All she wants is a cup of tea. She lifts the kettle from the stove and somehow finds herself outside. Unfazed, she goes to one of the garden sprinklers, an iron wolf poised to spring. When she turns the collar, a torrent of water gushes from its open mouth and fills the kettle in moments.
She turns away, balancing the kettle in her hand as she replaces the lid. When she turns back there’s suddenly a stone pillar blocking her way and the wolf spigot is now suspended several feet in the air behind it. She reaches around the pillar to shut it off, but the collar remains just out of reach of her outstretched fingers.
An inflatable red and yellow beach ball rolls to a stop beside her foot and a laughing woman in a pink shift runs up to retrieve it. She blinks and turns to find that she’s now stood in a sort of Roman garden with concrete patios and marble statuary nestled amid patches of perfectly manicured greenery. Several mosaic-tiled pools filled with steaming water have been cut into the patios and people, families with small children mostly, are laughing and playing amongst them.
Unconcerned, she begins to make her way back to the kitchen, calmly threading her way through the crowds of laughing adults and running children. She spies an open doorway cut into the wall just ahead and makes for it, but the closer she gets the smaller it seems to become. By the time she arrives it has shrunk to the smallest of slits, offering a tantalising view into the room beyond, but no way of getting to it.
She veers off, keeping to the stone perimeter of the wall so that she won’t somehow miss an exit, and eventually comes upon a long spiralling ramp that climbs several meters to another open doorway. Quickly she begins to ascend, but the closer she gets to the opening the lower the ceiling becomes until there’s barely enough space between her and it to crawl the last few feet to the doorway, which has somehow shrunk to the size of a large window in the meantime.
She looks out onto grass and a slowly rising moon in the distance and places the kettle on a springy patch of earth outside the window, but by the time she’s able to extricate herself from the relentless crush of the ceiling, there is no longer enough room to place even one of her long legs through the opening.
Frustrated now, she pivots round to find a young girl stood at the bottom of the ramp regarding her with dark soulful eyes.
“Hullo” she says, managing a smile despite the growing feeling of apprehension deep in her belly.
“You’re all chained up,” the girl says, pointing.
She follows the direction of the girl’s hand and sees that it’s true. Her left ankle is encased in a heavy iron cuff that’s trailing an impossibly long heavy chain. She can see the twisted path it has left wending through the garden behind her like a massive iron python. Strange that she hasn’t noticed it before this.
She springs to her feet and walks down the ramp. The little girl trails some distance behind her as she cautiously makes her way back to the garden. There’s someone new stood amongst the revellers, a tall thin man with sharp features and long sideburns, wearing a brown pinstriped suit and a long tan coat.
He’s grinning at first, but the smile quickly fades when he reads the expression on her face. He strides towards her, his long coat flapping purposefully behind him as he approaches.
“What is it?” he asks, concern evident in his tone.
“I can’t get out,” she says, biting her lower lip anxiously. She briefly explains the trouble she’s having with the disappearing doors.
He listens intently to what she has to say, nodding encouragingly as she speaks.
“That is odd,” he murmurs thoughtfully when she finishes. “Not the shrinking doorways so much. They’ve got those everywhere. Well, not everywhere of course, but nearly. Practically every planet in the Starburst system anyway, well quite a lot, well four that I can think of off the top of my head. I’m the Doctor by the way” he says, smiling amicably.
“Donna,” she says, slightly bemused because he sounds mad, completely mad, but somehow she knows he’s not; in the same way she knows instinctively when someone is lying to her.
“Donna. Lovely name,” he murmurs and his dark eyes are suddenly very sad.
“Do...do I know you?” she asks a bit hesitantly.
“Oh I wouldn’t think so,” he says, self-consciously averting his gaze.
“No, but I do,” Donna says thoughtfully. “You’re that man,” she cries as recognition suddenly dawns, “the one I met in my mum’s house last year. Doctor… Smith, was it?”
“Just the Doctor will do,” he says with a wan smile.
“Oh right,” she says, raising one eyebrow wryly, “like Cher.”
“Well, she does do that song If I Could Turn Back Time.”
“What?” he echoes innocently.
“What are you talking about?” she demands.
“Ooh! The Starburst system!” he cries suddenly, startling her. “There’s a planet there where the natives are only 12 inches tall. Voreena-3 it’s called. Big inter-species commodities trade. The doors and windows contract or expand depending on who approaches. You’re clearly taller than 12 inches though, and unless I’m very much mistaken” he says, looking around in disappointment “this is not Voreena-3.”
“Voreena-3,” she says flatly, wondering if he might be some sort of escaped mental patient. “So what, I’ve been kidnapped to the planet Barbie?”
“Pardon?” he asks with a blink.
“Twelve inches tall,” she says, exasperated. “They must look like living Barbie dolls.”
