Donna Noble is fairly certain the world has gone mad while her back was turned.
Her friends go on about their “planets in the sky” bit far longer than it’s ever acceptable to carry on some half-brained prank. Gramps is sad in a way he’s never been before — or has he? — and sometimes (and it’s this, mostly, that convinces Donna of international insanity) her mother says nice things for absolutely no reason at all.
Everyone asks where she’s been, lately, and Donna finds herself saying “the usual” so many times she wonders if it might be better to get it tattooed on her forehead. Temping and television and sleeping and eating and it’s all the same, really, so what does it matter if she can’t draw up the details, if the last few months are hazy and forgettable?
The usual, she says, and she scowls just as little as she says it because what do they expect, anyway?
There’s an envelope in the mail for her one morning without any sort of address. Not hers or a return or even a bloody stamp; it just says Donna Noble on the front, like she’s important enough to warrant just a name. She holds it warily in her hands, because usually there’s a reason when people don’t attach their names to their letters, but what falls out of the envelope when she opens it can hardly be considered a letter at all.
Good luck, it says, in the loopy, cramped writing of someone who rarely uses a pen, and be magnificent.
It comes with a lottery ticket. Donna means to throw it out — what sort of half-mad stalker creep sends anonymous letters with lottery tickets? -- but Gramps insists she keep it, and he’s been so down lately that Donna can’t deny him anything.
Her ticket wins the jackpot.
The story spreads across all sorts of news stations. Donna spends half a month waiting for someone to turn up and demand half the winnings, hastily explaining, “oh, well, sure I gave it to you, but I didn’t think you’d win.”
No one ever does.
When money isn’t an obstacle, all sorts of other obstacles present themselves — namely, what now?
She stops temping — or rather, doesn’t restart; even quitting, it seems, was too dull for Donna’s brain to hold on to — and moves out, finally. Gets her own car and shops around until she finds precisely the right shade of blue. She can make Gramps comfortable, now, and her mum too, so she does. She takes the girls on a shopping spree and every round of drinks is on her. She gives a sizable donation to a charity fighting the cancer that took her father and buys Gramps the best telescope she can find.
And as she stands in her flat one night with her hands on her hips, staring at the empty room wondering what now, what now, what now, an answer comes out of nowhere, whispering fervently from the edges of her consciousness.
Travel, it says. Go on, go on, go on. Run.
She’s on a plane before she notices she hasn’t got anything to run to.
Two days in Portugal and Donna finds the language barrier isn’t much of a barrier at all.
The words are familiar in a way she can’t explain, like remembering, like she’d studied it long ago and hearing it again brings it rushing back. For the life of her she can’t figure it out, but she buys a pocket dictionary and a travel guide and finds her way around with relative ease.
“You are gifted with languages, perhaps,” the man at her hotel’s front desk suggests, his English clumsy on his tongue.
Donna nearly laughs — since when has she been gifted at anything? — but tips him instead and thanks him in Portuguese.
The trip only lasts two weeks; she answers a panicked call from her mother on the third day and reluctantly admits that up and leaving for Portugal is perhaps not the most responsible thing she’s ever done.
Back home, she signs up for Portuguese classes. A month and she’s fluent; her tutor is stunned, and the only explanation Donna can offer is a shrug.
“Maybe I was Portuguese in a past life,” she reasons, and then laughs at joke she isn’t sure she quite understands.
She spends the next year absorbing languages. French, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Greek, German, Mandarin, Japanese — each comes as easily as the Portuguese, and when pressed for her secret, Donna shrugs and says, “Guess I’m brilliant.”
She considers it her own private joke, knowing that she’s not.
After that, she travels again, properly, this time. She goes and goes and goes, all around the world, hopping from luxurious five-star hotels to dingy hostels, making friends and meeting just as many people put-off by the idea of a temp-turned-traveler, a millionaire by the magic of random numbers.
Donna finds she doesn’t mind. Sometimes she makes friends and travels with them for a month or two; other times she travels alone, going where she pleases, slipping unnoticed through the streets of Bangkok and Minsk, Melbourne and Buenos Aires. Sometimes she plays tourist, camera strap around her neck; sometimes she forgoes world wonders in favour of coffee shops passed from father to son.
She calls home when it occurs to her, ignores the nagging in her mother’s voice and focuses instead on the utter pride and wonder in Gramps’. She flies back every couple months, to give out souvenirs and to stargaze with Gramps while she tells him of her latest trip. He’s ludicrously proud, and more than once Donna wonders if the envelope wasn’t from him in the first place.
Her mobile never drops a signal, and when she finds she has full reception in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, Donna wonders if the cheap piece of plastic isn’t the best material purchase she’s made.
It’s impossibly reliable.
She’s doodling her name like a fourteen year old.
Pen in hand, she sits with her head against a window on a train in Canada, half-eavesdropping on the conversation of the couple in the seats behind hers.
They’re speaking French, but it’s a moment before she notices. These days, it seems all the languages bleed together, a tangle of sounds that her somehow-brilliant brain twists into meanings and ideas. She still finds it strange, and she thinks she’d volunteer for research if it didn’t mean sitting still for so long.
She traces her pen across her napkin without much thought, gazing out the window even as she writes. When she looks down, intricate circles and ovals and lines, looping and intersecting and overlapping, cover her signatures. It reminds her of a toy from her childhood that came with plastic gears.
Looking at the pattern too long gives her a headache, so she crumples the napkin and throws it away with her juice box.
Sometimes, Donna dreams.
All sorts of things, really -- she jokes with Gramps that she ought to write books about it. She dreams of fire and water and weddings, of libraries and songs she can never remember when she wakes. There are recurring characters — a blonde in blue leather, a doctor with a ring on one finger, twins in suits with ridiculous hair.
