He’s always been haunted by memories, but he doesn’t usually let himself get so caught up in them that they begin to affect the way he sees the world.
Not until now.
Not when he finds himself being pursued by a figure with red hair and flashing blue eyes that seems to have followed him out of his nightmares and onto every planet he visits.
Not when he can’t seem to escape. When the figure seems to be every place he is. When he catches glimpses of it out of the corner of his eye.
Every time he sees it, it’s always closer. Several blocks away on a busy London street. At the other end of a country lane in the Yorkshire dales. On a hydroescalator going up as he’s going down on one of the most advanced planets in the universe. On the other side of the street.
And then one day he opens the door of the TARDIS and finds it almost nose-to-nose with him.
“No!” he yells in exasperation. “No! You’re not real! Go away!”
But when he moves to slam the door shut and flee, he can’t get it closed because a foot in a sturdy boot has moved astonishingly quickly to block it.
And Donna Noble steps into the TARDIS and quietly closes the door.
The Doctor backs slowly, wondering exactly why his brain is having such a vivid hallucination. Even at his worst, he’s never imagined things as clearly as this before. His other senses seem to be as overwhelmed as his eyes. He can almost believe that he can smell her perfume. Her footsteps up the ramp towards him ring loudly in his ears. And he can easily believe that she’s real enough to touch.
“Please,” he begs softly as he backs away, finally slamming into the console. “Please, go away.”
The hallucination stops at the top of the ramp. He notices vaguely that this cuts off his means of escape, but he keeps his attention focused on the figure in front of him, wondering what he can do to fight it off if is does turn out to be real and an enemy playing on his weaknesses.
There’s a faint, teasing smile on the hallucination’s face.
“What do I have to do,” she asks, “to prove that I’m real?”
“You aren’t real,” he insists softly. “You can’t be real. You can’t be alive. I saw you. I touched you. I felt your life — that glorious spark that made Donna Noble so special — and it was gone. Therefore you’re nothing but a figment of my imagination. I might be hallucinating, but at least I know I am.”
“You don’t want to believe I’m real?” she asks, and he imagines he hears a tone of hurt in her voice. “You don’t want me to be real?”
“What I want doesn’t matter.” He shakes his head, scarcely believing that he’s letting himself be sucked into this delusion, hoping that it will clear her away. “What I want never matters.”
“No, I suppose that was the logic you used to send Rose back to the alternate universe along with that half-human version of yourself,” she says mockingly, and he feels pain tear through him anew at the memory of those events, now so long ago.
“Personally,” the image of Donna goes on, her head tilted to one side, watching him, a thoughtful expression on her face, “I don’t know if that’s supremely noble or just really dumb.”
She grins, and he can feel his resolve to keep resisting the allure of his hallucination falter. After all, would it really matter if he kept believing in this vision, gave himself a glimpse of happiness and some company in his lonely existence in the TARDIS? Would it hurt anyone?
Donna studies him again, the smile fading from her face until a faint frown takes its place.
“You still don’t believe I’m real.”
“Donna, I saw you die,” he repeats. “I saw them trying to save your life after something triggered your memories. I saw them fail, because nothing was ever going to be able to stop your mind from being overwhelmed by everything you absorbed during the metacrisis. I saw you,” he chokes slightly, “in the morgue. Held your hand. Talked to you…”
“Told me how much I meant to you.” She smiles. “Called me your lucky charm. Even admitted that you didn’t mind these.”
There’s a sudden crack as her hand comes up and deals his cheek such a sharp slap that he staggers sideways. Pain flowers in his face and he stares at her in confused bewilderment as his hand cradles his stinging skin.
“I do think I could have dreamed you without that,” he tells himself as much as her.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” she declares, rolling her eyes. “What do I have to do to convince you that this is actually me and not a figment of your imagination? What do you want — another bloody kiss like the one you got in the 1920s? Well, you’re not getting one, chum!”
He hates how every word she says only reinforces the belief that she’s real and there. He’s torn between wishing she was real and wishing she’d disappear so that he could get on with his life.
“Why can’t I be real?” she insists. “Tell me, Doctor.”
“You weren’t breathing,” he tells her. “Your heart wasn’t beating. You were cold.”
“You’ve been like that before,” she reminds him. “Lying in a room just like that one. Covered by a sheet. Clinically dead. They were writing your toe tag when you regenerated. Remember?”
