“There's one thing I miss.”
The Doctor looks up as Donna speaks, his eyes moving reluctantly off the page of the book in front of him, but he drops the tome as he notes the sorrowful expression on Donna's face.
“What is it then?” he asks anxiously, because this is the first time for weeks in her personal timeline that she's expressed any sort of negative thoughts about travelling with him — ever since Pompeii in fact. “What do you miss? Home? Your family?”
The sadness disappears instantly, replaced by embarrassment. “Oh, never mind,” she says quickly. “It doesn't matter.”
“It obviously does,” he contradicts her. “Tell me, Donna. I promise I won't laugh. Well, not much anyway.”
The corner of her mouth lifts in a weak grin. “Don't make promises you can't keep, Spaceman. I know what you're like.”
He chuckles, conceding defeat. “Okay, fine, I might laugh. Depends what it is though. And you haven't told me that yet.”
“It's so silly.” She rolls her eyes. “I mean, with all of the opportunities you've given me and everything I've seen...”
There's a long moment of silence. “Well, what is it?” he asks finally.
She sighs. “I miss the weather.”
He's taken aback by this — of all the things she could possibly have said, this was the last thing he would have imagined — and stares at her in confusion. “The weather?”
“Mmm.” She shrugs awkwardly and tries to cringe back into the cushions of her seat. “You know — the weather. Sunshine and snow and rain — I think I miss rain the most. Sitting inside and watching the drops on the window, or feeling them fall on my face.”
For a moment the Doctor considers her words. He's so used to the sequestered environs of the TARDIS that it's perhaps not surprising this hasn't occurred to him before. But he can appreciation how someone might miss the changes that are part of life on Earth.
“We can always go out there, you know,” he says, nodding his head in the direction of the console room. “Nothing's stopping us.”
“Just human frailty,” she says with a grin. “Don't you know how revolting I can be without these quiet times? Sleeping, preferably.”
“I've got a bit of an idea.” He chuckles at the memory of what Donna had been like on one planet when they had been punished for incivility by not being allowed to sleep for two days and leans his head back against the cushion of the chair as he eyes her. “What made you think of that now?”
“Oh, nothing really.” A tiny smile curls her lips. “I was just remembering what happened today.”
“Ah.” The Doctor rolls his eyes. “I suppose it was too much to hope for that you might have forgotten that.”
“What, you admitting you actually got lost?” She chuckles. “Not on your life Time Boy. I've been hanging out for a moment like that! You admitting you made a mistake — do you have any idea how unlikely that is?”
“I don't know why me making a rare error should make you think of the weather,” the Doctor says, hoping to get off the topic.
The grin she shoots at him suggests that she understands what he's trying to do, but perhaps she's feeling nice because she follows his lead and changes the topic. “I was thinking about one day when I got lost, well not lost exactly, but it felt like it — I mean, I was only five! I ended up running in the rain. For some reason, I've never quite forgotten how that felt. ”
The Doctor grins. “Running away again, were you? I know about that holiday you tried to take to Strathclyde. Did that become an annual event or something?”
Donna chuckles. “Hardly. Can you imagine my Dad letting me get away with that again? He barely ever let me out of his sight after that!”
“So what happened?”
She arches an eyebrow, a look of confusion on her face. “Don't you remember?”
“What?” he demands after a moment of confused silence.
Donna stares at him before shaking her head and he's appalled to see a look of obvious disappointment on her face. He hates that expression — particularly if he's caused it. He can hear the emotion in her voice, too, as she tries to get him off the subject.
“Oh, never mind.” She turns away, letting her hair fall in front of her face as if she can hide behind it. “It doesn't matter.”
“Hmm.” He arches an eyebrow. “You know I don't believe you when you say that.”
She stares at the floor a moment before sighing, one corner of her mouth lifting slightly. “It might be easier if you did.”
“Tell me, Donna.” He resettles himself in the chair. “What is it?”
“It's just,” she pauses to sigh before continuing, “after the whole business with Lance and the Racnoss, once I got home, something made me think about that time when I ran away, and I realised it was because I was certain you were the person I met on that bus.” Her eyes run up and down his body, his long legs hanging over the arm of the chair, before she gives herself an obvious mental shake. “But of course it wasn't you! That man certainly wasn't wearing either your blue suit or that one. In fact, I don't think he was even wearing Converse, and you'd never be without those!”
The Doctor has to give a wry smile in response to that last comment. “It wasn't me,” he says, almost reluctantly. “I'm sorry.”
