The sign read “Mercy: 81 residents,” and the various crossed out numbers indicated the dilapidated little town’s rise and fall as the decades rolled past, marking the days when Nevada was part of Mexico, then the Utah Territory. It became the Nevada Territory in 1861 and was granted statehood in 1864. The population climbed through the Gold Rush and the American Civil War, then dipped again as drought and disease forced people to flee when it could. The final nail in the coffin was when the railroad has chosen to bypass this little town and had relocated about 20 miles to the north.
“And you got all of that from the sign?” The Doctor said as he ran his sonic down the line of stones and branches that formed a crude border around the town.
River arched an eyebrow. “Archeologist, sweetie.”
He waved the sonic at her. “Urban fairy tales, dear.”
She rolled her eyes and hunkered next to him. “Anything interesting?”
“Just stones and wood.” They rose to their feet. “That’s even more interesting,” he said motioning to the “Keep Out” sign tacked to the signpost near the population count. He held out his arm. “Shall we investigate, wife?”
“Love me a good ‘Keep Out’ sign, husband.” She looped her arm through his, and they stepped over the border and into town.
It was one of those trips the Doctor liked to take with River when her parents were either at home or sleeping on the TARDIS. In this case, it was sleeping. He had picked up her up from Stormcage with the promise of attending the Day of the Dead festival in 1895, before taking the Ponds out for breakfast. But, he had gotten toast crumbs on the console, and here was where they landed. River had taken one look at the monitors and gone to change into jeans, because she wasn’t going through a Western town in any era without them.
Her clothing was anachronistic, but it wasn’t anything like the electric street lamps that dotted the tiny town.
“That can’t be right,” River said as she ran a hand down the street lamp.
“About 10 years too early,” the Doctor confirmed, then glanced across the street. A little girl ducked down from where she was peeping over the edge of the windowsill. In another home, a man warily eyed them. “Someone’s been peeking at my Christmas list.”
“The good list or the naughty list?”
He coughed and blushed. “Obviously the good one. I’m nothing but a saint.” He ignored River’s answering snort. “I’m going to check out the saloon,” he said, tapping River’s nose before striding away. He paused outside of the swinging doors and pulled out a toothpick. He stuck it in is mouth, placed his hands on his hips and swaggered inside.
She remained outside, pondering the street lamp. Ignoring the stares, she pulled out her scanner and analyzed the lamp. A place like Mercy was so far off the map that electricity shouldn’t be possible for another 10-20 years. Possibly even 30. And it was just electricity. No indication that they had modern plumbing and …
She spun just as a crowd of men bore the Doctor out of the saloon on their shoulders. “Honey, just what are you doing?” she called over the din.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got everything completely under control! Fetch my tea!” The Doctor called out as the mob carried him to the edge of town.
“I swear, I can’t take him anywhere!” She sprinted after them, reaching the group just as they unceremoniously dumped the Doctor over the border of sticks and stone. He struggled to his feet, stumbled, then managed to get upright. He spun to go back over the border, and every man in the group drew his gun.
And River drew hers and aimed it at them.
The Doctor raised his hands, but he was calm. “Now, look, you’ve upset the missus.”
“There’s just one of her,” a young man said, but his gun remained trained on the Doctor. All of them did. They were at least well-mannered enough not take aim at a woman.
“Yeah, well, there’s at least 8 of you.”
“Fifteen,” River corrected.
“See, she might even break out into a sweat.”
“Oh, God, he’s coming,” one of the men breathed.
“Preacher, say something,” the young man urged.
“Our Father, who art in heaven …”
River’s gaze shifted to where the preacher was looking, and her breath caught. It looked like a man, but she could see enough of his arm to tell that it wasn’t human. Some sort of cyborg. She needed to get closer to make sure. Well, first she needed to rescue the Doctor, then they could get closer. The cyborg and the mysterious attitudes surrounding the town were linked.
