The first time anyone else knew there was a problem was when Wilf ran Sarah Jane off the phone.
"He did something to her head," Wilf whispered urgently. "I don't understand it, but he says if she remembers anything, it could kill her. So don't call here no more."
Sarah heard a muffled voice in the background. "Who is it?"
"Just a telemarketer, sweetheart. I'm telling them to stop calling."
"Oh, let me!"
There was a fumbling and then a familiar voice, but somehow harsher and shriller than Sarah Jane had last heard it. "I'm Sarah-" she started.
"I don't care if you're Margaret Flippin' Thatcher! We're not buying, we're not donating, and we're not going to waste our time on the likes of you. Lose this number!"
The phone slammed down and Sarah Jane stared at her handset in amazement.
"Mum, is there a problem?"
"Yes," answered Sarah Jane, dialing as fast as she could. "But we're going to fix it."
"Cardiff Tourist Bureau by the Bay."
"Ianto, this is Sarah Jane."
"Oh hello! I got your email. I think a regular gathering would be-"
"Put me through to Jack. We have a situation."
A pause. "I think the best way of describing it is 'man down.' I don't know about Torchwood, but UNIT doesn't leave one of its own behind."
"Neither do we. Putting you through now."
Incoming Instant Message:
< CoT_SJS: Are you there? >
< CoT_SJS: Are you there? Situation! >
< CoT_MJ: Here. What? >
< CoT_SJS: Donna needs our help. >
< CoT_MJ: I can be there in 48 hours. Want me to make a long-distance call? >
< CoT_SJS: YES! >
Inside the swirling Vortex, a blue box slowly spins. Inside the blue box, long legs squirm for purchase, pushing a body deeper under the console while sparks fly.
"Now stop fussing, old girl, and let me..."
A phone rings.
"My hands are full!" the voice shouts. "Can you get that, Do-"
For a moment, all is stillness. The legs freeze. The sparks die.
In the silence, the phone rings again.
"Smith, Sarah Jane," Jack was reciting as the Torchwood SUV swung onto the motorway. "Previous companion to an earlier incarnation of the Doctor."
"Two," Ianto corrected from the back seat. Jack looked at him in the rear view mirror and he shrugged. "Torchwood One had very thorough records."
"As I was saying, previous companion to the Doctor, right around the time he was working for UNIT. He left; she stayed. About 15 years ago, she wrote a book about them. Them meaning UNIT, not her and the Doctor."
"Jesus, Jack, are you going to lecture us all the way to London?"
"Gwen, you've always complained that I don't tell you anything. For once, we're going in fully briefed. Where was I?"
"Doctor, UNIT, 70s or 80s; the records are unclear," Ianto said. "I want to hear more about how she stopped the sun from going out."
"All in good time. We've got a three-hour drive. You okay back there, Mickey? You're quiet."
"I'm good. But I'll let you know if you get anything wrong about Sarah Jane. I've met her."
"She seemed nice," Gwen said.
Mickey smiled. "Someone I used to know would have called her fantastic."
Three sets of eyes watched the canteen clock move with agonizing slowness.
"Mum promised she wouldn't let anything start before we got home." Luke sounded more like he was trying to talk himself into believing it than he was passing on information.
"I can't believe you got to see the Doctor," Maria said with equal amounts of wistfulness and jealousy.
"I can't believe we've got to have double French before we're allowed to save the world. Again!" grumbled Clyde.
Martha was surprised to see a cute, brown-haired man waiting just beyond airport customs holding a sign with her name. "I'm Martha Jones."
"Alan Jackson. Pleased to meet you. Sarah Jane asked me to pick you up."
"I wasn't expecting anyone," Martha said warily.
"She said if you didn't believe me, I was to say 'Children of Time'." Alan sighed. "I don't know if I feel like James Bond or a total prat."
Martha laughed. "If you feel that way now, all I can say is, don't step into any blue boxes!"
They had tried to start with small talk, but a less likely social group had rarely gathered. Only Maria, Alan, and Gwen were at all able to chat politely. Ianto and Luke were having a geekfest in a corner, Mickey and Clyde were comparing notes, and Jack was attempting to recruit Martha while Sarah Jane put up a spirited defense of UNIT.
A fanfare of music sounded from above, cutting through the various conversations.
"Just a moment, Mr. Smith," Sarah Jane called up. She lifted her cup of tea. "Before we begin, a toast to the one who brought us all together."
Jack hoisted his water high. "To the Doctor!" Around the room, everyone sipped tea, lemonade, or water to murmurs of "The Doctor."
Everyone except Sarah Jane. "Him too. But I meant someone who mustn't be forgotten." She lifted her cup a little higher. "To Harriet Jones."
"Sarah Jane!" Mr. Smith insisted. "Sensors show temporal transport materializing on your lawn." But his voice was drowned out by the rusty sound of the TARDIS appearing.
Sarah Jane flung the door and her arms open wide. Everyone else crowded around her, jostling for view and almost shoving her out of the house in excitement.
When the Doctor opened the door of the TARDIS he just stood there, watching them expressionlessly, until smiles faltered and arms were lowered. Only Luke, with his usual inability to read the emotions around him, dared break the suddenly chilly silence.
"May I see the inside of the TARDIS, please?" he asked politely.
"No." The Doctor's voice was sharp and cold. "I don't let humans in anymore."
Martha cried out, a wordless, hurt sound. Alan put a protective arm around his daughter. Jack rocked back, stunned and wary.
Sarah Jane merely narrowed her eyes.
"I'm only here," the Doctor continued equally coldly, "Because you lesser beings need closure. So here it is. You won't see me again. Forget you ever saw me. Forget about me, the TARDIS, everything. Just like Donna. You'll be better off that way."
Jack was starting to growl. Sarah Jane's eyes narrowed further.
"Goodbye." The Doctor turned on his heel and started back inside - but the TARDIS door slammed in his face so hard that it knocked him onto the lawn. (Someone - Mickey would deny it to his dying day - choked back a laugh.) The Doctor launched at the door, reaching for his key, but the lock erased. For a frozen moment he stared at it, shoulders heaving as he panted in fury, obviously considering a full-out attack on his own home.
Then the moment passed and he slumped against the door, back to the crowd.
"Right." Sarah Jane sounded as calm and unconcerned as if she was about to go grocery shopping. "All of you, back in the house. We'll be inside in a moment." Most of the onlookers translated that as an order to cluster around the windows rather than the open door as Sarah Jane strode across the lawn. After a moment's hesitation, Jack and Martha followed.
"Tell me what the real problem is," Sarah Jane said quietly to his back.
"The problem is that traveling with you apes is like living in a spun glass forest!" the Doctor shouted at the unyielding door. "No matter how careful I am, I break you!"
Martha's and Jack's angry denials overlapped and the Doctor turned at bay, teeth bared. "Martha, I broke your heart, traumatized your family, and made you walk a devastated Earth. Jack, I left you behind stuck in time, not even a word of explanation. Sarah Jane - you said it yourself. I took your whole life away. Davros was right. I'm-"
"...being a complete wanker," Sarah Jane finished. Her tone was still no-nonsense and calm, but her chin was high and her cheeks flushing.
"I... what?" the Doctor gasped, completely derailed.
"You. Are. Being. A. Wanker." Sarah Jane repeated. She turned for a moment to call over her shoulder. "Luke, you must never use that word. I know you're listening."
"But you-" floated out of the house before someone shushed him.
Martha and Jack were gaping at her. After a moment Martha shut her mouth with a click, turning to the Doctor. "You know something? She's right. You really are. It's not like you were living on bonbons and beer that year yourself."
"He always gets this way," Sarah Jane told her conversationally. "He gets rude and starts pushing you away when he's frightened, and he's a complete boor when he's hurting, but he'll never admit to anything as lesser-species as pain to the likes of us."
"I'm not going to stand here and listen to you-"
Sarah Jane rounded on the Doctor, finally letting her own fury fly. "And I'm not going to stand here and listen to you quote Davros - DAVROS! - as an authority on anything. Not to me. And certainly not from you. Not after Skaro. And certainly not after now."
"He was right," the Doctor said sullenly. "I saw it with my own eyes. All of you, so ready to fight and kill. I did that to you."
