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Paying a Debt

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Shaun touched Donna’s shoulder gingerly, caught between wanting to wake her and letting her slumber. She slept so badly these days … he took a breath and shook the shoulder, this time a little harder.

“Donna.”

His wife turned over to face him, her eyes large, the shadows beneath them bruised blue. “Shaun?”

“Love, I’m off to work.”

Donna struggled to sit up. “What time is it?”

“Half eight. There’s a staff meeting, and they want us all there.”

“Bloody bureaucrats,” she grumbled, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, and reaching for her robe. It sounded perfunctory, a pale echo of the fire she used to breathe in and out as naturally as air. 

He waited for it.

“How long will you be gone?” 

“I don’t think the meeting’s going to take too long, but I promised Gerald I’d finish that systems check before Friday.” He spoke evenly, casually, but looked past her shoulder as he said it. “Figure I’ll be back by three.”

She didn’t bother to hide her relief. “Oh, that’s different, then; that’s good.” She’d missed the fact he hadn’t looked her in the eye. She never would have missed it in the old days. But in the old days, she’d never been afraid of being alone. 

Shaun didn’t mind being with her most of the day; he loved her. What’s more, he liked her — liked her laugh, her sense of humor, her efficiency in everything she turned her hand to, the brash attacks she made on every obstacle in life, the gusto with which she grabbed at life. Being with her was one of the joys of his life. It had been that way from his first amazed realization that she liked him, through their days scraping by as a newly minted couple and on through the heady post-lottery days.

But that Donna, the one who loved being with people and having a good time, the one who supported him at every turn while he learned his own worth, was disappearing. 

She’d been replaced by someone who was afraid of being alone — something that might look like the same thing to someone who didn’t love Donna, but which was very different from her delight in people. This Donna slept badly, clung to him as if he as a life-raft, stared out the window at nothing in particular for hours on end. 

Talking to her about it did no good. She’d get tearfully angry, telling him she was just fine, really fine, thank you, what are you on about. Like as not, she’d then come down with one of the punishing headaches that turned her ruddy complexion as pale as paper. 

Sometimes she would walk away from him without saying anything, and leave the house to go walking, sometimes for hours. Those walks had become almost the only time she’d leave the house.

So Shaun had talked to her mother about it. 

Initially Sylvia had waved him off.

There’s nothing wrong with Donna. 

She’s just looking for attention. 

Why d’you keep on asking me? 

I’m just frustrated. I’m sorry, Shaun. I know she’s in, well, pretty bad shape. 

Look, if you love her, just … keep on loving her. She’ll get better. I think so, anyway. I mean, I hope she’ll get better.

It’s complicated. 

I don’t know — just complicated. 

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.  

But eventually his quiet perseverance and her daughter’s declining emotional health broke down her determination to avoid the subject. That’s when he’d learned about the Doctor. 

What the hell? This guy’s a genius alien, yeah? So why can’t he fix Donna?

Sylvia had had no answer. Maybe her dad might have had one, she had said, looking uncharacteristically lost herself. 

Her father, Donna’s beloved Gramps, had died a year and a half after the wedding. Shaun had held Donna while she cried herself out on his shoulder, and he’d shed a few tears himself, because he’d been learning to love the old man who had so eagerly accepted him.

He knew me so well, and he didn’t care how stupid I am, Donna had wept. Shaun had shaken her, very gently, and whispered that Gramps knew Donna was one of the smartest people he knew. Donna hadn’t answered, but she had relaxed into him, her tears gradually slowing.

Shaun and Sylvia forged a closer relationship after the revelation about the Doctor. Shaun, who took to visiting Sylvia once a week or so, just to be able to talk about his beloved redhead’s health, quickly realized how worried his mother-in-law was; her normal stroppy behavior masked a very real fear that Donna was starting to remember what the Timelord had blocked off and declared fatal to his former companion. 

“I haven’t the slightest idea of where to find him, how to get a message to him,” she said, over tea and some of the cinnamon biscuits she occasionally took time to make. “What on earth are we supposed to do if she starts really remembering? Right now, it’s bad dreams and being afraid to be alone, but what if it gets worse?”

