He leaves the grave behind, leaves River behind - not that that's hard when she’s turned him down - and even leaves little Amelia Pond behind for the last time. But back on board the TARDIS, loneliness stabbing agonisingly inside him, he finds himself remembering one conversation in particular — the one that had taken place after he turned up on the Williams’ doorstep last Christmas Eve.
“There’s a place set for you,” Amy had told him.
“But you didn’t know I was coming,” he had objected. “Why would you set me a place?”
“Oh, because we always do. It’s Christmas you moron.”
It bothers him that that conversation won’t leave his mind. It nags at him, teases him, and, deep inside, makes him wonder — is it just The Girl Who Waited who demonstrates such belief in him? Might others also display similar fidelity?
He remembers how, just prior to the last regeneration, in a body that was almost excessively emotional, and which attached himself far too easily to those around him, he had gone back to see each and every person with whom he had travelled, or at least those whom it was possible for him to visit. Only a few though — those recent ones, those who would have known him in that body, those for whom such a sight was safe and wise — had been allowed to see him in return, and he had kept conversations to a bare minimum, although he was unsure whether that was for his sake or theirs.
Now he wonders how they might have reacted if he had given them a chance to speak to them. In other words, is it only Amy and Rory who lay a place for him?
He shakes his head at the thought and wonders when he got so sentimental. Perhaps, despite the apparent youth of this body, he is showing his age.
Almost as an afterthought, he sets the co-ordinates for the town in which he had first met Madge Arwell. After all, if anyone is going to remember him (and he has a longing for proof that just one person does!), he knows his best chance is with someone he has seen so recently.
The TARDIS deposits him outside a house on Christmas Eve 1945. The Doctor has gone and fetched a number of things that he can leave for the family as makeshift presents, and slips into the house through the back door with a brief zap of the sonic screwdriver.
He finds himself in a warm but thankfully unoccupied kitchen. From his pockets he unpacks various edible treats that he knows neither Cyril nor Lily will have eaten for years thanks to rationing. Arranging them in a nearby serving dish, he is hunting about in his pockets for a piece of paper and a pen to leave a note when a voice startles him.
“You’re still taking care of people, then, Caretaker?”
The Doctor turns to find Madge in the doorway leading to the rest of the house. Her hair is a little greyer than he remembers but otherwise she looks hardly changed. Her hands are propped on her hips as she gazes at him with an expression similar to that he had seen on her face in the attic when she told him to go and see his friends for Christmas.
“Um, hello,” he says rather awkwardly. “Just popped by. I was, you know, in the neighbourhood and thought I’d see how you were all getting on. That is,” he adds, as a sudden unpleasant thought strikes him, “as many as there are of you now in that ‘all’.”
“Four,” says Madge firmly, crossing the room to where he is standing. “There’s four people in my family, Caretaker.”
“Of course there is.” He shoots her a relieved grin. “I thought I’d bring all four of you a few treats for Christmas.”
He waves at the bowl and prepares to make a graceful exit — only to find Madge’s hand firm on his arm.
“Come along,” she tells him firmly. “You can share them out yourself. Everyone is in the living room and they will be delighted to see you.”
Unable to help giving a token protest, even if he is actually quite pleased at this clear evidence of other people’s desire for his presence, he allows himself to be towed out of the kitchen into another room where Cyril and Lily and their father are gathered around the fireplace playing a game of snap. They greet him with such obvious happiness that he is reminded of Sarah Jane’s promise about him having the biggest family on Earth.
Of course, that’s a problem that conflicts with the Question: who is the Doctor? There are so many people who know him, or think they do, but they know different versions of him, which is both a comfort and a complication. Not one of them, not even River, could give a definitive answer in the end.
He has to wonder if even he knows who the Doctor really is.
Still, he has little time to ponder the matter. He plays a game of chess with Reg, during which Cyril gives his father advice on his every move, while Lily goes to help her mother in the kitchen. When at last the meal is brought out, augmented by the extra food he brought so there is more than enough for everyone (and the size of Cyril’s eyes suggests it has been a long time since he saw so much food at once), they move to the table, which is laid for five.
