The years pass in a glorious flurry of whimsy and madness. The girls are brilliant - even for Timelords, the Doctor claims – and fill both their house and the TARDIS with noise and laughter. They start traveling again when the twins are three and Clara is reminded of all those years of Wednesday pickups – they have every weekend to explore, but Rory must be back at school by Monday. Their precious human boy is a stabilizing force, bringing a sense of normalcy to their chaotic lives. They might be chasing ice monsters across Pluto on Sunday but there are parent teacher conferences on Tuesday night that remind Clara that she has papers to grade.
As Clara watches her children grow she is sometimes reminded that she has not, caught forevermore in the moment the Doctor's blood was inked into her skin. It is not so different from her existence after the extraction chamber – except her heart beats now and she does not fear that she will unravel the universe. But she thinks of Lady Me sometimes, all that tragic, ancient melancholy that she masked with cold detachment. She'd become a friend, but now the thought of the ageless girl fills her with dread. She wakes once from a nightmare about the second time they met, frantic and pained, and the frenzy does not leave her.
The next night she starts a new journal.
He catches her at it a few months later. It's nearly impossible to keep secrets from one another when they so frequently cross minds, but she never mentions it and he doesn't ask. Then one day she watches him tell the children about their visit to Akhatan, and Amy interrupts constantly while Rory and Rose debate how a moon could possibly be living, and her heart swells with so much love that she slips away because she needs to preserve this moment.
He finds her in the library, the words spilling from her pen almost faster than she can capture them. She knows he's there, can hear the slight hitch in his soft breathing, but she cannot make herself stop to look at him, lest the memory be lost forever. It's just one of many – so so many – and the universe can never have enough paper to contain them all.
He doesn't speak until she finishes. Her hand hurts from clenching the pen so tightly, but the words are inadequate, she knows. A terrible weak despair brews inside her, and she knows it's an awful time for it to erupt. She'd rather have this cry alone, and smile when she sees him, and pretend she hasn't foreseen the consequences.
"You've been journaling for seventy six days, but you never mention it. I don't understand why."
His vulnerability practically undoes her. She looks up to find him staring at her with sad eyes. He understands her far better now than he used to, but he's still an alien, and a bloke at that. She wishes she could protect him from the truth, because he carries enough guilt. But they've sworn vows of honesty.
"Infinite lifespan. Finite human brain," she answers, echoing Ashildr's terrible explanation. The girl's blankness at their second meeting still haunts her. Clara could not fathom it at the time, but now she fears falling down that rabbit hole more than almost anything else.
The Doctor's eyebrows contract, but he doesn't say anything, and her terror spills from her lips, sweeping her up in a hysteria she recognizes but cannot stem. "I don't want to forget moments like tonight. The girls, so young – Rory. But I could, if we live long enough. Ashildr didn't even remember meeting us, and you're the reason she never died!"
She doesn't regret their bond – she doesn't – but sometimes she fears its consequences. It's hypocritical, because she told him dozens of times when she was still mortal that he needed to live in the moment. But tonight she just can't seem to make herself calm down.
He reaches out to clasp one hand on her shoulder, his fingers working at the muscles she's tensed. His other hand reaches up to brush away her tears. As soon as he touches her something inside her releases, the misery losing some of its foothold. "Me was alone. That's something you'll never be. You can write in that book if it sooths you, but I'll always be here to make sure you remember what's truly important. If your memories fail, we can share mine."
For a man so flummoxed by human emotion, sometimes he knew exactly what to say.
Amy and Rose cannot go to Clara's school, where a scraped knee on the playground might lead to a nurse discovering their double heartbeat. So when the girls come of age Clara quits her job and the Oswalds take to schooling them full time. Clara teaches them literature while the Doctor teaches them maths, and the TARDIS shows them history in all its messy, timey-wimey glory. When Rory returns home each day he watches with a tight, sad smile. Once he even corrects the calculation scrawled across his father's chalkboard, much to her sisters' delight.
A few days before Rory turns eighteen he shows them his acceptance letter to Oxford.
