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I'm On Fire

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She thinks she might be going mad.

Because she has these dreams, see. And they're not dreams she remembers, but she's not sure she'd want to anyway, because what little she does recall is dark and tormented and full of fire, and when she wakes, she feels like she might be coming down with a fever (like she's on fire, too).

"Mum," she says, and her voice cracks. "I think I might need to see a doctor." And it's the way that Mum looks at her that makes her feel the worst of all; the way the older woman's face twists before she turns away without saying a word - like she knows something that Donna doesn't, like maybe she knows that Donna's dying and doesn't have the heart to tell her. She sees it in Granddad's face, too, but at least he doesn't pull away from her. He pats her hand and says it's going to be okay and asks if she'd like to have a look through his telescope because you never know what you'll see up there, but somehow, she can tell his heart's not in it either.

The temp agency lays her off. They don't call it that, of course - it's We're running a bit low on jobs this month, and really, we can tell you haven't been feeling yourself lately, so why don't you take advantage of the time off and file with us again when you come around? - but she knows the truth; she heard Mr Woobley or Boobley or what the bloody hell ever the man's name is on the phone with them; What kinna circus ya take this for, senning me a sekerterr who don't know the alffybet! She knows the alphabet just fine, thanks; it's his assistant's handwriting or lack thereof that's tripping her up. Is that a Q or a 2 or a rough sketch of a duck's penis?

It's when she's cleaning out her desk that she sees it, a clipping from the weekend flyers. It's small and cheap, with just a boldline at the top and no pictures, not even a caricature of a sad man on the psych sofa. NEED HELP? it shouts, like it's expecting her to scream back, Yes, yes, yes! as if it's the closest she's come to an O in months. The doctor is in. Call today at 020 5555 HELP.

She thinks about Mum's face when she'd said needed a doctor and wonders if she really wants to know - if she can handle knowing - but she can't go on like this, with the shadows all around her head and a flush in her cheeks that won't go away. So after she's dumped the contents of her desk onto Snoobley's and told him just what she thinks of the circus he's running (and after he's had her escorted out by security and her picture plastered on the wall at reception, DO NOT LET THIS WOMAN ONTO THE GROUNDS), she stops to have a cuppa and flips up her phone, and stares at it for a long while before finally working up the courage to dial.

"Helpline," says the voice on the other end, and it's a woman's, rich and warm, like a mum's should be. "How can I direct you?"

"I -" Donna begins, and then stops and swallows. Come on, girl! How is this any harder than calling a man you barely know for a date and a date and a date? "I'd like to make an appointment, please. My name's Donna Noble, and I think something's wrong with me, and I don't know what to do. I keep seeing these things, and no one -"

"Donna, Donna Noble, you said?" And there's something in the receptionist's voice that she can't quite place - is it surprise? Concern? Does she think Donna might be getting ready to jump off London Bridge this very moment? "As it happens, I've just had a cancellation. I'd like you to go ahead and come in, if you can?"

"Yea," Donna replies, and surprises herself that she's agreed so readily. She writes the directions on a napkin-scrap and flips off the phone, and finishes the cup before she gets up, because maybe she's not that ready to go in yet.

It's a small office, in a building that probably has twenty small offices, and Donna reads the names on all of them as she passes - M. Jones, Cardiology. R. Williams, In-Home Nursing. The Helpline Office is on the second floor, and after she steps off the lift, she's shocked by how empty the hall is compared to the level below. She's all the way to the end before the door's in front of her, and once her hand's on it, she pauses to take another deep breath before turning the knob and wobbling inside.

"Donna?" asks the woman in the chair, with the curls orbiting her head like a fork-in-the-socket perm and the blue ledger in her lap, and Donna recognizes the voice immediately as the one she'd heard on the phone. There's no receptionist, then; it's just - "Dr Song. Hello, sweetie. Why don't you have a seat and tell me what's going on?"

And somehow, suddenly, Donna feels okay. Like even though this woman's a stranger, even though she's probably been taught a thousand ways to relate to patients and get them comfortable enough to talk, she might actually understand. There's something in the way she smiles, in the way she looks at Donna without hemming and hawing and turning away, that feels like love. That feels like home, and Donna's not even ashamed when she starts to cry, because there's not an ounce of judgement in Dr Song; just that same empathetic-not-sympathetic concern that motivates her to get out of the chair and sit beside Donna instead, with an arm around Donna's shoulders and a hand stroking that red hair all the while that Donna's pouring out every detail she can remember about the dreams that she can't, about that shapes that dance at the corners of her eyes and the clouds that have settled over her head, about the fire that threatens, constantly, to consume her alive, that no one can put out because no one can see it - and even when she stammers that she almost believes she's possessed, because what else could make an invisible fire that never goes out besides the devil himself? Dr Song doesn't laugh once.

"Donna," she says, and now she's on the floor in front of Donna, crouched so that she can take the other woman's hands in her own. "I want you to listen to me. I want you to know that no matter what may be going on in your head, and no matter what the cause is, and no matter whether anyone else will tell you this or not. You are safe, and you are loved, and you are protected. I want you to believe that."

- and Donna does. She's only just met Dr Song, and yet, there's nothing to suggest that this woman is anything other than everything, that nothing in the universe is outside her power if she just puts her mind to it. She's both a cradle and a shield, and when she rises to press her lips to Donna's forehead, for the first time in weeks - maybe even months - the fire dies. It's as if a river has broken free of its dam and is rushing over a countryside scorched bare, soothing and replenishing, readying it to live once more (and Donna thinks about that movie, that long movie - no, that set of long movies - about the little hairy men and the wizard and the talking trees, and the scene where one of those talking trees had shoved his flaming head into an oncoming flood, and how this must be what it felt like to be saved in the final hour and know relief at last). She sobs into Dr Song and Dr Song only embraces her more tightly, and as the doctor's lips move down in their unbroken kiss, the coolness follows, as if she intends to heal every inch of Donna herself to make sure it's done right.

She doesn't remember coming home, and when she wakes, she doesn't remember dreaming, either, except that whatever it had been this time, it hadn't been dark - only something warm and light, that sparkled like gold, and the first thing she thinks after that is that she's wet herself, and she groans. Little old for that, Noble! But she hasn't; whatever's dampened her panties isn't piss, and maybe that had been a better dream than she'll ever know, after all. She has a shower and a change of clothes, and when she's putting her coat away, she finds a card in her pocket. It's for the helpline, but there's an after-hours number on it, too, and scrawled beside it, an invitation that makes her feel - not okay, not even better, but good. Even well. Call anytime, it says. Dr Song.

"You're looking chipper," Mum says as she's setting out plates for dinner. "Good day at work?"

"Oh, they let me go," Donna replies, and looks somewhere else as Mum rolls her eyes and sighs. "I've started seeing a new doctor, though." And across the table, Granddad looks up and just smiles, as if he's finally managed to light a fire on the darkest night of the year.

Author's Notes: For Round Fifteen of Porn Battle @ Dreamwidth. The prompts were Doctor Who, Donna Noble/River Song, mad, stranger.