"Stay put for just another minute," the Doctor cautioned Donna as another former traveling companion swept through the double doors. Rory and a young man followed in Amy's wake. "Hello, Ponds."
"We don't have got any chocolate drops in, so if that puts you off an omelet, there's also toast with mustard and jam." Amy's face made clear what she thought of the Time Lord's eating habits. She spotted Donna and grinned, though it held no recognition. "Oh my god, you've found a friend who's fond of a fez- I owe someone a tenner! Hey. I'm Amy. This is Rory and Jules." She pointed to the two men, one of which looked like a shorter, more ginger version of the other.
"Donna. Donna Noble." If Amy was kind enough to pretend the garden incident never happened, Donna was happy to play along.
"You're welcomed to breakfast as well. Have you been with the Doctor long? Has the 'it's bigger on the inside' thing worn off yet? He loves that phase, the old rogue."
Donna glanced at the Doctor. He was studying his bootlaces. " 'S been sort of... on and off again. Though the way I met him, it was more like the Tardis was smaller on the outsi—"
"I know you!" Amy bounded up the stairs to approach the pair on the far side of the platform. Closer up, Donna could see that the other woman was significantly older than when they had met. Amy was her elder this time. "I remember now! You ran off with River's vortex manipulator. Nice to see that you didn't get splinched or something using that thing."
"That was awkward, wasn't it? Not at all like this." Donna laughed, the sound high and false in her ears.
"Don't worry about it. We always wondered what happened to you. Always meant to ask, but got kind of sidetracked when Julian came along. I was pregnant with him when we met." Amy threw an arm around the young man to ruffle his hair. His long-suffering expression spoke volumes of the average teenager's struggle with an embarrassing mum. Smirking, she gently pushed him in the direction of the upper staircase. "Go find that virtual reality room you're always on about. And if you programme somethin' with girls, try not to make them evil geniuses that attempt take over the ship this time," she called after her son, then turned back to Donna. "Off to university soon."
Despite her nerves, Donna managed a heart-felt smile. "How wonderful, you must be very proud."
"Over the moon. But they grow up so fast. You never have as much time as you hoped." Amy's voice was sunny, but the lines around her eyes drew together slightly. She shrugged, as if to banish a thought, and her expression returned to what seemed to be a customary wry smile. "Do you know our River?"
Donna coughed. "Erm, yeah, really well actually." She nudged the Doctor in the ribs, but he failed to respond. Fine, he was going to leave her to twist in the wind. "Two peas in a pod, that's us. Very close."
" 'Really well,' eh?" Amy was eyeing Donna shrewdly. "Are you married to them? Is there some spacey-wacey polygamy afoot in the Tardis? Are there His, Hers, and Hers towels up in the loo?"
Rory and Donna's immediate, overlapping protests filled the air.
"Oi, 'm not married to any flippin' Time Lord!" Donna huffed. "Do I somehow, I dunno, exude signs that I belong arm-in-arm with every Martian that comes to call?"
"A shame. I always thought River could do with a wife. She shrinks everything when she does the wash and her coffee is swamp water," the Scottish provocateur teased.
"Amy," groaned her husband. "Yes, I am aware of the cultural differences between our time and the 51st century, but you don't have to actively bring up... things... a father does not need to know." He turned to address Donna. "Not that you're not lovely. I'm sure that you would be an asset to any multiple partn—" Blushing, Rory quickly spun back to Amy. "But seriously. For the sake of my sanity."
Amy mock-pouted. "Okay, okay, only for you. Best behaviour."
Rory's distress faded as he gave her a loving smile. They had spent more than half their lives together, but Amy could still melt his heart like it was Auton plastic. He noticed something during the lull. Or rather, absence of something. The Doctor never went this long without speaking. The lack of techno-babble was eerie. "Doctor, will River be along soon?" Rory asked the unusually subdued alien. He gestured at the hallway entrance with a thumb.
The Doctor finally stirred. "Your daughter is... where she's required. My wonderful, brave Ponds! The Woman Who Remembered. The Duke of Jumpers." The Time Lord hugged each as he named them. "We need to talk about River."
"If she's not here and she doesn't have her vortex manipulator- Don't tell me you left her stranded somewhere, Doctor," Rory said disapprovingly.
Amy made a dismissive noise at her husband. "You're so overprotective. River can take care of herself. She always has done."
"Last time she visited, she said she'd been freed from Stormcage, but that was ages ago. I thought we'd see her more often, not less. They're time travelers, Amy. They could be here every day if they wanted. So where is she?"
The Doctor hesitated, shifting his jaw sideways in thought. "We were in the Library. A whole planet of nothing but books from a hundred worlds. But the books were full of as many shadows as words, and the shadows tried to consume the readers."
