The Greatest Gift
River turned slowly, admiring herself in the mirror. The ice-silver dress swished about her as if she were moving through water, with more weightlessness and divine beauty than any Earth material could manage. It was as though the garment was sewn from the tail of a comet. Maybe it was; she had not had the chance to ask. She had just found it on her bed – how did he know where she lived? - with a note. Merry Christmas. Me.
She heard the familiar vworp of temporal breaks, and spun around, and there it was, sitting just a few metres away as though it had been there the whole time. River stepped into the Tardis and as she looked around, an impossible cheer began to bubble up in her chest. Red and gold tinsel vines criss-crossed their way up the centre, silver and green draped around the sides in a hideous mismatch of gaudy colours that only Christmas could justify. The Doctor smirked at her from in front of it all, arms raised as if to show off a marvellous piece of artwork. River burst out laughing.
"What. In the name. Of sanity?!"
He jogged down the stairs towards her, the bells on his Santa-hat and elf shoes only perpetuating her beautiful, rare, bubbly laughter as he danced up to her and bopped her on the nose. From the pocket inside his jacket, he drew a silver chain-link bracelet decorated with miniature sleigh bells, and offered it to her.
Her laughter faded into a contented and wondrous oh as she took his gift into her own hands, admiring it before gesturing for him to do it up. When he was done, she shook her wrist and chuckled again, softly, as the tiny bells tinkled against her wrist. The Doctor soaked up her laughter, savouring it as a new part of the Christmas atmosphere of the Tardis. He loved Christmas. He kissed the inside of River's wrist, over her veins, and realised that the laughter had disappeared.
He looked up, and found her gazing wistfully up at the tinsel-coated console.
"Sorry," she whispered after a moment, directing her eyes to the floor. The Doctor drew a soft circle on her hand with his thumb, before gently kissing her fingers. Then he retreated to the console, humming Winter Wonderland under his breath.
"You miss them," he said, turning to her as, slowly, she made her way onto the raised floor after him. "So do I. That's okay, River. Because. I'm going to make this your best birthday ever."
"It's not my birthday."
"Isn't it? How do you know? When is your birthday?"
"I don't know, but it can't be today."
"Well, because today's Christmas!" She gave a breathless chuckle, baffled, and he bopped her nose again as he danced past.
"So? My birthday's Christmas. Isaac Newton's birthday's Christmas."
River laughed, and shook her head. Her birthday could be on Christmas if he wanted it to be. Why not? It's not like she was desperate to celebrate the circumstances of her own birth, but there was just something about Christmas...
"Okay." She nodded. "So how exactly do you plan to make this the best Christmas-birthday ever?"
"I don't have to do anything. Except this."
From its hook on a lever somewhere on the console, the Doctor held up a silver necklace, from which dangled a pendant about the size of a twenty-cent coin, but not round. It was of a running horse, mane and tail fluttering back, frozen in imaginary motion.
"It means freedom and strength," the Doctor explained. "They didn't want to risk something that identified either of your names – spoilers! - so they chose to represent your nature."
River stared at the horse. She felt as if a door had been opened in her head, but for some reason she could not walk through it.
"What?" she demanded, her pulse accelerating, cornered. "Who's they? And don't say 'spoilers.'"
"You already know, River." The Doctor was calm. He slowly approached, the dangling horse swaying side to side, his gentle tone coaxing her towards a trance. "Think about it."
River shook herself out of it. "I've never seen this in my life."
The Doctor smiled gently and cupped River's hands around the pendant. Satisfied she had a grip on it, he brushed her cheek with one finger. He showed her a tear.
"Then why are you crying?"
"Happy birthday, Melody!"
Off-key singing. Candles. Laughter. Cake. A little blue box – much smaller and much more like the sky than the usual one. And inside, the horse. I look up, and see them smiling at me. That nose. That red hair.
River shook her head and backed away from the Doctor.
"It can't be real. Why are you doing this to me?"
"Think, River. Think."
Amy kisses my forehead. Rory hands me a schoolbag – a grey satchel, with buckles. I wear socks that reach up to my knees, and my hair is restrained in braids. We sit at wooden desks, and use inkwells and a blackboard.
Our car is beautifully artful, and black, and the headlights, like a frog's bulging eyes, always make me laugh. I live in a cottage, with a fig tree in the yard. Rory has made me a rope swing.
