(London, Earth, 2009)
When she was young, she used to fall asleep listening to her heartbeat echo back at her with her ear pressed to the pillow, pretending it was someone else's. No reason to change habits with age; just cos she'd managed to find herself a bloke and lose him on bloody Christmas is no reason not to still imagine, even if it's not Lance she's imagining. Except the heartbeat keeps intruding into daylight, pulling her distant from the world, and --
"Oi, are you even listening?" Nerys demands.
"What? Yeah. Course." Donna gives Nerys a smile. It feels real. No reason it shouldn't be.
"So it turned out she was after Carl all along, right? And Carl knew it but they're both too bloody shy to get a move-on so the boss said -- Donna. God, I dunno what to do with you."
"I'm listening," Donna protests. "Carl, yeah? In accounting."
"That's it. Anyway, the boss said they might as well just shag and get it done with, only I think he's after that tart of a secretary, and if you're still temping, right, you might want to --"
"Dunno if I'll be temping," Donna says, fiddling with her straw. "Did you know, my mum's not even on my case about it any more? Makes me want to do something better with myself. God, psychology. Can't even figure myself out."
"No," Nerys says, pointing a manicured finger at Donna. "That one's easy. Your mum got kidnapped by one of those aliens, right, and had her brain transplanted."
"Give over with those aliens of yours." Donna rolls her eyes and sucks up the last of her drink. "Right. That's me done, then. Got to be back at the office in ten." She doesn't watch the surprise on Nerys' face, nor listen to Nerys' protest of "They give you the shortest lunch break in the world, they do;" she overrides it, "Yeah, I know, not bleeding fair, is it? See you later!" and leaves Nerys sitting there in astonishment.
In the street she takes a deep breath, a little astonished herself. Maybe Nerys is right about the aliens. Her brain's well scrambled.
Waiting on the corner for a break in traffic, she sees for a moment a bubble across the street. Big bubble. Big bubble floating by a lamppost, with a curly pale seahorse inside. No, that can't -- Donna frowns, blinks, squints at the lamppost. Nothing's there and now she has a headache.
She sets off in the general direction of her own house. She's off work for the day; landed a temp job in Hounslow West that only needs her working mornings, which suits Donna just fine. Working only mornings helps a bit with the headaches. They're infrequent, and they only started recently, but Gramps noticed right away, started treating her extra-gentle, and somehow convinced Mum to do the same. That was great for a week or two, until suddenly it wasn't: headaches getting worse, and always accompanied by frustration and wanderlust, like Donna suddenly found the whole bloody planet crammed inside her head and somehow still too small to fit. She'd love to believe in Nerys' aliens, but she's never seen any, and Nerys makes things up too often to be trustworthy on this point.
Which doesn't explain why she's up on Gramps' stargazing lately, or why she's taken to wandering the field allotment behind the hill on her afternoon free time, looking for -- meteors, she supposes. So far she's found a few fossilized chalky things and learned to identify Venus without needing Gramps to point it out first.
Venus, Donna thinks, climbing the hill and passing the bare patch of ground where Gramps spreads his blanket, the crumbs from the sandwich she made him last night. Venus, which -- something about martial arts. Pressure points. Oh, she must've seen a film. The wind's picking up around her, tugging at her coat and pulling her forward. Donna squints up at the sky. Looks like rain. She'll have to be back inside soon or she'll get soaked.
She tramps on down into the field. The far side, near the little copse of trees bounding another stretch of residential streets, is all over in ashes: someone did a controlled burn there last year, but they didn't do it properly; nothing's grown back in all that time. Still, Donna hasn't been over that way yet, and she isn't likely to find any meteors for Gramps but she might find a forgotten penny twisted into interesting shapes by the heat.
Five minutes and no luck later, with the treacherous false dusk of an oncoming storm gathering in around her and ashes starting to cling to the red varnish on her nails, Donna's annoyed enough to straighten and dust herself off, turning for home. That moment a last ray of sun slips through the gathering clouds and glints off something in the ashes.
"That's more like it, then," Donna tells the world at large, and kneels.
It's a pretty ring, not in the least damaged by the fire, nor tarnished by time. Donna can't imagine how it got here. But she picks it up and turns it around in her fingers, examining the design on it, a sort of bubbled double fractal. For a moment it almost means something, like catching the briefest glimpse of a face in among clouds; then it's gone. Donna shrugs and pockets the ring, heading for home.
