There are skeletons in the wings of the opera house. Sal stares at them, their clenching and unclenching hands, and wonders how they stick together when all the ligaments and cartilage is gone. The skeletons take shuddering, impossible steps toward her. Sal's back hits the wall, and she realizes she's trapped.
The scream of a professional opera singer is more powerful than the average person's. The skeleton clutch their non-existent ears and shake, small bits of bone falling away. A little man with an umbrella and a pair of earplugs darts past them and grips Sal's arm, tugging her down a hallway. He drags her along at a fast pace, despite Sal's surprise and complete lack of practice at running. Sal's mouth snaps shut and she stares at the back of his head in shock, even as she tries to keep up.
"Don't stop," says the little man. "Go on, it's the only thing keeping them back."
Sal looks over her shoulder at the skeletons, who are beginning to gain. She'd thought that they wouldn't move quickly, that they'd be the slow lumbering skeletons of films. Instead their yellow-white limbs are almost blurred with movement, and one is reaching out to catch the hem of Sal's skirt. She takes a deep breath and starts again.
Sal screams and screams until she's out on the street, cool mist pouring on her face and the little man slamming shut the opera house door. Then, out of breath and coming down from a tremendous adrenaline high, Sal wobbles on her feet and faints.
On a normal day, Sal would wake up again almost immediately, propped up against the opera house wall with the little man patting her cheek.
Instead Sal wakes up in a strange room, and her hair is red.
Donna isn't tired. She doesn't have low blood sugar. She isn't hysterical or over-emotional or whatever the newest euphemism is. She's just calmly, irritatingly, collapsing to the ground.
Fainting fits. It's an unscientific term for an unscientific problem. It's the kind of term that suggests that your doctors have given up on figuring out what's wrong with you. You just have memory problems and spells of unconsciousness and the nagging feeling that you're at least seven months older than you should be, oh, well, that’s fine, then.
Donna’s had five MRIs and the fifth time the machine exploded. She’d sat among the lightly-smoldering wreckage, unscathed but more than a little annoyed, and listened as her doctor had told her that he didn't think any further tests were necessary or, indeed, advisable.
So Donna is fainting in a bookshop for no good reason. Thank you, body.
A man leans over her, spiky hair, brown coat, pinstriped suit. He touches her cheek. First Donna wants to hit him for taking advantage of a stranger, and then she recognizes something, something about the sadness in his eyes. Then she wants to hit him and hug him at the same time.
Doctor! she thinks, and then finally slides out of consciousness while she's still trying to force her voice to work.
When she wakes up it's not on the floor of a bookshop, or in a hospital bed, or anywhere that would make sense. She's on a stage, in a Valkyrie's costume, and she's halfway through the chorus.
As soon as Donna thinks about those things, she can hear her voice sputter and die. Thank god it's only the rehearsal.
"Sal?" mumbles one of the other Valkyries. "All right?"
Donna carefully does not utter a manic laugh, or ask what year it is, or start swearing at that bloody Doctor. Instead she draws a deep breath and finishes the chorus. And then does the whole thing again, beginning to end, when the director throws up his hands and screeches at the conductor, who screeches at the orchestra, who sullenly play their parts a little worse than before.
Donna can remember Sal. Sal is getting almost no money for a bit role in an opera company that's growing too big for its house. In a few months Sadler's Wells Opera will be abandoning its old eponymous theatre for the London Coliseum, and in the meantime everyone is itching to shed this old skin. When Sal feels prickling against the back of her head, she thinks it's just moving nerves. When Sal feels sharp pricking fingers at her ankle, she thinks it's old Sadler's Wells Theatre trying to keep her close. When Sal sees the skeletons in the wings, she—
Donna shakes off a shiver as her voice glides over a high note she would never reach with her own vocal cords. This is not her body, this is not her time. She catches a glimpse of something white-yellow out of the corner of her eye, something like bone. The theatre keeps its old performers close, thinks Donna. Or Sal.
Donna wonders if she's hallucinating, but decides the simplest explanation is the best. The simplest explanation is, as usual, that it’s the Doctor’s fault.
The TARDIS is an alien ship. The Doctor is an alien. The Doctor is just trying to help her.
Sal believes exactly two of these three things.
"It's not my fault that you're in the wrong body!" The Doctor screws up his nose and then winces away, as if he expects Sal to slap him. "Well, maybe it is my fault. A little. But I had no idea that Donna's time-sensitive morphic field would react like that!"
"Talk sense, thanks," says Sal, crossly. She feels as if she has to repeat that phrase every five seconds, because the Doctor clearly doesn't remember it.
