"Sure as I'll ever be."
"Cause if you're not sure, we can always wait a bit-"
"Knock it off spaceman and open that door!"
The Doctor smiled hugely. "Your wish is my command," he announced, and opened the TARDIS door with a flourish.
Not even pausing to watch her step, Donna raced from the control room and out into the cool shade and garbage funk of a typical big city alley. Sliding to a stop on pavement coated with…she'd prefer not to think of what…she looked around herself in confusion. Advancing slowly to the end of the alleyway, she peaked out into the bright light of what appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a normal, bustling city street. Blinking, she slipped out onto the sidewalk and shaded her eyes. Looking up between the towering buildings, she could vaguely make out the distinctive outline of the Empire State Building in the distance.
"New York!" she squawked, sounding, in her dismay, not entirely unlike the natives of that very city.
"City that never sleeps," enthused the Doctor, ranging up beside her. "Good old New York City, early twenty-first century…absolutely capital time for a visit!"
She turned the full force of her Irish temper on him. "Thought you said we were havin' an adventure!"
"We are," he said, smiling like the cat who's caught the canary at last. "I just never said where."
"Yeah, but I thought…" Donna let her statement die a slow death. It was very clear what she had thought. That she would be running out onto the surface of another planet, and he had done absolutely nothing to disabuse her of this notion. Alien vistas, alien shopping, aliens…or, at the very least, an alien time complete with strange customs and modes of dress. But here she was on her own planet, in her own time period. What exactly was the Doctor playing at?
Reaching into his pocket he produced the little black rectangle she recognized as the Psychic Paper. Flipping it open, he held it out towards her. Written across it in a fine flowing script read:
In light of your exemplary service,
Fabletown wishes to bestow a gift .
"Oh," said Donna, suddenly understanding. She glanced around her with more attention to detail. Across the street from them was a shoe store with the name "The Glass Slipper Shoes" emblazoned in sky blue above the door. Next to it was a somewhat disreputable looking tavern with an almost medieval appearance to its façade. Beyond, she could see the towering stories and the wrought iron gate of the Woodlands apartments. The streets were packed. Cars trundled up and down, with messengers on bikes weaving precariously between them. People passed each other with friendly waves, the men tipping their hats to ladies. A cat went streaking past the mouth of the alleyway, a bright red feather clasped in its jaws.
"Looks like they cleaned the place up," Donna noted needlessly.
"Yep," the Doctor enthusiastically agreed. "Just look at it, the pluck of them all! Humans! You just have to love them. Throw them a curve ball and they pick it right back up. Burn their homes down and they rebuild it. For all the Time Lords did with their genius and high technology, they'd be hard pressed to outdo humans for sheer, unabashed determination."
He continued on in the same manner, waxing poetic on his favorite inferior species. Donna, having heard it all before, had long since tuned him out. Besides, she saw a familiar face making his way towards them from across the street. "Cole!" she cried, waving gleefully. "How's the mayoring business?"
He came up to the two of them, smiling from behind his white handlebar moustache. "Terrible, actually. I got un-elected."
"Oh?" said the Doctor while shaking his hand. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"No matter," Cole went on, beaming a smile at both of them. "I've got a new position, now: Ambassador and chief liaison to the Arabian Nights."
"I guess that would explain the outfit," said Donna, indicating his incongruous robe and huge turban.
"Hmmmm…." He replied, raising a steadying hand to the towering cloth wrapped about his head. "Well, when in Rome. Mind you, I could probably take it off now that I'm back in Fabletown, but I'm keeping up appearances for my guests. Look!" he said, waving behind him. Donna finally noticed the crowd of Middle Eastern looking people following in Cole's wake. There were men dressed much the same as he was, in outfits made more for survival in the desert sands than for a New York City corner. The women stood out even more, the garishly bright colors of their skimpy outfits drawing the eyes of every many in gazing distance. All were talking and laughing loudly amongst themselves in Arabic, as if they were out for a festival or a picnic.
One woman in particular stood out from the rest. She walked with a steady confidence that belied her status as a mere companion to the men in the group. Where all the others females wore veils upon their heads, her bright blonde hair hung in free waves about her shoulders. Her hand rested gracefully on the arm of a tall man with a dark beard. He was leaning towards her and speaking softly, but she wasn't paying any attention to him. She was looking at Donna.
