Summary: The Ponds learn why the Doctor needs them in his life even when they're learning to live with him less in theirs.
It had been several months since Rory and Amy had seen the Doctor. It was as though he was staying away from them, each visit coming months and months after the previous one.
At first, they were worried about adjusting to normal life, but after the heartache and healing the Asylum had provided them, they relished the time to work on their relationship and the relationships with those from their normal lives. It became easier, the routine of things, and the longer they were at it, the less they missed the constant adventure of life with the Doctor. After the incident with the dinosaurs, however, Brian was always quick to point out that that never stopped them from missing the adventurer, the Doctor himself.
But still. Life went on. And they were still able to spend time off planet like this week at River's house on Kilkron, simply enjoying a relaxing visit with their daughter and friend. The conversation had been pleasant enough, and had only just barely begun to turn toward their absent son-in-law.
"When's the last time you saw him?" Amy finally asked.
River smiled devilishly, her eyes suddenly distant in memory.
"Oh, I finally dragged a younger version of him with me on an expedition. He, of course, complained the entire way there, so I had to come up with something to entertain him."
"Give him something shiny but deadly?" Rory asked dryly, making Amy snort into her cup.
River laughed at her father's joke, knowing that such a thing would indeed keep her husband occupied for maybe even an entire minute, until he tried to "improve" it, when it would then become at least an hour's dangerous diversion instead.
"No, but maybe next time. I may have... fudged the truth about our location. Just a bit," she added at her mother's raised eyebrow.
"Where were you?" Amy asked, already enjoying this story.
"On the ruins of a civilization that constructed their houses from sticks. Literally, small straight sticks. Apparently, they believed all the time and the detail that went into the handmade houses taught them patience and led to inner and outer harmony. Something happened, and for whatever reason many of the houses petrified, then got buried after a few centuries. We wanted to know what caused the petrification."
"Uh-huh. And, where did the Doctor think you were?"
River's eyes lit up, her smile smug and mischievous.
"Melody Pond," Amy said, putting as much mum into her voice as she could, her smile as wide as her daughter's.
"The thing about petrified wood... If you don't know what it is, or if there happens to be some type of perception field around it, you could mistake it for a number of things," she said with a shrug and a slight shake of her head.
"I told the Doctor we were standing on meadows of bone. Of course, then he went on a hunt trying to figure out what had killed out the entire civilization of... Biggles."
Rory spit out his drink at that last word.
"As in-Biggles the cat? Amy's cat?"
"Well... you know that man. He kept making snide comments about archaeology to his archaeologist wife on an archaeological dig. Don't worry, though. I kept his ego mostly intact."
Amy and Rory looked at their daughter in disbelief, before all three of them burst into uncontrollable laughter.
"And how long did he search for this- Biggles-killer?" Amy got out.
River, looking entirely unapologetic and proud, answered, "Well, I was able to keep him on the hunt for most of the day. Interestingly enough, every time he began to get suspicious, he found another clue as to the whereabouts and howabouts of his mysterious species- petrifyier."
"How amazing," said Amy, with a fond shake of her head.
"Isn't it just?" replied River with pride.
"So, what'd he do when he found out?"
"Oh, he was positively livid. Proclaimed that was the last time he would ever come when I called, and that I'd better find someone else to play my "womanly tricks" on, not that he was tricked, he of course knew it the whole time, but he just thought that if I was that bored, the least he could do was entertain me. Ridiculous man," she said the last with an entirely besotted expression.
By now her parents had tears in their eyes, imagining the look on their best friend's face and the fit he would have thrown when he found out how his future wife had managed to fool him for nearly an entire day.
"Did he ever forgive you?" Rory asked at last.
"Oh, with the right... persuasion, that man will always forgive me," she said, her voice dripping with innuendo.
"Ahhh! River! Do you have to do that every time?" Rory said, shaking his head and shuddering at River's insinuation.
"I meant a homemade meal of fish- fingers and custard, Daddy dear. Why? What did you think I meant?" she asked, her voice almost passing for innocent.
Amy was still chuckling, clutching her stomach and wiping the tears from her eyes.
"Oh, that man is so fun to wind up. And I'm almost certain you're the only person in the universe who could keep him looking for a non-existent civilization for that long. No wonder he married you."
"Yes, it was rather an entertaining challenge," her daughter reflected on her Doctor- deceiving feat.
"So. I guess he doesn't really need us after all." Amy said, relieved that there would always be something to keep the Doctor occupied.
"Oh, Mummy-" River began, her voice slightly less amused than a moment ago, her face suddenly falling just so. Before she could finish her sentence, however, her doorbell rang. She grinned at her parents, the smile not quite reaching her eyes, before excusing herself and leaving them in the front lounge.
