Dedicated to Scarlet, for Christmas!
This was originally part of my longer story about Melody's diary, and -for a variety of reasons- ended up getting cut. But I liked it enough to want to make it into a one-shot so… well, here you go. Hope people enjoy!
Wishing everyone a happy healthy 2013!
Disclaimer: River, Rory, and Leadworth's playground belong to the BBC.
She couldn't help it; she was early by nearly twenty minutes.
Compulsive punctuality was certainly not a habit she'd been born with; but she defied anyone to continually accommodate the Doctor's lackadaisical sense of time without developing that little ability. Consequently, most days River was always obsessively prompt… or if she could manage it, a little early. Even if it meant that when she arrived, she had nothing to do but wait, and worry.
Just like she was doing now, in fact. Waiting and worrying in equal measure.
"Although," she reprimanded herself aloud, "there's no reason." After all, it was ridiculous for her to even be there; and when four o'clock comes to find her still alone, an adult sitting by herself in a playground of all places… oh, but she will laugh at her own foolishness. River Song, as it turned out, is an idiot. A sentimental idiot, like her husband. Clearly, some character traits are catching.
She paced around the slide before sitting gingerly on one of the rickety swings in Leadworth's playground, letting it twist under her weight as she rocked gently back and forth, flatly refusing to look at her watch. Seeing, physically seeing the minutes counting down to four o'clock might make her crazy. Worse, it might remind her of how strong the likelihood was that he wouldn't be there.
But she still waited, anyway. Waited and waited; until she thought she'd go mad with the anticipation. Her body was outwardly patient, face placid… but her fingers restlessly traced the links of chain and over the rough wooden edges of the seat, unable to keep still.
At five minutes to, she couldn't help herself. Glanced down at her watch, her eyes chasing the second hand around and around. He won't be here, she told herself firmly, squashing the fluttering of hope in her hearts. Silly to get her hopes up because obviously he won't come…
But he did.
She's seen him in the future; his future and her past. Dignified in a suit, stoic in Roman garb, relaxed in casual jeans and t-shirts… no matter what he wore, he was the same to her after Berlin; and she longed to run and fling her arms around his neck, whisper that little word in his ear. Daddy. Two syllables; and oh, so precious.
But she couldn't. Because he wasn't not that man, not yet. No; today was all about the Rory of her childhood, strolling in the playground gates and glancing nervously around as though he was looking for someone. Her eyes skimmed over his trouser hems (a bit too short), the trainers (untied but oddly pristine), and his fleece-lined, puffy red winter coat (the one that made Amy mockingly call him Santa). She loved her Dad; always has done, always will. But until this moment, she hadn't appreciated how much she missed her friend.
And she realised also, in a blinding flash of clarity, that she hadn't really thought her plan through. Showing up like this. She couldn't tell him who she was; to him, she was nothing more than a stranger. Not at all the person he was obviously hoping to see… and as she watched him, she saw his face fall when he realised that it wasn't Mels sitting on the swings, waiting for him. Sadness darkened his eyes to nearly black, a sadness that surprised her at how much she hurt in turn.
And so she had to say something, anything at all. Because she couldn't do nothing, after seeing the look on his face.
"Looking for someone?" River asked, trying to keep her voice light, amused sounding. "I'm afraid it's only me here."
"Yeah, sorry." Rory walked over to the swings, sitting heavily down on the one next to her. "I am looking for someone. I mean; I was. But…" he sighed, raking a hand through his hair self-consciously, "I knew she wouldn't be here."
"I'm sure she wanted to be," River offered, trying to keep a sympathetic smile on her face, and feeling her cheeks burn with the effort. "Sometimes, timegets away from people."
"I guess. I just hoped…" He broke off abruptly, giving her a shy smile.
"Sorry, you don't want to hear this. The babbling of a stranger."
"Oh, that's alright; I don't mind listening," she reassured him. "Talking to strangers can be fascinating. Sometimes you have more in common with them, than you do your friends."
"Interesting philosophy," Rory said, with a slight nod. "Most people don't think like that."
"I'm an interesting sort of girl," River answered. "I don't think like most people."