“Don't be.” She shakes her head. “It's not your fault. I suppose that was when I really realised just what you'd saved me from with the Racnoss. Maybe I wanted to imagine you'd saved me then, too.”
“Tell me about it,” he suggests gently. “Tell me what happened that day. I want to be able to picture that little red-headed fury dragging her battered suitcase down the street and getting on the bus and imagining that she was old enough to go on a holiday all by herself, just because her mother said she couldn't!”
Donna has to smile at that remark. “That's about right,” she admits. “I stomped up the steps behind a lady and I suppose the driver didn't see me or thought I was with her because he didn't ask for any money. But there was only one empty seat, next to the man I imagined was you. He was reading a book — a big, thick book that I thought looked so boring because it didn't have any pictures.”
The Doctor chuckles. “I guess, at five, they do seem a bit like that.”
“Oh, as if you can remember what it's like, being five,” she says scornfully, but with a smile, and he's pleased to see that the tension is gone from her face. “Although you do act like it sometimes,” she adds teasingly, before sighing and then continuing,. “And I think that's another reason I thought it was you — because that man gave me some chocolate when I started to realise how far it really was to Strathclyde.”
He smiled. “Well, not having done the trip myself, I'll take your word for it.”
“Oh, I never got there.” She frowns. “At least, I don't think I did. It's a bit of a blur until I got home, probably because I was so tired.”
“Well, you were only five!” he retorts. “Children that age only remember things that are important to them — colours and smells and things like that. I do know that much about them!”
“Red,” she says suddenly, and he sees that she's closed her eyes. He can almost see her concentrating on that day. “A bright red scarf. And a black coat. And peppermint. I think the chocolate must have had peppermint in it or something...”
The Doctor's hearts ache as he looks down at a red scarf on a market stall of a far-flung planet, that conversation replaying itself in his head.
“I was certain you were the person I met on that bus.”
“All right, Donna,” he murmurs as he buys the scarf and crams it into his pocket. “If you want me to be...”
He's back on the TARDIS within minutes, no longer concerned about the alien invasion threatening the planet, knowing that he'll come back to it later. But once the TARDIS is in the vortex, he heads for the enormous wardrobe room he hasn't been in since selecting the brown suit he's wearing right now.
And because the TARDIS has clearly picked up on what's happening, the black velvet jacket of his first incarnation is hanging at the closest end of the clothing rack, a pair of charcoal-grey pants and shiny black shoes nearby.
It feels strange to remove the brown pinstripes, and he can't help thinking about the warning Carmen gave him after the adventures on San Helios and wondering when he will have to cast this attire aside for good. New face — new clothes. That's always been his rule. A new look to match the new man he'll become.
It feels even more strange to put back on the black velvet jacket. It's been such a long time since he wore it, and it hangs rather loosely on his slim frame. Still, it's comfortable enough and the pockets, as with his brown suit, are larger on the inside and easily hold everything he thinks he might need.
He stands before the mirror, running his eyes from his feet in shiny black shoes over his well-ironed pants, over the white shirt and black jacket. Up to the neck, he could almost believe he hadn't changed from the man he had been then, when he travelled with Susan and Barbara and Ian.
It's his eyes that give away the true difference between himself as he was then and as he is now.
He can see the darkness and the misery that had built for such a long time, but only really flowered after the Time War. It was perhaps most obvious in his ninth incarnation, but he knows that it sometimes peeps through even in this current face.
He can't help wondering if there will be glimpses of it in that new, as-yet-unknown face.
Smoothing the jacket with long fingers, he turns away from the mirror and heads for the console room. The black cuffs distract him a little as he enters the co-ordinates and presses the red button to send his ship on its way.
The TARDIS stops at a nondescript bus-shelter not far from Chiswick and the Doctor locks the door securely before sitting down on the bench and running a hand through his hair. He can't help the quiver of anxiety — or is it ridiculous excitement? - deep in the pit of his stomach, but ignores it and waves down the bus as it approaches.
Flashing the psychic paper, he takes a seat in the only empty row, noticing that the bus is almost full. There's one seat two rows ahead of him that he imagines the woman Donna mentioned will take and the place beside him.
And when the bus stops, twenty minutes later, that's exactly what happens.
The little body slams into the seat as if Donna Noble wants to go right through the back of it, and the Doctor peers over his glasses and the top of the book he's begun to read. She's wearing a blue shirt and a long green skirt with pockets decorated in purple patches.
“Hello,” he says cheerfully, unable to help smiling at the wild mop of ginger curls and the familiar sulky pout on the small face.