Shaun couldn’t answer, but he knew Sylvia didn’t expect him to. He took another biscuit, and then a deep breath. “I ran across something online the other day.” 

Sylvia looked up from the tea she’d been staring into. “What?”

“There’s a detective agency —” Shaun began. 

“What, you think detectives can find an alien?” Sylvia’s expression was as richly dismissive as her words, but Shaun was used to her ways now, and he just started over. “There’s a detective agency, name of Jones and Smith. They advertise themselves as the most thorough investigators on Earth, or off it.” 

“Well that’s just advert guff, isn’t it.” She didn’t even make it a question.

Shaun reached for the tablet he’d brought with him from the car. He found the website, and read from its “About Us” tab. “Jones and Smith, established in 2008, are proud of our ability to research even the most difficult of cases, and discover ways to solve our clients’ problems. When those problems involve issues that are out of the ordinary — especially those linked to Britain’s expanding status as an off-world event nexus — Jones and Smith have had unparalleled success in problem solving.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Now Sylvia was really paying attention. 

“What I think it means,” Shaun said, “is that this firm isn’t trying to pretend things like the Daleks and the … the Master … didn’t happen.” He usually avoided talking about that alien; what he’d done still shook both of them. But today he was trying to make a point. “They’re not doing what the government does, covering up and rationalizing and all. There’s got to be a good reason for this firm’s claims being so bald. I think they really deal with some of the off-world things we’ve survived.”

“Like … you think these people can find the Doctor?” 

“Dunno, not for certain, but I’ve got an appointment with them, day after tomorrow,” he said, finishing off the last of the biscuits. “It can’t hurt to try.”

“You’re not going to tell—”

“No, of course not,” Shaun said with a flash of irritation. Both of them knew better than to talk to Donna about her condition when she was this deep into depression and sleep deprivation. “I’ve got work that morning, and  I’ll just tell her I’ve got an early afternoon meeting.”

***   *** ***   ***

Martha Jones leaned back in her chair, and looked Shaun Temple over with an almost medical thoroughness. Shaun stayed silent. He’d let her respond to what he’d just said. 

“You’re looking for the Doctor.”

“I am. For my wife. For Donna.”

“We know about Donna,” she said softly. “We’ve kept her file open for the past 10 years.”

Shaun stared at her. They knew about Donna? They knew?

As if she could read his mind, Jones said, “I can’t help her. I would if I could; I’m a doctor. But I’m not the Doctor. We’ve been able to ensure that she gets the best medical care possible; she’s had access to medications that have helped keep her memory blocks intact without dulling her conscious mind.”

Shaun thought about the doctors Donna had visited, the medications that had — until recently — kept her healthy, but which didn’t seem to be in the NHS formularies. “How?”

“Torchwood,” Mickey Smith said, from across the room, where he sat half encircled by a bank of screens and keyboards. He didn’t elaborate. Shaun turned to Jones, who sighed. “It’s an organization that kept an eye on the skies.”

“Like UNIT?”

“You’ve been doing your homework,” Smith said approvingly. “Then again, you wouldn’t have gotten along as famously at Chadwell Analytics if you didn’t have a head for that kind of work. Yeah, like them, except without the ethics. But forget about Torchwood; they’re gone now. We’ve kept the patents on some of their less dangerous pharmaceutical finds alive, and we made sure Donna’s doctors knew about them and prescribed them.”

“But they’re starting to lose their efficacy,”  Jones said, standing up and going to a window in the small office. “We’ve been worried, but haven’t been able to do much about it.”

Shaun looked around. The whole space screamed Secret Organization to him — but it also muttered Shoestring Operation With Dodgy Funding. He wasn’t surprised by Jones’ statement. “Where does that leave Donna?”

“There’s a network of those of us who knew some version of the Doctor,” Jones said. “Mick and I don’t keep up with him anymore; too much history, and we’ve got too much to do down here, especially when he doesn’t bother to turn up for the smaller incursions. But there’s at least one person I know that you might want to contact.”

