There is peace on the purple soil of Tarachnal.
This is surprising enough. A civil war has been being fought on that planet for generations and centuries. Usually the only time there is relative quiet is when one side stops to reload their guns, and when that happens, the other side generally takes advantage of the moment to fire even more fiercely. This in turn uses up their ammunition and so the positions are reversed. To an outsider, though, it would not sound as if anything had changed.
Not that any outsiders visit Tarachnal.
Most people know better.
In the history of the Universe, only the war between the Sontarans and the Rutans has lasted longer, which makes this place very unwelcoming to visitors.
Now, however, for the first time, thanks to some prolonged negotiations, there is peace and silence.
A whining, groaning, grinding sound rudely interrupts this unusual state of affairs. A strong breeze clears the topsoil from a rectangular patch of ground. And the last few survivors of the civil war creep out of their hiding places to find out which idiot has decided that their poor, battered planet is worth visiting.
Sparks sprinkle the dark air with light. Two force fields bump and grind against each other as the ships they are protecting begin to take shape on the rocky ground. It takes a few minutes before two blue boxes solidify into existence.
Two matching white doors open.
Two tousled brown heads poke themselves out into the dim light of the planet. One looks left and the other right. Then they each look in the other respective direction, spot the other, and start in identical manners.
“Ah,” says one.
“Oh,” replies the other.
“Awkward,” they exclaim in unison and then exchange manic grins. “Hello,” they say to each other. “I’m the Doctor.”
Two voices come from inside the identical blue boxes. These voices, however, are not identical and prompt vastly different reactions.
One Doctor steps out onto the purple dirt and looks around for a moment before turning back to his TARDIS. “Come on, Rose. It’s fine.”
The other Doctor glances uneasily at his doppelgänger and ducks back into his TARDIS. He doesn’t close the doors, though, which means that it is possible to make out what he is saying.
“Um,” is the apparent beginning and end of his explanation.
“Oh, God, what have you done this time?” demands the same female voice that had squawked his name a short time ago. Then there’s a groan. “Don’t tell me. We’ve bumped into another one of your incarnations, haven’t we? Doctor, you promised it wouldn’t happen again! Blimey, I hope it’s not the one with the bloody awful rainbow-coloured coat. I’m still getting over the seasickness from last time. Or is it the one who said we were married? If I see one more question mark…!”
“If you’d just let me get a word in edgeways,” protests the Doctor in obvious exasperation.
“Hold on though,” the female interrupts. “You said we were finished with that nonsense of your past selves now and weren’t going to meet them again because of that timewave refraction thingy. So who’s out there then? The next you? Is he any good, or still a long streak of nothing? Might be worth going out there, just to see.”
“Donna!” The Doctor raises his voice to a shout that seemed to silence his companion, then he seems to calm down as he goes on, “The only version of me out there is — well, this one. Me as I am now. From before. Before I met you.”
“Oh.” And then, “Ohhhh! You mean here with her?”
“Yes,” snaps the Doctor in obvious impatience.
“Ooh.” Donna’s tone changes from resigned frustration to undeniable interest. “Well, this should be fun then, shouldn’t it? All right, let’s get out there. I can’t wait to see this!”
Rose and the other Doctor, having overheard all of this, are still exchanging bewildered glances when the occupants of the other TARDIS step out onto the dusty surface of Tarachnal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the woman who speak first.
“Blimey, you weren’t kidding,” the redhead remarks as she looks Rose up and down. “You did say she was awfully young, but I wasn’t expecting an infant. Which nursery did you find her in?”
“Donna!” The Doctor’s tone is repressive, but there is something akin to a suspicious wobble in his voice that doesn’t quite match his grim expression. “It’s not that bad.”
“I presume you’ve legally adopted her,” Donna continues rather brutally. “I mean, surely it’s a crime for you to be gadding about the Universe with a teenager, isn’t it? Sort of like the laws about underage sex, only without the sex.” There is a beat of silent. “Or maybe with it,” she adds, smiling her sweetest smile.