There's a moment of silence and he arches an eyebrow, watching the small arms folded over the girl's chest. It's clear that she's in a furious temper.
“Hello,” he says again as the bus pulls away. And then, “Aren't you going to say anything?”
“My Mummy says it's bad to talk to strangers,” comes the prim reply.
The Doctor chuckles and slides a bookmark into his novel, closing it and tucking it into the space between his leg and the wall. “Well, your Mummy's quite right,” he agrees, wondering how Sylvia would react if she could hear him agreeing with her. “But I'm not a stranger,” he goes on. “I'm a friend of your grandfather, Donna Noble.”
The sulky expression disappears like magic and her eyes are wide with surprise as she turns to look at him. “Really?” she demands breathlessly.
“Really,” he says with as much sincerity as he can muster.
“Oh.” She looks at him for another moment before the surprise fades into disappointment. “Did Daddy tell you I ran away?”
“I haven't talked to your Daddy,” he replies honestly. “Or your Mummy. Or your Gramps. Why — do you think I should?” He grins. “Are you doing something you shouldn't be, Donna?”
She studies him for a moment as if trying to decide whether she can trust him before giving a comradely grin. “I'm running away,” she admits in a whisper that, if it wasn't for his heightened senses, he'd never hear over the rattle of the bus. “I'm going on holiday.”
“That sounds like a strange reason to run away,” he says, arching an eyebrow. “Most people run away because of bad things. But holidays are good, aren't they?”
“Not when Mummy says we aren't going,” comes the quick reply, and Donna's bottom lip protrudes again. “That's why I'm here — just 'cos she doesn't want to go, I don't see why I can't!”
The Doctor chokes down the urge to laugh. He can see so much of what Donna will become in this stubborn, willful child. Her energy and enthusiasm is what will inspire him to invite her along after their adventures with the Racnoss, and what will prompt her to find him several months later.
“I see,” he says seriously, secretly sympathising with her, but forced to remember that she will see him as a responsible adult and that he has to behave as such.
“What did you bring with you?” he asks, nodding at the small, much-used suitcase lying on Donna's lap. As she flicks the small locks, he can't help remembering when Donna threw open the cases she had brought onto the TARDIS and his lips twist as an ache rises in his chest. However Donna doesn't look up at him again until he's regained control of himself.
“'Portant stuff,” she says seriously, throwing open the lid. “See?”
Removing his glasses, he peers into the case and bites the inside of his lips to keep from smiling. The contents have been thrown haphazardly into the case, a direct contrast to the careful packing he can remember from Donna's cases on the TARDIS.
A large, brown teddy-bear lies on the top of the other objects. Worn patches, as well as the tight hold Donna takes on it, shows the Doctor how loved it is. Donna tucks the toy between them and paws through the other objects in the case, clearly looking for something.
She picks up a small, red purse and shakes it so that the coins within it chink against each other. “I know people have to have money,” she says proudly. “This is all mine, for the holiday.”
“Wow,” he says seriously. “That's very clever of you. How much have you got?”
Donna's expression becomes momentarily wary. “It's a secret,” she says finally, and with obvious reluctance.
“Oh, that's okay.” The Doctor smiles. “You don't have to tell me. What else do you have in there?”
She tucks the purse away with obvious care and relief on her face before turning over the other objects in the case. He can't help being amused at the realisation she hasn't packed any clothes. Instead he can see apples and a packet of biscuits and several other toys and a few picture books. As she shows him each object, he gravely comments and watches as she puts them away again.
However the teddy bear remains pressed between them, and after Donna stows the case on the floor at her feet, she pulls the stuffed toy into her arms and rests her chin on its head as she stares out of the window.
The Doctor follows the direction of her gaze, unsurprised to see that the sun has almost disappeared beneath the horizon. He can see Donna's tiredness in the droop of her eyelids, which will remain the key indicator of her exhaustion as she grows up.
“Bit tired?” he suggests gently.
“Of course not,” she says defiantly, moving into a more upright position and widening her eyes as if to suggest that such a thing is impossible. “'S late though,” she says with a sigh, her eyes travelling to the window again. “Awfully late.”
“Yes, it is,” he agrees. “And it's a long way to Strathclyde.”
“Mmm.” She nods, her head coming to rest on the teddy bear's head again.
“What's teddy's name?” he asks.
“Wilfred,” she tells him.
“Ah, named for your granddad,” he says with a grin, knowing how much Wilf would love having his granddaughter's favourite toy named after him.