"Oh!" they heard her say, astonished, "Well, this is certainly a wonderful surprise! Hello, Sweetie," she said, prompting Amy and Rory to stand and walk to the door leading to the entrance, where instead of their Doctor they spotted a tall skinny man with spiked hair and a pinstriped suit look up slowly into River's eyes, his own pained and lost.
"Professor Song," he finally croaked out, looking around aimlessly and breathing heavily before focusing on their daughter, who took in his miserable appearance and suddenly lurched forward, pulling him into her arms. His own arms finally wrapped firmly around her, hugging her tightly to himself, as though she were the only thing keeping him grounded and he might float away any moment into oblivion. Then, to the heartache of the now hesitant Ponds, they watched as his body began to shudder as he slowly fell apart, nearly sobbing into River's neck.
"Oh, Sweetie," said River, heartbroken for the man in her embrace, "what's wrong?" She pulled back, looking up at his grief-stricken face, trying to meet his eyes, even as his lower lip shuddered in pent- up mourning. "What happened?"
He seemed defeated, taking a long while before he finally managed to breathe out one word. "Donna."
Amy and Rory looked at each other at this, having met the woman once before, but never knowing what had become of her. Apparently, River did know, because in the next instant, she pulled the Doctor back to her, stroking his head and back and whispering comforts in his ear.
"Oh, my love. I'm so sorry. Shh. It's okay. Shh. Shh. I know." His body trembled violently as he pulled her even closer to himself, clutching the back of her shirt tightly as though his clenched fist could keep his pain in. Suddenly, a dam seemed to break within him, and mumbled, angry words came streaming out of his mouth nonsensically.
"I took her mind, River! I- She didn't even- She'll never know! I didn't- I didn't have a choice! What did I do? What else could I do? My brilliant Donna! They're gone, River! All of them. They all went back to their lives and their happily ever afters. They all left. And my Donna Noble..."
River just stood there silently, rocking him softly, letting him pour out his pain and anger in tears and shouts. Rory reached out a hand to hold Amy back and out of the Doctor's line of sight when she tried to step forward, conscious of the timelines surrounding their broken best friend who they couldn't comfort yet.
Finally, after what could have been hours or minutes, his sobs slowed, and his hands gradually, carefully released their grip on River's top, as he straightened and slightly pulled away. He kept his eyes turned down as he stepped back from her, taking deep breaths to calm himself.
"Sorry," he finally mumbled, looking up into her eyes at last.
"Don't be, my love. Not for this. Not ever."
"I didn't mean... I just didn't want to be alone right now."
"No." She sighed, thinking how very much he needed her now and also how she couldn't just up and leave her parents. "Tell you what. Why don't you let me lock up here, and we'll go to Lothrean? I've heard there are some wonderful blossoms this time of year. We'll just sit and watch the Hyethdrandees fall and we can talk or not talk about anything you like?"
He looked up at her, hope entering his deadened eyes before he nodded.
"Yes. Yes. Did you know," he began, a bit of familiar spark in his voice, "Lothrean, 3488 they actually introduced 72 new species into the ecosystem? Ended up overloading the planet 100 years later, but quite spectacular for those first 75 or so."
"Well, then. 3492 it is," she responded as she turned him around and back into his TARDIS, before rushing back to her parents to assure them. "I'll drive. Should be back in a just a tick."
They nodded to her in understanding.
"River," Amy called to her in reminder. "Leave the brakes on."
River looked back at her mother, eyes widening in remembrance before she nodded and ran out the door.
Two minutes after it had left, they heard the TARDIS groan its way back into existence, listening to River bickering with the Doctor, still in his ship.
"I fly her perfectly fine! You're the one who landed us in 3590! Yes, that is flying the TARDIS! Oh, I hate you! No, now I have to try to get all of this out of my hair! Yes, it is your fault! Fine. Just remember, Doctor- one trip alone, then find someone!" she called, before entering her house to her amused parents, dripping with what looked like honey, various plants, seeds, and... unidentifiable substances.
"Don't. Ask," she grumbled at their entirely amused faces, making her way toward the bathroom.
The next morning they were all sat down for breakfast, River's hair wilder than normal after her vigorous rewashing and brushings and treatments from the day before, when they heard the doorbell ring once again.
"I swear, if that man thinks he can just show up here whenever he pleases and expect me to drop everything and let him drive, he has another thing coming," River muttered to her smirking parents as she went once more to open the door.
"Professor River Song!" they heard the (younger, once again) Doctor shout merrily. "Happy Christmas!"
"Glad to see you in such a good mood, Sweetie. But Christmas isn't for another few months."
Amy dragged Rory to the corridor to spy on the not- yet- their- Doctor Doctor.