One Doctor turns red and the other chokes audibly.
“Donna,” the latter splutters, “d'you mind?!”
“That depends, Spaceman,” she retorts coolly, hands propped on her hips. “Do you?”
The man who had brought her to this planet turns red in his turn and then directs his attention to the matter of introductions. “Donna Noble, meet Rose Tyler,” he says abruptly. “Rose, Donna.”
Donna turns to the young, blonde woman, who is still speechless. “I've heard so much about you,” she says flatly.
Usually when people say “I've heard so much about you” it's meant as a compliment, or at least has the possibility of being interpreted as such. It doesn't generally have the multiple levels of meaning that are conveyed in Donna's tone as she speaks those words.
And the other Doctor, the one who had brought Rose to this planet, looks at her with a certain degree of unease as he offers her his hand.
“Hello,” he says rather warily, his curiosity about this situation and Donna's role in the life of his later self all too evident. “I'm the Doctor.”
Donna looks him up and down as she shakes his hand, fixing her gaze longest on his eyes. So long, in fact, that the man begins to wriggle uneasily.
“Ye-es,” she says at last, drawing the word out and glancing meaningfully at the other Doctor. “I suppose you are.”
“Right!” Donna's Doctor speaks so abruptly that the other man and Rose both start. “TARDIS,” he says firmly, glancing at his duplicate. “She's not going to be happy about that landing, with the two of us so close. Probably cause quite a lot of interference, which is how we can both be here like this and not causing a hole the size of Belgium or something like last time. Shall we?”
A rather relieved look crosses the other Doctor's face and he nods. The two men, matching sonic screwdrivers in hand, enter one of the TARDISes while Rose and Donna watch them from outside.
Rose looks on for a moment as the two Doctors circle the console and each other, back and forth, until she realizes she can't tell one from the other. This scares her because she had always thought that, having gone through everything with the change from one face and body to another, she would never fail to recognize 'her' Doctor.
She turns to the woman beside her. “Who are you?”
“He told you.” The redhead nods at one of the Doctors. “Donna Noble.”
“Yeah, I got that,” says Rose rather impatiently. “But who are you? Who are you to him? How do you fit into everything? How did he find you? What - ” Her voice shakes a little. “What happened to me?”
“Dunno.” Donna shrugs, keeping her eyes averted so that Rose feels she might be trying to hide something. “He didn't tell me the details. And if you'd been paying attention to what he told you,” she jerks her head in the direction of the two Time Lords as a note of authority creeps into her voice, “you'd know better than to ask.”
“My Doctor tells me everything!” declares Rose possessively. “He always has, even,” she adds with a triumphant glance at Donna, “when he was someone else.”
“Oh, the grumpy one with the big ears?” Donna says dismissively. “Yeah, we met him — was it second or third? One of those anyway. I left my notebook with the order of all the meetings in my room. He never mentioned you, but the Doctor I travel with told me about the two of you.”
Rose's triumph deflates at the realization that this newcomer - this interloper - seems to know as much, or maybe even more, about the Doctor than she does.
And then — he hadn’t mentioned her? Her Doctor? The man who had first asked her to travel with him, who had taken her to the end of the Earth, who introduced her to Charles Dickens and Captain Jack, who took her back to see her father and forward to Platform One. He never mentioned her?
She might have believed that of this version of the Doctor, at least after what she heard from Sarah-Jane, but somehow she can’t imagine her first Doctor forgetting her like that.
“He told me about the trouble you caused as well,” Donna goes on flippantly. “Do you know how hard we've had to work to smooth down Queen Victoria's ruffled feathers after the stupid way you two carried on?”
“Why?” Rose blurts out, and Donna looks at her scornfully.
“Don't be daft! A whole era where you've got to tiptoe around the place in case you get arrested and thrown in jail? Not exactly a simple matter for a time traveler. You do know what banishment means, don't you?” she adds, her mock-polite tones of enquiry making Rose flush. “And 'ever' is a pretty long time where he's concerned, so we had to go back and try to make it up to her. She's still pretty testy about it all, actually.”
