DISCLAIMER: These are not the copyright holders you are looking for.
Donna!fic, set post-S4. Spoilers for S4, especially the finale. If you don't know what happens, do not read any further.
Thank you to the wonderful persiflage 1 at LJ for betaing. This story was first posted at my LiveJournal, bewarethespork.
(Incidentally, can someone tell me why keeps deleting my underscores?)
There is a blank space in Donna Noble's memory where a year should have been.
She supposes it was filled with the usual things - temp work and drinks at the pub down the road and did you hear about Suzie's engagement to so-and-so and endless re-runs of Bond films on late night TV. But when she stops and thinks and tries to remember all those monotonous days and lazy afternoons, there is nothing there but a general sort of fuzziness, like the blur from an out-of-focus lens, obscuring the details. After a while, she stops trying to see the details and decides to be content with that blur.
After all, she reasons, it's not as though she could have forgotten something important.
She's a thirty-something temp from Chiswick. That's all there is to remember.
Sometimes she dreams, strange disjointed dreams that are half-fantasy and (she never says this to anyone because it makes no sense, not even to her) half-recollection, as though she is not imagining but rather remembering a life that she almost thinks she might have had.
In the dreams, she travels the universe in an impossible spaceship with an impossible man as a companion. They visit worlds of fire and ice, run laughing through crowded, bustling streets with extra-terrestrial police in hot pursuit and drink bright blue coffees under a rainbow-coloured sky. It is all equally impossible, equally fantastical, and all of it feels equally real. She wishes she could stay in this dreamworld forever, travelling with her mysterious friend, and when she wakes up, the world around her always feels so empty, as though something very important is missing (though she has no idea what it could be).
One afternoon, she thinks she catches a glimpse of her dreamworld companion, whoever he is, in a busy London street, a tall, skinny streak of nothing in a suit, before he disappears into the crowd. It happens so quickly she can't be certain she hasn't imagined it all, and by the time she gets home, she's almost forgotten it ever happened.
Besides, it can't have been him, not really.
He's just a dream.
Sometimes, she gets the feeling she's being watched.
She doesn't mention it to anyone - after all, who would believe that Donna Noble, thirty-something (forty-something? Where have the years gone?) temp from Chiswick, notable only for her very loud voice and ability to type 100 words per minute, would be important enough that someone would take the trouble to watch her? She's not sure she believes it herself - but every now and then, she can sense someone there, always just out of sight, watching her. She doesn't know who they are, or why they're there. There is no rhyme, no reason to the appearance of her hypothetical watcher, and whenever she turns to see if there is indeed someone there, she doesn't see anyone.
Of course, as the years go by, she dismisses it as nothing. After all, she reasons, why would anyone be watching her? She tells herself it's just silly and teaches herself to ignore that prickling at the back of her neck.
She never sees the tall, skinny man in a suit and trainers, his hair standing up every which way in complete defiance of the laws of gravity, staring at her with a look of ancient pain in his eyes.
She only sees him once more, and that is on the day she dies.
She is sitting in a rocking chair in a small, cosy room in a retirement home, her gnarled hands, dotted with liver spots, wrapped around a set of polished wooden knitting needles, but she has long since stopped knitting; she stares out the window into the golden sunset and tries to remember where all the years have gone.
At first, she ignores that faint prickling at the back of her neck, but then, reasoning that it can't hurt, she looks towards the door, and there he is, her dreamworld companion in his suit and trainers, leaning against the doorway and watching her, an ancient and obscure pain in his warm, dark eyes. As their eyes meet, a fleeting memory flashes before her mind's eye - a man standing at the kitchen door as she chats animatedly on the phone about some news story (something to do with aliens, she remembers). But that's impossible - that was more than forty years ago, and he doesn't look a day older.
"I know you," she says finally, when it becomes clear that he will not break the silence. "Years ago, you were there in my house, talking to my mother - but you look the same." She sighs and stares at her hands, every crease and wrinkle a testament to lost years. "Forty years, and here I am, grey and wrinkled and with knees that ache when it gets cold, and you look exactly the same."
He seems at a loss for words, and the thought comes, out of the blue, that this is strange, unlike him. "You were in my dreams," she continues, and as she says it, a part of her mind that has lain sleeping for decades is rousing itself sluggishly. "I used to dream that I travelled the universe , and you..." It is an impossibility, but then, he was always impossible, or at least, highly unlikely - "you were there." The years have made her perceptive; she sees the slight widening of his eyes and hears the catch of his breath. "But you know that, somehow. And I know you, don't I? Not just once, not just that brief meeting in my mum's kitchen, but more than that."
Finally, he finds his voice. "Donna Noble," he says, and the sadness in his voice is enough to break her heart, "do you remember who I am?"
And as she looks into those eyes, so strangely familiar (but how could they be? Wasn't he just a dream?), her mind awakens.
"Doctor?" she says uncertainly, and with that one word, she remembers everything.
"Donna, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I should never have done it but I had to save you, you were going to die, and I couldn't let you, I had to make sure you didn't - didn't - " The words come faster than he can say them, tripping over themselves in their haste to get out, but after all this time, Donna does not need to hear apologies. She holds up one trembling hand and he trails off into silence.
"Don't apologise," she says, holding up one hand again to stall his protests. "You can't undo what you've already done. I've lived my life - not the life I'd dreamed of, maybe, but that doesn't matter. It's done now."
"Donna, I - "
"Don't, Doctor," she says. She marvels at the quaver in her voice, can feel the erratic beating of her aged and weary heart, and she has to grip the armrest of her chair to stop her hands from shaking. When did she become an old woman? Again, she tries to remember where the years have gone. The Doctor falls silent again, just stares at her with all the apologies she no longer needs to hear in his eyes.
