as he ran up to them.

"Yes, sir," the child nodded breathlessly, taking the ball from the Doctor.

There was something...

A young woman, her hair the same raven's black as the child's, came up behind him. "Alex! You know you're not supposed to talk to strangers."

The Doctor stood up, straightening his bowtie. "We're not strangers."

The child's mother turned to him, mouth opened in protest. And stopped as though frozen.

River felt the woman's shock of recognition reverberate through her and, in that instance, she herself knew. And, finally, the tears which slipped down her cheeks unrestrained were tears of joy.

"Grandfather!" Susan cried, and flung herself into the Doctor's arms. "When I learned Gallifrey was gone... lost in the Time War... I was so afraid..."

The Doctor patted her back. "Now, now, child. It's alright. I'm here." He released her slightly, holding her shoulders and gazing down into her eyes. "And I'm so very sorry it took so long. If I'd only known you were from outside Gallifrey – outside the Time Lock. It never applied to you. And before I knew..." he shrugged, a gesture which utterly failed to convey the misery of those long lonely years he'd desperately wanted to know but had been terrified of going and discovering the worst.

"But you're here now," Susan concluded and River sensed that she, too, knew him well enough to feel the weight of all those years finally lifting.

The Doctor beamed. Sunlight after the rain. "Yes. Yes, I am."

Then, noticing River for the first time, Susan asked, "And who is this?"

The Doctor slipped an arm around River's shoulder, bringing her forward into their circle. "This, child," he said, his smile growing somehow – impossibly – brighter, "Is your grandmother."

Susan turned to her in surprise, her mouth opening to speak, but River had had enough of waiting. Wordlessly, she opened her arms, and Susan stepped into her embrace.

They stood there in silence, holding each other, for long, long minutes. River never wanted to let her go.

And this time, she wouldn't have to.

Not really.

Not ever.

A/N: If you've enjoyed this, I've written a prequel to this story, Pebble Cast Upon Water. And thanks for reading!