"Ah, nonsense. Time machine, it could be whenever we want. Anyway, just came from a Christmas. Earth, 19th Century. Defeated a whole legion of Cybermen trying to take over London. Then I stayed for Christmas dinner. Imagine me, at a Christmas dinner, River. This man, Jackson, Jackson Lake, that is, actually convinced me to stay. I even got to wear one of those little hats. Love the little hats."
"I know, Sweetie," she said in a longsuffering tone.
"Anyway, thought I'd bring you this, sort of as a thank you and an apolog- wait! Right- Spoilers. Weelll, maybe. Welll, we'll see. Have we done Lothrean?"
She glared up at him darkly.
"That... would be a yes then. Glad to see the hair's back to normal. Love the hair. Anyway, best be off, I've heard there are temporal anomalies in-"
"Doctor," River interrupted him sharply. "Who are you travelling with now?"
He hesitated, before adding with false cheer.
"Aww, going it alone for right now. Better that way. No point in bringing anyone along who I can't-"
"Doctor. You can't travel alone."
"I'm better this way, River," he reiterated insistently.
"No, my love, you're really not."
He sighed, and Amy and Rory realized as they caught a glimpse of him from their vantage point how very, very old he looked. Often, with his energy and face and excitement, they managed to forget just how ancient the last Time Lord truly was. But now, with his façade stripped away in light of their daughter's gaze, his eyes seemed to carry every one of his nine hundred and four years.
"It hurts too much, River."
"It'll hurt more if you keep going like this, Doctor."
"Not them." He sucked in air before continuing. "Besides, it leaves me open to explore things I can't do with others. Maybe I'll go visit good Queen Bess- find out why she wanted my head. Ooh, or Mars. Can't go to Mars with a companion- I only have the one suit."
He looked up at her, his gaze so intense Amy was glad she wasn't the one facing it.
"I can't, River," he whispered. She reached out and cupped his face, stroking his cheek with her thumb.
"Promise me something, Doctor." He sighed, looking into her eyes wretchedly.
"Promise me you'll always come find me when you need to."
He looked at her, his hands in his pockets, his gaze fixed on her, before he gave a shallow nod, belying his next pronouncement.
"I don't need anyone, Professor Song. Not anymore."
The Ponds watched her smile sadly and ever so small, never breaking eye contact.
"I promise," he finally breathed, before leaning forward and kissing her forehead lightly before once again he was gone.
When she had closed the door, she looked sorrowfully toward parents.
"Oh, that man," she whispered sadly, and they ran and embraced her through her pain.
The next time he came in the evening, sonicking her door instead of knocking and barely affording Amy and Rory any time to retreat to the back lounge as he frantically sought out their daughter.
"Professor Song! River! You were right! I went too far! I- I went too far! Riv-"
"Sweetie- what happened? What's wrong?" she asked anxiously, rarely seeing him this far out of control.
"I destroyed her, River! I manipulated her and I broke the laws of time and I tricked her to her death," he growled, pacing frenetically.
"Doctor- calm down! Talk to me. What happened?!"
"I went to Mars," he said, still walking back and forth, hands deep in his pockets. "Tried to change history. Time is not the boss of me. That's how it should be, River! That- that's what I thought."
"No," breathed River, horror in her eyes as she watched the man she loved try to raise himself above the universe.
"I told this woman- Adelaide Brooke, how she had to die. Then I saved her."
"Doctor," River said, with a slight shake of her head, "no. Adelaide Brooke- her death is a fixed point. What- what were you thinking?" Never before had Amy or Rory seen their daughter look so terrified at the Doctor. For the Doctor.
He swallowed hard, before giving into a mad, deadly smile. "I thought- I thought I was the winner. I can do anything! Time is my domain and I will bend it to my will! They're all dead and now I'm alone- that should make me the victor! Time Lord Victorious- time itself at my feet."
"NO!" shouted River, shaking with fear and anger as she stood in front of him. "You are not a god, Doctor! You don't have that right! You don't get to decide who lives and who dies!"
He laughed humorlessly, seeming nearly insane as he kept pacing to and fro. "That's what Adelaide said. She said Time Lord Victorious is wrong." He stopped suddenly- looking up at River with a stare that had sent armies running. "She maintained her own fixed point, just to stop me, because no one else could."
Amy and Rory were as frozen and speechless as their daughter, petrified once they realized what the Doctor was saying and just how far he'd gone.
"Not your love anymore, am I?" he challenged, looking at River and daring her to speak.
Of course, this was River Song, so she did the only thing River Song could do. She slapped him, hard.
"You idiot! What were you thinking, travelling alone this long?! You can't be alone, Doctor. You can't ever, ever be alone. You're absolutely rubbish at it, and the universe can't handle it."
"I know!," he bellowed, fury and anguish and grief bursting through. "I know," he relented, falling to the sofa, finally broken.
"Doctor-" River had joined him, her eyes filling with compassion, as she reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder.
