It didn’t surprise the Doctor that she was, yet again, on the verge of regeneration.
Every few hundred years, something so catastrophic would happen to her, it would practically kill her. Well, a few hundred years if she was lucky. It never technically killed her, or at least it hadn’t. Not yet. It was all thanks to regeneration, a nifty little trick Time Lords had. Everything about them changed – their appearance, their personality, their little quirks. They died, and a brand new person went sauntering off into the unknown.
Someone had once described it as a magic trick, another had described it as a form of immortality. It was both, and neither. The Doctor’s eyes flew open, memories of her ‘death’ pounding itself into her mind. She tried to will it away, focusing her strength on steadying her mind. She was failing spectacularly.
The metal floor was cold beneath her cheek. Her fingers scrabbled weakly at the floor of the console room, gripping onto one of the holes etched into the metal. She groaned, the sound high and thin, every breath a slow, heaving movement to fill her lungs. Beneath her ribs, her hearts beat fast, and she was sure that the beats, thumping heavily in her ears, could be felt through the entire TARDIS.
The TARDIS burbled amidst the clanging of the cloister bell, the bell’s low deep bongs almost one continuous sound. She shook her head against the floor, her blonde hair brushing against the smooth floor. Not again. A dull ache stirred, slinking up her back and settling deep between her shoulder blades.
She closed her eyes, and thought of her companions. She thought of Yasmin’s smile, the way her eyes sparkled when they bounded out onto a new world. She thought of Ryan, and his almost humorous looks of disbelief at the universe that stretched before them. She thought of Graham, and how he cared for each and every one of them. She thought of how they were safe now; it brought her peace.
“Please,” she whispered. The TARDIS burbled again, and she sighed. “Please.” She wanted nothing more than to let go, to let it all take over. There were so many more stars out there that she could see, and the Doctor would see them, just not like this. Not her. A hand pulled itself gently through her hair, a thumb rubbing lightly against her forehead.
“Hello, sweetie.” The words, whispered, brushed against her ear like a soft summer’s breeze, sending chills down her spine. Her breath caught in her throat. Of course it would be her, of course it would. But she dared not open her eyes.
“River,” the Doctor breathed, the word a faint prayer on her lips.
“Doctor, it’s me, open your eyes.”
“No.” The Doctor kept her eyes shut, savouring every word, River’s voice etching itself onto her soul. She could feel her frowning now, the sadness creeping into her gaze. A sharp pang shot through her chest, and it wasn’t because of her injuries.
“River, I can’t.”
“Because I’ll open my eyes, and you won’t be here.” In the silence that followed, a pin hitting the floor would have sounded like a large, metal gong. Her voice dropped. “Because you can’t be here.” But she could smell her, the tinge of roses and peonies lingering around her person like a small, beautiful-smelling cloud. She was wearing that perfume she loved so much, the one Scottish had scoured the universe for. Just for her. Just for River.
River did not respond, and silence filled the TARDIS again. The Doctor’s hearts sank. It would have been nice to be wrong, just this once. She wouldn’t even mind being wrong, but River was gone again, and she would be all alon-
“Sweetie, you’re being ridiculous.” She sounded almost impatient, and of course she would. River Song, the daughter of the girl who waited. One would have expected her to have a bit more patience than this. But time was running out. Her time was running out.
“Promise me you’ll be here when I open my eyes,” the Doctor said, scrunching her nose up hopefully. River sighed, a deep rush of air.
“Where else would I-”
“Promise.” There was a pause, then:
“I promise.” The Doctor let her eyes slip open. River lay on the ground before her, her face positioned right in front of hers, the lights of the TARDIS console reflected in her bright, gentle eyes. She smiled. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The Doctor’s mouth hung slightly ajar, as she took her time to take it all in, her gaze lingering on every inch of River’s face, every eyelash, every unruly curl.
“Why don’t you take a photograph? It’ll last longer.” River was grinning.
“I can’t bring photographs where I’m going.” The Doctor reached one hand out, brushing it gently along River’s cheek in disbelief; her skin was soft and cool beneath her warm fingers. “How is it you’re here?”
“Well, you uploaded me into the biggest library in the world,” she said, taking the Doctor’s hand in hers, “the TARDIS got into it, found me, and here I am.” She rubbed her fingers tenderly. “I see you’ve made some upgrades to the system.”
“It’s been a while.” The Doctor gasped, as a sudden bout of strength coursed through her veins. It wouldn’t be long now. River had noticed this.
“How much time do we have?” The Doctor winced.
“Enough.” She pulled herself to her feet, helping River up to hers. It never is, a voice in her head murmured bitterly. She shoved it away. No time to think about that now. She pulled River into a tight hug, burying her face in her wild mane.
There they stood, neither saying a word. They didn’t have to.
“You have to go, River,” she said eventually, releasing her from her embrace. The smile she got in return was a sad one.
“I know. And so do you.” The Doctor nodded. “One for the road?” Another nod. She leaned in, her soft lips brushing gently against hers. Golden light seemed to awaken where their lips had met, illuminating them both in a warm glow.
And then she was gone.
Sighing, the Doctor made her way around the TARDIS console, fingers brushing fondly across the well-worn buttons and levers. She rest a glowing hand on the rotor column; vibrations seemed to burble from within, a warm, sympathetic, solemn farewell. The Doctor closed her eyes for what she was sure would be the last time.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and let the wave of golden energy sweep her away into the stars, where she belonged.