She gets headaches, sometimes.
She's told her doctor about them. He nodded and harrumphed and gave her a prescription for an expensive little bottle of white pills, but he never told her what was causing them. They aren't migraines, they aren't stress headaches, they aren't this or they aren't that. It's a small, burning core, right in the center of her brain; sometimes it reaches out little hands and pushes on her eyes. She'd've gotten her head scanned, but her doctor was apparently reluctant to do something like that on "a hunch" and a description that didn't fit any known ailment. She guesses he thinks she's imagining it.
She didn't tell him, of course, about the sense of loss that comes with them so often, like suddenly realizing too late that she's left her handbag behind in a restaurant, only she doesn't know what she's left behind. She didn't tell him, either, about the occasional feeling of disorientation, of feeling for something solid in a dark room, or the little rattly ball of panic that shows up now and then in her chest and which she doesn't know quite what to do with, quite what to attach it to. He'd think she was crazy for sure, then. He'd give her more little pills that she wouldn't take, and her mother would look at her strangely over the breakfast table.
She doesn't know why she won't take the expensive white pills. The doctor says they're just for the pain, but somehow she doesn't trust them. She associates, for some reason, the headaches, and the lostness, and the panic all together, and somewhere down deep she's afraid that if she loses one she'll lose them all.
Which rather proves she's crazy, doesn't it? But it isn't bad, it isn't like it's all the time. Just sometimes, just slightly, in the corner of her mind. It was never there before, though. And it feels important. She doesn't know why she asked her doctor anyway. She doesn't want to lose this thing in her head. She just wants to go back.
There. Another one of those thoughts that disappears if she tries to look straight at it, like dust motes in her eye. Back to where? This is where she's lived all her life. She's never even been anywhere else. She doesn't have anywhere to go back to.
She thinks that maybe that's what's missing. That maybe being the best temp in Cheswick isn't good enough anymore. Because sometimes, just every so often, she gets a little voice in her ear saying, You are special. You are brilliant. If it had been her own voice, she would have countered that she was nobody, she was nothing, just a good typist in a dead-end job. But it's not her voice, so she doesn't argue. Part of her doesn't want this voice that thinks so well of her to know the truth; part of her thinks it might be on to something. Anyway, only crazy people hear voices, so mostly she pretends to ignore it.
She quits the dead-end job. Her mother thinks it's a bad idea, but that was to be expected. It's her grandfather's reluctant agreement with his daughter that surprises her.
"You don't need any adventures," he says when she tells him her plans, but he looks a little pained as he says it, as though he wants to convince her but he can't quite convince himself. "You should stay here. It's not safe out there. It's safe here."
His tone is stilted. It doesn't sound like her grandfather's words; she can tell he's thinking the same thing. She kisses him, and her mother, gathers up her bags, and goes out to the taxi waiting to take her to the airport. Her mother stays sitting in the kitchen, acting angry and helpless. Her grandfather follows her out, and stands in the doorway looking sadly after her as the taxi drives away.
She flies in to Barcelona (for some reason it seems like a good place to start) and spends nearly everything she ever had resembling a savings on travelling Europe. She stays at hostels and eats from street vendors most of the time, to make it go farther. She sees a lot, and has a good time, and sends lots of postcards home, but sometimes it makes her head hurt worse. She does not find what she is looking for in Europe.
There it is again. Find what? She tries not to focus on it, to make it come out, but to do so goes against her nature; she has never known how to attack a problem indirectly, how to sidestep a thing. She has always fallen for the "don't think of a pink elephant" trick; now her determination not to think of this thing she is looking for makes it vanish.
I'll think of it, she tells herself. I'll remember. After all, I'm brilliant, she insists to the lonely little Swedish hostel room, trying to make the voice come. It doesn't. Her head aches so badly, she has to stop packing her luggage and lie down for a while.
She flies to China next, because it sounds exotic and she can get a cheap ticket. The pocket English-Mandarin dictionary is not as useful as she thought it would be, though it does get her jobs once or twice at small restuarants, washing dishes in lieu of paying for a meal, when her money starts running particularly thin.
Then, one evening, the money is gone. She has enough to get a tiny, hole-in-the-wall room for one night, but not another, and certainly not enough for a ticket back. She doesn't know why she has waited so long, watching her funds dwindle. It is as though she felt one more day in strange places, among strange people, was one more pull on some cosmic fruit machine. That she would have somehow won if she had just kept putting in money and time and hope.