By the shed she sees a funny bubble-sheen in the air again, but when she turns to look there's nothing there.
Mum's out shopping with some mates, and Donna finds Gramps snoring on the couch with a blanket half-fallen onto the floor, so she gives him a fond little smile and heads up to her room. Coat gets thrown carelessly over her bed, and she sits atop it, digging the ring back out of her pocket. "Not my style at all," she tells it. "And too big by half." She grins, sitting there in her empty room. "Might fit Nerys," she tells the world at large, and, shrugging, slips it on.
Donna Noble has never been stupid enough to lick her finger and then stick it in a plug, but it probably feels something like this. A shock races up her hand through her whole body, catches for a moment at the base of her skull and tugs; she gives an involuntary gasping yelp and sees gold, maddeningly familiar but she's in too much startled pain to catch the familiarity before it vanishes and she's just sitting there in astonishment, staring.
Harold Saxon is standing in the middle of her bedroom.
Harold Saxon is standing in the middle of her room, in shirtsleeves and a tie, looking mildly surprised. The only blemish in his impeccable appearance is a small bloom of crimson halfway down the side of his shirt.
Donna gapes at him. "What?"
He recovers himself at once and smiles his trademark charming smile. "Hello."
"No, but -- what?" Donna says, with a weird creeping sense of déjà vu.
Saxon's lips twist slightly. "This is a bit unexpected, yes. And who are you?"
"Donna Noble," Donna says, finally recovering herself. "And what the hell are you doing in my room?"
"Is it?" Saxon says with mild interest. "I really haven't the faintest, ah, Donna." He peers around. "And where might this be?"
"Chiswick," Donna says, a little angry now, "London, England, sir. Sorry, just to get this straight, you're Harold Saxon."
A grin flickers across his face. "Harold Saxon. Yes."
"You're the twenty-four-hour Minister. In my bedroom."
"Yes, I --" Saxon double-takes. "I'm the what?"
"Twenty-four-hour Minister," Donna repeats. "Well, I s'pose you wouldn't know that. Was on all the news. That first-contact hoax. Funded by terrorists or something. Right lot of chaos we had for a few months, thanks, you and the American President both killed and oh my god what are you doing here?"
Saxon's eyebrows quirk a little. "So that's what they're calling it. Tidy." He laughs suddenly. "But the Cabinet was already gone! And you didn't just fall to pieces? Maybe there's something to that endless admiration for human ingenuity after all."
Donna gapes at him. "Shut up!"
He blinks at her, as though he's momentarily forgotten she's in any way important. (She is. Someone said --) Then his lip curls a little in disgust. "You are not a particularly good specimen."
"Oi! Watch it!" Donna finds herself standing, hands clenched into fists. It's beginning to rain outside. She's never particularly imagined meeting politicians, presumed dead or otherwise, but if she had she wouldn't have imagined it like this.
"I --" Saxon stops halfway through the vowel and stares at Donna's hand. "Oh, now, that's more like it."
Donna starts to cross her arms, but Saxon says, "Don't" with a weird peculiar resonance and she -- doesn't. He holds out a hand. "Let's see it," he says, and tilts his head a little, twitches his fingers impatiently. Donna drags a reluctant step forward and gives him her hand, the ring glinting over a knuckle. "Oh," Saxon breathes, "but you couldn't." Looks up at her with dark eyes that looked so very calm and reassuring those few times she'd happened to catch him on telly, but now remind her of nothing so much as the pulling dark spaces in the light-years between stars.
She shudders. "Couldn't what?"
"Biodata ring," Saxon murmurs, apparently to himself, and slips it gently from Donna's finger, slides it onto his own and relaxes considerably. Donna does too, taking a stumbling step back before Saxon looks up again and pins her with those awful eyes. "But you'd need a massive charge -- been near electrical storms lately, Donna?"
"No," Donna says, and to her shame it comes out half a whisper. "May I sit down?"
And he laughs, throws back his head and laughs like a delighted little boy. "I like you," he says. "Sit down, do. Don't stand on --" another laugh "-- my account. Polite. I do like polite."