The Doctor glances at the neat place-settings, aware that no-one has touched any of them since his arrival. “I thought you said...” He trails off, looking up at Madge, who is smiling. “How did you know I was coming?” he demands in astonishment.
“I wished for it,” she says simply, beginning to serve the food at her husband carves the small roasted bird. Out of the corner of her eye, she glances at him. “And you did promise you would do what you could to make my wishes come true,” she reminds him, before beginning to talk of other things.
Several hours later, the Doctor slips away, managing to avoid any further recriminations from Madge on the fact that he is once more alone at Christmas, at least in her timeline. For a moment he considers heading off to a new adventure, but the empty, echoing TARDIS encourages him to try his luck with another recent acquaintance to see if the results will be the same in the way he would secretly like them to be.
The Doctor stops in to see Craig and his family. Another place is set for him, right next to the boy formally known as Stormageddon, who beams at him with a face covered by pudding and custard. Upon his departure, the Time Lord suggests that Sophie tries fish fingers with the custard next time, just for a bit of variety.
“You’re still no saner,” scolds Craig, before closing the door.
At an English University, he comes across Susan Brooke, who is studying everything she will need to know for her future among the stars.
“I knew your grandmother,” the Doctor tells her as they sit opposite one another at one of the long tables in the otherwise empty dining hall, everyone else having gone home for Christmas.
“Tell me about her,” begs Susan, and the Doctor does so, feeling as if perhaps this is his way of making up for the Time Lord Victorious and all of the problems that caused this young woman’s family.
The Lady Christina de Souza is found on the side of the road beside the battered bus trying to reactivate the anti-gravity clamps, which have finally run out of the power. The Doctor can’t quite bring himself to admit to her just who he is, and he keeps the TARDIS out of sight, but the same emotions that prompted him in his last body to let her escape from the police now encourage him to zap the clamps with the sonic, thus giving them a good few hundred hours of activity before they run out again.
The streets of Victorian London are bustling and full of the same sights and smells as the last time he was here — indeed, he has to check the year of his arrival to ensure that he doesn’t cross paths with his tenth self — but Jackson takes little convincing of his identity.
“You must join us for dinner,” he orders, and so he, Jackson, Rosetta and Frederick sit down and toast to a year of peace since the destruction of the Cybermen.
“Y’know, it’s weird, Doctor,” says Rosetta. “Nobody even talks about it anymore. It’s like they all forgot it or sumfin’.”
“It happens,” he tells her ruefully, before turning to his host. “Jackson, you must see the new interior of my TARDIS.”
“I should be delighted!” comes the immediate reply.
But when the Doctor proudly opens the door and gestures the other man inside, Jackson’s time within is even shorter than it was on the previous occasion.
“Oh, it’s even sillier than last time!” he protests.
“He didn’t mean it,” the Doctor assures Sexy once they are alone and in the vortex again.
Before he puts in the next set of co-ordinates, though, he stops short and stares blankly at the console. Up to this point, he has been working in more-or-less reverse order. But that will bring him to the one person he absolutely cannot allow himself to see: his best mate, his conscience, the one who, even without knowing it, continues to drive him on.
Since he cannot visit Donna Noble, he decides to mix things up, and goes back to where so much of his history with humans began: Trotter’s Lane in London. For a few days, he teaches at Coal Hill School. Then one afternoon a young woman with dark hair sidles up to him.
“Grandfather?” she says curiously, and he beams at her, delighted that she has recognised him in spite of his different face.
“You’re old,” she declares, and he’s forced to agree.
They have a cup of tea together, and he is relieved when she does not suggest that he comes and meets his first incarnation. Considering the views that that gentleman held regarding his second and third selves, he is unsure whether he wants to hear what his original self might have say about this body, even if he is convinced of his coolness.
