It was a miserable February to be in London. Snow and sleet pelted down one day out of three, and everyone seemed defeated by the same head cold. It was my turn in the barrel, so I kept to the flat, sniffling and huddled over endless cups of tea. Sherlock, who had apparently never before seen mucus outside of a laboratory, watched over me as if I were a particularly interesting rat.
That afternoon he was in the kitchen where he'd been examining something under his microscope. “John, this so-called cold remedy of yours is nothing but alcohol and food coloring. It smells appalling.”
“Well I can't smell anything, can I. Leave off, will you?” I looked up in time to see him rooting around in the rubbish. “Don't you dare.”
“I'm bored. Aren't you better yet?” He didn't pause until he plucked up a crumpled tissue, pinched between gloved fingers.
“Put that back. The swab up my nose was bad enough.” The doorbell rang. “Thank god,” I said, and lurched to my feet. “When I get back, that had better be back in the bin.”
The woman at the door was ginger-beyond-ginger, about my height and age. Smartly dressed in suit and heels, as if she'd just come from the job at a posh office. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't think from where.
“I'm here to see Sherlock Holmes,” she said. “My name is Donna Noble.”
Sherlock was seated and behaving himself when I showed her into the flat. The latex gloves had disappeared—hopefully into the bin with the old tissue. His pale eyes were keen, studying our visitor. I hoped for her sake—and mine—that she would be able to give Sherlock something to focus on.
I cleared my throat. “Now, er, Miss Noble--”
“Ms.,” she corrected. “Do I look single?”
“Well, no—I mean—”
Sherlock spoke up. “On the contrary, Ms. Noble, you look as if you are about to be divorced.”
“How did you—?” The woman stopped herself mid-squeak. “That's right, I've heard about you. Go on, then. How'd you figure that out?”
“The impression surrounding your wedding ring is much too large, suggesting that either you've recently swapped out for a smaller ring, or that you've spent a great deal of time fiddling with it, turning it this way and that. As you don't seem to be the type of woman who would ever willingly part with jewelry, it's a fair assumption that you are at best conflicted about your marriage.
“Further, you came into a great deal of money not long after your wedding—I'd say that you've been married about three years? four? based on the condition of your ring—but the money, as is so often the case, has only caused further problems.”
“Of course!” It came to me then. “Donna Noble! You're the one who got a lottery ticket for a wedding present a few years back.” Sherlock was annoyed, but I ignored him. “I saw you in the papers. It's not working out? That's a shame.”
“Shaun... he's a nice man,” she said. “He just doesn't know what to do with me.” She paused, blinking rapidly for a moment. “You see, my family thinks I'm going mad, but I'm not, I swear I'm not.”
“That is the customary proclamation of the madwoman,” Sherlock said. “But tell me why they think you mad. And please, don't be boring.” He settled back, fingertips steepled against his chin, intense gaze fixed on her.
She twisted her wedding ring for a moment, almost pulling it off before forcing her hands away from each other. “My...” her eyes moved back and forth as if trying to read something in the air,“my sense of time is wrong. I mean someone says,'Oh that happened five years ago', and I know they have to be wrong, that it's been much longer.”
I didn't have to look at Sherlock to know he was bristling. I spoke up to forestall a potentially rude outburst. “Everyone does that, Ms. Noble.”
“Call me Donna, and no, they don't. Not like me. It didn't start happening until about three years ago. Right before I met Shaun. Right about the second time I disappeared.”
“Disappeared? Skip this rubbish about time and get to the disappearance.”
“Rude!” Ms. Nob—Donna—said it before I could. “Heard that about you too.” She crossed her arms in a bit of a huff. “Three years ago. I woke up in my own bed with my clothes on and found out I'd missed eight days. My mum said I'd had a terrible case of the flu and slept for most of it. Then everyone was talking some rubbish about planets in the sky and everybody forgot all about it. But I didn't text anyone that whole time, and I can text in my bloody sleep.”
“So...” Sherlock was speaking slowly. That was never a good sign. “You've come here today because you have a bad memory for dates and you had the flu three years ago. Get out and stop wasting my time.”
“Wait. There's something else. I remember things I shouldn't. Like, Agatha Christie, yeah? I was there the day she went missing.” Her words picked up pace. “I know that's impossible, but I was. And Pompeii, I saw it erupt. And I've disappeared twice! The first was the day of my first wedding, just pop, right out of the church. Everyone saw it. Mum says I fainted, but I didn't, because I remember. I remember. Oh god!” She clutched her head with both hands and gritted her teeth. “I remember. Lance. Giant... spider...” Her voice rose in a shrill cry and she went limp.
“Donna! Ms. Noble!” I knelt at the side of her chair—my chair, the one I always gave up for clients. Vital signs strong, but her pulse was racing and her forehead felt as if she were burning with fever, her whole head, really. Her hands were clammy. “Sherlock, call 999—with the phone, please.” I'd learnt to be specific. I chafed her hands to see if I could rouse her. “Donna, this is John Watson, if you can hear me, please open your eyes.”
Still holding her hand, I reached towards the handbag on the floor, looking for a phone, a medic alert card, anything. Sherlock had at least risen, but was just standing there watching our unconscious client.
“At last, something interesting.”
“Oh, she'll be fine. Give her a minute. Her pulse is leveling off now.”
“How can you tell that from—oh never mind.” The handbag was enormous and stuffed with whatever it is women need. I was tempted to up-end it to find her phone.
I'd just reached what felt like a phone in that cavernous monstrosity when her eyes fluttered open. “Oi! Are you trying to rob me? Get off!” She pushed me away, then paused, taking in the change: Sherlock on his feet, me by her chair. “Oh bloody hell. It happened again, didn't it.”
Turns out that was the other part of Donna Noble's puzzle: the fainting spells. Her doctors could find nothing wrong and suggested the problem was psychosomatic. As they only seemed to happen when she started spouting nonsense, I was inclined to agree with them, being more than a little familiar with psychosomatic symptoms.
Then she added one more strange thing: “Remember the mass hallucinations that happened a few years back?” she asked. I did. I was in Afghanistan at the time and it was the eeriest thing I've ever experienced, a feeling of being someone else—of being everyone else.
“Yes,” said Sherlock. Something in his voice made me look closer. He'd never told me what his experience had been that day. I made a note to ask.
“I don't,” she said. “More lost time. I don't remember a damned thing.”
“And you want to know what's wrong with you.” God help me, Sherlock was taking this seriously.
“Good. Give John your number. I'll be in touch two days from now.”
She left soon after that. I tried to convince her to let us take her to hospital, but she insisted on hailing a cab and taking herself home, that she was fine.
I returned upstairs to find Sherlock standing at the mantelpiece, hand idly trailing from one object to another: skull, candlestick, knife, pocket-watch.
“Sherlock, she's a nutter. A rich nutter, to be sure, but the fact remains: an absolute madwoman.”
“Perhaps,” he said from somewhere miles away. “The hallucinations she spoke of. Where were you at the time?”
“And you remember it quite well.” He pulled the knife out of the wood and studied it closer before slamming it home once again.
“Yes of course. Don't you?”
“Those weren't hallucinations, John.” Long fingers drifted. Picked up the pocket-watch. Turned it over and over in his hand.
“What? Of course they were, what else could they have been?”