The Doctor tried to dash over the line, but the mob pushed him back, inserting themselves between her and the Doctor. She started to fire a warning shot, but another gunshot echoed behind her. Everyone turned to look at the newcomer.
He was the stereotypical picture of a Wild West marshall, and he looked mad. “You, Bow Tie.”
The Doctor glanced about before pointing at himself. “Oh, you mean me!”
“Get back across that line. Now.” He pushed back his coat to reveal his badge, then nodded to River. “Ma’am, please put the gun down.”
“Not before he’s-” The breath whooshed out of River as the Doctor was pulled back across the line, and he staggered into her back. As he apologized, River noticed the cyborg disappear behind the cliff where he was hidden.
“Isaac, he said he was a doctor. An alien doctor,” the young man insisted.
“That a reason to hand him to his death?” Isaac asked.
“But, Isaac, it could be him!”
“You know it ain’t.” Isaac turned to River and tipped his hat to her. “Ma’am.”
As Isaac strode away, River barely had time to holster her gun before the Doctor snagged her hand and pulled her with him to chase Isaac down, as the townspeople grumbled behind them.
They followed Isaac into the marshall’s office, where he dropped down into a chair with a heavy sigh. He glanced up at them and indicated for the Doctor to close the door.
“The Gunslinger,” he began. “Showed up three weeks back. We've been prisoners ever since. You see that borderline, stretching round the town? Woke up one morning, there it was. Nothing gets past it, in or out. No supply wagons, no reinforcements. Pretty soon, the whole town's going to starve to death.”
“He didn’t have a problem with us,” River pointed out.
“You weren’t carrying any food. Just two more mouths to feed.”
“What happens if someone crosses the line?” the Doctor asked.
Isaac picked up a Stetson off the corner of his desk and tossed it to him. The Doctor turned it and poked his finger through the bullet hole he found. “He wasn’t a good shot, was he?”
“He was aiming for the hat.”
The Doctor’s jaw dropped. “He shoots people’s hats?” He spun to River. “What is he, a member of your anti-hat club?”
“You seriously think I have an anti-hat club?”
“Yes, with membership cards, a secret handshake and everything.” He gesticulated with the hat and leaned into Isaac. “My wife is a notorious hat murderer as well.”
“Only when they’re yours,” River pointed out and took the hat from the Doctor. She tossed it back to Isaac. “Has he issued any demands?”
“Just that he wants to give us to give him the ‘alien doctor.’”
The Doctor boosted himself onto the railing. “Well, that could mean either one of us,” he said to River.
“Usually, sweetie, when someone has a death warrant out, it’s on your head.”
“You have quite a few death warrants yourself, dear.” He pulled out his diary. “Shall we compare?”
“No offense,” Isaac cut in, “but women aren’t doctors.”
“Period misogyny. It’s my lucky day.” River turned to Jex. “But, as it so happens, I’d like to meet the third alien doctor in the town.”
“See? Isn’t she clever?” the Doctor praised, tugging at the lapels of his coat proudly as he grinned at River.
“Don’t know who you’re talking about,” Isaac replied, not entirely meeting their eyes.
“The chap outside said I could be the alien doctor. But, I’m not. And River certainly isn’t the alien doctor they’re referring to. They didn’t even notice her.” The Doctor clapped his hands. “Alien doctors! Must be a convention we weren’t told about. Resident 81 if I have to guess. So beloved by the townsfolk that he warranted an addition to the sign outside of the normal population fluctuation. Now, where would I go if half the town wanted to throw me to my death?” He raised his eyebrows at River, but she had already caught on.
As the Doctor spoke, she had edged toward the solitary cell, checking it out of the corner of her eye. She noticed the lump trying its best to hide on the bunk. He peered nervously over the blankets and swallowed when he met her gaze.