She has been acting, she realizes, as though if she ever finds whatever it was she is looking for, she won't need to buy a ticket back. But unless she is looking for a rich Chinese husband or an early death, she can't imagine what it might be.
She cries. It starts as a sniffle, standing in her dirty little room, her last room bought with her last yuan, with her now-scant luggage around her feet. Then the tears start to fall. She sits down on the hard little bed, drops her hands helplessly in her lap and sobs loudly. Her eyes and her nose stream, and tears drip off her nose and chin. She has never felt more lonely, or lost, or desperate in all of her life. Her head aches so badly.
A thought glances off the side of her mind, but instead of trying to circle around it, she turns on it and grabs it with both hands, just for something to hold onto. She stops trying to ignore it all, the confusion and isolation and the little whisper in her ear whose hope has kept her hitching rides from one strange foreign city to the next.
She stops pretending she isn't chasing constellations and grasping at galaxies. She stops pretending she's normal. She stops pretending she doesn't believe the voice. She stops pretending she doesn't know what she's looking for.
Her mind engulfs that stray thought, swallows it whole, buries it in her heart, where it ignites and goes up like a signal flare, ripping out of her throat in a ragged wail.
She has hardly a shred of a second to wonder what she means by the word before her vision explodes into golden flowers of pain. The burning core is swallowing her mind, and the hands are pushing on her eyes like people trapped in a fire and beating on the doors. Her own anguish paints itself in multicolored fractals before her. One grasping, conscious thought, pinned beneath the pain like flaming rubble, notes how pretty the patterns are. It is not a fighting thought. It is a thought willing to go quietly to sleep under the light of the mental fireworks.
You'll be alright, says the voice in her ear. Somehow, you'll be alright, because you're special. You will not die in a dirty Chinese hotel. It is grotesque, unfitting. The universe wouldn't allow it. And despite all of the trouble that voice has gotten her into, she believes it. She trusts it. You wouldn't allow it, Donna Noble. You'd let your own head do this to you? Not the Donna I know. She takes a breath, and when the shrill sound filling her mind pauses, she realizes she must have been screaming. She holds her breath to make it stop.
Good girl, says the voice, and for the first time it occurs to her that the voice is maybe not in her head anymore. On the edges of her perception are arms lifting her from the bed, lips whispering in her ear.
That's my Donna. I should have known you wouldn't stay behind as easily as all that. You won't take any guff from destiny, will you? You'd make it stand up and salute you, first. You're brilliant.
She realizes almost too late that she's almost out of air. She lets out her breath in a desperate whimper, wrapping her hands in fistfuls of the unseen man's coat as her pain describes pinwheels on her sight. She fills her lungs again, and licks her lips.
"Yes," she gasps. "Yes. I'm.. I'm brilliant." The voice laughs just a little. Her face is against him as he carries her into Safety. He smells of the atmospheres of alien worlds, and soap, and sweets, and engine grease, and rain, and wood smoke. She remembers from somewhere that this man has always smelled just the tiniest, just the faintest bit, of smoke, of something burning without being consumed.
She knows who he is. It's that simple. She does not know why she knows, she does not know how she knows. She does not yet know where he is from, or what he's talking about, or when they've ever met before. But she knows who he is.
Doctor. The Doctor. Her Doctor. She knows he can make her better.
"Doctor... I get... these headaches sometimes," she gasps murkily into his coat. He makes that laugh again, low and choked.
You don't need me to heal you, Donna Noble, he answers. You amazing woman. He holds her close to him, pressing her tear-wet face to his shoulder. Sleep now. Just sleep.
She does sleep. It is not the sleep of succumbing at last to the torment, of drowning in all the too-much and too-bright and too-big, the only kind of sleep her psyche had dared hope for. It is the sleep of the wet sand when the tide goes out. Cool, and deep, the sleep of the exhausted and relieved. Even as she slips out of consciousness into blessed blackness, she can feel her mind and soul changing... Not bursting, but getting bigger to hold it all.
"Doctor..." she whispers against his shoulder, just before she's gone. "I was looking... for you..."
It's all right, he says. You found me. It'll be all right.
And it is.