Rory nodded again with a smile hovering about his lips, but didn't say anything further; and she wished, for one brief moment, that she possessed her husband's ebullient glibness. River Song was all about manipulating people -often by methods best not spoken of- into giving her information… not a qualifying trait for this situation. She didn't want to make Rory talk, or force him to explain why he would be sitting outside in a playground on New Years Eve. (She didn't need to; she knew the story, after all.)
But a part of her, perhaps the same part that refused to just let him walk away hurt, wished he'd say something. Wondered, even, if he'd say anything to a stranger about why he was there.
"So…" River said, tapping her fingers against the side of the swing, "you said you came here to meet someone? A date, then?"
"No." He shook his head. "A friend. We have -had, I guess- this tradition to meet here."
He subsided into silence, staring in front of him at nothing; and River searched for what she could say.
"That makes sense. I figured you were too old to be here just to play on the swings."
Her statement was enough to surprise a small chuckle out of him, before Rory turned to give her a carefully appraising look, one eyebrow raised.
"Please don't take this the wrong way," he said cautiously. "I mean, you're a very attractive woman, but I'm…uhh," he preened, self consciously, "taken."
She managed, only barely, not to smile at the gross impropriety of his statement; instead reaching over to pinch his cheek.
"So am I, darling," she said. "Taken, I mean.
"Plus," and now she did smile, teasingly, "you're a little young for me. I like my men quite a bit older."
"You might be surprised," Rory muttered. "I'm older than I look."
She winked at him. "Believe me, dear; so am I.
"So," River went on, smiling encouragingly. "You said you've got a tradition, meeting your friend here? Starting your New Year celebration a little early?"
"Yeah, sort of. Maybe it's not really tradition. More like an anniversary that we meet every year, New Years Eve at four o'clock…" Rory paused, obviously choosing his next sentence with care; and River held her breath, not saying a word.
"See," he said, swallowing convulsively, "when I was fourteen, I lost my Mum."
"I'm sorry," she murmured, wincing inwardly at actually saying the two most overused words in the world. I'm sorry, River -and Mels before her- had always said, really just means, I can't do anything for your pain. She'd always hated those words more than any others, tried never to use them.
Rory shrugged; and River clenched her hands into fists to keep from reaching toward him. Inappropriate, so inappropriate for her to hug him; but very difficult to resist.
"It's ok, you don't have to be sorry," he said. "These things happen. It's just that she was my Mum. You know what I mean… when you're a kid, you expect your parents to be around forever. But then she wasn't…" He stopped; and River couldn't help it, after all. She leaned toward him, laying a hand on his wrist and feeling the sharpness of delicate bones beneath her fingers.
"Losing someone," she whispered, "it always hurts when someone you thought you could count on is gone. No matter the reason."
"I know," Rory said automatically. "It's been six years, but it still hurts. I still miss her. And it sounds awful to say, but…" He took a deep breath, steeling himself.
"It'd be so much easier if she'd died," he blurted out in a low voice. "If someone dies, you can say, 'oh that's terrible, but these things happen. She didn't have a choice.'
"But she did." Rory shook his head, bitterness laced through each sentence. "She chose to leave us, my Dad and me. She told my Dad that she wasn't happy; she was tired of being a boring housewife in boring Leadworth. And she never even said goodbye to me, not really. I left for school one morning, and I came back in the afternoon to find her things gone, and my Dad crying in the garden. I didn't know what to tell him! What do you say when your Dad cries?"
I know, River thought, her fingers stroking little circles on his wrist. I know sometimes how hard it is to find the words, that sometimes there aren't any. Because she remembered: six years ago for him, and ages past for her… she remembered being Mels, longing to comfort Rory. Sitting on these very swings, his pain hurting her because he was her friend, and her Dad… and not knowing what to say or how to start.
"I think I hid it pretty well, for awhile," Rory continued, unaware of River's thoughts. "I just tried to act normal, as though she was on a vacation and would return. I think," he gave a short bark of laughter, "I thought she might, really. But weeks passed, and then months… And I had to finally face that she wasn't coming back."
He raked his free hand over his face, rubbing surreptitiously at his eyes. "I didn't even think to ask; do you live here? In Leadworth?"
River shrugged, carefully not meeting his eyes for fear of what he might recognise in hers. "I grew up here," she said evasively. "Came back for a visit."