Neither Ian nor Barbara look any different from his memories of them when he arrives in Cambridge, despite the fact that the Doctor knows decades have passed since they left him.
“In a place like this,” Ian tells him, “people have learned not to ask questions to which they do not really want to know the answers.”
In Troy, Vicki greets him eagerly, and Troilus takes the opportunity to thank the Doctor for the great happiness his wife has given him.
The world in which Steven now lives shows little sign of the conflict the Doctor once witnessed between the Elders and the Savages. Steven proudly explains his successful efforts at bringing the warring parties together, and the Doctor is able to leave knowing that the young man is all too satisfied with his life.
The next stop is not to a home, but instead a grave. The Doctor lets himself remember Katrina for almost the first time since that young woman’s death. Being in such a place recalls to him the fact that he has no specific location to which he can go to remember Adric or Sara, but at least he can visit Dodo’s grave. As with the others, while he sits there and remembers her funeral, he wishes he had been able to save her — to save all of them.
It is a relief to arrive at Polly and Ben’s orphanage. The children greet him with shouts and cheers, and all the stories they have to tell him about the generous deeds of his former companions makes him even prouder of them than he already was. Here, too, at the end of a long table set out for Christmas, there is an extra place for him.
His visit to Jamie is brief, far shorter than that young man deserves considering all he achieved, even if he has had to forget so much of it thanks to the Time Lords. Still, the Doctor can do nothing about that, so he moves on.
“No, Doctor,” is Victoria’s greeting as he exits the TARDIS, “I have no intention of travelling with you again.”
“Actually, I wasn’t going to ask,” he retorts at once, and manages to convince himself that he means it, knowing at the same time that he would take any of them on again in a heartbeat to prevent himself from having to be alone
“Oh.” Guilt lacing her tones, Victoria glances uneasily at the door of her nearby house. “Well, um, would you like to join me for dinner instead?”
Feeling a bit as if he has done nothing but eat on this extended tour, the Doctor arrives at Space Station W3 where he finds Zoe, although at a time in her life before she will meet him. Over a cup of tea, he encourages her to talk of her plans for the future and leaves knowing that she will be ready all too soon to discover his second self and Jamie.
The nursing home that constitutes his next stop is quiet, but the elderly man he has come to see is waiting beside the small fireplace in his room and looks up as the visitor lets himself in.
“Doctor,” he greets his visitor. His eyes travel over the Time Lord’s face. “Rather younger-looking than I remember, but still, unmistakable.”
“Brigadier.” The Doctor studies the face of his old friend, seeing the gentle touch of imprints deep in the old man’s cheeks and forehead, knowing what is to come.
Remembering that, as far as anyone knew, he had never visited the Brig before that man’s passing, had never shared the brandy that was put out for him every evening, he has thought long and hard about the right time to appear.
As much as it pains him to see one of his oldest friends during the final hours of his life, the only other possibility is avoiding it altogether, and that is something the Doctor simply cannot countenance. To disappoint the Brigadier’s fondest hope is completely impossible.
So here he is, and here they sit, two old men reminiscing about past days and their battles with extraterrestrial threats to the Earth. When at last the Doctor slips away, leaving the other man to make his final journey alone, he is thankful to have fulfilled the Brig’s dying wish.
He finds Liz on the UNIT moonbase, and her delight at the sight of him warms his hearts. As he joins her for a festive supper, finding a place already set, he muses inwardly on the fact that all of these people have been accepting of him — an apparent stranger. Even those who only knew him with one face, who never knew about his ability to regenerate, have taken him in without question. Gingerly he broaches the subject with Liz.
“You couldn’t be anyone else,” she replies simply, before offering him a plate of muffins.
Jo and Santiago, when he tracks them down in Norway, don’t have that problem, having already seen him in this body during their run-in with the Shansheeth. Rather than reminiscing on their shared past, Jo tells him what she has done after they parted ways, and his pride in her only grows.