"Of course you did." It was not physically possible to cram any more sarcasm into Sarah Jane's dripping tone. "Because the human race is otherwise only interested in peacefully tatting and making jam, as you have remarked on so many occasions."
The Doctor's mouth opened soundlessly a couple of times.
"Into the house," Sarah Jane ordered, pointing, "and we're going to sort everything out right now."
"Do you treat your son like this?" the Doctor asked, caught between admiration and irritation.
"Yes," three voices chorused out of the house at the same time as Sarah asked with poisonous politeness, "So you're admitting you're having an adolescent strop, then?"
The Doctor was on the couch explaining to a cup of fresh tea about the metacrisis. "They don't happen often, and they've never really been stable. The last time there was a cross between human and time lord biology, it was because of Rose looking into the heart of the TARDIS. And that started burning her out in just a couple of minutes. Donna was so stable for so long that I thought maybe it was going to work out for once. And she was so happy, and I was too because she was and then..." He took a ragged breath, still staring at his tea because he couldn't meet any of the fascinated eyes staring at him. "She started breaking down fast, and there wasn't any time. I had to save her, I had to, and she was begging me not to and I didn't... I didn't... there wasn't any time!"
"So it could kill her to remember and you don't bother warning us about that?" Mickey demanded angrily. He was the only one who wasn't pretending that the scene on the lawn had never happened.
"I didn't think that..."
"You didn't think, period!" Mickey snapped.
"Enough." It was Jack stepping in. "Mistakes were made, but we're going to fix them."
"How?" Alan wanted to know. "Is there something alien you can do to fix her now that you've got time?"
"No," the Doctor told his tea.
"No, there isn't, or no you don't know how?" Gwen asked.
"I don't know of any way that won't risk her remembering and dying," the Doctor elaborated. "It's not like we can try something else if a plan doesn't work."
"So we'll get it right the first time," Ianto promised. "Let's see. We can run some simulations on the hub computer."
"And Mr. Smith will help." Sarah Jane offered.
"Maybe the TARDIS can too. What about that fobwatch thingie? Can we use it to draw out the Time Lord parts?" Martha suggested.
"But if she sees the TARDIS..."
"Does she have to be conscious?"
"Hey!" The children had been more or less ignored as the planning session went on, but Maria's shout brought everyone's attention to them. "You're going on and on as though traveling in space was the only thing that made Donna's life worthwhile."
"Yeah," Clyde backed her up. "And on behalf of those who haven't, gee thanks for suggesting there's no point to our existence."
"It's really quite illogical to keep saving the planet and then assume that its inhabitants' lives have nothing to value," Luke added.
"So shouldn't we be focusing less on how to get the Time Lord bits out of her head and more on helping her develop here?" Maria turned to Sarah Jane, who was goggling at her.
"Maria, yes, of course!" Sarah Jane was suddenly in a flurry of action. "She has a home, but she needs work. You said she was a temp - what sort of skills does she have?"
"Types 100 words a minute," the Doctor offered.
"I like a girl with nimble fingers."
"Jack, you're not helping."
"She's great at human resources. While we were running around looking for aliens at the Sontaran factory, she figured it right out with one trip to the office," Martha said.
"Should we offer her a scholarship of some sort?" Ianto wondered.
"Too obvious," Sarah Jane waved him off, flipping through her address book. "She'd start asking questions we can't answer. But what could be more natural than finding her work? Only we'll find her a good job, one with a future where she can let her inner... what's that word you kids are using?" she asked Maria.
"That's it! Somewhere where Donna can let her awesome out."
"That's not how you say it," Maria giggled.
Sarah Jane rolled her eyes, but she'd found the page she was looking for. "Here! Just the person!"
Maria punched the air. "Operation Awesome begins!"
"But isn't this just as obvious as offering her a scholarship?" Gwen asked.
"Not really. Who's going to question a job offer when you're already hunting?" Sarah Jane's voice was distracted as she dialed the phone. "I didn't realize for years that the Brigadier rescued my career."
Oh, his brilliant, brilliant companions. His friends. His Children of Time - certainly he couldn't have been prouder of them if they had been his own lost children. So wonderfully stubborn, so characteristically determined, and not one of them considered a possibility of failure. Only this time they weren't armed to the teeth and threatening destruction to their enemies. Davros was right about him, but Sarah was also right about them - they were such a violent species, but there was so much more to them.
So many centuries on this planet and he still underestimated how big their single hearts could be.
The Doctor was so busy being proud that it took a moment for his brain to catch up with his ears, but when it did, his hearts skipped a beat. Rescued Sarah? What had he done to her? More than just dropped her in the wrong city. He'd just dumped her and ran. Just as he'd done to Donna. And Jack. And Rose. And Tegan. And so many others, all the way back to his own granddaughter. He left them behind and hoped they'd be all right and never went back to check - Peri? Where are you really? - and left them to pick up the pieces.
His friends. His friends he didn't deserve.
She had the phone to her ear and waved him away irritably. "Hey! It's me. Remember how you were saying that one of your branches was crying out for a good organizer? Well there's someone who has lots of office experience and she needs a job right away. She also needs someone who won't ask questions about two missing years of her life. Yeah, got it in one. Himself. There's something wrong; if she remembers him, it'll be bad. But she's got what it takes, we just have to bring it out. We're working on it, but in the meantime, she needs work, period. Can you help?" A pause. A laugh. "Yeah, you probably can get her to start this Monday. I'll email the details to you within the hour; I don't know what agency. Mr. Smith can find out."
Sarah caught his eye as she talked, and her encouraging smile faded at his expression. "Oh, and by the way, guess who is having another midlives crisis," she casually told the phone. "Thinks he's ruined all of us. Care to tell him how miserable you've been?"
She shoved the telephone into his hands and the Doctor stared at it for a moment as if he'd never seen one. "Hello?" he finally asked tentatively.
Her voice had aged, but her personality was unmistakable. "Doctor?" Jo Grant asked. "What am I supposed to be miserable over?"
He'd been so shocked that he was almost tongue-tied to Jo, who filled all the silences in with cheerful chatter. She'd been very happily married to her inventive professor, and when it got inconvenient to travel up the Amazon while pregnant, they'd come back to Britain and founded a series of environmental charities. Miserable? He was just an old silly and if she wasn't trying to stop a shopping mall from being built on the land of an endangered bird, she'd come right down there and give him a squeeze. In the meantime, if there was anyone who could whip their London office into shape she would give them a big wet kiss, because the ninny they had there thought "filing" only applied to manicures.
Barely had the handset been clicked off than Sarah Jane was dialing again, and again waving off his attempt to talk to her. "Hi! Am I interrupting? Oh, good, let it bubble for a few minutes. This shouldn't take too long. Unless he's going to be stubborn, and he usually is. Yes, him. Only now he's insisting that he's ruined all our lives and it's really tedious. Want to tell him how silly he's being?"
He lifted the phone gingerly to his ear. "Hello?"
"Doctor, I can't believe that I still have to pet your ego and remind you you're brilliant," Liz Shaw sighed in his ear. "If you were here in my lab, I'd make you pass me the test tubes this time, though. I'm right on the verge of another breakthrough, and I want to have an even hundred patents before I die."
Word must have started getting around via another network than the group in front of him, because it wasn't long after that conversation before the phone rang on its own. Sarah Jane answered, grunted, and handed it over. "It's for you."
A veddy veddy proper clipped voice barked with military precision, "Doctor? What's this poppycock I'm hearing about you ruining lives?"
The first time Donna knew there was a problem was when she went to her agency and discovered they'd let her go. Ages ago according to the chav at the desk, on account of her taking and dropping many jobs in a row and then not showing up at all for months.
When she went home to rave about the nutters messing up her records, Gramps and Mum were surprisingly evasive.
"How much do you remember of the last year or so, sweetheart?" Gramps asked her cautiously.
Donna thought, and not much came up. "I've... been to the pub, and I've worked - I have worked! And I've shopped and... well, pretty much the usual." The memories were oddly fuzzy, but they were there.
She thought back to the year before, and the year before that, and realized that it all could be summed up in three words: work, shop, pub. Suddenly that seemed terribly sad.