“What, so you've met her, too?” Rose's tones betray her disappointment.
“Two - no, three times,” Donna corrects herself. “And we had to check that she hadn't passed it on down the family, so we dropped in on Edward and both Georges, too, just to make sure. There's the little matter of Torchwood, but that's been taken care of, or so the Doctor promised me when we met — never mind.”
“Torchwood!” Rose looks startled at the familiar term. “We keep hearing about that. What is Torchwood?”
“I told you,” Donna scolds her, “don't ask questions. I'm not telling you anything. You'll just have to wait and see.”
Rose pouts and turns away, crossing her arms over her chest. She peers into the TARDIS again just in time to see one of the Doctors look up in their direction. He grins, the manic smile that peeps out so rarely, and Rose is about to smile back when she realizes that his eyes are in fact fixed on the woman beside her.
“Need a hand?” Donna asks, stepping into the TARDIS.
Rose waits for the refusal that comes every time she offers to help. The other Doctor looks up and seems about to speak when the Doctor who grinned at Donna gets in first, straightening and waving her over.
“Yeah, can you hang on to this lever for me? Oh, and keep an eye on this dial. It needs to be reading between 6 and 17.”
The other Doctor shoots an astonished glance at his doppelgänger before turning his eyes in Rose’s direction with a look that suggests he is just as taken aback as she is.
“Okay,” the Doctor who had spoken to Donna continues, apparently without noticing the confusion his directions are prompting in everyone but Donna, “just keep calling out the numbers. We have to fix yours now,” he adds to his double, who follows him out of the TARDIS without speaking, instead merely casting an interested glance at Donna.
Once they are at work on his TARDIS, though, the Doctor who brought Rose to this place is unable to help himself. Presumably, from the expression on his face, his older counterpart has remembered enough of their meeting to be ready for his questions.
“Your best mate,” replies the other Doctor, a strange smile on his face. “Co-pilot on the TARDIS. Partner. There to tell you when to stop and when to keep going. Someone you won’t be able to do without once you get to know her. Donna?” he adds, raising his voice for the last question.
“Two-and-a-half!” comes the almost instant reply.
“You let her drive the TARDIS?” demands the first Doctor in disbelief.
“You will, too.” The elder Time Lord smirks a little. “Well, you’ve got to now, don’t you? I mean, she talked me into it, but now that you know about it, it’ll be a paradox if you don’t teach her, too, and you know what they can do!”
The other Doctor realizes that any other questions he asks will only trap him even more inevitably into the situation being described by his double. There is something in the other man’s eyes that suggests an understanding of the emotions swirling in the younger Doctor — disbelief at the thought of losing Rose and hurt at the way she is being treated so carelessly by his future self; confusion at the descriptions he is receiving of Donna; frustration at being in a situation he is not able to understand.
“Four!” comes from the other TARDIS and prompts the man, whose hands were momentarily idle, back to work.
“Whatever happens, no matter how bad it may seem, just know this: it gets better,” the older Doctor promises him as they repeat the actions they have already done in the first TARDIS. “And none of it would be possible without Donna. Remember that.”
The younger Doctor realizes that the conversation is over. He knows better than to ask any more questions, to learn anything that might involve his eventual fate or Rose’s. He just has to hope that Rose won’t ask, or if she does, that this Donna person knows better than to answer, because if Rose found out, he’s under no illusions that she could keep that information to herself.
He can’t help shooting glances at his twin while they work in a silence that is only punctuated by the numbers that continue to be called out from the other TARDIS. There is an energy and a lightness about this man, even a lessening of that great weight of responsibility that comes with being the last, that he can’t remember seeing in himself for a long time — probably since before the War, now that he thinks about it.
He has to wonder if Donna is responsible for that change.
The same topic of change in the Doctor is being discussed in the other TARDIS.
“He looks different,” Rose admits. “I don’t know — older, maybe?”