Sarah Jane, too, is well aware of his identity when he appears and whisks her away in the TARDIS to visit Luke at University. Not long before they arrive, she turns to him.
“Doctor,” she says quietly, “what is death like?”
“I don’t know,” he’s forced to admit. “I’ve never died, Sarah. Regeneration — it’s not the same. Not really.”
She nods, but doesn’t elaborate. Not that he needs her to. He has had enough glimpses of her future during subsequent meetings with people who knew her to know what is coming. All he can do is hold her for a little while longer than usual before letting her go to join her son.
“Goodbye, my Sarah Jane,” he whispers to himself as he watches her disappear into a nearby building.
The knowledge of this impending loss makes him think of others who are beyond his reach. His opportunity to mourn Leela with all due ceremony, he knows, was lost when Gallifrey was sucked back the time lock after his most recent run-in with the Master. Romana, too, is out of his reach. His memories of them will have to do.
Harry Sullivan welcomes the Doctor to his laboratory, and the Time Lord offers assistance with one or two tricky projects that are underway.
“Would you help me with something?” he asks, and Harry beams at him.
“Of course, Doctor!”
And while that man watches, his former companion follows his directions to produce a small pill that the Doctor accepts with thanks and pockets before saying goodbye.
Nyssa greets him eagerly and he shows her around his new TARDIS, telling her about the events in the Bubble Universe. In her turn, she tells him about the work that she continues to carry out on the Terminus, at the same time remaining sweetly oblivious to his subtle hints about her travelling with him again.
Tegan’s illness is all too plain, but she still manages to smile at him. He offers her the pill made by Harry and she takes it before asking what it will do to her.
“Cure you,” he promises, placing a hand on hers and giving her fingers a gentle squeeze. “This world isn’t ready to lose you yet, Tegan Jovanka.”
Turlough is found sitting on a hill sketching a volcano that is erupting in the far distance, a sight which prompts the Doctor to remember his visit to the Eye of Orion in his fifth body. The young man from Trion looks rather happier than when the Doctor has last seen him during his farewell prior to his regeneration, and this is explained by Turlough’s mention of the impending birth of his daughter, whom he is going to name Tegan.
Peri is somewhat circumspect in her greeting, but quickly warms to him when he tells her about the fate of the Time Lords. She even compliments him on his wardrobe choices in this incarnation, which leaves him momentarily speechless.
His meeting with Mel is as unexpected to him as it is to her, but she eagerly drags him to a cafe for a meal where he catches up with everything she has been doing since they parted ways. She is far less kind about his outfit than Peri.
“Bow ties are not cool,” she tells him firmly.
“You would have liked my fez,” he retorts, and she snorts.
Ace runs to greet him when he arrives at the headquarters of her charity, which the Doctor already understands is an unacknowledged branch of UNIT. He leaves a gift under the Christmas tree in her office — a small parcel of Nitro-9, for old time’s sake.
He finds Grace still working in San Francisco and, over Christmas dinner at her house, tells her something about his latest run-ins with the Master. She is kind but firm when she turns down his offer to travel with him, and this time doesn’t even offer him the consolation of a kiss in parting.
Back in the TARDIS, as he sets off to his next destination, he thinks about Rose and wonders how she is faring in the alternate universe. He has briefly considered pulling the same trick he did when his tenth body was on the verge of regenerating into this one, but she will probably get suspicious if people keep telling her what a good year she is going to have.
Adam is, perhaps understandably, the least happy of anyone to see him. Clearly the young man fears further punishment for his actions, but the Doctor feels that Adam has gone at least some way to learning his lesson. It is impossible to remove the infospike, but the Doctor is able to apply a partial perception filter that will make it less noticeable.
“It’s not infallible,” he warns as he puts away the sonic screwdriver. “Just be careful.”
And he leaves without even the faintest hint of an invitation.
Jack is found getting into trouble — what else? — in an uninviting bar on a planet that the Doctor generally avoids because of its unsavoury reputation.