Sherlock replaced the pocket-watch in its customary place on the mantel and looked up with a whisper of a smile. “Perhaps it's time we find out. First, we should learn more about our Ms. Noble.”
That was how I wound up skulking around Chiswick the next morning in the pouring rain. My nose was still dripping all over my upper lip as I huddled into my parka. It was bloody miserable. But, we'd found out where Donna Noble's family lived. Donna, of course, lived in a much posher part of town. Sherlock walked up to the front door and rang the bell, while I stayed in the front garden trying to find a bit of shelter.
A wiry old man with stooped shoulders answered the door. Before he could get a word in, Sherlock said, “Is Donna all right? Where is she?” His face was animated instead of wearing his usual placid expression, his voice higher in pitch, accent broadening and shifting into something much less public school. It's a pity Sherlock hadn't taken up theatre. He'd've been a star, and I would be dry and warm in my armchair right now.
“Who are you?” asked the old man.
“Surely you know who I am? I know I've changed, but have I changed that much? Please, tell me how she is!”
“She's... fine. Married now, you know. She don't live here anymore.” He stayed there with his hand on the door, ready to close it.
“That's not what I mean, Wilfred.” Wilfred? Where the hell had Sherlock come up with a name?
Apparently that was the man's name, because the door stopped closing. He looked Sherlock up and down, taking in the long coat, the scarf. He even noticed me, standing under a trellis by the gate. I don't know what he saw, but his eyes widened a bit.
“You say you're a friend of Donna's, then?”
“You know that I am. Why else would I be here to check on her?”
“And that's your friend over there. Travels with you?”
“Of course. He never leaves my side!”
Great, he made me sound like a sodding dog.
For a moment, I thought the old man was going to start weeping. It took him several tries to speak. “D-Doctor?”
Sherlock smiled, beaming with good cheer and all-fellow-well-met. It was downright eerie. “I knew you'd get it in a moment!”
“But... we heard you was dead! That Martha Jones, she come by and told us—me and Sylvia—”
“All a misunderstanding,” Sherlock said, waving a gloved hand. “But please, you must tell me about Donna.”
But no, there was no stopping old Wilf now. “But Martha said... there was proof! That group she works with, whats-it, UNIT. They had it, they said. How did you--? Is it really, really you, Doctor?” He was weeping now.
Sherlock didn't even miss a step. “Wilfred, Wilfred, it's all right. It's really me. I want to help Donna.”
Wilfred whooped and grabbed Sherlock in a bear hug, tears still streaming down his seamed old face. “Sylvia! Come quick!” I caught Sherlock's eye over the old man's head and raised an eyebrow: What the hell? I got a shrug in return. Okay, so he had no idea either. I wasn't sure if that was reassuring or not.
“Come in, come in. Bring your friend in too, come out of this wet.” He swung the door open wide and I have never seen a more welcome sight. We followed him in. He was so excited to see this “doctor” that he practically danced a jig all the way to the sitting room.
A posh older woman came out of a side door, wiping her hands on a tea towel. “Dad? What are you shouting about? Who is this?”
“Sylvia, Martha was wrong. It's the Doctor, he's back!” He grabbed Sherlock by the arm and tugged him towards a chair. “Sit down, sit down. It's good that you're here. I mean, she can see you now, yeah? You got a new face, there's no danger that she'll remember this one! And who's your friend here? Traveling with someone new, I see. I'm surprised you're not with another pretty young girl, you devil--”
That's as far as he got, because the woman crossed the small room and slapped Sherlock hard across the face. “Get out.”
“Sylvia,” Wilf caught her arm before she could hit him again. I paused halfway between standing and sitting.
“Get out,” she said again. I straightened to attention. She continued, “This is all your fault.”
“No, Sylvia, he's here to help.”
“I am,” Sherlock said, his hands extended—I think to keep Mrs. Noble from hitting him again. “I just want to help Donna.”
“You knew this would happen.” She jabbed a finger towards Sherlock's chest, her knuckles white. “You knew she would eventually start to remember. You said she would die. Well Doctor, she is. She's dying, because of you!”
“I didn't know.” He took her by the shoulders with a gentleness that shocked me. “I swear to you, Mrs. Noble, I didn't know.” God, how could a man normally so cold ooze such sincerity? I could feel the hair on my arms trying to stand up under my jumper. It was all in the eyes, normally so sharp and penetrating, now they were soft and pleading. Who was he, really? Was the cold exterior just an act, or was this?
“Just leave us alone,” Mrs. Noble said. “If you can't fix this, just go away.”
“I'll do what I can,” Stranger-Sherlock said. “And if I can't, you won't see me again, I promise.” He let her go then, and gave Wilf an apologetic look. “I should go. I've caused enough disturbance for now.”
The old man showed us out, protesting the whole way.
“We'll be in touch soon,” Sherlock said. “But Wilfred, you can't tell anyone that we were here. Especially not Donna. If people think I'm dead, maybe it's for the best that I stay that way for a while, eh?”
“Yes,” the old man agreed, reluctantly. “You have to help her, Doctor. You're the only one who can.” He sighed, his eyes still bright with tears. “It was good to see you again. After the last time... I didn't think I ever would. And I'm glad you're not still alone, you've got, er--”
“John--” I said.
“--Smith,” finished Sherlock. “Plain name for a plain man, oh yes.”
I managed a smile while wondering what Sherlock would look like if I strangled him with his scarf.
“He's no Donna,” Sherlock said, “but he'll do.” He patted Wilfred's hand. Watching him take on a persona like this was a little like watching someone possessed by an evil spirit. “Don't you worry. We'll get her taken care of.”
That brought on more blubbering from Wilfred. I stood there with my skin crawling. Something about this was incredibly disturbing—not just weird, or crazy, but disturbing. Bloody hell. This whole family was round the twist.
It took several minutes for Sherlock to disengage himself from the weeping man. “Now John and I really must go. You'll be hearing from us.”
As soon as we were out of earshot and back in the street, Sherlock said, “Well. That went much better than I expected.”
I grabbed Sherlock's arm. “What in the name of bleeding Christ was that all about? Doctor? Doctor who?”
“I have absolutely no idea,” Sherlock said. He was smiling—his real smile this time. He looked as if he'd just received a Christmas and birthday gift wrapped into one. “No idea at all.”
The next morning I awoke to discover that I was feeling quite almost like a human being again. Also, I was starving. Too many days surviving on tea and toast. From the silence in the flat, Sherlock was either out, or—most likely—still asleep. I'd heard him around 3am, still pacing and muttering to himself as he considered the Donna Noble case. I decided to go downstairs for breakfast.
The cafe was quiet, mid-morning on a Tuesday. The only other occupant was an absolute stunner of a brunette. Short hair, shorter than I usually liked. Fair skin. I couldn't tell much of her figure thanks to the long leather duster she wore, but I was more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, judging from the legs stretched beneath the Formica table.
No fool I, I settled at the next table over with my bacon butty, for which I would have gladly traded my soul just a few minutes earlier. I was trying to think of something clever to say that didn't involve the weather when I heard, “John Watson?”
I looked up to see her smiling at me. Bloody hell, what a smile. Her eyes were a brilliant blue and she had a dusting of freckles across the nose. I returned the smile and hoped that something idiotic wasn't about to come out of my mouth. “Yes?” Well so much for that.