But that was no reason to show weakness, especially as Mum was bound to come in with something cutting any second now. "What do you remember, Gramps? Tell me what you were wearing second Tuesday last month!" He gaped and she pointed triumphantly. "Ha! Nobody remembers everything, do they? I've just been here. I haven't been sick or anything."
Gramps and Mum just looked at each other, and Donna remember that weird night when she woke up in her clothing with everyone raving about aliens. Idiots! It was like the time there was that bad stuff in the fizzy drink, Bubblewhatever, and made everybody do strange things, or that time the sun eclipsed and everyone got all crazy. There was a perfectly rational explanation.
There had been a perfectly rational explanation for her waking up in her clothing, too. Gramps had told her; there'd been an earthquake from some pipes rupturing, and some strange gas got in the air and made people hallucinate and she'd been hit on the head and knocked out for a little bit. That John Smith who'd looked in on her had some first aid training and he'd told them that she might have a mild concussion and might lose a few memories. That was why her family kept going on and on about what she could recall.
But that wouldn't make the whole agency go crazy with her records, would it?
Well, to hell with them! She had great skills! She'd get work just as soon as word got around she was free!
Word got around all right. Word had got around to every temp agency in town that she was unreliable. No job. No references, because who remembered a temp the day after they moved on? Mum tried to find her something, but it was always an unsuitable job that had nothing to do with her skills. Maid! Nanny!! Librarian!!!
Days turned into a week turned into a fortnight, and the closest thing she'd had for something to do was drive off some telemarketer bothering Gramps.
Then one morning the phone rang. Donna tried not to sound too depressed when she answered it.
"Donna Noble, please." It was the voice of an old lady, but not a doddering one.
"Oh, good! My name is Josephine Jones, and I'm phoning on behalf of the-"
"I'm not interested, thank you." It was politer than a telemarketer deserved, but Donna just couldn't be arsed to work up a good head of steam. The phone was halfway back to its cradle, the voice still rattling on, when Donna heard "...starting salary at 35,000 a year."
"Wait, you're offering me money?" Donna asked, snatching the phone back up as if it was the last set of earrings at a Harrods sale.
"I'm offering you a job. Do you remember a Mr. Gupta? You worked at his clothing shop?"
She remembered. It had been one of the more... interesting... jobs she'd been sent on. The agency had asked if she minded dogs. The man had gone on about how it was a very little dog, just a tiny dog, but it wouldn't yap once.
And it hadn't. The "little dog," a great dane/rottweiler mix, had looked her dead in the eye, outweighed her, and intimidated her into never bringing a packed lunch by drooling genially at her every time she tried to eat at her desk.
But it never yapped.
Other than the Drooling Dane, it had been good work. Mr. Gupta's daughter had usually looked after the records at his sari import shop and did the typing (he tended to write his correspondence in Hinglish), but she was out for a few months having her first baby. Donna had done his accounts, typed (and occasionally translated) while he dictated, even used her basic HTML skills to make him a simple web page. It was one of the jobs she'd been sorry to leave, but family came first, and his daughter needed to come back to work as soon as she could. Donna had never quite figured out if the husband - there was one; she'd seen wedding pictures - had run off or died or what. It wasn't right to ask.
"I remember him. I didn't think he remembered me."
"Well, he does. And I know him. Well, my husband's business associate knows his brother in law. But it's better than just taking potluck at an agency when I've got such a good recommendation. But then I phoned the agency and they said you didn't work for them anymore, and I was so worried that you'd found a different position. But I thought, why not phone? He still had your home number. Remember? You gave it to him for emergencies? Worst you can do is say no. It's a basic support job for now, and there's going to be a lot of cleaning up. But we'll pay by the hour and we'll pay overtime, and because we're not paying the agency cut we can pay you more."
"But why me?" Did I give him that number? Does it matter? This is work!
"Why not?" The woman suddenly sounded terribly disappointed. "You're going to say no."
"No." Donna laughed. "No, I'm not going to say no!"
Mum made all sorts of sarky comments about Donna having to turn vegetarian or stop using paper towels and she wasn't going to start buying rabbit food and museli if Donna turned into one of those hippies. But in the end, the only hippies were two of the oldest employees for whom the 60s had never quite ended. One was a slender woman, a scientist of some sort, who liked to play a flute and do yoga, occasionally at the same time, to "clear her aura."
Donna thought she was an utter nutter. But she was also nice, as was everyone else. Well, nice for a bunch of tree huggers.
She wasn't going to stay anyway. A month or two, three at the tops, and she'd get a recommendation and move on. It wasn't as if anyone would want her to stay for long.
Nobody ever did.
A month came and went, and then another, and then another after that. But Donna found to her surprise that she didn't want to leave them. One of the reasons Donna had liked temping — well, the official reason why she liked it, anyway — was that it provided her with a wide variety of experience.
It turned out that a disorganized office was almost as good, because as soon as Donna got one thing straightened out (whoever thought "filing" meant "shoving the most recent papers in the front of the drawer with most space" should be shot!) she was allowed to move on to the next task that she thought could be handled better (which was pretty much everything except whatever involved chemical notation). They even asked her for her ideas! And listened to them!
Okay, it was only because they were either too unearthly or too focused on their own work to care what she did as long as it was done. Sometimes her ideas didn't work out perfectly in practice, but they should have told her the boss was colorblind before she put in the order for the office supplies! She'd thought that the pink notepads were a bit pretty and it was recycled paper, so why not get a few? It wasn't her fault that he'd grabbed one before he went into the meeting with the other branch chiefs! She had provided everything he needed, but he was so used to not having it that he'd got into the habit of swiping whatever he wanted from the office administrator's desk rather than looking in his own.
The laughter when he'd pulled it out was so loud that Donna had binned the rest of the offending notepads, typed up a letter of apology and resignation, and started packing her desk by the time he'd come out during a break.
He'd ignored her stammered explanation, looked in the bin, told her not to waste good paper, and pulled them back out. Then he'd glanced at the letter, pronounced it bad paper, and ripped it apart. When he went back into the meeting, she made sure he was carrying an unremarkable legal pad and now she ordered whatever she liked, as long as she carefully wrote in big letters across the strip at the top "THIS IS PINK." "THIS IS BLUE." "THIS IS GREEN."
It wasn't just her work that was interesting; it was the whole office. Unlike her Mum's predictions, it wasn't a public awareness group about the virtues of fiber and the vices of plastic bags. There was a little bit of that, but it was mostly about global warming and sustainable farming, and finding new ways to help feed the world. (For example, their founder, now retired, had invented a new sort of mushroom that was supposed to taste like anything. Donna had tried to look interested when she was told the story, but only a geek would get that excited about fungus, and mushrooms tasted like old boots no matter what you did to them.)
Donna was at the pub with her mates — a group which now, to her surprise, included a couple of the women from the office — celebrating an excellent review and nice pay rise halfway through her first year, when the most gorgeous man in the world walked in.
"Oh, my god!"
"He's going to turn right back around as soon as he realizes it isn't a gay pub. No straight man is going to walk around in public dressed like that."
"I wouldn't mind seeing the other side of that one!"
"Nothing to see, not with that coat on."
"I wonder if he's got a flat bum and wears that thing to hide it?"
"As long as I'm the one peeling it off to find out!" They'd all giggled at that, and then hidden like teenagers when he turned around to look.
"Maybe he's an actor. That might explain the clothes."
"But we're miles from the West End!"
Donna, who'd been struck completely dumb, swallowed hard as he approached the bar. "I'm going to go and get the next round."
"It's not your turn!"
"We don't even need one-"
"I," Donna said with great emphasis, "am going to get the next round. Right now." Thank God she'd worn the new dress today, the tight one with the plunging neckline. Her Mum had muttered about mutton dressed as lamb, but something about it — a very classic rich blue with short sleeves and a long skirt — made Donna feel all special. Like a Roman noble woman.
Where had that idea come from? No time to wonder. If he got his drink before she got there, she'd never find a way to talk to him. She took a deep breath for courage, well aware that deep breathing tended to show her assets to their best advantage. One look down this cleavage, and she'd know for sure which team he batted for.
But when she got there, he was so impossibly beautiful that she lost both nerve and voice the moment he smiled at her. He was like a movie hero, all big white teeth and dimples. No man should look that good! The publican finally had to ask her "one more again for everyone, luv?" and all she could do was smile and squeak and curse herself for cowardice.
