A/N — This took much longer than I thought it would. Firstly I stupidly started it before the episode aired, and when I finally came to work on it again, I found that I wanted to write something different but didn't want to ditch what I already had. In the end I did ditch a lot of what I had.
River is the brave one, she keeps her chin up at all costs. But I don't think she could possibly keep it up all the time. Losing her parents would have to have a profound effect on her coping skills. I also noticed that Rory has never behaved in a particularly fatherly fashion towards her, where Amy has. So I wanted to address that.
She found Rory's first:
Rory Arthur Williams, 14th July 1990, aged 82. Survived by his wife, Amelia, and their daughter, Melody. No flowers, charitable donations only. Contact Westbridge & White for further details.
Amelia Jessica Williams (née Pond), 28th September 1995, aged 87. Wife of Rory (dec. 1990), and survived by their daughter, Melody. No flowers, charitable donations only. Contact Westbridge & White for further details.
Brooklyn Heights, October 2012
River sat across the desk from Christopher Westbridge's high-backed leather chair as its erstwhile occupant searched the bottom drawer of the old metal filing cabinet. "Have it," he said, getting stiffly to his feet and straightening his suit once more. He sat down and thumbed through the old paper file. "Okay, so it looks fairly straight forward." He took out four sealed envelopes and splayed them on the table in front of River; they were each addressed to one of her grandparents. "As executor of the wills, you're required to ensure delivery of the letters."
"Is that it?"
"Your parents seemed to have everything else pretty much sewn up before they died, almost as though they knew when they were going to go." He chuckled lightly and River smiled.
"Did they leave anything else?"
He left her alone in the safe with the safety deposit box. She opened it, and for a second she thought it might be empty, but no, their wedding rings and her mother's watch were tucked into one end. She put her hand inside and felt around the edge for a note or a letter, but there wasn't one. She stood alone with the open box and looked at the ceiling for a moment to compose herself before taking the rings, the watch, and the letters, and leaving.
River sat in Brian's kitchen waiting for him to finish reading.
She had gone to Augustus and Tabetha first to get the most difficult of the visits out of the way—they had practically raised her in Leadworth, and now they had no idea who she was outside of what she told them. "The Doctor's wife," was explanation enough for them to let her in, and her parents spoke for themselves through their letters. It turned out to be even more difficult than she had expected, seeing them crumble and having nothing by means of comfort to offer them.
But if anything, watching Brian read his letter was worse. His eyes scanned the words over and over, his face almost passive as River sat in silence across the kitchen table. After a long time he folded the pages and put them back into the envelope. He looked out through the window over her shoulder. "It's not right, it should be the other way around. I'm supposed to go first, and then them; that's how things should be. I mean, they…" He looked at River. "He was my child."
River bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted the metallic tang of blood, but held his gaze. "I know."
He tapped out a nervous rhythm on the table with his fingertips. "Their house… I can't… I don't know…"
River reached forward and put her hand over his. In all the years she had known him, he always had a practical solution for every problem, but when faced with the reality of having outlived his own son, he had absolutely no idea what to do. "Let me deal with the practicalities. I'd be happy to." Brian accepted with a slow nod.
She got to her feet and pulled on her coat. "I'll call you once it's all done."
"River, why are you here and not him?"
She freed her hair from under the collar of her coat and regarded him sadly. Why her and not her husband? The Doctor Brian knew, but she was a stranger to him. She could have asked, but the only thing the Doctor hated more than the end of a story, was having to tell it. So she would bear the burden for them both. "They knew he'd be grieving just as much as you are, so they asked me."
Brian stood and took her hand looking at her with earnest gratitude. "Thank you, River."
She smiled. "It's nothing."
She shut the frigid morning out and turned on the hall light. There was a small pile of post inside the door—bills, fliers, and a couple of early Christmas cards. She gathered it all up and placed it on the hall table as neatly as possible. She'd come back to it later and send the notices to the relevant parties once she had the rest of the paperwork sorted. She wasn't ready for the labyrinth of bureaucracy just yet; she was too fuzzy-minded with grief to even contemplate the endless forms and their unanswerable questions.
She slipped off her coat and slung it over the end of the staircase. The heating was on and the house was warm; River went to the boiler in the utility room and turned the switches off. There were clothes folded in the basket ready to be brought upstairs and put away, and the stray-sock-line-of-shame only had one culprit awaiting its mate pegged to it. River smiled; that was surely a new record for Pond socks who were, on the whole, as flighty as their owners.
