Author's Note: If you haven't seen "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe," then this won't make any sense. This story is assuming that "First Night/Last Night" took place after this year's Christmas special.
"Even if we're just dancing in the dark"
He hadn't been in the Pond home since he bought it. Even then it was more spotting the TARDIS-blue door, giggling like a schoolboy, making sure there was a proper garden out back then signing over a bank draft to the absurdly pleased real estate agent. Really, those UNIT funds had to be put to good use somehow.
It was nice, the Doctor realized, hoping that Amy and Rory hadn't seem the wetness in his eyes. All nice and Christmassy. Was that even a word, Christmassy? Well, it was now, he decided. It smelled wonderful. All mince pies, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and he hoped they had some custard tucked away for dessert. He took a deep breath, taking in more scents. There was holly, pine, baby powder and River Song.
"She's a good girl," Amy had told him just moments earlier, with all the pride a mother had for her child.
"Of course she is," he'd responded, because River was good. She had done as she was told, and really he wasn't surprised at all that she had told the Ponds. He'd halfway expected her to. OK, more like 75 percent. Well, really, 90 percent. She had done everything he'd asked really, after a fashion. She'd reversed the alternate timeline and kept his secrets and had sacrificed herself for him. Again.
And he hadn't been to see her. Not even once.
He heard voices chattering in the kitchen. Amy and Rory. Neither of them had mentioned River was there, but why wouldn't she be? She was their daughter, and if anyone would break out of Stormcage to be with her parents for Christmas, it would be River. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Or, perhaps, it was his conscious giving him a good, swift kick in the bum. It wasn't like he hadn't been busy. He'd saved the Earth approximately 16 times since he left Dorium behind. It really had been a long … week. No, month. Maybe six months. Well, he rationalized, if anyone would understand this sort of thing, it would be River.
He drifted toward the voices, then noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. There was baby gate blocking off the entrance to the parlor, and attached to the gate was a small girl. Her hair was wispy blonde and pulled back in a small ponytail. She turned huge, inquisitive eyes to the Doctor and he was quite sure even if Sontarans had a heart, it would have melted.
"Tee." She waved her arm at the tree. "Tee."
"Yes, it's a tree! I believe you're not to go near the tree, poppet. But, you know, I won't tell if we happen to go near it just this once." He swept the toddler into his arms, prepared to climb over the baby gate with her, and nearly staggered. She smelled of baby powder, cookies, time and River. It was what he had smelled earlier. No … It couldn't be … The Doctor looked around the room nervously, but there was no one else there.
"Doctor?" Amy called out.
"Ducktah!" The girl cried.
The Doctor held the girl close and took another deep whiff of babysoft hair.. Then, he pulled back and stared down into curiously familiar eyes. "River?" he whispered.
"Ribah!" The baby bounced excitedly in his arms and looked about eagerly.
"Oh, no. No, no, no. How did this happen?" He scurried around the front hall, not quite sure what to do. "Don't worry, we'll fix you. I'm not sure how it happened, but we'll get you turned back into an adult right …" He turned and nearly plowed over Amy and Rory, who were both staring at him as if he'd grown an extra head. "Amy! Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you? We've barely had time to welcome you back from the dead, much less tell you anything." Amy took the girl from the Doctor and bounced her on her hip. She looked around. "Where's River?"
"She's right here!" The Doctor wildly gesticulated before running his hand over the baby's hair. "Don't worry, Amy, we'll get her fixed right away. Did River manage to tell you how she got changed into a toddler?"
Rory turned away, biting his lip hard, but Amy didn't bother. She laughed so hard that the baby joined in. "This isn't River, you idiot!"
"Idit!" The baby agreed.
He did a double take. "What?"
"This is Grace! Grace, this is the Doctor." Amy jiggled her a little bit.
"We've met. Haven't we, Miss Grace?" He leaned in close to her, and she patted his nose. "But, she smells like River!"
Amy rolled her eyes. "Of course she smells like River. Why wouldn't she?"
"Well she … Oh. Oh!" Sudden terror, and maybe a small dash of hope struck him at the same time. "You mean she's … But when did that … oh, is she …" Is she mine? he feared and hoped. Really, he wouldn't have been surprised if it had been someone else. He deserved it, really. But maybe, just maybe …
"She visits all the time, unlike some people." Amy nudged his hip. "She was really a great help to me when I was pregnant again. Brought all sorts of stuff to help out with the morning sickness, and she stepped in when Rory passed out when I was in labor."
