Disclaimer: How I wish I owned them! Anyway, I don't; they're the property of the BBC.
He lets time pass, closing his mind to the timelines. The TARDIS pushes gently at his thoughts, but he shuts her off and lets himself drift for once.
But he still knows how long it's been when he focuses again. Three hours and 41 minutes, 26 seconds, Earth time. Almost four hours since the rainstorm in Chiswick, and his shirt has dried clammily on his back. The TARDIS must have turned up the heating for him. He twists a dial and turns it down again; with Donna gone, no need for human temperatures. His ship hums furiously at him but a quick, angry shove back with his mind silences her. He's not in the mood for arguments.
The TARDIS is safe here, in the Vortex, so he leaves the console room and heads down the corridor. Donna's room is empty of all her things he had brought them all out and Sylvia Noble had put everything away, hatboxes and suitcases and bags. He can't remember ever having a companion before who had been so well prepared, not since Susan, at least. But the thick burgundy duvet remains on Donna's bed, the pillows still dented with the impression of her head, a few long red hairs stuck to the cotton. Leaning over, the Doctor picks the hairs off, twists them together, before letting them drop to the floor. Cursing himself for being a sentimental fool, he begins to strip the bed, shaking out the duvet and rolling the sheets into a ball. When he's done there's no sense of Donna in the room at all she might never have been there. He picks up the bedding and leaves, closing the door firmly behind him.
He tosses the sheets into the laundry room on his way past. The TARDIS may deal with them, or it's entirely possible she'll move the room for him and he will never have to see the sheets again. He hopes it's the latter.
The kitchen's still messy though from the party they'd had earlier, before he'd taken everyone home. There are empty champagne bottles, the crumbs of crisps in a bowl, the tag-end of a Tanarian paradise cake he'd found in the depths of a cupboard. It had been a good party, even if he'd rather stood at the edges and watched them celebrate. Jack had been on his best form, leading the ribald songs and telling appalling jokes; Sarah and Jackie had, somewhat surprisingly, hit it off. Even Rose had got a little tipsy and that smile of hers had lit up the room. And Donna and the ... the other him, the Donna-Doctor, they'd been like a double act, finishing each other's sentences and mostly in hysterics over something. The Doctor had pretended nothing was wrong, though he was sure his human self must have known what was to come for both of them, for himself and for Donna.
Now, the kitchen is silent again and smelling mustily of stale alcohol. He stands, hands in pockets, for a moment, before turning and closing that door too.
He retreats to the cloisters. It's been a while, but the cloister room is one of the few parts of the TARDIS that never really changes, and the atmosphere is soothing even now. He sinks into a chair, closes his eyes, drifting deliberately back into the nothingness of ignoring time itself.
It's his ship that brings him to himself, this time. She's almost shouting shaking him, even in the cloisters, pressing hard at his thoughts.
"Oy!" he says, out loud, standing up. "For once ..."
The TARDIS gives him another shake, and he does as she's asking, mainly to shut her up. In the console room, he folds his arms, looks up at the rotor. "So?"
The image in his mind is vivid and bright, but it hurts to think about. He closes it off, but the TARDIS tries again.
"We can't," he says. "What if ..." She shows him a different picture, and he finds himself smiling despite himself. "But I can't," he maintains.
The TARDIS's tone changes to one of scorn. Time Lord, she tells him, clearly, the thought bringing with it another: don't be so stupid.
He nods, and opens his mind to the timelines he has been deliberately ignoring, tracing them. Timelines back in place now, after the strange explosion he'd always seen and never really understood. They made sense, they ran smoothly, normally.
"That's enough of that," he says, beginning to move round the console. He sets coordinates, velocity, trajectory, and remembers with a pang that glorious moment earlier on as she flew true for the first time, crewed by those who loved her.
But the TARDIS is behaving, today, and she does not play up and lands where and when he wants her to. The Doctor gives the console a pat as he powers down and is rewarded with a warm hum at the back of his mind.
"I won't be long," he tells her, shrugging on his coat and going out.
The day is cool and damp, a light drizzle in the air. Very English, he thinks, sticking his hands in his pockets. He follows his instincts around the corner, up a street, around another corner and into a green and peaceful cemetery where a group in black is gathered around an open grave. The Doctor watches, from a distance. There's Donna, her red hair bright against the sober colour of her coat; and her mother. They have their arms around each other. A coffin is being lowered into the ground and the Doctor can hear the priest intoning the old words.
When the mourners have gone and the ground is filled in he crosses to the patch of new earth, which smells fresh and clean and ironically new. The cards on the flowers speak of an old friend, of a kind man and a wonderful father and grandfather. Wilfred Mott, 85 years old, rest in peace.
