Rose leans close to the mirror, mouth ajar and breath fogging up the glass, and dexterously adds one final swipe of mascara to her eyelashes. Satisfied, she leans back and runs her tongue over her teeth, pivots from side to side and watches her reflection closely.
"Not bad," she says, smoothing down the front of her dress. It's a nice fabric – the kind that speaks of money – and Rose feels the strange paradoxical twinge of guilt and pride. The price tag had been large enough that even now, after years of wealth, Rose was not above feeling just a little bit nauseous at the sight.
Still, she reasons, tonight she's Rose Tyler, Vitex heiress, and she might as well look the part.
With a self-affirming nod, she glances at her watch and frowns.
She's not particularly surprised to discover the Doctor hunched over what she suspects was at one time a toaster, muttering a song to himself and tapping one foot to the beat as he fiddles with the mechanical guts. Idly, Rose wonders what the toaster did to deserve such a cruel fate, and what exactly she's going to eat for breakfast the next morning.
"…Witchita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama…" He trails off in his song but keeps on tapping his foot, not looking up from the wreckage strewn across their kitchen table. "You all done then? Took you long enough."
"It was only an hour," Rose notes defensively as she grabs her jacket from the closet.
"One hour, twenty-seven minutes, thirty-six-point-eight-nine seconds," he corrects. "…Roughly."
Rose rolls her eyes but says nothing, not about to argue with his sense of time. He does that often, now, and she lets it go, certain it's his way of reminding her – or maybe himself – that he's as much part-Time Lord as he is part-human. It had been hard enough to convince him that they did, in fact, need clocks in their flat.
She pulls her scarf from the closet. "Come on! You can destroy our electronics when we get back."
She hears a quiet huff of indignity. "I'm upgrading," he insists, and spins around. He opens his mouth to say something else – no doubt a defense of his sacrifice to the god of boredom – but loses the train of thought as he looks her up and down.
Rose mostly conceals a smug smile and pulls one arm through her jacket, then the other. "Doctor?"
"You look lovely," he says finally, still sounding dazed.
She takes his coat from the closet and tosses it to him. "Thanks."
He catches it but makes no move to put it on. "Is our presence at this thing absolutely imperative?"
She wraps her scarf around her neck. "Yes, I'm the heiress." She sends him a look. "It'll be fun."
He raises his eyebrows. "Bet I could think of some things that would be more fun."
The Doctor grins arrogantly and runs his tongue over his teeth, and for a second Rose considers taking him up on this offer. Then reality and responsibility kick in, and she rolls her eyes, fishes her keys out of her purse and grabs his hand.
"We're already late," she says, tugging him towards the door.
"Then they're hardly going to notice if we're more late, are they?"
She sighs and shakes her head, pulling him through the door. "Honestly, I think I liked you better without the sex drive."
Even without turning around she can picture the self-satisfied smile on his face as he says, "Well, now you're just lying."
The annual Vitex Company Christmas party is, as best the Doctor can tell, something of a big deal.
He'd always imagined office parties to be exceptionally dull, and so when Rose had mentioned her obligation as heiress, daughter and occasional spokesperson, he'd rather expected to be subjected to a few hours of water-cooler conversation while someone sang Karaoke in the background.
"It's supposed to boost the morale of the troops," Rose had explained. He'd nearly asked, "they need morale-boosting in an office building?", but then he'd considered large degrees of boosting his morale would need if he spent most of his days doing paperwork. He doubted karaoke would be much help.
As it turns out, the party at Vitex headquarters is much… classier. There're ice sculptures and pretty lights and a string quartet shunted off to the side, playing what he supposes are the unfamiliar holiday tunes of a parallel world. People are in dresses and suits and there are expensive-looking hors d'ouevres.
Not bad, he supposes, as far as office parties for multi-billion dollar health tonic corporations are concerned.
Still, it's one of those strangely human rituals – made stranger by the occasional differences between universes – that he's not quite used to.
It's been six months since the reality bomb and most of the dust has finally settled; he's used to just the one beat in his chest and he no longer has to compete for Rose's attention with a man a universe away. It's not so bad, he finds, this whole domestic gig, even if he's not sure if that's thanks to Donna or simply because he'd probably chew off his own arm if Rose Tyler asked him to. She's happy and so he's happy, even if they are… grounded. But there are moments still when he finds himself no less than perplexed by the life he's wound up with.
Surrounded by people in fancy dress at the office party of a company he doesn't work for is one of those times.
Rose had very quickly been swept up intohi-how-are-yous and babble about advertising campaigns, and when he'd finally grown tired of thrusting out his hand and repeating his alias ad nauseam, he'd slipped away to let Rose fend for herself. She'd had a few years practice by now, and the Doctor had discovered at the Tyler Halloween party that he was not exactly gifted when it came to conversing with dry high-society figureheads.