It shouldn't be surprising. Even hiding half of what he knows he's still twice as smart as his classmates, and Oxford is a proper path towards the existence of Orson Pink. The Doctor catches him up in his arms after the announcement and swings him about like he's still a small child and not practically a man and the family spends a week on a racing planet to celebrate. Clara laughs beside her family, the perfect doting mother in the day light, but each night she cries, the inevitability of his mortality stronger than it's ever been.
The Doctor holds her tightly, wishing more than ever that he knew what to say to be a comfort. The problem this time is not that he does not understand – it's that he understands too well. He remembers the hours he spent pacing around the console room, tormented by the discord in her timestream that promised he would lose her sooner rather than later, and all the nights he watched her sleep, anticipating the pain of their separation. He's never found a proper salve to this agony – he just moves on, and starts again, and tries to forget. But there will be no forgetting Rory, not for Clara, and not for the Doctor either.
She'd told him so many things about cherishing the moments they were given, but he's sure he'd garble her speeches. So he folds her into his body, and presses his lips to her forehead, and promises her that she'll never be alone.
That's the most comforting thing he'd been told, after all.
The day they leave Rory at Oxford they leave Earth behind as well. The Doctor keeps the mortgage but he doesn't expect they'll go back – not for any length of time – not when the walls sing with memories of the boy who brought them there, and tied them to that place with love.
They strike out across the universe, the girls urging them on. The old recklessness sings in their blood and they start to give in, just a little.
It's the children's fault, he tells himself, as if it's a proper justification to be guided by the whims of younglings, when really it's the spark in Clara's eyes each time they land somewhere new that drives him. She's running to forget, but he can hardly condemn the tactics that have kept him sane for thousands of years.
When the twins are twelve he teaches them to drive the TARDIS. This leads to a wicked collusion between his offspring and his machine, but he lets them take the helm regardless of the mischief promised in their eyes. There's something thrilling about opening the doors onto someplace unknown, collecting clues and listening to his senses until he can discern their location. He imagines this is how his companions must have felt – how many times had he and Rose played this game? The TARDIS keeps them safe – generally – but provides enough distractions to keep them from dwelling on the reality that their son is growing up on Earth without them.
It is a day like any other when he strides outside the TARDIS doors, Clara at his heels. The familiar air is stale – American – with a heavy tinge of brine. There is change in the air, reliable coal replaced by newfangled oil as a harbinger of progress to come. A boy sells papers at the edge of the boardwalk. The Doctor flashes him his psychic paper so he can take a look.
"New Jersey," he reads with disgust. "Why ever would our children bring us here?"
But suddenly he is enveloped by familiar arms, his vision flooded red, and he knows, even before he hears that glorious, unmistakable timber declare, "I knew I'd see you again!"
"Amelia." The syllables fall thickly for the first time from his now old lips. She is Amy in all the stories, and even at her worst behavior his daughter's name is never lengthened. She had not been Amelia in a very long time but he is too overwhelmed to censor himself.
Except she is not seeing him again, not really, and as she pulls back enough to take in his altered appearance he watches the way her eyes widen and then narrow. "You've changed," she says, and he steals himself against her inevitable rejection. Regenerations are always hard on his companions, and though they usually come around with time that isn't a gift he's privileged to have. Though he's grateful for the meddling that has caused their paths to cross again he'd rather they parted ways as friends instead of strangers.
"Yeah. What do you think?" He tries for nonchalant, but even he can tell he sounds needy. It shouldn't matter – Clara loves him, gray hair and wrinkles and all. But it does, and anxiety blooms in his chest. He'd been lost when he met Amy, and she'd made him into the man who'd become the man who loves Clara. He wanted her to approve of who he'd become, but he looked a far cry from the bow-tied buffoon who'd sealed up cracks and retroactively solved all her childhood problems.
"You're Scottish!" she declares with a delighted laugh, and she throws her arms around him again.
"Lord help us. Now there's two of them."
Amy pulls away to swat at her husband. "Be nice!" she scolds.
"Doctor," Rory says with an easy grin, looking more confident than the Doctor could recall. He extends his arm for a handshake. After a moment of hesitation the Doctor decides to defy expectations and pulls him into a hug.
Amy laughs again like a crisp fall breeze. "You figured it out, huh? That you could come back and see us as long as we were outside the city."
"Actually …" He contemplates the easy lie. He'd had no such thought, but he should have. Instead he had wallowed, and mourned, and protected himself from another goodbye.