“Ma’am, please step away from the-“
“It’s all right, Isaac.” The man let the blanket drop. Humanoid, River assessed, dressed in period clothing. The elaborate tattoo along the right side of his face matched the one she’d spotted on the gunslinger earlier. “I think the time for subterfuge has passed.” He set the blanket aside and unlatched the cell door from the inside.
“You’re a Kahler,” River realized as snippets of races she learned in university came back to her.
The alien beamed at her. “You know your species well. Kahler Jex, at your service.”
“The Kahler! I love the Kahler. One of the most ingenious races in the galaxy, seriously. They could build a spaceship out of Tupperware and moss.” The Doctor extended his hand, and Jex shook it. “I’m the Doctor, this is Dr. River Song.”
“How did you get here?” River asked as she shook Jex’s hand as well.
“My craft crashed about a mile outside of town. I might have died if Isaac and the others hadn’t pulled me from the wreckage.”
“So, you stayed as their doctor,” the Doctor said.
“Yes. On my world, I was a surgeon, so it was a natural fit.”
Isaac slapped Jex on the back. “Listen to him, talking about it like it was nothing. Tell them about the cholera.”
Jex flushed. “I’m not sure …”
Isaac spoke over him. “Two years after he arrived, there was an outbreak of cholera. Thanks to the doc here, not a single person died.”
“A minor infection we'd found a treatment for centuries ago,” Jex explained.
“You brought the electricity as well?” River asked.
Jex nodded. “Using my ship as a generator, I was able to rig up some rudimentary heating and lighting for the town.”
The Doctor leaned forward. “So, why does the Gunslinger want you?”
Jex avoided the Doctor’s gaze. Isaac frowned. “It don’t matter.”
“I'm just saying, if we knew-”
“America's a land of second chances,” Isaac interrupted him. “We called this town Mercy for a reason. Others ... Some round here don't feel that way.”
Jex patted Isaac’s arm. “Now, Isaac, we've discussed this.”
“People whose lives you saved are suddenly saying we should hand you over.”
“They're scared, that's all. You can hardly blame them.”
“Them being scared, scares me. War only ended five years back. That old violence is still under the surface. We give up Doc Jex, then we're handing the keys of the town over to chaos.”
“We can repair the ship,” the Doctor suggested. “Help you with it at least. Surely someone with your skills …”
“It really was very badly damaged,” Jex insisted.
There was something off about what Jex was saying, something that felt wrong in River’s gut. The Doctor was right, the Kahler were highly resourceful people. If Jex had enough in his ship to provide basic electric service for Mercy, surely he could have found a way to repair his ship.
“Right,” the Doctor replied. He laced his fingers together, tongue caught between his teeth. “River, I need you to bring the TARDIS here.”
“I’m sorry?” She glanced at him.
“We’ll evacuate the town. There’s enough room for everyone in the TARDIS. The gunslinger won’t go for you.”
“You’re sending a woman out there alone?” Isaac asked, his jaw sagging a bit.
“No, I’m sending River Song, who is better than an army.” The Doctor crooked his finger, and River followed him outside before Isaac could protest any further. She almost didn’t notice Jex going pale, and that was something she added to her mental notes as well.
She followed the Doctor to a hitching post, where the town’s preacher was brushing down his horse. “Can we borrow your horse, please?” the Doctor asked.
“He’s called Joshua,” the preacher replied.
“From the Bible, yes?” River asked.
“Ma’am,” the preacher said, pleased. “Means ‘deliverance.’”
The horse neighed.
“No, he isn’t,” the Doctor replied.
“What?” the preacher asked.
“I speak horse.” The Doctor nodded to the horse. “He’s called Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.” He pulled his sonic out of his jacket pocket and handed it to River. “You might need this to make sure the gizawhiz by the third lever on the console is working right. We’ll need to make sure we can get everyone in one trip.”
“A kiss for good luck, sweetie?” she moved in before he could reply, brushing her lips against his as he picked her pocket and took her tablet. She winked at him and smoothly mounted the horse.