So he stands, hands in his pockets, and eyes the vast array of ornate Christmas food spread out on the table before him. He contemplates the probability of one the violinists agreeing to let him have a go. Granted, it's been a few hundred years since he last touched a violin, and granted, that last violin hadn't been a violin exactly – it has to be rather like riding a bike, doesn't it?
Almost of its own accord, one hand reaches out for a gingerbread man. Deciding on green icing buttons over red, he snaps the cookie's head off with his teeth. It's a bit stale, he thinks – or is this merely what parallel-world gingerbread men taste like? Strange food, really, gingerbread men -- such a casual celebration of cannibalism.
"A bit stale, aren't they?" someone says behind him.
The Doctor nearly chokes on his gingerbread. His heart doubles its tempo and all his muscles seem to seize up.
He knows that voice.
"I mean, sorry," she continues, "but don't you think fresh cookies ought to be higher on the list than ice sculptures and bloody string quartets?"
Of the many things he left behind in that first universe, Donna Noble tops the list of losses most keenly felt, second only to the TARDIS (but then there was the coral, anyway, growing at a pace that was both steady and infuriatingly slow even if it did happen to be exponentially faster than any TARDIS had grown before.) He misses the others, too, but if he's honest he knows he let go of Martha, Jack and Sarah Jane a long time ago. It's Donna he never said a proper goodbye to, and six months later it's Donna he's not used to being without. It's worse because he knows what must have happened to her, had felt her mind begin to unravel even as she'd babbled on about dimensional retro-closure.
With Herculean effort, he turns to face the woman behind him.
She's older than the Donna he remembers, though not by much. Her hair's pulled back in a bun, she's smiling in greeting and she's foregone the standard dress in favour of a suit. She takes a sip of her champagne and watches him over the rim of her glass, and there's no friendly recognition, no sign that she knows him better than he'd like at times, nothing beyond the curiosity of a stranger.
She's Donna, but she's not, and he isn't sure if he wants to crush her in a hug or run as fast as possible from this unwitting impersonator of his best friend. His mouth has gone dry, and he's doesn't know if that's from joy or heartbreak.
This, he realizes, must have been how Rose had felt, seeing that first Vitex advertisement so long ago. Or Mickey and his grandmother. Or Jackie and Pete, or –
"Well, aren't you talkative," he hears her mutter to herself. Then her eyes widen and she says, louder, "Oh God, you're the caterer, aren't you? Or a manager or something?" She pinches the bridge of her nose with her free hand. "Haven't even worked here a month and I'm gonna get myself fired."
He realizes then he hasn't spoken yet. Really, he supposes, he probably should, but hello, as it happens an alternate version of you from a parallel universe unintentionally created me from a hand in a jar and I happen to miss her terribly, how are you? does not seem promising.
So instead, he blurts out, "I can't fire you."
Donna drops her hand from her face. "What?"
"I… can't fire you." He blinks. "Not that I want to." The grin he gives her skids past casual and veers into the territory of a little bit deranged. "I don't even work here."
She stares at him. He knows that stare. It's her are you insane? stare.
"I don't – I mean, I'm with someone, I'm not just freeloading. Well, really you could probably argue that I'm freeloading off her, but that's another matter entirely."
Thoroughly flustered now, he coughs and sticks out his hand. Donna looks down at it, eyebrow raised; he realizes he's offering the hand that's still holding a decapitated gingerbread man and abruptly holds out his other hand. Looking skeptical and amused all at once, she takes it.
"Dr. John –" He breaks off. Is it weird to introduce himself as John Noble?
"What, like Dr. Phil?" she asks, and grins. "Donna. Nice to meet you, Dr. John."
"Just 'Doctor'," he corrects instinctively.
She hardly seems to notice; her head tilts to the side and she squints and him curiously. "You look familiar. Have we met before?"
"Never!" he says instantly with perhaps more conviction than the social situation calls for. At the look she gives him, he shifts awkwardly, his free hand leaping up to scratch the back of his neck. "I'm good with faces," he adds, and hastens to change the subject. "Are you temping here, Donna?"
Her right eyebrow rises up in a manner that is distinctly unimpressed. "Do I look like a temp?"
"What--?" This is, the Doctor thinks, the very definition of "backpedaling". "Oh, no, absolutely not! Don't know what I was thinking. You look very… un-temp-ish."
Her left eyebrow rises up to join the first. "Is there something wrong with being a temp?"
"Not at all, I just…" He trails off, unsure how to finish that sentence without either scaring her off permanently or coming across as even more socially inept than he already has. He settles on making a series of noises like "er" and "ah" that sound vaguely English, and consoles himself with the fact that the first time he'd met proper Donna she'd slapped him twice, so by comparison this was going swimmingly.