"Donna has a... condition," The Doctor looks pained. "A sort of 'imbued with the fullness of my enormous Time Lord mind' condition."
"The fullness of your—" Sal can't bear to repeat it. "Do you listen to yourself?"
"I ran into her completely by accident," says the Doctor. "Absolutely an accident. And even if I was hovering around, trying to make sure she was all right, any contact between us should have just triggered the failsafe."
"The failsafe is me stealing her body?" asks Sal.
"I think," says the Doctor, "I may have done something wrong."
After rehearsal the cast scatters to pubs and appointments and families, and Donna lets Sal's feet lead her to wherever Sal lives. Katherine comes with her, because apparently they live in the same building. Donna tries her best to act like she knew that already.
"Do you ever feel like something's odd?" Donna asks Katherine. Katherine is Sal's friend, and from the look on her face she thinks that several things are odd and most of them are about Sal.
"It's just opening night," says Katherine, uncertainly. "Opening night jitters. It'll go away once we're in the second act."
"No," says Donna. "There's something more. Have you seen anything strange?"
"Saw the conductor's toupee fall off." Katherine giggles, but she still sounds nervous. "I'd never guessed it was fake. That was strange."
"No, I mean—" Donna sighs. She wishes she could say 'look, I'm not your friend, I'm just borrowing her body unexpectedly and I'd very much like to know why.' She has a feeling that wouldn't go over very well.
But, you know, people can always surprise you. Donna is trying to decide on the best way to put it when Katherine produces a card.
"If you're really worried," she says, offering it to Donna, "there's a man who was poking around here yesterday. He said we have very bad feng shui. I think he's a shaman. Because, look, it says so right here."
That is, in fact, almost all that the card says. SHAMAN, in careful, hand-written print. There's an address, but no name.
"Thanks." Donna turns the card in her hands and tries to pull directions from the echoes of Sal's memories. "I'll look him up."
"How's it going?" asks Sal, when it's been four hours (probably, the few clocks in the TARDIS don't seem to tell reasonable time) and she's still trapped in Donna.
The Doctor doesn't look up from the TARDIS console. "How's what going?"
"Fixing this." Sal flaps her unfamiliar hands at the Doctor. "Fixing me."
"Oh, right." The Doctor frowns. "I've given up."
"I understand what happened," says the Doctor, still frowning at the console. "In theory the failsafe was supposed to release a pulse of energy. Offload the stress. Instead I think the stress and, in fact, Donna's entire mind got offloaded into a different time and place and, well, body. Your body. And then your mind had to go somewhere, so it just traveled down the same path to Donna's body. A sort of time-traveling pneumatic tube. Just went schwoop, right?"
"Schwoop," says Sal, blankly.
"Anyway, I'm a little worried that if I try to just reverse it you and Donna will implode. Maybe not, but I hate to take risks. Sorry, that's not true at all, but I thought I'd give caution a try for once."
"All right," says Sal, feeling a little more on solid ground. "If you can't reverse it directly, what are we going to do instead?"
"Oh, I don't know." The Doctor spins a knob on the console, idly. "What about Mars? Haven't been to Mars in ages. Actually, I can't remember if the Ice Warriors want to kill me at the moment or not, so perhaps we should skip Mars. Neptune? Pluto? I'm feeling very fond of your solar system today."
"I meant," says Sal, "what shall we do about getting me back where I belong, in my own body? And Donna in hers, I suppose."
"Oh," says the Doctor. "I don't think that's—no. Even, you see, even if I wasn't worried about implosion, this isn't actually that bad of a situation. Your body isn't imbued with my brain, and neither is your mind. Donna's body and mind is, but since they're separated she's absolutely fine! She can keep her memories and live a happy life in 1968, meet some friends of mine, even meet me if she times it right, and she'll be fine. And you can travel with me, and have ginger hair and grand adventures, and you'll be fine too. You're each only half-imbued and now no one will die. The failsafe didn't work perfectly, but really I think this is all for the best."
Sal thinks this over. "You mean you want me to stay like this?"
The Doctor finally looks up and beams at her. "If you wouldn't mind."
Sal thinks a little bit longer. Sal draws a deep breath. Sal screams.
Donna walks through the streets, struggling to focus on the street signs. It's hard because Sal had somewhat weak eyesight, but didn't keep spectacles. Donna can't think why—Sal probably knew, but her memories are finally fading and now all that's left of Sal is the physical object that Donna inhabits. Sal had dark, curly hair. Sal owned fifteen dresses of eye-watering color. Sal has a cheap pair of boots with fake goldfish 'swimming' in the clear plastic platform heels.