And then, with the certainty of the Time Lord consciousness that even now threatens to tear her mind apart, she knows. "This is my last day," she says, looking straight into the Doctor's eyes. "I'm going to die today, aren't I?" It is amazing, she thinks, that she can say it so calmly. She almost wonders if it is her voice issuing from her mouth. "It's...time," she says, and for some reason, that makes her smile.
The Doctor doesn't try to apologise, or to deny the truth of her words. He knows just as she does that it would be pointless. "Yes," he replies, meeting her stare with his own.
Donna laughs a little bitterly. "And that's why you came back?" she asked. "Because you knew I was going to die anyway?"
The Doctor has no answer for that, and that is answer enough.
Donna feels a brief flare of anger, and then, just as soon as it comes, it is gone. She is too old, too tired, for that. She sighs. "We all die some time, I s'pose," she says. "At least I got to see you again. That's something."
The Doctor chooses - perhaps wisely - not to say anything.
"I never said," Donna says. "Thank you. For everything. Even if I didn't remember, I think there was always a part of me that did." She smiles as the memories play themselves in her mind. "I used to dream about it, Pompeii and the Ood and the Sontarans and all the rest of it, and when I woke up I'd wonder why it felt so real. Part of me always knew. Which goes to show," she adds, "that you are pretty rubbish at wiping memories, Spaceman."
In spite of himself, the Doctor has to laugh at that. Donna laughs with him, and buried in that weak, wheezy chuckle is the delighted laugh of a thirty-something temp who is seeing the world anew.
"I rather thought," the Doctor says once they've stopped laughing, "that...well...that you might fancy just one more trip."
Donna's breath catches. Her heart begins to race; she can hear it pounding frantically. Her hands have begun to shake again, and she can't stop them, not that she's trying.
And then her face splits into a grin. "Where are you parked?" she asks, reaching for her walking stick.
Stepping into the TARDIS is like stepping into the past, and as she crosses the threshold she can almost feel the years melting away, can feel her back straighten, her steps become surer, can sense that faint whispering at the back of her mind as the TARDIS welcomes her back. She discards her stick and walks over to the console, running aged fingers over levers and knobs and buttons. Somewhere in her mind is the knowledge of how to use them all, but she controls her fingers, even as they itch to bring the machine to life, to travel to the farthest corners of the universe, to see it all one last time.
The Doctor takes her to a planet they once visited where they'd eaten at a little restaurant where the blue-skinned natives had sung for them in high, clear voices like a chorus of angels under a deep violet sky studded with stars. They visit all their favourite haunts and talk about anything and everything - old friends and lost years and past lives, places they'd been and things they'd seen and everything they'd shared.
"You know, I thought you were watching me, so many times, but I never looked," Donna says. They are sitting together on the crimson grass at the edge of a cliff, watching the teal-green waves crashing against the black rock of the shore below. "I thought - must just be my imagination, you know? Because who would want to watch Donna Noble, temp from Chiswick? Didn't make any sense. So I learned to ignore it, passed it off as some silly fancy." She leans her head against the Doctor's shoulder, letting the sound of crashing waves wash over her. "And all along it was you, eh?" She laughs and pokes him in the chest. "Should've known you couldn't stay away, Spaceman."
She laughs, too, at his indignant protests; it is just like it always has been between them, and for a moment, she could almost believe that no time at all has passed since they last met. They talk for a while longer, losing themselves in their memories, and Donna feels as though the years are coming back to her; she has not felt this young in such a long, long time.
And then, even the Doctor runs out of things to say, and they just sit and watch as sun sinks lower on the horizon, bathing the sky in vivid reds and purples. The light catches in Donna's silver-grey hair and turns it fiery red once more. She smiles, and the Doctor can see a much younger woman in that smile, and a familiar sparkle in those blue-grey eyes. Then she sighs. "I wanted to travel with you forever," she says, remembering her words to Martha so many years ago. "But at least I've had today. Count your blessings and all that." A shudder passes through her and she takes one of the Doctor's hands in hers. "I think - it's time," she says. Her Time Lord consciousness is tearing her apart; it is all she can do to keep breathing, and even that is becoming harder. She gasps suddenly, putting a hand to her chest, and then the Doctor is holding her against him so that she is looking up into his eyes.
"Doctor," she manages to say. With a colossal effort, she forces her body to calm itself. Her breathing slows; her mind clears slightly. She can see tears in his eyes, threatening to spill over, and knows that the Doctor is holding them back for her sake. She smiles and reaches up to wipe the tears away. "You never change," she murmurs. "Even the suit - "
In spite of himself, the Doctor manages a watery smile.
She can feel it coming, now; her heart ticks away its final beats and she feels a shadow engulfing her. She looks full into the face of Death and finds that she is not afraid. Her hand drops from the Doctor's face, back to her side. "Thank you," she whispers, and then, with a long, shuddering sigh, her eyes droop shut and she is still.
The Doctor buries her at that spot on that lonely cliff, the last faint glow of sunset disappearing from the horizon as he finishes. He marks her resting place with the Gallifreyan symbol for remembrance using his sonic screwdriver before turning to walk back to the waiting TARDIS.
As the TARDIS dematerialises with a grinding whir, twin moons rise in the deep violet sky, bathing the cliff edge with silver light, and the complex Gallifreyan sigil on the small, neat mound of earth seems to glow with unearthly fire. Beneath it, Donna Noble, Supertemp, most important woman in all of creation, sleeps, the last vestiges of a smile on her face.