Somehow, though, Rose doubts that is the real reason for the change. She is torn between wondering if it has really been ages since he left her behind — a reassuring thought, although she doesn’t want to know the circumstances behind that happening — and wondering if it’s just because he seems to look, sort of, happier? She isn’t sure if that’s the right description, but he doesn’t have the same darkness in his eyes that she sometimes glimpses in her Doctor.
“Something like that,” Donna says, adding, “Six,” in stentorian tones.
“Why?” demands Rose.
“It’s,” Donna draws out the pause, “complicated.”
“And you think I wouldn’t understand?” demands Rose shrilly.
Donna stops just short of rolling her eyes. “I didn’t say that,” she says with exaggerated patience.
The words ‘But probably, yes,’ hang in the air between them. Literally. It takes a good few minutes for the dust cloud that formed the letters to settle, but fortunately Rose isn’t able to read Ancient Helliptic and so can’t make sense of the words.
“Seven!” Donna exclaims, stepping back as the TARDIS console lights up. She gives a smile of satisfaction. “Well, that’s done!”
“And a good job, too,” says the Doctor’s voice from the doorway.
Rose looks up and is startled to realize that she has no idea which Doctor is framed on the threshold. The problem is only exacerbated the next moment by the appearance of the other Time Lord, and she is still lost as they enter the TARDIS and approach the console.
“The one on the left,” Donna says kindly, clearly understanding her dilemma. “Mine's the other one.”
“What d'you mean, yours?” demands Rose, spinning around to glare at her.
“Well,” Donna smiles sweetly, “you did call him 'My Doctor', didn't you? So the other one must be mine.”
Brought up short, Rose can only gape at her opposite number. It’s never occurred to her before now just how often she’s inclined to speak about the Doctor in a possessive sense.
“At least I don’t suggest I’m married to him,” she grumbles at last, determined to have the last word and remembering what this woman had said about meeting other incarnations of the Doctor.
Rather to her disappointment, instead of getting upset, Donna simply doubles up with laughter. Of the two Doctors who have been watching this interplay, one looks startled while the other merely rolls his eyes.
“We’re not…” he’s beginning rather feebly, when Donna interrupts.
“What, marry that skinny streak of nothing?” she demands, pointing at the two men on the far side the room. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Thank you,” she adds almost politely, “but I prefer to stick to the males of my own species, at least as long as they’re not trying to feed me to giant spiders.”
“The Racnoss?” exclaims the one of the Doctors, turning to his doppelganger. “But how did they…?”
“I think,” the other Doctor interrupts sharply before the question can be completed, “that it’s time we left.”
“Ye-es,” the other Doctor agrees, understanding that he has been cut off before he can learn too much and disrupt his future.
He realizes he’s not looking forward to the rather awkward conversation he’s sure is waiting for him when he and Rose get back to his TARDIS. Still, at least if he tells her not to ask any more questions, that should silence her on the subject. He suspects he won’t get away with that sort of thing once Donna gets hold of him.
Then again, there’s a lot to be said for having someone treat you with the comfortable familiarity and friendliness that is so evident in Donna, who has come to stand beside her Doctor. He knows that, at whatever point in the future that he does lose Rose — and he’s never doubted that it would have to happen one day — he will want the sort of friendship that he feels she will offer him unconditionally.
Something to look forward to then.
Without any further questions that could prove problematic, and seeing that Rose isn’t in the mood to continue speaking to Donna, he ushers her out of the TARDIS and into the one next to it.
The blue boxes fade in and out of existence and a terrible grinding noise in stereo splits the air for a few seconds before vanishing altogether.
The surviving relatives of Tarachnal decide that they prefer it when they don’t have visitors and are left to get on with fighting their civil wars in peace and quiet. They find a way to have their planet removed from all current and future star-charts in the hope that they will never have to put up with anything like this again.
Due to the laws of time and space, and one man’s habit of ignoring him when the mood suits him, not to mention the problems surrounding wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey complications, they are doomed to disappointment.
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