“Oh, you should definitely contact her,” Smith said, getting up and joining Jones at the window, and turning to her with his next words. “Last I knew she was in Brazil; back at that place she and Cliff operate. But knowing her, she could be halfway round the world from there by now, on some cocamamie mission, so that’s a consideration.”

“Tom said he talked to Jo about three weeks ago, and she said she’d settled in for the season,” Jones said. As she said the first name, she touched Smith’s hand; Shaun saw the man’s momentary stiffness disappear into a smile. 

“Then she’s the one to check with,” he said. “She doesn’t usually like tech, but Sarah Jane left her everything in the attic, even Mr. Smith, and Cliff’s a dab hand with things like that these days. So yeah, maybe. If she’s in the mood. If he’s in the mood.” 

Smith frowned slightly as he spoke. Shaun wondered why. The man seemed like someone Shaun might want to know, but he didn’t seem happy talking about the Doctor, or how he himself might be connected to the alien.

The Timelord … Shaun didn’t know whether to laugh at the title — it sounded like something a 14-year-old anime otaku might call themselves — or be terrified by it. The latter seemed more realistic, given what little he’d learned from Sylvia. 

“For something like this? She’ll be in the mood. And she’ll convince him. You’ve seen her in action,” Jones said, interrupting Shaun’s internal monologue as she glowered just a bit at her partner. 

Smith grimaced, then smiled again. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry to be such a prat.”

Jones grinned at him to accept the apology, then turned to Shaun. “The person we’re talking about is Jo Grant Jones. She’s the person we know, at least here on Earth, who last had contact with the Doctor, or at least a relatively recent version of him.”

Does that mean she traveled with him, like Donna did? Is she friendly with him?  Shaun wondered how sympathetic someone might be about Donna’s plight, if they were friendly with the alien. Then again, he didn’t think Smith or Jones would try to connect him with someone who wasn’t willing to help her. 

Jones broke into his train of thought. “Jo … inherited … some technology from a — a good friend —  that might get you a little closer to him. We’ll let her know you’re going to contact her by Skype.” 

She handed him a sheet of paper with Jo Grant Jones’ information typed on it. “Try tomorrow night.”

“Jones …” Shaun began, a bit diffidently. “Your — ?”

That prompted a laugh. “Not a relative, no. At least not in the regular sense. We’re sisters of a sort, though.” 

Shaun bobbed his head, unsure of how to take that, or how to thank Martha Jones or her partner, or even whether they’d done enough to be thanked for. But he took the paper.

When he got home, he heard Donna crying. He stuffed the paper back in his pocket and went upstairs. She was sitting in their bedroom in her pajamas.  

He stifled the frustration that had lately begun to creep in on the heels of his worried love. Getting angry wasn’t going to help. At least not yet, he thought unwillingly; for now, focus on being there for her. And think of the possible light at the end of the tunnel. 

“You need a hug, love?”

“Wouldn’t hurt,” she sniffed. 

That was positive, he thought, at least better than the afternoons when she just lay in bed and turned her face to the wall without speaking to him. He sat down next to her on the bedroom loveseat and put his arms around her.

“Anything else I can do?”

She twisted a little bit so that she could look at him directly. 

“Here … your nose is running,” Shaun said. “Take my hankie.”

That prompted something like a grin, or at least something with a passing acquaintance to one. “Oh, I’m sure I’m a glorious sight.” She took the handkerchief and cleaned her face up a bit. “How was your meeting?”

Shaun recognized deflection when he heard it, but he acquiesced momentarily. “It went well.  We’ve got another meeting planned with an associate in Brazil, but that’ll be by Skype.”

“Brazil?”

Shaun didn’t know if pre-memory block Donna had ever known about Jo Grant Jones, so he didn’t mention her name. “A new project.  I don’t know much about it now. I’m sure the Skype session will help.”

He decided to push a little. “You want to go out for dinner?”

Donna tensed up.