"I would call this meeting coincidental, but I think your namesake may have orchestrated it."
The girl in question flounces forward, laughing, and executes an exaggerated courtesy while her sister cheers, fourteen going on four hundred, mischief personified with far too many brains. "The amount of unfinished business on the TARDIS is suffocating."
Not deigning to justify that with a response, he tilts his head towards his offspring. "Amy and Rose Oswald. My daughters."
Rory's face scrunches up as he studies them. "Wait. You named the blond Amy?"
"We're Timelords. Our physical traits are temporary constructs. I could have purple hair next year, and red hair next millennia."
Rory chuckles at Amy's sass. "Got that one right then."
"Oi!" His Amy smacks at him again, the back of her hand finding his chest instinctively because she never turns away from the twins. "Look at you with kids. We must have been gone a long time."
"You have no idea." He is not particularly inclined to give her one, the unexpected joy at her presence eclipsing the memory of her loss.
"Never thought I'd see the day," Amy muses. "Is that the poor girl you convinced to procreate with you?"
The Doctor spins to grab Clara by the shoulders and push her forward. "Oh yes. This is my—"
"Wife," she says at the exact moment he says, "Clara."
There's something perplexingly abrasive radiating from her that he's in no hurry to decipher. "My wife, Clara," he clarifies, grinning.
"Pleasure to meet you," Clara says, but she doesn't sound like she means it.
"Actually you've met before," he corrects, hoping to dispel the awkwardness by drawing on a shared experience. It's something he'd learned from one of Clara's cards, long ago. "On the Dalek asylum." He leans toward her and pitches his voice with great disgust. "You flirted with him." His eyes flick to Rory.
"Oswin Oswald, Starship Alaska." Her response is almost programmed, robotic, but the phrasing is so familiar he must keep himself from shivering at the remembrance of Oswin's demise. He'd worried for years whenever Clara regained a memory from an echo, but he'd studied her brain extensively from both inside it and without and he's never noticed any ill effects.
"Sorry. Memory overload." She shakes her head as if to clear them away. Her resulting smirk worries him more than the potential repercussion of her many lives. "I did flirt with him quite shamelessly, didn't I? You weren't pleased at all."
"Obviously your mind was addled by the conversion process. You weren't thinking clearly with all that foreign tech in your head."
"Doctor," Rory interrupts. "Didn't Oswin die?" he asks, tentative again. "And wasn't she a Dalek?"
"Oswin was an echo," he corrects. "Clara here is the original. I got into a spot of trouble with a pompous snowman and she fractured herself across my timestream to save me."
"Sounds about right," Amy says with a laugh.
"Ahem." A young man lurks at the edge of their reunion. The Doctor looks twice and realizes that it is not, indeed, the paper boy. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your alien friends?" He has dark hair, a dimpled chin, and a devilish smile. His voice is jarringly American.
Amy rolls her eyes, but the smile that follows is unmistakably fond. "This is our son, Thomas. And the girl hiding behind him is his sister, Annabelle."
"I thought you couldn't have any more children," he blurts, perplexed by how little these siblings resemble either of his friends. Clara stomps on his foot, hard.
"Rude?" he asks, glancing to his side to find that she's glaring.
"But how else am I supposed to get an explanation if I don't ask for one?"
"It's all right," Amy absolves. Her hand reaches out to link with Rory's. The Doctor recognizes the comfort in the gesture, the way it smooths away the lines in her face that his allusion to what Madam Kovarian did to her had placed there. "Technically they're adopted. But that doesn't make them any less ours. Family isn't always blood. Someone taught us that once. Floppy hair. Manic disposition. Idiotic obsession with bow ties."
"Bow ties are cool," he answers, instinctively, but with the sense this version of him has acquired he realizes, almost instantly, why so many people had argued against such a proposition.
"You really are still the same." Amy stares at him with such fondness that he cannot bring himself to correct her. Clara slips her hand into his, her fingers warm and grounding.
"I just have one other question," he declares.
"Whatever are you wearing?"
Amy glances down at the polka dotted skirted monstrosity and laughs.
"This is what passes for a swimsuit in this backwards decade. God, I miss bikinis."