“Ah, very clever” he says with a quick nod of appreciation, “but no, more like giant cockroaches actually. Oh now don’t be that way about it,” he says at the sudden look of disgust on her face. “They’re perfectly lovely creatures, once you get past the smell and the rather appalling table manners of course. Anyway what makes you think you’ve been kidnapped?”
She retrieves a section of the chain trailing from the irons clapped around her ankle and rattles it at him.
“Oh right,” he says mildly. He reaches into his inside pocket and pulls out something that resembles a dentist’s torch, then squats down to have a look.
“What are you doing with that thing?” Donna asks anxiously.
“Just hold still,” he says, slipping on a pair of black-rimmed spectacles. There’s a sudden whirring as the torch tip glows blue. Donna is filled with the most inexplicable sense of deja vu at the sight of it.
“I don’t understand any of this,” she says, shaking her head slowly. “I can’t even remember how I got here.”
“Well, no I don’t suppose you would,” the Doctor mumbles, mostly to himself.
“What was that?”
“What’s the last thing you do remember? he asks, loud enough that she can hear.
Donna’s brow knits in concentration. “I was down the pub with the girls,” she says at last.
The Doctor frowns slightly in reply.
“You don’t approve?” Donna asks sharply, folding her arms across her chest.
“I never said that.”
“Because the last time I looked I was over 21--”
“These chains are deadlocked sealed,” he says suddenly.
Donna blinks. “What’s it mean, deadlocked sealed?” she asks with a confused frown.
“It means the sonic won’t open it.”
“What your blue whirly torch thing-amy?”
“My thing-amy, yeah.”
“It does locks?”
“Most of the time,” he says with a heavy sigh, “but not this time I’m afraid. I’m sorry Donna.”
He abruptly stands and nearly loses his footing, swaying unsteadily on his feet for a moment before Donna grabs his arm to steady him.
“Easy,” she says. “Are you all right?”
He blinks and rubs his forehead as if in pain. “I’m fine,” he says unconvincingly, “just a bit unfocused. My mind is quite literally somewhere else at the moment.”
Donna drops his arm, rolling her eyes in exasperation. “Half of what you say makes absolutely no sense. You do realise that.”
“I do,” he says sheepishly “sorry.” He flashes her a wan smile and for the tiniest of moments it’s as if she’s in a dozen different moments at once and watching him smile that same smile in every single one of them.
“Whoa, head rush” the Doctor breathes, the colour draining from his face.
Donna frowns, grabbing him as he slowly sinks to his knees. “Well, you don’t look fine,” she says not unkindly, “here, have a sit down before you fall down.”
She helps him to the ground and takes a seat beside him, pulling her knees up beneath her chin as her eyes scan his pale face with some concern.
“There we are,” she says gently rubbing his shoulder, “feeling any better?”
“Still so compassionate,” he says with a wistful smile.
“How do you mean still?” she asks, somewhat puzzled.
“What was the party for?” he suddenly asks, changing the subject.
Donna frowns. “Who said anything about a party?”
The Doctor shrugs lethargically. “You mentioned the pub. I just assumed there was some occasion.”
Her frown deepens. She can’t explain the odd sense of familiarity niggling at the back of her brain. Like a name on the tip of her tongue that she can’t quite remember, only magnified a thousand times. “Well, if you must know,” she says tartly, “it was a welcome home party.”
“Oh I love those,” the Doctor says. “Of course, the last one I attended was nearly overrun by a Zygon invasion fleet, but still, and before you even ask, no I had nothing to do with it. I mean really. Is it my fault Queen Elizabeth scheduled Sir Francis Drake’s homecoming celebration on the same day? I hardly think so. Though, she has been trying to lop off my head ever since, cheeky woman. For you I take it?”
Donna blinks. “You lost me after alien invasion,“ she says flatly.
“The welcome home party.”
“Oh,” she nods, “yeah. I’ve sort of been traveling a lot lately.”
“Any place in particular?” he asks, a note of something that sounds suspiciously like pride in his voice.
Donna shrugs. “Anywhere,” she says with a wistful smile. “Everywhere. I guess I finally got tired of waiting around for my real life to begin. One day I just decided to go out and start living it instead.”
“Good for you,” he says, beaming at her.
“Doesn’t take much talent just to travel,” she says, a girlish blush blossoming across her cheeks.
“Nonsense,” the Doctor tuts. “I’ve been traveling for ages and I’m complete rubbish at it. Always getting into trouble me. Still,” he says with a wink, “I love it though. New ground beneath my feet. New worlds to explore. New people to meet, and just when I think I’ve seen it all something unexpectedly brilliant happens to remind me again why I started traveling in the first place.”
Just sat here, listening to him speak has made Donna’s pulse quicken with sudden wanderlust, and she can’t help but answer his infectious grin with one of her own.
“And anyway,” he continues with a sly sideways glance in her direction, “it’s never just about traveling is it? Not for me, and I suspect not for you either.”