“Just for a curry. Or down the pub, at Albert’s,” he qualified. He knew Donna loved the Indian place that wasn’t too far from their old neighborhood. And pubs were usually safe places for her; a lot of people, but none of them paying much attention to her. 

After a long minute where Shaun wasn’t certain she was going to answer at all, Donna said, “Let me think about it. It’s been a tough day.”

That was the kind of opening he hadn’t had in weeks, and he took it. “Yeah, looks like it has been. What’s up, love?”

There was another long minute.

“Dreams again. The dream where he’s coming to get me, and I die.” Her voice was flat. 

Shaun’s heart almost stopped. “Who?”

The nightmare when the Master altered human DNA to brief but horrible effect was a blur in almost everyone’s memories, largely because their conscious brains had been short-circuited by whatever technology he’d used. But Sylvia said the Doctor told them Donna had been affected differently. She’d stayed herself, but had almost remembered her past with him; a failsafe he’d apparently placed in her brain was the only thing that had saved her from dying. Was she now remembering the Master? 

Shaun held his breath. 

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before,” Donna said. She sounded unsure. “In this dream —  I’ve been getting it more and more — whoever he is, he’s thin … no, outright skinny, with some kind of stupid coat that flaps around his knees. His hair … it’s a mess, like century old bed head — dunno why I can remember that, but it’s like I always get irritated at the hair. 

“I can never see his face, it’s always in shadow … but he’s walking toward me. He’s trying to talk to me, and I’m telling him to sod off … he just keeps talking and talking and talking —” 

She stopped momentarily, as her voice threatened to hiccup once more into tears. Once she got herself under control, she continued. “The ending’s always the same. Just before I wake up, I can hear him say something—” She stopped, shaking her head. “Oh, God …”

“You don’t need to say anything more,” Shaun said, hugging her to stop her speaking. 

“No. No, I want to tell you,” Donna said firmly. She almost sounded like her old self. “You’ve been patience itself, and you deserve something better than … than an invalid head case. I want free of this.” Her hands flew wide, dislodging her from his embrace as she gestured spasmodically around herself at the darkened room. 

“I’m so sick of it, Shaun. So sick of being this way. Crying, hiding in bed because I’m afraid to go outside, but afraid of sleeping, afraid of my own bloody dreams. When did this … this … whatever it is, when did it start? Oh, god, when did I end up like this? I don’t know what I’m afraid of, and that — that — that’s what bloody freezes me in place.”

Donna jumped from the loveseat, going to the window and yanking the curtains apart. She waved at the scene outside. “What if what I’m afraid of is around the next corner? What if it’s down the street, in the pub, waiting for me? And how can I even tell, if I don’t know what I’m looking for? A person? A thing?”

Before he could get a word in, she continued, clutching at her head. “And this headache! I can’t get rid of it, nothing they’ve prescribed works anymore, and it’s just getting worse, and I’m afraid that my head’s going to explode —”

She was shaking now, and the words were tumbling out faster and faster. Shaun was terrified. He did the one thing he could. “I’m here, Donna. I’m here, love. I always will be, no matter what. I promise. Here, shhh … shhhh … let me get your pills. I know they don’t get rid of it, but they help, right? Okay, just sit. They’re on the bedside table, right?”

She nodded and sat back down on the loveseat, quiet and obedient, the flash of her old self gone as if it had never been. Shaun’s heart ached at the loss, but he was grateful that he’d somehow interrupted her fear and shaking, at least for the moment.

Once she’d swallowed two of her pain pills, he took the water glass from her. “Do you want to lie down again?”

“No. No. Let me dress and come downstairs at least. Albert’s is right out, but maybe we could phone the Taj for some takeaway? Have them deliver it?” She looked at him hopefully. 

That was a victory, Shaun thought. Takeaway was a victory. What she’d said, what she’d told him, that was a victory, too. He couldn’t remember when she’d voluntarily said so much about what had been going on in her head over the past year. 

Then he wondered if she was willing to talk about her fear because the walls around her memory were crumbling even faster than he and Sylvia already feared. Not so much of a victory, then. 

He hoped his call with the Grant Jones woman got him closer to an answer.

To be continued.