She was so busy looking at him and mentally yelling at herself and juggling glasses that there wasn't any room left for paying attention to where she was going, and thus a crowded pub and a moment's inattention soon meant a beer-soaked dress on Donna.
"Just my luck to show up on the night of the wet T-shirt contest," Mr. Impossible said, and even that nasal American voice wasn't enough to detract from his splendor. Donna squeaked again as she turned around to put the glasses down, but damnit, she got bumped and what was left ended up all over his coat. She tried stammering apologies, but he just took the glasses out of her hands and lined them up along the bar.
"Tell you what, Red," he whispered in her ear. "How about I buy the next round for your friends to show I'm not upset and then we go somewhere and get out of these wet clothes."
"Y'know what?" Donna said. "It's not even my round anyway."
"My hotel's around the corner, Red." He held out an elbow, and she slipped her hand through, feeling like a lady even though her shoes squelched.
"Ma'am, I have the feeling we're at the start of a beautiful friendship."
They had a wonderful time. She remembered that much very clearly, even if they'd ended up drinking so much of his private stock that the last parts of the evening… well, no, by then early morning… were a complete blank. Mum shook her head when Donna finally came home, smelling of beer (and walking a little oddly) but when Gramps saw her smile all he said was "As long as you're happy."
Mum sniffed. "Bet she'll never see him again."
But she did. Oh, it wasn't a fairytale romance or anything — Donna had given up on the whole white wedding notion back when Lance left her. Something… something about him dancing with a blonde at the reception. Or had he been bit by a spider and died? Whatever, who cared? Lance was a loser and she'd felt like a loser running after him and begging. Jack wasn't like that. He'd made it clear that he wasn't in the marriage market — but he also made it clear that he enjoyed being with Donna, and there was nothing wrong with a couple of adults meeting up whenever he came to town for a little adult fun; sometimes just dinner, sometimes more. But oh, how that man could drink! She learned quickly not to let him suggest drinking if she didn't want to wake up the next morning with no idea of how half the night went.
And yet, even after she told him that, he still called once in a while. The part of Donna's mind that sounded just like her mother tried not to be surprised that he still wanted her while sober.
That same part of Donna's head was also surprised at how much her work wanted her too. As she got used to the duties in the office, they started to send her out of it, to go to conferences and take notes, or form contacts at other environmental groups. She felt important.
She also felt outclassed. It wasn't like she was a scientist or anything. She was just a secretary, and she still had to think or she'd keep calling herself a temp. But after a couple of minor corrections she was getting what they wanted, and even starting to understand a little.
And besides, it was nice to be out of the office. Even if it meant field trips to Wales. (Wales! Honestly! Her boss was off in Tokyo talking to someone about rice, but did she get to go to Japan? No, they ship her off to bloody Cardiff to listen to a series of lectures about the impact of the nuclear reactor blowing up or not blowing up or whatever it was that it did. If she came home glowing in the dark, she'd show her boss what a nuclear explosion was really like.)
She was picking up flyers when she saw the babyfaced man compulsively straightening up the messy table of handouts.
"Are you a scientist?" Donna asked, even though it was the lamest conversational starter she could think of.
"I'm more of a... cleanup person," he said, with an odd pause in the middle, as if he was trying to find a good description. "Why does your notepad say 'this is pink' across the top?"
She ignored that. "Got a flyer? We're investigating the programs of various groups around the world to see what could be…" Donna broke off with a laugh. "I'm sorry, I can't believe I sound so much like a saleswoman! I'm really just the person who keeps the office running."
He smiled. "So am I. Never appreciated, are we?"
"Never enough, and especially not in our pay packets." She held out her hand. "Donna Noble. Centre for a Sustainable World."
"Ianto Jones. Cardiff Tourist Bureau by the Bay."
"This meltdown must have been bad for your business."
His smile vanished. "It couldn't have been worse for my business."
They exchanged business cards and pleasantries, and he gave her some good tips on what to see and where to avoid before she went back. Her boss was thrilled about some abstract nanowhatever on the flyers, but Donna was pleased as punch about her tiny card. She had a friend in a different country! Oh, it was just Wales, but it was a start. Someday, if she stuck with this company, she'd get right 'round the world and have friends wherever she went, just watch her! Today Wales; tomorrow, Japan!
"Ianto, did I just hear an instant message noise? Focus!"
"How's she doing? I thought I had it last time we met, but she started breaking down again. I was terrified the retcon wouldn't work in time."
Ianto pointed at the screen.
< RedQueen75: Ianto! Emergency! They want me to organize a fundraising fete! >
"Doesn't sound too dangerous," Jack said.
"As long as hers doesn't include weevils posing as waiters."
"I still can't believe that Groknik got them all into the kitchen."
"I can't believe that it got them all into white jackets."
Jack rolled his eyes and went back to his desk.
< ijbythebay: That's an emergency? >
< RedQueen75: I don't know what to do!!!! And it's IMPORTANT. I think if I get this right, they'll finally promote me to office manager. Maybe even executive assistant! Will you help me? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease? >
< ijbythebay: Of course. But I think you won't need much help. Now. Do they have a specific theme? >
If Donna kept gnawing the inside of her lip she'd bite right through, but for all her nerves, the evening was going swimmingly. Ianto had been a huge help, and best yet, he'd known someone whose sister was an event planner right in the city. This Tish Jones gave her a crash course in what she called "black tie, nibbles, and quid," and between her experience and Donna's instincts for what made a good party, this was the poshest do she'd ever done.
They'd gone for a James Bond/Monte Carlo theme. The guests paid real money to gamble, but the house always won; the chips the guests collected were only good for prizes that Ianto and Tish had helped her collect — gift certificates or bottles of bubbly that had been donated and that kind of thing. It was so silly how happy those rich people were to win things that they could have bought with the change under their sofa cushions!
She'd been allowed to bring in her own guests and spot them a few chips. Mum had passed and so had Tish, saying something odd about "nightmares about parties I plan." So far, the only "nightmare" was Gramps' awful, rumpled tux, but nobody seemed to mind him, not even the cute woman that he'd been flirting with all night as she ran the baccarat table.
Ianto was oiling around somewhere like a modern day Jeeves. Oh, there he was! Walking with Stephanie, one of the women from her office. Aside from the waiters circulating with trays, a quiet corner had been set aside for food tables, marked with big potted plants.
Donna was just about to step around a palm when she heard Ianto say, "Donna's hoping for a promotion to office manager out of this. She should get it."
Stephanie laughed. "Donna for office manager? No way!"
Donna stopped in her tracks. She wanted to run in there and claw Stephanie's eyes out. She wanted to run away. All her hard work and they wouldn't even consider it? Was this what Tish's nightmare had been?
She spun on her heel. Stephanie had stopped laughing and was saying something, but if Donna had to listen to her voice anymore, she was going to be sick.
They didn't think she was worth it? Why, because she'd asked for help? She'd still done most of the work. It wasn't as if the others couldn't bring in experts to learn from.
But no, not Donna. Not useless, unwanted Donna.
Her lying, rotten two-faced boss saw her re-enter the casino and raised his champagne glass to her. Donna twitched a fake smile back. Robert, you're about to have a fete you'll never forget!
Donna had intended to go over and give her boss a very loud piece of her mind, letting all the rich and influential people know just what kind of a backstabbing, slave-driving wanker he really was. But on her route there, she was stopped by a slightly drunken man in a very expensive suit who poured a pile of chips into her hands and told her to "choose something nice for the lady." The "lady" in question — a child barely out of her teens and barely in that dress — clutched his arm and giggled and simpered at him.
Donna, who had been forced to be nice to plenty of people she despised in her temp work, recognized the brittle undertone to the forced gaiety. Oh God, he was one of those people Nothing around him, not even the people he was with, were anything more than objects to be bought and discarded.
She hated people like that, more than anything else in the universe. More than hypocrites like her boss. More than cowards like her ex-fiance. More than… what the heck was a dalek, and why had she just thought that nonsense word?
"Don't just stand there, girlie, go on!" He waved in the general direction of the prize table. "We've done enough for charity tonight, haven't we, dear?" His escort nodded and giggled again on cue.