Donna blinked in surprise, then turned to the Doctor to see what he thought of this development, and immediately corrected her assumption. No, the girl was clearly looking at him. She could tell because of the shocked look of near desperate recognition that was plastered all over his face. "Doctor?" she asked quietly, wondering what could have affected him so.
"Rose?" he croaked, attending to Donna's question not at all, but it was all the explanation she required.
From their earliest meeting, Donna knew that the Doctor had another woman in his life. A discarded tank top, a name, a location (decidedly not dead)…these things had come later, but she hadn't needed this eventual evidence to see what was right in front of her face. Men like the Doctor didn't show emotion over a passing acquaintance, at least, not the kind that swamped the Doctor's features when she'd first appeared on the TARDIS in all her wedding gown clad glory. Men like the Doctor, who held the power to destroy all existence in the palm of their hand, didn't survive long without a balancing force to temper their emotions. Men like the Doctor, who never stayed in one place any longer than was absolutely necessary, needed a safe place to put their heart…a place that could travel with them. And Donna knew, from her earliest travels amongst the stars, that though she could make an adequate substitute for the absent person the Doctor's life, she was never quite all that. All that he wanted, all that he needed. No, that honor, that responsibility, if she were honest with herself, belonged to another.
She had been a companion, this much Donna had deduced on her own. A friend. A friend like Martha, only more so, because when the Doctor spoke of Martha it was always with a slight air of discomfort. As if Martha were a stack of perfectly serviceable mattresses with a tiny pea wedged at their bottom. He didn't speak of Rose at all. Not unless he was pressed, and even then he spoke in short, declarative sentences, as if she were a trial that must be endured and gotten past as quickly as base explanation would allow. Her name is Rose. She's with her family. Still lost. And therein lay the sum total of what the Doctor had verbally told Donna about the girl.
How many times had she and the Doctor been wandering the markets on some far planet, in some distant time, and he had swung about, an unidentifiable, purple, scab covered fruit balanced on his palm, and every muscle poised to begin some rapturous tale of its origins or its medical properties or what have you; only to come to a standstill blinking at Donna, as if she were the last person in the universe he expected to see hovering in his shadow. He always smiled disarmingly afterwards, and went on with his explanation, proving to Donna that she was his friend, that she was needed, and that he did care for her greatly. But he could never hide that first reaction; the brief, yet undeniable, disappointment that she was not who he wanted her to be. So, Donna always knew that Rose - the mysterious, still lost Rose - had been a very, very special friend indeed; and never once attempted to step into her place.
What Donna hadn't realized, not until this very moment, was that the Doctor had been in love with her.
You'd think that sort of thing would be obvious, especially between two partners as close as they had become, but you'd be wrong. Oh, she could blame it on the Doctor being an alien, but when it came down to it, he really was just like a regular human bloke in many ways. He didn't like to talk about himself or his past, he liked to pretend he didn't have things like feelings and didn't experience pain. If you handed him a pint and plopped him down at a pub in front of a football match you'd never tell him apart from the other males populating the establishment. No, it's not that the signs hadn't been there, or even that she'd misread them, it was merely that the possibility of the Doctor being in love with anyone had seemed so remote, so unbelievably unlikely, that it had never actually occurred to her. But there it was. Well, there he was, anyway; looking for all the world like…well…he was looking. Looking at her. The blonde in the ridiculous pink and yellow slave-girl costume. Seriously, she was dressed up just like the bird in that old American television program about the astronaut who kept a genie locked inside a bottle in his apartment. It was enough to make any man stare, but it shouldn't be enough to make to Doctor look twice.
He looked, and Rose looked back, her hand sliding forgotten from its perch on her attendant's arm. Donna wasn't sure which of them moved first. It didn't matter, the Doctor met the girl's flying leap halfway. Swinging her around like she was a little child. Her head fell back and laughter came tumbling, bell like from her throat. The Doctor, too, was laughing, the sound of it muffled by her hair as it flew in his face and his hands clasped in a death grip around her waist. The two swayed together for a moment, as if to the strains of a concert band that played only for them.