Now Donna has all of those things. Including the bottle-green and rust-orange paisley dress she's wearing now. The first two buttons of the collar are undone in an attempt to fight off the heat as she hurries toward the ramshackle house at the end of the block.
In the ramshackle house there is a decrepit staircase that leads to a creaky door and behind the creaky door there is a little man. He doesn't look like the shaman Donna was expecting. He's wearing a jumper with question-marks on it, for one. Not typical shaman garb.
"Shamans look different in London," he says, and gestures her in. He shuts the door with his umbrella. "What seems to be the trouble?"
"I think I'm possessing someone," says Donna. "And I'd like to stop, thanks."
"Hmmm." The little man peers into her eyes. Donna stares back. His eyes are grey-blue-green, the color shifting whenever Donna blinks. Then he leans back, abruptly sliding out of focus and becoming fuzzy at the edges. Donna needs to buy glasses. That should be priority one, after figuring out what the hell is going on.
"You're not a swarm of alien beings living in the marrow of a human's bones and controlling it from the inside, are you?" asks the little man.
"What?" Donna narrows her eyes, which hopefully makes her look fierce, while she tries to bring the little man back into focus. "No."
"So much for the direct approach." The little man sighs. "I never did like it, anyway. If I commune with the spirits, perhaps I may find the answer to your—"
There's a crashing noise outside, like someone just fell through the decrepit staircase. No one screams. Instead there's a low murmur and a creaking noise, like someone is trying to figure out how to get up to the second floor regardless.
"The spirits are telling me to run," says the little man. He smiles, faintly, and gestures to the window.
"You've got to be joking," says Donna.
"The spirits are known for their sense of humor," says the little man. "But their jokes are often deadly. If you please."
Donna sets her jaw and takes the rope from the little man as someone begins to bash against the surprisingly sturdy door.
At least, she thinks, Sal had also owned nice, sensible flats, perfect for rappelling down walls.
The Doctor takes the TARDIS to Neptune. Sal stays inside and reads.
The TARDIS library has hundreds of books on chrono-interacting neuroscience. Unfortunately, most of them are written in highly technical language, or have pages missing, or vanish if Sal looks directly at them. It's frustrating. Sal perseveres.
Pages crackle as they turn. Sal keeps getting distracted by Donna's hands as they flip the pages—they're beautiful hands, with tapering fingers and carefully-kept nails. Sal always chewed on her own nails, but she vows to get a good manicure if she ever makes it back to her own body. A manicure and a haircut. She'll take her body out for a nice holiday, if only she can get it back.
Sal sets aside the latest book, and gropes around, eyes closed so that the books won't get shy and escape. Her hand (Donna's hand) closes on a small, hardback book, and she sneaks a look at it, growing bolder as it fails to disappear.
What to Expect When You're Possessing Another Woman's Body and the Doctor Won't Tell You How to Stop
By Dr. River Song
This sounds promising. Sal opens the book and discovers it's written in the form of a flowchart.
Are you human?
Sal thinks carefully, and then turns to the page number indicated under Yes.
Did you know the Doctor before your possession?
Choose your age range.
Sal checks the pages indicated under '100-150,' just out of curiosity, but the flowchart apparently goes on forever and Sal doesn't want to get lost while trying to figure out what kind of advice you give to a 150-year-old woman having an out-of-body experience. She turns back to '25-30.'
Sal turns to Rain without really thinking about it.
Are you Sal Foster?
Sal's hands tremble, but she doesn't drop the book. Carefully, she turns to Yes, the very last page.
Hello, the text reads. I know you're very frustrated, and it is completely the Doctor's fault. Tell him I said so. Go on, I'll wait.
It's tempting, but Sal would rather know what the book has to say. She can always tell off the Doctor later.
All right, if you'd rather not. The Doctor doesn't do very well without someone to scold him, though. If you bothered him properly, probably in a week or so he would realize that you don't want to live in Donna's body forever and come up with some brilliant and impossible solution. It would be awe-inspiring. All the reason to come up with something better yourself, yeah?
"Yeah," mumbles Sal.
I'd love to give you detailed advice, but I'm actually a little worried about the fabric of time. Generally, the fabric of time is more like denim than lace or chiffon or anything. You know, machine wash, not hand wash. But even denim can get worn in places, and by writing this book I am making it very worn indeed.
"I'm not planning on washing time," says Sal, feeling absurd. "Is it dirty?"
Sorry, tortured metaphor. I'll try to be short and sweet now. Even if I can't tell you everything, you can start by going to the Grand Mountain on Bultitude V. There are houses there, and in the biggest, oldest house you'll find someone who can help you. Good luck!