The intensity of his gaze makes her feel strangely exposed and Donna finds herself self-consciously dropping her eyes to the ground.
The landscape has shifted while they’ve been talking. The Roman gardens have given way to a snow covered plain with impressive looking ice formations in the distance. Donna rakes her fingers through the powdery snow at her feet. It feels ethereal, like clutching mist. She shivers suddenly, despite the lack of cold.
“So, where are we then if not Voreena-3,” she asks, surprised frankly at how easily she’s accepted the idea of being spirited away to an alien planet.
The Doctor’s gaze turns thoughtful. “Where do you think we are?”
“Dunno,” she says looking around “Wonderland maybe. “Haven’t seen any white rabbits hopping about have you?” she asks, smiling bravely to cover her fear.
The Doctor frowns. “No,” he says flatly, “and before you say it, I haven’t worn a hat in ages.”
Despite their uncertain circumstances, Donna finds herself suddenly laughing.
The Doctor grins. “Oh I really missed that sound,” he murmurs contentedly, then springs to his feet before Donna can ask him what he means.
“Well, Alice” he says, seemingly mostly recovered from his earlier illness, “shall we go?”
“Go where?” she asks warily, looking up at him.
“That chain must lead somewhere,” he says with a nod towards her cuffed ankle. He holds a hand out and playfully wiggles his fingers at her. “Come on,” he cajoles “you know you’re dying to find out where it goes.”
Donna rolls her eyes, but can’t quite hide the smile that’s tugging at her lips. “You’re mad,” she says, surprised at the fondness in her voice.
“Yeah, but in a good way,” the Doctor says, wryly waggling his eyebrows at her.
Donna chuckles, slipping her hand into his. The sudden warmth that suffuses her body at his touch has nothing to do with the temperature of his skin, which is cooler than she’d expected. The Doctor’s long fingers curl protectively around hers and she feels oddly right somehow, suffused with a sense of well-being and security that quickly banishes any fear she’d been feeling.
She looks from their intertwined fingers to his face to find him smiling down at her, his warm brown eyes sketched with laugh lines and somehow appearing both youthful and impossibly ancient at the same time.
“Come on,” he says gently, helping her to her feet. There’s a strange sort of chanting in the air, like a million violins playing at once.
“What is that?” she asks.
The Doctor listens for a moment. “Residual sensory memory,” he says simply.
“It’s not important.”
The landscape shifts several more times as they follow the heavy outline of Donna’s shackles. A huge dusty library filled with row after row of leather bound books. A well-manicured English garden. An Asian bazaar. There are people as well Donna notices, strangely displaced throughout space and time. Interacting with each other, but seemingly oblivious to their passage.
Like ghosts, Donna thinks, remembering the ether like snow slipping through her fingers. Residual sensory memory the Doctor had said. Wasn’t that what all dreams were? Was she dreaming, and if so, shouldn’t the knowledge of it inherently cause her to wake up?
Her fingers twitch nervously inside the Doctor’s grip and his hand automatically gives hers a reassuring squeeze; as if it’s something that he does all the time without even thinking. His hand is solid and filled with quiet strength and she finds herself thinking that he at least is real, as she glances at his pale face for reassurance.
He still looks ill. There are deep circles smudging the hollows of his eyes, as if he hasn’t slept in weeks, but his customary smile is firmly in place when he turns to meet her gaze.
“All this traveling you’ve been doing,” he says amicably, as if they’re out for a leisurely stroll along the countryside, “been going it alone, have you?” and there’s something in his tone that sounds oddly hopeful.
“Why?” Donna asks sharply. “Do I look single to you? Because, it isn’t as if there haven’t been plenty of offers, you know.”
“Oh I have no doubt,” the Doctor says quite seriously. “I am curious though, why you never took anyone up on it.”
Donna shrugs. “They were all good enough blokes I suppose,” she says thoughtfully “they just weren’t..,” her voice trails off as she searches for the right words.
“Weren’t…what you were looking for?” the Doctor supplies helpfully.
“Exactly,” Donna agrees with a smile. It’s a relief talking with someone who gets it for a change. “Not that I know what that is mind you,” Donna says, her smile turning sheepish, “but sometimes I...” she breaks off, suddenly embarrassed.
“Sometimes you what?” he asks.
Donna shakes her head. “You’ll just think it’s silly,” she says, “everyone else certainly does.”
“I can practically guarantee that I won’t,” the Doctor reassures her.
Donna believes him. She’s surprised, but for some reason, she trusts him completely. “Well,” she says, her eyes lingering thoughtfully on his face, “sometimes I get the feeling that there’s someone out there living the other half of my life.”
Again, she feels suddenly vulnerable pinned beneath the intensity of his gaze, as if he can somehow see inside her heart to the secret feelings she keeps hidden from everyone but herself.
