Shaun's heart breaks every time he finds Donna like this: frozen in place, her eyes faraway and sad, the trails of spent tears drying on her cheeks.
Gently touching her shoulder, he murmurs, "Come back, love." Sometimes it works; sometimes she snaps out of it, blinks and looks at him, bewildered, and then blusters her way past her confusion. But today she doesn't yield under his hand, stays stiff as a board, sat up in bed and staring at the far wall.
There's a picture in her line of sight--a painting by some modern artist Donna took a shine to, that they could afford now that they're independently wealthy--and Shaun almost gets up, tears it down. Sometimes he blames the money, the lottery ticket that came from "Donna's father" that Wilf and Sylvia couldn't even properly lie about. It wasn't till after the money that Donna started having these fits, after all. But Shaun knows that's ridiculous, and if he's honest, even before they won the money, she could be randomly absent, distracted. It's just gotten so much worse.
At least they've ruled out the obvious, horrible things: brain cancer, epilepsy, organ failure, dementia. That's some small comfort. At his insistence, about two months ago, Donna finally started seeing doctors about her problem. But even he's getting frustrated on her behalf--she's been passed from specialist to specialist, and he's beginning to wonder if they aren't more after her money than figuring out what's wrong with her.
He's about to get up and fetch paracetemol and water--she always has bad headaches after these fits--when she looks directly at him. He freezes, thinking for a moment she's back, but her eyes look through him, almost. Then she says:
"Neurohyperbolicencephalostabilizer. Fire engine red."
Shaun gapes. Donna's never spoken in this state before. Then she goes boneless, collapsing back against the pillows. She gasps, sucking in breaths like a drowning woman, and he sees that she's properly awake now. She's clearly in pain and Shaun kicks himself for getting distracted. He rushes into the bathroom, fetching the prescription pain meds (for the worst spells only, Doctor Uri insisted), and filling up a glass at the tap.
When he returns to the bedroom, Donna hastily accepts both pills and water with a silence that underlines how much pain she's in.
"You'll be all right, love," he says, supporting her in an upright position as she drinks.
"Bad," she croaks, as she pushes the glass away. "Ohh, that was a really bad one." She clutches at the crown of her head, scrunching her eyes shut. Shaun pulls her against him, tightly. He kisses her eyebrow, her forehead, her pain-tensed hand. She wraps her fingers around his, squeezing hard, until it borders on painful.
She rasps out: "Was I staring all creepy-like at the wall again?"
He nods. "Yeah." He debates telling her the truth, then decides he'd better come clean. "Only. Only you said something, this time."
She opens one eye, looking at him. "Did I? What'd I say?"
Shaun tries to remember. "Bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Neuro--stabilizer--something--. And fire-engine red."
Her pain-dulled gaze suddenly sharpens.
"Neurohyperbolicencephalostabilizer," she supplies, and then she cries out, curling up around herself. Shaun keeps hold of her. He can feel her shuddering in his arms.
"Donna?" he says, softly. "Love?"
Eventually she lifts her chin, revealing her puffy eyes, her paper-pale face. "I'm here. Don't fuss." Somehow, she manages a smile and his heart feels near to bursting with love for her. "Could use a bit of breakfast."
"Right away." Shaun helps her lie back down in the bed before getting up. "Bacon? Eggs? Sausage?"
Her smile widens. She looks up at him. "And tomatoes." Her voice is still hoarse, but she suddenly sounds more herself. "Make sure you use those nice ones mum brought over from the garden, not the crummy ones the maid picked up from the store. Have we still got that banana bread?"
Shaun grins at her. "A bit. Not much, though. I recall someone helping herself to the rest last night."
"Oi, less talking, more fetching. Can't you see I'm starving over here?" Donna shoos him off with a wave of both hands, but he can hear the gratefulness in her voice.
On his way through the living room, Shaun pauses at his open laptop, opens up the daily record of Donna's spells he's been keeping (Doctor Gupta's suggestion) and types in: Neurohyperbolicencephalostabilizer. Red (fire-engine). He adds the date, and then closes it so that Donna won't see and worry.
Donna goes almost a month without another spell.