"You mean she's yours?"
"Who's child would she be? Looks like Rory, doesn't she?"
Actually, now that he really looked at her, Grace resembled her father very much. She had the same smile, same eyes, same hair. Of course she was a Pond, every inch of her. The Doctor took Grace as Rory whispered, "I thought we agreed never to mention I passed out?"
"I lied." Amy kissed Rory's cheek, then frowned. "Where did River go anyhow?"
"Is she here?" The Doctor hoped he didn't sound too eager.
"She is. She was watching Grace and putting some gifts under the tree." Amy scanned the area, and for the first time, the Doctor spotted signs that she had been there. A couple of extra bags, a coat that didn't look like it belonged to Amy. The place was saturated in the vortex, he was willing to bet. Grace Pond had a very attentive older sister.
He turned back to see Amy and Rory exchanging a look, then Rory stepped back into the hall. A couple seconds later, he was back and taking Grace from the Doctor. "She's in the back garden," he said, and both of them gave him a stern look. "She looks sad," Rory added, a hint of anger in his voice.
You caused it, both of their glares told him. You better fix it.
He started out, then hesitated. The Ponds were gathered together in a unit, and even little Grace was frowning at him. "How long has it been since I've seen her?"
"Not as long as it's been for us," Amy said softly. "She's skipped about really. I think she's coming from all over her timeline, so we're keeping a diary, too. But this one isn't much older than the River at Area 52. She says she hasn't seen you since her first night in Stormcage, and I think that's been quite awhile. She hides it really well, but if you catch her at the right moment, she looks so sad."
The Doctor felt like he'd been kicked in the gut. He managed a smile. He could smile through anything, and it took less effort to smile than to frown. But, it was a sad, sad smile, because he had missed again. He really wanted to lean against a post and think this through, but the last time he tried, that's how he had wound up in a spaceship in Earth's orbit anyhow. Two years, and he'd missed so much with the Ponds. They had another little girl, and if she was anything like her sister, she would be amazing.
"Go on with you. We've got to feed Grace, but we'll keep your plates warm," Amy ordered. "No arguing."
"No arguing. You Ponds and your guns," he playfully scolded, but when the tone came out wrong, neither of them commented on it. And with that, he slipped into the garden.
There was no one there.
Perplexed, the Doctor looked back at the house. Rory had no reason to lie. Besides, it was Rory. Then he noticed the garden gate slightly ajar. He slipped out and headed out to the street. He shuffled, tossed a penny, then veered to the left. Then again, the footsteps in the snow made it much easier.
He wasn't sure where he was going, but he was almost sure it was in the right direction. He passed a chippie, a Tesco Express, a couple of pubs (he did check those) and a primary school with a playground attached. He might have stopped to go down the slide a couple of times, but it was really to clear his mind. He straightened his bowtie and continued on his journey.
He spotted her outside of a gated-off area of dilapidated council flats. A sign announcing the impending demolition, slated for a few weeks away, hung crookedly and was spray-painted with graffiti. She was across the street from the flats, sitting on a wall and clutching a note in her hands. She looked so young, so very lost. Not all that far removed from Area 52 and everything that had happened there, Amy had said. Yet, there were fine lines around her eyes and a rigid set to her posture. Her experience had already aged her.
"Do you have any family?" Madge had asked.
"No," he instantly responded.
Rule 1. Of course.
"On my second day in Stormcage, I got a letter." Her voice carried down the block, and he startled. She wasn't looking at him, was nowhere near him really, but she somehow knew he was there. She always knew. "It said, 'I let Amy and Rory know. Be sure to go tell them after the Byzantium. You'll know when. As for what happens next, try to remember to have patience and to not give up hope. It'll take a few years, but everything works out for the best. I promise.'" He could hear the tears in her voice. "It's been extremely hard not to give up hope."
There was really nothing he could say. "I …"
"No, you listen." Her voice was steel in the cold of the Christmas night. For the first time, she looked down at the block at him, eyes filled with rage and fury. These were the eyes that had taken down Silence, the Vashta Nerada and so many more. All for him. "You swept in all full of magic my first night there, and I thought, 'This wouldn't be so bad.' All through that sham of a trial, I kept thinking it wasn't real, what happened on the pyramid, and I was OK with it. Then you turned up and assured me that it was real, and that was the worst thing you could have done. Then you never came back."