“Mmm hmm.” She nods again before suddenly tucking the toy inside her jumper so that his little furry face pokes out of the v-neck of her top. “He's cold,” she explains, as the Doctor's eyebrows rise.
“Oh.” He nods before gently removing his jacket and sliding it around Donna's shoulders, unable to avoid the feeling of déjà vu. “Just in case you start to feel cold, too,” he says, aware that her independent nature would never allow Donna Noble to admit such a thing to him.
She snuggles into the folds of the coat at once. “It's big,” she says with a smile. “And furry.”
“Well, it's velvet,” he says. “So not fur exactly, but I know what you mean.”
He has to bite his tongue hard to avoid any comments to do with skinny rats or his own thin frame.
“Won't you be cold though?” she asks suddenly.
The Doctor smiles at the glimpse of Donna's caring nature and reaches into the pocket of his pants to pull out the red scarf, draping it around his neck.
“Not now,” he tells her with a smile. “But this will help, too,” he adds, pulling out a small bag of chocolate drops and offering her one. “Here you are. Have a piece of this then.”
“Just like a man,” the woman sitting in the seat in front of them says sternly, turning to frown at him. “Giving a child rubbish. Here you are, dear,” she says, offering Donna a packet of mints. “You have these instead. Much better for you than — what are they? Jelly babies or some other sweet, laden with sugar, I suppose? What, chocolate?” Her voice rises even further in her indignation as she evidently glimpses the bag and recognises the contents. “Shameful!” she says, glaring at him again.
Donna nods and eagerly takes the packet of peppermints, popping one in her mouth. As she does so, the woman leans over to the Doctor.
“I hope you're planning to get her home,” she murmurs. “Far too young to be out on her own.”
“Just as soon as I can do it without her realising, ma'am,” he agrees softly. “Waiting for an opportunity, that's all.”
“Ah.” She casts him a glance from head to toe, her expression softening to a hesitant smile. “Well... that's all right then.”
He grins and nods as she gets to her feet, leaving the bus at the next stop, glad that she isn't about to cause a fuss. Meanwhile Donna has tucked the packet of mints into her pocket, sucking on the one in her mouth as she rests her head against the seat.
“Have a nap, Donna,” the Doctor suggests. “It's a long way to Strathclyde, but it'll go faster if you do that.”
She shakes her head in obvious defiance at the suggestion. “'M not a baby!” she argues, her eyes wide again as she turns to glare at him.
“Of course not,” he agrees quickly, turning his gaze away to the window and watching as the last of the light fades away so that the outside work darkens.
With the darkness outside, he can see the reflection of the inside of the bus. He can't help comparing this bus journey with the one on San Helios and wishing even more fervently than he had then that Donna had been with him on the occasion.
However his own body blocks his view of Donna and he's surprised by the sudden feeling of gentle pressure against his arm. He looks around in surprise to find her head resting against him, her eyes blinking drowsily up at him.
“Hello,” he says softly, with an affectionate smile.
He can tell how tired she is when she merely smiles in reply and then yawns, snuggling against him. Lifting an arm, he slides it around her back and draws her closer. She nestles into his chest and then murmurs something he can't quite catch.
“What is it, Donna?” he asks gently.
“Wan' some choc'late,” she mumbles, her eyes sliding closed.
“Later,” he promises softly, tucking the bag into the pocket of her skirt as it lies on her knee. “You can have it later.”
She nods against him and he tucks his black coat more closely around her. Her pink lips part with a soft sigh and he strokes her ginger curls as he feels her fall asleep.
For a short time, he simply sits there before slowly gathering her into his arms. She doesn't wake as he manages to rest her head against his shoulder, supporting her body with his arm as he reaches down with his free hand to gather up her small case.
When the bus stops, he carefully steps down to the ground and turns to find the TARDIS standing where he had programmed it to land.
“Hello, old girl,” he says with a smile, his voice almost inaudible so as not to disturb the sleeping girl. “Look who I found.”
The door swings open with a creak that he knows denotes his ship's satisfaction. He steps inside and places the still-sleeping Donna on a small mattress that has appeared on the floor beside the jumpseat. Laying the case beside her, he turns to the controls.
“Right then,” he says softly to the TARDIS. “A nice, smooth ride so that she doesn't wake up. I don't,” he adds somberly, “want to have to wipe her memory of me again.”
With a hum, the TARDIS heads smoothly for the vortex. The Doctor programs their destination for a few hours after the departure of the bus. He'd love to spare Wilf and Donna's parents the anxiety he knows they must have felt at the realisation she had disappeared, but he knows from what Donna told him that they called the police to help find her and he can't interfere with that process.