Sal turns the page, just in case there's anything else, but the book ends with nothing on the back of the last page. There is a picture of Dr. River Song on the inside flap of the dust jacket. She's winking.
Sal looks up to knocking on the door, and the Doctor leans in.
"Done sulking?" he asks. "Want something to do?"
"Like what?" asks Sal.
"Neptune is boring. Well, not boring. I helped overthrow a corrupt government and they want to make me king, so I'd rather not stay much longer. You can choose the next place, if you like."
"All right," says Sal, and stands up. "Do you know how to get to Bultitude Vee?"
"Bultitude Five," corrects the Doctor. "Of course I do—it's just a few turns of a knob in the TARDIS. Actually, I might have to pull some levers, twist a spring, maybe bang on the console once or twice. I bang on the console a lot. But it's not a very interesting place, Bultitude Five. Lots of sand. And sheep. Odd combination, but apparently it works for the sheep."
"I like sheep," offers Sal.
"Whatever you say." The Doctor sticks out his hand, and Sal takes it. "Come on!"
Sal lets the Doctor pull her along, stumbling on unfamiliar legs. Behind her, Dr. Song's book winks out of existence, falling through the worn denim of reality.
Since meeting the little man, Donna has jumped out of a window, climbed into a burning building, and been attacked by skeletons. All in one hour. She's trying to decide if this is progress or not.
"Does any of this have anything to do with Sal?" demands Donna. "I mean, me possessing Sal."
"Shh," says the little man.
"They can't hear us," says Donna. "They don't have ears."
"You'd be surprised," says the little man, but he straightens up from where he was crouching, pressed to the alley wall. "I think we've lost them, anyway."
"Them," repeats Donna. "What are they? You said something about an incursion?"
"You shouldn't be here," says the little man. "This has nothing to do with you. In another time—another version of events, I mean, you wouldn't be here at all."
"Sal would be here?" asks Donna. "Is this another—I turned right, once, when I should have turned left, and the whole world bollixed up."
"Nothing so drastic." The little man peers at her. "But I would be happier if you were in your place, and Sal was in hers."
"So would I," says Donna, trying very hard not to whinge. "You know, I came to you for help, not to be chased around by a bunch of skeletons."
"Help." The little man purses his lips and closes his eyes, and when he opens them he doesn't look quite the same. "Hm. There should be echoes, Donna. A thread still connects you to your body. Listen to the echoes."
Donna starts to say something, and then firmly shuts her mouth and listens.
All she can hear is the crackling of the distant fire.
"The spirits have something to say." The little man makes a very significant but completely meaningless gesture. "They say—there is something in your mind, something that cannot be tamed or destroyed, except by killing you. But perhaps it can be brought safely to birth."
"That's a terrible fortune," says Donna. "Did you get fired from the horoscopes page?"
The little man frowns, and then bursts into a wide grin. "Yes, as a matter of fact. A long time ago. That will be thirteen pounds fifty, please."
Donna glares at him.
"And don't go back into the opera house," says the little man. "There are more of the Marronites there. Give me at least three or four days to clear the infestation."
"Thanks for the tip," says Donna, and leaves.
At home, changed and clean and distinctly unsettled, Donna sits at her desk and tries listening again. She listens and listens and can't hear a thing. But when she looks down, she realizes she's been drawing.
A mountain, with houses at the base. And the biggest house seems... important. "Bultitude Vee," says Donna, into the quiet of Sal's flat, and stands up. She'll have to find the little man.
She still owes him thirteen pounds fifty, after all.
The TARDIS lands at the foot of the mountain, and Sal nearly runs into an almost identical TARDIS when she tries to get out.
"What?" squawks the Doctor.
"Hello," says a little man with an umbrella and a straw hat. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Yes!" shouts Sal's body, standing right beside the little man.
Sal throws herself into her own arms. It's a little forward, since she doesn't know the person currently occupying them, but it is her body.
"Oh," says the woman in Sal's body, stumbling a bit. "Yes, hello. Hello, me. Is that Sal in there?"
"Are you Donna?" asks Sal. "Oh, I'm so pleased you're here."
"What?" says the Doctor, again. "What?"
"It's a touching reunion, isn't it?" says the little man.
"Is this your fault?" asks the Doctor.
"In this case, I am merely a facilitator," says the little man. "Donna is an extremely capable woman."
"Yes," says the Doctor, and smiles. "Yes, she is that."
"I found a book," says Sal, excitedly. She's holding her own hand, and it feels so warm and familiar. "I know where we need to go, where to find help, and oh, you must too, since you made it here at just the right time."
"I don't." Donna squeezes her hand and smiles. "I was just... listening to you."