“Sorry to bother you.” She laughed, looking a little embarrassed. “I... read your blog. I thought I recognized you from your picture.”
“Oh! My blog, yes. I do that, don't I. Blog.” I was normally perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation with an attractive woman. She laughed as if I had just said something witty. “And you are?”
She extended a long, elegant hand across the space between us. Her nails were sensibly short but well-kept. “Karen Whitaker.”
I grabbed a paper napkin and wiped the grease from my hand, mentally cursing my breakfast choice. Was my hair still wet from the shower? Oh god, it was. “Pleasure to meet you.” Then she touched my hand and a jolt went up my arm and I forgot about my hair. God help me, I felt dizzy for a moment. Who was this woman?
Her smile widened enough to suggest she'd felt it too. “All mine, I assure you.” She glanced at the empty seat next to me before releasing my hand. “Not working on a case with your... partner right now, then?”
“No. Not at the moment, no. He's my friend. Not, you know--” Wait, did she mean that type of partner? So much for the eloquent John Watson, famous blogger. Recover, damn it. “Well, Karen Whitaker. Are you from around here, then?”
“No, I'm just in town for a few days to look up an old friend.” She glanced down and played with her teacup. “I saw that I was near Baker Street and thought...” A nervous laugh. “Oh god, I sound like I was stalking you.”
My cheeks felt hot. “Not at all. At least you're not camped out on my doorstep with a video camera.” Did I seriously have a fan? Usually they showed up for Sherlock, not me.
“Someone did that?”
“More than one. Kids, mostly. The price of fame, I suppose.”
“You bear up under it quite well.”
“That's simple enough. I'm not the one who's the center of attention.”
She caught my eye and smiled. “I think that's an awful shame, John Watson.”
I had to swallow to force my heart back down where it belonged. “So... while you're in town, I don't suppose you have time for dinner with a famous blogger?”
Fifteen minutes later, I was headed back up to the flat, whistling. Karen's number was in my pocket and we were on for dinner the following night. I never had gotten around to eating breakfast, but it didn't matter. Sherlock was putting on his scarf as I reached the top of the stairs. “Come on. I feel the need to pay a visit to my brother.”
Mycroft's offices were as impressive and cold as always. Between the towering ceiling and the towering Holmes brothers, it was enough to make a perfectly average man like myself feel quite small. His PA showed us in—not Anthea, this time, but I imagined she spent most of her time riding around in sleek black cars rounding up people for Mycroft to intimidate.
Sherlock skipped over the preliminaries. “Mycroft, I need your UNIT files.” UNIT. The old man had said something about UNIT.
“What? Absolutely not.” The older Holmes shot me a quick glance.
“The files, Mycroft. Going a few years back, I think. Beginning with whatever you've got on the Saxon administration.”
“What did UNIT have to do with that? I thought they were counter-terrorism?” Both brothers turned to stare at me. The weight was quite crushing, but I bore up under it and sneezed into my handkerchief. “Please. They're military. I have heard of them, you know.”
Mycroft smiled a thin, condescending smile, the one that said 'I'm a man in desperate need of a punch in the mouth.' “Of course you have. Sherlock, there is absolutely no need for you to know, I'm afraid.”
“Oh, I'm afraid there is. I'm on a case, dear brother, and my client has some very specific information about some very unusual events. And you owe me.”
“I owe you?” Mycroft laughed.
Sherlock's voice dropped to its lowest register, almost too low for me to hear. “The Woman.”
Mycroft's expression didn't change, but for a tic at the corner of his mouth. “I kept her alive.”
“Did you?” Oh god. He knew. Sherlock knew the truth about Irene Adler. After she'd bested both the Holmes brothers, she was captured by a terrorist cell in Pakistan and executed. Mycroft and I had kept it a secret from Sherlock, or so I thought.
“She's in America.”
“Perhaps she is,” Sherlock said. “But perhaps she sent me a farewell present. Do you really think I don't have copies of every picture she had?”
“You don't,” Mycroft said.
The two men locked eyes for a long moment and Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Our wayward Princess wasn't the only illustrious individual on that camera phone.” Was he bluffing? I had no idea. He kept quiet about so many things, but he'd been absolutely silent on the subject of Irene Adler.
“Fine. But this is rankest blackmail. I'll remember this, Sherlock.”
“I'm certain you will. The files, please.”
“Are these real?” I stared at the files in front of me. According to the one I was reading, Great Britain had been invaded or nearly invaded dozens of times by... aliens. Real, proper creatures-from-outer-space aliens. “This is all a joke, isn't it? Mycroft's taking the mick out of you in revenge for your comment about Irene Adler's photos.”
“John, of course they're real. Mycroft doesn't have the imagination to produce this creative a fraud.” He looked up from his seat by the fire, his own file folder opened across his lap. “That day in Helmand. What did you see?”
“I hallucinated, same as everyone el—”
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “No, John. What did you see? Don't tell me what someone else told you you saw.”
“Well... I saw a man. Blond hair, a bit mad-looking, really.”
“That's it. Just a man.”
Sherlock snorted in disgust. “Just that?”
“No... It was like.. I was him. But so was everyone else. Isn't that what you saw?”
“You were all the same man.”
“Well it felt like it, yes. But you heard later, the problem with the wi-fi—”
“The wi-fi, John?” he sneered. “Mass hallucinations?” He closed the file he was holding. “This, John. This has the truth of it all. What's more likely, that a heretofore perfectly benign piece of technology went mad and wreaked havoc all around the world...”
“Atmos,” I muttered.
“...or that a form of intelligence caused everyone, at the exact same moment, to become someone else, the same someone else.”
I blinked. “To be fair, they are both rather preposterous.”
“And aliens were behind the Atmos problem as well, so that hardly counts.” He'd gone mad. that was the only explanation. “Donna Noble says she disappeared during the Near-Earth Object crisis. She also says she disappeared on her wedding day. Do you know when that was? Of course you don't, you wouldn't have thought to look it up. It was Christmas Eve, 2006. What else happened in London that day, John? Anything unusual?”
London had had a bad string of Christmases there for several years, which one was 2006? “...the Christmas Star.”
“Yes, the Christmas Star. Another case of technology going spectacularly wrong—experimental military aircraft this time, on Christmas Eve. It certainly wasn't an alien invasion narrowly avoided by a mysterious draining of the Thames, oh no.
“Now, for an ordinary madwoman to claim to have vanished during one alien invasion would be one thing. Two, and she'd have to be claiming responsibility for them, or claiming to have been abducted. And our Ms. Noble claims to have no memory of the events. I'd wager if we pressed, we'd find that she missed out on other alien events. So, unless she is an alien, the events must be connected some other way.”
I was beginning to wonder if I should phone Mycroft. Or Lestrade. “And how do we know that Donna Noble isn't an alien?”
“We don't. Yet.”
Definitely time to call Lestrade. No, text. Less suspicious that way. I opened my phone and quickly sent:
Need help. Sherlock's going mad. Again.
A few seconds later, the response:
Your flatmate, your problem. If I leave the house tonight my marriage is as good as done.
“Damn it,” I said, snapping the phone closed.
Sherlock looked up from one of the more ridiculous of the UNIT files. “Problem?”
“Oh, it was just... Karen. The one I met in the cafe earlier, remember? I was hoping to see her tonight, but she's busy.”
“Mm. Another one, John?” He went back to his file, which if memory served, had something to do with homicidal robots.