“I’m bored,” the immortal man complains as he slumps onto the jumpseat.
The Doctor eyes Jack out of the corner of his eye. “What do you want to do then?” he asks.
Jack smirks. “Well, I would tell you,” he leers, before looking the Time Lord up and down and doing his best to adopt an innocent expression, “but it would be like sullying the mind of a child.”
The Doctor drops him off at the closest uninhabited planet and tells him to use his imagination.
Martha and Mickey are thrilled to see him and can’t wait to introduce him to their new arrivals — twin boys only a few days old. He watches them together, cooing over their children, so happy, and can’t bring himself to suggest interrupting this by offering them the chance to travel with him again. Instead he slips away, looking back through the window at their life together. He won’t spoil that.
He visits Astrid the only way he can — by setting the TARDIS on the same spot where she landed during his adventures on the Titanic and staring up at the stars, knowing that she is flying among them, just as she wanted to. And when he goes back inside his blue box, he is almost happy.
He can’t be completely satisfied because he knows his list of visits is not complete.
Two names leap out at him from his mental list of the past — Donna and Wilf. In both his mind and his hearts they are intertwined, and he had been keeping the thought of Wilf away because he wanted to avoid giving that man hope that his reappearance might mean he had a way to fix Donna’s memories.
That’s his excuse anyway.
In truth, the guilt about his actions in relation to Donna and what that has meant to her whole family still weigh more heavily on him than he can really bear. No matter that he still can’t think of another solution to the meta-crisis, even this much later — he still curses himself for allowing it to happen at all.
The TARDIS deposits him gently in a location in London, not far from Chiswick.
He opens the doors and steps out on a ground dusted with snow, which crunches beneath his boots. For a moment he recalls the time he made it snow at the end of a crazy Christmas day, but shakes that thought out of his mind and walks down the path to the small house he can see between the trees.
A faint light gleams from one of the window and he peers inside to see the remains of a fire gleaming in the grate. Fishing the sonic out of his pocket, he flashes the light around as much of the room as he could see, stopping at the sight of a picture in a frame — Donna next to the man he watched her marry during the final hours of his previous body.
There are other photos, too: Sylvia and Geoff, Wilf and a woman the Doctor presumes was his wife, and various friends that the Doctor recalls seeing at both of Donna’s weddings. He notices that there are no images of Donna with any children, and that hurts, too, because he remembers how much she longed for them, so much so that the Library gave them to her in that virtual world.
He turns away, only for the sonic to cast a light on the table in the corner, on which he can see two places set. For Donna and Shaun, he presumes, and is almost surprised at how much it hurts that there isn’t one for him, even though there is no reason there should be.
Turning away, he shoves his hands in his pockets and begins trudging back down the path to the TARDIS. He’s done what he came for — he has seen Donna’s future and, really, what more can he do for her? She is as lost to him as Amy and Rory are.
At least until he literally bumps into her coming the other way down the path, sending the bag of shopping she was carrying crashing to the ground.
“Oh, blimey, I’m sorry!” she bursts out before he can utter a word. “Didn’t look where I was going, as usual. Can you grab those potatoes for me?”
He obeys instinctively, chasing down the vegetables that have escaped from the paper bag and are rolling away under the snow-topped hedges that line the path. By the time he comes back, his hands full, Donna has managed to collect everything else and has put the bag down on the table standing next to the door. She fishes in her pocket, even as she acknowledges his efforts with a nod, before pulling out a key and opening the door.
“Come in,” she offers hospitably, but he all but throws the vegetables into the bag and steps back, raising his hands in a gesture of protest.
“Oh, no, no, no,” he objects. “No, I won’t intrude — not on Christmas Eve.”
“Then why are you here?” Donna demands flatly, pushing the door open with her foot as she picks up her shopping. “The only house on this path is mine,” she continues as she walks inside, and he follows her without realising, “so you must have wanted to see me, and,” she puts the shopping down and smirks at him, “since you’ve decided to come in after all, you might as well shut the door and keep the cold out.”