Donna's legs fold and she sits on the bed, shaking. Things are fluttering in the back of her head, fragments of whispers. Don't trust him. Of all the bloody unhelpful things, don't trust him, she already knows that. She's too scared to stand for the first time in her whole life -- not even when she -- mirrors -- because she can't remember, can't remember how she's supposed to make her body her own. Crushed-down neurons are trying to spark, trying to fight to life and slam up mental shields, but they can't, and she's sitting here just paralysed.
Her mouth still works well enough, though, so she says, fierce as she can, "And I can do impolite, Mister Saxon. Get the sodding hell out of my house!"
He tsks. "And we were doing so well. Let's try again. Not electrical storms." He considers her, head tilted and eyes gone narrow. "Exposure to Huon particles?" At Donna's blank look, he sighs. "No, too improbable. Vortex radiation?" He grins again at that, another terrifying three-second mood. "Did he send you instead of coming himself? Not like him."
"I dunno what you're talking about," Donna says, her voice only trembling a little. I thee biodamp. Ooh, that headache. She bows her head, clutching at her forehead, skull pounding; when cool fingers come to settle at her temples, for a moment she actually lets him, lets the pounding headache subside, relaxes before -- No, you can't! -- she jerks away, her vision splintering into the refracted light of tears, and through the blur she sees Saxon rock back on his heels with a look of stunned fury. "I'm sorry," Donna tries, not quite sure what she's saying, "I -- I'm so sorry," and Saxon shakes her, hisses, "Donna Noble," and she comes back.
"Oi! Get off me!"
"I'd ask what he did to you," Saxon says, "but you wouldn't be able to answer, would you?"
Donna shudders and swipes a hand over her face. "I've had a bad day," she mumbles. "I've had a bad week. Please get out."
And then something taps at the window.
Something taps at the window, during a rainstorm, outside the upstairs level of the house. Donna raises her head slowly and sees two of those bubble-seahorse things, bobbing outside the window and peering in at her with an air of politeness. She finds herself too exhausted even to cry.
Saxon goes to the window. "Any idea what those are?"
Donna sniffs. "No."
"Shall I let them in?" Saxon asks, and looks over his shoulder at her with the most peculiar expression, part hunger and part pity and still so terribly blank. Really honestly asking her permission, like he's a guest about to let other guests into the house, and despite the fact that the guests are a presumed-dead, suddenly-appearing former Prime Minister and floating giant seahorse things, Donna feels a little bit more in charge now.
"Yeah," she says. "Sure, why the hell not."
So Saxon opens the window and the seahorse things bob in. "Greetings," one of them (or perhaps both; Donna can't tell) whirrs, a slightly distorted but perfectly intelligible word. "We represent the Ffsoehi Scientific Research Brigade." A pause, and possibly the other one (or maybe again both) adds, "Temporal Anomaly Division. Do we have your permission to scan?"
Saxon draws himself up. "Sol Three is a Classification Five planet," he says coldly. "Research that before you go revealing yourselves to humans."
"Hang on," Donna says faintly, standing. "These are like -- alien seahorses?"
The seahorse things make a little buzzing bleep. "Seahorse," one of them whirrs, "Genus hippocampus. There are over thirty-two species of seahorse residing in the oceans of Sol Three, composed of H2O and with an average salinity of three-point-five per cent --"
"So, alien," Donna interrupts.
"We represent the Ffsoehi Scientific Research Brigade," the seahorse -- Ffsoehi? -- repeats. "Aladfar Six. Permission to scan?"
"For -- temporal anomalies," Donna says. She's still shaking a little.
"Yeah, well, do him first," she says, jerking her head in Saxon's direction. He shoots her a look of wide-eyed surprise that she duly ignores.
"Permission to scan?" the Ffsoehi repeats.
Saxon considers for a moment, then shrugs, such a very loose careless movement that Donna knows at once he's wound very tight by all this. "Might as well tell me the damage." The two Ffsoehi just stay there, bobbing politely. He sighs. "You may scan."
At once the bubbles glow blue-white and make a high-pitched humming noise. Donna can't see a scan beam or anything, but the humming is definitely pointed in Saxon's direction. After about five seconds, it ends and Donna's bedroom is abruptly the proper colour again.
"No temporal anomalies detected," the Ffsoehi announces.
Saxon's eyes go wide again, not feigned this time. "But I'm --" he says, and stops abruptly. He shoots Donna a strangely wary look. "I'm not human. Sol Three? Twenty-first century? Classification Five planet?"