And of course he remembers. He remembered when he went down to that cold room to see her that one final time, so it’s not hard to dredge that memory up again. The change from his seventh to his eighth body. Delayed due to the anaesthetic drugs and the cold room that slowed the process.
“You’re human,” he insists. “Humans can’t regenerate.”
“I have a Time Lord mind,” she says. “And I have this.”
She reaches inside her shirt and lifts up the chain around her neck, sliding it over her glorious auburn hair and holding it in the air between them.
He frowns at the strange object, leaning forward to view it more closely, as he doesn’t immediately recognise it. Then he jerks back as he feels her hand on his chest. In spite of his attempts to escape, however, her fingers wriggle their way into his jacket pocket and slide out his glasses, pressing them into his hand.
And he can’t help himself.
He dons the glasses and peers at the misshapen object. It’s a moulded heap of what looks like glass and silver and tiny shards of green that he can’t identify.
“What is it?” he asks in the end.
She smiles. “It’s what happens when you combine the diamonds from Midnight with the ‘not a warp star’ and the last remnants of regenerative energy that hung around in my system after you left me behind.”
He stares at her, and somewhere in the back of his mind, something clicks and he finally begins to wonder if, just maybe, she’s not a figment of his imagination after all.
“The pendant you found in the market broke down the protective coating around the Midnight diamond,” she tells him. “When the xtonic radiation came into contact with my skin, it burned through me until it collided with some of the energies left over from the metacrisis. The explosive force of that prompted the Time Lord energies in my mind to cause me to regenerate.”
He looks at her through narrowed eyes. Although what she has just said makes sense in terms of what little he knows of the xtonic radiation, he’s puzzled by several things.
“You still look like the Donna Noble I knew,” he points out.
“Maybe from the outside,” she tells him. “But it’s a very different story through my eyes, I can promise you. There’s a lot I’m still adjusting to. The respiratory bypass might not have taken long, but the two hearts pounding in my ears all day long is driving me mental.”
He wishes she wasn’t so convincing, because he still wants to believe that this is some figment of his imagination, but he can’t help pulling out his stethoscope — the same one she demanded from him on Messaline — and using it to listen to her chest.
There, sure enough, two clearly separate hearts are pounding loudly.
He steps back, staring at her in confusion.
“It’s not possible…”
“And yet it’s happened.” She loops the necklace over her head and tucks the mass of diamond and silver back under her shirt, grinning at him. “I presume I still look the same on the outside because it was a change from human to Time Lord. Or Lady or whatever it is. Everything went into changing my internal systems and there wasn’t any energy left over for the outside. Not that I’m complaining. I can’t even begin to imagine how my mother would react to me if I looked like a complete stranger. And clearly you don’t get a say in how you look or,” she shoots a teasing glance at him, “you’d have been ginger several regenerations ago.”
He can’t help himself. He’s starting to believe now, perhaps because of how badly he wants this to be real, but also because he’s certain he would never have dreamed anything like this.
“How did you find me?” he asks in the end.
Donna pulls up the sleeve of the top she’s wearing. Strapped to her wrist is a bulky object secured with a broad leather band.
“It’s Jack’s,” she tells him. “He told me to bring it back after I’d found you.”
“I defused it.”
She grins and reaches into her pocket, pulling out a slim, silver object that looks all too familiar. “Fixing it was easy enough once I made one of these.”
“Okay, this is getting ridiculous!” he declares, throwing his hands in the air. “I might have believed you regenerated, but a sonic screwdriver? Come on!”
“How else was I going to fix the vortex manipulator to find you?” she demands. “The damage you did to it could only be undone by the same treatment. You knew that when you did it. That’s why you did it!”
He stares at her, silenced for once. Because she’s right.
The power of the pendant, which he’d hoped might somehow work to correct the problems that the metacrisis caused, could have freed the xtonic radiation, and that process would turn the contents of the pendant from purple to the green flecks he saw.
With the knowledge she gained from him, she would understand that Jack’s vortex manipulator could only be fixed by another sonic screwdriver identical to his, and she’d know how to make it.
And she would know that the slap she gave him earlier would go a long way towards convincing him that he wasn’t dreaming.
“Why did you come back?” he asks at last.
She smiles, sliding the sonic screwdriver back into her pocket and then reaching out to take his hand. Her skin is no longer warm, but instead the same temperature as his. He wraps his fingers around her hand, completely reassured now.
“You’ve got so much guilt in your life,” she says gently. “So much regret. I know all of that. I didn’t want you to have to go through the rest of your life believing that you were too late to save me.”
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