She closed the door to the utility and moved out to the kitchen and the fridge with a view to clearing it out. She opened the door and quickly adjusted her plan when the stench of rancid food hit her. As she closed it again, the magnetic notepad stuck to its front caught her eye. It had a couple of things marked down on it for the next run to the shops, and at the bottom, in tiny writing, Rory had written: 'Amy smells.' Amy had later amended it to read: 'Amy smells lovely.' River ran her finger over the words.
As she moved towards the front room to fetch the photo albums, she passed the sink, and next to it was the utensil jug she had made as a child. She didn't know they had kept it. She took the utensils out and upturned it.
When she made it she had brought it back to Amy's because she didn't trust it to be left alone in the school overnight. The clay was still soft so they each scratched their initial into the base.
"Imagine, in thousands of years someone could dig this up and wonder what these strange symbols mean," Rory had said.
And Amy, ever the realist, put her hands on her hips and shook her head. "It says ARM Rory, it won't take a genius to figure it out."
It wasn't thousands of years, but it still said ARM.
It was testament to how out of sorts she was, because he had never managed to sneak up on her before. She could tell by his eyes and tired smile that they were roughly at the same stage.
It probably hadn't been long since she had said goodbye after New York. She stayed with him for longer than usual—even though she would have preferred to get her other responsibilities out of the way first. She needed to be sure he was thinking clearly again before she left him alone. He was never more of a danger to himself than when he was overwrought with emotion. When she found him one evening under the console, tinkering and babbling sweet nothings to the TARDIS she knew it was safe to go.
She smiled fondly across the kitchen to him and he moved to stand next to her leaning with his back to the sink. "What's that?"
She showed him and he sniffed in amusement. "Not RAM? Or MAR?"
"Amy always got first dibs on defacing things."
"You should keep it."
She shook her head. "If I start, I might not be able to stop."
"You can keep anything you want; there's plenty of room on the TARDIS."
River put the jug down. "They're just things."
He reached out and stroked the top of her arm with light fingers. She let her head fall sideways onto his shoulder and he dropped a kiss to her crown and breathed her in.
"So, what now?" he said into her hair.
"Now I have to get this place packed up." She sighed.
"And what if you don't?" He tugged gently at her arm.
She shook her head. "I made a promise." The Doctor just nodded, and she was glad he didn't enquire any further because she wasn't really sure how she could answer without inflicting guilt. "Anyway, I think it will help. Be cathartic."
He kissed the top of her head again before pushing himself away from the counter. "Come on, then. Let's get to it." He slid his jacket off and started to roll up his shirtsleeves.
"You don't have to."
"I know. Now, what first?"
River reached for the pink rubber gloves by the sink and handed them to him. "Fridge?" He nodded, took the gloves, and started to pull them on, oblivious to the horrors that lay ahead. River took momentary pity on him and scooted to the utility to fetch something. She came back just as he had the second glove donned and presented him with the peg.
He looked at her, confused, as she dropped it into his hand and stifled a smirk before leaving the room. "I'll be upstairs clearing out the wardrobes."
She had barely made it two steps up before the sounds of disgust started coming from the kitchen. "River!" She laughed aloud and continued on up the stairs.
A half hour later she was sitting on her parents' made bed. The clothes in the wardrobe were still untouched, and a thick pile of letters tied with string sat in her lap. She'd counted twice: sixty-two of them, each addressed to Melody Pond. She knew when they had been written, she had been there as Mels, witnessing her mother tear herself apart writing letters to her lost baby. But she didn't know that Amy had held onto them, or how many there were—one for every day she waited for the Doctor to return with news of her baby. Guilt twisted in River's stomach.
He'd done it again—snuck up on her—but this time she couldn't muster a smile for him. Without hesitation he moved across to sit next to her on the bed, nudging her into scooching over, and put an arm around her shoulder. She rested her head against him, hearing the soothing canter of his hearts in his chest.
"What are they?" he asked.
"Letters Amy wrote while you were searching for me as a baby."
He swallowed heavily. "Oh. There are a lot of them."