They're on the deck of the Queen Betty, on a Mediterranean cruise, a pretty cheesy one Shaun picked out of some brochure just to get them travelling again. He knows Donna's happier when they're moving. Donna's sunning herself and teasing him: "What're you all covered up for? Any of these old crones make a move on you, I'll fight 'em off. Lookit that bloke, he's shirtless even though he's got nothing to show for it. Sunken in chest and all."
Shaun laughs. "Never mind that. What do you think?" He holds up what he's been working on, shows it to her.
"You're working again!" she says, sounding half-indignant, half-excited. She knows he hasn't been doing much of his beloved tinkering since her fits got really bad. "On vacation!" She frowns. "That the solar-powered coffee-thingie?"
"Yeah, the cool-o-matic sleeve."
"You can't call it that." Donna wrinkles her nose. She reaches for her cup full of prune juice. "That's dreadful, Shaun. Really! How about--"
And just like that, Donna stops, like someone has hit the pause button. Shaun feels his heart crash into his gut even as he tries to pretend she's just distracted. "How about--?"
She turns towards him, looks at him, and he thinks he's mistaken after all. Then he sees her eyes. It's spooky, how bright and alive her eyes are.
It's like he's never seen Donna Temple-Noble, awake, until now.
Rapid-fire, as if her words can't leave her fast enough, she says, "Copper wire. Bit of sponge--the real kind, not that fake stuff. Magnets. Gold foil. Oyster shell. One of those transistor radio kits. Gum. Three keys."
Doctor Harmon told Shaun that any nonsense Donna might spout during one of her fits was to be ignored. "A hiccup of the brain," he'd said. "Nothing but an involuntary twitch." But Donna stares at Shaun until, unnerved, he nods; he fumbles for one of his idea notebooks and finds himself writing the list of things down.
As soon as he finishes, Donna's eyes roll back and she collapses against the deck chair. Shaun lunges forward and barely manages to catch her before she slides off one side. He hugs her close against him and clenches his teeth against the prickling making its way through his sinuses, buries his face in her hair. Eases her now-limp form back against the chair.
"Oh Donna, love," he says, "What's happening to you?"
But she has no answers for him as he strokes her sweat-drenched hair back from her face. He finds the bottle of Zomig in her pack, and waits for her to come back to him. He should call Doctor Harmon, he knows, but he doesn't.
He's starting to doubt that any doctor has the answer he needs.
Shaun can't say why, but he starts collecting the things on the list he scrawled in his notebook. He empties a cardboard box full of junk from their recent move and puts the items in it, hides the box in the cubby underneath the stairs. He doesn't let her see it--he's afraid to trigger another fit.
In a funny coincidence, a day after he finds the last item, she freezes at the bottom of the stairs, holding one foot raised in the air, and says, "Bicycle handlebars, umbrella, bit of rubber from an old tire."
He gets a bigger box and adds rusty handlebars he salvages from the dump, an umbrella he picks up from a tourist trap, and a flat tire he rescues from a couple who give him very odd looks.
She knocks over a glass of water reaching for the remote and doesn't notice the spill when she tells him, "Thumbtacks, drill, one of those netbook thingies."
Soon the cubby is full and Shaun can barely shut the door. He's got old dead cellphones, a boombox from the eighties, a dozen lightbulbs, coathangers, children's toys, a living cactus. He's starting to wonder if they're both going mad, together, in some weird marital unity. So at supper, one day, he says,
"Where should we go next?" --thinking he needs to get away from the crazy cubby, thinking she'll be happier if they move.
But instead of her past excitement, she snaps at him.
"I just don't want to go anywhere, all right? Maybe I'm sick of travelling! Maybe I never liked it! Maybe I just want to keep my bloody feet on the ground, all right?"
She's so angry she catches him off guard; her anger feels old and bitter, long-fermented. It feels wrong. But before he can ask her what's going on, she storms up the stairs.
He knows better than to follow. She'll calm down, come down, bring him coffee to apologize. He tries to distract himself with a guidebook of Egypt, but he can't follow it. He's too distracted.
Shaun's aimlessly surfing the internet, waiting for her to cool down. He's on one of his favorite technology forums when he trips over the link to a paper by someone named "Archie Muir, TW2." The post claims it's a top-secret leak; the title is appropriately ludicrous: An Analysis of Alpha Centurion Technology For the Treatment of Human Aliments. Shaun opens the paper for a laugh at first.
