It might have been ironic, if it wasn’t such a concerningly tight deadline for such a tricky procedure.
She’d been wondering for years what had actually happened. There’d been no body to speak of in the aftermath, but one mind— even one as powerful as that— should not have burned with the power to destroy every shred of evidence a person had sat in the chair.
The chair itself was another thing. It was the kind of detail she didn’t pick up on at the time, when her mind had been so consumed with thoughts about who River was, and what had happened, but the entire set up she’d gotten working was still in place when the Doctor had finally managed to get free of the handcuffs and inspect it. There was ash, but not a single scorch mark on the setup itself.
Impressive, and functionally impossible.
Something had interfered.
She watched as Sandshoes ran past her in all his glory, high on his successful intimidation attempt against the vashta nerada. He had no idea how much of a turn his life was about to take— how much the guilt of what he was about to do (or at least, what he was about to fail to prevent) would haunt him for lifetimes.
There wouldn’t be a second chance.
She followed silently through the shadows now that her past self had so helpfully neutralised their flesh rending properties. River brushed past a little too close, and her breath caught in her throat, but she was clearly too focused on Sandshoes and his antics to notice her wife standing just a few feet away.
It was strange to see her again after all this time— so real and undeniably alive. River had been a memory to her for so long that she’d stopped allowing her to hope that there could be a chance of saving her. She was beautiful as always, snarking at the Doctor she was with, and doing her very best to hide all of the hurt that came with being unrecognised.
How many more years would it take her to make up for this one? It’d taken twenty four years the last time— twenty-four years of love and domesticity to prove that while she hadn’t always been good at showing it, she really did love her wife with all of her hearts.
Still, that wasn’t a problem for now. Now she had a deadline, and a mission, and thirteen seconds to save the love of so many of her lives.
The guilt would come later, whether she succeeded or not.
The Doctor contented herself slightly with the fact that no matter what had happened, she at least got to see her again, just this once. She’d never let herself fold back on her timeline to see her again, even in those moments where it had been all she’d wanted to do, and in all honesty she knew that it’d been a good plan.
Before now she’d had no way to intervene without tearing both of their timelines apart, and with how tangled the web of time already was surrounding them… Well, she doubted allowing herself to step in would have gone well at all. Still, actually seeing her was more than worth the years of waiting.
The Doctor consoled herself with the idea that even if this didn’t work, while her hearts would be shattered at the very least it would bring some circularity to things. This would be the first and last time that she’d ever see River Song.
It was beautiful and poetic and horrifically sad.
In her previous faces, that thought might have been more of a comfort, but somehow this one had never been much fussed with poetry. She was more one for actions now, not words.
She had to do this.
As the time grew closer, she found it harder and harder to just watch, even though her plan depended entirely on timing. River had to get the people out of Cal before she stepped in. She watched as Sandshoes was knocked unconscious, and as he fought against the cuffs binding him in place to try and help a helpless cause.
Her wrist had been badly bruised for weeks, she remembered that much.
It hadn’t felt like anywhere near enough pain for what a failure she’d been.
She worked her way around the shelves, until she’d found her place behind River, watching their first and final conversation play out as she waited for her countdown to begin.
Her TARDIS was well out of sight— invisible amongst the stacks of books in this very room. She’d come back for it, of course, once everything was done, but it wouldn’t do to have her younger self stumble over it and cause a paradox by realising her plan too early.
If she was a stronger person she’d have stayed right here, and made sure that the plan would go as smoothly as possible. She wouldn’t have risked letting anyone from her past see her.
Still, she wasn’t a stronger person. She hadn’t been able to resist the allure of what she could never have again, and so she’d run around the minute that the shadows had become safe enough to walk through, and she’d watched the painfully familiar scenes play out in front of her as the clock ticked.
It’d been a fitting last word, she thought, if a very sad one. River was a woman who’d been forced to spend her whole life shrouded in secrets. It was so very rare that they’d ever had a time where they knew each other well enough to just be without that word hanging over them.
Now, with thousands of years more under her belt, and a secret she never could have known at the time, she might be able to change that. After so many lives lived under the shadows of their secrets, she might have finally found a way to bring their love blinking into the light.
Two wires touched, and a bright flash of white light blinded her former self.
Here was her in.