"Yeah. She took it really hard; they both did. This was her outlet I suppose." River toyed with the loops of string, half wishing he hadn't come, because the stack of paper on her knee was the very last straw—she couldn't hold the hurt inside any longer. "I hated you so much at the time for what you had done to them, but it wasn't you, was it? It was me. You begged me to let you find me; you were desperate and I wouldn't—"
He stroked her hair. "River, you told me then that I had to trust you. That everything would work out, and it would all be worth it. What's changed? Is it the fact that they're…"
River shook her head and lifted the letters up by the string then dropped them back into her lap. "You know, I was quite upset they hadn't left a letter for me. You got yours, and my grandparents got theirs but there wasn't one for me. At least that's what I thought. But—" She was aware that her voice was cracking but she couldn't hold the flood of emotion back any longer. "It's like sixty-two pieces of tangible evidence of how much pain I caused them. You wanted a letter, Melody, well here's what you're getting: what you deserve." A hot tear streaked down her cheek and she swiped it away.
The Doctor was silent next to her for a long moment before taking her hands in his. "River, life is a pile of good things and bad things—"
"Oh for god's sake, don't philosophise." It sounded harsher than she had intended.
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "Are you happy?"
"I don't know."
He took a deeper breath. "Were they happy?"
She thought about it. There were three times she could remember them being unhappy in all the years she had known them. When they lost their baby, when they split up, and when they were fourteen and Rory's Dad was planning on moving to London for work.
"Well?" The Doctor was never blessed with the gift of patience.
"Yes! Yes, they were happy. As long as they had each other, those two could be happy in the middle of a warzone."
"Good. Now, next question. Do you think they loved you?"
"They loved Melody… and Mels too."
"But Melody and Mels and River are all you."
She shrugged. "I don't know if they ever really saw it like that. Amy maybe, but Rory…"
"I promise you, they both did. I wish I could prove it to you, but I can't. I don't know why there was no letter for you; if I had them here I'd give them a stern talking to. But, well…" He patted her shoulder.
"Thank you for trying to fix things."
He pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. "It's always left to you, isn't it? To be the strong one. Well I can be that too, so let me."
"But I nothing. I'd like to remind you that I am very much older than you and I've been through the ringer and survived more times than you've had hot dinners. And don't think I don't notice and appreciate what you do for me. How you try to protect me. But you have to let me do the same for you. Fair's fair."
River groaned but couldn't argue with him.
"It's called marriage, honey," the Doctor said, and she could almost hear the smirk.
She pushed him away from her knocking him onto his back on the bed. "Are you mocking me?"
"Would I?" he said, and squeaked as she climbed on top of him.
"I think you were," she said, pinning him by the shoulders to the mattress and kissing his neck.
"But we have so much work to do… and I'm sure there was some rule about the bedroom."
"Oh goody," she said, sitting up to peel her top off and fling it aside. "One I haven't broken yet."
The last of the Doctor's reluctance drained away, and he pulled her back down on top of him.
It was morning by the time they had finished boxing, bagging, folding, and cleaning, but the street was still steeped in December darkness as River locked the door behind them. Further down the road, a car's engine ticked quietly over, clearing the frost and warming it up for its intended occupant.
The Doctor slung his jacket over his shoulder and River pulled her overcoat up about her ears, feeling colder just looking at him. They crossed to the park; the moon picked out the outlines of the swings and the climbing frame, and made the frosted grass glow blue.
The TARDIS sat innocuously under the trees in the near corner. Before she stepped inside, River took one last look at the house, saying goodbye to the last of her permanent tethers to earth before it was cut. She shut the door softly behind her.
She crossed to the staircase, taking one step up before the Doctor stopped her. "River?" She turned to see him approach, his brow furrowed in sympathy or concern. "Would you like to take the helm?"
She moved her hand to cradle his cheek as she smiled and shook her head. "Sleep, methinks."
He slipped his arms around her waist and stretched up to kiss her tenderly for a moment or two. She would normally be loath to accept such an overt gesture of comfort, but right now her body wouldn't allow her to refuse it.
"This will always be your home," he said. "Whenever you want it, whatever I'm doing, I'll come for you."
She kissed him back, stroking his cheek with her thumb. Over the years she'd met enough early versions of him who wouldn't let her within twenty feet of the TARDIS to know that it wasn't something he could really guarantee, but she appreciated the sentiment. "Thank you."
She lay in the dark waiting for sleep, but was kept awake by the incessant replay of her memories. So many were of her parents; they had been the only constant in her variable life—out of order but always there. Who was she, if not Rory and Amy's daughter? There was a void in her heart that could never be filled.