"So do I," Rory offers.
All the children groan simultaneously. Then Thomas laughs and the girls follow, dissolving into a frivolous display that seems a lot like bonding.
He clears his throat, slightly put out by the joke he does not understand. "But why are you wearing a swimsuit?"
"Because we're at the beach, silly. Nothing like Space Florida, but it'll do for a quick holiday."
"A holiday we were supposed to be enjoying by the sea, until someone got distracted."
Amy has a special brand of cross reserved just for Rory, which is all scowl and no bite. "That raccoon had a gun! That's not normal. I just suggested that we investigate. The sea will still be there once we're finished."
"It's unlikely it's a raccoon. No opposable thumbs. There's a rodent on the Sontaron homeworld that looks remarkably similar but is notably more advanced. Or there's always the possibility of a shapeshifter."
"Sounds dangerous. We could probably use an expert, if you have the time." There had always been something about Amy that reeled him in, even against his better judgement. That had made him willing to travel with a child, until his TARDIS made him wait until she reached a more reasonable age. After she had grown all she had to do was cock her head or raise those fiery eyebrows and he was ready to follow. Even now, there is still something in her tone that beckons to him, that reminds him he'd been younger once, and one of her boys.
But he isn't hers any longer, and a different woman fights the TARDIS over control of his steps. He looks to Clara, who seems to be trying to make herself as puffed up as possible.
"Please, Mum," Rose begs, and in that moment it is shocking how much she looks like Amy. Which in this case does not seem to be working in her favor.
Please, he echoes, glad he and Clara are still holding hands so he can whisper directly into her mind. He will leave if she refuses, but he yearns for this final adventure with an intensity he cannot hide.
Fine, she relents. But we better not be late.
Thank you. He feels his grin radiate through both his hearts. "It would be awful irresponsible of me to refuse. Protector of the Earth and all that. Lead the way, Pond."
He'd never mentioned she was Scottish.
Clara had heard countless stories about Amy Pond and her doting husband, always told in tones of reverence. How at twelve years old she'd imprinted herself on him by serving fish fingers and custard on the night of his regeneration. How Vincent Van Gogh himself has sensed Amy's sadness when Rory had disappeared into a crack in time. How the couple had kept setting places for him at their table, even though he'd let them believe he was dead. How they'd been River's parents without knowing it, and had forgiven him for her loss.
But he'd never once mentioned that this striking beauty, with hair too red to be believed and legs for days, spoke with the same emotive brogue that Clara had grown to love.
"I think we've lost them," Amy rasps in that self-same accent as they duck into an alleyway. There was not, in fact, just one alien raccoon on the boardwalk – there was a whole colony, and while the Doctor had declared them harmless enough they had not appreciated being cornered.
"And everyone else too," Clara counters.
"The kids will look after the boys," Amy declares with breezy dismissal. "I need to catch my breath for a mo. Been a while since I've done so much runnin'."
Clara wants to snap that just yesterday she'd run through a circus on Neptune, and the day before had been ancient Rome, but she recognizes the pettiness and holds her tongue.
But she can't help sizing up her companion as the woman sinks back against the wall, panting slightly. She's stunning, but there are lines around her eyes that Clara never sees when she looks in the mirror – will probably never see, even once she's earned them.
She realizes too late that Amy has noticed her attention, and is scrutinizing her in turn. "He seems happy," the beauty says, far too tentative.
"He is!" Clara snarls, unable to stand the implication that their marriage has been anything but blissful. Even if he does drive her up the wall sometimes, she is a fine catch, and her coming into his life was the luckiest thing to happen to him in thousands of years…
"Cool it, sister. It was never like that between us. I kissed him once – in a moment of curiosity – but all he did was flail about and remind me I had a fiancé. Technically I'm his mother-in-law." She says those final words with mock disgust, her accent particularly thick but then she freezes – perhaps because she sees the look on Clara's face. "Was his mother-in-law," she amends.
Suddenly Clara's the one on the defensive and she isn't sure what to say, because as much as this woman intimates her she would never take joy in reminding anyone of the loss of a child. "River," she starts but she doesn't know how to finish. Clara holds no grudges against the illustrious professor, but nothing she knows about her seems appropriate to share with her mother.