The Doctor stands with his hands in his pockets and looks at the wreaths. Eventually he stirs, pulling a piece of silver card from his pocket along with a pen. A few moments later and there's a message to Wilfred in the entwined circles of formal Gallifreyan amid the flowers. Nobody will read it, but that does not matter. He turns and heads back to the TARDIS.
When he opens the door again it's bright and hot, and there's a buzz of chatter from the other side of the hedge where he's landed. On investigation it turns out to be a wedding, with children running round and guests merry on champagne and strawberries. The bride is radiant, holding hands with a very ordinary, very nice-looking, very happy man. She laughs, and turns to her mother, who hands her a baby that has reddish fluff on its head.
"Who'd've thought it," says a woman, passing the Doctor by, "Donna Noble, married at last? After that funny turn she had that time."
"I know," the woman's companion agrees. "Bagged herself a nice one, though; very Donna." They disappear, gossiping away.
The Doctor goes back behind the hedge, back into the TARDIS. It's good to know Donna's happy; but he finds himself wondering, as he adjusts the coordinates, how much like the husband she had in the Library her new man is. Will this husband help her achieve what she could achieve?
Landing, he leaves again, comes to a halt in an alleyway. Not a bad alleyway as they go, and he's become something of a connoisseur over the years. Outside the alley there's a busy street Richmond, it seems, just along the river a little from Chiswick, full of well-dressed people shopping. He wanders along, blending in, looking for Donna the timelines have brought him here, so she's around somewhere.
He hears her before he sees her, that distinctive, confident voice clear amid the shoppers' chatter. She's on her mobile phone, standing in front of a building bearing a sign in regal purple: Noble Assistants.
"It's great, perfect," she's saying, to whoever's on the other end of the phone. "Love it. Got a good ring about it, don't you think?" She laughs. "Yeah. Donna Noble, businesswoman, that sounds nice too. Okay, see you."
Call ended, Donna flips the phone shut and slips it into the expensive handbag she's carrying. Producing keys from the bag she opens the door of the building, stands for a second in the doorway, and goes inside.
The Doctor finds himself grinning inanely. Donna Noble, businesswoman it did sound good. And he'd always known she had it in her. He turns on his heel and saunters back to the TARDIS feeling a good deal happier than he was an hour earlier.
The ship picks up on his mood and gives him a jaunty ride to the next stop, which turns out to be a beach. He rubs his eyes and blinks in the bright sunshine as he steps out of the door, wondering if he'd read the lines right was a beach planned? It's a classically golden beach fringed by palm trees and dotted with holidaymakers on colourful towels; all the clichs in one easy step. The atmosphere is terribly, beautifully human. He leaves his coat behind and kicks off his shoes, the better to enjoy the sand between his toes he's always loved the feeling of sand between his toes, whatever its colour and provenance. For a second he's drawn back to his childhood and the silver sand by the banks of the river; innocent games with a future enemy.
The Doctor's torn from his reverie by a football hitting him square in the chest and bouncing off again. He blinks at the pair of red-headed boys, one maybe seven and the other a few years older, who are standing looking abashed.
"Sorry," says the younger of the two. "Jamie kicked it."
"Didn't mean to hit you," the older one adds, scuffing the sand under his feet. "Sorry."
"No harm done," the Doctor says, because he's fine, he really is. "You on holiday?"
The boys give him looks that could be defined as scornful. "Yeah."
"Good. Brilliant!" He grins at them, and gives the ball a good kick down the beach. "There. Go on. Have fun."
They chase off after the ball, towards two sunbathing figures who sit up and then stand, and soon there's an energetic game of football going. He watches from a distance, wanting to go and join in, but knowing he can't. It's time to leave, but he wanders the other way along the beach for a while, letting the gentle lapping of the waves soothe his hearts.
He knows, as he closes the TARDIS door, that this last trip will be the hardest. It'll hurt. But it has to be done.
The TARDIS sets down outside the home, which is an elegant Georgian building kitted out with all the technology of the late 21st century. He goes inside past a security robot and heads to the reception desk, where a nurse in starched pink is doing paperwork. She looks up, gives him a bright smile, and lays down her stylus.
"I'm here to see a friend," he tells the nurse. "Donna ..."
"Oh, Mrs Thompson?" the nurse says. "Her children have just popped out, but do go on in. She might be asleep."
He follows her directions to a small neat room where a figure lies, eyes closed, short hair combed and tidy.
The figure opens her eyes, focuses on him, blinks. "Do I know you?"