She rode out of town, toward the TARDIS at first. As soon as she was over the rise, she stood in the stirrups and scanned the terrain. The gunslinger, she knew, would be looking for a male alien. She had enough human in her to hopefully combat whatever technology he was using to maintain his surveillance. She squinted when she saw bits and pieces of rubber tubing scattered among the low tufts of dried grass and guided Susan toward them.
The horse let out a long whinny as River dismounted. She patted the horse’s neck and crouched to study the hose ensnared among the prickly grasses. She picked it up and ran the sonic over it. Then she remounted the horse and followed the line in the opposite direction from town until she reached where it disappeared into a large, white mound. She dismounted, tugged at the tarp, and it came apart in her hands to reveal a pristine spaceship.
“Not very damaged, are you?” River murmured as she scanned the ship with the screwdriver. She pulled her secondary scanner out of her pouch, a small iPhone she’d modified to be a backup when necessary. She scanned it with her scanner and arched an eyebrow. “Abaraxas Security. They don’t skimp on their alarms. Still, early days for them,” she told Susan, who was now chewing on some of the grass. “This won’t take but a second. Knowing the Doctor, he’d probably have set of all the alarms by now. Bless.” She climbed to the top of the capsule and pressed the scanner against the door.
The door disengaged, and she dropped into the capsule. Equally not damaged. She pressed the phone to a security panel and waited as alarms blared for about a second. Then the passcode override kicked in and the systems booted. It was a tiny, tiny ship, not worthy of the layers of security that cloaked it. She had an itch to fly it, to navigate it back to town, boost Jex into it and get him off the planet. But, that didn’t answer any questions, and she was as eager to find out why Jex had wanted to flee the gunslinger as much as the Doctor did.
“Awaiting command,” the computer intoned.
River pulled a cord out of her pouch and went to work with the sonic. She hooked the cord to her scanner and used the sonic to route the data from the computer to her tablet with the Doctor. “OK. That should do it. Computer, display files on the Gunslinger.”
“File not found. Please choose from technical specifications, flight recorder, personal files, or maps and charts.”
She activated the scanner. “Download all personal files for Kahler Jex to auxiliary drive.”
“Well, that was remarkably simple.” It took several minutes for the files to fully download. Once the transmission was complete, and she saw that her tablet had received them, River unhooked the scanner and shut the systems down. She considered flying the ship again, but she couldn’t leave the horse. As she climbed out of the capsule, the hair on the back of her neck stood. As soon as she crested the exit, she smoothly pulled her gun and aimed it at the Gunslinger at the same time he aimed his gun at her head.
“I know who you are,” the Gunslinger said.
“You also know that I don’t miss.”
“Do you know what I am? What he is?”
“I know that you’re a cyborg, and you’re after Kahler Jex.” She cocked her head to the side and regretted not taking a peek at the files she sent to the Doctor. “Why didn’t you just walk into town and kill him?”
“Innocents will get in the way.” He lowered the gun. “Let them know I’ll kill the next person to step over that line, no matter who they are. Make sure it’s Jex. And make sure you read his files, Melody Pond.” He turned and walked away.
Unnerved, River watched as he disappeared over the hill. She lowered her gun and pulled out her scanner. Melody Pond. The Gunslinger knew her birth name. Hands shaking, she accessed the files downloaded to her scanner and did a search for herself.
The Doctor hated waiting.
He’d rather have gone to the spaceship himself, scanned the area, chatted with Susan for a bit. But River could take care of herself. If his hunch was right, and he was at least 73% sure he was right, then the Gunslinger wouldn’t harm her. Old-fashioned town, old-fashioned manners. And River was a woman, something they wouldn’t hesitate to use to their advantage.
He amused himself with River’s tablet, scanning to see what sort of technology Jex had installed in the town. They’d have to reverse it, of course. It was 1870, and it was far too early to have electricity like this be in the town.