And something in Donna snapped.
"No, you haven't!" she told him, in a voice that carried well over the chatter and music. "You haven't done anything for charity tonight! YOU'RE just here to see and be seen, and now you're going to bugger off to some restaurant or nightclub and pay twice as much just to have more fun." She waved the fistful of chips under his nose. "The only reason you've given is so you can get something back. Press coverage and prizes, that's all you care about."
The room had gone so silent she could hear her heart hammering in her chest, but she was on a roll now and couldn't shut up if she wanted to. "You don't care about people starving, or species dying, or the price of petrol, because you are so sure that you can buy your way out of any problem. So what if the water is poison? You drink champagne! So what if the air is filthy? You'll just buy filters! Who cares if other people die, as long as there are enough left to work for you?"
He turned purple, then white. Next to him the girl was still, eyes and mouth wide.
"Who are you?" he hissed.
Wild with fear and fury, Donna squalled, "I’m Donna Noble and if you really cared about anything, you'd give without asking for something in return!"
She was dead. Being blackballed by the temp agencies? Nothing on what this guy was going to do to her. She could see it in his eyes. But before he could pronounce sentence, he was interrupted by…
Was that applause?
Donna turned. It was applause, real applause, not that nasty, sarcastic slow clapping. Some skinny little weed — who let him in wearing black tie and trainers? He looked like a kid playing fancy dress — was standing next to the roulette wheel looking fit to burst from pride. "She's right," he said, and there was something compelling about the way he talked, about the way he was staring down the man in front of her.
Gramps came to stand next to him, clapping hard, cheering, "You tell him, sweetheart!"
Ianto was clapping now too; oh God, she couldn't believe this, it was like a movie, everyone was staring and everyone was applauding and Stephanie was jumping up and down and Robert was clapping over his head like he was at a concert, and the guy in front of her, the big, expensive, nasty guy was deflating like a burst balloon.
Triumphant, Donna stuck her hand out, the one that wasn't already holding his forgotten chips. "Two drinks. Donate the price of two drinks. You'll never notice the difference, but the world will."
And he did! He tamely put a 20-pound note in her hand and turned away, but before he went, she handed over his chips and went back into smiling hostess mode. "Thank you so much for coming to our party. Do please enjoy the rest of your evening."
He stared at the chips like he had never seen them before, and Donna had pity on him. "Oi, Julie!" she called over her shoulder. "Something nice from Table C."
Julie, who had been overseeing prizes all night, dithered for a moment over the items on the most expensive table, then brought over a Harrods box. "Cashmere for the lady," she said with a quick curtsy, then fled back to her table.
Without ever looking away from Donna, the man gave it to his escort and left.
While Donna was wondering just what to do now, Ianto dragged over one of the little tables, topping it with what looked like a hastily rinsed and dried punchbowl. "I could stand one less take-away this week," he said in that musical accent, dropping in a few pounds. One of them stuck to a still-damp side.
And suddenly there was a queue. As people passed to redeem their chips, they detoured by the impromptu donation station and told Donna what triviality they were giving up. It was the world's most boring conversation, but every time she had the urge to scream "I DON'T CARE!" she'd look at the rapidly-filling bowl and find the strength to keep smiling.
The next morning, Donna wasn't even sure if she ought to bother to go to work. On the other hand, she and Stephanie had counted three thousand slightly wet and faintly sticky pounds out of the bowl alone, so she could at least bang the door on her way out and remind them that they'd thrown away their best fundraiser ever.
When she got in, the air was full of bubbles. That had been her idea too; biodegradable, environmentally correct bubbles instead of the waste of balloons at celebrations.
Stephanie barreled out of the group, grabbing Donna for a big squeeze. "Oh, my God! Donna! We stayed late to double-check the numbers! FIFTEEN THOUSAND POUNDS! Fifteen! Our biggest event ever only got us nine thousand!"
"That's great! Didn't I say… I…" Donna gulped down the rest of her sentence. Robert was standing by her desk, holding a file. Even if they didn't fire her — and admittedly, that reception suggested they wouldn't — it still didn't mean they were going to give her what she wanted.
Walking over was like wading through setting cement. Robert gave her the file folder, and for a while Donna just stared at it, too frightened to open it.
"I wanted to be office manager," she finally whispered.
"I know," Robert said.
"Are you firing me?"
Robert rolled his eyes. "Damnit, Donna, just read the letter!"
Opening that folder was one of the hardest things she had ever done. Dear Miss Noble… blah, blah, blah… since you have come here… etc., etc.… discussion of your efforts… aware of your wish to become office manager, however… Board unanimously agrees… only one possible course of action after your performance of the previous evening…
"You need to sign it."
"I know," Donna said, although she was shaking so hard she could barely pick up the pen. Even though the slot only needed her signature, she traced the words next to it just to be sure they were really there.
"I, Donna Noble, accept the position of Head of London Public Relations…"
"We still need an office manager," Robert said softly. "But we're not wasting you on orders for notepads and filing. Not after last night. That little rant of yours not only doubled our usual success rate, it tripled the amount of press coverage we received. So who do you think should become the new office manager?"
"Find…" Donna's voice sounded strange, and she wasn't sure if she was wiping bubble stuff or tears off her face. "Find a temp, and I'll train her up for the permanent job."
< ijbythebay: So, how was your first official fundraiser? >
< RedQueen75: It was a disaster! I thought it was going to be so nice… have a children's fair and pitch to parents how they need to clean up the world to give to them. Something normal after the way I started. >
< ijbythebay: What went wrong? Some sprog fall and scrape its knee? >
< RedQueen75: I don't *know*! Everything went well and everyone seemed happy, but we only pulled in a measly 5,000 and only one paper covered it. For half an inch on page 15, next to an advert for hemorrhoid cream! >
< ijbythebay: There's your answer. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you have to be a pain in the arse. >
< RedQueen75: Well, I know how to do that! >
London Times, March 18. Byline, Sarah Jane Smith
The Centre for a Sustainable World held another one of its infamous fundraisers last night. Under the stewardship of Miss Donna Noble, the Centre has become notable for the gimmicks that draw attention to various environmental and social causes. Despite the previous much-advertised "Christmas Feast" turning out to be mostly-empty plates to draw attention to Ethiopian famine victims and the Centre's work in sustainable crops, tickets for last night's event sold out within 10 minutes.
Or perhaps the quick sales were due to Miss Noble's reputation. Everyone who is anyone wants to be able to tell the first-hand story of her latest outrageous stunt!
"Miss? Miss Noble?"
"There's something wrong with my..."
"Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Oi! You! Some more dry white wine over here! Ta!"
"No, no, not the wine. The wine is fine."
"Something wrong on your plate then? After Christmas I promised a real feast, and I keep my promises! Let's see, over there are authentic Indian dishes — try the seafood curry, it's lovely — and those are American Buffalo chicken wings over here, and in the corner is Oriental spicy noodles — those are vegetarian, and so are the watercress and smoked gouda sandwiches, very tasty — and of course there are nuts and crisps and pretzels everywhere. The waiters have strict orders to top those bowls up every half hour. Nobody goes hungry tonight!"
"No, no, it's… look, I've gone to all the water fountains, but they seem to be shut off. And when I asked the bartender for water, he gave me — Smell this! I don't know how, but this water's gone off!"
"Oh, no, not at all. That's what water smells like when it's been chemically purified using standard methods. I promise you that every bottle here has been certified as fitting all safety standards."
"But it's cloudy and smells foul!"
"You should smell the smoke from the factories that do the job! But the Centre scientists have invented a new form of water purification. It's made from sustainable materials, doesn't cause pollution in its manufacture, and is stable for export around the world. It's a tablet like this, see? You crumble it up and let it dissolve, and look! See how the water's clearing up? It smells better too."
"Yes it… may I have my glass back?"
"We could revolutionize water purification. Hikers could carry the tablets with them. We're working on a form that will allow us to purify entire lakes. There are whole villages without safe drinking water, you know."
"That's very… I want my…"
"And with your support we could — "
"I'll donate an entire ruddy case, woman, just give me the water! I'm thirsty!"
"The Centre thanks you for your support. Do try the Texas six-alarm chili."