Christmas comes, and I am showered with gifts, and hugged and kissed, and my parents tell me they are going to adopt a baby brother. They tell me I am to look after him, be a good girl, and look after him. They tell me; "One day, way in the future, we won't be with you any more. We'll never be able to see you again. But you'll remember us; memories you never had, and that you've always had. You are a superhero, Melody Pond, and we love you."
River blinked out of her reverie, confused and drained, and for some reason unable to stop the water running down her face. It was a biological reaction. She wasn't actually sad. In fact, the opposite. The Doctor smiled knowingly as he guided her the few steps to the nearest chair.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" He sighed, settling himself on the edge of the console panel opposite her. "Ah, humans. I will never get tired of saving you. You just never give up."
River wiped her eyes, but she still couldn't bring herself to look at him. Tears were damage. This wasn't fair; her defences were down. Why couldn't she stop? "What do you mean?"
"All this you are feeling right now, is because you are remembering things that only just happened sixty years ago. Inthe past – the universe's past - Amy and Rory weren't born yet, but when Amy sent herself back and created fixed time, they essentially looped their timelines. They'd be born in the late 1980s, grow up, travel with me, get married, travel some more, have you and learn about you, then get send back to 1938 and live out the rest of their days in America. They overlap themselves, one thing the Old Girl doesn't like, but they also did what any parent would do if they could find themselves on the same planet in the same time period as their lost little girl. They found her, and they brought her home."
"I don't understand." River stood up, frustration biting her tone. "I was still taken by the Silence. I still tried to kill you. Why would I have done that if I had lived with them?"
The Doctor came to stand in front of her, and took both of her hands in his. "It was the Silence. You don't remember them unless you're looking at them, but whatever they've told you to do stays in your head. River, you've forgotten a whole life. Did you honestly believe they could have trained little Melody to be an assassin? What were you; eight, ten, when you broke out of that space suit? I mean, you obviously weren't that actual age, we don't grow the same, but biologically, someone that young physically could not do a lot of what you were taught to. Not that you broke out of the spacesuit any more anyway, I guess, but-"
"I-" The Doctor shut his mouth when River started, but she could not find the words to continue. He was right; that little girl could never have endured the starvation, the temperatures, the intense training. She physically could not have been up to Kovarian's standards. River closed her eyes. She remembered whirling through the air, knives slamming into targets all around the room. Her body was tall and slender...Red hair. I had red hair.
"They experimented on you when you were little," the Doctor continued, fairly slowly, to allow her to take over if something came to mind. "They told you stories, they inspired their way of thought in your mind. Then they left you at the orphanage, and you forgot. Amy and Rory adopted you, before the spacesuit, and you lived with them until you were about sixteen."
I was sitting on my bed, writing in my diary. I tore one of the pages out, and left it behind. A note. I took a backpack from the foot of my bed, and climbed out the window. I stole a car, but I wasn't watching at an intersection.
Glass. Blood. Screaming. A gold light.
River jumped. "I was in a car crash. I regenerated into a twenty-something with red hair." She smiled and pressed a hand to her cheek. It was wet again. "I had red hair, like Amy's."
The Doctor smiled back, a little sadder. "The Silence found you again, and made you forget Amy and Rory. They trained you up, then pulled the same old trick. But now, as an adult, you had some influence in the world around you; some power, money, the ability to own property. And what did you do, Melody Pond, River Song, the forgotten girl with red hair? You tried to find your parents."
"Leadworth!" She almost felt like laughing. "That's how I ended up in Leadworth."
"They weren't born until the late 1980s, though, by which time you were sixty- or seventy-something. By the time they reached middle school, you were dying, so what did you do? You envisioned yourself their age, their friend. Mels came into being, and from here we basically get back on track."
She laughed at the beautiful impossibility of the whole thing.
"And that, my dear wife," the Doctor concluded, "is why you saved me at Berlin, in both lives. You remembered all you had been taught by the Silence, and all you had learnt from the Ponds. All you had to do was decide which one you believed."
River had nothing more to say to the man who had given her a lifetime. And more than that. A childhood? Parents? In what language were there words?
"Oh, you sentimental idiot." She grabbed his lapels, and kissed him until his respiratory bypass system kicked in.