He looks around, startled to realise that he is indeed inside, and can do nothing other than rather sheepishly follow Donna’s directions. Some things never change, he thinks wryly, before turning to watch Donna put away the bag of food she has just purchased.
“I’m Donna, by the way,” she says, looking up at him with those eyes he has missed so much.
“John,” he replies at once. “John Smith.”
For a long moment her eyes study his face, and he wonders if that is a tiny flicker of hope he is seeing, before her shoulders slump a little and she nods, disappointment plain on her face. He can’t be sure what caused it, but he wants it gone and quickly changes the subject.
“What are you cooking?” he asks, remembering some of the mouth-watering meals she had prepared for them both on the TARDIS and wondering if he can perhaps wangle an invitation despite the table, which is so clearly laid only for two.
“Oh, nothing exciting,” says Donna in the self-deprecating tone that always made him want to shake her. She goes over and peers into a machine that the Doctor belatedly recognises as a slow-cooker. “Stew and vegetables — that’s as good as it gets. I don’t even have any good wine to offer you, I’m afraid. Things are a bit tight at present.”
“But what about that lottery money?” asks the Doctor, and is astonished when Donna turns on him, her eyes are flashing at their most furious.
“Oh, is that what you want from me?” she demands furiously. “You’re another one after my money? That’s all anyone wants from me — has wanted from me for ages! Well, there isn’t any left, so you can just get out if that’s all you’ve come for! Do you think I’d be living like this if there was?!”
“No! Donna,” the Doctor is quick to reassure her, stepping close and clasping her hands in his, as much to keep himself safe from a slap as anything, “I promise,” he says slowly so that she will believe him, gazing into her eyes, “I am definitely not interested in your money.”
For a moment she gazes back at him before he feels her relax as the anger fades from her eyes. “Sorry,” she says apologetically. “It’s just — sometimes it feels like that’s the only part of me that matters to people, and I guess I just assumed...”
The man remains instinctively silent, guessing from the fact that Donna has not tried to free her hands that she has more to say.
Her gaze flickers over to the picture on the mantel. “It’s more difficult since Shaun died,” she admits softly, and he can hear the pain in her voice. “He was better at dealing with that than I am.”
“I’m so sorry, Donna,” he is beginning when, out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of the table in the corner, which is clearly set for two. “But who’s that for then?” he demands.
Donna smiles rather sadly. “Oh, just in case a friend should drop by,” she replies, and there is a faraway look in her eyes. Then she shakes herself out of her thoughts and gently frees her hands. “Dinner,” she says firmly.
The meal is mostly a quiet one. The Doctor is careful to avoid giving her any hints about their shared past — Christmas Eve doesn’t seem like an appropriate time to trigger Donna’s memories with potentially fatal consequences, after all — and Donna, too, is uncharacteristically quiet.
By the time they clear the table, it has begun snowing heavily outside. “You’ll stay,” Donna says in a tone that is an order rather than a request.
He considers arguing, but it’s not as if there’s a danger of this face prompting her memories so he finally agrees. They sit by the fire, which Donna has stirred into life, drinking eggnog and talking. She asks him why he came to see her, and he lies and says it was because he was an old friend of Shaun’s. (He would have said Wilf, but as Shaun is not there to defend himself, this seems safer.) He asks her to tell him about her husband, and listens quietly to all she has to say, revelling in her company.
When it gets late, she shows him to the spare room — he’s fascinated to see that it’s made up ready for a visitor, just like the extra place at the table — and bids him goodnight before going to her own room.
In a short time the house is quiet and the Doctor lets himself out of the bedroom, making his way back to the living room. As he goes, he notices the state of the house around him — it’s remarkably shabby considering the money he knows she won from the lottery. Then again, he wouldn’t be surprised if she had given most of it away, particularly if having it made her the recipient of unwanted attention, as her earlier outburst suggested.