When Donna stuffed a playground full of six months' worth of plastic grocery bags (London output only) and ran the photo in the newspapers, she got the Centre a licensing deal with a hemp clothing and tote manufacturer.
When an anti-modified food group challenged the Centre's disease- and drought-resistant crops, rather than just striking back with scientific studies, she also got the Centre's produce onto a popular cooking show and dared the protesters to have a taste test… which they lost.
When Donna had the Centre sponsor a new race — the "Two-Mile Walk for Clean Water" — and made everyone in it carry a day's supply of water to illustrate the need for new ways of liquid storage in villages without plumbing, the Guardian called her "The Dominatrix of Donations."
She liked the title so much she changed her business cards.
She had to change them again six months later, when she was promoted to the Board of the Centre as Head, Marketing and Public Relations. But she kept the Dominatrix title.
If he made any more loops back on this timeline, the Doctor was going to have to start writing himself notes just to remember when he'd been. His ears were still smarting from the simultaneous dressings-down Sarah Jane and the Brigadier had given him — her for betraying to the Brig that she knew he'd helped her career; him for considering a phone call or two "rescuing" anything. "It's what friends do for each other," Lethbridge-Stewart had pointed out to him. "You're not so alien that you don't understand that."
It turned out that Sarah Jane's extended, unexplained absence had given her the same reputation as Donna for unreliability, a reputation the Brigadier cleared up by dropping a few words in a few influential ears about her being sidetracked on hush-hush jobs for UNIT — which was, as the Brigadier pointed out, mostly the truth anyway. One of those friends had given Sarah Jane a second chance, and that was all she had needed.
It was all Donna had needed too. Oh, there had been an alternate timeline, one in which her explosion at that first fundraiser had blown up only in her face. Donna hadn't done well after that, not well at all, despite the help from the rest of his companions. But who better than a Time Lord to know how to tweak a timeline? Humans were a bit sheeplike, it had to be admitted even by their biggest admirers, so it had taken only one person standing up for her to shift not just the mood of the room, but Donna's entire fate.
Too impatient to wait for time to unfold, he'd been making little hops into the future to see how things were going. Right now, he was lounging on the jumpseat, feet up on the silent TARDIS console as it refueled at the Cardiff rift, reading a newspaper from five months in the future of when he was now. Donna was going to be so irresistibly… Donna. When the anti-modified-food group would challenge the Centre again, she would invite their leader to have his choice of meals in front of the television cameras: either a plate of Professor Jones' marvelous mushrooms, drought-resistant rice, and blight-resistant tomatoes, or an traditional meal of unadulterated food - roasted insects washed down with cow's blood and milk.
And she would keep him — a stolid, well-fed, middle-class man from Surrey who probably thought chicken vindaloo was exotic - in front of the cameras for hours, haranguing him about how safe their food was and how many people it could feed, until he would get so hungry that he had to choose something. Sarah Jane was going to write a particularly scathing article about how he was making yummy noises while he wolfed down the very things that he was trying to prevent anyone else from eating.
Without even a warning knock, the TARDIS door swung open and Jack ushered Gwen, Ianto, and Mickey inside. "Oi!" the Doctor shouted in protest, balling up the newspaper and tossing it away before any of them could see the anachronistic headlines. He'd been planning on being social after he'd caught up on his reading. Now he was planning on taking Jack's key away.
"It's raining," Jack said grimly.
"And rain in Britain is so unusual that it's worth breaking into my TARDIS?" the Doctor snapped back.
"It is when it's only falling on your ship. Except it's not falling, it's rising upwards," Ianto told him.
"The Judoon!" The Doctor pounced on the controls, trying to get the TARDIS into flight, but he was too late. There was a huge jolt that had everyone hanging onto the nearest thing for dear life, and the Doctor could feel the TARDIS shifting as it was moved. "Why are you here?" he shouted at Jack. "Why did you bring them into danger?"
Jack and Mickey were battling their way across the shuddering deck to the console, taking up the positions they had before, when they flew the Earth back home. "Martha told me about what happened at the hospital," Jack explained. "Donna told me about the Shadow Proclamation and how you ran off. When we saw the rain, we figured you were going to be called on the carpet."
"I can handle it," the Doctor said angrily. "After 900 years, I don't need your help."
"As I understand it," Ianto calmly replied, only his white knuckles showing how tightly he was clinging to the support strut, "your main experience with law enforcement is jailbreaking on a million planets."
"More than tha — I repeat, I don't need you. None of you should be with me."
"Still traveling alone and feeling sorry for yourself?" Jack was looking at the monitors. The Doctor knew he couldn't read Gallifreyan, but he would recognize galactic coordinates. "I'm probably pushing 900 myself by now, and I know all about the Shadow Proclamation. Plus, I know what they do when they catch someone who's run away from them."
"From experience, no doubt. How many warrants do they have out on you?"
"None in this time period," Jack replied cheerfully. "But my experience and her linguistic abilities" — he pointed at Gwen — "should sort everything out."
"What, you speak Judoon?"
"Nope." Gwen sounded pretty cheerful for someone with a death grip on the railing. "I speak copper."
If Donna hadn't met Gwen, the Doctor reflected later, she needed to.
Gwen hadn't even waited for the pleasantries, not that anything was going to be pleasant with an armed guard at the door to his ship and more guns pointing at them all the way to the leader's office despite his protests. The moment they'd walked through the door, Gwen had taken the offensive. Without so much as a greeting, she'd demanded to see the other woman's authorization, accused her of violating a dozen Earth laws (the Doctor was pretty sure she'd made some up on the spot), laid down a formal protest against "the conscription of our ally against his conscience and the unlawful attempt to seize his proprietary tools, i.e., one TARDIS," questioned the Proclamation's jurisdiction over the citizens of Earth (the Doctor was a bit horrified to realize that he was being included in that), and, as the leader of the Proclamation started spluttering objections, smoothly shifted gears into mentioning that he had accomplished the Proclamation's goal of solving the case of the missing planets, returned them all to their proper locations (including the ones the Proclamation was no longer searching for), and had punished the planetnappers - without endangering a single Proclamation officer. Which was, Gwen pointed out, actually stabbing her finger into the leader's chest, better than the Judoon had done when they broke the alien embargoes surrounding Earth and endangered many human lives in their search for the haemovore… another case the Doctor had successfully solved on behalf of the Proclamation.
Still not letting the leader get in a complete word edgewise, Gwen summed up by demanding that the Shadow Proclamation drop all warrants on the Doctor or claims to his TARDIS, obey restrictions on sending Judoon to Earth "until such time as my planet is accustomed to and has in place regulations for regular interstellar traffic," and — the Doctor thought this was a particularly nice touch — "supply copies of all paperwork to that effect to be filed with the proper Earth authorities for alien intervention, defined as Torchwood and UNIT."
"Are all human females this… forceful?" the leader of the Proclamation asked him, looking as if she'd bitten something sour. "Or do you simply enjoy loud companions?"
"I am not his companion, I'm the Torchwood law enforcement liaison," Gwen snapped. "If you do not recognize my authority, Torchwood is prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect its homeworld and its allies."
The Shadow Proclamation proved itself unfamiliar with Torchwood when nobody burst out into hysterical laughter. Still, there was only one thing a group as honor- and rule-bound as the Proclamation could do… make them sign piles of paperwork and, with gritted teeth, clear the Doctor's record.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Mickey asked cheerfully as they staggered back to the TARDIS, each one carrying an armload of copies.
"It was easier to just run," the Doctor grumbled.
"But this way, we aren't collateral damage," Jack pointed out. Noticing the Doctor's expression, he added, "Now don't get all emo on us again!"
"Emo! I am never-"
"Yes you are," Mickey said. "All the time. And now you're worse with this whole 'I ruin people's lives' thing you've got going."
The guard was gone, but the Doctor's arms were too full to reach for the key. Eyeing the door speculatively, he tried snapping his fingers.
Half the double doors creaked open a crack. Not a big welcome, but one that was good enough for him to shoulder inside and drop his papers on the jumpseat. When Mickey dropped off his load, the Doctor whispered in his ear, "Mickey, would you really say that Rose was better off having known me? With everything that happened? What she felt, was that love or obsession?"