“I think it’s why I started traveling in the first place,” she says, self-consciously averting her eyes, “to find out if he really exists, or if he’s just a figment of my overactive imagination like my mum says.”
The Doctor looks suddenly troubled.
“You think I’ve made a mistake,” she says somewhat defiantly.
“Not at all,” he says. “I’m just finding it difficult to picture anyone that could ever possibly deserve you, that’s all.”
Donna can feel the colour rising in her cheeks. “That’s a funny sort of thing to say,” she says, “ considering you don’t really even know me.”
The expression on his face doesn’t change, but something in his eyes seems to shutdown at her words.
“No,” he says, smiling sadly. “I don’t, but I used to know someone like you. We used to travel together.” His eyes grow suddenly distant. “She was, well she was brilliant,” he murmurs thoughtfully. “I should have spent every moment of every day telling her that, but I didn’t and now...” he shrugs.
“And now what?” Donna asks, “What happened to her?”
The Doctor sighs. “Oh,” he says, running a hand through his already disheveled hair, “I did something incredibly selfish and she wound up paying the price for it.”
His grip on Donna’s hand has grown inexplicably tighter, as if he’s suddenly afraid that she might disappear as well, “but, she’s good, she’s fine, she’s.., gone,” he says, nodding hollowly.
“Does she know how you felt about her?” Donna asks.
The Doctor blinks. “What?” he asks. “No, it wasn’t like that. We were just mates,” he says a bit too quickly.
Donna eyes him doubtfully.
“No. Really,” he protests, his voice rising in pitch.
She raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“And anyway,” he says, gulping nervously “she never wanted anything more, regardless of how I might have felt about it.”
“But, how can you know that for sure if you never told her how you feel?”
“Oh please,” Donna says, rolling her eyes. “Men always say,“it’s complicated” when they can’t be arsed to explain something.”
“Well, I mean, it’s not rocket science is it? She either loves you, or she doesn’t. How complicated could it possibly be?”
“Donna,” the Doctor says curtly, “when I say complicated, I mean very complicated, like life or death, end of the world complicated.”
“Oh right, because you’re the Doctor,” she says, sarcastically air-quoting his name. “You hobnob with Zygotes and take tea with giant cockroaches on alien planets with magically expanding doors!”
The Doctor blinks. “Zygons,” he says dryly, “Zygotes are… something else entirely.”
Donna’s mouth quirks slightly in response, “Stop trying to change the subject,” she says.
A strange sort of howling fills the air suddenly; the mournful cry of a thousand wolves. Voices drift on the wind, strident and oddly mechanical. They make the hair on the back of Donna’s neck stand on end.
“What the hell is that?” she cries, rocketing into the Doctor’s arms without even thinking.
He looks up, blinking sluggishly in the encroaching mist. “It’s nothing,” he says. “just wisps of dissociated imagination turning things a bit surreal that’s all.”
“It can’t hurt you,” he says, softly. She swallows, suddenly aware of the impromptu embrace between them.
“Uh,” she says, self-consciously dropping her hands and taking a step away from him.
The Doctor lets her go a bit reluctantly. “We should probably keep moving,” he says, somewhat unsteady on his feet as he strides ahead of her, “I’m running out of time.”
Donna blinks, running to catch up with him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asks.
He continues to walk along the wending length of chain in silence for a moment, before turning his head to regard her. “You remember that incredibly selfish thing I mentioned doing earlier?” he asks.
“Yes,” Donna says, simply.
“There was a price I had to pay for it as well,” he says.
She looks into his sunken brown eyes, ancient, and sick with experience. “You’re not dying,” she says, shaking her head. The very idea makes her heart leap into her throat for some reason. Her chest contracts in sudden fear, making it difficult to breathe.
The Doctor’s eyes turn very thoughtful as he slowly scans her face, as if committing every detail of it to memory. A wan smile tugs at his lips. “No,” he says finally, “I’m not dying.”
Donna’s eyes narrow slightly as she holds his gaze. She’s not sure if she believes him or not.
“Although,” he continues a bit ruefully, “this regeneration’s lifespan has been shortened by a number of years, which is a shame really, because I haven’t looked this young in quite some time.”
“What are you on about?”
“This,” he says, plucking a seemingly random hair from his left temple, “just look at that!”
“It’s a grey hair,” she says slowly, “so?”
“So?!” The Doctor snaps at her. “It’s a grey hair Donna. A grey hair. I’m ageing. How rubbish is that?”
“Everyone does,” Donna says, mildly.
“Not me,” he says.
“And, they say women are vain,” Donna says, rolling her eyes.
The Doctor blinks “No, I mean literally not me,” he says, “a regeneration is usually good for at least five or six hundred years, well barring any unforeseen accidents that is, which admittedly I’m very good at finding, but I mean come on!”