"It's all right," Amy says. "Best not to explain. She still pops in every once in a while, so she's still alive to us. But ages could have passed for him. And it's not like they ever had a normal marriage. I prefer not to think of it, really."
Clara knows more about the nature of that marriage than Amy seems to. The fact that the other woman can discuss it so calmly makes her realize how ridiculous she's being. "I'm not normally the jealous type." She decides, after she says it, that that's only true because he hasn't given her a reason to be in so many years. "But you obviously meant a lot to him."
Something in Amy's smile reminds Clara of the way he'd looked at her on Trenzalore when she'd returned to confront him about her feelings, the resignation of loss not undoing the fondness, but somehow making it sad. "I wasn't saying that I didn't think you could make him happy. I just didn't expect it. When we got separated – it was sudden. He took it hard. I had to leave him, to be with Rory. I know I made the right choice. But I worried, all this time. Because he's no good on his own, but I thought that maybe he'd be too hurt to find someone. I'm glad I was wrong."
Clara cannot help but think of Trap Street, when she'd feared the Doctor's ruin on her behalf more than her own death. Her heart swells with affinity for this woman, who cared so deeply for the Doctor and understood him in a way most of those he saved did not. Clara had realized long ago how important each companion had been to his development, had not even balked when he'd suggested naming their children after this woman and his former love. She would simply have to accept that some of those women had been beautiful as well as smart and brave.
She finds, suddenly, that she does not wish Amy to think her absence went unmourned. "He did mope about, afterwards. Hid on a cloud, above Victorian London, until he found a mystery worth solving."
That does seem to ease Amy a bit. "Did you know him, back when he was … "
Clara raises an eyebrow, catching her drift. "Your Doctor?"
"Wasn't gonna say it that way in case you screeched at me again – but yes."
She lets that pass, understanding the ownership she feels toward the Doctor's current self because she was the first one he saw. "Yeah. I was the mystery, actually. He kept running into me, and I kept dying."
"Now that sounds like Rory," Amy chuckles. "I'm so glad we've broken that pattern."
There are very few things that Clara's been more glad of herself. "It was rather dreadful."
"A bit." Amy fidgets, her uncertainty seeming out of place. Clara wonders if maybe she's a touch intimidated as well. "How did it happen? If you don't mind me asking. Because he told us he couldn't change again. That he'd used them all up."
"He had." Clara has never liked to think about Trenzalore. Even now that she's long rectified his apparent personality shift and fully understands that he's still the same in all the ways that matter it still feels like a death. She still recalls the pain of his apparent rejection with biting clarity. But she knows it could have been worse. She knows he might never have regenerated at all, and died on that planet for good, as he'd expected to. "He made his final stand on a little planet that needed him, and he sent me away to live my life. But I begged the Timelords to give him another chance, because he'd done so much for them. And for once in their self-righteous lives they listened. Or they knew they'd need him again, probably."
"I thought the Timelords were gone."
"So did he. But they were just hiding. He'd saved them, and forgotten."
Amy laughs, and Clara has to admit it's a glorious sound. "Married, and not the last of his kind after all. That's brilliant!"
Amy's joy is infectious so Clara grins back. "I suppose it is."
"And your daughters. Are they … like him?"
"They have two hearts a piece and some Time Lord DNA. We expect they'll be able to regenerate, but we hope not to find out for quite some time."
"But he'll never be alone again."
"Actually …" Clara rubs at the golden sigil at her wrist. "The girls won't be the only ones not to leave him."
"He's got the same tattoo, yeah? Did he eat too many jammy dodgers and then convince you to get matching ones, because I can picture every part of that except why you agreed."
Clara barks out a laugh, because although that's not something she thinks her Doctor would do, the former version definitely would. "There was this planet, and this ritual. I'll live as long as him now."
"That's—" Amy breaks out into a grin, apparently speechless. She starts, shakes her head, starts again. "Rory will be glad to hear that too. All that worryin', and he's better than fine. Though you must have the patience of a saint, taking him on for who knows how long. Least his fashion sense seems to have improved."
"I miss the bow ties, actually."
"Ha! And that's why you could marry him and I never could." Amy stands, dusts herself off, and extends a hand. "Best find the others before the Doctor gets them in too much trouble."