Mickey stared back into his eyes, not angry, not sad, just calm and a little bit resigned. "Doctor, did she ever tell you about Jimmy?"
"Jimmy. The boy she left school for. Because with Rose... she thinks love means always being with someone. Forever, no matter what. Her mum always went on about her dad, and it, like, gave Rose this complex. The way you show someone you love them is to give up everything to be with them and never leave unless you're dead. Obsession? Think about Jackie leaving her little baby to go after Rose across the dimensions. That's what she taught Rose love is." Mickey glanced away, but not before the Doctor caught the flash of pain. "I thought... I thought if I showed that kind of devotion, Rose'd eventually pick me." When he looked back again, there was no emotion at all, just a simple statement of fact. "If it wasn't you, it would have been someone else. It wasn't ever gonna be me. And she wasn't ever gonna leave whoever she chose. That's just the way she is."
Jack had been arranging Gwen and Ianto around the console, explaining how to operate their section. Before Mickey took his place, he added, "You of all people ought to know nothing lasts forever. So enjoy what you've got when you've got it."
The Doctor looked at them, eagerly waiting for him to start the TARDIS — so human, so eager, so limited.
So embarrassingly right about things sometimes.
It had gone better with Gwen to deal with the Shadow Proclamation. It was nice to have the console room full of people. Maybe that's what he needed to do — have a group here again, instead of just one companion. For a moment he toyed with accidentally-on-purpose not going straight back to Cardiff, but kidnapping was wrong.
Tempting. But wrong.
Time to enjoy their company in the timeless here and now. And when they were gone, as they inevitably would be, he could go back to working on ways to fix Donna. Their determination was infectious. There was a way, there had to be one!
Donna was having the time of her life. As a Board member, she was finally one of the ones who got to do the exotic travel, checking in with Centre branches and related groups around the world. The science gave her a headache, but the food! The sights! The shops! It was a bit mean, but she liked to remind Mum what she'd said about what a waste her silly job at the hippie centre was just before she gave her a silk kimono, or handpainted ceramics, or a cashmere scarf. (She'd never admit it to anyone, but she'd actually asked to go on that fact-finding trip to Germany just so she could get Gramps a top-of-the-range telescope.)
But the oddest souvenir she ever brought back was from that three-month trip to the American midwest.
The welcome-home party was stuffed so full of friends and business acquaintances that it took her almost an hour just to properly greet everyone. She was just coming up on the last group of people and realized as she got closer that it was her friend Ianto, and her (ex but he didn't know it yet) lover Jack, and Tish's sister whatsherface, and that journo who liked to cover her events, Sarah something. They were talking to a skinny boy in a suit, and for a moment something tickled in the back of her memory, something about a man in a suit and trainers, but it was gone the next minute. After the first few years, it had become impossible to keep track of anyone but her biggest donors and closest friends.
"…said she has a big surprise," Ianto was saying.
"Ours is bigger." Jack rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
"You're absolutely sure this is going to work this time?" Tish's sister asked nervously.
But the boy had seen her and turned to smile. Donna noted the fine lines at the corners of his eyes. Not so young, then. Just clinging onto his youth with those silly shoes, like men who wore ties with cartoon characters on them.
"Donna Noble!" he said happily. "I hear you're saving the world."
"I do my bit," she replied with satisfaction.
"Donna," Sarah started tentatively, "If there was something valuable you'd lost a long time ago and you got the chance to get it back, would you want to give up everything to have it?"
Donna snorted. "Is this one of those stupid interview questions, like 'what kind of tree do you want to be'?"
They all looked at each other unhappily, as if the silly question was somehow important, but before anyone could say anything else, eight-year-old Dakota squirmed through the crowd and came to stand before her. "Miss Donna, Miss Donna! Can I have a shandy? Uncle Peter says I have to ask you cos he doesn't know what it is."
"Yes, you may have a shandy as soon as you properly greet my friends," Donna told her in that parental tone that was coming all too easily.
Unabashed, Dakota turned and waved to the adults gawping at her. "Hi, everyone!"
Donna put her hand on the girl's head. It was the first time she was going to say it in public to people she knew, and it was scary and thrilling all at once to hear the words come out of her mouth. "Everyone, this is my daughter Dakota."
Surprise she expected, but why did they all look so horrified?
"Dakota's a pretty name," Sarah said, squatting down to the girl's eye level. "Is that where you were born?"
"Yup! But when mommy and daddy were in the car crash, I went to go live with Uncle Peter in Idaho."
"My mummy and daddy were in a car crash when I was about your age," Sarah mused. "I went to live with my Auntie."
"Does she like people? Because Uncle Peter always says he never knows how to deal with people. We didn't go see anyone or talk to anyone or nothing." Dakota twisted her fingers together, squirming a bit. "He just told me to go to school or run away and play while he was working on his potatoes."
Donna started stroking Dakota's hair. "Everywhere I went in America, they told me, 'You've got to talk to Doctor Grenhope. Grenhope knows exactly what you need.' But every time I called for an appointment, he put me off. They said he'd never talk to me. That he never came to any conferences and it was next to impossible to even talk to him on the phone." She smiled. "Well, you can imagine what I did."
"You marched right in and demanded that he talk to you face to face," the skinny man said, grinning at her with… was that pride? It looked like the expression on her own granddad when he'd heard the story.
She nodded. "I marched right in and demanded that he talk to me face to face. And instead of the terror of biologists everywhere, it turns out that he's a very lovely, very shy man who does just fine when he's not in a crowd. I went back every day after that, and we got to talking about all sorts of things. When I chased off a couple of geeks who'd been bothering him, I said what he needed was someone to handle all his public appearances, and he said why not me, and… well, we've seen a justice in America, but Mum wants a big church wedding and Peter said okay as long as he only had to say 'I do.' It's next month. I'm sending the invitations out tomorrow." She turned to Dakota. "You go tell Uncle Peter that I said it was okay to have a little shandy."
They all watched the little girl dodge through the crowd until she found a middle-aged man sitting in the corner, half hidden by Wilf, who was wearing an enormous cowboy hat. He looked over at Donna, who smiled and waved. When he smiled back, it transformed his face into something handsome and joyful.
"Gorgeous, adores you, and hardly ever speaks a word," the skinny guy mused. "The perfect man."
"Oi, watch it, sunshine!" Donna turned to Sarah, who was straightening back up. "To answer your silly question, Miss Smith, I have everything I ever wanted right here, right now, and I wouldn't give up a thing. Not for the crown jewels. You can print that."
They all watched as Wilf whispered something into Dakota's ear, jerking a thumb in their direction. The little girl's eyes went wide.
"What's he telling her?" Jack asked.
Donna snorted. "Some story. He likes to make up stories for her about aliens and other silly things. She says he made her promise not to tell me any of them." She took a drink. "It's good for her, actually, feeling she has a little secret all her own. Her life has been hard. She and Gramps adore each other."
"I can imagine Sylvia's face when she's called 'grandma!'" the skinny man laughed, and Donna had drunk just enough that she wouldn't wonder until later how he knew about her mother.
She saw him once more, just a flash of him, waving from across the floor at the wedding reception, but by the time she worked her way though the large crowd of well-wishers, he was gone.
She never saw him again. But that didn't matter, because he wasn't important enough to remember anyway.
An Epilogue in three parts: What Happened. And What Happened After That
EPILOGUE 1: 35 Years Later
Humans can live happily, but they can't live ever after.
Donna leaned against the window of the bus, looking not out at the scenery, but back on endings. Gramps had gone long ago. One of the last things he'd told her was that his greatest joy was seeing her so happy. Donna and Peter had funded an entire astronomy station in his name.
Mum had gone her own glum way too, eventually. Donna always wondered if it was wrong that she missed her grandfather more than her own mother. Sylvia had always been more of a horrible warning than a shining example.
Donna had tried to heed that warning, and had been as loving and supportive to Dakota as she could be. Little Dakota, long since grown up and moved away and working on her own family. Gramps had lived just long enough to see her pregnant for the first time, and he'd been fit to burst. "You tell that baby," he'd ordered cryptically. "You tell that baby all the stories I told you. Promise me!"