"Hang on," Donna says loudly, "we had a Martian Prime Minister?"
The look he levels at her is plainly disgusted. "I'm not from Mars."
"But you're alien. Oh my god." The headache isn't back, but Donna doesn't feel quite right. The seahorses are one thing. A plainly recognisable human-looking public figure who turns out to be an alien is something else entirely. "So you're like -- Elvis or something."
Saxon makes a soft noise of disgust and turns back to the Ffsoehi. "Non-human, twenty-first-century Earth. Not a temporal anomaly? No?"
"No temporal anomalies detected," the Ffsoehi repeats calmly. "Our databanks indicate an all-access temporal pass for Rassilon-era Gallifreyans."
"Ah." Saxon's shoulders relax slightly. "They would. All right. What about Donna Noble here?"
Donna comes forward nervously. Most of her is absolutely against being scanned -- but there in her head, insistent words, But you are special, and she needs to know what the hell is going on. She takes a deep breath and tells them, "Your scanners give me cancer or something and -- and so help me, I'll boil you like lobsters." One of the Ffsoehi makes the information-search buzzing bleep, and she adds quickly, "So get on with it!"
The blue-white glow and high-pitched humming return. All the little hairs on Donna's arms stand straight up and for a moment she sees all that gold light again. Then it's over and the Ffsoehi, both of them, are blinking excitedly and making small beeping noises. Donna barely masters the urge to hit them to shut them up, because it probably won't work. She settles for, "Shut up and tell me, then!"
They both speak, rapidfire, one after another, the words nearly blending: "Huon particles detected -- unusual coincidence field -- Vortex radiation in a homo sapien -- inexact DNA match -- Time Beetle -- creation -- incomplete --"
"Stop," Saxon says coldly, and the Ffsoehi stop abruptly. "From the beginning," he says, as though he's conducting a lecture. "The presence of Huon particles would kill her within days."
Calm again, one of the seahorses says, "The only trace remains in her dead hair follicles."
"So she had --" Saxon stops abruptly and sucks his cheeks in a little, clearly thinking hard. "The Vortex radiation is easy enough -- but why he --" Stops again. "Inexact DNA match?"
"Gallifrey-style basal ganglions detected," the Ffsoehi says.
Saxon looks honestly floored. "She has Time Lord neurons?"
At once all that cold focused attention is turned directly on Donna. She manages to keep looking at him, but can't actually speak; from the first word of assessment spoke by the Ffsoehi, the pounding in her head has been getting worse, and she's sitting on the bed by now, clutching at it. Saxon is across the room and kneeling next to her in an instant. "Time Lords," he says.
She jerks her head. "No."
"Oh, er -- TARDIS, how's that? Time Vortex." He leans forward a little. "The Doctor?"
"No," Donna repeats. "No, no, I don't --"
"But you can't have been turned human," he tells her, voice tinged with frustration. "It completely rewrites your biology. It wouldn't have triggered the ring and it wouldn't come up on any scan."
Donna hears the words, but distantly. After a moment Saxon seems to notice her non-responsiveness, because he slides cool fingers under her chin and tilts her face up enough that she's looking into his eyes again, horrible and familiar. She shudders and goes still.
"It's all right," Saxon murmurs. "That noise ..." He taps two fingers against her thigh; beat-beat, beat-beat. A quiet mad look slides briefly across his face -- beat-beat-beat-beat -- and off again. "All the things in your head, stuffed tight and locked away -- he really thought that was the only way, didn't he? No finesse."
"I don't," Donna whispers. "I don't understand. There's aliens in my bedroom and you're dead or an alien too and my head ..."
Saxon stands abruptly. "What else did the readings say?"
"Unusual coincidence field," the Ffsoehi says.
"No. Not interesting."
A long pause. Donna lifts her head. She can now, fear and curiosity overriding the pain. The damn seahorses are regarding her with analytical politeness. Then one of them says, again in that tone of calm observation, "You had something on your back."
And the world flares up white in the overload.
Donna remembers: two worlds, the nightmare one, and the real. Donna remembers her wedding. Donna remembers Egypt, all guide books and don't-drink-the-water. Donna remembers the bees disappearing, and the Doctor reappearing. She remembers the Doctor, that skinny streak of alien nothing and absolutely everything, remembers the light of the Earth being born and the shining of a thousand diamond towers, remembers the rush of saving worlds, remembers Martha and Rose and oooh that Captain Jack. Remembers then, the unpacking of a million million pieces of information in her head, Gallifrey in the summertime and a junkyard and the TARDIS' circuits sticking, remembers exile and Scotland and how the dinosaurs died, remembers equations in five dimensions and knows exactly what's happening to her.