“Sherlock, what are we doing? Seriously, what? You cannot possibly believe that the woman who walked in here yesterday is... is an alien.”
“I don't. She was abducted by aliens.”
“Shut up and listen to me, John. Also, think for god's sake.”
I crossed my arms and waited.
“Donna Noble has, according to her grandfather, been made to forget something, something dangerous. Her mother corroborates this—you'll remember she said Donna would die if she remembered. Both of them are worried. A patch of carpet in front of the sitting room window was excessively worn. It's not in a high-traffic area, so that suggests that someone has spent a great deal of time pacing in front of that window. Sylvia Noble's daughter won one of the biggest lottery prizes in British history, and yet she still lives in a small modest house, with no indication that she's taken so much as a penny from her daughter. That much money, surely you'd let your daughter buy you a house, a car, an expensive television, something. Now, you could write it off as Ms. Noble and her new husband being stingy, but Ms. Noble herself lives rather moderately for someone of her means. No, neither Mrs. Noble nor Wilfred want anything to do with Ms. Noble's money. That suggests they feel guilty about it—something to do with the source, perhaps. Whatever happened to Ms. Noble, this money is a payout of some sort.”
“You're saying aliens rigged the lottery.”
He ignored me. “Now, from dear old Wilfred, we have two more clues: a mention of a doctor who is involved with all this—a doctor involved with UNIT. UNIT has been involved in with protecting not just England, but the world, from—”
“Extra-territorial threats, yes I know.”
“Don't be an idiot, John. It's right in front of your nose. 'Extra-territorial'? If they claim to protect the entire world what, exactly, is outside that territory? Do you really think Mycroft had a stack of fake files detailing alien invasion just waiting for me to come along and ask for them?”
“He's Mycroft, who the hell knows? This is impossible.”
“No. Improbable. Not impossible. Think of everything that's happened over the past few years. Think of everything you personally have seen. Does it make more sense that it's all a string of increasingly unlikely coincidences, or that the universe is a much bigger, much more dangerous place than we know?”
“Well it's certainly a bigger place than you know.”
“The answer's right in front of us, right here in these files. Now shut up and keep looking.”
I might, perhaps, have fallen asleep in my chair while reading the UNIT files. I woke, stiff-backed and dry-mouthed, but the worst of my cold seemed to have passed. Sunlight—real, actual sunlight!--was streaming through the windows and Sherlock was gone. The stack of files he'd been reading were piled haphazardly on my desk with no indication of how far he'd gotten or what he might have found there.
When I went to make tea, I found a note on the refrigerator: Back by afternoon. -S.
Tea in hand, I looked at the files I had yet to go through and groaned. I couldn't face another minute of shifting through bureaucratic language and incomprehensible narrative. Aliens or not, we were out of milk. Someone had to get the shopping, and mundane details were my specialty. Biggest brain in the world, you'd think the man could remember to stop by the shops once in a while.
I was waiting in line at Tesco's when my phone went off.
The Aurora. #678, NOW. Beaufort Park. Hurry. -SH
I looked at the trolley full of shopping and sighed. So much for actually having food in the flat.
It didn't take long to find the building, a tower of glass surrounded by tasteful park land. The squad of police cars parked out front made it particularly easy to spot. By now, I was familiar—if unwanted—face at crime scenes: John the Baptist heralding the arrival of the Messiah from Hell. Although in this case, from the grumbles I was hearing from the officers around the door, it seemed I was late.
“Upstairs,” said one, a kid who looked like he might have just started shaving that morning. “Top floor. He's already up there.”
I jogged up eight flights of stairs and wound up in a sleek modern hallway with just four doors. One was open, and I could hear voices. Standing in the middle of an enormous glass-fronted living room was Sherlock, a DI I vaguely recognized from around the Met... and Donna Noble, the latter visibly upset. If this was her flat, I could see why. It had been absolutely turned over.
“John, what took you so long? I texted ages ago.” He tossed me a pen and a pocket notebook, having decided at some point that the reason I missed his brilliant deductions in my blog was that I forgot the details. He turned away to examine the windows overlooking a terrace.
“I've missed you too, Sherlock. What happened?” I addressed my question to Donna.
“I don't know,” she said, crossing her arms and cupping her elbows in her hands. “I came home, unlocked the door, and found this.”
“Ms. Noble believes she was burgled,” said the DI. What was his name? Powers? Powell? Ah, didn't really matter. “She asked us to call the two of you.”
Sherlock looked up and I knew there was trouble from the smile on his face. “It's classic, John. Locked front door, locked windows, no sign of any entry at all. Ms. Noble, did you determine if anything was missing?”
“N-no. Not that I can tell. Why would someone do something like this?”
“Donna,” I said, “you mentioned before that you and your husband were having some difficulties, is it possible that he--”
“No,” she said. “He moved out weeks ago. And we're not like this,” she gestured around at the mess. “We're both just... sad, that's all. He's not malicious. He wouldn't just destroy my things.”
“Whoever was here was looking for something,” Sherlock said. “If someone wanted to just destroy, they'd slash the couch cushions, tear down the curtains. No, this is much more methodical. Emptying desk drawers, examining closets. From the looks of things, I don't think they found what they came for. Detective Inspector, have your people look at the security footage from the hallway. Check the CCTVs from outside the building as well.”
“They're looking right now,” said DI Powers/Powell, wearing the familiar expression I'd come to expect at crime scenes—the one that said, “Sherlock Holmes can go bugger himself.”
“I doubt they'll find anything,” Sherlock said, rubbing his hands together. “If you can get into a locked flat and leave it—still locked—without any trace of entry, why would you be so stupid as to get caught by a security camera? Oh, John, this is at least an 8. Brilliant!”
“Oi! Could you not look so bloody pleased? My home has been trashed.” Donna looked less shaken. Anger has a way of doing that.
“Yes, well, they didn't take anything, did they? What's the problem?”
“Sherlock...” I said. In response, I got the cool-eyed expression that showed absolutely no understanding for human emotions or social conventions. It really was a wonder he'd ever made it out of grammar school alive. Donna looked to me, and I shrugged. “Yes. He's like this all the time.”
“Bloody hell,” she said.
“Listen, is there someone you can call? Somewhere you can go for now?” I asked. “This place will be a madhouse for hours, and you'll probably feel safer if you're not alone tonight.”
“I'll be fine,” she said.
“No, really. You shouldn't be by yourself.”
“Dr. Watson, I am still a married woman. You're gorgeous all right, but it's just too soon.”
“You,” she said, nudging me in the arm. “Trying to ask me out.”
“What? No, I--”
Her half-smile darkened to something else. “No need to be so quick to deny it, sunshine. Is there something wrong with me?”
“Well no, I just--”
“Just what?” She looked over at Sherlock, who was standing across the room on a white divan—in his shoes—to peer at the top of a window frame. “Oh. Of course. Not exactly your type, am I?”
“What? You mean--” Again. Really? What was wrong with people? You'd think they'd never heard of two adults sharing a flat before. “No. Really—no. I'm... seeing someone. Someone else. Not him.” Well, would be seeing, later.
“Oh.” She looked awkward and I felt awful. “I'll just... go see about packing a bag. I might go to my mother's tonight after all.”
Once she was gone, I crossed the vast white landscape of the living room to where Sherlock was now crouched, examining the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Anything?”