He did a cursory search on the Kahler, refreshing himself on the history of the people and their usage of cyborg technology. “We can drop you off at home once we’re finished,” he said conversationally.
“Thank you, but I have already given everything I have to the Kahler. My skills, my energy... all that was good in me. But here... I could start afresh. I could remember myself and help people. That's all I ever wanted to do. End suffering.”
It struck a chord, and the Doctor found himself studying Jex. He thought of his ninth self, fresh from the Time War, struggling to find a purpose again after he had given everything to his people.
“Have you been married long?” Jex turned to him.
The Doctor nearly dropped River’s tablet. “Sorry?”
“No, I apologize. I just … you referred to Dr. Song as your wife …”
“Oh! Yes, yes … well, it’s complicated.” He scratched at his cheek. “Involved an alternate timeline, pyramids. But, there’s been at least 17 weddings since then, and I’m quite sure some of them counted.”
“It’s interesting, the way you interact.” Jex gave a little smile. “Like natural extensions of each other. The way you two communicate without speaking. You’re quite devoted, aren’t you?”
The Doctor coughed, uncomfortable at having his emotions be put on the line. What was between himself and River was private, and he wanted to keep it that way. “What about yourself?”
“I suppose, in a way, I’m a father.”
The scanner vibrated in the Doctor’s hand, a low hum that attracted his attention alone. Whistling casually, he flipped the scanner on and scanned the information River transmitted. He sucked in a breath, and Jex and Isaac looked up.
“Sorry. I just need …” The Doctor quickly turned off the tablet and leaped to his feet, shifting from foot to foot. “Where’s the toilet?”
Once in the outhouse, the Doctor turned the tablet back on and turned up the volume. Screams of pain and agony echoed through the little chamber. War crimes, detailed files of the experiments conducted and additional outside work done to provide funding. It was in those files that a familiar name leaped out at the Doctor, and he immediately stopped the playback. Hands shaking, he replayed the last file displayed. Then, he shoved the scanner back in his coat and yanked the door open to find Jex holding a gun to his forehead.
“You weren’t supposed to know that information, Doctor,” Jex said, sorrowfully. “Isaac says he doesn’t care about my past, but you would. So, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to go with me.”
“You’re a torturer. And a murderer.” And the images in the Doctor’s mind refused to go away.
“I am a scientist,” Jex protested.
“I am a war hero!” Jex screamed.
“The Gunslinger is a cyborg,” the Doctor explained. Not for Jex, but for Isaac, who had followed Jex and was staring at him like he would a stranger. “Part man, part machine. I noticed it earlier when you threw me out of the town the first time. He and his team took volunteers, told them they'd be selected for special training, then experimented on them, fused their bodies with weaponry and programmed them to kill.”
“Why would you do that, doc?” Isaac pleaded, and not for the first time, the Doctor wondered if Isaac and Jex were romantically involved.
“We'd been at war for nine years. A war that had already decimated half of our planet. Our task was to bring peace, and we did. We built an army that routed the enemy and ended the war in less than a week. Do you want me to repent? To beg forgiveness for saving millions of lives?” Jex turned to the Doctor. “When the war ended, we had the cyborgs decommissioned. But one of them must have got its circuitry damaged in battle. It went offline and began hunting down the team that created it, until just two of us were left. We fled and our ships crashed here. There, the cyborg hunted us until it was just me.”
“Oh, Jex.” Isaac sounded defeated, and the Doctor felt for him.
Jex cocked his head at the Doctor. “Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror. Almost. There's rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. I know you saw all those files, who was in those files. Thank the Gods my people weren't relying on you to save them, or you would have failed them like you failed her.”
The thin, thin line of control snapped, and the Doctor lunged for Jex. His height and the surprise gave him an advantage, and he snatched the gun away before yanking him up. “No! I will not fail them like I failed her!” He whirled Jex around, shoving him in front of him as the red haze of anger cloaked his mind. All he could hear was the screams of people in pain, and one especially -- a small, thin child with Rory’s hair and Amelia’s face.