Back in the living room, he takes time to examine the photos on the mantelpiece, as well as others on the walls. Then he finds the bookshelves, which hold an entire row of photo albums, and he carries the lot over to the coffee table. A quick zap of the sonic and the fire springs into life, and by its light he can easily make out the pictures.
The first few albums contain old photos, presumably of generations of Nobles and Temples past, and he flips through them quickly. When he recognises Wilf — a very young version of that man — he stops and pays more attention. There’s his erstwhile companion, and the direct cause of his last regeneration, on his wedding day, and then as the proud father of a baby girl. Strange how even Sylvia Noble née Mott was cute as a baby.
As he turns the pages, he wonders about Donna being alone on Christmas Eve. Even if Shaun is gone, what about Wilf? He finds the answer to that in a later album — a picture of a gravestone with Wilf’s name and dates of birth and death inscribed on it, in a scene that painfully echoes his own recent experience with the Ponds.
He forces his thoughts away from that misery and back to the present situation. Even if Wilf is gone, what about Sylvia? Maybe she and her daughter have had such a major falling-out that they no longer speak. Sadly, as he eyes a photo of Sylvia, Geoff and Donna, he wonders if Sylvia has ever really realised how brilliant her daughter is.
“Can’t sleep, Mr Smith?”
Looking up, he finds Donna in the doorway, a half-smile on her face. He shuts the album rather guiltily and adds it to the large pile in front of him. “Not really,” he admits, and then watches in surprise as she sits in the armchair facing him, a calm expression on her face. “Not going to tell me off then?” he suggests, half-teasingly.
She smiles. “Nope,” she agrees.
“And why not?”
“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she replies, staring past him out of the window. “He used to pace at nights as well, up and down, until I felt like slapping him.”
Shaun, he supposes. “What happened to him?” he asks, inwardly kicking himself for his lack of tact when her face falls.
“He left me,” she says softly.
“And why would he do that?” demands the Doctor in astonishment, trying to reconcile this idea of their apparent separation with Donna’s obvious grief in the earlier mentions of Shaun’s death.
She shrugs, turning her gaze from the window, outside which the snow continues to fall, to the fireplace. “Sometimes things happen,” she says at last, her voice soft. “He’d never have gone if he hadn’t had to, and I know he’d feel terrible about it. I mean,” she gets up and begins to pace along the stretch of flagstones in front of the fireplace, “I was angry, too, but I’ve learned to accept what happened. Of course,” she adds in lighter tones, “it was easier once I managed to recover what he took from me.”
What could Shaun have taken from you? he is about to demand, when he realises for the first time that Donna has never mentioned her husband’s name, and that there is a person who took something very valuable from her, and then left her — him.
He swallows hard, aware that only his new face is keeping him safe from her recriminations, even as another part of his soul sours at the knowledge that Donna remembers, that time alone has given her back...
It’s his first chance to consider the year in which the TARDIS has chosen for him to pay this visit. That it’s Christmas Eve is beyond question, but with Donna looking little different from the last time he saw her, he had assumed it was only a few years after her wedding.
It’s not 2009.
“But — you’re old!” he bursts out thoughtlessly.
She glares at him. “Thanks so much,” she snaps. “I hadn’t noticed!”
“No, but — how is that possible?” he demands. “How can you be so old? You’re human, after all, and humans age, and die.”
“Yeah, I spotted that,” she says, her voice full of sarcasm, as she glares out of the window once more, and he suspects she’s blinking back tears. “Why do you think I’m alone? No mother, no grandfather, no husband — and not even any kids, thanks to that bloody meta-crisis. Seems, once you’ve been exposed to alien DNA, having a baby is impossible.”
“I never meant for that to happen,” he protests, and even as the words come out of his mouth, he’s kicking himself.
Donna’s eyes widen immediately, swinging around to fix on his face, studying his features, and he knows she is looking for the face she has remembered so fondly for centuries. For a moment he can’t help wondering if there are any hints of that man in the facial profile he wears now.