"You used to," the Doctor says, sitting down by the bedside. "A long time ago. How are you?"
"Old," she says, with a sigh. "About ready for the off, I reckon. But it's been a good life." She pushes herself up, looks at him with clear blue eyes. "Where do I know you from? You're so familiar, but I'm sure we've never met."
"Are you sure you're ready?" he asks, though he's looked at the timelines, though he knows what she'll say. He has to give her this chance to say no.
"God, yeah," Donna says, and he can see the younger woman he knew in the old lady's face. "Can't walk, need a nurse for the loo, can't really hear properly ... time's up. I'm ready, when it comes."
"All right, then." He leans forward, places his hands on her temples as he did just a few hours before, and opens her mind again. He feels it take, feels the empty space in his head fill, feels Donna's inimitable, unique consciousness.
He takes his hands away, and nods. "Yeah."
"My head," says Donna, but there's no pain in her voice, just wonder. "I can see the stars again."
"Yeah," he agrees, apparently incapable of more. "It won't be long."
She reaches out and takes his hand. "I missed you."
"Missed you too," he says, and he has, even though it's been the blink of an eye.
Donna narrows her eyes at him. "How long has it been? No, wait, don't answer that ... you're wearing the same suit. Same shirt. You've come straight here, haven't you?"
"Almost," he admits. "Via a few other important points in your life."
"You're a mess," she diagnoses. "Stop wallowing and get out there, spaceboy. You've got the best life in the universe, and you spend all your time feeling guilty." The Doctor looks away from her, but she shakes his hand to get his attention back. "It's not all your fault, Doctor, Donna says. Wasn't your fault I took that job at HC Clements and met Lance. Wasn't your fault those people on Midnight decided to go on that tour at that time. Wasn't your fault some idiot decided to enslave the Ood. You've got to stop blaming yourself for everything."
"But ..." he says. "Davros ... the Daleks ... they were all my fault. Really, all my fault."
She waves a finger at him. "No, Doctor. Wallowing forbidden."
He manages a smile at her. "Donna Noble. Saviour of the universe."
"And don't you forget it, Skinny," she says, with a smile that turns into a grimace. "Oh, my head."
"Are you ..."
"It's time. I said I was ready and I meant it," she says. "Will it be quick?"
"Yes." He squeezes her hand. "Well, quickish, I think."
"Never been a human-Time Lord metacrisis before," Donna says. "You were right. There can't be. You did the right thing, you know."
Her eyes crease as she smiles at him. "Yeah. I had a brilliant life, you know? The kids are great, and I loved Ralph, I really did. He was a good man. Bit dim, but a good man. You gave me that. If you hadn't, this would've happened sooner." She puts a hand to her forehead. "How do you live with this all the time?"
"I'm built for it," he says, brushing her hair off her face. "You're not. I'm ..."
"If you say you're sorry one more time you'll be for it, mister," Donna throws in. "I mean it. Don't be sorry. Just be here, all right? And ... tell the boys I love them?"
He nods, for once the words not coming.
She pats his hand. "Look at us. Look at me. God, I thought I'd travel with you forever."
"It's funny how many people say that," he manages. "Nobody's ever quite managed it. Something else always comes up."
"Like impossible metacrises?" Donna grins at him. "That'll put a crimp in anyone's plans for forever. Her eyes crease. Oh. Well, looks like this is goodbye, at last, Doctor. You look after yourself, all right? No daft sacrifices. And find someone."
"I'm getting a sense of deja-vu," says the Doctor.
She coughs. "Just because it's been said before doesn't mean it's not true. Find someone else. Make their life incredible. Do that for me, yeah?"
Her hand squeezes his, tight, and her eyes go wide. In them he sees a blaze of golden light. "I can see the universe," she says, hushed; and the light goes out.
After a moment he stirs, closes her eyes, and sits back, waiting.
Her children and grandchildren a boy and a girl return after half an hour. They rush to her side, there are tears, demands for answers. He gives them her message of love, but they want to know who he is, what he's doing there.
So he tells them, watches their faces move through shock and disbelief and resistance. He tells them of her humour and her humanity. Tells them of her courage in the face of unimaginable terrors, of her friendship and her stubbornness. He tells them of the Daleks and of Donna Noble, the Doctor-Donna, the woman who saved the universe.
When he finishes he knows they're on the verge of calling for help, so he stands up and looks at the two men who used to be boys playing football, and reminds them of a long-ago day on the beach.
"Still play football, Jamie?" he asks the older of the two. As his face drops in acceptance, the Doctor bends and kisses Donna's cool, still forehead. He leaves her with her family, her journey ended at last.