Skimming it, he discovers plans for something called an "encephalostabilizer" buried towards the end of the paper. The name catches Shaun's attention. He opens up his old journal entry and looks at the word Donna blurted. It's not the same, but...
He looks closer at the plans for the encephalostabilizer, and his inventor's brain starts ticking. He can see how cellphone parts, the umbrella, the magnets, how much of the junk he's been gathering might be cobbled together into something like this.
And the rest--will the rest make it Neurohyperbolic, whatever that means?
"But it's all just nonsense," he mutters at himself. "She's just blurting nonsense. Like someone with brain damage. You're the mad one for listening at all. Fire-engine red, indeed."
Still, he saves a copy of the plans to his harddrive.
They don't go to Egypt, or Alaska, or Thailand. They stay at home because Donna's headaches have taken a turn for the worse. She drifts off mid-sentence three or four times a day, now, and spends much of the rest of her time in her bed with the curtains drawn. Shaun's worried sick.
He comes up one morning and she looks at him with eyes underlined by bruises, and she croaks, "Feels like something is trying to hatch out of my head."
He reaches for the phone, says, "I'll call Doctor Cho--"
She shakes her head. "No more doctors. I'm done with doctors. You know what I've decided, Shaun: doctors are banished from this house. Haven't done me a lick of good, have they? Except helped us see half our money away."
And even though he starts to argue, he doesn't fight too hard. They've been through all the specialists in the country and two from America, and another from Germany, and no one has any answers.
Donna's mum has started coming over, keeping an eye on Donna despite their insistence that it's really not necessary. Shaun finds himself retreating to the garage when Sylvia's around. There, he tinkers, because that's always been his refuge. At first, he was only trying to perfect the cool-o-matic sleeve, but after a while the whole project just seemed silly and destined for failure.
It seems inevitable, now, that he'd begin building the encephalostabilizer.
It takes some creativity to turn a toaster, three circuit boards and a bed spring into a "flux inverter coil," whatever that is, but the challenge of it comforts him, makes him happy. And if he didn't know better he'd think that it makes Donna happy too, somehow. Whenever he comes up from the garage, dirty and smudged and smiling, she looks at him and her face brightens a little. When she does that he can't help himself; he hurries over to her, gives her a kiss.
Once, when he kisses her, she cups his face in her hands and murmurs, "My handyman. Who needs doctors when I've got you, eh?"
Shaun spends the entire day happy, and Donna seems to be doing better, too, and he hopes that maybe the end of it is in sight.
The day Shaun finishes building the encephalostabilizer, he's summoned from the garage by Sylvia Noble's scream.
He tears out of the garage and up the stairs. What he finds is Sylvia in the doorway of his and Donna's bedroom, a dropped breakfast tray at her feet, and Donna nowhere in sight. The bedroom window is open, the screen knocked out. His heart races as he fears the worst. He pushes past Sylvia and rushes to the window even as he dreads looking out of it. Somehow he draws the half-closed curtain back, leans out.
Donna is sitting on the roof. It's twilight, and she is staring at the spectre of the moon looming in the deepening sky.
"Donna, love," Shaun says, when he can manage to find his voice. "Are you sure you really ought to be out there? Isn't it a bit chilly?"
He says, "Come inside, I'll make you a cup of tea."
He says, "I could get you a chair, so you can sit by the window."
When she still says nothing, Shaun climbs out the window himself, ignoring Sylvia's fluttering behind him. He isn't exactly fond of heights and his palms are sweaty. The bottoms of his feet have that itching-tickling feeling he gets when he looks over the sides of bridges.
Donna looks at him, at last, when he kneels beside her. When she turns around, her eyes are shining above the deep shadows underneath them, and she's beaming.
He can't exactly tell if she's herself or not. She seems like herself, but--he can't imagine the Donna he knows climbing onto the roof, staring up at the stars.
"You've finished it," Donna says, matter-of-fact, and Shaun blinks. "The encepha-whateveritz."
"Yes. Well. I think. Do you want to see it?"