“Move!” The Doctor ordered as Jex stumbled and tried to resist.
“Move!” he yelled, a horrific scream that echoed across the barren land. With one hand, he shoved Jex over the boundary at the edge of town and trained the gun on his head.
Jex swallowed and raised his hands. “You wouldn’t,” he taunted.
The Doctor cocked the trigger. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Doctor,” Isaac began to plead as a gunshot rang out over the desert.
Startled, the Doctor looked up to see River barreling toward them on Susan with her gun arm extended from where she fired the warning shot, her hair a massive tangle of curls as she rode low to get as much speed as possible. She yanked up on the reins as they reached Jex, and she leaped off the horse.
“Doctor, don’t do this,” River gasped as she dragged in a few deep breaths. “Sweetie …”
“River, we could end this right now! We can save everyone!” His gaze met hers. “Jex has to answer for his crimes. All of them. Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Not today.”
“Do you know what he did to you?” he roared, and everyone held their breath.
“Yes.” She was amazed at how calm she sounded. “I know I was one of his experiments.”
“Jex?” Issac asked.
“Experiment X345-BY. Subject Melody Pond,” Jex recited dully. “Born Demon’s Run, 5163, age five. A subcontract from the religious group known as the Silence, with the funding used for further research into cyborg technology.”
“You experimented on a little girl,” the preacher breathed.
“Multiple children. Men, women, children,” the Doctor confirmed. The hand holding the gun trembled, and he swallowed. “I hear them screaming in my mind, River.”
“War is another world. You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did, to what any of us did,” Jex protested.
“You saved us, Jex. He saved us, Doctor. From the cholera. He gave us lights, heat …,” Isaac said.
“I know more than anyone, Isaac, that no atoning can make up for your sins. I have to live with that every day.” His eyes raised to River’s.
In her younger days, she wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot Jex. It was an appropriate punishment for a war criminal. But, in many people’s eyes, so was the Doctor.
And he would never be able to live with it if he shot Jex in cold blood.
“My love, shooting him won’t change what happened to me,” River said softly. “I’m grown up. I’m fine. We’ll take Jex before the Shadow Proclamation. We’ll let the universe know what he did. He certainly faces the death penalty, but it’s not by your hand. I won’t let you do that to yourself.”
“I failed you.”
“You saved me.”
He laughed hollowly and lowered the gun. “No, River Song. You save me. Always.” The Doctor peered over River’s shoulder in time to see the Gunslinger raise his gun.
The Gunslinger scanned Jex’s tattoo. “Make your peace with your gods,” he intoned, just as the Doctor realized on what side of the line River stood and that the Gunslinger had both River and Jex in his sights. “River! Get over the line!”
River spun and everything happened at once.
Jex leaped forward and shoved River out of the way, taking the shot himself. He collapsed, holding his side and moaned. She rolled to her knees as the Doctor and Isaac dropped down next to Jex, Isaac stripping his shirt off and pressing it to the wound on Jex’s side.
Jex’s eyes, starting to glaze over, met the Doctor’s. “You think I'm unaffected by what I did? That I don't hear them screaming every time I close my eyes?” His focus shifted to River as she crawled to them. “In my culture, we believe that when you die your spirit has to climb a mountain, carrying the souls of everyone you wronged in your lifetime. Imagine the weight I will have to lift. But, I would like to think that the souls I have wronged will be a little kinder because I saved you, Melody Pond.” The breath sputtered out at those last words, and he went limp in Isaac’s arms.
“What will you do now?” The Doctor asked the Gunslinger as they watched the town of Mercy bury its beloved doctor.
“I will walk into the desert and self-destruct. I am a creature of war. I have no role to play during peace. Unless, you plan to turn me over to the Shadow Proclamation. I will atone for my crimes.”
“I see.” The Doctor clasped his hands behind his back and studied him. “What name did you go by on Kahler?”