She laughs, and it's a welcome sound despite the fact it is directed at him. "Used to temp, don't anymore. Work in accounting now, just got hired last month." She shrugs. "It's not exciting, really, but it pays better than anything else I've done."
There's a distinct twinge of sadness in the Doctor's chest even as he smiles. "So you're good with numbers, then."
Donna grins back at him. "Oh, I'm good with numbers."
It's a deep relief for Rose Tyler when she manages to break away from the group of Vitex higher-ups who'd accosted her almost the second she stepped through the door. She's always found it strange and a little bit sad that at office parties all anyone can think to talk about is the office, and the Vitex Corporation is one she's part of for show more than interest. Talk of advertising campaigns and overhead prices tends to accomplish little other than to send her mind wandering far away – off the planet, usually – and there's only so long she can smile and nod before it becomes truly tiring.
Now, though, she realizes that aside from the upper echelons of management and her father's personal assistant, she's not very well-acquainted with the rest of the employees. Around her they've broken into little cliques, and she knows from her days as a shop girl that the last person any of them want to talk to is the boss's daughter. It's a stigma she's not used to having, and even though she's always friendly and she's always been well-received, she can sense the general discomfort, as though at any moment she's bound to throw a billionaire-heiress tantrum and demand a pure white pony. They're nice because they think they have to be, and it drives Rose Tyler more than a little mad.
With a sigh, she takes a gingerbread man from a table and stretches up as best she can, searching for a familiar mop of brown hair. She's seen the Doctor at enough social events to know he is not the unremarkable sort who blends well with the crowd, nor is he exceptionally gifted at dealing with, in his words, "boring stuffed shirts". As it turns out, his "issues with authority" (as Pete had so delicately phrased it) are not exactly conducive to good business.
She spots him across the room, standing with his back to her, gesturing animatedly to someone she can't see. With the Doctor it always seems to be a fifty-fifty chance of him either making fast friends or putting someone off entirely. Social butterfly, that one, really, she thinks, and takes a bite of her cookie as she makes her way to him.
She frowns at the gingerbread in her hand as she reaches him – is it a bit stale? – and bumps his hip in greeting. They share a smile, and she starts saying, "Hi, I'm Rose," before she properly looks at his new companion.
When she does, she blinks twice to make sure she's not imagining things.
"Rose, this is Donna – Donna, Rose," the Doctor says quickly, gesturing between them. To her credit, Rose's look of surprise is brief, replaced almost instantly with a friendly smile; he imagines over the years she's gotten used to running into people she does-doesn't know.
The wide-eyed look on Donna's face is not so short-lived.
"That's why you're familiar!" she exclaims, like she's completed a puzzle of clear blue sky. "You're Rose Tyler's bloke, the two of you are all over magazines and--" Suddenly she snaps her mouth shut and turns bright red, hastily adding, "Not that I read those. Ever. Invasions of privacy, really. Just see them in check-out lines, you know. Kelly, from customer service, she's always going about that sort of thing, it just sort of… seeps in, and… God, I am going to get fired."
She feigns a sudden interest in her champagne; the Doctor laughs, and Rose grins.
"S'all right," Rose says, grinning conspiratorially at Donna. "He reads 'em too."
Donna looks up, eyebrows raised.
The Doctor sends an indignant stare at the side of Rose's head. "Oi! I do not!"
"You do so," Rose says calmly, breaking a leg off her cookie. She looks at Donna. "Figured it was vanity at first, yeah? He's a bit… narcissistic…"
"…but then I found all sorts that never even mention us –"
"She's lying," the Doctor tells Donna seriously.
"Am not! You really need better hiding places, Doctor –"
Donna gives a loud ha! of laughter. "He hides tabloid magazines from you? Well, that's different."
Rose snorts. "I know, I don't know what's worse!"
The Doctor scowls and folds his arms across his chest. Of course Donna would side with Rose a minute after meeting her, even though he's the one who's the product of a biological meta-crisis involving a parallel Donna Noble (and even though theoretically it would be that Donna's fault if he did like tabloids, which it isn't because he doesn't.)
"There's nothing wrong with keeping up-to-date on popular culture," he mutters.
The women laugh at him. Typical. The Doctor contemplates the unfair camaraderie of human females when something in the confines of Rose's purse makes a series of bleeps. She pulls out her mobile and frowns at the screen.
"Work," she says, and rolls her eyes. "Honestly, sometimes I wonder how they managed without me all those years." She slides the phone open and steps away to take the call.
Donna frowns after her. "But she's at work."
The Doctor, watching Rose with interest, only manages to say "…well…" before Rose spins back around, eyes wide.
"Sounds like we're expecting a visitor," she says urgently.
What follows is a silent second (well, two-point-four-nine-five-six-six seconds roughly) in which the Doctor stares at her, brow crinkled, and Donna looks on, confused. And then, from the other side of the building, obscured from sight by hall after hall, there is a deafening crash and the distinct sound of glass shattering.