"Are you daft?" She hits him in the shoulder, and he wonders how he could've ever thought this was not his Donna. "'Course I want to see it!"
His heart does a nervous tapdance as they make their way across the roof and back in through the window. She follows him down the stairs, into the garage.
In the full light the encephalostabilizer looks a bit of a mess, like a dentist's chair gone mad, or some sort of science-fiction torture device. Stark as shame are the salvaged circuit boards from a handful of mobile phones, the awkward soldering, the amateurish dangle of wires from the main chair to the control panel built from a salvaged netbook. He braces himself for Donna's inevitable confusion, the possibility of humiliation.
But "It's brilliant," is what Donna says, and something in her tone makes gooseflesh break out all over him, makes him glow like the day he brought home his first top-marked paper. "Absolutely brilliant, you are."
"You really think so? I know it's not really--I mean, it's not exactly practical, is it, I'm not even sure what it does--"
"Oh, you know what it does, handyman, don't be modest."
Shaun stops and looks at Donna. She knows what this does, he realizes, knows better than he's guessed. She's in one of her spells, and he couldn't even tell; maybe because she's been in them more and more lately, when she isn't weeping with pain.
"Stabilizes... brain functions?"
"Right on the first guess! Knew you were clever minute I set eyes on you." She grins, all teeth, and then she grabs the front of his shirt, hauls him over. Kisses him in a way that makes his breath leave him and his trousers suddenly too tight. "Just needs a little more work, love. We're nearly there."
"Where are we going?" he asks, and she says,
"Somewhere wonderful. Worlds where--Oh, finish up and I'll show you."
"But I--this is all the plans I have."
She looks at him, love and pride lighting her face. It's a look that makes him want to be a hero, a look that believes that someday, really, he'll make a fortune with his next brilliant invention. It's a look he never saw anywhere before he met Donna Noble, a look he wants to live up to.
"We just need to adjust the theta waves, increase the capacity," Donna says, as if a baby could do it. "Simple as that!"
He starts to say he hasn't a clue when she goes boneless. Her eyes roll back and he's barely in time to catch her before she hits the ground. He pulls her against his chest, strokes her hair, hugs her tight. Murmurs against her hair: "I swear I'll figure it out, love. I promise."
He hopes he isn't lying.
A week later he's bringing out the trash when he sees Wilf just past the main gate. He isn't sure what stops him, but he hears Sylvia's voice a moment later:
"We've got to call him. Get him back. He has to fix this. You know he does."
"He's--he isn't the man we knew any more, Sylvia."
"I don't care about that! All I care about is Donna. Look at her!"
"It's terrible, I know, but he said--"
"Dad, she's dying!"
"She isn't dying. He wouldn't let--"
"She can't even get out of bed, these days, and that useless man of hers just spends all day holed up in the garage. We need the doctor!"
Shaun swallows down his own bitter feelings and clears his throat. He steps into view. "Donna's said no more doctors. They've put her through worse than she's already suffering."
"You don't know--" Sylvia begins, angrily, but Wilf silences her with a shake of his head.
"Donna's right," Wilf says. "Seeing doctors will just make things worse." He gives Sylvia a pointed look, and Shaun knows there's a lot they aren't telling him. Sylvia storms off to her car in a huff, leaving Shaun with Donna's grandfather. Shaun shifts, uncomfortable, makes a point of putting the trash bin on the sidewalk.
"Never mind her," Wilf says to Shaun, kindly. "She's just worried, is all."
"I'm worried too," Shaun says. He takes a deep breath, goes on. "Is there someone who could help?"
Wilf scrutinizes Shaun, then shakes his head. "I'm sorry, Shaun," he says, "But it's better if you don't know. Then you can't slip up and say something to her."
"Never mind," Wilf repeats, and waves one hand in the air. "I've said too much already."
"But Sylvia's right," Shaun says. "Donna's bad off. Real bad. If there's anything that could help--you have to tell me. I swear I won't--slip up, or whatever it is you're worried about."
Wilf sighs. "I'm sorry, son," he says.
Shaun's always liked Wilf, so he lets it go. Another day. He believes Wilf is only doing what he thinks is right for Donna. He invites his grandfather-in-law inside, and calls up to see if Donna wants to join them for lunch.