Dakota had laughed and promised. The first one was a girl, and they named her Donna. They hadn't named her after Dakota's real mother, but after her. Oh, it made her so proud! The next, a boy, always complained about being named Wilf instead of Peter, like his younger brother.
Peter… two years gone now, and she still missed him. For so long, when she was young, she had felt all alone, but until now she had never truly been on her own.
A flash of light caught the corner of her eye. That lorry was going far too fast! It wasn't going to stop in ti-
People were screaming. People were moaning. She was lying on the ground, trying to work out which one she was doing when two heads blotted out the sun. Jack? That couldn't be Jack, no, not her beautiful Jack, impossible, she hadn't seen him in years, and he didn't look a day older. And some skinny boy in a suit, holding a hypodermic.
"…sure this is going to work?" couldn't-be-Jack asked.
"Regenerations are triggered by the lindos hormone," the boy was babbling. "The metacrisis may have given her the rest of what she needs to regenerate if we can get enough lindos into her system. If we're wrong, it won't make a difference anyway." For a moment he looked into her eyes, and he looked so sorrowful that Donna would have raised a hand to him, but her arms weren't moving. "Your spine is broken," he said sadly. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. But this might help." Over Donna's incoherent noises, he pushed the old-fashioned needle in just at the base of her neck.
For a long moment they all just stared at each other. Jack was patting her hand; she could see it but not feel it and that terrified her.
Then electricity arced across that hand and Jack flinched and dropped it and the boy got up and backed away, and it hurt, it hurt worse than the accident, it seemed like current was crawling across her skin and she was on fire from the inside out and she could feel it now, she could feel every fingernail and toenail ignite, and, and…
In the very last moment, she remembered everything.
EPILOGUE 2: The TARDIS, Anywhen
Inside the TARDIS, a ginger-haired man in a denim jacket watches a young woman lowering the Chameleon Arch carefully over her dark, elaborately styled hair.
"Donna, are you sure?"
"It's been fun, Doctor, it has. Being Doctor-Donna again, I can't tell you what that's meant to me. But in the end, I'm only human. I had a wonderful life as a human. I'm ready to go back now."
"You're sure this will work?"
"I programmed it myself, of course it will work! Think I trust your Time Lord butterfingers near my brain again? I'm going to remember everything — my first life, my life here, everything — but I’m going to be human again."
He makes a scoffing noise.
"Oi! Don't knock my species or I'll knock you!"
"Donna, what will I do without you?"
"Go and find Jack for a pity shag and a trip 'round Neptune." At his bereft expression, she softens. "Find someone new. You need that, Doctor. Not just a companion, but a new companion. Fresh point of view. Keeps you from going stagnant in here." She winks. "Besides, I'm about to keep Jack very busy."
"But so far in your future?"
"He's immortal. He'll be there. Left a message for him, didn't we?" Again, she becomes soothing at the look on his face. "I don't want to be too close to my own time. I died there. I don't want the temptation to find old friends, go to all the old familiar places. Jack 'n' me, we'll be fine. Keeping your knowledge, aren't I? We'll be fantastic." For a moment, the light facade drops. "Promise me," she insists. "Give me your word you'll do what I asked."
"I can't do it! You have to! PROMISE!"
He takes a deep breath. "I give you my word. I promise. I'll do it." Another deep breath. "I hate goodbyes."
"Then don't say it." A half smile. "You'll know where I am if you need me to save the day again."
She throws the switch.
EPILOGUE 3: Here, There, and Everywhere
When the ginger-haired stranger stepped out of the police box, Wilf almost clubbed him with the telescope for stealing the Doctor's TARDIS. It took a lot of talking before he understood that this stranger with the new face and the new voice was still the old Doctor.
"Still saying thank you to me every night?" the new Doctor asked, as Wilf puttered about, packing up his little observatory.
"Yeah. She's happier now, but... it still doesn't seem right that she doesn't know what she did. Can you cure her? When she comes back from America?"
"She's gone to America?"
"Her very first trip! She's so excited. Promised to bring me back a real cowboy hat."
The new Doctor smiled. "She will, too." He held out his hand. "I made a promise to Donna, once. I promised to take you on a trip and show you something wonderful."
Wilf looked at the hand, and the temptingly open TARDIS door, and the telescope he was holding. "Do I... do I get to remember?"
"Yes." Wilf looked back up, and now the Doctor was staring intently at him. "It's important you remember."
Oh, there were such sights! Supernovas, meteor showers, the birth of planets! It was completely anticlimactic that the Doctor ended his short tour with a stopoff at Cardiff. Even when the Doctor said it was Cardiff in the far future. (Wilf had looked up, but no hovercars. What sort of a rubbish future still didn't have hovercars and jet packs?)
The TARDIS landed beside a huge building the Doctor said had once been the Millennium Centre, "although they tore it down for being a millennium too old at this point."
The Doctor took Wilf to a little park a shortish walk from their landing point. At the other end of the park, Wilf could have sworn he saw Jack Harkness, still in his flapping greatcoat, leading a dark-haired woman away by the hand. He would have said it was impossible, but with the Doctor, nothing seemed impossible. But when Wilf went to call to them, the Doctor shook his head. "We have to go and pick up something."
Another turn in the path, and the couple was out of sight. Instead, there was a family climbing around a rock.
"There's a broken watch here," a little boy said, reaching for it.
"That's mine." The Doctor held out his hand. As the boy went to pick it up, the cracked casing fell apart, spraying springs and things all over. Wilf and the boy helped the Doctor pick it up while the other children watched. Wilf wondered but didn't dare ask, so he was glad when one of the children did.
"Why did you break a watch?" The littlest girl had to pull her thumb out of her mouth to ask. Some things obviously would never change, future or not!
"A friend of mine broke it," the Doctor said absently, pouring the pieces into his pocket.
"Did you fight?"
"Linda!" the mother gasped, and that "don't cross the line" parental tone hadn't changed over the years either. "I'm so sorry. We're just here for a few days, visiting, and the weather was so nice I thought we'd take time out to enjoy it."
The Doctor smiled at the woman, but talked to the little girl. "It was hers to break," he said. "She said some times were over and should never come again." He looked at all the children staring at him and sighed. "I'm the one who's sorry," he told their mother, "We didn't mean to intrude."
"It's storytime," the littlest one said. "Would you like to hear a story?"
"Linda, the nice men don't..."
"I would." The Doctor plopped down on the rock and looked with such interest at the mother that she looked at Wilf and shrugged. He shrugged back and shoved the Doctor over.
The woman turned back to her brood. "What story do you want to hear?"
They chanted in unison, "Great-Great-Grandma! Great-Great-Grandma!"
The woman blushed a bit, peeping back at them. "We've got a family story. Complete rubbish of course, but it's been passed down for generations, because everybody likes to think that they're part of a family that saved the world."
Wilf couldn't resist himself. "My granddaughter did." The Doctor elbowed him, hard.
"So did my great-great-great-great grandma," said the little girl, counting off the greats on her fingers.
The woman blushed harder and started. Later, Wilf would wonder what shocked him more - the next thing she said, or feeling the Doctor stiffen beside him.
"Your great-great-great-great grandmother was named Donna. And do you know what Donna did?"
Three voices chorused, "SHE SAVED THE WORLD!"
"That's right! Once upon a time, there were evil, evil monsters named Daleks..."
The two men sat, stunned, after the little family left. Wilf didn't dare look at the strange Doctor beside him. Finally he offered, "I don't remember the bit with the dragons from Mars."
The Doctor snorted then and snapped back into life. "Apparently you are going to have a few things to say to Donna's daughter."
"Donna doesn't..." Wilf shut up. "Is this... is this like Dickens? Is it the future that's going to be or just the future that might be?"
The Doctor slid off the rock and held out his hand. "Going to be."
"Then it's going to be all right."
The Doctor smiled. "Yes. Yes it is."
Every night for the rest of his life, Wilf went out to his hill with his telescope. Sometimes he looked at the stars. Sometimes he told his new great-granddaughter stories and swore her to promise to tell them to her children.
And sometimes he just sat looking up, thinking about a man who could change his whole body and a granddaughter who was part of that man and the elusive something about a dark-haired woman in the distance, walking out of a park.
On those nights he couldn't see the stars at all, for the proud, hopeful tears in his eyes.