His words seem oddly familiar somehow, echoing inside Donna’s head as if someone else were saying them. The Doctor, but not the Doctor. The two sets of memories juxtapose in her mind, vying for position inside her consciousness. Ageing. Specifically, the ageing part. Part human, part Time Lord.
“Time Lord,” Donna murmurs, testing the oddly familiar words on her tongue.
What little colour is left in the Doctor’s face, drains completely as he sways on his feet, falling backwards into the rising mist and landing heavily on his tailbone in the ethereal snow. “Ow,” he says, blinking myopically at Donna.
She drops to her knees beside him. “You’re not going to prematurely age to a hundred and crumble to dust right before my eyes now, are you?” she asks him.
“No,” he says, nearly smiling. “I’m ageing at roughly the same rate you are. No dust, well not for the foreseeable future anyway.”
“Well, then,” she says, laying her hand in his, “welcome to the human race Spaceman.”
He suddenly looks as if he’s going to be sick.
Donna wants to say something soothing to him, but for some reason her mouth doesn’t seem to work. A flash of pain so sudden and so intense it’s like a lightning bolt splitting her head open hits her and the next thing she knows she’s lying flat on her back with the Doctor’s pale face swimming before her eyes.
“Donna,” he says anxiously, holding up his hand and waving it in front of her face, “how many fingers?”
“Uh…” Donna says, blinking until the world once again bleeds into focus, “two… I guess… What just happened?”
“Sleep deprivation,” the Doctor says, simply.
“Mine, not yours,” he says, helping her back to a sitting position. “I’m afraid I haven’t exactly been up to par lately, wasn’t quite able to deflect that last thought before it did some damage.”
Donna squints at him, massaging her temples. “You don’t sleep?” she asks.
“Is that why you look like death warmed up?”
The Doctor’s mouth quirks into a wry smile, “pretty much, yeah,” he says.
“It’s because of her,” Donna says, her eyes narrowing as disjointed memories start falling into place like grains of sand inside her head, “your… friend, because of what happened to her.”
The Doctor says nothing, just looks at her, his expression unreadable.
“You could have found someone else,” she says sharply, suddenly inexplicably angry with him.
“I couldn’t,” he says, his eyes large and unfocused.
“Why not?!” she cries. “I mean you’re not exactly unattractive are you. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of opportunities to replace her. If you were just mates like you say you were, then why didn’t you?”
“You know why,” he murmurs.
“How could I?” she demands. “We don’t know each other remember?”
It seems a ridiculous thing to say, especially now that she suspects the truth. Memories of their brief time together weave like a giant unfinished tapestry inside her head that ends in tatters and the half life that she’s been living without him ever since.
“Your friend. What price did she pay?” she demands, even though she already knows the answer.
The Doctor swallows and stares at her in silence, his dark eyes glassy and red-rimmed from lack of sleep. He’s trembling and Donna instinctively knows that he’s somehow siphoning off the pain she should be feeling from her recovered memories into himself. Maybe he thinks it a fitting punishment for what he’s done to her, Donna can’t say she disagrees.
“She lost a year of her life,” he says softly, “I took it from her.”
Before she even realises what’s she’s doing, Donna slaps him soundly across the face. The Doctor’s jaw clenches slightly in response, but otherwise he doesn’t move.
“I probably deserved that,” he says finally.
“Probably?!” Donna cries and slaps him again. She tries to slap him a third time, but he grabs her by the wrist before she can make contact.
“Donna,” he hisses, his voice harsh, “I’m sorry. I am so sorry, but there was nothing else I could do.”
“You could have done what she asked,” Donna says, unable to even speak of herself in the first person. It would be too much like admitting she’s lost forever the woman she used to be. “You could have let her die a whole person.”
“I couldn’t,” the Doctor whispers, “I couldn’t let… you die.”
“Why not?” Donna sobs, gripping the lapels of his coat. “It was what I wanted.”
“I already told you,” the Doctor says with a wan smile, “because I’m selfish. I couldn’t bear the thought of living in a universe that didn’t have you in it, even if it meant we could never be together again.”
He takes her face in both his hands and Donna sobs, clinging to him as if her life depends on it.
For all she knows, it does.
“I was standing on that beach with you by my side,” he says, his voice growing ragged, “and Rose asked me a question and up until that moment, I thought I knew the answer, but then I suddenly realised that I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear. I didn’t love her. I’d moved on, without even realising it. You helped me move on.”
She nearly slaps him again, but settles for pushing him away instead. She climbs to her feet and stalks off, continuing to follow the length of chain wherever it may lead. She doesn’t understand its significance, especially now that she’s got a pretty good idea of where she actually is.
“I thought I was going mad,” she says coldly, “six months of doctors and psychiatrists, specialists, neurologists, even psychics. Anything and everything to try and get back what you stole from me!”
“I know,” he says, “I’m sorry.”
“Well, just so long as you’re sorry,” she hisses bitterly, “that makes it all better then.”
He scrambles to his feet and runs after her.