It's an accident that Wilf sees the encephalostabilizer. Wilf has been keeping Donna company all day, so Shaun ends up in the garage, trying to attach a modified hair dryer from a salon to the rig. He's so involved he doesn't hear Wilf calling his name on his way out. Doesn't realize that Wilf has opened the adjoining door between the garage and kitchen until Wilf says,
"What's this, then?"
Shaun drops a screwdriver and the noise cracks through the air like a gunshot. Retrieving it, he finds he's shattered the plastic handle. "Sorry," he manages to say to Wilf, "Startled me."
There's a look on Wilf's face that makes Shaun suddenly uncomfortable.
"What?" he asks, and Wilf frowns.
"What are you up to?" Wilf asks.
"Just... tinkering. You know. Another one of my crazy ideas. This one's... a chair that's got all the conveniences... Phone, warmer, hair-setter--"
"Ah," Wilf says. "Looks a bit--unusual. Alien, you might even say."
"Alien?" Shaun blurts, genuinely amused, and he's laughing before he remembers that the original plans from Archie Muir were alien. He wonders how Wilf could possibly recognize that. But something tells him if he asks, he'll bring that suspicious look back to Wilf's face. Instead he says, "Is that supposed to be a vote of confidence, granddad?"
Wilf chuckles and shakes his head, harmless once more. "Sorry, I didn't mean--. I'd better get going before Sylvia comes over here looking for me. Goodnight, Shaun."
Shaun can't shake the uneasy feeling that's come over him.
Donna sits up in the middle of the night, startling him awake. Shaun tries talking to her, but she doesn't say a word. When he switches on the bedside lamp, her cheeks are wet with tears.
He goes downstairs to get her water when he hears the horrible noise from the garage.
Rushing through the adjoining door, he finds Wilf, a crowbar in the old man's hands. The addition Shaun just finished is battered, extension bent, dangling at an awkward angle. The right arm and all the circuitry attached to it is smashed to pieces.
"What are you doing?" Shaun gasps, closing the distance between them in two and a half strides. He's ripped the crowbar from Wilf's hands before he realizes it. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing!"
"You're going to kill her," Wilf shouts back, and Shaun is startled to find Wilf is weeping. "You should've just left well enough alone!"
"I have to help her!" Shaun says.
"Leave it alone," Wilf says. "Donna will die if you keep this up. Please, I'm begging you. Leave it alone."
"She's in so much pain."
"Because you're doing this!"
"How? How is building this making her worse? She's sick, is all! Isn't she?"
Wilf only shakes his head. Shaun feels his patience stretch, and then snap. He says, angrily:
"I did nothing for a good long time, granddad. Just sat there while she had her spells, her headaches, fed her the drugs. All she got was worse. Whatever's happening to her is happening with or without me. So if I can do something to make her not hurt, then I will." He takes a deep breath, returning Wilf's glare. "If what I'm doing is so wrong, then you tell me what's the right thing to do. If you know how to make her better, or who could make her better, then say so now."
Wilf presses his lips together into a tight line. Defiance is bright in his eyes. Shaun almost snaps at him--almost--but he doesn't.
He just says to Wilf: "I... I think Donna and I'd prefer not to see you, for a while. So please, go."
Wilf looks like he's going to fight, and then, just like that, he wilts, deflates. Shakes his head and retreats, the old soldier gone, just an old man, now.
Shaun sits with the broken encephalostabilizer for a long time before going back upstairs.
He doesn't work on it for the next few days, just sits with it. Wilf has gotten to him, under his skin. What if--what if Donna's spells are something bad? If the person she becomes, that bright-eyed and so alive version of herself, is really an alien or some sort of brain-damaging fit or something worse? Should he stop and let her lie there, in pain, for as long as it takes?
Wilf loves Donna even more than a typical granddad might, has always been protective of her. Why would he want to see her suffering and in tears? He must see that it isn't right. What could he possibly have so much faith in that he thinks she'll just up and recover one day?
Everyone has their blind spots, Shaun decides. His is Donna. He might not know what Wilf's is, but he understands.
