She did eventually go back for her doctorate, and when she was feeling lonely or frustrated, she would pull out the sonic screwdriver he’d given her as a wedding present. She’d turn it over and over, learning its dips and grooves while she studied. She found the red setting, clever man, and generally fiddled with it until she could use it just as well as she could use his. It only took her another year to get her degree, she had studied a lot while she was in prison. (Contrary to his initial claims, she did have to spend at least half her time there. If she’d left for more than that, they would have extended her stay because she was ‘escaping’.) But in that year’s time, she heard nothing from him. Any him. She was concerned, but not overly so. On the day she graduated, she saw him standing in the back, cheering for her.
She was making her way over to him when she was intercepted by the Dean of Archaeology. On a whim, she’d applied for the new teaching position that had opened up at the university, unsure as to when the Doctor would return for her. That he would, she had no doubt. But his driving could be somewhat...erratic, at times. The Dean was asking her to come in for an interview.
She leaned to the side to catch a glimpse of the Doctor. He smiled, and nodded. She turned back to Dean. “I’d love to.”
She got the job, but she’d rather known she would. It helped that her husband had a form of precognition. She taught for a year, enjoying the opportunity to have people call her ‘professor’. But her husband never showed up. And neither did his younger self. It had been two years. What did it take to end the cycle?
She was sipping tea in a small shop when she was approached by a man who wanted her to lead an expedition to the Library. He’d gotten a really good reference for her from a Doctor Smith. Finally! Some news. She smiled wolfishly, and the man took a step backwards. To the Library.
She sent him a message through the Vortex as she’d done several times before, asking him to meet her there. She was going to see her husband again after two years! The thought made her heart beat faster.
It was him. Rude and not ginger with great hair and pinstripes. She’d never thought the circle would take her so far into his past. She was thrilled to see him again. And calling him pretty boy - well, that had been pure mischief. She hadn’t been able to resist, thinking of what his previous self would have said upon seeing what he would turn into. But the joy was tempered with sorrow, because he didn’t know her. He’d never seen this face.
This - this was the end.
He didn’t trust her. Was wary and rude and argued with everything she said. She would scan something with her screwdriver and he would scan it as well, seeming unwilling to trust her with something so small.
The last time she’d seen this body she had confessed her love to it while he had stared at her with love and grief. Now, he looked right through her, like she was a bug on a slide. And oh, but it hurt.
Donna vanished and he was frantic. She wished that she could tell him that it would be fine, that Donna would find her Lee, but she couldn’t be sure. She knew that one wrong word could send it all crashing down.
It had ever been that way.
Then came the Vashta Nerada in spacesuits. Then Donna’s face on the info terminal. She had to do something. The Vashta Nerada were closing in and he was spending all his time investigating her. He needed to trust her, but what could she do? She’d slipped up and made him suspicious. And there was no going back now. There was only one thing she could think of. Only one way to earn his trust quickly. She closed her eyes. Oh, but it would hurt him. This soon after he’d found out about her death, he would still be grieving. She didn’t want to do this. She opened her eyes and found him standing before her, full of wrath.
“I’m not going to ask you again,” he thundered. “Who are you?”
“I’m someone that you are one day going to trust implicitly. And I’m sorry, Doctor, I really am. But we don’t have time for you to figure that out.” She slid towards him and he tensed. “I’m going to whisper something in your ear.”
He narrowed his eyes but gave a short, sharp nod and she stepped up to him, resisting the urge to sink into him the way she once would have. She got so close that her lips brushed his ear, and she spoke as quietly as she could, unwilling that anyone else should hear the secret she was about to utter. She whispered his name in the language of his people; breathed the word that spun the galaxies - and heard his sharp intake of breath.
She stepped back and eyed him cautiously, unsure of how he would react. “Are we good, Doctor?” she asked when he only stared at her. “Are we good?”
“Y-” he swallowed hard. “Yes. We’re good.”
And then he fled from her.
He avoided her like she had the plague after that, though she caught him staring at her more than once. The whole thing made her more than a little sad. A crisis point was rushing up to meet them, and she was becoming ever more certain that she already knew how it would end.
It was while he was wiring up the machine that she finally understood. Her fears had been right all along. She was going to die here, without ever having seen her husband’s smile ever again.
She argued with him for the sake of appearances, knowing it wouldn’t do anything to change his mind - or hers. She would not let him go through with it. She smiled sadly as he put the last of it together. She would die for him, again. Because she wanted him safe.
He came to with a minute left on the count down and immediately began his bluster and blow.
“No! River, stop! You can’t survive that much energy flowing through your mind!”
“Neither can you, my love. You’ll burn out too fast, never get a chance to regenerate. I won’t let that happen.”
“River, no. River...” he pleaded with her, his eyes wide with sorrow.
She hated what she was doing to him. Hated the pain of dying without seeing him again. But it had all been worth it.
“River, you know my name. My name! I can’t even say it except...” he licked his lips. “How can you know my name?” he struggled against the handcuffs keeping him tethered to the pole, stretched to get his screwdriver which she’d laid just out of range. “River!”
“Shh...” she said, voice shaky as she fought off the tears. “Spoilers.” She paused to fiddle the wires into a better position. “The last time I saw the older you, he showed up on my doorstep with a new haircut and suit. You looked so dashing.” She smiled through her unshed tears. “You took me to the singing towers of Darillium. You’d been promising for ages.” She took a shuddering breath, focused her eyes on the Doctor she’d chained to the post. “You cried. Wouldn’t tell me why...but this means that you’ve always known how it would end. Oh, my Doctor. I’m so sorry. But don’t worry. Because you’ll see me again.” She took a deep breath, wishing for all the things she wanted to say to him, but couldn’t for the future he’d yet to live. “You’ll see me, and we’ll be fantastic. We’ll run...” she trailed off, lost for a moment in fond memories of things she’d lived and he’d yet to see. Then she focused back on him. If this was to be her end, she was so glad that he was there with her. Even if he didn’t know it yet, he loved her - and she loved him. Her Doctor. “You just watch us run.”
A single tear trickled down her cheek. The timer clicked over to zero, and she brought the two ends of the device together, completing the circuit. The energy began to flow, she felt a sharp burst of pain and then, no more.