Probably she’s too old for imaginary friends. She finds she doesn’t care.
She stays in Pompeii for barely a day.
The tourists around her see everything with fascination and a distant grief for the people who lived an unimaginably long time ago. They revere the bodies buried under ash as fictional characters, lives lost so long ago they are no longer of consequence.
Perhaps it’s the overactive imagination responsible for her dreams, but Donna doesn’t find it difficult to imagine the streets lined with people, women and children and fathers, families like hers, people no different than the tourists beside her.
It’s embarrassing, crying so much, and by the end of the day her head is pounding.
Cardiff makes her feel… strange.
She can’t decide if it’s a good-strange or a bad-strange, but nonetheless the hairs on the back of her neck prickle and she feels oddly alert.
She’s walking down the street one night with her hands in her pockets when someone speeds by her, veering down into an alleyway and out of sight. Startled, Donna turns to watch them dash out of sight.
A second later, a woman tears around the corner, her dark hair flapping madly behind her. She pauses, panting and looking around wildly, and Donna jerks her head towards the alley.
“They went left,” she says.
The woman gives her a bizarre look as she straightens up again, and Donna self-consciously looks over her shoulder.
“Thank you,” the woman says, and smiles before she takes off down the street again.
Donna listens to the sound of shoes pounding down the concrete and wonders why she feels compelled to chase after them.
Her grandfather dies, and Donna is devastated.
Now she has something to run from.
That night, she receives a bouquet of flowers and a short note of condolence. She stares at the note, eyeing the handwriting, almost certain it matches that of the mysterious envelope from years previous. She studies the note card through blurred vision and finally, truly believes that Gramps didn’t send the lottery ticket after all.
Strange is that there’s still no name, and stranger still are the flowers, varieties and colours she’s sure she’s never seen before.
Strangest of all is the way the bouquet seems to simply appear in her flat while she’s out. She has her locks changed the next day.
In her hotel in Kyoto, the sprinkler system malfunctions.
She steps into the hallway only to see everyone else leaving their rooms, loud complaints about disturbed sleeps and water damage filling the corridor. At the end of the hall, a man gestures them all towards the staircases and elevators, jabbering on about technical difficulties, lovely days for walks, time saved showering and isn’t this better than a fire?
He seems to know what’s going on, so Donna walks over, hands planted on her hips.
“What’s going on?” she demands.
He turns and stares at her with wide eyes; Donna feels a jolt of déjà vu, and when he doesn’t answer she steps forward, one hand on her hip, the other pointing squarely at his chest.
“Hang on,” she says slowly. She has a sudden feeling of nostalgia, like walking through an attic and blowing dust off old family photos. “I know you. You lit the Olympic torch this year. No one had any idea who the hell you were.”
She doesn’t mention that he also looks a whole damn lot like the men she sees in her dreams. That would just sound insane.
He stares at her a long moment, still looking startled and a little horrified — honestly, it’s not as though he looks any better with wet hair flattened against head — and then snaps out of it. “Did I? Sounds about right.” It’s a minute before she notices he’s switched to English. He looks over his shoulder to where the last of the hotel guests are stalking down staircases, and then looks expectantly at Donna. “Right. Well, you know the way out. Enjoy the weather, it’s lovely outside today.”
With that, he spins and darts to the staircase himself — only he heads up, not down.
Indignant, Donna follows him up. She’s soaked through as it is, anyway — any more water by this point is superfluous.
“And where d’you think you’re going?” she calls, hurrying to keep up with him.
“Fixing the sprinkler,” he calls without turning. “Why don’t you go outside and dry off?”
“And the controls to the sprinkler are on the roof, are they?” Donna follows him up one flight of stairs, then another. “Why do you want everyone out of the building, anyway? What are you doing?”
He turns to give her a stare that lands somewhere between panic and exasperation. “I really think you should head outside.”
She snorts. “Oh, no you don’t. I’m not leaving you alone in this building, who knows what you’re up to?”
She hears him sigh as he continues up the stairs. “I’m telling you, for your own sake, just — go outside, go for a walk, get something to eat, anything, just–“
“What, are you a terrorist or something?”
“A terrorist?” He gives her a perplexed look over his shoulder. “Why would a terrorist evacuate an entire building?”
“Well I don’t know,” she snaps. “That’s what it always is, these days, isn’t it? Terrorists.” She considers, then adds, “or aliens.”
He freezes when he reaches the final landing, one hand on the doorknob. Donna catches up, just a bit out of breath, hands on her hips and eyebrows raised.
“Well?” she asks, all but daring him to try anything while she’s still around.
He meets her eyes, back to looking panicked. “Please, just — go. Please.”
“Demanding for a sprinkler repairman, aren’t you?”
He says nothing more, just stares at her with large, imploring eyes. Some utterly irrational part of her wants to appease him, but a stronger part — the dominant part — sees no proper reason to turn back now.
So she reaches around him and jerks the door open herself.
She steps into the hallway, sees nothing to her right, looks to her left and —
Well, it isn’t terrorists.
It’s like breaking down floodgates; torrents of memories, emotions, faces and places bombard her in a split second, stunning her, and by God is she going to need an Aspirin. She staggers under the immensity, the weight of it all, and she feels the Doctor’s hands at her back, holding her up.
“Donna?” she hears him ask, his voice the tight, controlled tone she remembers him using to cover up genuine fear.
At the end of the hallway, the alien raises something that even Donna, several years out of practice, can recognize as a gun.
Before she straightens herself up and grabs the Doctor’s hand to run like hell the other direction, she shakes her head, purses her lips and scowls at him.
“Oh, I am going to kill you.”
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