"Well, would'ja look at that." Donna prodded the former mayor lightly in the side with a well placed elbow, and directed his attention with a tip of her head to the enthusiastically embracing couple before them. She watched a knowing smile play beneath his wintry moustache as he caught sight of the two. She followed his gaze and couldn't help but smile herself at the awestruck joy she saw plastered all over her friend's face. He was looking out over the strange girl's shoulder, his arms still grasped desperately about her middle. He stayed that way only a moment, his face half turned into her hair, before pushing back. He stumbled sideways in his haste, bringing the two of them into profile. Grasping her shoulders in a vise-grip, he raked her face with his eyes in utter disbelief. Then closing them, he leaned forward until his brow rested gently against hers, their lips bare centimeters apart. For a moment, Donna was absolutely certain (and she'd had enough experience in such matters by this time to consider herself an expert) time stood still. Or rather, time held its breath, quivering in anticipation.
Then he pulled away, beaming for all he was worth, and very obviously on the point of breaking into some nonsensical tirade about goodness knew what. His obvious surprise. The difficulties of interdimensional travel. The fact that Rose was dressed up like a harem girl. The whole fairy-tale-folk-living-in-New-York thing, which he'd certainly found surprising. The inherent time distortion issues of the alternate universes. Questions about how her mum was doing.
In an act which could only be described as merciful, Rose slid her hands up his lapels to cup behind his neck and drag his head down to her own. Their lips crashed together and the Doctor, his arms backpedaling wildly and his hair all askew, could not have appeared more off balance. It looked for an instant as though he was about fall backwards into the street and lose precious contact with the girl before him, but Rose held tight and in a moment, the gyrations stopped. The Doctor's hands lowered themselves slowly to his sides. His shoulders drooped with thankful release as he leaned into the kiss, and his eyes slid shut. It was as though a kite string, pulled taut for so long, had been suddenly severed; leaving the broken end to hang limp in the hand of its guide. With great delicacy, the Doctor reached his hands around Rose's back, pressed splayed and trembling fingers between her shoulder blades and into the dip above her hipbones, and pulled her towards him.
"There yah go," Donna proclaimed to no one in particular, "Big, damn, happy, fairy tale ending. Who says it doesn't happen in real life?"
"Oh, I don't know," Cole said, pondering. "Seems to be missing something to me."
Donna turned her full, indignant attention on the older man, and placed her hands upon her hips in a challenging manner. "And just what, exactly, could that," she angrily waved one hand towards where the Doctor remained breathlessly lip-locked with his pretty blonde companion, "Be missing? Tell me that mister former-mayor man." The tone of her voice heightened with the mock ferocity of her inquiry.
Cole cleared his throat loudly, and thumped dramatically at his chest with his fist. Then, clasping his hands behind his back and straightening his shoulders, he turned his benevolent smile upon the conglomeration of Fables and aliens and other people surrounding them on all sides and made a declaration in his most kingly manner of address.
"And they lived happily ever after."
Once upon a time there was a beautiful young woman who lived alone with her mother. They were very poor, but they loved one another and so they were happy. The girl worked very hard so that she and her mother could afford to live in their dilapidated lodgings, but she dreamed that one day a handsome prince would come on a strapping white horse to sweep her off her feet and rescue her from her life of servitude. Her mother told her not to think such foolish things; that she was not a princess in some fairly tale, but just a common woman working for a living wage. She could not, however, stop the girl from dreaming. After all, her dreams were all she had.
Then one day, when she least expected it, a man did come. He wasn't a prince, and no one would have called him charming. He didn't have a horse either, but the girl was not the type to look such matters in the mouth. And, as her mother had so often pointed out, it's not as though she were a princess.
The strange man brought with him magic from a distant realm, magic that saved the girl from the terrible danger which threatened to engulf her. And afterwards, the man saved the girl's mother, and her friends, and all the people of the girl's home. Over and over he saved them, saved them all. The people rejoiced, but knew nothing of their mysterious benefactor. Then the hero swept the girl away to a far off place and saved her yet again, this time from the insipid future she feared far more than the dark forces which had so recently imperiled her. Her mother wept to see her daughter go.
What the story doesn't tell - what the stories never bother to tell - is that the girl saved the hero, and that, in truth, took considerably more effort.