“Stay away from me,” she says, quickening her pace.
He grabs her by the shoulders and spins her around to face him. “Donna,” he says, “please, just listen to me.”
“Why should I?!” she snarls at him, “I trusted you and you tossed me aside like a scrap of paper.”
“No,” he says, his grip on her tightening, “All I could think about that day was you. What I’d have to do once we got back to the TARDIS. I was standing there, knowing that I was about to lose you forever and it was as if someone had cut my legs out from under me, as if I’d suddenly become half a person.”
She looks up sharply at that. “Only until you’d moved on,” she says tartly.
“There was no moving on,” the Doctor says softly, “there’s been no one since you.”
“Right,” Donna says, laughing bitterly, “because you love me I suppose.”
He says nothing, just stares at her looking utterly bereft. Donna swallows, taking in his pale drawn face and wide sunken eyes.
He looks so tired.
“You’ve lost weight,” she says finally, concerned for him despite herself.
“No one to make banana pancakes for me,” he says, his mouth quirking slightly, “you have too.”
Donna shrugs. “Not much point in cooking when it’s just for yourself,” she says.
They both stand there, eyeing each other in silence for a moment, everything around them slowly disintegrating into mist.
“So, what is this?” Donna asks at last.
“It’s some sort of dream yeah,” Donna says, heaving an exasperated sigh, “it’s all inside my head. You and me, we’re just figments of my imagination.”
The Doctor’s brow puckers into a thoughtful frown. “In a way,” he says, “the technical term is wake initiated lucid dream. I needed to keep your conscious mind busy for a while, so I constructed an artificial world out of the images floating around your subconscious.”
Not the Mad Hatter then, Donna thinks, but the White Rabbit, leading her down a rabbit hole of his own creation. “Right, so this is you keeping me busy,” she says flatly, “while you do what exactly?”
“I’ve been sifting through your memories, separating my experiences from yours, and using a modified chameleon arch to store them so they’ll no longer exist in your mind when I em, turn your brain back on, so to speak.”
Donna’s eyes narrow slightly, “Right, so a partial lobotomy instead of a full one then,” she says, her voice harsh.
“Donna…” The Doctor murmurs.
“I don’t suppose it ever occurred to you to ask my permission before just going ahead and violating my mind like this… again.”
“It wasn’t exactly practical,” he says a bit sheepishly, “considering you didn’t remember me. Your grandfather agreed, though.”
“Of course he did,” Donna says flatly, “this is him all over. What about my mum, did you clear it with her first?”
“No,” the Doctor says, simply.
“Uh huh,” Donna says with a curt nod, “so you asked the one person you knew would say yes. Shocking.”
He says nothing.
“Not going as smoothly as you’d hoped?” she demands.
The Doctor sighs, closing his eyes and wearily massaging the bridge of his nose. “It’s just taking more out of me than I thought it would, that’s all,” he says, “I don’t seem to be bouncing back quite the way I used to.”
She eyes him thoughtfully for a moment. “Whatever you’re doing, is it finished?” she asks.
“Nearly,” he says.
“Will I wake up?”
He swallows. “I hope so,” he says.
His mouth quirks into a wry smile. “I hope so,” he says.
She doesn’t know what to say.
She’s furious with him for so many things, and yet, she can’t bear the thought of going back to waking up everyday feeling as if she’s one half of a torn photograph.
She thinks she’d rather die than do that.
“So that person out there, living the other half of my life,” she says, tears suddenly spilling from her eyes, “that would be you then.”
Something behind the Doctor’s eyes collapses and Donna suddenly can’t stand the thought of being apart from him for another moment. It’s as if her body is craving the feel of his arms around her. She flings herself into his embrace, leaning into him like a scared little girl, her hands slowly traveling the length of his chest, seeking the comfort of his twin heartbeats.
The Doctor wraps his lean arms around her and rests his chin on the top of her head, his breath coming in great ragged gasps as he trembles with unshed tears. “Oh I have missed you, Donna Noble,” he gasps raggedly, pulling her close.
Donna finds herself crying and laughing at the same time, safe within his arms again. She knows that even if things go horribly wrong and she never wakes, she will forever be content if her final living moment is spent with him like this.
“What’s with the chain?” she asks. “You created this Wonderland. Is that you just being kinky, or what?”
He chuckles lightly into her hair and Donna can feel his ribs rubbing against her like jutting piano keys.
“It’s a sort of lifeline that leads back to the waking world,” he says. “Follow it back to its source and you should wake up safe and sound, back in your own body.” He grimaces slightly, “I hope.”
“You can do it,” she says with a wan smile, “you can do anything.”
“Only when I’m with you,” he says gently, tucking a stray ringlet behind her ear.
“So, where does it end?” she asks, meaning the chain.
“It ends the way these things usually do in dreams,” he says, “with a leap of faith.”