Admitting defeat, she heaved herself from the bed and went in search of camomile tea; it was hateful stuff, but worth a try at least. Upon entering the kitchen she found an ostentatious bouquet of stargazer lilies on the table; propped against them was a card addressed to her in the Doctor's handwriting.
She couldn't help but be touched by the gesture as she picked up the card. Finding it curiously blank, she looked again at the flowers and noticed the utensil jug they were standing in. She grinned and fetched a vase from the cupboard for the lilies, then filled her childhood creation with wooden spoons and spatulas, and placed it on the counter where it belonged.
June 26th 2013
The mid-summer sun made the city shimmer like a mirage on the far side of the river, but a stray cloud shielded the cemetery from the harsh glare. River sat on the grass by their headstone, her hair being lightly buffeted by the breeze in time with the stirrings of the trees and plants, and the small flags adorning some of the nearby graves. She unscrewed the top of the quarter bottle of sparkling wine and poured it into a plastic champagne flute. It was the thought that counted, she decided. She raised her glass. "Happy anniversary, Mum and Dad."
The wine tasted sour and she frowned at it before putting it aside. She sat in silence absently plucking at blades of grass and remembering. The sound of gravel under tyres made her turn and she saw an unmarked van pull in and park. A man in a vintage trench coat and trilby stepped out and looked in her direction.
Her hearts began to thud and she stood, her hand instinctively falling to her hip and her gun. He took a couple of steps forward, then seemed to remember something and stopped in his tracks. "Melody Pond?"
River looked him over; the coat was ill fitting and she could see no evidence of any weapons. "Who's asking?"
The man smiled. "It is you, isn't it? They said about the hair."
River blinked at him and let her hand fall away from her hip as the man went back to his van, took something out of the passenger side, and began to walk up the grassy slope to where she was standing.
"Who are you?" River said.
"Western Union." It was then she noticed the courier uniform underneath his coat. "I have something for you. A letter."
The realisation finally dawned, and her wariness all fell away as she smiled wider than she had in years. "A letter for me? That's impossible!"
The Western Union man laughed. "Film fan?"
"Yes, it was my absolute favourite as a child." The man handed her the signing block and she scribbled her name quickly.
"All the guys wanted this job, but my name got pulled out of the hat. So if you see a couple of weird looking dudes hanging around by the gates, that's just Larry and Joe. Slackers." He handed River a slightly yellowed envelope and she took it in both of her hands.
"How long ago?"
River giggled—a tribute to a film nearly ten years before its release. "Thank you," she said, and kissed him briskly on the cheek. He tipped his hat and left.
River sat again, turning the letter over in her hands. Melody Pond was written in her mother's handwriting. She peeled the envelope open and slipped the letter out.
My dearest Melody,
I hope you weren't waiting too long for this letter, but if you were, blame your father. You two must have watched those stupid Back to the Future films a hundred times if you watched them once. Okay, maybe they weren't stupid, and maybe I was a bit jealous that you two had something of your own and I was left out. But I think you need to take into account the fact that I was nine.
I miss you. I know I have you, but I miss talking to you properly. I miss our friendship. I think if we had done things the proper way around that we'd now be having the relationship we had when we were teenagers. But I must admit, some of our favoured topics were not ones I'd ever have broached had I known it was my daughter I was talking to.
Just looking at you now, riding your bike and skinning your knees, when I know the sorts of things you're going to get up to in the near future has turned my hair grey. Okay, fine, it was going to turn grey anyway. But still.
We're all well and we're happy (as I hope you remember). I hope you're happy too. It's been so long since I last saw you, but I can still see your face and your smile when I close my eyes. Rory finds it more difficult to remember, so I drew a portrait of you for him; he keeps it in his top pocket, next to his heart.
Take care of yourself, my good brave girl. Remember us, and we will be with you wherever you go.
I love you, now and always,
It feels so strange to be writing to you when I can hear you outside the window screeching at Billy from next door about his "pathetic cycling technique." I'm going to have to make you apologise after this. I wonder do you remember what I'm going to say? But that has to wait now, because this letter is much more important than Billy's hurt pride or his mother's, frankly scary, scowling.
Okay, let me start again.
I haven't called you that since Berlin for you, have I? There's a reason for that, and I'm ashamed to tell you it, but I will, nevertheless because you deserve my honesty. And it's the least of the things you deserve from me, but this, at least, I can provide.