The repair work goes quickly, even more quickly than he expects. While he's rebuilding, he starts to see changes he can make to improve it, to adapt it to output theta waves, to alter neural patterns. Within a week he's caught up to where he was; within two weeks, he's created a secondary module based on a melding of various other leaked alien plans he's found on the internet.
He waits for Donna to tell him more, but she's quiet these days, sleeping mostly. He doesn't tell her how close he is; if she can recover without his mad-scientist project, that would be best. He can tell that sometimes she's in so much pain she'd welcome death, and when he sees her looking like that, pale and sweaty and fearful, he crawls into bed with her, holds her so tight against his chest, wishes he could absorb the worst of it from her.
And then it's done, one day. He gets a few cans of red enamel, hobby-painter stuff, and finishes it in a fire-engine red. It's as close to complete as he can bring it without testing, though he doesn't even know how he'd test it. He wouldn't even if he could; that would require risking another human life. He'd risk his own, but then who would take care of Donna?
He's wondering what to do with it when the garage door opens behind him.
Donna's standing there, her face drawn with the agony of another headache. She says, "What's this?" and then, "No, I know this, it's..." She doubles over, teeth clenched, brow crumpled.
Shaun rushes to her side. Fear grips him, fear that Wilf was right. He's killing her, somehow.
Then Donna laughs, a laugh that turns into a sob of pain and then back into a laugh. "Calls himself a genius," she says through gritted teeth, looking up at him through her tear-filled eyes. "Couldn't even think of this. Time Lords!"
Shaun has time to wonder who she means, and then she's hobbling over to the machine. Pulls herself into the chair.
Shaun finds he has cold feet.
"Love, I don't know..."
Donna pulls the modified hairdryer down over the top of her head. She buckles the strap under her chin.
"I haven't tested it. Don't even know how I would--!"
Donna leans back in the chair.
"I--maybe this isn't a good idea."
She looks at him. "Don't doubt yourself now, handyman."
"How can I not? I don't want to hurt you!"
"You won't. I know you won't."
She reaches for the control panel; he's frozen, torn between stopping her and letting her do it.
"Here goes," she says, and then he's lunging forward, trying to stop her. It's too late. The chair and Donna's body are illuminated with a blue light and he can hear her screaming. He falls back against the far wall, shouting her name. It's all he can do not to throw himself at the chair, into the light, but he knows that's stupid, it would do no good. Then he remembers the power couplings; one of them is plugged into an extension he can tear out.
He rips it from the wall, screaming like a madman.
The light subsides and he hurries to the chair. "Donna!"
She's still, so still. He tears the helmet from her head, drags her up and into his arms. He sobs into her neck.
"Oi. No need to crush me, handyman."
"Donna!" He doesn't let her go but holds her a little away from him.
Donna smiles. She has such a brilliant smile; when she smiles, Shaun thinks, no one could deny that she's the most amazing, important woman in the world.
"You're all right," he gasps. "Oh, thank god. You're all right."
"Yeah," she says. "I'm all right, love." She's still too thin, her eyes red, but she's practically glowing with life and energy. Her face is clear, he sees; the headache is gone. Shaun's so overjoyed he crushes her against him again, her amused "Oof" warm against his ear.
He sits on the bed, just watching her as she dresses. It marvels him, how much she's improved, how much he'd forgotten what she was like when she was healthy. She's a marvelous, wonderful force of nature, his Donna. She fusses through the closet for a while, solicits his opinion on jackets and shoes and scarves. At last she turns around, puts her hands on her hips and says,
"What do you think?"
"A bit quirky," he says, honestly, "But I like it. You look nice."
"Just nice!" she scoffs, tossing the end of her scarf over her shoulder.
"Beautiful," he remedies. "You really feel better?" he asks, because he still can't quite believe it.
"I feel..." She seems to consider the word. "Fantastic. In fact--" She catches his eye, gives him a cheeky grin. "What would you think of travelling for a while?"
He grins back. "I'd like that. A lot. Where were you thinking of? Cairo, maybe? Australia? Oh, Laos?"
"Mmm," she says. "I was thinking even a bit farther."
"But it'll take a bit of ingenuity. Bit of tinkering. You interested?"
Shaun smiles. "Yes. Definitely!"
Donna's eyes sparkle. "Then--how did it go? Oh, right. Allons-y!"
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