“Well, aside from the fact that Ms. Noble needs to fire her housekeeper, no. Nothing. None of the windows, none of the doors. From all appearances, no one came in here. And they may as well have floated around the flat, because there's nothing on the floor. So, we have a burglar who doesn't come through the doors or windows, doesn't take anything,and doesn't leave any trace of themselves behind.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Aliens?”
“I haven't ruled that out yet.” He stood before I could reply, dusting off the knees of his trousers—which were quite dusty. He was right. Donna really did need to fire her housekeeper. “Detective Inspector, I'm done here. If your people find anything on the tapes, text me.” He swept out, leaving me, as always, to trail behind him with the goodbyes and the apologies.
I was settling in at a table at Angelo's a few minutes before 8. Maybe it was a little childish of me, but I often brought dates to Angelo's, the better to impress on the owner that I wasn't Sherlock's boyfriend. It's the little things.
Karen was a few minutes late, but worth the wait. As she walked towards the table I felt like my eyes were bulging in their sockets. She was wearing the same leather duster as earlier, which was lovely enough, but underneath it was a shimmery sort of blouse in a pale grey, and a pinstriped skirt just long enough to be tasteful. Even with the knee-high boots, the length of leg I could see was impressive. I could also tell that, with the heels, I might come up to her chin.
I stood and helped her with her coat and her chair, “You look amazing,” I blurted.
“Hello to you too, John.” She laughed and it felt like my head was buzzing with it.
Angelo came over then, and we ordered. Dinner was an absolute blur. I don't remember a thing we said or what I ate. Karen was wearing some sort of perfume—or maybe it was just her own scent—it was driving me to distraction. I don't know what I was thinking when I invited her back to the flat—all right, that's a lie, I know exactly what I was thinking, I just wasn't thinking it through very clearly.
She took my hand as we walked back to Baker Street. To try and distract myself from the slow burning tingle moving up my arm, I asked, “Whatever happened with your friend? The one you came to town to find?”
“I swear, I think she must be avoiding me, John. I've phoned, I went by her flat, nothing!” She smiled sideways at me. “Maybe I need to hire you and Sherlock to find her for me.”
My gut was a quivering mess at that smile, and all the blood was draining south at what threatened to be an embarrassing rate. “Well, perhaps you should. What's her name then?”
“Donna Temple-Noble. Well, Donna Noble, but she's getting a divorce.”
I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, nascent erection thankfully fading. “Donna Noble?” A few passersby grumbled at the sudden stop. “That's amazing!”
“You know her?”
“Yes, I saw her today, in fact. Her flat was broken into. A strange thing, really.”
Karen murmured an apology at the people moving around us and gently urged me to start walking again. “That's awful. Was she okay? Where is she?”
“Her mother's, I think she said. She's fine. They didn't take anything.”
“Thank god for that,” she said. “Do the police have any leads at all?”
“Nothing. Even Sherlock seems baffled. I've never seen anything like it.”
She leaned her shoulder against me as we walked. “Poor Donna. I'll stop by her mother's in the morning and see if there's anything I can do.”
We were almost to 221B. “So, how do you know Donna, then?”
She smiled. “Oh, it seems like we've known each other forever. This is your door, isn't it?”
“Yes.” We both paused in front of the doorstep, like a couple of teenagers waiting for the other to make a first move.
“I should probably go,” she said, “at least try to phone Donna tonight.”
“Surely you can just come up for one drink,” I said.
The next thing I knew, her mouth was hard against mine and my hands were under that amazing coat, pressed against her back. I disentangled one long enough to open the door, to at least get off the street. She pulled me towards the stairs by my shirt, untucking it from my trousers. I couldn't think, couldn't feel anything but her mouth on mine, letting her lead me up to the flat and through the door where--
“John, I asked you to hand me that file on the Jones family an hour ago.”
Oh bloody HELL.
Karen squeaked and let go of me, almost falling in the process. I caught her hand to steady her. “Sherlock--”
He sighed. “Oh never mind. Go on with whatever you were doing.”
Karen gave a little wave. “Hi. I'm Karen. I've heard so much about you from John's blog.”
“Mm.” Sherlock had gone back to his files.
“Yes,” she said, letting go of my hand. “John, I should probably go. I do want to check on Donna to make certain she's okay.”
“Of course.” I was going to kill Sherlock. “Did you want me to call a cab?”
“No, it's fine.”
I escorted her downstairs again. “I'm so sorry about that.”
“Don't worry,” she said. “It's probably for the best. Another time, maybe?”
“Definitely,” I said, leaning in for another kiss. “Tomorrow?”
Karen laughed and opened the door to the street. “We'll see. I'll phone you.”
I watched her walk back the way we came for longer than was strictly polite, then went back up to the flat.
“Oh good,” Sherlock said. “You're back. The Jones file, please?”
I went to the desk to look for the file. “Sherlock, that was my date.”
“Yes, I gathered. Gone now?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling my jaw clench.
“Good. I need you to sit down and be quiet so I can think. I think better when you're here.”
I found the file, grabbed my laptop off the desk and sat in my chair across from Sherlock. I handed him the file and resisted the urge to hit him. He didn't even look at the file, simply tented his fingers and rested them against his chin. I sighed and powered up my laptop, settling in for a long evening.
Sherlock was where I left him the next morning, looking like he hadn't moved a muscle all night. For all I knew, he hadn't. I snugged the belt on my dressing gown tighter and went to make tea. “Anything?”
“Several things.” He looked up at me. “Donna Noble is having impossible memories that she needs to keep suppressed in order to survive. Someone or something is making them come back. And she has an item that this same someone would do anything to find. And Donna's Doctor, whoever he is, is behind it all.”
“Her doctor. Oh, right. From the old man. Why would he think you were this doctor?” I bought two mugs over, handed one to Sherlock, and sat down.
“He may excel at disguises. He may be a shapeshifter. The UNIT files are full of aliens who can change their appearance at will.”
He was starting to convince me of the “aliens are behind everything” theory. I wasn't sure who that spoke worse of, me or him. “So this doctor's an alien?”
“It seems the most probable explanation, given Ms. Noble's penchant for dramatic disappearances around alien invasions.”
“Right, so what now? We find this doctor? We'll just go alien-hunting then, will we?”
Sherlock smiled. “Not at all. We have several appointments today to take care of. I've been contacted on a number of other potentially interesting cases. Call Ms. Noble. Ask her to come round tonight at about 6.”
I called Donna and left a message on her mobile.
The rest of the afternoon was an endless run of potential clients. Missing jewelry. Broken relationships. The usual. Sherlock was rude to all of them, but he did find two of them particularly interesting.
Shortly after tea, we heard footsteps on the stairs. “That's not Mrs. Hudson,” I said. “Did you hear the bell?”
Sherlock shook his head and motioned for me to be quiet. I was in my chair. The desk drawer that held my gun was out of reach, but not by much.
I don't know what I expected of our intruder, but whatever it was, it wasn't the man who walked through the door. He looked like a young man dressed in his granddad's clothes for a laugh. Tweed jacket, red bow tie.
“Oh, hello! Mind if I come in?”
“Please,” said Sherlock, and motioned to a chair. “I've been expecting you.”