In the din that follows, Rose and the Doctor – and, somewhere across the room, Pete and Jackie – spring into action immediately, each yelling various instructions for evacuation to the perplexed guests. Pete and Jackie usher the crowd to the door, deflecting as best they can the questions fired in their direction; Rose hangs back, urging people forward, and the Doctor gestures towards the doors mechanically as he moves towards the source of the crash.
He's occasionally amazed at how little his luck has changed, regardless of universe. Somehow, he can't find it in himself to complain.
"A team's on their way," a breathless Rose tells him as she rushes over, away from the throng crowding the exit. "Should be a couple minutes. Apparently whatever it is flies, but evidently not well. Have you got –"
He shakes his head before she's finished the sentence. "Nothing." He makes a face that he hopes will express his disappointment as he adds, "These pockets are small."
Rose frowns and waves her tiny clutch. "Unless it's allergic to lipstick, I haven't either."
The Doctor beams at her. "Oh, brilliant! Only our wit and skill against the enemy, just like old times!"
"I've got a can of mace," says Donna, appearing between them suddenly, "that help?"
The Doctor stares at her. He hadn't noticed her follow them, and judging by the look on Rose's face, neither had she.
"Donna!" they chime in unison. Then Rose says, "you should probably get out of here" around the same time the Doctor says, "do you always bring mace to a party?"
Donna shrugs. "S'good protection," she says, as though she hasn't heard Rose at all. "Started after that whole bit with the Cybermen."
Somewhere behind him, there's another sound like a crash. The Doctor ignores it, instead raising an eyebrow at Donna. "What good is mace going to be against a Cyberman?"
"Doctor --" begins Rose.
Donna smirks. "About the same as wit and skill, I'd reckon."
"Doctor," Rose tries again.
"Oi, wit and skill are --"
With a suppressed sigh of impatience, Rose hits his arm and gestures across the large hall. "Doctor!"
He and Donna finally turn, and there at the opposite end of the hall is the it in question. The creature is large, about the size of a bear, sporting an impressive beak, covered in deep red fur, supporting itself on four scaly legs that end in three long, intimidating talons. Situated awkwardly on its back are two small, feathered wings, decidedly disproportionate to the rest of the body.
The Doctor's face breaks into a grin. "Ooo, beautiful!"
Rose gives him a skeptical sidelong glance. "Really?"
Beside him, Donna pulls back two steps. "Oh my God," she says in her all-too-familiar emphatic tone, "what is that?"
"Alien," Rose supplies, as the Doctor steps forward, hands spread wide at shoulder-level as a peace offering.
"An alien," Donna repeats.
"Oh, yes! It's called a pt'rakna," the Doctor explains. "Probably a terrified one, at that. They're kept as pets by the people of Zaritav 9."
"A pet," Donna says again.
"Are they dangerous?" asks Rose.
"Oh, no, not at all!"
The pt'rakna makes a noise like a squawk and leaps up, biting the head of the swan ice sculpture clear off. It swallows the swan's in one gulp, and then turns its head to fix them with one beady eye.
"Well," the Doctor concedes, "maybe a little."
Rose stares at the Doctor. Donna pulls out a can of mace. The Doctor scratches the back of his neck. The pt'rakna eyes them suspiciously.
"Thankfully," the Doctor says, "I have a clever plan."
Rose meets his eye. "Run?"
He nods, grinning. "Run."
Rose's face breaks into a smile before she spins around, grabbing the front of her dress in both hands and sprinting for the door. The Doctor starts after her, but looks over his shoulder to find Donna frozen in place, staring at the pt'rakna with wide eyes.
He thinks of the wide-eyed woman who'd appeared in the TARDIS against all odds and promptly begun yelling. He thinks of the way she'd instinctively tried to protect him from the Racnoss; he thinks of the way she'd screamed at him in Pompeii; he thinks of the way she'd enveloped him in a hug after a busload of humans had tried to toss him to the mercy of an extonic sun.
He thinks of her, and he misses her fiercely, even with her doppelganger standing in front of him.
Still – he leaps forward, grabs her hand, tugs her along with an impatient "come on!" The pt'rakna takes chase, its talons skidding and scrambling for purchase on the marble floor, and her hand is exactly as he remembers it. The feeling of running alongside Donna Noble is so fantastically familiar that he's forced to consider the possibility that it isn't only his bad luck that's followed him to this universe.
"D'you two do this a lot?" Donna calls.
She's looking at him like he's mad – like she's worried she might be mad – and yet there's something else, too, that spark of excitement and adrenaline and brilliance that he requires of all his companions. Its presence doesn't surprise him, but it excites him.
With a grin and a wink, he nods. "Oh, yes!"