“You did your job efficiently, Kahler Tek. You were built that way, given all that technology. You wouldn’t harm innocents.” The Doctor let the words hang in the air for a moment. “You see River as an innocent and a victim. You knew who she was because Jex had the Silence’s files, identifying her as Melody Pond as a child and River Song as an adult.” He drew in a breath. “She was never in any danger, was she?”
“I had a 82% chance of hitting Kahler Jex,” Tek replied. “Subject Melody Pond was not in any danger.”
“Well, much danger. No more than usual. There’s been enough death.” Sickened by his gut feeling, that Jex had manipulated things to his favor one more time, the Doctor nodded toward Isaac. “Perhaps, there’s a different role for you.”
The Doctor found River at Jex’s ship, sitting on top of the capsule. He climbed up to her. There wasn’t a lot of room there, but just enough for them to sit together. He put an arm around her and she shifted, leaned into him. “How much experimenting did they do?” he asked quietly.
“With Jex or in general?”
“I lost count.” River turned her gaze to the clear, blue sky. “It’s like a fog in my memory, and I know they suppressed a great deal to keep me from remembering. I don’t recall going to Kahler.” She shifted a bit and patted the shuttle. “We’ll have to destroy it. Pity. It’s a good ship. But, we can’t risk these records falling into anyone else’s hands.” When the Doctor didn’t reply, she ran a hand up and down his thigh in a soothing motion. “Sweetie, stop beating yourself up over what you couldn’t change. I don’t know if Jex found peace or not in the end, or if he even fully accepts the weight of his crimes.”
“It occurs to me that we’re a lot alike, me and Jex,” the Doctor admitted.
“You’re not,” River insisted.
“I killed my people-“
“To save the universe from the Daleks,” she cut in. “Doctor, I know their souls are a burden upon you. I don’t blame you for not saving me when I was a baby.”
“You did, once,” he pointed out.
“And that was the Silence, not me.”
“But, you’re right. If it wasn’t for my arrogance, the Silence wouldn’t have used Amy or you. You’d have grown up Melody Pond, a normal girl in Leadworth.”
“Now, there’s torture.” She took his hands. Long, thin fingers closed over her smaller ones. “My love, you are a man. Just like Jex. Forced to make horrible decisions during a time of war, doing what you both thought was best to save everyone. I don’t see a hero or a villain when I look at you. I just see you.”
Moved, he gathered her in his arms, pressing his face to her neck and wondering how the universe ever thought he deserved her. It was on his lips to make an extremely sappy declaration of love, but before he could embarrass himself, Amy Pond’s voice rang over the desert.
They glanced down to see Amy and Rory at the foot of the ship, Rory eying it speculatively. “I really hope this isn’t a new pet,” he said, poking at the side of the ship.
“What, I thought I’d keep it in your room, Rory.” The Doctor slid to the ground and held his hand up to River. She took it and let him help her down.
“Just a bit of salvage, Dad. Nothing to worry about.” River pulled out her scanner and waved them away. “Setting the self-destruct now. We better clear the area.”
They retreated to a safe distance in enough time for the ship to explode. Amy frowned as she watched the smoke drift into the sky. “What were you doing while we were asleep?”
“Oh, not much, Pond.” The Doctor slung an arm around Amy’s shoulder and squeezed River’s hand. Neither one of them would breathe a word to the Ponds about what they discovered of River’s childhood. “How about I show you all what really happened to those dogs and monkeys that were sent to space in the ‘50s and ‘60s?”
“In all honesty, my love,” River said, “I just want to have a quiet meal with my parents.”
“Right! Pond family time it is!”
“My space moron,” Amy scolded the Doctor, and he stuck his tongue at her.
As they headed back to the TARDIS, Rory caught sight of a solitary figure standing guard on the cliffs above Mercy. “What’s that?” he asked River.
“Him? He’s the town’s new marshall.” River linked arms with her father. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”