Clara is surprised when the lift up turns into a tight hug. "Thank you for looking after him," Amy whispers. "I'm sorry I kissed him once."
All the antagonism she felt feels absolutely silly now, and she hopes the Doctor didn't notice. The girls probably did, but they have enough tact not to mention it. And they are easily bribed. "I'm sorry I flirted with your husband," she offers, sincerely.
Amy pulls away with a smirk. "That's all right. Good for his ego. Good for the Doctor's too, not to be the center of attention for once."
There's something different about Clara and Amy, but the Doctor doesn't notice it until the Sontaran war-rats are sent back to their ship, which Amy the younger had managed to repair with a few hairpins and some salt-water taffy. Afterwards they all finally make it to the sea, where the children play in the surf and the adults exchange stories about the years that have passed.
Clara had been positively bristling when they'd first arrived but she's perfectly at ease now, and had even situated her beach blanket next to Amy's. Although they're all part of a larger conversation, on occasion one of the females leans towards the other and whispers something the Doctor can't hear, which always results in rather unseemly giggling.
After one such occasion he pitches towards Rory, but is careful to retain a respectable distance and tone. "This seems rather not-good. I'm afraid they might be conspiring against us."
Rory's wry smile does nothing to dispel the Doctor's nerves. "Mels and Amy used to do this all the time. You get used to it."
Despite his unease it's an amenable time. Age, parenthood, and America seem to suit both the Pond's, and he is relieved by how well they've adjusted. He is able to boast of his adjustment as well, and while there are plenty of dodgy points he is careful to avoid, Amy and Rory both seem to approve of how he has settled into his roles of husband and father, although they remain skeptical he'd managed more than three hours grounded in Arizona.
He's having such a fine afternoon that when the TARDIS phone rings from the edge of the dunes he feels no urgency to answer it.
"Doctor," Amy hisses, looking around the crowded beach. "If that keeps ringing someone's going to notice."
"A payphone is far less of an anomaly in this decade than the one you came from. Besides, haven't you realized that no one ever notices? If it's important, they'll call Clara."
A few seconds later Clara's mobile begins to ring. Her face lights up as she reads the caller ID, and the Doctor listens carefully to her half of the conversation.
"Course we'll be there."
"No we won't be late. That's why we have a time machine."
"I'll let you sisters drive."
"Just a minute." Clara covers the speaker with her hand and holds the phone towards him. "Your son says the ceremony is starting in five minutes and he'd like to remind you that you promised we wouldn't be late."
"Why is he only my son when you're cross with me and our son the rest of the time? Technically he's not even my son—"
"That's an argument you can't win, mate," Rory offers.
"Smart man," Clara declares and then pushes the phone into the Doctor's hand.
"Happy Wedding Day, Rory," the Doctor crows, his excitement about the big event returning now that he's remembered where they were off to before the girls got them sidetracked with one more trip. "Not to worry, we'll be there in a jiff."
"Where are you? It's time to stand at the altar and none of my family's here yet." Rory's voice, which is always calm in the craziest of circumstances, sounds a bit hysterical.
The Doctor feels just a tad guilty for getting so distracted. "Erm. New Jersey, 1940s or thereabouts. Met some old friends. Not important at this moment. The nerves have kicked in, haven't they? Look, we'll be there and I'm sorry it wasn't earlier. Your mum will give me hell for that. But as soon as you get one look at Lizzie it won't matter who else is in the room, I promise you. This is your moment, just the two of you. You'll hang on to it in the darkest of times. So breathe, and cherish it. But you just wait until the reception. That's when your old dad will really shine. I am a particularly fine wedding dancer."
Just as he hoped, Rory emits a strangled chuckle and the tension breaks. "It's going to be marvelous. We'll be right there, son."
"Four minutes," Rory reiterates. "Let the girls drive." Then he hangs up.
The phone call had drawn the children's attention, and they are clustered about, wrapped in towels.
"We're late," Amy declares, a simple statement of fact, while Rose tells Thomas, "Our brother worries about things like that."
The Doctor thinks he hears Annabelle respond, "My brother doesn't worry about anything."
"We promised," Clara says, slightly agonized, and he hates the disappointment in her voice that he could have avoided.