The wires burned her fingers as she wrenched them free of her wife’s shaking hands, but that was hardly her concern right then.
Eleven seconds. Her main focus was the vortex manipulator that she knew River had been wearing when she’d left their little house on that final morning and which, sure enough, she could feel underneath the thick fabric of her space suit.
She didn’t have time to program the coordinates, not yet, and found herself very much hoping that River had come from somewhere pleasant, or at least somewhere safe. It would be much harder to do what she was planning if they were going to be ambushed by predators the minute they materialised.
The Doctor tore through the fabric of the suit without too much care, given there was nowhere near enough time to remove it properly. The gaping hole she left behind exposed the screen of the manipulator perfectly.
There were fourteen separate buttons to press in order to recall the manipulator’s last journey, and the Doctor’s fingers flew over all of them with practiced ease. She’d drilled this whole thing so many times to try and get the timing perfect that she almost forgot to grab onto River’s hand firmly enough to ensure she’d be brought along.
They materialised in a dusty office somewhere in Lunar University, and River collapsed beside her like a puppet with the strings cut.
She didn’t have much time to access the damage, but that didn’t stop her from giving her unconscious wife a very quick look over, trying to work out how much would be needed to help her come back around. She looked fragile, sprawled out on the well-worn rug, in a way which made the Doctor feel distinctly ill. It meant that she must already be in worse shape than she’d hoped, given that, for everything she was, River Song could never once have been described as fragile.
Not in life, at least.
Her hearts were beating a sluggish rhythm when the Doctor checked them, and her hands were badly burned from the sparking electrodes she’d connected, but there was no sign of the fire which the disappearance of her body had been put down to. Evidently the smoke had been mostly the overworked machinery, rather than a sign that River had burned.
“Hang on, love…” The Doctor’s voice sounded far shakier than she’d have liked, to say how often she’d considered this moment.
This was certainly not how she’d wanted it to play out. She was going to be cool and collected, and swan in with the same air she’d always worn when saving River from certain doom. She was going to be the hero who could hide the years of loneliness and hurt for the sake of the woman she loved.
The Doctor took a breath, and tried her best to steady herself. If she didn’t clam down, then she was going to be the idiot sobbing over her dying wife rather than making the necessary steps to save her.
“Can’t say I’ve done this before.” She said, speaking to River, but mostly talking to herself to try and fill the horrible silence which had taken over now that she didn’t have her younger self’s chattering to fill it. She knelt on the very edge of the rug, willing this to work and— golden light began to dance around the tips of her fingers, slowly spreading up her hands until they looked as though they’d been set alight.
For a few moments the whole room shone with the glow of a thousand suns, and then the Doctor was touching her fingers to River’s rapidly cooling skin, and that light was gone, pulled into her like a sponge run dry.
The Doctor decided then and there that that was one of the very best things about River Song, and her unique physiology was the fact that she seemed hard wired to draw in regeneration energy. She’d felt it before, a very long time ago, when she’d healed River’s broken wrist in her fit of guilt. That energy had been sapped out of her before River could stop it, in some odd quirk brought on by Kavarian’s experiments.
Now, it suited her well. Golden light shone under River’s skin, now, rippling like water just below the surface, healing the massive damage which had been done, though, evidently, without the need for a change of face.
She couldn’t be sure that it had worked, not at first, though as her wife took a slow, rattling breath, her eyes opened, and the Doctor finally felt some of that tension ebb away from her. She’d been coiled like a spring since she’d first decided to try this, but seeing River’s eyes flutter open, however tiredly, was more than worth the levels of intense pressure she’d been putting herself under in order to achieve her goal.
“Where…?” River’s voice was horse, and she didn’t seem able to manage further words, but the Doctor just shushed her, shaking her head quickly.
“Not now.” She said quietly, knowing that they’d both need time to recover from that, even if she did have more than enough energy to give.
“But—” River tried again, but she trailed off into a coughing fit before she could finish.
“Later.” The Doctor promised, her own voice betraying her exhaustion. She found herself flopping down on the rug next to her wife, her eyes falling shut as the golden light burned away entirely, and left them in the office’s evening half-light.
There was a long moment’s pause, and then another shaky breath.
“Later…” River agreed, turning her head tiredly to look at her wife.
Thirteen seconds to save a life.
The Doctor, at least, thought she’d done a very good job.