"You must hate me."
"No. I don't."
"I hate me."
"Which is why I never could, my love. And why you need someone with you, always."
"You say that you do. All the time. Are you quite certain you don't hate me- even though you should?"
"Don't wander off?"
She huffed at that, lifting his head to face her.
"The Doctor lies. And so does River Song. I don't hate you, Doctor. Not even now. Not ever."
He stared at her, shattered and utterly defeated.
"What do I do now, River? Am I just going to die? That's what the Ood said. The prophecy. My death- it's coming." He stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. "This is why. I'm too dangerous to live."
"Only when you don't have anyone to stop you. You're a good man, Doctor. You just need someone to remind you of that."
"Is that who you are? My reminder?"
"You tell me. Why do you keep coming here? Why did you bother even looking for me- for where I live?"
He looked up at that, lost for an answer, before whispering, "You're different. You don't let me get away with anything. Yet you still trust me so much. Why do you trust me, River? Why can't you see how dangerous I am?"
"I trust you with everything, Doctor," she reassured him, meeting his eyes.
His own eyes were moist, then a look of fear entered them as he abruptly pulled away from the hand she had laid on his.
With that he got up, already rushing toward the entrance once more.
"Doctor- where are you going?" she asked, afraid for him.
He spared her a glance as he slammed the door open, pleading silently with his gaze.
"I destroy people, River. One way or another, I... exterminate them. I don't want... I can't let that happen to you. And it will. As long as I'm around you."
She shook her head, rushing forward to pull him back in, but he'd already left, running from her once more.
Amy, Rory, and River were sitting quietly in the front lounge, all unwilling to break the silence, just thinking about the last few minutes and the lonely Time Lord who was running from himself. Finally, when the tension was too high and he couldn't bear the look in his oldest friend's eyes anymore, Rory cracked a weak joke.
"Is it weird that I'm starting to miss the bowtie?"
Amy and River looked up at him, masters of avoidance all.
"I thought I would only ever hear that statement from River. Never suspected you were a bowtie fan. Or anyone else not born on a different planet," answered Amy.
"Technically, Mother, I was born on an asteroid," quipped River half- heartedly.
They continued their staring contest with the floor, before Rory blurted out, "Does that mean our daughter's an alien?"
Both women looked at him in warning, before he continued slowly.
"Well, aside from the whole "Time Head," regeneration, Time Lord, thing- I mean, does it really count if both of your parents are human but you weren't born on Earth?"
"Are you saying I'm not a legal citizen?" asked a now slightly- amused River. Which, of course, was the effect Rory was going for when he asked his question.
After spending far too much time debating the issue of River's naturalization and citizenship rights (and concluding that if anyone wanted to kick her daughter off the Earth if she wanted to be there one way or the other, they'd have to get through Amy first- a force surely no alien or agency would dare go up against), they finally decided to talk about the elephant in the room. Not a real elephant- at least not this time, but about the Doctor, and the scene the Ponds weren't really meant to witness.
"He does need you," said River, softly.
When they looked up, it was to River's heartbroken half smile.
"He can't be alone. You saw... He forgets, sometimes, just how dangerous he is. Even now. Always. I know you still think of him as your silly Raggedy Man, who always manages to fix things in the end, no matter how bleak. But I think... I think you tend to forget the reason he is the last Time Lord."
"He needs you too, River," Amy reassured her, surprising a shudder at her daughter's reminder.
"Yes. But not in the same way. All this time, even just this last week- never once did he ask me to go with him. I'm an anchor- something to steady and ground him, but not to sail with him."
She looked at her parents, sighing.
"He needs someone to look after him when I'm not there." Her smile was lopsided and half- hearted. "He loves the trouble his bad girl brings, but not the damage in our wake."
"That's not true," said Rory, thinking of Demon's Run. "I've seen you stop him when he was at his darkest. Even now- he needed to hear that, from someone other than the voices in his head."
She nodded, real peace slowly making its way up her face, despite the worry she felt for the man who had just left.
"Still. He needs someone. I know... you two are doing fine without him. But- I'm not so sure he's doing fine without you." She looked up at them, the unconditional love of a wife shining through. "Mum, Dad. Would you mind looking after my husband, just a little more often? He needs you more than he'll ever admit."
River spent the rest of the night telling them what she knew of the Doctor's further adventures in that body, and how his song finally came to a tragic end. Then she smiled, as she told them how right afterward he met a stubborn little Scottish girl, who had a crack in her wall, and made him feel like a hero again.
When Amy and Rory got home, the first thing they did was ring up their Raggedy Man, determined to run with him as long as they could.
"Doctor?" Amy asked when he finally found and answered the phone she'd left in his pocket, "Yeah, Rory and I've just been thinking- how would you fancy a trip to the Old West?"