"I know. We'll be there. The TARDIS won't let us miss it. Though he should have called earlier, or not at all. Now we can't get there more than 4 minutes early without crossing the timelines. Rory knows that. He's normally the level headed one."
"Hold on, you named your son Rory?" the original Rory asks, a bit off-color.
"The lad was loyal and patient from the start. No other name would have been appropriate."
The Doctor's utterly gob smacked with Rory blinks at him and then starts leaking.
Thankfully, Amelia saves the day by looping her arm around her husband's neck and declaring, "Sounds about right." Then Clara distracts them both by showing a few photos on her mobile.
"Family isn't always blood," the Doctor echoes, circumventing any questions about the obvious physical difference. "It's rather a long story. I'm afraid there isn't time to explain. We really must be going." Rory and Amy are still caught in a half embrace and as the Doctor watches them something catches in the back of his throat. This is always the part that he hates, the goodbyes almost as bitter as the absence that comes afterwards.
He is not ready for it yet.
"Unless … There'd surely be some free time during the reception. We know the groom quite well, and I'm sure we're paying for – something – probably – no one will mind if we bring a few guests. What do you say? One last trip, for old time's sake?"
Amy and Rory look at each other, a whole conversation silently passing between them without even a telepathic link.
"We can't." Amy steps away from Rory, and the Doctor tries to hide how much it hurts.
"Of course not. It was a silly idea."
"We've built lives here, ones that actually matter. So have the children. And we both know it wouldn't be just one trip. We've tried that before, yeah?" Suddenly she is right before him, her hand reaching out to rest on his cheek. "But that's okay. Because this is a new face, one that has found other faces that won't fade from it. And I'm so glad of that." Her lips brush again his forehead, and then she sinks into the crook of his neck, her arms coming around him fiercely for just a few precious moments before she retreats.
"The problem is the TARDIS can't go back to Manhattan without creating a paradox, right?" Clara asks.
The Doctor spins towards her, hoping the movement will dislodge the tear that escaped from his eye. Amy and Rory had taught him so much about human emotion that sometimes it infected him quite without permission. He rocks back on his heels. "Yeah. Not in any decade. Never again, I'm afraid."
"But it's only New York, not the rest of Earth."
"Obviously. We spend a proportionally large amount of time on Earth and the universe hasn't imploded."
"We don't have any married friends. And the girls know frightfully few people their own age."
The change of topic throws him off kilter and he narrows his eyes. "Timelords don't have married friends. They're a bit skeptical on the necessity of friends, honestly. And marriage."
"You're missing the point, love."
"Then enlighten me."
"Joint holidays," Clara crows, and the possibilities spread out before him like the cosmos. "If the Williams can't come with us, we'll just have to go to them. There's a whole wide planet we can meet on, we just need to pick a place and a date. Let's say one year from today."
"My clever, clever girl," he exclaims, picking her up and swinging her about. It's not until he hears Amy's laughter that he thinks to ask the Ponds, "What do you say to that?"
"I say that I've always wanted an excuse to see Chicago."
"Chicago it is!"
"Perhaps we can do some actual sightseeing without unearthing an alien threat," Rory suggests.
"Don't hold your breath."
Without any finality behind them the goodbyes are only a cheery formality. The girls scurry into the TARDIS to get ready, leaving the Doctor behind. After an awkward clap on the back Rory leads his children away, but Amy lingers. They've done this so many times and yet his hearts still clench. "Do me a favor. Don't dance at the wedding. You'll mortify the boy."
"Rory likes my dancing!"
"You're either delusional or he's a very convincing liar."
"Rory doesn't lie. He's the honest one in the family."
"Delusional then. Sounds about right." She pulls him into another embrace, and he hasn't asked Rory or Clara for permission but he can't seem to help it. It has been so long, and he'd never expected to do this again. "See you later, Old Man," she whispers.
"I don't think I like that," he declares as he pulls away.
Her eyes sparkle as she teases him. "I don't think you get a vote." She is older – she must be – but all he can see is her hair and her sass, thrumming with life. She is safe and happy – not broken and lost – and he has not failed her, as he feared for so long.
It is the best gift his daughters have given him, aside from their existence.
As the TARDIS door closes he hears her call, "Love the voice, though."