"Sounds like a fairy tale," Amy murmured.
"Then you can appreciate the danger." He regarded her solemnly. "All of the survivors were saved inside the Library's hard drive, but it was failing under the strain. The whole planet was going to self destruct. River stopped it, got all the people out. At a terrible cost. I- I tried to do it myself. She knocked me out. Handcuffs. You know River Song." His breath caught. Donna slipped her hand into the Doctor's, holding it like they were running together. No running this time; the monsters already won. "Her body was destroyed, but I saved her thought pattern. I'm so sorry. That's all that's left."
Amy's face was wooden. "No. No, no, no," she repeated. Rory caught her against his chest, where she sagged, muttering denials into his shirt.
"She's only thoughts now? What does that mean? I don't even— How? When?" Rory's demand was hardly more than a whisper.
Donna spoke up before the Doctor could reply. "I was there, too. The Doctor saved her consciousness in his sonic, and now I have it stored in my head. She's here, with me." No harm in fudging the timeline of events for her family's peace of mind. Let them think it just happened. There was no answer he could give that wouldn't end with the Ponds hating him for hiding their daughter's death from them for the last 35 years, spoilers or not. The Doctor deserved some of their anger, but it was cruel to let Amy and Rory know all of the details.
She remembered River saying something about getting to be as bad as the Doctor. Donna could see how his way of doing things was easier. Tell people what to do for their own good, because explaining was just... too painful. This was exactly his type of well-intentioned lie that he had no right to make, and here she was doing it in his place. She half expected the Doctor to say something, especially since she had just raked him over the coals about allowing people their own choices, but he just moved slightly so that their shoulders were touching. A gesture of solidarity.
The hope blossomed on Rory's face. "You're- you're River in a new body. Like regeneration but with a flatmate."
"Ponds," said the Doctor gently, "it can't last, this arrangement. Time is running out. She's going to regenerate, but only Donna will be there after. I can't bring your daughter back to you. All I can offer is time to say goodbye."
Amy rubbed the back of her hand over her eyes. Sniffling slightly, she straightened her clothing and hair. "Let's get on with it, then. If this is all we get, I don't want to waste it." She smiled bravely at Rory.
"Um, step back a pace everyone. She may be just a smidgen peeved that I locked her in the limbo of Donna's subconscious. Probably little gooey bits of id floating around in there." He wriggled his fingers to illustrate the unsavory regions of his companion's brain, until Donna smacked his upper arm. The Doctor took his own advice and retreated to a spot where he could use the console as cover.
A whirring signal from the sonic disabled the wall speakers. As soon as the drone of the binaural beats died, Donna's eyes began to seethe with golden regeneration energy. The light radiated as if from twin blast furnaces, raining down photonic embers that sparked fitfully on the glass floor. Her body staggered forward with the force at which the symbiotic consciousness became the dominant personality. "Doctor!" she growled in the voice of River Song.
Instead of the expected face of the Time Lord, she saw her parents waiting at near-hovering distance. "Oh, I hate you, Doctor."
"You don't," he responded confidently from his near-hidden position on the far side of the rotor.
"Mum, Dad, lovely to see you. Am I wearing a fez? Hold on while I kill my husband." She tossed aside the offending headwear and stalked around the console, but the Doctor slipped down the other side to join the Ponds.
"Oh my god, it is her," Amy said quietly.
River paused to really look at their faces, their body language. They seemed shocked, confused, and worst of all, scared. "You know. You all know. What's going to happen." She breathed out as though her anger was deflating. "They aren't supposed to be here, no one is."
"I know. You were going to leave me on Falxia Meridiem so you could take the Old Girl into the vortex and regenerate there. Alone. Programme her to return automatically when the deed was done."
"My parents- They've had enough trauma for this lifetime, quite a lot of it being my fault. They don't need to witness this on top of it all. You shouldn't have brought them into it." Though she didn't say it, River's 'they' clearly included the Doctor as well.
Rory spoke up. "River, sweetie, we want to be here for you. I'm glad the Doctor included us." He and Amy embraced their daughter in a group hug.
The Doctor made a hesitant move as though he wanted to join, but then restrained himself. "Alright. So, hugging and imminent crying. I'll go fetch the missing Pond, shall I? Where did Julian wander off to? Ah, one of the VR suites." He dashed up the stairs and disappeared.
"Wait, isn't that thing like a holodeck or something?" Amy asked. "The Doctor was able to hold your mind inside the sonic before. Maybe you could go into one of those suites instead of regenerating!"
"No, Amy. I'm sorry but I can't," River said firmly.
"That can't sounds like won't, Melody Elizabeth Pond. You could at least try it until the Doctor thinks of something."