Her head snaps upright.
"Oh yeah, very clever," she says, "poke and prod to see how something works and break it in the process. And you think he doesn't have any finesse."
This man, in his suit a year burnt and still wearing the shirt stained by the bullet that killed him, gives her one of those blank courteous looks that means he's sure he'll work out the secrets of the universe any minute now, and won't ask for a hint even though he needs it.
"C'mon, spaceboy!" she says, leaping to her feet. Turns on the Ffsoehi to add, "Yeah, thanks for your help. I'm sure I could be a whole thesis paper. Now off you go! Go on!"
"Explain," one of them says uncertainly.
"Two-way biological metacrisis," Donna says cheerfully, "followed by -- I have to give it to him -- a fairly effective neurological rewrite only likely to be overrode by, ooh, another Time Lord unexpectedly turning up. Or an alien invasion right on my doorstep, but c'mon, how likely's that?" She knows her grin is painful; she knows she's running on adrenaline and beginning to waste time. "Anyway!" She spins back. "You're coming with me, Mister Master. Downstairs. Go on."
Shock flares in the Master's eyes. To his credit he says only, "And what do you plan to do then?"
"Wake up my granddad and get to Cardiff in, say, under four hours. I don't have any longer than that. Brain overload. Bang!" Donna grabs her jacket from the bed. "Last resort, I'll have the Doctor called in, but before that I'm gonna try finding a more permanent solution. Keep that big brain of his." She's at the stairs already and calls over her shoulder, "Come on, spaceman. God, you're all bloody the same."
The Master follows her out of sheer curiosity. At least, she's nearly sure that's it. He might be planning to kill her.
Gramps is already up, raised by Donna's commotion. She runs into him at the foot of the stairs. "Gramps! Great! Off to Cardiff, quick."
He catches her shoulders. "You all right, sweetheart?"
"Right now, yeah. But --" she makes sure he's looking right at her "-- I remember, all right? I remember the Doctor, so we've got to do something about my brain cos in a few hours my brain won't be able to take it."
Gramps nods, his eyes shining a little overbright, perfectly determined. Donna hugs him tight, and then over her shoulder he says, "Here, who's this?"
Donna pulls back. The Master's leaning over the banister with raised eyebrows. "Gramps, this is an alien like the Doctor. Same kind. And no, he's not Mr Saxon."
"Oh." Gramps gives the Master an appraising look. "Looks like him."
The Master shrugs and comes bounding down the stairs. "Family?"
"Wilfred Mott," Gramps says. "Donna's granddad."
"I'm the --" the Master starts, and Donna says, "Save it." The Master makes a faint choked noise and she shrugs at him, lips pursed a little, the look that used to really infuriate her mum before -- oh. If she survives this, she's giving her mum a really big hug. Right now, she says, "Save the indignation, yeah? Coming?"
"I have a choice?" the Master asks dryly.
Donna snorts. "Yeah. Not exactly holding you at gunpoint, am I?"
The Master considers this. "You're letting me go."
"Yeah, well, right now I'm more worried about living, thanks." She gives the Master a close look. "You understand that."
He blinks, once, and says, in impeccably courteous tones, "Thank you."
"Yeah, well," Donna says again. "Just get out of my house. You kill my mum and I swear you'll be in unbreakable chains for a hundred years and if the TARDIS doesn't have a dungeon now it will have by the time I'm done with you."
"Donna," Gramps says.
The Master holds up his hands. "Noted, Miss Noble."
"Good," Donna says, and turns to Gramps. "We have to hurry. Let's go."
She makes sure the Master's out the door first, the rain plastering his hair down and sticking his shirt to his shoulders. She watches a moment too long, as though that's the sort of thing her big Time Lord brain should be doing when it could be thinking of ways to save her. She takes a deep breath, turns, and lets him go.The pounding in her head is back, like half of that ridiculous drumbeat, and she'll have plenty of time to worry about him later. It's not as though he can get off-planet.
There has to be a later.
Gramps starts the car, and they go.