He’s not kidding. They follow the heavy iron chain through the mist until they come to a seemingly bottomless chasm splitting the ground in front of them like a great yawning black mouth.
“Oh you’re kidding me,” Donna gasps, staring into the inky depths, “I have to jump down there?!”
“Not alone,” he says, clasping her hand.
“Okay,” she says, somewhat hysterically, “then what happens?”
“Well,” he says, scratching the back of his neck thoughtfully, “either we wake up, or we don’t”
“If we don’t… We won’t hit the bottom will we?”
The Doctor’s expression grows somewhat pained. “Ooh, I really hope not,” he says, inhaling sharply through his teeth. His eyes stray to Donna’s face. “So what do you say?”
Donna takes a deep shuddering breath. “You jump, I jump Jack,” she says, trying to sound brave and failing.
The Doctor half smiles as they slowly back away from the chasm’s edge. “Ready,” he says, glancing at her.
“Steady,” she says, glancing back.
“Go!” They both cry at the same time and run full tilt towards the edge.
Donna closes her eyes when they clear it hand in hand, feeling as if she’s flying for a split second before the bottom falls out of her stomach and she’s suddenly free falling towards the mist obscured ground.
She convulses, her head splitting. Her trembling fingers scrabble against the metal device, attempting to remove it, but cool hands capture hers, gently but firmly diverting them into her lap.
She opens her eyes, closing them again almost immediately as harsh white light stabs into her skull, making her head ring with pain. She sobs, tears streaming from her shuttered eyes as disjointed thoughts swirl like a maelstrom inside her head. She recalls nothing before waking. Her mind a jigsaw, the memories scattered and reeling on the wind, as if she hadn’t even existed until just a moment ago.
“Easy, easy, easy,” a weary voice murmurs. She can feel stubble covered skin brushing her face and is oddly comforted by it. “You’re all right,” the unfamiliar voice continues, “it’ll get better in a minute.”
She feels smooth coolness in her hand. A glass, solid and reassuring in her trembling grip.
“It’s water,” the voice says and she gulps it greedily, rivulets of liquid spilling from the sides and running down her face.
“Slowly,” the voice warns, cool fingertips covering hers, “or you’ll choke.”
“Doctor?” A different voice, groggy and breathless. “Thank God you’re finally awake. Did it work? Will she be all right?”
That voice she recognises. “G… Gramps?” she calls plaintively.
“I’m here sweetheart,” he says.
The glass slips from her fingers and she reaches out for him. His blunt fingers encircle hers, warm and comfortably callused. She takes a deep breath, instantly calmed by his familiar presence, the memory of him like an anchor that trails more memories in its wake, until the jigsaw inside her head begins to slowly fill in with the details of her life.
The pounding in her skull slowly recedes to a dull ache behind her eyes and she opens them, her grandfather’s worried face resolving itself before her. The lights overhead have been dimmed to a warm sepia and she slowly scans the room. It appears to be some sort of operating theatre, no wait, she thinks as the memory forms with agonising slowness in her mind, the medical bay aboard the TARDIS.
“It will all come back in time,” that other voice says. “I know it feels as if your thoughts are mired in quicksand at the moment, but that’ll pass in a day or so.”
He’s propping her up on the medical couch, his strong arms caressing her back; their faces inches from each other. Donna stares at him for a long time, blinking sluggishly, her eyes slowly scanning every inch of his pale face. He swallows and gingerly disengages his arms.
“Do you know who I am?” he asks.
“Yes,” Donna says thoughtfully, drawing out the word. Her eyes narrow slightly. “You look awful,” she says.
One side of his mouth quirks into a wan half-smile.
“Seriously awful,” she continues. “Do I look that awful?”
Wilf and the Doctor exchange a fleeting glance that reveals the answer. She rolls her eyes and sighs, groaning softly as her head drops into her outstretched hand.
“All right, sweetheart?” Wilf asks, his hands tightening around hers in concern.
“Yeah gramps,” Donna says reassuringly, “just a headache. I’m not going to spontaneously combust, or anything,” her eyes stray to the Doctor’s face, “am I?”
“Nope, no combusting,” the Doctor says softly, “and a good night’s sleep should sort the headache.”
“Didn’t I just wake up from a dream?” she asks hesitantly, still a bit fuzzy on the details.
“That was REM sleep,” the Doctor says simply, as if that should answer that.
Donna sighs. “Can I take this thing off now?” she asks.
“Sorry,” the Doctor says, squinting at the modified chameleon arch covering her head. He seems satisfied by what he sees. Nodding to himself, he removes something from the arch and quickly slips it into his jacket pocket. If Donna didn’t know better she’d swear it was a pocket watch.
“How long have I been here?” she asks, watching the thing detract back into the ceiling like an artificial black widow spinning on a web.
“About forty-eight hours,” he says.