“Have you? Blimey, I don't hear that often.” He pulled a leather wallet out of his breast pocket and displayed it. “I'm DI John Smith. I hoped you might both be able to help me.” From where I was sitting, I could see a standard issue Metropolitan Police ID. Too far away to tell if it was fake, obviously.
“I know exactly who you are,” said Sherlock, remaining in his chair.
Rather than sitting, the man made a circuit of the room, stopping to examine this and that. “And I know who you are. So nice when introductions aren't necessary.” He paused before the spray-painted smiley face, stepping closer to see the bullet holes in it.
Sherlock caught my eye while the man's back was turned, and made a calming motion. Clearly he at least thought he had things under control. “Well then Doctor. What have you done with Donna Noble?”
The man spun back to face us in a single, oddly graceful movement. “You are rather good, aren't you?”
“It was obvious. You show up unannounced using not only the most blatant of pseudonyms, but the very same pseudonym I used for John when we visited your friend Wilfred. And Doctor, I have known many detective inspectors; you are not one of their ilk. I see no coffee-stains anywhere on your person, your eyes aren't bleary, that jacket is of a quality far beyond a DI's salary, and you were entirely too personable towards me. Finally, that piece of paper you waved at us a moment ago is completely blank.”
“No it wasn't,” I said. “I saw it--”
“Some form of mind control, no doubt. Am I right, Doctor?”
“Yes, and most of the time it works perfectly.” He sounded a little put out. He continued his way around the room, randomly picking up items and turning them over in his hand, looking at them from every angle. “A friend in trouble, you tend to keep an eye on them. So I pop back into London for a few days, and there she is, meeting with you, the world's only consulting detective. Marvelous title, by the way.” He turned back to his examination of the room. For a second I thought he sniffed the wallpaper, but surely that was my imagination.
“I'm pleased with it.”
“So... Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. A woman comes to you for help. She's lost parts of her memory, she thinks she's going mad... and you try to help her. Why not? Mr. Holmes can't resist a puzzle and well, Dr. Watson, you'd never be one to turn down a damsel in distress. What have you found?”
“Excuse me, but what the hell is going on?” I asked.
The man's appraisal felt every bit as intrusive as Sherlock's initial reading of me did. Sitting there watching him come closer, I felt completely undressed. He leaned in close to me and sniffed my face, and remained entirely too close while examining me. I was about to shove him away when he turned abruptly and went to the mantel.
“Donna is in terrible danger, and it's all my fault.”
“What did you do to her?” I asked.
“Saved her life. But at a cost. I'm a traveler. All of space and time, I've seen everything. I have friends who travel with me, sometimes. Donna was one of the best of them. She saved the Universe. But then she learned too much. What she knew and what she saw... it was burning her up inside. It was killing her.” His voice was soft and he wouldn't look at either of us, focused instead on the mantelpiece, the mirror above it, the objects scattered on it. “I did the only thing I could to save her life. I killed who she was. I killed Donna Noble to save her.”
“Her memories,” Sherlock said. “You took them?”
“I wiped her mind of everything we'd ever done together. She has no idea who I am. Or didn't. Someone is trying to make those memories come back.”
“An enemy?” I asked. Before Sherlock, I didn't think people actually had enemies, but this man seemed like he might.
“Or a friend,” Sherlock suggested. “A friend who thinks he or she is helping Ms. Noble.”
The Doctor looked back at both of us. “Neither. This is something different. The Time Agency is involved. That means someone, somewhere, somewhen, thinks that a wrong needs to be undone and someone needs to be brought to justice.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “The what?”
“Time Agency,” the Doctor said. He picked up Sherlock's skull and peered inside. I could see Sherlock tense out of the corner of my eye. He was very protective of his skull. “I travel in time—all of my people did. And you lot, you humans, decided someone needed to keep a close eye on things. So once you found a cheap and dirty method of time travel, you started policing.” He said the last word with distaste, tossing the skull in the air and catching it. “And you, Dr. Watson,” he spun and gestured at me with the skull, “smell exactly like a Time Agent.”
“51st Century humans,” he said, giving the skull a toss once more, “have a distinct blend of pheromones. Instantly recognizable once you know it. Tends to make them nearly irresistible to other humanoids, which is handy when you're trying to survive as a species out among the stars. And from the smell of things, one of them has been trying to survive in very close proximity to you some time in the past twenty-four hours.”
“But I've been here all day,” I protested. 51st Century?
“You weren't last night,” Sherlock prompted.
“What, Karen? You think my date was a... was from the future?”
The Doctor put down the skull and stepped closer, crouching in front of me. “Describe her.”
“Taller than me,” I said, “short dark hair. Gorgeous.”
“What was she wearing?” One pair of eerily pale intense eyes focused on me was usually enough. Between the Doctor and Sherlock, I had two. My palms started to sweat.
“This fantastic black jacket, short skirt...” My ears were getting hot.
“And you wanted to, er... get to know her better. Black leather band on her wrist?”
“I don't remember that, but the rest, yeah...” I said.
“Time Agent,” said the Doctor. “No doubt. Where is she now?”
“Oh god,” I said. “I told her where Donna was. She said she was a friend.”
The Doctor sprang to his feet. “We have to go. Now.”
All three of us ran down the steps, pulling on coats. The Doctor and I both had mobiles in hand. I tried to call Donna to warn her, but she didn't answer her phone. The Doctor was more successful. “Amy. Get to the TARDIS. No, I don't know yet. Just get there. Bring Rory.”
Once on the street, I moved to hail a cab. “Wait. Sherlock. Call Wilfred.”
“She's not there,” said the Doctor. “That was the first place I went. Wilf told me about you two.” He flashed a grin at Sherlock. “Sorry about the slap.” Then the grin was gone. “No, they haven't heard from Donna all day.”
“What do we do, then?”
“Her flat,” said Sherlock. “If you can't find something someone's hidden, the logical thing is to make them find it for you.”
The crime scene tape had been pulled off the door of #678 and lay strewn in the hallway.
Motioning for Sherlock and me to be quiet, the Doctor crept to the door and touched the handle. It was locked, naturally. I was trying to remember what little I knew about lock-picking when the Doctor took out what looked like a penlight and waved it at the door with a small whirring sound. The door opened.
The flat was dark, with just the lights from the city skyline coming in through the enormous windows. My heart was pounding and I wished desperately for the weight of my service pistol in my coat pocket. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to feel the cool grip in my hand so I could clear the flat properly. My skin was crawling with the weight of the darkness and what might be waiting there.
A row of track lights came on, dazzling me for a moment. I heard a woman's moan of pain before the sight of Donna Noble tied to an ordinary kitchen chair came into focus. The light extended hardly at all beyond her, leaving the rest of the massive room in darkness more impenetrable than before.
“Donna,” I said, starting towards her. Sherlock caught my arm.
She lifted her head and opened her eyes. Swirling yellow-orange light poured from them, a spinning darkness showing behind. I stumbled backwards.
“It hurts,” she said. “My head, it hurts so much.”
A voice came from the darkness beyond Donna's chair. “I expected a rescue party of two, but I imagine I'm up for the challenge of three.” Karen—or whatever her name really was—stepped just far enough forward to let the light touch her. She was aiming a gun at us, but it wasn't like any gun I'd ever seen. Still, a weapon's a weapon and when you've got one pointed at you, they're hard to mistake for anything else. “Which of you has it?”