Chiswick arrives too soon.
Part of him would love to keep this young version of Donna in the TARDIS with him, her company lighting his days like nothing has done since he travelled with the adult version of her. He knows he can't, of course, but that knowledge isn't enough to stop him imagining it. His eyes travel to the small body lying on the mattress, her ginger hair a wild cloud of curls around her head, her eyes closed, clearly still peacefully asleep.
“Donna Noble,” he murmurs softly as he leans over her. “You're going to be magnificent. You have no idea right now. But one day you'll know.”
And there's a barely imperceptible bump as the TARDIS comes in to land.
She's starting to rouse as he goes to pick her up, so, instead of carrying her off the TARDIS, he helps her to her feet and rushes her towards the open doors.
“Where are we?” she asks sleepily, clinging to his arm as they step out onto the grass and into the darkness as the TARDIS doors close behind them with a soft click.
“Almost home,” he says with a smile, feeling her hand sliding into his. And then he feels the first drops of rain on his face and looks up into the cloudy sky.
“Ooh, it's raining,” Donna declares, her tones suggesting that she's waking up.
“Well, it's certainly about to,” he agrees. “We're going to have to run for it. Want to put teddy back into your case?”
“You take him,” she says, pulling Wilfred free of her jumper and thrusting it at him. The black coat gets tangled in the toy and he pulls the jacket on before stuffing the bear into his pocket. He takes a firmer hold of her hand as the rain gets harder.
“We're going to have to run,” he tells her. “Ready?”
“Oh, yes!” she agrees with a grin.
They only manage a few paces before the heavens open. The Doctor's hair is soon plastered to his forehead and, with one hand clutching Donna's and the other holding her case, he can't push it out of his eyes. He glances down to see that Donna's curls are hanging in long, straight lengths around her face and shoulders. She smiles up at him.
“This is fun!” she cries over a crash of thunder, laughing as she splashes through a small puddle.
“Yes, it is,” he agrees with a grin.
And then a tall figure appears at the far end of the street, who glances in their direction and then runs towards them.
“Donna!” a male voice calls.
“Daddy!” Donna shrieks in reply and breaks free of the Doctor's hold as she takes to her heels.
The Doctor smiles, stopping several metres away, as he sees the other man scoop Donna into his arms and hug her so fiercely that his anxiety is evident.
“Oh, my baby,” he murmurs, the Doctor catching the faint words, Geoff Noble's eyes closed in obvious relief. “Where did you go, Donna?” he asks a moment later, pulling back so that he can look into her face. “Why did you run away?”
Donna pouts, several raindrops dripping off her protruding lip, but the rain is easing. “I wanted to go on holiday,” she says. “Mummy said I couldn't, so I found the bus and got on it.”
“What, all on your own?” he asks in obvious surprise.
“Mmm hmm,” she agrees with a nod. “But he brought me back,” she says, waving back at the Doctor, who steps forward.
“I knew you'd be worried,” the Doctor says quickly.
Geoff gives his daughter one final hug before setting her on the ground. “Go inside,” he says, giving her a gentle push in the direction of the nearby house. “Your mother's worried about you.”
Donna's footsteps are lagging, but she finally disappears inside without saying anything else to the man who brought her home. Geoff watches her leave before turning back to the Doctor.
“Thank you,” he says in heart-felt tones. “We've been going crazy.”
“I can imagine.” The Doctor offers the small suitcase before clutching his pocket. “Oh, and I think Donna will want this back.”
Pulling out the teddy bear, he hands it over and then returns the other man's grateful handshake.
“I — we can never repay you for this. Just saying 'thank you' really isn't enough.”
The Doctor smiles. “It was my pleasure,” he says quietly. “I know what it's like to lose a child and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.”
“I'm sorry.” There's a well of sympathy and vague hints of understanding in Geoff Noble's blue eyes, the same eyes he has passed on to his daughter. The same eyes that the Doctor will come to know and love — and lose.
They shake hands once more and then the other man heads back into the house where, through the living room window, the Doctor can see Donna in her mother's arms. He can't help smiling as he turns away, heading back to the TARDIS.
Stepping inside, he feels warm air blowing from the vents, just as it did the day he last left Donna behind in Chiswick. And he realises that, once more, he's soaking wet. But now, as he peels off the sodden jacket and drapes it over the console, he doesn't feel as lost and lonely as he did then. As he unwinds the wet scarf, he's almost happy.
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