"Alright, so then you know what it's like here. I mean, Leadworth is great, but everyone knows all about everyone else, and I couldn't take it. Everyone gossiping about my Mum, and everyone giving me this pitying looks." He sighed. "Even my friends. They weren't acting like I was me, anymore. My girlfriend -she wasn't my girlfriend then, just my friend- was being really… nice.
"Not," he added hastily, "that she isn't nice. But she's not the kindly-pat-on-the-arm, hold-you-when-you-cry sort, and even she was doing it."
River tried not to smile, remembering Amy's clumsy attempts at condolence. It wasn't her fault, really; she'd had always been so young. Wonderful and funny and kind, but such a new soul. Her exuberance, her impatience for life… they were what made her Amy; and in turn what made her unable to empathise with his situation.
"It feels," Rory admitted in a low voice, "well, I know this sounds a bit crazy, but it feels like I'm always waiting for the people I love, and that they always seem to leave without saying goodbye anyway. And with my Mum… I finally got to the point when I was just so mad every time someone brought it up, even my friends. Actually… I'm still a bit angry, around this time of year. I remember how miserable I felt back then. I didn't think I'd ever be alright again."
"Seems to me," River said, choosing to ignore his statement about waiting (given what she knew, there really was nothing she could say about that), "it's been six years, and you're doing alright after all. Going on with your life, even with something so sad in your past.
"Humans," she said with a sigh. "They really have the potential to be the marvellous creatures in the universe. Survivors; no matter the odds, or the pain."
Rory looked up at her, sharply.
"Mels… my friend, the one I was supposed to meet today. She told me something like that." He smiled gently, turning his hand so their palms rested against each other and River drew her thumb over his wrist, feeling his pulse jumping beneath her fingers. An intimate gesture for strangers; but he didn't seem to notice and she couldn't bring herself to call his attention to it.
Because: every year, River Song snuck out of Stormcage to keep this date with her Dad. Set her vortex manipulator, zapped quickly to Leadworth and then back again, before the guards even knew she'd been gone. But this year, the first that Amy and Rory wouldn't be in England at all, she'd come back here to this specific time out of curiosity and obligation and -honestly- guilt. They'd never spoken about it, but she knew it was the one year Mels hadn't been able to; and she'd always suspected that he hadn't either.
And even when he did… well, she hadn't expected him to talk and react so freely to a stranger.
It felt like she'd been given a gift, precious and fragile. The chance to make things right, even though Mels had messed up by not being able to be there. She held her hand gently in Rory's; too afraid even to blink or breathe too hard and shatter the moment.
"She sounds like a very wise friend," River whispered, trying to smile. "What did she tell you?"
Rory rolled his eyes, good-naturedly. "I'm not sure 'wise' explains her. See, I'd been so grumpy all that winter; and then I got a message from Mels, ordering me to come meet her at four o'clock, New Years Eve in the playground. I didn't want to; thought she'd be all sympathetic and 'poor Rory' like everyone else was… But I should have known that wasn't really her style. I mean, she left about fifteen messages with my Dad in an hour when I wouldn't answer her texts! He got so annoyed, he told me to just go see her and make her stop calling.
"So when I got here she was sitting on the swings, and she jumped up to give me a big hug… and then told me to stop sulking, that I was being a baby and annoying her."
"Oh." River winced. Perhaps it was self preservation for her own sanity, but she hadn't really remembered just how tactless Mels had been. "That seems a bit harsh."
"No, actually it wasn't." Rory smiled, lost in his memories. "She's the only person who would ever have said something like that; and I think… I think I needed someone to. Mels was adopted, you see. She never talked about her birth parents, but I think they left her. So she knew how I felt; and I hadn't really thought about it until then. That maybe she would understand.
"She told me that you can't change the past; it happened. And that life is about hurting and crying and finding a way to survive despite that. Because that's what humans do. Stupid, boring people get bitter and twisted when things go wrong… but she didn't think I was like that. I was more like her. If someone is smart enough, they let pain make them into something better, they can make their life good no matter what. And she told me that she was sure, when I had a child of my own, I'd never be the type to just leave."
River bit the inside of her lip, hard. "No," she murmured. "You'd never leave your child of your own choice."
She knew Rory didn't quite hear her, and wouldn't have understood, even if he did. But he nodded soberly.
"I wouldn't. If I have kids… when," he stressed, "I have kids… I'd never leave them. I'll be the best Dad."
"The very best," River said softly. "Your child will be so very lucky, having you."