“Oh! That would be me,” said the Doctor, stepping forward, hands cautiously in the air. “At least, I think it's me. I do usually have it, whatever it ends up being.” He was utterly nonchalant, as if he were talking about the weather. “What is it this time? I'm sure I have it here somewhere.”
“Don't play games. I know what you are, Time Lord. And I know you're supposed to be dead.”
“If you know who I am, then you know I rarely do what I'm supposed to.”
I glanced at Sherlock and he nodded. We started slowly stepping away from each other, sidestepping to either side of the Doctor.
“Tell me what interest the Time Agency has here, and I'll see if I can help you.”
Karen laughed, and god help me, the sound still coiled around the base of my spine and squeezed. “Clever, clever Doctor. This isn't the business of the Time Agency. I'm here on my own time. Now where is the watch?”
Another step away from Sherlock. Another step further into the shadows.
“Oh... the watch. Is that what you're looking for?” The Doctor sounded positively giddy. “You should have just said. I'm sure I have one here somewhere. Awfully funny if a Lord of Time didn't carry a watch around with him...” He made a show of patting down his pockets.
“Last of the Time Lords,” Karen said, smiling. “Oh you've been using that story for years, the Doctor's sob story of a lost people. Only we both know that's not quite true, don't we? They're not all lost. Some of them are just hiding.” She laid the hand not holding the gun against the back of Donna's head, and Donna cried out. “The memories are all right there, just waiting to come out. Just waiting for the right key.” The light in Donna's eyes intensified. “I can almost reach them myself,” continued Karen. “But not. Quite.”
“What are you doing to her?” I said it before I could think the better of it.
The gun angled at me. “John, stay where you are. I would truly hate to put a hole in that body of yours, but I will. It's a shame about your... flatmate.” She lingered on the word with a smirk. “We could've had a great time, you and me. By the time I was through with you, you would have told me anything I wanted to know.”
I fought a shiver half-successfully. My head was buzzing, a whining in my ears like bullets flying past. “There's nothing I could have told you.”
“No? And Doctor? Nothing from you?” Karen stepped back and changed the angle of the weapon to point at Donna's head. “If none of you has what I'm looking for, then she's no use to me at all. What good is a Time Lord who can't remember who they are?”
“Karen.” This time it was Sherlock's voice. “You don't really think that that woman has ever seen the Vortex, do you? Do you think anyone could come face to face with the Untempered Schism and come away from it worried about who was going to win X Factor? You've got the wrong person.” I glanced at Sherlock. What the hell was he talking about? He stepped closer, and the light moved up until his face was fully visible. “Look again.” There was something terrible in his face, a darkness that I'd not seen before. The play of light and shadow made him look—for just a moment—inhuman.
“Doctor, stop where you are or I blow her head off.” The Doctor, who had been creeping closer, stopped with one foot lifted. Karen looked back to Sherlock. “Sorry, Sherlock, full marks for trying, but you're just an ordinary human being. I scanned you thoroughly. You and your sweet little boy toy there as well. Both of you common as mud. But her, on the other hand, look at her. She's on fire.”
“Listen to me,” the Doctor said. “She is, she is on fire, but that's because she's burning alive. Believe me, if there are other Time Lords out there, I want to find them as badly as you—possibly for different reasons—but still, believe me when I tell you that Donna is not one of them. She'll die if we don't stop what's happening right here, and if she dies, you will never have a chance to find what you're looking for.”
“Is this my one warning? Oh yes, I do know all about you. My client is willing to pay very well for a living Time Lord. I imagine I might get something for a dead one as well. And two... well, that'd just be a bonus.” The gun leveled more firmly at Donna's head and I could see the tension in her trigger finger.
“All right. All right, you win.” The Doctor pulled a silver pocket watch out of his pocket. It gleamed in the light, covered in strange sigils. Gooseflesh crept up my arms and down my back.
“Open it,” Karen said. She leaned forward and her eyes gleamed in the combined light from the overhead and from Donna herself.
For a long moment, silence. The only sound was the faint whimpering from Donna, who appeared half-conscious. Then a tiny click as the Doctor triggered the mechanism that opened the watch.
Silence. Then Sherlock muttered, “Friesland,” and I knew what to do. He sprang forward towards Donna and her chair while I threw myself at Karen. The Doctor stayed where he was, holding the watch, looking almost as surprised as Karen as I caught her around the knees and bore her to the ground. Her weapon went flying. We both scrabbled towards it, but I had surprise and just a little more bulk on my side. I caught her by the shoulder and pulled her on to her back, pinning her down by the forearms, hands over her head.
“You know, this isn't exactly how I pictured it,” she purred.
“Shut up,” I said, gritting my teeth. Pheromones. That's all they were. Pheromones. She was stronger than she looked, and between that and her shifting her hips under me, I couldn't focus on what her hands were doing—reaching fingers stretching to her opposite wrist...
“Maybe another time, lover,” she said.
“John, no! Let go!” That from the Doctor. I obeyed as instantly as if I'd been given an order on the battlefield, and rolled away from her just in time to see a flash of light where Karen had been.
“Damn it.” I slammed my open palm down against the wood floor. “What happened? Where is she?”
“Back to her own time, I'd imagine,” said the Doctor. “Vortex manipulator. Quick and dirty. I did mention she would be wearing something on her wrist.” He walked over and extended a hand to me, pulling me to my feet. “Good thing you got out of the way or you'd have gone with her.”
“Yeah, that would've been--” Would've been what? I ran a hand over my hair and took a deep breath.
“John.” Sherlock was crouched next to Donna's still body. She was free from the chair but not moving. “I can't find a pulse.”
“Call an ambulance,” I said, and dropped into a place I'd grown quite familiar with in Afghanistan. I knelt by Donna's side and time slowed down. My focus narrowed to the woman lying on the floor. I could hear the Doctor issuing a command to someone, but it didn't matter. Vitals. No pulse, no breathing. Her skin was almost hot enough to sear my hand. I started chest compressions, rescue breathing. Counting each out in my head automatically. The buzzing in my head grew louder, swelled as I counted, One and two and three and four and... a clanking, scraping whine threatened to drown out the counting in my head. Then a hand was on my shoulder, shaking.
“John,” Sherlock said once, then more urgently, “John.”
I didn't stop resuscitation, I couldn't, but I looked up to see a large blue box—shed?--in the middle of Donna's living room. “What--?”
“Not now,” said the Doctor. He came over and took Donna from under my hands and carried her towards the box. The door swung open and warm orange light—remarkably like the light that had been in Donna's eyes, spilled across the floor. A young couple, maybe half my age, maybe a little older, came out and helped the Doctor carry Donna in—in? Where were they going to fit?
Then I really looked at the doorway. There was an entire room behind it. I felt my adrenaline-soaked brain try to stretch and twist to accommodate for that impossibility. Sherlock had already grappled with the impossible and was jumping over the threshold. I stumbled to my feet and followed.
The room looked haphazard, like someone had stolen chairs from a rubbish dump and fastened them to the floor. A console in the center of the room was made up of odds and ends that made no sense whatsoever. Was that a... typewriter? The ceiling soared overhead, and the floor beneath my feet revealed a lower level. Sherlock was helping the Doctor's two assistants with Donna.. They placed her in a chair while the Doctor stood at the console twiddling controls, typing. Sherlock was looking around with that faint self-satisfied smile of his, as if someone had just proven him right.