"Well, then." Sal laughs. "Keep listening."
Donna's vocal-cords aren't quite trained for singing, but Sal gives it a try anyway, too happy to be contained by this body. "Forse un giorno il cielo ancora sentirà pietà di me." She steps away toward the biggest house near the mountain, Donna's hand caught in hers. "Sentirà pietà di me!"
"Why isn't the TARDIS translating that?" asks the Doctor.
"Because it's art," says the little man. "Because it's beautiful. Because even the TARDIS loves a dramatic moment."
"Ah," says the Doctor, and stares at the loosely-grouped cluster of sheep standing next to his younger self's TARDIS. They're munching on mouthfuls of sand. "Can sheep even digest silica?"
"I ask very inane questions in my old age," says the little man, and sighs. "Come along."
They stroll along, following the trail of Sal's song in Donna's voice.
In the biggest, oldest house in the shadow of the Grand Mountain of Bultitude V, there lives a woman named Annabel. She is the universe's foremost expert in body-self incongruity, which either very surprising or only to be expected, depending on your point of view.
"You again!" she shouts, when she opens her door. "It's the third time this week!"
Sal looks at Donna. Donna looks, with narrowed eyes, at the Doctor. The Doctor points at himself in confusion.
"Me? I've never been here before in my life!"
"I recognize you!" says Annabel, who seems to be stuck on 'loud.' "You look younger, and your hair's a different color, and your facial structure is much more defined, but it was definitely you! What happened this time?"
"The problem is," says the Doctor. "I have no idea if you're raving or if a future me loves to come and visit the sand-sheep."
"It's usually safe to assume that it's a future me." The little man quirks his lips. "Do you know why Queen Elizabeth is upset, by the way?"
"Absolutely no idea," says the Doctor. "You can't blame me for that."
"And he calls me raving!" Annabel rounds on Donna. "Well! Can you tell me what you want?"
"Um. Yes." Donna gestures between herself and Sal. "We're in the wrong bodies and we'd like to be put back."
"Oh!" Annabel peers into Donna's eyes, and then Sal's. "Oh, yes, I see! I'll warm up the machine!"
Annabel ducks into the house, and Donna follows, cautiously, her hand still twined with Sal's. Neither of them seem much inclined to let go.
"Do you think future me has body-swapping problems all the time?" asks the Doctor.
"Quite possibly," says the little man, and catches the Doctor's arm with his umbrella when the Doctor tries to follow Sal and Donna inside. "Best to wait out here, I think. Give them some space."
The Doctor sighs, but he nods, eyes fixed on the open door.
Inside, there are two chairs, each hooked to a large, buzzing machine. Annabel tells them make themselves comfortable, and Donna finally has to let Sal go in order to sit down. When they're both in position, Annabel throws a switch.
When Donna blinks her way back into consciousness, she has to push her hair back from where it spilled over her face. It's red. Her hair is red, and her hands are her own, and when she lets out a whoop of joy it isn't musical in the least.
"That was easy," says Sal. She looks—perfect. Donna has seen Sal's body and she's met Sal's mind, but the combination of the two is obviously how things were meant to be. When Sal smiles, it's the most natural thing in the world.
"Easy?" says Annabel. "Easy! You didn't have to spend eight years of your life and two dissertations building this thing!"
"Yeah," says Donna, thinking of skeletons, and a shaman, and sheep. "This was definitely not easy."
"I suppose," says Sal. "But, unless Annabel has any ideas, the hard part is probably going to be getting the Doctor's magnificent Time Lord mind to stop imbuing you. We should probably have worked that out first, actually."
"What?" asks Donna.
"What?" squawks Annabel.
"Sorry," says Sal.
But that's a story for another day. Don't worry—they do sort it out eventually, after much panicking, and pseudo-scientific experimentation, and, much to Donna's annoyance, fainting. The little man makes some mystic pronouncements, which makes the Doctor either condescending or nostalgic, depending on how well the latest experiment is going. Sal sings a little more. The sheep turn out to be very important.
But the most important thing is that at the end of the day, when Donna is standing at the top of the Grand Mountain, in her own body and finally free of the Doctor's imbuing mind, and with a few clumps of wool from the last experiment still stuck to her back, she turns to Sal and says, "Thanks. I'm glad that I met you. I'm not sure if I'm glad to have been you, but it wasn't that bad."
Sal beams. "The same to you," she says. "Same to you."
In the background, the Doctor and the little man are arguing about whether or not the little man should give up his jumper to keep one of the shorn sheep warm. The little man is losing. Sal and Donna ignore them and just enjoy the view.