"She promised me that things would get better; and said that she never breaks promises, that's why she always made so few of them in the first place," Rory continued. "And then, she hugged me again -which was sort of more surprising that her big speech, because Mels isn't a very hugging sort- and pulled a squashed bag of candy out of her pocket. Told me as far as she was concerned, we should make a pact to always start the New Year with hope and sweetness."
He cleared his throat. "So a tradition was born, from that day. Its all of us -her, my girlfriend Amy and me- to celebrate at midnight with our friends. But in the afternoon, it's just us. Mels and me on New Years Eve and toasting with candy in the park."
"She sounds," River said, "like a good friend. Very kind."
"She's…" Rory faltered, rubbing his free hand over his eyes. "She's Mels… Kind isn't the word for her. She's really wild and crazy and independent and usually sort of rude…"
"A great friend then," River murmured, resisting the urge to make a face at his less-than-flattering description.
"It does sound bad," Rory admitted, "when I describe her like that. But if you knew her, you'd get what I mean. Mels just defies explanation. She's like every extreme you can imagine. She's a tornado. Frightening up close, but a force of nature that drags you along into liking and being awed by her. She's the most complex, amazing person that I know; and she might have her own way of doing things, or showing how nice and kind she really is, but…"
He sighed. "I can't even just call her my friend. It's like she's something completely different, and that's why I like her so much. Because she's how she is, and I wouldn't have her any other way.
"I sort of knew she wouldn't be here today," Rory said. He sighed, a little sadly. "She's off, doing something or becoming something… her note was really cryptic when she left, and we haven't heard from her in the last few months. But I came out anyway because I still hoped… she's never missed a New Years Eve before this one."
"I'm sure," River said softly, "that she didn't mean to. As I said, occasionally time just gets away from people; or maybe she got stuck in a place that would have been impossible to make it back from. And I'm sure it kills her inside that she's not here to see you today."
He looked thoughtful, and River bit her lip, wondering if she'd said too much. If he ever remembered the strange woman he met in the playground when he was twenty, remembered what she'd said and put together the clues… and that was why he'd never mentioned it to her in later years. If he'd assumed she knew -or would know- that there was no reason to feel guilty Mels hadn't made it home.
"Well." River fumbled in her purse to avoid looking at Rory, "I might not be your Mels, but by luck I can offer you-" she triumphantly pulled out a squashed paper bag and brandished it at him, "jelly baby?"
He gave her a wry smile, reaching toward the bag. "I'm sure there are rules about taking candy from strangers in a playground. Not trying to poison me, are you?"
"Never you," she answered with a bright smile. "Far better ways to off someone than candy, anyway."
"Ominous," Rory said, grinning. "Sounds like you've thought that through."
"I did tell you, I'm an interesting sort of girl."
"Yes, you are. Suppose you're not really a stranger to me anymore, are you?" He took a candy, thoughtfully nibbling off its feet.
"I'm glad I met you today," Rory said. "What did you say, before? Talking to strangers can be fascinating? Always thought a chance meeting with a stranger in a playground would be odd, but it's been nice… rather, you've been nice, talking to me for so long."
"My husband would tell you there's no such thing as a chance encounter," River answered. "He's often wrong though. He'd hate me saying it; but he can be."
"I'm not taking sides on that argument, because you're probably right. My girlfriend would tell me that women know these things about their men."
"Smart girlfriend you've got. Sounds like a keeper."
"Yeah," Rory said, laughing, "she is. Even if you waited a few thousand years, there'd only be one girl like my Amy Pond.
"Anyway, thank you. For listening to me. And I just wanted to say: this might sound silly, but you feel…" he paused, searching for the right word. "Familiar. Like, for a little bit, I had a friend with me here, after all."
River swallowed, hard, against a sudden lump in her throat. "Not so silly; and thank you. I think that's the nicest thing I've heard in a long time.
"And, you never know. Maybe your Mels will find a way to make it up to you, not being here this year."
"Maybe," Rory said. "I bet she will, somehow. She's that sort."
River held out her hand, lightly touching her jelly baby to his. "Well. Would you like to make the toast, then?" Rory nodded, bopping them together before they solemnly bit off the heads.
"Cheers. Here's to…" he grinned, "friends and chance encounters with strangers. And a sweet New Year."