"River, remember, you can't …," he started to warn, but it was already too late. Amy and Rory had blown that when they'd told him he'd gone to Stormcage on her first night.
"It's been 16 months," she said, and sealed that time into stone. "Sixteen months since you swept in there, swept me off my feet, then you never came back." She laughed, and it was hollow. "I thought we just happened to miss each other, because you warned me about that, then I heard you and Amy from the front parlor. She said it'd been two years since she's seen you, and I know on that first night …" Now she remembered and drew herself up. "And the rest is apparently spoilers. None of that has happened for you yet."
"No," he admitted. "I haven't been … I'm sorry."
"I know you're sorry." She slipped off the wall and for the first time really looked into his eyes. "I know what it took for you to even come here, to be here for my parents. I've had a lot of time to think about this, a lot of conversations with Amy and Rory. They told me what they could tell me, what they felt was safe. I just want to let you know that I don't hold you to it. To any of it. I know you've married off and on throughout history as needed. I apparently was needed, and for that, I'm sorry. I understand." She brushed her lips against the corner of his mouth, patted his arm, gave a considering glance at the council flats, then started down the block.
He stared after her, staggered. It never occurred to him that she thought he'd be looking for a way out, and she was willing to give him just that. Well, history wasn't on his side. Really, he had been intending to go straight to her as soon as he left Dorium. Then things happened and other things happened, and she had never chastised him once for running. No, she didn't think she was worth running after, and his chest ached.
Something stung at his eyes, and with wonder, he brushed at them again and was surprised at the wetness. He knew that he needed to make things right because her future affected his past. But the fists that suddenly clamped down around his hearts had nothing to do with a preordained future.
This was what he'd been running from. The guilt that she'd gone to Stormcage at his behest and all the feelings that came with it. He'd fully loved her for a long time now, since a future her had caressed his hand at Demon's Run, whispered, "I am telling you," and showed him who she was. That love was going to hurt so, so much. Hadn't he learned anything from Rose?
Rose had been so easy. She'd opened her arms, and he'd fallen into them. No matter what he did, she just smiled and assured him it was OK, and she never asked anything more than to visit her mother from time to time. It never occurred to her to walk away, or to give him the chance to do so, other than when he had first regenerated and she was unsure that he would still want her. She'd been torn from him both times.
But River was different. She was a challenge. She stayed one step ahead of him, and this would be work. It would be twisty, turny, and out of order and full of laughter, pain, joy and tears. It would be a real marriage in every way. Amy and Rory would always be there for him, but for the first time in the hundreds of years since he left Susan behind, he would have a family.
"Where is this?" he called out, indicating the council flats, and that wasn't what he'd planned to ask.
River was at the end of the block. She hugged herself and glanced back at the flats. "This is where I lived as Mels. Excellent training ground, it was condemned even back then. Running, climbing, target practice. I learned to expect you around every corner. Amy's parents tried to get me removed a few times, but it never happened. I knew it wouldn't. The Church is just that powerful, even in this time." She gave him a sad smile and disappeared around the corner.
He realized that it was just as hard for her to let go of her past and fall in love as it was for him. But now she was walking away without looking back, giving him to chance to go on as he always did. Through it all, she never asked anything of him. The only thing she had begged of him was to live knowing that he was loved. It seemed to be a lesson he missed again and again. She had given her life for him three times, though the third would be blissfully unknown to her for years to come. All of her regenerations and her freedom were gone, and it was because of him. He'd made the decision to marry her, and he couldn't even keep that promise.
He sank onto the wall and wasn't sure how long he was there until Amy suddenly appeared. She was wrapped up in an oversized coat and held a scarf he recognized as belonging to his fourth incarnation. She must have grabbed it from the TARDIS. She looped it several times around his neck and ran her hand through his hair.
"Amelia Pond," he whispered. "I've been such a fool."
"That you have," Amy agreed, then wrapped her arms around his neck. He buried his nose into her hair and realized he was crying. He seemed to be doing that a lot today. But, these wasn't happy tears, not at all. Been around humans too much, he decided, but they wouldn't stop.
"Oh, Amy. How do I fix this?" he murmured against the top of her head.
"My space idiot." Her hold on him tightened. "You've already started."