“So you’re... him,” she offers slowly, and he can’t tell from the tone of her voice how she is going to react.
“Yes,” he admits.
For a long moment she studies him from head to foot, her eyes lingering on his bow-tie. He waits for the usual comment, but this is Donna and she always manages to surprise him.
“Well,” she says at last, “at least you’ve changed out of that bloody suit!”
And then, just like on that staircase at Adipose Industries, she’s in his arms and he is hugging her with equal fervour.
“Donna Noble,” he murmurs into her ear.
“Doctor,” she whispers back to him. “You’ve come back to me at last. I knew you would.”
“You’ve been waiting for me,” he says in an instant of realisation as he pulls back to look down into her face. “That place at the table, the spare room — it was all for me.”
“Well, I figured you’d realise what happened and come back for me eventually,” she points out, wiping tears off her cheeks, grinning a bit as she adds, “I didn’t think it would take you this long though, you daft git.”
“I didn’t think, after the wedding, there was anything worth coming back for,” he admits. “I never thought that the meta-crisis would have affected your aging process, and I imagined you living out the rest of your life happily enough.”
“While you drowned yourself in guilt,” she scolds. “Yet all you had to do was turn up a few years afterwards — I’d like to point out that you have a time machine! — and you would have been able to see the results for yourself, instead of moping around because you lost me.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” he demands, before shrugging sheepishly. “I’m not very good with time in this body.”
“I don’t remember you being much better before,” she says rather sharply, before nudging him affectionately. “I suppose you don’t do any better on your own than you did before either.”
“Probably not,” he admits with a shrug, watching her out of the corner of his eye. “Still, what choice do I have?”
“None.” She takes his arm and squeezes. “Three hundred years waiting for you — do you think I’m letting you go without me?”
He grins, leaping up off the couch and pulling her with him. “Then what are we waiting for?” he demands.
“Well, I’d quite like to be dressed,” she retorts in sarcastic tones, glancing down at her pyjamas, before smirking. “I should pack my hatbox as well.”
“Oh, no!” he protests at once. “No hatboxes! Not this time!”
She laughs and disappears out of the room, leaving him to put the albums away and take another look around the rather tired interior of the living space. Of course, her situation makes sense now. The money from the lotto win would certainly not have lasted three centuries, leaving her living only on her current earnings.
He will have to do something about that.
Activating the small computer terminal on the fridge — terribly out of date now, but it’s the only computer in the building — he accesses Donna’s bank details and shifts her money into a high-yield account so that it will earn better interest. He may also have added a few zeroes to the balance as well, but he doubts anyone will notice.
Donna joins him ten minutes later, dressed and carrying a small bag. He beams at her before taking the bag and leading the way out of the little house, moving a short distance away so she can lock the door.
“Come along, Noble,” he says cheerfully once she has pocked the keys, heading off in the direction of the TARDIS.
Donna stops dead in her tracks — the sound of footsteps on snow is instantly silent — and he can feel her eyes boring into his back.
“What?” she demands sharply.
He glances over his shoulder to see her standing a short distance behind him, her hands on her hips and her expression folded into an all-too-familiar glare. It’s been a while since he’s had that sensation of his stomach sinking, but a patented Donna Noble scowl can do it quite literally no time at all.
“It’s what I say now,” he protests, adding his usual disclaimer. “It’s cool.”
“It makes me sound like a dog being summoned to stand at heel,” Donna complains, covering the short distance between them so she can gently prod him in the chest just below his bow-tie. “We used to be equals,” she reminds him.
He reaches up to take her hand, curling his fingers around hers, and even with this new hand, this new body, that sensation is still wonderfully familiar. In her eyes he can see her concern that him changing has changed everything between them, just like when he regenerated into his tenth body and Rose felt the same way. The phrase he prepares to say as reassurance feels odd and distant, and yet, with his best mate here in front of him, it’s not strange at all.
“Allons-y, Donna Noble.”
She smiles and they continue down the lane to the TARDIS together.
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