Spinning fluorescent lights drill into the Doctor’s head as she struggles to open her eyes.
“Now don’t panic,” says a familiar voice, “but you were hit by the aftershocks of a particularly nasty 67th century weapon, and in many species it temporarily disables the part of your brain that allows you to lie. It should wear off in about an hour, and then you’ll be good to go.”
The Doctor blinks again, struggling to piece together her thoughts. What is it that’s so familiar about this person? “Aftershocks?” she asks, her tongue heavy and slow in her mouth.
“Those in the center of the blast were destroyed, but aftershocks occur several times in the minutes following the explosion. You must have wandered into the blast zone right after it happened. Maybe you were trying to help, and didn’t know what kind of weapon it was.”
The lights spin slower and the Doctor begins to remember. Yes. She’d heard the bomb go off and had run to see if there were any survivors she could help. Luckily, Yaz isn’t with her, so it’s just her, and she’s okay, apparently. Just an inconvenient side effect for the next hour, possibly. If she’s one of the species it applies to.
And also she didn’t manage to save anyone.
The person talking to her leans over for a moment, a little out of focus, but—is that—
“I’m Dr. Song,” says River. “Doctor in archeology, not medicine, but I know enough to help out while I’m in the area. What’s your name?”
The Doctor’s mouth opens of its own accord, but—I’m the Timeless Child. I was abandoned at a wormhole. Presumably, I had a name. “I don’t know,” she says. River isn’t supposed to know about this regeneration, is she? Because she certainly hadn’t known of any past bowtie when they were on Darillium, and that had been immediately before the library.
River furrows her eyebrows. “Amnesia isn’t a normal side effect, but there’s a first time for everything. Are you missing any other memories?”
“Yes and no,” the Doctor responds, before she can convince herself of a different truth.
River looks even more confused. “Okay, I’m going to try not to interrogate you too much while you’re under the effects of the bomb, but can you just tell me how you’re feeling, and if you need anything?”
“I feel awful and I need you not to die,” the Doctor’s mouth speaks for her. She sighs. “I’m going to be fine,” she adds. She’s confident that’s true, at least. Eventually.
Slowly, River sits down on the bed. “I’m not going to ask if you’re okay,” she says, “because you just got hit by a bomb, and I’m sure you have a killer headache, and it’s certainly no fun feeling like you’ve been injected with a truth serum or something.”
The Doctor nods slightly, willing her eyes to stay dry.
River is silent for a moment, as if considering her next words. “If you would like to tell me anything about yourself, where you’re from, where you’re going, what you’re looking for, you can. I can tell that you’re not from around here—probably not this time period, either. But you don’t have to.”
The Doctor considers. What does she want out of this conversation? It’s like she has a second chance. Another last visit with the dead. What will she wish she had asked, when she thinks back on this memory centuries into the future? “I want to know about you,” she says finally.
River smiles, crinkling at the corners of her eyes. “Well, my name is River Song. I’m an archaeologist and a professor, although right now I’m on a bit of a sabbatical. Just seeing the world; helping out where I can. Looking for a friend. He usually does this sort of thing; travels the universe and helps out where he can.”
The Doctor fights a smile. “Who is he?” she asks.
River leans forward, like she’s about to tell a secret. “The Doctor,” she says. “Know of him?”
“Yeah,” the Doctor answers before she can stop herself.
River looks a little bit surprised, but not exceedingly so. “He certainly is famous,” she says. “Do you happen to know where he is?”
Which Doctor does she mean? she thinks, trying to convince herself that River is asking for a specific Doctor—a specific regeneration—and therefore she doesn’t know where that specific regeneration would be right now. But instead, she finds herself asking, “Which regeneration are you looking for?” She bites her lip, willing her mouth to shut up.
“I suppose…” River seems to take the question very seriously, “I’m looking for whichever version of the Doctor I’m currently closest to. The regeneration itself doesn’t matter to me, because he’s still the same person underneath, you know? The personality changes a little from face to face, but the core stays the same.”
“You’re wrong,” the Doctor hears herself say, as she thinks about how she doesn’t know if the core of who she is now is the same as it was before her memories were taken away. Because she doesn’t know what kind of a person she was in Division.
River freezes, narrowing her eyes.
The Doctor sighs, and pulls herself up to a sitting position. “I didn’t mean to say that,” she says. “I’m sorry,” she adds. It’s true, really. She’s sorry for so many things.
When River speaks again, her voice is cold and calculating. “Normally, I try to avoid interrogating people who are still under the effects of the bomb. But I will make an exception when it comes to information regarding my husband.”
The Doctor’s eyes dart around the room, looking for exits, but even if she thought she could make it past River, she doesn’t really want to.
Any extra time with River is too precious to waste.
And she hates herself for wasting what time she has like this.
“I will ask you again,” says River. “Where is the regeneration of the Doctor that I am currently closest to?”
“In this universe,” the Doctor answers immediately.
“Where in the universe?”
“On this planet.”
“Nearby.” She bites down on her tongue, hard.
“Why are you trying so hard not to tell me?”
“To protect your timeline.”
“Why do you care!?” River raises her voice.
“Because I love you!” the Doctor blurts out. “Because you died and you said not one line and now that I’ve told you that, I’m going to have to erase your memory to keep this stupid promise that you made me make!” River’s face blurs as the Doctor’s eyes fill with tears. She can’t even lie with her emotions, apparently.
“Oh.” River’s voice is very soft.
There’s a moment of quiet, where River looks sad and the Doctor tries not to actually sob, and subtly wipes tears away with her sleeve.
“You still love me,” says River.
“Yes, you idiot,” says the Doctor, blinking up at the ceiling as yet another tear falls. “I know you don’t believe me, so maybe hearing me say it while I can’t lie will—wait, you said still?”
“Yes, I…” River smiles slightly, then reaches out to take her hand, impossibly gently. “I’ve been looking for you, to tell you some good news. I’ve created a paradox.”
The Doctor can’t help but laugh at that. “A good paradox?” she asks.
“A pretty great one,” says River. “Future me installs a high-tech flesh model of past me for the library trip. Complete with a brain simulator and everything. And then just had to do a few projections of a data ghost to keep the timeline intact.”
The Doctor blinks at her, gears turning but hardly daring to believe—
“I lived,” says River.
The Doctor makes some kind of involuntary sound that she can’t quite categorize as she launches herself at River to hug her. “I’m so happy, River,” she says into her shoulder. “I love you so much and I’ve missed you and I’m so sorry for everything I did wrong and—”
“Love, you don’t have to say anything,” says River, patting her back. “We can wait for the aftershock effects to wear off.”
The Doctor pulls back and rests her forehead against River’s. “I just need you to know I mean it.”
River smiles. “I love you too.”