“It wasn’t something that could be rushed Donna,” the Doctor explains patiently, “I was doing very delicate work, reconfiguring neuron clusters, repairing misfiring synapses, one misstep and… well, let’s just say that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
“Aww listen to him,” Wilf says wryly, “I knew he’d come back and sort it. If anyone could bring our Donna back to us, it’d be him,” he says with a grin, clapping the Doctor on the back with a hearty slap.
The Doctor wilts slightly under the good natured blow, but manages to muster a somewhat strained grin despite his obvious exhaustion.
“When was the last time you ate?” Donna asks, eyeing his rake thin form swimming inside his suit jacket.
She can tell by the look on his face that he’s about to say something dismissive.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” she says, frowning at him. “Gramps,” she says, squeezing the old man’s hand, “there’s a kitchen just down the corridor, mind seeing what you can scare up?”
“I’m on it,” he says with a rakish wink.
“We need to get some food into you,” she says, her eyes straying to the Doctor’s face, “then it’s straight to bed.”
“Awake less than three minutes and you’re already taking care of me,” the Doctor says, bemused.
“Somebody has to,” she tells him.
“Right, tea and sympathy coming up,” Wilf says, enthusiastically stabbing the air with his finger.
He leaps up, already on his way out the door when he suddenly seems to think better of it, turning back and gathering Donna to him in a fierce hug.
“Good to have you back sweetheart,” he says, brushing her forehead with an affectionate kiss.
“Good to be back Gramps,” she says, leaning into him.
There are still gaps in her memory, but the longer she remains aboard the TARDIS, it’s familiar thrum vibrating in her chest like an old friend, the more puzzle pieces slide into place; the more she begins to feel like her old self again, instead of the empty shell person she’s been for so long, filling her days with pointless shopping trips and aimless wandering.
She watches her grandfather practically skip out the door and smiles. She hasn’t seen him this happy in a long time. Somehow she doubts her mother will feel the same way, especially when Donna flies off with the Doctor again. It’s not a conversation she’s looking forward to, but she has no choice really. She has to step through the looking glass with him again. They can’t not be together.
He’s still sat on the couch with her, watching her in silence as she gathers her unruly thoughts.
“So, where do we go from here,” she finally asks him.
“That’s up to you,” he says with a wan smile.
“No,” she says flatly, “I meant, where do we go from here?”
“I know what you meant,” he says, then she kisses him.
It’s an impulse really, or maybe an experiment. The only other kiss they’ve ever shared was tainted with the taste of anchovies. The Doctor is surprised at first, his eyes opening wide as Donna’s lips meet his, but he recovers quickly, pulling her towards him and melting against her. Their lips part, their tongues tentatively exploring each other’s mouths.
He tastes of stardust.
Donna finds herself trembling in his embrace, her body aching with need and a feeling she doesn’t think she’s ever had before. She’s not sure what it is, her thoughts and emotions are too jumbled right now to put a name to it. She only knows that it excites her and scares her at the same time.
“Wait!” she gasps, pushing him away. “It… It’s too much!”
The Doctor looks suddenly abashed and quickly pulls away from her, “Right, sorry sorry,’ he stammers, his hands recoiling as if he’s been burned.
“Don’t be sorry,” Donna says, struggling to catch her breath. “I’m the one that kissed you remember?”
“Right,” he nods, a pale blush suffusing his cheeks, “and why did you do that exactly?”
“I just needed to see if there was something there,” she says.
“I see,” he says carefully, “and is there?”
“There is,” she says, “and I think in time, it may even be something really good, but I can’t…” she struggles to find the words, “think... right now. I just… I need some time to process everything.”
The Doctor flashes a fleeting smile. “Fair enough,” he murmurs.
“I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” Donna says, contritely.
The Doctor chuckles suddenly. “That seems like a strange thing to say, considering everything I’ve done to you,” he says. “I’m surprised you aren’t screaming that you never want to see me again.”
“Give it time,” Donna says. The Doctor looks up sharply and her mouth twists into a wry smile. “Still processing remember?” she says.
“Right,” he says softly, returning the smile before growing abruptly serious. “Donna you do know that the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you,” he says.
“Then don’t,” Donna says, holding his gaze. “No more playing God. Not with me. Not ever again.”
He swallows and nods. “No more playing God,” he promises.
She sighs and briefly massages the aching space between her eyes. “I’m so tired,” she says.
“Your room’s still there waiting for you,” the Doctor says softly, “just the way you left it, well, more or less.”
Her eyes linger thoughtfully on his pale face, “find a bigger one,” she says.
The Doctor’s eyes widen in surprise for just a moment, “are you sure?” he asks.
“Yes,” Donna says with a nod.
“Okay,” he says softly, “and afterwards,” he asks, “our next stop?”
He’s asking if she’s planning on going with him, or if he’s taking her home.
Donna smiles suddenly, “Wonderland,” she says, simply.
The Doctor slowly returns the smile.