"You don't know what you're asking of me. My answer is no." River shook her head. "Your daughter died in the Library. I'm her data ghost, an echo of the person I was. Even now as a symbiotic consciousness, there's not enough left of me to exist on my own. I'll never have full autonomy again. Can't live like that, Mum, regardless of the cost. I will not be imprisoned again." The yellow light in her eyes intensified.
"It's not like you to just... give up."
River grinned. "Never. This is my choice, and I made it months ago, before Donna and I started to build the relay to transfer me out of the Library. My half-existence can be traded in to give her a full one. Let me do this for her. But it has to be here and it has to be now."
Rory and Amy exchanged a look laden with emotion. He nodded in acceptance, and a second later so did she.
Julian arrived back in the control room at a run. He launched himself at River in the hug-tackle of an adolescent not quite used to his own strength. She, like her mother earlier, ruffled his hair affectionately, but this time he didn't seem to mind. The Doctor arrived right behind Julian but remained at the top of the stairs. He watched the little family below, feeling a bit like an intruder in his own home.
Amy caught his eye and beckoned him over with a tilt of her head. "Come on, you numpty." Bouncing a bit, he joined the reunion.
After a few minutes, River managed to extricate herself from the other Ponds to speak to the Doctor. She smoothed the Time Lord's bow tie. "Thank you. I didn't realize that I needed this kind of closure. It's quite annoying when you're right, you know."
"I've been made aware that most things I do are irritatingly clever." The Doctor peered into her face, searching for something. "The regeneration field seeping from your ocular cavities has been increasing by 15% every five minutes." He picked up her left arm by the wrist and studied her fingers from every angle. "Your hands are shaking. Have you noticed?"
River rubbed at the crown of her head, momentarily thrown by the difference from her normal hair texture. "Don't know how much longer I can hold off. The metacrisis energy is fluctuating outside of my ability to control. At some point it will breech the barriers. There's something we haven't discussed, but I know you've considered the possibility." She leant forward and whispered something in the Doctor's ear.
"Really? Are you sure?" the Doctor said squeakily. "I think I may be able to help you with some of the more fiddly genomes if you wouldn't mind. Simple biological transfer should do the trick."
"Ever the romantic." She chuckled, but it was cut short when clouds of regeneration energy escaped along with her breath. "Perhaps it should be sooner rather than later. I need the Tardis to stabilise stabilise stabilise stabilise—" She clamped a hand over her mouth to stem the flow of words. When she finally removed it, River's familiar smirk tugged at Donna's lips. "Best hurry," she said dryly.
The Doctor moved to the console and piloted the Tardis into the time vortex with a few well-practiced motions. He shooed the Ponds back to a safe distance.
"Mum, Dad, Jules. Doctor. Donna. Love you all." River's hands were beginning to blaze as vibrantly as the golden light dancing in her eyes.
The Doctor approached the glowing woman. "Thank you for this. I'll never forget."
"Oh, shut up," she teased and then kissed him. Regeneration energy poured from her head and hands like roman candles. There were tinges of silver within the gold. Somehow River was augmenting the metacrisis energy with rift energy channeled from the vortex, making it stronger.
He could feel her DNA mutating under his touch. Double helices splintering and re-encoding, tempered in the fires of change sweeping through her body. The energy stung his skin, alternatingly hot and cold, but he held on. He remembered what River had whispered to him. "Sweetie, it's time to move on. I've always known that some day our time would run out. I could never have Forever, but it is a gift I can give to someone else. Donna wants to be with you for the rest of her life. I can make her a full Time Lady- you won't ever have to be lonely again."
The woman jerked backward with a gasp as the regeneration cycle completed. Almost afraid to open his eyes, the Doctor whispered, "Noble?"
"What," Donna demanded, "did you misunderstand about gettin' fresh with me, mister?"
"Donna!" His eyes popped open to gawk at his best mate. She looked the same, but his senses could pick up her distinct double heartbeat. He stuck his head close to her hair. She smelled... Time Lord!
"Gerroff, you weirdo!" She pursed her lips. "Blimey. I'm the same type of outer space whatsit as you now. That's brilliant! Now you're going to have to show me everything this universe has to offer. There's a lot to see; I'm thinkin' one galaxy per decade." She glanced over at the family waiting at the other side of the room. Donna's excitement gave way to empathy. "But first we should spend some time with the Ponds. Help 'em. Be there for 'em. I want to- well, I want to prove my worth. Show her parents that I'm deserving of the faith everyone's had in me."
"You're a Time Lady for two minutes and you already have a plan for the universe. You don't have to prove anything. What was given to you was a gift. Just make the most of it." The Doctor's smile was bittersweet. He produced a small, blue book from his jacket pocket. River's diary. He gave it to Donna. "I think she would want you to have this."
He held out his hand, which she took without hesitation. "Leadworth, then on to Felspoon."