The Doctor said, “I'm getting old, Amy. I should have seen this before.”
The girl, another ginger, younger and prettier than Donna, asked, “Seen what?”
The Doctor looked up with a wild light in his eyes and a manic grin on his face. “I can fix what's wrong.” He circled around the console, turning this and that while he talked. “Don't you see?” He pulled out the pocket watch he'd tricked Karen with and waved it. “I can fix it! I couldn't before, but now... now, Amy... the TARDIS has been human. She has the perfect template stored in her databases.” He jumped up and hauled down a strange headpiece that was connected to the ceiling by wires and arms. “The Chameleon Arch. It changes cellular biology.” He slapped the pocket watch against a plate on the front, where it stayed. “With the template in place, we can tweak it. Reroute a few things, increase the synaptic processing capacity...”
The young man spoke up, “You're going to rewire her brain?”
“Yes!” The Doctor went back to the console. “Rory, we're going to rewire Donna's brain.”
“That's impossible,” I said. None of this made any sense, but that sentence at least, I had understood. “You'll kill her.”
“Look at her, Dr. Watson,” said the Doctor. “She's dying. I have to try.” He lowered the headpiece down onto Donna's head gently and cradled her head in his hands for a moment, murmuring something to her. Then he released her. “Amy, Rory. Hold on to her. This is going to be... difficult.”
He stepped back to the console and took a deep breath, and threw a switch.
Donna's eyes flew open. They were her normal color right until she started screaming. The orange light flared and she thrashed and bucked in Amy's and Rory's hands. The sound of her screaming, there was utter agony in that sound. It twisted in my gut and I heard gunfire in my head, men screaming that same scream.
And then it stopped. Donna crumpled back against the chair, her head lolling to the side.
“You killed her,” I said. “You have, you've bloody killed her.” My fists clenched and I was moving towards the Doctor when Donna opened her eyes again. There was fear there, a lack of recognition. The Doctor stepped in front of her and gently removed the headpiece, the Chameleon Arch, and pushed it aside.
“And now for the rest,” he said softly, and leaned his forehead against hers.
After a few moments, Donna drew back and started swinging wildly at the Doctor, punching him in the arm, slapping him in the chest. “You gigantic moronic space dunce! Who said you could go through my mind and take things? Who do you think you--?” She stopped and looked at him. “Hold on. You got younger.”
The Doctor laughed and grabbed her in a bear hug. I caught Sherlock's eye and he nodded towards the door. It was starting to feel as if we were intruding on a family reunion. Amy and Rory were soon caught up in the hugging, so it was definitely our time to leave.
Outside the box—the TARDIS?--I turned to Sherlock, “What the hell just happened?”
Donna's boisterous voice carried out to us, “Another ginger?”
“Aliens, John.” He smiled one of his rare smiles. “Aliens happened.”
“Oi! Where do you think you're going?” Donna stood at the open door of the TARDIS. “Get back here, you two.” She stepped back into her flat, and I saw a sight I never thought I'd see: before he could protest, she grabbed Sherlock around the waist and hugged him. “Another tall skinny boy to the rescue,” she said. “I don't know how you did it, but thank you.”
Sherlock awkwardly patted Donna on the back as he tried to break free. “You're... welcome.” He got free—when she decided to let him go.
“Dr. Watson,” she said, stepping over to me. “You know, if you call me in a few months, I just might be interested. If you're not still dating someone who's trying to kill me, that is.” If I hadn't seen the change happen myself, I would have doubted that she was the same woman who came into 221B just a few days ago. There was a brilliance in her eyes that had been missing, snapping intelligence.
“I'll keep that in mind,” I said, and I meant it. “But—what happened just now?”
“Human-Time Lord biological meta-crisis,” she said. “Wellll, actually, that happened about three years ago. Long story. There was an accident, and I wound up with a Time Lord's brain, but without the biological capacity to withstand it. Seriously though, you wouldn't believe the difference. Thoughts, ideas, just flying everywhere. It's no wonder they're all mad. Anyway, it was killing me, and dumbo over there decided to go ahead and wipe my brain.” She gestured to where the Doctor stood in the TARDIS doorway. “We're not done talking about that, by the way.” She turned back to me. “But apparently this version of him is a little bit smarter, because he figured out a way to let the Time Lord part of my mind exist with the human part. And here I am.”
“So Karen was right then. You are a Time Lord—wait, that doesn't sound right. Time Lady?”
“Nooooo,” she scoffed. “Well. Maybe a little. Mostly human though, in case you were worried.”
“Erm, so then, what are you going to do now?”
“Oh, I don't know. Someone has some making up to do, so I might make him take me on a trip or two.”
“Anywhere.” And when she smiled, she lit up like the interior of the TARDIS. She grabbed me in a hug and murmured, “Call me,” before letting me go and walking back to the blue box. She smacked the Doctor on the arm and said, “C'mon then, spaceman. You owe me a trip somewhere gorgeous.”
The TARDIS door closed, and a few moments later it disappeared with the same whining, clanking sound.
Sherlock and I left the flat, locking the door behind us. I stopped him in the hallway. “You knew exactly what Karen was looking for. Why did you say it was you?”
“Because I'm a Time Lord, John. I'm a lost member of an ancient race of time-traveling aliens and I've been hiding out in Baker Street all this time.”
I opened my mouth and closed it while he just watched me. Then he laughed, the sound rumbling up from deep in his chest. “You really should have read the rest of the UNIT files. It was all in there, about the Doctor, the Time Lords... Martha Jones was quite thorough about documenting everything she knew. I just wanted to distract Karen for a moment to give the Doctor a chance to come up with a plan.”
“So, you're.... not a time-traveling alien, then.”
He laughed and turned to walk down the hallway without answering. After a moment, I followed.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Two men stood in front of the mantelpiece of 221B. The first picked up the pocket watch that had lain there, largely unnoticed, unconsidered, for months. “You recognized this, from the Chameleon Arch. Do you understand what it means?”
After a moment, the second man nodded. “He's not what he seems.”
“He's a Time Lord. And he has no idea. Whatever brought him here, whatever he's hiding from, he's in incredible danger. So much danger that he put away everything that he was, gave up everything god only knows how long ago, to wind up here with you. And now someone's got a bounty on Time Lords, and they're looking for him. Which means that you're in danger now as well.”
“What do I do?”
“Watch him. He's an extraordinary human being. Who he really is, though... who knows? It may begin to bleed through. You may see changes in his behavior. He may become more reckless. I don't know who or what he was before, but recklessness and arrogance are generally hallmark traits of my kind.” There was a shadow of a smile on his face. “As long as his disguise holds, and he will be safe. Well. Safer. I'll try to find out what he's hiding from, and who's sending rogue Time Agents after him. I'll let you know what I find out.”
“Is there anything else?”
“Just one thing: whatever else you do, Sherlock, do not let John Watson open this watch. His true self will emerge, and whoever is looking for him will be able to track him. Keep him safe. You'll hear from me soon.”
The two men locked eyes for a long moment, then Sherlock nodded. He took the watch from the Doctor and tucked it away in his pocket.
As a note, this picture did a lot to inspire the idea of TimeLord!John: http://roane72.tumblr.com/post/16680831152/tannanana-martin-treeman-this-picture-the
And yes, there will be a sequel. :)