As you can imagine, it was all a bit of a shock. One minute you were in my arms and you were tiny and oh so beautiful, the next you were gone. The next time I saw you was only five minutes later, and yet I had already missed every important moment of your life. Amy held onto the hope that we would get you—baby you—back, but I knew, in the instant of your revelation, that you were lost for good.
When you dropped us back home, we had you again. Our lifelong friend, Mels, looking after us, caring for us and helping deal with our loss when there was no one else we could turn to. And not long after that, it felt as though that person was snatched away too. I lost you twice in the space of a couple of months.
Your mother had no trouble accepting the truth, but me, I couldn't think of you being the same person as Melody, I couldn't think of Mels being her either. Because I was there when you were ten years old, Melody. You cried when you thought no one could see. I was there when you were a teenager, drinking yourself into oblivion. I was there in Utah when you showed me how sad and scared you were. How could I think of these things being true of my daughter without feeling like I had completely failed you? My only job was to protect you and I couldn't manage it.
So I thought of you as River, and Mels was Mels. It was cowardice, but I thought it was the only way I could cope. It didn't matter though, how I chose to think about it, because even in the darkest depths of denial, love thrived. Even if I couldn't bear to admit to myself that you were my daughter, my heart had no trouble with the fact. Melody, Mels, River, it doesn't matter, I love you all the same, because you are the same. Whether I knew it or not you always were, and always will be, my little girl.
Of course it's so obvious now that we have the final piece of the puzzle keeping us up nights and eating us out of house and home. (Honestly, you never stop eating; is that a time lord thing or is it just you?) It's so plainly obvious that you're the same person I feel a bit foolish for not having noticed before I was told. And I know now why you were so sad in Leadworth; you missed your parents who had died and left you alone. They sent you to people who, although they loved you, didn't know you.
I wish I could change that, but after all these years we know how the story goes. But I still think it was, and will be, the right decision. There is no one on earth or anywhere else who could possibly love you more than we have our entire lives. And truth be told, the thought of my childhood without you in it doesn't bear thinking about. I could no more deprive myself of you, than you of us.
And now we've gone and done it again, died and left you on your own and we can no longer be there to love you. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about you. There is so much of your mother in you, Melody. You try to be strong to do what's best for those around you. You want to look after everyone, but who's looking after you? You deserve to be loved and cared for, and I hope you can find some way of putting yourself first for once.
I'm going to say goodbye now. Remember that I love you, scourge of Leadworth, light of my life, my one and only daughter and beloved child. Wrap up warm, brush your teeth, and please, please take care of yourself, my Melody.
River laughed through the tears that were rolling freely down her cheeks as she folded the letters carefully and slipped them back into the envelope. She kissed her fingertips and pressed them to each of their names on the headstone in turn. "I love you."
River strolled up the footpath towards the house with the perfectly painted gateposts, and window boxes cascading with summer flowers. In honour of the occasion she opted for a green floral dress. Her hearts hopped in her chest, somewhere between nervous and giddy, as her shoes clacked on the concrete.
As she drew closer she could hear murmuring coming from the garden. She stopped at the wall and peered in over. "Talking to someone?" she asked, and Brian looked up from his bedding plants and smiled. "Just my hydrangeas. They do better with a bit of encouragement. Hello River."
"Hello Brian. How have you been?"
Brian stood and peeled off his gardening gloves. "Oh, you know…" He opted to shrug rather than finish the sentence.
"A little birdie told me that it's your birthday."
He smiled again. "That's right."
"Well then, happy birthday." She handed him an envelope with his name on it. "I got you a card."
He looked at her with a mixture of curiosity and appreciation, then opened the envelope and took the card out. He stared at the front for a long moment, reading the three words over, before looking up and searching her expression.
"It says, 'Happy Birthday, Granddad,'" she offered, leaning in to point to the text. "I picked that one because it's your birthday, and you're my grandfather. Oh, and it has a dinosaur on it; how much fun is that?"
Brian finally managed to produce a couple of words. "River… How?"
"Well first of all, I'd much prefer if you'd call me Melody. As for the rest of it, it's a very long story, but I'd love to tell it to you. If you'd let me?"
Brian nodded, still bewildered, but responding at least, so River took him by the arm and walked up the steps with him into his house. "I'll start at the beginning… or the middle depending on your perspective."
So she told him the tale of the boy who loved a girl with a not-so-imaginary friend, and how they had a little girl and loved her enough to last three lifetimes.